Archive for February, 2020

Review of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mbalia

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia

Rick Riordan Presents (Disney Hyperion), 2019. 482 pages.
Review written November 13, 2019, from a library book
2019 Cybils Finalist Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
2020 Coretta Scott King Author Honor

Big Kudos to Rick Riordan for recruiting authors from many different ethnicities to write books similar to his own – mythology comes to life, only now the mythology featured is from a different cultural background, which the author is writing from.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky tells about an African American kid who punches an ancient bottle tree in the South and then falls into a world where the characters from the stories his Nana tells are real – and that world is in danger.

It turns out that Tristan has a gift from Anansi of storytelling, and that will be key to saving the mythical characters.

I do love that this book builds off of African American tales. The non-stop danger and adventure will appeal to Rick Riordan’s fans.

I personally wasn’t completely convinced by the world-building and was a little bewildered about how the whole life-or-death crisis got started and how it was to be resolved. I also wasn’t fully present with Tristan’s emotions – I felt like I was told about them more than shown what they would be. But a lot of kids won’t care about details like that, and I will still gladly recommend it to kids who want a rip-roaring adventure in a world where fantasy turns out to be real and kids are needed to save the day.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano

Monday, February 10th, 2020

Love Sugar Magic

A Dash of Trouble

by Anna Meriano

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2018. 310 pages.
Review written January 30, 2018.
2018 Cybils Finalist, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

A Dash of Trouble begins a new series about Leonora Logroños, a sixth-grader who learns that she’s from a family of brujas. The women in her family can do magic, and they can put magic into the things they bake.

But Leo only finds this out by being sneaky. She’s the youngest, and the whole family seems to be keeping secrets from her, working at their Mamá’s bakery during the big festival on the Day of the Dead. She’s tired of everyone leaving her out. She’s not a baby, after all!

And when Leo’s best friend gets her feelings hurt by a boy who lives next door, Leo thinks this is a perfect time to use magic to help the situation.

And that’s where she gets into a dash of trouble.

There were some things that annoyed me about this book – mostly, all of Leo’s sneaking. But when I think about it more, I remember how I subverted the early bedtime my mother tried to impose when I was in sixth grade. (It was No Fair in comparison with how late my two older siblings got to stay up.) So I have to give her some sympathy. Even if I was wanting to shake her at times during the story.

There’s a lot of Spanish language used in the book – the old family recipe book is written in Spanish – but Leo doesn’t speak Spanish, either, so what’s mystifying to me is also mystifying to her. So I think it enhances the book. (Readers who do understand Spanish will enjoy having that edge.)

This is a fun and light-hearted story about Leo finding out she’s got a heritage of magic – but finding out a little earlier than her family intended. The book is labelled “Book One,” so I think Leo’s going to learn more about magic.

harpercollinschildrens.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Penny and Her Sled

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

Penny and Her Sled

by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2019. 56 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 4, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 in Picture Books

Another Penny book by Kevin Henkes! Huzzah! These are all beginning chapter books with plenty of pictures and concerns that mirror those of other young mice or children.

In this one, Penny is waiting for snow because she can’t wait to use her new sled. But – Spoiler Alert! – she waits all winter and it does not come.

Now, there may not be too many parts of the country where this really happens, but I had a special connection to Penny, because the last winter I lived in the Seattle area, when I was five years old, the winter before our family moved to California – it didn’t snow at all except for briefly when I was supposed to be taking a nap but was instead looking out the window at the falling snow that was gone by the time I got to go outside.

You see how it traumatized me?

So I have nothing but sympathy for poor Penny, waiting and waiting for snow!

[Alas! I’m posting this with winter winding down — and this year in the DC area, very little snow has fallen. Would be a great choice here this year.]

Penny finds things to do with her sled while she’s waiting.

And eventually, Mama suggests Penny might wait for snowdrops instead of waiting for snow.

“What if the snowdrops are like the snow?” said Penny. “What if the snowdrops do not come up this year?”

“They will,” said Mama.

“That is what you said about the snow,” said Penny.

Mama was quiet for a moment.

“I remember a few years when it did not snow,” Mama said. “But I do not remember a year without snowdrops.”

I do love how Penny responds when the snowdrops finally do come up. She makes sure that her sled is involved.

This is great for beginning readers. There are five chapters and pictures on every page. And it talks about a universal concern – waiting.

KevinHenkes.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Lost Girl, by Anne Ursu

Saturday, February 8th, 2020

The Lost Girl

by Anne Ursu

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2019. 356 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 22, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Children’s Fiction

The Lost Girl is about identical twins, Lark and Iris, and the story is told from Iris’s perspective. She’s always taken care of her sister, and they can tap messages to each other in a secret code. But now as they’re starting fifth grade, their parents are letting them be assigned to different classes.

The girls are identical but not the same.

Lark always knew when their parents had been arguing. Lark could tell you what the consequences for stealing were in different fairy tales, and that the best bad guys had interesting backstories. Lark always knew which books she wanted to check out from the library next.

No, they were not the same. But Iris always knew when Lark was feeling too anxious to speak in class, and Lark always knew when Iris’s anger was getting the better of her. Iris always knew when Lark was too busy daydreaming to pay attention, and Lark always knew when Iris was too reliant on finding order when things were in chaos. Iris talked for Lark. Lark talked down Iris.

This is the way it was.

No, they were not the same. But yes, they were twin sisters, and for Iris and Lark that meant something, something far deeper than what lay at the surface. They each knew the monsters that haunted the shadowy parts of the other’s mind, and they knew how to fight those monsters.

The school year does not get off to a good start with the girls having to be in different classes. Lark gets laughed at, and she’s in the class with the bully. Iris doesn’t even know who she is without Lark to defend. After school, Lark goes to art class, and Iris gets tricked into going to an all-girl group at the library called Camp Awesome.

After Camp Awesome is done, Lark is supposed to bike home, but sometimes she talks to the strange man at the new antiques store with an unusual sign in front. He puts simple science experiments out on the shop counter, and he says that they are magic. He’s looking for someone named Alice. He lets Iris look at books in his shop, and she finds one with Alice’s writing in it, saying things like “Magic has a cost.”

As the book goes on, Iris feels like she’s losing herself. Who is she without Lark? She starts keeping secrets from Lark. She doesn’t mean to. But maybe Lark is better off without her. What is going on?

This is a story of a sign and a store. Of a key. Of crows and shiny things. Of magic. Of bad decisions made from good intentions. Of bad guys with bad intentions. Of collective nouns, fairy tales, and backstories.

But most of all this is a story of the two sisters, and what they did when the monsters really came.

This is a story about the power of having a flock.

anneursu.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Can You Hear the Trees Talking? by Peter Wohlleben

Friday, February 7th, 2020

Can You Hear the Trees Talking?

Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest

by Peter Wohlleben

Greystone Kids, 2019. Originally published in German in 2017. 80 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 31, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-outs: #4 in Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

This book says it’s a Young Readers’ Edition of the New York Times Bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees — a book I had checked out for a very long time intending to read, but never did. The Young Readers’ Edition with great big photographs and bite-sized facts in large print on each page – that was irresistible. I couldn’t help but read it! I opened it up to leaf through it, intending to only look at the pictures, and some fact would capture my attention.

Within the seven chapters, which all have a large and beautiful photograph on an introductory page, each spread has a page heading that’s a question. We begin with basics like “How Do Trees Breathe?” “How Do Trees Drink?” and “Why Don’t Trees Fall Over?” and progress to questions such as “Can Forests Make It Rain?” “What Are Trees Afraid Of?” “How Do Trees Know When It’s Spring?” “Do Trees Sleep at Night?” and “Why Do Trees Shed Their Leaves in Fall?”

While I was reading this book, I found myself sharing random facts with my coworkers. Did you know that trees sleep at night – and that when lights are on all night, nearby trees don’t live as long? Did you know that young trees don’t need to drop their leaves because their trunks are so flexible, they can spring back if snow weighs them down? Did you know that trees can communicate with one another through fungi in the soil? They can warn neighbors about insect attacks (so they produce chemicals to repel them) and they can even give sugar to a neighbor who needs it.

It’s all super fascinating and so attractively presented! Maybe I’ll finally read the adult version – but I wish it had the glorious full-color photos of this book!

greystonebooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Homerooms & Hall Passes, by Tom O’Donnell

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Homerooms & Hall Passes

by Tom O’Donnell

Balzer & Bray (HarperCollins), 2019. 337 pages.
Starred Review
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 Children’s Fiction
2019 Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

This book is a whole lot of fun, standing the idea of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games on its head.

As the book opens, we meet a band of young adventurers – Thromdurr, a barbarian; Sorrowshade, a gloom elf; Vela the Valiant, a paladin; and Devis, a thief. They are scouring a dark and dismal dungeon for treasure and uncover an ancient evil, which they must defeat. Then the scene flashes back to Albiorix, an apprentice wizard, who is eagerly looking forward to his friends’ return, when they will play their weekly role-playing game, Homerooms & Hall Passes.

Welcome to Homerooms & Hall Passes, the role-playing game of nonadventure! With this book (and a set of dice), you and your friends will unlock a strange new world of routine and boredom set in the fictional realm of Suburbia. Imagine, if you will, a place without monsters, magic, treasure, elves, quests, or even, to be perfectly honest, much excitement at all. This place is called middle school.

Albiorix is an avid Hall Master, with a pile of manuals explaining all aspects of the game.

The module he was currently running was called The Semester of Stultification. In tonight’s game, the players would face a daunting series of challenges: a grueling five-paragraph essay dumped on their characters right at the beginning of JADMS Spirit Week. Not to mention an upcoming earth sciences quiz, a concert band recital, a class election, and a big algebra test. To rise to these challenges would take skill, cunning, impeccable time management, and of course a few lucky rolls of the dice. Albiorix chuckled maniacally to himself.

Well, after defeating an evil sorcerer in the dungeon, Devis came back with some cursed treasure. When Albiorix translates the inscription aloud, a curse takes hold – and they are all transported into the game. Can our adventurers actually handle middle school?

They appear in Suburbia with their characters’ names and families – but unfortunately they didn’t magically get the skills of their characters. If they fail or get expelled, they’re out of the game. And that’s a challenge more daunting than any dungeon.

It’s all full of humor as our characters reflect on how different middle school is from “the real world.” I like the way they need help in all their classes – but dazzle everyone in gym class. And I laughed out loud when the gloom elf falls under the sway of the popular girls’ clique.

Our heroes do have some resources ordinary middle school students don’t. But things become much more complicated when an evil part of the “real world” shows up at school.

tomisokay.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller, by Kate Read

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

One Fox

A Counting Book Thriller

by Kate Read

Peachtree, 2019. 32 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 9, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 in Picture Books

I always enjoy counting books. Nothing helps a kid learn numbers better. But it’s nice when the book adds a little something to make it more interesting than just the numbers. This “Counting Book Thriller” actually tells an exciting story.

It’s all simple – and will give little ones so much to talk about to tell the adult reader about all the subtext. You can even think of this as a wordless picture book – with numbers, though there are a few words. But the story is in the pictures.

The first numbers are:

One famished fox

Two sly eyes

Three plump hens

Four padding paws

Five snug eggs

Oh, but the pictures! There’s nothing routine about them.

I’m going to save this book for a preschool storytime. You want the kids to be interested in the counting and also be able to infer what the famished fox wants with those plump hens.

There is a surprise ending, and a note at the book reassures us: “No hens or foxes were harmed in the making of this book.”

kateread.co.uk
peachtree-online.com

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Review of The Potter’s Boy, by Tony Mitton

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

The Potter’s Boy

by Tony Mitton

David Fickling Books, 2019. First published in the United Kingdom in 2017. 246 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 16, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 Children’s Fiction

The Potter’s Boy surprised me by its loveliness and its wisdom. I read it quickly, trying to decide before the deadline which book to nominate for a Cybils Award, and ended up wishing I’d had time to slowly absorb its contents and pull out wise quotations from it.

There’s a dragon on the cover, but I’m not quite sure it’s a fantasy book. There is an episode with a dragon, but that part may well be a dream or vision. Most of the book is a roughly historical tale set in a country similar to ancient Japan.

Ryo, our hero, is the son of a potter who loves his work, and Ryo is apprenticed to him. But one day, brigands attack their village, and a traveler defeats and confounds the brigands. Ryo asks the traveler to teach him to fight like that. The traveler tells him to wait a year, until he is thirteen, and then to seek the Hermit on Cold Mountain.

The book tells the story of Ryo’s journey when he does, in fact, go to the Hermit on Cold Mountain to be trained. So it’s an educating-a-young-person story, but this one takes some surprising turns.

All along the way, Ryo is trained in mindfulness and even nonviolence (which seems surprising for a fighter). It isn’t identified as Buddhism until the author’s note in the back, though some Japanese terms are used in the teaching.

But it’s all so lovely. A compelling story of a young person’s journey and coming of age – but also full of wisdom.

Just a warning — there is a terrible tragedy in the second half of the book. How Ryo deals with that tragedy is where this becomes not a typical fantasy tale. But please don’t expect all sweetness and light.

There were plenty of wise quotations in this book, and here’s an example:

The important thing is to live and to love, and, if possible, where possible, to make something good from time to time. It may be something you can see and touch and hold on to, like a pot or a fine garment or a painting. Or it may be something more ephemeral, such as good food, which is made and gone in a short space of time. Or it may simply be the art the skill, the knack, of making people happy, or cheerful or at their ease.

It does not matter so much what it turns out to be, but I urge you, if you are reading this, whoever you are, to ask yourself, “What do I make or do that is good, that brings beauty, pleasure, or happiness into the world?” And if you can find no answer to that, seek inside yourself to find the seed, the grain, of something that might fulfill that purpose. We cannot all be great artists or musicians, scientists or storytellers. We cannot reckon to be the best at what we do. But we can, each one of us, look inside ourselves to find a leaning, a direction, that suggests to us how we might make something of worth, while we are here. Is this not true?

An uplifting story of finding one’s calling.

scholastic.com

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Review of The Toll, by Neal Shusterman

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

The Toll

Arc of a Scythe, Book 3

by Neal Shusterman

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019. 625 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 5, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 in Teen Fiction

I should not have checked this book out and taken it home when I was supposed to be reading Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for the Cybils Awards. But how could I possibly resist? Still… 625 pages! I could have read three middle grade books in the time it took to read this.

And I didn’t read it all at once. I used a couple of chapters of this book as a reward for doing my other reading, which actually worked surprisingly well – by this time in the series, the author had several threads going at once, so there were logical places to pause my reading.

Yes, you need to read this trilogy in order. Definitely. And I don’t want to give much away about the earth-shaking way Book 2 ended.

Amazingly, Neal Shusterman brought all the threads and all the characters to a satisfying conclusion. I was surprised how well he pulled it off.

This third book’s title character is the Toll – a prophet who’s arisen among the Tonist religion, the only one the Thunderhead will talk to, because the whole world is Unsavory. But there’s a lot going on beyond that – power has been seized by ruthless people. Scythes are supposed to kill a small percentage of people to keep the earth from becoming overpopulated. But they aren’t supposed to enjoy it.

Can the surviving main characters we’ve come to care about in this series do anything about the seizure of power by those who are evil? Can the Thunderhead do anything, despite the separation of scythe and state?

I am still amazed that Neal Shusterman was able to come up with satisfying affirmative answers to those questions.

This series makes you look at life and mortality and the human race with new eyes.

storyman.com
simonandschuster.com/teen

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Review of The Dark Lord Clementine, by Sarah Jean Horwitz

Saturday, February 1st, 2020

The Dark Lord Clementine

by Sarah Jean Horwitz

Algonquin Young Readers, 2019. 332 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 7, 2019, from a library book
2019 Cybils Finalist Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 in Children’s Fiction

Clementine’s father is under a curse. Slowly, he is turning into a wooden puppet, and parts of him are being whittled away as he gets smaller and smaller. But he won’t tell Clementine what happened. Instead, he shuts himself in his study with books about witches, and Clementine is left to run the castle, and even to come up with a Dastardly Deed for the Council of Evil Overlords.

Clementine’s father is the Dark Lord Morcerous, and their family has been the evil lords of these mountains for generations. But as her father’s wards begin weakening, Clementine has to start dealing with the local hedgewitches and people of the village.

Clementine doesn’t know how to fix a fence to keep the fire-breathing chickens from harming the ordinary chickens. She needs help feeding the nightmares and harvesting the poison apples, but the animated scarecrows are slowing down as her father gets whittled away. So Clementine needs some help.

She finds a huntress to help with farm work, and then some village boys who want to learn to be knights. It’s all working toward an encounter with the Whittle Witch, but Clementine learns many things about herself along the way.

Here’s a scene when Clementine notices something is wrong:

Clementine stared at the scarecrow. Not once, in all the years she’d spent watching the animated scarecrows at work, had one ever stopped in the middle of a task. In fact, sometimes they were a little too enthusiastic in their work. They had to be given specific instructions, like exactly when to start and stop, or they were liable to turn the same pile of hay over and over again for days on end, or trim the grass in the castle courtyard until there was nothing left but dirt.

Like many things on the farm, the scarecrows were animated by her father’s magic – a complex combination of spells and wards and willpower that kept their estate secure, productive, and most importantly, operating according to the Dark Lord’s express rules and wishes. Nonhuman farmhands would never show up late, or demand vacation time or dental insurance, or even tire. The Dark Lord’s estate hadn’t employed any actual people – with the exception of their castle cook and Clementine’s ever-rotating cast of ill-fated governesses – for decades, at least since her father had inherited the title. Why bother with human workers when the alternative was so much simpler and efficient?

But Clementine had never seen Ethel the cook or any of her governesses simply stop like this, every limb frozen in place. this scarecrow wouldn’t have looked out of place in an actual cornfield – and what use would the Morcerouses have for it then?

Despite being about a Dark Lord, I loved the good-heartedness of this book. There’s a problem – Clementine has to keep things going as her father succumbs to a curse, and there are plot twists and revelations along the way. We thoroughly enjoy getting to know Clementine as we go through these things with her.

sarahjeanhorwitz.com
AlgonquinYoungReaders.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?