Evil Wizard Smallbone

Today, a review of a Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction finalist.

Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia ShermanThe Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman. Candlewick, 2017.
Nick Reynaud’s life has been harsh since his mother died, leaving him in the hands of his uncle and cousin Jerry, where the care ranges between neglectful and abusive.  His runaway attempts have gotten better over the years, though this time, he’s forced to leave without the bag of supplies he’s gathered for himself.  He winds starving and freezing at an old house with the sign Evil Wizard Books.  The old man there, who introduces himself as the Evil Wizard Smallbone, isn’t any too friendly, but won’t leave a boy out in the cold to starve.  He tells Nick he’ll take him on as an apprentice, knowing that Nick will only learn what he, Wizard Smallbone, chooses to teach him, because Nick can’t read.

Nick, though, is an accomplished liar.  He can read, and the bookstore seems to want to teach him magic, starting with E-Z Spelz for Little Wizardz. Nick learns spells in secret, while Smallbone teaches him to do the cooking and take care of the animals – two dogs, two cate (Hell Cat and sweet orange Tom), as well as assorted barn animals.

Smallbone is the guardian for the small tourist town, though he’s been there for so many centuries with things mostly stable that many of the villagers no longer believe he’s really necessary.  That doesn’t stop them from being furious when Smallbone’s nemesis, the evil wolf Fidelou, along with his pack of coyotes, are able to come onto territory that should be blocked.  Dinah, a 10-year-old scientist, exposes the fraying boundaries through her curiosity.

This is a book that is brimming with colorful personality, including of course tough and cautious Nick and gruff Wizard Smallbone (how evil is he really?), but also the many animals, Dinah and her mother, and the bookshop itself.  It sounds trite to say that Nick has a journey to believing in himself, but it’s framed more as a path to figuring out what he really wants.  That and his path to wanting to help anyone but himself are genuine and delightful without feeling overwrought.  There are also some genuinely surprising and equally fun twists.

While there is no real ethnic diversity in this book, Delia Sherman is one of the few middle grade authors openly in a same-sex marriage.  It’s also notable for a book with an older middle grade hero in that there is no hint of romance of any kind, either for Nick or any of the adults.  This can be a selling point for the older elementary and middle grade students who are quite opposed to having any romance in their books, as many are.

The modern-day setting in rural Maine is quite different, but writing about this reminds me of the many similarities between this and Sage Blackwood’s Jinxone of my favorite series.


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Cybils Winners

Cybils 2016Hooray!  Hooray!  The Cybils winners are out, and for the first time ever, a book that I nominated made it to be the winner.  The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz is the winner in the Audiobooks category.  I love this book so very much!  If you haven’t yet read it, do yourself a favor and do it now!  And though I read and loved the audiobook version, the illuminations in the print version are also charming. cover of the Inquisitor's Tale by Gidwitz

Other winners I’ve read include Elementary Non-Fiction winner Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann; Poetry winner The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan, one of my favorite audiobooks that didn’t quite make it to the shortlist, and of course Young Adult Speculative Fiction winner Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.

I have several more finalists checked out right now – I’m taking a course right now that’s cutting into my fiction reading time – and hope to be back with more reviews when I’ve finished them.

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Two Naomis

Tomorrow is Cybils Day!  I’m still reading finalists at home and am happy to report that my daughter gave two thumbs up to Early Chapter Books Finalists Weekends with Max and His Dad by Linda Urban.

Thanks once again to Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile, who brought this book to my attention.

Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey VernickTwo Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick. Balzer + Bray, 2016.
Naomi Marie is a very smart girl who does West African dance, keeps trying and failing to start up new clubs at her library branch, and who loves the bakery at Shelly Ann’s the best.  She’s also quite bossy with her little sister Brianna, though I’m sure she would say she’s just trying to help.  She and her dad do board games and puzzles when she goes over to his nearby apartment.

Naomi E. is an only child living with her father, since her mother has moved to Hollywood to be a full-time movie costume designer.  Her father might forget to fix real meals once in a while, and Skype just isn’t the same as living with her mother.  She might be Jewish – the text talks about her attending a cousin’s bat mitzvah. Her favorite bakery is definitely Morningstar.

Both Naomis prefer to be called just by their first names, actually.  And life might not be perfect, but it’s pretty okay.  Both of them are resentful when their parents decide that they need to work on being best friends, and that they must both come up with different names to make things easier when they’re together.  Naomi E’s slight interest in checkers is certainly not a large amount of common ground with Naomi Marie’s interest in all sorts of other, more recent board games.  But their parents sign them up for Girls Gaming the System coding class together and start taking them to bakeries together – an exercise certain to disappoint girls with their own decided opinions.

Brianna openly expresses doubts about the arrangement, wondering with a four-year-old’s candor if it’s really OK for “white Naomi” to play with her own black dolls.  The older girls are much less concerned about their skin colors and more concerned about having friendship forced on them, a friendship that comes with the growing realization that it means that their parents are giving up on the relationship with the other parent.

This is a pitch-perfect middle grade story that looks with warmth and sympathy on two girls learning to find the positive side of a difficult situation.  Each Naomi is written by a different author, giving them very distinct voices.  Give this one to kids who enjoy realistic stories of family (with normal but happily not tragic levels of family stress), friendship, and excellent baked goods.

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I put the sequel to this book, Gemina, on my want-to-read list after reading the Book Smugglers review of it.  (Those Book Smugglers!  Always lengthening my list!) I started this one when it was nominated for a Cybils Audiobook award, and am happy to say that it is a Cybils Young Adult Speculative Fiction Finalist.

Illuminae by Kaufman and KristoffIlluminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Breaking up with your boyfriend is a bad enough start to the day, but Kady’s day gets even worse when her planet is bombed and she has to flee her high school.  With the ex-boyfriend, Ezra.  OK, it was an illegal mining planet – but bombing is still extreme.  Through interviews, chat transcripts, private journal entries and more, we piece together Ezra and Kady’s stories.  The enemy ships are still after them.  Ezra is trained to be a pilot, while Kady uses her computer skills to try to figure out just what is going on.  It’s far from simple, as there are government secrets, cover-ups, a brain melting plague and a rogue AI – just to name a few of the factors.  Meanwhile, headings and notes at the beginnings of the sections make it clear that this is an investigation being put together for the very corporation that bombed the planet to start with.

It’s a fascinating story even if we the readers have to agree with Kady’s early assessment that there’s no good reason to bomb a planet when you could use legal paths to shut down the mining if that’s your goal. Our babysitter and teacher extraordinaire Aunt Silly pointed out that it’s a great book for kids who have difficulty reading but want to look and feel competent: at 600 pages, it’s hefty enough to give a great deal of book street cred, but it’s broken up into very short chapters with lots of white (or in some cases black) space, and the action is very fast.  There’s enough character development and deep issues to think about to keep it from being just action fluff, things like to role of government, the meaning of possessions, and ethics around artificial intelligence.  My son is currently reading this after deciding it would be a good school reading time book.

I listened to part of the audiobook as well as reading it in print.  I feel torn about it, honestly.  They tried so very hard to make the audiobook an amazing experience, with a full cast, music, and so on.  It’s very well done, but there are still a lot of unique aspects to this that just don’t translate to audio, like ship diagrams, spiral text, or just one white word on a black page.  It would work very well paired with the print book, though, especially for kids with reading issues.  I’ve been focusing on that because, having a sci-fi loving son with dyslexia, it is so hard to find print, non-graphic novel books that he will even pick up, let alone finish (that’s going to take a while here, but still!)  But this is a flat-out awesome story for every science fiction fan.

I hear the second book is even better.

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Sacrifice by Cindy PonSacrifice by Cindy Pon. Month9Books, 2016.
Cindy Pon’s previous book, Serpentine, ended on a dramatic cliff hanger, leaving me waiting a year to find out what would happen next.  If you haven’t yet read Serpentine, you might wish to do so before reading this review, as spoilers are inevitable.

Skybright, who had discovered that she was part serpent demon, and her monk love Kai Sen, tried to find a way to close the breach that allowed demons to come into the human world without the traditional method of an unknowing human sacrifice.  Skybright sacrificed herself.  Now she travels through other dimensions with Stone, the demon lord who oversees the battles between humans and demons.  Meanwhile, Kai Sen is given more and more responsibility in the monastery, even as he is less sure of its mission and his willingness to take the full vows.  He’s finding that there are still demons loose in the world, though Skybright’s sacrifice should have stopped them, and he’s still searching for a way to bring Skybright back.

Zhen Ni, meanwhile, knows nothing of what happened to Skybright.  She’s still heartbroken from being forced to separate from her girlfriend as well as what seems to be Skybright’s betrayal.  Both of these fade into insignificance, though, as she’s given in marriage to a rich but grotesquely ugly old man who appears out of nowhere and builds a beautiful estate just for her.  She soon discovers that the secrets beneath the estate contain nightmares.

The narrative alternates between all of these perspectives, as well as starting off in a dark place and getting darker from there.  Pon is not afraid to make some very bold choices with the narrative.  At one point, Stone is stripped of his supernatural powers, suddenly making him a much more sympathetic character. Though there is a love triangle of sorts for a while, there isn’t the easy and clear resolution that these usually have.  I approved of Skybright not being forced into a choice – but really, Kai Sen deserved better than the ending he got.  I know, she’s being bold, but still!  Zhen Ni gets the happiest ending here, and well deserved.  I was especially impressed with this.  So though I didn’t agree with everything here, for the most part, this is an original tale very well told.

Be sure to catch Cindy Pon’s excellent Silver Phoenix as well, and watch for Want coming out this year.

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The Firefly Code

It was a little jarring after two years on the Round One panel for the Cybils Middle Grade Speculative Fiction to find that I had read only half of the finalists.  Here’s one that I had read, thanks to Brandy and Charlotte’s reviews.

The Firefly Code by Megan Frazer Blakemore
The Firefly Code by Megan Frasier Blakemore. Bloomsbury, 2016.
In the not-to-distant future, Mori and her friends have grown up literally in a bubble, the town of Old Harmonie, created by the Krita Corporation to protect its residents from the corruption and rampant disease of the outside world.  Mori, Julia, Theo and Benji are all about to turn 13, the age when they will choose which talent or “latency” to have medically turned on in their brains.  As the story opens, Theo is just having his turned on, while the others with slightly later birthdays are still trying to decide what will be most important to them.  It’s also possible at this or earlier points for parents to have undesirable traits dampened, though Mori’s parents tell her they like her just fine as it is.  Into a tight-knit circle of kids the same age who’ve grown up on the same street comes a new girl, Ilana.  As Mori becomes close friends with Ilana, she begins to question what she’s been told all her life. Along with the normal difficulties of shifting friendships and growing up, Mori, granddaughter of one of the founding scientists of Old Harmonie, is trying to solve the mystery of why her grandmother’s best friend left.

Any reader who’s read books like The Giver will expect to find some elements of dystopia under the utopia, and this book, while much less sinister, is no exception.  Deep and thoughtful explorations of character, friendship and practical applications of scientific ethics underlie a story filled with summer swimming, walks in the woods, and exploring abandoned houses.  Also, lots of secrets.  The group of friends is diverse both in ethnicity and in family structure – Mori has been raised to be proud of her mixed Japanese and Scottish heritage.  The friendships drive this story as much as science fiction, leading to a story with very human faces.  This is a moving and beautiful story that gradually shifts from familiar to uncomfortable as Mori and her friends uncover more of the truth about their situation.

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Me and Marvin Gardens and Ninja Librarians: The Sword in the Stacks

Here are two recent middle grade books that I was inspired to read by Kidlitcon, as both of these authors were there.

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig KingMe and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King. Arthur A. Levine Books, January 31, 2017.
I received this as an ARC at Kidlitcon.  Obe is a kid with some problems.  He’s got recurring nosebleeds, for a start, and no one else seems to care as much as he does that the cornfields around his house are being replaced by subdivisions. The creek that runs through a small woods is filling with garbage from the construction workers and from the gang of boys now running through the woods, a gang that includes Obe’s former best friend.  His father’s bonding attempts consist of trying to convince Obe to join a sports team to help him “man up” and cheating at Monopoly. Even his new friendship with a girl known as Putrid Annie is widely mocked.  As Obe is trying to clean up the creek, he finds a strange animal that doesn’t fit any pattern that Obe has seen before and that clearly eats plastic.

The environmental theme is clear here, of course, but Sarig resists easy answers by making the strange animal, Marvin Gardens, its own environmental problem.  She also looks at bullying, what consent means at a middle grade level, the weight of societal expectations, and more.  That’s a lot to fit in, but it’s dealt with matter-of-factly, with characters solid enough to pull it off.  I’d like to cheer here for a book in which telling adults about bullying, rather than the kid trying to tough it out, solves the problem.  It’s an odd story, somewhere between fantasy and realistic fiction, but compelling and hard to put down.

Sword in the Stacks. Ninja Librarians 2 by Jen Swann DowneyNinja Librarians: The Sword in the Stacks by Jenn Swann Downey. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2016.
Dorrie and her big brother Marcus return to the magical Petrarch’s library as official apprentices after some months spent at home in modern-day America, following their adventures in Ninja Librarians. The mission of the Lybrary: to protect threatened literature and authors throughout history.  Dorrie is upset when her master Savi is off on business and can’t tutor her, leaving her to be temporarily apprenticed to the grumpy Archivist.  Marcus finds trouble in ancient Greece. Dorrie and her best friend Ebba, from medieval Africa, sign up to do a training mission together.  They’re especially hoping to help suffragist Ida B. Wells-Barnett – but instead get sent to early 20th century England, not America, and are assigned to protect the writings of a group of anti-suffragists whose newsletters keep getting stolen. All along, they are trying to see if there’s anything they can do – in secret and unofficially, of course – to help the senior Lybrarians recover an artifact currently in the hands of the bad guys.

This has lots of adrenaline-filled adventure elements – chases, secret rooms filled with booby-traps, and fencing – mixed with the historical characters who staff the Lybrary and whom the students are sent to help.  The sticky and often painful nature of censorship and standing up for truly free speech is also shown as Dorrie and Ebba wrestle with their assignment.  I’m grateful that Downey has carefully filled in the backstory to make this accessible to people starting off here – my son is partial to audiobooks and this second book (though I read it in ebook) is available on audio, where the first book is not.  I still had some trouble keeping track of the large cast of characters and wished that I had a physical book where I could easily switch back and forth between the story and the guide to the characters in the back.  That felt like a small price to pay in a book that deals with important issues with such humor and élan.   I look forward to sharing it with my son.

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2016 Review: the Books

Here at last are some of my top favorite books from 2016

First, 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 this year, for the first time since high school, I gave 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.”

A full third of the books I read this year were 9 and above.  In the interests of saving your time, I have ruthlessly and with  suffering cut each category about in half, limiting myself to books that I kept on thinking about after reading went back to, though the shortness of the lists means that many beloved middle grade sequels were cut.  This year, too, I found myself going back to think about books that I hadn’t initially rated a 9 or 10.  I didn’t add them in here, because so many books! 7, for example, is still a really good book. But they do have a habit of turning up in other lists.

Picture Books

Early Chapter Books

Middle Grade



Favorite Rereads

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Lou Lou and Pea and the Mural Mystery for Multicultural Children’s Book Day

Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day, started by Mia Wenjen of Pragmatic Mom and Valarie Budayr of JumpIntoaBook.com. I am super excited to be part of the blogger team supporting this!  I have been watching this great event grow over the last couple of years.  Just a few things to share from them before the book review.


First, there is a *free* downloadable classroom kindness kit – check it out here!


Tonight, there will be a big Twitter party where you can win bundles of diverse children’s literature.


And there is a free downloadable ebook from Amazon about Multicultural Children’s Book Day.


And now on the review!

Author Jill Diamond

Author Jill Diamond was kind enough to send me a copy of her book, Lou Lou and Pea and the Mural Mystery to review for Multicultural Children’s Book Day.

LouLou & Pea and the Mural Mystery by Jill DiamondLou Lou and Pea and the Mural Mystery by Jill Diamond. Pictures by Lesley Vamos. Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2016.

LouLou Bombay and her best friend Pea Pearl have their Friday afternoon PSPP tea party – Post-School Pre-Parent.  After tea, they walk through their neighborhood and decide whether they’d rather go buy a cupcake or visit the friendly owner of the candle shop.  But their usual weekend routine is interrupted when LouLou finds that her prize camellia has been killed just days before she enters a garden competition.  She is distraught and determined to find the culprit.  Soon, she and Pea find that others in their neighborhood are having things go wrong as well – a missing pet rabbit here, a vandalized craft display there – and all of the disasters are being painted into the many murals around town.  Are they memorials or bragging? The adults don’t seem to notice, and even Pea isn’t as suspicious as LouLou of the oddly behaved boy who’s just appeared in the house next door.  But all the neighborhood preparations for Dia de los Muertos should give them some good cover for figuring out exactly what’s going on.  The neighborhood in general and Pea’s family in particular are Latinix, and there are lots of Spanish phrases used throughout the book, with a glossary and recipe and craft ideas related to Dia de los Muertos in the back.

This is a super-appealing book – everyone who saw it while I was reading it wanted to find out more about it.  I really liked the depiction of a close-knit, happy city neighborhood  with a coziness usually reserved for small towns.  It’s written in a very descriptive style, with lots of adjectives and alliterations, features which I would have loved as a kid.  The cartoon-like illustrations from Lesley Vamos add a lot.  It was a fun mystery, and I liked that LouLou’s first suspicions were absolutely off base.  However, I had some serious reservations about the way things played out.  I think it’s entirely natural that LouLou would be celebrating Dia de los Muertos even though that’s not her heritage because of her best friend and the neighborhood she lives in.  But taking over an altar previously dedicated to Pea’s deceased aunt and using it to remember LouLou’s dead flower seemed downright insensitive, no matter how much LouLou loved her flower.  Adding some camellias to the existing altar would have been more appropriate. I also felt that Pea had some issues, besides the unfortunate name – Pea (short for Peacock) is cute in print, but lends itself too easily to playground cruelty.  She just didn’t feel like as fully developed a character as LouLou, and while we need more diverse characters of all kinds, she felt more like a sidekick than an equal partner here.  All in all, while this book had a few too many problems for me to love it, it’s a start that could be very well developed in future books.

Here are some other multicultural mysteries:

Betsy Bird at a Fuse #8 Production was excited about the Museum Mysteries early chapter book series by Steve Brezenoff, which begins with The Case of the Haunted History Museum, though I still need to track them down.  Mia at Pragmatic Mom has an even longer list!

Be sure to head back to the MCBD site for the big linky of everything else going on today!

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Top Ten Books I’m Looking Forward to for the First Half Of 2017

This week’s Top 10 Tuesday (from the fabulous folks at the Broke and the Bookish) was a freebie theme, which is perfect as I didn’t get to this when it was the official topic back in December.  These books are a mix of me searching for diverse middle grade and teen books – especially fantasy and science fiction – as well as new offerings from favorite authors.

Top Ten Tuesday

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres – January 17 – This is realistic fiction that I put on hold at the library after listening to an interview with the author on the PW Kidscast.

Hilo: the Great Big Boom by Judd Winick – February 21 – More epic adventures and hilarity with Hilo, with a nicely multi-ethnic cast.  I’d better read book 2 before this comes out!

Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George – February 21 – the latest volume in the charming series I’ve been following since Tuesdays at the Castle.

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee – March 14 – This was just a random browse through upcoming titles on Amazon – but it’s a rare upbeat romance between two middle school theater girls.  It looks adorable!

White Road of the Moon by Rachel Neumeier – March 14 – It’s Rachel Neumeier.  And while I’m really hoping for more Black Dog books, I will read anything she writes in the meantime.

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood – March 21 – How very excited am I for this!  I guess two years isn’t really that long in book time, but it feels like forever since the Jinx series was finished.

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi – March 28 – another book I found on Amazon – but I’m very happy to see a middle grade fantasy adventure with a Muslim lead.

First Class Murder by Robin Stevens – April 4 – Book 3 in the Wells and Wong series has been out for over a year in the UK, while the poor US readers are languishing waiting for it.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han – May 2 – The last book in the To All the Boys I Loved Before series I finally discovered last year and, like everyone else, fell in love with

A Face like Glass by Frances Hardinge – May 9 – Speaking of waiting for books to come out in the US, this is one that many of my blogging friends have been raving about since it first came out in the UK in 2012.  That’s five years of waiting, folks.

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner – May 16 – The latest book in the much-beloved Queen’s Thief series.  Even more exciting, my son is now old enough to enjoy these, too.

Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis – May 30 – Dragons and chocolate.  And written by Stephanie Burgis, author of Kat, Incorrigible and many other fabulous books.  It doesn’t get much better than that!

Want by Cindy Pon – June 13 – I’ve really enjoyed Pon’s historic fantasy books, from Silver Phoenix to Sacrifice. I’m curious to see what she does with a futuristic setting.

These two upcoming middle grade fantasies from debut authors look interesting, too:

Siren Sisters by Dana Langer – January 3

Wingsnatchers by Sarah Jean Horowitz – April 25


I feel like I had an even harder time this year finding diverse kids or teen sf/f.  If you have any that you know of coming out, please share!

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