Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai

Browsing through the posts during Fantasy Book Cafe’s Women in SF&F month could give me reading material for months. (Thanks, Kristen!) Here’s another excellent book I discovered through Hadeer Elsbai’s post there. This debut author spins a tale of magic and the struggle for women’s rights inspired by Egyptian women’s quest for the vote in this page-turner of a book. I found myself thinking about the characters as I was going to sleep at night… and there is a cliffhanger ending, with book two not yet published.  You have been warned. 

Cover of Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai

Daughters of Izdihar
by Hadeer Elsbai

Harper Voyager, 2023

ISBN 978-0063114746

Read from a library copy. Ebook and audiobook available through Libby.

Nehal is the daughter of a prominent family.  She doesn’t pay much attention to politics even though she subscribes to the Daughters of Idzihar’s feminist magazine, but she would desperately like to go to the Weavers Academy, which is just recently accepting women, and then join the army.  Then she could learn to use her water weaving skills well and for something useful. Unfortunately, she’d need her father’s permission to go – and her father plans to marry her off to pay off his gambling debts.  

Nehal is crafty enough to gain an agreement from her fiance, Nico, to send her to the academy in exchange for sneaking a provision into the marriage contract that he can take a concubine – something she knows he wants, as he’s confessed that he’d had plans to marry someone his parents didn’t approve of.  But attending classes at the Academy changes Nehal’s perspective on the world – including introducing her to the in-person meetings of the Daughters of Izdihar, who are working for women’s suffrage against enormous opposition.  

Giorgina, Nico’s beloved, is a bookseller who’s carved out a life for herself despite being working class with an abusive, controlling father.  She’s never let her family know her work schedule, so that she can also spend time with Nico, attend the Daughters of Izdihar meetings, and write many of the articles for their magazine.  She’s also an earth weaver, but with all of her time devoted to her work, she’s never developed her skills even as much as Nehal.  Many religious people believe that weaving is sacrilegious, so Giorgina feels compelled to hide her skills, even as not knowing how to use them makes them dangerously uncontrollable.  She’s worked hard to stay respectable even as she finds ways around the confines of proper womanhood – and that includes not being anyone’s concubine, not even the man who would marry her if he could.  

Binding both of these women together is the larger-than-life figure of the woman who built the Daughters of Izdihar – Malak Mamdouh, an outspoken, daring woman who is actually able to control her own money and who can weave all four elements.  

Magic, politics both internal and external to the country, conflicting romances and family relationships all combine in this book with shades of Avatar the Last Airbender for adults and S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy.  

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BLOG TOUR: The Witch of Woodland by Laurel Snyder

Dear readers, I’m truly excited today to bring you this stop on the blog tour for THE WITCH OF WOODLAND by Laurel Snyder. This one is for the witches and the questioners out there.

The Witch of Woodland
by Laurel Snyder

Walden Pond Press, 2023

ISBN 978-0062836656

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. Ebook and audiobook available through Libby.

About the Book

Laurel Snyder, author of Orphan Island [as well as Seven Stories Up and Bigger than a Breadbox], returns with a story of one girl’s quest to answer the seemingly unanswerable questions about what makes us who we are.

Hi, whoever is reading this. I’m Zipporah Chava McConnell, but everyone calls me Zippy.

Things used to be simple—until a few weeks ago. Now my best friend, Bea, is acting funny; everyone at school thinks I’m weird; and my mom is making me start preparing for my bat mitzvah, even though we barely ever go to synagogue.

In fact, the only thing that still seems to make sense is magic.

See, the thing is, I’m a witch. I’ve been casting spells since I was little. And even if no one else wants to believe in magic anymore, it’s always made sense to me, always felt true. But I was still shocked the day I found a strange red book at the library and somehow…I conjured something. A girl, actually. A beautiful girl with no memory, and wings like an angel. You probably don’t believe me, but I swear it’s the truth.

Miriam is like no one else I’ve ever met. She’s proof that magic is real. And, it’s hard to explain this part, but I just know that we’re connected. That means it’s up to me to help Miriam figure out what she is and where she came from. If I can do that, maybe everything else in my life will start to make sense too.

Anyway, it’s worth a try.

About the Author

Laurel Snyder is the beloved author of many picture books and novels for children, including the National Book Award nominee Orphan Island and the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner Charlie & Mouse. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in writing for children and young adults program. Laurel lives in Atlanta with her family and can be found online at www.laurelsnyder.com.

Photo of author Laurel Snyder

My Thoughts

Friends, these days both my TBR and my backlog of books that I need to write reviews of are so long that I very rarely take book review requests. I am so happy that I took this one! The story is told in Zippy’s own point of view, looking back on a school year so full she’s now writing down the details she can remember as she knows she’s already forgetting. Her notes on the writing process and how she’s not sure her English teacher would approve on how she’s telling the story are hilarious. But what really won me over was Zippy’s painfully difficult sincerity, her inability to pretend to her best friend that she cares about the school dance, to the other kids at school that she doesn’t truly believe in magic, or to her rabbi that she feels Jewish. And while I didn’t have the same questions as a tween that Zippy does, I empathized deeply with her not fitting in. Plus, Zippy really is justified in believing in magic, and I loved how her magic brought her closer to finding a home in faith tradition. There are so many young readers I want to give this to now!

Blog Tour Stops

May 16Nerdy Book Club@nerdybookclub
May 16Unleashing Readers@unleashreaders
May 17Teachers Who Read@teachers_read
May 18Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers@grgenius
May 22StoryMamas@storymamas

May 23
May 26A Library Mama@librarymama
May 30A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust@bethshaum

Teachers’ Guide

This educators’ guide was created by Robbie Medwed, who teaches middle school at a Jewish Day School in Atlanta and has offered wonderful context and background information to support the story. 

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Two by Elisa A. Bonnin: Dauntless and Stolen City

As long-time readers will know, my love is of Filipino descent, and as we’re all fantasy lovers, we’re always on the lookout for Filipino and Filipino-inspired fantasy.   I first heard about this Filipina author, who debuted with two books last year, from Your Tita Kate but couldn’t initially find Dauntless at the library. Fortunately, by the time Fantasy Book Cafe had a post by her, I was able to find both her books.  Though I picked them up because of the cultural angle, they are both stories that stand up very well on their own. 

Dauntless by Elisa A. Bonnin, Swoon Reads, 2022. ISBN 9781250795618. Read from a library copy. Ebook and audiobook available through Libby. 

In this Filipino-inspired fantasy, Seri is a young woman barely into adulthood who’s reluctantly pushed towards joining the Valor, the guards who keep their expanding society safe from the Beasts who roam and kill humans.  She doesn’t relish the killing part, and especially not wearing armor made from the skins of Beasts she’s killed herself, but as she’s put into the service of a very young commander, Eshai Unbroken, she keeps finding herself in situations where her skills are needed.  She doesn’t even question it – until during her first visit to the capital city, she meets another young woman, Tsana.  As Seri and Tsana grow closer, she discovers that Tsana is from another culture – when Seri and her people had only ever known about the existence of one culture – and Tsana’s views call into question everything that Seri has ever believed about her culture and herself. 

Besides the fascinating characters, the epic plot, and the sapphic romance here, I really loved the worldbuilding.  Seri’s people build their cities in giant trees near lakes, with bridges and ladders between the branches.  I also loved their tradition of tattooing, reflective of pre-Hispanic Filipino culture.  Though the levels of government and bureaucracy were high level, the People don’t have metalworking – unlike Tsana’s people.  Magic is evident from the beginning, as the Beast-skin armor grants superhuman abilities, but grows in scope as the two cultures meet.  Though I read it in print, we’ve since purchased the audiobook, so that the rest of the family can enjoy it.  

Stolen City by Elisa A. Bonnin, Swoon Reads, 2022. ISBN 9781250795632. Read from a library copy. Ebook and audiobook available through Libby. 

In this more modern-feeling fantasy, the crowded island city of Leithon was captured by the Empire four years before our story begins.  Teen twins Arian and Liam have survived since their mother, the head of the Arcanum was brutally murdered by thieving.  They’ve never been caught – thanks to Liam’s forbidden magic – until the representative of the Weavers, Cavar, tracks them down to recruit them for a job.  The Weavers weave the fates of kingdoms, not cloth, and what Cavar wants them to steal is a magical artifact that belonged to the twins’ own mother.  It’s of course hidden in the treasury of the Bastion – the impenetrable fortress once held by the Leithon royal family, now held by the Empire.  Not only is getting in impossible, but once there, they’ll have to avoid Liam’s traitorous ex-girlfriend Zephyr, who now runs the Leithonian unit of the Empire’s army – and the powerful mage hunter who killed their mother.  And if they can pull off a heist of this level, what’s to keep them from stealing their whole city back from the Empire?  

There is a lot of fun romp here, with a separate romance and quest for personal fulfillment and destiny for each of the twins.  At the same time, the thoughts on imperialism and personal responsibility in the face of dangerous injustice, unlike a typical ethics-free heist narrative.  I did wonder a little at the technology level – it sounded like they had modern clothing and skyscraper-tall buildings, but no telephones, telegraphs, or motor vehicles – but it worked well in the book itself and was only a minor distraction for me.  Bonnin mentioned in the notes that she and a high school friend had been making up stories about these four characters for years, and they did feel like fun characters that she’d spent a lot of time getting comfortable with, while the world and its culture clearly extends far beyond what we see in the story.  This was also highly entertaining, and I look forward to reading more from Elisa A. Bonnin in the future.  

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3 More 2022 Cybils MG Graphic Novel Finalists

If you or the kids in your life are graphic novel fans, here are three more great choices, some of which we’ve purchased for our home since reading and all of which I purchased for the school media center, where graphic novels are the hottest thing going. You can read my reviews of Flamingo, Invisible, and Squire and of Swim Team, and read the official Cybils blurbs for all of them.

Wingbearer by Marjorie Liu and Teny Issakhanian. HarperCollins, 2022. ISBN 9780062741158. Read from a library copy and now own.  
Zuli has been raised in the great tree to which the souls of birds return after their deaths to prepare for rebirth, though Zuli herself is alive and human.  It’s the only world she’s ever known – but when the souls stop coming to the tree, she offers to leave so the guardian spirits of the tree can remain.  She’s joined first by her guardian owl, Frowly, and then a goblin boy, Orien.  Zuli has woefully little experience of the outside world, never even needing to eat or drink while in the great tree, so this combined with her curiosity and Frowly’s caution add humor to the story.  Orien is used to being despised for being a goblin, complicating the relationship. This is just the first installment of the quest, so there’s time for reflection on the nature of the world along with the adventure and humor.  This is beautifully reflected in the art, where more ordinary comic panels sometimes make way for full-page spreads of beautiful scenery or Zuli’s explanations of the world.  This was my own Cybils nomination, and I am so very pleased that it made it to the finalists.  My daughter and I are both looking forward to book 2, Wingborn, currently scheduled to come out in November 2023. 

Little Monarchs by Jonathan Case. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2022. ISBN 9780823451395 Read from a library copy. 
50 years ago the sun shifted, its light now lethal to mammalian life.  Now only small pockets of humans survive, mostly living underground.  But 10-year-old Elvie and her guardian Flora are able to travel by van and even sleep outdoors in hammocks, protected by the medicine Flora makes from the scales of monarch butterflies.  Survival takes a lot of time and effort – but Elvie is also trying to get an education, help Flora with her research into a longer-lasting vaccine, and find a way back to her parents, from whom they were separated years ago.  As they continue their journey, their already precarious situation is made even more so by the introduction of a young boy and a group of adults who, if they can be trusted, might be able to help with the mission.  This post-apocalyptic environmental survival story is filled with both danger and survival tips, and prompts readers to reflect on what we have now.  This is another really impressive graphic novel.  

Woman in the Woods by Kate Ashwin, et al. Iron Circus, 2022. ISBN 978-1945820977. Read from a library copy. 
This is a collection of magical short stories by various Native authors and artists.  In the opening story by Elijah Forbes, a child in a modern room with a Pride flag asks an adult if there were any people “like them” in their history.  They’re told yes with the Odawa creation story, where the creator spirit is feminine and masculine at the same time. Longer stories include the story of  Chokfi, the trickster rabbit, a funny Chickasaw porquoi tale by Jordaan Arledge and Mekala Nava; the Romeo and Juliet-like White Horse Plains by Rhael McGregor and Sylvia Boyer (Metis/Cree) and my favorite, Rougarou by Maija Ambrose Plamondon & Milo Appljohn, a Metis. story of understanding and looking beyond the surface.  Their are also some brief, beautiful sketches of contemporary life with myth: Woman in the Woods, a Taino story by Mercedes Acosta, By the Light of the Moon, a S’Kallam story by Jeffrey Veregge & Alina Pete and Into the Darkness, a Navajo story by Izzy Roberts & Aubrie Warner.  As is usual with short story collections, some of them felt higher quality than others, and I worried a little about kid appeal in this black and white book.  Still, it’s an important contribution to the genre and well worth reading. 

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BLOG TOUR: The Greatest Kid in the World by John David Anderson

I’m very pleased today to be part of the blog tour for John David Anderson’s latest book, THE GREATEST KID IN THE WORLD. It’s a story for all the prankster kids with good hearts hidden somewhere inside.

The Greatest Kid
in the World
by John David Anderson

Walden Pond Press, 2023

ISBN 978-0062986030

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

About the Book

From the beloved author of Posted comes the story of Zeke Stahlsa thoroughly average twelve-year-old who somehow finds himself in a competition to be named the World’s Greatest Kid.

Zeke Stahls is not the best kid in the world. Some days he struggles just to be good. He’d rather be pulling pranks than doing extra credit, and he’s too busy performing experiments on his little brother, Nate, or tormenting his older sister, Jackie, to volunteer for charity.

Which is why Zeke and his entire family are shocked when they receive word that he has been selected as a contestant in an online competition to find the World’s Greatest Kid.

Zeke has no idea how he was chosen for this, and he knows that measuring up to the other nominees–a saintly lineup of selfless, charming and talented do-gooders with photogenic smiles and hearts of gold–is hopeless. Still, with a $10,000 cash prize on the line, and Zeke’s mom struggling to hold the family together on her single-parent salary, he decides to give it his best shot.

As Zeke concocts various plots to show the world just how “great” he is, however, he finds himself wondering what that word even means, and who gets to decide. And what kind of kid he wants–and needs–to be.

About the Author

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 www.johndavidanderson.org.

Photo of author John David Anderson

My Thoughts

This book, dear readers! It started out getting me laughing from the very beginning, as Zeke pulls pranks and remembers pranks from the past, things like convincing all the boys in his class to declare freedom from underwear in class. But though it’s never said outright, Zeke read very clearly to me as classic ADHD – so intelligent and so drained by boredom that he simply has to keep coming up with ways to entertain himself and his classmates. The public class clown face also has the typical-for-ADHD private face, one that knows he’s a disappointment to his teacher and to his mother and is exquisitely sensitive to that rejection even as he tries to downplay it. He knows that everyone around him will think that him being nominated as the best kid in the world is a joke, and he’s honestly not one to disagree.

This isn’t the only factor giving Zeke a sense of inadequacy in the contest, though. His mother, working long retail hours, has neither the time to take him to volunteer places nor the money to enroll him in exciting activities that might garner him more votes. It takes privilege that Zeke doesn’t have to do those things, and while he didn’t mind being a normal kid before, it’s a lot harder when he’s being showcased against a roster of talented young philanthropists. Though we never get to know the other contenders, Zeke does get to understand his mother, reclusive teen sister, and younger brother all much better over the course of the book. Even the videographer sent to record him has things to share with and to learn from Zeke.

The combination of these topics could be played either exclusively for laughs with caricatured people, or as a tearjerker of a novel best read only by those whose favorite genre is sad. Instead, in typical John David Anderson style, the two sides balance each other out perfectly, real characters with lots and laugh-out-loud moments, and some that made me tear up. This is one that will resonate with many, many readers.

Blog Tour Stops

May 9Nerdy Book Club@nerdybookclub
May 9Unleashing Readers@unleashreaders
May 10Teachers Who Read@teachers_read
May 11Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers@grgenius
May 13Maria’s Melange@mariaselke
May 15StoryMamas@storymamas
May 15LitCoachLou@litcoachlou
May 16A Library Mama@alibrarymama
May 30A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust@bethshaum

Teacher’s Guide

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Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

The moment I saw the cover of this book, I knew I wanted to read it… but it took it making it to the Cybils graphic novel finalist list for me to get around to reading it myself. I was also thrilled when it won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor.

Cover of Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team
by Johnnie Christmas

HarperAlley, 2022

ISBN 978-0063056763

Read from a copy gifted to my daughter. 

Ebook available through Libby. 

Bree is torn between excitement and nerves as she and her dad move from Brooklyn to Florida and she has to start a new school.  It’s a big change in more ways than one – not only does she have to make new friends, but her dad’s new job means he’s hardly ever home.  That leaves Bree time to get to know her neighbors better – Ms. Etta, the upstairs neighbor, who helps out when her dad is gone, and Clara, who’s in her grade at school.  Bree’s nerves take the lead, though, when it turns out that the only elective with space still left is swim. Not only can she not swim – she’s terrified to try.  But she also can’t live with a bad grade, and the only way to improve it is to join the swim team.  It turns out that both Clara and Ms. Etta know a lot about swimming.  With Ms. Etta’s help, Bree gains confidence in her swimming – and the team as a whole grows enough that they might even have a chance to take on the team from the snooty private school that’s been on a winning streak.  

My daughter loved this enough to nominate it for the Cybils herself, and was so excited that it made it to the finalists!  That pushed me to read it myself, and it is well worth it!  The art fits in well with the standard memoir-style art kids are used to, with slightly exaggerated body language conveying emotions perfectly.  While there’s lots of good middle school dynamics along the lines of these books, Bree and the reader also learn a lot from Ms. Etta about how it was that Black people in America lost their ability to swim and love of swimming due to segregated pools.  Bree and her team’s victory is reclaiming their right to the water.  There were many other things to love – Clara accepting Bree as a friend even before she got good at swimming; Ms. Etta showing that kind coaching can be even more effective than the harsh coaching the private school coach used, and the revived friendship between Ms. Etta and her own high school swim team.  This is one my daughter re-reads regularly and I’ll be recommending to readers.

Posted in Books, Graphic Novel, Middle Grade, Realistic, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom

When this book showed up on the hold shelf, as so often happens for me, I had forgotten how I heard about it and why I’d put it on hold. Once I started reading, though, I was very grateful to past me and whoever recommended it.

Cover of Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom by Nina Varela

Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom
by Nina Varela

Little, Brown, 2023

ISBN 9780316706780

Read from a library copy. 
Ebook available from Libby.

Juniper Harvey has just moved from Texas, where she had at least one friend, to Florida, where she has to start middle school knowing no one.  It’s a tall order for an introvert, but that’s not what has her most rattled.  That’s the dream she’s started having every night, set in an ancient-looking temple where a girl her own age turns to ivory.  Juniper can’t stop thinking about and drawing her. After the fall middle school dance her mother forces her to go to ends in horrible embarrassment, Juniper draws a picture of the girl again and wishes she were there…

And the regular middle school story takes a sharp turn towards the fantastic as the girl shows up in Juniper’s room.  The girl, Galatea, is single-handedly trying to save her kingdom, a floating island from which pieces are breaking off, before there’s nothing left. She’s hoping that Juniper can help her find their missing goddess. Meanwhile, though Galatea doesn’t know anything about cell phones or cars, she’s good at judging people, and helps Juniper reach out to likely friends at school even as the two girls are growing closer themselves.  Juniper’s just starting to think about romance herself, but isn’t sure that a sword-wielding princess like Galatea would ever be interested in her that way.

This was such a good blend of characters, relationships, action and humor! I really appreciated Galatea and Juniper’s slow discovery not only of each other but also of the older relationship between Galatea’s goddess and another one – a moving story as well as a strong demonstration that same-sex love has always been with us. It was a  really satisfying read, and I knew that it would be perfect for my daughter.  As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, she really prefers to stick to audiobooks and graphic novels and this book is sadly not available on audio – but once I made her sit down to read the first five chapters, until Galatea shows up, she finished the rest on her own and wants to make sure it ends up in her school library as well. 

This book and my daughter’s request for more queer books for kids her age prompted me to make a list of LGBTQ+ Middle Grade Fantasy books.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Print, Reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

3 Cybils YA Speculative Fiction Finalists

I have now read all* of the 2022 young adult speculative fiction Cybils finalists – it’s been getting me in the mood to read more teen books than I have been the past few years. Read on, and let me know if you’ve read any of these or if they’re on your tbr list.

*okay, all of them except the Weight of Blood, because I have a hard time with true horror, so I don’t plan to read that one. But if you, dear reader, are a horror reader, I trust the Cybils judges to have picked out an excellent one.

Covers of the #Cybils2022 Young Adult Spec Fiction finalists - From Dust a Flame, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, How to Succeed in Witchcraft, Little Thieves, See you Yesterday, Snake Falls to Earth, and the Weight of Blood.

From Dust, a Flame by Rebecca Podos. Read by Hope Newhouse. Balzer + Bray, 2022. ISBN 978-0062699060. Listened to the audiobook on Libby. 

Hannah wakes up on the morning of her 17th birthday with a huge surprise: snake eyes.  Every day that follows, she has a new mutation, each more difficult to hide than the last.  She and her older brother Gabe are left alone as her mother leaves to find help, promising to be back soon.  But as weeks turn into months, they grow increasingly worried.  When a note arrives inviting them to the funeral of their grandmother Yitzka – whom they’ve never met – they decide they must travel to the old family farm in search of answers. They’ve grown up traveling from place to place, a strange contrast to the tiny town their mother turns out to be from.

This journey back to the place their mother fled is full of discovery.  Hannah and Gabe never knew their mother was Jewish, and they begin to explore this heritage with help from Ari, the daughter of their mother’s former best friend, the same age as Hannah, and the friendly local rabbi.  Spending time with Ari leads Hannah to other discoveries about herself as well, like why holding hands with boys always felt so unappealing.  But the answer to Hannah’s problem turns out to be deeply rooted in her family’s past and in Jewish mythology, so that while the story is mostly Hannah’s, we also spend time with teenage Yitzka in 1943 as she is forced to leave her family and sweetheart behind in Prague to flee to safety, and with Hannah’s mother as a teen in 1992 as she chafes against the restrictions of an overly-protective family.  This story includes sweet romance, a golem, a demon, and lots of family secrets, and I was thrilled that it won the Cybils award for teen speculative fiction this year. 

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon. Read by Emily Lawrence. Simon & Schuster, 2022. ASIN B09SK2HRQ5. Listened to the audiobook on Libby. 

Barrett’s longed-for first day of college turns out to be a nightmare rather than the escape from high school she was hoping for.  Her former best friend turned enemy wakes her up by moving in, there’s a truly annoying boy, Miles, sitting next to her in physics class, she bombs her interview for the school newspaper. Oh, and she accidentally burns a frat house down.  It doesn’t seem like things can get any worse – until she wakes up to the same horror of a day happening again.  The only person she can talk to is Miles, who’s been reliving the same day even longer.  As weeks turn into months, Barrett digs into her past looking for things to improve even as their forced companionship blossoms into romance even as they grow increasingly desperate to escape.  Barrett is especially heartbroken that she’ll miss her single mom’s girlfriend proposal, planned for two days after this one repeating day.  

Overall, I loved Barrett and Miles.  I’d say Jewish fantasy romances aren’t that common, but here’s the second one in a single post.  I also appreciated that Miles is Japanese-Jewish.  Barrett also works on improving her relationship with her former best friend.  There is a lot of cringe in this book, too, so how much you like it will probably depend on how much you’re able to laugh at public embarrassment.  The high school past that Barrett is running from involved being ostracized by the school and some horrific sexual bullying.  This was really hard for me to listen to and felt at odds with the sweetness of the cover.  Still, I know that I’m extra-sensitive and this might not be as big of a deal for other readers.  Based on how long I had to wait for it, and how many people were on the list after me, this is a book that’s resonating with lots of readers.

How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy. Read by Tashi Thomas. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022. ISBN 9780593354520 Listened to the audiobook on Libby. 

Shayna Johnson is a junior with a passion for potion-making at the elite T.K. Anderson high school in Florida.  In Shayna’s world, having magic isn’t enough – you also have to be accepted to a highly competitive licensing college to be able to get a job where you can use it.  Shayna’s best friend Lex, an adopted Filipina, already graduated but hasn’t yet been accepted to a college. Her biggest hope is to win the prestigious Brockton scholarship offered at her school, which comes with a nearly guaranteed acceptance at one of the very best licensing colleges in the country.  There are just two things standing in her way: one, Ana, her archrival at school, and two: the drama teacher Mr. B, short for Brockton, who’s on the scholarship selection committee and wants stage-shy Shayna to star in the school musical. 

Being at school without Lex and entering the new world of drama people lead to big changes in Shayna’s life.  She has to re-evaluate so many things she thought she was sure of, from her goals in life to her relationship with Ana.  Shayna has to deal with entrenched racism, tacitly approved abuse – while also navigating first love and friendship changes.  I appreciated this and the magic system, which while bleak was more well-thought out than that at most magical schools.  (How many employees does the Ministry of Magic really need?)  There was enough joy, humor, and good trouble to keep me going through the book. 

If you’re interested in more of the Cybils Teen finalists, but are finding them all checked out as I did, may I suggest some of the 2021 finalists? Or these two great 2020 finalists?

Posted in Audiobook, Books, Fantasy, Reviews, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Unicorn Island: Beyond the Portal by Donna Galanti

Kids save the day and the unicorns in the exciting finale to the Unicorn Island trilogy, which I’d classify as not-quite-middle-grade.

Cover of Unicorn Island: Beyond the Portal by Donna Galanti. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe.

Unicorn Island: Beyond the Portal
by Donna Galanti. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe.

Epic! 2023

ISBN 9781524878702

Review copy kindly sent by the author. 

The previous book of this series, Secret Beneath the Sand, ended very appropriately with the revelation of some big secrets – including a magical portal to the original home of the unicorns, from which they had escaped to the safety of Unicorn Island. Our girl Sam also learned that her mother has been trapped on the other side of the portal since Sam was a baby. Now, Sam and her best friend Tuck develop their research skills by searching through the secret unicorn protector library for a way to open the portal so that they can find her mother. Sam may have lived her life so far first unaware that she didn’t know her mother and then that her mother might still be alive – but now, she needs to find her.

Once through the portal, though, their problems are many, starting with a very short time window in which to make it back through the portal and avoid leaving their respective parents stuck not knowing what’s happened to them. Unicorns are still being hunted in this land, putting Sam’s young unicorn friend Barloc in even more danger than they’d thought when he decided to come along. Most horrifying of all, Sam’s mother is easily found – the hunter who’s tracking Barloc! How could her mother have so betrayed her unicorn protector roots, and is there any way to win her back?? This turned out to be a tough moral dilemma of the sort that’s very rarely shown in literature for children of this age (I’d guess about 9 or 10.) It’s combined with a threat to the local water supply, a timely issue, if painted in broad strokes here. Happily and appropriately for the audience, the kids are able to find a solution that works for everyone when the adults couldn’t.

Once again, Donna Galanti pens an exciting tale sure to inspire young readers to keep turning the pages, while Bethany Stancliffe’s bright illustrations enhance the emotional beats of the story, show Sam and Tuck’s frustration, fear, excitement, and betrayal. There’s enough going on to keep it interesting for adults reading aloud to younger children as well. This remains an engaging series for the almost-middle grade set, one I think will see a lot of use in my daughter’s school library.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Print, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things and Figure it Out, Henri Weldon

Friends, usually I try to group books of similar themes for similar age groups in my reviews. But today, in the effort to get some reviews out where you can see them, I am just putting out a teen book and a middle grade book together rather than waiting for good companion books to come along. They’re both realistic, both have important sister relationships, and I really enjoyed them both, so there’s that.

Cover of Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things by Maya Prasad

Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things
by Maya Prasad

Hyperion, 2022

ISBN 9781368075800

Read from a library copy. 
Ebook available through Libby.

Rani Singh is a romantic. Living in her family business, the Songbird Inn, off the Washington Coast, with three other teen sisters would seem to be the perfect setting for the perfect romance – except that it hasn’t happened yet.  But as the seasons turn over the course of a year, each of her sisters does find romance, something that both makes their hearts sing and brings out their truest selves.  Oldest sister Nidhi had her whole life after high school planned out – pastry school in Paris with her long-term boyfriend – but after a tree crashes into her bedroom, she’s suddenly ready for a change.  Rani’s twin Avani feels like she’s the only one who’s unable to move on since their father’s long-term boyfriend, Pop, died three years earlier – but planning to run his signature Winter Ball again just might bring her the closure she needs -as well as bringing her closer to the boy she won’t admit she likes more than any other.  Shy Sirisha usually tells stories through her camera lens and has trouble talking to people – but a beautiful young actress with a resident theater company might just push her to expand both her photographic and her spoken vocabulary.  And Rani might have had her heart broken the summer before – but that won’t stop her from letting all the cute boys try to woo her this summer – even if it doesn’t go the way she planned!  

The romances are sweet – including a new romance for Dad Singh – and the sisters bond more with each other, their island community, and even get to know the family their father left behind in India.  This is a perfect sweet treat for any time of the year.  

Figure it Out, Henri Weldon by Tanita S. Davis

HarperCollins, 2023

ISBN 9780063143579

Read from a library copy. 
Ebook and audiobook available through Libby.

Cover of Figure it Out, Henri Weldon by Tanita S. Davis

Henri Weldon is starting 7th grade at regular public school for the first time, leaving the special education school behind.  It’s the same building as the high school, but her formerly close older sister Kat won’t give her any tips.  Until, that is, Henri befriends four siblings who don’t look anything alike – and then Kat yells at her.  But if Kat won’t tell her what’s wrong, Henri isn’t about to stop being friends with the only people who’ve reached out to her just because they’re all foster kids.  Vinnie, for example, was the first friendly person she met in the overwhelming school cafeteria, makes a great math tutor, and is devoted to his pet rat – Henri, with a beloved pet snake, sympathizes with his love of his less popular pet.  Ana encourages Henri to try out for the soccer team, which she is excited to do, though her family is not sporty and would prefer she focus on academics.

There is so much to love about this book!  Dyscalculia is of course a real problem, and one I’ve never seen a book about before.  But Tanita does a great job of making Henri a fully-rounded person, still figuring out what she might be good at outside of that issue, as well as dealing with things like siblings, pets, sports, and adjusting to a new school.  As with her Peas and Carrots, Tanita includes foster kids, an important and under-represented population. 

This is an engaging book that deserves a wide audience. 

Posted in Books, Middle Grade, Print, Realistic, Reviews, Romance, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments