Ice Wolves. Elementals Book 1

One of the co-authors of the best-selling teen series The Illuminae Files kicks off an exciting new middle grade series.

Ice Wolves. Elementals Book 1 by Amie KaufmanIce Wolves. Elementals Book 1 by Amie Kaufman. Read by Jonathan McClain. HarperAudio, 2018.
Twin street orphans Anders and Rayna look dissimilar enough despite their matching brown skin and hair that they’re able to pretend they don’t know each other while making their living as pickpockets in the crowded port city in the kingdom of Vallen where they live.    The monthly test in the city square to find twelve-year-olds who can transform into the ice wolves that protect the city is one of their best gigs.  But when Anders fumbles his mark, Rayna goes up on stage to protect him – only to transform into a scorch dragon, enemy of the city, who then flies away.  Anders has to be tested, too, to keep the pretense going – and is shocked to transform in to a wolf.

Anders decides that the only way to track down Rayna is to go the Ulfar Academy with all the other young ice wolves and learn how to use his new-found powers.  There he meets and makes friends with a girl named Lizabett, who holds the very unpopular opinion that ice wolves and scorch dragons used to be friends and could be again one day.  Anders was used to Rayna being his only friend, and the one who did all the talking for him, so he’s got quite the learning curve trying to make friends and speak for himself – even as he’s still trying to hold a part of himself back, as he plans to leave the Academy despite its strict code of loyalty to the pact.

This is an exciting story in a new world that still made room for some great characters. It feels contemporary even though it’s a historical setting with a Nordic flavor.  It sets us up to learn lots more both about the wars of the past and what might happen next in the series.  I’m looking forward to reading more, and my son, who loved the Illuminae Files, is also excited for this one. I’d give this to fans of the Magisterium series or other stories of magical schools, too.

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 Storm Runner by J.C. Cervantes

The Storm Runner by J.C. CervantesThe Storm Runner by J.C. Cervantes. Disney-Hyperion 2018.
Zane Obispo has never been able to make friends at his school in New Mexico due to his limp – one of the reasons he adopted his dog Rosie, who’s missing a leg. The coolest thing about Zane’s life so far is the volcano in his back yard.  But things heat up quickly with the arrival of a very cool-looking girl his own age, Brooks, who tells him that there’s a prophecy that he will be the one to release Ah-Puch, the Maya god of death, from his prison.  His neighbor lady, Ms. Cab, turns out to be a real seer, who also tells him that things are about to get bad.  Soon, Zane, Brooks, Zane’s crazy Uncle Hondo, and one of Ms. Cab’s spare eyeballs are off on a quest to stop the end of the world and find out who Zane’s father is.

This is one of the new Rick Riordan presents books, and it follows that formula beat by beat using Maya mythology.  I personally find the relentless action of these books exhausting, but I’m sure many kids will still enjoy it.  More troubling to me is that it follows the current pattern of having more male characters with one unbelievably, super-strong female character who starts off so amazing there’s no room for a character arc.  (See “The Golden Ratio of Sexism in Children’s Literature”  ) But, probably better a superhero than a doormat for a female character, and less developed characters are also par for the course in plot-driven literature.  It’s still a solid entry in the expanding Riordan-inspired universe, one with a disabled Latino boy finding his strength and a place in the world.

Other stories of modern kids dealing with the gods of ancient mythology include The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta, Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, and The Savage Fortress by Sarwatt Chadda.  And more books in the Rick Riordan Presents series are being published all the time!

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 Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene YelchinThe Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. Candlewick, 2018.

M.T. Anderson is always coming up with new ideas – as in, his books are so very different from each other, from the dark, futuristic teen sci-fi Feed to the wacky mysteries of the middle grade Pals in Peril series to the recent Arthurian legend graphic novel adaptation Yvain.  All over the place.

This most recent book, like Yvain, relies heavily on the illustrations.  The story is told in three different voices.  The first is that of the titular character, Brangwain Spurge, elfish ambassador to the goblins.  He sends magical transmissions back to the elves that come out looking like 16th-century woodcuts – except that one wouldn’t expect to see a woodcut of an elf flying through the air in a barrel as he is sent by giant crossbow over the mountains to the land of the goblins.

There are also chapters from the point of view of Werfel, Brangwain’s goblin host and fellow scholar.  Werfel is trying his best to be an excellent host, and looking forward to good scholarly talks with Brangwain.  Brangwain, though, is convinced that the goblins are horrible barbarians, and finds evidence of this everywhere, from the insults goblins exchange with their closest friends to the way they save their shed skins as reminders of their past selves to the sounds of the goblin opera.

Short chapters also come in the form of reports to the king based on Brangwain’s transmissions from the snooty Lord Ysoret Clivers, of the secret Royal Order of the Clean Hand, who bullied Brangwain at school.  It’s clear that he chose Brangwain as an ambassador partly because he really doesn’t care what happens to him.

So Brangwain and Werfel are spending lots of time together, filled with misunderstandings that show up in the drawings – for instance, a parade of goblin women with medicinal flowers shows up in Brangwain’s transmissions as a parade of headless women juggling their heads and carnivorous plants with chomping jaws.

Then, things start to get bad.

I enjoyed this so much, and it’s definitely one that bears re-reading as there are so many details and much to think about.  It’s one of those odd books that’s written for younger people – maybe kids, maybe teens – but is about adult characters.  It was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, though first place went to the wonderful Poet X. Go find yourself a copy!

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

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R is for Rebel by J. Anderson Coats

A determined Native girl fights back against a repressive system in this non-magical fantasy book.

R is for Rebel by J. Anderson CoatsR is for Rebel by J. Anderson Coats. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Malley was named for the martyred Melian.  Nearly all children of native Milean blood in the country formerly called Milea, now claimed by the Wealdan Empire, are given similar names of bravely defiant ancestors.  Malley had been hidden by her parents and educated in a secret hedge school by an itinerant teacher, who taught everything by memorization and by song.

But her parents were caught and sent overseas, and now Malley, too, is caught and sent to one of the residential schools started by the Wealdans and run by cruel nuns, meant to turn the girls into quiet, submissive factory workers.  They give Malley a new name, cut her hair, worn in traditional braid patterns meant to identify the wearer to the ancestor they’re named for, and put her in a plain white dress instead of colorful tunic and trousers she’s used to wearing. She’s forced to compete for tiny bits of food so foreign to Milean diet that she knows she’ll get sick from eating it.

Malley goes in resisting openly, just wanting to become “songworthy” and make a name for herself among the famous rebels of Milean.  But she quickly learns that not everyone is so ready to stick up for themselves, as punishments are collective, harsh and sometimes permanent.  Will Malley find anyone to resist with her?  And will she survive her attempts?

This tale aligns very closely to the true stories of the Indian residential schools in the U.S. and Canada, meant to eradicate Native culture, but in a clearly invented world, with parts of the culture that do align with Native Americans in our world and parts that don’t.  I always like to go see what Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature thinks about any books covering Native content.

She hasn’t read it, as it happens, and was nervous about the description. Debbie (at least in my experience) prefers books about real Native culture by Natives, which is not this book, but the description also uses the word “merry” – also not a word I’d use to describe the book.  It’s true that Malley was rarely truly hopeless, but that felt to me more like her own strength of character and stubborn beliefs, as the situation that was very grim indeed, and stayed so through the end.  Despite this, the story and characters have stuck with me.  This is one for young revolutionaries.

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

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All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinksy.

Happy Hanukkah!  Here’s a quick break from my Cybils reviews for this beautiful new Hanukkah book.

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins and Paul O. ZelinksyAll-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinksy. Schwartz & Wade Books/Penguin Random House, 2018.
I remember finding and loving the All-of-a-Kind Family books as a child – the first novels with Jewish main characters that I (going to a Lutheran school at the time) had ever read. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that they were the first mainstream children’s books with Jewish leads.

I found Paul O. Zelinksy a bit later, with his lovely versions of Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel.  Emily Jenkins wrote Brave Red, Smart Frog and is one of the co-authors on the Upside Down Magic series that my daughter has been obsessed with this year.  This collaboration, a new story with the classic characters, isn’t what I would have expected from either of them, and yet I found it so delightful that I’ve been pushing it on everyone.

The story is told from Gertie, the youngest’s, point of view.  She’s really excited for the first night of Hanukkah, 1912, and wants to help Mama and her sisters make the latkes.  Unfortunately, this involves sharp tools and boiling fat, so she’s sent to her room in a very bad mood.  (My daughter was filled with righteous indignation on Gertie’s behalf here – surely four is old enough to use at least the potato peeler!)  Papa comes to the rescue, with humor that made me laugh out loud at work, and finds a very special job for Gertie.  The next-to-last line is one I’ve seen in every review, but I’m putting it in anyway because it is just that good:

“The latkes taste of history and freedom, of love and crispy potato.”

Zelinksy’s art, rather than the polished Renaissance art I expect from him, is rough and flat, echoing (as he says in his notes) the Expressionist style that was popular at the time.  While I could see that in the pictures, it also works well to illustration Gertie’s passionate nature and makes the story feel current and approachable despite the historical setting.

I see, too, that at least the first of the original series is available as an audiobook from Overdrive, which means my daughter and I could listen to it in the car.  Hooray!

But wait!  There’s more!

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Atmospheric Fantasy: The Turning and Strange Star

Here are two Cybils nominees with misty settings and strong characters.

The Turning by Emily WhitmanThe Turning by Emily Whitman. Greenwillow Books, 2018.
Aran (whose skin color is not mentioned) has lived all his life with the selkies.  Even though he’s stuck in ”longlimbs” and can’t join the pack when they go on longer trips, his mother assures him that he’ll get his pelt one day and be able to transform into a seal like the rest of them.  When he and his mother take a great risk that doesn’t work to ask the Moon for his pelt, he’s treated with derision and suspicion by the other selkies, who urge his mother to abandon him.  His faith in the Moon deeply shaken, he nonetheless agrees to live with a human woman on a small island for a moon while his mother tries another means.  But it’s really hard for a boy who’s lived all his life with selkies to live with regular humans, and especially hard to stay hidden on a tiny island.  Will Aran ever find anyone he can trust again?

It took a while for me to figure out that this book is set in the present day – when Aran’s first human friend, a mixed-race girl named Nellie mentions the lack of internet connection on the island, probably halfway through the book.  The presence of the sea and of lives lived at around it, whether human or selkies is always there and gives the book a timeless feel. This is a lovely book for those who look for character-focused books with a strong sense of place.

Strange Star by Emma CarrollStrange Star by Emma Carroll. Delacorte Press, 2018.
The book opens with a frame story set in 1816.  Felix and his mother had planned a new life in Europe, free from slavery, but his mother died on board ship.  Now he’s in Switzerland, serving a house party with important English guests and hoping to be hired on as a permanent man servant.  It just so happens that the party includes the Shelleys and Lord Byron, who are trading ghost stories on an unusually cold June evening.  Then, a very pale and bedraggled girl collapses on the doorstep.

When she awakens, she tells her story – how her mother was killed by lightning in a freak thunder snowstorm, leaving our new narrator Lizzie scarred and blind.  Even so, she’s determined to solve the mysteries of the scientist who’s recently moved to her small English village as well as the cause of livestock going missing around the village, being blamed on Lizzie.  When her little sister Peg goes missing, she’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to save her.  A strange, tailed star hangs in the sky over all of this, making Lizzie doubt assurances that it can’t be causing the series of strange events.

Readers of this book are unlikely to have read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and though I have read it, I no longer remembered the Black servant boy and the blind village girl that the author says in her notes were taken from the original story.  I wish we’d gotten to spend more time with Felix, who only got a little bit of space around Lizzie’s story.  Also, we didn’t see how Lizzie managed to get from England to Switzerland on her own, another story well worth telling.  All these ingredients made for a nicely chilling story and a worthy reimagining of Frankenstein.

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3 Ghost Stories: City of Ghosts; When a Ghost Talks, Listen; Festival of Ghosts

Did you think we were done with ghost stories just because October ended?  Here are three more, all Cybils nominated.

City of Ghosts by Victoria SchwabCity of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab. Read by Reba Buhr. Scholastic Audio, 2018.
Best-selling author Schwab turns here to middle grade for the first time.  Twelve-year-old Cassidy’s parents (who are both white as far as I could tell) host a TV show called “Inspectres”, where they track down the stories behind suspected hauntings.  What they don’t know is that unlike them, Cassidy been able to see ghosts since her near-drowning a year ago.  She was only saved from the icy river by Jason, the ghost of a teen boy who is now her best friend.  How creepy should we find this teen boy who is always with the almost-teen girl?  When her parents take Cassidy with them to Edinburgh, she meets a girl, Laura Chaudary, who can also see ghosts and who is very suspicious of Jason, though not for the creepy reason that Charlotte (of Charlotte’s Library) and I discussed.  This is pushed to the side, though, when a very real, very dangerous kidnapping ghost called the Raven in Red starts hunting Cassidy. Continue reading

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Magisterium 4 and 5: the Silver Mask and the Golden Tower

It’s the finale to a series that my son and I have been following since it started in 2014 with The Iron Trial. Reader be warned – spoilers are unavoidable.

The Silver Mask. Magisterium Book 4 by Holly Black and Cassandra ClareThe Silver Mask. Magisterium Book 4 by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. Narrated by Paul Boehmer. Listening Library, 2017.
Call is in prison in the Panopticon, frequently questioned by mages who are pushing him to give the answers they want: he can really feel Constantine Madden’s soul, the soul of the Enemy of Death, inside him – right?  Call won’t lie, but he’s still wracked with guilt over the death of his best friend Aaron.  So when he’s broken out of the Panopticon (this happens quite early on, so not much of a spoiler) and taken to Master Joseph, leader of the followers of the Enemy of Death and ordered to try to bring Aaron back to life, he’s faced with some very tough choices – what is the correct thing to do ethically?  Even if he wanted to bring Aaron back, could he figure out how to do it?  As usual for these stories, the mortal danger is rounded out with character moments as Call is in the house with Constantine Madden’s mother Anastasia, who thinks of Call as her son; Alex Strike, the ambitious and self-absorbed follower who killed Aaron; Call’s other best friend, Tamara, for whom he’s having growing not-best-friend feelings, and extremely annoying, but probably not an actual bad guy classmate Jasper.  Can Call find a path that will save his life, the world, and still stay somewhat ethical? Continue reading

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Magical Transportation: The Train of Lost Things and the Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle

Here are some more of my Cybils reading – two transportation-based fantasies (for a middle grade audience, of course.)

The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan PaquetteThe Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan Paquette. Philomel Books, 2018.
Here’s a new book by the author of the Princess Juniper books. Marty’s dad is dying, and while he doesn’t want to admit it, he’s not had the energy to stay in touch with his friends, either.  His mother is dealing with it by working harder than ever.  On the way back from a trip with her, his beloved jean jacket goes missing – a gift from his father, decorated with carefully accumulated pins representing their memories together.  Marty is beside himself, and remembers a story his father told him about a train of lost things – not just ordinary things, but precious lost belongings – that goes around the world.  He determines to find it, and heads out at midnight when he hears the whistle.  He meets a girl named Dina Khan in the streets, who’s also heard the stories and is desperate to find a locket that the only thing she has left from her mother, who stayed behind in India when Dina was small. Continue reading

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Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort and the 11:11 Wish

Here are two about adjusting to middle school and the friend shifting that happens.

Maggie & Abby's Neverending Pillow Fort by Will TaylorMaggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort by Will Taylor. HarperCollins, 2018.
Introverted, imaginative Maggie, who is white, is a one-friend kind of girl.  She’s spent most of the summer waiting for her best friend Abby Hernandez to come back from summer camp, building a pillow fort for the two of them to play with in the meantime.  But when Abby comes back, she wants to make their friendship more like camp, with dances and more people.  Abby is horrified. Continue reading

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