Status: Ongoing (currently 4 volumes)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Rin loves solo camping, and even though she’s only in high school, she’s already made numerous camping trips on her own. The quiet, the beauty of the scenery, the delicious camp food . . . it’s all quite enchanting. On one camping trip, Rin encounters another student, Nadeshiko, who is about as bubbly and enthusiastic as Rin is calm and collected. Yet the two quickly form a fast–if unusual–friendship, texting back and forth, trading camping advice, and sending pictures of places they’ve gone. Sometimes they even go camping together with Nadeshiko’s outdoor club from school, which is fun too, if a different sort of fun from the camping to which Rin is accustomed.
Laid-Back Camp is a very unusual but charming manga. It’s very chill–the “laid-back” in the title is quite appropriate. There’s a seinen flavor to the story, even though the main characters are all high-school girls. And it’s a very cute, fun story revolving around Rin and Nadeshiko in their separate camping-related endeavors (Rin’s solo camping trips to fabulous locales, Nadeshiko’s goofing around with her school club, shopping trips to camping supply stores, and group camping trips) while also developing the unusual friendship between these two. The other side of this manga is that it is, in fact, a camping manga. Which doesn’t mean you have to like camping or be interested in it to enjoy the story; it’s cute and fun either way. But if you are interested, the manga actually provides a lot of information–comparing camping supplies based on cost and utility, describing various sorts of campsites, even going over camp-friendly recipes. It’s pretty cool, giving lots of info without obnoxiously overriding the story. I’ve really enjoyed reading Laid-Back Camp and look forward to reading future volumes of it.
Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In a small Welsh town where it rains nearly daily and nothing every really happens, Dylan finds himself the last boy anywhere near his age. So even a soccer game is out. Left keeping the petrol log for his family’s gas station/mechanic shop and avoiding the unwelcome attentions of “Terrible” Evans, it seems like nothing will ever change . . . until one day when a whole cavalcade of vans rumbles past their station, up the mountain, to the abandoned slate quarry. Suddenly, the town is abuzz with gossip. Perhaps even moreso when it becomes known that the contents of the National Gallery have been temporarily relocated to the quarry due to flooding. And somehow, the presence and exposure to the art there begins to change Dylan and his town . . . but will the changes all be for the good, or will Dylan and his siblings be inspired to more sinister designs?
As always, Frank Cottrell Boyce delivers a home run of a story in Framed. The writing, the characters, the themes–it’s all brilliantly executed and very readable. I love the way he chooses a few motifs and uses them repeatedly to tie the story together and draw out deeper ideas in a way that’s relatable. Surprisingly, this is perhaps the most credible and realistic of his stories that I’ve read to date; most of them tend to be rather tall-tale like (or even just be absurd science fiction), but this story is something that–while improbably–could possibly actually happen. Which is actually pretty great, because this is a story of inspiration and positive change in the midst of darkness and stagnation. I love the art aspect of this story as well; in a lot of ways that aspect reminds me of E. L. Konigsburg’s books (she’s another favorite of mine!). All in all, Framed is a great middle-grade story which reaches way beyond its intended grade range–recommended for basically anyone!
Author: Andrew Clements
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Normally, Jack Rankin is something of a model kid–polite, hard-working, good grades. Life isn’t exactly normal right now, though. The entire middle school has been dumped in the ancient high-school building for the year until their new building is ready to use . . . the high-school building where Jack’s dad works as the janitor. Not a big deal, except let’s be honest, when the other kids find out, it’s totally a big deal. Let the teasing begin. And wondering why his dad so desperately wants to ruin his life, Jack begins to get angry. That’s when he comes up with the perfect revenge.
Although I’ve been vaguely aware of Andrew Clements’ writings for some time, this is the first time I’ve actually read one of his books, and I must say, I’m impressed. This middle-grade/coming-of-age story is warm, humorous, accessible, and engaging. Moreover, it delves deep into the complexities of the parent-child relationship at a challenging age and stage of life, opening some interesting discussions on the topic from both the child’s and the parent’s point of view. I love, love, love that the story actually carries Jack through the transformation of perspective from seeing his dad as someone who provides for him and tells him what to do to seeing his dad as an actual whole person with his own problems and stories and personality. It’s something I’ve experienced personally, but I’ve never seen a book actually develop this phenomenon before. I think this is what truly raises the bar in this book, transforming it from an amusing middle-grade story to a beautiful, moving coming-of-age story. I also really enjoyed how much individual personality each of the characters had and the way in which that personality affected the flow of the plot. In short, The Janitor’s Boy was an impressive surprise for me, and I would highly recommend this book.
Author: Kimberly Willis Holt
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Nothing much ever happens in the sleepy Texas town of Antler. Or so Toby Wilson thinks until the summer of 1971 blows into town like an ill wind, bringing challenges and change aplenty. His best friend Cal’s brother is in Vietnam fighting, and Cal can’t seem to bring himself to even write him back. Toby’s mom went to Nashville for a country music competition, and now Toby isn’t sure she’s ever coming home. And then Zachary Beaver rolls into town in a trailer with red letters proclaiming him the fattest boy in the world. That sure brings some excitement to the town as folks line up to pay their two dollars and gawk (Toby and Cal included). But then Zachary’s guardian leaves town . . . without Zachary, and as they begin to spend more time with him, Toby gradually discovers there’s more to Zachary than a stuck-up, overly hygienic, overweight kid.
Why does this book not get more love?! I’d never even heard of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town until I happened to stumble across it in the middle of a book sale, where I picked it up on whim. It’s fabulous. The tone is simple and captures small-town thirteen-year-old boy remarkably well. There are a lot of coming-of-age elements as Toby and his friends deal with loss, loneliness, love, family, and learning to understand those who are different from themselves. And all of this is expressed in a simple yet moving way that I really enjoyed reading. I valued the flaws that were present even in the most likable of the characters, the humanity of them, and the way these flaws influenced their choices. It was also interesting to read something Vietnam War era that wasn’t focused on big cities, university campuses, and peace protests; you get a much better picture here of how the war affected everyday life for the majority of the country, I think, and just a better picture of what life was like at that time. I would certainly recommend When Zachary Beaver Came to Town both for middle-grade readers (the intended audience) and for older readers as well. It’s excellent.
Author: Julia Álvarez
My rating: 2.5 of 5
After his parents’ divorce, Miguel, his mom, and his bratty little sister Juanita move to Vermont to start a new life. Of course, Miguel misses his friends in New York, his baseball team, and his artist father who is always teaching him the names of colors. But soon, it seems, he’ll have more to worry about in Vermont. Mami’s Tía Lola is coming all the way from the Dominican Republic to stay with them for a while and help out. Tía Lola is embarrassing–she’s colorful and loud and talks to everyone, but she only speaks Spanish! But maybe she’s not all bad. . . .
Well, I must admit, How Tía Lola Came to
Visit Stay was a surprise for me. I really expected to love it. I probably ought to have loved it. It’s a solid middle-grade story with all the right stuff–helping kids deal with divorce, sports, family, cultural diversity, the works. Plus it gives a good look into Dominican culture, and it helps introduce kids to lots of Spanish words. Plus it teaches about giving people a chance and looking for unexpected ways to handle problems. But the truth is that this book just fell kind of flat for me. A large part of it is that the entire story is written in present tense, which has always been challenging for me to adjust to in a book. I love the premise of playing with tenses and persons in writing, but when it comes down to it, present tense is just awkward in large quantities. Also, for all the colorful details Álvarez put into the characters, they never felt like solid, real people; I could never really see them or connect to them. So, although I think I would like to give Álvarez’s writing another try in a different book, I didn’t love How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay like I expected and wanted to.
Author/Illustrator: Svetlana Chmakova
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Peppi Torres manages to thoroughly mess up her first day in her new middle school by 1) tripping in the hall and dumping all her books, 2) getting helped by Jaime, a quiet kid with a reputation as a huge nerd, and then 3) pushing him and running away. Following this fiasco, Peppi does manage to find a place for herself in the school’s art club where she makes some good friends . . . even if she’s pretty much on her own during the rest of the school day. She still feels awfully guilty over pushing Jaime, especially when he begins tutoring her in math. And life becomes even more complicated when Peppi’s art club and the science club–of which Jaime is a member–become locked in a fierce competition for a table at the school’s cultural festival. Totally awkward, especially since Peppi finds that Jaime might actually be a great friend.
I absolutely loved Awkward! I can’t believe I haven’t seen it getting more love. This is a fantastic realistic slice-of-life school story for everyone–in graphic novel style. The setting is middle-school, so obviously that’s the primary intended audience, but the story is great and the messages it holds are valid for everyone (I’d say upper elementary and older). The writing tone is great–it captures that, well, awkwardness of being in middle school and figuring life out and all extremely well. The things Peppi goes through are credible, the sorts of issues that real people actually deal with. But the story is also funny and immensely positive in its message. It’s a great encouragement to work hard, work together, make all sorts of friends, and believe in possibilities. The characters are rich and fun to read, full of personality and individuality. And the art does a great job of reflecting this, with expressive character designs, attractive coloring, and a layout that’s easy to follow and focuses strongly on the people. I would definitely recommend Awkward to all sorts of people, and especially to those who enjoy graphic novels or are at that, well, awkward stage of life themselves.