The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal

The Lost Property Office. Section 13 Book 1 by James R. Hannibal. Simon and Schuster, 2017. Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal
Jack Buckles and his mother and little sister Sadie have flown from America to London to search for his missing father.  When impulsive Sadie thinks she sees him, Jack chases her, and is led to the Lost Property Office, a steampunky magical-technical place that searches for all sorts of missing things, including both property and people.  A young trainee clerk, Gwen, tells Jack that he is in fact the 13th of that name, and descended from a long line of Finders.  Goaded by a nefarious villain, the French Clockmaker Jack and Gwen set out to search for both Jack’s father and the Ember that started the Great Fire of London.  Clockmakers have been the enemies of Finders since that long-ago time, and the Clockmaker stays on their tails with quantities of clockwork beetles.

There are lots of stories of kids who think they’re ordinary finding out that they have inherited some spectacular ability from their family.  This one is good especially for those interested in the history of disasters and who like their magic mechanical with a side of steam/gear punk. What especially stood out for me is that Jack has sensory issues that make being in crowds or loud places overwhelming.  All of his life, this has been a liability for him.  Now, as Gwen teaches him to “spark” to feel the history of objects, and to focus his Finder abilities, his disability turns into his greatest strength.  I know more than one kid who has sensory issues like this, and I’ve never before seen it used as a superpower.  On the minus side, though, this is yet another modern-day multi-character fantasy where all the major characters are white.  I’ll admit that my experience of modern Britain is pretty much limited to the Great British Baking Show, but that is a whole lot more diverse than this book.  Still, unfortunately, children’s fantasy defaults to all-white.  This is a solid choice for kids looking for a fantasy adventure, with a similar to feel to Ted Sander’s The Box and the Dragonfly. 

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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The Apprentice Witch by James Nicol

What does happen to a witch once she’s done with school?

The Apprentice Witch by James NicolThe Apprentice Witch by James Nicol. Read by Elizabeth Knowelden. Scholastic Audiobooks, 2017.
Arianwyn Gribble has flunked her witch’s test.  She hopes it isn’t just the influence of her grandmother, who’s on the witch’s council, that’s she’s given a provisional badge and still assigned to the remote border village of Lull, which hasn’t had a resident witch in years.  She’s determined to do her best to take care of it anyway, doing her work of banishing dark spirits and making protective charms for the village residents.  She finds a friend in the innkeeper’s daughter, but is horrified when it turns out that her long-time rival and tormenter, Gimma, is the mayor’s niece. As it turns out that Lull has serious magical problems, will Arianwyn be able to overcome her self-doubt and Gimma’s obstruction to save the town?

Arianwyn is a charming character (ooh, was that a pun?) and it is really fun thinking about what the day-to-day work of a helpful witch might be – something along the lines of a more institutionalized Kiki’s Delivery Service.  There are some major inconsistencies in the underpinnings, though, including the magic ability measurement machine that clearly fails to measure at least two of the characters in the book properly.  Why are they using it if it’s so inaccurate?  This not-England but British-feeling, fairly modern world also seems populated exclusively by pale-skinned people, which is unfortunate. While it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny, it’s still a fun, light read, with potential for growth in further books.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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Journey’s End by Rachel Hawkins

I enjoyed Rachel Hawkins’ earlier Hex Hall series, and was pleased to see her first middle grade book nominated for the Cybils.

journeysendJourney’s End by Rachel Hawkins. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017.
Our story opens in the village of Journey’s End in northern Scotland a hundred years ago, as young Albert Macleish sneaks out of his house early in the morning and rows through the thick, roiling Boundary Fog to the lighthouse on the island off the coast.  He is never seen again.

In the present day, 12-year-old American Nolie, still learning to deal with her parents’ recent divorce, travels to Journey’s End, where her father is a scientist researching the thick gray Boundary Fog that never leaves.  While he firmly believes there’s a scientific cause, Nolie is a fan of ghost stories, particularly the “fun creepy” kind.  She’s come prepared with a book of Scottish ghost stories.

Meanwhile, similarly aged Bel is a native of Journey’s End, whose family owns a tour boat and tourist shop, since tourism is now the major industry here.  She’s been lonely since her best friend abandoned her in favor of a new girl in town, so that she and Nolie are able to make friends fairly quickly.  It’s in the back of Bel’s shop, in a row of photographs of people lost in the fog a century ago, that Nolie recognizes a face she just saw on the beach….

This present-day story alternates with snippets from “The Sad Tale of Cait McInnish”, a young nanny whose noble charge fell out of a tower window centuries earlier.

The whole book is an appealing mix of developing cross-cultural friendships, giving old friendships a second try, mystery, and time travel.  I would say it succeeds at Nolie’s goal of “fun creepy”, with just the right balance of fear, suspense, courage and humor.  Plus, Scotland!

This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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The Matchstick Castle by Keir Graff

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

The Matchstick Castle by Keir GraffThe Matchstick Castle by Keir Graff. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017.
Brian’s father is travelling for the summer, and Brian is being farmed off to stay with his aunt and uncle in Boring, Illinois.  There, he and his rule-following cousin Nora are expected to spend their days on the computer doing schoolwork, “beta testing” the uncle’s program.  (I put that in quotes because true beta testing should involve feedback, and feedback is definitely not welcome here.)  Not only is Brian missing his summer soccer league, but Nora isn’t interested in playing, and he’s not allowed out of the yard to find anyone else to play with.  Summer is shaping up to be the worst, most boring ever when….

Brian runs away into the forbidden woods that back up to yard!  Wandering through it, he finds the Matchstick Castle, a crazy, falling apart building inhabited by Cosmo, a boy about Brian and Nora’s age, and his crazy uncles – one of whom got lost in it a year or so ago.  (Cosmo’s aviatrix mother, Anthea, flies in near the end of the story.) Soon he and Nora are both escaping to the castle, both for the fun, and because they realize that the Matchstick Castle is slated to be demolished to make way for a new beige subdivision.  Can they save it?  Can they find the treasure that’s rumored to be buried underneath it, which would hopefully allow the building to be repaired?

“Madcap” is the best word I can think of to describe this book.  Brian’s ordinary-to-him life transforms into cartoons at two ends of the spectrum, between unbelievably boring and unbelievably crazy.  The only theme I’d care to speculate on there being here is the value of free time and exploration.  But really I think it’s all about the adventure and the craziness where the kids are the ones reminding the adults to find a happy medium.  I would have liked there to be any diversity here – but it is one that should appeal to a wide variety of kids.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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The Voyage to Magical North and the Memory Thief

As I’m in the throes of peak Cybils reading season and trying desperately to keep up with reviews of the books I’m reading now, I thought I’d take advantage of a Sunday at work to pop in a couple of short reviews of the last batch of Cybils finalists, which have been patiently hanging out in my review queue.

The Voyage to Magical NorthThe Voyage to Magical North by Claire Fayers. Henry Holt, 2016.
Brine Seaborne has grown up as a servant to the evil wizard Tallis Magus in this 2017 Cybils finalist.  She and apprentice Peter have a last-minute escape from his island home and are rescued by the pirate captain Cassie O’Pia of the legendary Onion.  Soon they encounter the even eviler wizard Marfak West, who like everyone else would like to find the trail of lost explorer Aldebran Boswell and his search for Magical North and an infinite supply of the starshell that provides magic to everyone.  The rollicking adventure story is punctuated by excerpts from Boswell’s journal, hilariously dreadful sounding recipes from pirate cook Trudi’s personal collection, and verses from ballads about Cassie O’Pia, most of which greatly exaggerate her beauty.  Also included: a library where only women are allowed, reflections on the appropriate use of power, and understated diversity, as Brine is clearly mixed race but doesn’t know anything about her parents.  I am really looking forward to reading the next book in this series, The Journey to Dragon Island, which looks like it will follow Brine and Peter sailing to unfamiliar parts of the world to learn more about her history.

The Memory Thief by Bryce MooreThe Memory Thief by Bryce Moore. Adaptive Books, 2016.
Benji and his sister Kelly have been drifting apart, much to his chagrin.  He’s exploring a carnival near home when he’s chased by bullies and escapes into a small tent.  This turns out to be run by an old man who trades in memories.  When he teaches Benji how to take memories himself, Benji is faced with an ethical dilemma – could he make his struggling parents fall in love again by selectively removing their memories?  When a clearly evil memory thief, Genevieve, turns up, things get dangerous quickly.  This is a high octane adventure that still hits close to home.

It speaks well last year’s Cybils committee and their ability to judge kid appeal that both of these books are currently checked out from my library.

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Orphan Island by Laurel SnyderOrphan Island by Laurel Snyder. HarperCollins Children’s, 2017.

Nine on an island, orphans all
Any more, the sky might fall.

This is the rhyme that rules the lives of the nine children who live together on an island.  Every year (one guess, but who really keeps track of years?) a green boat comes bringing a new, young child, and taking away the oldest in a ritual called the Change. It’s the Eldest’s job to take care of the new Little, as well as to pass on to the next youngest what the responsibilities of being Eldest entail.

It’s Jinny’s year to be Eldest, but she’s just not ready.  She doesn’t understand why her beloved previous Eldest didn’t resist leaving.  She’s less than enthusiastic about her new jobs – teaching the new girl, little Ess, reading and swimming, and teaching the next oldest child how to be Eldest.  And while she does grow attached to Ess, that only makes her more resentful of the expectation that she will leave when the boat comes back.

The island itself is major part of the story.  It’s an island surrounded by mist, with no contact to the outside world other than the yearly boat.  That mist will bounce children who jump off cliffs right back on to the island, to their great entertainment. Everything the children absolutely need is just there, with children passing on the knowledge of how to gather food and how to read the ever-dwindling supply of books.

The book is as surrounded in questions as the island is in mist.  Are the children really orphans, for example?  Where do they come from and go to?  But our story is told through Jinny’s eyes, and she also has more questions than answers.  The reader can see as she can’t her growing dissatisfaction and questioning of the rules that have been passed down as her beginning adolescence, even as she doesn’t know what that is.  (This also serves to make her a somewhat prickly protagonist, even as she realizes too late that she’s hurt her companions.)

Some reviews of this have said it is pure allegory, and while it’s possible to read it as an allegory, it fortunately holds up as a story in its own right.  There is no waking up to an ordinary reality at the end, which would have utterly spoiled it for me.  It still speaks truthfully to kids about the rocky changes ahead while portraying a realistically bumpy view of a kid utopia. This is both entertaining and thought-provoking, perfect for reading and discussing.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky

Six kid geniuses from around the world science their way home from space. 

The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie SlivenskyThe Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky. Harper, 2017.
Meet Miranda Regent, girl genius from Ohio.  At least her little sister thinks she’s smart enough to earn a place on the Mars Mission in this nearish-future science fiction.  Society is just recovering from a decade-long world war over asteroid mineral rights.  Now, it’s been decided to start rebuilding international relations with a Mars mission staffed by people young enough not to remember the war – twelve-year-olds.  They are being selected through international competitions, and will train for eight years before the big space flight.

Miranda’s dream of a place on the team comes true – but instead of her best friend and rival Sasha, from Russia, also being on the team, snotty Anna from Austria is chosen instead.  The team also has representatives from Peru, Pakistan, Japan, and Kenya, all meeting to train on a base in Antarctica.

On the way there, Miranda and some of the other kids are attacked.  There are lots of vague warnings and narrowly-escaped bombs.  Who could be behind them?  Plus, Miranda was of course used to being the smartest – but among the very brightest the world has to offer, she’s feeling slow, worried that she was chosen just for being American and not for her brains.  Will she ever make friends on the team, or will her homemade robot pal Ruby be her only friend?

Things come to a head when what was supposed to be a dry, practice launch winds up with the kids in space in an unfinished shuttle.  With communications cut off, it will be up to the kids – and Ruby – to science their way home again.

The book is filled with lots of real science, plus plenty of intrigue and politics both international and interpersonal.  It’s sure to please everyone from middle grade to adult.

Mars is the place to be these days!  See my recent review of the (also excellent) Last Day on Mars for a list of more middle grade fiction set on and around Mars.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

This book is nominated for the Cybils.  I was going to read it anyway, because of being the sequel to The JumbiesAlso, the awesome cover.  Also, Tracey Baptiste was willing to pose with my sock-in-progress at Kidlitcon 2015.

Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey BaptisteRise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste. Algonquin, 2017.
Now that everyone on her island knows that Corinne is part jumbie, life has settled into a new normal, which is that no one wants to buy the oranges she’s selling, even if they are the best.  At least she and her friends were able to defeat her evil aunt Severine – or were they?  When multiple children go missing near water, Corinne and her friends Dru, Bouki and Malik wonder if Severine could have escaped.  But the only being who might be able to help them is Mama D’Leau, a powerful and reliably tricksy water spirit.  Her help doesn’t come free – and soon the four children and four of Mama D’Leau’s mermaids (beautiful and brown-skinned, of course) are swimming to West Africa to find a treasure Mama D’Leau mislaid a few hundred years earlier.

I enjoyed The Jumbies and its exploration of the folklore of Trinidad.  But this one took that and mixed it in with some comparisons with the traditional religion of West Africa, the legacy of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade on both sides of the ocean, and the ties that bind family and friends together even in the face of major disagreements for a story that added whole new layers of depth, all within a fast-paced adventure. I was hooked.  I bet the kids in your life will be, too.

This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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Felix Yz

Felix Yz by Lisa BunkerFelix Yz by Lisa Bunker. Viking, 2017.
Thirteen-year-old Felix was just a toddler sitting on his scientist father’s lap when an experiment exploded.  His father died, while Felix’s consciousness was fused with that of an alien, whom they call Zyx.  Having an alien in his body makes Felix look severely retarded – his body moves uncontrollably and he often can’t make his words come out coherently.  This makes him an easy target for bullying.  Inside, though, his thoughts are buzzing.  He has deep conversations with Zyx on the nature of life.  He loves to draw comics and has a serious crush on a super cute boy at school, Hector, who is African-American.

Felix lives with his mother, who has dated both men and women since his father died, but is currently dating a man who is very interested in chess.  Zyx, it turns out, is also very interested in the beautiful patterns of a chess game.  Felix’s sister, Beatrix, is a classical musician, while his grandparent, Grandy, spends three days a week as a male named Vern, three as a female named Vera, and one day a week locked in zer room meditating and contemplating existence.  I especially appreciated that while Grandy dresses and speaks differently depending on the day, all version of zer personality enjoy knitting.

Things cannot continue as they have been, though.  Zyx being fused with Felix means that Felix isn’t growing as he should.  Doctors and Zyx are convinced that unless they try to separate them, Felix will soon die.  The procedure they have planned, though, has a very low chance of success, and Felix is understandably nervous and counting down the days.

I am very torn about this book.  On the plus side, I sincerely liked Felix as a character.  My son’s middle school literature class has in the past let kids choose from a variety of books with main characters with disabilities, and Felix – well, I guess he really does have a disability with Zyx, though his mind underneath is just fine. That could really help kids think about what might be under the surface of other people with disabilities they meet.  Grandy was a very interesting character, but seemed over-the-top, even to the trans friend I talked to about it.  (though granted, she didn’t read the book herself.)  I ended up feeling frustrated with romance, which built very, very slowly to one kiss on the cheek and then fizzled out.  Really?  In 2017, we can’t have a same-sex romance for middle schoolers that ends with them at least comfortable holding hands?  I know at that age, relationship may not often last long at all, but I don’t think it would have played out this way in a hetero relationship.  The book also had lots and lots of contemplation on the beauty of threeness and life slowing down the plot, such that it felt like it would take a very patient and character-oriented kid reader to make it through the book.  I could be wrong – this might appeal to the same people who made Wonder so popular.  In short, an intriguing book that I’m just not quite sure of the audience for.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse and #NotYourPrincess

Here are two books celebrating the Native American/Aboriginal experience – one that finally made its way to the top of my reading list, and one new book that the teen librarian kindly purchased for me after I told her how excited Debbie at American Indians in Children’s Literature was about it.  (Here’s her review of In the Footsteps of Crazy Horsetoo.)

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph MarshallIn the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III. Amulet Books, 2015.
Jimmy is a Lakota boy, growing up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, where the author lives in real life.  He’s teased by both Lakota and white kids because of the light hair and blue eyes he inherited from his White father – he doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.  Hearing about this, his Grandpa Nyles tells him about Crazy Horse, who was also lighter than his peers.  They go on a road trip visiting many of the sites important in Crazy Horse’s life.  At each one, Grandpa Nyles tells Jimmy stories of Crazy Horse at the appropriate period of his life, from boyhood to becoming a battle leader and finally betrayed.

It is rare and important to have books from a modern-day Native perspective, especially one that covers both living on a reservation and not matching the stereotypes.  It’s told in short sentences that feel poetic rather than simplistic.  They resonate deeply and echo the oral storytelling tradition.  That could make it work very well as a classroom read-aloud.  The whole thing is quite short for a middle grade novel, and with lots of bloody battle scenes in Grandpa Nyles’s stories (even though he makes it clear that atrocities are atrocious no matter who commits them,) this is one that I could see giving to my own son or any other reader who likes action and is intimidated by longer books.  But really, there are so few books with this perspective that this needs to be widely read and discussed.

#NotYourPrincess ed. by Charleyboy and Leatherdale#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. Annick Press, 2017.
Many, many Native American and Aboriginal women from the U.S. and Canada, from teen to older adult, contributed to this beautiful book.  Original art – painting, drawing, photography – is paired with poetry and reflections.  There is a reflection on the myth behind the name “Winona” in sequential art.  There are portraits and captures of Twitter and Instagram movements in support of Native women.  There are memories of the residential schools and of dropping out of modern public schools, and then finding a way to thrive despite abuse and prejudice.  It is being sold as a teen book, though it is equally relevant to adults.  This is a powerful and beautiful reflection of the women who created it.

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