Stories, Stars, and Grandparents: When You Trap a Tiger and the Magic in Changing Your Stars

I love it when happy accidents like this happen – two very different books with similar themes popping up back-to-back in my TBR.  Here we have two stories involving stories, stars, and close grandparent-grandchild relationships.

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller. Random House, 2020. ISBN 978-1524715700. Read from library copy.

Lily’s mother is moving them in with her Halmoni.  Lily isn’t sure what to think of this move, though her teen sister is just angry about the disruption to her plans.  But on the way to the house, in pouring rain that reminds them all of the weather the night Lily’s father died in a car accident, Lily sees a giant tiger in the street in front of them.  Halmoni has always told them stories of tigers, telling Lily and her sister that tigers aren’t to be trusted. 

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Tristan Strong Destroys the World by Kwame Mbalia

I read Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the 2019 Cybils Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Winner, near the end of February this year… just a month out from what would have been KidLitCon had not 2020 intervened.  So when I wanted to reread my own review before writing a review of the second, I discovered I never did.  You’ll just have to trust the many, many awards it won to know that it is worthwhile, and go read it now if you haven’t!  

Tristan Strong Destroys the World by Kwame Mbalia

Tristan Strong Destroys the World by Kwame Mbalia. Read by Amir Abdullah. Rick Riordan Presents, 2020. Print ISBN 978-1368042383. Audio ASIN B086Z4DW8L. Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

This book opens a month after the end of the last book.  Tristan is still staying with his grandparents on their farm in Alabama.  When his grandfather tells him that a local boxing champion will be coming to spar with him, Tristan barely hears him because he’s focused on spirits that he’s begun to see around the property, asking for help and warning that the Shamble Man is coming.  His grandmother notices Tristan’s distraction, too, when he’s not paying attention to the stories she’s telling for him to record with the Story Box Phone, in which Anansi is now trapped (though not trapped enough to keep him from being extremely snarky!)  But by the time Tristan decides to take out John Henry’s magical gloves and the bracelet with the adinkra charms* of the gods that he’d hidden away, it’s too late – his grandmother has collapsed after defending the barn from two plat-eyes in the shape of giant cats, and then been kidnapped. 

This calls for a return to the magical world of Alke!  It also requires giving Anansi some more permissions, so that he can create an app to call the goddess Riverboat Annie to transport them there – along with the happy discovery that Tristan’s friend Ayanna from the last adventure is now apprenticed to Riverboat Annie and there as well. 

Tristan had thought that he and his friends had saved Alke during their last adventure.  But once there, he discovers that the rebuilding has been slow and difficult, and new dangers threaten to undo the little progress they’ve made.  Tristan, Ayanna, Gum Baby, and a new and quite unfriendly boy called Junior join to figure out what’s wrong, rescue Tristan’s Nana, and save the world again.  They are going to save the world, right?

I really appreciated the introduction of a number of new, female goddesses. In the previous book, the big mythological/magical creatures that Tristan was involved with were John Henry, High John, Brer Rabbit, and Anansi.  While Anansi is still obviously part of the story, our magical stars in this book are now Riverboat Annie from African-American folklore, Mami Wati, the West African water goddess (also an important part of The Rise of the Jumbies), and a boo hag who runs a juke joint for those in need of refuge and who turns out to be less scary than Tristan had feared.  His Nana’s quilting and knitting are also important vectors for story, magic and tradition, something I very much appreciated as a crafter myself. But with deep looks at the effects of trauma and diaspora alongside the adventure, Tristan learning more about himself and friendship, and the consistent humor that Gum Baby brings, all go together to make a book that is if anything even stronger than the first one. 

I read the first book in print, but if you are an audiobook listener, I highly recommend the audiobook version to bring the many different sounds oof the West African and African-American characters to life. My only small quibble is that Anansi in my head sounds a little more cartoonish than the Anansi depicted here, but otherwise, this is an excellent audiobook.

*I don’t think I had encountered adinkra before the first Tristan Strong book, but they play an important (nonmagical) part in the recent picture book Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker, which is an excellent book on its own and also has pictures of many adinkra in the endpapers

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Bears! Water Bears and The Girl Who Speaks Bear

I am trying to ignore my anxiety about the election by carrying on with reviewing some of the many books I’m reading. If you are eligible to vote in the US and haven’t yet voted, please do so before reading this post! If you have already voted, please let me know in the comments!

Here are two more Cybils nominees, both involving bears.  Water Bears, with a Latinx author and main character, continues with the Latinx theme of the past week, while The Girl who Speaks Bear takes us to fantasy Russia.  Whether you’re looking for a contemporary book with a hint of possible magic, or full-on folk tale-inspired historical fantasy, there’s a book here for you.  

The Water Bears by Kim Baker
The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson

Water Bears by Kim Baker. Wendy Lamb, 2020. ISBN 978-1984852205. Read from library copy. 

Newt Gomez was really hoping for a new bike for his 13th birthday, something really new and all his own on an island full of quirky collectively owned second-hand bikes.  Something that would help him stretch the leg muscles that are still regaining flexibility after he was mauled by a bear nearly a year ago. 

Instead, he gets an old taco truck with a big rooster on its side that won’t even reverse.  For a kid who’s tired of the attention the bear attack got him, this is pretty much the opposite of what he wanted.  And even though he’s only 13, his parents insist on him driving it.  

Newt doesn’t believe in the lake monster his father claims to have sighted, and he’s equally skeptical when his best friend Ethan claims to have a wish he made on the barnacle-covered bear statue they find on the beach come true.  But as more and more people start wishing on the bear – now in the back of the taco truck – all of them want Newt to question his position on magic. 

Newt is also trying to decide where to go to school the next year – with his friends in the quirky local school, with classes geared towards artistic island life, or on the mainland, with a shiny modern curriculum and equipment.  But for school this year, he’s researching the water bear or tardigrade, a tiny but ubiquitous and extremely resilient creature.  Though the report itself is a tiny part of the story, the tardigrades are symbolic for Newt and his mental and physical recovery. 

As in Mañanaland, there is more a sense of the possibility of magic than actual magic, though Newt rather than an adult is the skeptic.  The real magic may be the power of family, community, and reflection to work through trauma to recovery.  

This is blurbed by Kelly Jones of the Unusual Chickens books, and does contain a similar lone Latinx family in a quirky community with lots of humor vibe, though of course there are no unusual chickens here.  I also remembered Stef Soto, Taco Queen.

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson. Scholastic. 2020. ISBN 978-1338580839. Read from library copy. 

No one but her Mamochka and family friend Anatoly know that Yanka was raised by a bear.  She’s just called Yanka the Bear in the village because of her size and strength.  Still, as much as Mamochka tells her the stories are just stories, Yanka believes there’s truth to Anatoly’s stories of the Bear Tsarina, the Lime Tree at the center of the forest, and the House with Chicken Legs.  Every time he visits, he has new stories to tell her, and updates to the map he carries with him that she faithfully copies to her own map.  

So when she wakes up one morning after a fall with bear legs, she runs away to the forest without even telling her best friend Sasha, rather than go to the city to be examined by doctors as Mamochka wants.  Are the bulfinches who keep telling her to go to the forest right?  Is the forest her true home?  

Yanka may have left Sasha and Mamochka behind, but her fierce pet weasel Moustrap has come along, and she soon makes more friends in the forest, including Elena, the daughter of the local Yaga, and several forest animals.  Are Yanka bear legs part of a family curse?  And can she learn enough in the forest to break it? 

As in Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon books, the main storyline is interspersed with stories that the characters tell each other, though it is much more immediately obvious here that the stories are about this forest and its inhabitants.  And while both Newt in The Water Bears and Yanka make some deep discoveries about home and family, readers who prefer more action (wolves! dragons! forest fires!)  and/or more magic (bear legs! houses with chicken legs! dragons!) will be more drawn to The Girl Who Speaks Bear, while  readers looking for more realism will prefer The Water Bears.  I myself fall decidedly in the preferring more magic camp, and look forward to more books from Sophie Anderson and appearances by houses with chicken legs. 

In addition to The House with Chicken Legs, fans of Russian-inspired middle grade fantasy could also try Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack and Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll. The only other bear-related middle grade I can recall is Edith Pattou’s Eastcan anyone else think of any?  

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The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Cordova

One more Latinx fantasy book that came up in my run during my recent Cybils reading.  This is a middle grade book from the author of the acclaimed Labyrinth Lost (YA).  

The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Cordova

The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Cordova. Scholastic, 2020. ISBN 978-1338239546. Read ebook on Libby. 

Danny Monteverde has grown up in foster care.  The only two constants have been his sister Pili and the beat-up old book she carried with her and read to him – a collection of original fairy tales called The Way to Rio Luna.  She always told him she would find the way there for real, so they could escape together.  But two years ago she left and hasn’t come back, leaving Danny considered an extra-weird kid to foster as he keeps trying to prove that magic is real in rather embarrassing ways. At his current foster home, which borders on abusive, his foster father threw out Danny’s copy of the book, plunging Danny into despair as he starts to believe that he will never find the magic after all. 

As he’s trying to escape from his bullying foster brothers during a museum field trip, he finds an original copy of The Way to Rio Luna under glass – with glowing golden arrows that seem to be leading him somewhere! He also meets a girl about his own age whose guardian, her aunt, works for the museum, so that the girl, Glory Papillon, is homeschooled at the museum as well as on her aunt’s field excursions.

The museum’s copy of The Way to Rio Luna is missing four pages.  And the last name on the checkout card in the back is that of Danny’s sister.  And Glory’s Auntie North is perfectly willing to drop everything else to take both kids in search of the missing pages – and Pili, over the course of which they meet many of the interesting characters from the stories in the book, as well as exploring places from New York to the author’s native Ecuador. 

There are some holes in this story that the jaded reader will spot pretty easily – I was able to guess right from the beginning who the Top Secret Villain was, for example – and the hunts for the different pages tie together pretty loosely. Most of the magical creatures they meet are more cartoonish than fully rounded characters.  Yet somehow, all of this came together for me into a sweet and simple sugar cookie of a book – just right for my mood in these troubled times, and a good choice for newer fantasy readers.

Danny Monteverde has grown up in foster care.  The only two constants have been his sister Pili and the beat-up old book she carried with her and read to him – a collection of original fairy tales called The Way to Rio Luna.  She always told him she would find the way there for real, so they could escape together.  But two years ago she left and hasn’t come back, leaving Danny considered an extra-weird kid to foster as he keeps trying to prove that magic is real in rather embarrassing ways. At his current foster home, which borders on abusive, his foster father threw out Danny’s copy of the book, plunging Danny into despair as he starts to believe that he will never find the magic after all. 

As he’s trying to escape from his bullying foster brothers during a museum field trip, he finds an original copy of The Way to Rio Luna under glass – with glowing golden arrows that seem to be leading him somewhere! He also meets a girl about his own age whose guardian, her aunt, works for the museum, so that the girl, Glory Papillon, is homeschooled at the museum as well as on her aunt’s field excursions.

The museum’s copy of The Way to Rio Luna is missing four pages.  And the last name on the checkout card in the back is that of Danny’s sister.  And Glory’s Auntie North is perfectly willing to drop everything else to take both kids in search of the missing pages – and Pili, over the course of which they meet many of the interesting characters from the stories in the book, as well as exploring places from New York to the author’s native Ecuador. 

There are some holes in this story that the more jaded reader will spot pretty easily – I was able to guess right from the beginning who the Top Secret Villain was, for example – and the hunts for the different pages tie together pretty loosely. Most of the magical creatures they meet are more cartoonish than fully rounded characters.  Yet somehow, all of this came together for me into a sweet and simple sugar cookie of a book – just right for my mood in these troubled times, and a good choice for newer fantasy readers.

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Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I accidentally wound up reading several Cybils books in a row by Latinx authors. Here, the author of Esperanza Rising  and Echo (among many others) returns with Mañanaland, which wound up in the Cybils as speculative fiction because it has an imaginary geography, even though there is no magic.  

Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Read by Roxana Ortega. Scholastic, 2020. ISBN 978-1338157864. Listened to audiobook on Hoopla. 
Max loves his Buelo’s stories, even though his father isn’t  too fond of them.  He also loves playing fútbol with the other boys and is excited that he’s finally old enough to try out for the village team. But a chain of events that starts with a rumor that the new coach is going to require birth certificates ends up with Max more desperate than ever to know why his mother left and never came back, and his father leaving to try to get a new one for him. And when the not-so-nice village boys start talking about “illegals” and the people who help them, Max learns that his family is part of a secret network known as the Guardians that helped people from the neighboring country, under a repressive regime, escape to Mañanaland.  Suddenly, Max is sure that if he, too, could make it to Mañanaland, he could find his mother and fix everything that’s wrong with his life.  But the journey there will change how he views almost everything…

It is curious to me that this book is cataloged right in the official subject headings as “fantasy fiction.”  The geography is imagined, but could be any number of places.  And while Max’s Buelo’s stories sound like fairy tales, as the story goes on, we learn that they, like much of the book, are real life couched in language that feels magic.  Which might make it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, but I really did.  I loved the push to find the magic in everyday life, to look outside of your own problems and stand up and be the hero for people who are even worse off than you.  Many of the refugees are women who have left because of abuse or forced marriages, so although these facts take up very little time in the story, our adventure story written for a boy interested in typical boy things is also a saying that women’s rights are a concern for everyone.  And while I’ve talked here just about Max and his father and grandfather, his relationships with his aunts and uncle and best friend, as well as the new friends he makes on the journey, are also well-rounded and an important part of the story.  While it may not satisfy someone looking for spells and dragons, this realism through a fantastical lens has broad appeal for a lot of readers.  Roxana Ortega’s reading brings out both the individual characters and the mythic feeling of the story.

Here are some more great speculative fiction books by Latinx authors I read this year:

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee. 

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Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster.

As promised, more Latinx middle grade fantasy! Columbian-American debut author Alex Aster delivers a refreshingly new take on the epic fantasy quest, inspired by her abuela’s stories. I still wish that KidLitCon 2020 had happened, where I would have been able to meet Alex!

Curse of the Night Witch by Alex AsterCurse of the Night Witch. Emblem Island 1 by Alex Aster. Sourcebooks Young Readers, 2020. ISBN 978-1492697206. Read from library copy.
On Emblem Island, everyone is born with a birthmark that reveals their true talent and a lifeline that shows the course of their lives, though these can change. 12-year-old Tor Luna does not like either of his marks – not the purple lines around his wrists that show that he is destined to be a leader like his mother when he’d rather be under the water, and not the smoothness of the lifeline that shows he’s destined for a life of boring predictability.  Also, as one of the only two kids with leader emblems, he’s stuck in class every day with know-it-all Melda, who is better at all of it than he is.  There’s also some jealousy of his little sister Rosa, whose singing emblem gives her obvious joy as well as a contribution to the life of the community.

When a black, blinking eye shows up on his wrist instead and his lifeline shortens to just a week, it’s not immediately clear if it’s because he made a ceremonial wish for a new emblem or because he swam down to a shipwreck rumored to be cursed.  Either way, in short order the curse has spread to both his best friend, far-seeing and always hungry Engle, as well as to Melda.  The curse looks so much like that described in the forbidden tales in the adult version of The Book of Cuentos that the kids are convinced it’s from the legendary, probably mythical Night Witch.  But if the curse is real – and it clearly is – than maybe the stories aren’t as mythical as they thought.  The trio set out to find the Night Witch with only a week and a copy of The Book of Cuentos to guide them, following a path that will lead them to every creature and obstacle in the book – literally. 

I really appreciated the big adventure starring a kid who – okay, maybe he had the marks of a leader, but he was doing everything he could to avoid being a leader and wound up with his quest more because of his own bad choices than because of a great prophecy.  I also love traditional folk tales, and enjoyed reading the stories from The Book of Cuentos that come between chapters, setting up the adventures to come.  Beyond the adventure, there are some good thoughts about friendship (the story starting off with a Harry-Ron-Hermione kind of friendship vibe), equity, and the power of choice.  The ending sets up another story, and I’m curious to see what comes next! 

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee. 

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8 Spooky Middle Grade Books

Just in case you or a kid in your life happen to be looking for something to read for Halloween, here are a few I’ve enjoyed! And let me know in the comments if you have anything you’d add to this list.

8 Spooky Books for Middle Grade Readers (book titles in post.)

And for two that celebrate the season without getting scary, try

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Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia

First a quick note – today is the last day for authors and publishers to submit books that were not nominated during the public nominations period for consideration for the Cybils Award. As a panelist, I would like every eligible book nominated, so if you are an author or publisher whose book was missed, please do read the rules and submit it!!

And now, on to our book of the day – a dark but funny tale of monsters of Mexican myth and the preteens who battle them to rescue their friends perfect for your Halloween reading.

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia. Read by Frankie Corzo. Rick Riordan Presents, 2020. ISBN 978-1368049177. Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

Paola Santiago – Pao for short – is constantly embarrassed by her mother, who burns green candles when they don’t have enough money and is always warning Paola not to go near the Gila River because of the danger of La Llorona.  It’s true that a girl from her school – pale-skinned and blonde to Paola’s darker hair and skin – disappeared there a year ago.  Paola thinks she got in trouble because of going in the river itself, and that she and two best friends, who meet near the river to read comic books or stargaze (depending on the time of day) will be perfectly safe.  

But one evening she and her friend Dante, who live in the same run-down apartment complex, go to meet their friend Emma – who is white and lives in a nicer neighborhood.  And Emma never shows up.  The fallout from this demonstrates both the very different way that Emma’s parents and Paola and Dante are treated by the police when they try to report this. And when Paola tries to get Dante to sneak out with her to look for Emma, Dante’s grandmother tells them to go, giving them – an old slipper, Emma’s little kid flashlight, and a bottle of Florida water as weapons???

Paola has always loved physics more than fantasy, but what starts to happen has her building a whole new set of rules for how the world works.  Even her friendship with Dante is changing as her stomach starts to swoop when he looks at her. 

There are multiple Mexican-American myths woven into this story that involves a lot more children going missing than your typical Rick Riordan-style story, as well as the more expected army of young teens and tweens battling the forces of darkness that adults are oblivious to.  Paola herself is a satisfyingly prickly and skeptical main character, loyal to her friends even as she’s struggling with their relationships and not interested in playing nice just to keep the peace either with them or with the established norms of the adults.  It did take the story a little while to get going for me, but the pace kept up once it got going.   

If fighting off hordes of undead monsters with the aid of an adorable chupacabra puppy sounds appealing, this is a book for you! 

Stay tuned for more books both for spooky reading and based on Latinx legends, coming soon!

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Magic, Friendship and Community: Muse Squad, Weird Little Robots, If We Were Giants

Every September before Cybils nominations open, I look around for eligible books that I can read in the meantime.  Here are three that I enjoyed that were not nominated, though there are still a few days for their publishers or authors to submit them for consideration

Muse Squad: the Cassandra Curse by Chantel Acevedo

Muse Squad: the Cassandra Curse by Chantel Acevedo. Read by Kyla Garcia. Balzer + Bray, 2020. ISBN 978-0063001978. Purchased audiobook from Libro.fm.
In an opening that feels more surreal in current conditions than anything else in the book, Cuban-american Callie Martinez-Silva and best friend, Venezuelan-American Raquel, attend a huge pop concert and then have an eventful ride back home on crowded public transportation together. When Callie accidentally turns her friend into a pop star herself, she learns that she really does have the powers of her namesake, Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.  Soon she’s traveling by portal to meet other muses her own age from around the world (London, India, and Chicago) and has a mission – to inspire her classmate Maya Rivera to SCIENCE!  But will her new talent and Raquel’s new fame drive the former best friends apart?  

This has a vivid Miami setting with some glamorous scene changes, as well as themes of dealing with bullies, jealousy, friendship, and body positivity.  I bought this for my daughter because of her love for Rick Riordan books, but despite the travel and magic elements, it felt more like the Whatever After books (but with a little more depth) than like Rick Riordan to me.  

Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi

Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi. Candlewick, 2019. ISBN 978-0763694937. Listened to audiobook on Hoopla. 
Penny Rose has been staying in her shed building robots from discarded objects ever since her family moved, not sure she’ll ever make a new friend. Then she and her neighbor Lark, a birdwatcher, hit it off.  They build a city in the shed for the robots to play in, and the robots start moving and communicating on their own!  Still, Lark is undeniably an outcast at school, so when only Penny Rose is invited to join the Secret Science Society that includes some of the popular kids, Penny Rose is really torn.  But are her robots science or magic?  And should she believe Lark that they need to be kept a secret?  This is sweet and thoughtful with a nice Halloween climax.  

If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith

If We Were Giants by Dave Matthews and Clete Barrett Smith. Disney-Hyperion, 2020. ISBN 978-1484778715. Read from library copy.
Kirra lives in a city hidden in a dormant volcano, though she travels out with her father, a storyteller who spreads tales of the demons in the volcano to keep people away.  On one of these trips, they hear about the Takers, strange and inhuman-looking people who invade and destroy every village in their path.  Kirra’s father tells her not to worry… and then the Takers find their home (though we only see Kirra in the aftermath, not the destruction of her home.)

Years later, Kirra is the only survivor, living with the Forest Folk.  Although she’s never quite grown used to the self-reliant and private natures of her new society, she’s still determined to help them when the Takers are sighted again.  Can the inventions of new friends and her knowledge of the power of the story save the day?

My biggest quibble with this book was that Kirra has multiple older mentor-type characters, including her father, an older refugee man in the Forest Folk, and the boy who rescues her who’s just a couple of years older – all men.  On the plus side, though she’s not as close to any of them, there are several women in positions of power, including her mother as a clan leader and skilled hunters in the Forest Folk. 

Other fantasies with strong environmental messages include Spark by Sarah Beth Durst, and previous Cybils finalists Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes and The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp by Kathi Appelt.

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The Last Mirror on the Left by Lamar Giles

I’m very excited to be celebrating the release of the second book in Lamar Giles’ Legendary Alston Boys series, which began last year with The Last Last Day of Summer. Thank you very much to the publisher, who sent me a now-rare physical ARC when I said that an eARC would mean that I couldn’t share the copy with my young friend K, who read and enjoyed the first book from my ARC. 

The Last Mirror on the Left by Lamar Giles. Illustrated by Dapo Adeola. Versify, 2020. 978-0358129417. Read from ARC provided by publisher.  

Before the story, in place of an inspiring quote is a definition for “kangaroo court”, a concept that turns out to be central to this book.

Sheed and Otto Alston, the Legendary Alston Boys, are trying to enjoy a laid-back Saturday, except that Sheed is constantly annoyed by Otto, who can’t forget that when time was frozen in their first adventure, he learned that Sheed has some kind of illness that will cause him to die young.  But as he hasn’t figured out a way to talk about it, it’s just looming over his head and making him push Grandma to take them to the doctor without being able to explain why. 

Photo of author Lamar Giles
Edgar Award nominated author Lamar Giles

All of this is secondary, though, as Missus Needraw, proprietress of the Mirror Emporium appears in their bathroom mirror and tells them that a dangerous criminal has escaped from his mirror prison and that it’s all their fault.  Soon, they’re off on a wild adventure involving mirrors with a myriad of functions, including prison cells, communication and teleportation devices and portals to parallel universes.  Much of the story time is spent in a wacky mirror world where the friendly neighbor who barbecues for the neighbors in their own world now has flaming hot hands that allow him to grill without needing coals, and Grandma’s church choir ladies all have enormous hats with wings that really let them fly.  (Hooray for the choir ladies!) In this world, they meet ArachnoBRObia, a group of spider kids.  But are they a dangerous gang, as Missus Needraw claims, or a super cool band, as they themselves claim?  

As Otto and Sheed chase down the criminal, the things they learn lead them to doubt everything they’ve been told and they start to wonder why it is that so many people are locked up in mirror prisons in so many different dimensions.  And even as the scope of the problem they’ve been asked to solve gets bigger and bigger, Otto is always looking for a way to save Sheed while keeping the terrible truth from him. 

There’s obviously some timely commentary on the prison-industrial complex here, but it’s set in enough speedy, slapstick adventure that kids who aren’t aware of this real world issue might not recognize the connection.  Even those who are will appreciate the humor of talking about the term “kangaroo court” and then making one of the villains a kangaroo.  This is a book with fast-paced adventure enough to draw in reluctant readers, but with enough heart and real-world issues – like what real justice is – to keep conversations going afterwards.  If you haven’t yet met the Legendary Alston Boys, what are you waiting for?

Otto, Sheed and Spencer the Spider! The Last Mirror on the Left, 10/20/20
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