Fast & Funny with Cookies & Cakes: Ben Yokoyama and Winnie Zeng

Here are two very funny and fast-moving books – one more realistic and the other fantasy – certain to draw young readers in.  I read Ben Yokoyama based on a recommendation from Alison L. Morris on the Book Friends Forever podcast (a year or two ago *cough*), while Winnie Zeng was a Cybils nominee.

Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom
by Matthew Swanson
and Robbi Behr

Knopf, 2021

ISBN 978-0593302750

Read from a library copy.

Cover of Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

8-year-old Ben, whose father is Japanese-American and whose mother is white, is having dinner at a Chinese restaurant with his aunt when he is stunned by the fortune in his fortune cookie: “Live each day as if it were your last.”  He takes this very literally and makes a list of goals for his potential last day on earth, and then gets his best friend Janet involved.  Soon they are racing around the neighborhood trying to accomplish their goals, including eating forbidden cake from the freezer and racing to finish a complex latch hook project.  Behind the humor, though, is some serious heart as Janet deals with the loss of her dad and their entering into a scary backyard leads to befriending an elderly neighbor. The book is filled with copious notebook-style drawings, some of the actual happenings and some metaphorical, like one of an aardvark eating noodles when Ben is described as eating noodles like an aardvark.  I promptly went out and bought this for my nephew, as the over-the-top humor and fun illustrations make it perfect for elementary kids who are bridging between early chapter books and middle grade fiction. This is the first of five books in the Cookie Chronicles series.

Cover of Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend by Katie Zhao

Winnie Zeng
Unleashes a Legend
by Katie Zhao

Random House, 2022

ISBN 978-0593426579

Read from a library copy.

11-year-old Winnie is as prepared for middle school as she can get: she’s studied anime and manga and her older sister.  Though her dance moves are polished, she wasn’t prepared to be in school with her long-time Chinese school rival, David Zuo.  When she tries to find a recipe to beat his class in a bake-off, she opens her family cookbook – which turns out to be magical.  Before she knows quite what’s happening, the spirit of her grandmother has taken over her pet rabbit as she’s trying to figure out how to bake mooncakes.  When a demon invades her house, the only way she has to defend herself is by using the mooncakes as weapons.  And as more and more demons start appearing, she has to work with her grandmother – and very unfortunately, David as well – to learn how to be a shaman to send the evil spirits back where they belong.

This is a funny and fast-paced contemporary fantasy adventure that deals with Winnie trying to find a balance between fitting in and being herself both in middle school and in her family.  Bonus points for magical mooncakes, and some sneaky Michigan references. 

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A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys

Now that I’ve put together my statistics, it’s time to get back to reviewing some of my favorite books of last year that weren’t lucky enough to be in the few I managed to write up right away. I was excited enough about the reviews for this book to buy it with one of our audiobook credits rather than waiting months for a hold to come through, and I don’t buy books from previously unknown-to-me authors often. 

A Half-Built Garden
by Ruthanna Emrys
Read by Kate Handford

Macmillan Audio/Tor, 2022

ISBN 9781250210982

Listened to purchased audiobook.
Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.

As the story opens in 2083, Judy Wallach-Stevens is disturbed from a night of not sleeping well by an alarm announcing pollution in the bay near her.  As Judy’s a water specialist for the local Chesapeake Watershed of the Dandelion Network – working to restore the Earth to health –  she and her wife Carol, along with their nursing baby Dorrie call a van to take them to the site.  But what awaits them is not a faulty sensor, but a spaceship with members of two symbiotic species.  Their captain, Cytosine, introduces her babies Chlorophyll and Diamond to Dorrie, and says they’ve come to rescue humans from Earth, as they can tell that it will soon become uninhabitable. 

From here, more and more strands are introduced into the braid of the story.  There’s the part where Cytosine only wants to talk to Judy rather than the Chesapeake’s diplomatic expert because only mothers with babies are important enough to talk to.  NASA quickly finds an expert on maternity leave to send in to represent them, while the corporations, exiled to man-made islands off Australia, send in their own representatives. There are of course many different attitudes to conservation and space travel, but also a strong thread of looking at different possibilities around gender expression, as each culture in the book has their own very different customs.  Relationships are built, strained, examined.  All of this considering the possibility of leaving Earth is grounded – literally – in the rhythms of Judy and Carol’s household’s garden and the Jewish year, as well as the realities of life with babies. Even though the circumstances are dire, it’s filled with love and hope. I couldn’t stop talking about it for at least a month afterwards (which is saying something as Cybils season started immediately afterwards), and it was so rich that I’m sure I’ll go back to it again. 

This could pair well with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers and the 2016 movie Arrival.

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2022 In Review – by the Numbers

Every year since 2014, I’ve tried to do an audit of my reading, as well as a list of my favorite books of the year. It’s my way of keeping myself accountable,

2021 Overview

I read 209 books in 2022, finishing 204 of them. I reviewed just 55 of them –
my worst reviewing year on record – and rated 43 o them at 9 or above.
For the second time, I split out the print library books from the library ebooks. Total library usage was 79.8%, up 3% from 2021. Review copies totaled 9.7%, just slightly more than books I purchased for myself.
Audiobooks and graphic novels are both holding relatively steady from 2021. My ebook reading edged up a couple of percentage points this year – I was unable to drive for the last two months of the year.
2022 reading by format - 55% print, 9% graphic novels, 24% audiobooks, and 12% ebooks.
Audiobooks and graphic novels are both holding relatively steady from 2021. My ebook reading edged up a couple of percentage points this year – I was unable to drive for the last two months of the year.

What I Read

Fantasy still far in the lead, as usual, with jumps in Romance and Sci-Fi. 2022 needed lots of escapist reading!
2022 Age/Audience pie chart: 66% Middle Grade, 1% Picture Book, .5% Early Chapter Boks, 14.8% Teen, and 18% Adult.
Nearly unchanged from last year, but books for younger readers sinking ever lower.

The Authors

Graph of my 2022 author ethnicity - 55% white, 8% Latinx, 4% South Asian, 1.4% Indigenous, 14% Asian, 2-3 author teams of varying ethnicities.
I’m trying not to be hard on myself for only a 1% increase in my reading by authors of color over last year.
I got curious about what I’m sharing here vs. what I’m reading for myself. I’m much happier with these percentages.
A map of my authors' home countries - 80% from the US, with representation from Canada, the UK, Ireland, the Phillipines, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, Australia and Brazil.
I haven’t made any effort to read authors outside of the US. It’s just fun to see the map! Other countries represented here are Canada, the UK, Ireland, the Phillipines, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, Australia and Brazil.
Percentage of authors I read in 2022 by gneder - 75% Female, 22% Male, and 2% Nonbinary.
This is about the same as last year. The tiny unlabeled slices are multi-gender author partnerships.

The Characters

2022 Character Ethnicity pie chart - 43% white, 8% Latinx, 7% South Asian, 2% Indigenous, 15% Asian, 11% Black, 5% animal.
In 2019, my percentage of white characters was 39%, in 2020 34%, and in 2021 40%. I’m not doing great here, though I would say I have fewer books by white people about authors of color than I once did.
Graph of the different religions my book characters had in 2022 - 9 Jewish, 3 Hindu, 10 Muslim, 1 with mixed Jewish and Muslim, 4 traditional religions, and 1 Shinto.
Changing things up a bit, I split my one column for other diversity types into four. Here’s my total book count of non-Christian religions. Native American, Chinese, and Korean traditional religious practices are all shown in one category.
Bar chart tracking other character diversity in my reading - 22% showing economic diversity/low income, 14% ability diversity, and 17% LGBTQ+
Here’s the other diversity stats besides ethnicity and religion, mirroring the diversity aspects we’re now tracking in my library’s book orders. In actual book numbers, this translates to 46, 30, and 36 respectively.

I’ve been doing these graphs for several years now – here they are from 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 20162015, and 2014. As always, if you know of any middle grade or teen books, especially fantasy books, that would help me round out the diversity of my reading, please let me know! And if you have thoughts on these stats or other things you’d like to see, let me know in the comments.

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2 2022 Cybils MG Fic Finalists: Air and Jennifer Chan is Not Alone

It’s always fascinating to read the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction finalists, which include both contemporary and historical middle grade fiction. I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t gotten around to reading Tae Keller’s latest, which was definitely on my radar. I have also written a review of Yonder by Ali Standish, but since it’s published by HarperCollins, I looked into their union strike more deeply than I had, and am now withholding that review until they reach a settlement.

Air by Monica Roe

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022

ISBN 978-0374388652

Read the ebook on Libby. 

“What other people think I can or can’t do doesn’t matter. These are the things that matter. I’m Emelyn Ethrige. I’m twelve and a half years old. Alejandra Che is my best friend. 

I like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

And I love speed.”

Air by Monica Roe, 2022

Emmy’s skateboarding father taught her to do tricks with her own wheels. Since her mother died, though, he’s gotten a lot more cautious about her using the skating setup he built in their yard, and too busy with work and night classes to spend time with her.  Emmy is undeterred.  She and her best friend Ale have made their own online business, selling both natural things like pinecones and Spanish moss from the surrounding woods, but also Emmy’s custom wheelchair bags.  They’re almost halfway to their goals: a custom sports wheelchair for Emmy and new, fancy beekeeping equipment for Ale. Then, a mishap at school brings Emmy to the new principal’s attention, and suddenly he wants the school to raise the money for her wheelchair – and for Emmy to have a personal aide at school instead of doing things on her own, as her mother had worked so hard for her to do. Even though her friends at school are excited to help, something just doesn’t feel right.  Emmy’s journey includes relationships with family, friends, a developing crush, lots of wheelchair tricks, and tons of Emmy’s firecracker personality.  Pair this with 2019 Cybils Finalist Roll with It by Jamie Sumner and Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly for other stories of kids more limited by others’ perceptions of their disabilities than by the disabilities themselves. As I was writing this review, on a snow day, my daughter picked up my e-reader and finished the whole book before I got it posted.

Jennifer Chan is Not Alone
by Tae Keller

Random House, 2022

ISBN 978-0593310526

Read from a library copy. 

Before Mallory met Reagen, she was filled with anxiety, capable of fainting at the most embarrassing moment.  Now that she, Reagen and Tess are best friends, Mallory feels like she has a place and a handle on the rules to follow to stay popular rather than being a middle school target.  But right before eighth grade, a new girl moves in across the street.  Jennife Chan believes in aliens so wholeheartedly that Mallory is drawn in, even as she believes that going to school talking like that and wearing t-shirts about aliens rather than trying to look cute would be social suicide both for Jennifer and for Mallory, if she’s seen with her.  So when Jennifer Chan goes missing – at the very beginning of the book – Mallory is forced to reckon with the role she might have played in Jennifer’s disappearance, and work with both her current best friends and the ones she left behind when she became popular to figure out what might have happened.  

Middle grade books where the MC must overcome bullies are tediously common.  This story flips that narrative around, with a rare sympathetic portrait of a girl who never meant to be a bully and who only realizes in retrospect that that’s what she’s become and sets out to fix it.  It’s as impressive as I’d expect from Tae Keller, whose How to Trap a Tiger was a personal favorite as well as a Newbery winner. 

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The Mirrorwood by Deva Fagan

Although I love all of our Cybils finalists, not all of them are books that I would have loved myself as a child. I have been a fan of fairy tale retellings as long as I can remember, and 10-year-old me would have loved this book just as much as I think modern kids will.

by Deva Fagan

Atheneum, 2022

ISBN 978-1534497146

Read from a library copy

Fable and her family, who read as white, live on the outskirts of the magical wall of thorns that surrounds an enchanted castle.  Magical Blight has spread from that site, infecting Fable before she was born.  With no face of her own, she must borrow the faces – and energy – of her family members to survive.  But when a neighbor reports her to the Hunters, she (and her talking cat, Moth) flee into the forest and through the wall of thorns.  She takes the time on her flight to make a wish to the one of the Subtle Powers, Lady Mirachne, who set up the wall to prevent the Blight from spreading.  Even though her cat warns her that the Powers are not to be trusted, Fable feels that this is her best chance.  

Unsurprisingly, since they’ve been cut off for a century or so, the world on the other side is different than either Fable or her young hunter, Vycorax, were led to expect. It’s soon clear that the Blight affects the residents inside the forest much more than Fable had realized – and that Fable and Vycorax will have to work together to survive the Blighted landscape. Though Fable had wanted to ask a favor just of Mirachne, Lady of Dreams, she soon has the unwelcome attention of the trickster Lord Bannon, who created the Blight in the first place.  By the time she and Moth make it to the castle, everything she believed to be true has been turned on its head.

This is a lovely, gender-swapped reworking of Sleeping Beauty, with great characters (including a two-mother family in the village and a the few residents left in the castle) and lots of adventure, as well as deeper thoughts about developing identity and the dangers of a life lived not knowing what suffering is.  

Other great middle grade Sleeping Beauty retellings include Harriet the  Invincible by Ursula Vernon and The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell.  For YA retellings, try Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley, Spindle by E.K. Johnston, or Castle Waiting by Linda Medley.

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The Counterclockwise Heart

Here’s a story of adventure, secrets, and betrayal, with delightful gear-punky twists.

The Counterclockwise Heart
by Brian Farrey

Algonquin, 2022

ISBN 978-1616205065

Read from a library copy.

At the edge of Kingdom of Rheinvelt sits the tiny town of Somber End, bordered by and at risk from both the fearsome forest that is the domain of the Nachtfrau and the mysterious and aggressive residents of the Hinterlands.  On a single day in the past, a giant onyx statue of an armed maiden appeared in the town square of Somber End, while in the palace, the Empress Sabine (described as Black) discovered a tiny brown baby with a clock where his heart should have been and a riddle about “the counterclockwise heart” in his metal basket.  She and her wife the Imperatrix Dagmar adopt tiny Alphonsus, who grows into a friendly boy beloved of all in the kingdom.  

By the time Alphonsus is 10, he’s weighed down by sorrow and the need for secrecy about his clock.  He’s torn between his desire to find out how he came by his clock and his mother’s command to keep the Stone Maiden company, as it has started moving, alarming everyone.  Meanwhile, a pale-skinned, red-headed girl named Esme journeys from the frozen North where her people, the Hierophants, have been exiled for the last decade.  Her mission is to induce the Nachtfrau to release the spells that have exiled the Hierophants.  She’s a powerful magic user, but since the death of her father, has been raised without affection to value only her skills.  

As much as neither Alphonsus nor Esme wants to trust anyone else, there are enough unknown magical forces as well as determined human enemies, that the two of them must join forces to solve their problems.  (I really appreciated that even though Esme does learn to make friends for the first time, she’s still not a hugger by the end of the book, and that’s seen as something to respect.) And yet, in a land with so many mysteries, neither of them knows the truth of what’s happening…

This is an epic story filled with magic, mystery, a search for meaning and community, with enough twists and turns to keep me guessing as to what might happen next. 

Other steampunk/gearpunk middle grade books include Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Dominion by Shane Arbuthnott, The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski, and The Fog Diver by Joel Ross.

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Omega Morales and the Legend of La Lechuza

I’m always up for a story that’s a good blend of humor, scares, and good characters! Plenty of good food is great, too. This one is a little more intense than books like A Properly Unhaunted Place but less so than Paola Santiago.

Omega Morales and the Legend of La Lechuza
by Laekan Zea Kemp

Little, Brown, 2022

ISBN 978-0316304160.

Read from a library copy. 
Ebook available on Libby.

Omega is a member of a family in Noche Buena known for being odd – though only a  few people in town know that it’s because of their magical powers.  Omega, though, isn’t able to change people’s negative emotions with her empathic powers like her family members can.  She can just feel people’s emotions – easily leading to her being overwhelmed in crowded situations – and hear things like trees talk, and feel the strong feelings around inanimate objects.  

This has always been more trouble than it feels like it’s worth, but when Omega’s former best friend Abby accuses Omega and her cousin Carlitos of being behind the disappearance of several neighborhood cats, those skills might come in very handy indeed. (Warning for sensitive readers: the kitties are not all right.) A giant feather Omega and Carlitos find points to a giant owl – perhaps the vengeance-driven La Lechuza of legend?? Together with their best friend Clau, a ghost who’d rather pretend she’s still alive, they set out to solve the mystery, even as ominous happenings build up around them.  All of this will require Omega to learn more about her own magical abilities than ever before.  

All of the impending doom is balanced by lots of delightful elements – the poster of Selena Quintanella, the statue of La Virgen, and the lamp in her bedroom, all of whom freely share their opinions with Omega, Clau’s love of creating mayhem in public  spaces, the warm and quirky members of Omega’s extended family and their delicious cooking.  Omega’s godmother Soona is the school librarian, and the school library is able to access a magical trans-dimensional library.  And although the focus here is on Omega’s Chicane family’s magic, the larger magical community in town includes people whose traditions come from all over the world.  There’s also a hint of romance and increased understanding between Omega and Abby.  

I first  tried listening to this on audio, but unfortunately the narrator just didn’t work for me.  Luckily I was able to get the print version as well, so that I was able to be charmed by the story. I hope you are, too.

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2022 Cybils Finalists and Ones that Got Away

Belated happy new year, dear readers! I’m officially back to work (from home) after two months of medical leave following foot surgery. It’s taken me a while to catch up with all the email, but I’m back, and will work on catching up with all the books I didn’t get to writing up during December. Meanwhile, here is the fabulous list of 2022 Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction that my fellow panelists and I put together. As always, this was a lot of reading and discussion – I hope you all love these books as much as we do! Click through the links to read our officially blurbs; the links below will take you to my own reviews.

As always, there are more great books than we can fit in a seven-book list. Here are more of my personal favorites that didn’t make it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these books, or others of your favorites from last year!

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A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

Who’s up for some dark yet cozy magical baking plus murder?  I have now read this in print and listened to the audiobook, so it’s high time I shared it with you. 

Cover of A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
by T. Kingfisher

Argyll Productions, 2020

ISBN 978-1614505242

Read from library copy

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher.

Readers familiar with T. Kingfisher will know that this a pen name for Ursula Vernon (or vice versa?), who usually uses T. Kingfisher for her adult books and Ursula Vernon for her children’s books. This book is not written for adults, but is considerably darker than her not-quite-middle-grade and middle grade books, like the Hamster Princess and Dragonbreath series, and Castle Hangnail.

14-year-old Mona was orphaned several years ago, but has found a happy place working as the apprentice at her Aunt Tabitha’s bakery.  (Aunt Tabitha is introduced to us wearing a housedress with a flying croissant print, which is delightful.) Since Mona has a bit of magic ability, directly and exclusively related to baking, this job is perfect for her.  

Things change precipitously the morning the story begins, however, as Mona stumbles across the body of a girl her own age as she comes into the bakery at 4 am to start the day’s bread.  Things get even worse as she’s first accused of the murder herself and then has her room broken into by a street kid named Spindle, who turns out to be the younger brother of Tibbie, the body, and rightfully wants to know what’s happened to his sister.  As things progress, Mona learns that the constables are no longer to be trusted, because though magickers are relatively common in her city-state, they are now quietly disappearing all over the city, and the constables are keeping a special eye out for Mona.  She’s aided in an escape from the constables by a well-known magicker, Knackering Molly, a woman who went insane from having her magic abilities exploited for battle and now rides around on a skeleton horse.  She tells Mona to beware of the Spring Green Man – which is both ominous and vague.  Now Mona has to not only clear her name, but also figure out where the new campaign against magickers is coming from – and avoid being murdered in the meantime.  There is still time for a surprising amount of baking between escapades.

As you might guess from the opening of the book, this ventures into some dark territory, including police violence, government-sponsored hate, and petty intolerance.  But all of this is leavened (get it?) with humor from Mona’s magic – her familiars include a gingerbread man who acts as a kind of bodyguard and a sentient and definitely dangerous sourdough starter named Bob.  Mona’s own determination and sense of justice, as well as her loving relationships with her aunt and uncle, make firm anchors for the story.  Age-wise, this is an upper middle grade to teen sort of book, depending on the reader.  I know of at least one twelve-year-old who loves it, though my daughter started and decided not to finish it, even though she loved Castle Hangnail.  It’s still going down as one of my personal favorites. 

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The Enemy is Fear Part 2: Etta Invincible by Reese Eschmann

This one is for fans of superheroes and puzzle mysteries.

Cover of Etta Invincible by Reese Eschmann

Etta Invincible
by  Reese Eschmann.
Illustrated by Gretel Lusky

Aladdin, 2022

ISBN 9781534468375

Read from a library copy. 

Chicago girl Etta lives with Quiet Days, where her ears are filled with a river of allergies and she can’t hear, and Loud Days, where she can.  But things have been getting worse, so that her Quiet Days are now filled with ringing ears and sometimes vertigo instead of the peace she’s been used to.  To distract herself from all of this, she spends her time drawing comics about Invincible Girl, who can easily win battles against all comers.  (One of these very fun stories in full comic book format opens the book, though Invincible Girl’s adventures are shown in script form afterwards.) This has been getting harder since strange purple clouds covered the sun two weeks ago and haven’t left.  It’s been making Etta’s symptoms much worse, and all the adults around her are acting depressed and overprotective.  

The strangeness escalates as Etta meets a new boy on the bus, one who’s smuggling his goldendoodle Louisa May Alcott to school.  Well, he’s trying – he gets kicked off the bus, and he and Etta see fireworks with their shared initial, E.  As they explore, they find a magical-looking train puffing clouds of purple smoke.  The doors open for them – and the little dog runs in.  But while the boy wants to follow, Etta can’t work up the courage.  It’s after this event that Etta learns that the boy’s name is Eleazar, and that Louisa May Alcott is his tie to his abuela in Venezuela, which he just recently left and desperately misses.  

Now Etta really must confront her fears to help Eleazar find Louisa May.  There are lots of challenges – crazy magical train for one, of course, but also the risk of her vertigo, and communication difficulties between Etta’s unreliable hearing and Eleazar’s discomfort with English.  And although both of these are very serious issues, the adventures on the train fall more into the superhero-like fun action, making this a very entertaining read while dealing with themes of the importance of accepting the full array of one’s emotions.  This is one I think my daughter would really enjoy, and the in-book comic panels also remind me of Kate Hannigan’s League of Secret Heroes books. 

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