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The Sun Is Kind of A Big Deal by Nick Seluk

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 40 pgs.
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The Sun Is Kind of a Big Deal by Nick Seluk imagines the sun as a rock star of sorts in the solar system where everyone knows his name and his importance. Even Pluto is in the background of this one. My daughter loves books where she’s learning without realizing it. Nonfiction told in a way that’s fun and engaging will always be a big hit with her. Seluk achieves that for the most part in this book.

The book includes a main dialogue about the sun as well as some sidebars about specific facts on the solar system and space terms like “asteroids.” The pictures are colorful and fun, especially since space can be very black and colorless.  My daughter loved how the planets introduced themselves, with Saturn being the “Hula-Hoop Champion.” And Seluk uses a racetrack to illustrate the rotation of the planets around the sun. Very helpful for younger readers just learning about space. The visuals explaining direct and indirect sunlight and its affect on Earth were helpful as well.

However, there are some larger words like Condensation, Evaporation, and Precipitation that make an appearance in the water cycle section, which younger readers may stumble over. Challenging words, however, should never be a discouraging thing. My daughter and I made a game out of mispronouncing the word and breaking each down into smaller, more pronounceable parts until she got them right.

One of our favorite parts of the book is the visual of the sun’s roll in the water cycle where the sun is putting raindrops down an enclosed slide for precipitation. It’s cute. At first my daughter thought the book was too challenging until she realized how fun the pictures were and the thought bubbles became amusing to her.

The Sun Is Kind of a Big Deal by Nick Seluk is chock full of facts about the solar system, nature’s cycles, and so much more. The pictures are bright and engaging, and the characterizations of the planets and other elements are amusing for young readers.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Nick Seluk worked as a graphic designer before becoming a full-time illustrator. He is the creator of the popular Awkward Yeti comic and author of the New York Times bestselling Heart and Brain, and its follow-ups Gut Instincts and Body Language. His work has appeared on CBSNews.com, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, reddit, and blogs across the internet. Nick lives in Michigan with his wife, three kids, and a very awkward dog.

The Poetry of Us edited by J. Patrick Lewis

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 192 pgs.
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The Poetry of US edited by J. Patrick Lewis is a compilation of poetry representing a number of aspects of our country. Broken down by region, the poems speak to New England, the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Midwest, Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Pacific Coast, and the U.S. Territories. Former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J Patrick Lewis chose more than 200 poems for the collection to demonstrate the diversity not only of our country, but the poets themselves. The color photos from the National Geographic archives are gorgeous and full bleed in most cases, ensuring this collection packs a visual punch as well.

Reading the poems in the New England section was like coming home, particularly when reading David Elliott’s “Boston Baked Beans: A Recipe,” which includes some wonderful unique speech that Boston is known for, even if not everyone speaks dropping their r’s.

This collection also includes some of my very favorite poems from Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, and other classic poets, but there are also contemporary poets throughout, including Ted Kooser, Jane Yolen, Lewis himself, Naomi Shihab Nye, and more.

The Poetry of US edited by J. Patrick Lewis is a wonderful introduction to our country for younger readers, providing them with just a sprinkling of our geographic diversity and a heap of cultural diversity. From the immigrants who come to our shores seeking a home to those who have lived here since the country was born, these poems and images seek to remind us of who we hope to be — a melting pot of diversity. Heartwarming photos of children being embraced in the nation’s capital, sweeping photos of Niagara Falls and mountains of majesty, the collection brings home the unity we can find together if we put our hearts and minds to it.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Editor:

Former Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis grew up in Gary, Indiana and earned a BA at Saint Joseph’s College, an MA at Indiana University, and a PhD in economics at the Ohio State University. Lewis taught in the department of Business, Accounting and Economics at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, until 1998 when he became a full-time writer.

Lewis is the author of more than fifty books of poetry for children, which find their shape in both free and formal verse and engage a wide range of subjects from history to mathematics, Russian folklore to the animal kingdom. His books for children include Spot the Plot: A Riddle Book of Book Riddles (2009, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger); New York Times Best Illustrated Book The Last Resort (2002, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti and translated into more than a dozen languages); The Shoe Tree of Chagrin (2001, illustrated by Chris Sheban), which won the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ Golden Kite Award; and A Hippopotamusn’t: And Other Animal Poems (1990, illustrated by Victoria Chess). His collaborations with other children’s poets have yielded several collections, including Castles: Old Stone Poems (2006, with Rebecca Dotlich, illustrated by Dan Burr) and Birds on a Wire: A Renga ‘Round the Town (2008, with Paul Janeczko, illustrated by Gary Lippincott).

Fly With Me by Jane Yolen, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Adam Stemple, and Jason Stemple

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 192 pgs.
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Fly with Me: A Celebration of Birds Through Pictures, Poems, and Stories by Jane Yolen, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Adam Stemple, and Jason Stemple is gorgeous. The photographs and reproductions of artwork are stunning, bring each bird to life for young readers. With these colorful pictures, it will be hard for young readers to turn away, and parents will be able to use this as a resource for not only the biology of birds, but also in geography lessons in which state birds are talked about. The giant state bird map is wonderfully detailed, as are the pages about migration, ancient birds, evolution and extinction, and so much more.

I originally wanted to review this book because poetry is included, and Yolen’s poems are always accessible to a number of audiences. I wasn’t wrong about that here, either, as her poems in this book are a great way to introduce young readers to birds. There also are poems from Heidi E.Y. Stemple, which are equally accessible. I loved sharing with my daughter how Stemple’s poem, “Vee,” not only examines the migration of geese but is also shaped like the “V” formation of geese.

Fly with Me: A Celebration of Birds Through Pictures, Poems, and Stories by Jane Yolen, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Adam Stemple, and Jason Stemple is a collection that the whole family can share. It was big hit for its colorful pages and its poetry, but there is so much more to explore in these pages.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Authors:

JANE YOLEN is an author of children’s books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? She is also a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children’s literature.

HEIDI STEMPLE was 28 years old when she joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published 20 books and numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.
Stemple, her two daughters, her mom, and a couple cats live in Massachusetts on a big old farm with two houses.

JASON STEMPLE is an author and photographer. He lives with his wife and children in Charleston, South Carolina.

ADAM STEMPLE is a novelist and musician. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, Illustrated by Peter Brown

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 48 pgs.
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Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, follows big bunny Jasper as he travels to the underwear store with his mother. When he sees a ghoulish, greenish glow on the shelves, he has to have those green underwear! He convinces his mom to buy one pair along with the white ones, and he’s simply enamored with them. Eventually, Jasper’s imagination takes over and the creepy underwear begin to follow him everywhere even when he stuffs them in a drawer.

Reynolds knows just how to make a creepy (Halloween read) story come to life, especially when it comes to kids’ active imaginations that see things bumping in the night when there are none. Jasper is a young bunny looking to be seen as a big bunny, but he even doubts himself when the creepy pair of underwear strike. Maybe he isn’t as big as he thought. I’m sure kids of all ages have this feeling as they grow up, even as they put on a brave face.

My daughter loves this book, and it has become a yearly Halloween read since we purchased it a couple years ago at her school book fair. She loves that the main character is a rabbit — her favorite animal of the moment — and that there are creepy things going on. She’s very into Halloween. The illustrations almost give this a graphic novel feel with a noir atmosphere, which makes that green glow all the more creepy.

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, is a household favorite. When October rolls around, we reach for this book with several other creepy reads. Now my daughter can read this one mostly on her own, which makes it all the more of a treat for her.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Aaron Reynolds is a New York Times Bestselling Author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including Dude!, Creepy Carrots!, Creepy Pair of Underwear!, Nerdy Birdy, and tons more. He frequently visits schools and his highly participatory presentations are a blast for kids and teachers alike. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife, two kids, four cats, and between three and ten fish, depending on the day.

About the Illustrator:

Peter Brown writes and illustrates books for young whippersnappers. He grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey, where he spent his time imagining and drawing silly characters. He studied Life Lessons at the School of Hard Knocks, and then got his B.F.A. in Illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye

Source: Caitlin Hamilton Summie Marketing & Publicity
Paperback, 170 pgs.
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Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye is a slow burn, because like happiness it can take time to see when you actually have it. Pye’s characters are all unique in their experiences from a young man rebelling against his perceptions of his father by looking to a career in skateboarding to an artist who’s big ritual signals an end to his long-fought-for break. These stories explore how long happiness lasts, and in many cases, these characters realize that their happiness happened long ago or that their current happiness may be cut too short.

From “Crying in Italian” (pg. 24)

“The children huddle, deciding if their longing for gelato can be satisfied with limonata instead. That’s the question, isn’t it? she thinks. Can one high, desperate longing be satisfied by something else instead?

From “White Dog” (pg. 36)

“From somewhere behind the house, two gunshots sounded rapidly, one after the other. Dunster flinched and Roxanne steadied him. ‘Enemy’s closer than we thought,’ he mumbled.”

Pye’s intimate portraits of these characters reveal the motivations we all have and the worries we carry about our own happiness. If something looks better in someone else’s life, don’t we covet it and wonder what it would be like to be them? We look and think that their happiness is better than our own and we either strive to emulate that which we see or we destroy what happiness we have in seeking out the “other” happiness. Then there is the internal doubt about our own happiness, the happiness we have in the moment — is it real or imagined? What is the shelf life of happiness? It’s probably different for everyone and some of us achieve more than others in terms of emotional happiness, but what does it even mean to be happy?

Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye offers a variety of stories exploring this idea of happiness and what it means in all of its forms. Some happiness lasts longer than others, and some characters soon realize the thing they thought they needed to be happy is not the happiness they had. Big questions for book clubs to explore and so much more.

RATING: Quatrain

PHOTO: Terry Brown

About the Author:

Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and the forthcoming short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Literary Hub, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Huffington Post and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia, for many years and recently returned Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she grew up.

She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied with Allan Gurganus, Joan Silber, and Chuck Wachtel. In college at Wesleyan University she learned from Annie Dillard and F.D. Reeve. After graduate school, she served as assistant to Frances Goldin at her literary agency in New York City. Virginia has taught creative writing and literature at New York University, and later in Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania, in high schools, community centers, and in her home. In Richmond, she helped establish and run James River Writers, a literary non-profit. In Boston, she now teaches at Grub Street Writing Center.

Halloween Review: Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex


Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 32 pgs.
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Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex is a fun little parody of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, which was the first book my daughter was given when she was born. She still reads it to this day and sometimes even takes it home from her school library even though she owns a copy.

This story is chock full of all that’s scary. Invading martians, pots of goo, werewolves, ghouls, and more. The rhymes mirror those in the original but with a horrifying twist. Our favorite part was when the monster was told by the werewolf child to get under the bed. Of course! That’s where monsters belong.

Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex is a dark, twisted take on the children’s bedtime story, but still goofy and fun to keep children from crying out for mom in their sleep.

RATING: Cinquain

Pippa by McKenna Bray

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 36 pgs.
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Pippa by McKenna Bray is a delightful children’s book about a talented young musician who uses her abilities to touch others and cheer them up when they’re blue or hurt. The story is based on the poem written by Robert Browning, Pippa Passes, and will engage young readers in song.

My daughter’s second grade teacher requires 400 minutes of reading, and after several weeks of arguing about not wanting to read at all, she took to Bray’s book quickly. She loved the rhythm of the verse and nearly sang along as she sounded out the words and followed Pippa through the town as she raised the spirits of others. It would be a great addition if the book came with an audio of the song in the book for young readers to follow along with.

Pippa by McKenna Bray shows young readers that they, too, can make a difference in their communities. Pippa is a strong female character for young readers, and it’s good to see that she wants to use her talents to help others.

RATING: Cinquain

Check out this video:

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 374 pgs.
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The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher is historical fiction at its finest, successfully blending historical fact with characterization and fictional characters. Anyone who knows the history of the Kennedy family or has read anything about the family beyond the famous president, JFK, will love seeing Kick Kennedy take center stage in her own story. Kathleen Kennedy was the second oldest daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy and spent some of her years in London when her father was an ambassador for the United States. In Maher’s novel, she comes to life as a faithful Catholic who is slightly more independent than traditional allows for. Despite her rebelliousness, Kick only goes so far against her parents wishes, even as she sees the folly of her father’s stance on Hitler’s movement across Europe.

“Kick had always been expected to perform better than anyone else, but here in England she wasn’t just Rose and Joe Kennedy’s fashionable daughter, eighteen years old and fresh from school, who could keep up with her older brothers when she set her mind to it. She was the daughter of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, the first Irish Catholic ever to be appointed to the coveted post in this most protestant of countries. This time, she had to succeed.” (pg. 4)

Unlike the expectations of their father imposed on his sons, Kick felt a different set of expectations from her mother. Catholic upbringing and being a Kennedy were the first and foremost concerns she must deal with no matter the situation. Under intense pressure to maintain her faith and meet the expectations of her family, Kick struggles when she finds herself loving England a great deal more than expected and her eye catches that of William Cavendish. Her world is thrown into chaos when her father is ousted from his position after Hitler breaks an agreement with England. She must leave with her family even if her heart begs her to stay.

Kick’s Catholic upbringing is a major part of who she is, but like her brothers, she also longs to forge her own path. There’s a more delicate balance she must maintain than her brothers merely because of her gender and the expectations of her family that she makes a good marriage, but her independence is also what makes her a Kennedy. Her relationship with her sisters and brothers make this an even richer story, demonstrating not only internal tension as one sibling becomes more favored by their parents. The roller coaster of her family life is only part of the tension in maher’s novel. The world is again at war, and Kick must make decision about how she will make a difference and assuage the longings of her heart without cutting herself off from the family and faith she feels is part of her identity.

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher is a look at how war changes the world and the people closest to you, and how faith can heal and tear people apart, as well as become a salve for loss. Maher has done her research well, and her version of Kick Kennedy would fit right in with the Kennedy clan.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

KERRI MAHER is also the author of This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World under the name Kerri Majors. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and founded YARN, an award-winning literary journal of short-form YA writing. A writing professor for many years, she now writes full-time and lives with her daughter in Massachusetts, where apple picking and long walks in the woods are especially fine.

Poe Won’t Go by Kelly DiPucchio and Zachariah Ohora

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 40 pgs.
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Poe Won’t Go by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora, is a tale to teach young and old a little patience, compassion, and kindness. Poe is a rather large elephant who impedes the flow of traffic in a town that is full of pushy people. He won’t budge, no matter what they say or do to him. He’s there for a reason, a young girl says, and she takes charge to find out why.

Marigold demonstrates compassion for Poe, speaking to him in a kind way to find out why he’s come to their town. Stop and listen and you might know why.

Zachariah Ohora’s simple, colorful images are perfect for young readers. They provide easily recognizable shapes and animals to make it easier for them to infer the story. Coupled with DiPucchio’s story, Poe Won’t Go, is a delight.

RATING: Cinquain

Our Situation by W. Luther Jett

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 27 pgs.
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Our Situation by W. Luther Jett is a powerful chapbook in which the poet explores the uncertainty of not only the state of politics in the United States, but also events that jar us from our routine lives and remind us that trauma can occur unexpectedly. Despite the keening (there is a poem with such a title about a dying nation) in the volume, there are glimmers of hope to be had.

"Keening" (pg. 2)

My country is dying and I,
I am singing the night to sleep.

While fireflies rise from their
diurnal graves to torch the dark, I sing.

While the owl's great winds sweep
clean the sightless air, I sing.

From the mountains to the prairies
I sing, and from ocean to ocean, we weep.

We weep together for our song
is as much a lament as it is a battle-cry."

Jett’s imagery in these poems, like in “Spinning,” place the reader at the center of the action. Readers will feel the body in the air after the car makes contact, and the hot breath of the wolf at the narrator’s back in “Canary.” Many of these images are at first subtle until their power creeps up on the reader, and it is perfectly on display in “Canary” and many other poems.

Our Situation by W. Luther Jett does not strike heavily with its message about the current political and social situations we find ourselves in as a nation, like the narrator says in “Canary:” “A wolf is walking/down my backbone — and you don’t/believe me.” and “he’ll lunge and bite — and you/you won’t believe it’s happening/even as you watch me/disintegrate into a smear of viscera./” (pg. 5) And in many ways, Jett gives many the hope they need that we can recover from the darkness, like in “Love Song for A Dismembered Country:” “A voice you have forgotten/will return, wearing/night-colored slippers// Then these words at last/may roll the way honey does/over your parched tongue.//” (pg. 24) Don’t miss this collection.

**Note: Jett is part of a poetry workshop group to which I belong.**

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

W. Luther Jett is a native of Montgomery County, Maryland and a retired special educator. His poetry has been published in numerous journals, such as The GW Review, Beltway, Potomac Review, and Little Patuxent Review as well as several anthologies, including My Cruel Invention and Proud to Be. His poetry performance piece, Flying to America, debuted at the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival in Washington D.C. He has been a featured reader at many D.C. area venues. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father, released by Finishing Line Press in the fall of 2015, and Our Situation, released by Prolific Press, summer, 2018.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 17+ hours
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The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery, narrated by Barbara Caruso, was our September book club selection (unfortunately, I missed the meeting). Aurelia is a young girl who lives with her housekeeper mother in a Catholic school until her mother falls ill before they are set to embark with her uncle to Japan. Without her mother, she becomes despondent and longs for a home, but her uncle, a priest, is less equipped to provide that for her, even in Japan. When a fire rips through the area, Aurelia is alone and hiding in the grounds of the Shin family when the daughter, Yakako, finds her. She’s soon adopted into the family, less as a daughter and more as a servant.

Tea ceremonies are the life blood of the Shin family, but in the late-nineteenth century, the nation faces a number of political changes. Even though she is young and eventually reaches puberty in the Shin family, she becomes integral to the household and feels more at home with them than those from the West. There are still moments where she stumbles, unsure of the customs and eager to indulge Yakako’s need for freedom, until they paint themselves into a corner with her father.

Caruso’s voice is a perfect fit for a novel about tea ceremonies in Japan, a ritual only executed by men. Like many women in Japanese society, their actions are based on ceremony and deference to the men in their lives — a father and a husband — but even then, they can find small comforts among themselves. Aurelia is no different. There is much hard work, conflict with the father, and anxiety due to the changes in Japan — a westernization that could brush aside the importance of tea ceremonies.

There are moments when readers will have to suspend disbelief — how can Aurelia (Urako) learn about Japan from books in 1866? Or learn the language to make it passable just from those books and a cook on the ship over — but the interactions of Aurelia with her protector Yakako are delightful as they navigate the differences in their cultures and misunderstandings. But the narrative gets bogged down in the historical detail, leaving readers wondering what the point of it all is and why they didn’t just pick up a history book instead.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery, narrated by Barbara Caruso, spans about 40 years and much of the Shin family’s time is spent decrying the modernization and westernization of Japan, which is reasonable given the dedication the family has to tea ceremonies. However, Aurelia seems to merely be an observer in her life most of the time, doing little to grow other than what her benefactors tell her. A well-researched and written novel, but the plot and characters plod along in what seems to be merely a history lesson from the eyes of a westerner thrust into a the role of imposter as the Shin family adopts her as their own servant. Her return home is less than climatic.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

The only writer ever to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice, Ellis Avery is the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and out of her home in the West Village.

DC Super Hero Girls: Search for Atlantis by Shea Fontana, illustrated by Yancey Labat

Source: DC Entertainment
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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DC Super Hero Girls: Search for Atlantis by Shea Fontana, illustrated by Yancey Labat, is an original graphic novel about teamwork and learning to see how differences in personalities can not only be complementary to our own but also an asset to a team. Mera, a resident of Atlantis, tries to fit in at Super Hero High and finds a friend in Wonder Woman. This causes conflict with Wonder Woman’s friend Bumblebee who views Mera as someone taking her friend away, even though this is not the case. When the super heroes find that Atlantis has vanished during a school field trip about weaponry, the heroes must learn to work together to save the underwater city.

The pages of the graphic novel are just what you’d expect to find in the comics, but on glossy paper and in a bound format, the super hero girls really come to life. Not only does each hero have his/her own powers that make them unique, but they also have different personalities that provide a new set of challenges.

Each part of the story is broken up into chapters, allowing younger readers to take breaks in between each segment. These breaks also enable young readers to absorb what has been happening between the characters and how far the mission has moved forward with its objectives. DC Super Hero Girls: Search for Atlantis by Shea Fontana, illustrated by Yancey Labat, introduces some familiar characters from the comic book world and perfectly dovetails with some of the social issues found on the cartoon.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Shea Fontana is a screenwriter for film and television, as well as a comic book writer. Her work includes the original graphic novels in the DC Super Hero Girls line, as well as TV shows The 7D, Doc McStuffins, Whisker Haven Tales with The Palace Pets and more.