Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham; First Second, $12.99. (Ages 8 to 12)
Shannon Hale, author of many marvelous novels for children including "Princess Academy," tells the true story of her struggles as a kid to make friends and keep them in this bracingly honest, painfully real graphic memoir in the tradition of the autobiographical graphic novels by Raina Telegemeier ("Smile").
Shannon was the middle kid at home, bullied by her older sister who had problems of her own. At school, Shannon often felt like an outsider, even as a member of a popular group of girls where she struggled to comprehend the pecking order. She was teased about her red hair, her glasses, her hand-me-down clothes and her weird behavior. She is unsparing about her own "mean girl" ways, as little Shannon wasn't always the nicest person to spend time with. But real friends were to be found: Shannon ends up in a mixed 5th-6th grade class and finds girls who are nice to everyone and appreciate her imagination and talent for inventing games of make-believe.
In an author's note, Hale reflects that her stomachaches and "yucky" feelings as a kid were probably symptoms of anxiety and a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The wonderful illustrations are by LeUyen Pham, who illustrated the Princess in Black series with Shannon and Dean Hale. Any kid who has ever been bullied or simply felt like an outsider will relate to this marvelous novel.
Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh; Putnam, 416 pages ($17.99) Ages 12 and up.
This richly imagined, action-packed adventure, featuring a feisty heroine and set in feudal Japan, comes from the acclaimed author of "The Wrath & The Dawn" and "The Rose & The Dagger."
Seventeen-year-old Mariko is a talented alchemist who is smarter and much better at reading people than her twin brother Kenshin. But she has no say in the matter when her father, a prominent samurai, disregards her wishes in arranging her marriage to the son of the emperor's favorite consort.
Mariko is traveling through the dangerous Jukai forest on her way to the imperial palace to meet her intended for the first time when her convoy is set upon by bandits of the Black Clan and she barely escapes with her life. She hacks off her hair, and dressed as a peasant boy, sets out to investigate the Black Clan, in hopes of learning the motive for the attack on her life and getting revenge. The Black Clan turns out to be not at all what she was expecting, and Mariko is forced to reexamine her views about herself, her family and her place in the world. (In an interesting sidenote, Mariko puts her alchemy to good use fashioning a primitive smoke bomb/explosive device using dried dung and hardened eggshells.)
This Robin Hood-style adventure has many familiar elements but Ahdieh is a superb craftsman, and this engaging tale of betrayal and revenge ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the reader eagerly awaiting the next book.