Curtain of Mist, by M. Pardoe, for Timeslip Tuesday

Curtain of Mist, by M. Pardoe, is an old one from the UK--1956.  It is a classic timeslip story, of three children and their tutor who slip through time to ancient Britain just before the invation of the Romans.  It starts so beautifully, with the three kids (boy, girl, boy) trying to adjust to life in the Scottish castle of their grandparents, and their new tutor arriving to try to catch them up to a British standard of education (they'd lived in the South Pacific with their parents before this, thought the oldest two had been to school already in England).   And the youngest brother has made friends with a strange boy from the past called Cymbel, who he has met through a thin spot in the fabric of time.

It's not clear which of the two boys is slipping from their own time, but it is very intriguing and vividly clear and I was so looking forward to more tension between past and present, tensions between lessons and the outdoors, and tensions between grandparents and somewhat untamed children.

Then-RATS.  The three kids and the tutor all time travel for real back to Cybel's home time of late Iron Age Britain, where it turns out he is a prince of a domain far to the south who has run away from being schooled on the holy island of Iona.  And this would be ok, with the modern folks coping with life in the past, but instead being an  interesting story, the book turns almost 80% didactic, and Teaches about Celtic Britain.  Sometimes flickers of story and character would emerge briefly, only to be swallowed by descriptive details again.  .

I was really frustrated. The first thirty pages or so were so darn enticing.  Probably if I had read it as the young Celtophile I was back in the day, my youthful imagination would have filled in the story to make a satisfying read for myself.  But that ship has sailed, and I will sadly shelf this one in my time slip shelf, never to be read again.


The Wonderling, by Mira Bartok

The Wonderling, by Mira Bartok (Candlewick, September 2017)

The Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures is a dumping ground for young groundlings--animal hybrid persons.  This horrible place, run in true evil orphanage fashion by Miss Carbunkle, is home to a young fox groundling, known only as No. 13.  The shy, good-hearted creature has the memory of a long-ago song to comfort him, and can hear far off sounds and understand the language of the mice in the orphanage walls.  But the conditions at the orphanage are terrible.  When a new groundling, a little flightless bird being named Trinket arrives, she becomes his first friend, and gives him a name, Arthur.

Trinket's determined to escape, and she convinces Arthur to brave the world outside the walls with her.  They part ways, each driven to find the place they came from, and Arthur, utterly innocent and naïve, must navigate the teeming, often cruel city of Lumentown, which is not a good place at all for a young groundling.  Thanks to his marvelous hearing, he learns that Mss Carbunkle has a dastardly plan to remove all music from the world.  And Arthur, still enchanted by the memory of his own song, is determined to stop her. Reunited with Trinket, and joined by a brave mouse, Arthur returns to the orphanage to free the other groundlings and destroy Miss Carbunkle's plans.

Arthur is as sweet a young hero as all get out, and more naïve than even young readers, who will want to shake the pages of the book to warn him of dangers from time to time!  Trinket and the mouse are fine sidekicks, and hints of bigger magic than just the existence of the groundlings add a mythic underpinnings to the adventure.  It's the vividness of the world, though, that truly makes this stand out.  It's a place with ancient woods, clockwork deices, flying bicycles, and magical crows.  The reader can almost smell the sewers and hear the music...

This is definitely one for the young reader who identifies with the lonely and the outcast, whose favorite books are fairytale-like worlds of wonder where goodness is never squashed under the heal of evil and prejudice. Bartok's beautifully detailed illustrations, generously sprinkled thought the story, add to the magic of it all.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (9/24/17)

Here's what I found in my blog reading this week of interest to us fans of middle grade fantasy and science fiction; please let me know if I missed your post!

First-- come to Kidlitcon 2017!  Hershey PA, Nov 3-4.  The Early Bird registration rate ends September 24.  (If you want to come, but would like a hotel room-mate to help with the costs, let me know and I can try to match you up with another (perfectly sane, not ax-murdering) children's book fan!  Or bring your whole family, and send the rest of them to Hershey while you talk books!)

We have an amazing line up of children's book folks coming (see the end of the program for the whole list).  At Kidlitcon, you actually get to socialize with the authors, and it's pretty great!  Perhaps because I am the program organizer, there are a number of wonderful MG fantasy authors:

Tracey Baptiste The Jumbies (Algonquin Young Readers, 2015) and Rise of the Jumbies (2017)

Caroline Carlson The World’s Greatest Detective (2017 HarperCollins),  The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates (HarperCollins)

Jen Swann Downey Ninja Librarians series (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky)

Celeste Lim The Crystal Ribbon (Scholastic, 2017)

Laurie McKay Villain Keeper series (HarperCollins)

David Neilsen Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (Crown Books 2016) and Beyond the Doors (Crown Books 2017)

Mike Rubens Emily and the Spellstone (Clarion 2017)

Eric Wight Frankie Pickle series (Simon and Schuster)

The Reviews

The Adventurers Guild, by Zack Loran Clark and Nick Eliopulos, at Reads All the Books

A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting, by Joe Ballarini, at Jean Little Library and The Write Stuff

Can I Get There by Candlelight? by Jean Slaughter Doty, at Time Travel Times Two

Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, at The Children's Book Review

The Crooked Sixpence, by Jennifer Bell, at Sharon the Librarian

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head, by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, at The Children's Book Review

Curse of the Werewolf Boy, by Chris Priestly, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

Darkness of Dragons, by Tui T. Sutherland, at Hidden in Pages

The Daybreak Bond, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, at Batch of Books

Deadzone (Horizon #2), by Jennifer Nielsen, at Black Plume

The Dollmaker of Krakow, by R.M. Romero, at Literary Aliteration

The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding, by Alexandra Bracken, at Story Notions

The Empty Grave, by Jonathan Stroud, at Log Cabin Library

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen, at That's Another Story

Giant Trouble, by Ursula Vernon, at Puss Reboots

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, at The Book Smugglers

The Gravedigger's Son, by Patrick Moody, at Say What?

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Puss Reboots (a road narrative deconstruction)

The List, by Patricia Forde, at The Write Path

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded, by Sage Blackwood, at Say What?

Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist, by R.A. LaFevers (series review) at Milliebot Reads

The Painting, by Charis Cotter, at Falling Letters

The Peacock Door by Wanda Kay Knight, at I Heart Reading

Quests for Glory, by Soman Chainani, at B. and N. Kids Blog

The Raven God, by Alane Adams, at Nicsthebibliophile

The Rise of the Jumbies, by Tracey Babtiste, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Tentacle and Wing, by Sarah Porter, at Weezie's Whimsical Writing

Tumble and Blue, by Cassie Beasley, at B. and N. Kids Blog

Wanted: A Superhero to Save the World, by Bryan Davis, at Page Dreaming

Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate, at Cherry Blossoms and Maple Syrup

The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell, at The Gaurdian

York, by Laura Ruby, at Semicolon

Authors and Interviews

Tracey Babtiste (Rise of the Jumbies) at Publishers Weekly, B. and N. Kids Blog, and From the Mixed Up Files

Soman Chainani (Quests for Glory), at B. and N. Kids Blog

Laurel Gale (Monster, Human, Other) at Word Spelunking

Catherynne M. Valente (The Glass Town Game) at Yayomg

Other Good Stuff

A passel of middle grade fantasy recommendations at Project Mayhem

An interesting look at The Hobbit from the perspective of a child reader, at Tor

Cybils nominations will be open October 1-15; nominate books published between October 16, 2016-October 15, 2018 in a wide variety of categories (you get one nomination in each category).  At Always in the Middle Greg shares some eligible Elementary/Middle grade speculative fiction books he's considering.

Lockwood and Co. is becoming a tv series


Future Shock, by Elizabeth Briggs, for Timeslip Tuesday

Future Shock, by Elizabeth Briggs, is a YA time travel thriller, in which five teens are sent to the future on what seems like a harmless mission that soon goes horribly wrong.

Elena Martinez, tough, tattooed, and in the gifted program at school, is about to age out of the foster care system. If she doesn't find a job before she turns 18, she'll be homeless, and her one most pronounced skill, perfect recall, isn't doing her much good.  Then comes an unexpected offer, that will solve all her financial problems-- to be a test subject for the tech giant, Aether Corporation, for just one day.  She and four other teenagers—Adam, Chris, Trent, and Zoe—will be sent through time to the future to bring back information about technology that hasn't been invented yet.  All but Adam are foster kids, with no one make a fuss if they don't come back.  The rules are simply--don't look up your future self, and be back at the portal point at the right time. 

But there are many things the Aether folks haven't told them.  Little things like other test subjects going insane.  And things go wrong from the moment they arrive at Aether Co. in the future and find it abandoned.   When the teens break the rules and look into their own future lives, it's clear that things are even more wrong than they were starting to suspect.  Because when they get home, all of them but Adam will be murdered.

There isn't much the kids can control, but they struggle to work together to figure out what's going to happen to them, because they must, though suspicion and the dangers of the future make it hard to do so.  Adam seems an obvious suspect, because he lives, but he and Elena are drawn to each other, and she can't help but believe that there's lots more going on than meets the eye.  There is.  And the clock is ticking...because if they don't go back to their own present, with or without the information they need to save their lives, they're stuck.

The mad science of the future, and the big question of whether past events can be changed, make this a very successful time travel story. The thriller mystery part was exciting reading, in a scrambling to put pieces together way.  The romance was a tad on the cheesy side, and too quick to blossom from attraction to more, but that's what happens to fictional YA characters.  The ensemble cast of diverse teens take a while to emerge as individuals as opposed to types, but by the end there's enough to each one's story to make them believable people to care about.

I enjoyed it, and have added book 2 to my tbr list!

Here's another review at Finding Wonderland


Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869, by Alex Alice

Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869, by Alex Alice (First Second, September 2017), is an utterly gorgeous alternate history, originally published in French.  It's the story of a boy whose mother is a great adventurer, determined to rise in her balloon to deadly heights in pursuit of Aether, a substance that could power incredible wonders.  Sadly, just as she makes her discovery that it doesn't in fact exist, her mission fails, and she dies up in the dark cold at the edge of Earth's atmosphere.  Her journal, though, falls to Earth...

And her son, Seraphin, and her husband grieve, but when, a while later, they receive word her journal has been found and is waiting for them in Bavaria, they set off to retrieve it.  This journey takes them into danger, for the political situation is tense.  The Prussian general Bismark is pressing the other German principalities hard to join him in a unified Germany, and King Ludwig of Bavaria is most reluctant to do so.  Aether, with its potential for military usefulness, could tip the balance of power, and lead to conquest of not just earthly realms, but galactic ones.

Seraphin is determined to foil the Prussian plans, and throws himself into working to continue his mother's dream, while planting false information for Bismark's spies to find.  And Mad King Ludwig, perhaps not so mad at all, dreams of flighing beyond Earth. Fortunately for Seraphin, he becomes part of a cohort of plucky youngsters who can make this dream come true.  If, that it, Bismark doesn't seize it from them....

I know it is only September, but I am already thinking about Christmas presents. This is an absolutely perfect present to give to:

--a connoisseur of beautiful graphic novels.  It has a classy, elegant design and beautiful illustrations.  Likewise, an experienced fan of graphic novels in general (you need to pay attention to the text with this one or else you won't understand it), who likes stories that are fun and fantastical and which bear re-reading multiple times.

--a young reader who enjoyed Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series, even if they might not be a graphic novel fan first and foremost, as this too is alternate European history with a steampunk flavor

--a not necessarily young reader who's a fan of Jules Verne, and 19th century romantic/mad science imaginings in general.  In short, if you have an elderly relative who's impossible to find a present for, but who has Jules Verne on their bookshelves, this would be a suitable gift.

When my review copy arrived, I considered holding it back from my own son till Christmas (he fits all but the last of the categories above).  But it was so perfect for him I couldn't stand to make him wait!  And it was a pleasure seeing him enjoying it.


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (9/17/17)

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

The Reviews

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer, at Leaf's Reviews

Code Name Flood (Edge of Extinction #2) by Laura Martin, at Ms. Yingling Reads

The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell, at Pages Unbound Reviews

The Crowns of Croswald, by D.E. Night, at Flipping the Pages

Deadzone (Horizon #2), by Jennifer A. Nielsen, at Ms. Yinging Reads

Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas, at Kiss the Book

The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding, by Alexandra Bracken, at The Reading Nook Reviews and  Cracking the Cover

Embers of Destruction, by J. Scott Savage, at Cracking the Cover

The Empty Grave, by Jonathan Stroud, at Sonderbooks, The Book Monsters, and The Zen Leaf (audiobook review)

The Fearless Travelers’ Guide to Wicked Places, by Pete Begler, at Jean Little Library

The Glass Town Game, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Vox

The Icebreaker trilogy, by Lian Tanner, at B. and N. Kids Blog

In Over Their Heads. (Under Their Skin #2), by Margaret Peterson Haddix, at Becky's Book Reviews

Jorie and the River of Fire by A.H. Richardson, at Log Cabin Library

The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street, by Lindsay Currie, at Sci Fi & Scary

Under Their Skin. (Under Their Skin #1), by Margaret Peterson Haddix, at Becky's Book Reviews

The Winnowing, by Vikki VanSickle, at Me On Books

Authors and Interviews

Tracey Baptiste (The Rise of the Jumbies) at B. and N. Kids Blog

Catherynne  M. Valente (The Glass Town Game) at Whatever

Vikki VanSickle (The Winnowing) at Me on Books

Other Good Stuff

10 great middle grade books of 2017 so far (incuding 5 sci fi/fantasy) at B. and N. Kids Blog

Six middle grade time travel classics, at Time Travel Times Two

Thoughts on middle grade readers and growing with, or growing out, of series at Project Mayhem

Preview Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor, at Tor

Join authors/illustrators Tony DiTerlizzi (The Battle for WondLa) and Ben Hatke (Zita the Spacegirl) at the Carle Museum on Sunday, October 1st at 3:00 PM as they discuss the increasingly popular fantasy and sci-fi genre for middle grade readers. Book signing to follow program.
RSVP on Facebook!


Caleb and Kit, by Beth Vrabel

Caleb and Kit, by Beth Vrabel (Running Press,September 12, 2017) is a moving story of a friendship between a boy and a girl, both of whom are facing tremendous challenges. Caleb has cystic fibrosis, and has spent his life being protected by his mother.  Now that he's twelve, he's kicking against the smothering care (including the indignity of being sent to a summer camp populated by little kids), but is it a fact that he needs his mother's care to keep breathing.  Then one day he heads angrily off into the woods alone, which he's never done before, and meets a girl, Kit.

Kit becomes his new best friend, who leads him out of his protected life to seize the day and all the imaginative adventures it may bring.  Soon Caleb is skipping out of camp to follow Kit's lead, becoming part of her story of fairy magic.  Kit keeps him away from her own home, but gradually Caleb and the reader get glimpses and clues that make it pretty clear that all is not well.  In fact, Kit's home life is very bad indeed.  The book moves to a climax in which Caleb's deceptions are found out, and he tells his mother about Kit, and she is taken into foster care and out of Caleb's life.

Caleb is a normal 12 year old, trying to pull away from parental care, but the fact of his cystic fibrosis, and its dire consequence of a shortened lifespan (not to mention more mundane unpleasant issues), is unescapable.  His life is complicated further by his father's decision to leave his mother and start a new relationship, and his perfect older brother Patrick's ubiquitous perfection.  Caleb constantly is reminded by Patrick's existence of all the things he can never do, and the life Patrick will have that he won't.  It turns out that Patrick is carrying heavy weight of his own, trying to be perfect both to get attention for himself, and because he knows Caleb might die at a very young age, leaving Patrick to have to be a good enough son to fill two places. It's a horrible situation for everyone, but there it is, and inspired by Kit, Caleb has been really living each day (even though Bad Choices are made as part of that living).

Though there is this drama playing out in the book, this isn't a tear-jerking melodrama about a brave, sick kid being an inspiration.  Cystic fibrosis might confine Caleb, but it doesn't define him.  Nor, thank goodness, is it a Bridge To Terabithia knock off, though there are undeniable similarities.  No one dies at the end; instead everyone has become more honest with themselves and each other, setting up hope that though there's no magic cure in sight, there will be good times to come.

I remember back when I was a real middle grade reader being fascinated by stories that gave me windows into the lives of kids coping with sickness and disability.  The matter-of-factness with which the symptoms of cystic fibrosis are discussed and described, and lived by Caleb, make this a good one for young readers like I was--sickness isn't  romanticized, and the kid doesn't become more special because of it.  The reader is left with information, and with sympathy that's not a prurient voyeurism. This leaves room for the themes of friendship, and honesty, and adolescent desire for independence and love combined to flourish in a good story.

2 for 2 in my Kirki (plural of Kirkus?) comparisons this week--"A realistic story with strong, recognizable characters that doesn’t reduce cystic fibrosis to a tragedy." (here's the full review)

Dislaimer: review copy provided by the publisher


The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid, by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Matt Mayers

Brothers Ralphie and Louie return for more early chapter book fun in The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid, by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Matt Mayers (Candlewick, September 2017).   The rat brothers are faced with twin challenges in this outing.  The first is to build their own arcade in a vacant lot near their home, which involves moving lots of junk, a lot of ingenuity, and a lot of cooperation from their various animal friends.  And of course it involves lots of fun!

The second type of challenge is a tougher one.  Louie, the older brother, has to confront his fear of the "haunted" house next to the lot.  When part of one of the games flies off and breaks the window of the house, Louie screws his courage to the sticking point and rings the doorbell.  Much to his relief, instead of a ghost there's a lonely old squirrel gentleman, who becomes a friend.

Ralphie must be brave too, when a sticky social situation develops at school.  Ages ago he gave a classmate a mean nickname that stuck and made her life miserable, and now that he and Louie have given up cultivating tough, mean personas (as described in The Infamous Ratsos) he realizes how very wrong this was.  So he has to find the courage to admit his fault and make things right by speaking out in public.

So yes, there's a moral point at work alongside the fun of building the arcade.  But it is a fact that kids have to confront fears all the time, and to see two boy rats doing so, and living through it, will be both comforting and inspiring for young readers.  Big Lou, the boys' dad, who's as tough as they come, admits to being afraid sometimes himself, and gives pithy advice on working through fear and coming out the other side that's both wise and useful.

My own early reading is the source for many of the life lessons that rattle around in my brain as verbatim quotes, and  I'm all in favor of early chapter books like this one, that nest such lessons into fun and charming stories.

My only personal regret with this one is that I would have loved to spend much more time in the vacant lot cleaning the junk up and making the games etc.  It's a lovely premise and sounds like tons of fun.  Which actually has made another thought occur to me--it's nice to see a book about not well-off (at least they don't seem to be, and the neighborhood, with dilapidated houses and vacant lots full of junk, supports this assumption), urban kids making their own fun and having a loving supportive parent.

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs (9/10/17)

Welcome to this week's round-up; pleae let me know if I missed your post!

First--the window for applying to be a Cybils Judge closes tomorrow.  If you don't already know, the Cybils are awards given by children's book reviewers in a variety of categories, one of which is Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction.  There are two rounds of judging.  The first round panelists spend the fall reading the nominated books (anyone can nominate) and select a shortlist of seven, which then go on to a second panel of judges.  Reading and talking about elementary/middle grade fantasy and sci is a lovey way to spend a bit of time (clearly if you are reading this you are interested in it) so do apply!  It's a great way to make friends with other bloggers. I'm the category organizer, and I'd love to welcome new folks to the fun.

The Reviews

The Adventurer’s Guide to Dragons (And Why They Keep Biting Me) (The Adventurer’s Guide 2)m  by Albert White Wade, at Nerdophiles

The Apprentice Witch, by James Nicol, at Killin' Time Reading

Darkness of Dragons, by Tui T. Sutherland, at Kitty Cat at the Library

The Door in the Alley, by Adrienne Kress, at Pages Unbound Reviews

The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis, at Pages Unbound

The Empty Grave, by Jonathan Stourd, at Playing by the Book

Guardians of the Gryphon's Claw, by Todd Calgi Gallicano, at Middle Grade Minded

The Glass Town Game, by Catherynne M. Valente, at Tor and Bibliosanctum

The Hollow Bettle, by Susannah Appelbaum, at Leaf's Reviews

Knife, by R.J. Anderson, at Rachel Neumeirer

The Last Ever After, by Soman Chainani, at A Reader of Fictions

Lucy and Andy Neanderthal: The Stone Cold Age, by Jeffrey Brown, at The Reading Nook Reviews

No Place for Magic, by E.D. Baker, at Puss Reboots

Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder, at Book Nut

Prisoner of Ice and Snow, by Ruth Lauren, at Bart's Bookshelf

A Properly Unhaunted Place, by  William Alexander, at Charlotte's Library

The Raven God by Alane Adams, at Confessions of a Serial Reader

Realm Breaker, by Laurie McKay, at Boys Rule, Boys Read

Ring of Fire by P.D. Baccalario, at Say What?

The Shadow Cipher (York Book 1), by Laura Ruby, at Log Cabin Library

Wishtree, by Katherine Applegate, at the NY Times

The Wonderling, by Mira Bartok, at Read Till Dawn and Millibot Reads

Two at Literary Hoots--Beyond the Doors, by David Neilsen and The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart
Stephanie Burgis

Authors and Interviews

Alexandra Bracken (The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding) at B. and N. Kids Blog

Other Good Stuff

The Middle Grade Magic of Stranger Things, at Thinking Through Our Fingers

C.S. Lewis and Flags, at Mere Inkling


A Properly Unhaunted Place, by William Alexander

A Properly Unhaunted Place, by William Alexander (Margaret K. McElderry Books, August 2017)  is a properly good book that's a great pick for the 9-11 year old readers still firmly in middle grade territory, that entertains with its surface adventures while holding emotional depths for the perceptive reader.

Rosa Ramona Díaz's mom is a librarian who specializes in ghost-appeasement--a valuable skill in a world where ghosts are ubiquitous, and libraries are dense with spirits.  But her mom has taken a job in the small town of  Ingot, the only town in the world that's utterly unhaunted, and she absolutely does not want to be there.  For one thing, she'll have no chance to practice her own ghost appeasement efforts.  Given the choice about being sad about her father's recent death (he was also a ghost appeaser, but bad at it) and being angry about being stuck in a basement apartment below an unhaunted library, she choses to be angry.

Then she meets Jasper, who's always lived in Ingot, and whose father is a knight at the local Renaissance Festival, where his mother plays the queen.  Jasper, his father's squire, has never seen a ghost, but this changes suddenly when the Renaissance Festival is attached by angry spirits.   Rosa's ghost-appeasing and containing skills come in handy, but she can't cope with the sudden influx of ghostly mayhem.  Even her mother is not strong enough to face the onslaught, and  a ferociously powerful ghost steals her voice.

Now Rosa and Jasper must race to find out why there is a barrier around Ingot that keeps the ghosts away, and why it starting to fail.  If the ghosts break through all the way, it will be a catastrophe.  But if the balance between the living and the dead can be restored before that happens, Ingot will be properly haunted, just like the rest of the world, and disaster will be averted.  The mystery lies deep in Ingot's past (and its "passed"--pun intended), and will require all Rosa and Jasper's courage and perseverance to solve it and to lay a dark past to rest.

It is a short book, by the doorstopper standards of much middle grade fantasy (adding to its suitability for the younger middle grade set), and it is a book that doesn't spell everything out.  For instance, there's an environmental disaster entwined with ghost problem (copper mining), that's alluded to but not underlined.  Rosa's grief for her father is a key part of her character and her choices, but again (partly because Rosa tries to squash it), isn't made a focus of the story.  Her grief ties to the larger message that underlies the whole story that the past, with its sadness, should be accepted, and that desperate efforts to banish ghosts and memories bring more harm than good.  That being said, some things are made obvious to the reader, and add lots to texture of the story, like Jasper's black father being a Moorish knight, bringing diversity to the Renaissance portrayed in the town's festival.

In short: a gripping, engaging mystery/fantasy with diverse characters set in a fascinating alternate reality.

And now I treat myself to reading the Kirkus review (starred) and find I am in total agreement:

"Though it’s a perfectly enjoyable tale on a purely superficial level, readers who choose to dig deeper will find an engrossing exploration of complicated grief and what damage may be wrought when negative emotions are barricaded away rather than addressed.  A fun and fast-paced supernatural mystery with secret depths for those who dare explore them."

Final thought-- a special yay for a book that gives black kids the chance to see themselves as part of medieval pageantry!


Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, by Ben Hatke

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, by Ben Hatke (FirstSecond September 2017) is the second half of an adventure begun last year in Mighty Jack. It is even more exciting and stirring an adventure than the first, and though it could be read on its own, there's no earthly reason not to enjoy both books back to back.  Especially since the first book ends on a cliff hanger, with Jack's little sister Maddy being kidnapped by a giant.

The second book starts with Jack and his friend Lilly climb up a magical vine to rescue Maddy.  They have with them some magical seeds that give them a considerable boost in size and strength, but no particular plan, other than "pursue giant and save Maddy."  Lilly is injured battling the guardian of the bridge into the giant's realm, and when the stalk she's holding onto breaks, she falls onto a platform below the path Jack must take to follow the giant.  She urges Jack to go on without her, and reluctantly he does, finding himself faced with an castle that's sealed tightly shut.

So pretty dire straights....

But the giants aren't the only ones up in the beanstalk land.  At the castle, Jack is helped by little sewer creatures, and makes it inside, though he is no match for the giants planning on eating Maddie. Fortunatly, Lilly has been rescued by goblins, and healed with a taste of goblin blood (not her choice of medicine, but she wasn't given one!).  Though the goblins are friendly, and the little goblins cute, the goblin king has unpleasant plans for her.  Lilly is no passive damsel in distress, though, and in a brave fight she foils him and take his place as king, and sets off with her goblin followers to the rescue!

It continues to be somewhat touch and go, but the kids get home safely in the end.

All of Ben Hatke's books are bright and vibrant and full of exciting adventures vividly portrayed, with characters to love and cheer for, and this is no exception!  The stakes are high, but Jack and Lilly rise to the challenge most beautifully.  Both have their battles, both internal and external, and both emerge victorious.  This is the perfect series to give the kid who likes to swing a sword around, chopping imaginary monsters (or the now somewhat older middle grade kid who doesn't do that anymore but still won't let you give the swords away).  Even if they aren't avid readers they'll be drawn in to the adventure and the pages will turn very nicely indeed.

And in a special treat for Hatke's fans, the end of the book promises an even more magical set of adventures to come with familiar friends from the Zita the Spacegirl books!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


The Door that Led to Where, by Sally Gardner

I have read enough time travel books in my life that I feel pretty confident in saying that The Door that Led to Where, by Sally Gardner (Delecorte, November 2016), is one of the best recent YA time travel books.  I'll skitter around my confidence by saying that what I like in a time travel book is a character-driven point to the whole enterprise, preferably a point that isn't a love sundered by centuries or some such (I am Done with romance time travel for the moment...).  So you might disagree with me regarding this one, and indeed there are those reviewing it on Amazon who found it "too confusing" and such.  I was not confused, or if I was, I trusted the story to see me through safely to the other side, and it did.

London teenager AJ hasn't done well in school, except in English.  Not because he was unintelligent, but because he spent school in the library reading (Dickens, for instance.  Also Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was an instant bond, because I read it too when I was his age).  So it's rather a miracle to him that his mother gets him a job as a junior clerk at a decent law firm.  It's a double miracle, because his mother has clearly loathed him all his life (his father was never in the picture).  But there he is, employed. And there are his two best friends, also done with school, and getting deeper and deeper into murky, illegal waters....

Then AJ is given a key by a mysterious professor who talks in riddles.  And AJ finds the door the key unlocks, and it takes him back in time to 1830, plunging him into a murder mystery.  His own father was one of the victims, and the murderer is still at work....Also there is a snuff box smuggling ring operating (they are a good think to buy in the past to sell at profit in the present).  Possibly this part is confusing.  It was the part of the plot that interested me least, so I didn't try to hard to Think about it, and so was not at a loss for understanding.  As my favorite Salada teabag saying went, "if you don't try you can't fail."

More interesting to me was that AJ took his two friends through the door to the past, giving them a second chance that suited them both tremendously.  This was the really good time travel part--how two good-hearted boys, who were loyal brother figures to AJ, had gone wrong in the present, but could make new lives for themselves in 19th century London.  And there was a nice dose of time travel tourism, with great descriptions of London back in the day.

AJ is a courageous boy, trying to do the right thing for those he cares for.  This group includes an 1830s girl, Esme, who's adopted father is one of the poisoner's victims.  But his growing tender feeling for her is not the point of the plot; it's something of a nice romantic extra that complicates things a bit, and gives AJ a reason to keep pushing through the difficulties of the past.

So I enjoyed it lots, and was happy to keep cheering for AJ, and am happy to recommend it!

And now a game of comparing my own opinions to those of the Kirkus reviewer....

Kirkus:  "The convoluted time-travel mystery has verve, but readers will encounter some bumps. AJ’s fondness for Dickens (he excelled at English if nothing else) prepares him somewhat for life in the early 19th century, though the ease with which the characters adapt to different centuries strains credibility. Too, many of the large cast of characters add nothing to the plot beyond a thicket of complications."

Hmm.  My credibility was not strained; I think that if you are desperate for a place to start over, the past is as good as anywhere.  I am, however, confused by the reference to the "large cast of characters."  I would not call it large and I was able to keep everyone I needed to keep straight in my head.  And seriously, this wasn't all that complicated a book!  Boy time travels.  Solves poisoner mystery with help of friends.  Meets some people in past and present. Worries about friends in past and makes sure they are settled.  Returns home with new girl friend.

Whatever.  I liked it.


This week's round-up of middle grade sci fi and fantasy from around the blogs!

Welcome to this week's round-up; please let me know if I missed your post.

First--the program for Kidlitcon 2017 (Hershey PA Nov 3 and 4) is now up!  There is lots of middle grade fantasy and sci fi goodness to be had!

Second--come join the Cybils Awards fun!  Reading elementary and middle grade fantasy and science fiction for the Cybils is a lovely way to spend your fall.....

The Reviews

Camp So-and-So by Mary McCoy, at Jean Little Library

The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, at Leaf's Reviews

The Creeping Shadow, by Jonathan Stroud, at Pages Unbound Reviews

The Crowfield Demon, by Pat Walsh, at Fantasy Literature

The Firefly Code, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, at That's Another Story

Guardians of the Gryphon's Claw, by Todd Calgi Gallicano, at Always in the Middle

The List, by Patricia Forde, at Laurisa White Reyes

The Lost Stories, by John Flanagan, at Leaf's Reviews

Monsterland, by James Crowley, at Say What?

Podkin One-Ear (Longburrow) by Kieran Larwood, at BooksForKidsBlog

A Properly Unhaunted Place, by William Alexander, at Say What?

Realm Breaker, by Laurie McKay, at Boys Rule Boys Read

Rules for Thieves, by Alexandra Ott, at Susan Uhlig

Tumble and Blue, by Cassie Beasley, at Proseandkahn

The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline Ogburn, at Charlotte's Library

Authors and Interviews

Cassie Beasley (Tumble and Blue) at the B. and N. Kids Blog

And a happy Labor Day weekend to you all!


The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline Ogburn

In The Unicorn in the Barn, by Jacqueline Ogburn (HMH Books for Young Readers, July 2017), the fantastical world of magical creatures meets a realistic story of family and loss in a story that is simple but  poignant and memorable.

11 year-old Eric Harper's family have owned their piece of wooded land for generations.  Now his grandfather is dead and his grandmother is in a nursing room, and their house has been sold.  But the Harper family still own the woods, a place where people over the years have reported seeing a strange white deer...And one day, Eric sees the "white deer" for himself, and realizes she is a unicorn.

She's an injured unicorn with a bad hoof, and Eric, entranced, follows her to his grandparents' old house, now transformed into a veterinary clinic.  It's not an ordinary clinic; the vet, assisted by her daughter, Allegra, treats magical creatures alongside ordinary ones.  The unicorn is expecting twin foals, and agrees to stay with the vet until her babies are born (she is able to make herself understood, though she doesn't directly speak with humans).  Eric, since he's already in on the magical secret, is hired to help out caring for her and other creatures, giving him a chance to spend time in the soothing magical presences of beautiful creature (and a chance to shovel manure....)

Allegra is Eric's age, and she is  snippy and unwelcoming.  As Eric proves himself a decent worker and caring person, who is trusted by the creatures, she thaws, and even helps him when he dreams of using the unicorn's healing powers to bring his beloved grandma home.  Obviously the unicorn can't visit the nursing home in person, but even her shed hairs have healing magic, and Eric's grandmother is given a reprieve from pain by the bracelets Allegra makes from them.  Allegra's hostility gives a nice touch of acerbity to a story that might otherwise be too sweet, and by the time she has become more friendly, the sweetness is giving way to sadness.

The story builds to an anticipated mix of loss and wonder, when Eric's grandmother dies and the baby unicorns are born.  The sadness Eric feels is profound, and can't be magically healed, but healing does come from his grandmother's last words to him, which link him to generations of his family who have cared for this piece of land and its magical creatures.

It's  a story that works very well, and I found myself liking it more than I thought I would, and I find myself now thinking even more highly of its pacing and structure.  It's obviously a very good choice to give to any reader who loves magical vet books, and it's one of my favorites of that sub-genre, because the main character and his arc don't get lost in the fur and feathers of the creatures.  This makes it one that's also good for readers who like books where magic pushes its way into ordinary life.  It's Jacqueline Ogburn's first middle grade book, and I look forward to seeing what she will write next.

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