The smell of familiar houses

Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt With Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Scholastic Graphix, 2018. 9780545902489. 310pp.

Krosoczka’s mom was the third of five kids. Her parents weren’t too happy when she got pregnant (she was pretty young), but supported her by buying her a house near them. His early memories are happy, but there’s a dark edge there — men coming over, a recurring nightmare of being surrounded by monsters. After his mother gets arrested (not for the first time), his parents move Jarrett into their house. He lives there as his mother drifts in and out of his life, seeming to get better and then relapsing. She lets him down again and again as he grows up, discovers his love of creating comics, and finally even meets his father, who didn’t want to have anything to do with him when he was born.

The book is full of drinking and smoking (I bet his grandparents’ place smelled like my parents’ houses) and even has a little swearing (though I bet there was a lot more in real life). It was a dark, difficult read for me because it all hit so close to home. It’s stayed with me, and I’ve found myself returning to its pages over and over again since finishing it a few weeks back, and I know there are kids out there who will read it repeatedly even though it’s not as funny as his Lunch Lady, Jedi Academy, and Platypus Police Squad series.

Starting Middle School

Sarah: A friend of mine, her daughter is going to middle school next year. The school she goes to now has a lot of kids who have been protected from the bumps and bruises of life. The don’t have testing, they don’t have grades. It feels very accepting and hippie-ish, but they get to use computers.
Gene: I have some friends whose kids went to a school like that, and they didn’t end up too crazy.
S: It’s interesting, some of them go to similarly special middle schools, and some of them go to the regular middle schools, which can be a bit of a change.
G: Kids with chains and filed-down teeth waiting for them at the door.
S: Waiting to suck their blood.
So my friend gets a letter from the school about how to help her help her daughter to adjust to the changes in going to a new school. The whole thing is about how it’s hard, and it’s harder when they’re going through puberty and social changes, and starting to argue with their parents and having their own sense of what their lives should be. They’re no longer your cute perfect darling children. It can be hard. But it doesn’t approach it as though it’s normal (which it is) and that every parent goes through this (which they do), it’s more like, “This is the upcoming tsunami that’s going to hit your home, you may be concerned. Here’s how to ensure they don’t become dead-eyed drug addicts.”
G: I think I got a letter like this, too, years ago.
S: At the end of the letter, there is a list, Great Books About — and this is actually in quotations — “Middle School.”
G: (laughs) Because we’re not really talking about middle school?
S: I have no idea. There are four fiction and three nonfiction books. The nonfiction books are fairly well-chosen. There’s some recent ones and some older ones that are pretty good.
G: Does it mention using a short-wave radio to call for help?
S: Right, no, it’s not quite that bad. The fiction books, though… my friend, who has an MLIS, who makes booklists herself, was dismayed that they were so old. Old enough that two weren’t in the public library anymore, one was available only as an ebook rerelease, one that’s just old and there are only two copies available.
G: Maybe it’s a cry for help from whoever made that list. Maybe the list had to be district-approved.
S: Exactly. I feel the same frustration with lists people get from their doctors after a diagnosis. The books are all ten or fifteen years old and the library system only has one copy left, with a long, long waiting list. I want to write back to the doctors with a list of ten newer books and tell them to pick the ones they like.
G: You should do that for the school.
S: My friend asked me to make her a list she could share with the other parents.
G: That’s great! You’re living the librarian’s dream!
S: But 99% of my booklist is graphic novels, because that’s what I read. So I wanted to ask if you had some recommendations. Here’s what I have so far:
Awkward and Brave
G: I really liked Brave.
S: Drama.
G: How old is the main character in Drama?
S: I had thought she was in high school, but the synopsis said middle school.
Jedi Academy.
G: Timeless.
S: All’s Faire in Middle School.
G: Liked it, but maybe a limited audience.
S: I added this because I like the author and it had a lot of positive reviews, Planet Middle School. It’s poems about a girl making the shift into middle school, trying out new ways of being more grown up. And these two, which are constantly being requested by kids, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda and Dork Diaries.
G: Are those middle school?
S: As far as I can tell, yes. Though it’s tough to say sometimes, when the summary describes the characters as being in sixth grade. That could be elementary or middle school. My friend does know me, and would not be surprised if I gave her a list full of graphic novels, but if you can think of any others. There’s those James Patterson middle school comedy novels that seem to be really popular…
G: I don’t read this age very much.
S: …and I don’t know if they’re positive hopeful you-can-do-it kind of books about middle school. Because you don’t necessarily want to give them the books where it looks like everyone gets teased.
G: I haven’t read this series, but I’ve heard they’re good: Positively Izzy. And Roller Girl is solidly middle school, about finding your way.
S: But it’s a summer story more than a school story.
G: But it’s a friend story. Real Friends is good, too
S: But that’s elementary, right?
G: Is it?
S: I seem to think it was pretty young.
G: I can’t remember how old the kids are in the Sunny Books, but Swing It Sunny is middle school. And there’s now a middle school Babymouse book.
S: I think I should ask a children’s librarian, too, because kids in late elementary grades are the ones who are curious about starting middle school. The kids in middle school are thinking about other things, because they’re there already. Which is why I thought of Drama, because it’s not about starting middle school, it’s about being in it.
G: Yeah, I would never booktalk a book about starting middle school in a middle school.
S: Right. My friend thought that clearly the expert would be the teen librarian, but apparently not.
G: Ask us about the transition to high school. The indirect stories, anyway. The direct how-tos are for parents.
S: I want to have the parents read these graphic novels. I want to say, “Hey, it’s not that bad. Everything seems horrible to them because that’s their bodies and their brains going through big changes. Everything seems intense because it’s all new. But people survive this. Kids survive this every day. You’ll survive it. It’s going to be obnoxious, but you’ll survive it.”

So Prepared

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. First Second, 2018. 9781626724457.

Gene: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, the very delightful Vera Brosgol, who I met at a dinner during Emerald City Comic Con and talked to for a bit. I loved Anya’s Ghost and… and what was her picture book about knitting?
Sarah: Leave Me Alone, which was so great.
G: She was also on a panel that I moderated. Vera lives in Portland and worked in animation, and this is her second graphic novel… Anya’s Ghost was more YA.
S: Yeah, and this one is a little more tween-y.
G: Maybe even a little younger. The protagonist is Vera when she was 9. The story is not quite factual, and she explains that in detail at the end of the book.
S: She combined a couple of years of summer camp into one.
G: There are some charming real-life things, like real letters from camp. The first one says “Dear mom, could you pick me up as soon as you get this? PLEASE! I’m desperate” (Only later on do you find out that that one was actually written by her brother.)
S: And later there’s a much, much longer real letter from young Vera that talks about how terrible camp is, all the kids are mean, I can’t deal with this…
G: It has the feel of an autobiography. I think it’s very autobiographical in terms of feelings, if not in terms of actual events. I believe she really grew up pretty poor, a Russian immigrant, going to Russian Orthodox church…
S: It was these tiny little differences between her and her friends that made her feel like a complete outcast.
G: The birthday party scene.
S: Oh, the birthday party scene! It’s heartbreaking.
G: It’s so clear that Vera is the little girl that the other kids’ parents talk to.
S: Yeah. There’s a scene where all the girls are setting up their cute flowered heart covered sleeping bags and she has a pillow and blanket with a patch on it.
G: And the other girls arrange themselves in a star shape together on the floor and she’s off by herself. And they all have these super-expensive dolls that they’re talking about and she doesn’t have one. It’s brutal and really well done.
S: Yeah.
G: And then she has her own birthday party that does not go well. You can see it’s not going to go well.  Her family is poor, her mom’s a single mom, so they have the off-brand pizza, there’s Russian lettering on the cake. And the other kids are terrible about it all.
S: Do you have memories like that from elementary school? Where it was the tiny differences that kids would be completely obsessed with? I was the kid that the parents talked to at the party.
G: I wasn’t the kid the parents talked to. I fear that I was a kid who was inadvertently terrible. I had no worries when I was a kid, but we didn’t have a lot of stuff, either.
S: There are things like that I remember from my own life, I could feel so apart because I didn’t have the right brand of pants or something like that. My family wasn’t poor, we were just spending money on things other than pants.
G: My mother was very focused on us having those things even though she was a single mom, probably to a crazy extent. I had the right brand of jeans, she used to make me wear velour shirts because they were cool. She was wrong on some things, too. I think she was doing her best, but it was strange and hard to push back against it all until I was a teenager. I want that book to be written, too. Where a kid is forced to be the on-brand kid even though he doesn’t want to be.
But, back to the story, one of the big differences between Vera and her friends is that they all go away to camp in the summers while she’s stuck at home.
S: But one day at Orthodox church another girl says that she was gone last week because she was at camp. And Vera’s like “CAMP???” Turns out the Orthodox church sponsors this camp and might be willing to help her mom pay the fee to send her to camp for TWO WEEKS!
G: So she gets to go the next year, the summer after fourth grade.
S: And she’s so excited.
G: And her brother goes to the little kid part of the camp.
S: And at the end of the book she talks about how this organization was set up outside of Russia after the revolution to maintain this traditional sort of camping with a religious background because it was prohibited in the Soviet Union. It was interesting that she went into a camp with these fully-formed camp traditions that were totally unfamiliar to me as the reader.
G: It’s really cool, right? If she went to the sort of camp we recognized from movies, like Meatballs, it would be very different. Instead they go to a place where all the kids who go are different in the same way, but then she’s thrown in with these older girls.
S: Those girls!
G: Her little brother goes off with a camp counsellor who’s amazing, but hers is a seventeen-year-old girl who seems out of her depth. Her brother has a great time. The other girls in Vera’s tent are fourteen, and she’s this pre-pubescent nine-year-old girl. The girls are both named Sasha, they’ve been to camp together for years, and they’re totally crappy.
S: They’re obsessed with a cute boy at camp.
G: Very says goodbye to her mom, then finds out about the Hollywood.
S: Hollywood!
G: My favorite part of the camp, the doorless outhouse. Three toilet seats, right next to each other, no divider. There are so many toilet gags in this book. The one where she’s in there and she looks up and there are spiders all over the ceiling.
S: Uuuuugh! It has the air of a vivid sense memory.
G: It’s terrible, because she’s really alone for two weeks, she wants to go home, the girls are crappy to her and hiding candy, she’s feeding a chipmunk, they’re washing their hair in the lake. There’s a capture the flag game going on between the girls and the boys… it’s getting just a bit better, bordering on bearable, and then her mom comes to take her home… and says she has to stay two more weeks!
S: That was a great plot twist, I enjoyed that a lot.
G: Other stuff happens, plot-wise. More capture the flag. There’s a missing hamster. She makes a friend. It’s really sweet.

The Starlost

Lost Stars Volume 1 (Star Wars) by Yusaku Komiyama, based on an original story by Claudia Gray. Yen Press, 2018. 9781975326531. 256pp.

A Japanese manga adaptation of a Star Wars novel originally written in English, translated back into English. Strange thought? Yeah. Worth reading? Totally.

Thane and Ciena are friends who grew up on the same backward planet with the same dream: attend the Imperial Academy. At the academy they were on the verge of becoming more than friends, but were driven apart. Now Thane flies an X-wing for the Rebellion, and Ciena is rising in the Imperial ranks. How’d all this happen? It’s not quite clear by the end of this, the first volume of the story, which takes place in the background of the original Star Wars trilogy (the good one, the original original, not the three movies you’re trying to forget).

When I talk about comics at library staff days and conferences, I meet a lot of folks who never read manga. I often recommend they try the original Star Wars manga that Dark Horse published back in the 90s because it’s easier to relate to the manga art style when the story is already familiar. But since those are long out of print, this is going to become my go-to recommendation for such folks. The focus lines make X-wings soar and help the AT-ATs on Hoth look extra intimidating. The layouts make for some amazing pacing. And everyone has such great hair! It’s kind of a relief. (I mean, have you watched the original trilogy lately? Why did no one in that far far galaxy ever invent hair care products?)

I Know What You Did Last Summer

All Summer Long by Hope Larson. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018. 9780374310714. 172pp.

I loved this amazing middle grade graphic novel by Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time, Batgirl, Chiggers, and my favorite of hers, Salamander Dream). Bina (13) is stuck at home and all alone after finishing 7th grade when her best friend and next door neighbor Austin (also 13) heads for soccer camp. They’re growing up and may be growing apart — Austin doesn’t want to participate in calculating their Combined Summer Fun Index anymore, and seems to be looking ahead to high school rather than their last year in middle school. But she starts to get seriously good on her electric guitar, and finds a few bands she really likes. Has she found her thing, music? Are things about to get weird between her and Austin? Can she really be friends with Austin’s older sister, Charlie, the loudest lifeguard at the pool?

Larson’s graphic novel captures something true about the transitional time at the end of middle school without turning it into too overt a lesson, and shows that, yeah, boys and girls can absolutely be just friends for the long term.

Stay Hungry

The Smell of Starving Boys by Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang. SelfMadeHero, 2017. 9781910593400. 109pp.

Post Civil War, a dapper British photographer and a gruff geologist survey wild parts of Texas. The photographer fled scandal back in New York, the geologist seems as interested in the locations of native villages as in rocks, and the young “boy” assisting them has a secret of his own. There’s a skeletal man on their trail, plus a very amused native who’s always nearby, watching, and more than a little sex.

The tale ends, as westerns must, with some violence, but before that it’s filled with beautiful images and colors. Peeters’ graphic novels always seems to have surreal images, and this is no exception — from an unexpected fish to a copse of trees that reminds me of his aama series, but it’s Phang who makes it all sing. From her horses and landscapes to the way she draws and colors shadows, particularly around campfires at night, every page of this book is beautiful.

Unruly Assassins for the Exceptional Assassin Trainer

Deadly Class Volume 1: Reagan Youth (1987) by Rick Remender and Wes Craig. Image, 2015. 9781632150035. Contains Deadly Class #1 – #6. Publisher’s Rating M / Mature.

I hadn’t read this series by Remender, and when I saw the Syfy network will soon air a show based on it, I wanted to read at least a bit of it before it aired. Based on the first collection, I’m going to give the TV series a try (but first I’m going to read the other collections — including the 7th, which comes out this August).

San Francisco, 1987. Marcus is living on the streets after the Sunset Boys Home was closed down. It’s rough, but he prefers it, and when begging isn’t enough to get by he turns to petty crime. And he’s being watched.

During a Day of the Dead celebration, he runs afoul of a police sting, and a beautiful girl helps him escape the cops (though she also helps abduct him). It’s all good, though, because a dapper bald guy with a serious mustache wants to make him an offer: attend Kings Dominion School of the Deadly Arts and train to become one of the world’s greatest assassins. The girl is already a student there so, really, in what world would he say no?

Marcus enters the school with a dangerous rep (it’s not clear why for a while), and gets a lot of the wrong kind of attention from different cliques. The cops are after him, breaking the school’s rules can have serious consequences, and there’s a disfigured redneck straight out of Preacher hunting him, too. But Marcus wants to succeed because he wants revenge. He plans to kill the man he blames for his parents’ deaths: Ronald Reagan.