Tag Archives: School challenges

Wandering Son (vol. 5) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn

Wandering Son 5If you don’t like spoilers, might I suggest you click here to catch up. This series is so uniquely delightful, you really shouldn’t miss a volume; trust me, they do need to be read in order. This latest installment officially hits shelves tomorrow.

Welcome to junior high school with new classroom assignments and classmates. Once best buddies, Nitori Shuichi – the boy who wants to be a girl – and Takatsuki Yoshino – the girl who wants to be a boy – are “still … yeah,” as in more estranged than not. The contemplatively quiet Shuichi finds himself spending most of his time with the ever-chatty Ariga Makoto who also encourages and shares Shuichi’s cross-dressing adventures.

On the first day of school, Sarashina Chizuru makes her series debut by grabbing everyone’s attention when she shows up in a boy’s uniform: “… because I felt like it,” she tells her sidekick Shirai Momoko (anther series newbie). Chizuru is definitely a girl who knows her own mind … including choosing Yoshino as a new friend, while somehow managing to seriously irk aloof beauty queen Chiba Saori.

Shuichi and Yoshino share the same Class Three, led by “first-year teacher” Saisho who can’t quite get to class on time, but immediately notices that adorable Shuichi looks too much like his first childhood love. The two friends’ lives overlap very little during the new year as they each face new feelings, relationships, and challenges. The prospect of working together on a new school play – another gender-bender in the making – just might throw them back together.

Sweet and gentle, with just enough angst and worry over changing bodies and emotional alliances, creator Shimura Takako continues to share an enlightening journey toward maturity in a fluid new world that defies easy labels. Go ahead, the weekend’s almost here: settle in for a bit of youthful revelation.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

The Flowers of Evil (vols. 5-7) by Shuzo Oshimi, translated by Paul Starr

Flowers of Evil 5-7

First, to catch up: click here for previous volumes (all of which, of course, you need to read for yourself). If these covers placed next to each other above are a bit jarring, I think I might have unintentionally, wrongly grouped the latest volumes together.

Let me explain … The full series has nine total installments, with each third getting a distinct look for their covers. While our conflicted young man, Takako Kasuga, is clearly the protagonist throughout, the object of his primary obsession shifts with each third. The ‘pure,’ simple, mostly black-and-white covers for volumes 1-3 reflect Kasuga’s obsession with the outwardly perfect Nanako Saeki who is so ‘good,’ she seems to have little depth. The deeply infused colors of volumes 4-6 echo the intensity of Kasuga’s growing dependence on the volatile, violent Sawa Nakamura. In volume 7, as seen above, Kasuga’s latest shift to a new schoolmate who reignites his love of literature, begets a whole new artsy watercolored look, surely reflecting the potential and promise of a new future.

Since that explanation revealed a few important narrative details, allow me to back up with just a few fillers …

As summer break quickly approaches in volume 5, Kasuga and Nakamura plot together in their hideout – decorated with a clothesline of stolen panties – to do “something that’ll wake up the people in this town all at once.” Jealousy drives Saeki to the hideout … where she confronts Kasuga with a shocking plan of her own. In volume 6, Kasuga must finally face not only his understandably frantic parents, but his school’s administration, as well. Still, all those adult eyes on him are not enough to attempt a dangerous final act with unstoppable Nakamura.

Volume 7 opens with a spectacular summer festival blow-out (so to speak), and quickly moves to a new grade and new school for longer-haired, reticent Kasuga. After being assaulted on a dark street one night, he aimlessly wanders into a used bookstore, where he recognizes a classmate holding a book in her hand … none other than Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. His reaction is so severe, she warns, “Hey, you’re creeping me out! Just calm down!!” Trying to rein in his excitement, Kasuga’s bookish new relationship begins.

Readers with children beware: every nightmare associated with disgruntled adolescence gets magnified in these volumes. With friends so toxic, an environment so lax, and the adults so clueless, if manga like Flowers of Evil is any indication, contemporary youth face more challenges to reaching adulthood with their sanity and humanity intact that ever before. Read, be afraid, then use these stories as a primer for how-not-to-parent.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

When I Was EightAlthough she “knew many things when [she] was eight,” what Olemaun didn’t know was “how to read the outsiders’ books. It was not enough to hear them from my older sister, Rosie. I longed to read them for myself.” Against her father’s wishes – “[h]e knew things about the school that I did not” – the determined Inuit girl’s desire for literacy takes her far from her family to be educated by nuns.

Her long braids are shorn and her warm traditional parka is replaced by clothing impractical for the harsh temperatures. Even her name is taken from her and she must answer only to the unfamiliar ‘Margaret.’ She labors through exhausting chores – floors, dishes, laundry – instead of learning letters. One cruel nun takes every opportunity to add misery to Margaret’s life, yet still she perseveres: “I used every task as an opportunity to learn new words. I studied each letter of the alphabet before wiping it from the board, I looked at the labels on cleaning supplies and sounded out the words.”

She survives being locked in the dark basement, her classmates’ bullying, and eventually stands up against the nun’s continuous humiliations. Reading gives her the unstoppable power to be “Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books … who traveled to a strange and faraway land to stand against a tyrant.” Indeed, she knew many things, “because now [she] could read.”

When I Was Eight is the latest rendition of the real-life of Margaret Pokiak-FentonEight is the simplified picture-book adaptation of Pokiak-Fenton’s Fatty Legs, the first half of her award-winning, double-volume memoir (written with daughter-in-law Christy Jordan-Fenton) which is more suitable for a middle-grade/young adult audience. Pokiak-Fenton’s unwavering tenacity to learn to read is especially highlighted here, inspiring and encouraging fluency for younger readers-in-training. Artist Garbiele Grimard‘s open, revealing expressions are especially effective, sharing Olemaun’s fears and reveling in her hard-won triumphs. Here’s to discovering the unlimited power of reading together …

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Native American

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Woman UpstairsBest known for her penultimate novel – the bestselling 2006 Booker longlisted The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud takes on about-to-be-middle-aged regret with a raw vengeance in this, her fifth and latest title. That her protagonist Nora Eldridge shares the same first name as the discontented heroine in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was certainly not an accidental detail. While Ibsen’s Nora had to abandon her husband and children to find herself, Messud’s Nora is unmarried and childless, yet perhaps because she is so alone, her desperation “at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – before I die to f**king well live” overlaps and echoes Ibsen’s Nora’s “‘sacred … duty to myself.’”

An elementary schoolteacher with sublimated artistic intentions, Nora is the eponymous “woman upstairs”: “We’re not the madwomen in the attic – they get lots of play, one way or another. We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway … and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. … In our lives of quiet desperation, … not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.” At 42, Nora has always been the good “‘teacher/daughter/friend.’” But her years of having to “cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked” end when an exceptionally beautiful 8-year-old boy named Reza Shahid walks into her third-grade classroom.

Among the students with names as diverse as Chastity, Ebullience, Shi-shi, mixed in with the Marks and Noahs, “canonical” Reza is a temporary transplant to Cambridge, Massachusetts from Paris. A violent playground bullying incident ironically provides Nora entree into the lives of Reza’s cosmopolitan parents: she first meets his Italian-born mother, Sirena, an artist just on the verge of worldwide fame; soon thereafter follows Reza’s Lebanese-born father, Skandar, a visiting philosophy scholar at Harvard. Lured by Sirena’s effusively creative ambitions, Nora agrees to share a studio; while Sirena formulates what will become her signature installation which depends heavily on art-and-audience interaction, Nora literally shrinks her own efforts into dollhouse-sized (!) replicas of ‘a room of one’s own’ starting with “Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom,” with eventual plans to move on to tiny spaces for Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel – “the woman artist so fundamentally isolated.”

Over the quickly passing school, once invisible Nora has tumbled down from ‘upstairs’ and ventured onto the main floor, even taking center stage: she matters to Reza who adores her, Sirena who needs her, Skandar who challenges her. She finds herself in adoring love with each member of this enthralling trinity, convinced she is indispensable in their glamorous lives. Boundaries blur, disappointment and betrayal are inevitable. When her “fairy tale” family returns to their faraway world with barely a parting glance, Nora realizes theirs has been a “Fun House” with its “hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world.” And then, what of Nora …?!!

Narrator Cassandra Campbell’s versatility gets a showcase workout, especially when she voices Sirena and Skandar with their impossible-to-label accents. Sirena’s breathy energy is as intoxicating as Nora’s smoldering anger is barely controlled. But Campbell is at her utmost as she seethes and shrieks as Nora’s mother, who warns her young daughter, “‘Don’t ever get yourself stuck like this …’” Sage advice for all, as well.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction

As Fast As Words Could Fly by Pamela M. Tuck, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

As Fast As Words Could FlyIn segregated Greenville, North Carolina, 14-year-old Mason Steele has the rare talent to transcribe his father’s impassioned descriptions of civil rights incidents into effective business letters determined to educate and change people’s minds. His father’s civil rights group rewards young Mason’s efforts with a typewriter. With patience and dedication, Mason learns every letter and symbol of the shiny machine.

That fall, local school segregation ends – at least by law. But when Mason and his brothers begin at Belvoir High, the bus will not stop to pick them up. Even their summer friends warn, “‘You Steele boys are asking for trouble.’” Mason proves to be a good student, regardless of the rude principal, the unfriendly teachers who call him ‘boy,’ the unwelcoming students. He is especially adept at typing, so much so that he is grudgingly allowed to represent Belvoir at a county typing competition. Under Mason’s fingers, the keys move as fast as words could fly …

Pamela M. Tuck‘s ending “Author’s Note” reveals her book is “based on the real-life experiences of my father, Moses Teel Jr., during the 1960s.” As her father provided the words for his own father, Tuck does the same for her father, transcribing his memories into this inspiring book, richly enhanced by Eric Velasquez‘s evocative, detailed illustrations. Father and daughter’s multi-generational accomplishment is an effective reminder that “ordinary people … played an integral part in moving our country in this direction [toward tolerance and the acceptance of diversity]. Their hard work, determination, and courage set an example for all who face challenges to their rights and freedoms.”

Although Tuck won favorite multi-culti children’s publisher Lee & Low’s New Voices Award in 2007, that her Words hit shelves earlier this year couldn’t be more timely. The reactions during this first week following the July 13, 2013 George Zimmerman verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, including President Obama’s highly personal speech on Friday, July 19 ["Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago"], clearly show our society – a half-century after the events in Tuck’s title – still faces daily challenges to protecting rights and freedoms for all. Books like this remain as necessary as ever to teach our children, teach them early, teach them well. President Obama encourages: ” … we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long and difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.” That, indeed, is the audacity of hope for us all.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Biography, .Fiction, African American

Limit (vol. 6) by Keiko Suenobu, translated by Mari Morimoto

Limit 6It’s Friday. Do you know where your children are? If you thought you sent them off in the care of trustworthy adults, then you might want to wait until they come back … that is, if they come back, to read this. Scared? After finishing this frightful series, I certainly am!

The sixth and final volume of Limit – which follows the few survivors of a school bus crash en route to a student camp trip – opens with an actual cliffhanger. Hinata, horrified by his own recent actions, begins to tumble backwards off a steep ledge, but Konna grabs his hand just in time. As Hinata dangles and Konna begs, “Don’t let it end here,” Morishige manages to pull them both to safety, warning, “If you’ve got time to die, better save Kamiya instead!!” The bullied-turned-bully has a point: Kamiya, with her gaping wound, needs all the help she can get if she’s to survive.

“I am not letting anyone else die …!” Konna screams with desperate determination. To maximize their chances of being found, the final four split up, even as Kamiya begs Konna to leave her behind. But Konna, for all her popularity and seemingly easy life, “finally understand[s] what being friends is like.” In spite of all the terrors the children have experienced, each has also undergone significant self-revelations that could and should help navigate a better future … well, at least for some.

Aware of her high school-age target audience used to thrills and chills, creator Keiko Suenobu makes sure all six volumes move swiftly with multiple surprises. Into the constant action, she’s dovetailed all the contemporary adolescent challenges driven by high school’s caste systems with all the consequences, privileges, assumptions, and expectations of being labeled at one end or the other of the popularity spectrum. Suenobu takes her small control group, isolates them without rules – Lord of the Flies-style – then records with an exacting eye what happens to our children in the most extreme situations. Final warning to parents: do not let those wide-eyed, adorable manga faces fool you … fairy tale happy endings are never guaranteed.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters (Book 2), Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes (Book 3), Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, and Other Fatal Circumstances (Book 4), Allergic to Babies, Burglars, and Other Bumps in the Night (Book 5) by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Alvin Ho 2-4

As part of appreciating the versatile art of LeUyen Pham – who with her hubby Alex Puvilland imbued Friday’s post, Templar, with such swashbuckling energy – I thought I should keep a good thing going by adding a few more Pham-tabulously illustrated titles this bright new Monday. [Truth be told, I wouldn't mind channeling some of that swashbuckling energy myself, ahem!]

Welcome back to Concord, Massachusetts, the literary birthplace for many – including darling Alvin Ho, introduced in Book 1: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things. In spite of … or because of … the many challenges this brave young man faces – most especially he seems unable to speak out loud in school, not to mention being afraid of just about everything – Alvin is one imaginative hero. Armed with his PDK (Personal Disaster Kit), and well supported (whether he wants back-up or not!) by his family (little sister Anibelly is beyond delightful) and friends (Flea with her self-described “‘irregular arms or legs’” is the ultimate example of total girl power!), Alvin is getting through second grade with courage he sometimes forgets he has!

In Book 2, Alvin and Anibelly discover the many joys of camping, even if their only weekend catch is their shocked (upside-down) father. In Book 3, Alvin realizes just in time that getting the ‘right’ birthday invitation doesn’t always mean that’s the ‘right’ party to attend. In Book 4, Alvin’s inability to speak in school causes a life-and-death misunderstanding as he worries about how he will bring himself to attend his grandfather’s friend’s funeral. And, in the latest Book 5 (out this spring), Alvin needs to transform his usual PDK into a Pregnancy Disaster Kit as he just might be in the family way along with his baby-full mother!

Author Lenore Look manages to balance the neverending humor with well-woven moments of reality. As we giggle and laugh with Alvin, Look gently reminds us that children can have serious issues; Alvin sees a counselor regularly to face his fears (and hopefully find his voice). She carefully adds glimpses of the world beyond Alvin’s limited comfort zone by including a bit of history in each installment – from the American Revolution to Native Americans to even the tragic 2010 Haiti earthquake. And, of course, in every volume, LeUyen Pham whimsically gives Alvin his joy, his shock, his worry, his frustrations, his adoration, his appreciation … his reactions are perpetually wondrous under Pham’s pen. Here’s selfishly hoping that this unique fear factor continues for many seasons to come …!!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2009-2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Vietnamese American

Shelter and Seconds Away (Mickey Bolitar series)

Shelter.SecondsAway.Mickey Bolitar

If you’re needing a Myron Bolitar fix – Harlen Coben, the first author to win an Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony (three of the top awards for mystery writers), seems to be taking a break from his most persistent protagonist after 10 volumes – then this new series starring Myron’s nephew Mickey is definitely for you. The Mickey Bolitar spin-off is actually targeted for younger readers, but the only details adult readers might find missing are … well, sex and strong language, which have been replaced by the complications of the 21st-century high school caste system.

Mickey (whose given name is actually Myron) is the new-kid-in-town sophomore, relocated to New Jersey under great duress. Having grown up all over the world, his father is now buried in LA, his mother is in rehab, and he’s stuck living with Uncle Myron who is not exactly his favorite person in the world – for various reasons, Myron makes a perfect scapegoat for all of Mickey’s problems. If you’ve read Live Wire (currently, the latest Myron installment at #10), then you know the Bolitar brothers’ complicated history; you’ll also know more than Mickey about his extended family.

Not understanding the local pecking order, Mickey makes quick friends with Ema – a surly, tattooed girl who dresses all in black – and Spoon – the janitor’s son who speaks more in random facts than sentences in sequitur, who immediately announces that he’ll be ‘Donkey’ to Mickey’s ‘Shrek.’ At 6’4″ and 200 pounds, Mickey shares his basketball prowess with his uncle – which provides begrudging opportunity for occasional bonding. For now, Mickey’s keeping his jump shots away from the high school team (‘dumb jock’ barely does justice to some of the more antagonistic seniors), preferring to play pick-up games in grungy Newark away from the more affluent suburb he’s forced to call home.

In Shelter, Mickey’s girlfriend (of two weeks), Ashley, disappears. The search by the dynamic trio of Mickey, Ema, and Spoon, will lead to empty lockers, surveillance tapes, wrong parents, a child kidnapper, and a seedy club called Plan B. Before the last page, three will become four as Rachel, the school’s glam-queen, joins the sleuthing ranks. Of course, the book ends with a mid-action cliffhanger which will make you turn immediately to Seconds Away, which opens with Rachel shot and her estranged mother murdered. While ‘whodunnit’ might get answered, many more questions are left unanswered, setting readers up for the as-yet-unnamed Mickey #3, scheduled to hit shelves later this fall.

In the midst of missing bodies and wayward bullets, Mickey is driven to find out what really happened to his beloved father – whose death he thought he witnessed. But Chapter 1 of Book 1 insists, “‘Your father isn’t dead’” … and somehow the disappearing Bat Lady, a dark suit with dark glasses in a dark limo, a tattooed kidnapper, a Holocaust ‘butcher,’ not to mention unexpected butterflies, are all involved.

Sound convoluted? Definitely. I’m still left unsure how the Holocaust angle will ultimately play out – it felt clumsily tacked on as unnecessary politically-correct-social-statement in Shelter, albeit somewhat better revealed in Seconds. Unbelievable (and obvious) plot twists aside, always-convincing veteran narrator Nick Podehl enhances the action with expert pacing, and in spite of some eye-rolling and head-shaking, you’ll most likely stay with the story stuck in your ears.

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2011 and 2012

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Filed under ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Jewish

The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say

Favorite DaughterWell, goodness … the back flap of Allen Say’s latest arrives on my desk with a quote from my own review about his last title, Drawing from Memory! Huh, how did I miss that until now? Okay, I have to admit I’m just tickled at my discovery. Oh, but I do digress … back to the book already!

Caldecott Medalist Allen Say again turns to the personal in a warm story both dedicated to and about his daughter. “Yuriko came to stay with her father on Thursday that week,” the book begins. Over dinner, her request for a baby picture for “a class album” results in a “perfect” photo which reveals a plump-cheeked, blond hapa toddler making Play-Doh mud pies in the “‘prettiest kimono [the father] could find in Tokyo.’”

Yuriko’s excitement over that “perfect” photo diminishes into disappointment by the time she returns from school the next day. Her classmates insist Japanese have black hair, her new art teacher has inadvertently dubbed her “Eureka,” and even her closest friends are mimicking the mistake. “‘I want an American name, Daddy,’” Yuriko announces. “‘Umm … feels like I’m getting a new daughter here,’” Daddy responds.

That evening, “Michelle” accompanies her father to their favorite Japanese restaurant, where father and daughter discuss sushi, school, mistakes, and chopstick manners. Yuriko frets over her newly assigned art project, but her father cajoles her into a “‘real quick trip’” to Japan – at Golden Gate Park. There she finds so much more than the souvenir trinket she hoped for, as well as the exact inspiration she needs to create “‘something different from everyone else in art.’”

You may have already guessed where the title originates – such a moment of amusing, heartfelt delight! – but just in case, no spoilers here. Allen Say writes with such humor and patience, providing just the right amount of guidance to gently enable his hapa daughter toward self-discovery and cultural appreciation. As always, his illustrations are visual gifts, enhancing the smallest details that make the story whole: the ubiquitously recognizable soy sauce bottle, the backpack larger than the small child, the multi-culti park crowd, Yuriko’s slouchingly socked feet. Also included are two precious photographs of real-life Yuriko – as a toddler (mentioned above) and as a young woman in full kimono clearly taken during father and daughter’s (real-life) trip to Japan.

Daughter is Daddy’s side, and you can find Yuriko’s voice here, written when she was 13. Their father/daughter bond is unmistakable, proof that every once in a while, ‘playing favorites’ can be “the most wonderful time together.”

Click here to check out more of Allen Say’s titles in BookDragon.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Memoir, Hapa, Japanese American

Wandering Son (vol. 4) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn

Wandering Son 4First things first: click here to catch up. You’ll be well-rewarded for sure!

This latest volume opens with an intriguing graphic of characters captured in a two-page spread of bubbles and dots, labelled “The Wandering Son Board Game”: “Don’t be so fresh. 1 space back,” a sample bubble intones.

‘Fresh’ is exactly the right word to describe this gentle gender-bender series. The spotlight here belongs to “girly-boy” Shuichi, with whom everyone seems to fall in love – from his older sister Maho’s new model friends to the boy she has a crush on, to the class beauty queen whom other boys can’t help but fight over. Not quite aware of his charm, Shuichi is experiencing his own amorous agony, suddenly awed by his powerful new feelings for Yoshino, his girl-who-wants-to-be-a-boy-best buddy.

Amidst the emotional turbulence that is adolescence, Shuichi and Yoshino have an especially difficult time trying to understand their transforming, burgeoning identities, unprepared for their unpredictable moods and reactions. All rules of ‘shoulda-woulda-coulda’ are off as children morph into young adults, dealing with an onslaught of physical and emotional challenges. ‘It’s complicated,’ as my teens regularly quip.

Creator Shimura Takako is a compassionate, empathetic storyteller without judgment or guile. Her young characters face their inescapable maturity as best as they can in a brave new world of ‘gender-fluid’ (my kids taught me that from their last ‘free to be me’-annual assembly). Adulthood looms … and ready or not, here it comes!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese