3 Scary Stories: Temple Alley Summer, Ghost Girl, and Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales

Here’s some more of my Cybils reading – ranked roughly in order from least to most frightening.

Temple Alley Summer 
by Sachiko Kashiwaba. Translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Illustrated by Miho Satake

Yonder, 2021

ISBN 978-1632063038

Read from library copy. 

Fifth-grade Kazu has been up late watching horror movies on TV – a Japanese summer tradition.  Unable to sleep in the middle of the night, he looks out of his window and sees a girl in a white kimono with red baubles in her hair coming out of his house on the other side of the courtyard.  He thinks she’s a ghost – until she turns up in his classroom the next day, and everyone else says that Akari has always been there.  

That day, looking at an old map in class, he learns that his street used to be called Temple Alley, and that his house was the site of a temple whose name, Kimyō, translates as “return to life.”  His mother decides that learning more about this will be a good summer project for him, but interviewing the neighbors seems to be a dead end – they’re determined not to talk to him, and are only interested in knowing if Kazu has actually seen someone return from the dead.  

The more he learns, though, the more protective he grows of Akari, a girl his own age who died without ever having a chance to live.  That leads him to help her search for the rest of the serialized story she read in a magazine in her previous life – 40 years earlier.  This story, about a girl sold to a witch by her desperate father, is also included.  His new friendship with Akari also leads to some raised eyebrows from his best friend, Yūsuke, who’s convinced that he’s abandoned his previous crush for Akari.  

Overall, I would say that this is a not-too-scary ghost story, with the most intense and distressing parts in the story-within-the story.  I didn’t quite buy the logic of the ending, but overall, I enjoyed the story and particularly the look at the intertwining faiths of Japan and the rhythms of summer.  Black-and-white illustrations are manga style during the main narrative, and European fairy-tale style silhouettes in the secondary story.  

Ghost Girl
by Ally Malinenko

Katherine Tegen Books, 2021

ISBN 978-0063044609

Read from library copy. 

Middle schooler Zee Puckett loves scary things – ghost stories, visiting the cemetery, and big storms.  But that changes after a very large storm in her small New England town, when people disappear and she and her best friend Elijah are chased by giant dogs in the cemetery.  Zee also hears voices at night, and even sees a ghost on her sofa.  

As their principal is one of the first to disappear, but only a day later, there’s a new principal, Mr. Scratch.  He’s dressed all in black except for one shiny red glove, and he’s very interested in everyone telling him their deepest, most selfish desire.  Zee seems to be the only one who isn’t convinced that he’s genuine, and it soon gets worse.  

Everything for both Zee and Elijah is made worse by their family situations.  Zee’s widowed father has been away looking for work for six months, leaving her in the care of her 21-year-old sister.  Elijah, meanwhile, has a mother who hasn’t gotten out of bed recently, and a father who wants him to lose weight, man up, and take up football.  When Zee’s class nemesis Nellie sees Zee talking to a ghost and also gets chased by the dogs, she has to be let in on the mystery-solving, too. There is some character growth as the two girls work through their differences, but mostly this was a story of middle schoolers battling a very creepy evil that no one else believes exists.  

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales
by Soman Chainani. Read by Polly Lee. Print edition illustrated by Julia Iredale.

Harper Audio, 2021.

ASIN B08VQXVPKZ

Listened to audiobook on Libby and looked at the illustrations in the print edition, as my holds on both came in around the same time. 

The author of The School for Good and Evil takes on traditional fairy tales (plus the Little Mermaid) in this new collection, not for the faint of heart.   There is violence, murder and betrayal in abundance.  All the stories have characters of diverse skin tones, and they are linked with repeated phrases and musings on the meaning of beauty, gender roles, true love, and what it means to be a witch.  Some stories have traditional evil witches, while some claim that a witch is a woman who refuses to let a man boss her around.  Some have happier endings than the original – usually without the wedding in the original – while others turn tragic.  Some girls and boys long to be married, while others shun it, and still others prefer the company of their own gender. Some of these twists I found horrifying, while I cheered or was moved by others. Snow White – named for the whites of her eyes – is Black, she and her mother both treated as outcasts for their skin color. But where her mother died, defeated, Snow White claims both her beauty and her power. Sleeping Beauty, both confusingly and disturbingly, seemed to be a same-sex vampire romance. Rapunzel loves her prince’s kisses, but would rather not be trapped in another tower as his wife. The witches in Hansel and Gretel and the Little Mermaid are both redeemed – that last story is essentially a monologue with the witch explaining why the Little Mermaid can’t really be experiencing true love and wouldn’t do well with a traditional prince. Polly Faber narrates in a lovely British accent, while Julia Iredale paints lovely watercolors, mostly grayscale, but at least one full color for each story. I am not sure that I’d want to read it again, but it has given me plenty to think about and I am definitely glad I read it.  

There have been lots of scary stories this year – check out my post 3 Spine-Tinglers: The Plentiful Darkness, Long Lost, and Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares if you haven’t already.

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3 Fantasies about Change: Josephine Against the Sea, A Wilder Magic, and Elvis and the World as it Stands

Once again, a small selection of Cybils-nominated books united by a theme. Today we’re looking at kids forced to deal with change they’re not willing to accept, from a parent wanting to date again after the death of the other, to divorce and leaving the ancestral home. If you’ve read any of these, or have thoughts on others that would fit this theme, let me know in the comments!

Josephine Against the Sea

by Shakirah Bourne

Scholastic, 2021

ISBN 978-1338642087

Read from library copy. 

10-year-old Josephine lives in a tiny Barbados fishing village.  Ever since her mother’s death some years earlier, she’s had two missions: to make every one of her father’s dates a failure, and to join the all-boys cricket team.  Her mostly unwilling ally in this is her best friend Ahkai, described as autistic.  Usually, spilling fish guts on women as they come in is a good deterrent, but after her father comes home with an ornate comb, he also brings home a new woman.  Mariss is strangely beautiful and imperturbable, just laughing at Josephine’s attempts to drive her away.   It isn’t long before Josephine is putting together the stories from her school caretaker’s stories with Mariss’s strange actions – sometimes helpful, sometimes threatening – and realizing that Mariss is an ancient and dangerous sea deity.  Compared to her, Josephine might even be willing to put up with her father dating Miss Alleyne, the only one of Josephine’s teachers who encourages her cricket ambitions.  

Josephine’s unkind pranks put me off initially, but she is a couple of years younger than most middle grade fantasy main characters, and she had both good reasons for her lack of maturity a lot of growth.  I loved the visit to Barbados, and Josephine’s adventures with Mariss.  This is a natural match for fans of The Jumbies.

A Wilder Magic
by Juliana Brandt

Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021.

ISBN 9781728245737

Read from library copy. 

Sybaline Shaw thinks her family’s valley is the most beautiful place on earth.  Besides that, her cousins live there, and their family magic is all drawn from the valley and stops working outside it.  So when a government man comes to tell them that they have to move to the city because their whole valley will be flooded by the new dam, Sybaline is determined to resist.  She and her cousin and best friend Nettle decide to find a way to use the magic to stay in their homes, even if the rest of her family decides to move away.  The examples of what can happen if they use too much magic have always been right there in front of them – PawPaw turned to a tree next to his wife’s grave in the cemetery, and an aunt who has leaves growing out of her shoulders.  But surely staying in the valley is helping to save the valley and wouldn’t count as using the magic for unnatural purposes – right?  But life at what soon turns into the bottom of a lake isn’t quite what they thought it would be.  And when a boy from outside the valley with no magic of his own gets involved, things get dire quickly.  Though Sybaline learns that folks outside the valley consider her poor for going barefoot and having only her cousins for friends, the book shines with her love for her place, her family, and her connection to her culture – even as the place that has meant home for so long vanishes.  Though the magic here is green and familiar, unlike the dark and mysterious magic of Brandt’s debut, The Wolf of Cape Fen, they both have heroines determined to do whatever it takes to save those they love and settings in small, tightly-knit communities.  

Other stories of Appalachian magic include Cattywumpus by Ash Van Otterloo and Seven Wild Sisters by Charles DeLint and Charles Vess.

Elvis and the World as it Stands 

by Lisa Frenkel Riddiough. Illustrated by Olivia Chin Mueller

Amulet Books, 2021

ISBN 9781419752391

Read from library copy.

As the story opens, kittens Elvis and his sister Etta are anxiously waiting for an adoption fair at the City Shelter of Care and Comfort.  Elvis is horrified and heartbroken when the lady who picks him refuses to take Etta, too.  She’s adopting him as a present for her daughter, Georgina, to help her adjust to her parents’ divorce.  But Elvis doesn’t know anything about this. When he arrives at his new home and is welcomed by Georgina’s other pets, a hamster named Mo and a fish named Laverne, all he can think about is getting back to Etta. Mommy’s cranky cat Clementine would like Elvis to leave, too.  It takes time to appreciate how Mo helps Georgina build elaborate Lego replicas of famous architecture, including the Twin Towers, which her parents visited early in their relationship.  Slowly, Elvis realizes that everyone around him has suffered as well.  

It’s very easy for talking pets to veer into the overly sweet or campy.  I was worried about this for the first chapter or so.  Gradually, though, I got drawn into the story and appreciated the characters and their journey.  Even Clementine was not the jealous monster she appeared at first (although I am still very uncomfortable about Mommy and Georgina being responsible pet owners, keeping a fish in a bowl without a lid in a house with two cats!)  Still, this was a look at “resilience and fortitude” – also Mo’s catchphrase – that’s softened by being seen through kitten eyes. The pets – and Olivia Chin Mueller’s illustrations of them – are adorable. It’s one I’d put on the upper elementary end of middle grade, though I’m convinced my cat- and LEGO-loving seventh grader would still enjoy it.  On the not-quite-middle-grade end, so a bit younger, Wedgie and Gizmo by Suzanne Selfors is another book that looks at divorce through the eyes of pets with their own agendas.  

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3 Fantasies about Bullying: The Insiders, Friend Me, and the Nightmare Thief

As an empathic adult who was bullied as a child, bullying is always very painful for me to read about. But it happens all too frequently, and it is dishonest for adults to deny kids the opportunity to read about it because we wish it weren’t happening to them.  Here are three 2021 Cybils nominees worth reading that look at bullying from a science fiction or fantasy standpoint.  

The Insiders by Mark Oshiro

The Insiders
by Mark Oshiro

HarperCollins, 2021.

ISBN 9780063008106

Read from library copy. 

Héctor Muñoz and his family have recently moved from San Francisco to the suburbs of Orangevale, California.  He’s put together a fabulous outfit including lavender pants and bells on his bag for his first day of middle school – and is immediately targeted by bullies who make it clear that being gay is not acceptable in Orangevale.  To make matters worse, the school security officer thinks that the bully, Mike, is a star student and insists that Héctor must be lying that he’s being chased.  Héctor tries dressing in bland clothes and staying away from Mike, but nothing works.  Finally, he takes to hiding in a janitor’s closet – the irony!  Oddly, though, the closet moves around the school, always appearing when he needs it the most.  Soon it’s not just a closet, but a room containing whatever he needs – a fluffy bed when he’s been too upset to sleep, chocolate cereal and his abuela’s delicious horchata when he’s missed breakfast.  Then he finds other kids in the room – nonbinary Sal from Arizona whose classmates find this hard to accept, and Juliana from Georgia who’s been told she can’t take another girl to the middle school dance – both of whom need refuge as well.  As they figure out how the magic of their own personal Room of Requirement works, they also make plans to stop their bullying.  Although the bullying is painful, the room itself is a delight that helps take some of the weight off. Héctor’s parents and abuela are very supportive of him as well, even though it takes him a really long time to tell them what’s going on.  I really enjoyed getting to know Héctor, and would happily read more stories from Mark Oshiro.  

Friend Me by Sheila M. Averbuch

Friend Me
by Sheila M. Averbuch. Read by Katy Davis.

Scholastic, 2020.

ASIN B08CVVBJ1Q.

Listened to audiobook on Hoopla. 

Roisin has recently moved from Ireland to the United States, and is finding middle school a nightmare.  It starts with her clothes – used to school uniforms, she doesn’t have enough to wear a different outfit every day, and her classmate Zara latches onto this as a way to attack her, first in private messages on social media, then in public posts, escalating to threats of violence.  Her mother is constantly in her AI lab and hasn’t had time to take Roisin shopping or pay attention to what’s going on.  So when Roisin switches social media apps and finds a girl named Haley who’s always there to send her supportive messages, it feels like a lifeline.  But when Haley starts making threats towards Zara and Zara really does get into an accident, Roisin starts to wonder if Haley really is who she says she is.  This is billed as a thriller, and it does get there, but the first two-thirds at least is focused on the bullying and Roisin and Haley’s conversations about it.  As usual for me, I found the bullying very hard to listen to – the audiobook was a double-edged sword here, as I felt even more painfully part of the story by listening to it, but I really appreciated narrator Katy Davis’s switching between Roisin’s Dublin Irish accent and the mostly American accents around her. As someone who has myself lived in different places, I also appreciated how Roisin got tripped up by cultural differences that hadn’t even been on her radar. Rather ironically, it was easier for me once it got to the thriller part, especially as Roisin has by then made some real-life friends.  Many people, though, really love thrillers, so this book would probably work well for them. It closes with some resources and advice for kids being bullied, so that this could be a valuable resource for middle school kids who are either being bullied or have themselves turned to bullying, as it is so common for kids to be on either or both sides at this age.  

The Nightmare Thief by Nicole Lesperance

The Nightmare Thief
by Nicole Lesperance

Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021

ISBN 978-1728215341 

Read from library copy. 

Maren Partridge lives in a cozy seaside town popular with tourists because of its magic.  Her family is known for handcrafting dreams – something a little on the darker side than most of the magic, which tends towards things like edible fireworks, singing bubbles, and air that always smells like freshly-baked treats.  Maren, though, is very distressed – her teenage sister Hallie is in a coma from which it’s increasingly uncertain she’ll awaken.  Meanwhile, her grandmother’s shop is visited by a very suspect woman looking for very large quantities of unpleasant nightmares.  And when Ms. Malo catches Maren illegally giving her sister a dream to try to help her remember herself, she’s got the perfect angle with which to blackmail Maren into making her nightmares.  Here, the darkness of her sister’s condition and the horrible plans of the villain is balance by the fun fantasy setting, including a delightful parrot who spews hilarious insults in French but saves the day.  Still, it looks at the repercussions of bullying, shows that it can be done to adults as well as children, and shows at least one method for breaking free from the cycle.  It looks like there’s a sequel, The Dream Spies, due out next year.

What do you think – do the kids in your life like or avoid books about bullying?

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Five 2021 Cybils-Nominated Fantasy Adventures

Sometimes I write short reviews because there’s not a lot to say about the books. Today, however, I am doing my very best short reviews because I have so very, very many good books that I want to tell you about.

The Threads of Magic
by Alison Croggon

Candlewick, 2021

ISBN 978-1536207194.

Read from library copy.  

There are many plot threads as well as magical threads wound tightly in this one-volume fantasy.  It starts in the city of Clarel, where street kids Pip and El find an ornate silver box with a plain-looking black lump in it.  Despite the plainness of the contents, they find themselves being hunted by assassins, forced to look for help in places they would never previously have considered – including a girl, Oni, whose mother Amina is housekeeper and confidante to Princess Georgette.  Georgette in turn dreams of being queen and making real change in the city, though she has been underestimated and ignored up until now.  But the assassins, Georgette’s tutor, and the villains all get their own POV chapters, too.  Slowly, our heroes and we learn of the evil Spectres who eat souls to take over bodies and live forever.  Can a handful of kids – maybe with the help of some undercover witches – stop evil that’s been growing for centuries?  

The Raven Heir 

by Stephanie Burgis

Bloomsbury, 2021

ISBN 978-1547606375

Read from purchased copy. 
Ebook available on Libby.

Shape-shifting Cordelia and her triplet siblings, sword-fighting Rosalind and bard Giles have grown up in a tower surrounded by a forest in a Welsh-inspired medieval kingdom.  Their older brother – who remembers being held hostage for an extended period before they were born – and their sorceress mother and her friend Alys – are keeping them there to prevent them from being used as pawns in the ongoing battle for control over the Raven Crown.  But of course, this safety can’t last forever, and soon Cordelia, Rosalind and Giles are on their own, trying to figure out who to trust among rival groups.  Everyone is sure that one of the triplets will be the one that the Raven Crown will accept as the next ruler. As readers, we aren’t really in doubt that our point of view character will be the heir – but even as the destination is known, the journey there has unexpected twists, as well as a focus on the sibling relationships.  It deals with death and sacrifice while staying entertaining and not feeling overly heavy.  And after the way it ended, I am not at all sure how the story will continue.  

Kiki Kallira
Breaks a Kingdom
by Sangu Mandanna

Penguin Random House, 2021

ISBN 978-0593206973

Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.

Kiki’s been having trouble living her life as her head is filled with “scratchy” anxiety that insists she go check on ideas she knows are ridiculous, like her mother being attacked by a goose in their kitchen.  To get around it, she spends more and more time drawing pictures in her notebook, telling a story set in the magical city of Mysore, based on the real Mysore in India where her family is from, but blended with Indian legends.  In her story, the once-beautiful city has been taken over by the evil demon Mahishasura and her aunt Ashwini, who in real life died at age 13, is the leader of the demon-fighting kid resistance.  It’s all great fun – until Ashwini and a demon show up in her bedroom, and Ashwini says she needs Kiki’s help in the magical Mysore.  Once there, she finds that her gang of kids are real people, most of them not very happy to be stuck in a dangerous life on their own.  Kiki created the world to escape from her anxiety – but now having to save it is more pressure than she ever wanted.  Like Healer of the Water Monster, this is a book where the main character determines pretty quickly that she’s not going to be able to win with weapons.  All of these aspects, plus extra emphasis on the often-overlooked powers of girls, make this a truly winning book.  

How to Save a Queendom
by Jessica Lawson

Simon & Schuster, 2021

ISBN 978-1534414341

Read from library copy. 

Stub has grown up in the chicken coop behind the inn where her mother left her as a baby, serving out an “apprenticeship” to the cruel Matron Trotte and her son.  She’s limited her dreams to keeping her pet chicken, Peck, alive.

Then she discovers a tiny wizard in her pocket.  Orlen is – or perhaps was – the royal wizard to the current queen of the Maradon, and has accidentally shrunk himself while trying to uncover a highly-placed traitor.  Now he’s bound to Stub and insists that she take him back to the capital, before the big anniversary Peace Festival, when he believes the evil queen of a neighboring queendom will try to attack.  On the way, they pick up the very cautious son of a rover, who has maps they need.  He may not be comfortable sleeping on the ground, but as an apprentice cook, he’ll make delicious meals for them out of whatever they can find.  But when they get to the capital, they discover that things are even more complicated than they thought.  This is mostly a save-the-queendom adventure, but the plot has enough intricacy to be interesting, there’s plenty of humor, and Stub also has a nice journey towards finding a better home and sense of self.  

Lotería
by Karla Arenas Valenti

Knopf, 2021

ISBN 978-0593176962

Read from library copy. 

Carla’s biggest problem is not burning her mother’s famous hot chocolate at the tiny restaurant in what used to be their living room in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Life and Death (who prefers to be called Catrina) are two great friends who meet up in the mortal world only once in a while to play a game of lotería, letting fate pick the mortal who will follow one of them afterwards.  This time, fate chooses Carla, who has no idea what is happening as adventures and tragedies begin piling up around her.  Still, she’s determined to make her own choices and save her beloved younger cousin Esteban.  At the same time, Life and Catrina debate the existence of free will as their lotería cards fill up and as Carla keeps running into the things named on the cards just pulled.  Carla’s adventures take her to many wonders in Mexico, as well as the magical kingdom of Las Pozas, filled with beauty and danger.  The ending was shockingly unexpected and unsettling – making a strong case for free will by refusing to provide a straightforward happy ending.  Spanish is included throughout, sometimes followed with a direct translation and sometimes with an in-context reaction that explains what was just said.  

Let me know in the comments what your favorite recent fantasy adventure books are! 

These books have been nominated for the Cybils award. The reviews reflect my own opinion, not that of the committee.

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3 Spine-Tinglers: The Plentiful Darkness, Long Lost, and Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares

Halloween may be over, but I’m still reading books to make you want to keep the light on at night.

The Plentiful Darkness by Heather Kassner

The Plentiful Darkness
by Heather Kassner

Henry Holt, 2021

ISBN 978-1250764003

Read from library copy.

Rooney lives on the streets of the town of Warybone, alone ever since her parents died of the feather flu.  Her only way of making a living is catching the moonlight that powers the city in a compact-sized magic mirror, though competition with the other orphans in the city is stiff.  Her only friends are the rats that live in the alley with her.  Then, one of the rival boys steals her mirror and then gets thrown into a well of darkness that the town witch suddenly makes appear in front of him.  Naturally, Rooney follows Trick.  And finds that they are trapped, with many other children led by a capricious girl named Sorka, in a world of darkness from which there seems to be no escape.  It’s a story of the lengths to which grief can push people, and of discovering friendship in quite literally the darkest of times.  This is one my mother borrowed from my library shelf while she was over and took home to finish the last 40 pages.

Long Lost by Jacqueline West

Long Lost
by Jacqueline West.
Read by Jesse Vilinsky. 

Greenwillow/Harper Audio, 2021

ISBN 978-0062691750
ASIN B08SSQYFKN

Listened to audiobook on Libby.

Fiona is crushed and resentful when she’s forced to move to the tiny old-fashioned town of Lost Lake, leaving behind the friends she’s finally made, all in order to support her perfect older sister Arden’s ice skating career.  The only good thing about the new town is the library, housed in an old mansion.  There she finds an uncatalogued book in the mystery section called The Lost One. It tells the story of two sisters, Hazel and Pearl, growing up in a town remarkably like Lost Lake a century earlier, two sisters who did everything together until the day one of them disappeared.  Fiona is soon obsessed with the mystery, especially when the book itself keeps disappearing.  Were Hazel and Pearl real people, and is the story the book tells the truth or a fantasy set in her own town?  And is their sad fate destined to happen to her and Arden as well, since they also used to be close?  While the creepiness factor is high, it was the sibling struggles that made me tear up while listening. This is a wonderful blend of historical and modern, with plenty of eerie phenomena as well the strengths and strains of sisterhood.  

I’ve also enjoyed a few of her previous books, including The Collectors.

Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Paola Santiago
and the Forest of Nightmares
by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Rick Riordan Presents, 2021

ISBN 9781368049344

Read from library copy. 

Paola and her friends return in this second book, following Paola Santiago and the River of Tears. Except that as the story opens, Paola hasn’t been seeing much of her friends.  Emma is now involved with the LGBTQ club at school, which Paola supports but feels out of place attending.  Dante is avoiding her for unknown reasons – maybe that hand holding at the end of the previous book got too awkward? Even the tenuous peace with her mother is falling apart.  But worst of all are the nightmares, repeated dreams of walking down a forest path surrounded by glowing eyes, headed towards the father she doesn’t remember. Soon, Dante’s grandmother’s health is at risk, and Paola feels she has no choice but to solve the mystery, even if Dante still doesn’t want to talk to her, and multiple scary creatures from Mexican-American folklore are determined to stop her.  This was just as good as the first one, and definitely needs a sequel.  

These books have been nominated for the Cybils award.  These reviews reflect my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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That Thing about Bollywood by Supriya Kelkar

I confess, I haven’t watched a true Bollywood movie since my sister and I watched them around the time she spent a year in India – but I still have a soft spot for them, and was so happy to see this new book from Supriya Kelkar.

That Thing about Bollywood
by Supriya Kelkar

Simon & Schuster, 2021

ISBN 9781534466739

Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.

When she was in first grade and her parents first started fighting, Sonali did a big, glittery presentation on why parents fighting was bad for children for the whole extended family.  Her parents scolded her for putting family issues on display, and it did nothing to stop the fighting.  Since then, she’s refused to let anyone know her true feelings – not her parents, though their arguments have only gotten worse, and not her younger brother Ronak. Certainly not her best friend, even as Zara pushes her to join drama class, which Sonali dreads, and starts to become closer with another girl, leaving Sonali out.  The one thing that bonds both Sonali’s family and friends together is their love of classic 80s and 90s Bollywood movies. 

The morning after her parents announce that they’re separating, Sonali wakes to find that her life has become a Bollywood movie of its own.  She hears a soundtrack all the time, with percussion when she’s upset and themes for important people in her life.  When she feels a surge of strong emotion, walls and even objects change around her into bright and shiny Bollywood versions of themselves.  Worst of all for a girl who hates showing her feelings, she starts breaking out into song and dance routines in the middle of school, with her classmates filling in as backup dancers.  Her family and friends tell her this is the way things have always been, and tell her stories of her past self that involve her doing impromptu performances she can’t remember.  But the more she tries to stop it, the worse it gets.  

This had the potential to be an extremely didactic novel.  It’s clear from the very beginning that Sonali needs to develop a healthier relationship with her emotions, and that not being able to express herself is hurting her relationships with both her family and friends. Happily, that predictability fits in perfectly with the Bollywood theme, which is so hilarious that the story worked well for me anyway.  I found myself reading sections about Sonali’s reaction to walls painting themselves and her family’s subsequent bewilderment aloud to my daughter.  We’re both now wondering if the audiobook version (read by Soneela Nankani, who also narrates the Aru Shah series) includes the soundtrack and songs, which would be so perfect.  Either way, this is a great choice for readers looking for magic complicating and illuminating real-life problems. 

Retake by Jen Calonita and Eleven Birthdays by Wendy Mass also have magic helping people figure out their problems with friends and family, though of course none of them include the fabulous dance routines here.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim

Impossible tasks, banished magicians, the meaning of family, and deepest betrayals blend in this Cybils nominee.

The Last Fallen Star
by Graci Kim

Rick Riordan Presents, 2021

ISBN 978-1368059633

Read from library copy. 

This new series starter from the Rick Riordan Presents line takes us to a community hidden inside the ordinary Korean neighborhoods of Los Angeles.  Riley Oh has grown up as a non-magic person in a tight-knit community of Korean witches known as the Gifted Clans.  Her family’s clan, the Gom clan, are all talented healers and followers of the Cave Bear goddess, able to use their skills with their careers in the mundane world.  Riley’s efforts not to care that she’ll never be initiated are quickly hidden, though, when her slightly older sister Hattie offers to use a forbidden spell to share her own magic with Riley during her, Hattie’s initiation ceremony.  With magic of her own, she’d surely be fully accepted into the clan.

Except of course things go wrong.  So wrong that it threatens the home that Riley hadn’t even considered might be at risk.  And as she tries to figure out what to do next, things get even worse (avoiding spoilers here), leaving Riley and her best friend Emmett to meet the Bear Goddess in person, trusting that if Riley follows her directions, they’ll be able to fix everything.  

There used to be six clans in the community, but since a battle around the time Riley and Emmett were born, the Horangi clan of scholars has been cast out, their library and the history of the clans closed off to everyone.  It was in this battle that Emmett’s mother was killed, leading his father to deny him a magical education.  

This means that there is lots to learn on their journey, from the magical lore that Emmett hadn’t learned up until now, to both of them discovering secrets that had been deliberately locked up for the last thirteen years.  The magical library, which looks like a conservatory filled with birds that only turn into books when you take hold of them, has to be the most unusual magical library I’ve ever read about.  

The whole journey takes a rather ordinary MacGuffin hunt and turns it into an exciting adventure that involves serious soul-searching and reevaluation not just from Riley but from the whole community.  The stakes are high and the sacrifices Riley and Emmett have to make are huge.  The challenge for me in these books is always finding enough time in the ever-present action for the characters to grow and feel like real people, and this book succeeds admirably in balancing both of these elements.  Here is another new series I look forward to seeing more of.  

I have enjoyed nearly every book in the Rick Riordan Presents line, so definitely check out others in this imprint for more modern-day mythological adventures. There’s more Korean mythology to be found in Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee, When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller, and Where’s Halmoni by Julie Kim. 

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff

Here’s a beautiful ghostly tale of self-discovery.

Too Bright to See
by Kyle Lukoff

Dial Books, 2021.

ISBN 978-0593111154.

Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook available from Libby.

11-year-old Bug has grown up in an old house in Vermont that’s always been haunted.  Cold spots, doors opening and closing on their own, strange faces in the mirrors – that sort of thing.  Bug has never been bothered by it, taken all of these as natural when one lives in a house as old as theirs.  Bug’s mother has never believed in the ghosts, but Uncle Roderick, who also lives with them, taught Bug all about them and how to recognize them. 

Except now, Uncle Roderick has died.  And besides the painful, non-mystical ghosts of his winter boots and canned okra, strange new things start happening. Bug starts having vivid and disturbing dreams, and things are thrown around the house or left on the floor in the night for Bug to find. 

At the same time, Bug is trying to find out how to get along with Mo, the daughter of her mother’s business partner – former forced companion, now best friend, but who also seems most interested in makeup, fashion, and boys, studying how to fit in and make friends in middle school.  Bug tries going along with the makeovers at sleepovers and commenting on the boys in the middle school yearbook, but it all feels forced and wrong.  

When Bug is alone, the days are filled with reading and exploring the woods and creek around their house.  But even there, something is wrong.  Bug’s mind constantly narrates in the third person – “The girl climbed a tree with a book in her teeth” – and the new ghost is there even at the creek.  Slowly, Bug becomes convinced that the new ghost is Uncle Roderick, and that he’s trying to pass on a message.  But thrown and broken things only make it clear that his feelings are intense, not what the message is.  

Uncle Roderick is a real presence, too, as Bug remembers playing in the woods as well as past boyfriends and Uncle Roderick giving lessons in drag queen makeup – the life he gave up to live in the woods with his sister and Bug. The contrast between living Uncle Roderick and ghostly probably-Uncle Roderick is huge. It isn’t a life-threatening ghost situation, but it’s still really creepy. My language writing the review feels stilted because I’m deliberately avoiding using pronouns for Bug, who when the story starts has never questioned being a girl, but who nevertheless refuses to use their birth name and feels horribly uncomfortable and wrong wearing dresses or makeup.   The story is a lovely journey of Bug harmonizing the inside and outside selves. The ghostly aspects feel like they could pair well with books like The Swallow, but I haven’t seen any gender exploration like this come to middle grade speculative fiction in the past. It was also recently announced as a finalist for the National Book Award

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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The School Between Winter and Fairyland by Heather Fawcett

Heather Fawcett’s previous book, The Language of Ghosts was one of the many I read and took notes on during the Cybils last year, with full intentions of writing a review.  I didn’t even include it on my list of books I hadn’t reviewed, because I was so sure I was going to get to it.  Alas, I did not – but if this book sounds good, that one, involving orphaned siblings and exciting sea voyages, will probably also appeal to you.  And this book was published on October 24, making it eligible for next year’s Cybils.  

Cover of The School Between Winter and Fairyland by Heather Fawcett

The School Between
Winter and Fairyland
by Heather Fawcett

Balzer + Bray, 2021 

ISBN 978-0063043312

Review copy kindly received from the publisher. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.

Autumn lives with her Gran and older brothers in a tiny cottage on the grounds of Inglenook School in what feels like a Welsh-inspired country, where generations of her family have cared for the magical creatures that the wizards in training at the school use for practices.  Autumn has stompy and perpetually muddy boots, a stubborn streak a mile long, and is the favorite human of the family’s boggart.  But though she’s always longed to go to the school herself, she’s never seriously challenged the society that tells her that she’s destined to follow her family’s chosen career.  

Instead, she persists in looking for her twin brother, who vanished nearly a year ago.  One of his boots was found, slightly charred, in the ever-expanding, ever less-friendly Gentlewood, but the limited searching the wizards were willing to do for him didn’t find anything more.  Everyone else, even Gran and her other brothers, tells Autumn that Winter is dead, probably eaten by the fearsome Hollow Dragon.  Autumn can tell he’s still alive, though, and has sensed his presence in various places around the castle.  But even with Boggart helping her search, they haven’t been able to find anything. 

So when Cai Morrigan, the famous student who has been prophesied to kill the Hollow Dragon, asks for her help in overcoming his dragon phobia, she agrees to help him despite not having any use for those stuck-up students.  Surely the most talented student at the school will be able to find some clues!

The scenes of Autumn and her life – poor, but filled with mostly unspoken love, pranks, and fantastic creatures – are intercut with scenes from Winter’s point of view, trapped in a place he doesn’t understand and struggling to remember who he is.  And so as Autumn, Boggart and Cai are hunting for him, we can also see the urgency grow as Winter’s sense of self gets ever blurrier.  

Sibling rescue and chosen-by-prophecy stories are rather common, but both Winter’s predicament and Cai’s destiny are pleasantly twisty and unpredictable.  And though all the major characters read as white, class privilege plays a large role in the story, including Autumn’s family ability to speak to magical beasts not being considered real magic, and most students at the school being open about thinking that all servants are basically worthless idiots.  So, while I generally prefer books that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the world I live in, this is a reminder that people always find reasons to justify prejudice, while still being a delightful fantasy.  

Check out my Magical Middle School list for even more stories of magic and school.

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Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

I’m taking a brief break from my Cybils reviewing to tell you about this new full-length fantasy romance novel from favorite author Stephanie Burgis.  Normally I would wait until after the Cybils to read a romance or two, but I broke down and read this one right when it came out.

cover of Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

Scales and Sensibility. Regency Dragons Book 1
by Stephanie Burgis

Five Fathoms Press, 2021.

ISBN 979-8450717692.

Read from purchased copy. 

“It was a truth universally acknowledged that any young lady without a dragon was doomed to social failure.”

Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

… but penniless orphan Elinor Tregarth wishes her spoiled cousin and unwilling hostess Penelope Hathergill had never convinced her father to buy her one. It’s left to Elinor to clean up the messes Penelope’s dragon Sir Jessamyn leaves.  Elinor loves the little dragon anyway – he wouldn’t be so nervous if only Penelope wouldn’t yell in his ear so much – but when Penelope insults both of them in the run-up to her debut, Elinor has had enough.  She runs away with Sir Jessamyn, her few coins, and the precious letters from her sisters, both sent to different relatives around the country.  

The meet-cute happens as she’s forced off the road by a carriage and falls into a mud puddle.  The carriage holds two men – dragon scholar Mr. Aubrey, and the handsome Mr. Benedict Hawkins, who pulls her from the mud puddle and insists on driving to an inn.  But though sparks fly, Mr. Hawkins is in the area to court the wealthy Penelope and save his bankrupt estate.  Even as they bond over both having lost their parents who also lost their fortunes to a fraudulent investment scheme, ever-practical Elinor knows she’ll never be what Mr. Hawkins needs.  

Mr. Aubrey, the scholar, wishes that people would stop reading fairy tales, as they give people the idea that dragons are magical, which they certainly are not.  But when Elinor wakes up in the inn the next morning, she’s very surprised to find something about herself radically changed.  Could Sir Jessamyn have something to do with it?  

Now Elinor finds herself back with the Hathergills in the lead-up to Penelope’s debut ball – but in disguise.  Pretending to be someone else just might give her the courage to stand up for herself for once – if she isn’t discovered first.  

I’m leaving out a great many details here, in the interest of avoiding spoilers.  But rest assured that despite Mr. Aubrey’s beliefs to the contrary, there is definitely magic in this story, as well as a mystery, a satisfying come-uppance for cousin Penelope, and a tender kisses-only romance between Elinor and Benedict.  At the same time, Ms. Burgis makes serious points about the power of women’s words between Elinor’s new-found courage and as Penelope’s downtrodden mother Lady Hathergill suddenly starts speaking her mind with devastating honesty.  

In short, readers looking for a light and magical romance to take their minds off the awfulness of the current state of the world will be satisfied, without needing to sacrifice modern views of women.  The part of me that longed for my own fire lizard as a teen was also quite happy to spend time in a world with beautiful and devoted pet dragons! I’m anxious to find out how Elinor’s two younger sisters will find their matches.

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