Scythe by Neal Schusterman

Scythe has been sweeping up the honors – it won the Young Adult Speculative Fiction Cybils Award, a Printz Honor, and was being talked up by my teen librarian, to boot.

Scythe by Neal ShustermanScythe by Neal Schusterman. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Humanity has entered the post-mortal age.  No one really dies of natural causes anymore, since disease has been eliminated and accidents can be repaired.  Even age can be undone as grandparents “turn the corner”, resetting themselves to people in their twenties, when they remarry and start new families.  Everything is run by the sentient power of the internet, now called the Thunderhead.  Everything except the order of the Scythes, who “reap” people – who then stay truly dead –to maintain balance.

Our two teens, Citra and Rowan, are taken as apprentices to Scythe Faraday, one of the most balanced and respected of the scythes.  He tells them it’s a good sign that they don’t want to be scythes and aren’t interested in killing.  But the order doesn’t take kindly to him taking two apprentices, so they are set against each and told to be rivals even as they are the only people they truly trust.  There is doomed love, politics, mortal danger, high action, lots of violence, corruption in high places, and plenty of plot twists, all with lots of deep thoughts about the meaning of life.

So I totally get why it’s so popular.  It is really tough to write a high-action, high-character, high-concept book.  It just didn’t quite work for me – the doomed romance felt artificial, I didn’t buy wanting to raise a family and then leave your partner and start over with a new one, and perhaps most of all, I do not care for violence or high-octane plots. And yet, I know I’m in the minority on those last two.

I bet my son would love it, though, especially as the romance part doesn’t take up too much time.  The second volume, Thunderhead, is out now.

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2 More Cybils Middle Grade Graphic Novel Finalists

Here are two more of the Cybils Middle Grade Graphic Novel finalists. Coming back to write these reviews reminds me that I still haven’t read the only one I couldn’t get from my own library – Suee and the Shadow.  The interloan request is now placed!

The Dam Keeper by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi.The Dam Keeper by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi. First Second, 2017.
This graphic novel is based on movie short and combines several elements to unique effect.  Adorably cute cartoon animals in a magnificently painted background face down terrible dark events.  Young Pig has been raised by his father to tend the Dam that keeps back the waves of Dark.  And the Dark is a terrible thing.  It took Pig’s mother in the past, and one day, his father walks out into the Dark.  Now Pig tends the dam on his own after school, as the waves of Dark get larger and closer together.  When a wave of dark washes them out of the city, he’s joined in his quest to get back and find a fix for the dam by his friendly classmate Fox and her grouchy friend Hippo.  The words are few, and the art beautiful.  The scenes of the dying mother at the beginning were disturbing enough that my daughter refused to read on, so this is one for kids who like their stories on the darker side.  There is definitely room for a sequel here!

Where's Halmoni? By Julie KimWhere’s Halmoni? By Julie Kim. Little Bigfoot, 2017.
This story, the winner of the Cybils award in this category, hover on the border between picture book and graphic novel.  My library has it in picture books, and it is picture book sized, with many full-page spreads.  But it’s long for a picture book and put together following graphic novel conventions regarding text placement and sometimes using panels.

All that aside, the book is captivating if straightforward.  Two children come home from school to find their grandmother, their Halmoni, missing.  They can smell her wonderful cooking, though, so they know she hasn’t been gone long.  When they follow the giant tiger footprints through a window, they find themselves in a fantasy Korea.  Here it’s clear that these are Korean-American children who’ve grown up hearing but not speaking Korean.  They meet various creatures from Korean folklore, who all speak to the children in Korean – the characters are written artistically above, with the older sister telling her brother what she catches of it.  Everything is translated in the back, but it’s fun to go through figuring things out with the kids.  They meet a trickster rabbit, friendly goblins, that fearsome tiger, and a bushy-tailed fox (more familiar to me as the nine-tailed fox.) Despite some nervous moments, the children are never in too much danger, thanks to little brother Yoon’s seemingly bottomless backpack of snacks. I was pleased to see that, though the children are never quite sure what happened to their grandmother, it’s clear to the reader that she was having adventures of her own.  I’ve left the art until last, but it is worth mentioning – stunning painted art, in vivid colors that both echo traditional Korean art and feel up-to-the-moment.  This was a hit with both my children as well as myself.

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The Dollmaker of Krakow and the Ice Sea Pirates

I said I was done reviewing Cybils books.  I lied.  Here are two more that were nominated for last year’s Cybils, both read from review copies kindly sent to me by the publisher.

dollmakerofkrakowThe Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero. Delacorte, 2017.
Karolina is a doll who spends her time in the land of dolls stitching small, helpful spells into the clothes of courtiers and soldiers.  But when her gingerbread home is eaten by invading rats, she runs away and finds herself in a toy shop in 1940s Krakow.  The shop is owned by the dollmaker of the title, a Mr. Brzezick who lost his leg in World War I and has renounced both war and his German heritage as a consequence.  Karolina is convinced that it’s his magic that has made her able to move and talk in the human world, and soon she’s befriended Rena, a young Jewish girl whose father has bought a doll house for her.  Reality and magic intertwine as Karolina realizes that the invading Nazis are conquering the magical spirits of Poland as well as its people. The occupation gets slowly worse, until Karolina realizes that Rena and her friends are all in terrible danger and she and Mr. Brzezick must work to save them.  I don’t know that there is such a thing as a gentle introduction to the Holocaust, but here at least (spoiler alert), though things go about as poorly as one would expect for the adults, their efforts succeed in saving the children.  I found it odd and captivating.

The Ice Sea Pirates by Frida NilssonThe Ice Sea Pirates by Frida Nilsson. Gecko Press, 2017.
Frida Nilsson is an award-winning Swedish author whom I read for the first time here, attracted especially by the pirates.  Pirates are often romanticized especially in children’s books, but they are definitely the villains here.  Growing up on one of many tiny, remote northern islands, ten-year-old Siri has told her little sister Miki lots of stories about the evil pirate Captain Whitehead, who kidnaps children to work in his coal mine.  Once taken, no one has ever dared to face him to try to recover the children.  But when little Miki is actually taken by the pirates, Siri is guilt-stricken and horrified.  She jumps into a rowboat and finds her way to the nearest town, determined to rescue Miki.  For a story about pirates with a mermaid encounter, I agree with Charlotte that this felt surprisingly realistic. Siri doesn’t have superpowers.  She isn’t able to feed herself, or navigate solo across the ocean, and absolutely refuses to play along when she’s told that she’s a child foretold in dreams to do great things.  She needs help from adults, who are also not omnipotent.  She gets stuck, abandoned, betrayed.  She sits down and cries about it.  And then she gets up and tries something else, because what’s she’s lacking in adult capabilities, she makes up for in her sheer refusal to give up when everyone else tells her to.  Besides her admirable persistence, Siri’s takeaway lesson is the horror of allowing children of any species to be used for our profit.  Despite these modern-day messages, this had an old-fashioned feel that I quite enjoyed.

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3 Cybils MG Graphic Novel Finalists

Here are three of the Cybils elementary/middle grade graphic novel finalists.  It’s always good to read what the other Cybils panelists came up with!

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen PhamReal Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham. First Second, 2017.
Newbery-honor winning (and personal favorite) author Shannon Hale gets real with this fictionalized autobiography as she details her struggles with friendships through elementary school.  Even though she managed to be at least on the fringe of The [In] Group at one point, a social feat I’m glad never to have achieved after reading her tales of it, the pangs of friends made and lost resonated deeply with me. Hale also shares stories of sibling abuse, as well as her issues with anxiety – both caused by mental health issues that went unrecognized at the time.  Pham’s illustrations are perfect, as always, showing both Hale’s reality and her vivid imagination.  My daughter managed to read this at least 10 times in the few weeks we had it out from the library, and my mother and I both very much enjoyed as well.

Pashmina by Nidhi ChananiPashmina by Nidhi Chanani. First Second, 2017.
Priyanka is also having a hard time fitting in at school.  She feels isolated from her mother, too, who won’t answer Priyanka’s questions about why her mother left India or who her father was.  She gets along best with her uncle, but when he has a new baby, that stability it threatened.  Her life changes forever when she puts on her mother’s beautiful pashmina shawl.  It transports her from her dull life, illustrated in black and white, to a full-color, magical India, where she’s shown around by Kanta, a blue elephant and a peacock named Mayur. My eight-year-old thought it looked too old for her to try, but I found it a moving story of heritage and women’s choices.

Big Bad Fox by Benjamin RennerBig Bad Fox by Benjamin Renner. First Second, 2017.
A scrawny fox is on a mission to prove to the wolf that he’s up to stealing chickens.  The chickens usually beat him up, and the guard dog is lazy enough not to bestir himself when he knows the chickens can take care of themselves.  But one day, the fox steals eggs instead, so that he can raise his own chickens.  They hatch into adorable, hoodlum chicks, and hijinks ensue.  How can the fox eat the little critters who call him Mama and insist that they are foxes, too?  This has sketchy, frameless panels filled with watercolor art, and was another one my daughter finished only to turn around and start again from the beginning.

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Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older

Sierra and her Shadowshaper crew return in the second full-length novel.

Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel Jose OlderShadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2017.

The school year is starting again for Sierra and her friends, all now in training, as our story opens.  This book feels even more rooted in the modern day, even as the magical elements are strong.  The friends are heckling the security guards as they go through the metal detectors on their way in to school, even as the guards tell them they’d make it through the gates much faster if they didn’t wear any jewelry.

Things start to get weird when one of the few white kids in school, red-haired Mina, gives Sierra a card from the Deck of Worlds.   Sierra doesn’t really know what the Deck of Worlds is, but she knows (from events from one of the novellas set over the summer, which I haven’t read) that Mina has been involved with the Sorrows, who are definitely not friends of the Shadowshapers.  Can she be trusted? There is darkness and uncertainty on every side, as Sierra knows that people are counting on her to make the right choices.

In an effort to learn more, Sierra tries to connect with the few remaining Shadowshapers of the older generation.  Meanwhile, her relationship with Robbie turns more off than on, and Sierra starts feeling attracted towards Pulpo, the bass player in her brother’s band Culebra.  This was another sweet romance, and I appreciated that Sierra is allowed to be a normal teen exploring different relationships, instead of finding her One True Love at 15.

Police brutality, the criminalization of young black men, and the Black Lives Matter movement are skillfully woven together with the supernatural plot.  I personally like almost any story better with some magic in it, and this has plenty.  But after having my heart broken twice over reading The Hate U Give and American Street last year, I was also very relieved to find a book dealing with these themes where the young men survive the book.  I don’t know if Older has any more books planned here, but I would be happy to many more books about Sierra and her crew!

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All the Crooked Saints

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater. Narrated by Thom Rivera. Scholastic, 2017.
All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater
Beatriz, Joaquin and Daniel Soria are cousins living in Bicho Raro, Colorado, in 1962.  The Sorias have developed a reputation over the past century as miracle workers, following the family from Mexico to Colorado.  Pilgrims come from all over, and Daniel, the current Saint, helps create a miracle that will manifest their inner darkness in outward, physical form.  This should help the pilgrims realize what their problems are enough to address them, so that the first miracle will be followed by a second.  But lately, the second miracle hasn’t been occurring, so that pilgrims – all with odd manifestations about them – stay, and stay, and stay.  A woman in a wedding dress covered with real butterflies, with a constant shower of rain falling around her; arguing twins bound together by snakes; a priest with the head of a coyote.

Joaquin and Beatriz, though, stay away from the miracle business as much as possible.  They run an illicit radio station from a van in the desert late at night, Joaquin working under the DJ name Diablo Diablo, and Beatriz managing the mechanics of both the broadcast system and the formerly broken down van.

Change comes in the form of Pete Wyatt, a boy just a bit older than Beatriz, who comes to Bicho Raro not for a miracle (though he does have a hole in his heart), but for a chance to work and earn the van his aunt didn’t know Beatriz had fixed up to use.  Beatriz has always considered herself to be a girl with no feelings, but even though she finds machines easier to relate to than people, Pete starts growing on her. (Though the word isn’t used, and wouldn’t have been at the time, Beatriz feels like she’s on the spectrum, which is why I included this book on my 2018 Diversity Reading Challenge.  I’ve read enough books by Latinix authors so far this year that I didn’t include it on my list there, though obviously most of the characters here are Latinix.) Daniel, too, is having an increasingly difficult time with his role as the saint.

This is a book that feels like magical realism, with things that ought to be symbolic given physical form and weighty meaning.  People are introduced with double sentences: “Here is a thing s/he hoped for: Here is a thing s/he feared.”  It’s also a story of teens trying to work out the mistakes of older generations, of friendship, and – despite the heavy symbolism – humor.

I listened to this on audio from hoopla.  Thom Rivera narrates with a pronounced Spanish accent, slowly enough to be easily understandable. The teens, though, speak with American accents, and Pete, from further east, with a bit of southern country twang.  I always enjoy when the books bring the sound of the characters that much closer to reality.

This book feels like it shouldn’t work.  And yet, Stiefvater pulls it all together into something hard to put down, as I listened on, anxious for all the characters to find their way through their difficulties to their own miracles, mystical or not.

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MLA Spring Institute

Last week, I got to go to the Michigan Library Association’s Spring Institute for the first time.  I’ve never been before because it’s specifically for youth and teen librarians, and I’m officially an adult librarian – someone has to stay behind to staff the library!  But this year it was just far enough away, plus my friend Nakenya and I gave two presentations – basically the same thing we did at the Allied Media Conference last year, but in two 50-minute talks instead of one long one and with added books we’ve read since then.  We mostly book talked our favorite diverse books.

I experimented with Canva for the first time and made this nifty infographic with the latest data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. (They were kind enough to give me permission to do this.)

Diversity in Children's Literature 2017 Infographic

Continue reading

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Watchdog by Will McIntosh

I think I’m finally approaching the end of books I read for the Cybils award! No guarantees, but here at least is a fun, fast-paced story, especially for fans of giant robot dogs.

Watchdog by Will McIntosh Watchdog by Will McIntosh. Delacorte, 2017.
In a post-apocalyptic, near-future Chicago, homeless pre-teen twins Vick and Tara mine the mountains of trash in the street for a living.  Vick has asthma and no access to more medication when he runs out, while Tara’s autism severely affects how they can interact with people.  Tara excels, though, at finding potentially valuable items in the trash heap and at making them into robots – she’s made a super-smart robot dog called Daisy who can help him.  She’s so good, though, that it brings the twins to the attention of the sinister, child-slave keeping Ms. Alba, who runs a large workshop where children make giant robotic watchdogs for sale.

This is an exciting book, with lots of chases and battles involving kids, bad guys, and robots both good and bad.  Despite the battles, there are no deaths, making this good for readers who want excitement but aren’t ready for the high body counts so common in books for older readers.  I appreciated both Tara’s expertise with making robots and that Vick learns to be less protective of her over the course of the book – she may be different, but she doesn’t need a savior.  Post-apocalyptic/dystopian isn’t my personal cup of tea, but overall book popularity proves me in the minority here.  Robot dogs add even more to the strong kid appeal.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will note that while I read this from a library copy as is my usual habit, the author also contacted me and offered to send me a copy for review.

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The Marvelwood Magicians

I’ve enjoyed books by Diane Zahler in the past, including Baker’s Magic and The Thirteenth Princess, so I was happy when this new offering came up in my Cybils reading last year.

The Marvelwood Magicians by Diane ZahlerThe Marvelwood Magicians by Diane Zahler. Boyds Mills Press, 2017.
Mattie Marvelwood is a telepath, able to read the thoughts of others.  She travels from carnival to carnival with her family, all of whom have psychic powers. Her mother is psychic, her father a gifted illusionist, her little brother can literally disappear, and her baby sister floats.  They’ve always needed to keep their magic hidden, but when they come to Master Morogh’s Circus of Wonders, it seems that at last they might have found a place with others like them.  For the first time, too, Mattie is able to make friends with a girl her own age – Selena, part of a family of trapeze artists.  Soon, though, she discovers a shady side to the way the circus is run, starting with a pair of tigers that she knows are still sad about leaving their jungle.

Mattie is a very sympathetic heroine as she learns to find her courage and plan effectively.  Her parents both came to America from other countries – her father from Scotland and her mother from India – a nice touch, with the various cultures in evidence through the story.  I also enjoyed the interplay of the very relatable struggles of making friends with the glamour of carnival life and the dastardly villain.

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Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino

This book was a 2016 Christmas gift from my love to my son and I.  We finished the book we were reading and then took several months reading it aloud together.

Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartinoRebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino. Roaring Brook Press, 2016.
Avatar: the Last Airbender screenwriter DiMartino turns his talents towards novel-writing in this first of a middle grade fantasy series set in world based on Renaissance Italy.

In this world, artists have literal geniuses, birds that are their companions and helpers, similar to the daemons of Lyra’s Oxford.  But the current ruler of Verenzia has outlawed both art and geniuses, capturing and killing all the geniuses in the kingdom and leaving the artists to wander as zombie-like Lost Souls.  Our hero, Giacomo, is living in sewers after his artist parents vanished.  His life changes forever when a genius of his own arrives, and he is found by a group of artist children who secretly live and train in the house of one of the Supreme Creator’s advisors.  As he gets to know the varied group of three children and the old, blind artist who trains them, Giacomo learns more about Sacred Geometry and the threats to their world presented by the Supreme Creator and the rogue artist who wants to bring her down and start his own despotic rule.  Soon, they are embarking on a quest to find the tools of the Creator, racing against enemies of many varieties.

DiMartino’s screenwriting background definitely shows here.  The book feels like it would translate well to the screen, and moments of tension are balanced nicely against times of character development and humor.  Giacomo’s story is interspersed with short chapters from the point of view of an eight-limbed human-like creature called a tulpa, created by the rogue artist, and there’s a lot of reflection on whether the tulpa, created as a tool, has the capacity for morality or self-determination.

This should have been one that I really enjoyed, but it didn’t quite work for me. My son liked it just fine, but I think for me it suffered greatly from being a book that I read aloud right after we’d been reading Diana Wynne Jones – DiMartino is good, but no one else is DWJ.  Also, it’s focused on a fast-moving plot, and that kind of book is both not my favorite and something that works better read quickly, not over half a year.  I know that Brandy over at Random Musings of a Bibliophile really liked it, so I think that this was just not the right time and way for me to read an otherwise fine book.  For those that haven’t read it yet, the sequel, Warrior Genius, is now out too.

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