30 Minutes Every Day…

Document (1)Summer is one of the busiest – and most exciting – times of year at our library. In Youth Services, we spend a lot of time focusing on our Summer Reading program. The basics are simple – we want youths to retain their reading skills while school is out, and research has found that reading for 30 minutes every day is the sweet spot. For this reason, we set a goal of reading for 24 hours by the end of the summer, and offer prizes for those who participate.

Have any questions about our reading program? We’ve got the answers!

Who can participate?

Our Youth Summer Reading Program is for anyone going into 12th grade or under. We also have a yearlong reading challenge for adults that you can learn about here.

What counts as “reading?”

We really like to emphasize that any form of reading counts including, but not limited to, reading on your own, stories read aloud by someone else, reading to younger siblings, listening to audiobooks, and, of course, reading graphic novels and comics. Because our program begins at birth, we also encourage parents to count time that infants and toddlers spend interacting with books, whether they are paging through them or just seeing what they taste like!

How does the program work?

We have reading logs for children and teens which can be picked up any time at our library. Readers can color in one star in the log for each half-hour of reading they do. Beginning July 1, participants can bring their logs back to the library and win prizes. Prizes are awarded at 12 hours and 24 hours, and will be available until August 31 (or until we run out).

At 12 hours, our readers get a color-changing pencil and their choice of a ticket to the Imagine Children’s Museum or a Seattle Storm basketball game in Everett. At 24 hours, they get a free book and entry in a grand-prize raffle. And if they finish by August 16, they are invited to our summer reading party which always includes exciting VIPs!

I like prizes! How do I sign up?

To sign up, just pick up a reading log at our Youth Services reference desk!

Every spring, our Youth Services Librarians visit Elementary and Middle Schools throughout Everett, promoting this program and getting students excited about the books they can read this summer. My visits center mostly on middle schools, where I see groups of sixth and seventh graders. These trips are exhilarating and exhausting, and are always one of the highlights of my year. Here are a few of the books I brought that students seemed especially eager to read:

The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away by Ronald L. Smith

Simon has always been obsessed with aliens, but now it seems that they are obsessed with him. Simon mostly keeps to himself – his dad is in the air force, so his family moves a lot, and he has trouble fitting in and making friends. To ward off loneliness, he lets his imagination run wild researching UFO sightings, convinced that many of them are real and determined to find a pattern in these alien encounters.

Then one dark night on a family camping trip, Simon is attacked. Although it seems that he was simply clawed by an owl, Simon knows better. This was alien work. And the gouge in his stomach isn’t a scratch from an owl, it’s proof of an alien implant. When Simon tells his parents what happened, they are beyond skeptical and take him to a psychiatrist, who in turn prescribes him some medication. But none of this helps Simon with his problems. As Simon falls deeper and deeper into his obsession, it remains unclear whether these events are actually happening or if Simon is losing his sanity. If you want to know which is the case, you’ll have to read it!

Lizzy Legend by Matthew Ross Smith

For 13-year old Lizzy, basketball IS life. She practices every free moment, obsessing over every part of her game and analyzing the greats. Someday she hopes to be a legend herself, but right now her goal is to make the boys team at her school. She manages to make the team and become the star player, but she also has some things weighing her down. She lives with her dad, who has trouble keeping a job, and debt collectors are always breathing down their necks.

Then one day she gets a strange call. It sounds like the kind of robo-call that promises a free vacation or new iPhone but winds up a total scam, except this call tells Lizzie that she is pre-selected for one free wish. She says the first things that comes to mind, then hangs up the phone and forgets the call. But something strange has happened. Lizzie soon realizes that her wish has come true and she can make any shot she shoots. Pretty quickly a viral video leads to a tryout for a professional team, and before she knows it, Lizzie finds herself on the court playing for a pro team against full-grown men, with her power on the fritz. There’s a big game on the line and her new team is counting on her, so Lizzy needs to find a way to beat the best.

Beast Rider by María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads and Tony Johnston

The beast is a massive, fast moving network of trains that snake through Mexico toward its border with the United States. It is a treacherous ride, on a route with many people who could leave you dead – deceitful criminals, violent gangs, and corrupt police. Manuel is a 12-year-old living in the Oaxaca region of Mexico who dreams of joining his brother Toño in Los Angeles. But to do so, he will need to ride the beast.

This book follows his three-year journey, with its many hungry nights, threats, near deaths, and cruel beatings. Manuel also meets many kind and caring people who help him along the way. As he slowly gets closer to LA, Manuel begins to wonder if he will survive to make it there and if he will ever be able to forget the terrible things that have happened along the way. This book is, at times, a thrilling adventure and a heartbreaking story of sacrifice. But it is also an account of the perilous journey that many people endure to seek a better life and it also explores the reasons why people take such giant risks, and the stories that they bring with them.

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Danny lives in the Pacific Northwest in New Port City. In her world, superheroes and supervillains roam the skies, waging epic battles between good and evil. It might sound cool, but for ordinary people like Danny it is just plain dangerous. So when she witnesses a battle up close, she tries to stay out of the way until the great hero Dreadnought crashes down next to her, mortally wounded. As he dies in her arms, Danny is both terrified and annoyed – because even a dying superhero manages to misgender her. Danny presents as male, but is actually a trans woman.

As Dreadnought dies, something unbelievable happens. His powers transfer to Danny, not just giving her super strength and the ability to fly, but also transforming her body into what it is meant to be, that of a young woman. Needless to say, this is a lot for Danny. For one thing, she wasn’t ready to come out to the world and now her true identity is impossible to hide. She also must figure out how to fit in with the Legion of superheroes and hunt down the evil cyborg, Utopia, who killed Dreadnought and is a massive threat to humanity. So Danny joins with another hero and must learn to navigate life with her new body and her responsibilities as a superhero in time to stop the evil Utopia before it is too late.

XL by Scott Brown

Will is disastrously short. I don’t mean just a bit short for his age – at 16, he is just 4’11.”  This is beyond an embarrassing height. It makes him miserable and he has tried every crazy trick, miracle cream, and superstition to try to grow taller. Nothing has worked. Luckily, he has his best friends by his side, his stepbrother Drew and Monica, a book-obsessed surfer, who Will secretly loves.

Then two things happen that throw Will’s life into chaos. First, he catches Drew kissing Monica. Not only does this break Will’s heart, it also sends their little group into chaos. And then, Will starts growing. And growing. And growing. At first this is great- he can reach the pedals in his car, he grab things off top shelves. Then he gets taller – even better! He can look DOWN on his classmates. He can dunk. Then he gets taller. His body hurts, he is always hungry, and people start treating him like maybe there is something wrong with him. And to make things worse, it seems that the taller he gets, the harder it is to stay friends with Drew and Monica. Without them, Will doesn’t have anyone to hold him back as he grows into a bigger and bigger jerk. What’s a 7-foot tall ego monster to do?

Versailles of the Dead by Kumiko Suekane

Marie Antoinette is on her way from her native Austria to France, where she will marry the future king, securing peace between their countries. In real life Marie is beheaded during the French Revolution, but not in this book! Zombies devour her instead. The only survivor of the attack is Marie’s twin brother, Albert. Albert continues to Versailles, hoping to take refuge with the court. When he gets there, the King, who is trying to fight off the zombie invasion and can’t afford a war with Austria, decides that Albert will disguise himself as Marie and marry the Dauphin (prince). Now Albert has a lot on his plate. He must trick the people into believing he is Marie, including many who are suspicious of him, wondering how he alone managed to survive the zombie attack. He also has to survive a court filled with deadly intrigue and deadlier romance, and fight a few zombies along the way.  This is a terrifically fun and ghoulish new manga series!

How to Win Children and Influence Parents

One of the truly great no-downside parts of my job is that I get to share pop culture enthusiasm with young people every day. Whether we’re ranking Harry Potter, judging each other’s floss skills, or kvetching about that darn pigeon, it’s often the highlight of my day. But I also love introducing young readers to their next obsession. This is great when it happens in the library, but I also enjoy being the one to swoop in with under-the-radar recommendations for the children of my friends and family. While I prefer to tailor my suggestions to the reader, I’ve found that there are certain books that rarely fail. And for the low cost of free.99, you too can be the hero of the next family gathering or dinner with friends! Here are a few of my favorite “wise-guy” picks.

9780316483018_p0_v1_s550x406It’s relatively new, but Bob Shea’s Crash, Splash, or Moo! has become the first book I grab when I have a chance to read a story aloud. This is a lightly plotted picture book formatted as a game show. The host is, of course, Mr. McMonkey and the audience’s task is simple: watch ACTION CLAM and (plain, old, boring) Cow complete in a series of increasingly preposterous stunts and predict whether they will end with a crash, a splash, or a….MOO. Like many of Shea’s books, it’s filled with bright, engaging colors and stuffed with jokes and delightfully silly scenarios. I love that this book both encourages a ton of audience participation and leaves everyone (including the reader) cackling with glee. It’s as much fun as I’ve had with a story in a long time and even when I have to read it several times in a row (by popular demand) I never get sick of it.

743b09a15d28ca3221e153270b710b93I have to make a confession about Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera. This is a stolen recommendation. My mother, who is a remarkable children’s librarian in her own right (as was her mother before her – I seem to have entered the family business) clued me in to this middle grade chapter book. Ms. Rapscott’s Girls follows the titular Ms. Rapscott, the headmistress of a “school for girls of busy parents.” These poor children are sent there because their parents simply do not have the time to care for and raise them. If that sounds awfully dark for the intended audience, fear not! Primavera builds a world that is equal parts whimsical and absurd as Ms. Rapscott and her charges embark on a series of misadventures. And my goodness, this book is at its hysterical best when it is roasting adults. I will leave you with this description of one student’s parents:

Her parents, Dr. Loulou Chissel and Dr. Lou Chissel, were very busy. They had started out in the cinder-block business and slowly but surely had worked their way up to become prominent cosmetic surgeons. In a stroke of genius Beatrice’s father, Dr. Lou Chissel, had even devised a way to fill our wrinkles and lips from the raw materials he had used to make his cinder block.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Dr. Liu often said.

But the Chissels didn’t stop there. Dr. Loulou Chissel had shortened her daughter’s name from Beatrice to Bea to save time, because Dr. Chissel was very busy experimenting with ways to grow hair on cinder blocks.

“Just think of the possibilities,” she crowed.

Dr. Lou rubbed his bald head, “Just think.”

As you can imagine, all this thinking required a great deal of quiet. But their daughter, Bea, was always wanting something -like breakfast- and she was always asking questions like, “What’s a birthday present?”

When no one answered she would get louder and louder, until she would shriek at a decibel loud enough to shatter glass:

“What’s a birthday present?!!!!!!”

This is how Beatrice Chissel became Known for Being Loud.

jason-reynolds-spidermanYA is one of my favorite areas to read, so I have many go-to books for teenagers. I was tempted to talk about Nic Stone, but I’ve blogged about both of her novels before. I thought about mentioning Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, but I’d rather devote a future post to them. So I’ll go with my favorite, an author I talk about nearly every day but don’t write about enough, Jason Reynolds. While all of his books are transcendent, the recent popularity of Marvel’s animated film, Into the Spider-Verse, makes this a wonderful time to give a teen Miles Morales: Spider-Man.

This book follows Miles through a particularly tough stretch of his junior year of high school. His uncle just died, as has Peter Parker, his spider-sense is on the fritz, and, oh yeah, his history teacher? He might be a super-villain. Add to that the stress of school, family pressure, and his crush on a classmate and Miles has his work cut out for him! I love that this book is appropriate for a wide range of teens – I’m as comfortable recommending it to sixth graders as I am to high school seniors. Reynolds is also simply a phenomenal writer, exploring serious issues like race, class, and identity, while also flashing a masterful ability to create realistic teenage characters. Don’t take my word for it – I’m currently discussing All-American Boys, which he co-wrote with Brendan Kiely, with a high school book club and the students all agree that he nails teenage dialogue. I have little doubt that Miles is the Spider-man we need right now and I can think of no one better than Jason Reynolds to do him justice.

You Don’t Have to be a Witch About It

Adriana Mather’s How to Hang a Witch had me at the description: Mean Girls meets the Salem Witch Trials. I kept imagining a group of teen witches in black velvet pointy witch hats saying “On Thursday’s we wear black.” Pause. “And like, every other day of the week too.”

Sam Mather is going through a pretty crappy time. Her father had successful heart surgery but slipped into a coma. For the last four months the doctors can’t figure out why he’s not waking up. Sam’s mother died when she was little and her father remarried. Sam and her stepmother get along, but with the stress of the last few months their verbal sparring is right up there with Rocky fighting that Russian boxer. Money’s getting tight and the medical bills are piling up. Sam’s stepmom sells the only house she’s ever known and moves them from New York to Salem, Massachusetts.

Sam’s got an attitude problem. I know. Shocker. A teenager with attitude. But Sam is kind of a lone wolf, hanging out by herself and never really making friends. She says what she means and means what she says. In Salem, they move into the giant house of the eccentric grandmother Sam never met. Sam’s father never spoke of his mother and Sam thought it was to keep her oddness from tainting the rest of the family. Strange things begin to happen around the house: things moved, books knocked over, threatening notes left to tell Sam to leave. Sam begins attending her new high school and isn’t surprised when she’s both ignored and gawked at.

The Salem residents are huge on their history of witchcraft and the trials. There’s a group of girls who dress all in black and call themselves the ‘Descendants.’ You guessed it. They’re the daughters of the women and men accused of witchcraft hundreds of years ago. You know what else. Sam Mather is a descendant of Cotton Mather, the ring leader of the witch trials and the man who sent many innocents to their deaths. Once everybody catches wind of who Sam is, things go from worse to disastrous.

Bad things begin to happen the moment Sam arrives in town. There are sudden deaths and a food poisoning outbreak from cupcakes that Sam brought to school as a gesture of goodwill. At a party, everybody is struck by a rash except Sam. The students, especially the Descendants, believe it’s all Sam’s doing. Sam has found a secret room in her grandmother’s house full of books on the occult and her personal journals. Her grandmother believed there was a curse linked not only to her family but to the Descendants as well.

The odd happenings in the house coalesce and a ghost appears. An extremely angry ghost. And of course, extremely good looking. There’s chemistry between them. He’s over 300 years old and once lived in the same house. I like older dudes too, but have yet to meet one that has been around through several wars and can walk through walls. He decides he wants to help Sam with the curse. The Descendants and Sam come to an uneasy truce, forming an alliance to find the origin of the curse and break it. For awhile there, it seems like the town’s going to go all Walpurgisnacht on Sam and repeat history by blaming her for all the bad things going down. It’s a race to change both history and the present.

This book had so many unexpected plot twists that I actually yelled at my dog “You have to read this book!” and then felt bad because he looked at me like “You know I don’t have thumbs to turn the pages.” Witches and witchcraft have long interested me and I’d probably be a Wiccan if I weren’t so lazy. Look, if you want to read a book about family history that keeps repeating itself on a loop, ghostly love, and modern witchcraft, pick up How to Hang a Witch. It’s also about people not being what they seem at first blush and how we’re not our history but who we make ourselves in our time.

Pleasant reading, fellow book lovers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have rituals to complete under a full moon while dancing around a bonfire and chanting. Nah. Like I said, I’m lazy. I’ll just light a bunch of candles, shuffle around in my version of a dance and my chanting will be just me messing up the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

When School Ends, Summer Reading Begins!

As school winds down those of us who work with youth hit our busiest time of the year. Here at EPL, the youth services librarians visit as many schools as possible, introducing Summer Reading and getting students excited about all of the books that they can read over the summer.

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As always, any youths entering 12th grade or younger can sign up for Summer Reading. To sign up simply stop by one of our service desks and ask for a summer reading log. 

So what do we expect from our readers? We want participants to read for about 30 minutes every day, which we round out to 24 hours over the course of the summer. It’s worth noting that we count all interaction with books as reading including reading comics and graphic novels, being read to, listening to audio books, reading eBooks, and especially for our toddlers and preschoolers, paging through and playing with books.

Prizes are awarded at 12 hours and 24 hours and will be available until August 31 (or until we run out):

  • 12 hour prize: pick a prize from our Mystery Box! (available beginning July 2)
  • 24 hour prize: choose a free book! (available beginning July 16)

If they complete the full 24 hours by August 17, readers will also receive an invitation to our end of the summer party where they get to meet Mayor Cassie Franklin and they are entered into a drawing for a chance to win a grand prize which varies depending on their age.

On our school visits, we want students to hear about all these great prizes and get excited for Summer Reading but we also love to tell them about some of the wonderful new books in our collection. I mostly visit middle schools and I’m always surprised about which books elicit the biggest response from students. Here are a few of this year’s hits:

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

Arturo leads a pretty quiet life. He hangs out with his friends, plays basketball, works in his family’s Cuban restaurant, and explores his Miami neighborhood. He’s looking forward to a summer full of all these things when two events rock his world. First, a family friend moves into their apartment building. Carmen is smart, funny, and just a little bit mischievous and Arturo is desperate to impress her and willing to follow any schemes she cooks up.

The second person who comes to town is a lot less fun. A land developer plans to build a high-rise in the neighborhood, demolishing Arturo’s family restaurant in the process. Carmen, with her passion for activism, and Arturo, with his passion for Carmen, are determined to stop this from happening. Soon Arturo is wrapped up in a plan that – if it works – just might save the restaurant AND impress Carmen. But if it doesn’t work? Well that would definitely be an epic fail.

Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson

Bad news, Earth is gone. Last Day on Mars takes place about two hundred years in the future. When scientists discovered that the Sun was dying and that it was going to destroy the solar system, humans banded together, put aside their petty squabbles, and began to look for a new home. The first stop was Mars. Martian colonies proved to be a safe place to look for an inhabitable planet and build the technology to send billions of people there. A planet was found, so far away that the trip will take over 100 years, but that is just a blink of an eye for the future of humanity- they’ve developed stasis technology that will allow them to hibernate without aging.

The book opens on the last day before this voyage will begin. Liam and Phoebe are two tweens set to take the last ship from Mars. Their parents are scientists and are still working on tech to make the new planet more Earth-like. As Liam and Phoebe wait for their parents, strange things begin to happen that make them question their safety and whether humans are alone on Mars. Suddenly, their future is cast in doubt and Liam and Phoebe find the fate of all humanity in their young hands.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

This book takes place in a post apocalyptic future version of North America. Global warming has wreaked havoc, leaving society on the brink of collapse. Perhaps even worse, people have lost the ability to dream and this seems to be driving them to madness, losing their minds and committing horrible acts.

The only people who can still dream are indigenous and native people and it seems that the difference is tied to the marrow inside their bones. It is believed that their bone marrow can be used to restore dreams to others, but the process of extracting the marrow is terrible and often fatal so indigenous people are hunted by deceitful, cruel, and greedy bounty hunters know as recruiters.

French is one of these indigenous people, a young Métis Indian on the run with a small group hoping to find others like them, for there is safety in numbers. As they flee, French’s relationship with one of his companions develops into more complicated feelings, but he also begins to realize that there might be a way to stop those hunting them and maybe secure the safety of those around him.

Scales & Scoundrels written by Sebastian Girner, art by Galaad, & lettered by Jeff Powell

Luvander is a rogue. She actually reminds me a little of Han Solo, except in a world of dwarves and dragons instead of one with droids and Death Stars. She’s a treasure hunter, but she’s found more trouble than treasure and she is wanted by the lawmen of the kingdom. So she sets out on a dangerous quest to find the gold that is supposedly at the bottom of the Dragon’s Maw, a notorious and dreaded underground labyrinth. Along the way she is joined by some companions including a dwarf and a prince, each with their own secrets. But none of their secrets are as powerful or potentially dangerous as the one that Luvander herself is about to unleash.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

When Makepeace goes to sleep every night her battle begins. Makepeace has some special but dark abilities. She can see the spirits of the dead that roam the land and she is able to house them inside of her. Every night she must fight them off, lest she be possessed by these desperate ghosts. Makepeace lives with her mother in a small village but England is on the brink of Civil War so Makepeace is sent to live with father, a powerful nobleman. At the same time, Makepeace fails in her efforts to protect herself and is possessed by something far more powerful and wild than she ever imagined.

In her new life, Makepeace learns how deceptive she must be about her abilities. Yet her father’s family seem determined to use Makepeace in ways that could prove both terrible and dangerous. As Makepeace begins to realize that she is in grave danger with these people, she decides to run, preferring the dangers of a country at war to the deceptions of her “family.”  As she flees, she begins to collect an odd group of companions and learns to harness the powers that come with possession, rather than fighting them. Makepeace begins to realize she might have a larger role to play in the world around her. If she can survive long enough.

The Witch Boy written & illustrated by Molly Ostertag

Aster lives in a village where many families have magical abilities, including his own. But magic in this world works in rigid ways – all the boys develop powers that turn them into shape-shifters able to turn into different animals, while girls become witches with the ability to cast magical spells. Aster has never been able to shift and he’s realized that he can cast spells. He is terrified this secret will bring shame on his family, so he hides it from all but one friend.

Then, a couple of the other boys in the village go missing and Aster suspects that his powers are the only way to find them and rescue them from the dark forces who hold them. But in doing so, he will expose his secret and expose himself to backlash and perhaps even banishment. He must decide if doing the right thing is worth risking everything.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Zombies

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover. At this point it feels cliché, even if the words hold value. But more to the point, sometimes it can be good to judge a book by its cover! Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is a kick-ass book with a kick-ass cover. Judge away! But please, please do not judge this book by its zombies.

I’d never describe myself as a lover of the zombie genre, though I’ve read more than a few books featuring the undead. I understand why some readers are skeptical of these stories and I realize that it doesn’t really help my case to say “but this book isn’t really about the zombies.” I mean, that’s what everyone says, right? But listen…this book?  It isn’t really about the zombies!

283ca973-6947-478d-abe1-e941ef671538-dreadnation_hc-for-webDread Nation takes place in the years following the Civil War. In this version of history the dead began to rise during the war, forcing the North and South into an uneasy truce. The South was ravaged by dead soldiers who have risen from battlefields and agreed to end slavery in exchange for Northern support. However, like during the actual Reconstruction Era, many Northerners and Southerners in this version of history remain determined to punish people of color and pursue the interests of white (and only white) Americans. One way that white supremacy manifests in Dread Nation is through a reeducation act that forces native and black children into schools. They are taught how to fight the zombie hordes – called shamblers in this book – sacrificing their own well-being to ensure the safety and comfort of wealthy and white society.

Jane McKeene, Dread Nation’s narrator, is a student at one of these schools. She is training to be a lady’s attendant, expected to cater to the whims and needs of a member of high society while also lopping off the heads of any shamblers who come-a-shambling. Though Jane takes readily to combat training and has a brilliant mind, she struggles to follow rules, is disinterested in etiquette, and bristles at the expectation that she ‘know her place.’  When Jane and two of her friends wind up on the wrong side of some very powerful (and very racist) politicians, they are banished to Summerland, Kansas.

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Justina Ireland

Summerland is supposed to be the vision of the future: technologically advanced, morally pure, well defended, and structured to provide comfort to white society through the toil and suffering of people of color. But Jane quickly discovers that not everything in Summerland is as it seems and that the poisonous ills woven through the fabric of this ‘utopia’ threaten not just the people of Summerland, but the survival of the human race in the battle against the dead. It will take all of Jane’s courage, scrappiness, and intellect to find a way to escape from this flimsy house of cards before irreversible disaster strikes.

It is worth noting that Ireland uses upsetting language to describe some groups of people. To my knowledge, these words are used in a historically accurate way even if they are far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today. It can make parts of this book uncomfortable, jarring, and difficult to read, as it should be.

Dread Nation holds its own as a dystopian zombie novel with a fast paced and thrilling story filled with dark mysteries and some gruesome deaths. But this book also serves as an excellent work of speculative fiction: reimagining the Civil War, many of its famous people and events, and the societal forces that both led to this conflict and impeded any legitimate notion of equality long after the war’s end. Ireland uses this book to take a frank look at the ways bigotry and hate thrive, even as humanity struggles to survive. And, finally, Jane is a phenomenal narrator: witty, charming, plucky, and perhaps just a bit deceptive as she pulls the reader into her story. Like I said – it’s not about the zombies!

Children of Blood and Bone

81PwjK8tPCLSometimes everything comes together perfectly. When I first heard about Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi it was still several months from release. The description checked a lot of boxes for me and I was excited to eventually read it, but I wasn’t desperately waiting for its release. Then I saw the cover. And, I mean, look at that cover! I was definitely in. Once I saw Black Panther and – like everyone else – was blown away, I reached a new level of excitement for Adeyemi’s work. A new series about magic, oppression, bigotry, and class set in an isolated West African country? Ummm yes, please. Add in a complex and rich backbone of mythology and I never stood a chance. So when I finally had this book in my hand I was elated, but also wary. Could it possibly live up to the hype? You’ll have to keep reading to find out, but I’m writing about it so you can probably guess…

Children of Blood and Bone is set in the fictional kingdom of Orisha. Power in Orisha was once shared between normal humans and Magi, a subset of society gifted by the gods with powerful supernatural abilities. Years before the novel opens, however, these powers mysteriously disappeared and the ruthless King took advantage of the situation, slaughtering the Magi. The scattered and abandoned children of the Magi are known as Diviners and conspicuously marked by their white hair, but unable to summon any powers. Diviners are treated as the lowest caste at best derided, at worst abused and used as slave labor.  

Zélie is one of these Diviners. Forced to watch the murder of her Magi mother when she was just a child she is angry at the Empire, determined to strike back, and more than a little bit rash. Despite being something of a pariah, Zélie, along with her father and her brother, manages to eke out a modest life trading fish for a living and training for the day when she will have a chance to take her revenge on the King and his followers.

Zélie’s impulsivity, however, throws her life into chaos when she rescues Amari, a princess from the royal line who is on the run from her terrible father. The decision to help Amari sends Zélie and her brother on a perilous journey unsure of who they can trust and what terrible dangers might await them. But Zélie is also running towards something – Amari claims she has a scroll that can restore Magi magic. Zélie hopes that this would give her people have a chance to fight back, restore their dignity, and maybe even begin to restore balance to Orishan society. Yet to reach this future Zélie and her companions must first evade Prince Iman, Amari’s brother and heir to the Orishan throne. For his part, Iman is determined to capture his sister and Zélie not just to end the threat of magic but also to finally prove himself to his cruel and demanding father. Beyond the obvious lethal danger the prince poses Zélie and Iman quickly discover they have a strange and unbreakable connection, one that threatens both of their worlds in opposing but equally devastating ways.

There are a lot of glowing adjectives I could use to describe Children of Blood and Bone, but the one that repeatedly comes to mind is refreshing. I’ve read a lot of wonderful YA novels that move in the worlds of dystopia, fantasy, history and mythology, but the vast majority are based off Western or European traditions. Having this wonderfully rich, exciting series build off of African traditions and get the support it deserves from the publishing industry is as welcome as it is long overdue. In Zélie, Amari, and Iman, Adeyemi has created three compelling and complicated narrators who are both eminently likable and, at times, incredibly frustrating. I’ve read some criticism that Children of Blood and Bone reads like an author’s first novel (probably because it is) and drags at times. I understand where this criticism comes from, but it’s also quite simply a thrilling read with a captivating ending that leaves plenty of juicy questions for the rest of the series to tackle.

Some Light Reading for the End of the World

I get a kick out of a story that can combine world-changing, terrifying, and sometimes supernatural events with a fairly traditional, mundane coming of age story. This is one of the many things I love about Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Shaun David Hutchinson also showed his skill with this kind of work in We are the Ants and he doubled down in his latest novel, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza.

At first glance, Elena Mendoza is similar to lots of teenage protagonists. School can be rough – she isn’t exactly popular, but she has made her own community. She loves her mom and younger siblings but hates her loser stepdad. I can keep going: her job sucks, Freddie, the girl she pines for, seems to have no clue she exists, inanimate objects often speak to her and she is the product of a virgin birth. Like I said, pretty typical.

81G6+tEFWqLSo about that virgin birth thing. Despite being shouldered with a “miracle child” moniker, there is a scientific explanation for Elena’s situation. She is the first proven human case of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction involving an unfertilized egg. Other than some cruel classmates who nicknamed her Mary, Elena has largely been able to shed any spotlight that might come from the unique circumstances of her birth. Time heals all wounds and brings enough sensational news stories each day to allow hers to fade away.  

The voices Elena hears are a little harder to explain, but truth be told they give her advice that usually proves helpful so she has learned to live with them and hide them from the surrounding world, even from her mother and her best friend, Fadil. Then one day while at work she witnesses a classmate shoot Freddie and is told by the logo on a Starbucks cup to save Freddie’s life. Though it defies explanation, Elena is able to heal Freddie and her reputation as a miracle girl comes storming back, bringing Elena a mess of unwanted attention.

To make matters worse, the boy who shot Freddie disappeared in a ray of light right after Elena performed her “miracle.” The voices tell Elena that she must heal more people to save the world. Fadil, a devout Muslim, tells her to trust in God and plenty of others tell her she is either crazy or a fraud. For her part, Elena is sure there must be some sort of scientific explanation and she is reluctant to use her powers. But with so many people suffering around her, how can she resist? Unfortunately, every time she heals someone, people disappear in strange beams of light. And as her profile grows, more people seem to want to use her, from her selfish stepdad to shadowy government agents. So Elena is left with quite the needle to thread: save the world, avoid manipulation, solve this rapture mystery and figure out if Freddie likes her or resents her for saving her life. No sweat?

Hutchinson packs a lot into this book and in less capable hands this story could have gone off the rails or veered into religious speculation that just isn’t my taste. Yet Elena is a sensible, compassionate, and delightfully wry narrator who manages to keep this wild novel somewhat grounded. I loved her mix of optimism and pragmatism and her quick banter with Fadil, Freddie, and her ex-boyfriend Javi.  

More than anything else, however, I appreciate the way this book handles identity. I read a lot of YA fiction that features queer characters and I appreciate the thought and care with which so many authors today write about questioning or discovering sexuality, coming out, facing bigotry, and finding acceptance. I also believe, however, that we need stories like this one. Elena has lots of insecurities but is perfectly open and comfortable with her bisexuality. And that is also how she is treated by Hutchinson. Her identity is only addressed as it pertains to the story. It’s a fact of life, not a plot point. The same could be said for the treatment of Fadil’s religion and Elena’s Cuban-American heritage. Hutchinson’s matter-of-fact approach to diverse representation not only makes for great writing but creates a world that I want to live in. Even if it is on the brink of apocalypse.