The Backstagers by James Tynion IV, Rian Singh, and Andy Mientus

Today I’ve got something to recommend for lovers of both prose chapter books AND graphic novels! The Backstagers, by James Tynion IV and Rian Singh, started out as a young adult graphic novel series, but then was adapted into middle grade novels of the same name by Andy Mientus, and both give you an avenue into a tale of high school theater as a gateway into fantastical realms.

Here’s the basics: a boy named Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, St. Genesius, and is pushed by his parents to join a club. First he considers joining drama club, only to discover that it’s much more exciting (and welcoming) being a backstager, the techs behind the scenes that make all the magic happen. Magic in this case is also meant literally: the backstage corridors lead into wild and unpredictable worlds of odd creatures, shifting passageways, and general mayhem. Jory jumps in feet-first and quickly bonds with the Backstagers crew: Hunter, Aziz, Sasha, Beckett, and two kindly senior stage managers. Together, it’s their job to keep the theater safe AND make sure the show goes on. It’s not an easy task, but the power of new friendship and budding romance is more than up to the challenge.

I started with the graphic novels, and I thought the art style was charming and the characters were diverse and full of personality. I’m very excited to read the prose novels and see this world fleshed out in more detail, with new adventures to experience. If you were a theater kid, have a devoted squad of friends, or loved either Stranger Things or Ouran High School Host Club, I recommend you try reading about The Backstagers (one way or another)!

Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

Have you ever unexpectedly read a book in a day? You sit down with it, figuring you’ll just start it, and before you know it, you’re done? That happens to me a lot, especially with fiction and graphic novels, so I wasn’t too surprised when I read Check, Please! Book 1 by Ngozi Ukazu from cover to cover in an afternoon. If you need a quick and lighthearted read, then I can’t recommend this book enough.

Originally published in 2018, this upbeat story follows Eric Bittle, dubbed “Bitty” by his teammates, as he starts school at Samwell University as part of the men’s hockey team. He navigates a much more challenging atmosphere than he’s accustomed to, including hockey that includes violent physical ‘checking’, of which he is deathly afraid. Luckily, his teammates are true friends – utterly supportive, relentlessly funny, and deeply appreciative of Bitty’s skill as a baker. Over the course of his freshman and sophomore years at Samwell, Bitty finds his place on the team and forges a strong bond (and an equally strong crush) on team captain Jack. But what happens when Jack and the others graduate?

I found this book completely adorable, with an endearing art style and lovable characters. The immersion into Canadian hockey culture was fascinating, and I appreciated that Ukazu didn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details, giving just enough information to keep you engaged. I also really liked that the story was told in the form of Bitty’s video blog entries; this was a clever narrative tactic that worked perfectly for the graphic novel medium. However, I wasn’t always satisfied with how the scenes were fleshed out: a lot of backstories and events had to be inferred from context or brief mentions, or understood only after multiple throwaway lines. Especially in the case of romantic storylines, I just wanted more. Luckily, there was a lot of additional material after the story – bonus comics and Bitty’s Twitter feed – which helped add some details and context.

If you’re a graphic novel lover, reluctant reader, hockey fan, or are looking for a fluffy read about friendship, falling in love, and LOTS of baking, this book may be for you.

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

I recently came across this 2019 middle grade fiction book, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It covers heavy subjects (content warning: including miscarriage) and doesn’t shy away from hard feelings and uncomfortable situations, but it does these things with incredible gentleness, authenticity, and hope. If you’re looking for a warm and wholesome read about family, friendship, and personal growth, you may like Hazel’s Theory of Evolution.

The main character of this book is Hazel, a thirteen-year-old going into 8th grade at a new school, thanks to local redistricting. She refuses to be open or optimistic about this development, determined to keep her head down and “hibernate” her way through one last year before being reunited with her best friend in high school. Unfortunately for her, her best friend grows increasingly distant and mysterious, befriending Hazel’s longtime bully and trying out for cheerleading (which Hazel has always deplored as a ridiculous and sexist activity). Meanwhile, in her new school, a green-mohawked classmate starts pushing his way into her self-isolation, and she makes an unexpected connection with Carina, a fellow transfer looking for a fresh start. At the same time as her social life grows increasingly confusing, her moms announce that one of them, Mimi, is pregnant again…after suffering two miscarriages. Unable to face the agony of hope and loss again, Hazel tries to live in denial: the baby isn’t real until its born safe and healthy. But painful or not, some things can’t be denied or ignored, and Hazel will have to find her way through her new realities.

There are many good things about this book, as mentioned above, including positive representation of multiple identities (ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual identities), and positive parenting: Hazel’s moms do a good job talking to her about her feelings as well as their own, while giving her space to process what she’s going through. I also appreciated reading a modern and well-formed school Health class, complete with discussions of family relationships and positive and comprehensive sex ed. The book is also peppered with Hazel’s articles for the Encyclopedia of Misunderstood Creatures she’s writing, which make delightful educational asides. I recommend this book for a wide range of ages (though be prepared to cry); Hazel has something to resonate with anyone who’s struggled with change and feeling misunderstood or alone in the world.

The Love Study by Kris Ripper

I’ve got two ways out of a reading slump: sweet, fluffy romances and children’s chapter books. Since I got into a bit of a slump as winter turned to spring, I went for a fluffy romance – that I liked – The Love Study by Kris Ripper. This book is a win for portraying happy endings, casual positive representation, and the power of friendship!

The main character and narrator is Declan, a temp with a great group of friends and major commitment issues. His friends love to introduce him by saying he left his last boyfriend at the altar, which he did. Since then, he’s sworn off romance, but now he’s starting to wonder if it’s time to try again. Enter Sidney, the group’s newest friend, who’s looking for someone to come on their YouTube show for a series called The Love Study. Declan agrees to go on a series of blind dates arranged by Sidney, and then to discuss them on the YouTube show, both to explore his relationship issues and to give dating advice to the viewers. The dates go okay, though he doesn’t really connect with any of them. That’s probably because the only person he is connecting with is Sidney — but since Sidney also doesn’t date, can they overcome their respective relationship fears and make something work for them?

I really loved how self-aware Declan is; he never tries to be macho or hide his feelings. He cares a lot, and he expresses that care in long, endearing rambles. He never stops apologizing to his former boyfriend, now good friend, Mason, who he left at the altar, but instead acknowledges how horrible it was for him to do that to someone he cared about and never fails to drop in a sincere “So sorry for that, again” every time it comes up. He’s always aware of his own faults and tries to make other people comfortable and put their feelings first. Frankly, I’ve never read a romantic hero like him before and I found it so refreshing. I also loved Sidney because they were such a distinct character with their own personality, their own fashion sense, and their own approach to things. They’re more reserved and thoughtful, but don’t hesitate to voice their honest and transparent opinion when asked. Two romantic characters that can and do communicate with each other? Shocking (and delightful)! Of course, their communication isn’t perfect, and Declan has some mental health issues to work through — or there wouldn’t be a story — but as these kind of issues, resolutions and happily-ever-afters go, I think this book did a good job of presenting a unique and realistic scenario.

The whole book was beautifully wholesome and transparent; I’ve never read a less problematic romance (or book in general) for adults. Sidney’s gender and pronouns are treated casually and with complete acceptance; no inappropriate or invasive questions were asked. Declan’s group of friends is loving and supportive, even though they don’t hesitate to roast Declan mercilessly; the group also includes a range of personalities, ethnicities, and gender identities which again receive full and unquestioned support.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone for a gentle read, a utopian view of the world, and a sweet romance.

Friendshipping by Trin Garritano and Jenn Bane

Most people can agree that making friends as an adult is HARD. Finding time to meet up with people, not to mention knowing what to say when you do, often means a lot of loneliness and ghosting when it comes to adult friendships. If you’re like me, you’ll be thrilled to know that you can stop googling “how to make and keep friends” and just read this great new book: Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends. Written by Trin Garritano and Jenn Bane, the team behind the feel-good podcast of the same name, this is a practical guide to the confusing world of 21st century friendship.

My favorite thing about this book is its clear division into three sections (named in the full title): Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends. Each section features real-life tips and tricks for being the best friend you can be, along with specific questions submitted by their listeners. Full of empathy, their tips and tricks acknowledge that everyone is a little different, which means the tips will need to be customized, AND that making friends is a process, which requires patience. One of the keys to success, according to the authors, is to be kind to yourself through a practice called “metathinking”: listening to your thoughts and questioning whether or not they’re actually true. For example, if you find yourself thinking “I’m so annoying” or “This is going to go badly”, you’d challenge that thought and think carefully about where it’s coming from and what’s more likely to be an accurate statement.

One of the other unexpected gems in this book is the authors’ acknowledgment that sometimes we ARE the problem and need to make realistic changes. They provide tools for the reader to examine their behavior and habits to see if anything toxic or unhelpful is going on, and if the reader does come to the conclusion that their behavior is harming their friendships, the authors encourage them to seek therapy and other assistance. Warmth, inclusion, kindness, and yes, recommending therapy, are big themes in this book.

If you’re struggling with loneliness, want to do better at keeping up with people, are looking to make new friends, or feel like social awkwardness is really getting in your way, you might enjoy reading Friendshipping by Trin and Jenn. And if you love podcasts, check out all their new and archived episodes of the Friendshipping podcast on their website.

Online Reading Challenge – April

Hello Challenge Readers!

New month, new author for our Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re reading books by and similar to Jojo Moyes.

Jojo Moyes writes about women, friendship and community. Many of her novels are classified as romance, but her newer titles are catalogued as fiction. Her break-out novel was Me Before You, followed by After You and Still Me. In addition she’s written favorites such as The Girl You Left Behind and The Giver of Stars.

If you’ve read everything by Moyes, or would like to try similar authors, take a look at these titles:

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Landline by Ranbow Rowell

One Day by David Nicholls

The Summer I Found You by Jolene Perry

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

You Me Everything by Catherine Issac

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Welcome to Pine Away Motel and Cabins by Katarina Bivald

The Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan Wiggs

Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Lots of great choices, right? I’m planning to read The Giver of Stars which picked up a lot of interest when Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club. It’s also garnered some controversy and mixed reviews since it was released a few months after another book on the same topic, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Richardson was published (which I have read and it is excellent) The topic is fascinating – the horseback librarians of rural Appalachia during the Great Depression – and I’m looking forward to seeing how this compares to Book Woman.

What about you – what will you be reading this month?

 

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Young adult fiction hardly ever fails me. When I need a pick-me up read, I can generally find one in the young adult section with little effort. My latest read came recommended by another librarian, so I knew I would most likely enjoy it and it didn’t disappoint!

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson is so many things: a romance, an underdog story, friends becoming lovers, but most of all it is full of yearning. Liz Lighty has grown up believing that she is never enough. She’s awkward, poor, black, and doesn’t fit in with the rich and prom-obsessed kids who go to her high school. Liz isn’t what people expect her to be in her tiny midwestern town of Campbell, Indiana, but she has always known that she has an escape. Liz plans on getting out of this super small town to attend Pennington College to play in their orchestra. Eventually she wants to become a doctor in order to treat patients who have the same life-threatening condition that killed her mom and is ravaging her younger brother.

Liz’s senior year is sailing by and the world finally seems to be on her side. All of that comes crashing down when Liz learns that the financial aid and scholarship she was depending on in order to go to college falls through. She is $10,000 short and has no idea how she will get the money to cover the cost and let her keep her Pennington hopes alive. Knowing that her grandparents would sell their house to support her, Liz is desperate to find a solution on her own.

The solution she finds? She must win prom queen. Why? Her school awards a scholarship to the prom king and queen. The very last thing that Liz wants to do is campaign to be prom queen, but with no other options, she reluctantly turns to her friends to help her win. Her high school’s competition for prom court is elaborate: full of mandatory public events, social media popularity, and fellow contestants willing to do whatever it takes to sabotage Liz so they will win. With her friends by her side, Liz struggles to get over her fear of being the center of attention in order to get herself to Pennington.

At the first prom meeting, Liz meets a new student who rocks her whole world. Mack does not fit into the cookie cutter mold that Campbell tries to put their students in: she’s hilarious, smart, and different enough to repeatedly catch Liz’s eye. The only downfall to Liz is that she is also running for queen. The closer the two get, the more Mack wonders if their relationship will keep her from getting to Pennington. What is she willing to risk?

This book is also available in the following formats:

Montague Siblings Series by Mackenzi Lee

The Montague Siblings series by Mackenzi Lee is an adventurous romp that has surpassed my every expectation, and I’m thrilled that the third volume is supposed to come out in April.

The first book is The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and tells the story of Henry “Monty” Montague, a nobleman’s son embarking on his “grand tour” of Europe before he settles down to work on the family estate. Monty would rather party and have fun than do the serious, cultured work of a nobleman, so he’s excited to get one last hurrah with his beloved best friend Percy (and, to a lesser degree, his younger sister) before the drudgery begins. Unfortunately for Monty, his impulsive, fun-loving nature quickly gets him into trouble, and his respectable “grand tour” turns into a disaster-filled chase across the continent, featuring pirates, vengeful nobles, alchemy, danger, kidnapping, and lots of romantic misunderstandings.

The sequel is The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, featuring Monty’s younger sister Felicity. A powerhouse of intelligence, backbone, and independence, Felicity wants two things:  to be a doctor, and avoid getting married. Regrettably, university administrators unanimously believe only men can be the guardians of science and medicine. Her last chance is to meet with a renowned doctor in Germany and convince him to change her fate, but finances are a problem… until a mysterious woman offers to foot the bill, in exchange for traveling as her maid. With no other options, Felicity agrees, launching her on yet another perilous quest across the European continent in pursuit of life-altering secrets.

The final installment is The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks, set some years later and featuring Monty and Felicity’s much younger brother, Aiden. As sole heir, Aiden is set to take over the Montague estate, but with a diagnosis of hysteria and an embarrassing breakdown on the public record, he’s not viewed as terribly fit for the job. In desperation, Aiden sets out on a journey to find his long-lost older siblings and convince them to take over the estate in his place. To his frustration, Monty refuses point-blank, agreeing only to help him claim the last of their late mother’s possessions in the Caribbean. But in true Montague fashion, this seemingly simple errand turns into a race across the world to chase down an mysterious artifact with links to a family curse.

I love these books because they’re packed with action and adventure, period details, and modern sensibilities – especially in the portrayal of well-rounded, realistically diverse characters. Not all historical fiction (or fiction published in the period) acknowledges disabilities, racism, sexism, LGBTQ identities, or mental health, but this series acknowledges all those things, and still presents happy or hopeful endings for the affected characters. I recommend this series as a perfect escapist read.

Girls Save the World in This One by Ash Parsons

Full disclosure: I was never a huge zombie fan. I’m usually too squeamish for intense gore, for one thing, and I get caught up in thinking about the person a zombie used to be, which only makes it harder to see the zombie gruesomely killed. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve watched more intense shows and movies like Jurassic Park, Torchwood, and Supernatural, which have helped me sort through both those issues and appreciate the action and heroism, so I’ve gotten… let’s say “lukewarm” about zombies and undead media.

That said, it was still an unusual choice for me to read Girls Save The World in This One by Ash Parsons. This recently-published YA horror novel is narrated by June, a high school senior attending Zombiecon with her best friends. She’s been saving up for this all summer, and is excited to revel in the convention celebrating all things zombies. At first, she’s mainly worried about seeing all the panels and actors she wants to, not to mention graduation, future plans, growing apart with her friends, and whether she’s really as cool as they say she is. But then, the con is thrown into chaos when a virus outbreak launches the real zombie apocalypse, and June and her friends are in a real fight for survival. I was mixed going into this book: while I enjoy fandom, I don’t enjoy the crowds, chaos, and costs of conventions, and I still don’t love the idea of the zombie apocalypse. But I do love girl power and stories where friendship is front and center.

Despite my misgivings, this book did not disappoint me. For one thing, it was helpful to hear June’s take on zombies: they’re not malicious, just hungry and following their instincts, like sharks. But more than that, the diversity is realistic, the friendship is strong, the enthusiasm is contagious, and the examination of ethics and larger issues at play is extremely thoughtful.  As I had hoped, this book was filled with empowerment, celebration of differences and friendship, and pulse-pounding action. I definitely felt, even as someone who’s not a zombie aficionado, that this book was a fresh and fitting addition to the canon of zombie literature. My only real issue with it was that the book’s focus on friendship and empowerment means that (spoiler alert) there’s never a great explanation of how and why the zombie / virus outbreak happens or how it’s going to be resolved. I can’t decide whether or not it’s just added realism: a teenager might not care WHY the crisis happened, as long as it’s over.

If you love feminist takes on classic stories, if you’re looking for a celebration of zombies, or if you have a tight-knit squad that would have your back even if the world was ending, I definitely recommend reading this book.

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D Jackson

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D Jackson is a haunting story of one teenage girl’s struggle to get someone to believe her that her best friend is missing.

Claudia always believed that she and her best friend Monday Charles told each other everything. They are inseparable soul sisters who may not be related, but who spend a lot of time in each other’s company. Having spent years together, Monday and Claudia even made up their own language. Without Monday, Claudia would not have had any friends and school would have been even more difficult for her. Monday helps her so much with tests and bullies; the two always stick up for each other. They are incredibly close.

Every summer, Claudia spends the summer with her grandma, leaving Monday behind. They stay in touch by sending letters back and forth. The summer before 8th grade was no different with Claudia leaving and hoping to hear from Monday. However Monday never sent her any letters. Coming back from her visit, Claudia immediately tries to call Monday, but no one answers. Her mom tells her not to worry because Monday will show up to school. She doesn’t.

No one seems to care or even notice that Monday is missing except for Claudia. Monday doesn’t show up to school for weeks and Claudia is worried. She knows something is wrong. Not able to get any adult to help her look for Monday, Claudia starts digging into Monday’s disappearance herself. Monday’s mom isn’t giving her a straight answer and Monday’s older sister April isn’t helping either. As Claudia keeps looking for her best friend, she discovers that no one can remember when they last saw Monday. The lack of concern or call to arms to search for Monday has Claudia sick to her stomach and worried. How could no one have noticed that Monday was gone? Where did she go? What happened to her? Why does no one care?

This book is also available in the following formats: