Brave Red, Smart Frog

This week, I’m going to focus on reviewing Cybils books that I wasn’t able to write up during the rush of Cybils season.

Brave Red, Smart Frog by Emily JenkinsBrave Red, Smart Frog by Emily Jenkins. Illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. Candlewick Press, 2017.

This volume of retold European traditional stories is bound together by the forests where many of the stories take place – one forest where it’s always winter, where stories like Hansel and Gretel are set, versus the summer forest inhabited by “bunnies and bluebirds.”  The language is poetic while keeping a sense of humor, and the heart of each story is looked for and often found in unusual places.

In the Frog Prince, Jenkins writes

“This princess, Crystal, was beautiful to most people’s way of thinking – except for those people who see beauty in character.”

In “Three Wishes,” a man numbed by the grief of losing his donkey and given three wishes makes one bad wish after another – with the unexpected ending that he and his wife are more grateful for what they have.  In Toads and Pearls (the version Toads and Diamonds was a childhood favorite of mine,) the focus is on the heroine being given the gift of independence and escape from cruelty, while in The Three Great Noodles, it’s that while the world is full of foolish people, compassion is rare and valuable.

I love reading fairy tales aloud, but I’ve found that many of my favorite retellings are too long for either for super-tired kids at bedtime or for holding the attention of larger groups.  This book’s shorter retellings lend themselves perfectly to reading aloud in these situations, though the small illustrations also reward the individual reader.  I’ll close with this quote from Hansel and Gretel after they get back home:

“It was not easy, but it was family. The little brick house…was once again a home.”

Here are some of my long time favorite books of fairy tales:

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Spindle by E.K. Johnston

Spindle by E.K. JohnstonSpindle by E.K. Johnston. Hyperion, 2016.
Hundreds of years after the Storyteller Queen drove the demon out, as told in A Thousand Night, the demon has been slowly plotting its escape.  It has invented a curse on making and the skills that will turn the princess called Little Rose into the ideal host, which will allow him to crush the kingdoms that formed out the lands that first drove him out.

Our narrator Yashaa is the son of a Spinner of the kingdom of Kharuf, formerly held in high regard, but now forced to live as nomads between kingdoms because of the magical sickness that crushes them if they return to their home.  Yashaa and his fellow children of exile Tariq and Arwa, as well as Saoud from another nearby kingdom, decide to travel back to Kharuf to see if they can break the curse.

Sleeping Beauty is a much less obvious choice for retelling with a strong Middle Eastern setting, but (as always so far with E.K. Johnston for me), I loved it.  Zahrah, the Little Rose, is tough and clever as she ropes the teens and one younger girl into orchestrating her escape.  Women cover their hair and the preservation of reputations is at least attempted without the women feeling either like less important characters or that they are chafing at these parts of their cultures, a sensitivity I appreciated.

This is a beautiful tale.  It still has a mythic feel like that of A Thousand Nights, but with named characters and concrete struggles, feels much more real at the same time.

E.K. Johnston has seven books listed on her website, of which I’ve now read four, including The Story of Owen and its sequel Prairie Fire.  Still to read: Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Star Wars: Ahsoka and That Inevitable Victorian Thing.  Those interested in fairy tale retellings can also try Robin McKinley’s very different-feeling retelling Spindle’s End.

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When Dimple Met Rishi

i’m still catching up on reviews – but in the meantime the Cybils winners have been announced! Head on over and take a look – I’m taking three of the winners home from the library today.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya MenonWhen Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. Read by Sneha Mathan and Vikas Adam. Dreamscape Media, 2017.

Dimple, newly graduated from high school, wants nothing more in life than to be a web developer.  Her overbearing mother wants her to start wearing make-up and proper, girly Indian clothes, so she can attract a good Indian husband.  Dimple is thrilled when her parents give her permission to attend nearby Insomnia Con, an intensive summer workshop in app development, with the promise of the winning app having a chance to be looked at by programming star Jenny Lindt.

Rishi is planning to leave California to attend MIT, as his parents wish.  But he hopes to have a family, and believes that compatibility, as ensured by a traditional arranged marriage, offers the best hope of long-term happiness.  His parents, after all, are still happily married.  He signs up for Insomnia Con as a way to meet Dimple and see if they are as compatible as their parents think they will be.

But as Dimple’s parents didn’t clue her in, or tell Rishi that she doesn’t know, things start off badly, with Dimple throwing her iced coffee in Rishi’s face.

The only flaw in this novel is that it presents “Is it possible for a woman to have a career and a family” as a serious dilemma – which I know it still is, but I would hope that enough women have been doing it for the past four decades or so that it should be less of an issue.  Regardless, I loved both focused Dimple and family-oriented Rishi.  I really appreciated that it wasn’t just “will Dimple see how awesome Rishi is?” but that Rishi had his own challenges in life that Dimple was able to help him see around.  Programming, sweet romance, friendship, and cheesy Bollywood dance moves blend in this delightful teen/new adult book that I’ve been recommending to all kinds of people since I read it.

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Yvain: the Knight of the Lion

Yvain: the Knight of the Lion by M.T. Anderson and Andrea OffermannYvain: the Knight of the Lion by M.T. Anderson, based on the epic by Chrétien de Troyes. Illustrated by Andrea Offerman. Candlewick, 2017.

I enjoy a good medieval story, and M.T. Anderson always impresses with the sheer range of his writing, from the wacky middle-grade series that starts with Whales on Stilts to the darker, futuristic YA novel Feed. Here, he and artist Andrea Offerman adapt a genuine Arthurian romance into a graphic novel.  In the story, there is a pool with a bowl on a stone that causes storms.  This is defended by a knight whose side we’re somehow not on.  When he slays another knight, our hero Sir Yvain sets out to avenge him, only to fall for the original bad knight’s widow, Lady Laudine.  Not unreasonably, Lady Laudine isn’t too interested in marrying her husband’s killer, but her maid, Lunette, does like Yvain and helps him convince Lady Laudine to marry him.  There are also lots of side adventures where Yvain and sometimes Gawain fight to save the day, sometimes more justified than others.

The illustrations are well-researched, somehow looking medieval with a modern energy.  When the characters tell stories, they’re shown in tapestry-style illustrations.  Interesting notes from both the author and the illustrator comment on the hard work women do to be able to follow their own wills even a little in a society where they’re not supposed to have their own desires (Lunette only tries to keep Yvain close, not win him for herself.)  The men are thoughtlessly selfish, but the women are likely to exact revenge at some point.  The women’s clothes of the period, especially, seem designed to show off noblewomen’s lack of need to do anything, as they require one hand to hold the mantle in place at all times. This is a fascinating peek into the legends of another time that my son and I both enjoyed, with plenty of action and gore to keep things interesting.

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Want by Cindy Pon

Confession time: I have a seven page document with notes of books that I’ve read and want to write full reviews of. I’m trying to post more frequent, quick reviews to catch up. This was one of my eagerly anticipated titles of 2017.

Want by Cindy PonWant by Cindy Pon. Simon Pulse, 2017.

In a futuristic, dystopian Taipei, the world is divided into the mei, the wants, and the you, the haves.  The mei are perpetually poor and at risk from the polluted air, while the you spend their days on pleasure in the safety of controlled environment suits.  Our heroes are a diverse gang of teens, including American-Taiwanese Jason Zhou, smooth Filipino Victor, science-y Arun, cybersecurity hacker Lingyi, and her girlfriend and spy/weapons expert Iris. When they discover a dastardly plot to keep the pollution and the profitable protection industry going, they develop a risky plan to expose it.  Naturally, this will involve Jason coming into close contact with the alluring Daiyu, daughter of the wicked businessman.  This was a little angsty and insta-love for me, but overall a lot of fun with a nice twist.  I think contemporary/futuristic settings are more popular especially with teens these days, though I still love the historical setting of Serpentine and Silver Phoenix

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2017 in Review: by the Numbers

So my plans to be super on top of posting are being foiled by weather and sick kids and lots of actual work… but I’ve been slowly working on these numbers over the past several weeks.  Is this fun for you, dear reader?  Or just useful for me to keep myself honest?  I don’t know, so let’s get on to the pretty graphs.


Here’s what I read last year. Clearly I either need to write reviews faster or revise my expectations!

Continue reading

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Victor Shmud, Total Expert

Victor Shmud, Total Expert: Let's Do a Thing!Victor Shmud, Total Expert: Let’s Do a Thing. Victor Shmud, Total Expert: Night of the Living Things by Jim Benton.  Scholastic, 2017, 2018.
Victor is an expert at everything he puts his mind to, from makeovers to intergalactic space battles to instrument designer. He does this things with frequent input from his duck, Dumpylumps, and more occasional help from his friend Patti.  Although Victor’s self-confidence is boundless and things always end well, it’s usually through things going spectacularly badly first.

In the first book of this new early chapter book series from hit author Jim Benton, Victor’s is excited about his new makeover potion, the results of which seem not so great to the outside observer. Then, Dumpylumps expertise with a space battle game on Patti’s phone attracts the attention of an alien general, who thinks that Victor is the expert. And Victor, of course, believes that he is an expert at everything.

Victor Shmud, Total Expert: Night of the Living ThingsIn the newest book of the series, Victor as musical instrument expert creates an instrument that turns adults into moaning, groaning zombies.  Will Victor realize what he’s done?  Perhaps with the aid of kindergarteners strapped to his feet, he’ll be fast enough to think of a solution before it’s too late.

The books are chock full of illustrations by the author, at least one on every page, which add a lot to the humor. They often showing a reality that’s quite different from what Victor thinks it is, as well as illustration his imaginations.  Most of the humor is slapstick, including potty humor as well as some that felt unfortunately like fat or age shaming, when the janitor, Mr. Plumporski, does beauty poses that show off his pot belly or Victor describes his plans to marry his grandmotherly teacher.   I don’t actually have much patience for overconfident boys myself (one of the reasons Eragon didn’t work for me.)  I would have liked to see more of level-headed Patti!  But I do appreciate that while Victor never loses his self-confidence, the story also makes it clear that his “expertise” often causes serious problems.  I also have a son who, even when first learning to read, only wanted to read science fiction or fantasy.  There are so few speculative fiction early chapter book series around that this will be a welcome addition to libraries everywhere.

You could try The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass or the Sam Silver: Undercover Pirate series by Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler for more action-oriented early chapter books, both for slightly more advanced readers.

Thanks to the publisher, who sent me copies of these books for review.

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Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2018: Underground Railroad

Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2018 (1/27/18) is in its 5th year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators. Multicultural Children's Book Day 2018

Please join me in celebrating Multicultural Children’s Book Day!  Visit the main site, hop around the linky, and read some multicultural children’s books!  Thanks also to author sponsor Judy Dodge Cummings for sending me this book for review.  Continue reading

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2017 Diverse Reading

Here’s a summary of my diverse reading from mid-October 16 to the end of December 2017.  This was peak Cybils reading period, which is why I have just two books here that aren’t middle grade speculative fiction.  Following is a brief look at my total diverse reading for last year.

#OwnVoices Authors

Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas (middle grade)

Mossby’s Magic Carpet Handbook by Ilona Bray and Alejandro Lee

Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh

#NotYourPrincess by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale

(This feels right for teens or adults, but my library has it in teen.)

White/Straight Authors, Diverse Characters


Adventurers Guild by Zack Loran Clark and Nick Eliopulos (The main character here is half elf, and deals with prejudice because of it. There are lots of variations in human skin tones here as well.)

Beast & Crown by Joel Ross

Children of Refuge by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Lost Legacy. Supernormal Sleuthing Agency #1. by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe (The main character here is half elf, and deals with prejudice because of it.)

Marvelwood Magicians by Diane Zahler

Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell (disability)

Artemis by Andy Weir (adult)

So, that’s five by diverse authors and illustrators, plus eight with diverse characters but white authors.  Adding up the titles from the round-ups I did in March, May, and October (yep, I was super consistent with my round-ups there!), that gives me a total of 44 #ownvoices books and 31 books by white authors.  But, my goal for 2017 was to increase the number of reviews I actually wrote.  So how did I do there? If I’m adding up correctly, I wrote reviews of 31 #OwnVoices books and 18 other books with diverse main characters.   It might not quite have earned me a full 30-point rating on the #ReadDiverse2017 readalong, as they didn’t all get separate points, but I’m going to call it a win anyway.

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2017 in Review: the Books

Finally, I found a some time to go through the books I read in 2017 and pull together my top-rated books.  This is everything I read rated 9 and above.  The only thing I’ve cut in the interests of your time is this year’s Cybils shortlist, because every single book on that list also made my personal best-of-the-year list.

Here is my standard disclaimer about rating books:

“I have never liked doing a public scale rating of books – the librarian in me would rather describe what’s in the book and let you decide if it sounds good for you. But I do give books number ratings on my own private spreadsheet. I shamelessly borrowed the Book Smugglers’ 10-point rating system for this, where 0 is “I want my time and my money back”, 5 is “meh” and so on. For my purposes, 7 is a book I enjoyed, 8 is one I loved and 9 is one I really, really loved. 10 only gets given out retrospectively to books I find myself re-reading and thinking about a lot – a true personal classic.”

This is the first year since I’ve been doing this that I didn’t track or review any picture books. Even though I do still bring them home from time to time, both of my children have now moved out of picture books as their primary form of reading.  I am including here books that I reread this year.  Most of them are personal favorites that my children and I listened to in the car, but I did make time this year to listen (always listen, it seems, never read in print!) a few just for myself as well.

I’d love to hear what your favorite books of last year were as well!

Early Chapter

Middle Grade




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