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7 Exciting New Books for Young Readers by MN Authors

Locally crafted literary adventures that transport you from the U of M to the Superior Hiking Trail and beyond.

9:06 AM CST on January 30, 2024

Courtesy of publishers

In Search of Super Powers: A Fantasy Pin World Adventure by Briana Lawrence and illustrated by Joanna Cacao 

Briana Lawrence’s middle grade novel In Search of Super Powers (January 30, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 304 pages) poses a fantastical 21st-century question: What if an internet ad for collectible enamel pins granted tradeable super powers to four teenagers? This creative premise takes place in a fictional amusement park located in Orlando, Florida. The teenagers include Angela, a lonely, artistic eighth grader; Skylar, a nonbinary latchkey kid; Sophie, an identical twin longing for individuality; and Travis, a gamer and enamel pin trader.

Lawrence writes the magical realism and mystery elements with intrigue and aplomb, the early adolescent angst with tenderness, and the class issues without after-school-special obviousness. Joanna Cacao’s cute, round-cornered illustrations augment the story. This fantasy is great for youngsters to read on their own, or as a bedtime read-aloud. Personally, I loved the speculative version of Florida where being a nonbinary kid, or having a crush on a same-sex best friend, or being raised by lesbian moms didn’t result in any punishing actions by a bigoted governor. Best of all, In Search of Super Powers is just the first in a planned series! Catch Lawrence's book signing this Saturday at Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis.

Freshman Year (A Graphic Novel) by Sarah Mai

Sarah Mai’s autobiographical graphic novel Freshman Year (February 13, Christy Ottaviano Books/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 288 pages) opens with main character Sarah’s high school graduation. The story follows Sarah through a liminal "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" summer, and her first year at the University of Minnesota. She experiences the Big Ten school’s impersonal freshman orientation, its punishingly short enrollment window, and the ironic loneliness of communal dorm living. Transitioning from kid to adult is super hard, and Mai poignantly captures Sarah’s awkward, bittersweet, and humiliating freshman feelings.

Mai’s graphic format shows Sarah’s interior emotional landscape in humorous insets, like a two-page illustration portraying campus in bleak midwinter. Sarah’s eyes, surrounded by round spectacles and expressive eyebrows, show how the freshman experience chips away at youthful idealism. My Golden Gopher freshman year took place back in the last century, so I was delighted to learn that some University of Minnesota rites of passage remain universal: five-day-a-week language classes at Folwell Hall, rumors about the athlete dorm having the best dining hall cuisine, experiments in veganism and hair dye, the embarrassment of admitting one’s commercial art aspirations to a clique of studio art majors, the purgatory of winter break spent in one’s hometown getting dental cleanings, and the Derrida word salad of a 3000-level literary theory class.

Freshman Year is my new go-to for high school graduation gifts. It’s a touching, relatable read for anyone approaching adulthood or any adult who feels misguided nostalgia for their early adulthood. 

We Got the Beat by Jenna Miller

Hell yeah, Jenna Miller! We Got the Beat (February 20, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 352 pages) is Miller’s second YA novel in as many years starring a queer, body positive main character. Jordan Elliot, a self-actualized (for a high school junior) lesbian, wants a top editor position at her northern Minnesota high school’s newspaper, so that she can assemble an Ivy League-worthy college application. But Jordan’s nonbinary newspaper instructor complicates her J-school CV by assigning her the volleyball beat. To Jordan’s chagrin, she’s obligated to write a feature-length profile about Mackenzie West, the volleyball team captain, a well-drawn teen drama antagonist who appears to be opportunistic, conniving, and a little damaged. 

The plot swirls around Jordan and Mackenzie’s on-again off-again friendship, as well as a B-plot romance between Jordan’s photographer friend and another volleyball star. Miller deftly captures the age when every decision feels fraught and crucial. Minnesota readers will love all of the North Star state flavor, like the older brother attending the University of Minnesota, fall hikes at Jay Cooke State Park, taking a school bus to a weekend tourney in the Twin Cities, and getting stranded at a MOA hotel during a winter storm. It all makes for a satisfying narrative about friendships, vocational passion, and ethical journalism.

The Rock In My Throat by Kao Kalia Yang and illustrated by Jiemei Lin

Award-winning memoirist, librettist, teacher, editor, and all-around Minnesota literary treasure Kao Kalia Yang’s latest children’s book The Rock In My Throat (March 5, Lerner Publishing Group, 32 pages) draws upon her experience as a young refugee caught between two worlds: her Hmong family’s melodic, warm home environment and the prickly, bustling public sphere full of impatient strangers. Early on, the book’s mother character says something to Kalia, the lonely little girl character, that renders Kalia empathetically silent whenever she’s away from home. 

Jiemei Lin’s two-dimensional illustrations enhance the vulnerable and, at times, heart-wrenching text. Lin’s artwork has the look of block prints in a muted palette—think Crayola colors like burnt sienna and celadon. The pictures bring to life Kalia’s touchstones: the natural world, her family’s language.

At the book’s end, a comprehensive Author’s Note explains the autobiographical inspiration for the book’s metaphorical rock: Yang herself was a selective mute who “wouldn’t speak in English until I went to college.” While Yang’s inspiration is ultra-specific, the themes of The Rock in My Throat are universal, making the book a must-have addition to every preschooler and early elementary student’s library.

Just Keep Walking by Erin Soderberg Downing

Just Keep Walking (March 5, Scholastic, 256 pages) is the mantra repeated by this middle grade novel’s protagonist: Jo, “a seventh-grade, not-very-in-shape, kind-of-introverted, book-loving hiker.” Written in first person from Jo’s perspective, Just Keep Walking covers a two-week, 100-mile backpacking trip that Jo takes with her mom, a recently divorced reluctant camper, on the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota. Plucky, likable Jo wants to complete the journey in order to prove her hiking bona fides to her jerk dad, who bailed on the trip in order to spend the summer with his new family. For all the SHT-heads curious about Jo’s route: The hikers begin at Castle Danger and plan to end at Lutsen. They encounter the trail hazards one expects while backcountry camping in the Sawtooths: ticks, bears, heat, dried up creek beds, twisted ankles, and body odor. 

Erin Soderberg Downing, a prolific author of children’s books, including The Quirks and Puppy Pirates series, writes a pitch-perfect seventh grade voice, includes literary techniques that add color and depth, and constructs a well-paced plot. And she’s dedicated to full-on immersing herself in research! The book includes an Appendix that defines wilderness camping terms and includes photographs from Soderberg Downing’s real-life SHT excursion.

How the Birds Got Their Songs by Travis Zimmerman; retold in Ojibwemowin by Marcus Ammesmaki and illustrated by Sam Zimmerman

How the Birds Got Their Songs (March 5, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 32 pages), written in English by Travis Zimmerman and Ojibwemowin by Marcus Ammesmaki, tells a story about how the early Earth was too quiet for the Great Spirit’s taste, and so the Great Spirit challenged every species of bird to fly high and earn a pretty song. Avian antics ensue: The proud eagle has an Icarus moment, while a stowaway hermit thrush has an existential reckoning. Illustrations by Sam Zimmerman feature incredibly vibrant brushstrokes that make up the landscape and vivid sky. Detailed lines and dots beautifully render each species of bird in two dimensions. 

The publisher classifies How the Birds Got Their Songs for little ones, ages 3-7. And the book is a great length for short attention spans. But anyone with a coffee table could enjoy displaying this gorgeous bilingual picture book. 

Oskar’s Voyage by Laura Purdie Salas and illustrated by Kayla Harren

Award-winning children’s book author Laura Purdie Salas’s latest story is about a chipmunk who goes on a Great Lakes journey from Duluth to Cleveland aboard a ship transporting iron ore from mine to mill. Kayla Harren, another Minnesota-based artist, illustrates Oskar’s Voyage (March 5, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 32 pages) with realistic, picturesque images that capture the majesty of Lake Superior and the freighter upon which Oskar stows away. Salas tells Oskar’s adventure in verse that’s super fun to read aloud. Short, declarative sentences introduce a bevy of verbs to pre-readers: Oskar scurries, scrabbles, dangles, twitches, sprints, and panics. Oskar’s Voyage incorporates all of my favorite picture book elements: a rhyming pattern that encourages kids to “read” along by rote, a suspenseful story, and an adorably tenacious woodland critter.

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