MMGM and #IMWAYR: Invisible, Liar & Spy, Taproot, and more!

Why, hello there! I'm feeling pretty jovial, because I totally love books and forgot (as always) how helpful they are for staying hopeful and fulfilled, especially when the stress of life and the world gets heavier.

I've got three reviews of three excellent stories for you today, so why hesitate? Let's dive in!

Middle Grade

Invisible

Written by Christina Diaz Gonzalez and illustrated by Gabriela Epstein
Graphic novel · 2022

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

Can five overlooked kids make one big difference?

There’s George: the brain

Sara: the loner

Dayara: the tough kid

Nico: the rich kid

And Miguel: the athlete

And they’re stuck together when they’re forced to complete their school’s community service hours. Although they’re sure they have nothing in common with one another, some people see them as all the same . . . just five Spanish-speaking kids.

Then they meet someone who truly needs their help, and they must decide whether they are each willing to expose their own secrets to help . . . or if remaining invisible is the only way to survive middle school.

· · · · · ·

I've seen so much praise for this graphic novel, and I'm so glad I finally read it, because there's so much to love here!

This interview with Christina Diaz Gonzalez sums up the brilliance of making this story a retelling of The Breakfast Club—like that movie (which I've never seen but of course know about), this book takes five kids who are often assigned labels ("brain," "rich kid," etc.), or are even lumped under one label as Spanish speakers, and carefully shows the true diversity in experiences and ideas that exists within them. Even beyond the varied personalities of each of these five kids, just the fact that they all have backgrounds from different countries and all speak Spanish to varying degrees shatters the assumption that they can all be smushed into one category due to their race.

And I love the intentionality of letting each student tell the story at one point, revealing their home life in the process. Those moments of seeing each character with their families, dealing with their own struggles but also finding love and joy together, are so powerful. And there are revelations about basically every character that impact the way we see them—it reminds me of The Candymakers (and, you know, real life) in how someone might have a secret that makes them almost totally different from our initial impression of them.

I also adore the five kids themselves. I love that Miguel plays sports but is also in touch with his artistic side (and isn't so steeped in middle-school toxic masculinity that he can't still play tea party with his younger sisters). I love that Dayara is so much more complicated than the "angry kid" facade she wears to get through life. And I love Sara just because I can always root for a shy outcast character (even though I wasn't totally sure why she was an outcast...she seemed like a pretty normal, if quiet, kid to me).

The emphasis on altruism in this book is also beautiful. In that same interview I linked above, Christina Diaz Gonzalez notes how the smallest acts of kindness can genuinely change someone's life, which is so true here. And also, I think we tend to categorize people in society as the people who can help, and the people who need help—but this story shatters that dichotomy. Even as our main characters deal with problems from family pressures to housing and immigration concerns, they realize they still have the most important tool to make a difference in others' lives—not money, not power, but compassion. I think it is such a powerful message to kids that they always matter in the world, because they always have the power to make a difference, no matter what their circumstances are.

And to seal the deal, this book has a brilliant bilingual format that makes it one-of-a-kind. Gonzalez explains in this other interview that she wanted to create a book where dialogue would be in both English and Spanish, and visual cues would fill in any remaining info. And I think kids who are proficient in one language and have at least a little fluency in the other could totally read the book this way—the vast majority of dialogue is spoken in Spanish by the characters, and the full Spanish and English translations are placed side-by-side. There are a few parts early on that are more reliant on English only, but also, some of the characters of the book are having the same experience of not understanding the English being spoken around them—so maybe reading it without the translations is more immersive, in a sense (and there are a few translations even there to make it logical). I think having a book that melds English and Spanish is a powerful message to kids who speak both languages that they can have books made just for them (as opposed to books only in English, or only in Spanish). And I know for me personally, as a speaker of only English, I appreciated being able to mentally read the dialogue in my head in Spanish, so I knew how it actually sounded, and then read the translation. (I did find myself catching on to a surprising amount of Spanish dialogue on its own!)

I do think there are places where the plot could be polished up, but it was not really a major issue, except for two things. I was a little frustrated that Nico seemed to flip-flop from being totally irredeemable, to way more complex than we realized, and then back to irritating and irredeemable. And I also had some trouble getting on board with George—he did a few things in the story, particularly in his treatment of Sara, that seemed unreasonably harsh for a kid who, yes, is going through struggles, but also clearly knows better. Still, there's so much packed into Invisible that these minor issues don't distract from the story's excellence at all!

Liar & Spy

Written by Rebecca Stead
2012
Recommended by Greg Pattridge

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

The first day Georges (the S is silent) moves into a new Brooklyn apartment, he sees a sign taped to a door in the basement: SPY CLUB MEETING—TODAY! 
 
That’s how he meets his twelve-year-old neigh­bor Safer. He and Georges quickly become allies—and fellow spies. Their assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer’s requests become more and more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?

· · · · · ·

This book is breathtaking. I cannot believe I waited so long to re-read it, especially after Greg Pattridge of Always in the Middle let me know it's his favorite of Stead's books. (And it turns out he told me that like two years ago, so I'm very behind.)

Quick background—I read this book once a really long time ago but was too young to make any sense of it. So even though parts of it felt familiar as I read through it, it mostly felt like a brand-new book.

And wow, there is so much to love here, so of course I can't figure out where to start and feel totally overwhelmed. I feel like Liar & Spy is a story of mindfulness, in some ways—specifically, it is a book about staying present in everyday moments (whether using a spy mindset or not), and also being able to step back without getting stuck in anxieties or fantasies that aren't the here and now. I love these themes and how Stead incorporates them in so many different aspects of the story, especially since she has always been the Queen of Small Moments in her writing—she clearly knows how to pay attention to the world around her.

Stead also makes pretty explicitly clear that this book is about rules we think we have to follow, which fits pretty nicely with the aching depiction of middle school life in this story. At the end of the day, what speaks to me here is Stead's depiction of breaking free of conformity as freeing, rather than damaging. I know my own middle and high school careers consisted of me stubbornly being myself, at least inwardly, and I lived—and in this story, Georges learns to live too. On this note, I want to share a quote by Georges that I absolutely loved:

· · · · · ·

"Lunch. The hot lunch is pasta with meat sauce. It's actually delicious. Maybe not umami delicious, but pretty darn tasty. Hardly any of the other kids will eat it, because if you eat anything other than a dry, crumbly bagel for lunch at this school you are basically announcing yourself as a freak. You might as well be walking around without pants.

But I eat the hot lunch. I figure that life will have its share of dry bread, and that when there is meat sauce on the table, I should eat it. And I do." (p. 55)

· · · · · ·

I think it's clear from that quote how freaking amazing of a protagonist Georges is. Also, I didn't explain the umami thing—Stead, in her typical uncanny ability to turn basically any random fact or detail into a meaningful story element, uses a science class unit on taste as an anchor for the story. Oh, and speaking of taste, I have to skip ahead and say how much I love Candy, Safer's sister (I know I haven't explained Safer yet—I'm working on it). Is there anything more mindful than a girl who can appreciate the difference between several different types of SweeTarts? Candy is like the best character ever and she deserves her own book, frankly.

Anyway, back to the main rambling thread of thoughts I was pursuing. As I said, Georges is such an amazing protagonist—Stead understands that kids are way more thoughtful and observant than anyone thinks, so Georges's wisdom and self-awareness is a feature, not a bug, when it comes to making him a realistic kid.

And Safer—oh gosh, Safer. I want to reach into this story and give him the most enormous hug, probably because I relate to him way too much. I do think, especially next to the budding demon-children and school bullies Georges encounters, that Safer is the perfect friend in some ways—he never judges Georges, and he finds ways to show compassion without making it a big deal. And then Safer is also totally off the rails and takes his and Georges's spying adventures too far—I have my own headcanon about why some of this occurs, which I think the story supports, but I won't share it so you can make the connections yourself.

Can we also get a shout-out to Georges's dad? I just love him. He's kind of a wild card and definitely gets nervous about neatness, but he also cares so deeply about Georges and shows up for him in ways that are so impactful—and I love seeing dads who show up for their kids, even if that should be the bare minimum of being a dad.

Also, two words—Scrabble tiles. No, I will not explain myself.

And then Stead is the Queen of Twists, as usual (in addition to being the Queen of Small Moments), so there are capital-R Reveals that change the entire story and pretty much force you to re-read the whole thing and see all the foreshadowing. It's so freaking cool—how does she do this??

And to add one more monarchy title, Stead is also the Queen of Concision. In this book, sentences are pages, pages are chapters, and chapters are entire novels—there's so much depth that you have to slow down and take it all in, rather than racing through the story's 180 pages. The concision means that your heart sometimes aches for more, but that's only because what is here is so good—and the excitement of getting to piece together meaning yourself, rather than having everything spelled out for you, makes the journey more than worthwhile.

So in short: Rebecca Stead never misses, y'all. This book is my favorite of the week, and maybe a new favorite of all time.

Young Adult

Taproot

A Story About a Gardener and a Ghost

Written and illustrated by Keezy Young
Graphic novel · 2017

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

Blue has been living as a ghost for a year when he meets Hamal, a beautiful and sweet gardener who has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. Together, their friendship develops into something more, but being a ghost, Blue can never truly be connected with Hamal.

When Blue realizes Hamal’s strange ability may be putting him in danger, Blue has to find a way to protect him--even if it means leaving him.

· · · · · ·

Oh, how I loved this story. The ending didn't quite work for me (for the most absurd reason), but that hardly changes how beautiful this story is.

I loved Hamal and Blue so much. Hamal is a sweet, sensitive gardener—he has the delicate touch and awareness to take care of living things that could so easily be hurt on their own. And Blue brings Hamal a levity that keeps him buoyant, rather than sinking into hard feelings—and even though he sometimes goes overboard trying to distract from pain, Blue isn't afraid to empathize with other young people enduring struggles, nor is he afraid to appreciate Hamal's humanity in full.

And so much of the story is pitch-perfect—the lush garden illustrations, the dialogue between Hamal and Blue, and more.

And there's so much to contemplate that isn't explicitly spelled out for readers, but which I'm going to spell out because it deserves appreciation (I'll avoid spoilers, but feel free to skip this section if you prefer). There's something startling about the idea that the afterlife (or, at least, the limbo that Blue and some of the other ghosts choose to remain in) can be just as painful or frightening as real life. I feel like that's such a huge existential fear—that even in death, there's no escape from pain—but this book does such a beautiful job reminding us that even in life, joy is still possible too, and that is likely true for death as well. And relatedly, considering that this book is about two men of color who fall in love, it's obvious that Blue and Hamal's relationship is challenging now, and likely impossible just a few decades ago. So it's so lovely to imagine that Blue was able to live in the afterlife and wait until the world was finally ready to let him love who he wants to love.

It bears noting that the number of books with queer characters of color, especially ones who are as respected and cared for within the context of the story, is minuscule, which makes this book even more meaningful and important.

And the climax of the story was so emotional and so powerful—just wow.

Finally, there's one other important character—a seeming villain of the story—who is so much richer and more complex than they look, and who was a truly genius source of both wisdom and comic relief.

The ending of the story was where I got tripped up—it felt like a really extended epilogue that got distracted from Blue and Hamal and focused too much on things that were irrelevant. So perhaps I'll just imagine the story ends right after the climax—having the freedom to imagine what happens next is exciting anyway.

But the ending is not a huge quibble with a story that is heartwarming, skillfully crafted, and worth living in for as long as it takes to read.

Bookish thoughts:

I re-did the layout of my blog navigation for the umpteenth time, because why not? I hope it's clearer and less confusing, but it's probably obvious that I'm less invested in making it straightforward and more invested in messing with it for my own entertainment—otherwise, I'd probably leave it the same for consistency!

On the note of blog navigation, I went down an Internet rabbit hole last night, courtesy of The StoryGraph, and discovered a book blogger named Kara Babcock who custom-coded her own blog—it's not WordPress, and not Blogger, but literally built from scratch. And so besides reading and enjoying a bunch of her reviews and personal posts, I also just stared at all of her blog's features: a minimalist and colorful design; an alert when posts are several years old and may be out of date; sidebar highlights of related books, books from the same author, and books mentioned in the review; a freaking citation generator; a footer for sharing the review or tracking it down on other websites; and even a search engine where you can choose to search by title, author, or review text. Instead of being jealous, I'm actually just thrilled that someone has reached true blog nirvana!

That's all, y'all—happy reading! ✨✨

Comments

  1. I remember really enjoying Liar and Spy when I read it with my daughter (10 years ago?) and am glad it holds up. And Invisible is fabulous! I read it as one of our CYBIL finalists this year. I also loved the bilingual format.

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  2. Great blog post, Max! You made me want to read all of the books you read AND redo my own blog. YIKES!

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  3. I love Rebecca Stead. I'm not sure how I missed this one, but you've got me really wanting to read it.

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  4. I haven't read Rebecca Stead but this sounds like a serious omission on my part! Thanks for the recommendation!

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  5. I'm glad to read about Invisible, love that they do show that all those who may look alike, aren't at all alike. I have a niece who's Korean & "too" often is asked, where are you from & do you speak Chinese! Crazy! I loved Liar & Spy long ago, & thanks for the reminder of how good it is. Thanks for Taproot too, new to me. Happy reading, Max, & messing with your web page!

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  6. Invisible is at the top of my list. The cover is so enticing! (Not that I judge books by covers...). Thanks for sharing these!

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  7. Three new to me books but they all sound wonderful. I really loved Breakfast Club so Invisible is high on my list to read now.

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  8. Thanks for this--two of these title are new to me and I'm really curious about the YA.

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  9. Well it's about time you read Liar & Spy ;) Your critique reminded me again why I liked it as much as you. Safer was my favorite character, too. I have not read Invisible, but will do so some time this summer thanks to your review. Thanks for sharing your excellent post on MMGM this week.

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  10. Your review from Invisible has me intrigued. Will see if we have a copy of the book at the store.

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  11. I also haven't read Liar and Spy, but it's on my list. My poor, poor list. But I also enjoyed Invisible. It's great the way that your thoughtful reviews work both for books we share and books you are tempting me with!

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