I said I was done reviewing Cybils books. I lied. Here are two more that were nominated for last year’s Cybils, both read from review copies kindly sent to me by the publisher.
The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero. Delacorte, 2017.
Karolina is a doll who spends her time in the land of dolls stitching small, helpful spells into the clothes of courtiers and soldiers. But when her gingerbread home is eaten by invading rats, she runs away and finds herself in a toy shop in 1940s Krakow. The shop is owned by the dollmaker of the title, a Mr. Brzezick who lost his leg in World War I and has renounced both war and his German heritage as a consequence. Karolina is convinced that it’s his magic that has made her able to move and talk in the human world, and soon she’s befriended Rena, a young Jewish girl whose father has bought a doll house for her. Reality and magic intertwine as Karolina realizes that the invading Nazis are conquering the magical spirits of Poland as well as its people. The occupation gets slowly worse, until Karolina realizes that Rena and her friends are all in terrible danger and she and Mr. Brzezick must work to save them. I don’t know that there is such a thing as a gentle introduction to the Holocaust, but here at least (spoiler alert), though things go about as poorly as one would expect for the adults, their efforts succeed in saving the children. I found it odd and captivating.
The Ice Sea Pirates by Frida Nilsson. Gecko Press, 2017.
Frida Nilsson is an award-winning Swedish author whom I read for the first time here, attracted especially by the pirates. Pirates are often romanticized especially in children’s books, but they are definitely the villains here. Growing up on one of many tiny, remote northern islands, ten-year-old Siri has told her little sister Miki lots of stories about the evil pirate Captain Whitehead, who kidnaps children to work in his coal mine. Once taken, no one has ever dared to face him to try to recover the children. But when little Miki is actually taken by the pirates, Siri is guilt-stricken and horrified. She jumps into a rowboat and finds her way to the nearest town, determined to rescue Miki. For a story about pirates with a mermaid encounter, I agree with Charlotte that this felt surprisingly realistic. Siri doesn’t have superpowers. She isn’t able to feed herself, or navigate solo across the ocean, and absolutely refuses to play along when she’s told that she’s a child foretold in dreams to do great things. She needs help from adults, who are also not omnipotent. She gets stuck, abandoned, betrayed. She sits down and cries about it. And then she gets up and tries something else, because what’s she’s lacking in adult capabilities, she makes up for in her sheer refusal to give up when everyone else tells her to. Besides her admirable persistence, Siri’s takeaway lesson is the horror of allowing children of any species to be used for our profit. Despite these modern-day messages, this had an old-fashioned feel that I quite enjoyed.