The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan

stormPre-teen Jack feels useless. It’s 1937, and it hasn’t substantially rained on his family’s Kansas farm in over four years. Most folks are starting to wonder if they’ll ever see storm clouds again. The only clouds that come by these days are the deadly black dust clouds that choke the breath out of every living thing, including Jack’s pneumonia-stricken older sister, Dorothy. Jack longs to do more than just wander around town and look after his sisters, but there is very little work to be done on the failing farm. With no way to show his father his worth, Jack is stuck between childhood and manhood, his burgeoning adolescence literally stifled by the dust. Until he sees the pulsing light that sporadically emanates late at night from the Talbots’ abandoned barn. When Jack investigates, he discovers a secret that could save his family and his town if he is brave enough to open a mysterious satchel and believe in the unseen. This is a great graphic read for all ages, with something for everyone within Phelan’s soft edged, sweeping panels. There’s an homage to The Wizard of Oz (and not just the one you know, but the whole amazing series by L. Frank Baum), suggestions of superheroes to come and shadows of former folk heroes who still live in story and song. There’s adventure and mystery, epic battles and small personal triumphs. There’s a sequence concerning a “rabbit drive” that broke my heart, and then a tender exchange between Jack and Dorothy that mended it. All evocatively illustrated by Matt Phelan in muted pencil, ink and watercolor, where smudged clouds hold hints of both promise and menace, and a boy’s expression changes from fearful to determined with just the subtlest change in the direction of the pencil line. Ironically, I started reading this wonderfully atmospheric GN set in the Dust Bowl after enduring one of the rainiest Junes on record. And then couldn’t wait to tell you about it, as this quietly powerful stunner is simply not to be missed.

Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood by Tony Lee, illustrated by Sam Hart and Artur Fujita

Sometimes it’s best not to mess with a classic. Instead of adding a bunch of modern bells and whistles, sometimes it’s better to just polish up an old masterpiece and introduce it to a new generation, who will still love it because it’s just that good. That’s the case in this gorgeous GN that chronicles the traditional story of Robin O’ the Hood, the devil-may-care outlaw of Sherwood Forest who robbed the rich to feed the poor, wooed the lovely Maid Marian and was the scourge of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Although there are several versions of the Robin Hood myth, the author tied his adaptation as closely as possible to actual historical people and events, making me forget throughout the reading that Robin Hood, like King Arthur, didn’t exist in real life (though some scholars claim these folk heroes may have been based on a combination of real people whose stories have been lost over time). Whatever the origin, I was swept away by this romantic medieval re-telling, in which Robin of Loxley returns home to England from the Crusades where he had been fighting at King Richard’s side to discover his father, the Earl of Loxley, has been murdered and his lands usurped by the crooked Sheriff of Nottingham and his henchman Sir Guy of Gisburn. Determined to avenge his father’s death, Robin joins the gang of outlaws led by John Little in Sherwood Forest and entreats the people of Nottingham to stand up against the corrupt Sheriff and his men. Things get more complicated when King Richard is taken hostage by his enemies and a ransom is demanded of the English people. Richard’s weak and conniving brother, Prince John (who is in league with the Sheriff) makes a show of raising the money by taxing the poor people of Nottingham, but is really sacking it away to bribe local nobles into helping him throw Richard off the throne!  Robin Hood begins to steal the tax money, giving a portion back to the people and saving a portion for the king’s ransom. This pisses off the Sheriff, who arrests Robin’s love Marian for treason and threatens to hang her unless Robin surrenders! Plus there’s an archery contest, several daring escapes, a couple of bloody sword fights, some hand to hand combat and lots and lots of disguises and various subterfuges. The panels feature dark figures brilliantly back lit by rich jewel tones that convey mood or character (for example, Robin most often emerges from emerald green forests, while Maid Marian rises from royal purple shadows). The effect is ominous and gritty, adding weight to a myth that feels more and more like actual history with each passing page. Corpus bones, this is a cracking good graphic read!

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

Fifteen-year-old Isabel, aka “Belly” has spent almost every summer of her life with her mom, her older brother Steven, her mom’s best friend Susannah,  and Susannah’s two sons Conrad and Jeremiah. Susannah has always been like a second mom to Belly, and Conrad and Jeremiah like another set of brothers. Belly loves the weathered old beach house, all the silly traditions she and the boys have maintained over the years, and the fact that nothing ever changes. Until this summer. This is the summer when things get confusing. This is the summer when divorce, sickness, and hurt feelings turn sunny days dark. This is the summer of first loves, second kisses and Belly finally admitting to herself which boy she loves more than just as a family friend. Because this is the summer Belly turns pretty and the whole world turns upside down. “Every summer up to this one, I believed it’d be different. Life would be different. And that summer, it finally was. I was.”  It’s good to know I still retain my tender teenage heart, which ached terribly upon finishing Belly’s story, a bittersweetly familiar one for any girl who ever fell in love between June, July or August.  More than just a cute candy beach book (although Han’s prose is as compulsively readable as the bag of Skittles one of her characters can’t stop popping), it has more in common with the multifaceted brand of chick lit penned by authors like Sarah Dessen, Justina Chen Headley and up and comer Sarah Ockler.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine. A word that has become synonymous with terror, pain and sadness. So what compelled me to read and review a book about the worst school shooting America has ever known? Well, for much the same reason that most adults who work with teens want to read it: to try and understand WHY. Author Dave Cullen, a journalist who covered the shooting for, has been researching the horrific events at Columbine High School for the last ten years. His fascinating findings are detailed in this groundbreaking book, which debunks several of the myths surrounding the shooting and provides a chilling portrait of Eric Harris, who Cullen states was the ringleader in this deadly gang of two. In clear, accessible prose, Cullen takes readers through the terrifying time line of the shooting and the events leading up to it. He presents detailed descriptions of the killers Harris and Klebold, the tragically slain victims & their families, and most poignantly, the injured survivors, some of who persevered against incredibly debilitating injuries. Based on hundreds of interviews with eye-witnesses, families, police and health professionals, Cullen challenges the false media perception of the so-called “Trench Coat Mafia,” the martyrdom of victim Cassie Bernall, and the notion that the two boys who coldly planned this apocalyptic event were themselves loners and targets of bullies. He also suggests that all the evidence points to this incident being less a school shooting than a failed bombing attempt, and should be categorized as such. Particularly absorbing is Cullen’s psychological portrait of Eric Harris, who emerges as a “textbook psychopath” with the ability to lie so well he completely convinced both his parents and his therapist that he was on the road to responsible citizenship after committing a spate of petty crimes. I highly recommend this title for high school students AND their parents. Far from being a titillating tabloid text, this meticulously researched and sensitive tome works to further our understanding of a terrible event and underlines the fact that we are all responsible for each other and for monitoring the warning signs that can lead to such a fatal tragedy as Columbine.

The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko

What would you do if your doppleganger suddenly walked up to you and offered to show you the parallel universes that existed right outside the thin fabric of your reality? One day when Ohio teenager John Rayburn heads to the barn to do chores, he is confronted by an identical man who claims he is actually JR himself, but from a parallel world. He calls himself John Prime, and offers JR a deal—a 24-hour vacation in a parallel universe, free of charge. What red-blooded adolescent wouldn’t take such a proposition? To travel to another time and place while your twin guards your life here? Except, that’s not exactly what happens. Turns out Prime’s device only works one way, and that’s forward. Once JR jumps ahead to another universe, he can no longer go back. And now Prime is living his stolen life and JR has no choice but to find a new place in the universe. At first JR stumbles around multiple universes (universi?), making newbie-universe-traveler mistakes like losing his money, accidentally bringing alien species into other universes, and referring to objects or technology that haven’t been invented yet in the universe he is currently visiting. But finally JR settles down in a universe not unlike his own and decides to study physics in order to learn how the device works—so he can throw the lever in reverse, kick Prime’s butt and take his life back. But first he’s going to finance his college education by inventing a little game called pinball…This mind-bending and thoroughly entertaining sci-fi will leave you pondering the possibilities of parallel worlds and appreciating the little things like reality TV, root beer and Rubik’s Cubes that make THIS universe so frickin’ awesome.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

An eight-legged thousand-ton iron frigate that moves like a deadly giant spider over a frozen wasteland.  A flying eco-system battleship made up of a sperm whale, bees, bats, falcons and hydrogen gas. These are just two of the amazing creations you will discover within the pages of Westerfeld’s startling new steampunk series. It’s the Austrio-German Clankers vs. the Franco-Bristish Darwinists in this alternate re-imagining of the beginnings of the Great War. In Westerfeld’s version, the European powers have split into two schools of military might: The Clankers, who believe in the power of iron and steam, and the Darwinists, who have used Charles Darwin’s recently discovered strands of DNA to fashion organic fighting machines, like the whale-based Leviathan of the title. When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated, their trusted advisors spirit away their only child, Prince Alek, to the safety of an abandoned castle in the middle of a wintery no-man’s land. Meanwhile, British tomboy Deryn Sharp has disguised herself as a boy in order to join the Royal Air Service, which uses Darwin’s principles to fabricate animals into viable war machines. When these two strong willed characters meet under the most unlikely of circumstances, it’s anyone’s guess whether oil or octopi will prevail. Is it possible for Clankers and Darwinists to learn to work together? Or is world war inevitable when these two mighty military powers clash?  I already know what most of you are thinking right now: Is Westerfeld’s latest creation as bubbly-making as his totally tubular Uglies series? Well, we’re talking about a completely different beastie here altogether, kids–more of a Mortal Engines meets Airborn with a little evolutionary biology thrown in for good measure. But one thing’s for certain—Westerfeld has kicked off his new series with bang, averaging more battles and bombings per chapter than a textbook on both World Wars combined. If nonstop-action and edge of your seat suspense is your cup of java, then this roaring, clanking, hissing, spitting, steaming trilogy opener is perfect for you, gentle reader. (And the rich illustrations by Keith Thompson that bring vivid life to Westerfeld’s incredible monsters and machines aren’t too shabby, either!) Just make sure to do more than glance over the author’s note in the back so’s you can tell the difference between fact and fiction in this larger than life alternate history.