Sustaining imperialism and empire requires that a society tell its youth stories of glory and honor. Aiza has heard these stories and dreams of becoming a knight and serving the Bayt-Sajji Empire, even though her Ornu people were recently colonized. The life that waits for her when she goes into training to become a squire is more complicated and dangerous than she expected. Her decision to hide her Ornu heritage only adds to the danger.

As Aiza trains to become a squire, she makes friends and enemies. She trains with Husni the wealthy dreamer, Basem the royal rule follower, and Sahar the strong tough girl. Aiza is headstrong, but hiding deep insecurities and it is clear that she may fail in her quest. And the cost of failure will be high. Any wash outs are immediately sent to the front lines as infantry in a never ending war the Bayt-Sajji are fighting. Just as Aiza is on the brink of losing everything, she happens on an opportunity to be trained by a former knight. As she secretly gains new skills, her chances improve. Yet, as her goal gets within her grasp, the cost of what she hopes to achieve becomes clearer. Will she close her eyes to the pain her Ornu people are suffering under the Empire, or will she stand up for them and jeopardize her chance at being a knight someday at possibly the cost of her life?

Writer Shammas sets up an intriguing fantasy world with distinct historical ties to the peoples of the Middle East, in particular the Bedouins. She fills this world with a cast of characters that could come from all parts of our world. There are many intriguing ideas explored as well. How does a colonized people become integrated into a conquering power? What power do ‘stories’ have over us and who gets to tell them? Is it more important to win the battle or be alive to write the story of the battle? What is the value of friendship? Can friendship survive keeping secrets, even if well-intentioned? At points, there might be too many ideas vying for space in this story. The narrative feels rushed as we reach the climax because so many ideas have been put in play.  I could imagine a trilogy of stories needed to unwind this complicated tale. Unfortunately, the motivations of the antagonist are also not well defined. There is a lot of figurative mustache twirling sans mustache.

The art and colors by Alfageeh are solid, particularly the colors. She draws clean lines and keeps the art realistic without being overly detailed. The landscape and buildings are excellent and evoke a sense of place well. Her faces occasionally lack definition and balance, yet the coloring helps the reader keep track of who is who. Her description of her process in the afterword is illuminating and welcome.

Squire is really a must buy for most public and school libraries. Even though a fantasy, it’s a story set in a thinly veiled historical Middle East told by a Palestinian-American writer and Jordanian-American artist. It adds much needed diversity to our graphic novel collections and kids will likely enjoy Aiza, her friends and the action. They will also benefit from the conscientious look at what it takes to sustain a colonizing empire and its effects on the peoples it oppresses.

By Nadia Shammas
Art by  Sara Alfageeh
Quill Tree, 2022
ISBN: 9780062945853

Publisher Age Rating: 14+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Jordanian-American, Palestinian-American,

Garlic and the Vampire

Oh, Grapes! Garlic is a ball (or bulb, rather) of anxiety. She struggles to make it to market day on time, has an unfortunate experience with spilled celery, and constantly worries how the witch, Agnes, will react. However, Garlic is more than her anxiety or her mistakes. With the help of Agnes and Carrot, Garlic begins to see herself as the brave and capable vegetable she is.

Garlic and the Vampire, by Bree Paulson, is an uplifting (and frankly, adorable) graphic novel about friendship, community, and self-discovery among anthropomorphic fruits and vegetables. Sometime ago Agnes, the witch, imbued life into her fruit and vegetables to help around her farm. Garlic, Carrot, Celery, Pumpkin, and the others plant seeds, tend to the growing plants, and harvest the produce. They are a hardworking community that takes pride in their work.

After a day at the market, someone notices smoke coming from a nearby abandoned castle.  A vampire has taken up residence, and their farm community is in danger. To Garlic’s utter horror, it is suggested that garlic’s natural vampire repellent properties make her the perfect candidate to confront the unwanted visitor.

This is a heartfelt and unique story that exceeded my expectations. This is not the type of story where a witch holds power over her constructs. Over the years, the plants have grown into their own individual beings with their own thoughts and ideas. In a scene I found to be particularly touching, Agnes takes the time to reassure Garlic’s anxieties by reminding her that she is an individual who has grown beyond the silent helper Agnes once created. Garlic has her own thoughts and feelings, is free to make her own choices, can take care of herself, and is able to go on her own adventures. In a children’s fantasy about anthropomorphic constructs, it’s refreshing to see respect for identity, choice, and consent.

This is also not the type of story where a community comes together to battle a vampire. Upon reaching the vampire’s castle, Garlic finds her bravery and her voice. She boldly confronts the vampire, with a threat to vanquish him should he not surrender the castle. Bree does a beautiful job illustrating this scene. We see a small garlic bulb threatening a vampire who towers above her. Garlic’s bravery is no longer in question; however, the vampire is not the monster they assume him to be.

Garlic’s best friend, Carrot (they/them), is also worthy of note. They are a calming force for Garlic, quick to offer support and guidance. And while Garlic is away in the castle, Carrot sits atop a water tower in vigil waiting for their friend’s return. Other characters use they/them pronouns when referring to Carrot, but it is handled as natural rather than with ceremony, another important touch in this story.

Paulsen uses the colors of a garden to illustrate this novel: tints of green throughout with natural reds, oranges, and browns. Drops of water land on leaves in the garden or come out of hysterical eyes. The characters are drawn with a cartoon feel. They have human-like bodies, and farmer clothes, with heads shaped like fruits and vegetables. Their eyes also hold a great deal of expression and character. For instance, there is little reason to question the character of either the vampire or the witch when you can see their eyes.

This book warmed my heart (and made me giggle a few times) from beginning to end. I strongly recommend this for elementary libraries and young library patrons. But honestly, I loved it, and I am sure its appeal will stretch beyond the intended audience. This will be a hit among readers, and I will, without a doubt, buy a copy for my high school library. I am sure many of my teens will eat it up (pun not exactly intended).

Garlic and the Vampire
By Bree Paulsen
Harper Collins Quill Tree Books, 2021
ISBN: 9780062995087
Publisher Age Rating: Grade 3-7

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

New Kid

All Jordan Banks wants to do is go to art school. Instead, his parents send him to the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School (which is far from his neighborhood and far from diverse), so he will gain opportunities that he might not otherwise. Out of his depth, Jordan finds himself struggling to fit in. Jerry Craft won the 2020 Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards for New Kid, and there are several good reasons for those accolades.

One of the great things about New Kid is that it strikes a balance between serious and light. It follows Jordan through his first year at his new school, where he has new experiences such as trying soccer and baseball and makes new friends, all while dealing with the microaggressions that people of color face in a predominantly white environment. While these issues are not played down, they never overwhelm the main narrative of a kid trying to figure out his new school. The result is a warm, thoughtful, and humorous story.

Another strength is the cast, particularly Jordan. Through his playful cartoons, the reader gets a clear sense of Jordan as a person, and Craft includes little details that give the character life, such as his fondness for his hoodie and love for superheroes. Craft strikes a balance between sweet, smart, and uncertain in a way that is highly relatable and engaging. The supporting cast are also distinct with their own unique quirks and struggles, and their interactions are true to life.

In addition to a strong story and protagonist, the artwork makes the action easy to follow and captures the actions and emotions throughout the book. Craft also uses the artwork to make his most serious points in a humorous way. For example, there’s a scene at the school book sale where most of the books featuring people of color have titles such as “Escape From Slavery,” their “empowering” messages the bookseller cries exaggerated tears over—a decision that make his points about bigger issues without overwhelming the main story.

Public and school libraries in particular will want to make sure to have it on the shelves as it is a great book for young people, and educators will be excited to know that there is a teaching guide to use in the classroom. Quill Tree Books (which is part of Harper) sets the age range at 8 to 12, and that is a good starting point; that being said, teens, especially those in middle school, will likely also enjoy New Kid. Other reviews have suggested that fans of Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang will enjoy this title. Because of its relatable protagonist and strong coming-of-age plot, readers who enjoy the work of Victoria Jamieson (author of Roller Girl), Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina, and Shannon Hale’s Real Friends should also enjoy New Kid.

New Kid
By Jerry Craft
ISBN: 9780062691200
Quill Tree Books, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 8 to 12

Browse for more like this title
Character Traits: Black
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator