A new Kyo Maclear title is always cause for celebration. Operatic is quiet and delicate but powerful. It’s about all the things you might expect a graphic novel set in middle school to be about–identity, friendship, crushes, bullying. It’s also about opera. Maria Callas, to be exact.
Much of the story unfolds in Mr. K’s music class, where students are preparing for their final assignment: finding the song that represents them. Charlie isn’t sure what her song is, because she isn’t sure who she is or what she stands for. Her research into the life and art of Maria Callas illuminates in unexpected ways some dynamics she has observed at school and ultimately leads her to reach out to a misunderstood classmate.
Byron Eggenschwiler’s art is so evocative–by turns restrained and lush as the story requires. While I think the cover will attract certain readers, it’s a little misrepresentative, as I think all the swirls and purple and gold suggest a far more romantic and soft story.
Speaking of covers, this one for Saffy’s Angel, the first in Hilary McKay’s six-novel Casson family series, is pretty terrible. Apparently the publisher just doesn’t know how to market this series, because I found eight different covers online. But try to ignore the cover, because the story is pure sparkle and charm. If you love the Penderwicks, the Fletchers, or the Vanderbeekers, you will probably love the Cassons too. They’re a bit quirkier than any of those other families, with more art and eccentricity and certainly less competent (though very well-meaning) parents. There’s plenty of plot in each novel, but the real treat is the unfolding dynamics among the siblings and McKay’s wonderful writing.
It’s hard to live in a world with no new Elephant & Piggie titles, but at least we still have Pigeon. Mo Willems hits all the right notes in The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! Pigeon throws his usual tantrum; we find out what big feelings are behind the tantrum; and in the end, he discovers he’s actually excited about what he first dreaded. Best for readers familiar with the whole series because one of the best jokes is about a school bus.
I was sooooo excited about a new Unicorn title from Bob Shea, and then disappointed when I actually read the new book. Unicorn is still Unicorn, but somehow the charm of the first book was missing for me.
Tae Keller’s middle-grade novel is smart and thoughtful with engaging characters, a fun hook (science students trying to win an egg drop competition), and a heartfelt core as Natalie tries to understand her mother’s depression and find reasons for her to get well. I loved how the story was structured following the parts of a science experiment.
The only negative thing I have to say about Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel is that it isn’t written in verse (the verse part of her debut novel, The Poet X, was so strong). But I like to see that she can do such different things as a writer. With the Fire on High is about Emoni, who is juggling parenthood (she got pregnant when she was a freshman) with the demands of being a high school senior. Food is a big theme in this novel, as Emoni is a talented chef who can make magic in the kitchen. There are so many interesting relationships (including a very strong relationship with her abuela, who raised her) and believable characters who come to life on the page. In many ways it’s quite different from The Poet X, but still focused on themes of family, identity, growing up, what it means to be Latina, what it means to be authentic and true to yourself.