Book review: Captain Rosalie, by Timothée de Fombelle, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, translated by Sam Gordon

de Fombelle, Timothée. Captain Rosalie. Illus. by Isabelle Arsenault. Trans. by Sam Gordon. Candlewick, 2018. 60p. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-5362-0520-6. Ages 10+. P7Q10

As her father fights in World War I and her mother works in a factory, 5-year-old Rosalie believes she is on a secret mission spying on the enemy while disguised as a little girl. She goes to school early in her French village and sits in the back of the classroom with older children and listens to her mother read letters from her father in the evening. Rosalie’s life changes when her mother receives a blue envelope and the father’s letters stop coming. Determined to discover what has happened, she runs away from school to find the envelope and read the letters. Instead of the happy descriptions of life at home when her father returns her mother “read” from the letters, she finds the dirty, misery of her father’s life and the revelation that he has died. Watercolor and ink sketches accompany two-page spreads with dark backgrounds highlighted by Rosalie’s flame-colored hair or the blue ink of the letters.

Verdict: The grimness of war is relieved by the love of Rosalie’s mother for her daughter, the warm understanding by one of the older students for Rosalie, and Rosalie’s own resilience. A tremendously powerful story in quiet, spare tones.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.

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Book review: Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Tamaki, Mariko. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. Illus. by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. First Second, 2019. 289p. $24.99. ISBN 978-1-250-31284-6. Ages 14+. P9Q9

The on-again, off-again relationship between selfish classmate Laura Dean who keeps cheating on Frederica (Freddy), 16, and then pulling her back has formed a toxic cycle that Freddy doesn’t know how to break, but her communication with an advice columnist and help from best friend Doodle to see a psychic gives her a way out. Black and white panels infused with pink display a diverse, mostly queer, cast of characters in Berkeley and high school who are close to adulthood and searching for answers in both romantic and platonic relationships. Verdict: The realistic depictions of different kinds of love will ring true with readers whether straight or queer, and the illustrations expand the painful story of growing up.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Supernova, by Kazu Kabuishi

Kabuishi, Kazu. Supernova. (Amulet series). Graphix/Scholastic, 2018. 197p. $12.99. ISBN 978-0-545-82860-4. Ages 10-14. P8Q8

After ten years, the epic Amulet series is one book away from its finale, and the eighth book sets the foundation for the culmination of Emily’s work to save worlds beyond the Earth. She returns to Alledia and frees the elves despite her lack of magic stone control and imprisonment in the Void throughout adventures showing personal growth, family, and courage. As in earlier books, brilliant color highlights the battles and fast-paced activity with strange creatures and vivid Gaboda trees. Kabuishi also transfers much of the plot to focus on Emily’s younger brother, Navin.

Verdict: Lovers of this series will continue to be fascinated with the ongoing saga; those who read this without the earlier books will return to pick them up.

June 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Kiss Number 8, by Colleen A.F. Venable, illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw

Venable, Colleen A.F. Kiss Number 8. Illus. by Ellen T. Crenshaw. First Second, 2019. $24.99. 299p. ISBN 978-1-250-19693-4. Ages 13-17. P7Q8

Black and white panels in this graphic novel follow a tightly connected family struggling with a secret and a teenage girl finding her way through romance seeking her questioning about sexual orientation. Raised in a Catholic family, Amanda (Mads) has two close friends and loving parents, especially her father who always takes her to the baseball games. Secrets emerge when Mads overhears her father with a woman on the phone and then discovers a check made out to her in the trash. Making her life even messier are the secret trips with one friend to a nightclub and a stolen kiss with her other friend that she enjoys. The discovery that her paternal grandmother had become a transgender lawyer and activist causes rejection from her father and greater closeness from her mother, and Mads is also rejected by her Catholic school classmates because of the possibility that she is a lesbian. Transferring to public school introduces to her a group of students active in the gay-straight alliance, and she is finally able to share the information about her “grandmother” with her father.

Verdict: The antagonism toward transgender people before the resolution is harsh and cruel, and the treatment of Mads can be uncomfortable reading. The three female friends also seem almost stereotyped—Cat the crazy flirt, Laura the plain girl, and Mads the beloved daughter. Yet the friendship and ultimate understanding give the novel warmth, and the revelation of the father’s twisted recollections about his mother provide an education in differing realities.

May 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Deogratias: a Tale of Rwanda, by J.P. Stassen, translated by Alexis Siegel

Stassen, J.P. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda. Trans by Alexis Siegel. Intro. By Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse. First Second. 2018. $21.99. 78p. ISBN 978-1-250-18964-6. Ages 15+. P9Q9

Early in the 20th century, Germans and Belgians made one Rwandan tribe, the Tutsis, the elite ruling group over the poorer farming Hutus. In 1994, the Hutus rose in rebellion to exterminate the Tutsis and killing 800,000 people in 100 days. This genocide is seen through the eyes of Deogratias, “thanks be to God,” a Hutu teenager in love with Apollinaria, a Tutsi. As darkness descends through the brutal revels in the graphic novel, he goes from an ordinary boy to believing that he is a dog, possibly from the toxic banana beer that he drinks to forget the past. The narrative also includes the hypocrisy of whites, some of them priests, who go to Rwanda to help the people but simply use them for their own means. Black bordered panels depict current events, and borderless panels represent the past war and carnage as the boy goes through his transformation by being forced into murdering two Tutsi friends. The heaviness of the boy’s experiences is heightened by the black outlines of people and the dark hues.

Verdict: Some people may consider Stassen’s grim narrative inappropriate for teenagers, but it shows the life of many people in the world as massacres occur throughout the world and people continue their inhumane behavior. This brilliant work communicates the horror and heartbreaking lives of ordinary Hutus who were unable to avoid the tragedy of their country.

April 2019 review by Nel Ward.

[Editor’s note: Originally published in Belgium by Dupuis, Deogratias won the 2000 Goscinny Prize for outstanding graphic novel script.]

Book review: Bloom, by Kevin Panetta, illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau

Panetta, Kevin. Bloom. Illus. by Savanna Ganucheau. First Second. 2019. $17.99. 353p. ISBN 9781626726413. Ages 13-16. P9Q9

Frustrated with his father’s expectation that he go into the bakery business with him, Ari has plans to move to the city with other members of his band as soon as he graduates high school. His father’s demand that he find a replacement for the struggling business who will do Ari’s work temporarily blocks his plans, but Hector, a culinary student taking a break, walks into his life, both as a worker in the bakery and as a possible boyfriend. At the same time, Ari’s friends begin to change their relationships, and he learns that he may not like them as much as he thought.

Verdict: Author and illustrator believably present the small East Coast town, but sometimes the characters aren’t always well identified. The montages that begin each chapter move the action, but sometimes the action slows down. Even so, the caution that both boys feel in their growing responses to each other is well done and credible. The blue color helps black and white illustrations in the graphic novel. Fitting with its setting, this YA romance is an enjoyable summer read.

April 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Death Prefers Blondes, by Caleb Roehrig

Roehrig, Caleb. Death Prefers Blondes. Feiwel and Friends, 2019. $17.99. ISBN 9781250155825. 442 pages. Ages 16+. P6 Q7

In this fast paced, action packed thriller, Margo and her drag queen friends plan several heists. All the friends have valid reasons for being thieves and the heists are not random, there are reasons for each one. Besides the heists, Margo has her own drama with her dad’s ill health and the potential loss of the family business. There are many twists and turns along the way, especially at the end, which make you wonder about the loyalty of Dallas, Margo’s love interest. Every main character is queer, including Margo, a teenage white socialite, who is bisexual. Most of the men are of color. While the adventures are suspenseful, I enjoyed how the relationship between the characters developed and deepened throughout the story. The backstories are believable, including Leif’s story. Leif joins the heists so he can pay his tuition at a dance school since his homophobic family, unaware of his sexual identity, want him to come back home so he is not influenced by the queer community in LA. Davon needs the money to pay off his drag queen mother’s debts, which introduces Found Families, which is an important concept in the queer community. The drag queens do not always agree on the heists, which adds some drama. There is some romance and PG13 language.

Verdict: The adventure, family dynamics, suspense and relationships will keep readers engaged. I recommend this novel for older teens and youth, especially those interested in LGBT+ theme books.

April 2019 review by Tami Harris.