YA graphic novels (and one regular novel) about same-sex relationships

Panetta, Kevin; Ganucheau, Savanna (2019)  Bloom.  New York: First Second.

Opening Lines:  “What are you doing here?  Everyone is dancing now.”

                                    “I’m listening to music.  Why did you hit me on the head?”

Short Summary:  Ari doesn’t know what he is going to do with his life, but he knows he wants to get far away from his parents and their little family bakery and go somewhere else.  He also knows he wants to stay connected to his friends, and he hpes their band can make it big.  He even wants to say connected to Cameron, who can be a big jerk to everyone.  Ari convinces his parent to hire someone to help with the bakery for when he is gone.  Hector applies for the job.  Hector turns out to be perfect.  Baking seems to be the thing that gives him joy, and he does it very well.  He is also kind to Ari and a lot of fun to be with.  But Hector has his friends and Ari has his own.  They grow closer and just when things seem to be going really well, they cause an accidental fire which burns the bakery to the ground.  Hector takes all the blame to save Ari’s relationship with his parents.  Ari’s dad fires Hector and Ari’s life seems empty again.  He knows he shouldn’t have allowed Hector to take the blame, but now, their relationship is over.  Or is it?

Why should I read this book?  Ganucheau’s drawing style is perfect for this story.  It has a lightness to it that really gives life to the story.  Neither of the two protagonists is perfect.  They both make mistakes, but it is clear that they care deeply for each other, and are willing to forgive mistakes.  Panetta’s story and scripting includes enough sub-plots that this is not just an inward story about romance, but the story of Ari coming to value his family and learn to participate in the community of people who love him. He also learns not to take Hector’s presence and caring for granted.  This is a graphic novel of a same-sex relationship – but it is also a graphic novel about two people growing to love each other and it works quite well in that universal sense.  I also really appreciated the way the book focused on two people getting to know each other, rather than moving swiftly to sex, as many contemporary YA book do.  In fact, this book shows a kiss or two, but that is all.  Not because it is being prudish – but because the focus of the relationship is more than just physical.

Who is this book best for?  This is a book for high school and older.  It would be a good choice for a classroom library and a school library, depending on the context of the school.  There is enough going on thematically that it would make a good choice for literature groups.  In light of possible challenges to the book, it might also work for an opt-in after school book club.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  Yes, on the grounds that it is about a same-sex relationship. The pity about that is that the way this romance story is told is very much in line with the sort of values that those likely to object to it hold close.  It depicts a love between two people based on knowing each other, caring for each other, taking things slowly, and  working out relationship issues from a position of concern for the other person.  There is also some mild vulgarity, but far less than most contemporary YA.

Uzaku, Ngozi (2018) Check Please; Book 1: Hockey.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: Check, Please! Book 1: # Hockey (Check, Please!, 1)  (9781250177964): Ukazu, Ngozi: Books

Opening Lines: “I’m in my freshman dorm at Samwell!  It’s a dream come true.  Oh my goodness and the campus is so gorgeous.”

Short Summary: In this graphic novels, Eric “Bitty” Bittle has a scholarship to Samwell University.  The thing is, it is a hockey scholarship.  Bitty is good on skates (he should be, he made it to finals in high school figure skating.)  But the thing is, he is scared of getting hit – and that makes him a liability in hockey.  Also, he has a crush on Jack, the team captain.  All this causes him stress, and when Bitty feels stress, he bakes pies.  Lots of pies.  Will he be thrown off the team?  Will he make any friends?  And what about Jack?

Why should I read this?

Uzaku’s art is easy to follow and entertaining (she has an interesting style that is part cartoon (around the faces) part realism (the backgrounds and bodies), and part manga (really just in Biddy’s eyes.)  The story is entertaining *though it is a little hard to follow the characters at first, but it gets easier.  This graphic novel is meant to be fun, and it is.  Uzaku says in the foreword that, “I don’t consider this comic Very Serious Art at all, but I do consider it something even better: fun”  It is that, and there is not a lot of thematic depth here, but there are some things here students might want to do some thinking about.  This book raises some interesting questions about stereotypes, with characters who seem to live up to the stereotypes and others that seem to go against them.  Ransom and Holster are best friends who seem like typical interchangeable fraternity row beer-obsessed womanizers, excpt that one of them is black and the other white.  Another character, known only by his questionable nickname, seems to be a burn-out, but is hyper-intelligent and remarkably loyal.  Jack seems like a typical athletic hunky male, though later we find he may not be the alcohol-soaked girl-crazed jock we might imagine.  And Biddy himself seems manufactured from stereotypes.  He is a former figure-skater who likes to bake and fears any type of violence.  This seems like a stereotype of a gay character.  As the book goes on and we get to know him better, he becomes more three-dimensional, but the stereotyped elements remain. 

Who is this book best for?

This one is probably best for high school or college.  It would certainly be a good choice for a classroom library or school library, depending, however, on the community context of the school.  Though it could be an excellent part of a unit on stereotyping, the content may prove problematic for some school systems.

Is this book likely to be challenged?

This could be a fine book for discussing stereotypes, but the same-sex attraction that is in the midst of the book may be problematic for some school systems.  Because much of the story is set in a frat house, there is plenty of vulgar language, objectifying of women, and alcohol use.

Venable, Colleen Af; Crenshaw, Ellen T. (2019) Kiss Number 8.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: Kiss Number 8 (9781596437098): Venable, Colleen AF, Crenshaw,  Ellen T.: Books

Opening Lines:  2004.  I have never understood the world’s obsession with kissing.  And “swapping spit?”  That’s supposed to make me want to do it?  I guess my first wasn’t so bad.

Short Summary:  In this graphic novel, Amanda has two friends, Laura, who is straight-laced and careful; and Cat who is wild and up for anything.  She also has an excellent relationship with her dad, who takes her to ball games and watches movies with her.  Cat thinks she should go after Laura’s brother Adam.  Her dad thinks so too.  When letters come to the house from someone named Dina, Amanda begins to think that her dad is having an affair.  But when she find a cashier’s check for $30,000 made out to her and a note from her grandfather telling her not to tell her parents about it, she has another mystery to solve.  Eventually (after a fair amount of friend drama and a whole lot of dodging from her dad) Amanda finds out that her dad’s mom was transgender, that Dina is her step-grandmother, and that her dad’s dad (who remarried) is deeply intolerant.  Because Amanda herself has been feeling pulled toward a same-sex relationship, this is very important to her.  When she confronts her grandpa about it, Amanda realizes that her quest for truth and honesty may destroy her relationship with her dad, and his relationship with his dad.     

Why should I read this?  With a topic as potentially divisive as this one, there is always a danger of depicting one side or the other as foolish, self-centered, or intolerant.  And though Amanda’s grandpa comes across as a villain, most other characters in the story are three-dimensional.  Amanda’s dad, for example, seems initially unreasonably unwilling to consider Amanda’s preferences and feelings, we later learn how much he has been hurt, and that, as a child, his anger was deliberately misdirected toward Grandpa Sam and Dina.  Amanda’s mom seems like a distracted and out-of-touch parent at first, but later shows that she loves and connects with Amanda deeply.  Laura seems dorky and unexciting, but she also proves a better friend, at least initially, than Cat.  And Cat’s wild promiscuous nature, which is so attractive to Amanda at first, later turns to uncaring rejection.  Not everything works out in the end.  Some relationships remain unmended.  But the final pages show forgiveness and acceptance and a family that is back together again.

Who is this graphic novel best for?  This is best for a high school audience.  This might be a good classroom library book, where the classroom teacher might be able to offer guidance and judge whether the student is ready to consider the story of this book.  It could work for a school library, though it might be more likely to be challenged there.  There is enough thematically here to at least consider it as an option for literature circles, but the complicated plot and content that will challenge some students a great deal might mean that teachers should be very strategic in using it. 

Is it likely to be challenged?  Yes.  This book has frank discussions not only of transsexual characters and same-sex attraction, but also of kissing, drinking, and disobeying parents.  It has multiple uses of vulgarities.  Having said that, it is a graphic novel that strives for realism, and Amanda’s story I am sur e runs true to some high school experiences.

Tamaki, Mariko; Valero-O’Connell, Rosemary (2019) Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (9781626722590): Tamaki,  Mariko: Books

Opening Lines:  Dear Anna Vice, My name is Freddy Riley.  I’ve been reading your column for four years.  My mom reads it too. I’m not sure what you need to know aobut a person to give them advice.

Short Summary:  In this graphic novel, Freddy Riley needs some advice.  She loves being with her girlfriend, Laura Dean, but Laura is not reliable, sometimes ignores her in social settings, and keeps breaking up with her.  Every time it happens, her friends suggest that maybe she should find someone else.  Then Laura shows up and they next thing Freddy knows they are making out and all she wants is for them to be together again. Meanwhile, Freddy’s friend Doodle really needs her help with something that is the hardest thing Doodle has ever had to go through.  Unfortunately, Freddy is still too wrapped up in getting Laura Dean’s attention.  Soon she must decide between a good friend who needs her and a girlfriend who half the time doesn’t seem to notice she is there.

Why should I read this book?:  Tamaki’s art is beautiful, with fine lines that are this beauriful combination of angles and curves.  She draws people very realisitically, and draws their facial expressions so well that you can usually tell what they are thinking before you even read the word balloons.

            In terms of the story, this is kind of an anti-romance novel.  It is about Freddy’s journey to get enough self-confidence to break up with Laura for good, and also to realize that sometimes being true to your friends is more important than anything else.  So while this story involves a same-sex relationship, it is less about leaping into relationships and more aobut thinking before you leap – an interesting message for students to consider.

Who would this book be best for?  It is hard to tell the age of the characters.  They seem to be either 8th or 9th graders – so the book is intended for middle school or high school.  I hav ha hard time imagining this book in a middle school library or classroom library.  It seems like more of a high school book. I could imagine using this in connection with a unit on self-esteem or abuse, but there are some better books for serving that purpose.  This seems like a book that might best be discovered by the reader outside of class.

Is it likely to be challenged?  Yes.  While there is no depiction of or direct discussion of sex, the book centers on a same-sex relationship.  There are multiple uses of vulgar language.  And that is too bad, because this book could lead to some really excellent discussion.  My guess is that most teachers will be afraid to use it though.

Konigsberg, Bill (2017) Honestly Ben.  New York: Arthur A. Levine.

Amazon.com: Honestly Ben (9780545858267): Konigsberg, Bill: Books

Opening Lines:  “According to the swim instructor at the Gilford gym, I had the worst buoyancy of any human he’d ever seen.” 

 Short Summary:   Ben is dating Hannah, but then begins noticing that he is attracted to his best friend, a guy named Rafe.  He doesn’t think he is gay, but cannot deny the attraction.  He needs to figure out what that means.  He also has to write a acceptance speech for an amazing scholarship he has been awarded, and he has to deal with bullies and keeping his grades up and all the other things that any high school student has to deal with.  About 200 pages into the book, he makes his choice, breaks up with Hannah, and goes out with Rafe.  The relationship progresses and Ben realizes he is not ready to be public aobut dating Rafe.  They break up.  Ben discovers some things about being true to himself.  Then there is a chance for him to see Rafe again.  Is that what he wants?

Why should I read this book?  That is a fair question.  I struggled with this book a lot.  It is true that I am a heterosexual, cis-gendered male who is over fifty years old, so there may be all sorts of bias I am not fully aware of here, but my main issue with the book had more to do with the fact that I am a nerd. Hannah, Ben’s initial love interest is clever, highly intelligent, and has a wonderfully strong personality.  She stands up for herself and others.  When Ben falls for Rafe, he breaks up with Hannah with little regard for her feelings.  In short, he acts like a jerk.  Well, to be fair, there are lots of protagonists who are jerky.  If it were a book about a guy who likes two girls, and picks one of them, would I have the same reaction?  Honestly, I think I would, because Hannah seems thoughtful and interesting and kind of a nerd.  And while Rafe is clever, he also seems flighty and self-centered.  So does Ben.  It is always frustrating when you are rooting for one relationship and the book goes the other way.  Because of that, it was hard for me to like Ben.  And because of that, it was hard for me to care about the book. 

Ben did have some moments.  I liked the scene where he spoke up against the bully who was telling rape jokes.  In spite of my not connecting with this book much,  I have to acknowledge that  Konigsberg is an excellent writer, especially with dialogue. This book might connect better with someone who is not me. 

Who is this book best for?  This might be a good book for high school students and probably deserves a place in a high school library and a classroom library as well.  Having said that, it very much depends upon your school’s context.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  Probably.  In addition to a central focus on a same-sex relationship (and a pan-sexual protagonist), there is a fair amount of vulgar language in it (interestingly, it is mostly Rafe’s parents who are the ones to use that language the most.)

The God of Fire, Popularity Contests on Another Planet, and Adventures on Islands: Graphic Novels for Elementary and Middle School

Pittman, Eddie (2017) Red’s Planet: Friends and Foes.  New York: Abrams. 

Red's Planet: Book 2: Friends and Foes: Pittman, Eddie: 9781419723155:  Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  “Hello Hello Hello Hello”

                        “Stay out.  Do not enter.  Danger, Stay out.  This means you !!”


Short Summary:  Red is a young girl from earth who has been marooned on a planet with a lot of aliens who are very different from her.  They have formed a kind of loose community of primitive huts and bartered food.  But when a large anthropomorphic cat named Goose refuses o share the supplied his has hoarded from their crash-landed ship, Red finds herself running against him in an election for mayor.  After a long fought campaign, they become friends, and soon find themselves trying to prepare the community for an invasion from an army of space pirates.  Whether they can survive or not will depend upon them all getting along.

Why should I read this book?  Tis graphic novel story is fun and funny, action-packed and clever.  Red is a mischievous kid, but ultimately very likable.  Adults will enjoy the veiled references to everyone form Bugs Bunny to Elvis. There are themes of cooperation and valuing diversity here, but they are not heavy handed.

Who is this book good for?  Third grade and up, for readers who like adventure, aliens, friendship, humor, and good stories.  This one would be great for classroom and school libraries..  It is maybe just a bit too silly to be used as a book to study in-class.

Is this book likely to be challenged?

No.  I cannot imagine on what basis it would be.

O’Connor, George (2019) Hephaistos: God of Fire.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: Olympians: Hephaistos: God of Fire (9781626725270): O'Connor,  George: Books

Opening Lines:  Once there was a god…Not a god.  A titan…The titans.  Giant, immortal, beautiful, lords of space and time.  Before there were gods, titans ruled the cosmos. 

Short Summary:  This graphic novel follows the Greek god Hephaistos from his birth through his life, focusing on his alienation from his mother Hera, his Father, Zues and the rest of the Olympians.  The tale of Prometheus stealing fire back for the mortals and being punished for that crime (or possibly the crime of seeing the future.)  It includes the story of Hephaistos catching his wife, the beautiful Aphrodite in bed with Hephaistos’s brother Ares (god of War).

Why should I read this book?   Are you kidding me?  This was written and drawn by George O’Connor!  I don’t even have to tell you anything more.  If you have read George’s work you know that it will be superbly written and plotted, brilliantly drawn, and that O’Connor’s way with telling a story through panels and word balloons is nearly unequalled.  This is a fabulous story told with all the excitement and cleverness that graphic novels could possibly offer.  I mean, these stories were good enough, and universal enough, to last over three thousand years.  Homer and Virgil both would have loved to read this.  There is no better version of the Greek myths anywhere (well, except in the Iliad and the Odyssey

Who is this book best for?  I would say fourth grade and up.  Especially kids who love myths, adventure, and superhero stories (The Greek myths are pretty much the start of superhero stories).  Also for kids who don’t yet know that they love Greek mythology.  I would be a great text, along with the rest of O’Connor’s Olympians books, to supplement any study of Greek mythology.  It would also be a great addition to a class and school library. 

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so, but I suppose it is possible.  Ares and Aphrodite’s infidelity is dealt with in a sensitive manner (they are fully clothed).  Dionysus does get Hephaistos drunk (or at least very tipsy) in another scene, though it is subtle.  And when Hephaistos is cast down from Olympus after he is born, he is discovered and raised by two ocean nymphs, Thetis and Eurynome.  I suppose there might be some parents who object to their being a family consisting of a baby and two female parents.  All of these objections, though, would be a stretch as O’Connor is remarkably faithful to the original myths.

Renier, Aaron (2018) The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon.  New York: First Second.

Amazon.com: The Unsinkable Walker Bean and the Knights of the Waxing Moon  (9781596435056): Renier, Aaron: Books

Opening Lines:  When I left Winooski Bay I thought I’d never see you again.  I’m so happy that you’re better.  That you’re ALIVE.  I know you didn’t REALLY mean that I could create stars in the sky.  ..

Short Summary:  So Walker Bean, intrepid bur nerdish adventurer boy (who seems cut from the same cloth as Tintin) and the crew of the Jacklight take refuge on an Island with mysterious and elusive animals that seem made out of shadow, lots of characters who seems to be of a piratical nature, lost temples, royal families and other intriguing people and situations. But the story is overly complicated and while I wanted to care about Walker’s fate, I often struggled to do so. 

Why should I read this?  If you hav a student who is obsessed with graphic novels and need sa longer book to read (this one is 280 pages) you should preview it.  Maybe you will fall in love with it.  I had trouble doing so.

Who is this book best for?  Patient readers fifth or sixth grade and up.  This would be a good one for a school library.

Is this book likely to be challenged?

I don’t think so.  There is some buffoonish drinking and cigar smoking among the older characters. Not enough to matter though.

Dahm, Evan (2019) Island Book.  New York: First Second.

Island Book: Dahm, Evan: 9781626729506: Amazon.com: Books

Opening Lines:  “Cursed girl.  Back to the tower with you — where you can do us no harm!”

Short Summary: Sola is a young member of a community of green-skinned people.  They live on an island, fish, and live in fear that the monster will return.   Sola is shunned by the other kids, who think she is cursed.  So one day she takes a rowboat and rows out in search of the monster.  This leads to a series of adventures as she meets strange and generous people, warlike and violent people,  and sometimes frightening people, cultures, and lands, each built around a response to the monster: denial, aggression, respect and fear, and disbelief.  She sees the monster more than once, and finally confronts it.  Then she returns home.

Why should I read this?  It is an interesting and odd, but perhaps wonderful graphic novel.  I say perhaps because I have only read it twice and I think I will have to read it a couple more times before I feel like I have a good grasp of it.  And I want to re-read it.  Sola’s journeys seem to have a lot to say about how humans react to that which is strange and powerful.  The art is fantastic, and Dahm’s choice to render each of the characters as human-like without being exactly human encourages the reader to see the story with fresh eyes and leaves the reader open for reflection as well.

Who is this book best for?     This book would make for an excellent middle school book club read.  There is plenty hear to discuss, but I think it would not fare as well as the object of in-class study.  Doing so would take the magic out of it – and this book has some magic in it.  It would also be a great choice for a classroom library, or a school library too.

Is it likely to be challenged?  I cannot see why it would be.

The Harlem Renaissance explained in a book for kids (but I wish it grabbed them a bit more)

Hill, Laban Carrick  (2003) Harlem Stomp:  A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

Harlem Stomp!: A Cultural History Of The Harlem Renaissance: Hill, Laban  Carrick: Books - Amazon.com

One of the advantages/occupational hazards of being a professional nerd is that I pretty much love any book that can teach me something. I knew about the Harlem Renaissance, of course, that particular moment in history where African American culture and history went into overdrive in Harlem, New York — when poets and playwrights, singers, dancers, actors,  jazz musicians and composers, painters and sculptors were all working in one place and able to feed off each other’s genius in a way that happens only vary rarely.  

Harlem Stomp got me really interested through a combination of short biographies, amazing photographs, and some really cool primary source documents — like an annotated map of Harlem music clubs. There were a lot of historical figures in this book I had never heard of, and it was wonderful to be introduced to them. But the book also has a flaw.  Although the focus on specific moments and events is excellent, the through-line., the narrative thread that links it all together and helps us to see history as a story, is very faint.  I suspect that Hill was being a good historian and resisting the temptation to add a level of interpretation by trying to see such a through-line.  At the same time, because the narrative doesn’t feel connected, this is a remarkably easy book to drift away from.  To be fair, he does provide such a through-line, but you have to look pretty hard to find it.  Bringing that aspect of the book more to the forefront would have made it a much more engaging read. 

Having said that, this would be an excellent book to have available for students writing reports about important people in US history.  Fourth-graders (and maybe even third) could make sense of it, but it seems to me that middle school and high school are the real target audience here.


Excellent Graphic Novel Adaptations of Riordan, Alcott, and Harper Lee

Riordan, Rick; Venditti, Robert; Powell, Nate (2014) The Lost Hero (graphic novel adaptation)  Los Angeles: Disney Hyperion.

Opening Lines:   Somewhere in Arizona:  “All right, Cupcakes. Listen up!   You’re about to see the Grand Canyon.  Try not to break it.  And if any of you causes any trouble on this field trip, I will personally send you back to campus the hard way.”

Short Summary:  Jason, Piper, and Leo are, like Percy Jackson, half-bloods, or demigods.  They are also troubled kids on a field trip who know nothing of their heritage until a storm monster attacks and their teacher turns out to be a satyr.  The satyr disappears fighting the storm monster and the kids are wisked away to Camp Half-Blood, where they find out they have godlike powers, but from the Roman gods rather than the Greek gods, and they find out that the far=te of the earth may rest in their untrained and unprepared hands.  They also find out that their memories of being friends for months may be false. And one of them has visions that tell him he will betray the others. 

Why should I read this book?  Like any other Rick Riordan book, this one is a face-pased story that weaves together action, mythological references, and a fair amount of humor.  This book, though, is a graphic novel, and not only does it do an excellent job of maintainting the pacing, characterization, and story movement of the original, it also lets readers see the monsters, creatures, and heroic acts.  It is an excellent adaptation and might be a fun project for students to compare the writing in the original book with the way the same things are conveyed in this version through the intersection of art and text.

            Also, Riordan’s world is a fun world to fall into.  It is familiar to us because, like the Harry Potter world, it exists within our world, but student reader-s will enjoy the overhead view of Camp Half-Blood, the way the book pictures the forges and workshops beneath the cabin of the children of Hephaestus, and other aspects of that world.

Who would this book be best for?   Strong fourth and fifth grade readers would enjoy it.  I think it would also work well for middle school readers.  This is a great book for a classroom or school library.  I could imagine this being an option for lit circles, though I am not sure it could sustain extensive discussion.  I don’t see it being ideal for whole class study.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I wouldn’t think so.  The book does depict some supernatural elements and it does bring mythology to life, so I suppose some parents might object on those grounds.  It is possible there could be some who would critique the book in that while it features a multicultural cast of characters, their individual heritages and cultures play little part in the book – but then, it is primarily an action book and not aiming for deep character development.

Terciero, Ray; Indigo, Bre (2019) Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel New York: Little Brown.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel: A Modern Retelling of Little Women - Terciero, Rey

Opening lines: 

            “I love the holidays.”

            “Speaking of, what does everyone want?”

            “World peace.”

            “I mean, hat do you want for Christmas?”

            “I told you.  World peace.”

Short Summary:  In this graphic novel adaptation (or maybe modern retelling would be a better term) of Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy live with their mother in an apartment in New York City, while their father is in the US Army, fighting a war in the Middle East.  The story or the march girls, their various struggles (Jo trying to find herself as a writer, Meg’s search for love, Beth’s struggle between her shyness and her musical abilities, and Amy’s desire to have enough money to protect her whole family.) But some of those ideas are developed more fully than in the original book.  Jo comes to terms with being gay, Meg struggles with being a woman of color and trying to break into the business world (In the version the March’s father is Black, mother is white and some of the kids are from previous relationships, so there is quite a mix of colors and culture’s in the family.  Laurie is here too.  And instead of letters from father, they get emails.  In spite of the modernizations, though, the story is intact.

Why should I read this book? This is an excellent adaptation, and in spite of the change in scenery, costuming, and time period, it still manages to pull on the heartstrings the same way the original daoes.  The art is good.  It is abit stylized and you can tell the coloring was done on a computer because it doesn’t have quite as much of a human touch as other graphic novles do, but it is a fun version of a great story.

Who is this book best for?  Fifth graders and up will be able to understand this, but partly because of the way it explores identity crisis, the content would be ideal for middle school.  This would be a great book for classroom or school libraries, but would also work well for whole class study, especially in contrast with Louisa May Alcott’s original story.

Is it likely to be challenged?

There is a sensitively handled struggle as Jo tries to make sense of her same-sex attraction and coming out in her gay identity, so, probably. 

Lee, Harper; Fordham, Fred (2018) To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel.  New York: HarperCollins

Hardcover To Kill a Mockingbird: a Graphic Novel Book

Opening Lines:  When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.  When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-concious about his injury.

Short Summary:  Scout and Jem and their friend Dill are enjoying a lazy summer in Maycomb Alabama in 1933 when Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus, takes the case of Tom Robinson, a back man accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell.  At the same time, the kids are increasingly interested in rumors surrounding a mysterious reclue who lives in an old house whose name is Boo Radley.  As both stories unforld, Scout learns about jstice, the dignity of each human, and the fact that justice does not always happen.

Why should I read it?  This graphic novels adaptation is one of the most beautifully illustrated books I have ever read.  Fordham is incredibly gifted in working with light and the way the characters are dappled by sunshine through green leaves is wonderful to read.  That beauty contrasts strongly with the ugliness that we see in the hatred toward Robinson that comes out during the trial.  Fordham’s characters are drawn and painted realistically, but dramatically, so that we can see the twisted fury on the faces of both the witnesses and the gallery.  We also see Atticus’s weariness, humor, and stalwart resolve in the face of a difficult case.

            There have been critics in recent years who have complained that this story feeds into white savior syndrome, that the readers of this story are mostly white people hoping to feel good about the racial injustice in our country – to identify with the guy who tried to fight against it.  I understand and sympathize with that position, and as a white man, it is not my place, perhaps to disagree.  Having said that, though, I think if we want to change things, we need stories and those stories need heroes.  If this is the only story you read about race in America, I think you are getting an incomplete picture.  But as one book in a series of books that talk about race, I think this has value.  Reading this book along with The Hate You Give, Internment, and The Poet X I think would lead to some excellent conversation.

Who is this book best for?  Eighth or ninth grade would seem aobut perfect, but I read the book after I was in college, and my daughter read it when she was in middle school.  This graphic nvoel version would be excellent for classroom and school libraries, lit circles, and whole class study.  As I mentioned earlier, it would be interesting to contrast it with one of many contemporary YA books. 

Is this book likely to be challenged?  Yes. From two different camps.  Some parents will object to the use of the n-word, saying that word has no place in our language.  I find it difficult to disagree.  And yet, the work is, sadly, in our world, and it was certainly in Scout’s world.  The other group of people who might object are those who believe that kids should not read about this sort of thing because to do so it to stir up trouble.  Here too, though, to ignore the injustice int heworld doesn’t mean it is not there.

Middle Grades Books about the Jewish Tradition: Orthodox Girl Fights Troll and Evil Duplicate, Wild West Rabbi Versus Nemesis

Deutsch, Barry (2010) Hereville:  How Mirka got her Sword.  New York:  Amulet.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (NONE): Deutsch, Barry ...

This book somehow gives the reader insights into the day-to-day life of a Jewish Orthodox family and at the same time tells the story of a girl who manages to outwit bullies, a witch, and a troll.  We get to meet her good step-mother (who loves to argue for the sake of arguing), her brother Zindel (who is afraid of bullies from school, but brave enough to sneak onto a witch’s property to steal some grapes), an evil talking pig that steals her homework (just after the best graphic novel sequence about math homework that I have ever seen), and the troll that challenges her to a knitting duel. 

The art is excellent.  The panel lay-out is inspired, the drawings are clear and well done (the style tends just a tiny bit toward caricature/cartoon, but not enough to be distracting. Most of it is two- color rather black and white or full color, but it is so well done that if you read the book and I asked you later, you would say that it was full color.

The story is clever and wonderful and witty and exciting and informative and smart students with good senses of humor with love it.  I would guess smart fourth graders and up.  The story does contain a witch.  She doesn’t really do much in the story, but some parents object to any mention of witches in a story.  I cannot see anything else that would be challenged in this book.  Get it for your classroom library — or for yourself.  It will make you smile.

Deutsch, Barry  (2012) Hereville:  How Mirka Met a Meteroite.  New York:  Amulet.

When Mirka goes to claim her sword from the troll, he tricks her into summoning a meteorite that threatens to flatten Mirka’s town.  The witch stops the disaster before it happens by transforming the meteor into a duplicate of Mirka.  At first Mirka enjoys having someone who can do her homework while she plays, but before long, the meteorite duplicate proves to be better than Mirka in almost everything.  How Mirka resolves the problem is at times nail-biting, but also quite delightful (and involves fighting monsters)

The art is fantastic (and more color this time). Like the earlier book, this one is ideal for fourth grade an up. As with the earlier book, some parents might object to the witch.  Also as with the last one, this book is a lot of fun (and a good way to learn about the Jewish Orthodox faith — kind of by osmosis.)

Sheinkin, Steve (2010) Rabbi Harvey vs. the Wisdom Kid  Woodstock, VT: Jewish lights Publishing.

Rabbi Harvey is the wisest rabbi in the wild west (and before you sneer and say you bet he is the only rabbi in the wild west, as it turns out, he finds himself in conflict with a selfish, money-grubbing rabbi named Rabbi Ruben who calls himself The Wisdom Kid).  Soon they are having a duel, relying on logic, wisdom, and folktales to outsmart the other,  Every single page of this book has several amazingly clever moments.  For example,

Rabbi Ruben:  This town’s not big enough for two rabbis.

Rabbi Harvey:  Agreed.  Now what’s this about a woman paying you to treat her sick parrot?

Rabbi Ruben:  I said I’d treat it, but I never promised to save the stupid — I mean precious little creature.

Rabbi Harvey:  And she agreed to pay you anyway?

Rabbi Ruben:  That’s right.

Rabbi Harvey:  Whether you cured the bird or killed it?

Rabbi Ruben:  Exactly, thank you.

Rabbi Harvey:  And did you cure the bird?

Rabbi Ruben:  Regrettably, no.

Rabbi Harvey:  Did you kill it? 

Rabbi Ruben:  Positively not!

Rabbi Harvey:  So you neither cured the bird nor killed it.  According to your own agreement with this woman, you have no right to a payment.

Bystander:  That’s our rabbi!

The art is not spectacular.  Like the first book in this series, it is pretty rudimentary (the heads of every person in this graphic novel are disproportionately big).  But it is enough to get the story.  It  would be a great book for any kid with a good sense of humor who likes logic puzzles, or any kid who likes to see the bad guys humiliated.  It also conveys a rich history of folktales and wisdom literature.  I didn’t see anything objectionable in this graphic novel.

Excellent Realistic Fiction for Fourth through Twelfth-grade Readers

Erskine, Kathryn (2017) The Incredible Magic of Being.  New York: Scholastic. 

The Incredible Magic of Being: Kathryn Erskine: 9781338238532 ...

Opening Lines:          Magic is all around us, but most people never see it. Sometimes even I can’t.   Like right now.

Another Really Good Couple of Lines:   “Most teachers are okay with thinking.  They believe in asking questions.  School systems don’t like it though.  They want one answer bubble to fill in on the electronic score sheet and that’s it.  Done.  But the universe is never that simple.”

Short Summary:  Julian’s moms are trying to open a Bed and Breakfast, but their neighbor has refused to let them use his easement for their addition.  Julian, who has some physical differences and loves telescopes and astrophysics and he has always seen the world from a persepctive that is unlike everyone else’s, knows that what Mr. X really needs is a friend, even if he doesn’t know it yet. And maybe that means there is some hope in the universe.

Why should I read this book?  The plot described above might seem hokey or quaint, but it isn’t – mainly because Julian tells the story and his voice is spellbinding.  Julian’s way of looking at the  world makes this story into a non-traditional nerd story.  Julian doesn’t need to contend with any bullies (other than his neighbor, who is really more of a grumpy old man) or with the difficulties of being unpopular in school – but it is a nerd story all the same.  Julian is different and that is what makes his story wonderful to read.

Who is this book best for? This would be an excellent book for all middle schoolers to read.  It would be a great read-aloud, an excellent classroom library book, and is probably worthy of being studied in class – but I think it is probably best if discovered as an enjoyable story rather than an assignment.

Is it likely to be challenged? The book features a same-sex couple who are parents.  Though it is generally a loving family, there will likely be those who will object to this. 

Kreizman, David ((2019) The Year They Fell.  Imprint Books.

The Year They Fell | David Kreizman | Macmillan

Opening Lines:  On the night their parents’ plane did a header into the Caribbean Sea, Josie and Jack Clay threw the biggest blowout River Bank High School had ever seen.

Short Summary:  They were all best friends in pre-school – Dayana, Archie, Harrison and the twins. Jack and Josie.  Now high schoolers, Dayana is a drugged-out loner, Archie an African-American nerd with white parents, Harrison struggles to hide his anxiety attacks, and Jack and josie are at the top of the social ladder.  Though their parents are all still friends, the teens live in different social worlds.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s point-of-view which, in this story, works perfectly.  Readers begin to learn the forces that have driven the characters apart.  Josie was abused by a baseball coach and Jack blames himself for not being able to stop it.  Archie has always loved Josie, but since the night she told him about the coach, she cannot look him in the eye and wants nothing to do with him.  Harrison has lived his life to fulfill his mother’s dream of getting into Harvard.  Dayana has felt like an outsider ever since her parents’ divorce.  And then the plane carrying their parents to a Caribbean vacation crashes and the kid’s lives are turned upside down. 

Why should I read this book?

In addition to the point-of-view shifts, what makes this story deeply engaging and its ending remarkably moving is the way in which the characters form community and rebuild relationships only to have them shatter again and again in the face of grief and emotional struggle.  As they struggle through each setback, as more and more uncomfortable truths emerge, and as greater challenges face them at every turn, their friendships grow stronger and the story becomes more and more real. 

Who is this book best for? This book would be great for a high school classroom or school library as well as for study as part of a unit on community, responding to trauma, and other themes. 

Is it likely to be challenged?  Perhaps, there is mention of drug use, sexual abuse, and vulgar language, but the overall message of the book, that community helps us get through intense difficulty and that caring for other people is important – I would argue that outweighs the objectionable material.  As always, teachers should preread the book before using and consider the context and community before making a decision.

DiCamillo, Kate (2018) Louisiana’s Way Home. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Louisiana's Way Home - Kindle edition by DiCamillo, Kate. Children ...

Opening Lines:  I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatever happened to Louisiana Elefante?  Where did she go?, they will have an answer.  They will know.

Short Summary:  It is hard for Louisiana, living with her often irrational Granny.  But when Granny decides they have to leave the town where Louisiana’s friends are, and she asks Louisiana to lie to the hotel owner where they are staying, drive her to a dentist for her bad teeth (even though Louisiana has never driven a car before), and find food on her own, it goes from hard to seemingly impossible. Somehow, Louisiana manages to find hope in surprising places, in a bag of peanuts a gas station owner gives her,  in a kindly pastor, and in a boy her age who has a pet crow.  When Granny disappears one day, leaving behind a letter revealing that much of what Louisiana has been told about her past was not true, Louisiana will have to rely on hope more than ever before.

Why should I read this book?  DiCamillo is an amazing storyteller, easily avoiding pitfalls that could sink a story like this.  The Granny does some hurtful things, but the reader comes to understand why, so she is not a one-dimensional villain. At no point does the reader hear the emotional music rise or sense that the story is about to become obviously emotionally manipulative like a Hallmark show.  The story has enough twists and turns to stay unpredictable without being unbelievable. 

            But one of the best reason to read this book is the way DiCamillo uses sentences.  In the midst of a narrative, she gives you words that hook together in ways to make you laugh, reflect, or consider.  Check out these examples:

            “It seemed like a very sad thing to be jealous of a fake cow on the side of a truck.”

            “Lots of things, in fact, should be different than they are.”

            “He was the kind of person who, if you asked for one of something, gave you two instead.”

            “Maybe crows are right about the world.  Maybe everything is funny.”

            “I liked that answer very much.  I think that cake is a very good word in general and that people should use it as an answer to questions more often.”

            And there are many more.  This is a delightful book.  You need to read it.

Who is this book best for?  With themes of finding hope in surprising places and struggling to find forgiveness in oneself being a greater gift to the forgiver than the forgiven, this book would be an amazing read aloud book for fourth through sixth grade at least.  It would work well for in-class study through middle school.  It belongs in classroom libraries and school libraries alike.

Is it likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.  Because it depicts a kid who has to fend for herself, though, I suppose it is possible that some adult readers might object that a book for children should not show them that the world is uncertain or difficult.  I can never figure out if such readers don’t know what kids are like or don’t know what childhood is like or don’t know what books are like – but there you go.

Bradley. Kimberly Brubaker (2017) The War I Finally Won.  New York: Dial

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: 9780147516817 ...

Opening lines:  You can know things all you like, but that doesn’t mean you believe them.

Short Summary:  This is the sequel to The War that Saved my Life.  The story is exciting and follows Ada, the 11 year old protagonist from the first book.  Her club foot has been fixed by surgery; she and her brother are living with Susan, their guardian; their Mam is no longer a threat; and so things should be much better.  But Lady Thornton gives up her manor for the war effort and moves in to the cottage that Ada thinks of as her home.  And a German refugee girl moves in with them.  And through it all, it is clear that Ada still hasn’t learned to trust that her new family loves her, that the war won’t kill them all, and that hope could lead to happiness.

Why should I read this book?  Often the problem with sequels is that the story has already been told.  The sequel is then either a reboot of the first story, played out with higher stakes but essentially the same plot, and with a character who has already changed. This book follows Ada, who had just begun to change at the end of the last book.  And while the plot is still interesting, what is fascinating is reading the tale of how hard the journey still is, even after the central conflict of the first book has been solved.  If you have ever read to the end of a book and read hope in the ending but wondered how (or if) that hope could ever come to fruition, this book is the one for you.

Who is this book best for?  Strong fourth grade readers might like this, but it is probably best for fifth graders and up who like realistic fiction. It would be a great book for a classroom or school library.  There is enough here for it to be an option in literature circles too.  It would be great for a read-aloud except, at about 380 pages, it would take more than a semester to get through.  If a class read The War that Saved My Life the year before though, it might be a good choice.

Is it likely to be challenged?  I wouldn’t think so. The first book mentioned very obliquely the same-sex relationship between Susan and her friend who died before the first book.   This book mentions it even less. Very sharp readers might catch it, but it will fly over the heads of most readers.

Schlitz, Laura Amy (2015) The Hired Girl. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.  

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Opening Lines:  Today Miss Chandler gave me this beautiful book.  I vow that I will never forget her kindness to me, and I will use this book as she told me to – I will write in it with truth and refinement.

“I’m so sorry you won’t be coming back to school,” Miss Chandler said to me ,and at those words, the floodgates opened and I wept most bitterly. I’ve been crying off and on ever since Father told me that from now on I have to stay at home and won’t get any more education.

Short Summary:  After her father mistreats her, Joan decides to run away from the farm in Pensnsylvania where all she does is clean up after her unappreciative father and brother and wishes her mother wre still alive to stand up for her.  Joan journeys to Baltimore where she gets a job as a maid and kitchen helper for a Jewish family.  Filled with enthusiasm and romantic notions form the books she reads over and over, she becomes adept at getting out of the ridiculous and awkward situations she gets herself into.

Why should I read this book?  It is funny, relatable, and informative.  Joan is a likable heroine, but one that you have to cringe at when she makes one mistake after another, all of them good intentioned, but all of them resulting from her misunderstandings about the family dynamics of her workplace and from her lack of knowledge about Jewish beliefs and customs.  This book is a great way for students unfamiliar with Jewish culture to learn about it, yet at no point does the book feel like it is trying to teach you something.  The awkward and difficult moments Joan goes through are balance with moments of generosity, kindness, and understanding.

Who is this book best for?   While some older and wiser middle school readers might enjoy it, this book might be best for high school students who like historical stories (the book is set in 1911) with conflict and relationship-based conflict.  This book would work well for a classroom or school library.  It could also be a candidate for literature circles.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.

Anderson, John David (2017) Posted.  New York: HarperCollins.

Posted by John David Anderson, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

Opening Lines:  I push my way through the buzzing mob and freeze.  Heart-struck, dizzy.  It takes me a minute to really get what I am looking at.

Short Summary:  Wolf, Frost, and DeeDee cheer for their friend Bench, who is on the football team but never gets put in. School isn’t fun, but at least it is predictable.  Until three things change.  First, a girl named Rose comes to school and starts sitting at their table.  Then Bench actually gets in a game and when he makes a touchdown and that touchdown means that the team has their only win for the year, Bench is suddenly one of the popular kids and his friends are left wondering why he won’t sit at their lunch table any more.  Finally, the administration at their middle school decides to ban phones and soon people are using post-it notes to send messages to each other.  When the tone of the notes turns nasty, someone tags Wolf’s locker with a horrible message, he stops coming to school and Rose finds herself challenging the kid who probably put that note there to run the gauntlet – ride a bike down a hill that is more of a cliff, with trees all the way down. How each part of the story plays out reveals a lot about friendships, betrayals, acceptance, and finding your own tribe.

Why should I read this book?  First of all, because it is a nerd story – and a good one.  Some nerd stories are about nerds who play the game, get popular, and join the cool kids.  Those stories always seems to me to be missing the point.  Some nerd stories are about how the nerds get revenge on their oppressors.  These stories also seem to be missing the point.  This story is more about finding people who, like you, are different, and then learning to be friends with them even though you are not exactly the same.  This is a message the world could use right now.  A quote from the book nicely illustrates this idea: 

            “My theory has to do with the people who don’t find people just like them,  These people – they find each other.  Then they realize that not finding people like them is the thing they have in common.  That is what happened to me, I think.  I found the people who weren’t quite like other people and we used that difference like glue.”

            This is an excellent book.  Read it.

Who is this book best for?  Fifth graders and older, especially those who have ever been on the outside of the popular group would love this book.  Kids that are a part of the popular group should read it, though.  Anyone who likes realistic fictions will enjoy this one. It would be a great read-aloud, great for literature circles or even to you as a whole class text in middle school.  This would also be a great book for your classroom and school library.

Is it likely to be challenged?  Central to the story is the fact that Wolf is gay and is verballu attacked as a result. While this is very important to the book, it is not dealt on nor focused on much.  It is possible that it might be challenged on this basis, but I don’t consider it likely.

The Twilight Zone Graphic Novel!

Kneece, Mark; Ellis, Rich; Serling, Rod (2009) Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone: Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? New York: Walker and Company.

Amazon.com: The Twilight Zone: Will the Real Martian Please Stand ...

When two state troopers find evidence of a UFO crash landing in a pond and footprints leading to a diner, they go in to investigate. A snowstorm traps everyone in the diner and soon the busload of people eating in the diner begin to suspect each other of being the alien and suspicion reigns supreme. The diner owner, a skeptical old man, and a Boston Lawyer who seems wound up a little too tight become the central players. Of course, like any twilight zone story, there are lost of twists and turns before we get to the end.

Today’s students are largely unfamiliar with Rod Serling’s truly inventive television show, and this graphic novel gives them a chance to experience it. The art is somewhat pedestrian, but does a great job of telling the story. This book would grab the attention of readers who like to read new and interesting things. Probably we are talking fifth grade and up.

This is actually one of a series, and though I have not read the other books in the series, this one seems to be pretty representative.

There is nothing objectionable in the book, unless you are offended by the aliens. This book was a lot of fun.

Biographical picture books, graphic novels and regular books about a bridge builder, an arctic explorer, a code breaker, a reformer, and a crusader

Dougherty, Rachel (2019) Secret Engineer:  How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge.  New York:  Roaring Brook.

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge ...

Opening Line:  Emily Warren was a bright, shiny spark who loved to learn.

Short Summary:  John Roebling was the engineer who conceived and began construction on the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington Roebling was also an engineer, John’s son, who took over construction when his father died.    And Emily Roebling was Washington’s brilliant wife who, when her husband took sick with “caisson sickness” and was confined to his bed, losing his eyesight, Emily took over.  At first she delivered notes from Washington to the managers and workers and brought their reports back to her husband.  As his eyesight failed and she assumed more responsibility, she read and studied his engineering books until she was able to understand the questions the managers asked and answer them without consulting Washington. She also met with representatives of steel companies and clarified for them what tensile strength the bridge cables would need to be.  When the brige was finished, Emily rode in a carriage across it, carrying a rooster in her lap, symbolizing victory.

Why should I read this book?  Besides being an interesting picture book that spotlights a woman who history has largely overlooked, the book also describes in great detail the process of building the Brooklyn Bridge, some of the struggles the Roeblings had with public fears about the bridge, and includes a description of the Roebling’s lives after the bridge.

Who is this book best for?  Some students will like the biographical aspect of it.  Some students will enjoy learning about how bridges are built.  Some students will appreciate the history of the book.  Some will lie the well-illustrated pictures.  This book is probably best for reading aloud to early first graders and best for first and second grade libraries.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  No.





Leigh, Susan K.; Hill, Dave (2011) Luther: The Graphic Novel: Echoes of the Hammer.  St. Louis: Concordia.

Opening Lines:  Eisleben, Germany – 1483.  “Another son, Margaret!  Praise God for your health and his!”

Short Summary:  This graphic novel/picture book hybrid biography follows theologian, monk, and reformer Martin Luther from his childhood in a small town in Germany, through his seminary years, through his rebellion against he catholic church, and through his trial.  This is the story of a man who believed deeply in hat he read in the Bible, which cased him to take a position against the Catholic church that he knew would leave him excommunicated and branded as a heretic.

Why should I read this book?

The story of Martin Luther is amazing and is the sort of story that might serve as inspiration for our current society.  Luther protested what he thought was wrong, but did so in a respectful but firm manner.  I did struggle a bit with the way the book moved back and forth from a graphic novels format to a picture book format.  It made it much harder to get lost in the story.  I also wished the lettering in the speech bubbles were hand-lettered.  Doing so gives much clearer emphasis and voice.  Of course, it also takes longer and costs more.  It is a telltale of a graphic novel’s excellence for me, though.  So while the format is not perfect, the story is a good one.

Who would this book be best for?:  In terms of reading level, this would work for fifth grade and up.  I would think that the content would be of more interest to those who have a religious connection to it.  Serious history students might also be interested.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  Because there is discussion ab out God and the church, it is possible that some people might object to religious discussion in public schools.  I would argue, however, that the book is more quoting and explaining the religious beliefs that motivated people in a particular historical time.  There is certainly no attempt to convert or proselytize in this book.






Ottaviani, Jim; Purvis, Leland (2016) The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded  New York:  Abrams.

Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded: Ottaviani, Jim, Purvis ...

Opening Lines:  A game is played with three people.  A man.. a woman… and an interrogator in a room apart from the other two.

Short Summary:  This graphic novel biography of mathematician Alan Turing takes us through his early life at Hazelcrest Preparatory School, his college life, his work on the project to crack the German enigma code during World War Two, and his life afterward including his conviction for engaging in same-sex relationships and his harsh punishment late in his life.  At the same time, the book weaves in his love of running, or chess and other games, and his personal relationships including his marriage to Joan Clarke.

Why should I read this book?  Turing’s life is fascinating on a variety of levels.  His approach to mathematics that incorporated the joy he took in solving puzzles and making games, his tragic inability to connect with more than a few people in his life, the intensity of trying to break the enigma code each day, knowing at midnight the Nazis would reset their code and the British codebreakers would have to start over again, and Turing’s amazing early work in the theories of artificial intelligence.  There is also a lot in this book about the mockery, insinuations, and oppression that was heaped upon people who felt same-sex attraction in that time.  Purvis’s illustrations and Ottaviani’s brilliant writing feel almost more like a well-crafted stage play than a history book.  It is a fascinating book.

Who would this book be best for?  High school students would appreciate it the most.  It nicely bridges mathematics, engineering, history, and English.  It would fit well in a high school library or a classroom library.  Because it is not wholly literature, nor wholly mathematics, nor wholly history, I do not imagine it will work well as a classroom text for any of those, but it would be a great book to have available for supplemental reading.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  It would depend on the school and community context, but because it speaks clearly and openly about Turing’s homosexual relationships, it is not unlikely that it might be challenged.





Lourie, Peter (2019) Locked in Ice: Nansen’s Daring Quest for the North Pole. New York: Henry Holt.

Locked in Ice: Nansen's Daring Quest for the North Pole: Lourie ...

Opening lines:  Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian scientist and explorer, had a wild idea.  On June 24, 1893 he set sail to explore the arctic and become the first to reach the North Pole.  Others who attempted the same journey met with disaster, often fatal.

Short Summary:  This biography describes how Fridtjof Nansen attempted to reach the north pole by means of a sailing ship designed to get frozen into the ice cap, then rotate with the floating ice into a position within reach of the pole.  And it worked – at least at first.  Their ship, the Fram, rode the pack ice closer and closer to the pole.  Then, when navigational readings showed she was drifting away form the pole, Nansen made the decision to take a group of men with dogsleds and try to make it to the pole.  That group would not see their ship again until they were safely back in Europe.  But how they got there is the story that this book tells.

Why should I read this book?  What is perhaps most fascinating about this story is the way that Nansen and his party seem to always be only a narrow margin away from perishing.  This book will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way through.  Though it is an exciting story, there is no embellishment of the truth here.  None is needed.  Quite the contrary, Lourie takes pains to stick to the facts and the addition of many black and white photographs will help young readers bring this story to life in their minds.

Who is this book best for?  This book would perhaps be best for a middle school or high school class library or school library.  I could also imagine it being part of an informational text unit.  Middle school and high school students who enjoy non-fiction adventure stories will like this one.

Is it likely to be challenged?  No.






Bolden, Tonya (2017)  Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, A Monumental American Man.  New York: Abrams

Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, a Monumental ...

Opening lines:  Frederick faced a dilemma in mid-a846.  He could sit tight and not rock the boat, or he could captain his own ship.

Short Summary:  Frederick Douglass began life as a slave, gained his freedom, became a powerful voice for the abolition of slavery, a much-sought-after orator, the editor and chief writer of an influential newspaper, a strong voice for women’s rights, a political adviser, and an accomplished artist using the new technology of photography.  Bolden describes Douglass’s rise to prominence, his brilliance, talent, but also his mistakes and struggles.

Why should I read this book?  Writing biographies for middle school and high school readers must be a difficult task.  You have such a range of reading levels and interests, and adolescents don’t want to be talked down to, but neither do they want to read something pitched above their ability or written with pretensions.  Bolden does a fantastic job of working within the tension of these elements.  What she has produced is a readable, fascinating, and enlightening account.  She brings Douglass’s story to life, but along the way the reader leans a great deal of new and interesting facts, not only about Douglass, but also about the world he lived in.

Who is this book best for?   Stong middle school readers and younger high school students are probably the ideal target, but really anyone for fifth or sixth grade and upwould enjoy it.  This is worthy of study in the classroom, perhaps alongside Douglass’s autobiography.  It would also be great for a classroom library or a school library as well.

Is it likely to be challenged?  Not on any reasonable basis.






Elliott, David (2019) Voices:  The Final Hours of Joan of Arc.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Amazon.com: Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc (9781328987594 ...

Opening Lines:  The Candle:  I recall it as if it were yesterday.  She was so lovely and young. In her hand I darted and flickered away, an ardent lover’s adventuring tongue.

Short Summary:  Drawing on letters, court documents, and memoirs, Elliott has created a book that alternates between quotes from these sources and poems from the point of view of not only important historical figures, but also inanimate objects like the candle quoted above, Joan of Arc’s sword, her dress, the alter and so on.  They weave together to make a coherent narrative about Joan’s childhood and how she came to lead an army, be accused of heresy,a nd be burned at the stake.

Why should I read this book?  The story is one that has interested generations of readers for hundreds of years.  The format makes that story and the historical personages involved in to come alive, not only in terms of their actions and words, but also their emotions, passions and frustrations.  It is a well written book. Even the form of the poetry reflects Elliott’s thoughtful characterizations.    Joan’s verses are sort of poetry slammish or hop-hoppy.  Some character’s poems do not rhyme.  Object poems are shaped like the object narrating.  Joan’s father and uncle and Bishop Pierre Cauchon’s narration comes in the form of triolets, which reflects the way their thoughts keep going around and around.

While normally I would find the conceit of writing from the piint of view of inanimate objects to be something a third grader might do for a creative writing assignment, in this case, Elliott makes the voices of the objects stand ins for the voices that Joan historically said guided her.  Of course, Joan said those voices were from God and some contemporary historians believe they were evidence of schizophrenia, but Elliot’s approach seems to leave room for either possibility.

Who is this book best for?   I think high school students would get the most out of it.  It would be a good addition to a school or class library.  I could also imagine it being a useful book to study in connections with a poetry reading or writing unit.

Is it likely to be challenged?  Because Joan is burned at the stake I imagine there could be some objects that the book portrays religion in a bad light.  The story is historical, though.  I would say that a challenge is possible, but not likely.



Graphic Novels about the News Media, the Good and the Bad

Gladstone, Brooke; Neufield, Josh (2011) The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media. New York: W.W. Norton.

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media: Gladstone ...

Brooke Gladstone is host of a popular National Public Radio show called
On The Media. Josh Neufield has recently adapted some of the content if that show into a graphic novel that offers a remarkably nuanced and in-depth look at the media. She tackles such diverse and challenging concepts as the history of journalism in America, the distortion of statistics by the media, objectivity and bias, disclosure, and how the whole media machine works. Unlike the earlier mentioned graphic novel, this one presents information in the form of graphic essays rather than as a heavily expository story narrative. The artwork is excellent and it does a remarkable job of making abstract concepts remarkably concrete

There are a couple of panels that have extremely tiny nude figures, which may be a problem for some classes, so I would encourage you to read it before putting it in your classroom. This one is probably best for high school.





O’ Donnell, Liam (2009) Media Meltdown:  A Graphic Guide Adventure.  Orca Books

There are good graphic novels, and then there are educational graphic novels. To be fair, this is one of the better examples of that breed, but the voice of this book is so filled with awkward exposition and not-so-subtly hidden terms to memorize. Media Meltdown is the story of two kids, Pema and Bounce, who discover a land developer who seems to be up to no good. They learn about the media (and finally use it) to bring the greedy developer down (and promote a factory that makes wind turbines). Although the story is a little hokey, there is nothing wrong with it, but when you have dialogue that reads like the following, you start to wonder when the exposition is serving the story and when the story is serving the exposition:

Megan: To understand why the cuts were made in your story, you need to know about media literacy.
Pema: Media literacy? Literacy is all about reading and writing, isn’t it?
Bounce: We watch TV, we don’t read it.
Megan: True, Bounce, but literacy is also about understanding. And media literacy is about understanding media.
Pema: Understanding how media works and asking questions about its messages.
Bounce: I understand TV: Grab the remote, kick back, and channel surf!
Megan: Media literacy is about more than TV. Newspapers, magazines, websites, billboards, even the slogans on our clothes are all forms of media.”

It is hard to slog through material like this. No one really talks like this. The artwork is good — the faces are expressive, the backgrounds interesting, the use of panels good — but the educational exposition gets tiresome. This stuff is probably targeted to third grade and up, and because it is graphic novel format, it may attract some readers — but I would rather have them read something more worthwhile.


Troubled Girls and Girl Trouble: Books that address the challenges of being an adolescent female.

Kanakia, Rahul (2016) Enter Title Here.  Los Angeles: Hyperion. 

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Opening Lines:  Dear Reshma Kapoor,  I absolutely loved your column in yesterday’s Huffington Post.  Your voice was so brassy and articulate, even though the content had me shedding tears right onto my coffee table.

Short Summary:  Reshma is focusing on getting into a top college.  She is probably going to be the valedictorian, her grades are impeccable, she has risen to positions of leadership in several student organizations, and she is not going to let anything stand in her way.  However when an agent contacts her after she has an article published in an influential internet magazine and asks her if she could write a novel for publication, Reshma decides that her life isn’t interesting enough to write about, so she needs to make some changes.  She needs to get a boyfriend, and find out what that is all about. She needs to get a best friend and explore that experience, and, as the pressure mounts, she makes several risky decisions which could make all the difference, or could ruin all of her perfectly laid plans.

Why should I read this book?  I think this book could connect with a certain type of student, but honestly, I had a hard time reading it (though perhaps the things I didn’t like about it would be the very reasons some of your students might like it.).  Reshma is cynical, manipulative, conceited, proud, and I found little about her to sympathize with.  She uses people to get what she wants.  Her goals are more admirable than those in the Gossip Girl series (which this book reminded me of) but her methods are not that different.  Student who like to read fiction that shows how messed up the world and people can be might like this one, and there is a sort of fascination in watching her make bad choices and seeing her dreams collapse on her, but it is not the kind of enjoyment you can feel good about.  The writing is smart and clever, but it does have the feeling of being written by someone who tired writing for the literary fiction market then decided the big bucks were in YA literature.  I was never clear why Reshma felt like she had to live out the novel she was writing, and that important aspect was never really explained or established. Now I am being cynical.  Truth is, this book kind of does that to me.

Who is this book best for?:  Cynical readers; high school students who are tired of books with happy endings; and anyone who has read one too many romance novels or novels where two people with terminal diseases meet, fall in love, then miraculously recover.  In short, if you need a dose of the real world, this book might be for you.

Is it likely to be challenged?:  If a parent read this, I could certainly imagine a challenge.  Reshma abuses illegally obtained pharmaceuticals, drinks to excess, uses vulgar language, has sex, and generally treats everyone else pretty badly.  I would argue that this novel could be a great way to open up discussions about decision making.



Weingarten, Lynn (2017) Bad Girls with Perfect Faces. New York: Simon Pulse. 

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Opening lines:  We were holding hands, palm against palm.  I could feel his heart beating, his blood against my blood.

Short Summary:  Ivy comes back to Xavier.  Sasha begins a texting relationship with Ivy as a joke, but ends up getting into her head, then confronts her with it and threatens to show Xavier.  Ivy dies, apparently choked to death, with remnents of Xavier’s hair under her fingers.  Sasha and Xavier (though he is pretty out of it, drives Ivy’s body to the everglades and dumps it.  Xavier realizes he loves Sasha.  Sasha is racked by guilt. Turns out that Gwen, Ivy’s real best friend, was the killer.  Gwen had  been pretending to be Ivy while Sasha was pretending to be Jake.  They are about to take responsibility, then Xavier cooks up a way to hide it.  They disguise the act with texts.  When the body is found, they are not connected with it.  Sasha and Xavier return.  Sasha dates Stephen as a blind.  Someday soon, Sasha and Xavier promise each other, they will run off together. (And that is a very short summary that leaves a lot out).

Why should I read this book?:  I don’t know.  This is a book about people who get away with murder and though they feel guilty about it, one point the book seems to be making is that true love wins over all obstacles – even murder.  It is true that we live in a postmodern and pluralist society, but I don’t think either of those stances would argue that murder is not wrong, or that it should be excused.

Who is this book best for?:  I could imagine using this book in contrast with Hamlet or Crime and Punishment.  All three books feature a murder and illustrate the depth of guilt that one feels after ending a life.  But while Hamlet is driven to revenge murder, which he finds is both empty and fruitless, and while Raskolnikov runs from his guilt but finally admits it and then finds a sort of forgiveness and redemption, Sasha and Xavier cover it up, run from it, and dream of a time when they can forget about it.   It could also go in a high school classroom library, I suppose.

Is it likely to be challenged?:  Yes, though probably not for the deplorable moral position it represents.  Instead, it will be challenged because of excessive vulgar language.



Jackson, Tiffany D.  (2017) Allegedly.  New York: HarperCollins.

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Opening Lines:  “Excerpt from Babies Killing Babies: Profiles of PreTeen and Teen Murderers by Jane E. Woods.   Some children are just born bad, plain and simple.  These are the children that don’t live up to the statistics.  One cannot blame tier surroundings or upbringings for their behavior.  Its not a scientifically proven inheritable trait.  These children are sociological phenomena.”

Short Summary:  Mary lives in a group home for convicted juveniles.  It is as harsh, violent, and unhappy environment as you can imagine. But when Mary falls in  love with Ted, who she works with during work-release at a nursing home; wen she finds herself pregnant, and when she starts working with a case-worker who actually cares, Mary begins to remember why she is in jail.  She didn’t really kill the white girl her mom was supposed to be taking care of – it was her mom’s fault, and her mom talked Mary into taking the blame.  To fight for truth, against her mother and for her Baby, will be one of the most difficult and frightening things Mary has ever done.

Why should I read this book?:  Mary is a sympathetic character, and the story is gripping.  It is also a revealing portrait of life in the correctional system.  Mary has come to accept her fate and has little hope that it will ever change.  It is only through the work of case-workers and caring lawyers that Mary begins to believe she has a way out. Don’t read it for the ending.  It si not terribly satisfying.

Who is this book best for?:  High school students who like realistic fiction would likely enjoy this book.  Unlike some of the other books reviewed above, this one seems to grapple more with the consequences of lies, manipulation, and neglect – and also shows that sometimes truth (and the justice system) can set things right.

Is it likely to be challenged?  It is certainly possible.  There are a lot of particularly vulgar words in here.  That is too bad because it may mean that some students won’t get to read this book who might have taken some good things from it.



Oelke, Lianne (2018) Nice Try, Jane Sinner. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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Opening Lines:  I’m not a particularly good daughter, but I sat through a month of therapy for my parent’s sake.  I’d like to think they got more out of it than I did.  Couldn’t have been too hard.  Any system that requires the patient’s family to pay someone else to care about her is fundamentally flawed.  But I digress.  If my decision to stop attending therapy means James Fowler High School no longer welcomes me as a student, I guess that’s on me.

Short Summary:  Jane was expelled from her high school but has gotten permission to enroll in community college. She has few prospects and doesn’t think that will change until she hears about a reality show being shot by one of her fellow students.  The show, called House of Orange, will requires students to live together in a house and compete in challenges to win a sizable cash prize. Jane wants to win but will have to contend with false alliances, betrayal, bad friendships, and still try to maintain her grades at the same time.

Why should I read this book?   The writing is clever, the plot is interesting, and while Jane is not the most sympathetic character ever, she is not wholly unlikable.  There are some extremely satisfying parts.  Jane’s parents are religious, and this is a book that is not afraid to ask some difficult questions about God, faith, and what that all means.  No real answers here, but some good questions.

Who is this book good for?   This book is best for high school students who like realistic fiction.  This could be used in a communications course that deals with how people change for an audience, and the effect of reality shows on contestants and communities as well as viewers. Good for a classroom library too.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  Yes.  This book is inventive in its use of vulgarities, which may prove difficult for some parents and/or students.


21 March 2020

Elter, Cyndy (2017) The Dead Inside. Naperville: Sourcebooks.

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Opening Lines:  You’re not going to believe this.  Seriously, nobody does.  But this stuff happened, right here in America.  In the warehouse down the street.

Short Summary:  Cyndy’s parents wer worried about her (even though she was engaging only in mild forms of rebellion typical for teenagers.  They talked with a representative of Straight Inc, a company that warned parents of the inevitability of drug addiction and all the horrors that followed it.  They convinced Cyndy’s parents to enroll her in the program.  There began a sixteen month journey of strange and intimidating methods that brainwashed Cyndy into admitting to behaviors she hadn’t engaged in, took away her sense of self, truth, and replaced her normal emotions with those intended to keep her dependent and compliant with Straight Inc.’s version of reality.  Reading this book takes the reader into a place that seems impossible, but it not only existed, it still dos in some form.

Why should I read this book?  This is a horrifying story, but one that is deeply compelling.  Cyndy’s parents think she is being well-cared for, but the owners of this operation are using the teenagers against each other, using derision and emotional abuse to break each kid in the program, to alienate them and leave them surrounded by others, yet utterly alone.  The writing is utterly enthralling and will leave the reader full of outrage and a sense of injustice.

Who should read this book?  High school students will find the story compelling.  This could be part of a non-fiction unit, a memoir unit, or any teaching that explores adolescence.  It wold make a good book for a classroom library too.  One of the themes that comes through clearly is that the teenagers in the program want love, but are made to feel unlovable.  Other theme is the way that, in the end, school helped save Cyndy’s life.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  It is possible.  The book has some vulgar language, though not any more than most other YA books on the market currently.



Downham, Jenny (2020) Furious Thing.  New York:  Scholastic.

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Opening Lines:  Once.  There was a girl who grew up wicked.  She threw things and slammed things and swore.  She was clumsy and rude and had no friends.  Her teachers thought her half-witted.  Her family despaired.

Short Summary:  Lexi has burst of uncontrollable anger – screaming, throwing, and slamming things.  One of her outbursts ruins her mother’s boyfriend John’s birthday party.  Lexi tries to stay calm, push the anger down, but it just boils back even stronger than before.  Her mother is getting married to John in a few weeks and wants Lexi to get her anger under control before then.  John wants her to see a doctor and get a prescription,but Lexi fears that will take away her personality.  The boy she loves, Kass (who is also John’s son from his first marriage), is away at college and Lexi worries he has forgotten her.

As Lexi tries to get her anger under control, she begins to understand its cause.  John dominates her mother, belittles her, emotionally abuses her, then apologizes, sends her flowers, and wins her back.  With the help of the few friends she has left, Lexi begins to realize that her anger will only makes things worse.  If she wants to reclaim her life (and perhaps her mother’s as well, she needs to find her voice.

Why should I read this book?  What is remarkable about this book is the way Downham uses the first person perspective to put readers in the same emotional state as Lexi.  At first, readers share her frustration as she tries to figure out why she keeps sabotaging her life with destructive tantrums.  Then we share in Lexi’s dawning awareness that perhaps she isn’t the problem in her family.  We also share in her finding her voice and taking action to save her family from her stepfather’s manipulative abuse.

Who should read this book?  This would be an excellent addition to a high school classroom library.

Is this book likely to be challenged?  It is possible.  This book contains some vulgar language, though actually, less than many YA novels do lately.



Zeleny, Sylvia (2020) The Everything I Have Lost.  El Paso:  Cinco Puntos Press. 

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Opening Lines:         A cherry-flavored lipstick.

50 pesos.

2 boxes of chicklets: mint and watermelon

A Hello Kitty Wallet

A Keychain that said, I heart Texas that Tia gave me.

My old diary with three blank pages.

Everything.  Everything that I had in my purse.  Everything that was left in the car.  The car that was stolen.

Short Summary:   Her dad works for a drug cartel, and since his job is getting increasingly dangerous, the family decides to flee to the United States.  As we read her diary entries, we see the borderlands through the eyes of a young teenager.  She describes her family, the danger of border crossings, and her deep longing that all those she loves could be together and safe.

Why should I read this book?  I loved the topic and the idea and the diary format.  But honestly I did not find the story to be particularly compelling as a while.  There were some scenes, as when the main character crosses the border with her mom, that were spectacular.  The story as a whole, however, just wasn’t that compelling to me.

Who should read this book?  This could be good for both students who know little about the difficulties of life on the borderlands, and for those who might see themselves in this book.  Not a bad addition to a classroom library.   I think there are better books that would work for classroom study, however.

Is it likely to be challenged?  I don’t think so.  There are some vulgar words in the book, but they are rare.