The Button Box by Bridget Hodder and Fawzia Gilani-William

When I was a child, my mother would get out her button box when I was especially bored or sick. It was an old cookie tin filled with buttons from simple to sparkling, and I loved looking at all the buttons and stringing them onto thread. The button box in this book, though, is truly next level.

The Button Box
by Bridget Hodder and
Fawzia Gilani-Williams.
Illustrated by Harshad Marathe.

Kar-Ben, 2022

ISBN 978-1728423975

Read from a library copy.
Ebook available on Hoopla.

Cousins Ava (who is Jewish) and Nadeem (who is Muslim) have always been good friends as well.  Now, though, they’re both experiencing bullying at school, with the bullies being especially hard on Nadeem, but even well-meaning classmates suggesting that things would just be easier if the cousins didn’t hang out together at school.  They’re still distressed about this when they go to visit their Granny Buena after school.  As the best grandmothers do, she tells them a story that will both distract and enlighten them, one that’s tied to a specific button in the family button box.  And because Granny Buena can trace their Sephardic Jewish ancestry back for hundreds of years, she’s able to tell them a story of their ancestor Ester ibn Evram, who lived in Morocco circa the 750s.  

Then, something truly magical occurs between Ester’s beautiful button and Granny Buena’s cat Sheba – and Ava and Nadeem find themselves in Ester’s Morocco, when Ester is just about their age.  Helpfully, the magic has dressed them appropriately, given them the ability to understand the language, and even set them up as merchant cousins whose visit was expected.  Even Sheba the cat is here and familiar to Ester! They don’t, though, have the memories or background knowledge of those cousins (unlike in Shirley Vernick’s Ripped Away.) They do know from Granny’s story, though, that Ester really needs to find a way to help the men she just met at the market – one of whom is the real historical Prince Abdur Rahman, who if he escapes the enemies currently chasing him down, will go on to found a kingdom known for peace, equality among religions, and great expansion of knowledge.  

It’s really quite easy for time travel stories like these to head off the track in one of two directions – either the visitors from the present day have nothing to do but observe the goings-on, or their modern-day perspective is so vital that the hapless historical characters would clearly be lost without them.  Here, our modern kids have an important role to play, but it’s Ester’s strength and determination that really wins the day. Faith is important to all of the children as well, who recall important precepts from their faith to guide them through tough decisions, especially emphasizing peace, love, and the importance of helping others. An afterward gives more historical information about Sephardic Jews, Prince Abdul Rahman, while a glossary lists the Ladino words that Granny Buena uses.  

This would be a great step up for Magic Treehouse fans – a bit more complex in world-building and characterization, and definitely more enjoyable for parents reading to or with their kids.  I’m looking forward to more adventures with Ava and Nadeem, Granny Buena, Sheba and the button box.  

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Spell Sweeper by Lee Edward Födi

Here’s a light-hearted twist on the classic magic school story. It’s nominated for this year’s Cybils award, and this post reflects my own opinion, not that of the committee.

Cover of Spell Sweeper by Lee Edward Fodi

Spell Sweeper
by Lee Edward Födi

HarperCollins, 2021

ISBN 978-0062845320.

Read from a library copy. 

Cara Moone is here to tell you that magic school is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Yes, she’s gotten a scholarship to a secret magic school near Seattle – but she’s stuck in the MOP track – Magical Occurence Purger – aka one of the failures who’s destined to go around sweeping up the magical residue left over from the real wizards’ spells before it gathers itself up and turns rogue.  She doesn’t get to take spell or potion classes, is constantly being given detention and her formerly close roommate, Yuna, now struggles to talk to her.  Cara definitely feels like she’s gotten the short end of the stick, even if she gets to hang out with Zuki, a fluffy white and very vain young nine-tailed fox (though he’s only grown three tails so far.)  Cara can only look enviously at Harlee Wu, whose magic skills are so advanced that people call her the Chosen One and she wins the best wizard awards every year.  

Then, after Harlee’s most recent giant spell exhibition, Cara spots a giant, dripping  black mouth in the ceiling of the stage above her.  It’s something that a lowly MOP should ask for wizard assistance with – but seeing as she’s up in the flies of the stage, she can’t exactly ask for it.  And of course, due to her poor reputation at the school, no one will believe she really saw it.  But Cara is convinced that Harlee has something to do with it, and is determined to solve the mystery on her own.  

Meanwhile, on her few visits back home, her once super-supportive older sister, Su, is now harsh and uncommunicative, with a scummy boyfriend.  As magic gets more and more out of control both inside and outside the school, Cara really wishes she could confide in her sister.  At the same time, Harlee, Cara, and her fellow MOP trainees are sent to clean up increasingly large messes.  Will they be able to fix whatever is breaking the magic?  And will she be able to fix her relationships – with her sister, her roommate, Harlee?  

Cara starts off very negative about just about everything, externalizing the blame for everything from her placement in the MOP program to how often she gets in trouble with her teachers.  This could have been really irritating, but Cara has such a fun, sarcastic sense of humor, I really enjoyed spending time with her, watching her grow and get immersed in her many adventures and meet magical creatures.  I haven’t gotten into much of the adventures, but we’ll just say that magical disaster clean-up often happens mid-disaster, not just post-disaster, so there’s plenty of opportunity for hijinks.  Give this to kids who dream of magic school and fans of Star Trek’s Lower Decks

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Freddie vs. the Family Curse by Tracy Badua

Here’s a book for fans of over-the-top humor, with a healthy dose of personal growth and Filipino-American culture.

Cover of Freddie vs. the Family Curse by Tracy Badua

Freddie vs. the Family Curse by Tracy Badua

Clarion, 2022

ISBN 978-0358612896

Read from a library copy. 

Freddie Ruiz is under a curse.  He’s not sure exactly where it came from, his parents are determined to deny it – but what else could explain all the spectacularly bad luck everyone in his family has?  From running out of glue the night before a big school project is due to tripping over nothing, Freddie has experienced it all.  It’s so bad that his classmates call him Faceplant Freddie and he refuses to do any sport-like activities or try anything new.  

Then, while rummaging through the garage looking for supplies to finish a last-minute school project, he finds a gold coin hanging from a cracked leather cord.  Apong, his grandmother, tells him it’s an anting-anting – what’s supposed to be a Filipino good luck amulet.  This anting-anting, however, turns out to be imprisoning his great uncle Ramon, who died as a teen in World War II, and is the source of the family’s bad luck.  And now that Freddie has it in his possession, a countdown has started – find a way to break the curse or be trapped himself.  

Luckily, he’s got his cousin Sharkey to help him, as well as dubious advice from his Uncle Ramon.  It will take a lot of research into the full history of the anting-anting to figure out how to break it, and as Freddie dives into the task, he learns more about what his family members have done in spite of the curse and the effects of his own reaction to it, as well as the war and post-war experiences in the Philippines.  That’s an impressive amount of personal growth and history tidily woven into a fast-moving, laugh-out-loud funny story.

This book will appeal to readers of other hilarious contemporary fantasy and sci-fi books like It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds, The Last Last Day of Summer by Lamar Giles, and Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez.

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Ravenfall by Kalyn Josephson

It’s a rainy Halloween as I’m posting this, the perfect time to curl up with a mug of pumpkin hot chocolate or hot mulled cider to read this creepy-cozy story of supernatural happenings around Samhain.

Cover of Ravenfall by Kalyn Josephson

by Kalyn Josephson

Delacorte, 2022.

ISBN 9780593483589

Read from a library copy. Available from Libby as an ebook and audiobook.

13-year-old Anna, who is white,  is lucky enough to live in a beautiful old inn that welcomes both magical and non-magical folks.  She’s also unlucky enough to have a new magical power that seems much less useful than those of her older sisters, mother, and grandmother: she can see visions of any death a person has witnessed when she touches them. When she bumps into someone at a party and sees a murder being committed, she’s horrified, worried that this is a recent crime that needs solving.  And when a boy her age who was in her vision shows up at the inn spattered with blood, she takes him under her wing.  Colin, also white, doesn’t know anything of the magical world, but also wants to find out who murdered his parents, and what might have happened to the older brother who reminded him that this inn was their family safe place.  

The murder here is grim, and turns out to be one of a string, the mystery linked to ancient Irish mythology.  But this heaviness is balanced out by the wonder of the magical inn on the border between worlds, a house with a mind of its own, a Jabberwocky named Max who likes to appear as a mischievous black cat, and a beautiful fall setting with lots and lots of delicious oatmeal butterscotch muffins and pumpkin hot chocolate.  As Anna and Colin grow to be friends, they also both find a welcome sense of belonging. The resolution is particularly satisfying , a refreshing change from the more typical smash/slash/imprison the bad guy.  It’s a perfect blend for middle grade readers who want some real danger with a whole lot of magic and comfort.

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8 Eerie Books for Middle Grade Readers

It’s been a couple of years since I put together my list of 8 Spooky Middle Grade Books, and so many great new books have come out since! Here are a few I’ve enjoyed.

Text: 8 Eerie Books for Middle Grade Readers. Image: Covers of the 8 books listed below.

A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow

Goblin Market by Diane Zahler

Let the Monster Out by Chad Lucas. Available as an ebook and audiobook through Libby.

Ravenfall by Kalyn Josephson. Available as an ebook and audiobook through Libby.

Riley’s Ghosts by John David Anderson. Available as an ebook and audiobook through Libby.

Secret of the Shadow Beasts by Diane Magras

Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba. Translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Available as an ebook and audiobook through Hoopla.

Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega. Available as an audiobook through Hoopla.

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The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

If you’re in the mood for a comfortingly cozy yet witchy (and witty) story, take a look at this! I first fell in love with Sangu Mandanna’s middle grade series, Kiki Kallira, and was very excited to see her come out with her first adult title this year.

Cover of The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

The Very Secret Society
of Irregular Witches
by Sangu Mandanna

Penguin Random House, 2022.

ISBN 978053439357

Read from a library copy.

It is the sad fate of all witches to be orphaned.  Mika Moon, now 31, was brought to the UK from India as a child, adopted by a strict old witch named Primrose who spent more time looking for other orphaned witchlings to adopt than caring for Mika herself.  Now Mika moves from short-term job to short-term job, seeing other witches only at secret quarterly meetings.  Yes, Mika’s mental health has been affected by this – but she’s decided to face life with a sense of humor, by coming up with increasingly ridiculous names for their group of witches, and most recently, by starting a video channel on social media where she shares real magical potion tips that she assumes people will assume are fake. 

…Until the day she receives a message, asking her to serve as a live-in tutor for three young witches.  Rosetta, Terracotta, and Altamira were adopted by an older witch who, like Primrose, traveled the world searching for magical orphans.  Unlike Primrose, though, Lillian also did archaeology, and has left the three girls to be raised by a devoted if non-magical staff instead of separating them, as Primrose insisted all witches must stay separated.  

Mika always believed that Primrose was right, but as she gets to know the three girls, the lovely gay older couple who invited her, the housekeeper, and the obnoxiously  handsome if cantankerous librarian, Jamie – she might just change her mind.  

This is a delightfully witchy book about finding home, rethinking established patterns, and working through trauma, with a lot of hilarious young witch hijinks as well.  I am only supposed to be reading Cybils books right now, but sped through this one despite the guilt when it finally came in after a couple of months on hold.  I might need to buy my own copy for future comfort reading as well. 

I’ve been seeing lots of witchy romance books coming out lately, but this is the first one of this recent crop I’ve read, though now I also want to reread Barbara Bretton’s Casting Spells, which I recall being delightful, with rather more knitting. Let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations!

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Terrifying Monsters: Let the Monster Out and Secret of the Shadow Beasts

Here are two books perfect for the fall season! Both of these have already been nominated for the Cybils Award this year – standard disclaimer about my opinion not reflecting that of the committee as a whole applies here.

Cover of Let the Monster Out by Chad Lucas

Let the Monster Out
by Chad Lucas

Abrams, 2022

ISBN 9781419751264 

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

Bones Malone has always had a hard time fitting in and behaving, and moving to tiny, mostly-white Langille, Nova Scotia (famous for the high tech company that moved its headquarters her a few years ago) hasn’t helped.  The only other Black family in town is that of Coach Robeson, a former pro baseball player who’s now coaching the AAA team, and his wife and kids.  Also on the team is Kyle, who’s homeschooled because of his extreme difficulty fitting in in social situations.  

After an initially rocky start to the relationship, Bones and Kyle both find themselves suspicious – key adults in their lives have started acting like zombies, while Bones’s reporter mother was being blocked whenever she tried to report on the company before she went zombie. When they rescue a drowning man who begs them to keep his notebook safe, they think they might have a clue.  But it’s kids against adults – both the obviously evil ones, and the ones who just want to keep them safe – as well as bullies and their own darkest fears.  Let the Monster Out has some truly terrifying elements, like shared nightmares with recurring polar bear attacks and beloved adults’ personalities changing, wrapped in a fast-moving plot with a great cast of kids.  At the same time, it addresses some serious issues – Bones and his family are learning to move on after leaving his abusive father and Kyle would like to learn more about what makes him different, while his parents want to avoid labeling him.  This is a satisfyingly scary mystery that still addresses important and relevant topics – another winner from the author of Thanks a Lot, Universe. 

Secret of the Shadow Beasts
by Diane Magras

Dial Books, 2022

ISBN 978-0735229327

Read from a library copy. 

Cover of Secret of the Shadow Beasts 
by Diane Magras

12-year-old Nora, who is white, has never questioned her father’s decision to keep her at home, rather than sending her off to train to be a knight at age 7, when it was discovered that she was one of the rare children who was immune to the venom of the Umbrae.  The terrifying shadow beasts rise from the ground at nightfall, with bites lethal to all adults.  Her father, though, died years ago, and when Nora is able to save her mother from an Umbrae attack when they are out late one night, she calls the local office to report the attack and is quickly talked into joining the knights herself. It’s hard to leave her mother alone on their tiny farm, though, and perhaps even harder to leave her best friend Wilfred, who is Black, and with whom she spends all her free time playing an epic fantasy video game.  

Once at the castle of Noye’s Hill, though, Nora starts to wonder what she’s signed up for.  She does terrifyingly well on the entrance tests, and is expected to join a tightly-knit order of knights and head out to battle Umbrae with only a week of training. Playing video games may have given her very quick reaction times, but it doesn’t prepare her emotionally, nor does it endear her to the older members of her order, some of whom very much resent having such a newbie replace the beloved member Nora is replacing.  And no matter how hard they fight, the Umbrae keep multiplying, with fewer and fewer knights to fight them.  Here, Nora’s inexperience may be her best weapon, as she asks questions that those raised within the system haven’t asked, questions that may also partly explain why she came in at such a high skill level.  

Nora’s order is filled with a diverse array of people, including  a trans girl and people whose ancestry would translate to South Asian (and the delicious foods of those cultures) and African.  Despite the grimness of the battles (which, fine, will probably be a selling point for many readers), there is also lots of warmth here, from the lilt of Nora’s traditional fiddle tunes and ugly-cute knitting to the excitement of both the video games and the video game-like reality that is being a knight, as well as the close bonds of her Order as they relax together between battles.  Give this to any kid who loves battling monsters and tales of tight-knit teams. 

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Nominate Me for the Cybils – 2022 Edition

Every year, as the Cybils nomination period draws to a close, I wait in anxious suspense, hoping that all of my favorites from the past year will be nominated – or at least, all but one, so that I can nominate that final title myself. Nominations close on October 15th, and so far there are many, many titles that are missing. These are just the ones I’ve read myself, but there are many other good ones that I would like to read and am still hoping will be nominated.

If you haven’t nominated anything yet yourself, read through this list (or look through your own reading list from the past year) and see what you might feel motivated to nominate. Remember, nominating a book doesn’t mean you think it’s the best book you’ve ever read or the very best to come out this year, but that it is a solid title that you think deserves to be given a read-through by the round 1 panelists.

I’m giving you the logo because I don’t have time to put in 23 book covers.

Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

Middle Grade Fiction

There are more ideas over at the Cybils Idea Boards for these and all the other categories! Please go forth and nominate!

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Mysterious Travelers: Prince of Nowhere and the Lock-Eater

It’s Cybils nominating season! As you will know if you’ve been reading here for a while, the Cybils nominations are a crowd-sourced effort – and each member of the crowd can nominate only one book in each category. That means that we need lots of people participating to make sure that every worthy book gets nominated! Plus, I can say from personal experience that it is very satisfying indeed to look at the finalist lists on January 1 and see that a book that you nominated made it to the shortlist.

Many years, I put together lists of worthy contenders that haven’t yet been nominated. I may get there yet, but for now, I am starting with trying to catch up with reviewing eligible books. If you are looking for ideas of books to nominate, you can also look at the Cybils Padlet.

The Prince of Nowhere by Rochelle Hassan. HarperCollins, 2022. ISBN 9780063054608. Read from library copy. 

Roda’s ordinary life with her mother and Aunt Dora is drawn into mystery as she starts finding notes from Anonymous filled with riddles for her to answer about Nowhere.  The first of these leads her to rescue a crow, injured from flying through the magical mist barrier that protects her city from the wild lands outside.  The crow – definitely more than just a crow – and further notes lead Roda to venture outside the mist for the first time ever.  There, she learns more about the legacy of the great Aurelion Kader, whose research led to the creation of the mist, and meets a mysterious and deeply suspicious person who wants to be known as the Traveler.  

The plot is so twisty and full of surprises that it’s difficult to say much more about it without giving away key things.  But with riddles, time travel, dragons, automata with personalities, and the last survivors of fallen cities, as well as a great central friendship, this is a truly unique book that I keep thinking about months after I read it.  

The Lock-Eater  by Zack Loran Clark. Dial Books, 2022 ISBN 978-1984816887  Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.

Melanie Gate has grown up at the Merrytrails Orphanage for Girls, a home filled with a diverse population, all cared for by the elderly Mrs. Harbargain, who does her best despite the lack of resources. Melanie’s best friend, Jane Alley, is a quiet contrast to Melanie who possesses a truly impressive imagination.  Only Mrs. Harbargain has anything kind to say about the mean-tempered cat, Abraxas, who torments the little girls.  Melanie wishes she knew anything about her past, and has to keep her power to open locks hidden, as the Thaumaturgy frowns on anyone not part of the government using magic. 

This familiar life changes abruptly when a six-foot-tall copper gearling called Traveler recruits her – he says to be apprentice to a witch in the nearby woods.  But Traveler is not what he seems, and leads Melanie on an adventure that will help unravel the mysteries of her own past as well as those behind Traveler. which in turn uncovers secrets that will rock the very foundations of the Thaumaturgy. (As the Thaumaturgic Empire has a banner with three red eyes on it, besides preventing innocent girls from using their magic, it’s pretty clear from the beginning that the empire is not the utopia it makes itself out to be.)  

On the way, Melanie meets captive griffins, develops a first crush on a young tailor/seamstress named Livia, learns of the fearsome Ley Coven, and finds a new path for her companions at the orphanage.  This was one I enjoyed so much that I couldn’t stop reading and didn’t want it to end. 

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Alliana, Girl of Dragons by Julie Abe

I loved Eva Evergreen enough to buy it on audiobook and listen again with my daughter, so I was eagerly awaiting this origin story of Eva’s mother’s best friend, Queen Alliana.  It is eligible to be nominated for the Cybils Awards, so if you read and loved it, keep an eye out for nominations, which open as always on October 1.

Alliana, Girl of Dragons
by Julie Abe

Little Brown, 2022

ISBN 9780316300353

Read from a library copy. 
Also available as an ebook through Libby.

Here, we are introduced to the future queen when she’s an abused orphan working in her stepmother’s inn.  This is told as a Cinderella story – Alliana remembers her time learning about herbs near the magical Rift from her father fondly, as well as the inn’s coziness before her father vanished into the Rift and her stepmother took over the inn.  Now the only person at home who cares for her is her step-grandmother, Mari, who keeps to herself in the attic and doesn’t know how poorly Alliana is treated. 

Alliana and her best friend, baker’s boy Isao, dream of escape to someplace beyond their dusty backwater town, but neither sees a way of escape.  Isao would need a proper apprenticeship – difficult when he cares for his younger brother as well – while Alliana’s stepmother holds ever-growing debt over her head.  Alliana’s best chance of escape is going to the nearby landowner’s annual ball for kids coming of age, where she would be tested for her ability to go to the Royal Academy.  But she knows her stepmother will do everything in her power to keep Alliana and her free labor at the inn.  

Then, two things happen that begin, slowly, to reduce her stepmother’s hold on her.  As she’s picking herbs near the Rift one day, she sees a gap in the magical barrier that keeps the creatures from the depths away from the human realm, and a small baby dragon under attack near it.  When she saves it, she earns its enduring devotion – and discovers that she has the long-lost ability to hear it communicating with her.  

Next, she meets a young apprentice witch her own age, Nela Evergreen, who quickly becomes friends with her (as well as falling hard for Isao’s baking.)  With help from Isao, Nela, and her dragon, she just might find her way to the ball and away from her cruel stepfamily.  

While I love this world and loved reading about her time with Grandmother Mari, Isao, Nela, and the dragon, most of Alliana’s time is tainted by her stepfamily’s deliberate cruelty – working her so hard she doesn’t have time to sleep, depriving her of proper food, and stealing or breaking her few possessions.  Her journey to freedom is more straight up the side of the Rift than uphill, and I was definitely cheering for her by the time she got there.  

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