At the start of The Prince and the Dressmaker, which is a charming middle-grade/YA graphic novel, everyone’s preparing for the Paris event of the summer: there’s a ball being thrown in honor of Prince Sebastian, who is sixteen, and whose parents want to match him up with a princess from some other royal family so they can live happily ever after and ensure the continuation of the royal line. Nearly everyone is swooning over the idea of the ball, but at least one young lady, Sophia, has no interest: we see her and her irate mother trying to get a new gown made in a hurry, because Sophia ruined the gown she was meant to wear to the ball by going riding in it. Frances, a young seamstress, is in charge of the new dress. “Make me look like the devil’s wench,” Sophia tells her, and Frances decides to give Sophia what she wants (6). Everyone’s scandalized by Sophia’s outfit, and Frances is on the verge of being fired, but then a new opportunity arrives: at least one person liked the outfit that Frances made for Sophia, and that person now wants to hire Frances as a personal seamstress.

Frances’s new boss, it turns out, is Prince Sebastian, who is maybe genderfluid, or just likes dresses: he explains that sometimes he sees his reflection in boys’ clothes and is fine with it, but sometimes it feels all wrong. He’s been wearing his mother’s dresses in secret for ages, but has decided he wants to sometimes wear dresses in public, as well: he asks Frances to make him a dress inspired by “marmalade and preserves” without telling her that it’s for a beauty pageant being put on by a jam company. He wins, and his alter-ego, Lady Crystallia, becomes the talk of Paris, with her daring and gorgeous dresses. But he’s anxious about his secret life being inappropriate for a future ruler: he worries about what the public would think, and what his parents would think, and assumes he’d never find a female romantic interest who would be OK with it. This causes tensions with Frances, though: everyone in the royal household knows that she’s his seamstress, so Sebastian tells her she can’t publicly declare that she makes Lady Crystallia’s dresses, too: he’s sure that if people knew, they’d put two and two together and he’d be outed.

Things get stressful for everyone, and then things get better, and oh, there’s also a sub-plot about a fictional version of the first department store in Paris, which is having a fashion show to announce its line of women’s clothing, and Sebastian and Frances both learn about being true to themselves, and everything works out in the end. This was a fast and fun read, and I appreciated the art—especially the citrus-marmalade-inspired dress Frances makes, and also some other really gorgeous bits, like the misty and moody grey/green/blue early-morning-street-scene panels when Frances goes to work for the prince. I didn’t love this book as much as some people on Goodreads seem to have, but I think that’s partly because I generally like graphic memoirs more than graphic novels, and also because I’ve never been super into fashion/fancy dresses myself. (If there’d been a whole book about Sophia, the “Make me look like the devil’s wench” girl, who goes to the ball in her scandalous outfit and happily eats dessert by herself while everyone stares, I might have been more into that.)

At the start of Kat and Meg Conquer the World, it’s near the start of the school year and Kat, who’s in tenth grade, has recently moved from Ottawa, where she grew up, to Edmonton, where she and her parents are now living with her grandfather, who’s frailer than he used to be after a fall and subsequent hip surgery. Kat doesn’t really know anyone at her new school yet, and she’s an introvert who has anxiety/panic attacks: she’s happier spending her lunch break in the library playing Legends of the Stone, the MMORPG she loves, than eating in the cafeteria with her classmates. Meg, meanwhile, has always lived in Edmonton, and is an extrovert who’s happy giving high-fives in the hallway to kids she doesn’t even know. Meg has ADHD, and worries that it’s making her lose friendships and relationships: I love this, from early in the book, in a passage where Meg is thinking about a newish friend who’s maybe already getting tired of her (or, ahem, is maybe just not the best fit): “She’s always asking me if I’ve remembered to take my meds, like she thinks they’re some magic pill that’ll cure me of me. Ugh, blah, and sigh” (7). Meg doesn’t play Legends of the Stone (LotS for short), but is a big fan of a YouTuber called LumberLegs who posts videos of himself playing it. Kat is a LumberLegs fan too, so when she and Meg end up as partners for a multi-month science project, it doesn’t take long for the two of them to discover their shared fandom, which is a jumping-off point for a close friendship.

I really like how this book centers on characters who are dealing with a lot of issues (mental health stuff, family stuff, school stuff, friendship stuff, relationship stuff) without it being an “issues book” or heavy-handed. I like that Kat and Meg’s friendship is at the center of the story, and I love so many things about that friendship. I like how their very different personalities sometimes cause tension, but how they both keep trying to work things out, and I like how each of them tries to keep the other’s experiences and preferences in mind, even when those preferences feel completely foreign. I like how Kat (who’s white) pays attention when Meg (who’s black, in a school with few other black kids) shows or tells her things about race/racial privilege that Kat has maybe never really considered before, and also how Kat tries to be a good ally and think about issues of race/doesn’t expect Meg to teach her everything. I like how Kat and Meg are always trying to be there for each other, even when they’re not sure how best to do that.

And while Kat and Meg’s friendship is the central great thing about the book, I like so many other relationships in it, too: the way Meg interacts with her half-siblings, the way Kat worries about not knowing how to be close to her grandfather, Meg’s feelings about her estranged ex-stepfather, an online friendship Kat has through LotS, the sweet moments and hard moments Meg has with a boy she dates—all of them felt fully realized and full of heart, like this book itself.

The Westing Game (which I read and loved as a kid) opens with an intriguing set-up: there’s a new five-story apartment building on Lake Michigan, and its 6 apartments (and 3 business/retail spots) are rented to a list of pre-selected tenants. The building has a view of a mansion, the Westing house, which is said to have been empty for the past fifteen years: its owner, Sam Westing, is rumored to be dead. But the tenants all (well, almost all) have some connection to Westing, and the house apparently isn’t totally empty: on Halloween, about two months after the tenants move in, they see smoke rising from one of the mansion’s chimneys. The next day there’s a newspaper headline saying Westing has been found dead, and a number of the apartment building’s inhabitants, plus a few more people connected to the building, are summoned to the Westing house. where they’re paired off, and each pair is given a $10,000 check and a set of clues. They’re told they are all potential heirs to the Westing fortune: they just need to solve the puzzle to win the game.

It’s fun to read about the various characters’ attempts to figure things out, their false starts and wild guesses and missteps, but what’s more fun is to watch them work together, or not. And the mystery of Westing’s death isn’t the only weird thing happening: there’s been a string of thefts in the building, and then bombs start going off, so there’s a lot to be figured out. The narrative switches its focus from character to character, but Turtle Wexler, a smart junior-high-school kid who’s (understandably) grumpy that her mother has always treated her differently from her (beautiful and obedient) older sister, Angela, is at the center of a lot of things, in a really satisfying way. It’s hard to say more about this book without giving away too much (it is a mystery, after all), but I like its quirkiness and strangeness, how it brings together a cast of disparate characters in a way that somehow totally works.

I know I read and liked at least the first two of Louis Sachar’s “Wayside School” books when I was a kid, but I hadn’t thought of them in ages. Then I read this piece by Jia Tolentino on the New Yorker website, in which she describes the first one, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, as a book with “a surfeit of heart and an absence of sentiment,” and describes the style of the trilogy as being like “Shel Silverstein with hints of Barthelme and Borges.” Clearly I needed to go get the first book from the library. I read it over the course of two days and found the absurd humor of it pretty pleasing, though I probably liked it more as a kid than I do as an adult.

The book consists of thirty chapters/stories, each of which is named for one or more of the students and teachers at the imaginary school of the title (mostly the students and teachers from one particular class). The school is a bit odd: it was meant to have thirty classrooms on one floor but it was accidentally built sideways, with one classroom per story: “The builder said he was very sorry” (9). The builder is also sorry for having accidentally skipped from the 18th floor to the 20th, but the school’s loss is the reader’s gain: one of my favorite chapters in the book is about that missing 19th floor. Wayside School is odd in other ways, as well: in the first (and very memorable) chapter, a mean teacher turns students into apples; in another chapter, we get to ponder what ice cream that tastes like a particular person might be like. There are creepy bits and kind of mean bits and clever bits. Highlights for me included a chapter where illiterate bank robbers try to rob the school and a character gets revenge on the boastful kid who sits behind him, a chapter where a kid who draws a lot of pictures very quickly during art class learns about the idea of quality over quantity, a chapter in which a kid goes up and down thirty flights of stairs more times than he would like, a chapter with a mysterious interrogation in it, and a chapter in which a student says she’s too distracted by her itchy mosquito bites to do math. That mosquito-bite chapter features this, which I find so charming/funny/great:

“But we have all kinds of arithmetic,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without carrying, addition with carrying, and carrying without addition.”
“I don’t care,” cried Dana.
“We have that, too,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without caring. Now, stop carrying on.” (52)

The last time I read The Dark Is Rising was more than ten years ago, in summer, and while I always love this book, there’s an extra magic in reading it during the time of year in which it’s set, in the dark and cold days of midwinter, with the festive pleasures of Christmas all around me in real life as well as in the book. This time around I probably read it a bit slower, too, because for the first two-thirds of the book I was pacing my reading for the Twitter readalong (#TheDarkIsReading), though after Christmas I couldn’t keep from just reading on: I finished the book on December 26th, totally unable to ration out the last third until the action of the book ends on Twelfth Night.

The Dark Is Rising is a fantasy quest narrative, a Chosen One narrative, and the story of a centuries-long battle between Light and Dark, all of which are fine and satisfying things, but what makes this book, for me, is the rest of it: how well-written it is, and the sense it gives of landscape, of place, and of the daily life of a large and happy family in an English village, all the ordinary sweetness of Christmas, even as the Dark threatens the everyday peace of village life. I love passages like this:

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering. (79)

Other choice Christmas phrases: at one point Cooper writes about the “enchanted expectant space” of Christmas morning (127), and then, later on Christmas Day, writes about church bells in a storm “chiming through the grey whirling world around them, brightening it back into Christmas” (139). So good.

I think it’s hard to talk about the fantasy/quest elements of the book without spoilers, or without getting bogged down in detail, so I’m not really going to try, but I will say that I love that part of the fantasy involves time-slips, where the protagonist/hero, 11-year-old Will, finds himself in the past on a number of occasions. I like the sense of history that those scenes bring, and the sense of the vast expanse of time.

The Swiss Family Robinson was originally published in German in 1812; the English translation I read is from 1814, but (as I learned from a “Did You Know?” section at the back of the book) some of it is based on sections added by the French translator, Baroness Isabelle de Montolieu: one of the most memorable episodes isn’t in Wyss’s original! I’d never read the book as a kid, or seen the movie, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect: I knew it was about a shipwrecked family who ended up building themselves a treehouse, but that was about all I could tell you about it.

As it turns out, I found The Swiss Family Robinson to be kind of a slog. The plot: a man, his wife, and their four sons (who range in age from 8 to 15) are leaving Europe on a ship that’s going to set up a new settlement far away, but the ship gets wrecked in a storm and the members of this family are the only ones left on board. The wreck ends up perched on some rocks in such a way that the family manages to survive, and also manages to save a lot of the ship’s provisions, which are both plentiful and useful. When they make their way from the rocks to an island that’s within sight, they find a landscape that turns out to be full of edible and otherwise useful plants, and also full of a fairly bewildering/nonsensical assortment of animals, many of which are also edible or otherwise useful. They proceed to set themselves up with living quarters, first right by the shore and then farther inland, where they build that treehouse; as time passes they make a number of other structures on the island, and even manage to hollow out a winter shelter inside of a cave full of crystals of salt.

The writing (at least in this translation) is more serviceable than beautiful, but my main problem with the book is that it’s narrated by the father, which has the result of making it extremely didactic. Apparently (again, according to the backmatter of the edition I read) this book was received, when it was published, as being more entertaining/less solely instructive than other books for children, but to this 21st-century adult reader, anyhow, the narrative often feels like a lecture. For example: the father says he “cannot approve of deceit, even as a joke” (24) and also talks about how he wants his family’s story to show “how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious and pious life of a cheerful and united family, to the formation of a strong, pure and manly character” (399). Unfortunately, character development in novelistic terms is not the book’s greatest strength: I feel like I can only describe the characters in the most general terms, even after having read more than 450 pages about them. (The father is knowledgable; the mother is hard-working; Ernest is the science-minded one; Jack tends to be impetuous; Fritz and Franz are kind of just the oldest and the youngest.) I guess I’m glad to have read this, and there were scenes/scenarios that I found interesting (like when the father teaches his family how to prepare manioc root, or when he makes rubber boots for everyone), but, yeah: I don’t feel like I missed out because I didn’t read this as a kid.

I Hate Everyone But You is an epistolary novel that takes the form of emails and text messages between two best friends, Ava and Gen. It’s their first semester of college and they’re across the country from one another: Ava’s in film school at USC (they grew up in LA); Gen’s studying journalism at Emerson. We see the bits of their lives that they share with one another, which is to say the fun/funny/stressful bits, the parts about hook-ups and relationships and social lives. From the start of the book it’s clear that Ava is the more cautious one of the pair (“Experiment with things so I don’t have to,” she jokes, in her first email to Gen); she’s been dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues for much of her life. Gen’s bolder and more easygoing, and being far from home for college suits her fine, since her family isn’t the easiest to handle (her alcoholic dad and his vow to get sober becomes a plot point).

This book was a quick and fun read, though there are some maddening moments, characterwise and otherwise. I liked the humor of Ava and Gen’s banter, but also the way they really are there for each other, despite some tensions. I didn’t like the fact that the authors referenced their own YouTube channel in the text of the book: being self-referential can be funny/cute, but this wasn’t. I also found Ava’s difficulty handling Gen’s coming out as queer to be pretty frustrating, though maybe realistic, I don’t know: Gen tells Ava she’s hooking up with women; Ava refers to Gen as gay even after Gen says she’s not; Ava also says things like “You like guys again?” even though Gen’s never stopped liking guys.

Overall, though, I liked reading about Ava and Gen’s college explorations—Ava joining a sorority and then wondering whether she should quit; Gen having various fun hookups and some associated drama; Ava having some guy trouble of her own.

I basically devoured The First Rule of Punk over the course of two days, and aw, it’s such a great middle-grade novel. Our narrator Malú is twelve, almost thirteen, and at the start of the book she’s sad about having to move from Gainesville to Chicago for two years because of her mom’s new temporary professorship there. Malú doesn’t have a lot of close friends in Gainesville, but it’s home, and she’s also going to miss her dad: her parents are divorced and her dad owns a record store; she feels culturally closer to him, because of their shared love for punk music, than she does to her Mexican American mom. (Malú’s nickname for her mom is SuperMexican, because Malú feels like she’s intensely into Mexican culture and wants Malú to be equally enthusiastic.) And she’s not exactly looking forward to starting a new school in a new place. But she doesn’t have a choice, and though school gets off to a bit of a rough start, Malú manages to make friends and to learn some things about herself, her family, and Chicanx culture in the process.

One of the most pleasing things about this book, for me, is the fact that Malú (like the author of the book) makes zines, which are incorporated into the book itself. Having read Celia C. Pérez’s zine anthology, Ofrenda, earlier this year, I knew I liked her style, and it was great to see the zines she made in Malú’s style and voice, which are fun and sometimes gorgeous (a page where Malú writes about how she’s going to miss the “Spanish moss hanging from trees like ghosts” in Gainesville has a background of tangled string, and it’s totally lovely) and also feel true to Malú’s character/the kind of zines a smart twelve-year-old would make.

The plot has enough conflict to keep things interesting (Malú decides to start a band; Malú decides to stand up for self-expression in various ways) but it’s balanced by really satisfying descriptions of daily life, like this, about October in Chicago:

I loved the sound of the leaves crunching under my shoes and the smell of wood burning. Mom and I took a trip to a farmers’ market where I discovered that there are so many different types of apples and that my new favorite food was the apple cider doughnut. I wanted to bottle up all the smells and colors and the feeling of fall so they’d always be close. I wished I could iron it all between sheets of wax paper like I’d done with the bright red maple leaf I’d mailed to Dad. And the weird thing was that when I remembered we had another fall in Chicago, I didn’t feel as unhappy as I thought I would. (221)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is one of those very famous kids’ books (it won the Newbery Medal in 1977) that I somehow never read as a child: I’m curious as to how it would have affected me, and I wish I had been exposed to more diverse books when I was younger, but, well, better late than never.

This novel, which is set in Mississippi in the early 1930s, has a whole lot going on in it. It’s narrated by 9-year-old Cassie Logan, who’s a pretty great character: she’s smart and no-nonsense, and good at standing up for the people she cares about, and also for herself. (I felt like we got a great introduction to Cassie early in the book, when it’s the first day of school and the teacher wants the class to reply to her in unison, and Cassie doesn’t – “I never did approve of group responses,” Cassie narrates, which cracked me up because I totally relate.) Cassie and her family are something of an oddity in their community because they own their own land, whereas most of the other African-American families in the area are sharecroppers. But money is tight, and the income from the cotton the Logans grow and Cassie’s mom’s job as a teacher isn’t enough: Cassie’s dad has had to take a job on the railroad, which means he’s away from home a lot, leaving Cassie and her three brothers with their mom and grandma. Which is fine, until it’s not: a violent attack on three black men by some white men (because one of the black men has been accused of making a pass at a white woman) makes everyone uneasy, and a big part of the book has to do with how Cassie’s family responds to that violence, and to the threat of more. But that’s not all that Cassie is dealing with: another main thread in the book is the way that Cassie finds herself learning about racism’s daily manifestations, the ways in which she and her family aren’t treated equally or fairly or nicely by their white neighbors: the way her grandmother has to put her wagon at the back of the field when she goes to sell eggs at the market; the way a shopkeeper stops helping her family to help white customers; the way a white girl and her father respond when Cassie accidentally bumps into the girl on the sidewalk. Cassie starts to see the compromises the adults in her life make in the name of safety and survival, and starts to figure out what compromises she will or won’t make for herself.

I feel like historical fiction can be very hard to do well, maybe especially when it’s historical fiction for kids—sometimes the amount of explaining that needs to be done about the circumstances of a different place/time to make events make sense to a modern reader can make things feel a bit slow or didactic, and there were a few moments like that in this book (I’m thinking especially of a passage where a sharecropping neighbor is explaining his specific financial difficulties to Cassie’s mom). Overall, though, I found myself drawn into Cassie’s story/her family’s story as the book progressed; near the end, there was totally a scene that made me teary-eyed on the subway.

I’ve read and quite liked four of Scarlett Thomas’s novels for grown-ups, so when I found out she was writing a middle-grade fantasy novel, I knew I was going to want to read it, and I’m glad I did. Dragon’s Green gets off to something of a slow start (world-building and getting our characters into their various dilemmas) but once it gets going, it’s a fast-paced delight.

I can’t do this book justice with a plot summary, but basically: our protagonist, eleven-year-old Effie Truelove, has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather since her mother disappeared. Her mother’s disappearance, five years before the action of the book starts, seems to have had something to do with the worldquake, which was a mysterious seven-and-a-half-minute-long earthquake that shook the entire planet and somehow broke the internet and cell phones, sending the world “back to something like 1992,” technology-wise (8). Effie’s pretty sure her grandfather knows magic: his rooms are full of all sorts of interesting objects, and he has an amazing library that’s been off-limits to Effie—but he won’t do any magic for her or teach her any. Eventually he explains that he promised her father he wouldn’t teach her magic, but he relents a bit: he lets Effie read from his library, and starts teaching her the basics of what he calls “magical thinking.” When he ends up in the hospital, though, it becomes clear that Effie is going to have to figure magic out on her own.

Well: not entirely on her own: it turns out that there are other kids in her year at her school who have magical interests/aptitude, and circumstances bring them together into an unlikely friend-group that nevertheless totally works. And it’s a good thing Effie isn’t entirely on her own, because she has a lot to figure out, like how to navigate between this world and its magical neighbor/counterpart, the Otherworld, and oh, also how to keep an evil mage from destroying the books in her grandfather’s library.

Those books in Effie’s grandfather’s library, by the way, give rise to some of my favorite parts of the book: there’s a great story within a story where it becomes clear that Effie is going to subvert some expectations around princesses and dragons and heroes, and another story within a story where Effie’s friend Maximilian finds himself in a room full of people quoting James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield at each other. A lot of the magic/plot in this book has to do with books (it’s complicated), and that bookishness ends up being a big part of its appeal, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me: my other favorite Scarlett Thomas book is Our Tragic Universe, which has a whole lot in it about narrative/story/the structure of stories, and there’s definitely some of that in this book, too.