A rich, compelling tale that deftly explores bleak themes for young readers.


A tween comes to grips with the darkness in himself and others.

In this harsh but heartfelt middle-grade novel, it seems as if nothing can go right for 12-year-old Sam Nolen and his family. Their rural Australian sheep farm is suffering after six years of drought; money is tight; and Sam’s older brother Ben’s moodiness has progressed to outright anger. Later, there is news of a neighbor’s suicide; Sam loses his arm helping out on another farm; his father hijacks a water truck; and Ben dies under confusing circumstances. As Sam struggles to make sense of the problems in his family and community, adjust to the loss of a limb, and understand his own emotions, he decides that people have a “Monster” within them, shaping their behavior for good and ill. He sets out to understand the rules concerning these Monsters, including “Most people don’t know they exist.” Despite its Grapes of Wrath–esque grimness—the story includes a variety of tragedies, intentional and unintentional deaths, and maimings; and if things can get worse for Sam’s family, they nearly always will—the book is utterly engaging and rewarding. It is suitably funny at times, with Sam’s perfect blend of earnestness and cynicism bringing the narrative voice to life. There is an element of mystery, as Sam uncovers what happened to Ben, that fits seamlessly into the coming-of-age plot. The ending is redemptive, and Sam draws conclusions about human behavior from his study of Monsters, but it never feels forced, moralizing, or inauthentic. A strong cast of secondary characters—especially Cliff, a biker gang leader who becomes Sam’s mentor in amputee life—adds to the book’s layers. Readers who are unfamiliar with Australian life will have little trouble making sense of the story’s regionalisms, and a wealth of details, like the hierarchy of uses and reuses for the limited supply of water, makes the setting feel both desperate and real. Rostirolla balances evoking readers’ sympathies with avoiding maudlin emotions, successfully turning a novel about stark and painful topics into an enjoyable read.

A rich, compelling tale that deftly explores bleak themes for young readers.

Pub Date: April 4, 2023

ISBN: 9780999189177

Page Count: 298

Publisher: Pinkus Books

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2023

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Telgemeier’s bold colors, superior visual storytelling, and unusual subject matter will keep readers emotionally engaged and...


Catrina narrates the story of her mixed-race (Latino/white) family’s move from Southern California to Bahía de la Luna on the Northern California coast.

Dad has a new job, but it’s little sister Maya’s lungs that motivate the move: she has had cystic fibrosis since birth—a degenerative breathing condition. Despite her health, Maya loves adventure, even if her lungs suffer for it and even when Cat must follow to keep her safe. When Carlos, a tall, brown, and handsome teen Ghost Tour guide introduces the sisters to the Bahía ghosts—most of whom were Spanish-speaking Mexicans when alive—they fascinate Maya and she them, but the terrified Cat wants only to get herself and Maya back to safety. When the ghost adventure leads to Maya’s hospitalization, Cat blames both herself and Carlos, which makes seeing him at school difficult. As Cat awakens to the meaning of Halloween and Day of the Dead in this strange new home, she comes to understand the importance of the ghosts both to herself and to Maya. Telgemeier neatly balances enough issues that a lesser artist would split them into separate stories and delivers as much delight textually as visually. The backmatter includes snippets from Telgemeier’s sketchbook and a photo of her in Día makeup.

Telgemeier’s bold colors, superior visual storytelling, and unusual subject matter will keep readers emotionally engaged and unable to put down this compelling tale. (Graphic fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-545-54061-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2016

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Charming, poignant, and thoughtfully woven.


An aspiring scientist and a budding artist become friends and help each other with dream projects.

Unfolding in mid-1980s Sacramento, California, this story stars 12-year-olds Rosalind and Benjamin as first-person narrators in alternating chapters. Ro’s father, a fellow space buff, was killed by a drunk driver; the rocket they were working on together lies unfinished in her closet. As for Benji, not only has his best friend, Amir, moved away, but the comic book holding the clue for locating his dad is also missing. Along with their profound personal losses, the protagonists share a fixation with the universe’s intriguing potential: Ro decides to complete the rocket and hopes to launch mementos of her father into outer space while Benji’s conviction that aliens and UFOs are real compels his imagination and creativity as an artist. An accident in science class triggers a chain of events forcing Benji and Ro, who is new to the school, to interact and unintentionally learn each other’s secrets. They resolve to find Benji’s dad—a famous comic-book artist—and partner to finish Ro’s rocket for the science fair. Together, they overcome technical, scheduling, and geographical challenges. Readers will be drawn in by amusing and fantastical elements in the comic book theme, high emotional stakes that arouse sympathy, and well-drawn character development as the protagonists navigate life lessons around grief, patience, self-advocacy, and standing up for others. Ro is biracial (Chinese/White); Benji is White.

Charming, poignant, and thoughtfully woven. (Fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-300888-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2020

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