9/30/14

The Devil's Intern, by Donna Hosie, for Timeslip Tuesday, with giveaway!

So yesterday afternoon I was desperately sanding the downstairs bathroom door out in the barn; my mother is coming to visit on Thursday, and she likes bathroom doors (as do many of us).  All the while I was sanding, The Devil's Intern, by Donna Hosie (Holiday House 2014, YA), which I had promised to review today, was sitting forlorn and unopened in the living room.   And I was really hoping it would be the sort of book that one reads in a fast-paced frenzy of single-sitting reading of pleasurable commitment. 

Yay!!! It was!  (It helped that it is a nicely manageable 229 pages, just the right amount for a single-sitting read).

Mitchell has been in Hell for four years, working as the Devil's Intern.   Hell is horribly over-crowded (Heaven isn't taking its fair share, and decent people, like Mitchell, end up damned), and Mitchell, understandably, resents having died at 17 and resents being in Hell.  So when the chance comes to illicitly use Hell's secret time-travelling device, Mitchell takes it, hoping to go back in time to keep himself from being hit by the Greyhound bus that killed him. 

His three best friends, people who make Hell almost worthwhile, go with him--they will visit each death in turn.  First the death of Alfarin, a16 year-old Viking marauder killed in battle.  Then Elinor, who died in the Great Fire of London.  Then the death of Melissa, aka Medusa because of her wild hair, back in the 1960s in San Francisco.  And then his own.   So the foursome leave Hell with considerable funds appropriated from its coffers, and hole up in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, which they'll use as their base of operations.

But changing one's death isn't as easy as it seems...and the years the four have spent in Hell have not been as entirely hellish as one might think.   To live again is to loose those years, and the love that was part of them....

Mitchell and Medusa hadn't quite gotten to the point of being a couple, nor had Elinor and Alfarin.  But they were part of each other's (dead) lives....and in the course of their time-travelling adventures, full of absolutely nail-biting tension, secrets reveled, and hearts wrung, Mitchell has to figure out if he can give up all that makes up his present death for the chance to live again....

Yep, read in a single sitting.  Absolutely riveting premise, great characters, many bits of humor to liven the darkness, nicely crisp writing, really cool time-travelling....(first time travel book I've read in which the dead get to time travel via device).   It got a starred review at Kirkus with particular mention of "the snarky comedy and suspense."

But what really made it work for me is the relationships between the characters.   They are four people who truly care about each other, who are looking out for each other, stuck in a crappy situation but still going on, and I do very much like to spend my reading time with people I too can care about! 

Note on age:  this is definitely YA and up-- even though there is violence in lots of books, the violence here, especially what happened at Elinor's death, is so close and personal to the reader that it will stick in the mind, and quite possibly distress younger readers.   Also, the characters are teenagers, thinking about sex, etc., although not actually going all the way.  (not one I'd give to my 11 year old, who does not, to the best of my knowledge and belief, understand what "third base" means).

For those worried about the religious aspect--the folks up in Heaven are not being altogether loving and charitable (good people shouldn't go to Hell, after all), so there are salvation issues that might make some readers uncomfortable.   Likewise, Satan is more capricious bullying tyrant than truly malevolent force of evil (although really bad people do get eternal torment).

Final thought--I am seriously thinking this might well be my Cybils nomination in YA Spec. Fic. 

GIVEAWAY!  Courtesy of the publisher, I can offer one lucky commenter (US only) a finished copy of this excellent book!  Just leave a comment by midnight next Tuesday, October 6.

Here are the other blog tour stops:
Tuesday, Sept. 23: I am a Reader (guest post by author with bound book giveaway)
Wednesday, Sept. 24: Ellie Garratt (guest post by author with bound book giveaway)
Thursday, Sept. 25: Sharp Read (interview with author)
Friday, Sept. 26: Weaving a Tale or Two (interview with author)
Monday, Sept. 29: YA Book Nerd (interview with author with bound book giveaway)
Wednesday, Oct. 1: Musings of a Penniless Writer (post by the author on her own blog)


disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.

9/29/14

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare (Scholastic, September 2014, upper middle grade), follows a familiar pattern, but includes sufficient depths of worldbuilding and  imagination and  twistiness to make it work very nicely indeed as its own thing.

Familiar pattern 1:  a boy (a smart-aleck misfit) finds he has magical powers, and is chosen to attend a special school for magic, run by mages in a collective known as the Magisterium.

Differeneces:  Callum Hunt, the boy in question, did not want to be chosen, and wants to fail.  If he fails, his father will be happy, and he won't have to worry about being subsumed into the warped underground world of the Magisterium that his father has warned him about (the elemental mages are based in a cave system modeld on Lurray Caverns in Virginia, a truly magical place that I love).    He is not a golden boy of obvious specialness--he is prickly, uncooperative at school, and a smart aleck.  And he has a bad leg--multiple surgeries haven't been able to fix his limp.   (And this isn't just a handicap-as-accessory-- Callum can't forget about it, and the authors make sure the reader realizes this, and magical healing isn't an option).

 Familiar pattern 2:  The boy has great magical potential, and is taken in by the number 1 mage teacher as one of his three apprentices.  The reader (ie, me) wonders if he is a Chosen One of Specialness, and is grateful not to have to read a rhyming prophecy of distressing scansion.

Differences:   Well, maybe Callum is special--there's certainly things about him that the reader (and Callum) wonder about.  For one thing, Callum's dying mother wanted his father to kill him when he was an infant (we learn this right at the beginning, so it's not a spoiler).  For another thing, there's the whole business of why Callum's father is so determined that he not learn magic.  But I shan't say if he is Chosen or not....it is a twisty journey that leads to the answers,  and better left unspoiled.

Familiar pattern 3:  At magic school, he makes two good friends, a boy and a girl, and the girl is smart and determined, and the boy is a truly nice sort, ready to be friends even though Callum is all prickly.  There is a mean boy who wants to be better at magic than Callum.

Differences:  They aren't named Hermione and Ron and Draco.  They are different in other ways, as well...........

Familiar pattern 4:  There is a bad magic dude, who caused a war that decimated the previous generation of not bad magic users.   The Magisterium  is worried that the bad dude and his chaos-warped minions are going to rise again and fight more.  But before we get to that point, we have lots of time to read about the threesome at school, learning a. magic and b. to trust each other.

Differences:  Trust me on this one.  Riveting twists!  (if twists can rivet).  Riveting questioning of what makes a person who they are!

So the whole ensemble is a really satisfying story, full of lots of lovely small mundane details and larger, un-mundane details about learning magic, and even larger details describing various adventures and confrontations, building up to the big plot happening.  

It's one I can imagine wanting to re-read (if the number of books in my tbr pile ever diminishes sob sob).  And that is pretty much the best compliment I can pay a book.

I will also pay it the compliment of not handing my review copy on to the library, but instead handing it to my handy member of the target audience, pretty sure he will enjoy it lots too (he is currently reading The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, and has told me he will hand that one over to me when he's done, pretty sure I will enjoy it lots too right back at me).

Bonus:  illicit wolf puppy of great cuteness kept secretly by Callum and his two friends in their underground rooms. 

Final answer: very good indeed.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

9/28/14

This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (9/28/14)

Welcome to another round-up of reviews and other posts of interest to us fans of MG SFF!  Please let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews:

13 Curses, by Michelle Harrison, at Reader Noir

Archie Green and the Magician's Secret, by D.D. Everest, at Wondrous Reads

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, at Manga Maniac Café and Bunbury in the Stacks (with giveaways)

Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones, at The Emerald City Book Review

Dreamwood, by Heather Mackey, at Semicolon

Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities 2), by Shannon Messenger, at Annie McMahon

The Fires of Calderon, by Lindsay Cummings, at Librarian of Snark

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at 100 Scope Notes

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle, by George Hagen, at Jen Robinson's Book Page and Kid Lit Geek

The Glass Sentence, by S.E. Grove, at Redeemed Reader and Pages Unbound

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Story Time Secrets and Semicolon

Hook's Revenge, by Heidi Schulz, at Ms. Yingling Reads, Log Cabin Library, and Justin's Book Blog

The Luck Uglies, by Paul Durham, at Jean Little Library

Lycanthor the Werewolf, by Aiden Storm, at The Ninja Librarians

Magic Thief: Found, by Sarah Prineas, at Hidden In Pages (audiobook review)

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

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, at Stray Thoughts

Rose, by Holly Webb, at Librarian of Snark

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, at Justin's Book Blog

The Shadow Lantern, by Teresa Flavin, at Charlotte's Library

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, at That's Another Story

Space Case, by Stuart Gibbs, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Still Life (The Books of Elsewhere 5), by Jacqueline West, at Log Cabin Library

Thursdays with the Crown, by Jessica Day George, at Good Books and Good Wine

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life, by P.J. Hoover, at Charlotte's Library

The Water Castle, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, at Pages Unbound

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at Ms. Yingling Reads, Bibliobrit, and Reader Noir

Three from Kate Milford (The Boneshaker, The Kairos Mechanism, and The Broken Lands, which is YA) at alibrarymama


Authors and Interviews

Michelle Paver (most recently The Eye of the Falcon)  talks about her inspiration at The Guardian

William Alexander (The Ambassador) shares his Big Idea at Whatever

Heidi Schulz (Hook's Revenge) along with its illustrator and editor, at Supernatural Snark


Other Good Stuff:

Princess Academy and Palace of Stone are getting new paperback covers to coincide with the release of the third book in the series (The Forgotton Sisters) this coming March.  See them at Squeetus.  (me--I with they had made them a bit more boy friendly....oh well.)

A Diverse Mythical Creatures Round Table at the Book Smugglers-- Part 1 and Part 2

A nice YA Steampunk Genre Guide at The Hub-- I wonder if there are enough MG titles to do one for that group?

A Tuesday Ten of Challenged and Banned Sci Fi/Fantasy books for kids at Views From the Tesseract

And finally, don't forget that nominations for the Cybils open October 1st!  What Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction books will you all nominate???? 

9/24/14

Waiting on Wednesday (or at least till Kidlitcon 2014) for Bayou Magic, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

So my life was brightened considerably today by an email from Little, Brown, that said, in essence, "how many ARCs of Bayou Magic, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, should we send to Kidlitcon?"  And I was all !!!! because I did not know of this book, and I went and looked, and here it is, a lovely sounding middle grade magical story:



"If only Maddy sees the mermaid, can it be real? 

It's Maddy's turn to have a bayou summer. At first she misses life back home in the city, but soon she grows to love everything about her new surroundings -- the glimmering fireflies, the glorious landscape, and something else, deep within the water, that only Maddy sees. Could it be a mermaid? As her grandmother shares wisdom about sayings and signs, Maddy realizes she may be only the sibling to carry on her family's magical legacy. And when a disastrous oil leak threatens the bayou, she knows she may also be the only one who can help. Does she have what it takes to be a hero? A coming-of-age tale rich with folk magic, set in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, Bayou Magic celebrates hope, friendship, and family, and captures the wonder of life in the Deep South."  Coming May, 2015....

Of course upon reading this I was filled with Book Want (girl goes to country and magical legacy both, in general, make my eyes light up).   And so I wrote back to Little, Brown with a carefully thought out number that should be enough for other middle grade fans plus me....and since Jewell Parker Rhodes will be at Kidlitcon herself (!!!; I feel shy) I am going to get it signed.....

And if you come to Kidlitcon (registration closes Friday) you can get one too!  (And I know that not everyone can make it (rats), and I am thinking if there are things not pounced on, they may well come home with me to be given away, because that is nice too).

Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine

Ripley's Believe It or Not! Reality Shock!

This is not a review, but more a note to say that there's a new Ripley's Believe it or Not out in the world -- Reality Shock! (September 9, 2014)  which I received the publishers.  Like all the Ripley's books, it's a mix of the educational, the gross, and the intriguing.



Something I appreciated:

A nice two page spread on the Shackleton expedition, illustrated with actual photographs.  Educational!

Something fascinating, in a horrific way:

An advertisement for electric corsets!

An interesting story that would make a fascinating book in its own right:

Conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKay were born as slaves in North Carolina in 1851.  The girls were sold to a showman while still toddlers, kidnapped and taken to England, and kidnapped once more.  The American show manager, and the girls' mother (I'm glad she managed to stay with them, at least until the kidnapping--this is my favorite part of the story) managed to track them down four years later.   The girls then performed as "the Two-headed Nightingale."  After emancipation, they used the money they earned to support schools for black children back in North Carolina.

Interesting thing I learned:

"Indigenous peoples of Paraguay account for only about five percent of the population, by their Guarani language is spoken by about 90 percent of the people. This makes Paraguay the only country in the Americas where an indigenous language is spoken by a majority of the population."  Cool!

Something I didn't need to know:

A dude in Louisiana has been saving all his nail clippings since 1978.

Something I wish hadn't been included:

Can we please not have pictures of white guys (Mr. Ripley himself in this case) posing next to a man from Fiji identified as a "human cannibal" because without cultural context I think it's just sensationalist neo-colonialism.

9/23/14

The Shadow Lantern, by Teresa Flavin, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Shadow Lantern, by Teresa Flavin (Templar July 2014, upper middle grade, moving YA-ward), is the third book about two young teenagers, Sunni and Blaise, who slip into the pasts shown in the magical paintings of the Renaissance artist Fausto Corvo.   In this book, a travelling showman comes to town, with a shadow lantern--an antique slide projector-- and three glass slides hand-painted by Corvo himself.   Like Corvo's other paintings, the slides are magical portals through which Sunni and Blaise can pass, and long as the oil lamp illuminating the images stays lit, they can explore at their leisure.  At first it seems safe enough--simple sight-seeing trips to Venice, Prague, and Amsterdam of four hundred and a bit years ago. But it turns out that the slides hold the clues that lead to the most magical of Corvo's paintings....paintings that his old enemy, Sorenzo, trapped in the world of the paintings, is still determined to find.
 
Now Sorenzo has a hostage--Sunni and Blaise's art teacher could not resist passing through one of the slides himself.   And to make matters worse, the showman cannot resist projecting one of the magical slides onto Corvo's huge masterwork painting, The Mariner's Return to Arcadia, the one that started the two kids' adventures....a painting whose layers hold monsters....

Sunni and Blaise, inside the slide, watch in horror as Amsterdam goes mad around them, subsumed by the chaos of the larger painting.   And there is Sorenzo, drawing every closer to claiming Corvo's lost paintings for himself....

I enjoyed the first two books just fine (here's my review of The Crimson Shard, the second book), and this third one also.  They're good reading for those who like fantasy and magic that's tasty for the mind--it's not fantasy with swords and spells and epicness of all sorts, but more an intellectually pleasing expedition that intrigues through the true strangeness of the vistas it offers (not sure that made much sense....).  The rich and detailed descriptions of the strange lands inside the paintings are incredibly vivid, and the books are worth reading for that part of the journey alone.   And although Sunni and Blaise don't actually Do a whole heck of a lot (especially in this third book), they are perfectly reasonable companions for the reader, and it was nice to see their relationships develop.

The time travel in The Shadow Lantern is primarily tourism to the past...but because Fausto Corvo created the slides as a pathway to finding his pictures, there's a bit more point to it.  That being said, once the slide of Amsterdam becomes subsumed by The Mariner's Return, it really reads more like a portal fantasy than time travel. 

Time travel through paintings isn't as common a plot device as one might think (or I'm just reading the wrong books).   Apart from this series, the only example I can think of is the Mary Poppins story (in Mary Poppins Comes Back, I think) where Jane goes into the world painted on a china plate....It's a lovely, enchanting premis--portal fantasy mixed with time travel!-- and I'd love to know of more examples.

9/22/14

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life, by P.J. Hoover

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life, by P.J. Hoover (Starscape, Sept 2014, upper middle grade), takes as its starting point the premise that Tutankhamen did not, in fact, die.  Instead, during his evil uncle's attempt to dispose of him and claim the throne, Tut became immortal--14 years old forever.   Now he's living in Washington, D.C., under the protection of an 18 year old immortal Gilgamesh, and Gil is making him go to eighth grade.  Again.  But that's not the worst of it-- his uncle also became an immortal, and now is raising the power of Set, god of chaos and destruction. to take over the world.

And for Tut, this seems like the perfect opportunity to finally revenge himself on the man who murdered his family.   To kill an immortal, though, requires a special weapon, and hidden in the city is the one god-created knife that will do the job.  But can Tut find it in time?  

On his side is his little army of faithful Shabti (small figures placed in one's tomb to serve in the afterlife--the Shabti are absolutely awesome and provide both comic relief and the most heart-rending moment of the story) and a fellow eighth-grader of a geeky sort (still mourning Pluto's lost planetary status, for instance) who through sheer persistence becomes Tut's friend.   Horus, sharing Tut and Gil's apartment in cat form, is an uncertain ally, and Gil himself has no intention of letting Tut find the knife, if he can stop it.

And meanwhile, the sinister worshippers of Set are growing in strength, and calamity is nigh! Can Tut figure out what to do in time, or will it be (with many apologies to P.J. Hoover) game, Set, and match?
So in essence this is a heist story mixed with mythological mayhem--find the hidden treasure and thwart the bad guys, while running around a city full of ancient gods and magic.   There's a nice balance of Egyptian mythology and contemporary life that makes for interesting and fun reading.  Although Rick Riordan fans would be obvious readers, I'd actually lean more toward the heist fans on this one--it's not really the same "kids finding powers" of Riordan's books, but rather kids tearing around a city fighting, and sometimes causing, mayhem.   It's also one for those who like magic intruding into in the very ordinary world--it doesn't offer the marvelous possibility to the reader that he or she might get that letter from Hogwarts, or find out their mom was Athena, but it is fun to imagine that one of your classmates might be immortal, or to consider the possibility that three Egyptian deities are guarding a secret chamber in the Library of Congress.

It takes a some effort to accept the premise that even after millennia of life Tut is still very much a fourteen-year-old (and he does indeed come across very much like an ordinary adolescent--self-centered, still uncertain about girls, impulsive, etc.).  That being said, it is entirely possible the target audience, who have never been older than 14 either, will have little problem with it (not knowing as I do (ha ha) what it is to be truly grown-up).  Because of this, it's a book I'd recommend much more strongly to kids much more strongly than I would to grown-ups.

Here are other reviews, at Jen Robinson's Book Page and Ms. Yingling Reads

disclaimer: review copy received courtesy of the author

(Another one for my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list, as Tut is a North African protagonist, shown believably as such on the cover....)

9/21/14

This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (9/21/14)

Before I get to the round-up, I want to share the fact that the registration deadline for Kidlitcon 2014 (Sacramento, Oct. 10th and 11th) has been extended to September 26!  And if both days are too much, there's the option of registering for just Friday or Saturday....If you are a lover of kids books, even if you aren't a blogger yourself, do consider coming!  It is the most kindred spirit filled conference possible for us introverted children's book readers.  Plus there will be great authors to meet, and lots of books to go home with -- Chronicle Books just wrote in asking "how many of each title should we send...."  And there will be tasty eats and drinks (thank you, Lee and Low, for sponsoring refreshments for Friday afternoon's Author Meet and Mingle!).

Now on to the round-up; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews

The Accidental Keyhand (Ninja Librarians 1), by Jen Swann Downey, at Fantasy Book Critic

The Book of Kindly Deaths, by Eldritch Black, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Centaur Rising, by Jane Yolen, at Sharon the Librarian

Doll Bones, by Holly Black, at YA Book Bridges

Evil Fairies Love Hair, by Mary G. Thompson, at Charlotte's Library

The Forbidden Flats, by Peggy Eddleman, at The League of Extraordinary Writers

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at BooksForKidsBlog and Views From the Tesseract

Frostborn, by Lou Anders, at Smitten Over Books

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle, by George Hagen, at My Precious

The Hero's Guide to Being and Outlaw, by Christopher Healy, at Semicolon

Home (Magic Thief 4), by Sarah Prineas, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Hook's Revenge, by Heidi Schulz,  at A Reader of Fictions, Pop! Goes the Reader, and Manga Maniac Café

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, at She Reads She Blogs and The Midnight Book Girl

Jacob, King of Portalia, by Casey Clubb, at Bitches n Prose  (with giveaway and interview)

Janitors, by Tyler Whitesides, at Batch of Books

The Last Present, by Wendy Mass, at Time Travel Times Two

The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz, at The Book Monsters

Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, by Greg Leitich Smith, at Guys Lit Wire

Loot, by Jude Watson, at Proseandkahn

Maddigan's Fantasia, by Margaret Mahy, at Fantasy Literature

Magic in the Mix, by Annie Barrows, at books4yourkids and Charlotte's Library

Nanny X, by Madelyn Rosenberg, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Nethergrim, by Matthew Jobin, at Good Books and Good Wine (audiobook review)

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, at The Ninja Librarian

Pennyroyal Academy, by M.A. Larsen, at Snuggly Oranges

The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu, at Pages Unbound

Rose and the Magician's Mask, by Holly Webb, at Word Spelunking (giveaway)

Rump, by Leisl Shurtliff, at The Children's Book Review

The Secret of the Key, by Marianne Malone, at Fantasy Literature

Secrets at Sea, by Richard Peck, at The Book Monsters

Strike of the Sweepers (Janitors Book 4), by Tyler Whitesides, at LDS Women's Book Review

The Time Smugglers, by Rosie Morgan, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at In Bed With Books

The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, at alibrarymama, Librarian of Snark, and In Bed With Books

Authors and Interviews

Peggy Eddleman (The Forbidden Flats) at The League of Extraordinary Writers

P.J. Hoover (Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life) at Literary Rambles (giveaway)

Cassandra Clare and Holly Black (The Iron Trial) at Tor

J.B. Cantwell (Aster Wood and the Lost Maps of Almara) talks about "Publishing Middle Grade in the Indie Age" at Middle Grade Ninja

Edith Cohn (Spirit's Key) at Smack Dab in the Middle

Other Good Stuff

A nice look back at  the Middle Grade/Elementary spec. fic. shortlist from last year's Cybils at Library Chicken (and don't forget to nominate for this year starting Oct. 1!)

Another nice Tuesday Ten at Views From the Tesseract; this week it's Scientists and Inventors Wanted.

A look at Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory, by Lucy Mangan, at Books Together

The Medical Journal of Australia offers a new reason why Tolkien's bad guys really lost in The Hobbit--an Unexpected Deficency.  Here's the abstract:

"Objective: Vitamin D has been proposed to have beneficial effects in a wide range of contexts. We investigate the hypothesis that vitamin D deficiency, caused by both aversion to sunlight and unwholesome diet, could also be a significant contributor to the triumph of good over evil in fantasy literature."
(via Fantasy Faction)

And from io9, a look at the real inspiration behind Disney's Robin Hood.

And the world of Harry Potter in absolutely dazzling miniatures.

RIP IX (Readers Imbibing Peril) is up and running through Oct. 31 (this is a reading challenge for books spooky and mysterious....)

And finally, it's time for A More Diverse Universe! Check out the links thus far, and add your own!

9/17/14

This year's Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Cybils Panelists!

For the past few weeks, I've been making hard choices--twice as many people applied to be Cybils panelists as I had places to offer (and that's not even including folks who put EMG SF as their second or third choices....).    Picking panelists requires carefully balancing experienced and newer panelists,  creating a mix of librarians, parents, teachers, readers, and booksellers, and making sure to pick people who clearly will enjoy reading over 100 EMG SF books this fall!  (I did not have to worry about gender diversity, because no men put EMG SF first....).    If you didn't get picked this year, or didn't apply, but think you want to do EMG SF next year, your best bet (but no guarantees) is to read and review lots of EMG SF books!

But in any event, I think I assembled two brilliant panels.  (You can see all the lists over at the Cybils Blog).

The EMG SF First Rounders:

Rana Bardisi
Reader Noir
@readernoirblog

Sherry Early
Semicolon@semicolonblog

Maureen Eichner
By Singing Light
@elvenjaneite

Cindy Hannikman
Fantasy Book Critic 

Katy Kramp
A Library Mama
@alibrarymama

Brandy Painter
Random Musings of a Bibliophile
@brandymuses

Charlotte Taylor
Charlotte’s Library
@charlotteslib

The EMG SF Second Rounders:

Hayley Beale
Bibliobrit

Melissa Fox
Book Nut
@book_nut

Sarah Potvin
Librarian of Snark
@librarianosnark

Tasha Saecker
Waking Brain Cells
@tashrow

Stephanie Whalen
Views from the Tesseract
@TesseractViews


Such lovely panelists, even if I say so who shouldn't.

(And don't forget to nominate your favorite books of the year, starting Oct 1!  In terms of  publishing eligibility--don't forget the Cybils year runs from Oct 16, 2013 to Oct 15, 2014)

9/16/14

Magic In the Mix, by Annie Barrows, for Timeslip Tuesday

Magic In the Mix, by Annie Barrows (Bloomsbury, Sept 16, 2014, middle grade), was a truly enjoyable book, one I'd have read in a single sitting if my bus ride to work this morning had been 20 minutes longer!

It continues the story begun in The Magic Half, in which a girl named Miri travelled back into the past of her old house, and came home again with a twin sister, Molly, from that earlier era.  In this book, Miri and Molly travel back in time together....first to the 1920s, when Molly's mother was still a teenager, and then, this time with their older twin brothers, to the time of the Civil War. 

Each of these time journeys is almost a separate story, though they are connected.  The fist is a story of family and belonging, dealing with Molly's situation as a refugee in time--her birth caused her mother's death, and seeing her mother young, beautiful, and alive makes her question whether she has any right to her happy existence far in the future.   And Miri can't stand the thought of giving up her sister.

The second is more a standard time travel adventure--the two twin boys find themselves prisoners of the Conferderates, and Molly and Miri have to save them.   To do so means outwitting a sadistic monster of a Confederate soldier, and it is rather exciting.

So here's what made it work for me-- 

The relationship between sisters is always something I like to read about, and this was no exception.  What makes this relationship interesting is that both girls can remember their lives when they weren't sisters, alongside their time-travel related lives as sisters since birth, and it is something they can't just take for granted, especially once Molly sees her mother.  This plot, though good reading, wouldn't have been enough to sustain a whole book, so it is good that.....

The journey back to the Civil War broadens the story.   It was Good Civil War time travel, too, in a sense of "Civil War such that appeals to Charlotte."  Which is to say, not much battlefield activity, but rather two girls observing casual sideline violence, and reacting to it, and saving their brothers from it.   I though this part was really well done--nice and tight, with some bouncing between past and present via the old house to add zest.  Never before has a Civil War story made me want to read non-fiction about it, until now--Mosby, of Mosby's Rangers fame, sounds fascinating!  I find it amusing that one of the twin brothers in the book, previously a reluctant student of history, had exactly the same reaction.
And the two strands of story are connected enough that it makes sense that they should be in the same book.

It's a stronger book than it's predecessor, I think, and perhaps a more thought-provoking one.   There's enough backstory gently provided that it can be read on its own, if necessary.  The Magic Half came out ages ago, in 2008; there's definitely room in Miri and Molly's old house for more adventures, which I will happily read if given the chance.

Added bonus-es (boni?)
-- nice parents who care for their children appropriately. 
--a really nice bedroom for the girls (I like well-described attractive bedrooms in old houses!)
--a time-travelling kitten!
--I am also personally interested in the story of home renovation (being myself engaged in that constant struggle).  Miri and Molly's house, as I said, is old, and the impetus for this episode of time travel is repairs to its porch....and I'd like to see how the work on the house progresses....

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


9/15/14

Evil Fairies Love Hair, by Mary G. Thompson

Evil Fairies Love Hair, by Mary G. Thompson (Clarion Books, August 2014, middle grade).

On the face of it, the instructions seemed simple enough--raise a flock of tiny fairies, feeding them on human hair, pass a starter flock on to another kid, and get a wish once that flock has been grown as well.  Ali is sure she'll be able to do it....but the instructions were not written to be what one might call as helpful as they might be.   And the fairies are not in the business of granting wishes just to be friendly.

In fact, they are evil fairies! (as the title indicates).   And from a relatively simple struggle to find enough hair (that's not her own) to feed her voracious flock, Ali finds herself in a very complicated struggle indeed to foil the nasty plot of the fairy mastermind, who's determined to give her fairy kin a new lease on life.  A lease on human life, to be more exact.

Tangled snarl after tangled snarl complicates Ali's efforts to save friends and family for the greedy little hands of the fairies, and it becomes a wild ride indeed, with things getting worse and worse and worse and more and more complicated....

In the interests of full disclosure, I have never read a Goosebumps book.  That does not stop me, though, from recommending this one to the young reader who has, and who is ready for something a step beyond.   In short, Evil Fairies Love Hair is a horror book of magic going horribly wrong sort, with real world consequences, in which the creep factor grows from the simple consumption of human hair (icky) to the insanity of nightmare fairies taking over the characters home town. 

The character of Ali, bravely holding it together while she tries to use her brains to outwit the fairies (who aren't the brightest little hamsters in the litter) holds things together in a more or less coherent story, and there are interesting bits of subplot involving her friendships, which evolve as events progress.  (Just for the record--one of these characters is a smoker, who evolves into a non-smoker, and a more sympathetic character than he first appears.  It's odd to find kids who smoke in middle grade books, but at least here it's presented in negative way, as something that makes him repellent).

And even though this book wasn't really to my personal taste, I couldn't help but be rather fascinated by the magical train wreck of it all.  It's not exactly a funny book, but the insane grotesquerie of it all may well amuse readers with a fondness for wacky creepy mayhem!  It's the sort of book whose cover, I think, will do a good job selecting its audience.

That being said, its not one I'd leap to give the reader who actually loves fantasy for the sake of its magical escape from reality!

9/14/14

This week's round-up of middle grade science fiction and fantasy from around the blogs (9/14/14)

Welcome to the first really fall-ish round-up of MG SFF from around the blogs! I am typing this while wearing my coat, because it is cold and haven't found the strength to close the windows (they are 150 years old, and don't go up and down well.  I cracked the glass of a storm window on my first try, and gave up).

Please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews:

Constable and Toop, by Gareth P. Jones, at Finding Wonderland

Eva, by Peter Dickinson, at Views From the Tesseract

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, at Hope is the Word

The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler, at Reader Noir

The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm, at Read Write Tell

Ghost Knight, by Cornelia Funke, at Books Beside My Bed

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at The Book Smugglers and Redeemed Reader

The House of Secrets, by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini, at Claire M. Caterer

The Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Claire, at Waking Brain Cells, My Precious In Bed With Books, and Hidden In Pages

Janitors: Strike of the Sweepers, by Tyler Whitesides, at Geo Librarian

Loki's Wolves, by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr at Log Cabin Library

The Lost Children (Mysteries of Ravenstorm Island) by Gillian Philip, at Wondrous Reads

Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age, by Dave Zeltser, at Librarian of Snark and The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

The Magic Thief: Home, by Sarah Prineas, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, at Fantasy Literature

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Reads For Keeps

Nuts to You, by Lynne Rae Perkins, at A Year of Reading

The Only Thing Worse Than  Witches, by Lauren Magaziner, at Charlotte's Library

The Pirate's Coin, by Marianne Malone, at Fantasy Literature

Rose, and Rose and the Lost Princess, by Holly Webb, at Jen Robinson's Book Review

Rose and the Magician's Mask, by Holly Webb, at Sharon the Librarian

The Runaway King, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, at One Librarian's Book  Reviews

Scare Scape, by Sam Fisher, at Dead Houseplants

Snow in Summer, by Jane Yolen, at Reading the End

The Song of the Quarkbeast, by Jasper Fforde, at Sonderbooks

Spirit's Key, by Edith Cohn, at Akossiwa Ketoglo and Charlotte's Library

Terror of the Southlands (Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, book 2) by Caroline Carlson, at Librarian of Snark

There's a Dead Person Following My Sister Around, by Vivien Vande Velde, at The Wanderer

Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philipa Pearce, at Leaf's Reviews

Turning on a Dime, by Maggie Dana, at Annie McMahon

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life, by P.J. Hoover, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile, Sharon the Librarian, Social Potato, and The Book Monsters

The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, at Book Nut

The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, by Kate Saunders, at Tales of the Marvelous

Heavy Medal (the Mock Newbery blog of School Library Journal) is up and running again--A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, is discussed here, and The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing here.


Authors and Interviews

Jasper Fforde (The Wizard of Kazam) at SLJ

Madelyn  Rosenberg (Nanny X) at From the Mixed Up Files


More Good Stuff

Scenes From the Multiverse, a Tuesday Ten at Views From the Tesseract

Scientific American picks up on the reading Harry Potter = greater empathy study

Why you should come to Kidlitcon if you are fan of MG and YA spec. fic, at Charlotte's Library--a list of  spec. fic. authors who will be there.

And a reminder--the registration for Kidlitcon is Sept. 19th!  More info. here

Us Cybils organizers are busily working to form our panels of judges, to be announced (d.v.) toward the end of next week...but in the meantime, start thinking of your favorites from last year! Anyone can nominate books published in the previous Cybils year (Oct 16, 2013- Oct. 15, 2014), 1 per category, beginning Oct. 1.   (This year I am going to be Sane (another d.v.)  and not be jealous of the fact that YA Spec Fic always gets more books nominated than MG Spec Fic.)

Why you'd like to come to Kidlitcon 2014 if you're a fan of MG/YA speculative fiction

The registration deadline for Kidlitcon 2014 (Sacramento, Oct. 10th and 11th) is the 19th of September...and if you are fan of MG/YA speculative fiction you should come!  Here are some of the authors you will meet if you do:

Jewell Parker Rhodes -  Ninth Ward

Karen Sandler -- Tankborn, and its sequels

Mike Jung - Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities

Sarah Jamila Stevenson - The Truth Against the World

Ian Lendler --The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents: Shakespeare's Macbeth 

Kelan O'Connell-- Delta Legend

Sherie Peterson - Wish You Weren't

Jenny Lundquist-  The Princess in the Opal Mask

Zetta Elliott -  The Deep, Ship of Souls

and on top of all that goodness, there will be a Skype Chat with the lovely Shannon Hale! 

And on top of all that,  there will be fellow bloggers, full of friendly enthusiasm, and lots of great sessions that will engage and inspire you!  The theme this year is Diversity, but there are general interest sessions as well.

And on top of that, if it is books you want, as well as the books available to buy and have signed, there will a huge ARC swap,  swag, and other goodies!!!

Here's the full program--please join us!

(I thought about putting all the cover pictures up, then I thought about blogger + pictures + me = frustration....so I didn't.  Sorry!)

9/13/14

Eerie Elementary: The School is Alive! by Jack Chabert

Just a quick post about a quick (and entertaining) book for the elementary set--The School is Alive! by Jack Chabert (Scholastic, June 2014).

Sam Graves has just been appointed Hall Monitor at Eerie Elementary School, and on his first day, the playground tries to eat him.  Afternoon hall monitoring goes no better- the school comes to really scary life--the clock its beating heart, the fire hoses like living serpents, the tree outside a malevolent hand, and more-- and Sam is once again its target!  Both times he is saved by the wise old janitor, who shares the horrible truth with him.  The school is alive, and it is hungry!

Sam, as Hall Monitor, is all that stands against its rapacious evil!!!!!  And when the school strikes at his best friends during the class play, Sam must save them from the hideous maw of folding chairs that's trying to consume them...

So maybe it sounds kind of silly, and maybe it is, but it was actually really creepy because goodness knows an elementary school at night alone with lockers banging supernaturally at you etc. would be really terrifying.   I think Jack Chabert did a tremendously effective job bringing his school to scary life!

The pacing is pretty much spot on for the 7 or 8 year old reader--nice fast action with bits of friendship centered narrative breaking it up, and the plot is one that will be comfortable in its familiarity--wise mentor teaches young hero to fight evil. 

An added bonus is that Sam's best friend, Antonio (cast as Peter Pan in the play) is shown as a kid of color in the illustrations.  Yay for a non-white Peter Pan!

So I am able to recommend this one with a pretty high degree of confidence to 7 or 8 year olds who are still most at home with pretty short, easy books and who don't mind being scared.  I would not give this one to a kid who is already afraid of school, though.  It would make things worse!

The second book in the series, The Locker Ate Lucy, was just released at the end of August....and I am almost tempted to give it a quick read just for my own amusement.....

(It's possible that I am biased in favor of this series because Hall Monitor Sam of course reminds me of another Sam who was Blackboard Monitor....)
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

9/11/14

In Real LIfe: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age, by Nev Schulman

So, ever one to broaden my horizons (in a mild sort of way) viz today's digital world, I accepted a copy of In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age, by Nev Schulman.  I thought it would be interesting for me to read, and possibly useful for sharing with my young teen.  And it was definitely the former, though not so much, at this point in time, the later (he's still not on line that much, and rather young for his age....).

Nev Schulman is the host of MTV's program, catfish, which I had never heard of before reading this book.  I had heard, from afar, about catfishing--the way some people create online identities of whole cloth and use them to manipulate others.   What makes this particular book interesting is not just its discussion of the many ways in which people catfish, but Nev Shulman's open sharing of his own experience as a victim.  He fell hard for a girl who, along with her whole family and community, didn't exist as the people they appeared to be online.  And this story, fascinating in its own right, leads to thought provoking discussion of what makes people trust the people they find online.    Nev Schulman is a story teller, rather than a sociologist or psychologist, but the particular story he tells here and his struggle to make sense of his own experience hold their own just fine (even though I wouldn't have minded a bit of academic gloss....)

It's good reading not just for those interesting in catfishing per se, but for everyone who has at some point created an online persona, and wondered about the authenticity of their own digital selves and the communities of which they are part.   I am pretty sure that most everyone I know in the kidlitosphere is pretty much who they say they are, and I am pretty sure that I am who I am saying I am (although one never knows....), but of course all of us have silences, and bits of personal thin ice, that make this whole business of public sharing at least something of a construct....

So in any event the book was very interesting reading, and I am much less likely to fall victim to catfishing now than I was before (and I am left wondering if anyone has ever tried-- pitches for fantasy books that don't exist, or something like that-- but I don't think that blogging, unlike, say, Facebook, is as amenable to the sort of personal rapprochement that good catfishing requires....)

In any event, all the bloggers that I've met in real life were pretty much what I was expecting (ie, lovely people) and I am happily planning on sharing a room at Kidlitcon with someone (KarenYingling) I've never met (and who I am very much looking forward to finally meeting!).

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

9/10/14

Spirit's Key, by Edith Cohn

Spirit's Key, by Edith Cohn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept. 9, 2014, middle grade)

Many things set 12 year old Spirit apart from the others who make Bald Island their home.  She and her dad aren't natives--and outsiders never quite become true islanders.   Her dad makes a living with his gift of prophecy, and though the distrust that drove him and his daughter to the island aren't quite as bad there, still it makes them different.   But most of all, what sets Spirit apart is that she is the only one on the island to have made a dog her beloved companion.

The island is home to wild dogs.  Nobody else likes them, and many truly fear them, calling them "devil spirits." Despite this prejudice, Spirit and Sky formed a bond of great love, until his untimely death (which happened just before the book begins, mercifully for young dog lovers!).   But before she has time to finish grieving, Sky's ghost appears to her--a puppy-ish Sky, frisky and playful and loving as ever.  And he's not back just because of his affection for her.  He is a ghost dog on a mission....

Sky isn't the only dog to die--others are turning up dead as well.   When people start falling ill, the dogs are blamed for the sickness.  But Spirit is convinced that there is something more going on, and she is determined to defend the dogs.   Following ghost Sky's lead, and accompanied by a boy who might be her first real person friend, Spirit gradually uncovers the secret of what's really been happening on her island home.  And in the process, with help from the ancestors who send her help, she begins to manifest her own unique version of her family's powers.

So basically this is:

--a girl and beloved dog story
--a girl and a boy she gradually learns to trust solving a mystery story
--a girl coming into her magical powers story

all of which is wrapped up in a tidy and satisfying whole that should please 10 and 11 year old readers who like those sorts of stories very much!
What makes these disparate threads a satisfying whole is that it is also the story of a girl's fight against her community's superstitious hatred of the animals she loves.  The interweaving of superstition and true magic creates tension that drives the plot even at those time when not much in the way of Adventure is actually happening.   Spirit must fight the islander's belief in the devilish magic of the dogs, while being deeply aware that there is true magic in the world, and knowing the dogs share in it--after all, Sky is right there with her as a spirit.   

And on top of that, Spirit is caught in the tension of feeling like an outsider, but knowing that she and her father are in fact different--an uneasy place for any 12 year old to occupy, but even more so than most for Spirit!  Solving the mystery of the dying dogs resolves the conflict, bringing Spirit to a place where she is both part of the community and able to be her unique self.

Which of course is one of the most satisfying of endings for a middle grader reader.  Give this one to the girl who likes dogs, of course, but who also likes fantasy meeting real life.

(Not being a middle grade reader myself, I worried about the economic sustainability of the island, inbreeding of both dog and human populations, what the heck the dogs were eating, and whether the resolution at the end would include some sort of organized management program for the dogs.  But these are grown-upish concerns, that the target audience will probably not share!)

Here's a longer and more detailed review at Tor

Disclaimer:  review copy gratefully received from the author.



9/8/14

The Only Thing Worse Than Witches, by Lauren Magaziner

If you are looking for a fun fantasy to give an elementary school kid (7 to 9 years old), and that kid is the sort of reader who loves the wacky humor of Wayside School, say, but is looking for something just a tad more challenging, The Only Thing Worse Than Witches (Dial, August 2014) is an excellent bet.

In a small town by the sea lives a community of witches.   Not particularly nice witches, the sort that the local non-witches are somewhat nervous about, but not, generally speaking, horrible.

There are exceptions.  And one of the worst of these exceptions is moonlighting as a teacher.

Rupert, one of her unfortunate students, just thinks she's the most abominable horrible thing ever to happen to him (and why won't the adults believe their kids when they say so?).  But then Rupert meets a girl his own age--a girl who's a witch in training.  And Witchling Two opens his eyes, breaking the rules to share witchy knowledge with him.   Witchling Two picked Rupert to be her apprentice--she needs a study buddy to pass her witch exams.  Rupert (forbidden by his evil teacher to socialize with his classmates) is happy to have a new friend.

Witchling Two's chances of passing her exams aren't looking good--her spells keep going bad.  Rupert's chances of escaping his teacher aren't looking good either--her spells work just fine!  But the two of them together figure out a way to come up on top, and all works out very nicely indeed.

The friendship between Rupert and Witchling Two is satisfying, and her struggles with magic convincing; there is a backstory to Rupert's mothers more than usual anxiety viz the witches that adds some depth to the story, there's some ambiguity about two the witches that's very nice, and the plot wraps up nicely.   And Rupert's teacher is beautifully over the top in the horror that constitutes her approach to educating/terrorizing the young.

So like I said above, this is a fun one for the elementary school reader.  If they like the cover, they will like the book.  And  you'll know if you are the type who'll enjoy it lots if you don't flinch when you learn that there is a teacher named Miss Snugglybuns (not Rupert's teacher!) because it is the sort of lighthearted, whimsical sort of story in which nice teachers are named things like Snugglybuns, but even though I found this off-putting, I was able to read the book in an appreciative spirit. 

In short, what it sets out to do it does well. 

9/7/14

This week's round up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (9/7/2014)

Here's what I found in my quest for MG SFF book reviews etc. this week; please let me know if I missed your post! If you are an author or a publicist, you too are welcome to send me links to posts of interest.

The Reviews:

13 Treasures, by Michelle Harrison, at Reader Noir

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel, at Readaraptor

The Candymakers, by Wendy Mass, at Puss Reboots

The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, at Redeemed Reader and Evelyn Ink

Evil Fairies Love Hair, by Mary G. Thompson, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times, by Emma Trevayne, at Log Cabin Library

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, at Not Acting My Age

Hook's Revenge, by Heidi Schulz, at Snuggly Oranges

The Iron Trial, by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black, at The Guardian, Winter Haven Books,  Fluttering Butterflies,  The Quiet Concert, The Book Belles, and Please Feed the Bookworm

Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge, at Tor

Loot, by Jude Watson, at Bibliobrit

Lug, Dawn of the Ice Age, by David Zeltser, at Geo Librarian (giveaway)

The Map to Everywhere, by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis, at Views From the Tesseract

Memoirs of  a Neurotic Zombie, by Jeff Norton, at Wondrous Reads and Fluttering Butterflies

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, at Redeemed Reader and For Those About to Mock

Rose and the Magician's Mask, by Holly Webb, at The Book Monsters

The Scavengers, by Michael Perry, at The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, by Ying Chang Compestine and Vinson Compestine, at Bibliobrit

Sparkers, by Eleanor Glewwe, at The Discriminating Fangirl

Spirit's Key, by Edith Cohn, at Tor

Starfire (Guardian Herd #1), by Jennifer Lynn Alverez, at Kid Lit Reviews

Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull, at Sometimes I Read

The Swallow, by Charis Cotter, at Falling Letters

The Terror of the Southlands, by Caroline Carlson, at On Starships and Dragonwings

The Time of the Fireflies, by Kimberley Griffiths Little, at Big Hair and Books, and Charlotte's Library

The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud, at Book Nut

Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts, at The Book Monsters

The Witch's Boy, by Kelly Barnhill, at Book Snob (and at the NY Times)

A Wonderlandiful World by Shannon Hale, at Fantasy Literature

Three at Ms. Yingling Reads--The Bully Bug, by David Lubar, The Scavangers, by Michael Perry, and  Greenglass House, by Kate Milford


Authors and Interviews

Kenneth Oppel (The Boundless) at Wondrous Reads and Readarapter!


Other Good Stuff

The finalists have been announced for the Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards--scroll down to the end and you'll find the books in the running for the Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Sarah Prineas has given us a free Magic Thief story!  It tells us what happens right after book 3--Found--finishes.  Book 4 (Home) comes out Sept. 16.

For Labor Day--a Tuesday Ten on "working for a living" in mg fantasy at Views From the Tesseract

A discussion on "How dark is too dark in children's books?" at The Guardian

"Constructing a Comic Character" at Project Mayhem

Maybe you were one of the folks who got all excited when the news travelled around the web about "Viking warrior women," and imagined historical fiction full of them--here's a cautionary note from an archaeologist I knew back in the day when I was getting my MA.

Nominations are now open at the Brown Bookshelf for 28 Days Later--a Black History Month celebration of African American authors and illustrators.

Something to put on your calendar for the end of October--Witch Week, hosted by Lori at The Emerald City Book Review, which will focus on Diana Wynne Jones.

And finally, the September/October issue of Middle Shelf Magazine is out in the world, offering lots fantasy/sci fi goodness.

9/3/14

Julia's House for Lost Creatures, by Ben Hatke--utterly charming

Ben Hatke became a favorite author in our house with his lovely graphic novels about Zita the Space Girl, and we were tremendously excited about his first foray into the world of picture books-- Julia's House for Lost Creatures (First Second, September 2, 2014).  It did not disappoint, so much so that my eleven-year-old son said it was one of his favorite books ever.



Julie's house comes to town on the back of an enormous tortoise, and settles by the sea.  It is a lovely house, warm, with tea and toast, but Julia is lonely.  So she quickly makes a sign, proclaiming it "Julia's House for Lost Creatures."   And creatures come--all sorts of strange fantastical creatures.

It is too much of a good thing.  Before she knows what's happening, Julia is running a house party of huge proportions, all is chaos and mess, and Julia is being run ragged.  Clearly it can't go on...

So Julia makes a giant chore list, taking into account everyone's unique attributes (the little ghost is a natural duster, and of course dragons are the best suited for hot kitchen tasks) and everyone pitches in....but it takes one last guest for everything to be perfect!  (and owners of old houses, creaking at the seams like Julia's is, will want a guest like this one for themselves....)

The illustrations are charmingly friendly and detailed--just really darn nice to look at.   Julia's a lovely character, and the fantastical visitors are fun and whimsical.   The charm of it all makes this one that will appeal to readers older than the standard picture book audience; there is really nothing not to like. 

This is an obvious one to offer a child who needs to contribute more to the smooth running of the domestic side of things (I cough meaningfully in the direction of the above-referenced eleven-year-old).   But it's fun to read without driving any moral point home! 

Julia's House is currently on a blog tour--check out these stops for a bestiary of the lost creatures!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.

9/2/14

The Time of the Fireflies, by Kimberley Griffiths Little, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Time of the Fireflies, by Kimberley Griffiths Little (Scholastic July 2014, middle grade), is great Southern gothic time travel for the young--give this one to your handy nine year old girl who likes things a spooky and she will just eat it up, and remember it for her lifetime.

Larissa's family has been plagued by misfortune...untimely death and disaster have visited every generation for a hundred years.   Larissa herself almost died in an accident that left her face badly scared...and still the curse goes on.  

But then a phone call comes--on an antique phone unconnected to any land line.  And the girl on the other end of the line tells Larissa to trust the fireflies, and follow where they lead.   And she does, crossing the uncrossably dilapidated bridge to the island where her family's plantation house once stood.  There she sees her great, great-grandmother, Anna, the spoiled daughter of the house, take for her own the beautiful doll that was given to another girl,  Dulcie, daughter of the housekeeper.   The doll still sits in Larissa's family's antique shop, labeled "not for sale." 

As Larissa follows the fireflies on more journeys across the bridge, and more mysterious messages come to her from the girl on phone, she sees the doll handed down from mother to daughter, and learns more of the tragedies that have befallen her family.  Larissa has never much liked the doll, but now it seems to grow in sentience and malevolence.  But just as she understands the curse, it strikes again, threatening the life of her mother and unborn sibling.  Can Larissa put things to rights before it is too late?????

Well, yes, because this is a children's book, but the journey to that point is a scary and creepy one.  And there aren't just supernatural challenges of curses and time slipping to deal with--Larissa must lay to rest her own personal ghosts, and come to terms with the accident that left her scared, and the girls who were responsible.

It's all very satisfying, and just gothically horrible enough to be creepy without being truly the stuff of nightmares.   I liked it much more than I did the somewhat similar books I couldn't stand to re-read when I was the target-audience age--Jane-Emily, by Patricia Clapp, and A Candle in Her Room, by Ruth M. Arthur--and I don't think this is because I am somewhat older now.  Here there are the fireflies, with their time-slip magic, and the girl on the other end of the line, exerting a force for good and giving reason to hope, and here also there is hope and progress being made in the real world, as Larissa learns to forgive and accept friendship from one of the girls who wronged her.

The time travel, too, with its "excursion to the past" feel, strikes just the right balance between being scary (Larissa comes close to real physical danger) and being magically nifty the way of my favorite sort of time travel, with the old house appearing all shiny and new where there's a ruin in the present.

And the discovery of treasure at the end (which any older reader will guess pretty quickly is going to be found) makes the already happy and resolved ending even happier.  I do like a nice treasure.

On a somewhat tangential note, the way the author dealt with the legacy of slavery was rather interesting--to the adult reader, it's easy to assume that the servants Larissa sees in the past, like Dulcie, the girl who was given the doll, are the descendant's of the plantation's slaves, but there aren't any physical descriptors, and slavery isn't mentioned until a considerable ways into the book.   It would probably have gone over my own nine-year-old head, used as I was to living in an all-white world (the Oporto British School in northern Portugal in the 1970s wasn't a hotbed of diversity) and busily reading English books with their built-in, all-white, class system.  And I wonder if it is better to make race clear from the get go, or if Kimberley Griffiths Little's approach is more useful to the larger cause of opening kids' imaginations-- not to say "a black man" but simply "a man," and to let people imagine whatever they imagine, and then bring in the fact of plantation slavery in clear enough terms that even 9 year old me would have had (I think) an ah ha moment...and maybe not have defaulted to white as much next time around.

On the other hand, I would have accepted unquestioningly back then the fact that the curse came from Caribbean voodoo-ish magic; now I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with that.  

But regardless, I thought it was very good book (I would like to spend more time in the present with Larissa and the sundry family, friends, and townsfolk, even without time-sliping), and I'm happy to recommend it.  Although not to girls who have large fancy dolls in their rooms that are already giving them the creeps.

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