Here are four middle grade fantasy books from the English-speaking world outside of the US – South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and the UK. (Shorter reviews as part of my trying to catch up with my reading.)
The Turnaway Girls by Hayley Chewins. Candlewick, 2018.
In the world of this book from South African author Hayley Chewins, cloistered girls turn music into gold for the benefit of the wealthy Master that own the music. But one of the girls, Delphernia, has songs of her own that turn into birds and is full of forbidden questions. With the help of a rejected prince with brown skin and black eyes like hers, and a girl who dares to be a song master herself, Delphernia might find a way to freedom for herself and the other girls. This story is told in poetic language, but with graphic depictions of abuse that were difficult for me to read. It still resonated with deep honesty. Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Wundersmith: the Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend. Little, Brown 2018.
Morrigan’s story from the Cybils award winning Nevermoor: the Trials of Morrigan Crow continues. Morrigan thought her troubles would be over once she was accepted to the Wundrous Society – but the promise of friendship seems fragile even among the nine members of her new school. Her supposed mentor, Jupiter North, continues being mostly useless as he is constantly gone investing a rash of missing people. The only person who seems interested in teaching her to use her powers (or knack, as it’s called here) is the evil Wundersmith, who keeps finding his way to her despite boundaries that are supposed to keep him out. But the series continues to balance darkness with whimsy with magical places, unique people, and things like the door that appears in Morrigan’s bedroom that leads only to the train to take her unit to daily classes. This is still such a charming series. Jessica Townsend is an Australian author.
Begone the Raggedy Witches. The Wild Magic Trilogy Book 1 by Celine Kiernan. Candlewick, 2018.
As Mup is being driven home from the hospital after the death of her aunt, she she clouds of ragged dark figures – both men and women – following the car. She calls them the Raggedy Witches. She learns that her family was in hiding, and the magic that protected them has collapsed with her aunt’s death. The “witches” are folk from the Other Side come to take her mother back over the border, with news that they’ve taken Mup’s (African-Irish) father hostage. As they all cross the border, Mup’s little brother Tipper turns into a talking dog (though their real dog, Badger, still doesn’t talk.) Mup meets a boy her own age, Crow, who can change between boy and crow shapes and is looking for his mother. We never learn Mup’s age, but she felt about 9 or so to me – quite a bit younger than most fantasy heroines. Even though both her parents are alive, she, Tipper, and Crow – with some help from Aunty’s spirit – are own their own for much of the book. And though Aunty tries to help, it’s also clear that she was keeping Mup and her mother away from a world where they have powerful magic without their knowledge or consent, making for some interesting ethical debates along with the rescue-the-parents adventure. This is the first book I’ve read by Irish author Kiernan, but I look forward to reading more. Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Straw into Gold: Fairy Tales Respun by Hilary McKay. Illustrated by Sarah Gibb. Margaret K. McElderry Books/ Simon & Schuster.
British author Hilary McKay is a personal favorite of mine, though her other books – the Casson Family series, the Exiles, the Lulu books – are all realistic. Here, she retells classic fairy tales with named characters and real motivations, often from different points of view, and all with lovely Scherenschnitte-style illustrations by Sarah Gibb. Rapunzel, for example, is told from her children’s perspective, watching their mother work through her PTSD and agoraphobia. Rumpelstiltskin is a hob who really, really wanted a baby to love, where Petal the miller’s daughter just wants to be rich so she doesn’t have to do work. Cinderella’s prince breeds roses, and really wants a not-blue-blooded girl to marry, while Cinderella charms with her cheerfulness and her friendship with the king’s book boy. Chicken Pox and Crystal or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves tells a story of the evil magic mirror’s effect in future generations, as a much older Snow White nurses her granddaughter through the chicken pox with soup and stories. This story had some of my favorite quotes reflecting on beauty and its usefulness or lack thereof :
“Most witches are (or were) beautiful. That’s how they got away with so much… All little girls are pretty,” said her grandmother. “I’ve never seen one that wasn’t. Yes, Snow White was pretty, but it didn’t help her.”