The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew (First Second, July 15, 2014, YA) is a graphic novel about a boy who becomes a superhero... Green Turtle, the first Asian American superhero!

During the Golden Age of superhero comics, the 1940s, the Green Turtle burst onto the scene to fight for China against the invading Japanese.   Created by Chu Hing, a Chinese American cartoonist, it's probable he too was intended by his creator to be Chinese, though his face was never shown clearly enough to be certain.  He didn't burst with any success--there are just five issues about his adventures, and there were no clues about his origins.

Now we have that backstory.   In The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew tell of how Hank, a boy born to Chinese immigrant parents becomes an unlikely and at first unwilling hero, pushed by his mother and assisted by the great Turtle Spirit of China.   When his gentle shopkeeper father is killed by the Chinese mafia, Hank is determined to get revenge...and so the Green Turtle bursts onto the scene!

It's a story of much more than superhero adventures--it's historical fiction, as well, creating a vivid picture (lots of pictures, actually, cause of it being a graphic novel), of life in a Chinese community in California before WW II.   And it's a coming of age story of the classic sort--a boy compelled to grow up and embrace challenges he never particularly wanted.   And it's the sum of these parts, resulting in an exciting, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant story, with a lovely little twist right at the end that brings the themes of immigration and identity into zesty focus!

And as a bonus, there's an appendix in which the story of the original Green Turtle is thoughtfully explained, and the first issue of his adventures is reproduced (complete with an advertisement urging the "fellers" to send away for a ju-jitsu course...).

Short answer:  Mind-broadening and entertaining, with an appealing hero and great artwork.

Note on age:  it's very much YA in terms of theme, and there's the expected violence (distressing at times, though not gorey).   So not one for the little kid running around in a cape, but more for readers of 12 and up, who might still have their capes but don't wear them in public anymore.


The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade, YA, July 8, 2014), is an absolutely top-notch exposition of its subject.  It's a pretty gripping story, of course, and reading this book is much like watching a train wreck in progress.  But even knowing the horrible inevitability of the end doesn't make the journey less suspenseful.

Fleming's beautifully lucid prose humanizes its subjects without straying into any sort of overly emotional intimacy--their story is  fascinating one, and they are fascinating people, and she is wise enough to let the primary sources and the facts of the matter speak for themselves without distracting authorly adornment.    It is narrative non-fiction of the sort that makes the people whose lives are recounted believable, without straying into speculation about things we can never know.  And Fleming doesn't tell the reader what to think, meaning that the reader is left with lots of room for independent pondering.

Interspersed in the account of the Romanovs--Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children--are primary sources that give voice to other Russians--the peasants, the workers, the ordinary people.  It is a tremendously effective approach.  Not only does it break up the primary narrative in a friendly sort of way for those with shorter attention spans, but it makes the whole state of affairs in Russia much more vividly real.  Numerous photographs, not just of the Romanovs and Rasputin, but of the world they lived in (including horrific images from WW I), also bring the past to life.

 I never thought I would really truly have a grasp on this period of Russian history (and the causes of World War I--it's the best two page discussion of this I've ever read), but this book has managed to educate me most beautifully.   But though I appreciate being educated immensely, I appreciate even more the fact that I sincerely enjoyed the reading of the book.   It's maybe marketed to YA audiences, but there absolutely no reason why even older adults won't like it too.

(includes bibliography, footnotes, and index)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares, for Time Slip Tuesday

The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares (Delacorte Press, YA, April 2014).

It is a bad future.   Messed up climate.  Plauges.  Scarcity.  Death from plagues.  Hopelessness....But no, there is hope!  With the help of newly perfected time travel, the future can be ameliorated!

Except that a whole bunch of time travelers arrive in our United States and don't actually want to mess anything up--they are too busy not being in the bad future.  And to make sure that their comfy present isn't jeopardized, the leaders of the time travelers make it their priority to enforce Rules, in a nasty, private little dystopia way of their own.

Our heroine, Prenna, is a traveller from the future and after a few years crash course in "passing" she is a (still an odd-ballish) high school student.  Our hero, Ethan, is a normal enough high school boy...who saw her arrive (though she doesn't remember it), and won't stop being her friend.  Even though close contact with the natives is one of the things forbidden to Prenna....

And so things would have gone on uneventfully enough, with Prenna pushing at the rules, and Ethan pushing at her differences (in a nice way--I like Ethan) except that......

There are other time travelers.   And not everyone wants one-way trip to the past to be just a staycation.  Some want to change it.  And one such man tells Prenna secrets she was never supposed to learn.  What he tells her sends Prenna and Ethan fleeing from the time traveler community to try to save the future....and to enjoy as deeply as possible being together in the present they're about to try to change, for as long as they can.

So although this might seem like Romance Time Travel, there's actually a lot more too it.  It's also Stranger in a Strange Land time travel, and two people from different places trying to connect story, and young person questioning assumptions story, as well as two people falling in love and exploring all of that together, and it's really quite interesting once it all gets going.   Not paradigm-shifting interesting of a deeply moving kind, but a good read.

It is, however, not desperately fast to get going--I really truly didn't need to be told with quite so heavy a hand how Ethan understood Prenna.  And the time travel paradoxes make me a bit nervous--Ethan and Prenna really do change time so that the future is different, which should mean Prenna not being Prenna....but sometimes, when reading travel, "whatever" is the best way to simply enjoy a good story.

And it is not one I would give to the sci fi/speculative fiction fan; it's more one, I think, for the high school relationship fan who wants something with a bit of a twist (that doesn't involve vampires).  It doesn't have the full on, gritty, really high stakes feel of a full-blown dystopia; it's more a story using speculative fiction elements to get to the relationship between the two main characters.   To like the story, you have to like Prenna and Ethan, and kind of let the glimpses of the future and the action in the present just carry you along.

So sort of a restful, escapist, romantic spec. fic. with dystopian elements, good for beach reading.


The Fog of Forgetting, by G.A. Morgan, with beautiful necklace giveaway!

The Fog of Forgetting (Book 1 of The Five Stones trilogy) by G.A. Morgan. (Islandport Press, middle grade/YA, July 17, 2014)

The three Thompson brothers--Chase (13), Knox (11),  and Teddy (6)--expected an ordinary summer in family house on the coast of Maine.   They didn't expect to have new neighbors--Evelyn (13) and Frankie (9), orphaned by the Haitian earthquake.   And they most certainly didn't expect that a forbidden excursion out on the waters of coastal Maine would take them through a mysterious fog to a magical land, from which there is (apparently) no returning.

There they find themselves in the middle of a struggle between the powers ruling four different realms, each attuned to one of the four elements.  Three of the rulers seek balance; the four, mastery over all, and unless he is stopped, the conflict could spill over to the ordinary world.   And there the five children find within themselves sufficient strengths to survive the challenges this conflict throws at them, and gain gifts from the magic of the various realms to which they find themselves attuned.   Chase, for instance, finds himself drawn to the element of air, and in the cold of the mountains, the asthma that has plagued him all his life is vanquished by magical healing.

The fantasy elements of The Fog of Forgetting are solid--those who enjoy kids encountering dangers and magics (with some lessons in sword-fighting) will like it.   This aspect of the story is strong enough to carry a group of kids who seem at first  unappealing (young Frankie excepted--the story of her kidnapping by the evil forces, and the unexpected friend she made in her journey, is my favorite part of the book).  But as the kids move past their bickering, lack of respect for each other, and lack of common sense, they are given a chance to become characters the reader can care for, caught up in a sweeping story given depth by the philosophy underlying the fantasy. 

I'm awfully pleased to be able to offer a most excellent giveaway in conjunction with this review.  The magic of each of the realms within the story is tied to a gemstone, and there are a limited number of necklaces with these stones to be won!  This lovely Varuna necklace could be yours; just leave a comment below by 12 noon next Monday, July 28th!

Visit these blogs this week for chance to win other necklaces!
Moving on from my own take on the book to a look at what Kirkus said about it, because I have Issues....Kirkus says that "Morgan’s ambitious debut novel, the first book in the Five Stones Trilogy, has a mildly British feel to it, with vague nods to Swallows and Amazons and Harry Potter."   I guess I can see the "mildly British feel" (though I think I would say English)--there are more books set in England  in which children pass into magical realms than there are books with American kids, in America, doing the same.    Harry Potter...uh, no.  This is an adventure fantasy, with treks through hostile landscapes, meetings with mythical powers, sword-fighting.    The only similarity I saw is the age of the protagonists.  And Swallows and Amazons? No.  Swallows and Amazons is all about deep imaginative play (with sailboats involved) and just because this adventure starts with a (motor) boat doesn't mean it has anything in common with S. and A.  

Disclaime: review copy received from the publisher


The week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (20 July, 2014)

Here's this week's round-up; as usual, please let me know if I missed your post!  Thanks.

The Reviews

11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass, at Books Beside My Bed

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at Bookends  and Mister K Reads

The Burning Shadow, by Michelle Paver, at The Book Monsters

The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man, by Lloyd Alexander, at Fantasy Literature

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, at That's Another Story 

The Extraordinary Book of Doors, by Anne E.G. Nydam, at Charlotte's Library

Fire and Ice (Spirit Animals Book 4), by Shannon Hale, at proseandkahn

The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie, by Kirsty Murray, at Charlotte's Library

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at Mom Read It

Hell Hound Curse (Sammy Feral's Diaries of Weird), by Eleanor Hawkin, at Nayu's Reading Corner

House of Dark Shadows, by Robert Liparulo, at Time Travel Times Two

Minion, by John David Anderson, at This Kid Reviews Books and Charlotte's Library

My  Zombie Hamster, by Havelock McCreely,  at Wondrous Reads

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Great Imaginations, Reader Noir, and Lunar Rainbows

Of Sorcery and Snow (Ever Afters #3) by Shelby Bach, at Log Cabin Library 

Oliver and the Seawigs, by Philip Reeve, at Mom Read It and Carstairs Considers

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee, at Evelyn Ink

Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale, at By Singing Light

Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain, by Richard Roberts, at alibrarymama

The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda, at books4yourkids

Silent Starsong, by T.J. Wooldridge, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia 

Timesmith, by Neil Bushnell, at Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books

The Tomb of Shadows (Seven Wonders book 3), by Peter Lerangis, at Ms. Yingling Reads

A World Without Princes, by Soman Chainani, at The B.O.B and  Good Books and Good Wine (audiobook review)

The Vengekeep Prophecies, by Brian Farrey, at Here There Be Books

Authors and Interviews

G. A. Morgan (The Fog of Forgetting) at On Starships and Dragonwings 

More Good Stuff...

...and lots of it, at Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature where stories that didn't make it into the book of the same title are shared.  Go there now, if you haven't yet, because the number of great stories keeps growing, and you could find yourself spending hours of catch up time there.....

A lovey list of scary stories from Kell Andrews (Deadwood) at Project Mayhem  and more scariness and danger from School Library Journal

And finally, registration is now open for Kidlitcon 2014!


Minion, by John David Anderson

Minion, by John David Anderson (Walden Pond Press, June 2014, upper middle grade, but pushing toward YA), is a riveting tale of a 13-year-old kid with super-powers, set set in the same world as last year's Sidekicked, but with all new characters.

Under different circumstances, Michael could have been a super hero, or at least a sidekick.   He has the power to control people's minds (if he's making eye contact, and can keep his focus...).   But Michael wasn't raised to be one of the good guys.  Plucked from a Catholic orphanage while still a boy, he was adopted by a brilliant inventor who sells his creations to the highest bidder.  The inventions are not of a warm, fuzzy sort, and the bidder in question is the head of one of the local organized crime syndicates.  And Michael's new dad isn't adverse to using the power of mind control to keep the cash coming in between inventions.

But Michael loves his dad, and after all, his powers aren't really hurting anyone much....and so he lives a somewhat lonely life, homeschooled and isolated, hanging out with a crime family minion, hypnotizing strangers at ATMs, and helping out on the experiments in the basement.

Then a new type of crime comes to town--one that transcends ordinary thuggery.  And there to stop it is a new superhero--the Blue Comet!

The clash of superhero and supervillian shakes Michael's world to its foundations.  Michael's powers and his dad's almost preternatural inventing genius become valuable commodities in the struggle....and Michael finds himself faced with a choice that will change the course of his life.  Minion....or good guy, whatever good guy might mean.

It's an interesting premise--this whole question of good vs evil--but it's by no means a heavy-handed moral story.  Instead, it's more like a mystery with nuance.   Things grow progressively more complicated, what with hidden identities,  villains hatching plots, and the family secrets that Michael didn't even know were there.    This tension, coupled with a cast of (mostly) likable, always interesting, characters keeps the pages turning nicely.

I think Michael is a tremendously relatable young teen--behind the excitement of the struggle of villains and heroes the heart of the book is about growing up, questioning your parents, thinking about relationships, etc.--all the things that young teens are thinking about!  Except that most young teens aren't in danger of being exploited by criminal masterminds on account of their super-powers....

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher as part of the Minion blog tour--there's one last stop tomorrow, at Literacy Toolbox!  


The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie, by Kirsty Murray, for Timeslip Tuesday

I have a lovely one for this week's Timeslip Tuesday-- The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie, by Kirsty Murray (Allen and Unwin, July 2014 in the US, 2013 in Australia).  I am not alone in thinking it is lovely--it won Best Children's Book in last year's Aurealis Awards (Australian awards for spec. fic.). 

Eleven-year old Lucy must go stay alone with her eccentric old aunt in the old over-grown family home out in the bush.  Her older sister Diana, studing music in France, had an accident and is in a coma, and her mother has gone to Paris to be with her.  Her father must travel for work.  So the only option is Aunt Big.

Lucy is not happy.  She's anxious for her sister, very uncertain about gruff Aunt Big, and pretty sure she'll be bored alone in the middle of no-where (with no electronic devices on hand).   When she first sees the painted room downstairs--each wall decorated with the surronding landscape, one wall for each season--she doesn't care for it--she feels the outside should stay out.

But then one night Lucy cannot sleep...and magic happens when she enters the painted room, and follows the girl in the picture of spring who is calling to her.

And Lucy is back in the late 1930s, with a girl named April who could almost have been her twin, who lives in the same old family house, in this time a loved and lived in home.   Lucy travels through each season in turn, growing closer to April, her siblings, and her friend Jimmy.   Twice she is a hero, thanks to her study of Bush Fire Safty pamphelts at Aunt Big's house in the present, and thanks to her lifesaving course.  

But when she realizes who April will become, and what will happen to April's brother Tom, she wants to try to change the past....

And all the while in the present Lucy and Aunt Big are growing closer together to, in a most satisfying way.

I enjoyed it thorougly. The mystery of who April is is easy to guess, but that makes the interactions of Lucy and her aunt more meaningful.

If you are at all a fan of Tom's Midnight Garden, you must read it.   If you are a fan of intergenerational friendships, read it.   If you like lovely descriptions of beautiful places, and kids being kids, read it. 

Possibly my personal favorite book of the year so far (but then, I love old-fashioned British stories about kids sent off to old relations in the country, which is what this felt like, and I love gentle, episodic time-travel, so it was pretty much tailor-made for me!)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.


The Extraordinary Book of Doors, by Anne E.G. Nydam

I'm always a sucker for magical books within books (twice the bookish fun for the reading!), and the 16th-century tome that gives its name to The Extraordinary Book of Doors, by Anne E.G. Nydam (Createspace, 2014), is a lovely one indeed, opening up fantastic adventures for two ordinary kids.

It begins with Chen Connolly finding a copy of Serlio's Extraordinary Book of Doors seemingly abandoned beneath a park bench in Cleveland.  The book is what it sounds like--Serlio was a tremendously influential Renaissance architect, and this book is essentially a illustrated catalogue of doors.  But the book is magical.  The embossed key on the cover detaches, allowing Chen to travel through the doors to the buildings that wait inside them.

And at the same time, a quirky girl named Polly in Massachusetts comes upon a second copy of the book, one that belonged to Benjamin Franklin.  Her book and key work the same way...but on the backs of each door, Franklin has left cryptic clues--and if they can be solved, they'll provide the information needed to claim a bequest Franklin established during his lifetime to be used for humanitarian and educational purposes.

Polly and Chen meet through the interconnectedness of the doors in their two books, and set off on a journey of exploration that takes them across the world as they try to solve Franklin's riddles.  But there's a third copy of the book, and its unscrupulous owner is after the Franklin fortune too.  At just about every step of their way Polly and Chen find themselves in a struggle to keep their own books from falling into his hands as they race to solve the mystery before its too late....

It is an absolutely lovey premise, made even more so by the black and white illustrations of doors drawn by the author (some based on Serlio's doors, some imaginary) included throughout!  And it's an exciting adventure, too, given depth by the friendship, at first uncertain, that grows between Chen and Polly.

It's a good one for kids who like heist stories that come with magical twists.  By the end of the book, the magical exploration of the doorways is secondary to the danger posed by the rival treasure hunter, with the excitement of outwitting him (by the skin of their teeth) and solving the clues taking center stage.

Do not be deterred by the fact that this is a self-published book--I noticed no infelicities of editing (such as are found, all too often, here at my own blog; sigh).

Bonus:  Chen is adopted, presumably from China (his given name is a Chinese surname, sometimes used in the US as a first name) making this one for my list of multicultural speculative fiction books.

Secondary bonus:  probably I was taught about Serlio somewhere back in the day, but I'd forgotten about him.  I feel better educated now.  I also feel like drawing doors.

disclaimer: review copy received from the author.


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (July 13, 2014)

Not much from me in this week's round-up...summer is always more work than I think it's going to be.  But here's what I found from others; let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield, by John Bemelmans Marciano, at Always in the Middle

The Cabinet of Curiosities, by Stefan Bachmann et al., at A Reader of Fictions and Views From the Tesseract

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, at The Book Smugglers  and The Book Wars

The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Tale of the Marvelous

The Dark Hills Divide, by Patrick Carman, at 300 Pages

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at Kidliterate

A Grimm Warning (Land of Stories 3), by Chris Colfer, at Mugglenet.com

The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate, by Scott Nash, at Mister K Reads

Lost Children of the Far Islands, by Emily Raabe, at The Hiding Spot

The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Minion, by John David Anderson, at Shae Has Left the Room

Oliver and the Seawigs, by Phillip Reeve, at Log Cabin Library and Dee's Reads

The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson, at Librarian of Snark

Rose, by Holly Webb, at Bookyurt

The Sasquatch Escape, by Suzanne Selfors, at books4yourkids

The School For Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, at Quinn's Book Nook (audio review)

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at Guys Lit Wire

Sky Raiders, by Brandon Mull, at Bluerose's Heart

Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz, at mstamireads

A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones, at alibrarymama

The Truth Against the World, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson (technically this is YA, but it's a great one for upper middle grade readers too....) at Charlotte's Library

A World Without Princes, by Soman Chainani, at Elfswood

Author and Interviews

John David Anderson (Minion) at Middle Grade Mafioso, The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia, and at Candace's Book Blog (giveaway)

Emily Raabe (Lost Children of the Far Islands) at The Hiding Spot

Other Good Stuff

Tor does a nice re-cap of what we learned from the recent Harry Potter short story.

I just found out (or possibly was reminded, I'm not sure) Terry Pratchett has signed a book deal for "Dragons at Crumbling Castle."  Read more here at Fantasy Fiction.

"White Ladies" at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

A new issue of Middle Shelf Magazine is up!

Next weekend there's a mini-Bloggiesta--always good for meeting new folks and sprucing up the blog!

And speaking of meeting new folks, here's Jen Robinson at the Nerdy Book Club talking about why KidLitCon is such a lovely thing (do try to make it this October!)


The Big Book of Superheroes, by Bart King

If you are looking for a book to give a handy tenish-year-old this summer, especially if you are anxious for a book that will lure in the "reluctant reader" and make them laugh, look no further than The Big Book of Superheroes, by Bart King  (Gibbs Smith, April 1, 2014--an excellent publication day for this!)

In a nutshell, this book is 278 pages of superhero fun, full of information on what it takes to be a superhero (stuffed with tidbits of information about the genuine articles), full of activities to help you become one, and generously sprinkled with humor.

Warning: some of the humor is of the potty kind, which strangely appeals less to the grown-up reader.  But despite that, I found myself enjoying the book so much that in the middle of my first reading I summoned my younger child to sit next to me on the sofa so that we could enjoy it together, and he was hooked, and it went off to camp with him the next day.

Sure I enjoyed learning about superheroes I'd never heard of (though I really wish the author had reassured me that they were all real.  I was so full of doubt when I hit "Squirrel Girl" I had to run upstairs to google search... "her ability to control squirrels is surprisingly effective," says Wikipedia).   But what I really loved about this book was that Bart King has a lovely dryish wit to his style, laughing at absurdities while still treating this whole superhero thing and its long history more or less respectfully (and I love that there's a generous bibliography, including secondary sources, included).

Two more good things:

--It is friendly to both girls and boys--superhero-ness doesn't default to boy-ness, and look at that pink-haired girl on the cover!  There is also room for kids of color to see themselves--the boy on the cover can be read as African American or Hispanic (kids in the interior illustrations, though drawn in black and white, also don't necessarily default to white).

--The generous inclusion of black and white comics, and the short text blocks make this a friendly one for the text-uncertain.

Just to give you a taste of the book, here's how it starts:

"I have good news.  By reading these words, you just became an honorary superhero.  Yay!

But maybe you're wondering, "What is a superhero, anyway?"  It's simple- a superhero is anyone who wants to fight evildoers and right wrongs.  These could be small wrongs, like:

"Who used up all the toilet paper?"

Or it might be a big wrong, like:

"Who used up all of the toilet paper in the Secret Lair?"

Of course, you can do things your way.  Instead of fighting evildoers, you might want to argue with them.  (I'm pretty sure this isn't as successful, though.)" (page 9)

(I love italics.)

Short answer:  it's great.  But even better than giving this one to your own child might be to give it to someone else's child.  That way you don't have to worry about the squirting toilet prank...

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


The Truth Against the World, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

Books like The Truth Against the World, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson (Flux, June 2014, upper Middle Grade/younger YA), are exactly the reason I call it "Timeslip Tuesday" instead of "Time Travel Tuesday."    Without the concept of time-slipping, I'd have to call this one a ghost story.  And indeed there is a ghost--a sad little Welsh ghost girl--but there are also dreams that break down the barriers of past and present, and are more like windows into the past.....

The dreams are dreamt by an American girl, Wyn (short for Olwen), who's Welsh great-grandma, Rhiannon, is dying.  Rhiannon wants to go home to Wales one last time before the end, and so Wyn and her parents travel with  her.  And Wyn begins to dream, and begins, through her dreaming, to realize that her great-grandmother has been holding memories that she has never shared.    There is a mystery to be unraveled about what happened to Rhiannon in the years just after WW II....

And also caught in the same mystery is London boy named Gareth, whose Great-granddad lives in the same village where Riannon was from.   There in Wales Gareth meets a the little ghost girl...and she is very instant that he come back to keep her company.  So much so that her image, her song, her words begin to haunt him even back in London.  Her name, like Wyn's, is Olwen Nia Evans.  And thanks to Google, Gareth finds the American Wyn, and they meet in Wales.

The ghost Olwen seems desperate for them to find out her story.  But Rhiannon is dying, and has no strength to re-tell her past, and others in the village who might no the truth seem determined to keep it buried.   But the dreams keep coming to Wyn, showing her the past....and at last she and Gareth find out what really happened long ago.

(That's the part that makes this a timeslip story--they are very vivid dreams, such that she is an on-looker.  And at one point she's so almost present that someone in the past seems to see her, which clinched it in my mind).

This one was an excellent read for me this past week--enough happens in terms of the slow progression of the mystery and in the friendship between Wyn and Gareth that I was satisfied without being over-whelmed (though those who like Fast Paced Excitement and lots of onward rush might, however, find it too slow).   I very much enjoyed visiting Wales for the first time with Wyn--cool and green, which was also just what I was wanting!  Even though I guessed who the ghost girl must be pretty quickly, I still enjoyed watching the gradual unfolding of the clues.

I think this would be a lovely one to give to a dreamy 11- 13 year old girl (grades 6-8), one who's not ready for full blown YA romantic sci fi/fantasy -- and I am thinking that at that age I might well have been naïve enough not to have guessed who little ghost Olwen was.   

(Speaking of naiveté-- I think it's good to have books like this that gently push young readers toward adult concepts, like sex having consequences, keeping it off to the side with secondary characters in the past, and no graphic content at all.   Some readers charge forward, others need to be nudged....and this is a nice nudge level book.)

Note: if you see a picture of this book for sale, don't be put off by its appearance of wear and tear!  That is part of the cover design--a sort of metaphoric layering of the old within the new just as happens in the story.

disclaimer:  Sarah is a friend of mine--she told me about this one way back last fall when we were room-mates at KidLitCon in Austin, and I have been dying to read it ever since!


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi/fantasy goodness from around the blogs (7/6/14)

Here is this week's round-up, a little late today, because of spending the morning tyring to wrest a living from the hostile soil etc (ie, weeding) and difficulties wresting a computer away from hostile young (mine is not working) and difficulties putting down, of all things, Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which came up in conversation yesterday, as sometimes happens, even to the best of us.

If I missed your post, I'm sorry.  Let me know, and I will add it!

The Reviews:

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at Fantasy Literature

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merre Haskill, at Kid Lit Geek and Semicolon

Clone Catcher, by Alfred Slote, at Views From the Tesseract

Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede, at 300 Pages

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Tales of the Marvelous

The Feral Child, by Che Golden, at Tea in the Teacups

The Glass Sentence, by S. E. Grove, at Book Nut

The Interrupted Tale, by Maryrose Wood, at Sonderbooks 

Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis, at Puss Reboots

Key to Kashdune, by Claudia White, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books 

The Lost Kingdom, by Matthew Kirby, at Mister K Reads

The Luck Uglies, by Paul Durham, at Akossiwa Ketoglo

Maddy West and the Tongue Taker, by Brian Falkner, at Kid Lit Reviews

Minion, by John David Anderson, at Ms. Yingling Reads and The Book Monsters 

Missing, Presumed Evil, by Garth Nix and Sean Williams, at Speculating on SpecFic

Northwood, by Brian Faulkner, at The Write Path

Saving Lucas Biggs, by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague, at Semicolon 

The School For Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, at Hidden in Pages

The Spellcoats, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Tales of the Marvelous

The Spirit Animal series, by various authors, at alibrarymama

The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J.A. White, at Waking Brain Cells

Authors and Interviews

Paul Durham (The Luck Uglies) at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

John David Anderson (Minion) at The Book Monsters

Other Good Stuff

The Guardian Children's Prize Longlist has been announced.  (The Dark Wild, sequel to The Last Wild, is on it....I have had Last Wild for months and months, but not yet read it sigh.)

Book fun places to go with kids in England at Playing by the Book with special attention to "A Viking's Guide to Deadly Dragons"

A nice list of ten Diverse spec fic stories at Views From the Tesseract

Mary Rodgers, author of Freaky Friday, has died (I have never read Freaky Friday, and feel vaguely that I should).

And----- The Call for Proposals for KidLitCon 2014 is now live!  (Please come to Sacramento this fall--I am going and I would like you all to be there too.)


Call for session proposals-- Kidlitcon 2014: Blogging Diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Lit: What’s Next?

Last March, Walter Dean Myers asked "Where are the People of Color in Children's Books?"  and the spring was filled with passionate conversations sparked by his words.   The sad news just went out that Walter Dean Myers left us yesterday, and the loss is huge.

Today, just before the news broke, the call for session proposals for this year's Kidlitcon was posted.  The theme this year--Blogging Diversity in Young Adult and Children’s Lit: What’s Next?--was chosen to keep the conversation going, in the hope that someday Walter Dean Myers' question won't make any sense at all to young readers.

So do join us in Sacramento this October (details here) and do submit a session proposal! Lifting from the official submission form:

“We are looking for presentations and panels that will inspire and edify Kidlitosphere bloggers. While we’re specifically interested in presentations that address what bloggers can do to make a meaningful difference in increasing and promoting diversity in children’s and young adult literature, sessions covering other topics such as reviewing critically, trends, social media, marketing, technology, and industry relationships are welcome.”

I submitted a proposal for the first time last year, rather nervously, and roped two great colleagues in kid lit into doing it with me, and it was great.  If you have an idea that you want to try out, or to see if there's anyone who might be interested in joining forces with you, you can always run it by the kidlitosphere yahoo group, which is what I did.

I'm the program chair this year, so please get in touch with me if you have any questions! (charlotteslibrary@gmail.com)

And please spread the word.

And goodbye, and thank you, Walter Dean Myers.


Time Between Us, by Tamara Ireland Stone

As I read my weekly time travel books, I vaguely compartmentalize them into different sub-genres of Time Travel that I come across--the didactic, the cryogenic, the trying-to-change things, etc.   Reading Time Between Us, by Tamara Ireland Stone (Hyperion, 2012) made me realize that I have, for the most part, been ignoring a (probably) popular sub-genre--time travel existing to make a romance complicated (as in The Time Traveller's Wife). 

Time Between Us could well be used as the type specimen for the YA branch of this sub-genre.   It tells of a time travelling boy, Bennet, who falls in love with a girl, Anna, born 17 years before him.  And if you are a fan of YA romance where the romance is the plot (but there's no sex), and you like your YA romance with some sort of tension such as might come from being from a different time than your beloved, you may well enjoy this one.

In any event, all the while Bennet  knows his time as a high school classmate of Anna's is fraught, just fraught, with complication, and he is conflicted.  And she knows she is attracted to his attractive self and doesn't understand why he is so distant and then so less distant.  It is love, only fraught.  It is told from the point of view of the girl, Anna, and the reader really gets to know what Anna is thinking and feeling  (which is mostly about herself, and about herself and her time-travelling love). 

Happily for Anna, who dreams of travel, Bennet's gifts of preternatural temporal relocation transcend geographical limits as well, so he can take the two of them to yesterday in Italy etc.  I am not sure this served much point viz story progression, but it made me want to be Bennet's friend really really badly. 

I am pretty sure this is not my favorite sub-genre of time travel...although perhaps if I had found the characters more interesting, and if the fraught romance had been augmented more robustly by the other overshadowed plot elements (like what the heck happened to Bennet's sister?) I might now be feeling differently....


Micronations: Invent Your Own Country and Culture, by Kathy Ceceri, for Nonfiction Monday

When I was offered a review copy of Micronations: Invent Your Own Country and Culture (with 25 Projects) by Kathy Ceceri (Nomad Press, May 2014) I jumped at it-- the topic combines beautifully my interest in fantasy world-building, and my real-life background as an anthropologist/archaeologist.   

This is a book that almost makes me want to be a teacher, either in class or homeschooling, because it would be so much fun to use as the basis for an exploration of geography and social studies!  Ceceri walks kids through all the things that go into making a modern country--the physical features of the land, the basics of government and economy, the symbolic elements of nation building, and more.  Generously interspersed with matter of fact discussions of such topics are interesting facts and activities (which seem entertaining, do-able, and useful), and I must say that I loved the interesting facts very much!  There are so many of them, and they are indeed so interesting, that the book is almost worthy reading and sharing just for their sake!

(Did you know in Bhutan there is one day every month where no one is allowed to drive, so as to cut down on air pollution?)

There's much here a young writer (or even some older writers) would find useful in fantasy worldbuilding as well--solid world-building depends on a deep understanding of how countries work from the ground-up.    That being said, the more amorphus side of a country's culture--the history, the mythology, the kinship structures--are not part of the scope of the book (which isn't criticism, just a comment).   

I appreciated that alternatives to late stage capitalism were included, such as barter economies, but couldn't help but feel that more alternatives could have been offered to push kids to question all that they take for granted about nation-hood! (Which is to say, this isn't subversive).

That being said, I enjoyed it for what it was.  It's very much worth using in an educational setting, and even worth giving in a more casual way to your kid at home who has a penchant for social studies trivia!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of middle grade speculative fiction from around the blogs (6/29/14)

A little late today, here's this week's round-up--please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

Blood Ties (Spirit Animals 3) at Akossiwa Ketoglo

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at Charlotte's Library 

The Boys of Blur, by N.D. Wilson, at Semicolon

The Catacombs of Vanaheim, by Richard Denning, at The Write Path 

Deadwood, by Kell Andrews, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at Dark Faerie Tales

Eye of the Storm, by Kate Messner, at Michelle I. Mason

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Lunar Rainbows

Jinx, by Sage Blackwood, at Great Imaginations and Librarian of Snark

Loot, by Jude Watson, at Alison's Book Marks and Ms. Yingling Reads

The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jaleigh Johnson, at Semicolon

Minion, by John David Anderson, at The Book Smugglers

Mouseheart, by Lisa Fiedler, at Log Cabin Library  and Semicolon

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Semicolon

The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann, at Kid Lit Geek

The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer, at Guys Lit Wire

The School is Alive, by Jack Chabert, at The Book Monsters 

Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, at Shae has Left the Room

Snow in Summer, by Jane Yolen, at Good Books and Good Wine

Still Life, by Jacqueline West, at Charlotte's Library

Tesla's Attic, by Neal Schusterman and Eric Elfman, at The Reading Nook Reviews

The Time of the Fireflys, by Kimberley Griffiths Little, at Not Acting My Age

Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, at Tor

V is For Villain, by Peter Moore, at Ms. Yingling Read

The Vanishing of Billy Buckle, by Sally Gardner, at Wondrous Reads

Authors and Interviews

Jacqueline West (Still Life) at Tor

Dianne K. Salerni (The Eighth Day) with part 6 of Heros and Villains at Project Mayhem

John David Anderson (Minion) at Next Best Book

Greg van Eekhout (The Boy at the End of the World) on how writing middle grade is different from writing for older audiences at Locus Roundtable

John David Anderson (Minion) shares tips for young writers (plus a review) at Word Spelunking

Other Good Stuff

A booklist of cyriptids and mythological monsters at Views From the Tesseract

At Pass the Chiclets, a look at how the movie version of The True Meaning of Smekday is shapping up.


Silver, by Chris Wooding

Silver, by Chris Wooding (Scholastic, March 2014), is a good one for older middle grade to YA kids (11 to 14 year olds) looking for high-intensity horror of a violent, science-fictional, kind. 

The plague of monsters started with an interesting silver beetle, found during a nature study project on the grounds of an isolated boarding school in the north of England.  It ended in a blood-bath.  The silver beetle was not alone--there were other creatures, half metal, half alive, who spread their strange infection with every bit and claw wound, turning victims into hideous creatures of destruction.  

And soon the peaceful school becomes a scene of horror, as classmates and teachers fall to the silver scourge, and the survivors watch as their friends mutate, and turn against them. 

Which results in our hero, Paul, and a (rapidly dwindling) number of other kids (including a bully, a geek, and It girl, and a wanna-be It girl, ineffectually led by the science teacher) holed up in the science building trying to fend off the silver creatures.   And it is very exciting, as the creatures are evolving in both intelligence and in specialized abilities.  The boards nailed across the windows soon (and horribly) become inadequate...

But Paul finds reserves of leadership he didn't know he had, and the other kids step up to the plate...and it becomes a fast read indeed as one wonders how on earth anyone is going to make it out alive.  (One also wonders, as do the protagonists, if there is anywhere safe outside the school to escape to...)

Creepy tunnels beneath the school, teeming with really nightmarish monsters, a very creepy school swimming pool scene, and lots of death in general make this a good one for readers with a tolerance for horror.   And though the protagonists seem at first to be rather stereotypical, sufficient layers of characterization are added to allow the reader some emotional investment in the outcome.

Here's what I found scary--the scientific premise behind the creatures.  It's all too easy to imagine ways in which we can mix hubris and technology to create monsters...

Here's the Kirkus review, and here's Ms. Yingling's revew

disclaimer: review copy recieved from the publisher


Still Life (the fifth and final volume of The Books of Elsewhere), by Jacqueline West

It is a very gratifying thing, though mixed with some sadness, when a much enjoyed series comes to a satisfying close.    Still Life, the fifth and final volume of the Books of Elsewhere, by Jacqueline West (Dial, middle grade, June 2014) offers a very satisfying close indeed to the story of how a girl named Olive moved into a house full of pictures enchanted by a dark magician, and how through bravery, good-heartedness, and lots of mistakes that (sometimes) worked out for the best, helped to defeat him once and for all (with the help of three marvelous cats, some good friends, and a totally unexpected source).

Here are the three main things the last book of a series needs to do:

-- Introduce new tensions, while providing sufficient backstory so that forgetful readers aren't confused.

Check.   There are new tensions here in spades (several new characters pose problems for young Olive, and there are several intriguing new dilemmas and mysteries to solve).   And the relationships that Olive's forged in the previous books continue to play important roles.

This isn't a stand-alone book by any stretch of the imagination--too much has happened!  And frankly, I was worried I didnt' remember enough for it to make sense to me.  But thanks to Jacqueline West's graceful integration of reminders within the new story, I never had that uncomfortable feeling of hopping over gaping plot holes in my mind that sometimes troubles me when reading final volumes.

-- Allow the central characters to develop, which includes giving them enough room to grow as thoughtful, brave people, so that their actions are believable when the final denouement comes and you, the reader, really care.

Check.  Olive isn't desperately intelligent, nor is she endowed with abilities beyond those of a normal young tween.   But she does get to grow lots as a person during the course of her struggles to do the right thing.  The fact that she makes mistakes of judgement makes her believable, the fact that she keeps going regardless makes her someone to cheer for. 

-- End it with an ending (that doesn't have to be an epilogue saying who married whom, naming no names).  Questions should be answered, a future for the main characters should be imaginable, and people trapped in paintings should not be left there to rot.

I have no complaints in this regard.   And here's what I especially like about this book--we get to see Olive's parents as caring people who, in their own math-absorbed way, are decent parents.   They were not good parents in earlier books, so I'm glad I don't have to worry about Olive on that account.  

A really great series will make me want to go start at the beginning all over again, and if I were still my child self, without c. 250 books on the tbr shelves, I might well do so, though I really can't right now.   I can, however, enthusiastically recommend The Books of Elsewhere to any young (or young-esque) reader who enjoys stories of fantasies and real lives intersecting, who likes their conflicts up close and personal, who likes reading about characters who mean really well and who do their best, but who aren't Chosen, who likes cats, and who has imagined walking into a painting....or the people in a painting walking out of it......... 

And if the young reader described above is struggling with parental expectations of aptitude vs actual aptitudes in something altogether different, I recommend it even more highly!  (Olive's parents are both mathematicians; she is an artist).

Added bonus:  Still Life is a nice cold book, with snow and ice and almost freezing to death.  Good for reading on a hot summer day.

(Am I missing another thing the final volume of a series should do?  Since I just came up with my three things literally ten minutes ago, I haven't pondered the question all that deeply, and I would like to be told what obvious things I'm missing!)

Just for the sake of Tidiness, I went through and found my reviews of the earlier books (although for reasons unknown to me I never reviewed the third book...)

The Shadows
The Second Spy
The Strangers


Cleopatra in Space, Book 1: Target Practice, by Mike Maihack, for Timeslip Tuesday (I loved it)

Cleopatra in Space, Book 1: Target Practice, a hundred and seventy page full color graphic novel suitable for young and less young by Mike Maihack (GRAPHIX, April 29, 2014).

Me, showing once again why I am not a professional reviewer:  Oh my gosh,  this was a such a fun book! I loved loved loved it!

Me, struggling to reign in my (utterly justifiable) enthusiasm:

Book 1 of Ceopatra in Space--Target Practice--gets the series off to a flying start.   Cleopatra (yes, that Cleopatra) is an ordinary Egyptian princess, more or less--she's not a model of courtly decorum, being much fonder of slingshot practice than she is of submitting to her education, and indeed ordinary princesses might not habitually dose their tutor's tea with soporific chamomile.   But her expectations of one day assuming royal obligations (though she's by no means anxious to do so) are ordinary enough.

But then!  Exploring the hidden chambers behind a mysterious door, Cleo activates a portal that whisks her far into the future, and far into space.   She finds herself in a galaxy in danger from a villainous enemy that has seized all but fraction of learning amassed during the millennia that have passed since her own time.  And she finds herself hailed as the savior of the Nile Galaxy, whose coming was foretold in a prophecy.

Cleo has doubts.  Lots of doubts.  But the sentient cats who govern the Nile Galaxy are determined to make sure she will fulfill the saving part of things.

But first, she must go to school.  Fortunately for Cleo, the horror of more algebra is off-set by new friends, and by combat practice...and when Cleo is sent on her first quest (on her utterly awesome space-travelling sphinx motorbike), it's the later that come in handy....

Cleo is great, the sentient cats are great, the premise is great, the story is great, and the art is great.  It is a great book and WHY do I have to wait till next April for the sequel??????  I want more now.

A must for fans of Zita the Spacegirl and Astronaut Academy.

A must for those who want books with strong girl characters to offer young readers of any gender, and, Cleo being a brown girl of ancient Egypt, a great diverse read!  (it isn't as clear on the cover that Cleo has darker skin,  but it does inside).

A must for cat lovers!

Here's a preview.


The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel

In the late 19th century, a boy named Will, the son of a humble railroad worker, finds himself hammering in the gold spike that finishes the railroad line stretching across northern North America.   But he does not get to revel in the moment, for almost immediately an avalanche comes rushing down on the small crowd...and caught in the snow with them are a young Sasquatch and its mother...and things get more than a little tense.

(Yes, Sasquatches--along with other creatures of Native North America, they populate the forests of this book).

As a result of what happened that day, Will's family is elevated up and up in social status and financial security by the owner of the railroad.  And at last the day comes with the great train for which it was designed will cross the country.  The Boundless (the most extravagantly imagined train I've ever read about) stretches for miles (literally), will all sorts of fancy cars and amenities for the rich, working downward in creature comforts past the circus travelling in numerous cars of their own, to the settlers bumping along in the cars at the very back, with no amenities beyond floor boards.  Will, now a teenager, is part of the first class contingent, headed (he hopes) to art school in California, as opposed to the railroad career his father wants with him.

And on the train along with Will there are:

--a murderer, who plans to kill again
--a dead man, his body protected by booby traps of a most ingenious sort
--a young escape artist and tightrope walker; Will met her briefly long ago, and has never stopped thinking about her (and the fact that she never gave him back his Sasquatch tooth)
--a man determined to live beyond his allotted years, who will use what ever tools or people come to his hand
--several strange automatons
--an imprisoned Sasquatch

And much more.

This isn't going to be the fun journey Will had expected.  Because unfortunately for him, he's the one targeted by the killer.  Will knows much more than is safe about the secrets travelling along with the Boundless.

Though there is murderous danger on board the train, The Boundless is more an adventure story than it is a mystery.  The reader knows the identity of the bad guy from the beginning of the adventure, and so it's a game of cat and mouse with none of the tension that comes from the growing realization that there is danger.  Other tensions, like nighttime chases across the tops of the cars, scary supernatural beings, betrayals and friendships, are there in full force!

I do not introduce myself to others as someone who loves adventure stories set about trains in 19th century North America, so I approached The Boundless with some trepidation.   Happily, the fantasy twists and flowerings of imagination with which the pages are filled kept me pleasantly interested, and I ended up liking it.  And I liked Will, and his drawing abilities (which are germane to the plot and not just an add on) very much.   And as an outsider to First Class, he shares with the reader his awareness of the social injustices on which the train runs, which I appreciated.

In short, fine historical fantasy that will appeal to older middle grade readers, and younger YA ones (there's a nascent romance that doesn't go so far as to make this full YA), who like a dash of steampunk and deadly intrigue in their train travels.  I'd give this one to the quirky kids, the ones who don't like long epic fantasies but don't want straight reality either.


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (6/22/14)

Happy summer solstice!  (I myself am always depressed on the summer solstice, because unlike everyone else who seems to think that summer is now really getting going, I am sad about the fact that winter is now coming, and the days are getting shorter, etc.). 

But in any event, here's what I found in my blog hunting this week (and please let me know if I missed your post!)

The Reviews

13 Gifts, by Wendy Mass, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, at Charlotte's Library

The Court of the Stone Children, by Eleanor Cameron, at Tor

The Eighth Day, by Dianne E. Salerni, at Ms. Yingling Reads 

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Mister K Reads

The Flame of Olympus, by Kate Hearn, at Never Ending Stories

Ghost Hawk, by Susan Cooper, at Mister K Reads

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, by Sheila Turnage, at Bookends

A Hero for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, at The Overstuffed Bookcase

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw, by Christopher Healy, at Book Nut

The Inventor's Secret, by Andrea Cremer, at Fantasy Book Critic

The Key to Kashdune, by Claudia White, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

The Last Present, by Wendy Mass, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Mark of the Dragonfly, by Jaleigh Johnson, at Leeanna.me

Minion, by John David Anderson, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Sharon the Librarian

Nightingale's Nest, by Nicky Loftin, at Librarian of Snark 

Ordinary Magic, by Caitlen Rubino-Bradway, at Pages Unbound

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, at alibrarymama

Princess of the Wild Swans, by Diane Zahler, at Tales of the Marvelous

The School For Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, at A Journey Through Pages

Seven Stories Up, by Laurel Snyder, at Charlotte's Library

Sky Raiders, by Brandon Mull, at Log Cabin Library

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, at Hope Is the Word

A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz, at Wandering Librarians

The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J.A. White, at BooksForKidsBlog

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt, at alibrarymama

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin, at Wandering Librarians

Winter of the Robots, by Kurtis Scaletta, at Mister K Reads

Short looks at some Scholastic titles as Teen Librarian's Toolbox

And short looks at several MG fantasy books at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

Authors and Interviews

S.E. Grove (The Glass Sentence) at The (YA) Bookcase

Heather Mackey (Dreamwood) at Fearless Fifteeners

Sarah Mlynowski at The Children's Book Review

Emily Raabe (Lost Children of the Far Islands) at Word Spelunking

Christopher Healy (The Hero's Guide to Being and Outlaw) at Priscilla Gilman

I didn't see anything to put in my usual "more good stuff" section, but in the spirit of the solstice, here's what the interior of a house contemporaneous with Stonehenge might well have look liked (a nice counter to fantasy stereotypes of dark, fetid hovels):

You can read more at the BBC here.

And now I will go start chopping wood for the on-coming winter.


Why I loved The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell

It has been week of little reading and less blogging (because of single-handedly running a library booksale), but happily one of the few books I did manage read--The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell (Katherine Tegen Books, upper middle grade, May 2014)--was an utter winner.  I realized I had read it in a literal single sitting, as I found to my cost when I tried to move again.

Here is what I liked, and what you might like too.  

The Castle Behind Thorns is a Sleeping Beauty re-imagining, set in a village in medieval France.  Just outside this village is the castle of the Boisblanc family,  sundered and riven a generation ago, surrounded by a wall of impenetrable thorns. 

--This is good because there isn't a lot of really good historical fantasy for kids in general, and because medieval France has not been done to death as a fantasy setting; I can't think of a single other fantasy novel in which Joan of Arc is mentioned.   This is also good because Sleeping Beauty is a fine story to re-imagine, as it can be done so many different ways.  The Sundering is awfully cool too--everything in the castle, and the castle itself, has been magically rent asunder.

The main character, a boy nicknamed Sand (short for Alexander), mysteriously awakens one morning to find himself inside the Sundered Castle.  He is the smith's son, and a handy, crafty sort of boy who instead of falling into dark despair because he is trapped in a ruined castle starts trying to bring order to its chaos (though he is no Pollyanna--he is plenty unhappy about his situation).

--Sand is a great character, and I loved the crafty side of things.  I also loved the descriptions of all the broken things that needed fixing!  I also love how this makes the point that when you are in a situation that is utterly awful, the best thing to do is to find the things that you can fix, and fix them.  A good life lesson, without being at all preachy.

The second main character is a girl who has a really interesting story arc and a fine backstory and, though not as sympathetic as Sand, was someone who I liked reading about.

--the way she is introduced to the story was fascinating and I'm not saying any more except that there is some gender subversiveness at work that is perhaps a smidge at odds with the reality of medieval France but perhaps not (it is not my area of academic strength).

Obviously there is magic at work, what with the Sundering, and the thorns, and all...but what's really cool here is that it is the sort of magic that you might find in a medieval Christian fantasy France (think cults of saints).

--this is totally cool because goodness knows the people of the middle ages believed in lots of magical and miraculous things that were very real to them, and it was such a fun, refreshing change to see this world-view being used in a fantasy novel.

Here's what I especially, personally liked (though other readers might find it a negative thing)--nothing much Happened, except towards the end.  The story relies heavily on descriptions, and character interactions, and some backstory, and this is of course reasonable given that everything happens behind the thorns, with a cast of two young teens isolated from the world (quickly interupting myself to note that this is middle grade.  This is not a fairy tale Blue Lagoon).

I find it very pleasant (especially when I am frazzled, as I was when I read this one) to curl up with a book  about people puttering around, trying to get by and find solutions to problems without too much actual conflict.   (And when I am too tired to clean my own house I like to read about other people cleaning their magical castles/English cottages/19th-century abandoned mansions, etc.).  I think, though, that the magic of the enchanted castle is strong enough to hold the attention of most of the target audience, especially those who have not yet become so accustomed to barrages of fast and furious action that they can't read anything else.

So in any event, do not let the fact that I did not find this "fast-paced" and "action-packed" stop you from giving it to handy boys!

(My own 11-year-old boy is currently re-reading Laini Taylor's fairy books, Blackbringer and Silksinger, and was not willing to drop those to try this one, so I am lacking his Target Audience perspective, which I find slightly annoying.  Because what's the point of having a reading child if he can't help you with your blog posts?  But I think he would like it....)


Seven Stories Up, by Laurel Snyder, for Timeslip Tuesday

Seven Stories Up, by Laurel Snyder (Random House, January 2014), is a lovely introduction to the fun (and tension) of time travel for older elementary school kids (the confidently reading third graders through the fifth graders). 

Annie doesn't know her grandmother.  There's one picture of them together when she was a baby, and that's it.  Now her grandmother is dying, and her mother takes her to the old family hotel in Baltimore to say goodbye.   And Annie's one encounter with her dying grandma is enough to make her realize why her mother never wanted to go home.

But that night, sleeping in the old hotel, Annie travels back to 1937.  There she meets Molly, a girl her own age, trapped by illness in her rooms and desperate for human warmth.   The two become friends.  Annie leads Molly away from the hotel to explore the city, and Molly teaches Annie how to use a dumbwaiter to good effect.   Their friendship, especially Annie's encouraging conviction that Molly is well enough to have fun, ends up working something of a miracle....

The shenanigans of the girls are relatively mild.  There's enough tension (from both the uncertinty of how Annie will get home, and the adventures of the two girls) to make the book absorbing, but not so much as to make things uncomfy.  And the friendship between the two girls, both very engaging characters, makes for very pleasant reading.  I wanted to join them in their adventures (except the roller skating fiasco).

Plus--bonus kitten!  And also plus (though not so much as a kitten)--interesting look at depression era Baltimore.  And as a further plus--it encourages empathy and an understanding of how cranky old grownups might have gotten to be the way they are!

I short, I enjoyed it lots, and I can whole-heartedly recommend it to my eight-year old self.  

If you have a young fan of Annie Burrow's The Magic Half, give her this one.   Or if this your young reader's first foray into time travel, have that one on hand, and then offer Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer.

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