Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson

Sophie Anderson previously brought us The House with Chicken Legs and The Girl Who Speaks Bear, so of course I was excited to see her come out with a new book. (Those of you in the UK can also keep an eye out for The Thief who Sang Storms, which appears not to have made it to the US yet.)

Cover of Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson

Castle of Tangled Magic
by Sophie Anderson

Scholastic, 2022

ISBN 978-1338746211

Read from library copy. 
Ebook available on Libby.

Castle Mila is a beautiful castle built of golden logs with 33 domes.  12-year-old Olia is proud to live in the beautiful castle with her parents, her beloved Babusya, and her baby sister Rosa.  Their family was once royal, but now that the village is a democracy, they just work to maintain the historic building, using its great halls for community events.  Olia and her friends especially delight in searching for the hidden staircases that lead to the attics inside the domes, which often contain forgotten treasures.  Babusya often tells Olia that she would see the magic around her if she only looked with her heart, but Olia’s efforts have so far been in vain. 

Then enormous storms start hitting just the castle, not the village.  Suddenly Olia can see the castle’s domovoi, a fox spirit named Feliks. Babusya sends Feliks and Olia to travel to the pocket world from which the storms are coming, the world where the castle’s founder, Princess Ludmila, exiled nearly all of the magic creatures of Olia’s world.  Somehow, magic is leaking in the form of storms that are tearing the beautiful castle apart. 

The magical realm is full of surprises, and Olia and Feliks befriend new magical beings in each of its various habitat domes, including the grouchy cat named Koshka who used to be a witch shown on the cover, a rusalka, a tree spirit, and a giant.  And at the very end, a connection to The House with Chicken Legs is revealed.  

The book has many appealing elements, including the magical castle, Olia’s contemporary-feeling, energetic voice, Feliks and Koshka for the fox- and cat-lovers, and of course the exploration of a magical world.  I enjoyed all of these elements, but what really made the book shine was the meditation on reparations.  All the human characters are white, so we’re looking without the complicating factor of race at the essential question, “What do we owe to people who are still being harmed by the actions our ancestors took well before our own lifetimes?”   

On a side note, this book has so many elements that I believe my own daughter would love – she also read The House with Chicken Legs in class and loved it enough to make her own 3D model of it, she still re-reads Tuesdays at the Castle regularly, and it has a cat.  But she took one look at the cover, decided it was creepy, and even though she liked the UK cover (at right ) better, flat out refused to try this one.  

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Fenris and Mott by Greg van Eekhout

I’m very excited to bring to you a contemporary middle grade fantasy combing Norse mythology with magical puppy mayhem. It’s coming from Greg van Eekhout’s, whose book Voyage of the Dogs was one my whole family enjoyed listening to together.

Cover of Fenris and Mott by Greg van Eekhout

Fenris and Mott
by Greg van Eekhout

HarperCollins, 2022

ISBN 978-0062970633

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. 

Mott (short for Martha) has been having a tough time since she and her mom moved from the east coast to California.  She’s no longer able to do video root beer reviews with her best friend, and they had to move into an apartment that doesn’t allow dogs, after her mother had promised her a puppy with the move.  So when she finds an adorable puppy in an alley recycling bin, she promises to keep it safe.  This rapidly gets much more difficult than she anticipated. 

First, she finds out that the puppy is a wolf, not suitable for home life or even the local animal shelter.  Secondly, as the puppy and therefore she are tracked by people wearing furs with big weapons, she learns that the adorable floof ball is Fenris, son of Loki, prophesied to kick off Ragnarok.  Meanwhile, Fenris proves that he can eat astonishing things when provoked – like people and cars.  Luckily, among the ancient Norse people that have suddenly shown up in California is Thrudi, a Valkyrie around her own age, the two of them teaming up for fun and cross-cultural translations.  Because Mott made a promise to Fenris, and she’s determined to find a way to save the world and him.  

At the very beginning of the book, Mott’s problems are pretty typical for her age – her mother’s job instability, a father who’s constantly breaking his promises to her, and a friendship that’s under strain from separation and economic disparity.  They’re heavy problems, to be sure, but the tone is kept light by the frequent root beer references and Fenris’s adorable yet over-the-top antics.  

Things get into deeper territory, though, as Mott realizes that the signs that foretell Ragnarok are all around her- things like men forgetting the bonds of kinship, rising sea levels (climate change or the Midgard serpent?) and raging fires (again, flame-wielding Surtur or climate change?), as well as different-colored roosters crowing.  Mott has had so many promises ignored that’s determined to keep her word, whatever it takes, a very tricky ethical dilemma.  It’s fast-moving, funny, and thoughtful, and comes in at just under 200 pages, great for younger or struggling readers.  My own daughter, whose ADHD leads her to prefer graphic novels and audiobooks, sat down and read the whole thing in one day, a high compliment. 

Greg van Eekhout is the author of several novels for young readers, including Weird Kid (“A heartfelt, pitch-perfect middle grade novel”—Publishers Weekly, starred review); Cog; and Voyage of the Dogs. He lives in San Diego, California, with his astronomy/physics professor wife and two dogs. He’s worked as an educational software developer, ice-cream scooper, part-time college instructor, and telemarketer. Being a writer is the only job he’s ever actually liked. You can find more about Greg at his website: www.writingandsnacks.com and on Twitter and Instagram: @gregvaneekhout

I’m now on the hunt for more fast-paced middle grade with adorable animals for my daughter (age 12.) I’ve just checked out How to Catch an Invisible Cat by Paul Tobin, Elvis and the World as it Stands by Lisa Frenkel Riddiough, and Pie by Sarah Weeks. That last one she listened to the audiobook on repeat one summer when she was small, but it’s been long enough that I’m hoping it will feel fresh again. Please let me know if you have any suggestions!

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Those Kids from Fawn Creek, Answers in the Pages, and Zia Erases the World

I’m now done with all but one of the books I set out to read for the 48-Hour #MGReadathon two weeks ago. Here are some more shorter reviews – lots of good books here! And thanks again to Ms. Yingling for organizing the readathon and prompting me to track down more good books.

Those Kids from Fawn Creek by Erin Entrada Kelly. HarperCollins, 2022. ISBN 9780062970350. Read from library copy. 

The small middle school in the rural Southern factory town of Fawn Creek is split into tight cliques, where everybody knows what everyone else will say or do before they do so.  (All characters except one teacher read as white.) This is shaken up when a new girl, Orchid, shows up, taking the desk of the meanest and most popular girl in seventh grade after she moves to the next biggest town.  We mostly see things through the eyes of outcasts Greyson, whose interest in fashion and lack of interest in sports and hunting code him as gay, and his friend Dorothy, with occasional views through the eyes of Janie, who used to be Renni’s best friend.  Orchid has a pretty strong manic pixie dream girl vibe which rapidly attracts a lot of attention.  But who is she really?  

It took me a little while to get into this book – the plot and the characters felt just a little too predictable.  But it grew on me over time, as the characters developed more nuance and Orchid herself pointed out the universality of the school’s cliques.  This is a great one for fans of middle school social politics.

Answers in the Pages by David Levithan. Knopf, 2022. ISBN 978-0593484685. Read from library copy. 

This highly relevant story packs three different narratives into a compact 170 pages.  In the first storyline, our narrator, whose name we eventually learn is Donovan, shares with us the last line of a book, telling us it’s the last time we’ll have a chance to make up our own minds about what it means.  The book is one that he was assigned to read for his fifth-grade class, and which his mother then decides to protest because of “inappropriate content for his age.” Next, we read a chapter from the book – an action/adventure story starring two boys and a girl.  Finally, we read about the slow blossoming of a relationship between two boys in the same school with a different teacher.  All three combine to make a stirring and thought-provoking story of kids battling for their own freedom – emotional, intellectual, and of course from man-eating alligators.  

Zia Erases the World by Bree Barton. Viking, 2022. ISBN 9780593350997. Read from library copy. 

Ever since her friend’s birthday party, Zia has been caught up with what she calls the “Shadoom” – a feeling of intense dread that won’t let her participate in her own life as she used to.  She’s no longer able to talk with her two best friends or share what’s going on in her life with her mother.  As she and her mother help her grandmother, her Yiayia, move out of her house and into their tiny one-bedroom apartment, Zia discovers a beautiful dictionary in her Yiayia’s attic.  It’s complete with an eraser shaped like a mataki, the evil eye pendant – and whatever word Zia erases disappears in real life.  Only the new girl, Alice Pham, who’s inexplicably trying to make friends with her, seems to even remember that the things existed.  In between chapters are dictionary definitions both of real words like  “xenium” – a gift from a friend or stranger and ones that Zia has made up herself like  “potado”  – “a whirling vortex of violently rotating tubers.” This kind of humor and warm family relationships balance out the clear hardships in Zia’s life and her struggling to figure out what to do about the Shadoom, which is clearly depression to the adult eye.  

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

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Every Bird a Prince by Jenn Reese

The shifting landscape of seventh grade combines with the unseen magical battles in the nearby woods.  

Cover of Every Bird a Prince by Jen Reese

Every Bird a Prince
by Jenn Reese

Henry Holt, 2022

ISBN 978-1250783448

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

Eren Evers loves riding her bike through the woods near her house, finding it the best way to clear her head.  Especially lately, when her two best friends have decided they’ll declare their crushes to each other.  Eren doesn’t have or want a crush, but she does want to keep the friends who have been her anchor for years, so she decides to say that she has a crush on Alex Ruiz based on an analysis of all the boys in class.  

When she’s struck by a partly-frozen bird during her ride, she’s drawn into an age-old struggle between the animals and the evil wolf-like beasts made of ice known as the Frostfangs.  Normally, the battle against them is carried out without human knowledge, but now, the bird kingdom is the last one standing.  The bird, who introduces themself as Prince Oriti-ti, asks Eren to be a champion for all the birds against the Frostfangs. 

Soon, Alex is involved, too – her analysis having been correct in finding they’d have a lot in common, even if there are still no feelings.  But as they train their strengths to fight the Frostfangs, they find that the frost of self-doubt is spreading throughout the community to their parents and teachers, visible only to the two of them because of their work with the birds.  They were only supposed to have to save the birds – but now, Eren and Alex will have to find a way to keep them away from their friends and family as well.  This grows increasingly difficult, as one of the main effects of the Frostfangs’ self-doubt on adults is to make them more authoritarian and punitive.  And if Eren keeps blowing off her friends to spend time with the birds, will she still have friends to go back to? 

This is a satisfying adventure  with cute and spirited birds and terrifying monsters, blended perfectly with the ever-present friendship struggles of middle school, as romance becomes more of an issue.  Here, part of the battle is both Eren and Alex figuring out that what they want for themselves isn’t something they’ve been able to be honest with either with themselves or their friends – a sensitive and age-appropriate exploration of non-hetero sexualities.  

There are still not nearly enough middle grade fantasies out there from these perspectives, and this has more than enough to appeal to kids looking either for epic contemporary fantasy or middle school relationship issues.  

Here are a few more recommendations for contemporary middle grade fantasy with LGBTQ protagonists:

Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo

Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Witch Boy  by Molly Knox Ostertag

And more books by Jenn Reese I’ve enjoyed:

A Game of Fox and Squirrels

The Above World Trilogy

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#MGReadathon Finish Line

Okay, so the finish line was last night, and I was exhausted and trying to squeeze in the last bit of reading I could and put off reporting on it until today. I read about 3 hours on Saturday and 6 or 7 hours on Sunday (I was keeping track as carefully then.) Here’s what I finished:

Cover of It's the End of the World and I'm in My Bathing Suit 
by Justin A. Reynolds

It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit
by Justin A. Reynolds

Scholastic, 2022

ISBN 9781338740226

Read from library copy. 

Eddie Holloway, age 12, has promised his mom he’ll be a responsible kid this summer, including taking care of his laundry. He thinks that strategically wearing all his clothes so that he only has to do laundry once is a genius idea, even if he’ll end up doing laundry in his swim trunks. . His mom disagrees. That’s how he ends up home alone in the dark, creepy basement while the rest of his family – and most of the neighborhood – is at the Beach Bash on Lake Erie.

Fortunately, when power and cell phone reception cut out across the neighborhood, there are a few other kids left at home – his best friends Xavier and Sonia, as well as middle school basketball star Trey and his little sister Sage. Together, the kids entertain themselves, scrounge for snack food, learn more about themselves, and try to figure out when might be the right time to start worrying about their grown-ups.

It might sound ironic to say that this is a fast-moving book where very little happens, but that’s just the way it is. Eddie is a fast-talking kid with ADHD whose brain races all over the place, sometimes hilariously listing the reasons why laundry should be considered criminal, other times explaining why his stepdad can never replace his deceased father, and others imagining completely over-the-top dialogues between the Universe and the Universe Itself about how fun it is to find ways to torment Eddie.

We’re over 100 pages in before the power outage that the kids are considering the end of the world takes place, yet I was too busy laughing at Eddie to be bored. And underneath all the humor is real feeling, acceptance of difference, and character exploration. I will definitely need to read the next book to find out what happens next! This would be a great one to hand to fans of The Last Last Day of Summer by Lamar Giles.

Cover of Valentina Salazar is NOT a Monster Hunter
by Zoraida Cordova. 
Read by Ana Osario

Valentina Salazar is NOT a Monster Hunter
by Zoraida Cordova.
Read by Ana Osario

Scholastic Audio, 2022

ASIN B09VCW6L85

Listened to audiobook on Hoopla

I just realized that both of these books have a kids processing the death of their father as a major theme…

In this book, the titular Valentina, age 11, has grown up traveling with her family in a wonderful souped-up camper van named the Scourge, homeschooling and looking for magical creatures to send back to the magical realm of Finisterra where they belong. That all ended when her father was eaten by an oropuma they were trying to rescue. Now they’ve moved into his deceased Aunt Ersilia’s house in Missing Mountain, New York, where Valentina is just not able to give up looking for new cases, as her family has made her promise to do. She’s not fitting in at school, trying to hide the orphaned and talking magical creature she’s kept as a companion, and frustrated that her once-close family has split off into individual bubbles.

But when she sees a video livestream of an oropuma egg waiting to hatch – attracting more and more viewers by the hour – she’s determined to find a way to rescue it before its secret is spread to the world. She’ll have to escape her uncle’s side of the family – the side that hunts magical creatures down rather than protecting and rescuing them. But she’ll also grow closer to her family, and meet both lots of magical creatures and many of her on-line friends from her kids’ magical creature group. This is a fantastically fun adventure, with thoughts about finding your circle of care and standing up for your beliefs, even against those more powerful than yourself. It’s a great one for fans of other magical animal books, like the Unicorn Rescue Society series.

I also got halfway through Those Kids from Fawn Creek by Erin Entrada Kelly, and started The Last Fallen Moon by Graci Kim on audio. I didn’t break any records, but I had fun reading and seeing what everyone else was reading. Let’s do another one next year!

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Starting Line – #MGReadathon

It’s been quite a while since Mother Reader hosted her beloved 48-Hour Readathons, so I’m very excited that Karen at Ms. Yingling Reads is hosting one this weekend! Naturally, even though I worked Friday and have a baby shower on the other side of the state on Saturday , I had to sign up. I don’t expect to break any records, just have a lot of fun.

Here’s what I have lined up to read:

I first heard about It’s the End of the World and I’m in my Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds from Betsy Bird at a Fuse #8 Production. I had to wait a while to get it from the library, but it’s a perfect time of year to read it!

Just being by Erin Entrada Kelly is reason enough to read Those Kids from Fawn Creek.

“Inner-city magic school” was enough for me to say “Yes, please!” to an ARC of A Taste of Magic by J. Elle, coming out in August.

I read about this book in Bookpage and purchased it for the school media center based on that review. Now I want to read Answers in the Pages by David Levithan for myself!

I don’t honestly know much about Zia Erases the World by Bree Barton apart from seeing it pop up regularly in the weekly round-ups at Charlotte’s Library, but it was on the shelf at the library when I did a mad dash checking out books in case I might not have enough to fill the weekend. I can be optimistic, right?

And just because I needed even more to read, and heard good things about it from Your Tita Kate, I checked out Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan from Libby.

I’m currently listening to Valentina Salazar is NOT a Monster Hunter by Zoraida Cordova on Hoopla based on Charlotte’s review.

And finally, my next-in-line audiobook is The Last Fallen Moon by Graci Kim, sequel to The Last Fallen Star.

I’m sending good reading vibes to everyone else participating! And there’s still time to join up if you’re interested.

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The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat

Here’s another lovely Thai-inspired historical fiction/fantasy book from Christina Soontornvat, whose earlier books A Wish in the Dark and All Thirteen won Newbery Honors the same year. (It looks like I never got around to reviewing All Thirteen, but it was impressive and engrossing!

Cover of The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat

The Last Mapmaker
by Christina Soontornvat.
Read by Sura Siu.

Candlewick, 2022.

ISBN 9781536204957

Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

Sai first learned calligraphy being forced to help her conman father forge documents, but with luck and hard work, she has found a position for herself as the apprentice  to the last mapmaker in the city.  This involves a double life – at work, she pretends she is the fully middle class girl about to go through the coming-of-age ceremony where she names her ancestors back generations.  But in the slums of home, she has to hide her apprentice uniform and her earnings from her father lest he take them away.  

When the Queen announces a prize for the ship able to find and map the possibly mythical Sunderlands, Sai is determined to join.  Not only will it take her away from her father, but it will also give her a path to earning a secure place for herself in respectable society.  Slowly, she finds her away among a crew that’s resistant to her, and begins to wonder why it is that Master Paiyoon, the mapmaker, was so reluctant to undertake the journey.  The ship’s captain, too, is an experienced woman only journeying at the Queen’s command, though her young First Mate is enthusiastic and friendly to Sai.  There’s also a young pickpocket/stowaway whom Sai finds more sympathetic than she feels she ought.  

This story packs an amazing amount into a relatively short space.  Of course there’s the high seas adventure, and life on board a ship filled with colorful characters.  But Soontornvat gives Sai’s father a rounded personality instead of making him a simple villain whose only role is is to give Sai the impetus she needs to start her journey.  There’s also a strong anti-colonialism and environmental message, as well as themes of forging one’s own destiny and found families.  I kind of did see a plot twist coming, but as I’m a much more experienced reader than the target audience, I’m not going to hold that against the book.  This is a fantasy world with no magic, with the possible exception of a dragon.  (Is it magical, or just nature in the alternate world?)

I was sadly less impressed by the narration – acceptable, but some of the character voices were hard to tell apart and there were a few distracting mispronunciations. These were mostly minor distractions, and the audiobook is still a fine option for those who have a strong preference for that format. All in all, this is another impressive showing for Christina Soontornvat.  

Other seafaring middle grade fantasies include The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford, The Voyage to Magical North by Claire Fayers, and The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty. For a great teen book set on the South China Seas, try Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee.

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The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton

There have been so many fantastic new magic school stories coming out that soon I will be able to make a new Magical Middle School list!  In the meantime, here’s the latest I’ve read. 

Cover of The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton

The Marvellers
by Dhonielle Clayton

Henry Holt & Co., 2022

ISBN 9781250174949

Read from library copy. 

Ella Durand has grown up near New Orleans in a magical family that practices the traditional arts of Conjure.  Up until now, though, Conjure has been considered somewhere between lesser and downright wicked by the rest of the magical community, since they specialize in guiding people through the afterlife.  The other community’s members call themselves Marvellers, and call the white light of their inner power starlight.  Though Ella is proud to be a Conjurer, she’s also joined her father in dreaming of an integrated future.  To that end, she’s enrolling at the Arcanum Training Institute, a sky-borne boarding school for Marveller youth.  

Her work is already cut out for – to show that Conjure is a legitimate discipline and that she can learn traditional Marveller practices as well.  But she’s working against a mountain of prejudice – her first set of roommates have her moved to a new room while she’s sleeping at night, and professors give her demerits for behaviors they let slide with other students.  Ella isn’t happy about being given a guide, either, but fellow first-year Jason, Black like her, but youngest in a large family of Marvellers, is friendly and persistent, as well as good with the adorable magical creatures of the Arcanum.  Her new roommate, blond Brigit, is prickly with having been summoned to the Arcanum without any knowledge of what’s going on.  Despite the general aura of mistrust, her advisor, elixirs professor Masterji Thakur, is kind and supportive. 

(I should also note that many of the professors, good and bad, have at least the last names of real authors – the welcome letter, for example, is signed by Laura Ruby, while one less pleasant teacher is named Nabokov.  This did lead me to Google some unfamiliar names to see if they were authors or not, but whether this is delightful or distracting is up to you.) 

Then, things start going wrong both inside and outside the Arcanum.  Brigit is desperate to get back to her old life despite her clearly magical knitting skills while Jason’s beloved and adorable magical creatures are falsely accused of mischief. Though the adults tell Ella to keep herself safe, she knows that she might have the only clues to what’s going on, and will be expelled if she can’t solve the mystery. Can the three of them combine their skills to save the day?  

Any magical school story will inevitably draw comparisons to Harry Potter, just as portal fantasies will be compared to Narnia.  But as you, discerning reader, undoubtedly already know, it takes more than a magic school setting to live up to Harry Potter.  The school must have that perfect balance of whimsy and tradition, with room for the young reader to see themselves attending. The characters must have emotions and character arcs are believable no matter how outlandish the circumstances, and of course, they must save the day in a dramatic and satisfying way.  

So does The Marvellers live up to that?  It certainly has a more inclusive student body – I loved that while Ella’s Conjure tradition is looked down upon, there are many well-regarded Black and brown students from places like Africa and India. Even without Conjure, the Arcanum is already a far more diverse place than Hogwarts ever was.  I felt like I still wasn’t quite sure enough of the nuances of the magical houses to say off the bat which one I would belong to, but I’m definitely open to learning more about that in future books.  It’s also filled with magic that would be delightful to experience, from the animated food to the stellacity-powered transportation.  So far, the villain isn’t quite as  horrific as Voldemort – but I’m really just fine with that.  I really did like all three of our main characters as well as Ella’s family.  I’d say this is an outstanding option to give kids who are either looking for more like Harry Potter or wanting to avoid J.K.’s nuttiness altogether.  I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of Ella’s journey through the Arcanum!

For more magical school adventures, try Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston or the Elementals series by Amie Kaufman, beginning with Ice Wolves.

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The Loophole by Naz Kutub

Are any of you surprised that I was very excited to get the chance to read a queer love story with fantasy elements?

The Loophole
by Naz Kutub

Bloomsbury, 2022

ISBN 978-1547609178

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

Sayyed – who goes by Sy at his coffee shop job for accessibility reasons – has just about exhausted the patience of his best friend, the buff and sparkly Dzakir, with his constant mooning over his ex-boyfriend.  As the story opens, though, he sees a young woman crash into the door and slide down it.  When he’s the only one to help her instead of taking photos, she grants him three wishes.  Once he’s convinced that she can actually grant some of them – and his abusive father finally finds out that he’s gay and kicks him out –  he decides track down his love, Farouk, and try to win him back.  Farouk hasn’t been in contact with either Sayyed or his own family, but the mysterious benefactor, Reggie, is sure that by following the last traces left on his social media posts, they’ll be able to find him.  

This leads to a world journey, starting with traveling to London from California and continuing on to multiple other countries.  Along the way, we see Sayyed’s deep attachment to Farouk, symbolized by the ring he hasn’t taken off even after the breakup.  But we also see their earlier relationship, from first dating to supporting each other and then Farouk’s growing depression. And during the travels, Sayyed has to deal with not only the prejudice against his being gay from his family, but also wide-spread difficulties in travel as a young Muslim-appearing man. 

These grim moments are balanced with plenty of humor, much of it coming from Reggie, who is impulsive and over-the-top, partly as a result of her hard-drinking, high-adventure lifestyle.    And in between Sayyed’s past and present, we get pieces of the ancient story of separated lovers Hamza and Delima, helped by a djinn to find each other in the underworld. This story sheds some light on the question of whether Reggie is just a rich heiress or a genie, and also foreshadows the ending of Sayyed’s story (at least for this book.)  

For despite the pink cover and Reggie’s slapstick antics, this is not a traditional romantic comedy. The ending is one that makes sense for the characters, but wasn’t the one I was hoping for.  Sayyed learns more about himself, what’s important to him, and how he himself contributed to the breakup, even if he doesn’t get the answers he thought he was looking for. This was a satisfying story, entertaining to read but with plenty of thoughtfulness and real-life difficulties behind the fantasy.  I look forward to reading more from Naz Kutub. 

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5 Stories of Adventure & Change

Sometimes adventure comes in the form of epic fantasy quests – but sometimes, it’s trying something new, making a goal happen, meeting someone new, or moving to a new neighborhood. Here are five wonderful picks perfect for summer reading for those who like their adventures on the realistic side.

Stories of Adventure & Change: 5 contemporary middle grade picks.  Includes covers of the Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung, Stand up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim, The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert, Ways to Grow Love by Renee Watson, and Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung. Levine Querido, 2020. ISBN 978-1646140114. Read from library copy. Audiobook available on Libby.

Matt (Korean-American) and Eric (white) have been friends since fourth grade.  Now they’re in middle school, and Matt has switched from playing flute, which he loved, to percussion, so he could sit near Eric in the back.  But Eric is going to be moving away at the end of the school year, and the boys come up with an elaborate plan to escape from the band competition at an amusement park to the comic con taking place at the same time nearby, where their favorite author will be signing his books.  

That plan is convoluted and precarious enough to be highly entertaining on its own, but the book is filled with so much more.  There are bullies who frustrate Matt and Eric by calling them gay as an insult – they aren’t gay, but there’s nothing wrong with being gay – and the bullies have secrets that keep them from being one-dimensional.  Matt’s parents are hippy, Unitarian Universalists who talk about mansplaining and social justice while eating kale and quinoa (guilty as charged!) This is a delightful and rare story that celebrates geekiness and male friendship. 

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim. Kokila, March 2020. ISBN 978-0525554974. Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby. 

Yumi lives in Los Angeles under the shadow of her big sister Yuri, a successful med school student.  Yumi’s expected to do the same, but she struggles at private school and secretly longs to study comedy, like her favorite young YouTube comedian Jasmine Jasper.  Yumi is also stressed about her family’s failing Korean barbeque restaurant.  Even though her parents are spending money they can’t afford to send her to hagwon – an expensive tutoring school – Yumi sneaks into a comedy summer camp for kids her age that’s happening close to the public library, where she’s supposed to be studying her algebra.  There she finds that another Asian student hasn’t shown up, and Yumi is able to take her place.  The summer camp is great – she makes good friends with two of the kids she meets there and improves her comedy skills.  But what will happen when all her lies come crashing down around her?  This is both hilarious and heartfelt, and should resonate with kids who dream of YouTube success.  

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert. Little, Brown, 2020. ISBN 978-0316456388. Read from library copy.

Alberta – Al – is a surfer girl growing up with her two dads in a mostly white California beach/tourist town. So far, she’s hung out with  fellow surfer Oliver Guzman and her BFF Laramie, and is tormented by fellow surfer girl Nicolette, who’s always saying that Alberta’s surfing awards aren’t earned and who unhappily lives right across the street.  Now, though, Laramie has inexplicably started spending more time with Nicolette than with Al.  So when a new girl who’s also Black moves into the B&B on the corner, Al is really hopeful that she might be a new friend.  Edie, though, is a black-clad New York City girl who feels way too cool for Al.  More change comes in the form of Al’s bio-mom, a good friend of her dads, coming to stay for a few months.  Into all this comes a mystery, as Edie and Al discover forgotten journals in the attic of the B&B and start to uncover a mystery about the previous owner.  In the process, both girls learn about what it means to be Black and how to fight society’s weird assumptions.  

Ways to Grow Love by Renée Watson. Bloomsbury, 2021. ISBN 9781547600588. Read from library copy. 

It’s the summer after fifth grade for Ryan Hart, and all the normal summer plans have been canceled due to her mom’s pregnancy.  There are not even enough library books to keep her occupied! Short, funny story arcs link together to form an album of summer memories – beating the boys at water balloon fight, getting up in the middle of the night and eating all the pickles in the house; the excitement of overnight church camp tempered with the unpleasantness of Ryan’s best friend Amanda inviting mean girl Red into their cabin, and the joys of picking out a name for her new baby sister.  This is just delicious, and would make a great family read-aloud or a book for advanced younger readers as well as for kids around the fourth and fifth grades.  

Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2022. ISBN 9780593379899. Read from library copy. 

Bo has lived alone with her mother in an apartment for as long as she can remember.  She hates school, but outside of that, she loves baking with her mother and babysitting for her young neighbor Dougie. 

Everything  changes when her mother remarries and moves both of them in with her new husband, Bill, who lives in a large brownstone with another family (Bill uses wheelchair.)  Bill has a daughter the same age as Bo, Sunday.  The other family has twin girls, Lee and Lil, also the same age. All the kids are “free schooling” and the household includes a menagerie of animals, including a dog, cats, a turtle, a bearded dragon, and a couple of chickens.  And while all of this is exciting and the other girls are eager to welcome Bo to their sisterhood, it’s also a lot for an introverted girl used to having her mother to herself.  Even as older dreams seem impossible, Bo pushes herself to start a new project with her sisters: organizing a block party that will celebrate Mum and Bill’s wedding (since they couldn’t afford a ceremony), hopefully help the neighborhood warm up to their rowdy household – and possibly even showcase the band the girls are putting together (even if the band is partly just to keep an old neighbor lady from complaining every time they practice different songs at the same time.)  

This story hearkens back to classic stories of large families, from All-of-a-Kind Family to the Penderwicks, while adding a refreshing Harlem setting, a modern blended family, and a celebration of Black history, culture and joy.  I loved every minute of it.  (And I loved that The Boys in the Back Row had a character reading Rhuday-Perkovich’s earlier book Two Naomis, while one of the girls here reads The Boys in the Back Row.)

Have you read any of these? Are there any you’d add to this list?

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