Review of Friends Forever, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Friends Forever

by Shannon Hale
artwork by LeUyen Pham
color by Hilary Sycamore and LeUyen Pham

First Second, 2021. 300 pages.
Review written September 21, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Friends Forever is the third in Shannon Hale’s graphic novel trilogy of memoirs about middle school. This one covers eighth grade.

The things Shannon faces in eighth grade aren’t surprising: issues with friends, family, boys, her own looks, popularity, how people see her, and what is she good at. But since these are things most eighth graders have to deal with – it’s great to have a story out there in an accessible graphic novel form of a kid facing those things.

I’m not sure I’d want to revisit the angst of eighth grade to write a book about it. Shannon Hale has done this in an encouraging and uplifting way, and kids today will benefit.

And don’t think this is only a problem novel. It’s also an entertaining true story about the ups and downs of middle school – but she doesn’t neglect the upside. This is a fun and quick read about one particular eighth grade kid who indeed grew up to be a famous author.

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Review of Talking to Strangers, by Marianne Boucher

Talking to Strangers

A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult

by Marianne Boucher

Doubleday Canada, 2020. 176 pages.
Review written September 8, 2020, from a library book

This is a short and sweet graphic novel memoir about when the author was 18 years old and got sucked into the Moonies.

She was all about ice skating and got an audition in California for the Ice Follies. But while she was there, she met some strangers on the beach. They showered her with love and attention and talked with her about not conforming to expectations.

One thing led to another. First, she was just going to go to a weekend retreat. They added teaching and community and before long she was fully involved.

Her mother back in Canada couldn’t get the California police to intervene, since Marianne was 18 years old. So she found people who specialized in extracting people from cults. They laid plans and got help from a former cult member. Since Marianne didn’t want to leave, they had to get her away from the group in order to convince her, and none of that was easy.

The graphic novel format makes this a quick read, but it’s still a powerful story and a frightening one. At the end, the book does touch on her difficult healing process, and it provides a resource list at the back. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were some similarities with our current political climate. But may we all find healing with Beauty and Truth.

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Review of Almost American Girl, by Robin Ha

Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2020. 233 pages.
Review written May 13, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

The graphic format is so wonderful for a memoir about dealing with middle school and high school under exceptionally trying circumstances. I hope this will enjoy the popularity of similar books such as Smile, Best Friends, and New Kid.

When Chuna Ha’s mother brought her to America one summer, Chuna thought they were just taking a vacation. They went to Alabama, a place Chuna had never heard of, and stayed with a “friend” of her mother. At the end of the “vacation,” her mother said she was getting married and they were in America to stay.

Chuna took the American name of Robin, but it was hard to pronounce. She didn’t speak English very well and had a lot of trouble in middle school in Alabama. We see Robin having trouble getting along with her step family, bullies teasing her cruelly at school, and how hard it is to make friends when you don’t speak the same language. She finally meets kids she connects with when her mother finds a comics class at a comics store.

She and her mother move to Virginia when she’s ready to start high school, and then there’s an entire classroom full of English Language Learners, so she no longer feels so out of place, and doesn’t stand out. At the end of the book, Robin visits her hometown in Korea and sees her old friends and learns that not only is she different from them now, she has different hopes and dreams for her future.

This graphic-format memoir brings you into Robin’s experiences with all its struggles and triumphs.

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Review of When Stars Are Scattered, by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

When Stars Are Scattered

by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

color by Iman Geddy

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020. 264 pages.
Review written August 4, 2020, from a library book
Audiobook from Listening Library, 2020, narrated by a full cast. 3 hours, 42 minutes.
Library eaudiobook reviewed December 30, 2020
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#1 General Children’s Nonfiction

In When Stars Are Scattered, award-winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson took the story of a boy who grew up in a refugee camp and put it in graphic memoir format.

Omar Mohamed’s first memories are in a refugee camp. He doesn’t like to remember the day in Somalia that put him there, when his father was killed and his mother told him to take his little brother and go to the neighbor’s house and she would find him. The neighbors helped, but they ran to a refugee camp in Kenya. Years later the boys are bigger and that’s the only home they’ve known.

Omar’s little brother Hassan doesn’t say anything except one word, “Hooyo,” and he’s had seizures in the past. Omar feels responsible for him. They have a foster mother assigned to them by the UN, but Omar is afraid to leave his brother long enough to go to school.

This book takes us through his choice to go to school, to trust other people to look after Hassan, and try to make a life there and apply for resettlement. The whole resettlement process takes years, and only a few are even chosen to interview, and they have no information about the status of their case.

The graphic memoir format makes this story easy to follow, but it’s not an easy story. It moved me to tears in spots. But even the fact that Omar is telling his story gives you the hint that there will be a happy ending, and indeed there is, at least for Omar. He now lives in the United States and has founded an organization that helps students living in refugee camps.

But this is a story about kids and for kids. The characters are children and talk and act like children. It’s very hard to imagine being in that situation, but the authors get across what it would be like for children who know nothing else.

We actually have a large local population of families from Somalia. When the pandemic is over and I see them in the library again, I hope they will find this book. But I also hope that it will be widely read by many who have never experienced anything remotely like this, because it’s hard to imagine reading this story and not being filled with compassion.

Additional thoughts on the audiobook:

In December, I listened to the audiobook version of this book. Normally, I’d never listen to the audiobook form of a graphic novel, but both versions were nominated to be Capitol Choices selections. As soon as I began listening, I quickly understood why. This is an amazing audiobook production, with different people voicing different characters, and lots of different sound effects to set the mood (crickets at night, children’s voices in school, the sound of a broom when he was cleaning his tent, and more).

Listening to the book, I could hear authentic accents and even the voice of adult Omar at the end. It pulled me into the story, and if I hadn’t already seen the wonderful illustrations, I wouldn’t have even missed them. Who would have thought that such a visual medium as a graphic novel would work so well as an audiobook? Perhaps it helps that they used a full cast, since that’s similar to using speech bubbles in a graphic novel — you don’t have to talk about which character is speaking — you see (or hear) that someone new is talking.

I’ve decided the ultimate experience of this book would be to listen to it while looking at the art of the graphic novel version. Both are wonderful on their own. I’m glad I didn’t miss out on either one.

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Review of Hey, Kiddo, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Hey, Kiddo

How I Lost My Mother, Found my Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction

by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Graphix (Scholastic), 2018. 312 pages.
Starred Review
Review written June 26, 2018, from an Advance Reader Copy.
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#5 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

Here’s a graphic novel memoir by a bestselling graphic novelist, so it’s sure to be popular. This one, though, isn’t sweetness and light, and the issues addressed go a lot deeper than friends and cliques. We do have a happy ending – Jarrett Krosoczka has achieved success with his art. The book is marketed for 12 and up, so it’s for a somewhat older audience than those who love Lunch Lady.

Jarrett tells about his life. His mother was a heroin addict, and he didn’t know his father. His mother’s parents raised him, and they had their own quirks, being older than his friends’ parents.

Jarrett explains his family history. His grandparents had five kids, and he wasn’t a whole lot younger than his youngest aunt. He lived with his mother the first years of his life, but she couldn’t stay off heroin and out of trouble, so eventually he was permanently with his grandparents.

This book takes Jarrett through elementary school and high school, all the way up to applying to art school for college. He credits the teachers and friends who helped him along the way, as well as offering many tributes to his grandparents, without hiding their prickliness and quirks. His persistence, despite coming from an unconventional family, ended up paying off, and notes at the back bring us to the present.

This book speaks from the heart about a kid growing up in a family with challenges, but a lot of love. He learned to grapple with that, push boundaries, uncover truth, and above all use his art to throw light on shadows.

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Review of Best Friends, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Best Friends

by Shannon Hale
Artwork by LeUyen Pham
Color by Hilary Sycamore

First Second, 2019. 250 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 3, 2019, from a library book

Best Friends is a follow-up to Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham’s wonderful graphic memoir, Real Friends, but you definitely can appreciate Best Friends even if you haven’t read the first book.

Best Friends covers one year of Shannon’s life – the year in sixth grade. I give Shannon credit for telling her story – because who would really want to relive sixth grade?

Shannon and LeUyen beautifully portray the questions that come into a kid’s mind as they try to figure out the “rules” of friendship and how they change as you get older. Shannon starts out the year best friends with the leader of “The Group,” which puts her in a good position. But can she stay there? And do her friends really like her for who she is? And what about boys?

Here’s a bit portrayed like a board game:

Sixth-grade friendships were like a game…
only as soon as I’d figure out the rules…
…they’d change again.

Games have losers. I was worried that losing this game meant I’d lose my best friend.

I especially like the way Shannon’s obsessive thoughts and problems with anxiety are portrayed as black clouds hanging over her and around her full of awful accusations (such as “Everyone thinks you’re stupid.”) and scary questions (such as “Is your mom dead?”). At the back of the book, Shannon has a note about anxiety and OCD. Here’s part of that note:

Anxiety is a totally normal feeling, and like all feelings, it’s important. It becomes an anxiety disorder when our worries get out of control day after day after day, when the worries don’t always make sense, when they keep us from doing things we want or need to do, and they make us feel awful. For most people who have an anxiety disorder, “just ignore it” doesn’t work.

Sometimes anxiety gave me feelings of dread – warnings that something bad was going to happen. At times I believed worrying was a power that kept me and the people I loved safe. But that wasn’t true. Talking with people who understand anxiety has helped me to untangle all my feelings. It’s taken me time to develop skills that help me manage anxiety. You can find more information at adaa.org (Anxiety and Depression Association of America).

But my favorite part of Best Friends were the scenes from a book Shannon Hale was writing in sixth grade. (She shows two pages of the manuscript at the back.) I like the way you can see Shannon was dealing with her real-life challenges by having a fantasy princess deal with similar challenges – and overcome them.

I love the way real-life Shannon was reminded by the fantasy book she was writing that the important thing is to be true to her essence.

It’s probably just as well this book didn’t come out last year when I was on the Newbery committee – I love all Shannon’s books so much, I’d feel like I was biased fighting for it to win. This is an example where it’s too bad the Newbery committee isn’t allowed to take the illustrations into account unless they detract – because these illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to the story. But the story itself has a whole lot of depth as Shannon portrays that universal experience of growing up to where you’re not quite a child any longer, and everything begins to change.

(Disclaimer: I have no idea what this year’s committee will decide and I have no idea how I would feel about this book next to the other contenders this year or how the book will look to the committee. But one thing I’m sure about – my Newbery radar is still active enough that I would definitely note this as a book to Suggest for all the committee members to read.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I’m confident it’s going to be deservedly popular. It reminded me I’m glad I never have to go through sixth grade again, but for kids who are still facing it, this book will encourage them that they’re not alone.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Rocket to the Moon! by Don Brown

Big Ideas That Changed the World

Rocket to the Moon!

by Don Brown

Amulet Books, 2019. 132 pages.
Review written July 22, 2019, from a library book

I’ve long said that comic format is the best possible way to make a book of nonfiction for children. Accompany all the facts with pictures, and it’s going to be much more memorable and easier to understand. Don Brown is particularly good at communicating information to children in this format.

This book about the history of space flight and particularly rockets to the moon was perfect reading for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

He covers the history of mankind’s use of rockets, the first visionaries who thought of going into space, and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Then he covers what it actually took to get men on the moon – including the big ideas behind the mission (Direct Ascent, Earth-Orbit Rendezvous, or Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous?).

This covers both the science and the history of flights to the moon in a compact graphic nonfiction form. A great way to communicate the big ideas!

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Review of They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott, art by Harmony Becker

They Called Us Enemy

by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott
art by Harmony Becker

Top Shelf Productions, 2019. 208 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 17, 2019, from my own copy purchased via amazon.com

I got to hear George Takei speak at ALA Annual Conference and received an excerpt from this book which I got signed by all of the creators. All of that got me so excited about it, I went ahead and preordered my own copy and read it the day it came in.

I didn’t know much at all about the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, even though one of my best friends has parents who were imprisoned as children at that time. And I guess I thought I knew more than it turns out I did. George Takei presents his memories as a five-year-old sent to the camps, but he inserts the facts of what was going on to make it possible for American citizens to be imprisoned simply because of their ethnicity.

The whole timeline and explanation is laid out. After Pearl Harbor, Americans of Japanese descent were regarded with suspicion, and young men were turned away from army recruitment centers. Next came curfews, and then the families were rounded up and sent to camps. George talks about the irony of going to school and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance surrounded by barbed wire and guards. The story is told from the perspective of a five-year-old who doesn’t know that anything he’s experiencing isn’t normal.

George’s father emerges as the hero of this story. He did what he could to help his family at the time. As George grew up, his father talked with him about democracy.

Our democracy is a participatory democracy. Existentially, it’s dependent on people who cherish the shining, highest ideals of our democracy and actively engage in the political process.

His father said about FDR:

Roosevelt pulled us out of the depression, and he did great things, but he was also a fallible human being, and he made a disastrous mistake that affected us calamitously. But despite all that we’ve experienced, our democracy is still the best in the world.

The art in this book is wonderful. Young George is adorable and mischievous. His parents’ love for each other and firm resolution to take care of their children is communicated in the pictures. At times, a manga style is used to show George’s excitement, with stars coming out of his eyes. It’s used with a light touch, but effectively.

The book is framed with a modern-day George reflecting on his experiences and the book touches on where his life went from there. Taken all together, this book is powerful and moving. And it’s also shocking – what the government was able to do to United States citizens. Unfortunately, it’s also horribly timely.

This is a book everyone should read. Since it’s in comic format, it doesn’t take long. Invest an hour of your time reading this. You won’t forget it.

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Review of March, Book Three, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

March, Book Three

by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
art by Nate Powell

Top Shelf Productions, 2016. 246 pages.
Starred Review
2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
2017 Printz Award
2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award
2017 Siebert Medal
2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction
2017 Battle of the Books Winner

I was at the Youth Media Awards in Atlanta, Georgia, on the Monday after Trump’s inauguration, when this book by John Lewis won an unprecedented four awards, and not a single Honor among them. Atlanta is John Lewis’ home district, so he was there, and had participated in the weekend’s Women’s March. Later that day, I went to the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award program and heard John Lewis speak. Every speaker mentioned how thrilled they were to be in the room with him. After that, I received a free copy of this book, got it signed, and shook his hand.

And this book continues the telling of his story, in graphic novel form. This volume 3 contains more violence than the earlier volumes. It begins with a bombing of a church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, and continues through Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when marchers were met with violence at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and John Lewis was hospitalized, and ends with the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law.

The whole story is framed by looking back from the day of President Obama’s Inauguration – a direct result of the work that was done in the 1960s.

The book is about idealism and about conflict – from both within the movement and outside it. It’s also about nonviolence being met with violence and standing for what you know is right.

An accessible look at history through the eyes of someone who was there, this book is a monumental achievement and deserves all of the many awards it has won.

I’m putting this on my page for Children’s Nonfiction, because it is written for teens (and I don’t have a teen page for nonfiction). But be aware that the level of violence is high – because that’s what these activists faced. They put their lives on the line for what’s right.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Real Friends, by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Real Friends

A True Story About Cool Kids and Crybabies

by Shannon Hale
illustrated by LeUyen Pham

First Second (Roaring Brook Press), May 2017. 218 pages.
Starred Review

Shannon Hale, one of my favorite authors, has written a graphic novel memoir! And the illustrator is LeUyen Pham, who illustrates The Princess in Black books! I’m afraid there’s no way I wouldn’t like this book.

As if that weren’t enough, I heard LeUyen Pham speak about the book at ALA Midwinter Meeting — and when she signed my Advance Reader Copy, she sketched a cartoon of me!

But even if all those things weren’t true, this book is brilliant, and I feel sure it will be popular. It’s a true story of navigating friendships, being part of “The Group,” being bullied by an older sibling and others, and just wanting to have friends who actually like you.

Shannon grew up in a Mormon family; I grew up in an evangelical family. I’m afraid the panel I liked the most is from Shannon’s imagination, with her sitting, sad and alone, in the foreground, with “The Group” rejoicing in the background that she’s gone. Sitting next to Shannon is Jesus, and he says, “Well, I like you.” “Thanks, Jesus,” says Shannon. A kid tries to take comfort in the love of Jesus. But friends are important.

Shannon was already destined to be a writer, as evidenced by all the scenes where she’s imagining. She’d write stories with her friends — but really it was Shannon doing the writing.

The way things resolve is done well. In 5th grade, Shannon’s in a mixed 5th and 6th grade class, which doesn’t include most of “The Group” she’s been with for years. She makes some new friends who appreciate her for who she is — and it gives her a good perspective for dealing with The Group.

I don’t think I need to say any more. A graphic memoir about friendship and sisters. This will be every bit as popular as Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters. And it’s marvelously done! Anyone who’s ever had friends — or ever felt left out — will relate.

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Source: This review is based on an advance reader copy I got at ALA Midwinter Meeting – and had signed by the illustrator with a caricature of me.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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