Danika reviews The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

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This is a quiet, almost slice-of-life graphic novel about a 13-year-old queer Chinese American girl’s life at a logging camp. Mei is the daughter of the camp cook, and she helps out in the kitchen and spends her free time spinning yarns for the other children in camp–especially about Po Pan Yin, or Auntie Po, a Chinese American matriarchal version of Paul Bunyan. She is best friends with (and obviously has a crush on) Bee, the foreman’s daughter.

In the background, though, is the constant hum of anti-Asian racism. The Chinese workers eat separately from other workers. A sawmill that employed Chinese workers is burned down. Mei is keenly aware that she’s losing something: she no longer prays, she doesn’t know her grandparents, and her Cantonese is rusty. She is caught between traditions she feels disconnected with and an American culture that doesn’t accept her.

Auntie Po is the bridge between them: a blending of cultures and a way of adapting tradition to make it relevant. Not only does Mei tell stories about Auntie Po, she also begins to see her–especially when times get hard. Auntie Poe (and her giant water buffalo Pei Pei) become a source of hope and inspiration for her, and it’s left ambiguous whether or not she’s real.

The foreman claims that Mei and her father are like “family” to him, but Mei’s father knows better than to take him at his word, even if their daughters have grown up together. The story explores friendships across racial and financial differences in both these generations (Bee and Mei as well as their fathers’ relationship) and how fraught these can be. Mei’s father soon finds himself choosing between the man he’s called “family” and his own safety and comfort.

I enjoyed the watercolor illustrations with digital lines art style, and there are some stunning spreads. Pei Pei especially is a delight whenever he makes an appearance. This is a quick read, but there are lots of different aspects to dive into: I think this is a book that could act as a great conversation starter with young readers.

As for the queer content, Mei’s crush on Bee is obvious, and they hold hands and dream about a future together, but this isn’t a romance. It’s the kind of adoring friendship (with occasional blow-ups) you’d expect between 13-year-old girls. Not long ago, this kind of relationship in a kids’ book would likely be dismissed as a close friendship, but the author’s note makes it clear that Mei is queer, and I think we’re finally at a point where queer content doesn’t have to be spelled out to be obvious.

This is a thoughtful book about a topic of U.S. American history not often written about in middle grade books, and I highly recommend it.

Danika reviews The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea cover

Way back in 2016, I wrote a post for Book Riot called 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read where I rounded up sapphic mermaid and selkie comics. There were far too few than I would like, but I was able to find a three page comic story from Molly Ostertag on tumblr about a girl who falls in love with a selkie. Obviously, I was delighted, and so imagine my surprise when I found out that the concept was made into a middle grade graphic novel! I love selkies, I love queer middle grade comics, so I needed to read it ASAP.

This follows Morgan Kwon, a 15 year old with a plan for her life. She’s going to keep her head down until she graduates, and then she’s going to become her authentic self. She just needs to wait it out. Her parents have just divorced, and her brother isn’t taking it well. She has a close group of friends, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell them her secret: that she’s queer.

When she was younger, she played with a selkie. At least, that’s what she remembers–but she’s written it off as her imagination. Then, she almost drowns and is rescued by that same selkie. The next day, Keltie appears on land in human form: something she can only do every 7 years. While they both clearly are romantically interested in each other, Morgan panics that Keltie–with her bluntness, her weird clothing, her unrestrained personality–will out her. But she doesn’t want to walk away, either, so she tries to balance these two lives.

I love the artwork here and the quiet exploration of Morgan’s character. She has to learn to be true to herself and embrace when life doesn’t go to plan–that it’s okay to let things get messy. I can’t wait to get a finished copy in all its glossy, full-colour glory!

I do want to give a clear content warning for nonconsensual outing. (Spoiler: her mom accepts her immediately.)

Danika reviews Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam Rivera

Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam RiveraI already know and love the Goldie Vance comics, but now it is also a middle grade novel series! The premise is that Goldie Vance is a sixteen year old girl who works as a part-time valet, part-time detective at a resort her father manages. She is the assistant to the hotel’s detective–which is apparently a thing?–and aspires to be a full-time detective when she’s older.

It has a 1950s feel, and Goldie is the plucky heroine we expect from a girl detective, except this one is a queer girl of colour! I love the comics, so I had to see how the novel versions compare. Although the main character is 16, she appears to be a little younger, which I think matches the 1950s aesthetic and definitely makes this work as a middle grade novel. When I worked in the children’s department of my local bookstore, I often wished there were more middle grade and YA mysteries–they are very popular for around 6-8 year olds and then inexplicably disappear–so I’m glad to see this will help fill that niche.

I was a bit worried about whether the queer relationship would be included in this middle grade version of the story–the comics are all-ages, but could easily be read by teens as well. Happily, it’s actually a big part of the plot in this volume.

A conference of magicians is happening in the hotel, and the stakes are high. The intimidating owner is demanding everything goes smoothly, because if this because a repeat event, it will be very profitable. Unfortunately, three of the waiters get food poisoning, and Goldie and a few of her friends at the hotel have to fill in. Meanwhile, Goldie is trying to plan the perfect first date with Diane. Unfortunately, she’s forced to be a server that night and has to cancel, and when they reschedule, the restaurant has been reserved for a special event. Goldie invites Diane to come to some of the magician performances happening at the hotel, which she happily accepts. But that’s not the end of her first date complications: someone is sabotaging the magicians’ performances, and she has to figure out the culprit–all while the son of the celebrity magician keeps following her around and telling her how to better do her job.

Was I proud of myself for keeping up with a middle grade mystery’s clues? Yes. I’m not usually a mystery reader because I am terrible at keeping track of details, so apparently middle grade mysteries are my level. I won’t comment on the mystery structure itself, because it seems silly to critique whether a mystery for 10 year olds is sufficiently complex for a reader triple that age, but this was an entertaining read full of memorable characters.

This finishes with a short comic at the end, which was a fun surprise. We see Goldie and Diane finally get to have their date together, and it’s adorable. I do think this translates well in the novel format, and I hope the series is long-running. This is technically the second book in the series, not counting the comics, but you don’t need to have read any of the other Goldie Vance books before this one: it’s a self-contained story.

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?