When I posted on Facebook that I was reading two new books about menopause, many of my friends wanted side-by-side comparisons. Unlike first menstruation, where there are dozens of friendly books as well as classes and workshops, menopause is kept shrouded in shameful silence, with very little information volunteered up front. Even doctors often don’t recognize symptoms that are typical as such, and there is a lot of misinformation floating around.
This sequel to Anya and the Dragon came out just after last year’s Cybils deadline (meaning it will be eligible to be nominated this year!), so I didn’t get to it in the middle of my reading then. I’m so glad I circled back to it, as it was just delightful. And if you or your loved young ones celebrate Sukkot, you still have time to track this down to have a holiday-appropriate book.
Anya and the Nightingale
by Sofiya Pasternack
Read from library copy.
As the book opens, Anya is struggling to build her family’s booth for Sukkot, with “assistance” from her goat as her father has been sent off to the city with the army. When she hears that her father is actually being sent to the war front, she sets off to the capital to rescue him, with her friend Ivan the fool (now crushing on nearly everyone) and her dragon friend Håkon. After an encounter with the witch Lena, Håkon is in human form – much easier for camouflage, but a big learning curve for Håkon.
But Anya’s straightforward plan of marching straight up to the Tsar to demand her father’s release is thrown completely off when they are attacked by a feral-looking boy before they even get to Kiev, a boy who is able to steal their magic. Their attempts to defend themselves are interrupted by the arrival of a troupe of the czar’s guardsmen, led by the fierce princess Vasilisa. Luckily, they’re saved. Unluckily, they are taken captive, and the only way for Anya to gain an audience with the Tsar is to figure out how to defeat the boy, called the Nightingale. But even that might not be the worst, as they can sense a powerful evil lurking under the city…
Anya has spent her whole life up to this point in a tiny village where hers was the only Jewish family. Here, she meets a cute Jewish boy her own age – and a whole community, all of whom know much more about her own faith and traditions than she does. Everywhere she looks, things that were straightforward in her own village are much more complicated. And through all of it, Anya keeps getting flashbacks to the terrible events of the first book, seeing the horrible villain looming over her or hearing his insults just when she needs to be strong. Ivan’s crushes are both hilarious and genuine, as he grows red and tongue-tied around the objects of his affection, regardless of their gender.
I really liked the first book, but all of these added elements give Anya and the Nightingale that much more depth. That depth, together with a great characters, humor, and a search for non-violent solutions in a world that expects violence are making this one of my very favorite current series.
It’s been quite a while since I reviewed any historical fiction and I was very excited for the opportunity to review this book. It’s a moving, high-stakes portrait of a girl’s refusal to give up her family or her dreams in the midst of Mexico’s civil war, available September 14.
The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna by Alda P. Dobbs.
Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021.
Review copy kindly sent by the author.
In 1913 Mexico, 12-year-old Petra has been forced to become the primary breadwinner for her family, taking care of her younger sister Amelia, baby brother Luisito, and her Abuelita. First her mother died and then her father was forced into joining the army of the Federales, a cause he definitely doesn’t support. They were poor to begin with, looked down on for their brown skin, leaving cutting firewood as the best thing Petra can do to survive.
When the Federales return, burning their whole village down, the little family flees north into the desert. At first, they have no destination and very little hope. Then, sheltering at a church, Petra is befriended by a Spanish-speaking American girl her own age, Adeline. Adeline teaches Petra to write her name and assures her that in America, everyone can go to school. And even though Abuelita tells Petra that learning to read or become a teacher is a “barefoot dream”, too grand for someone of her station in life, Petra is determined to lead her family to safety in America.
The journey there is not easy, though. They are traveling through a desert already picked clean of edibles by the other refugees, with no food, money, or even shoes. There is always the chance that the Federales will return any place they might find that would have anything helpful. And as horrible as things have become, it’s not easy to leave the country they love. Leaving would make it that much harder for their father ever to find them. And would Petra’s intelligence be better put to use trying to defeat the Federales?
This is a story set during a war, a civil war my history classes never covered. That means both that the close-up view of history is fascinating, and that there are a lot of tough things – carefully handled, but I’ll note for sensitive readers that this does include the death of an infant. (I am a pretty sensitive reader, but I’m learning that death during a war is less shocking for me than death in an otherwise peaceful story.) There were parts of the story that I thought for sure were inventions by the author – a dramatic escape during a storm, the scene at the border – that turned out to be absolutely real.
It isn’t a close following of the war like Rilla of Ingleside, but the focus on Petra and her family makes everything personal and relevant. I especially loved Petra’s relationship with her grandmother, showing Petra switching between respect for Abuelita’s ability to survive in the desert and rejection of her grandmother’s focus on the importance of Petra remaining feminine, subservient to men, and remembering her low rung on the social scale, as well as Petra’s sorrow that she hasn’t learned Nahuatl, Abuelita’s first language. I’m sure there are kids who’d be just as excited about all the military details. I’m looking forward to more stories from Ms. Dobbs, hopefully more about Petra and her family!
I was excited when I first heard about the Heartdrum imprint, and even more excited to see this Navajo middle grade fantasy coming from it.
Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young
Read from library copy.
12-year-old Nathan asked to spend the summer with his grandmother Nali in her trailer out on the rez, but he’s not really happy about it. He has a good relationship with Nali, but the trailer has neither air conditioning nor water. Still, it’s better than going to Las Vegas with his dad and his dad’s despised new girlfriend.
Nathan has decided to occupy himself with a science project, comparing the growth of modern vs. traditional corn, both seeds and growing methods. But the summer quickly takes a turn towards the magical when Nathan discovers a grumpy horned toad stealing his traditional corn seeds, and then a dying water monster. Could this poor water monster, which belongs with the shrinking local lake, be the cause of the years-long drought that’s been affecting the area? As the water monster and Nathan become friends, Nathan is determined to do everything possible to save him. But everything possible turns out to be a nearly impossible quest, especially since nearly everything requires him to speak Navajo, which he doesn’t know…
Meanwhile, in the mundane world, Nali’s other son, Nathan’s uncle, has come back home after losing yet another job. He’s in bad shape, suffering from PTSD, depression, and alcoholism ever since he came back from serving in Afghanistan. There’s disagreement in the family about whether the uncle needs a ceremony with their medicine man, Western medical help and counseling, or both – but the uncle doesn’t want either, so that Nathan is trying to keep his family from falling apart at the same time as the quest with the water monster.
While there’s always something happening, I really appreciated that it’s a long time before the actual quest begins – Nathan has to build the skills and find everything he needs. Though the water monster is a fantasy element, the issues surrounding it – radiation poisoning and drought – are real. The traditional belief system, the water monsters, and current issues are woven tightly together, taking it for granted that all these things belong together. There’s also a note at the end on the use of traditional Navajo religion in the book and what parts the author changed to work with the story, as well as definitions of some of the Navajo used and explanations of the family relationships. My biggest quibble might be the cover – while the picture of Nathan and Nali is great at showing their relationship, it doesn’t look like the fantasy adventure that it is, which might help it find its audience better. I really hope it does well anyway so that I can read more of Nathan’s adventures!
Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found by Rucker Moses and Theo Gangi.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021.
Read from library copy.
Kingston hasn’t been back to Brooklyn since the night his father disappeared, right in the middle of his magic act, before a fire burned down the legendary theater where he was performing. Everyone else, including his mother, believes that his father is now dead. Kingston, though, saw his father walk into the mirror and is sure he’s alive but trapped. Together with his cousin and best friend, he sets out to rescue him. But whoever trapped his father in the mirror is still out there – both dangerous and a necessary source of information.
This story mixes both sleight-of-hand and real magic involving travel to another dimension through mirrors and paintings. The excitement of developing magic and close escapes is mixed with Kingston getting reacquainted with the cousin and friend he hasn’t seen in several years, and learning about the real, mostly forgotten legacy of Black magicians.
Fans of stage magic and of fantasy books set in the real world should both enjoy this book. It definitely ends without everything wrapped up, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next. Stage magic also plays an important role in The Magic Misfitsseries by Neil Patrick Harris, as well as Stowawayby John David Anderson. And though Kingston has higher-stakes and faster-paced action, it also reminded me of The Magic in Changing Your Stars by Leah Henderson, which also involves the legacy of Black performing artists.
All may seem ordinary in the quiet Queens neighborhood of Shadyside where this graphic is set, but adventure and nefarious activity is afoot, as a trio of girls finds out.
The Adventures of Team Pom: Squid Happens by Isabel Roxas.
Flying Eye Books, 2021.
Review copy gratefully received from the author.
The story opens with a giant orange squid being chased up the East River by a pair of mice in black suits, bowler hats, and sunglasses. When the squid escapes them, the narrative turns to our girls, introducing them in boxes above their figures as they run to a synchronized swimming competition at their local Boys and Girls Club. They are Ruby, their “resident genius”who appears African-American; Agnes, a pigeon enthusiast who lives above Sonny’s Groceria; and tiny Roberta, lover of pork buns and per the author, Chinese-Filipina-American. They bonded together and formed their own synchronized swim team when they didn’t fit into any of the other interest groups at Shady HQ, as the Boys and Girls club building is called.
Their first routine, depicting a melting snowman, is hilarious, though they are mocked by both the judges and their rival team for it. But things have been going missing around the building, and Agnes is targeted by one of the other clubs, whose members are convinced she stole something from them. This leads to her discovering Cyd, the missing squid, with whom Agnes is able to communicate thanks to her practice speaking with pigeons. Even as the rest of Team Pom gets to know Cyd and works to incorporate him into their swimming routine, he’s still being pursued by the black-suited mice.
This is an joy-filled, wacky adventure with great main characters, filled with enough hilarious tiny details to warrant re-reading. The imagined Queens is filled with characters of lots of different skin colors, much as I (who have never been there) imagine that the real Queens is. But the book focuses more on celebrating Team Pom’s diversity of interests and talents. Even though they don’t fit in with the other clubs and are more following Roberta’s lead in taking up synchronized swimming than really good at it, all of them are needed to solve the mystery and rescue Cyd.
The book is printed on heavy, textured paper, which brings out the retro feeling of the oranges and muted turquoises that dominate the art. I especially loved the expressive eyebrows on all of the characters and the small animals that appear in nearly every scene, as well as the full-page layouts of big scenes. I’m looking forward to more adventures with Team Pom!
When they were young, Jake met Emilia at an arcade birthday party – the only person he’d ever seen beat his high score at his favorite video game. But though they ran into each other at the arcade a couple more times over the years, they never really got to know each other outside of the arcade.
Now it’s high school. Emilia is a junior living a very full double life. During the day, she’s one of the popular girls, a star on the hockey team with a killer fashion sense, an amazing college portfolio binder, and a universally lusted-after boyfriend. She may look like she has it all, but success is hard-won and necessary – as a Puerto Rican, she has to be the best to get anywhere at all. She’s also agreed – against her better judgement – to run as vice president on her best friend’s school council run.
At night, though, Emilia is an elite player of the fantasy video game Guardians League Online and a new member of one of the top local teams, Fury. Neither her parents nor her best friend know anything about this passion. With that many things packed into her schedule, it’s no wonder that things quickly start falling apart – with the key election dates lining up clashing with the newly announced Guardians in-person tournament.
Jake, whom we see both in his own viewpoint chapters and in group chats with his game team and Fury’s rival team, Unity, is clearly a sweetheart. He has issues of his own – not just the secret crush he’s had on Emilia for years, but also parent and self-confidence issues. The group conversations, though, are where we really see the difference between the in-game support. Emilia is the only girl on Team Fury, which barely accepts her, and has been keeping her gender a secret online for the past several years. Team Unity, by contrast, has not only a lot of gender diversity, but also a caring, friends- and fun-first attitude.
This is a romance by the cover, so we’re expecting to enjoy Emilia and Jake’s slow development towards romance. We also get a lot of personal growth, especially from Emilia as she’s forced to stop compartmentalizing her life, improving her relationship with her friends and parents as she does. And while I had trouble keeping track of all the gaming acronyms, I really did enjoy the scenes set in the fantasy world of Guardians League Online, which underscore Jake and Emilia’s love of the game despite the opposition they’ve faced playing it.
This would pair naturally with SLAYby Brittney Morris, or Warcross by Marie Lu for high action in real life paired with the video game adventure.
Today, I’m very excited to share with you the latest book by John David Anderson – a return to the speculative fiction that first drew me to his work. Be sure to make it to the end for the giveaway and the other stops on the tour!
About the Book:
The beloved author of Posted and Ms. Bixby’s Last Day returns with the first book in a coming-of-age sci-fi duology about Leo, a kid trying to navigate the galaxy in order to save his family—and, possibly, the planet Earth.
Here are two books by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past whose books I was very much looking forward to – the companion book to Rajani LaRocca’s Midsummer’s Mayhemand a first middle grade fantasy from Justina Ireland, author of Dread Nationand Deathless Divide.
Much Ado about Baseball
by Rajani LaRocca.
Yellow Jacket, 2021.
Read from library copy.
Rising seventh-grader Trish has just moved to Comity, Massachusetts for her doctor mother’s new job. As an Indian-American girl, she’s always had to be the best to be accepted in her favorite activities – Little League baseball and math trivia. She’s not looking forward to starting all over again in a new town.
Ben wouldn’t be joining Little League this year if he hadn’t lost a bet with his best friend, Abhi. He loves the math associated with baseball, but doesn’t trust his own skills at all. He certainly isn’t happy to see the girl who meet him at the last math trivia championship on his team.
Abhi loves baseball and Shakespeare, and thinks that two math- and baseball-loving kids like Trish and Ben should be friends. Maybe a little push would help? It seems like Ben’s dog, Fib, agrees with him…
Then, it turns out that their Little League team is sponsored by the new snack shop in town, the Salt Shakers. It’s run by the mysterious Mr. O, who has a strong rivalry with the bakery featured in Midsummer’s Mayhem. They have snacks that promise to help with team spirit and sports skills. Trish doesn’t believe in magic – but her new team could sure use help with both of these.
This is such a fun blend of baseball magic, mystical magic, and the real issues kids have with friends, parents, and loss. There are math puzzles woven in, as well as really sweet dog. I’m not a baseball person myself, but I would recommend this wholeheartedly to any young baseball fan, as well as fans of the previous book.
by Justina Ireland.
Balzer + Bray, 2021.
Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook on Libby.
This one is for those who like their magic decidedly on the spooky side. It’s 1922, and 12-year-old Ophie has just woken up to her father telling her to take her mother and their emergency fund to safety. It’s not until they’re leaving that she realizes her mother can’t see her father, because she’s only seeing his ghost. Her father was killed earlier that day for trying to vote.
While Ophie and her mother escape to family in Pittsburgh, life is very different. Ophie now sees ghosts of all kinds everywhere – most especially in the grand but grim Daffodil Manor, where she and her mother take jobs as maids, though her mother forbids Ophie to talk about ghosts.. Her Great-Aunt Rose teaches Ophie a little, mostly to stay away from ghosts. But how can Ophie stay away from them when she’s surrounded by them every day? And when she finds that the one person who’s been able to help her deal with the crotchety and racist old lady she has to take care of all day is the ghost of a young murdered woman, she’s determined to solve the mystery no matter what Great-Aunt Rose told her.
This was such an excellent story! I was pulled in right from the beginning, and found myself thinking frequently in between reading sessions. Content note: there are lots of ghosts who died of gruesome causes, but Ophie herself is never in personal danger once she and her mother have escaped the South. It feels like the perfect level of spookiness for middle grade. The difficulty of life for African-Americans in this era – decades after slavery ended, but with so many unwritten but heavily enforced rules for Blacks to follow – is viscerally on display. I will second Charlotte in hoping that there will many more middle grade books from Justina Ireland.
It’s summer for me right now – and as a kid I had favorite books set in the summer that I loved to re-read every year. You can see some of them on my list of Top 10 Re-Read Fantasy Books – but meanwhile, whether you like to read books to match the current season or take you out of it, here are some more recent books set during the summer or in hot climates.
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston. Ebook and audiobook on Libby. “Thirteen-year-old Amari, a poor Black girl from the projects, gets an invitation from her missing brother to join the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs [with training for kids over summer vacations] and join in the fight against an evil magician.”
Catalyst by Sarah Beth Durst. Ebook and audiobook on Libby. “Zoe must figure out how to keep a giant kitten safe in this magical adventure about change, expectation, and accepting all for who they truly are- regardless of shape or size.” This is now one of my daughter’s favorite books.
Curse of the Night Witchby Alex Aster “After changing the fate he has known since birth, twelve-year-old Tor Luna, accompanied by his friends Engle and Melda, must visit the notorious Night Witch to break the curse he now faces.”
The Girl and the Witch’s Garden by Erin Bowman. Ebook on Libby. “The Secret Garden meets Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in this rich, charming middle grade adventure about a girl determined to infiltrate her grandmother’s enchanted garden with the help of some magically gifted friends.”
Just South of Home by Karen Strong “Twelve-year-old Sarah, her Chicago cousin Janie, brainy brother Ellis, and his best friend, Jasper, investigate a tragic event in their small Southern town’s history.”
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly Ebook and audiobook on Libby. “Twelve-year-old Lalani Sarita takes on the impossible task of traveling to the legendary Mount Isa, towering on an island to the north. Generations of men and boys have died on the same quest–how can a timid young girl in a tiny boat survive the epic tests of the archipelago?”
The Last Last Day of Summer by Lamar Giles. Ebook and audiobook on Libby. “When adventurous cousins Otto and Sheed Alston accidentally extend the last day of summer by freezing time, they find the secrets between the unmoving seconds are not as much fun as they expected.”
Midsummer’s Mayhemby Rajani LaRocca. Audiobook on Libby and Hoopla. “Loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, eleven-year-old Mimi Mackson entangles herself and her family with mischievous fairies when she seeks to win a baking contest.” Be sure to catch the sequel, Much Ado about Baseball, out in 2021.
The Thief Knot by Kate Milford. Ebook on Libby. “Marzana and her best friend, Nialla, are bored. In a city where normal rules don’t apply, it seems that adventure should be everywhere, yet nothing exciting ever happens to them. Nothing, that is, until Marzana’s parents are recruited to help solve a kidnapping that makes no sense. This could be the excitement Marzana and Nialla have been looking for-if they can crack the case without getting caught meddling.”
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat “All light in Chattana is created by one man – the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars.”
Do you like to match books to seasons? What books would you add to this list?