Slapped by Adam Smith

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson. Candlewick Press, 2017. 9780763687892.

After watching humans for decades, the aliens have landed. The Earth is now part of the Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance, trading the energy being harvested by the vuuv for advanced technology to solve the world’s problems. But the technology went to Earth’s big corporations, so you can only get it if you can afford it. Earth currencies are worth almost nothing in vuuv money, so only the privileged few  can have their diseases cured and live in beautiful floating cities.

Adam’s family is broke. His mom’s old job is done by a vuuv computer program and she’s spending every day looking for work. Even a job at a soup kiosk at the mall has an applicant line around the block, so they have to rent part of their house out to another family. Adam falls for the family’s daughter, Chloe, and they decide to make money from the vuuv by becoming stars in a 1950s-style dating reality show. They strap on sensors and look at sunsets together while the vuuv watch. (The vuuv don’t reproduce the same way humans do so it all seems exotic.) But the love and the money don’t last.

This book is not subtle: it’s about colonization and economic exploitation. The ideas in it would only be new and mind-blowing to young people. But the family’s financial hardships and indignities pile up gradually, building a claustrophobic feeling as the family loses the hope of making their own way out of poverty even as Adam refuses to compromise himself.

A girl a girl a girl

Pemmican Wars (A Girl Called Echo Volume 1) by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yuciuk. Highwater Press, 2018. 9781553796787. 47pp.

Echo is a thirteen-year-old Métis girl living in a group home and attending a new school. In her history class she falls asleep and finds herself having a realistic dream about being in the North-Westernern Territory in 1814 and witnessing a buffalo hunt. The next day she falls asleep at home, and when she again finds herself in 1814 it’s clear she’s not dreaming — which gives her a chance to make a friend and learn about her people firsthand.

I know this sounds a little like an After School Special, but the book doesn’t overuse words, is well written, and both Henderson’s art and Yaciuk’s colors are top notch. There’s more to love here including a teacher who prefers they / them pronouns and a difficult conversation between Echo and her mom. A timeline of the Pemmican Wars, a recipe for pemmican, and a few verses by Pierre Falcon at the back make this a great title for libraries. (The next book is due out in September.)

I know this isn’t cheap, but this is exactly the type of high quality, small press graphic novel that deserve librarians’ professional support.

Crimes Against Fashion

The Fashion Committee: A Novel of Art, Crime and Applied Design by Susan Juby. Viking, 2017. 9780451468789.

The exclusive private arts high school in town has a competition for admission and one year’s tuition, and this year’s theme is fashion. Charlie Dean is utterly obsessed, knows all the legendary designers, and creates all her own clothes. John Thomas-Smith thinks fashion is moronic, but there’s no other way he can afford to attend the school to study metalwork. So the race is on to create an original look for a juried fashion show.

This book could have just been a silly competition story and I would have loved it, but it was a lot more. The chapters alternate between Charlie’s and John’s voices. Charlie’s difficult background slowly emerges from her pontificating about style and her design heroes. You can see what a lifeline this scholarship would be for her. John’s decision to join the competition shocks his girlfriend and best friend, which makes John even more determined. It also gradually opens his eyes to how much they want him to be stuck in the same town in the same way they are. John begins to see that fashion can have a positive effect and decides to design clothes for a bullied foster kid. Charlie starts to understand that maybe her life shouldn’t be on hold because of her father’s addiction.

I have no idea how I will booktalk this, but I know I have to share this book.

Extreme Eating

Slider by Pete Hautman. Candlewick Press, 2017. 9780763690700.

After accidentally bidding $2000 for a half-eaten hot-dog (the decimal point is important!), David needs to come up with some quick cash before his mom sees her credit card bill. He’s a fan of competitive eaters (the hot dog was supposedly the only remains of a missed championship bid by one of his favorite superstars), so he turns to his natural ability to eat a whole lot very quickly. He starts entering eating contests for the prize money, first with sliders, but then he graduates to entire pizzas. His friends are enthusiastic. His parents are baffled.

It’s a nice family story. David’s prodigious eating is a big contrast to his autistic brother, Mal, who will only eat chips, fish sticks, and Cheerios. David’s sick of having to care for Mal all the time, but at the same time loves him very much and wants him to be happy. A lot of things change the balance of the family dynamic over that summer, and David’s competitions are only one.


Mechaboys by James Kochalka. Top Shelf, 2018. 9781603094238. 188pp.

The key to success on prom night? Wearing the right suit.” (from the back of the book)

Gene: This is about a robot suit made from an old power mower. It’s about two guys in a garage, one is Jamie — a blond-haired, gentle soul — the other likes to be called Zeus — he’s a bag of dicks.
Sarah: He has a wispy little high school mustache.
G: They’re seniors. They build the suit in Jamie’s garage from his dad’s old mower. There’s a lot to love in here and there’s some to hate, which makes me love it a little more. It’s not kid safe.
My favorite Kochalka graphic novel of all time is Peanutbutter & Jeremy, which is about a crow and a cat. And this is black and white and it looks like that. It’s not in color like the Dragon Puncher books or the Glorkian Warrior books, which I did enjoy. (My second favorite Kochalka book is probably Super F*ckers — it’s a hilarious take/send up of Legion of the Super Heroes. So good.)
S: I gave my niece Peanutbutter & Jeremy, and I forgot there’s a scene in it where they find a gun.
G: There’s always something.
S: She was fine with it but I was like, sorry mom & dad…
G: What was the one everybody loved? Monkey vs. Robot. I really liked American Elf. Kochalka is great. He takes chances. His art looks like he draws in a fluid, fun, natural way. But I like this one because it’s an awkward teenage story. It’s very YA with a “don’t grab this if you have a bunch of censors in your town” vibe.
S: I like those stories that combine the kind of thing that boys read with the life they’re actually living.
G: In this book, there are two bullies at school, Truck and Duck. They start making fun of Zeus. “Are you LGBTQ for my ELBOW?” I know that’s terrible, but it’s supposed to be.
S: (laughs)
G: And look at what Zeus does. (laughing) Isn’t that a great response?
Then they have to do the rope climb in gym, when our “heroes” are invited to a party by a girl. They take the robot suit out for a test drive and it ends up in an accident.
Zeus is an a-hole. The girls think Jamie is cute. Here’s three girls talking about how stupid prom is, and they form a group called The Fat Bitches and decide to go to prom together.
The gym teacher is fired for a reason he should be fired for, one that censors are going to love. And he’s on the trail of the boys building the giant robot. Then Kochalka sets Zeus up as the villain — he’s down on the comics Jamie loves, and they burn them in a barrel.
They go to the party. Zeus won’t let Jamie wear the suit, but it has a pull starter like an old gas mower. There’s a giant bear. There’s a speech where Zeus goes full evil. And then a chaotic rumble at the prom.
(both laugh, Gene ruins the end for Sarah)
S: This is exactly my speed.
G: It just cruises along.
S: You think some of that is in response to Shirtless Bear Fighter?
G: Doubtful, despite the bear.
S: I’m putting it on hold right now!

Contest of Champions

The Champions’ Game: A True Story by Saul Ramierez (as told to John Seidlitz) Canter Press, 2017. 9780997740233

One way to write a good chess book is to put the game in the background and use characters and situations instead. Saul Ramirez, a rookie middle school teacher in over his head as a chess team coach in the U.S.’s poorest ZIP code, is a great real-life character. Thanks to his past as a scholastic chess player, he is both a neophyte and an expert who puts himself and his team into tense situations: State Championships, National Championships, fund-raisers, chaperoned trips. Each chapter, from the first (“Go Big or Go Home”) to the last (“Visualize Your Win”) is titled and themed after the lessons about the game and life Ramirez tried to teach to his players.

Playing chess is more than just learning the moves. Ramirez’s troops felt overwhelmed at their first tournaments when they saw other teams had uniforms. (Ramirez scrambled to get the team t-shirts for subsequent events.) Ramirez made a beginning chess coach error when he didn’t protest his players being paired against each other. If they hadn’t been beating one another, the Henderson Middle School kids could have packed the winner’s podium. But there was one mistake Ramirez avoided: he fought for his only female player’s right to compete at State and National events, despite the extra expense of added adult supervision and hotel rooms on road trips. He also made getting good grades a requirement for team participation.

The Champions’ Game is an emotional roller coaster related by someone who was in the front seat on the wild ride.

Thanks to Robert for this guest review.

Bald Outliers

Tsu & the Outliers by Eric Johnson. Uncivilized Books, 2018. 9781941250242. 112pp.

Tsu is a kid that never speaks, and he’s bullied by kids who call him a freak. And he’s got powers of some kind — he can either speak with or control a Sasquatch (who visually reminds me a bit of Swamp Thing). After an episode involving a crashed bus, two cryptid hunters (one is a monkey, the other is something stranger) are on his trail. It all gets weird and dangerous and action packed, and Tsu ends up the bait in a trap for his buddy.

The action sequences have a berserk energy that I really enjoyed, and I’m a fan of books like this that use only one color of ink on a page (though there are two on the cover). It’s weird and fun and a little bit groovy — everything I hope for in a small press graphic novel.

Bald Knobber: a graphic novella by Robert Sergel. Secret Acres, 2018. 9780999193518. 84pp.

Unless you’re a student of American history, you’re probably looking the cover and worrying about what sorts of sex sites you’ll pull up if you Google “bald knobber.” That’s what I thought, anyway, though the truth is weirder. The bald knobbers were a vigilante group in 1880s Mississippi who wore horned black hoods. And despite the weird headgear they were guys who mostly sided with the North during the Civil War, at least according to Wikipedia and a few other articles I read online.

If you want to know a little more about them, read this book. When Cole tells his classmates about a book he read over the summer, Bald Knobbers: Vigilantes of the Ozarks, he pulls on his own horned hood before reading his report. The report appears in title boxes as we see what happened to Cole over the summer, which starts him being shuttled between his separated parents, who are both seriously pissed off at each other. There’s also his mom’s live-in boyfriend Brad, who Cole doesn’t like, and an asshat of a neighborhood bully who talks crap about Cole’s mom while burning insects with a magnifying glass. You know: typical children of divorce stuff. (Or at least it’s all very close to what I remember from my childhood, except for the hood.) I won’t ruin Cole’s vigilante justice against Brad, but it’s hilarious. Things between Cole’s parents keep getting worse as the parallels between Cole’s story and the history of the Bald Knobbers becomes clear. The end of both stories kind of beautifully peters out, though things aren’t quite finished between Cole and the bully.

The book is full of black ink, like the fabulous Teenagers from Mars. It’s deadpan and sad and realistic, and Cole’s dad is something of an alcoholic, so I really appreciated the laughs it provides. Some teens will, I’m sure, love this book, but I unreservedly recommend it to adults whose parents were divorced when they were kids. In fact I think I’ll get my middle sister a copy for her birthday.