Carmella reviews Love Frankie by Jacqueline Wilson

Love Frankie by Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson was one of my favourite authors growing up. Something about her battalions of weird, bookish, tomboy protagonists and their intense friendships with other girls really appealed to me.

Looking back on her extensive oeuvre as a fully-realised lesbian adult, I began to see what that connection may have been, and I always wished that Wilson had written an explicitly sapphic character somewhere in her over-100-book career. Then came the news, earlier this year, that not only was Wilson finally going to write a book about two girls falling in love… but that she herself was in a long-term relationship with another woman! I was delighted (to say the least), and couldn’t wait to get my hands on Love Frankie.

When explaining why she hasn’t written a gay protagonist before, Jacqueline Wilson said that she writes about children with problems, and she doesn’t see “any problem whatsoever with being gay”. This is true for Love Frankie, where the protagonist’s sexuality isn’t nearly as big a deal as everything else going on in her life.

Frankie is nearly fourteen, and having a rough time of it. Her mum is chronically ill with MS, finances are tight, she’s worried about her two sisters, and their dad’s no help: he’s left them to live with his new girlfriend. Even her best friend Sammy is a source of stress now he’s decided he wants to be her boyfriend.

Wilson is always strong at writing touching, troubled families. Frankie’s dynamic with her mum and sisters is so warm and true to life. I particularly liked the youngest sister, Rowena, with her obsession for collecting Sylvanian Families – I remember a lot of children like that from my own school years! The issues of illness and divorce are treated sensitively and carefully pitched towards younger readers.

Outside of her fraught home life, Frankie’s being picked on by a group of girls at school. But then their ringleader – the pretty, cool, wealthy Sally – turns out to be not-that-bad-actually and goes from sworn enemy to close friend.

As Jacqueline Wilson novels go, so far, so typical. Then Frankie starts to like Sally as more than a friend.

This central relationship rings true as an account of first love – exciting, intense, giddy, and confusing. However, Sally isn’t particularly likeable as a love interest. She’s hot-and-cold, teasing, and sometimes cruel. I would ask what Frankie sees in her, but who hasn’t had a crush on a popular ‘mean girl’ before?

Although I enjoyed reading this novel as an adult, I know that I would have loved it as a younger teen. I’m so pleased for all the girls who will get to read this at the same age as Frankie and see themselves reflected in the pages.

Danika reviews Kenzie Kickstarts a Team (The Derby Daredevils #1) by Kit Rosewater, illustrated by Sophie Escabasse

Kenzie Kickstarts a Team by Kit Rosewater

The Derby Daredevils is a middle grade series following a junior roller derby team, with an #ownvoices queer main character. Now, if you’re like me, you’ve already clicked away to order a copy or request it from your library. And that would be the correct response. I am jubilated that we are finally at the place in queer lit where a mainstream early chapter book can have an incidentally queer main character. Break out the streamers, people. We’ve made it!

But on to the book itself! Admittedly, I’m a little older than the target demographic. Kenzie and her friends are 10 years old. Her best friend, Shelly, and her are obsessed with roller derby. Kenzie’s mom is a derby girl, but she can’t try out herself until she’s 15–that is, until a junior derby league opens up. Shelly and Kenzie are ecstatic, but in order to make sure they can stay the Dynamic Duo (and not be broken up into different teams), they have to form a 5 person team and try out together. But will being part of team threaten their Dynamic Duo stasis?

This is aimed at 8-12, and I think it’s a perfect fit for kids at around the Wimpy Kid stage. It’s short, and packed full of illustrations! (They’re every 3 pages or so.) I loved seeing the diverse group of kids come together–diverse in terms of race and personality. Kenzie’s dad is trans, and I think this is the first book I’ve come across where that is casually mentioned. Kenzie refers to his life before transitioning as him being like an “undercover agent.” Later, when she realizes she has a crush on a girl, she empathizes with that status.

This is the first book in the series, and it’s under 200 pages, so we really just get an introduction to each of the characters (as they get added to the team), and an idea of their interactions. From what I’ve seen, I like the characters and their varied relationships: I look forward to seeing the dynamics develop over the course of the series, and to getting to know each of the characters individually. (I think each of the girls on the team will have their own point of view title, and at least one other character is implied to also be queer.) [spoiler:] It’s implied that Kenzie’s crush returns the sentiment, so we’ll see how that develops over the series! [end spoiler]

The next volume comes out in September, and I will definitely keep going with it! If you have any kids in your life in the 8-12 range, pick this one up for them! It’s shades of Baby-Sitters Club and Lumberjanes, with its own derby flair. Perfect for kid daredevils with or without skates!


Danika reviews Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn BigelowLisa Jenn Bigelow’s Starting From Here broke my heart and put it back together again. It’s one of my favourite queer YA books. I’m still waiting for the fan poster that has Colby, Cam (from The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and Ari (from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) all laying in the beds of their respective pickup trucks, looking up at the stars together. (I am not an artist. I need someone to do this for me.) When Bigelow’s Drum Roll, Please came out, I was eager to pick it up. It lived up to her first: a bisexual/questioning middle grade novel that has more to do with friendship and divorce and finding your voice than treating her orientation as an Issue.

So, of course, I jumped on her newest middle grade book: Hazel’s Theory of Evolution. This one follows a character with two moms, but we’re not in the 90s anymore: that’s not the point of this story. Hazel has just moved schools, which means that she’s been split from her best friend–her only real social safety net. At her new school, she feels isolated and weird. No else seems to understand her respect for earthworms… Her feelings are vented in her Guide to Misunderstood Creatures. Meanwhile, she’s reluctantly making new friends, including Yosh, a sarcastic guy with a mohawk who uses a wheelchair. She’s also bumped into a familiar face from her old school, who is now going by a different name and pronouns.

The biggest tension in this book, though, is that Hazel’s mom is pregnant. Again. And everyone seems determined to be cheerful and optimistic about this–despite the fact that she’s already gone through two miscarriages that were emotionally devastating for the whole family. Hazel feels trapped, unable to voice her fear and anger that she’s chosen to get pregnant again, and unwilling to confide to anyone outside of the family. In health class, she adds the names of her two miscarried siblings onto her family tree–and then erases them. Adds them again. Erases them.

Bigelow is masterful at exploring complex relationships between characters, which makes this story shine. Hazel is flawed and frustrated, making assumptions and asking awkward questions, but always from a place of caring. As her friends start to show romantic interest in others, she feels even more lost. This is the first middle grade book that I’ve seen explore the concepts of asexuality and aromanticism. Like Drum Roll, Please, Hazel is still figuring herself out, but it’s affirming just to see that possibility brought up in a middle grade.

You don’t have to decide any of those things now. Life may surprise you. But whatever happens, whatever you decide is right for you, all of those things are okay. And when I say okay I mean good. There are so many good ways to be in this world.

Danika reviews Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vols. 1-3

Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vol 1

I finally got around to reading Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, a comic series that’s been on my TBR ever since I heard of its existence. I’m kicking myself for not starting it sooner, because it’s just as awesome I was hoping. Raven is the daughter of a pirate captain, and she was supposed to inherit the title. Unfortunately, her brothers stole that from her. Now, she’s determined to put together her own crew, get a ship, and regain what’s rightfully hers.

This is a diverse, all-women pirate crew bent on revenge. There’s an f/f romance between Raven and another member of the crew, who was a childhood friend until Raven betrayed her. (Friends to Lovers to Enemies to Lovers?) I can’t help but compare this to Lumberjanes for a) the all-women group of adventurers and b) hijinks, but Raven the Pirate Princess seems to be aimed more at teens than middle grade. There is more violence than something like Lumberjanes, and the relationships are more complex.

My favourite thing about the three volumes I’ve read so far is that I feel like I’m really getting to know the entire crew, not just the five on the covers. They all have distinct personalities, and they have their own close friendships and rivals within the group. In addition to the racial diversity and multiple queer characters, there’s also a Deaf character who uses sign language. Although there is a lot of action, and the plot progresses quickly, I felt like there was still attention paid to establish each character.

In addition to adventure and heartbreak, there’s also a lot of satire, especially making feminist points. I also loved the references that I caught (Doctor Who, Avatar, a Kelly Sue DeConnick appearance). I preferred the art in the first volume (that’s what’s the cover), though, and I did take a while to get used to the art in the second volume. In the third volume, there’s a subplot that I don’t feel great about. [spoilers/content warning about race, highlight to read] A black woman (elf) is held captive and treated like an animal. One of the people imprisoning her (he is wearing a turban and has light skin) befriends her, and begins to argue for her to have more privileges (like a room to be locked in instead of a cage), but is still imprisoning her. They fall in love. He breaks her out. I feel uncomfortable with the prisoner-falls-in-love-with-her-captor story line no matter what the context, but having the black woman character treated as an animal and kept as a cage just adds to the grossness, and I don’t believe there are any black creators on the team. [end] There are a lot of diverse characters, which helps, but I did personally cringe at that point.

I do want to continue with the story, though, and I’m excited to see where it heads next!

Danika reviews Aquicorn Cove by Katie O’Neill

Aquicorn Cove by Katie O'Neill

I can’t get enough of Katie O’Neill’s artwork and stories. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and comforting. The pastel tones and softness of shapes matches the soothing tone of her narratives. In her author bio, she says that she writes “gentle fantasy stories,” and I think that’s the perfect description. This one definitely has a similar feel to The Tea Dragon Society: a sweet middle grade comic with a queer subplot.

There is a fantasy element to Aquicorn Cove, but fundamentally it’s about Lana and her father visiting to the seaside town she grew up in, before her mother passed away. They are staying with Lana’s aunt, helping to clean up after a storm damaged a lot of the town. Lana loves seeing her aunt and being back home, but her father is impatient to go back to the city–uncomfortable with the memories that haunt him here.

This is also a love letter to the ocean. Lana clearly loves being back by the water, and she nurtures a baby aquicorn she finds stranded in a tidal pool. The environmentalist message includes information at the back of the book about coral reefs and how we can take care of them.

The romance is between Lana’s aunt and an underwater woman creature (not a mermaid… she kind of reminds me of a Pokemon, but in a good way). In flashbacks, we see how they got closer, and then how they drifted apart. Their town depends on fishing, and it becomes a point of tension between them.

If you liked her other works, you’ll like this one, too. I’d especially recommend this to middle grade nature lovers, but anyone looking for a gentle fantasy story (especially with queer content) should appreciate this one.

Tierney reviews One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

It is so exciting to experience the current burgeoning of middle LGBTQ fiction: it feels absolutely amazing (not to mention freeing) to have enough books out there to be able to pick and choose and categorize, and set aside what misses the mark in favor of reading the good stuff. Shannon Hitchcock’s One True Way is the good stuff.

After the death of her brother and her parents’ subsequent separation, Allie moves to North Carolina with her mom, hoping for a fresh start in the fall of 1977. Despite being the new girl at Daniel Boone Middle School, she quickly finds her footing, thanks to the kindness of Sam, the easygoing star basketball player who is friends with everyone. As an intrepid would-be reporter writing for the school newspaper, Allie is no stranger to asking tough questions–but she has to turn her gaze inward as her deepening relationship with Sam brings up questions she must ask herself–and Sam–and new feelings she has to navigate, while trying to figure out what kind of support they can get from the adults around them.

Coming out stories may be more oversaturated in fiction and pop culture geared toward adults and young adults, but a middle grade story like this (especially one that is so well-written, thoughtful, and tender) is nothing less than stunning–especially one starring a 12-year-old girl, set in the 1970s, and in North Carolina no less. This kind of historical fiction is sorely needed representation for today’s queer youth–and One True Way is all the more special for the representation it skillfully weaves in for its protagonist. Allie has a strong network of adult queer role models, from her Uncle Jeffrey, who is mentioned in passing, to Coach Murphy and Miss Holt, two teachers at her school who are quietly in a relationship with one another (and are friends with her mom). Hitchcock has built a world that reflects a possible reality–one that is neither maudlin nor saccharine, that showcases beautiful, unabashed queerness in many forms without shying away from depicting the existence of harsh realities (unaccepting family members, intolerant religious institutions, an inability be out for fear of losing one’s job…) for her queer characters.

Today’s queer youth deserve tender historical fiction about a girl and her new best friend realizing they have crushes on one another–with all the ensuing teenage angst, and a decent portrayal (without being gloomy or heavy-handed) of some of the serious aspects of being a queer middle schooler in the South in the 1970s. And even more than its portrayal of a queer love story, One True Way’s portrayal of queer community is a bold and important statement to share with queer and questioning middle schoolers. While I so wish I had had books like this growing up, I am so grateful that today’s kids have works like this to read (and have even more to choose from, depending on what tickles their fancy!): One True Way fills a much-needed niche, and beautifully so.

Mars reviews Hocus Pocus and The All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

All her life, Poppy Dennison has known the story of the frightening and magical events that took place in Salem on Halloween night back in 1993. It’s otherwise known as the day her parents really met, or alternatively as the one time her cool Aunt Dani got kidnapped and almost eaten by witches. To be clear, the witches in this book are characters leftover from a coven that was decimated during the actual historical witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts and not modern practitioners of a particular faith, and should not be taken as such.

The three witchy Sanderson sisters, their book of spells, and the special black flame candle that legend says will raise them from the dead are all still part of the popular Halloween lore that surrounds Salem. Her parents’ part of that story is virtually unknown, and Poppy is determined to keep it that way lest her mean girl nemesis Katie Taylor finds out and makes her last two years of high school its own kind of hell.

For readers who are not familiar with the lovely classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus, have no fear because the Part I of this book is a very close retelling of the movie and sets up Part II very well, detailing Poppy’s own involvement with the Sanderson sisters. Some witches just aren’t very good at staying dead.

This was a surprising and fun read that I just couldn’t put down. With more action, adventure, and character development than I expected, we follow Poppy, her best friend and wingman Travis, her mysterious dream girl Isabella, as well as other characters both new and familiar as they race to stop a new plot hatched by the Sanderson sisters to help them achieve immortality and rain hell on earth. With their witchy powers enhanced by the rare blood moon, the stakes have never been higher (no pun intended).

Much like the original Hocus Pocus (Part I), this story is as much about family, friendship, and loyalty as it is about evil witches enslaving humans and damning their souls for their own enjoyment. Poppy makes a really relatable protagonist. Who hasn’t dealt with trying to mitigate embarrassing family history while tripping over a monster crush?

Whitney D.R. reviews Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

Princess Princess Ever After cover

Princess Princess Ever After is a cute middle-grade story about two princesses who evade their royal duties, but find something greater along the way.

I have to admit, I was nervous to read this based on the cover.  I’m always leary when one of the main characters is of color and masculine-presenting (Amira), while the other main character is white and traditionally feminine looking (Sadie).  While this story involves two princesses, I thought Amira would more ‘princely’ and constantly having to save Sadie. In media, very rarely do we get to see a woman/girl of color be a damsel in distress, always having to save her white counterparts from various dangers (usually of their own making).

I needn’t have worried.  While Sadie did need to be rescued initially, she definitely held her own once she was free of her confinement.  Sadie and Amira aren’t pigeonholed into any particular (gender) roles. They show both vulnerability and toughness.  Sadie had to learn to stand up for and believe in herself and not let her magic be taken or downplayed by others. Amira realized she still had a lot to learn about herself and the world.  But together, these two princesses made a heck of team battling making battling and then making friends with different fantastical creatures and saving Sadie’s kingdom from her evil witch of a sister.

I will say that I wish there had been more about Amira’s kingdom and her background in general.  She seemed to have been from an Egyptian or South Asian-styled place with a family, but left it all behind.  That’s all readers really see and it was a bit disappointing.

There also wasn’t a lot of obvious romance between Sadie and Amira (mostly blushing and meaningful looks at each other), which isn’t surprising considering the age this book is directed to. And they spend so much time away from each other before they get their happy ending, though I understand it was so both princess could better themselves and, in Sadie’s case, her kingdom.  But readers do get a lovely wedding and happily ever after that was almost like a Disney movie.

All in all, Princess Princess Ever After was cute with great art and story.  I just wish there was a sequel or more pages that depicted Sadie and Amira’s time apart before reuniting after what seemed like years.  Middle school me would have love to have read this at that age.

3.5 stars

Danika reviews P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy

PS I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy cover

My first introduction to P.S. I Miss You was Jen Petro-Roy’s Entertainment Weekly article, where she talks about how her book didn’t get a tour through schools, because all but one school considered it “too mature.” That’s a shame, because this middle grade book has a lot to offer. It’s an epistolary novel, told in letters from Evie to her older sister, Cilla. Cilla is 16 when she gets pregnant, and her parents have shipped her off to live with her aunt in the country until she has the baby, gives the baby up for adoption, and goes to a Catholic boarding school. Evie can’t understand why her sister would sin, or why her parents would react so badly, or why Cilla won’t write back, and she processes all of these feelings through the letters.

I’m not sure it was the intention, but I was getting stressed out reading this book. As the novel progressed, I got more nervous about why Cilla wasn’t writing back. I seriously considered skipping to the end, but settled for tearing through it instead, even reading it while walking home. Aside from my anxiety about Cilla, though, I was also invested in Evie. She is adrift, trying to figure out how her life has changed so dramatically. She oscillates between being confused, frustrated, and angry. Meanwhile, she’s starting to get closer to the new girl in school, June. June is pretty and funny… and also an atheist.

As her friendship with June develops, Evie questions her own religious beliefs. When she presses June to explain why she’s an atheist, June puts the ball back in her court. Evie begins to wonder–if being Catholic meant her parents sending Cilla away, is it really a good thing? We see her questioning through the lens of the letters, which introduces a bit of a buffer. Evie thinks there’s something different about her friendship with June–but nevermind, no, forget she wrote that last letter.

The juxtaposition between Cilla and Evie worked really well: Evie is terrified to tell her parents about her growing suspicion that she may be gay, because she’s sure they’ll send her away, just like they did when Cilla “sinned.” She begins to reconsider if she really agrees with what she’s been told sin is. Her parents are deeply flawed people, and seeing that is painful. They are human, and they’ve made mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that Evie has to follow in their footsteps.

P.S. I Miss You is a heartfelt story about developing into your own person. I can see how it’s considered controversial, because it’s all about questioning what you’ve been taught to believe unwaveringly. It validates that your feelings–even if you are only 12 or 16–are just as valid, and you deserve to have the space to explore your own possibilities. I’d recommend this for middle graders and adults alike.

Danika reviews Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender

Hurriance Child by Kheryn Callender cover

Hurricane Girl is unlike anything I’ve read before. I have been basking in this new wave of queer middle grade books, because that used to be unheard of. Now, it’s become its own little subgenre (though obviously we could use a lot more!) This book comes from a completely different angle than George or Star-Crossed or Drum Roll, Please do, however. The queer middle grade I’ve read up to this point has been pretty light. They’ve been reassuring in their depiction of queer life: there may be some pushback, but overall being queer is safe and accepted in these narratives. Hurricane Child is not light or gentle, and it’s not afraid to complex–even overwhelming.

Caroline is twelve years old, and one year and three months ago, her mother left her and her father. Caroline desperately wants to reunite with her, but she doesn’t know where she is. It doesn’t help that she is constantly harassed at school, both by her peers and her teacher. Until a new girl shows up who seems to offer up a new world of possibilities.

This story takes place on Water Island in the Caribbean. While Caroline is first realizing that she’s having romantic feelings for a girl, the only reference point she has is two white lesbian tourists she sees in a shop. Kalinda–her crush–quickly renounces them (within earshot) as disgusting and sinful. Hatred of queer people is visible in this narrative. But there’s more going on here than just Caroline’s missing mother and her feelings for a girl. She also sees spirits, which means she sometimes sees and speaks to people whom I wasn’t sure were physically present. Her dad is hiding his own secrets. And her mother’s storyline concludes in a messy, unexpected place.

There are a lot balls in the air here, and I wasn’t completely sure how I felt by the conclusion. It feels realistic and difficult, but also has a dreamlike element. This isn’t a book I would necessarily give so readily to a young queer kid, because it does contain multiple scenes of hatred of queer people, but I also think this would be the perfect book for the right kid. I’m glad it exists, and I’m excited to see how this little subgenre grows in the years to come.