Once Upon a Princess, by Christine Marciniak, review and interview

Today it's my pleasure to be a stop on the blog tour of Once Upon a Princess, by Christine Marciniak (CBAY Books, Middle Grade, April 1, 2018).

Her Royal Highness, Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Morh (Fritzi for short) is the 12-year-old younger daughter of the King and Queen of Colsteinburg, a tiny European principality, and life is good--in honor of her country's 800th anniversary, she's just attended her first ball.  But that night, there is a coup.  Anti-monarchists have taken over the government, and are storming the castle, and so Fritzi, her older sister the heir, and their mother, flee to the United States.  Her father stays behind, because to leave would be tantamount to abdication.  

The suburban American house loaned to them by a former US ambassador to Colsteinburg is a far cry from Fritzi's castle home, and the local middle school is likewise rather a change from her posh French boarding school.  No one can know she is a princess, but Fritzi is determined  never to forget, and so she finds herself taking on the queen bee girl and her followers.  The friendship dramas are of little importance, though, compared to her worry about her father and her country.  She decides to do her part to win back the hearts of her people through social media, recording short videos full of emotion and pride. Unfortunately, they are easily tracked, and the safe house is safe no longer.

And the anti-monarchists find them, and in the violent confrontation and kidnapping that ensues, Fritzi's pride and strength of character will be tested, and she will get the chance to show the world she is a true princess....

The princess having to become an ordinary girl is a fun anti-princess diary conceit, and Fritzi plays her part admirably.  Especially refreshing was her take on the school pecking order; she's oblivious to the nuances of navigating the existing hierarchy because she's so used to being, as a princess, at the top of it.  Though she's not the most introspective or sensitive 12 year old, she has an appealing toughness to her that give her enough umph to carry her story along well.   Princess-loving readers should enjoy this one lots!

and now, an interview with the author.

What was your favorite book as a child and what is the book you most frequently find yourself recommending to others?

I’d have to say one of my favorite books as a child was MANDY by Julie Andrews Edwards. It’s a charming book about an orphaned girl who finds a place for herself. When I first read it I did not realize that the author was the same woman who starred in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, As an adult I found the book again to re-read it, hoping it would stand the test of time, and it did. I found it as charming as I had when I was nine. Other books I read voraciously as a child were the Bobbsey Twin books. Those do not stand up quite as well to adult scrutiny.

What book do I frequently recommend to others? I have very eclectic reading tastes, so what I recommend is going to partly have to do with the interests of the person I’m talking to, and what I’ve recently read. For younger readers I would probably recommend The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards. I discovered that book when my daughter was young, and it quickly became one of her favorites. I think it is often overlooked when people discuss great books for children. For older readers I’ve found myself recommending Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fford and The Secret Ministry of Ag and Fish by Noreen Roils. Like I said, I have eclectic tastes.

(me:  I love both those Julie Andrews Edwards books too!)

What were the main challenges you faced with setting a present day princess story that included technology?

I think the main challenge for any present day story – princess or not – is that the ubiquitous use of cell phones ruins a lot of plot points. Lost? Look it up on your GPS. Running late? Call the person to let them know. Need someone to come to your rescue, you’ve got help right at your fingertips. Sometimes author’s solve that by letting the character lose their phone, or being out of cell service, or the battery dying. I decided to let Fritzi use the internet in a way that would complicate things for her, not solve all her problems. The biggest problem there is keeping up with what is the latest social media forum that tweens are using these days.

Where did the idea for Once Upon a Princess originally come from?

It seemed to me that it is a fairly common to see stories about someone who is leading a rather ordinary life and suddenly they either find out they are royalty or they marry into royalty and it turns their life upside down. I thought, what if someone was royalty, and then wasn’t – kind of turning the convention on its head.

Going off that question, what's the strangest thing you've ever had to research for a book?

Horse Diving. I was setting a book in Atlantic City during the twenties and discovered that one of the main attractions at the time was a horse diving show where a woman would ride a horse as it dove from a platform into a tank of water. I actually bought and read a book by the premier horse diver of the time. A Girl and Five Brave Horses by Sonora Carver. The title is a bit hokey, but the story was fascinating. Other things I’ve found myself researching have been undergarments of the 19th century, the lay out of a scallop boat, the occupation of Bruges during World War I and when toilet paper was invented.

Can you tell us what you're working on next?

This summer I have an adult romance coming out, Emily’s Song, which is a time travel romance set at the beginning of the Civil War. Works in progress include a middle grade book set in Atlantic City during the twenties and another adult romance, also set in the twenties in New Jersey.

Did you have a playlist of music you listened to when you wrote OUAP?

I really don’t. If I listened to music when I was writing it was most likely going to be Jazz or Classical, because lyrics tend to get in the way of my thought process (harder to write when singing along).

Thank you, Christine!  I'll look forward to reading your future middle grade books.


The Clay Lion, by Amalie Jahn, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Clay Lion, by Amalie Jahn (BermLord, YA, 2013) is set in a present day world that is ours but with a twist--time travel is possible, though carefully regulated.  Each person gets one trip back in time, but because of the way time travel works, they can only revisit a point in their own past life, and they are not supposed to change anything in their timeline.

Brooke was a senior in high school when her brother died of lung disease.  A bit over a year later, stuck in a fog of depression, she decides that she will use her time travel ticket to go back and save him by keeping him from whatever it was that triggered his immune system to go haywire.   It doesn't work, so she tries a second time, with her mother's trip.  That doesn't work either, so she gets a black-market trip for a third try....which also fails to save her brother.

But in the process of visiting her past and her brother's life, and death, Brooke comes to terms with the fact that some things just have to happen, and the only thing to do is make her own life something her brother would approve of.   She has in fact made changes to her life and the relationships she retouched that will help her, and her family, move forward instead of being trapped in their sadness.

One such relationship was with a cute boy, Charlie, who she loved and who loved her back in life number 2.  But this love was bent out of kilter by the time travelling, and she thought she could never get it back.  Though this was a loss, she gained immensely from having travelled back in time, and was able to shape a present for herself that wasn't overshadowed by depression...in a world, of course, where Charlie still existed, even if they hadn't in fact met yet....

It wasn't until about two thirds of the way through the book that I started actively enjoying it.  If I hadn't needed a book for Timeslip Tuesday, I would have put it down after Past Visit 1 for two reasons.  The first is that the author's prose is often stilted; she has a habit of filling Brooke's narration with latinate vocabulary that seemed unnatural and contrived to me, like using "departed" instead of "left."  The other thing that made feel uninvested in the story was that I never shared Brooke's obsession with saving her brother. Of course I sympathized and felt bad, but it ruled her life (except for her love affair in Visit 2) and made her pretty one dimensional.  However, once she started accepting that she couldn't be her brother's savior, I warmed to her and was interested to watch her began to heal from a death that hadn't even happened yet in the timeline of Visit 3.

And now I'm a bit surprised to find that that I want to read the next three books in the series, to see other folks from this story using their own time travel experiences.  Will Brooke's experiences of having almost made things even worse have taught them anything?  Probably not....

Nb: most other readers found this a beautiful tear-jerker, and loved it.  It didn't make me teary at all, even though I usually sob with the best of them...


The Stone Girl's Story, by Sarah Beth Durst

The Stone Girl's Story is Sarah Beth Durst's most recent middle grade fantasy (Clarion Books, April 3, 2018), and it's the one that I like best.  In order to say why I like it, I have to tell the whole plot, so if you like books I like, you could just read the next two paragraphs and the last two paragraphs and not have everything spoiled by the middle ones.  Or not.

It's the story of Mayka, a girl who has lived with her family of stone animals in the home up on a mountain her father made for them.  Her father was a master stone worker, carving into each creature glyphs that magically imbued the stone with the power to live, to fly (or swim, or run), and to love.  Mayka was his last work, and now her father is dead, she and her family have no one to refresh the carved marks that make them who they are.  Turtle has stopped moving, the stone fish no longer speak, and Mayka wonders who will be lost next....

Clearly a stonemason is needed.  So Mayka, who has never left home, sets off down the mountain to find one.  Accompanying her are two stone birds, one level headed, the other an imp of impulsive action.  And going with her as well are all the stories her father told her.

Down among flesh and blood people, Mayka learns that there were stories she'd never been told. The stories told by a small beautiful stone dragon who joins her and the two birds, about her life as a decoration with no purpose other than to be a possession. And darker stories of unscrupulous stonemasons who used their art for power and control, forcing stone creatures to obey their will.  And though since those days stonemasons have been themselves corralled and controlled, there is one man who wants to bring back that old power, in the name of progress and universal good.

But just because someone thinks they are doing what is right doesn't make it so.  Mayka is appalled to see marks of blind obedience carved onto stone creatures, cutting though the marks that tell their real stories.  And Mayka's own personal story, given to her by the glyphs her father her father carved on her, is that she is a person who can see stories and tell them....and so she begins to rewrite what they was done and carve stories of freedom.

I do so love stories about stories being reshaped and told and interpreted and lived!  In my mind this book is a parable about a girl who realizes that she herself is the master of her own life story, that she has the power to accept what her parents had to give her, and then shape her own story.  The fact that this point is made within the context of wonderful magic, beautifully described marvels of stone art, and flashes of humor from Mayka's companions makes it all the better.  The fact that her choices are made from a place of love and goodness of heart, and that one result is that she feels more secure in the knowledge her own father loved her, makes it more better still.

An excellent one for the elementary school reader who wants to read bigger books, as well as middle grade readers who aren't ready for full on gore or splashes of romantic love. Mayka is innocent and trusting (though much less naïve by the end of things), so the perfect reader is the kid who isn't a cynical smart aleck, but the one who is still a child themselves though they are in sixth grade. Some might find it a little slow to get going, but as the secrets of what is happening start unfolding, the tension builds nicely, and there's a climax of Adventure and Action, with destruction and violence, that only lasted long enough to be satisfactory with out being so long that I had to nervously read the end of the book to make sure things will be ok.  And with equal thought to my reading pleasure, the ending ties everything up very comfortably with lots of love.

So basically, I really really liked it.   And now I check Kirkus because it's fun to see if we are in agreement.....

and yes!  We have a winner!

Kirkus:  (starred review) "Thoughtful, colorful, strengthening, and understatedly tender."

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs (3/25/18)

Welcome to this week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and science fiction from around the blogs! Let me know if I missed your post.

The Reviews:

The Art of the Swap, by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone, at Charlotte's Library

Aru Shah and the End of Time, by Roshani Chokshi, at This Kid Reviews Books, Book Nut, Fantasy LiteratureMom Read It

Buttheads from Outer Space, by Jerry Mahoney, at Ms. Yingling Reads

Cat Between Two Worlds, by Lesley Renton, at Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers 

The Crowns of Croswald, by D.E. Night, at Log Cabin Library

Curse of the Ancients (Infinity Ring Book Four), by Matt de la Peña, at Time Travel Times Two

The Downward Spiral by Ridley Pearson, at This Kid Reviews Books

Fever Crumb, by Philip Reeve, at Proseandkahn

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing (Mo and Dale Mysteries #2), by Sheila Turnage, at The Story Sanctuary.

The House With Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens, by Paul North, at The Reading Nook Reviews

Marabel and the Book of Fate, by Tracy Barrett, at Cover2Cover

A Problematic Paradox, by Eliot Sappingfield, at Ms. Yingling Reads and  Say What?

The Problim Children, by Natalie Lloyd, at Mom Read It

The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta, at Charlotte's Library

Simon Thorne and the Shark's Cave, by Aimee Carter, at Say What?

The Stone Girl's Story, by Sarah Beth Durst, at Say What?

The Tale of Angelino Brown by David Almond, at Waking Brain Cells

Thornhill, by Pam Smy, at Strange and Random Happenstance

The Unicorn Quest, by Kamilla Benko, at Jean Little Library

A Witch Alone, by James Nichol, at Library Girl and Book Boy

Authors and Interviews

Roshani Chokshi (Aru Sha and the End of Time), at The Book Smugglers

Jonathan Rosen (From Sunset Till Sunrise), at Middle Grade Book Village

Other Good Stuff

Five classic scarry mg stories at the Barnes and Noble Kids Blog

A post at the Nerdy Book Club that's about mysteries, not fantasy, but still interesting and applicable--Writing Mysteries for Girls by Sheela Chari; likewise, The Fallacy of the Strong Female Character, at Erin Dionne

Check out the on-going Tolkien Extravaganza at Pages Unbound

Toys R Us, my father, The Black Cauldron, and re-reading--a story from my reading childhood, at Charlotte's Library


Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House, YA, Feb. 2018), is the third book about an almost Europe with dragons (Seraphina, 2012, and Shadow Scale, 2015 being the first two). It is my favorite of the series.

Tess has always known she was flawed and bad; her mother made sure of this.  But she didn't mean to be.  Her twin, Jeanne, is the good girl, and her older sister, Seraphina, is the one who was seemingly immune to societal pressures, who managed to escape the limitations of expectations.  Tess is bad, and almost brought scandal to the family when she got pregnant as a young teen (averted by sending her away to distant family).  When the book begins, Tessa and Jeanne, now 17, are handmaidens to a noble lady at the court (thanks to Seraphina's string pulling) and Jeanne has found the perfect rich and lordly husband.  With that out of the way, Tess begins to think of escape from a life she cannot stand, no matter how much she drinks.

And then Seraphina gives her a pair of boots, beautiful, glossy, perfect boots for the adventures little Tess had imagined as a child.  And with nothing to loose, almost despite herself Tess walks out the door.

The voices in head, both the criticisms of others, the harsh scriptures her mother hammered her with, and her own memories of guilt and grief, go with her.  But she keeps going, barely.

"Walking on now," Tess told Mama-in-her-head, kicking dirt on last night's ashes.  "I think I'll live one more day."

(aside--typing that quote I am struck by the lovely metaphor, because kicking dirt, in this case the physical work of walking, and later hard labor, on memory ashes is exactly what Tess is doing.)

Then she meets Pathka, the reptilian Quigutl whose life she saved as a child, and Pathka's quest to find a the giant serpents integral to Quigutl cosmology becomes her own, and Pathka's company and support give her further impetus to keep going, and other stories to play through her head.  (It's fun for the reader, too, to spend time with a Quigutl as a main character...they are fascinating!)

It's not a grand adventure, but the encounters along the road give Tess a chance to rethink and recast both her past decisions and the things that were no fault of her own.   It's not always easy to keep her thoughts company, but if you like being challenged to introspection about culpability, the shaming of girls, horrible parenting, and religious brainwashing (not a slamming of religion qua religion, but repressively sexist scripture is one tool Tess's mother has beaten her horribly with),  it is totally worth it, and in the end, Tess does not have to question if she will keep going.  And as Tess and Pathka get closer to the great serpent of Pathka's dreaming, the canvas expands to let the numinous in, and compassion in, and the possibility that Tess's own dreams of discovery and adventure will come true.

Tess's backstory is told in flashbacks, continuing right to the end, as she faces her worst memories.  One of those memories is rape, a part of her story she is finally able to revisit when she finds a beautifully sex-positive relationship with one of Seraphina's old friends, who does not shame her, manipulate her, or hold her back from following her own path.

If you are looking for Dragons!  Excitement! Magic!  and the stereotypical kick-ass heroine, look elsewhere.   But if you want a thought-provoking, empowering, bittersweet story that will stick with you and leave you wanting the next book very badly that's filled with enough of the strange and fantastical to add considerable wonder,  I recommend this one lots.  Also if you are a fan of Seraphina, who's not a central character but who shows up quite a bit, you'll be interested in what she looks like to her little sister

Kirkus and I are in agreement:  "Like Tess’ journey, surprising, rewarding, and enlightening, both a fantasy adventure and a meta discourse on consent, shame, and female empowerment."


Toys R Us, my father, The Black Cauldron, and re-reading--a story from my reading childhood

When we were living overseas (my father was in the Foreign Service), every summer my sisters and I were taken to stay with our grandparents in Arlington, Va.  My mother came for a bit too, but most summers my father stayed at work.  A treat every year was a visit to Toys R Us, but I don't really remember the particulars, except for one special visit.*  My father was there for a bit the summer I was ten, and on a whim he took me (I think just me) there, and said he would buy me a book.  It is the only time I remember him ever buying me a book (he wasn't especially interested in taking us shopping, nor was he especially interested in doing things that didn't interest him), so it was a Special Thing.  I stood in front of all the richness on display in the back right corner of the Bailey's Crossroads Toys R Us, and couldn't choose.  Growing impatient, he plucked one from the shelf, and I acquiesced, not wanting him to be annoyed.  The book was The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander, and I found the cover unappealing (I still do).  I bet the oddness of it was what attracted my father.

That afternoon, during the time slot when my sisters and I were all told to stay quietly in our rooms to rest (I had an old fashioned childhood), I began to read.  I'm the one in the top bunk.  The Black Cauldron starts with a huge number of characters all gathering together to start an adventure, and I had no clue who any of them were, and I was confused and dubious.  But I kept going, journeying with Taran and co. through the marshes and on to the horror and tragedy of the ending....and my mind was set on fire.  It was unlike anything I'd ever read.

Of course I then hungered for the other books in the series, and they came my way eventually.  But because I wanted them and knew they existed, they weren't as special.  Though The Black Cauldron ended up being only my third favorite (after Taran Wanderer and The High King), the power of that reading experience was unrivaled.  I can still watch the book unfold in my mind's eye, and feel again the emotions each part of it called out of me.  And because the book made such an impact, the memory of my father taking the time to buy it for me (probably he just wanted a reason to get out of the house, but one takes what one gets) is still crystal clear as well.

And that's one of the joys of re-reading- not only do you get the story again, but you get to revisit the self you were when you first read the book.  Because the grown-ups never bought me nearly as many books as I would have liked, I can remember almost all the book gifts of my childhood, and each takes me back to a particular part of my life, with a palimpsest of memories overlaying the actual story.  I'm awfully glad to have all the many books I have now, but when they aren't miracles, coming unexpected and unasked for, with unappealing covers by authors you've never heard of, and which then turn out to be brilliant, it's not quite the same.

So I'm very grateful to Toys R Us for stocking books, and to my father for taking me to buy one, and to my grandmother who insisted on the rest period after lunch, and of course to Lloyd Alexander and all the other authors who all combined to make that a lovely summer.  My grandparents house was sold and demolished, and now the store is gone too, and I feel a little sad about that. 

My first copy of The Black Cauldron must have been read to death, because I now have a modern paperback, but I still have my old copies of the other four. I don't remember the particulars of getting them, because I think I had read library copies, so getting my own copies wasn't as memorable.  It's interesting to see that I got them all at different times, and that there was a period of tremendous book inflation in the late 1970s that clearly shows the order in which I got them.  They are all Dell Yearlings.  The Book of Three was 1.25, The High King was 1.50, Taran Wanderer was 1.75, and then there's a big jump to 3.25 for The Castle of Llyr.

This June, the last summer of being able to plan my older son's life (he goes to college this fall) we are going to Wales, which I have always wanted to visit since reading the books, and so I should probably re-read them all again.....

*This is not actually true.  Thinking it over, I also remember the specific little Beyer horses I got on multiple occasions, in particular Native Dancer, a beautiful grey one (the little horse section was about three rows in from the left hand wall of the store).  We would scrunch up a particular area rug in the living room to make an island with caves for all our little horses, and it was a lovely game....inspired by other books I was reading at the time, all of the Black Stallion series and all of Marguerite Henry....all of which I still have even though goodness knows if I will ever want to re-read all the Black Stallion books ever again.


Two fun new upper elementary fantasies by Vivian French

Two fun new upper elementary fantasies by Vivian French are now available here in the US! UK author Vivian French has written many enjoyable books for kids 8-10, and she really deserves to be better known here in the states.  The Adventures of Alfie Onion and The Cherry Pie Princess (both from Kane Miller) are top notch fantasies that are satisfyingly rich in plot and detail, but not so long as to intimidate elementary school readers who aren't ready for Harry Potter.

The Adventures of Alfie Onion

Alfie Onion's mum wanted a fairy tale ever after, but since there was no handy prince to marry, she settled for a seventh son, thinking her own seventh son was sure to be a hero and win wealth enough to keep her in style!  So she pinned all her hopes on her seventh son, Magnifico, and son number eight, little Alfie, got short shrift.  And when Magnifico, spoiled and lumpish, turns 14, his mother sends him off to find his fortune.  Alfie gets sent along too, to carry the luggage.

Magnifico is ill-equipped, both by temperament and physique, to be a hero.  It's a good thing that Alife is along to save the day and defeat the ogres outside the castle holding the enchanted princess!  And it's a good thing for Alfie that he has the help of a bevy of talking animals--a horse, two mice and two magpies, and the help as well from the trolls the ogres have been oppressing, and even from the ogre daughter, who is sick of the abuse her dad and brother have been inflicting on her.

The reader knows right away that Alfie's the hero, and it's a treat to follow along on his adventures, cheering for him and wondering just how pathetic Magnifico is going to be next.

The Cherry Pie Princess

Peony is the youngest of seven princesses, and unlike her sisters, she doesn't find being a princess particularly satisfying.  She wants to do things, like bake (cherry pies are her specialty) and check out books from the town's library, that are forbidden.  When she borrows a cookbook from the library, the king has the librarian arrested for "speaking out of turn."  And when she speaks up to her father about this, she herself lands in the castle prison, a place she never knew existed.

In the meantime, her baby brother's christening is approaching; three good fairies have been invited, and one bad one has not.  With the help of her fellow prisoners, Peony escapes, just in time to foil the bad fairy's enchantments with the help of a talking cat, and her father has a change of heart about her activities...only partly  because she bakes such delicious cherry pies!

It's a pleasant book, good for kids who enjoy baking in particular.  The king is perhaps a bit too much of a jerk for his change of heart to be believable, but Peony is a great heroine with enough integrity and strength of will to make up for her father!

It's a testament to Vivian French's way with words that I enjoyed reading these myself, in a quick, lighthearted way, and the target audience should be even more pleased.  There's nothing too scary for an even younger reader than 8....I would happily give them to my 7 year old ex-self!

disclaimer: review copies received from the publisher


The Art of the Swap, by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Art of the Swap, by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone (Aladdin, Feb 2018), is equal parts time travel story, art heist and concomitant mystery to be solved, a visit to Gilded Age Newport, with a touch of a feminist message. It was a fun read.

Hannah's the daughter of the caretaker of one of Newport's many mansions (the Elms, which is a nice one!).  Having grown up amongst the antiques and opulence, she has a somewhat proprietary interest in the bygone inhabitants of the mansion, particularly Maggie Dunlap.  Maggie was another 12 year old who lived briefly at the Elms, and her portrait has made her real to Hannah.  But the painting is just a reproduction of the original painted by Mary Cassatt, which was stolen the day it was to be unveiled in 1905.

And then one day the portrait becomes a portal through which the two girls swap places in time.  Hannah, back in the past just a few days before the heist will occur, is determined to stop it, and Maggie is willing to give her a bit of time to do so.  But Maggie is tremendously ill-equipped to cope with the sweaty life of a modern girl (will Hannah ever be allowed to play on her soccer team again?) and Hannah is tremendously ill-suited to the role of proper young lady.

Using the portrait portal to communicate, the girls work together to save the painting...but first Hannah must figure out who did it, set up a plan to keep it safe for the future, and keep the young servant boy accused of the crime out of danger.  The clock is ticking--in our time, Hannah's father has planned a trip that will keep the girls from swapping back for weeks...and neither is doing a good job leading the other's life!

And this is the part that made it a bit hard for me to truly enjoy the book.  Neither puts particular effort into adopting the idioms and manners of their new time, though Maggie gets more points for this than Hannah.  This surprised me, because Hannah is supposed to be gung ho about the past of her home; she should have been a better impersonator! But she never gets any better.

But I did very much enjoy the experience each girl had of seeing their familiar home changed- this was really magical.  Plus the relationship between the two girls is solid though fleeting, and the lessons that they learn in each other's times (social history for Hannah and feminism for Maggie) are both valuable and believable, and the opulence of the Elms, both past and present, is very nicely made real.  And I think young readers are more likely than me to find the problems each experienced in the other's time funny!

So give this to a young reader who likes to daydream about fancy balls of the past while getting ready for soccer practice!

And if you come to Kidlitcon 2019 (next March in Providence RI) I can help you get down to Newport if you want to see the Elms for yourself!


The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta

The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta (Scholastic, Feb. 2018), is a wild ride through a fantasy world full of demons, snakes, moon magic, flying horses, and a baby star nursery presided over by Albert Einstein (yep!).  It's starts in fine swinging style.  It's Kiranmala's 12th birthday, and Halloween in Parsippany, New Jersey is about to get underway....and everything seems ordinary. But Kiran's parents have vanished when she gets home from school, leaving a cryptic note, and a demon invades her home, trashing the place and trying to eat her alive.  The timely arrival of two crush worthy boys on winged horses helps her escape the demon, and take her off with them...and that's just the beginning of her problems.

Turns out, all times Kiran's parents told her she was an Indian princess, and all the fantastical stories they told, had a lot of truth in them.  Whisked away to another dimension, full of magic and wonders (and demons) by the two princes, Kiran is determined to keep her focus on finding her demon-kidnapped parents.  And when the nicer of the two princes gets trapped in a spell, he has to be saved as well.

So Kiran is left with Neel (the grouchier prince, who has a complicated family backstory of his own) to go with her on a journey to the impossible place her parents are trapped, guided by riddles and a map of lands that randomly move from place to place.   Dangers and unexpected helpers await, and to her surprise, Kiran finds herself become friends with Neel....

Kiran is a great character who wants to be competent and not need rescuing, and she's well on her way to being that person, but she is (totally understandably, being only just turned 12) a bit out of her depth in this magical dimension in which she has found herself.  The bravest thing she does, in all sincerity, is to keep her head when confronted with the impossible.  The hardest thing she has to do, also in all sincerity, is not to scream in frustration at Neel, who is really not an open, helpful explainer of what the heck has happened (I'm sore at Neel, for blaming Kiran for something that isn't her fault, and I would have screamed at him like crazy if I'd been there....).

The adventures are exciting, without being overplayed, and the strange-nesses, likewise, are not so over emphasized and overwrought that they become tedious.  There are funny elements (funnier if you think demon snot is amusing, which I don't...), disturbing elements involving way too many snakes, and bits that make you think about quantum physics.  Plus winged horses whose voices Kiran can hear, that will delight young magical animal fans.  So something for everyone!

The Author's Note at the end explains how the story is based on the traditional folktales of West Bengal, India, that the author learned from her own family.  Reading this made me mentally add a certain gravitas to my impression of the book, as it is not just a fun story but an own-voices one that is new to the table of American middle grade fantasy.  I look forward to Kiran's next adventure!

Here's the Kirkus review, which hits many of the same notes....


This week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (3/18/18)

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

The Reviews

Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? by Kelly Jones, at The Reading Nook Reviews

The Book of Bad Things, by Dan Poblocki, at Dark Fairie Tales

Buttheads from Outer Space, by Jerry Mahoney, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo, by Stephen Bramucci, at Semicolon

Embers of Destruction (Mysteries of Cove, Book 3) by J. Scott Savage, at Hidden in Pages

Frogkisser, by Garth Nix, at You Book Me All Night Long

The Ghost of Thomas Kemp, by Penelope Lively, at The Emerald City Book Review

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, at The Secret Files of Fairday Morrow and as an audiobook at Hidden In Pages

Harriet the Invincible, by Ursula Vernon, at Geo Librarian

Krikkit's Shoes, by Jessie L. Best, at Red Headed Booklover Blog

The Lost Rainforest: Mez’s Magic, by Eliot Schrefer, at Mom Read It

The Marvelwood Magicians, by Diane Zahler, at alibrarymama

The Misadventure of Bolingbroke Manor by Ellie Firestone, at LILbooKLovers

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, at Leaf's Reviews

The Nothing to See Here Hotel, by Steven Butler, at Alittlebutalot

Ranger in Time: D-Day: Battle on the Beach by Kate Messner, at The Children's War

Space Runners: The Moon Platoon, by Jeramey Kraatz, at Charlotte's Library

The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner, at Pages Unbound

Switched, by Jen Calonita, at Cracking the Cover

The Thrifty Guide to the American Revolution by Jonathan Stokes, at Redeemed Reader

The Train of Lost Things, by Ammi-Joan Paquette, at Nerdy Book Club

Watchdog, by Will McIntosh, at alibrarymama

Wizard for Hire, by Obert Skye, at The Readathon

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads:  A Bad Night for Bullies, by Gary Ghislain, and Skeleton Tree, by Kim Ventrella

Two at Boys Rule Boys Read:  Guardians of the Grypon's Claw, by Todd Calgi Gallicano, and The Winged Girl of Knossos, by Erick Berry

Authors and Interviews

Liz Kessler (Emily Windsnap) at B and N Kids Blog

Stephanie Burgis (The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart) at The Cybils

Zetta Elliott (Dragons in a Bag) at Elizabeth Dulemba

Other Good Stuff

Have you been checking out the facebook posts of KidlitWomen?  Lots interesting and motivating reading.

Rhianna Pratchett talks about her Moomin infused childhood at The Guardian

And do you  know that the next KidLitCon will be in Providence RI in March of 2019?  Check out the fantastic list of folks who are already planning to come!


Monsters Beware! by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado

Monsters Beware! is the third book of the Chronicles of Claudette, written by Jorge Aguirre and illustrated by Rafael Rosado, with John Novak. This is a great graphic novel series for elementary and middle grade kids that will delight all young adventurers, and this third installment keeps the fun and excitement going very nicely indeed.

Claudette's home town is playing host to the Warrior Games, in which three children from each participating kingdom compete to slay monsters.  Claudette, being Claudette, wants desperately for the chance to slay, and manipulates the other kids so that's she's chosen, along with her little brother, Gaston, and best friend, Marie. But Marie's father, the lord of the town, doesn't want anything bad to happen to her, so instead of monsters, the competitions feature domestic and agrarian tasks!  When the trio of kids start to win competition after competition, with other kids mysteriously disappearing during each event, Claudette throws off her disappointment viz lack of monsters to through herself fiercely into the fray of truffle hunting, plowing, etc.

But there actually are monsters--the Sea Kingdom kids are not what they seem to be, and they want more than just victory in the Games.  When their monstrous true nature is finally revealed for all to see (though the reader, Maria and Gaston realized this much earlier in the story), Claudette finally gets to attack.  But though her sword work is fierce, it's Gaston's magical cooking skills and Marie's ability to stall through polite small talk that really save the day!

And the ending is happier than readers could have guessed.

It is tremendously fun, and funny, and this third volume only reaffirms my opinion that the series is one that belongs on the shelves of every young fantasy fan.  The pictures are bright and vibrant and easy to understand, helping moving the story along in beautiful synchronicity with the words (I'm not the best graphic novel reader because I tend to focus on words, and so I appreciate books like this where I can absorb the picture information at the same time).

Here's are my review of the first book--Giants Beware!

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


Space Runners: The Moon Platoon, by Jeramey Kraatz

Though I do my darndest to read All the Books (specifically, all the middle grade science and fantasy books), sometimes I miss them when they come out, and then the sequel appears and I must play catch-up.  That's the case with Space Runners: The Moon Platoon, by Jeramey Kraatz, that came out in May 2017 (HarperCollins) whose sequel, Dark Side of the Moon, came out last month...and since I enjoyed Kraatz's earlier Cloak Society series, and since there's so little exoplanetary mg sci fi that each new series is exciting, I pushed Moon Platoon up on my reading list....and had a nice afternoon of excitement on the moon as my reward!

Benny Love has spent his twelve years in the drylands that cover most of western North America fifty years or so in the future, years he's spent help his dad find food and water for their caravan, helping look after his little brothers, and always dreaming of a way out.  Now the way out has come--Benny has been chosen to go to the moon.  Elijah West, genius inventor and eccentric, has chosen him to be one of 100 scholarship kids who will go spend two weeks at the Lunar Taj, his  luxury resort playground on the moon.  Benny and the other kids, who come from all around the globe, are thrilled at the chance to pilot Space Runners, tinker with cool technology, and compete to earn West's favor (and maybe get to stay on the moon and work for him).

But almost immediately there are signs (not very subtle ones; mechanical exploding asteroids are not subtle) that something is very wrong on the moon.  Benny and the kids in his new cohort soon find themselves breaking rule after rule to find out what's really happening. And then, once they do, it's up to them to do something about it, because there's no-one on earth who can save the day.

If you are a reader who thinks drag-racing in space sounds awesome, you are the perfect reader for this book.  If you are a reader who enjoys cool technology and a mystery plot, with kids saving the day in the end, you are an excellent reader for it.  If you enjoy sci fi mysteries with a lot of page time spent on kids in a boarding school-like situation, where friendship formation is as important as the technology to both saving the world and moving the plot along, you are a very good reader for it.  This would be me.


Though I enjoyed it as light entertainment, and very much wanted to see what was going to happen, it wasn't as emotionally powerful as I like my fraught adventures to be.  Benny is just too darn good to be true.  In fairness, his nobility is what got him the scholarship, but still.  He is an angel teen, very likeable and sympathetic, but a bit much, and so the reader is being more told to feel certain emotions in response to him rather than be overcome from behind by them (as it were).  The supporting kids were less angelic, but not desperately nuanced either. So if you demand fully-three dimensional characters who are more than their primary attribute (coder girl, jock girl, bratty rich boy sort of thing), you won't love this one.  The author adds some character depth with backstory, but backstory can only take you so far.  

So it is best to simply power up your space runner and go along for the ride....and since I still want to know what happens next (and since the second book has gotten more favorable reviews ) the best part of having taken a while to get to this one is that I can add the sequel to my library holds list right away!


this week's round-up of middle grade fantasy and sci fi from around the blogs (3/11/18)

Welcome to this week's sprung forward edition of what I found in my weekly blog reading of interest to us middle grade sci fi/fantasy fans!

The Reviews

Aru Shah and the End of Time, by Roshani Chokshi, at Hopeful Reads

Beast and Crown, by Joel Ross, at alibrarymama

Dominion, by Shane Arbuthnott, at alibrarymama

Dragon's Future by Kandi Wyatt, at Cover2CoverBlog (audiobook review)

Emily Windsnap and the Falls of Forgotten Island, by Liz Kessler, at Read Till Dawn

Frederik Sandwich and the Earthquake that Couldn't Possibly Be, by Kevin John Scott, at The Write Path

Granted, by John David Anderson, at Maria's Melange and  Log Cabin Library

The Ice Sea Pirates, by Frida Nilsson, at Semicolon

Intergalactic P.S. 3, by Madeleine L'Engle, at Charlotte's Library

The List, by Patricia Forde, at Semicolon

The Lost Frost Girl, by Amy Wilson, at This Kid Reviews Books

Love Sugar Magic-a Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano, at Mom Read It

Nightfall, by Shannon Messenger, at Pages Unbound Reviews

The Oceans Between Stars, by Kevin Emerson, at Charlotte's Library

The Problim Children by Natalie Lloyd, at Puss Reboots

Rebel Genius, by Michael DiMartino, at alibrarymama

The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta, at Rajiv's Reviews

Sisters of Glass, by Naomi Cyprus, at This Kid Reviews Books

The Spinner Prince (Pride Wars), by Matt Laney, at Books for Kids

Terra Nova, by Shane Arbuthnott, at Sci Fi and Scary

The Twistrose Key, by Tone Almhjell, at Hidden in Pages

The Zanna Functin, by Daniel Wheatley, at A Dance With Books

Three at Ms. Yingling Reads--The World Below, by Wesley King, The Serpent's Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta, and Leia, Princess of Alderan, by Claudia Gray

Authors and Interviews

Vashti Hardy (Brightstorm), at Minerva Reads

Diane Magras (The Mad Wolf's Daughter) at B. and N. Kids Blog

Amy Wilson (A Far Away Magic) at Stephanie Burgis

Other Good Stuff

This year's winner of the Blue Peter Award, given by the UK's Book Trust, is The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell

Lots of Wrinkle in Time stuff out there; here's one I liked at Tor--How Could I Forget the Liberating Weirdness of Madeleine L’Engle? and here's a list of books for Wrinkle in Time fans to read next that I made for B and N Kids Blog

And though not quite seasonally appropriate here in the north-east, the homemade ice-cream books at Playing by the Book are utterly charming!

and finally, Kidlitcon 2019 will be next March, in Providence RI, hosted by me and Mia Wenjen of Pragmatic Mom! I hope you can come talk children's books and make new friends with us!


Intergalactic P.S. 3, by Madeleine L'Engle

When I heard there was a new book published in the Wrinkle In Time series, I was thrilled.  But then I discovered that Intergalactic P.S. 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb. 2018, 112 pages) was just the starter point for what would become the second book in the series, A Wind in the Door.  L'Engle published it for Children's Book Week in 1970, and it's more a long short story than a full book.  L'Engle tells, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, that she struggled with the plot of A Wind in the Door, with the characters coming clear to her mind but the story being more troublesome.  Intergalactic P.S. 3 was an early stab at the story, and so it doesn't fill in an actual gap in the series, but simply is an alternate version of what "really" happened.

Charles Wallace is about to start school, and he and his family are convinced it is going to be a disaster, because the stereotypical small town mentality where they live is going to make it impossible for a little genius like C.W. to survive without getting beaten up.  The conversation is a lot more direct than it is in a Wind in the Door, and I couldn't help but feel that his parents were setting C.W. up for failure without actually doing anything useful, like trying to talk to his teachers, or possibly moving so he could have a fresh start without negative preconceptions shadowing him.  Meg is determined to save her brother from the hell of public school kindergarten, and so with the power of will and wishing she summons the three Mrs. W, who whisk C.W., Meg, and Calvin off to school on another planet.  

There they are each paired with an alien child, and although Calvin's dolphin-headed partner didn't make it into the final version (no great loss), Progo the cherubim and Sporos, not yet a mitochondrian, are paired with the others, and Meg has to undergo her "which is the real Mr. Jenkins" test.

When I read a Wind in the Door at the age of nine, the Mr. Jenkins test blew my mind.  The story of Calvin's shoes, especially the pathos of Mr. Jenkins trying to make the new ones look a bit used, so as to spare Calvin's feelings, had a huge impact on me (and maybe even made me a better person....at any rate I spent considerable waiting to fall asleep time trying to love the principal of my own school, with little success but perhaps it was good for me).  So reading a much-less developed version of the story did nothing for me.

Basically this book isn't a thrilling expansion of the known universe of A Wrinkle In Time, but simply a look at how the final story of A Wind in the Door developed.  Not without interest to fans, but not exactly a treat.  If, on the other hand, there are young kids today who want to read "the next book" but are not ready to independently read A Wind in the Door, this would be just fine--it's a lot shorter and easier to read, and has friendly illustrations by Hope Larson (who did the graphic novel version of Wrinkle).

What I'm really left with is the desire to re-read Wind in the Door, and a horrible feeling that I don't know where I shelved it...and the old feeling of "those eyes are really scary."
(this isn't my copy, but mine is the same edition in about the same state...I re-read it a lot.)

Kidlitcon 2019-Providence!

Kidlitcon is coming to Providence RI March 22 and 23 2019!  We'll be the Hotel Providence, right in beautiful, quirky downtown, and we hope you can join us!  Here's our website, with all the information to date.

Kidlitcon is an annual (more or less) gathering of children's and YA book folk (authors, illustrators, reviewers, librarians, gatekeepers, parents, publishers and more), and we can promise two days full of great discussions and great friendships, with two keynote speakers and concurrent panels on a wide variety of book topics!  There will also be food and drink and swag.  The Kidlitcon organizers for 2019 are Mia Wenjen and me, and we are determined to make this the best Kidlitcon ever (which is a high bar).

Since we're still a bit more than a year out, registration isn't open yet, but you can start planning to come now!  We welcome ideas for panels and expressions of interest (there's a poll at the website, to give us a sense of what people are most interested in talking about), and we've also started looking for sponsorships so that we can keep registration costs down and still break even.

Here are some sponsorship opportunities:

As soon as we have ticketing set up, you can select Sponsorship from the list of options. Any amount over $50 will get you a side bar listing on our website, a post on our facebook page, inclusion in the program and on signage at the conference, recognition from the podium, and will be part of a coordinated social media blast to the c. 300,000 folks reached by our team!

 The following special options are also available.

 Food and beverage sponsorships:  

 These sponsorships will give you the listing and outreach above, plus an easel in the food and beverage room displaying an advertisement/promotional image of your choice (that fits on a standard conference easel) on display both days of the conference.
·            Breakfast $250 (two available)

·           Morning coffee and tea. ​$200 (two available)

·           Afternoon snack: $250 (two available)      

·           Lunch: $500 (two available)

·           Friday Evening reception sponsorship $150 (four available)       

·                Snack: $300 (two available)
Audio Visual sponsorship

Sponsor the AV needs of one of our meeting rooms!  As well as the listing and outreach above, you can send us an image to use as the screen saver/default page of one of the projectors, and each session in that room will begin with a thank you image and acknowledgement from the podium.

AV sponsorship: $225 (three available)


Your ad placed in the program given out to attendees. Attendees actually look at and keep our program.

Quarter Page                       $50
Half Page                            $100
Full Page                             $200

Easel Display

Your promotional image/advertisement displayed on an easel in the registration/food and beverage area! Kidlitcon attendees love to look at book pictures and book news, so this is a great way for publishers to showcase forthcoming titles, or if you're an author, it's a great way to spotlight your newest book (you can share your spot with other authors too, to save money!).  Limited to 6, we can print your image for you at cost or you can mail it to us.

One day  $50
Both days $75

If you are interested in coming, presenting, sponsoring, or all of the above, please shoot me an email-charlotteslibrary@gmail.com. Thanks!

And keep an eye on the website for more information as we get closer to the date!


The Oceans Between Stars, by Kevin Emerson, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Oceans Between Stars, by Kevin Emerson (Walden, middle grade, Feb 2017), is the sequel to Last Day on Mars, an action-packed story of the sun going supernova as two kids, Liam and Phoebe, find themselves scrambling against sabotage and disaster to get themselves and their parents off Mars before it is toast.  This is what happens to them out in space, as they try to rendezvous with the rest of humanity, hoping their little space yacht and the robot piloting it will get them to safety.  Both sets of parents are badly injured, and must stay in stasis, so there's no help from them.  Space is cold and vast and lonely when you aren't sure if you'll ever have a home, and there's the looming fear that whoever the aliens are who are setting suns on supernova fire are going to keep up their nasty work, and no where will be safe.

There's enough plot in just that part of the story for a whole book.  But wait, there's more.

This is not a spoiler because it's how the book starts.

It turns out that the planet chosen for humanity's new home already had sentient beings on it, and all but a few were killed when humanity sent a cleansing inferno down to wipe all life from its surface so that humanity could have a clean slate.  They might not have known for sure what they were doing, but quite possibly suspected....and the 238 survivors want their planet back, and have no pity to spare for humanity's need for a new home.

That's a lot of plot too.  But there's still more.

Phoebe has been keeping a secret.  A terrible one.  She's been secretly leaving stasis to alter the course of their little spacecraft so that it won't reach the rendezvous point when it's supposed to.  Is she still Liam's friend? Her parents' daughter?  Readers of the first book know that she is one of the survivors of the blasted planet, but Liam doesn't, and when he finds out there is great emotional tension and powerful considerations of friendship and loyalty.

And on top of that, you also get time slipping with alien technology! 

[apologies for the next paragraph.  I didn't really understand what was happening with regard to the time travel, and had a choice--I could slow down, and carefully try to make sense of things, or simply keep turning the pages to see what happened next.  I chose the later.  I always choose the later.]

Back on Mars, Liam found an alien corpse, and took from it a device that messes with time, showing him the future or the past, and himself and others doing things in both that have a huge impact on the choices he makes.  He doesn't actually travel through time in a standard boy going to another time way; it's more like time is traveling weirdly around him, or he's traveling within time, or something.  When he encounters the alien whose device it was in a past pocket of time, they try to explain...and neither Liam or I really understood.  But both of us continued on with the story, trusting that events would unravel into some sort of temporal coherence.  Which they did, to a point, although that point involved an increase in the travelling part of the time slipping....and no answers to anything......

So we must wait for the third book....which will involve reading books 1 and 2 again just before it comes out, so that everything makes more sense in my mind.  Good thing the books are worth it!

Kirkus nails it on this one-- "Thrills, violence, time/space questions, and some contemplation about colonization make for action on the thoughtful side"  (To which I will add that this is the sort of book that makes me realize again how much easier it is for me to enjoy middle grade books, with kids as the central protagonists, than it is for me to enjoy YA books these days...there's a clarity of focus to middle grade (or something) that just holds my interest more).


This week's round up of middle grade fantasy and sci from from around the blogs (3/4/18)

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

The Reviews

Aru Shah and the End of Time, by Roshani Chokshi, at Abby the Librarian

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy, at Minerva Reads and  Playing by the Book

Children of Exile, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, at Geo Librarian

A Dash of Trouble (Love Sugar Magic) by Anna Meriano, at Puss Reboots

Elementals: Ice Wolves (Book 1) by Amie Kaufman, at Readings

Flower Moon, by Gina Linko, at She's Going Book Crazy

Ghosts of Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, at Locus

Handbook for Dragon Slayers, and The Castle Behind Thorns, by Merrie Haskell, at Small Review

Harper and the Night Forest by Cerrie Burnell, at Say What?

Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, at Book Nut

Oddity, by Sarah Cannon, at Always in the Middle

The Problim Children, by Natalie Lloyd, at Children's Books Heal

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin, at Middle Grade Mafioso

The Serpent’s Secret (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1) by Sayantani DasGupta, at SLJ

Shadow Magic, by Joshua Kahn, at Susan Uhlig

Skeleton Tree, by Kim Ventrella, at Semicolon

Tin, by Padraig Kenny, at The Great British Bookworm

The Unicorn Quest, by Kamilla Benko, at Kidsreads

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, at Leaf's Reviews

Wizardmatch, by Lauren Magaziner, at Pages Unbound Reviews

Two at Time Travel Times Two: The Painting, by Charis Cotter, and Within a Painted Past, by Hazel Hutchins

Two set in Poland, at Semicolon:  The  Wolf Hour, by Sara Lewis Holmes, and The Dollmaker of Krakow, by R.M. Romero

Two at Ms. Yingling Reads:  The Wishmakers, by Tyler Whitesides, and The Boggart Fights Back, by Susan Cooper

Another two at Ms. Yingling Reads:  The Strange and Deadly Portraits of Bryony Gray, by E. Latimer, and Legends of the Lost Causes, by Brad McLelland, Brad and Louis Sylvester

Authors and Interviews

Sayantani DasGupta (The Serpent's Secret) at B and N Kids Blog

Linday Currie (The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street) at Melissa Roske

Other Good Stuff

An enticing list of new books coming out in the US in March at From the Mixed Up Files, and new books in the UK, at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books

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