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A Giant Mess (I Like to Read Comics)

Jeffrey Ebbeler. Holiday House, $14.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-8234-4639-1

A play on words yields a hugely imaginative story about cleaning up in this short but eventful early reader comic by Ebbeler (The One and Only Dylan St. Claire). After a white child named Molly makes a “giant mess” and is unwilling to tidy it, a series of “booms,” accompanied by the appearance of a large green foot, suggest that the situation is about to get more chaotic. With bushy black eyebrows and elephantine ears, a giant arrives, lifting the roof off Molly’s house and making a Godzilla-like grab for the child. Rampaging the town with pretend play that includes zoo animals and a biplane, the giant makes a mess even larger than Molly’s: “Jack! Pick up your toys,” shout picnicking giant parents nearby. Calling to mind Molly’s earlier antics, Jack tantrums before halfheartedly putting things away in all the wrong places: dumping a train inside a house and tucking zoo animals into a store. Finally, Molly hollers “stop!” and insists the giant take responsibility for the disorder. Spare text is presented entirely through dialogue, while colorful sequential panels feature subtly textured digital art—Ebbeler’s busy cinematic pages have an energy that translates to big fun. Ages 4–8. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Godden

Meg Rosoff. Candlewick, $17.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5362-1585-4

Through an unnamed, ungendered teen’s sharp eye and knowing narration, Printz Medalist Rosoff tells a dryly humorous story of summer and love gone awry. Each summer, a cued-white London family gathers at their beloved seasonal residence: a gabled, periwinkle blue beach house that’s long been in the family. The narrator, whose room features an old widow’s walk complete with telescope, watches everything, including three younger siblings—bat fanatic Alex, horse enthusiast Tamsin, and newly beautiful, self-obsessed 16-year-old Mattie—as well as Hope, a younger cousin of their father, and her partner, Malcolm, who live down the beach. This year, there are two surprises: Hope and Malcolm are engaged, and the Godden brothers, gorgeous Kit and sulky Hugo, sons of a once-famous actress, move in with Hope and Malcolm for the season. Kit, a manipulator par excellence, immediately makes a play for Mattie’s affections, but also, says the narrator, “slipped between my ribs like a flick-knife.” Between Mal and Hope’s wedding planning, the Godden brothers’ tensions, and Kit’s erratic attentions, the summer darkens, leading this effective character study and depiction of childhood’s end to a surprising climax. Ages 14–up. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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She Drives Me Crazy

Kelly Quindlen. Roaring Brook, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-20915-3

Certain things are clear in redheaded white high schooler Scottie Zajac’s world: one, the varsity girls’ basketball team, for which she plays shooting guard, doesn’t matter, since they have no real coach, no budget, and no cheerleaders. And two, her town, low-key Grandma Earl, Ga., is the object of mockery for richer, hipper neighbor Candlehawk. So it hurts all the more when the manipulative, blue-eyed Tally Gibson, “the first and only person [Scottie] ever loved,” dumps her, transfers to Candlehawk Preparatory to play basketball, and returns to beat Scottie’s team. Scottie is determined to get revenge, and she soon gets the chance during her senior year—in the form of persuading popular cheer captain and homecoming queen Irene Abraham, who is Indian American, to pretend to be her girlfriend. Things are never easy when love is involved, and Quindlen (Late to the Party) offers a queer refresh of multiple romance genre standbys: enemies to friends (Irene once had Scottie’s car towed), fake dating, sports romance, and surmounting a broken heart. Add in a supportive family whose members actually like each other, and the result is a satisfyingly feminist rom-com mash-up. Ages 12–up. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Jelly

Clare Rees. Amulet, $18.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4556-0

Centering a largely white group stranded atop a gargantuan jellyfish, debut author Rees marries a darkly funny survival account with a climate change creature feature. After much of humankind is eaten or killed, teen narrator Martha, along with peers Kate, Lana, and James, is marooned alongside a group of adults, including a soldier, a scientist, and a mythology-interested crone. When they aren’t playing Jellyfish Rugby or otherwise weathering monotonous days, the kids strategize escape—past the creature’s tentacles, which continually pull jumpers back, and onto a dangerous coastline crawling with enormous, crablike kriks. After a string of failed attempts, a sudden revelation pushes the increasingly desperate crew to realize the existence of further lurking horrors. Using straightforward prose and believable interpersonal relationships to anchor the book’s more dramatic components—eroding coastlines, murderous monsters—Rees offers a testament to human ingenuity and younger generations’ fortitude while cautioning against ignoring environmental problems. Ages 12–up. (May)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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House of Hollow

Krystal Sutherland. Putnam, $18.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-11034-8

Filled with evocative detail, Sutherland’s (A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares) dark fantasy teems with eerie atmosphere and questions that have potentially undesirable answers. Iris Hollow, 17, is the youngest of three sisters, who “each [have] black eyes and hair as white as milk.” Ten years prior, Grey, the eldest, now a fashion icon and supermodel; musician Vivi; and quiet Iris disappeared without a trace for a month while with their parents in Scotland, only to return in exactly the same place. The girls who returned were different, with no memory of what happened, and each gifted with a strange power of influence. Now, with Grey missing and a mysterious bull-skulled man stalking their steps, Iris and Vivi must follow the scant clues Grey leaves behind in order to find her. Heavy topics, including parental alienation, suicide, feelings of isolation, substance use, and bullying, attend Sutherland’s carefully crafted fantasy world. Readers who are both delighted by stories of the uncanny and are undeterred by detailed explorations of decay will find themselves enchanted. Ages 12–up. Agent: Catherine Drayton, Inkwell Management. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Merci Suárez Can’t Dance

Meg Medina. Candlewick, $17.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7636-9050-2

Newbery Medalist Medina artfully chronicles another year of highs and lows in the life of Cuban American middle schooler Merci Suárez via this winning sequel to Merci Suárez Changes Gears. Now a seventh grader, 12-year-old Merci has taken on more responsibilities at home and at school, including caring for her beloved grandfather, Lolo, as his Alzheimer’s advances, and managing the school store with her classmate, “human calculator” Wilson Bellevue, a quiet Cajun and Creole boy who wears a foot brace. But when Miss McDaniels drafts the entrepreneurial Merci to sell tickets for the Heart Ball—and cooperate with her former nemesis, Edna Santos—Merci must learn to step outside her comfort zone and onto the dance floor. Medina continues to build on the stellar character work of the first book, balancing laugh-out-loud one-liners (“Buy a Heart Ball ticket if you have absolutely nothing better to do in this sad life”) with vulnerability (“People... vanish, sometimes a little at a time. One day Lolo won’t know how to move his legs. One day soon, he won’t be able to dance”). This is a sequel of the finest quality, perfectly capturing the feelings of awkward first crushes (“Did he say I look nice? Or did he say I look like a rodent? I can’t decide”) and evolving friendships. Ages 9–12. Agent: Jennifer Rofé, Andrea Brown Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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How to Become a Planet

Nicole Melleby. Algonquin, $16.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-64375-036-1

A month before seventh grade’s end, Pluto Jean Timoney is gripped with a desire to “just stop”; after her terrified mother breaks down her locked bedroom door, the 12-year-old is diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Uninterested in her traditional summer activities, such as hanging out on the Jersey Shore boardwalk with her erstwhile best friend Meredith, space-loving Pluto, who is white, creates a list of tasks that she believes will return her to “the real, full Pluto” who she was before the diagnosis. In her mind, accomplishing the list also means that she won’t have to live with her father in New York City, who thinks he can get her better care. Under her mother’s concerned watch at the family pizzeria, Pluto begins a tentative journey navigating her mental health while embarking on a friendship with gender-questioning Fallon. Sprinkled with astronomy-related metaphors related to a planet’s properties, this acutely observed, authentically told tale by Melleby (In the Role of Brie Hutchens...) thoughtfully portrays Pluto’s relationship with her worried single mother, the girl’s urgent desire to “be fixed,” and her intense—and at times overpowering—depressive episodes. Compassionate secondary characters and a strong sense of place further buoy the narrative. Ages 9–12. Agent: Jim McCarthy, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. (May)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Force of Fire (Kingdom Beyond)

Sayantani DasGutpa. Scholastic Press, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-338-63664-2

DasGutpa (the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series) brings to life concepts from Bengali folklore through Pinki, a rakkosh—demon—student at the Ghatatkach Academy of Murder and Mayhem, located in the fantastical Kingdom Beyond. Forced to be a “solitary diva-loner type” by other students’ taunting her about her full scholarship, Pinki pushes down her angry feelings and focuses on being a star student in her demonic classes—only controlling her fire-breathing powers eludes her. Unlike the rest of her family, she views with pessimism the rakkosh resistance against the Empire of Serpent Overlords, which has colonized the Kingdom Beyond, preventing the rakkosh from enjoying traditional cultural pastimes. Pinki’s unconventional first meeting with Prince Sensa, the son of the Serpentine Governor, does not inspire hope, but he offers her a deal: if she steals him a weapon he needs to quash the resistance, he will help her learn to control her fire. Pinki’s acceptance leads her into a journey that forces her to reassess her own priorities and loyalties. Though the novel at times leans on dialogue over description, making it difficult to visualize the complex world, its dramatic action and fast-paced plot propel the story line at breakneck speed, while its engagingly cynical heroine and hints of romance make for an entertaining read. Ages 8–12. Agent: Brent Taylor, TriadaUS. (May)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Aven Green Sleuthing Machine (Aven Green #1)

Dusti Bowling, illus. by Gina Perry. Sterling, $12.95 (128p) ISBN 978-1-4549-4221-4

In this prequel to Bowling’s middle grade Life of a Cactus novels, eight-year-old Aven Green, who was born without arms, doesn’t “solve mysteries like any old detective.” When a mysterious culprit starts stealing lunches and cafeteria food at her Kansas elementary school, Aven eagerly decides to solve the case. But the mysteries continue piling up: her great-grandmother’s dog, King Smith of Kansas City, or Smitty for short, goes missing, and a new girl named Sujata joins Aven’s third grade class and inexplicably appears unhappy. As the food crimes persist and Smitty remains absent, Aven begins to feel overwhelmed. But with the help of her family and a new friend, Aven discovers that the cases just might be connected. Bowling centers earnest Aven’s quirky wit, determination, and earnestness (“But you know one thing I’ve never read as being necessary to be a good P.I.? Having arms. That’s what”), introducing an exuberant adoptee whose disability does not exist to serve the plot. Perry’s b&w line illustrations feature supple-limbed, cartoon-style characters, including portrayals of Aven doing activities with her feet. Aven’s candid voice ensures that this chapter book series starter will draw a young audience. Ages 6–9. Agent: Shannon Hassan, Marsal Lyon Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Alien Nation

Sandro Bassi. Levine Querido, $18.99 (56p) ISBN 978-1-64614-038-1

This haunting, wordless story by Venezuelan artist Bassi opens with a spread of an ordinary commuter moving through a crowded metropolitan train station, glued to a smartphone screen that shows a map. Dark pencil drawings, expertly drafted, give extra impact to the only feature that distinguishes the commuter and fellow travelers from ordinary humans—heads and faces, each wildly different from the next, comprising fleshy tendrils, bulbous masses, blocks, and machine parts. Absorbed in their screens, the creatures navigate a spectacular train station and wait on a platform, each scrolling on a device, before boarding and riding the train in orderly calm. A baby creature in a stroller grabs a piece of seemingly obsolete left-behind tech—an early-style cell phone of sorts, with no screen—and begins to examine it, with extraordinary consequences that underline the way modern humans are grafted to technology. Spreads unfold in real time with cinema-style pacing and striking visual effects as Bassi’s fable encourages readers to attend the attention economy’s fallout, or risk losing out on experiences beyond the screen. Ages 8–up. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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