Nightingale by Deva Fagan and Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch by Julie Abe

I’m trying to finish up my reviews of my fall Cybils reading.  Here are two new books from 2020 Cybils finalists Deva Fagan and Julie Abe.   Both of these authors were new to me in 2020, and I’m so glad that I discovered them and can keep reading more from them.

Cover of Nightingale by Deva Fagan.

by Deva Fagan.

Atheneum, 2021.

ISBN 978-1534465787.

Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

Outspoken, strong-minded Lark is really just trying to steal enough to buy her freedom from the horrible boarding house where she lives when she breaks into the royal museum.  Unfortunately, she’s timed her break-in for the same time that Prince Jasper, the not-crown prince, has decided to try to awaken the sword of the legendary Nightingale, hero of the kingdom.  It’s extra unfortunate that she happens to pick the sword up at just the right moment.  Now Sword thinks she’s the newest person to take up the cape of the legendary superhero the Nightingale, whose last incarnation vanished after a battle with the rogue ether-powered Crimson Knight, a conflict that ended the Golden Age when everyone had as much ether as they needed to power their lives. 

Lark’s mother was killed for her work in trying to unionize the ether workers, whose deadly work quickly turns humans into blue-glowing ghosts.  Lark’s roommate and best friend, Sophie, is also determined to expose the evils of the ether factory.  Prince Jasper wants to step out of the shadow of his perfect older brother, the Crown Prince.  Lark just wants to survive, and she’s convinced that heroes don’t survive. Sword, however, is very determined to show Lark that she can be the hero the city needs. 

This magical-industrial story is full of action that echoes early radio dramas and movies, while at the same time looking at the perils of unchecked industrialism and nationalism.  With side characters including Prince Jasper’s adorable dog Gadget, who has wheels replacing his missing back legs, and a retired lady spy who turns into an ally, as well as several dastardly villains, there’s plenty to keep this book moving both emotionally and plot-wise. 

Fans of this book might also enjoy The League of Secret Heroes series by Kate Hannigan.

Cover of Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch by Julie Abe

Eva Evergreen
and the Cursed Witch
by Julie Abe

Little, Brown, 2021

ISBN 978-0316493949

Read from library copy. 

Following the events of Eva Evergreen: Semi-Magical Witch, Eva is now a real Novice Witch!  But of course, things can’t just go smoothly.  Eva’s mother, one of the two advisors to Queen Alliana, is cursed by her supposed partner Hayato Grottel when it looks like she and Eva are about to expose that he is the one behind the gigantic recurring storms known as the Culling.  But even if he is behind it, why would he do it and how could he?  Eva wouldn’t normally be the first in line to take down a villain of this magnitude, but as the Culling increases in frequency from once a year to weekly, and multiple teams of investigating wizards go missing, that’s just what she does.  She and her two best friends from the previous book have found a way to pin down the location of Grottel’s stronghold that no one else has been able to find.  And somehow, she ends working with her arch-rival Conrad – Grottel’s nephew, who doesn’t want to believe anything bad of his own uncle (or good of Eva), but who is determined to do whatever he can to stop the Culling, no matter what.  

With Eva’s mother frozen and possibly dead, and lots and lots of vanished wizards, this book felt darker than the first one.  However, the villains were not as black as they seemed at first, and it was just as delightful.  

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Blog Tour: Riley’s Ghosts by John David Anderson

Once again, I’m very pleased to share the latest book by John David Anderson with you, this one a horror-filled ghost story. Keep reading for more, including a giveaway!


From the author of Posted comes a ghost story pulled from the darkest shadows of middle school—and a tale of one girl’s attempt to survive them.

Riley Flynn is alone.

It feels like she’s been on her own since sixth grade, when her best friend, Emily, ditched her for the cool girls. Girls who don’t like Riley. Girls who, on this particular day, decide to lock her in the science closet after hours, after everyone else has gone home.

When Riley is finally able to escape, however, she finds that her horror story is only just beginning. All the school doors are locked, the windows won’t budge, the phones are dead, and the lights aren’t working. Through halls lit only by the narrow beam of her flashlight, Riley roams the building, seeking a way out, an answer, an explanation. And as she does, she starts to suspect she isn’t alone after all.

While she’s always liked a good scary story, Riley knows there is no such thing as ghosts. But what else could explain the things happening in the school, the haunting force that seems to lurk in every shadow, around every corner? As she tries to find answers, she starts reliving moments that brought her to this night.

John David Anderson author photo


John David Anderson is the author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including the New York Times Notable Book Ms. Bixby’s Last DayPostedGrantedOne Last Shot, and Stowaway. A dedicated root beer connoisseur and chocolate fiend, he lives with his wonderful wife, two frawesome kids, and clumsy cat, Smudge, in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can visit him online at


Oh, middle school! Well do I remember the loneliness and horror of my own middle school days. Our girl Riley has intense feelings and reactions with no brakes that have made her an easy target for bullying – which only makes her react more. And as a vegetarian, being locked in a closet full of partially-dissected frogs is beyond horrible. As in Stowaway, chapters with Riley locked in the haunted middle school alternate with stories of her past life. And as in many of John David Anderson’s books (The Dungeoneers, Minion, Sidekicked )we know something is wrong, but first impressions are misleading. Though this is filled with so much genuine sorrow – both from her home life and from the pain at school. But there are many moments of genuine humor and love amid the horror. And maybe learning about the pain of a former middle school student will help Riley, too.

If you enjoy bullying seen through a fantasy lens, you may also enjoy my post 3 Fantasies about Bullying: The Insiders, Friend Me, and the Nightmare Thief. If you’re in it for the ghosts, try 3 Scary Stories: Temple Alley Summer, Ghost Girl, and Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales or The Girl and the Ghost. Or, just check out more stops on this blog tour!

Tour Stops

January 10 Nerdy Book Club @Nerdy Book Club

January 12 A Nerdy Bibliophile in Wanderlust @bethshaum

January 13 Teachers Who Read @teachers_read

January 14 A Library Mama @alibrarymama

January 15 Maria’s Mélange @selkeslair

January 18 Lit Coach Lou @litcoachlou


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2021 Cybils Finalists and Ones that Got Away

Happy New Year, dear readers! Here is the fantastic list of Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalists the other panelists and I put together. (Click through the link to read our beautifully crafted blurbs! It’s always hard to trim the list down to the required length, but I’m really proud of this list.

Here’s the list with links to my own reviews:

And here are some of my favorites that didn’t make the list. There are a variety of different reasons – but all of these have stuck with me, and are ones I’ll recommend to people regardless.

Once I’ve read a couple of romance novels as a palate cleanser, I’ll go on to read the finalists in other categories. If you’re here, you might also enjoy some of my favorite other categories – Middle Grade Fiction, Graphic Novels, and Young Adult Speculative Fiction.

Have you or do you want to read any of these books? What’s next on your TBR?

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Dystopias: the Last Cuentista and the Monster Missions

There are only a few more days until January 1, when the Cybils finalists will be announced. I’m trying very hard to share reviews of as many of the wonderful books I’ve read for them as I can before them. Here are two very different stories of life after disaster on earth – one literary and set in space, one action-oriented, and set on an Earth entirely covered by oceans.

Cover of the Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista
by Donna Barba Higuera

Levine Querido, 2021

ISBN 978-1646140893

Read from library copy. 

In the not-so-distant future, Earth is about to be hit and destroyed by Halley’s Comet.  Petra Peña, her younger brother Javier, and scientist parents, are one of the few families selected to be transported on giant spaceships first built as luxury cruisers to a potentially habitable planet.  Her botanist mother and geologist father have useful skills to bring to the new world.  Petra is heartbroken to be separated from her Abuelita, who told her so many beautiful cuentos (stories), and terrified that her partial blindness will be discovered.  There’s also a good bit of anxiety from everyone about the whole plan of being put into suspension for a few centuries, being cared for by a team of dedicated volunteers who will never actually see the planet they’re helping people get to.

Somehow, though, Petra doesn’t fall asleep, but is aware of stories from all cultures being read to her, some recorded and some by her caretaker.  When she’s officially awakened, she can tell that the ship has been taken over by a group calling themselves the Collective, a group she remembers from before which wanted humanity to start over with no memory of their own past for a completely fresh start.  They have tried and failed to wipe her brain clear. 

But Petra believes deeply in the power of stories, and that humanity can’t improve without knowing where they came from.  She also believes that the other children now being woken in her pod deserve to know where they came from as well.  Her new mission is to teach them their past, foil the Collective’s plan, and find a safe home for them.  Sadly, since the Collective was waking people in batches and discarding them if their brain wipes didn’t work, she knows that she will never see her parents again.  

This was beautiful and difficult, with lots of thinky thoughts about stories, history and humanity, and the loss of many, many people.  There is certainly action as well, as Petra and her companions try to escape and then also survive on a strange planet.  Many short cuentos are woven through the narrative, along with Petra’s memories of her old life on Earth.  It won’t be for every reader, but those who appreciate a reflective dystopian story will love it.  

Cover of the Monster Missions by Laura Martin

The Monster Missions
by Laura Martin.

HarperCollins, 2021.

ISBN 978-0062894380.

Read from library copy. 

In the not-so-distant future, Earth’s water levels have risen so high that there is no longer land at all.  Berkley and her best friend Garth have grown up on board a ship, and have worked as scavengers diving for abandoned but still usable things since they were both 11.  On one of these trips, Berkley accidentally awakens a giant sea monster.  With some quick reactions, she and Garth are able to stay alive and head it away from the ship – but as these sea monsters are supposed to be kept secret on the rare occasions that they’re found, and as the ship is still damaged, they are exiled from their home. 

Fortunately for them, instead of being sent to a prison work ship, they are taken on as students aboard the submarine Britannica.  There, they will help that ship’s dual missions of studying the sea monsters and defending residential ships from them.  

This book is mostly lots of adventure, including many sea monsters and also some pirates.  The deep thinking is mostly over with the premise, though Berkley needs to learn to recognize when her best friend is depressed.  There are some issues with the details of the story, such as divers being able to see long distances deep under the ocean, and Berkley and Garth on board the Britannica being taught immediately about obscure sea monsters, but not about the emergency protocols.  Still, the premise is unique, and for readers who want a futuristic adventure with lots of monster fun – both chasing and being chased – The Monster Missions delivers by the bucketful.  

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The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny

It may be almost Christmas, but I’m still focused on my Cybils reading. Here’s one from Irish author Pádraig Kenny that strikes a balance between scary, adventuresome, and thoughtful.

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny. Illustrated by Edward Bettison.

Henry Holt, 2021

ISBN 978125062342

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

Mirabelle, who at least appears to be around 12, lives in the hidden manor of Rookhaven. She is out feeding bones to the manor’s guard flowers as the story opens, and terribly excited to learn that a new member of the family may soon be joining them.  Jem and her very ill older brother Tom have lost both their parents in the war (we get a first clue of time here) and are scrounging enough ration tickets to eat and make their way across the country, away from their abusive uncle.  When their car runs out of petrol, they somehow see a hole in the world leading to a beautiful manor where they hope they can find refuge, at least for a little while.  

There is immediate tension when they arrive.  Outsiders should not be in Rookhaven. But Mirabelle is convinced that helping people who have nowhere else to go is the right thing to do, even if it puts all of them in danger. Jem and Tom are warned not to leave their rooms at night, and especially not to go near Piglet’s room.  But the walls around Rookhaven are not just there to protect the people of the surrounding village from its unusual residents, but also to protect the residents from outsiders who might wish them harm.  

They are just trying to navigate this tricky situation when a new man arrives in the village.  The butcher who supplies Rookhaven with its meat is happy to give him a room – but his son has seen an improbably large mouth and too-sharp teeth behind the friendly smile…

We might want to call the residents of Rookhaven monsters, but anyone at all might turn into a monster if convinced.  Or perhaps, knowing about others’ hidden pain might help us to see humanity even in those we thought were monsters.  

Edward Bettison’s engraving-style illustrations highlight the creepy, vintage nature of the story, with the same images used multiple times like musical themes to highlight specific places and characters.  The beautiful art, real physical danger, family relationships of multiple kinds, mysteries and monsters combine with deep themes of understanding to make a truly impressive book. It looks like the sequel, The Shadows of Rookhaven, is out now in the UK and I’m hoping will be out in the US in the next year as well.

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3 Fantasies by Award-Winning Authors: Willodeen, the Beatryce Prophecy, and the Robber Girl

Here are three more Cybils-nominated books, all of them by authors who have already won major awards, all three also about children finding meaning and a new life after major trauma.

Cover of Willodeen by Katherine Applegate. A small winged bear stands between the eyes of a large blue boar-like creature with curling tusks.

by Katherine Applegate.
Illustrated by Charles Santoso

Feiwel and Friends, 2021 

ISBN 978-1250147400

Read from library copy. 

Willodeen’s town, Perchance, is known for its adorable fuzzy, flying hummingbears, who nest in beautiful bubbles that draw tourists to their town every year.  But Willodeen and her pa love all kinds of creatures, including the large, stinky screechers who root under those same trees.  

Then comes the Great September Fire that has deadly consequences for many people in town, including the rest of Willodeen’s family.  Willodeen is taken in by an older couple, Mae and Birdie.  She has all the notebooks she needs, and a pet hummingbear, Duuzuu, of her own.  But her new house isn’t home, and she isn’t comfortable enough to go to school.

What finally brings her out is seeing that the screechers are being hunted to extinction, and – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – the hummingbears that Perchance’s economy relies on are no longer coming to town.  Searching for this brings her in contact with a boy her own age, Connor.  Together they work to find the cause and the solution, and together they make a kind of magic that just might help the town see that nature knows more than we do.  

This is a lovely environmental story from Applegate. Even though the back story is grim and the possible extinction is painful, the overall feeling is cozy and hopeful.

Cover of the Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo.  A child stands on a hill under a tree dressed as a novice monk holds a red book and has an arm around a goat in a medieval-style illustration.

The Beatryce Prophecy
by Kate DiCamillo.
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

Candlewick, 2021.

ISBN 9781536213614.

Read from library copy. 

This is the story of a monk with a roving eye, an orphan boy, a refugee girl, and a possibly demonic, definitely opinionated goat.  

Gentle Brother Edik finds refuge and beauty in his work illuminating the Chronicles of Sorrowing. But like all the other brothers at the monastery, he stays as far away from Answelica the goat as possible.  So when he goes into the goat pen one morning and finds a girl curled up with Answelica, he is terrified for her.  The girl, Beatryce, remembers nothing but her name and how to read, though her clothes are torn and dirty and her feet bloody. 

Against all odds, Answelica decides that she is Beatryce’s protector. Brother Edik also feels a strong need to protect her, especially as reading is forbidden to girls.  Meanwhile, the king and his oily advisor are hunting Beatryce, as they believe that she is the girl prophesied in the Chronicles of Sorrowing to be the one to take down a king.  And even though Beatryce doesn’t know about the prophecy, she’s definitely not one to let the king get away with his crimes without telling him what she thinks of him. 

Though the back story is grim, it’s told slowly, in bits and pieces, without dwelling too much on the horror of it, with plenty of time in between spent on friendship, love, the power and joy of reading and stories, and Answelica’s antics. This keeps it at a level to work as a read-aloud for elementary students. Sophie Blackall’s pencil illustrations, frequently in full-page illumination style complete with leafy borders and cornflowers, are the perfect complement.  Kate DiCamillo’s many fans are sure to enjoy this.  

Robber Girl
by Franny Billingsley.

Candlewick, 2021.

ISBN 978-0763669560.

Read from library copy. 

The Robber Girl, by contrast, has no name, and won’t have one until she’s helped Gentleman Jack hold up a stagecoach to get the gold he feels is owed him.  She doesn’t remember a time before she lived with Gentleman Jack and his Gentlemen in their cave. The dagger that he gave her speaks to her in her mind, encouraging her to make Jack happy and prove her loyalty and gratitude to him.  So when Gentleman Jack is captured and Robber Girl is taken in by the town judge who helped to capture him, she is determined to help him get free.  Even if the attic bed is cozy and warm and the food delicious, and the mother and father doll in the dollhouse convinced that the town of Blue Roses is calling to her and wants her to stay.  

The setting is Western, but definitely magical.  The landscape has pink rocks and is covered with scrubby indigo trees, while many of the Gentlemen have Afflictions that make it clear to all what terrible crimes they’ve committed.  Robber Girl herself has an Affliction of being unable to speak to people unless they have spoken to her immediately prior, though she doesn’t know what might have brought it on.  

It’s hard even to articulate the uniqueness of Robber Girl’s voice, her wonder at describing things new and things suddenly remembered from her previous life.  And even as she comes in believing in Gentleman Jack’s rightness and glamour, her perspective shifts as she spends more time in the town he’s preyed on for years.  At the same time, she hates the restrictions of school and silverware and the silence  and sorrow of the Judge’s cottage.  This book, 400 pages long in small type, requiring the reader to look past what Robber Girl is saying to find the truth, was gorgeous and absorbing and definitely meant for the upper end of the middle grade spectrum, and I’d say especially good for adult readers of children’s literature.  It is still most definitely worth reading.  

Let me know in the comments if you have read or want to read any of these!

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3 Scary Stories: Temple Alley Summer, Ghost Girl, and Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales

Here’s some more of my Cybils reading – ranked roughly in order from least to most frightening.

Temple Alley Summer 
by Sachiko Kashiwaba. Translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa. Illustrated by Miho Satake

Yonder, 2021

ISBN 978-1632063038

Read from library copy. 

Fifth-grade Kazu has been up late watching horror movies on TV – a Japanese summer tradition.  Unable to sleep in the middle of the night, he looks out of his window and sees a girl in a white kimono with red baubles in her hair coming out of his house on the other side of the courtyard.  He thinks she’s a ghost – until she turns up in his classroom the next day, and everyone else says that Akari has always been there.  

That day, looking at an old map in class, he learns that his street used to be called Temple Alley, and that his house was the site of a temple whose name, Kimyō, translates as “return to life.”  His mother decides that learning more about this will be a good summer project for him, but interviewing the neighbors seems to be a dead end – they’re determined not to talk to him, and are only interested in knowing if Kazu has actually seen someone return from the dead.  

The more he learns, though, the more protective he grows of Akari, a girl his own age who died without ever having a chance to live.  That leads him to help her search for the rest of the serialized story she read in a magazine in her previous life – 40 years earlier.  This story, about a girl sold to a witch by her desperate father, is also included.  His new friendship with Akari also leads to some raised eyebrows from his best friend, Yūsuke, who’s convinced that he’s abandoned his previous crush for Akari.  

Overall, I would say that this is a not-too-scary ghost story, with the most intense and distressing parts in the story-within-the story.  I didn’t quite buy the logic of the ending, but overall, I enjoyed the story and particularly the look at the intertwining faiths of Japan and the rhythms of summer.  Black-and-white illustrations are manga style during the main narrative, and European fairy-tale style silhouettes in the secondary story.  

Ghost Girl
by Ally Malinenko

Katherine Tegen Books, 2021

ISBN 978-0063044609

Read from library copy. 

Middle schooler Zee Puckett loves scary things – ghost stories, visiting the cemetery, and big storms.  But that changes after a very large storm in her small New England town, when people disappear and she and her best friend Elijah are chased by giant dogs in the cemetery.  Zee also hears voices at night, and even sees a ghost on her sofa.  

As their principal is one of the first to disappear, but only a day later, there’s a new principal, Mr. Scratch.  He’s dressed all in black except for one shiny red glove, and he’s very interested in everyone telling him their deepest, most selfish desire.  Zee seems to be the only one who isn’t convinced that he’s genuine, and it soon gets worse.  

Everything for both Zee and Elijah is made worse by their family situations.  Zee’s widowed father has been away looking for work for six months, leaving her in the care of her 21-year-old sister.  Elijah, meanwhile, has a mother who hasn’t gotten out of bed recently, and a father who wants him to lose weight, man up, and take up football.  When Zee’s class nemesis Nellie sees Zee talking to a ghost and also gets chased by the dogs, she has to be let in on the mystery-solving, too. There is some character growth as the two girls work through their differences, but mostly this was a story of middle schoolers battling a very creepy evil that no one else believes exists.  

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales
by Soman Chainani. Read by Polly Lee. Print edition illustrated by Julia Iredale.

Harper Audio, 2021.


Listened to audiobook on Libby and looked at the illustrations in the print edition, as my holds on both came in around the same time. 

The author of The School for Good and Evil takes on traditional fairy tales (plus the Little Mermaid) in this new collection, not for the faint of heart.   There is violence, murder and betrayal in abundance.  All the stories have characters of diverse skin tones, and they are linked with repeated phrases and musings on the meaning of beauty, gender roles, true love, and what it means to be a witch.  Some stories have traditional evil witches, while some claim that a witch is a woman who refuses to let a man boss her around.  Some have happier endings than the original – usually without the wedding in the original – while others turn tragic.  Some girls and boys long to be married, while others shun it, and still others prefer the company of their own gender. Some of these twists I found horrifying, while I cheered or was moved by others. Snow White – named for the whites of her eyes – is Black, she and her mother both treated as outcasts for their skin color. But where her mother died, defeated, Snow White claims both her beauty and her power. Sleeping Beauty, both confusingly and disturbingly, seemed to be a same-sex vampire romance. Rapunzel loves her prince’s kisses, but would rather not be trapped in another tower as his wife. The witches in Hansel and Gretel and the Little Mermaid are both redeemed – that last story is essentially a monologue with the witch explaining why the Little Mermaid can’t really be experiencing true love and wouldn’t do well with a traditional prince. Polly Faber narrates in a lovely British accent, while Julia Iredale paints lovely watercolors, mostly grayscale, but at least one full color for each story. I am not sure that I’d want to read it again, but it has given me plenty to think about and I am definitely glad I read it.  

There have been lots of scary stories this year – check out my post 3 Spine-Tinglers: The Plentiful Darkness, Long Lost, and Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares if you haven’t already.

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3 Fantasies about Change: Josephine Against the Sea, A Wilder Magic, and Elvis and the World as it Stands

Once again, a small selection of Cybils-nominated books united by a theme. Today we’re looking at kids forced to deal with change they’re not willing to accept, from a parent wanting to date again after the death of the other, to divorce and leaving the ancestral home. If you’ve read any of these, or have thoughts on others that would fit this theme, let me know in the comments!

Josephine Against the Sea

by Shakirah Bourne

Scholastic, 2021

ISBN 978-1338642087

Read from library copy. 

10-year-old Josephine lives in a tiny Barbados fishing village.  Ever since her mother’s death some years earlier, she’s had two missions: to make every one of her father’s dates a failure, and to join the all-boys cricket team.  Her mostly unwilling ally in this is her best friend Ahkai, described as autistic.  Usually, spilling fish guts on women as they come in is a good deterrent, but after her father comes home with an ornate comb, he also brings home a new woman.  Mariss is strangely beautiful and imperturbable, just laughing at Josephine’s attempts to drive her away.   It isn’t long before Josephine is putting together the stories from her school caretaker’s stories with Mariss’s strange actions – sometimes helpful, sometimes threatening – and realizing that Mariss is an ancient and dangerous sea deity.  Compared to her, Josephine might even be willing to put up with her father dating Miss Alleyne, the only one of Josephine’s teachers who encourages her cricket ambitions.  

Josephine’s unkind pranks put me off initially, but she is a couple of years younger than most middle grade fantasy main characters, and she had both good reasons for her lack of maturity a lot of growth.  I loved the visit to Barbados, and Josephine’s adventures with Mariss.  This is a natural match for fans of The Jumbies.

A Wilder Magic
by Juliana Brandt

Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021.

ISBN 9781728245737

Read from library copy. 

Sybaline Shaw thinks her family’s valley is the most beautiful place on earth.  Besides that, her cousins live there, and their family magic is all drawn from the valley and stops working outside it.  So when a government man comes to tell them that they have to move to the city because their whole valley will be flooded by the new dam, Sybaline is determined to resist.  She and her cousin and best friend Nettle decide to find a way to use the magic to stay in their homes, even if the rest of her family decides to move away.  The examples of what can happen if they use too much magic have always been right there in front of them – PawPaw turned to a tree next to his wife’s grave in the cemetery, and an aunt who has leaves growing out of her shoulders.  But surely staying in the valley is helping to save the valley and wouldn’t count as using the magic for unnatural purposes – right?  But life at what soon turns into the bottom of a lake isn’t quite what they thought it would be.  And when a boy from outside the valley with no magic of his own gets involved, things get dire quickly.  Though Sybaline learns that folks outside the valley consider her poor for going barefoot and having only her cousins for friends, the book shines with her love for her place, her family, and her connection to her culture – even as the place that has meant home for so long vanishes.  Though the magic here is green and familiar, unlike the dark and mysterious magic of Brandt’s debut, The Wolf of Cape Fen, they both have heroines determined to do whatever it takes to save those they love and settings in small, tightly-knit communities.  

Other stories of Appalachian magic include Cattywumpus by Ash Van Otterloo and Seven Wild Sisters by Charles DeLint and Charles Vess.

Elvis and the World as it Stands 

by Lisa Frenkel Riddiough. Illustrated by Olivia Chin Mueller

Amulet Books, 2021

ISBN 9781419752391

Read from library copy.

As the story opens, kittens Elvis and his sister Etta are anxiously waiting for an adoption fair at the City Shelter of Care and Comfort.  Elvis is horrified and heartbroken when the lady who picks him refuses to take Etta, too.  She’s adopting him as a present for her daughter, Georgina, to help her adjust to her parents’ divorce.  But Elvis doesn’t know anything about this. When he arrives at his new home and is welcomed by Georgina’s other pets, a hamster named Mo and a fish named Laverne, all he can think about is getting back to Etta. Mommy’s cranky cat Clementine would like Elvis to leave, too.  It takes time to appreciate how Mo helps Georgina build elaborate Lego replicas of famous architecture, including the Twin Towers, which her parents visited early in their relationship.  Slowly, Elvis realizes that everyone around him has suffered as well.  

It’s very easy for talking pets to veer into the overly sweet or campy.  I was worried about this for the first chapter or so.  Gradually, though, I got drawn into the story and appreciated the characters and their journey.  Even Clementine was not the jealous monster she appeared at first (although I am still very uncomfortable about Mommy and Georgina being responsible pet owners, keeping a fish in a bowl without a lid in a house with two cats!)  Still, this was a look at “resilience and fortitude” – also Mo’s catchphrase – that’s softened by being seen through kitten eyes. The pets – and Olivia Chin Mueller’s illustrations of them – are adorable. It’s one I’d put on the upper elementary end of middle grade, though I’m convinced my cat- and LEGO-loving seventh grader would still enjoy it.  On the not-quite-middle-grade end, so a bit younger, Wedgie and Gizmo by Suzanne Selfors is another book that looks at divorce through the eyes of pets with their own agendas.  

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3 Fantasies about Bullying: The Insiders, Friend Me, and the Nightmare Thief

As an empathic adult who was bullied as a child, bullying is always very painful for me to read about. But it happens all too frequently, and it is dishonest for adults to deny kids the opportunity to read about it because we wish it weren’t happening to them.  Here are three 2021 Cybils nominees worth reading that look at bullying from a science fiction or fantasy standpoint.  

The Insiders by Mark Oshiro

The Insiders
by Mark Oshiro

HarperCollins, 2021.

ISBN 9780063008106

Read from library copy. 

Héctor Muñoz and his family have recently moved from San Francisco to the suburbs of Orangevale, California.  He’s put together a fabulous outfit including lavender pants and bells on his bag for his first day of middle school – and is immediately targeted by bullies who make it clear that being gay is not acceptable in Orangevale.  To make matters worse, the school security officer thinks that the bully, Mike, is a star student and insists that Héctor must be lying that he’s being chased.  Héctor tries dressing in bland clothes and staying away from Mike, but nothing works.  Finally, he takes to hiding in a janitor’s closet – the irony!  Oddly, though, the closet moves around the school, always appearing when he needs it the most.  Soon it’s not just a closet, but a room containing whatever he needs – a fluffy bed when he’s been too upset to sleep, chocolate cereal and his abuela’s delicious horchata when he’s missed breakfast.  Then he finds other kids in the room – nonbinary Sal from Arizona whose classmates find this hard to accept, and Juliana from Georgia who’s been told she can’t take another girl to the middle school dance – both of whom need refuge as well.  As they figure out how the magic of their own personal Room of Requirement works, they also make plans to stop their bullying.  Although the bullying is painful, the room itself is a delight that helps take some of the weight off. Héctor’s parents and abuela are very supportive of him as well, even though it takes him a really long time to tell them what’s going on.  I really enjoyed getting to know Héctor, and would happily read more stories from Mark Oshiro.  

Friend Me by Sheila M. Averbuch

Friend Me
by Sheila M. Averbuch. Read by Katy Davis.

Scholastic, 2020.


Listened to audiobook on Hoopla. 

Roisin has recently moved from Ireland to the United States, and is finding middle school a nightmare.  It starts with her clothes – used to school uniforms, she doesn’t have enough to wear a different outfit every day, and her classmate Zara latches onto this as a way to attack her, first in private messages on social media, then in public posts, escalating to threats of violence.  Her mother is constantly in her AI lab and hasn’t had time to take Roisin shopping or pay attention to what’s going on.  So when Roisin switches social media apps and finds a girl named Haley who’s always there to send her supportive messages, it feels like a lifeline.  But when Haley starts making threats towards Zara and Zara really does get into an accident, Roisin starts to wonder if Haley really is who she says she is.  This is billed as a thriller, and it does get there, but the first two-thirds at least is focused on the bullying and Roisin and Haley’s conversations about it.  As usual for me, I found the bullying very hard to listen to – the audiobook was a double-edged sword here, as I felt even more painfully part of the story by listening to it, but I really appreciated narrator Katy Davis’s switching between Roisin’s Dublin Irish accent and the mostly American accents around her. As someone who has myself lived in different places, I also appreciated how Roisin got tripped up by cultural differences that hadn’t even been on her radar. Rather ironically, it was easier for me once it got to the thriller part, especially as Roisin has by then made some real-life friends.  Many people, though, really love thrillers, so this book would probably work well for them. It closes with some resources and advice for kids being bullied, so that this could be a valuable resource for middle school kids who are either being bullied or have themselves turned to bullying, as it is so common for kids to be on either or both sides at this age.  

The Nightmare Thief by Nicole Lesperance

The Nightmare Thief
by Nicole Lesperance

Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021

ISBN 978-1728215341 

Read from library copy. 

Maren Partridge lives in a cozy seaside town popular with tourists because of its magic.  Her family is known for handcrafting dreams – something a little on the darker side than most of the magic, which tends towards things like edible fireworks, singing bubbles, and air that always smells like freshly-baked treats.  Maren, though, is very distressed – her teenage sister Hallie is in a coma from which it’s increasingly uncertain she’ll awaken.  Meanwhile, her grandmother’s shop is visited by a very suspect woman looking for very large quantities of unpleasant nightmares.  And when Ms. Malo catches Maren illegally giving her sister a dream to try to help her remember herself, she’s got the perfect angle with which to blackmail Maren into making her nightmares.  Here, the darkness of her sister’s condition and the horrible plans of the villain is balance by the fun fantasy setting, including a delightful parrot who spews hilarious insults in French but saves the day.  Still, it looks at the repercussions of bullying, shows that it can be done to adults as well as children, and shows at least one method for breaking free from the cycle.  It looks like there’s a sequel, The Dream Spies, due out next year.

What do you think – do the kids in your life like or avoid books about bullying?

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Five 2021 Cybils-Nominated Fantasy Adventures

Sometimes I write short reviews because there’s not a lot to say about the books. Today, however, I am doing my very best short reviews because I have so very, very many good books that I want to tell you about.

The Threads of Magic
by Alison Croggon

Candlewick, 2021

ISBN 978-1536207194.

Read from library copy.  

There are many plot threads as well as magical threads wound tightly in this one-volume fantasy.  It starts in the city of Clarel, where street kids Pip and El find an ornate silver box with a plain-looking black lump in it.  Despite the plainness of the contents, they find themselves being hunted by assassins, forced to look for help in places they would never previously have considered – including a girl, Oni, whose mother Amina is housekeeper and confidante to Princess Georgette.  Georgette in turn dreams of being queen and making real change in the city, though she has been underestimated and ignored up until now.  But the assassins, Georgette’s tutor, and the villains all get their own POV chapters, too.  Slowly, our heroes and we learn of the evil Spectres who eat souls to take over bodies and live forever.  Can a handful of kids – maybe with the help of some undercover witches – stop evil that’s been growing for centuries?  

The Raven Heir 

by Stephanie Burgis

Bloomsbury, 2021

ISBN 978-1547606375

Read from purchased copy. 
Ebook available on Libby.

Shape-shifting Cordelia and her triplet siblings, sword-fighting Rosalind and bard Giles have grown up in a tower surrounded by a forest in a Welsh-inspired medieval kingdom.  Their older brother – who remembers being held hostage for an extended period before they were born – and their sorceress mother and her friend Alys – are keeping them there to prevent them from being used as pawns in the ongoing battle for control over the Raven Crown.  But of course, this safety can’t last forever, and soon Cordelia, Rosalind and Giles are on their own, trying to figure out who to trust among rival groups.  Everyone is sure that one of the triplets will be the one that the Raven Crown will accept as the next ruler. As readers, we aren’t really in doubt that our point of view character will be the heir – but even as the destination is known, the journey there has unexpected twists, as well as a focus on the sibling relationships.  It deals with death and sacrifice while staying entertaining and not feeling overly heavy.  And after the way it ended, I am not at all sure how the story will continue.  

Kiki Kallira
Breaks a Kingdom
by Sangu Mandanna

Penguin Random House, 2021

ISBN 978-0593206973

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

Kiki’s been having trouble living her life as her head is filled with “scratchy” anxiety that insists she go check on ideas she knows are ridiculous, like her mother being attacked by a goose in their kitchen.  To get around it, she spends more and more time drawing pictures in her notebook, telling a story set in the magical city of Mysore, based on the real Mysore in India where her family is from, but blended with Indian legends.  In her story, the once-beautiful city has been taken over by the evil demon Mahishasura and her aunt Ashwini, who in real life died at age 13, is the leader of the demon-fighting kid resistance.  It’s all great fun – until Ashwini and a demon show up in her bedroom, and Ashwini says she needs Kiki’s help in the magical Mysore.  Once there, she finds that her gang of kids are real people, most of them not very happy to be stuck in a dangerous life on their own.  Kiki created the world to escape from her anxiety – but now having to save it is more pressure than she ever wanted.  Like Healer of the Water Monster, this is a book where the main character determines pretty quickly that she’s not going to be able to win with weapons.  All of these aspects, plus extra emphasis on the often-overlooked powers of girls, make this a truly winning book.  

How to Save a Queendom
by Jessica Lawson

Simon & Schuster, 2021

ISBN 978-1534414341

Read from library copy. 

Stub has grown up in the chicken coop behind the inn where her mother left her as a baby, serving out an “apprenticeship” to the cruel Matron Trotte and her son.  She’s limited her dreams to keeping her pet chicken, Peck, alive.

Then she discovers a tiny wizard in her pocket.  Orlen is – or perhaps was – the royal wizard to the current queen of the Maradon, and has accidentally shrunk himself while trying to uncover a highly-placed traitor.  Now he’s bound to Stub and insists that she take him back to the capital, before the big anniversary Peace Festival, when he believes the evil queen of a neighboring queendom will try to attack.  On the way, they pick up the very cautious son of a rover, who has maps they need.  He may not be comfortable sleeping on the ground, but as an apprentice cook, he’ll make delicious meals for them out of whatever they can find.  But when they get to the capital, they discover that things are even more complicated than they thought.  This is mostly a save-the-queendom adventure, but the plot has enough intricacy to be interesting, there’s plenty of humor, and Stub also has a nice journey towards finding a better home and sense of self.  

by Karla Arenas Valenti

Knopf, 2021

ISBN 978-0593176962

Read from library copy. 

Carla’s biggest problem is not burning her mother’s famous hot chocolate at the tiny restaurant in what used to be their living room in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Life and Death (who prefers to be called Catrina) are two great friends who meet up in the mortal world only once in a while to play a game of lotería, letting fate pick the mortal who will follow one of them afterwards.  This time, fate chooses Carla, who has no idea what is happening as adventures and tragedies begin piling up around her.  Still, she’s determined to make her own choices and save her beloved younger cousin Esteban.  At the same time, Life and Catrina debate the existence of free will as their lotería cards fill up and as Carla keeps running into the things named on the cards just pulled.  Carla’s adventures take her to many wonders in Mexico, as well as the magical kingdom of Las Pozas, filled with beauty and danger.  The ending was shockingly unexpected and unsettling – making a strong case for free will by refusing to provide a straightforward happy ending.  Spanish is included throughout, sometimes followed with a direct translation and sometimes with an in-context reaction that explains what was just said.  

Let me know in the comments what your favorite recent fantasy adventure books are! 

These books have been nominated for the Cybils award. The reviews reflect my own opinion, not that of the committee.

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