Interstellar Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Robots

Here are two recent STEM-friendly sci-fi fairy tale retellings for young readers – one from the library and one my love found at our friendly local comic book store.

Interstellar CinderellaInterstellar Cinderella. By Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle Kids, 2015.
This picture book retelling features a red-haired, pre-teen Cinderella (at least, she looked pre-teen to me, though a Publisher’s Weekly article said she looked old enough to be proposed to?) who delights in repairing robots and dreams of someday “fixing fancy rocket” instead of zoombrooms. Rhyming text and swirly, retro acrylic art tell the story of how her mean stepfamily doesn’t want to let her come to the Royal Space Parade. She’s crushed, but her fairy godrobot saves the day by delivering a special space suit. When the brown-skinned prince is trapped in a burning space ship, Cinderella saves the day with her sonic socket wrench. The prince is smitten – but Cinderella says “I’m far too young for marriage” and asks for a job as his chief mechanic instead. Everything here is just right, including making Cinderella a more relatable age for kids and taking the focus off the dress and the marriage. In a fun, extra touch, the endpapers are filled with two different scenes of Cinderella’s tools, nicely labeled for reference: “megamag mallet”, “antimatter hammer”, “cosmicaliper” and so on. This is a great choice for preschoolers and early elementary-aged kids.

Snow White and the Seven RobotsSnow White and the Seven Robots. Far Out Fairy Tales. By Louise Simonson. Illustrated by Jimena Sanchez. Stone Arch Books, 2015.
This is a very short graphic novel – just 40 pages long– with the old-fashioned kind of diversity: Snow White is a pale-skinned girl who looks ordinary to Caucasians but who stands out on her blue-skinned planet of Techworld. She’s a princess, but her stepmother/regent genetically engineered her to fail in order to avoid turning over the throne. Here, the “huntsman” is boy only a little older than Snow who helps her when she’s forced to do garbage collection duty. When Snow is exiled to a small mining planet, the robot-fixing skills she learned from repairing garbage robots comes in very handy, and she soon has a loyal following. (Naturally, they are all intelligent robots with personalities.) Meanwhile, her friend back on the main planet infiltrates the palace to find out what the regent has done with Snow.

This is a longer retelling, and therefore good for slightly older kids. It took just two consecutive bedtimes to read it my daughter, who loved it. I have just two reservations about this book, which is part of a series of sci-fi retellings of familiar stories: first, that despite the diversity of the creators, there is no diversity of lead characters, and second, that the pages started falling out of the book on our first reading. Libraries wanting to purchase this should definitely pay for library binding, though this makes a super-affordable graphic novel more expensive than average. (We were lucky that my mother was able to rebind our copy for us.) And, OK, Snow White is a difficult tale in which to put a diverse heroine. Despite these reservations, this is a fun retelling of the story which my daughter was very excited about, reading it over several times to herself before and after I read it to her.

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A Spy in the House. The Agency Book 1

And back to British mysteries for teens with Asian protagonists – yes, that does seem oddly specific, but there we have it.  This is another one my interwebs people recommended to me, and it is lots of fun.

The Agency: A Spy in the HouseA Spy in the House. The Agency Book 1. By Y.S. Lee. Candlewick, 2009.
Mary was born in Victorian London with the last name of Lang. Her early story – you know, the typical orphaned, fell into a life of crime, was caught and sentenced to hang, only to be rescued by somebody working for a Mysterious Academy.  Fast forward several years, and our 17-year-old heroine, now using her Irish mother’s last name and going by Mary Quinn, is ready to learn the secrets of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.  She is assigned to work as a companion to Miss Angelica Thorold, and to spy on Mr. Thorold, who is suspected of smuggling Hindu artifacts. Things quickly get more complicated than she expects, as she finds herself hiding in the same closet in Mr. Thorold’s office as the handsome Mr. James Easton.  He’s also investigating Mr. Thorold, but for his own purposes.  How much can Mary trust him, and will forming the temporary alliance he suggests help or hurt her?  Mr. Thorold’s secretary Michael Gray, is also flirting with Mary and even less trustworthy.

Where Murder is Bad Manners is a school story told by girls old enough to notice the romance of others but not yet interested in them for their own sake, A Spy in the House takes things up an age level with a heroine just discovering independence and a taste of romance.  It has just the right level of twistiness of plot blended with Mary’s introspection on her role in life and the hidden passion. We wonder, along with Mary, will James ever get over himself to be worth caring for? This is the breathless intensity of first passion, mostly of the swoony and not actual physical activity variety.  I remember feeling like this myself as a teen, very seriously. As an adult, it comes across as hilarious, and I couldn’t tell which way Lee meant it. There’s some social awareness, as Mary lives with a higher class of people than she had previously but also learns more about the Chinese sailors, of whom her father was one.  I do want to read the rest of these books, even if I’ve had a bad case of new series start-itis this summer.

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Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickesn for the Exceptional Poultry FarmerUnusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones. Illustrated by Katie Kath. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Sophie is not really happy about her family’s move from LA to rural California, as she writes mostly in letters to her dead and much-missed Abuelita. It’s a shock moving from having lots of friends within walking distance, to having very few kids at all, and none of them with brown skin like hers. But deceased Uncle Jim, whose farm they have inherited, seems not to have gotten rid of anything. That’s a house, attic, barn and yard full of junk for a girl to explore. When chickens start appearing one by one, starting with the always-angry Henrietta, things get even more interesting. Sophie starts taking a correspondence course on how to take care of unusual chickens – and they are unusual. Sophie’s letters to the Unusual Chicken Farm come back as misspelled, typed letters. Sophie starts making friends, despite her initial discomfort, with the friendly African-American mail carrier who reminds her of her teacher back in LA, and with a white boy her age who at least lives within biking distance. But despite the friendliness of most of the people, there’s at least one person who doesn’t want Sophie to keep the chickens. Will Sophie be able to prove that the chickens are really hers???

You guys, this was so much fun! There were so many things I loved about this book. It certainly had the potential to be depressing, starting off with the dead grandma the way it does, but Sophie knows that Abuelita would want her to go on with her life and be happy, and so she does, with a book that is exciting and funny. I loved also that the closings of her letters are mostly in untranslated Spanish, without being written down for an Anglo audience. (I had to look up some of them where my year of high school Spanish failed me – but knowing how to look things up is a fine thing for kids to learn, too.) I loved the chickens, and her friends. I appreciated that even in rural California that feels so very white to Sophie, it’s still not all-white – besides the mail carrier, there’s an African-American business woman and a Spanish-speaking Filipina reporter. I appreciated the feel of a small town where a chicken show is the biggest social event going. But most of all, I loved Sophie, throwing herself so cheerfully and wholeheartedly into her new life. This is one where the supernatural touch is light enough that it won’t throw off people who have trouble figure out complicated fantasy cultures or magic systems, funny and heart-warming enough to appeal to a broad range of tastes and ages.

Pair this with The Secret Chicken Society for more silly chicken fun, or look at Stephanie’s post called A Tuesday Ten: Hispanic/Latino Speculative Fiction for Kids over at Views from the Tesseract for more stories with Hispanic heroes.

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Karen Memory

Have I mentioned I enjoy a good steampunk story?  Yes, once again my friendly neighborhood Book Smugglers turned me on to a good book.

Karen MemoryKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear. Tor, 2015.
Steampunk heads west in this ripping tale, told from the point of Karen Memery (yes, it is spelled differently in the book than on the cover), an orphaned teen turned “seamstress” in the high-quality Hotel Mon Cherie in Rapid City.  Karen’s ancestors are Irish and Swedish, but the Hotel is staffed by women from all over the globe, include the transgender Miss Francina.  Karen won’t put up with anyone being sorry for her – she knows her daddy wouldn’t have wanted this for her, but she’s got steady work with a good income and is saving to open her own stable.  What she does worry about are the girls from India and China who are lured over with the promise of good jobs only to be housed in shabby cribs and abused with no pay or prospect of release.  Continue reading

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Rose and the Silver Ghost

This is the final volume in the Rose series, the first of which was a Cybils finalist two years ago.

Rose and the Silver GhostRose and the Silver Ghost by Holly Webb. Sourcebooks Jaberwocky, 2015. Originally published in the UK by Orchard Books, 2011.
In this last book, Rose and Mr. Fountain are now home from Venice, bringing with them the elderly Miss Fell. Miss Fell is both encouraging and intimidating to Rose, as she has very high expectations for her and expects her to behave like the well-bred lady Rose is quite sure she isn’t and never will be. She has quite the identity crisis when Miss Fell insists that being a magician’s apprentice is quite enough work, and that Rose must stop her work as a maid. But then, Miss Fell’s special mirror turns out to be haunted by a ghost with knowledge of Rose’s mother… and suddenly, the Rose who’d given up on imagining a family for herself as a fairy tale would do anything to find out just who her parents are and what happened to them.

This is one of my most-recommended series of late, particularly to young fantasy readers who come in having already read all of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and (with a gulp on my part, in the case of an eight-year-old I recently helped), Hunger Games.  (I am also recommending Jinx and Kat, Incorrigible, among others, but they seem rarely on the shelves these days, which is a happy thing, really.) There’s plenty of action and suspense here – the characters don’t feel safe, but very few actually die – and good character development. This is just what I’m looking for in addictive middle grade fantasy series, and the book in particular is a satisfying end to the series.

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Murder is Bad Manners

I’m pretty sure that I first heard about this one from the Book Smugglers – Ana living in England could of course read this before me here in the U.S. Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Karen at Ms. Yingling Reads have reviewed it as well. It’s another older middle grade title that we keep in teen at my library.

Murder is Bad MannersMurder is Bad Manners: a Wells and Wong Mystery by Robin Stevens. Simon & Schuster, 2015. Originally published in the UK by Corgi as Murder Most Unladylike, 2014.
The year is 1935, the setting Deepdean, an English boarding school. Our narrator is Hazel Wong, fairly recently arrived from Hong Kong and still the only not white girl in the school. She is unlikely friends with the charismatic and popular Daisy, whom Hazel thinks of as “the perfect English Miss”. Only Hazel seems to notice the melancholy that hides under Daisy’s cheerful façade, and notices that Daisy hides her intelligence to know just the right amount of what’s being tested to pass. And Daisy’s acceptance of Hazel keeps her from being shut out of all social life at the school. Continue reading

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Castle Hangnail

I listed this as one of my favorite books of the year so far a couple of months ago now… so perhaps I should review it.

Castle HangnailCastle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon. Dial Books, 2015.
As our story opens, the minions of Castle Hangnail are preparing for the sad day in the near future when their castle will be magically decommissioned, the minions dispersed to other locations. They have been advertising for a new overlord for months, and no one has come. And then comes a kind-looking twelve-year-old girl with only fearsome boots to support her claim of being a wicked witch. The Frankenstein-like Majordomo isn’t necessarily convinced, but she has an invitation, and they are desperate, so she’s allowed to try. Molly isn’t letting on that she isn’t Eudaimonia, the Sorceress to whom the letter was originally addressed, and she’s willing to do what it takes for an evil castle of her own.

Soon, a list of tasks on magical stationary appears, including “1) Take possession of the castle and surrounding grounds 2) secure and defend the castle 3) Commit at least one (1) act of smiting and three (3) acts of blighting. 4) Win the hearts and minds of the townsfolk by any means necessary.” Slowly, Molly wins over the minions – a motley crew including the Majordomo; Sir Edward, an animated suit of armor; Serinissima, the djinni/mermaid steam maiden;Pins, the sewing burlap doll and his goldfish; and Cook and Angus, Minotaurs. She gets to know people both good and bad in the village, including Miss Handlebram, an elderly lady fond of gardening. Molly is just beginning to believe that she might be an OK Wicked Witch after, when someone else decides the castle might be worth having…

This is a winning combination of silly humor and exciting action with a surprising amount of heart. Molly may consider herself a Wicked Witch, but her version of wickedness consists mostly of letting people who’ve done wrong learn their lesson. Her journey to believing in herself, saving the Minions and the village on the way, is deeply satisfying. This is a little longer and more in-depth than Vernon’s Dragonbreath books – good for a slightly older audience, but still with Vernon’s own distinctive illustrations and with definite appeal for reluctant as well as avid readers.

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The Penderwicks in Spring

I’ve been reading the Penderwicks since the very beginning, so naturally I had to read their latest adventures.

penderwicksinspringThe Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall. Read by Susan Denaker. Random House, 2015
It’s been ten years since The Penderwicks first came out, so it’s not surprising that Batty, only four in the first book, has now gotten older.  In this book, she’s 11, and the focus of the narrative.  Rosalind is at college, Jane and Skye both in high school and filling the house with teenaged boys on the hunt for pretzels.  The family also includes stepbrother Ben, aged 7, and new little sister Lydia, aged two, and in a decided princess phase.  As the story opens, the Penderwicks are preparing to welcome neighbor (and Ben’s especial hero) Nick Geiger home from war.  While Batty is happy about this, she’s having a really rough time of things.  Hound has recently died, and though he was quite old, Batty blames herself for his death.  She misses Rosalind dreadfully, and even when she does come home, she brings a horribly snobbish boyfriend with her.  Old friend Jeffrey’s would-be romantic relationship with Skye is getting in the way of him guiding her passion for music as much as she’d like.  Will her dog-walking business (one overweight Dachshund, one crazy shar-pei) and her new-found singing ability be enough to make life feel right again?

This book felt much sadder to me than the other books.  Batty is really depressed for most of the book, and things were sad enough that I cried buckets of tears over the book.  I really wished that someone had noticed Batty’s guilt over Hound earlier!  And also that it wasn’t always left to Nick to be the perceptive one.  But even with this, it was delightful to spend time with the Penderwicks.  The interactions between people, the distinct personalities and humor are still there.  The walks in the woods, the silliness of dogs, the teens hiding behind the shrubbery and finding younger kids setting up battles with mismatched action figures already there, Batty’s “singing sprite” bursting out of her at inopportune moments – these are all pictures that linger in my mind, making this book fit as part of this quintessential modern take on the classic family series.

What are these classic family series I’m thinking of? Here are a few:
All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Anne of Ingleside and Rainbow Valley by L.M. Montgomery
Half Magic (and sequels) by Edward Eager
The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright
The Moffat books by Eleanor Estes

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Prairie Fire

This is the sequel to The Story of Owen, one of my favorites this year.  And I’m going to see if I can write a 10-minute review in the interests of catching up with my back reviews.

Warning: this will contain spoilers.  If you haven’t yet read The Story of Owen and don’t want to be spoiled, go do that before reading this.

Prairie FirePrairie Fire by E. K. Johnston. Carolrhoda Lab, 2015.
Siobhan McQuaid, our heroine from the last book, is back, graduated from high school.  She and Owen Thorskard have officially joined the Oil Watch, where all dragon slayers are required to serve before going off to any other careers.  Siobhan herself is an anomaly, serving as a bard when it’s been so long since there have been bards that no one knows anymore what a bard should do.  They’re not about to let her off on any of the physical military requirements, either, even though her hands are still barely functional after being so badly burned at the end of the first book.  And it’s clear that the military has not forgiven them for their actions – Owen’s girlfriend Courtney is assigned far away in an actually active zone, while Siobhan and Owen are assigned to the relatively boring and inglorious prairies.  There they meet other dragon slayer team leaders, from America and Japan, and learn the story of Lieutenant Porter, who took unforgiveable actions to save the people from the largest and most deadly of all dragons, the Chinook.  They also meet Peter, a First Nations member on base, who teaches them about their dragon-fighting traditions and music.

This is a wonderful continuation of the story.  Also devastating.  I think I’m still angry with Johnston, because of being so tied up with the characters.  You should go read it.

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Cybils Call for Judges

Cybils-Logo-2015-Web-LgIt’s the tenth year of the Cybils Awards – check out the spiffy new 10th anniversary logo! And right now through September 9, applications are open for this year’s judges. If you are a book blogger as an author, librarian, teacher, or bookworm, you, too can apply to be a judge! I was a round 1 judge for the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category last year, and it was so much fun!!!  Even better than having a really good excuse to read instead of doing chores was getting to know my fellow judges better and having people to discuss everything I read with. It was so wonderful to know that at least one other person would have read any book I was reading and also have opinions on it. The Cybils team leaders are always looking for fresh voices, and there are so many different panels that if you love children and teen’s books, you are sure to find a panel that fits your personal passions.

Don’t just take my word for it though – read “Five reasons to apply to be a Cybils Judge” from Charlotte at Charlotte’s Library, and “Cybils 2015” from Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile, too!

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