Meow or Never

Author: Jazz Taylor

Publisher: Scholastics Inc.

Release Date: Jan 5/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and Scholastics Inc. for an eARC of this book.

I really enjoyed this story about Avery, a girl with social anxiety who signs up to be part of the school play to be around her crush and to calm her dad’s fears about her panic attacks, and is horrified to discover she is cast as the lead role. Avery has to first deal with her difficulty speaking to others, and then must figure out how to sing and act in front of an audience, with only 6 weeks until the play. Fortunately, she makes some friends along the way that support her, including a cat who lives in the closet of the school’s theatre. But will it be enough to help her get up on stage and perform the night of the play?

This is a very cute cover, but there’s a lot of depth to this book. I really appreciated that it’s a story about a Black girl written by Black author. I liked that Avery’s crush is on Nic, the prettiest girl in her school who also becomes her friend. I also felt the anxiety representation was very good. Avery’s friends learns to help her with her panic attacks, and offer support rather than judgment. We clearly see that her physical reactions are not a choice, and the process of preparing herself for the play feels very realistic. I especially like the resolution of the story. Avery works hard to face her fears, and many of the techniques she uses will be helpful for young readers. I loved watching her persistence and determination, continually making steps toward her goal even when it’s hard.

I think this is an excellent addition to middle grade collections, and I hope it’s available in Scholastic flyers so it reaches a larger audience.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

The Fabulous Zed Watson

Authors: Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: January 26/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to the authors for sending me an ARC of this book to review.

This was my most anticipated read of 2021, and it exceeded my expectations. I first heard about it last year at NerdCampMI, when Kevin shared that he was writing a middle grade fiction book with his child, Basil. It was the same time that I learned Kevin’s picture book, Gargantua Jr., had a lot more depth than I realized because the main character’s gender was never discussed yet I had attributed one to them without realizing it. I was eager to read The Fabulous Zed Watson and see the world through the eyes of a nonbinary tween, not only for the perspective, but with the hope of expanding my own knowledge about the idea of gender. I was pleasantly surprised that the story did that, and also treated me to a funny, entertaining, and uplifting mystery about a road trip quest to discover the whereabouts of a long lost book.

Zed is part of an online fandom for The Monster’s Castle, a manuscript written by H.K. Taylor that was buried several years ago by the author when he was told the world was not ready for his book’s storylines. Zed and the other fandom members are left to try and crack the code of the poem left behind, unsure if the manuscript even truly exists, but full of hope that it’s waiting to be found. When a discussion leads to a breakthrough, Zed desperately wants to take a road trip to follow the clues and look for it. They team up with their neighbor, Gabe, and his sister, Sam, on her return trip to college to head off on their quest. Although the trip is far from easy with three very different personalities in a small space, the trio not only learn to accept each other’s idiosyncrasies but have a lot of fun (and SO much ice cream!) along the way. They discover they are on the right track, and have interesting experiences at each of their stops as they start to put together clues to the location of their final destination. But they discover they are not the only ones searching for the manuscript, and it becomes a race to see who can find the book first.

My favorite thing about this story was how positive and fun it was to read. I was expecting an “issues” book which often come across as heavy and serious, but this was a joy-filled adventure that still communicated who Zed is and what they experience. Zed has a big personality but Gabe accepts them and tries to understand them rather than judging them. Gabe struggles with having interests that aren’t accepted by everyone around him, but Zed provides support and respect for his interests. It’s a story about friendship, but also about identity and acceptance.

There are so few ownvoices middle grade stories with nonbinary characters, so I sincerely hope this book will make its way into as many classrooms, libraries, and homes as possible. Although this is Basil’s debut, Kevin has a wide range of books for kids all ages. My personal favorite is the science fiction MiNRS series, but his latest is a humorous chapter book series called Hockey Super Six about a team of hockey players with special powers. Both The Puck Drops Here and On Thin Ice are available now in Canada from Scholastic.

Recommended: Gr. 4-7

From The Roots Up

Author: Tasha Spillett

Illustrator: Natasha Donovan

Publisher: Highwater Press

Release: October 27/20

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to the publisher for an eARC of this book.

I was very excited to get a chance to read this YA graphic novel sequel to Surviving The City. The series is set in Winnipeg, and it’s an important book for readers not only for its insightful and honest depiction of what many Indigenous youth face, but for greater empathy and understanding about the Two-Spirit person experience.

In this story, Dez is living in a group home after the death of her kokum. She and Miikwan are still best friends, but they’re both exploring relationships with other people. Dez is discovering that she is a Two-Spirit person, but she isn’t sure how to tell Miikwan. Miikwan is attracted to a new boy at school named Riel, and invites him to take part in an after school program for Neechi students. When Dez wants to take part in the drumming that is traditionally a male-only activity, the Elders are faced with addressing change and expanding their understanding of the gender roles with which they were raised. Riel’s Auntie Alex, who is a Two-Spirit person, attends one of the group’s meetings and talks about their experience, and the fact that many nations have had individuals who have different genders or sexualities, but that it’s a part of their cultures that were also taken from them. As Dez begins to connect to a new identity, each person in the story is affected by it.

I think this story is so important because I have never read a story for young people that addresses Two Spirit people, and how they can feel like they belong just as they are. Not only does the author teach the reader, but she does so in a way that’s relatable and respectful of teens and their relationships. I loved the older and supportive female characters such as the group mom, Karen, and Elder Linda, who help Dez and accepted her period of self exploration. The illustrations in this book are gorgeous, and add so much depth to the story.

This book is an essential addition to classroom and libraries not only in Manitoba, but also across Canada and the US. Please make sure you also have the first book in the series, Surviving the City.