Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia

First a quick note – today is the last day for authors and publishers to submit books that were not nominated during the public nominations period for consideration for the Cybils Award. As a panelist, I would like every eligible book nominated, so if you are an author or publisher whose book was missed, please do read the rules and submit it!!

And now, on to our book of the day – a dark but funny tale of monsters of Mexican myth and the preteens who battle them to rescue their friends perfect for your Halloween reading.

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia. Read by Frankie Corzo. Rick Riordan Presents, 2020. ISBN 978-1368049177. Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

Paola Santiago – Pao for short – is constantly embarrassed by her mother, who burns green candles when they don’t have enough money and is always warning Paola not to go near the Gila River because of the danger of La Llorona.  It’s true that a girl from her school – pale-skinned and blonde to Paola’s darker hair and skin – disappeared there a year ago.  Paola thinks she got in trouble because of going in the river itself, and that she and two best friends, who meet near the river to read comic books or stargaze (depending on the time of day) will be perfectly safe.  

But one evening she and her friend Dante, who live in the same run-down apartment complex, go to meet their friend Emma – who is white and lives in a nicer neighborhood.  And Emma never shows up.  The fallout from this demonstrates both the very different way that Emma’s parents and Paola and Dante are treated by the police when they try to report this. And when Paola tries to get Dante to sneak out with her to look for Emma, Dante’s grandmother tells them to go, giving them – an old slipper, Emma’s little kid flashlight, and a bottle of Florida water as weapons???

Paola has always loved physics more than fantasy, but what starts to happen has her building a whole new set of rules for how the world works.  Even her friendship with Dante is changing as her stomach starts to swoop when he looks at her. 

There are multiple Mexican-American myths woven into this story that involves a lot more children going missing than your typical Rick Riordan-style story, as well as the more expected army of young teens and tweens battling the forces of darkness that adults are oblivious to.  Paola herself is a satisfyingly prickly and skeptical main character, loyal to her friends even as she’s struggling with their relationships and not interested in playing nice just to keep the peace either with them or with the established norms of the adults.  It did take the story a little while to get going for me, but the pace kept up once it got going.   

If fighting off hordes of undead monsters with the aid of an adorable chupacabra puppy sounds appealing, this is a book for you! 

Stay tuned for more books both for spooky reading and based on Latinx legends, coming soon!

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Magic, Friendship and Community: Muse Squad, Weird Little Robots, If We Were Giants

Every September before Cybils nominations open, I look around for eligible books that I can read in the meantime.  Here are three that I enjoyed that were not nominated, though there are still a few days for their publishers or authors to submit them for consideration

Muse Squad: the Cassandra Curse by Chantel Acevedo

Muse Squad: the Cassandra Curse by Chantel Acevedo. Read by Kyla Garcia. Balzer + Bray, 2020. ISBN 978-0063001978. Purchased audiobook from Libro.fm.
In an opening that feels more surreal in current conditions than anything else in the book, Cuban-american Callie Martinez-Silva and best friend, Venezuelan-American Raquel, attend a huge pop concert and then have an eventful ride back home on crowded public transportation together. When Callie accidentally turns her friend into a pop star herself, she learns that she really does have the powers of her namesake, Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.  Soon she’s traveling by portal to meet other muses her own age from around the world (London, India, and Chicago) and has a mission – to inspire her classmate Maya Rivera to SCIENCE!  But will her new talent and Raquel’s new fame drive the former best friends apart?  

This has a vivid Miami setting with some glamorous scene changes, as well as themes of dealing with bullies, jealousy, friendship, and body positivity.  I bought this for my daughter because of her love for Rick Riordan books, but despite the travel and magic elements, it felt more like the Whatever After books (but with a little more depth) than like Rick Riordan to me.  

Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi

Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi. Candlewick, 2019. ISBN 978-0763694937. Listened to audiobook on Hoopla. 
Penny Rose has been staying in her shed building robots from discarded objects ever since her family moved, not sure she’ll ever make a new friend. Then she and her neighbor Lark, a birdwatcher, hit it off.  They build a city in the shed for the robots to play in, and the robots start moving and communicating on their own!  Still, Lark is undeniably an outcast at school, so when only Penny Rose is invited to join the Secret Science Society that includes some of the popular kids, Penny Rose is really torn.  But are her robots science or magic?  And should she believe Lark that they need to be kept a secret?  This is sweet and thoughtful with a nice Halloween climax.  

If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith

If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith. Disney-Hyperion, 2020. ISBN 978-1484778715. Read from library copy.
Kirra lives in a city hidden in a dormant volcano, though she travels out with her father, a storyteller who spreads tales of the demons in the volcano to keep people away.  On one of these trips, they hear about the Takers, strange and inhuman-looking people who invade and destroy every village in their path.  Kirra’s father tells her not to worry… and then the Takers find their home (though we only see Kirra in the aftermath, not the destruction of her home.)

Years later, Kirra is the only survivor, living with the Forest Folk.  Although she’s never quite grown used to the self-reliant and private natures of her new society, she’s still determined to help them when the Takers are sighted again.  Can the inventions of new friends and her knowledge of the power of the story save the day?

My biggest quibble with this book was that Kirra has multiple older mentor-type characters, including her father, an older refugee man in the Forest Folk, and the boy who rescues her who’s just a couple of years older – all men.  On the plus side, though she’s not as close to any of them, there are several women in positions of power, including her mother as a clan leader and skilled hunters in the Forest Folk. 

Other fantasies with strong environmental messages include Spark by Sarah Beth Durst, and previous Cybils finalists Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes and The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp by Kathi Appelt.

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The Last Mirror on the Left by Lamar Giles

I’m very excited to be celebrating the release of the second book in Lamar Giles’ Legendary Alston Boys series, which began last year with The Last Last Day of Summer. Thank you very much to the publisher, who sent me a now-rare physical ARC when I said that an eARC would mean that I couldn’t share the copy with my young friend K, who read and enjoyed the first book from my ARC. 

The Last Mirror on the Left by Lamar Giles. Illustrated by Dapo Adeola. Versify, 2020. 978-0358129417. Read from ARC provided by publisher.  

Before the story, in place of an inspiring quote is a definition for “kangaroo court”, a concept that turns out to be central to this book.

Sheed and Otto Alston, the Legendary Alston Boys, are trying to enjoy a laid-back Saturday, except that Sheed is constantly annoyed by Otto, who can’t forget that when time was frozen in their first adventure, he learned that Sheed has some kind of illness that will cause him to die young.  But as he hasn’t figured out a way to talk about it, it’s just looming over his head and making him push Grandma to take them to the doctor without being able to explain why. 

Photo of author Lamar Giles
Edgar Award nominated author Lamar Giles

All of this is secondary, though, as Missus Needraw, proprietress of the Mirror Emporium appears in their bathroom mirror and tells them that a dangerous criminal has escaped from his mirror prison and that it’s all their fault.  Soon, they’re off on a wild adventure involving mirrors with a myriad of functions, including prison cells, communication and teleportation devices and portals to parallel universes.  Much of the story time is spent in a wacky mirror world where the friendly neighbor who barbecues for the neighbors in their own world now has flaming hot hands that allow him to grill without needing coals, and Grandma’s church choir ladies all have enormous hats with wings that really let them fly.  (Hooray for the choir ladies!) In this world, they meet ArachnoBRObia, a group of spider kids.  But are they a dangerous gang, as Missus Needraw claims, or a super cool band, as they themselves claim?  

As Otto and Sheed chase down the criminal, the things they learn lead them to doubt everything they’ve been told and they start to wonder why it is that so many people are locked up in mirror prisons in so many different dimensions.  And even as the scope of the problem they’ve been asked to solve gets bigger and bigger, Otto is always looking for a way to save Sheed while keeping the terrible truth from him. 

There’s obviously some timely commentary on the prison-industrial complex here, but it’s set in enough speedy, slapstick adventure that kids who aren’t aware of this real world issue might not recognize the connection.  Even those who are will appreciate the humor of talking about the term “kangaroo court” and then making one of the villains a kangaroo.  This is a book with fast-paced adventure enough to draw in reluctant readers, but with enough heart and real-world issues – like what real justice is – to keep conversations going afterwards.  If you haven’t yet met the Legendary Alston Boys, what are you waiting for?

Otto, Sheed and Spencer the Spider! The Last Mirror on the Left, 10/20/20
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12 Mysteries for Fans of Enola Holmes

My Girl Scout troop is both working on the Secret Agent badge and falling in love with Enola Holmes, so they are asking for books. I looked especially for girl detectives, and included both historical and contemporary mysteries with a mix of mysteries from murders to mysterious notes.

The Sisters Grimm (series) by Michael Buckley – first book Fairy-Tale Detectives

Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes

The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg

Winterhouse (series) by Ben Guterson

The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan

The Mighty Muskrats (series) by Michael Hutchinson  – first book The Case of Windy Lake

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Nancy Drew (series) by Carolyn Keene

Enola Holmes (series) by Nancy Springer – first book The Case of the Missing Marquess

Wells and Wong Mysteries (series) by Robin Stevens – first book Murder is Bad Manners

The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

What books would you add to this list?

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African Superheroes: Shuri by Nic Stone and Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor

Cybils nominations close October 15!  Have you made your nominations yet?  Ikenga, reviewed below, is eligible and not yet nominated, while Shuri happily has been nominated.  My category chair Charlotte has also posted a list of diverse elementary/middle grade speculative fiction books that are eligible and not yet nominated, if you are still looking for ideas. 

Shuri by Nic Stone
Shuri: A Black Panther Novel by Nic Stone. Read by Anika Noni Rose. Scholastic, 2020. ISBN 978-1338585476. Listened to audiobook on Hoopla. 

If you, like me, loved T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri in the Black Panther movie, then you should absolutely try this book. 

It’s not easy being a princess, especially when you’re more interested in technology than in fashion and diplomacy.  And why is it that only men are Black Panthers, even though the all-female Dora Milaje are the most fearsome guards ever?  Set just before the Black Panther’s challenge, Shuri is trying to get out of lengthy dress fittings to spend more time working on a new habit for her adored older brother when she discovers that something is causing the heart-shaped herb to die.  Now she needs to rescue the heart-shaped herb at the same time as all the other jobs, sneaking out of the country with the girl her mother assigned as her best friend and guard to save the country in time to finish the habit before the challenge. She’s wondering if K’Marah really her friend if their mothers told them to be friends even as their travels bring the big disparity in living standards between Wakanda and its African neighbors.

This is a welcome, if bittersweet, return to Wakanda.  Nic Stone is the perfect choice for this book, and I’d definitely recommend the audiobook as Anika Noni Rose is able to bring all the beautiful East African accents to life.  

Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor
Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor. Viking, 2020. ISBN 978-0593113523. Read from library copy.

As the story opens, young Nnamdi and his mother are reeling from the unexpected shooting death of his father, the chief of police in a tiny but very corrupt town in rural Nigeria.  One year later, there has been no progress made in identifying a suspect, and the crime rates have risen dramatically while Nnamdi is having a hard time relating with his friends, and his mother is also struggling with trying to support the family on one low-skilled income. When a frustrated Nnamdi steps out of the party to officially end the mourning period, he meets his father’s spirit, who gives him a special carving, an ikenga.  

The ikenga transforms Nnamdi into a large, super-powered man, like an Incredible Hulk made of shadows, who is able to sense and stop crime.  But the Man, as Nnamdi calls this form, is so full of anger that he is much more violent than he’d need to be to stop crimes.  Both Nnamdi and the newspapers are upset about this, and Nnamdi’s unwillingness to talk about this with his best friend Chiomi causes a rift between them.

As you might guess from the cover, this is a darker superhero story, as even Nnamdi’s superpowers amplify his overall feelings of powerlessness.  Still, over time, he finds ways to reconnect with Chiomi, so that together, they can solve the mystery of his father’s murder.  The vivid Nigerian village setting adds a lot to the story.

Readers looking for more superhero stories could try:

Black Panther: the Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith 

The League of Secret Heroes series by Kate Hannigan

I am still looking for books in both categories of nonfiction and realistic YA, so if you have any ideas or links to lists for me, please share in the comments!

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New Looks at the Past: The Forgotten Girl and Thunder Run

Here are closer looks at two books that are eligible for the Cybils award in my middle grade speculative fiction category, but not yet nominated.  They are both stories of friendship that ask the reader to take a new look at the past. I first read about The Forgotten Girl on Charlotte’s Library, and have been following the Dactyl Hill Squad from the beginning. 

forgottengirlThe Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown. Scholastic, 2019. ISBN 9781338317244. Read from library copy.
Iris suffers from nightmares that neither her mother’s practical suggestions nor her best friend’s grandmother Suga’s folkloric ones have any effect on.  So when it starts snowing at bedtime one night, sneaking out with her best friend Daniel to play in it seems like a logical solution. 

But while they are making snow angels in a clearing in the nearby woods, they discover the grave of a girl their own age, Avery.  And what starts as easily explainable shadows or night-lights flickering out gets more sinister as Iris hears her little sister Vashti talking when there shouldn’t be anyone in her room and she starts seeing a girl in a blue dress with blank black eyes.  Avery didn’t like being forgotten, and Avery is willing to do whatever it takes to have a playmate…. Continue reading

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Top 24 Books that want to be nominated for the Cybils

It’s Tuesday again!I am very grateful to Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl for planning and hosting Top Ten Tuesday.  Some day, I will get around to posting a list on the official theme again, but the public nomination period for the Cybils Awards is already nearly half over, and can’t really think about anything else. Head over to the link-up, though, for lots of lists of books with great fall covers!

TTT-Big2

One of the things I love about the Cybils Awards is that anyone can nominate their favorite book in each category, whether or not they are book professionals.  (My own daughter was extremely excited to be old enough to nominate a few of her personal favorites for the first time this year.)  One of the scary things about the Cybils Awards is that if no one nominates a book, it can’t be considered, no matter how good it is. 

Cybils Awards 2020 logo

I’ve listed below some books that I’ve read and feel deserve to be nominated.  But – especially in the category where I’m a panelist, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction (which means fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, dystopia, etc.) – there are four times as many books that I haven’t read yet and hope that you will nominate so that I can read them. If you also have more books that you love than you can nominate, please share your favorites in the comments!

[Updated 10/12 to reflect the current status of nominations and my own reading.]

Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

Middle Grade

Teen Speculative Fiction

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Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet

Cybils nominations are open! And there are so, so many good titles waiting to be nominated! I am putting together a list of books I hope will be nominated, but in the meantime, please take a look at this list from Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction suggestions and this padlet from the Reading Tub for crowd-sourced ideas in all categories. And here is a book that I recently read that is also hoping to be nominated.

Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet

Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet. Candlewick, 2020 ISBN 978-1536206197. Read from library copy.

It’s 1914, and Darleen Darling is tied up, dangling from a cliff.  “Safe as houses” her uncle said before lowering her down and starting the cameras rolling. Darleen is a little skeptical of this – after all, the cliff and the river at the bottom are very real – but since she’s grown too old to be charming in films of her making messes while wearing ruffled dresses, she’s played the starring role in the weekly adventure serials her family’s film company puts on.  But despite their best efforts, the film company is still losing money, so they come up with a publicity stunt – staging a fake kidnapping at a real public event.  

Then things go horribly wrong, and Darleen finds herself mixed up in the real kidnapping of twelve-year-old heiress Miss Victorine Berryman.  Darleen tries to reassure Victorine that she just plays a heroine in the movies – but she’s going to have to become one for real if the girls are going to escape.  

This is first and foremost an adventure story, retelling that serial style of old for a modern audience.  But Darleen is also figuring out who she is as a person, relishing the thrills of her new freedom even as she tries to keep her father’s advice to “keep her feet on the ground” in mind.  And she and Victorine, though from very different backgrounds, have never really had friends their own age before and are thrown into a position where friendship will save them. Yes, the villains are cartoonish, but this bothers me not at all.  All the characters appear to be white, which feels a little unnatural to me – but it’s also true that it would probably have been challenging to add them into a story where our two main characters would most definitely have been white.  I was also charmed by the book design, with the spine looking like old-fashioned film title credits, and the chapter titles made to look like the caption screens from the silent movies.  This is a very fun take on a little-discussed period of history – Bluffton by Matt Phelan is the only other middle grade book about silent movies that comes to mind.  

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Top 13 Books I Missed Reviewing in the Past Year for Top 10 Tuesday

It’s Tuesday! and high time I made a list for Top 10 Tuesday.  The theme this week is Bookish Quotes, but I am going back to an older theme to list books I loved but never reviewed.  It’s been quite a year, dear readers, and so without further ado, I will give you some of the books I’ve read over the past year and wanted to share with you.

Top Ten Tuesday

Mr. Penguin and the Lost Treasure by Alex T. Smith. Peachtree, 2019. 978-1682631201. Read from library copy.
Would-be adventurer Mr. Penguin and his friend Colin the Spider take on their first case on behalf of Boudicca Bones, director of the local Museum of Extraordinary Objects, to find a missing treasure. They are racing thieves all the way – will Mr. Penguin have enough fish-finger packed lunches?  This chapter book has lots of action and British humor, and the glossy pages and color pictures add to the charm.      Continue reading

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Magical Black Girls: A Song Below Water and Snapdragon

Here are two tales of girls coming to terms with their own magic, one for teens and one for a middle grade audience.

A Song Below Water by Bethany C. MorrowA Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow. Tor Teen, 2020. ISBN 978-1250315328. Purchased from my local Black-owned bookstore. Ebook and eaudio on Libby.

In modern-day Portland, magical-human beings of all kinds mix with ordinary humans, but some – elokos in particular – are revered and can be public about their magical sides.  High school junior Tavia, though, is a siren, and sirens – all Black women – are only accepted if they wear collars to mute the magical power of their voices.  So Tavia keeps her identity a deep secret.  But her upset when a Black woman who might have been a siren is murdered without consequence threatens to expose her.  Her father also is frightened of her power, so Tavia is desperately trying to connect with the spirit of her grandmother for advice.  

Meanwhile, her sister by love, not blood, Effie, is having struggles of her own.  Her mother, one of the few Black performers at the local Renaissance Faire, is dead, her father unknown, and her adopted grandparents unwilling to answer her questions.  Effie continues her mother’s legacy by performing at the Faire as Euphemia the Mer, who has an elaborate backstory and character that inspires fan fiction.  (As a former Renaissance Faire/Mittelalter Markt performer myself, I really loved this part and desperately hoped through the book that Effie would be able to keep the Faire as a place of refuge and delight.) But she’s still haunted by her own history as Park Girl, whose four friends turned to stone when they were playing at the park 10 years ago.  

Just to add to all the mysteries, a living gargoyle has been perching on their roof for the last three years. And in a world much like our own that doesn’t like Black girls much to begin with and likes magical Black girls even less, it won’t be easy for Tavia and Effie to stand up for each other and themselves. 

So, this is highly political fantasy,  magic as a lens for our current situation, not escapism.  This is an important and powerful use for fantasy, but something to be aware of if you see the lovely cover and think it’s going to be all swirling water magic. The book got off to a slow start, but picked up speed as it went on and ultimately became a very satisfying story. 

This pairs well with books like Ibi Zoboi’s American Street.  For more watery fantasies, try The Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney for adults or Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste for middle grade.  

snapdragonSnapdragon by Kat Leyh. First Second, 2020.  ISBN 978-1250171115. Read from library copy. 

Snapdragon – named for her mother’s favorite flower – has never believed that the old woman who lives in the woods is really a witch.  But when she finds a dead mother opossum with babies, she decides to take a chance on the old woman’s being able to save them.  The woman, Jacks (shown as white)  agrees only to keep them at her house and teach Snap how to care for them.  Snap discovers that some of the rumors are kind of true – Jacks does take roadkill animals and bury them, then puts their skeletons back together to sell.  Snapdragon, who appears to be mixed race, is used to having a lot of time on her own as her African-American single mother is training to be a firefighter.  She’s not expecting her time with Jacks to grow into a kind of friendship, and she also makes friends with Louis, a kid who’s as comfortable with traditional girly things as Snap is uncomfortable.  

Lots of discoveries are forthcoming, including magic, adventure, and an unexpected connection between Jacks and Snapdragon’s family.  This is slightly spooky with focus on looking beyond the surface, with messages of body- and LGBTQ+ positivity (the author appears white and her bio says she lives with her wife).  The energetic and friendly illustrations add to the charm.  I really enjoyed this, though I wasn’t able to get my daughter to try it.  This one would work well with Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag and The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner.  

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