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.


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs

Yay!  School is over!  I took my ex-fifth grade to the bookstore to get his graduation present, and we came home with Dreamwood, by Heather McKay (so nice to share the reading taste of one's child).

Here's what I found in this past week; please let me know if I missed your post!

The Reviews:

The Aviary, by Kathleen O'Dell, at Shadow in the Window

The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni, at The Reading Nook

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, at Tales From the Raven 

The Feral Child, by Che Golden, at Waking Brain Cells

Fizz and Pepers at the Bottom of the World, by M.G. King, at SWLothian

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo, at Hidden in Pages

The Glass Sentance, by S.E. Grove, at The YA Bookcase

The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones, at Random Musings of a Bibliophile

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

A Mutiny in Time (Infinity Ring 1), by James Dashner, at The Write Path

Nightingale's Nest, by Nikki Loftin, at alibrarymama

Operation Robot Storm, by Alex Milway, at Charlotte's Library

Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain, by Richard Roberts, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Savage Fortress, by Sarwat Chadda, at alibrarymama

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

The Story of the Amulet, by E. Nesbit, at Becky's Book Reviews

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

Turning on a Dime, by Maggie Dana, at Charlotte's Library

The Unicorn Thief, by R.R. Russell, at Best Kids' Reads (giveaway)

Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor, at The Book Smugglers

Authors and Interviews

Heather Mackay (Dreamwood) at Nerdy Book Club

Jonathan Auxier (The Night Gardener) at The Busy Librarian 

Maureen McQuerry's tour stops for Beyond The Door

Other Good Stuff

A Tuesday Ten of Introverts at Views From the Tesseract

The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award finalists have been announced; here are finalists for Children's Literature:
  • William Alexander, Ghoulish Song (Margaret K. McElderry)
  • Holly Black, Doll Bones (Margaret K. McElderry)
  • Joseph Bruchac, Killer of Enemies (Tu Books)
  • Sara Beth Durst, Conjured (Walker Children’s)
  • Robin McKinley, Shadows (Nancy Paulsen Books)
The call for submissions for Lee and Low's New Visions Award for authors of color has gone out.

If you want a challenge, you can see how many of these 100 first lines you recognize at Views From the Tesseract

From Once Upon a Blog--a look at a fantastic fairy tale garden in Australia, and how it came back to life after a devastating wildfire (the pictures from the immediate aftermath of the fire are especially powerful)


Operation Robot Storm, by Alex Milway-- special ops Yetis vs sci fi madman for younger readers

Operation Robot Storm (first in the Mythical 9th Division series), by Alex Milway (Kane Miller) is a great pick for the young reader (6-9 year old) who needs something considerably more challenging than an easy reader, but who isn't ready (either reading-wise, or emotionally) for full on Middle Grade books. 

And, you know, there are those of us who are so unembarressed by the books we read that even though we are technically grown-ups we can still get pleasure from the adventures of a group of three Yetis serving in the United Kingdom's armed forces as the Mythical Ninth Division.   Because it's fun to read about special ops Yetis vs robots and their evil overlord.

The Yetis are perfect for this particular job, because the evil mastermind in question has a machine that brings down Winter in all its glacial glory/deadliness anywhere he wants it to appear.  He's chosen northern Wales to make his first demonstration...and unless his demands for money are met, the rest of the world will be plunged into a new Ice Age.    He and his robots are almost a match for the three brave Yetis sent by the anxious British government from their Himalayan home to Wales...and it is a nail-biting struggle of Yeti perseverance, strength, and wisdom against sci-fi havoc.

Numerous graphic panels advance the story while providing a break from the text, adding to the friendliness of the book for young target audience.   

The adventures of the Mythical 9th continue in three more books available in the US, which is nice, because it is so awfully comforting for us parents to have books 2,3, and 4 to offer when book 1 meets with the child's approval!  (you can find more info about the series here).  That's book 2, Terror of the Deep, shown at right!

Short answer:   This is the sort of book that succeeds very well indeed in doing exactly what it set out to do--the special ops Yetis make for very fun reading.

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher


Welcoming Sarah Zettel, author of Bad Luck Girl!

Bad Luck Girl, by Sarah Zettel, the third book in the American Fairy Trilogy, is now out in the world (Random House, YA, May 27, 2014), and is a lovely ending to this series about a girl named Callie growing up in Dust Bowl Kansas, whose father is a fairy.  Not just any fairy, but the prince of the Unseelie Court...caught and held hostage, along with Callie's human mother, by the opposing Seelie Court.

The first two books, Dust Girl and Golden Girl show Callie caught in a world of inhuman and often cruel magic, struggling to figure out how to learn her own magical gifts so she can save her parents, while navigating the world of the United States in the 1930s--not an easy place for a girl who is half-black.  Fortunately, Callie has a true friend, a young traveler named Jack, on her side, and in true fairy tale fashion, the enemies she meets are balanced by helpers...

In this third book of the series, Callie has grown stronger and more confident, and she has saved her parents.   But Callie's confidence is a fragile thing--bad luck seems to follow her... Bad Luck Girl takes Callie and her family, along with Jack, to Chicago, where they must prepare to defeat the Seelie King once and for all.

It is Very Good Reading.   There are personal tensions and character growth nicely placed alongside the larger story arc, and best of all, there are new characters introduced (most notably the Halfers--beings who are half magic, have found/made things) who add beautifully to the magic of this alternate US!   

And so it's a pleasure to welcome Sarah Zettel here to day!  (My questions for Sarah are in italics).

You have had a full and varied career as a writer of speculative fiction for grown ups long before Dust Girl came to be!  You've since gone on to write the next two books about Callie, and you've also written the YA Palace of Spies, with its sequel, Dangerous Deceptions, coming out this November.

What made you decide to write for younger readers? 

One of the things I love most about a writer is the challenge of new projects. I love being able to explore new worlds, new times, new ideas and new characters at all phases of their lives.  As the ideas that became DUST GIRL and the other American Fairy books started to come together, they coalesced around this girl, dealing with loss and fear and discovery.  So there was that.  The decision to write the stories as young adults books was also, of course, influenced by that greatest of American fairy tales, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was a huge part of my own childhood.

Now that you are "a YA author" have you noticed people (in real life, in the book world, in the spec fic world) reacting to you any differently?  Have you gotten any dismissive remarks about writing for kids etc? (nb--I asked this question before the latest kerfluffle about YA happened!)

I never got that.  I came to YA after the J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers revolutions when a lot more adults were not only introduced to the wider possibilities of "kids" books, but started reading YA for their own entertainment.  I know plenty of authors who did (and still do) face it however.  There is still an unfortunate assumption that anything made for kids is somehow of lesser value, weight or complexity than something made for adults.

And conversely, from the outside looking in, the world of YA seems like a place where writers can find close relationships and community--has that been your experience? 

I have been lucky in that always experienced a tremendous sense of community across the writing world.  I came up in science fiction, I've since written romance, mystery and YA and each stop along the way has been filled with great, welcoming people.  I"ve met my share of jerks as well, people who did not think I belonged in "the club" for whatever reason, but they have always been a small minority.

One of the things that strikes me about Callie is the between-ness of her--half black, half white, and half human, half fairy.  She's also betwixt and between child and young woman, and this is true of the book itself--it's a series I'd give to upper middle grade readers (11 to 12 year olds) as well as YA readers (12 and up).  My impression, again as an outsider, is that this is not an ideal place marketing-wise, and I'm wondering if you got editorial pressure to make Callie a more "fully YA" character, and push her age up past 14....or to make her younger....

The ideas of "between-ness" was something I really wanted to explore, because it seems to me it's one of the essential questions of American culture.  Our culture and our nation has a hundred different origin points.  It is constantly combining and recombining influences from inside and outside, and this history, tension and creativity gives rise to what is best in us and uniquely American.  And yet there is always a side to it searching for the one true American Way or American person and attempting to define us down to that one thing. 

As to the marketing aspects, actually, it was the opposite from what you suggest.  One of the reasons my editor chose the book was because it was different in terms of the main character's age and attitudes.  No angsting around for Callie LeRoux!

I'm also curious about Callie being bi-racial--obviously, this ties beautifully in thematically with the book as a whole....but did her dark skinned father come first, or did that aspect of his identity, and by extension Callie's,  develope as the story grew?

That grew out of the variations I wanted to work with in the Seelie and Unseelie courts. When I started thinking about fairies in America, I settled pretty quickly on the idea that the Seelie Court was going to find its strongest inroads through Hollywood.  After all, this was the 1930s.  Where was more intensely glamorous than Hollywood?  But what about the Unseelie?  Magic, in my stories, was going to be attracted to creativity, to beauty.  The Unseelie Court is supposed to be the opposite side of the Seelie.  What was the flip side of Hollywood?  I was grousing about this problem to my husband, and he looked at me and said.  “You want a court?  Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lady Day…”

Of course the Unseelie Court was jazz, that incredibly popular music that was at the time also seen as incredibly dangerous, and so clearly originated in America.  But as soon as I knew that, I knew Callie would have to have a background that included an African American parent, because you cannot present jazz as a source of magic and power and ignore its essential roots in African American culture.  This also allowed me to within the course of the books talk about race, and identity and media imagery, and to include figures like Paul Robeson and Count Basie in the story, so it was all to the good. 

Did you have trouble with Callie's parents while writing Bad Luck Girl?  Callie has been on her own, surviving great dangers and learning about her magical heritage, for the first two books, and now in this third book she has her parents back in the picture,wanting to tell her what to do.   It's a source of tension for the three of them, and I was wondering if that tension spilled over into the writing of them!  Callie gets away from them for a good part of the book, but were you ever tempted to gently but firmly move the grown-ups off stage even more than they are?

That was a challenge, because it really changed the dynamic within the book.  In BAD LUCK GIRL, both Callie and Jack have to finally come to terms with their families, both the good and the bad of them.  It wasn't always easy to write, but I felt it was important to address this aspect of both of them becoming full and independent adults.

Your magical North American is not just fairies transported from European mythology--although those fairies are the focus of the book (given Callie's circumstance!),  myths and stories of other peoples that are made real here as well, including those of African Americans, and Native peoples of North America.  Was that something you wanted to put in from the beginning of telling this story, or was it a realization while the book was in process? I was very glad that, although your books don't go far beyond the magic of Europe, at least that magic isn't all there is!
Thanks.  This was a decision I made fairly early on.  Again, when talking about what is unique to America, you have to talk about the different origins points for the people here, and how the myths, legends, religions and cultures of all those people have fed into one another (or been stolen, or borrowed, or simply passed back and forth) to create us.  One example here is the character of Aunt Nancy in BAD LUCK GIRL.  When enslaved peoples were brought to North America, of course, their stories came with them.  As their original languages were changed or lost, the stories changed to fit the new Anglacized languages and different conditions.  So, over time, the trickster figure of the spider "Anansi" transformed into a new figure named "Aunt Nancy." It's Aunt Nancy who shows up in legends from the sea islands of Georgia, and in at least one of the Brer Rabbit stories.  So, it was Aunt Nancy who Callie meets in Chicago.

I didn't have the time, space or background of learning to fully address the legends of the First Nations in Kansas, but I wanted to be sure I acknowledged them as a vital part of the warp and weft of the fantastic in America.

Thank you Sarah!  It was a pleasure having you here today!

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