Sorcerer to the Crown and Shades of Milk and Honey

Cybils 2016First – hooray, I was selected to be on a Cybils panel again this year!  After two years of doing Round 1 Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, this year I’ll be doing the Cybils Round 1 Audiobooks – click through to see the other judges!  This is the first year the Cybils have had an audiobook category, and I’m very excited be helping out with it! Start thinking of your favorite middle grade audiobooks published between October 16 2015 and October 15 2016 – nominations will open October 1!

Here are two very different takes on magic in Regency England.  Both are published for adults, though in keeping with the period, neither has anything that would make it inappropriate for middle or high school students.

sorcerertothecrownSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. ACE, 2015.
The story opens from the point of view of Zacharias Wythe, the youngest man ever to be Britain’s Sorcerer Royal.  He’s also the first Black man in such a position – adopted, manumitted, and raised by Sir Stephen Wythe, the previous Sorcerer Royal, whose ghost still advises Zacharias.  But while Sir Stephen and his wife were always supportive of Zacharias, the other sorcerers of England are largely horrified.  Zacharias is trying to find out why the magic in England has been diminishing to a point where hardly any sorcerers can still work magic.  This, naturally, is becoming a concern of national security.  Continue reading

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The Rest of Us Just Live Here

Recently, Maureen at By Singing Light had a post called Not the Chosen One.  This is one of the books she talked about, which I just happen to have finished recently. It’s also one I considered putting on my Top 10 Audiobooks, except that I’ve only listened to it once so far.

restofusjustlivehereThe Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. Performed by James Fouhey. Blackstone Audio/ Harper, 2015.
Mikey is about to finish his senior year of high school, and he and his circle of friends are all hoping that things will go OK.  He’ll (hopefully) be graduating with his older sister Mel, and his friends Henna and Jared.  It all seems like a perfectly ordinary kind of set-up with a cast nicely sprinkled with mental and physical diversity – Mel is recovering from eating disorders, Henna is half Finnish, half African-American, Jared is overweight and gay, Mikey struggles with anxiety and OCD.  All of them have parents who are incompetent in various ways.  Mikey’s long-term silent crush on Henna is disturbed by the arrival of a handsome new boy to whom Henna is instantly attracted.  But Jared is also part divine, a minor cat god who’s followed by cats wherever he goes.  He even more than the others works hard to avoid becoming an Indie Kid, and they all know their hopes of a calm senior year are doomed when they see a column of blue light coming from the woods by their school and one of the Indie Kids runs past.

Because the Indie Kids are the ones things happen to.  What happens depends on the year – beautiful vampires, ghosts, or the Indie Kids dying beautifully of cancer.  (Those who follow trends in teen entertainment will recognize many of these.) Some things, though, stay the same.  The Indie Kids will usually save the day, some of them will die, some regular kids might get caught up in it, the high school will likely be destroyed in the big final battle.  And the adults will not notice anything unusual happening.

In a delightful twist, the chapter headings tell the story of what’s happening to the Indie Kids, while the main story continues with Mikey’s point of view, trying desperately to keep out of things, stay sane, keep the people he loves safe, and find the courage to ask Henna to the prom.  His voice is both snarky and serious and a delight to listen to.  Narrator James Fouhey does a great job transitioning between epic movie announcer voice for the chapter descriptions and Mikey’s not-quite-settled into his adult voice.  My love and I both very much enjoyed the audiobook.  Recommended for fans of Buffy, snark, and subversive storytelling.

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Top 10 Audiobooks for Top 10 Tuesday

As my regular readers know, I always have at least one audiobook going for each member of the family.  I had to accept the challenge to come up with 10 favorites for Top 10 Tuesday, hosted as always by the bold readers at the Broke and the Bookish.  It’s rare for me to relisten to books now that I have so many waiting, so these are ones I’ve found myself going back to.

Top Ten Tuesday

Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer. Read by Katherine Kellgren. – This is the story of a London orphan who decided her future would be better if she dressed as a boy and joined the navy.  It’s the series that really turned me on to Katherine Kellgren as a narrator – her accents are impeccable, her enthusiasm contagious, and her singing spot-on.   Decidedly raunchy in spots, it’s for teens and up.

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. Full Cast Audio.  – A dreamy fairy tale retelling with a fantasy Mongolian setting.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. Read by James Avery. – It may be the Depression, but Bud is irrepressible, and he captivated everyone in the family.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell.  Read by Euan Morton – it’s like Harry Potter, but not.  I listened to it twice in a row.

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Read by Jim Dale. – I have lost track of how many times I’ve listened to these – they are comfort listening for sure.

Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater. Read by Will Patton. 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Read by Wil Wheaton. – this virtual reality adventure is a favorite of my husband’s, and my middle school son’s teacher says that it’s a hit with her students, too, though it’s published for adults.

True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Read by Bahni Turpin. – A story of aliens invading, as experienced by a whip-smart girl – this comes up on a lot of my lists because it’s hard to match the levels of humor and depth of thought here.

Wee Free Men and the rest of the Tiffany Aching series by Sir Terry Pratchett, read by Stephen Briggs. – I was saying depth and humor?  Sir Terry is the master of this.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. Read by Janet Song.  – Back to poetry, an epic quest mixed with folk tales in a jewel-like story.  You’ll want the print edition on hand, too, for the illustrations.

Honorable mention: the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld is the one my son turns to any time I’ve left him without a back-up audio book.  I may have listened to it more than once myself.

What are your favorites?

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Inside Out & Back Again

There’s been a lot of buzz about Thanhha Lai’s beautiful novels-in-verse, which I finally got around to reading.

insideoutandbackagainInside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Harper, 2011.
It’s the middle of the Vietnam War.  10-year-old Hà lives with her mother and four older brothers in beautiful Saigon, where the tree in their back yard grows delicious papaya.  Hà’s father, a soldier, has not been heard from in some time.  But when Saigon falls, they must escape, taking only what they can carry, even knowing that he might come to their house looking for them and not be able to find them.  The boat ride to America is crowded, stinky, and hungry.  They find that they must say they are Christians to find a sponsor and be allowed to stay.  Once they try to settle in near their host family, things are still difficult – there is plenty of bullying and misunderstanding, both between Hà and her new classmates, and among the family as they all find different ways to fit in.  It’s based on the author’s own experience as a child, told in lyrical poems that describe the small details but convey the big picture all the more effectively.

Is the Vietnam War taught in schools these days?  I remember commenting on how little was said about it in my own high school days.  While the United States may not have reached the consensus on it that makes for easy inclusion in textbooks, this is a really important period of history.  Lai’s story bypasses the politics from the American side, focusing instead on her very personal story with its rare and valuable perspective.  And for all that it is her own story, the experience of leaving home, of missing loved ones, and struggling to fit into a new place is one that will resonate with readers.  Because the content is somewhat difficult, I’d recommend it for upper elementary kids and up.

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The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

I first became acquainted with Calpurnia Tate back in 2009 with The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, which it looks like I never reviewed.  Nevertheless, I was eager to read more about her.

curiousworldofcalpurniatateThe Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Read by Natalie Ross. Macmillan, 2015.
It is 1900 in rural Texas.  As the story opens, 13-year-old budding naturalist Calpurnia and her grandfather spot a sign that points surely to horrible weather in coastal Galveston, Texas.  Unfortunately, no one believes their warning.  The (very real) hurricane is devastating. In its wake, Calpurnia is forced to share her bedroom with her teenaged cousin Aggie, who has very different priorities as well as a treasured Underwood typewriter.  As Calpurnia gets older, her family’s demands that she try to be more ladylike only increase, as she begins a campaign to be allowed to attend college.  Life surrounded by brothers continues, as she tries to keep her favorite younger brother Travis from getting into trouble with all the stray animals he attracts, and plots revenge against her mean, misogynistic older brother.  She also continues her nature studies with her grandfather, undertaking increasingly complicated dissections, and takes a job assisting the new vet in town, who fled Galveston with Cousin Aggie.

So often, historical fiction can focus on just one aspect of the history at the time – women’s issues OR race relations OR a particular event.  One of the things I love about these books – besides Calpurnia’s stubborn personality – is how many different things come together.  We see lots about society’s expectations for women and girls, as well as the scientific thinking of the day and how it conflicts or doesn’t with religious thinking.  It’s 1900, but the Civil War lives on in memory and objects. Race relations aren’t something Calpurnia gives a great deal of thought to, but her interactions with their African-American cook (a force to be reckoned with) and Cousin’s Aggie’s very low opinion of the vet from Galveston, who is Jewish, are clearly on display.   Even though the issues are heavy, Calpurnia’s strong sense of self and her passion for science and nature keep this from being a depressing book, and the focus on science and animals rather than clothes keep this from feeling like a girls-only book.  She remains a great character to introduce kids to the many things going on in this time period, as well as being fascinating reading for historical fiction fans.

Watch for more middle grade historical fiction coming on Friday this week!

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School Stories: Booked and Spirit Week Showdown

bookedBooked by Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
In Alexander’s second sports-and-life novel in verse after Newbury-winning The Crossover, middle schooler Nick loves soccer more than anything.  Except possibly his best friend Coby, now playing on a rival team, and his crush, April.  His parents are also going through a divorce, and that makes everything wrong.  There are also some serious issues with bullies, but help comes in the form of a hip male school librarian, Mac.

I loved The Crossover so, so much – but my feelings about this were much more mixed.  To start with the bad parts: too much of the poetry seemed like just sentences split up into short lines, rather than the amazing attention to word sound and different forms in The Crossover. It’s great that a librarian saves the day, but it grates to have it be yet another Cool Male Teacher vs. clueless females – see Fish in a Tree and Blackbird Fly for more examples of this.  Also, bullying is a serious issue, and this book offers old-school rather than current research-supported advice: punch the bully, and everything will sort itself out.  It’s really painful to see adults telling a kid that they won’t help him get his stolen bike back because he needs to man up and solve the problem himself.  All of that being said, the book still made me cry.  The characters were convincing and I was held by the story, despite my own personal lack of interest in sports in general.  We desperately need more engaging books for the kids who love sports and don’t think they love books, so this is still important to have.  Just follow it up with some real bully-proofing tactics.

I really loved Alexander’s recent article on race in children’s literature in the New York Times – take a look!

Spirit Week Showdown by Crystal AllenSpirit Week Showdown. Magnificent Mya Tibbs 1 by Crystal Allen. Balzer + Bray, 2016.
Mya (rhymes with papaya) Tibbs is a nine-year-old cowgirl, who lives with her big brother Nugget, her very pregnant mother, and her father, the owner of a feed & Western store.  Spirit Week is the biggest event at her Texas school, and Mya has made a pinkie promise to be partners with her new BFF, Naomi.  But it’s done by drawing, and her chosen partner, Mean Connie Tate, refuses to switch.  Now Naomi is telling everyone that Mya is a promise breaker and calling her “Mya Tibbs Fibbs.”  Even her big brother hears and gives Mya a hard time for being a liar!  Can Mya win Naomi back?  And is Connie as mean as Naomi’s always said she is?


I found this book while looking for books to add to my lists of books starring girls to read aloud to younger elementary classes (to match my Girl-Led Read-alouds for 4/5 Grade).  This is so much friend drama that I’m not sure it would have the general appeal I’m looking for.  That being said, I know from talking to teachers that friend drama is a huge issue among girls.  This is a really good treatment of it – Mya makes great but believable strides as a character, and there is a nice balance of fun with the drama.  Bonus – nobody dies or even gets divorced!  Crystal Allen is a veteran author, and this book looks to be the opening of a series that should be a staple in elementary school and classroom libraries.

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Diversity on the Shelf – August Update

I’m participating (or trying to!) in the Diversity on the Shelf Challenge hosted by Akilah at the Englishist.

As I mentioned in my last update, I was camping the first two weeks of August.  I didn’t finish even one book on this vacation – the only time I really sat down to read anything but the event’s paper was at the Laundromat. I only finished seven books total, way below my usual.  One of these was by an author of color:

The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich

  • The Game of Silence. Birchbark House Book 2 by Louise Erdrich.

Two more were by white authors with narrators of color

  • Poison is Not Polite. Wells & Wong #2 by Robin Stevens (Arsenic for Tea in the U.K.)
  • Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling by Tony Cliff 

Two more yet had main characters of color who weren’t the narrator, though I won’t count them officially for the challenge:

Cupcake Cousins by Kate Hannigan. I read this aloud to my daughter – we’re now on the second book, Spring Showers, where the African-American cousin, Delia, is the narrator.

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford, in which the little brother of one of the narrators is Chinese, and saves the day multiple times.

That puts me at 36 books total books by authors of color this year, and an additional 23 books by white authors with main characters of color.  I’ll need to read 9 books by authors of color this month to catch up to my goal!

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Little Robot

I finally made it to Ben Hatke’s last graphic novel – just in time for his next one, Mighty Jack, to come out on September 6.

Little Robot by Ben HatkeLittle Robot by Ben Hatke. First Second, 2015
This nearly wordless graphic novel follows a round young girl, who explores the area around her trailer park after the school bus takes away all the older children.  She’s wearing what looks to be an adult t-shirt many sizes too large for her, but though she looks short on outside help, she’s very resourceful.  Her first step is to find a tool bag she’s hidden in the dump, before heading off to explore nature and tinker with machines.  When a robot falls off a passing truck, she’s able to put it together and get it working, building a friendship with the little robot of the title.  But soon outside forces come to threaten the little robot…

Our heroine, the little robot, and all of their friends are just as adorable as we’ve come to expect from Ben Hatke’s work.  It’s also wonderful to see a girl of color shown as so matter-of-factly scientifically minded.  It can be tricky to keep wordless stories moving and making sense, but Hatke absolutely succeeds here.  All four members of my family read and very much enjoyed this story of friendship and loyalty.

If you haven’t yet read Hatke’s Zita the Space Girl books, you should definitely do so. Those looking for more graphic novels about kids and science could also try Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis.


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Highly Anticipated: The Raven King and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Here are two books so momentous in my anticipation that I was sure from the beginning that I wouldn’t be able to give a fair review to them. Both being books where one wants to #KeeptheSecrets makes things even more of a challenge. So, just a brief taste of both of these books.

Raven King by Maggie StiefvaterRaven King by Maggie Stiefvater. Read by Will Patton. Scholastic, 2016.
This is the final book in the Raven Cycle, one of my very favorite teen series to come out lately, and one which I’ve listened to all the books (except this one) at least twice at this point. So many questions here: Can our team find Glendower? Will Gansey make it out alive? Will our crew make it to some kind of future past high school, even if they can survive the vast supernatural forces arrayed against them? And what about the various adults stuck in uncomfortable positions as well? Stiefvater does so many things so very well – the friendships and the beginnings of romance, the adults who are real people with their own complicated lives even when the teens are the focus, the building tension and the underlying magic, both beautiful and creepy. There was one point near the end that I felt utterly betrayed the preceding story, which I would be happy to discuss with others who have read the book. I will need to listen to again, to get more of the complex layers and to see if there’s any way I can get that one piece to work for me.

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildHarry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany and J.K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levin, 2016.
Ah, Harry Potter! How I love you, despite your flaws! Of course we had to buy this book and read it, even if it’s only approved by J.K. rather than written straight out by her. Feelings: mixed but mostly positive. On the one hand, I loved seeing our major characters again, so many of them feeling like themselves. It was wonderfully realistic to see Harry having difficulty being a dad, and also good to see sympathetic characters put in Slytherin. The scenes are short, short, short. I also have to agree with Melissa of Book Nut that Thorne and Tiffany only wrote one aspect of Ron’s personality. I was going to say that it showed that it’s written by a playwright, in that I feel that large amounts of the characterization was left for the actors to fill in rather than being written out in the text. Then I saw Akilah’s post at the Englishist about how of course plays are meant to be read as well as watched. Well… I can see her point – but then maybe that means that this is still a lot of fun, worth reading once, but not something that has quite the level of depth and re-readability of the original books. I would dearly love to see it live, if I could hope for it to come close enough and be affordable.

Finally (not being able to hear the play’s score), I am left with “Time Plot” by Tom Smith running through my head.

Did you read these?  Agree/disagree with me?

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Top 10 Fantasy Authors I’ve Never Read for Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the wonderful book-lovers at the Broke and the Bookish.  The topic this week is a free entry on school-related books.  But I’ve had last week’s topic that I didn’t participate in kicking around in my head all week.  That topic was officially books that have been on my TBR since I started blogging.

Top Ten Tuesday

To be honest, I don’t remember what was on my TBR before I started blogging 12 years ago, except for The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan, a medieval classic which I don’t think I get enough sleep to read just now.  But since I’ve been blogging I have built up quite a list of authors that I’m sure I’d like but have never gotten around to reading during that time – not one book (not including the many, many authors where I’ve read some of their work and want to read much, much more.) Continue reading

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