Moon Princess, by Barbara Laban

Moon Princess, by Barbara Laban (Chicken House/Scholastic, July 25 2017) falls beautifully into that early middle grade slot of books for kids who are strong readers, but still young and developing their reading stamina.   Which is to say, it is shortish (185 pages) and generously fonted and margined (which is to say, comfortable to read).  Content-wise it is good for the younger end of middle grade (8-9 year olds) as well--there is danger and jeopardy for the two kids who are the main characters, but there is a wise old adult who steps in to help them, and they are helped as well by a bevy of imaginary animal companions.

Sienna's art historian mother, Kate, vanished on a research trip to China, and Sienna's dad tries to tell her to accept the fact that her mom is dead.  She doesn't.  When her father has to move the two of them to Shanghai, she thinks maybe they'll have a chance to look for Kate a bit more....But it doesn't seem likely that she'll get the chance. Stuck inside their apartment, with a truly unpleasant woman named Ling as language instructor and minder, Sienna's only company is her imaginary dog, Rufus.  Though he's invisible to everyone else, he is real as all get out to Sienna, and talks to her. 

Sienna soon finds that Ling is up to no good, and when she confronts her, Sienna realizes that she might have put herself in real danger.  She runs out the building, pursued by Ling, and is saved by Feng, a boy her own age, who pulls her to safety.  Feng is missing a person of his own too-- his brother Gege--and his brother had been working with Sienna's mother when they disappeared.  So the two of them set off to follow the few scanty clues they have to the far away temple where Kate and Gege were last seen...

With the help of a wise old man who has an imaginary friend of his own, and who has kept the ability to see the companion animals of others, Sienna and Feng unravel the mystery that is hidden below the temple...and this being a good book for kids, they find their loved ones (subverting what seemed at first to be yet another instance of the dead mother in middle grade fiction!).  The actual mystery is not itself fantastical in any supernatural sense, and so the only fantasy element is the invisible animals, making this one that might well appeal not just to fans of the magical but to kids who would rather read about heists and outwitting criminals than full-on magic.  (In short form--if your 8 or 9 year old kid doesn't like fantasy but has to read one for school, this would be a good pick.  But if yours does like fantasy, especially imaginary magical animal friend fantasy, it is an even better pick!).

Sienna's view of China is that of an outsider, which makes the story an introduction to China, but not a cultural immersion, and which allows the author to convincingly set her story there without falling into obvious pitfalls of cultural appropriation or cultural error (I was on the look out, though from a place of ignorance myself, and didn't see anything that bothered me, except the relatively minor feeling, perhaps particular to me, that the  long fingernails of Ling, the villainess, which are mentioned a lot, seem like a stereotype...).   The alliance between Feng and Sienna is believable and appealing, and the banter of the invisible friend animals (Feng's is a dragon, that he had lost the ability to communicate with) adds a nice touch of humor to the emotionally tense plot.

So yes, as I said above, a good one for 8-9 year olds who will be tickled by the idea of the imaginary friends, interested in the journey through China, and sympathetic to Sienna's feelings and tribulations!

(Moon Princess was originally published in German in 2011, and was that year's winner of a major children's book award in Germany.  The translator, Helen Jennings, did an excellent job of crafting the English version--I would never have guessed it hadn't been originally in English).

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


  1. Sounds like a fun one for the younger crowd. Thanks for telling me about it.

    1. You're very welcome! It is indeed a nice one.


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