The Robe of Skulls, by Vivian French, illustrated by Ross Collins (2008, Candlewick, 200pp, for ages 8-11)
When a wicked witch realizes to her horror that she doesn't have the gold on hand with which to pay for her new gown (the titular robe of skulls), what else can she do but come up with an evil magical plot? In this case, she hatches a scheme to turn all the princes of the neighboring realms into frogs, and ransom them back to their grief-stricken parents in return for cash. But pitted against her are a spunky girl, escaping a miserable family situation, a prince who would rather run off and explore than mingle pleasantly with other royal children, and the most charming bats I've ever met in a work of fiction. Plus the Ancient Crones!
This is a funny and fast-paced book, and the black and white illustrations are an amusing and engaging addition to the text. Next year, when my oldest is a more confident, nine-year-old reader, I'm absolutely certain that I am going to pressing this, and other books by Vivian French, into his hands. And I have no qualms at all in urging those who already have such a child to seek out this book.
Here are two other reviews, at Kiss the Book and Adventures in Reading.
The Robe of Skulls has been nominated for the Cybils in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. There's still time to nominate your own favorite books of 2008, so head on over!