The Wild Huntsboys by Martin Stewart

I first heard about this from Betsy at a Fuse #8 Production, and was very happy when Ms. Yingling nominated it for the Cybils and gave me an even better excuse to read it!

Cover of The Wild Huntsboys by Martin Stewart

The Wild Huntsboys
by Martin Stewart

Viking, 2021

ISBN 978-0593116135

Read from library copy. 

The deprivations of wartime London mix with the modern era and dark fairies.  

12-year-old Luka has to go alone to the train station in the city of Bellum to send his beloved little sister Elena (both described as olive skinned)  off to safety in the country, since his mother is working and his father died in the war.  As she’s leaving, Elena makes Luka promise to put milk and bread out in a bowl for the fairies every week.  Luka doesn’t believe in the fairies and only agrees to please his sister, who cares so much about it. 

Then, an air raid comes just as he’s putting the offering out. Startled and hurt by the fairies’ lack of protection, he tosses the food out into the yard.  Unbeknownst to him, the fairies – including fierce warrior Jem – are watching.  They take Luka’s actions as a grave insult, and send Jem to punish both Elena and Luka in the traditional, gruesome way, in three days’ time. 

Luka, however, is more concerned with the world he knows about, one where an angry displaced boy from the North, Max, is placed into Elena’s room as soon as she’s left, food and electricity are rationed and internet and cellular access has a curfew.  On top of that, Luka accidentally alerts the Wardens to the secret hiding place of another boy, the weird and brilliant Hazel.  (Hazel is Black, but Mr. Stewart, who is white, includes some African-specific details for him, and thanks the person who helped him get them right in the acknowledgements.)  That leads Hazel to decide to move in with Luka, too.  

Once the threat is made plain by the appearance of the vengeful Jem in their midst, all three boys scramble to protect the house before the deadline, a task that will require specific things that are also in high demand for the war effort.  They’ll have to avoid the fairies (but if you look closely at the cover, you’ll see that Jem is handcuffed to Luka), the Wardens, and a fierce and territorial gang of kids called the Junkyard Knights.  Meanwhile, we also watch as little cursed Elena gets sicker and sicker…

Elena is sidelined for most of the story, leaving most of the action to the boys. She does her own part to save the day, but I would have liked to see a little more of her.  Still, this was a very impressive book overall.  The print book itself has larger type and smaller margins than usual, giving it the feel of an old Hardy Boys book, despite the modern setting.  

Overall, this is a dark story that is nevertheless strong with the building of trust and friendships and sparkles with humor. I’d give it to fans of the Magisterium series.

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Time Villains by Victor Piñeiro

Now that the public nominations are closed, I can now buckle to reading. (If you are an author or publisher with books that were missed, you still have time to submit them for consideration!) This intensive Cybils reading is one of my favorite times of year – the hardest part is finding time to review all the great books!

Time Villains
by Victor Piñeiro

Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021

ISBN 978-1728245744

Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.

Seventh grader Javi Santiago and his little sister Brady are used to being dragged to antique stores by their father, and so aren’t surprised when he chooses a new table for the family there.  This table has a secret compartment underneath and beautiful carvings around the edges that lead Javi and Brady to call it Andy.  

Their school has a long tradition of annual “three people you’d invite to dinner” assignments, complete with table settings and menus – budding chef Javi loves this part the best.  In an effort to improve his grades, he asks his best friend Wiki (pictured as Black on the cover, and described as of Haitian ancestry) to help with the guest list, including not just the inventor of his favorite food, the sandwich, but also somebody with something teacherish in their name.  Wiki picks Edward Teach without telling Javi who he is. 

But it turns out that their table has the power to summon people from time and fiction.  And when notorious pirate Blackbeard shows up for dinner and doesn’t want to leave, it’s going to take Wiki’s brains, Brady’s strength, and whatever Javi can come up with to send him back to his own time. 

I’ll note that while Javi is a good hapless protagonist, slowly awakening to his powers, his sister Brady was much more of the ultra-prepared Wyld Style type, not only understanding the table better than anyone else, but also choosing great guests for her own dinner party, including Cleopatra and Rosa Parks.

This is a roller coaster of an adventure, filled with narrow escapes, slapstick humor, references to characters from history and literature that kids may or may not get without referencing the guide in the back, and Javi’s excellent Puerto Rican cooking. It fell a little harder on the crazy-fast plot side than I personally prefer, but I’d happily give this to a kid looking for a funny or adventurous story.   Their school complex includes a castle staffed by many, many interesting characters – book two, Monster Problems, is due out in July 2022.

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Hello, friends! I am so honored to be part of the blog tour for Anne Ursu’s latest book! Before we get into the book proper, mark your calendars for a book launch party – October 26 at 6 pm CT Anne will be in conversation with Kelly Barnhill, hosted by WILD RUMPUS BOOKS in Minneapolis.  Click here for more information.

And now – drumroll, please…

About the Book:

If no one notices Marya Lupu, it’s likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in Illyria may possess the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread. For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy — a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself — things that threaten the precarious balance upon which their country is built.

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Nominate Me for the Cybils Award!

We are a little over halfway through the Cybils nominating period, a point where I am always afraid that some of my favorite books will not be nominated.  Following is a list of a dozen books that I read and would love to see nominated in the Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category, as well as another half dozen that I want to read and very much hope will be nominated so that I’ll be sure to get to them.  I am sure that I am missing many excellent titles on both lists, but this is a start.  Links to my reviews in the pitifully few cases where they are available; stars next to titles with positive diverse representation.

If you haven’t already, please go on over to the Cybils page and nominate

Books I’ve Read

Threads of Magic by Alison Croggon. Candlewick, 2021. ISBN 978-1536207194.

The Raven Heir by Stephanie Burgis. Bloomsbury, 2021. ISBN 978-1547606375

*Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom by Sangu Mandanna Penguin Random House, 2021 ISBN 978-0593206973

*Force of Fire by Sayantani DasGupta. Scholastic, 2021. ISBN 978-1338636642.

Nightingale by Deva Fagan. Atheneum, 2021. ISBN 978-1534465787.

River Magic by Ellen Booraem. Dial Books, 2021. ISBN 978-0525428046.

*Curse of the Forgotten City by Alex Aster. Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021. ISBN 9781492697237.

Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu. Walden Pond Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0062275127

*Sugar and Spite by Gail D. Villanueva. Scholastic, 2021. ISBN 978-1338630923.

*Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack. Versify, November 2020. ISBN 978-0358006022.

*Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young. Heartdrum, 2021. ISBN 978-0062990402.

*Girl Giant and the Monkey King by Van Hoang. Roaring Brook Press, December 2020. ISBN 9781250240415

Books I Want to Read

*Last Gamer Standing by Katie Zhao. Scholastic, 2021. ISBN 978-1338741506.

*Last Gate of the Emperor by Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen. Scholastic, 2021. ISBN 978-1338665857.

*Pahua and the Soul Stealer by Lori M. Lee. Rick Riordan Presents, 2021. ISBN 978-1368068246.

*Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares by Tehlor Kay Majia. Rick Riordan Presents, 2021. ISBN 978-1368049344.

*Tristan Strong Keeps Punching by Kwame Mbalia. Rick Riordan Presents, 2021. ISBN 978-1368054874. 

The Wild Huntsboys by Martin Stewart. Viking, 2021. ISBN 978-0593116135.

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Interview with Joy Jones

I have a treat for you today, my friends – an interview with author Joy Jones, in honor of the paperback release of her book, Jayla Jumps In.

Jayla Jumps In

by Joy Jones

Albert Whitman & Co, 2020

ISBN 9780807560761
Paperback 9780807560792

Read from library copy.

Fifth-grade Jayla is worried about her mother’s health when she overhears her talking to her other relatives about her blood pressure. But when her mother and aunts and even older Cousin Julia take a break from Thanksgiving dinner to demonstrate Double Dutch jumping right outside, Jayla is intrigued. Not only would she never have guessed that her mother could do tricks like that, but Jayla hopes that starting a team at school will bring her athletic success and some new friends. At the same time, though, her beloved uncle Alonzo is no longer willing to spend hours playing video games and watching movies with her – he’s got a new girlfriend, one that seems to be sticking around more than Jayla likes. Could Double Dutch be the solution to more than one of her problems?

KK: Family plays such an important role in your book, including Jayla’s worry for her mother, her rivalry with her cousin Shontessa, and of course her evolving relationship with her uncle Alonzo.  Can you tell me more about how your process creating Jayla’s family?  
JJ: I wanted Jayla to be the driving force, not an adult. I knew from the start that she would form a multi-generational double Dutch club. And to do that, she had to have both adults and children active in her life. That meant she had to have good connections with grownups and most of the adults children interact with are family members. Therefore, I had to make sure she had interesting characters in her family to interact with. Coming up with distinctive family characters was a lot of fun! (The adult in the story I like best is Cousin Julia, because she’s the one most like me!)

KK: Cousin Julia is a great character! I was really expecting Uncle Alonzo’s fiancee Tameka to take over coaching Jayla’s Double Dutch club at school – but you took the story in a completely different direction.  What made you avoid the more standard “lonely kid learns to make friends at school” plot arc?  
JJ: I’m glad you didn’t find my plot predictable! When I sat down to write the story, I knew I didn’t want to have a typical Double Dutch story with a competition as the centerpiece. I wanted the protagonist to create a more collegial team. I thought having a team of adults and children playing together was far more interesting. And it’s what has happened in my real life. My team, DC Retro Jumpers, does demonstrations where we get everybody to jump – grandmothers, kindergartners, college kids, businessmen, police officers –  everybody. Just yesterday, we were doing a program and a man came up to me and said – “Wow! When they told me a double Dutch team was coming, I was expecting 8 or 9 year-olds.” Seeing ‘women of a certain age’ jumping around blew him away. And yes, we got him to jump, too.

KK:Faith communities are often minimized or ignored in children’s books, but Jayla’s church community also plays an important part in her life and in the book.  Could you tell me more about your decision to include this in the book? 
JJ: A lot of kids go to church – maybe not because they want to but because they have to. It didn’t feel like something alien when I was writing it. When I was young, I attended church, more for the social aspect than out of an obligation or even due to a spiritual motivation. Church attendance was a positive influence – one of many during my childhood. I just gave Jayla a similar experience. Also, my real Double Dutch team is often invited to do church events and that’s always well-received.

KK: I’m guessing that young readers are going to be most curious about Double Dutch.  Where should they go to find out more? 
JJ: The first step is a visit to the web site of the team I started, DC Retro Jumpers – There’s an instructional video there to show you how to do it. But what would be better than that – get a jump rope and play around with it yourself!

[Updated 10/25/21 to add] Joy emailed me to say that she was featured in a video story from AARP which you can watch to learn more about her Double Dutch team.

KK: Taking a cue from the KidLit Women podcast, what is your biggest, most out there literary ambition? 
JJ: I’ve done a lot of traveling – I’ve visited 25 states and about 12 countries, but I’ve never flown first class. I’d like to win the Newbery – then I’d be able to earn enough money so that I can travel first class. 

KK: That would be awesome! Can you tell us what you’re working on next?  
JJ: I have two projects underway. For adults, I’m co-author on a book called, Bill and Lois Wilson; The Marriage That Changed The World. It’s about the couple who help start Alcoholics Anonymous and launched the Twelve-Step recovery movement. My next children’s book in progress is an MG novel called Walking The Boomerang, which won the PENAmerica Literary Award for Children’s & Young Adult Literature.

KK: Thank you so much, Joy! I really enjoyed learning more about the thoughts that went into creating Jayla and her story. Readers, here’s where you can visit Joy’s website and find a copy of Jayla Jumps In at your local indie bookstore or library.

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10 Fantasy Books under 250 Pages

This post took a little longer to put together than I had planned! While I was working on it, the Cybils nominations opened up. As you might recall, the nominated books are crowd-sourced, with each person able to nominate just one book in each category. That means we need you to nominate some books! Head on over to the Cybils blog for links, instructions, and lists of suggestions! Do it now – nominations close October 15.

Thank you to Afoma at Reading Middle Grade, who put out a stellar list of short middle grade fiction a few months ago. While she prefers realistic fiction, I thought that a list of fantasy books would be a good complement, whether you’re dealing with kids who are reluctant readers or have learning disabilities, or who need to pick a book they can finish in a reasonable time for a school assignment. Even though the page count is low on all of these books, they range from light to heavy themes. Links are to my full reviews, where available.

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (141 p) In this historical story of the Trail of Tears, a young Choctaw boy describes how he fails to survive the grueling journey, but stays close to help the rest of his people. Even though this is the shortest book on the list, it’s definitely one of the heaviest. You can read my review of the sequel, When a Ghost Talks, Listen.

A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep (152 p) Miss Drake is a dragon who takes humans as pets. But when the 10-year-old grand-niece of her previous pet won’t leave her alone, and insists on things like field trips to magical shops, Miss Drake is in for more than she bargained for.

Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott (154 p) Jax is supposed to stay out of trouble while his mother leaves him with a neighborhood lady, but box of baby dragons gets loose, Jax and his friends have to find them and bring them to safety.

A Properly Unhaunted Place by Willliam Alexander (192 p) Rosa Díaz is the daughter of the world’s best ghost appeasement specialist, since ghosts are everywhere. She and Jasper, the son of the Rennaisance Faire’s Queen and Black Knight, work together to figure out why the town of Ingot doesn’t have any.

Sugar and Spite by Gail D. Villanueva (208 p) Jolina has only recently moved from Manila to a tiny island in the Philippines, where the richest girl in town is determined to make her life miserable. Could using a love potion on her make things better? Warning: pet death in an otherwise light story. Also, this book is eligible and not yet nominated for the Cybils award!

Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (224 p) Three kids – a boy inventor from an early 20th century adventure series, a girl from a 1980s horror series, and ordinary, modern-day Lily – work together to stop a mad scientist’s plan to take over the world with, yes, whales on stilts. You can read my review of The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, the second book in the series.

Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay (229 p) A large and varied family moves into an old home, where reality shifts around the different kids. This is a quieter story of individual experiences and the messiness of relationships.

Ikenga by Nnedi Okorafor (240 p) Nnamdi’s life in Nigeria is turned upside-down twice, once when his father is murdered, and then again when his father’s spirit gives him a small statue – an Ikenga – that turns Nnedi into a superhero who is stronger than Nnamdi can control.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede (240 p) In this favorite from my own childhood, Princess Cimorene is so disgusted when her parents want to marry her off that she runs away to live with a dragon instead. The first of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon (242 p) Princess Harriet, a hamster, is thrilled when she’s told that she’s cursed to prick her paw on an enchanted hamster wheel when she turns 12. That has to mean that she’s invincible, and can go off fighting monsters without fear! Though the page count is higher, the text is large and there are full-page illustrations as well as short comic panels. This is the first of a series of hilarious fairy tale spinoffs.

Bonus titles – a little longer, but still fast-moving and on the short side.

The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas (256 p) 6th grade Nestor is busy adjusting to life at a new school in Texas while his father is deployed. He’s not expecting to have animals start talking him – or to need to stop a witch from Costa Rican legend.

Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found by Rucker Moses and Theo Gangi (275) 12-year-old Kingston is convinced that his stage magician father hasn’t died or run away, but is instead trapped inside the mirror in the Brooklyn theater where he gave his last performance.

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Double Menopause: What Fresh Hell is This and the Menopause Manifesto

When I posted on Facebook that I was reading two new books about menopause, many of my friends wanted side-by-side comparisons.  Unlike first menstruation, where there are dozens of friendly books as well as classes and workshops, menopause is kept shrouded in shameful silence, with very little information volunteered up front.  Even doctors often don’t recognize symptoms that are typical as such, and there is a lot of misinformation floating around.  

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Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack

This sequel to Anya and the Dragon came out just after last year’s Cybils deadline (meaning it will be eligible to be nominated this year!), so I didn’t get to it in the middle of my reading then.  I’m so glad I circled back to it, as it was just delightful.  And if you or your loved young ones celebrate Sukkot, you still have time to track this down to have a holiday-appropriate book. 

Cover of Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack

Anya and the Nightingale

by Sofiya Pasternack

Versify, 2020.

ISBN 978-0358006022.

Read from library copy. 

As the book opens, Anya is struggling to build her family’s booth for Sukkot, with “assistance” from her goat as her father has been sent off to the city with the army.   When she hears that her father is actually being sent to the war front, she sets off to the capital to rescue him, with her friend Ivan the fool (now crushing on nearly everyone) and her dragon friend Håkon.  After an encounter with the witch Lena, Håkon is in human form – much easier for camouflage, but a big learning curve for Håkon. 

But Anya’s straightforward plan of marching straight up to the Tsar to demand her father’s release is thrown completely off when they are attacked by a feral-looking boy before they even get to Kiev, a boy who is able to steal their magic.  Their attempts to defend themselves are interrupted by the arrival of a troupe of the czar’s guardsmen, led by the fierce princess Vasilisa.  Luckily, they’re saved.  Unluckily, they are taken captive, and the only way for Anya to gain an audience with the Tsar is to figure out how to defeat the boy, called the Nightingale. But even that might not be the worst, as they can sense a powerful evil lurking under the city… 

Anya has spent her whole life up to this point in a tiny village where hers was the only Jewish family.  Here, she meets a cute Jewish boy her own age – and a whole community, all of whom know much more about her own faith and traditions than she does.   Everywhere she looks, things that were straightforward in her own village are much more complicated.  And through all of it, Anya keeps getting flashbacks to the terrible events of the first book, seeing the horrible villain looming over her or hearing his insults just when she needs to be strong.  Ivan’s crushes are both hilarious and genuine, as he grows red and tongue-tied around the objects of his affection, regardless of their gender.  

I really liked the first book, but all of these added elements give Anya and the Nightingale that much more depth.  That depth, together with a great characters, humor, and a search for non-violent solutions in a world that expects violence are making this one of my very favorite current series.  

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The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna by Alda P. Dobbs

It’s been quite a while since I reviewed any historical fiction and  I was very excited for the opportunity to review this book.  It’s a moving, high-stakes portrait of a girl’s refusal to give up her family or her dreams in the midst of Mexico’s civil war, available September 14.

The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna
by Alda P. Dobbs.

Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2021.

ISBN 978-1728234656

Review copy kindly sent by the author. 

In 1913 Mexico, 12-year-old Petra has been forced to become the primary breadwinner for her family, taking care of her younger sister Amelia, baby brother Luisito, and her Abuelita. First her mother died and then her father was forced into joining the army of the Federales, a cause he definitely doesn’t support.  They were poor to begin with, looked down on for their brown skin, leaving cutting firewood as the best thing Petra can do to survive.  

When the Federales return, burning their whole village down, the little family flees north into the desert.  At first, they have no destination and very little hope.  Then, sheltering at a church, Petra is befriended by a Spanish-speaking American girl her own age, Adeline. Adeline teaches Petra to write her name and assures her that in America, everyone can go to school.  And even though Abuelita tells Petra that learning to read or become a teacher is a “barefoot dream”, too grand for someone of her station in life, Petra is determined to lead her family to safety in America. 

The journey there is not easy, though.  They are traveling through a desert already picked clean of edibles by the other refugees, with no food, money, or even shoes.  There is always the chance that the Federales will return any place they might find that would have anything helpful.  And as horrible as things have become, it’s not easy to leave the country they love. Leaving would make it that much harder for their father ever to find them. And would Petra’s intelligence be better put to use trying to defeat the Federales?

This is a story set during a war, a civil war my history classes never covered.  That means both that the close-up view of history is fascinating, and that there are a lot of tough things – carefully handled, but I’ll note for sensitive readers that this does include the death of an infant.  (I am a pretty sensitive reader, but I’m learning that death during a war is less shocking for me than death in an otherwise peaceful story.) There were parts of the story that I thought for sure were inventions by the author – a dramatic escape during a storm, the scene at the border – that turned out to be absolutely real.  

It isn’t a close following of the war like Rilla of Ingleside, but the focus on Petra and her family makes everything personal and relevant.  I especially loved Petra’s relationship with her grandmother, showing Petra switching between respect for Abuelita’s ability to survive in the desert and rejection of her grandmother’s focus on the importance of Petra remaining feminine, subservient to men, and remembering her low rung on the social scale, as well as Petra’s sorrow that she hasn’t learned Nahuatl, Abuelita’s first language. I’m sure there are kids who’d be just as excited about all the military details.  I’m looking forward to more stories from Ms. Dobbs, hopefully more about Petra and her family!

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Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young

I was excited when I first heard about the Heartdrum imprint, and even more excited to see this Navajo middle grade fantasy coming from it.

Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young.

Healer of the
Water Monster
by Brian Young

Heartdrum, 2021.

ISBN 978-0062990402

Read from library copy.

12-year-old Nathan asked to spend the summer with his grandmother Nali in her trailer out on the rez, but he’s not really happy about it.  He has a good relationship with Nali, but the trailer has neither air conditioning nor water.  Still, it’s better than going to Las Vegas with his dad and his dad’s despised new girlfriend.  

Nathan has decided to occupy himself with a science project, comparing the growth of modern vs. traditional corn, both seeds and growing methods.  But the summer quickly takes a turn towards the magical when Nathan discovers a grumpy horned toad stealing his traditional corn seeds, and then a dying water monster.  Could this poor water monster, which belongs with the shrinking local lake, be the cause of the years-long drought that’s been affecting the area?  As the water monster and Nathan become friends, Nathan is determined to do everything possible to save him.  But everything possible turns out to be a nearly impossible quest, especially since nearly everything requires him to speak Navajo, which he doesn’t know…

Meanwhile, in the mundane world, Nali’s other son, Nathan’s uncle, has come back home after losing yet another job.  He’s in bad shape, suffering from PTSD, depression, and alcoholism ever since he came back from serving in Afghanistan. There’s disagreement in the family about whether the uncle needs a ceremony with their medicine man, Western medical help and counseling, or both – but the uncle doesn’t want either, so that Nathan is trying to keep his family from falling apart at the same time as the quest with the water monster.  

While there’s always something happening, I really appreciated that it’s a long time before the actual quest begins – Nathan has to build the skills and find everything he needs.  Though the water monster is a fantasy element, the issues surrounding it – radiation poisoning and drought – are real.  The traditional belief system, the water monsters, and current issues are woven tightly together, taking it for granted that all these things belong together.  There’s also a note at the end on the use of traditional Navajo religion in the book and what parts the author changed to work with the story, as well as definitions of some of the Navajo used and explanations of the family relationships.  My biggest quibble might be the cover – while the picture of Nathan and Nali is great at showing their relationship, it doesn’t look like the fantasy adventure that it is, which might help it find its audience better.  I really hope it does well anyway so that I can read more of Nathan’s adventures!  

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse also spotlights Navajo culture in a middle grade fantasy, while The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas and When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller also feature close relationships with grandmothers.

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