Image: A young girl with light brown skin and black hair sits in a colorful forest with drawings scattered around her. There are eyes behind her, watching as she draws with pencil and paper.

KidLit Book Review: Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez


Every night, tiny lights appear out of the darkness in Sandy’s bedroom. She catches them and creates wonderful creatures to play with until she falls asleep, and in the morning she brings them back to life in her whimsical drawings. When a mysterious new girl appears at school, Sandy’s drawings are noticed for the first time…but Morfie’s fascination with Sandy’s talent soon turns into something far more sinister.


  • Title: Nightlights
  • Series: Nightlights #1
  • Author/Illustrator: Lorena Alvarez
  • Publisher: Nobrow
  • ISBN: 1910620130
  • Publication Date: March 14, 2017
  • For Ages: 9+
  • Category: Middle Grade
  • Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? ☠️ Scary.


Lorena Alvarez’s Nightlights is so brilliant that I considered adding a 6th coffin to my rating system, because 5 out of 5 just doesn’t seem like enough. With gorgeous illustrations that demand multiple readings and a chilling story that stays scary no matter how often you revisit this brilliant book, Nightlights explores an artist’s imagination, inspiration, insecurity, and fear. It will ring true to anyone who has ever filled a page or a canvas and wondered, “Is this any good? And if it is, will I ever be able to do it again?”

Sandy is a young artist who would much rather draw than pay attention to school lessons or do homework. Her inspiration comes by way of a delightful metaphor—she catches balls of light before she falls asleep, dreams of adorable and unearthly creatures and landscapes, and then draws them when she wakes up. These dreamscapes continue in Sandy’s waking hours, though, interfering with more “important” things in life like learning about the mathematical significance of pi.

Image: Comic book panels showing Sandy waking up, grumpily refusing to eat breakfast with her parents, and then riding her bike to school. A classmate runs past her and mentions pi, to which Sandy responds, "Pie? What pie?"

Young artists will feel a kinship with Sandy and identify with her struggle to be taken seriously. Her affinity for “doodling” is dismissed by her parents and teachers—Alvarez pointedly depicts Sandy’s Catholic school as a place where individuality and freedom of expression are methodically stamped out—and only her new friend Morfie seems to notice her art at all. (Speaking of Sandy’s school, I must applaud Alvarez’s art for its diversity: Sandy’s schoolmates reflect an incredible range in terms of body type, size, skin tone, hair texture, and mobility.) Though Morfie’s praise of Sandy’s art seems positive at first, all creators will soon recognize Morfie for the insidious creature that she is: the beautiful but terrifying personification of the constant need for affirmation, which ultimately stifles and warps creativity. 

There is an added layer of tension on top of what is already a clever, suspenseful story: the struggle between your desire to keep reading to find out what happens next and your desire to linger on Alvarez’s gorgeous art. The lush illustrations and sumptuous color palette of Sandy’s imagination beg to be savored; you could spend half an hour poring over the double-page spreads and still not take in all the subtle color gradations and adorable details. Alvarez’s soft, organic shapes flow smoothly from one to the next, revealing underwater gardens and floral jungles that feel slightly alien but also feel like home.

Image: Sandy draws a circle to escape Morfie, going through the circle to an underwater dreamland filled with friendly flora and fauna.

Nightlights is a wonder, with an eerie narrative that readers will want to race through and breathtaking art that they’ll want to linger over and study for hours. Its brilliant, relatable central metaphor for artistic self-doubt makes it perfect for any age group. Lorena Alvarez is an astonishing talent, and this stunning graphic novel is one that you must read.


This is one of my favorite books ever. I regret that I have only 5 out of 5 coffins to give it.

5 Coffins


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