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There was a day, about two weeks ago, when I finished a book and had no new library books waiting for me to read. Not one. In a panic, I went to the new fiction shelves at the library and took several youth fantasy books. I paid special attention when reading my journals and blogs and put lots of titles on hold, because I had nothing at home.

I have plenty to read now. Definitely more than I can read before they’re all due. This was one of the ones I pulled off the new shelf, just based on how many times I saw the title come up in the weekly review summary at Charlotte’s Library.

The Humming RoomThe Humming Room by Ellen Potter
Here’s a book that says straight off that it’s inspired by The Secret Garden, one of my favorites. This made me nervous once I realized it, but it came off well – like a well-done fairy-tale re-telling, close enough to follow the plot, but different enough to have its own unique spin.

Roo Fanshaw is 12 when her drug-addicted, ne’er-do-well father gets himself murdered. Only when she’s being taken to him does she learn that she has an uncle. He lives on Cough Rock, a small island in a river in upstate New York just big enough for his former child tuberculosis sanatorium turned mansion. The part of the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, is played by the stylish but strict Ms. Valentine, while cheerful Martha’s role is taken by the friendly, jean-clad 20-year-old Violet. Roo has been moved around often enough to be distrustful and antisocial, but she quickly learns to love the river and is curious enough to explore the large building, even though she’s told which wing to avoid. Outside, she finds a tiny cave by the river bank, just big enough for her. It’s there that she meets a boy who introduces himself as Jack, paddling around the river in his kayak and considered just a legend by most of the native population. Inside, she hears a mysterious humming noise, and traces it to her cousin Phillip, who’s been in poor mental and physical health since the unexplained death of his mother four years earlier. Both children are initially afraid that the noises that they hear from the other are the ghosts of tuberculosis victims, and some time is given to the sad fate of those children. There is, of course, an abandoned garden for Roo to bring to life as well – this one a greenhouse Amazonian jungle. Roo has never gardened before, but, unlike Mary, has always had a habit of listening with her ear to the ground and being able to hear the earth and what it’s saying to itself. The characters, especially Roo and Phillip, feel well-rounded and believable, similar but not identical to their counterparts in the original. Fans of The Secret Garden are of course the natural audience for this, but the modern setting and the slightly enhanced mystical elements give this appeal to those who wouldn’t necessarily go for historical fiction. Like the original, there’s frequent mention of death, but no in-book violence or romance, making this just right for middle grade readers.
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Storm MakersThe Storm Makers by Jennifer E. Smith

Ruby and Simon are twelve-year-old twins who have recently moved from Chicago to a farm house in Wisconsin. Their parents are supposed to be supporting the family by farming while waiting for their Creative Pursuits to take off, but the crops are doing poorly due to a drought and the creative ventures aren’t going so well, either. Ruby, a budding scientist who loves helping their inventor father, hasn’t made friends here in the country, while Simon fits right in with the baseball crowd. This leaves Ruby feeling isolated from her twin for the first time. Such is the scene when Simon gets a fever that coincides with an enormous thunderstorm. Even when he recovers, he starts shorting out appliances and cars just by touching them. While Simon’s in the hospital with the fever, a kind-looking man with a battered hat named Otis introduces himself. He says that he, like Simon, is a Storm Maker, and he is here to help Simon, coming into his powers unusually young, learn to control them. He gives Ruby a tiny barometer whose dial shows events on the way rather than weather. But by the time Simon is awake, Otis is gone, and another Storm Maker comes to their rendezvous instead. His name is Rupert London. He tells Simon that he has the potential to be the most powerful Storm Maker ever, and invites Simon to come back to Chicago with him for training at the official secret Storm Maker headquarters. Simon is flattered by his attention, but Ruby takes an immediate dislike to him when he burns down a farmer’s field as a demonstration of his power. Meanwhile, the twins have taken a summer job together helping out the local mechanic, Daisy, who also turns out to be a Storm Maker. Will Simon and Ruby find out who to believe – and how to control Simon’s powers – before it’s too late?!

This was a pleasant read, though it didn’t knock my socks off. It was nice to see Ruby and Simon get closer to each other again over the course of the book. It was of course obvious from the beginning who the bad guy was, and Simon makes and Ruby allows a quite dangerous decisions fairly early on. Kids of the intended age will likely enjoy it just fine, especially if they are interested in weather and mechanical science.
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The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Why is it that the princes from all the fairy tales are simply called Prince Charming? According to this book, it’s because the bards are more interested in a good story than in getting the facts right. We start the book by meeting a different Prince Charming, one chapter at a time. Prince Frederic, a risk-averse dandy, loses bold Ella when she realizes that marrying him wouldn’t be the adventure she was hoping for. Rapunzel leaves Prince Gustav when she realizes he’s more brawn than either brain or heart. Handsome and arrogant but kind-hearted Prince Liam is driven out of two kingdoms when he tries to break off his engagement with the shallow and cruel Briar Rose and she in return has a bard make up songs lambasting him. Loopy Prince Duncan, happily married to Snow White, gets literally lost when she asks for a little space and he wanders off in the woods. All four of the Princes have ballads written about them in which they are called Prince Charming. They meet, and get involved in heroics involving stopping the evil witch Zaubera’s multiple evil plans, and dealing with the child robber king Deeb Rauber. To give a small degree of gender balance, both Ella and Liam’s little sister Lila are on their own heroic missions, which may or may not intersect with those of the Princes Charming.

The whole thing is written in a slapstick style, with cartoonish illustrations chapter titles like “Prince Charming Defends Some Vegetables” and “Prince Charming Annoys the King”. The four princes started out so very one-dimensional that it was really hard for me to feel enough sympathy for them to enjoy the story. At the halfway point, I was still considering giving up on it altogether. However, soon after that, they begin to come together as a team and experience Personal Growth that makes them both more sympathetic and interesting. There are just enough plot threads left dangling at the end to expect a sequel. I still prefer Sondheim’s Into the Woods or the adult graphic novel series Fables for massive fairy tale integration, though both of those are best for adults. However, middle grade children looking for a light (if lengthy) read will probably like this. It’s full of action scenes that will appeal to boys – I could see my son eating this up. Readers could also try the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley for a modern fairy-tale integration for middle grade readers.

Dust Girl

Sep. 24th, 2012 03:08 pm
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I’ve been reading Sarah Zettel for over a decade now, and wish that more people knew her wonderful books. Hopefully this book, her first children’s/YA, will help her gain some broader recognition. Standard disclaimer: Sarah Zettel was responsible for my love joining the Society for Creative Anachronism, where I later met him. But I like her books for their own merits.

Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Dust Bowl Kansas, 1935. Callie LaRoux lives with her mother in the Imperial Hotel, which they run. The town of Slow Run is nearly empty, as the dust and the lack of food and water have caused nearly everyone else to leave. But Callie’s mother refuses to leave, even when the doctor tells her that Callie is dying of dust pneumonia. Callie was fathered by a wandering musician who promised to come back. Callie must keep this secret, hiding behind a pretend Irish last name and staying out of the sun, because her father was a black minstrel. The doctor’s warning does make Callie’s mother worried enough that she makes Callie play the hotel’s piano, which had not been played since Callie’s father left. To Callie’s surprise, her untrained fingers bring out rolling chords, followed immediately by a dust storm. Callie’s mother goes out into it and vanishes, accompanied by the sounds of vicious, triumphant voices. Callie’s search for her turns up only an old dark-skinned man with eyes full of stars, who shares a vision with Callie. Now the plot ramps up, as what seems to a beautiful family comes to the hotel and eats everything – not just the food, but the draperies and even furniture – later revealing themselves as giant magical locusts. But while she’s still figuring out what they are, running back and forth to the store for more food, she meets and hires a boy her own age to help her. Jack has plenty of secrets of his own and, as a travelling homeless boy, tricks up his sleeve and a will to survive. Callie had always believed that her father was just a no-good bum, but from what both the old man and one of the Hopper girls tell her, he was a prince of Faerie, kept from his human lover against his will. With the hotel destroyed by the Hoppers, Callie and Jack set out to find her parents. On the way, Callie meets a couple who give their names as Shimmy and Shake. While Callie thinks that her parents are in California, Shimmy says that Callie needs to go to Kansas City, to the Fairyland amusement park. With some people claiming to want to help and others clearly trying to hurt, chased by the Seelie Court and an anti-bum crusader turned zombie, Callie has to figure out who she can trust and where to go.

There’s a whole lot going on in this book. It’s the first of a trilogy, so it’s got all the plot beginnings for three books. The traditional Seelie and Unseelie courts are used somewhat differently here. The Seelie Court appears to be white and the Unseelie black, but neither one of them appears to be what we’d consider good. Western European faerie traditions are mixed with the reality and mythology of the American West to create a compelling new American. Callie and Jack have to deal with a lot of prejudice – against blacks, Jews, and bums, which felt real enough to bring it home to kids who might not have considered it before without it turning into a hammer-on-the-head Issue book. The book is set solidly in the 30s, filled with both the ever-present dust and the rollicking music of the dance marathons popular at the time. At the same time, Callie and her quest for her own path and identity remain deeply sympathetic and universal. There's only the hint of possible future romance, and some violence, so appropriate for older middle grade students as well as teens. But my love and I both enjoyed it lots as well.
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Once again, I'm dreadfully behind... and this week I've been dealing with planning my Talk Like a Pirate Day program, a daughter recovering from surgery, and a deep obsession with harps. Also contemplating the upcoming Cybils.

Here’s another one that Dr. M. recommended to me.

Book of Story BeginningsThe Book of Story Beginnings by Kristin Kladstrup.
In 1914 a boy named Oscar (14) finds a book called the Book of Story Beginnings. Bored with Iowa farm life, he ignores the warning poem on the first page of the book. He writes the beginning of a story, of a dark sea coming up all around a farm house on a hill and a boat pulling up to the front door. When he looks out the window, the dark sea and the boat are truly there. He climbs into the boat – witnessed only by his little sister - and is never seen again.

Now in the present, Lucy’s great-aunt Lavonne has just died and left them the Brick, the large brick farmhouse on a hill in Iowa. Her father, a chemistry professor who just failed to get tenure, and her mother, an editor, decide that moving to the free house in Iowa beats being broke in the big city. Lucy, of course, is not consulted. With nothing to do but explore, Lucy finds first Oscar’s old journals and then the Book. There are other story beginnings in the book, including one about a ship crewed by orphans with a girl on board who dreams of another life, and one that Lucy remembers her own father telling her of the king of cats and the queen of birds, who are married but can’t stop arguing. This situation reflects both Lucy’s parents and, from his journals, Oscar’s. But Lucy feels compelled to write her own story beginning, and so she writes a story where her father is a magician. Before she’s quite grasped what’s happening, Oscar is back, still 14, and her father has turned into a bird and flown off. Now Lucy must convince a very disoriented Oscar to work with her to get her father back. To do so, they must journey into the stories held in the Book of Story Beginnings – working with the very tight constraints that they can only write the beginning of stories, not the middles or endings. If they can get into the story, will they be able to think like story characters themselves well enough to find Lucy’s father safely? And then, how will they get back to Lucy’s time? And if they can get back to Lucy’s time – should Oscar stay there or try to return to his own time? This is a meaty adventure story, with engaging characters and plenty to think about in between the close shaves and narrow escapes. It’s fat enough that it might go over best with older middle grade readers, but there’s nothing in the content that would make it inappropriate for the advanced younger reader.

The struggle to get back to the right world reminds me of my childhood favorite Parsley Sage, Rosemary and Time by Jane Louise Curry, as well as the much more recent Edge Chronicles by Jacqueline West. The contemplation of the story that one is involved in reminds me of Marissa Burt’s Storybound (though I liked this one better) and, happily, but for adults, Jasper Fforde’s zany classic The Eyre Affair.
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Earwig and the WitchEarwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones.

This is the inimitable Wynne Jones’s last book, and while I’m sure I won’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, those who have somehow escaped hearing of this so far really should. Earwig lives in an orphanage, unaware that she was left there by a witch who promised to be back soon but never returned. She loves it there, loves her best friend, Custard, and especially loves that everyone there does exactly what she wants, and has perfected the art of looking unlovable when prospective parents come to visit the orphanage. One day, though, a horrible-looking couple comes in who decide that Earwig is just what they’re looking for. For the first time in her life, no one listens when Earwig says no. Soon she finds that she has been taken on as a helper by a witch. The witch really only wants an extra pair of hands, and has no intention of training Earwig herself to be a witch, while the man has a demonic temper and wants only to be left in peace. Earwig soon befriends the cat. Once she realizes that escape is out of the question, she turns her formidable will instead to getting her new “parents” to do what she wants, working together with the cat.

The book is short, sweet and quite nearly perfect. We never do learn what happened to the Earwig’s original family, but Earwig is a spunky and likeable character, despite or perhaps because of her extreme self-centeredness. She does some magic, but most of her technique is playing people off of each other, with considerable knowledge of character. I read this first to myself and then aloud to my seven-year-old, who also enjoyed it immensely. It’s geared towards a younger audience than her other books, which makes it a perfect introduction to her work for children.
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The Name of This Book Is SecretThe Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch. Read by David Pittu.
This is first in a series of five books all named to discourage the reader from opening up the book. It’s a fun concept, and I’d been meaning to get around to them for a while. Pseudonymous Bosch is a very prominent narrator throughout the story, and he (or she!) spends a great deal of time at the beginning explaining that the setting of the book and the names of the characters are all meant to be non-specific, to protect the people involved, and most importantly, to protect us, the reader, from the horrors that might befall us if anyone found out that we know the secrets. Then we get on with the story, which is adventure, mystery and a little fantasy. Our heroes are Cass and Max-Ernest, both of whom have trouble fitting in at school. Cass lives with her overprotective mother and spends a lot of time with two older men she calls her grandfathers, who run an antique store in an old fire station. Max-Ernest lives with his parents, who are divorced but live in separate half of the same house, refusing to acknowledge each other’s existence. The adventure begins when a real estate agent brings a pile of boxes from an estate house in to the antique store. In one box, Cass finds a fascinating box called the Symphony of Smells, which contains hundreds of tiny bottles of different scents. She learns that a fire burned only the kitchen, and, it is presumed, the owner of the house, an old magician. Cass and Max-Ernest go to explore the house and find a secret room. They barely escape with the magician’s old journal just as a creepy-looking couple, including a woman whose beauty and stiffness are both unnatural. When the same couple – Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais - turns up at their school the next day and a boy with synesthesia from the school goes missing at the same time, Cass is highly suspicious. Unfortunately, she’s of such an openly suspicious nature that now, when it really matters, no one will believe her. She goes off, followed by Max-Ernest, to solve the mysteries: what happened to the old magician? Why have series of talented children with synesthesia gone missing over the years? Why does the spa known as the Midnight Sun keep itself so very secret? Doom is predicted at every turn, but with somewhat less depressing results than another popular series with a prominent narrator. As in The Calder Game, there are a number of puzzles for Cass and Max-Ernest to solve, which the interested reader can solve along with them. There’s just a hint of magic as Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais are (shh!) searching for the secret of immortality. There's even some character development, which one doesn't necessarily expect in an adventure/mystery type book. The boy and I listened to this, narrated by David Pittu. He quite enjoyed it; I liked it fine, if it didn’t particularly grab me. That may be me just being jaded about danger levels, finding the dangers in the book not nearly as dire as the narrator foretold. So maybe better for kids than adults, but still a lot of fun.

Cross-posted to and .
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The Wind in the WillowsThe Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. Read by Jim Weiss.
I have fond memories of my father reading this aloud to my siblings and me when we were children, but this was the first time I’d listened to it as a CD book, and my son’s first time ever. Ah, going back to old favorites! I remembered it having the fun animal adventures, with those great, memorable characters, and I remembered it having a summery feeling. Listening again, the characters still stand out as memorable. The book is mostly episodic, with stories about Mr. Mole meeting Mr. Rat, Mole disobeying Rat and going into the Wild Woods by himself on a winter’s evening. There are my father’s favorites, “Dulce Domum” about the Mole’s return to his own home after living with the Rat for some months, and entertaining the little mouse carolers there, and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, where the Mole and the Rat have a magical encounter with the god Pan. They are really lovely. That transcendence is combined with a more slapstick humor in the stories of Mr. Toad’s reckless misadventures, and the stories are bound together with lyrical descriptions of the scenery with the turning of the seasons. While I found these descriptions beautiful, I worried that my blood and action loving son would find them slow, but he gave the book a thumbs up. Like The Lord of the Rings, The Wind in the Willows takes place in a homosocial world: there are no female main characters, and the only two incidental female characters occur in the same story of Mr. Toad escaping from jail. This, I think, dates the book more than any other aspect of it. I am willing to forgive Mr. Graham because that really was the world he lived in, where men and women just lived in highly separated spheres (and I am glad it’s not like that anymore!). I had mixed feelings about the narrator. He did very well with the numerous and lengthy narrative portions of the book. I liked all of his character voices except for Mole and Ratty, which was a bit awkward as they are the two main characters. He made the Mole sound lower class and the Rat sound more educated, which was a bit odd, and somehow his reading of both of these characters annoyed me just a little bit every time. I see that my library has the book in a downloadable audio format with a different narrator, and I’d be curious to try that version to see if I like the narrator better. Still, we very much enjoyed listening to this book. It’s definitely still worthy of the “Classic” title. Just in case there was any doubt.
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The Unseen GuestThe Unseen Guest. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 3. by Maryrose Wood. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

Young governess Penelope and her charges, the three Incorrigible Children, have only recently returned to Ashton place after the visit to London chronicled in the second book of the series. Penelope still spends a great deal of time thinking about what happened there – the questions that Miss Mortimer, her former guardian, left unanswered, the real location and condition of her parents, and the budding relations with Simon Harley-Dickinson. Meanwhile, the children must be educated. As they are daring to look for bird species to add to the field guide they are making, they see an ostrich. The mystery is soon solved as Lord Ashton’s long-absent mother shows up with a prospective fiancé, Admiral Faucet. Admiral Faucet clearly wishes to marry Lady Ashton for her fortune, which he is planning to use as start-up capital for an ostrich racing business. Lord Ashton, on the other hand, thinks that an ostrich hunt in his very own forest would be simply capital. Rather more observant than the resident Ashtons, Admiral Faucet recruits the children to track down Bertha the ostrich, still lost in the forest, and bring her back to her POE or Permanent Ostrich Enclosure before Lord Ashton’s hunt can kill her. As the children are studying the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, the POE leads to frequent confusion. The idea of an overnight trip to the forest is somewhat traumatic for Penelope, who must be talked out of packing the entire nursery. But in the forest, the children are in their element, easily able to track down Bertha and unmoved by little things like rain. Penelope even gets to visit the cave where they lived before they came to Ashton place – complete with trunks of blankets and pillows, art supplies, and sandwiches delivered every morning. The mystery deepens even as the caring if wild nature of the children is contrasted with the bloodthirsty and avaricious nature of the adults, who are all too willing to kill the innocent Bertha and to consider that the children might make better tracking animals than children. In an effort to stop the older Lady Ashton from marrying Admiral Faucet, Penelope comes up with the idea of a séance – but will the séance reveal even more than Penelope had bargained for? As the series goes on, some questions have been answered, some had answers alluded to, but as even more questions have come up, the mystery is far from solved. Meanwhile, the story continues to have captivating characters (even if many of them are perfectly, deliberately stock characters), an exciting storyline, and a great sense of humor. Also, new sayings from Agatha Swanburne, the founder of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. This series continues to delight. Katherine Kellgren could make a shopping list fascinating, and with material like this to work with, the results are top notch. Even if Penelope is arguably the lead character, the wild children and the adventure are more than enough to keep my boy enthralled.
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Fairest of AllWhatever After: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski.

In this light modern fantasy, practical Abby and her trouble-prone younger brother (ages 10 and 7, respectively) move to a new town. In the spooky basement of their new house, they find a large mirror, which turns out to be magic. In fact, it takes them (Abby most reluctantly) right to the middle of the tale of Snow White. Younger brother, a bit quicker thinking than Abby, recognizes this immediately – the wicked stepmother is trying to give Snow White the apple. At first they congratulate themselves on having saved Snow’s life, but then they realize that they’ve also deprived her of her happy ending. On the other hand, does Snow really want the happy ending the storybooks have assigned her? This is clearly the beginning of a series, not necessarily deeply thoughtful but without any painful clunkiness. I’d recommend it mostly to girls of the target middle grade age. Except that Elaine_Alina should read it, maybe to her daughter. Because really, how often does the heroine win the day by studying property law?
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I’m sure I heard about this book when it first came out, but somehow, my library didn’t buy it (I’ve since requested that we do so) and we can’t interloan new books… so I forgot about it, until, once again, Charlotte wrote about the sequel.

The Coming of the DragonThe Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse.

As the book says on the cover, this is a story of Beowulf. Specifically, it’s the story at the end of the epic poem, when Beowulf is an aged king, and a dragon comes and disrupts the peace. At the beginning of the story, we see a baby wash up to shore in a boat with a dead man, formally and properly laid out. Though there is some dissention from those who think the baby an offering who should be left to the gods, the old woman Amma takes and raises him. Fast forward sixteen years, and young Rune, called so for the rune on the necklace he came with, is living in a hut on a farm with Amma, with a foster father and two unkind stepbrothers in a house nearby. In the summers he helps on the farm, while Amma sings him ballads of kings and of Peaceweavers, noblewomen sent to marry into another tribe and make peace between them. Only in the winters is he allowed to join the other town boys in sword training, which of course puts him at a permanent disadvantage. Even though he’s close to the right age, he isn’t one of King Beowulf’s official warriors. One evening on the mountain, chasing after a runaway goat, Rune meets a stranger hiding a gold cup, who recognizes the rune. While Rune is still on the mountain, the dragon makes its first pass, burning farms, people, and even the king’s Golden Hall. Burning with desire to avenge Amma’s death, Rune sets off on his own to slay the dragon. Though he fails, he learns where the dragon’s cave is, and so comes along on the next, official expedition with Beowulf and his best warriors. Can even King Beowulf defeat a beast whose very presence strikes terror into the hearts of the bravest warrior? And (just supposing here that they actually succeed in killing the dragon), Rune might just find that the hardest part comes afterward. A country whose houses and crops have been burned down and which is surrounded by hostile nations isn’t exactly in the clear, even without a dragon.

I’d really like some of my friends who specialize in Viking to read this for their opinion, but from my point of view, this is bang-up historical fantasy. I didn’t notice any jarring anachronisms either in the setting or, as happens even more often, in the main character’s mindset. That can work in some cases – the Jacky Faber books, for example, which are aiming at adventure more than historical accuracy. Still, the kind of attention to detail found here is a joy. There are no potatoes, velvet, spinning wheels, people saying “hello” or believing in their heart of hearts that slavery is wrong and women are oppressed, to name just a few of the anachronisms that I regularly see in historical fiction. (Though Barnhouse, in her notes, says that it isn't entirely accurate, incorporating bits of Anglo-Saxon culture from a few centuries later.) Even though this is fantasy from a modern point of view, it’s a book that feels like it isn’t fantasy from the point of view of people of the same time from our world. They call for help from the gods, and are encouraged when they see ravens or goats with two-color eyes, r animals beloved of their gods. Everyone has lost people they love, due to war or the dragon or other causes, and this also felt realistically dealt with: lots of pain, and yet life has to go on. One of the reviewers on Amazon complained that Rune lacks self-confidence through the whole book: shouldn’t he start believing in himself at some point? And I would say, why should he? He starts the book as one of the unpopular kids, and getting thrown into a position of power doesn’t stop him from realizing that he’s young for what he’s got to do, and any mistakes he makes would have dire consequences. Really, I find this attitude both believable and much easier to get along with in a protagonist than, say, Eragon, whose unearned self-confidence struck me as arrogant.

At the very end of the book, we meet Hild, sent to Rune’s tribe as a Peaceweaver. She is the heroine in her own right of Peaceweaver, which came out this year. I don’t have time to give it a full review, but it starts and ends at the same point as The Coming of the Dragon, and I enjoyed it hugely as well. More, please!

For some reason, the first of these two books was billed as middle grade fiction, and the second as teen – um, thinking about it, probably because Rune doesn’t kill any people himself, while Hild accidentally kills a would-be murderer. Overall, though, no sex, and what felt like similar amounts of violence with thoughtful reflections on the effects and limitations of using weapons for conflict resolution.
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I'm a little late to the blogging party on this one, but it was worth the wait.

Bigger Than a BreadboxBigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder. Our heroine Rebecca is about 14, I think, when her parents’ marriage starts really falling apart. Her father, an unemployed taxi driver and former teacher, has been absorbed in apathy, spending his time on the couch. Her mother, a hospital nurse, loses it in the middle of the week. She packs Rebecca and her little brother Lew, aged two, into the car and drives them from Baltimore to Atlanta to Gran’s house. She tells Rebecca that it’s just a temporary measure until she and Rebecca’s father get things sorted out, but she’s found a job and enrolled Rebecca in school. Rebecca, quite naturally, loves both her parents and would really like them to get back together again. She’s deeply betrayed both by the split and by her mother’s deciding to start a new life for all of them without so much as telling anyone ahead of time. She misses Baltimore and its seagulls as much as she misses her father and her best friend. While not speaking to her mother, she makes her way up to her grandmother’s attic, and it’s there that she finds, among a collection of old breadboxes, one that grants wishes. It takes a little bit to figure this out, of course, and to figure out the rules: she must wish for a tangible object that will fit in the breadbox. First it gives her an old Agatha Christie novel when she wishes for a book, which turns out to be perfect for taking her mind off the situation. But when she starts school and super-popular Hannah is assigned to show her around, it is perfect for giving her the cash and small gifts that will help her become the popular girl she never was at her old school. What Rebecca doesn’t realize at first is that even magic isn’t free. It takes her a while to realize the full truth about the breadbox magic, and even longer to figure out how to make things right again.

All of the major characters in this book come across as fully developed people, including Gran, both of Rebecca’s parents, Rebecca herself, and even two-year-old Lew. I don’t often seek out Issue Books to read, but here, the magic and the Issue blended perfectly together. The story might be more about divorce than it is about magic, but the magic is essential to Rebecca’s journey, not just beautiful icing on a bitter cake. And even if the breadbox isn’t the magic cure for her parents that Rebecca wants it to be, the place she comes to at the end is still a better one than the beginning. The result is a story with depth and charm that I had a very hard time putting down.

Cross-posted to and .
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Giants Beware!Giants Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre. Graphic novels aren’t my favorites for reading aloud, but I was so excited about this one that I read it aloud to my son. (I read about it on Charlotte’s Library as well as PW.) Even the toddler, normally impatient with my reading to Brother instead of her, was captivated by the bright, vivacious drawings. Active Claudette is incensed when she learns that the hero of her small town did not kill the baby-feet eating giant that plagued it in years past. Even though the giant has been banished to the mountains and the city is safely enclosed within walls, she decides that it’s up to her to slay the giant. She’s the kind of kid who makes up her mind first and thinks through the problems second, if at all. Her first task is convincing her best friend, Marie, a would-be princess, and her little brother Gaston, a chef who dreams of being a sword smith, to come along. This she does by telling them that their ambitions will of course be fulfilled if they come along. They must all then get around Claudette and Gaston’s father, Augustine, the local sword-smith, crippled from a fight with a dragon years ago, and his assistant, the massive, wise and black Zubair, whose words about the foolishness of monster fighting go right over Claudette’s head. Their journey leads them through the Forest of Death, over (or perhaps also through) the Mad River, and up into the mountains. Meanwhile, the Baron of the village, Claudette’s father, leads a party of reluctant villagers in pursuit of the children, while Augustine and Zubair take up a more enthusiastic chase, though slowed by Augustine’s wheelchair. Each one of the children finds that their particular skills will be needed to get them out of one scrape or another along the way. By the end, the quest is accomplished, even if the goal has changed along the way. Claudette has also learned important lessons about the usefulness both of force and telling the truth. These are clear without being preachy or getting in the way of the fabulous adventure. Giants Beware! is a great counter-example to the truism that boys will only read about boys – yes, Gaston is a boy, but Claudette is clearly the reckless adventure-seeker here, and her drive kept my boy enthralled. This is going to the top of my list of good all-ages graphic novels to give both to people who love them already and to people (I keep finding them) who aren’t yet convinced that real literature can come in graphic form.


May. 8th, 2012 08:49 pm
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StoryboundStorybound by Marissa Burt. Here is a book that called out to me from the shelf with its beautiful cover. It looked to have many things going for it – a lonely girl sucked into a strange magical world, a world where people study to become characters in books. Yay lonely girls, magic and metafiction! It was fun, but somehow not quite as perfect for me as I was hoping, in ways that I’m still trying to put my finger on.

Una Fairchild has grown up bounced from one uncaring foster home to another, with no real memory of her parents. She is sucked into a book in her library, and arrives as Peter Merriweather and Lady Snow are taking a journey and trying to fight a dragon. Peter is trying to fight the dragon, anyway – Snow is busy taking care of her nails and giving Peter directions. Horrified, Una pulls the dagger that’s now in her belt and leaps into the fray. Unfortunately, it turns out that this was an exam. Peter and Snow are students at the Perrault Academy, learning to be storybook characters. They are allowed to choose from a set list of characters. Here, Peter was testing as a Hero and Snow as a Lady. Una’s well-met interventions have resulted in everyone failing the exam. Somehow, Peter turns out to be friendly despite the failed exam. He determines that Una must be Written In to the story, something that hasn’t happened since the Muses were ostensibly destroyed at the (not too far distant) end of the last era. Una’s fate would be dire if she were found, so she pretends to be a transfer student and is assigned to room with Snow. Meanwhile, she’s trying to figure out just what is going on, and since she’s the curious type, this includes wondering what the true history of Story (the country) is, whether or not the Villainy professor is really a villain, what really happened to the Muses, why all the books are locked up, and if there is a mythic King on the way or not. By the end of these books, many of these questions are still unanswered. It turns out to be the first installment of a series, of the kind where the first book is building up so much complex background that it didn’t for me stand very well on its own. The book ended with two major characters kidnapped and unrescued, and there was a jarring switch in the last couple of chapters from Una partnering with Peter to her partnering with another boy who’d been mysteriously following her around earlier in the book. I liked the basic premise of the book, and the characters seemed solid, but I think that there was too much crammed into one book with too little resolution for me to enjoy it as much as I wanted to. Perhaps the middle grade readers for whom this book was intended will find these flaws less glaring and be able to enjoy it more.
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Young FredleYoung Fredle by Cynthia Voigt. Read by Wendy Carter. Fredle is a young mouse who lives behind the walls of the kitchen of a farm house, also inhabited by Mr. and Mrs., Baby, two dogs and a cat. He and his more adventurous girl cousin, Axel, enjoy pushing the boundaries of the strict mouse rules, talking while foraging and even foraging outside of the normal times. And then they find something new and delicious – a peppermint patty. They both eat themselves sick. Axel is able to run away to wait to get better, but Fredle is pushed out of the nest onto the pantry floor. From there, Mrs. takes him outside, presumed by all the mice to be a death sentence. Getting to this point of the story took long enough that I was surprised at how many discs were left of the audiobook – but this is really just the beginning. Fredle gets better, has an outside mouse bring him food, and discovers the stars and what he thinks are multiple moons. He must learn very quickly how to find food outside and how to stay safe from the outdoor cats as well as raptors, owls, snakes and racoons. Somehow, he makes friends with Sadie, the flightier of the two dogs, and develops an exploratory friendship with a young woodshed mouse who defies her colony’s rules against talking with house mice. He spends what seems like forever searching the perimeter of the house for a way back in, only to be kidnapped by a band of raccoons, the Rowdy Brothers. And when Fredle finally makes his way back home, he finds that he can no longer just go along with the rules that have always been followed, when he can see that doing things differently could save lives.

Many of the Amazon reviews talked about how the message was the importance of Freedom. Which is a nice all-American message, but not really the message that I got out of the book. It is some about freedom, of course – but when Fredle was first dumped on the grass outside, he was perfectly free and absolutely in danger of his life, both from the illness and from not knowing his way around. I think the more important lesson that Fredle learned was about flexibility and adaptation. Rules are fine if they’re really helping to keep you alive and safe, but they need to be re-evaluated regularly to make sure they really are still the best way to do things. Unmentioned in those reviews, but going along with it, is Fredle’s learning to appreciate beauty, not just going through the day trying to find enough to eat and then sleeping the rest of the day away. Many Amazon reviewers also found it slow, and aside from the slowish though not uninteresting beginning that I mentioned earlier, we did not find this to be the case. I listen to audio books in the car with my son daily, and rarely does he complain about the suspense of just having to stop wherever we land when we get to school. This time, he was waiting anxiously to find out what would happen to Fredle, especially as we had to turn it off just as Fredle had been spotted by a snake.

This was a runner-up for the annual ALA Odyssey awards for best audio for youth and teens. It was indeed very pleasant listening, though there are also illustrations in the print version that we didn’t see. This is a good choice for elementary-age kids and would make a good fine family read-aloud.

Cross-posted to and .
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Quick, it's been almost two months since I posted anything about fairy tales!

BreadcrumbsBreadcrumbs by Anne Ursu This is a Snow Queen retelling. I don’t actually like many Hans Christian Anderson stories, but this retelling made me fall in love with the story. Hazel’s been having a rough time lately, what with her parents’ recent divorce and having to leave her beloved school. Still, she’s at least at the same school as her best friend, Jack, whose home life is also less than stellar. Hazel’s creativity and immersion in fantasy worked well at the old school, but she can’t seem to make friends with classmates or teachers at the new school. And then – we know, but neither Hazel nor Jack do – a magic mirror shard pierces Jack’s eye and freezes his heart. One day, he stops talking to Hazel, and the next, he’s gone. Both Jack and Hazel and Hazel and the new friend her mother is trying to get her to make had been making up a story about the impenetrable fortress of a winter snow queen-type person – where would she live? What would her motives be? And then Hazel’s rival for friendship with Jack tells her that he saw Jack climb onto a sled with an odd-looking woman dressed in white and drive off into the woods. Hazel knows that she is the only one who has a chance of rescuing Jack. She sets off into the woods, woefully underprovisioned. As in “Into the Woods”, the woods by her sledding hill turn into the Woods, into which all real and fairy tale characters wander eventually. It’s full of fairy tales characters and conventions, but while she recognizes pieces, the rules are not quite what she knows from her books, and she must use her wits and work hard to keep her goal close to her heart as she journeys.

When I was a lonely child, I hated books that showed children going from isolated to popular over the course of a single book. So unrealistic! One of Hazel’s challenges here, with or without Jack, is to be able to make more friends. She starts out with no friends besides Jack and ends with having one other friend outside of school and one person at school who will talk to her sometimes, an improvement that makes a nice character arc while still feeling realistic. Hazel is adopted from India, but her parents always focused the fact that they wanted her so much they went to the ends of the earth to get her rather than teaching about her Indian heritage. This becomes an issue for Hazel to explore in the woods, though it’s clear that Hazel being Hazel is more important than Hazel being a different skin color than her parents and not knowing her birth mother. Just as important is her getting to an age where having a boy for a best friend is starting to make people giggle and ask if Jack is her boyfriend. Fans of children’s fantasy will enjoy Hazel’s references to the classics, even as she’s part of a story that isn’t quite any of those. Breadcrumbs is a satisfying fantasy story with well-integrated real-world issues and a delightfully determined heroine.
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A Wrinkle in TimeA Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. 2012 year marks the 50th anniversary of one of my all-time favorite books. There was even a whole blog tour about it, to go along with 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition. This has yummy extras, such as a brief bio and memories of L’Engle by her granddaughter, photos, a facsimile of the manuscript for the first chapter with corrections, and L’Engle’s Newbery acceptance speech.

I asked our youth fiction librarian to buy the special edition and went on hold for the CD book (not a new edition). The CD book came in first, and I listened to only a little bit before deciding that it wasn’t for me. It’s narrated by Barbara Caruso, whose narrations of the Anne of Green Gables books I have very much enjoyed. I loved her old-fashioned accent for those books, but even though Wrinkle is somewhat old at this point, one of the things that I love about it is that it feels contemporary. Having the old-fashioned voices took that feeling right out of it. Also, while I freely admit that I can’t create as many character voices as, say, Jim Dale or Katherine Kellgren, it was quite disconcerting to have Meg sound exactly the same as Anne and Charles Wallace speak with the same voice as Davy. My boy is excited to hear the story, too, but I’m not sure that seven is quite old enough to grasp the concepts behind it, and at this point, seeing as I wasn’t enjoying the narration, I might wait until I have time to read it to him myself.

When I was ten, I got into a fierce argument with my best friend about which was better, Wrinkle or A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I had not read the second and third books yet, but loved Wrinkle so much that I wouldn’t believe her that the second two were as good or better. I saw her point when I finally did get around to reading them, though Mari Ness’s thoughts on A Swiftly Tilting Planet felt like unwelcome disillusion, with criticisms of the book that I couldn’t really disagree with, despite having loved it so hard for since childhood. Though Robin McKinley’s Beauty still has to be my most re-read comfort book of all time, I am likely to pick up any of the first three time trilogy books during stressful times.

In case you haven’t read or don’t remember the book, here’s a brief summary of the plot: prickly teenager Meg Murry and her genius kid brother, Charles Wallace, meet up with the popular but surprisingly nice and very smart older boy Calvin in the woods near their property. They also meet with some strange old women who are clearly making a joke of pretending to be witches, but just as clearly really are much more than ordinary humans. These three – Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which (much to Microsoft Word’s chagrin, I am leaving the periods off of the “Mrs”, British-style, as L’Engle intended) – send the three children off to find Mr. Murry, a physicist who went missing while researching the tesseract some years ago. This journey that takes them to many other planets, including ones where the inhabitants are sightless but still have better knowledge of the universe than humans. They see a dark shadow of evil over earth and even more heavily over the planet of Camazotz, where Mr. Murry is being held captive by a disembodied brain called IT. In the end, it’s up to Meg to save the day, Meg who has been used to relying on Charles Wallace for comfort. There’s also a grand mix of theology (implicitly Christian) and science, both real and invented. I love the strong and memorable characters, Meg’s journey to independence and acceptance of herself, and the easy relationship between science and religion, increasingly rare these days. Some people may find the science of the tesseract a little fuzzy, and others say that Charles Wallace’s character could be a little more fleshed out. They may be right, but this is still a book that does so very much well, with a story and characters that stand on their own and give plenty to chew on afterwards. L’Engle’s world is one where the Dark is real and ever-present, filled with the knowledge that fight will be hard and still worth fighting, that love (to say it tritely) makes the world go around. Perhaps most importantly to my adolescent self, it shows an unpopular girl (in other ways rather unlike me) turning out ok and learning to accept herself.

Cross-posted to and .
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Leave It to ChanceLeave It to Chance. Volume 1: Shaman’s Rain. by James Robinson and Paul Smith with Jeromy Cox. “Why aren’t there more Nancy Drew-style books anymore?” the creators of this book asked themselves, and set out to create one. Well, kind of. These people are comics types, so this is a graphic novel. And they seem to like fantasy, too (fine by me.) Chance is the 14-year-old daughter of a famous modern-day magician whose job is protecting the town of Devil’s Echo. She thinks she should be learning to take over the family business, but her father, shattered by the loss of his wife several years back, has decided that only boys should do magic. Refreshingly, Chance’s preferred clothes are pretty gender-neutral, so that even though her gender is central to her motivation, there isn’t a lot of girliness that would turn boys off of reading it. That’s great, because Chance’s adventures are top-notch. She frees a small dragon from being sent to a possibly hostile dimension. Naturally, he escapes, and chasing him down leads her straight into trouble, as well as a cute and powerful sidekick. Chance finds a dead body, perhaps related to the vicious mayoral campaign underway; overhears a gathering of very disgruntled sewer goblins; and decides to try to locate the kidnapped daughter of a local shaman. She teams up with a Hispanic female police officer and a reporter, and ends up solving bunches of interrelated mysteries while always managing to stay just out of danger herself. The art style is clear and vigorous and shows plainly that Devil’s Echo is diverse in the normal human sense in addition to its magical denizens. This is just right for elementary-aged kids looking for straight-up excitement. While there are definitely shady characters, there isn’t any graphic violence and our heroine always manages to squeak out of even the tightest situation without harm. My love brought this home from the library for us, and as it’s out of print, that may be the easiest way to get it in general. There are two more volumes that I haven’t seen, but may yet track down.
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book coverIvy’s Ever After by Dawn Lairamore Princess Ivory, who prefers to go by Ivy, is the unconventional princess of the tiny, rural and isolated kingdom of Ardendale. Her nurse and tutor would like her to settle down and learn how to be a proper princess, of course, but her father – always a bit spacey since Ivy’s mother’s death at her birth – insists that she needs time to be a child. So Ivy explores the countryside, makes friends with the servants, and reads just the exciting books in the library. Then she discovers that it’s the ancient law and tradition that the oldest princesses of Ardendale be locked up on their fourteenth birthdays in a special white tower guarded by a dragon, until a prince can kill the dragon. That prince then gets the hand of the princess and the kingship of Ardendale. (The dragon kingdom gets the assurance that only that one dragon in every human generation will be killed.) Ivy, just a few months shy of fourteen, is horrified at the whole business. Things get even worse when the first contestant prince turns up months before her birthday in a bone ship. Prince Romil is a mighty, power-hungry and cruel second son, except that Ivy is the only one who hears his dastardly schemes. In desperation, Ivy sets out to save the kingdom without the help of the adults she’s always counted on. She befriends the peaceful and bookish dragon guarding the tower, Elridge, and the two of them escape to find Ivy’s missing fairy godmother, Drusilla, in hopes of saving the kingdom. On the way, they encounter trolls, fairies, an enchanted swamp, and a crusty Dragon Queen. This is a delightful romp of a fairy tale, perfectly suited to elementary school-aged kids, probably from about 9 years independently and younger as a read-aloud. I also very much enjoyed the second book of Ivy and Elridge, Ivy and the Meanstalk, which as Charlotte rightly points out, adds thoughts on more serious issues to the adventure. This felt very similar to Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, but for a slightly younger audience. If it were only available on audio, I think the Boy would very much enjoy it.
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book coverThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. This is now my second Valente book, after last year’s Deathless. While this one is definitely intended for children and the other as equally not, I deduce from both of these that Valente likes her fantasy on the dark and wild side. Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making feels a lot like Alice in Wonderland. as our heroine, young September, goes on a journey in a fantastical realm, meeting many interesting characters and places along the way. I never really liked Alice, though – the whole thing felt too random. September’s story was focused and purposeful while still whimsical, a much better fit for me. But to start at the beginning, it feels like World War II in Kansas, as September’s father is off fighting a war and her mother is working in a factory. September, as one would expect, finds her life dull and so follows right along when the Green Wind comes and carries her off to Fairyland. Once in Fairyland, at a crossroads, September is given the choice of losing her life, her way, or her heart, and chooses her heart. As she travels, she hears stories of the former beloved Queen Mallow and the current heartless and bureaucratic Marquess. The first people she meets are a trio of witches, and September promises to try to retrieve the spoon of the witch Goodbye from the Marquess, who in turn gives September an impossible mission to complete to earn it. On the way to the Marquess, September befriends a Wyverary named A through L, offspring of a Wyvern and a Library. Later on, a Marid named Saturday (a boy of September’s age) joins their party after September rescues him. He is dark blue and drawn with African-like features for a supporting character of unconventional color. As you can tell from the title, the book is written in flowery language. It has chapter titles like “The Wyverary: In Which September Is Discovered by a Wyvern, Learns of a Most Distressing Law, and Thinks of Home (but Only Briefly)” and is full of references to other beloved children’s books both new and old. The narrator is given a prominent voice, telling us not only plot pieces that September doesn’t know but also explaining how Fairyland and stories in general work. I found this to be delightful, but my mother reading the book found this voice to be arch and annoying. She also found the book to be too cruel for her to enjoy it as much as she’d hoped, causing me to go back and think about what she might have found to be so cruel. The Wyverary going around with his wings chained up on the Marquess’s command that no one be allowed to fly? September having to give up her shadow to prevent another child from being given to pirates? I’m not exactly sure, but I think that while there is definitely cruelty there, it felt to me like a child-like sort of cruelty. I don’t think that most children old enough to be aware that the world isn’t always rosy would be bothered by it. I quite enjoyed Valente’s Fairyland, even if I wouldn’t want to live there. While many things about the book are based on predictable fairy tale patterns, the journey was delightful and the ending still quite surprising.

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