I am doing shorter reviews of these three recent middle grade fantasy and dystopian books because I am once again reading much, much faster than I’m able to write reviews. The first I found earlier this year when I was looking hard for new middle grade fantasy by authors of color.
Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park. Harper Collins, 2016.
Newbery-award winning author Linda Sue Park returns with a classic medieval fantasy that has a more modern sensibility as regarding the movement of peoples around the world. Our hero, young Raffa Santana, dark of hair and eye, is the child of immigrants who have nevertheless stayed in their village long enough to feel established. They are apothecaries working with powerful botanicals to create medicines both typical and a little bit magical. When Raffa’s best friend and cousin Garith leaves with his parents to work in the Commons, the most important part of Gilden, the capital of Obsidia, Raffa is very upset and decides to follow along. Naturally, he takes with him the bat that has turned purple-eyed and started talking since Raffa treated it with his homemade botanicals. As he reaches the city, he finds that things are more complicated than he was expecting. He befriends both blond, pale-skinned Trixin, a poor city girl supporting her entire family, and dark-skinned Kuma, a solitary country girl suspicious of all except her companion bear Roo. There are plenty hijinks, narrow escapes, and secrets to uncover as well as underlying meditations on ethics. This is a solid and highly enjoyable book, especially for kids who enjoy stories of talented kids and adorable animals. You can tell by the cover that it’s the first of a series, and I am looking forward to reading more entries.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Performed by Michale Curran-Dorsano. Harper, 2016.
In the not-too-distant future, the fox Pax has been Peter’s constant companion ever since Peter found the orphaned kit soon after his own mother’s death. Seven years later, Peter’s father joins the military in its ongoing battle over water. He tells Peter that Pax must be returned to the wild while Peter is sent to his grandfather’s house, 500 miles away. This tear-jerker of a story is told in alternating perspectives as Pax tries to live on his own for the first time while Peter, on crutches and trying to stand up for himself for the first time, attempts to walk the 500 miles to find Pax. Pennypacker’s inventive language use is fully on display, but here used to be stunningly, lyrically beautiful rather than the quirky humor of her Clementine books. There are very clear statements on the evils of war, as well as tougher lessons on the appropriate times for, and uses of anger. I think I read this too close to the 1000 Black Girl Books campaign as despite its beauty, there was a largeish part of me that felt that this was another Newbery-bait, tear-jerking book about a white boy and his dog, even if the dog was a fox this time. If you or a kid in your life are in the mood for really sad (I had a young patron come in asking for it because he wanted sad), this is a great choice. I myself prefer Clementine, with her serious life lessons told through humor.
Fridays with the Wizards by Jessica Day George. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Princess Celie returns in this fourth book in the series that began with Tuesdays at the Castle. The evil wizard Arkwright has escaped from the castle dungeons, and the hunt for him is on. The castle is clearly upset, and Celie is trying her best to figure out what the castle wants. Arkwright seems to be wandering in secret passages and coming out for stealthy attacks on people in the castle. Meanwhile, the castle gives Celie the pieces of an old boat, which it’s decided – without her input – will be rebuilt and given to Prince Lulath and his kingdom as a gift to celebrate the engagement of Lulath and Lilah. None of this sits well with Celie – but just as she’s feeling fed up with everyone underestimating her and doing things that affect her without her input, it’s up to her to save the day again. This is another lovely entry in this series, perfect for younger fantasy readers.