Review of Girl, Serpent, Thorn, by Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn

by Melissa Bashardoust
read by Nikki Massoud

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2020. 10 hours, 6 minutes.
Review written December 12, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a modern fairy tale rooted in Persian folklore. The story is told from the perspective of Soraya, twin sister to the young shah, but who is kept hidden from all outsiders. She has been cursed to be poisonous to the touch. If anyone touches her, they die instantly. She is even deadly to insects. So she travels the palace in secret passageways and wears gloves at all times.

But then she meets a young man who’s not afraid of her. When she finds out a way she may be able to remove her curse, he is willing to help her. There’s a little problem, though – She would have to put out the royal fire that protects her family.

I thought most of the book would be about Soraya trying to lift her curse, but it turns out there’s a lot more that happens, because there are consequences.

The narrator brought the story to life with her lilting accent.

I did enjoy this tale, and loved the Persian flavor. The story was a little convoluted for me – I didn’t completely buy Soraya’s motivations at every point. And there seemed to be coincidences at others. And I wondered at how easily she found out a couple of things – like how to discover an old criminal in hiding, long ago condemned to die.

But the concept – a princess who had been cursed to be poisonous, wondering if that makes her a monster – that concept was worth building a fairy tale around.

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Review of The Last Mapmaker, by Christina Soontornvat

The Last Mapmaker

by Christina Soontornvat

Candlewick Press, 2022. 355 pages.
Review written July 24, 2022, from my own copy, picked up at ALA Annual conference and signed by the author.
Starred Review

This book is wonderful! It took me on a voyage to enchanted lands, complete with danger, friendship, treachery, and self-examination.

The book begins with twelve-year-old Sai, who has been pretending to be from a good family lineage so she can serve her Assistant year with the old master mapmaker. She doesn’t know how she’ll hide it when she turns thirteen and should receive her lineal — a chain of gold links with one link for every generation of distinguished ancestors.

But then the Queen announces a contest, now that the island is at peace, to map the distant regions of the globe. Sai’s master is going, and he needs her to use her steady hands to get his observations on paper.

But after the voyage departs, Sai learns that they are looking for the Sunderlands — a vast southern continent thought to be mythical. But Sai also learns that there are consequences to “discovery,” that it often doesn’t work out well for those who are “discovered.” Yet if they succeed in mapping the Sunderlands, she can stop hiding her heritage.

Meanwhile, Sai helps a stowaway and makes friends on the voyage — but needs to figure out who she can trust. Storms at sea and mythical creatures add to the adventure. Yes, there are some coincidences in the plot, but they were easy to forgive because I was enjoying the story so much.

A magical tale of discovery, both of the world and in Sai herself.

Here’s a taste of Christina Soontornvat’s beautiful prose:

Paiyoon was the last mapmaker of his kind still working in An Lung. He used old-fashioned mapmaking techniques, drawing coastlines as intricate as a lace collar. This meant that he worked slowly, but in the end, each map was exquisite enough to hang in a museum.

Some people in An Lung said, That man would draw the pebbles on the beach if he had a pen fine enough. Others said, The spirits must have blessed him with the gift of far sight. And still others said (in frightened whispers), Stay away from that old Paiyoon. Everyone knows he sold his soul to a demon in exchange for his mapmaking talent. I liked that one best.

candlewick.com

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Review of The Iron Will of Genie Lo, by F. C. Yee

The Iron Will of Genie Lo

by F. C. Yee

Amulet Books (Abrams), 2020. 293 pages.
Review written December 15, 2020, from a library book

The Iron Will of Genie Lo is very much like a Rick Riordan book for teens, dealing with Chinese mythology, rather than Greek mythology. I hadn’t read the first book, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, but I never felt lost. Since this is the second book, the reader doesn’t have to learn along with Genie that she’s the reincarnation of the Riyu Jingu Bang, the legendary weapon of the Monkey King. She already knows about her powers of shrinking or growing, her healing abilities, and her fist made of impenetrable metal. The Monkey King himself is actually her boyfriend, Quentin.

In this book she’s already the guardian of the Kingdom of California – and a bunch of demons who have been confined there. But a new threat appears to the universe and all of existence, a threat that frightens even a guardian dragon. Genie and some gods and goddesses, some of whom she thought of as enemies, must travel to a different plane to attempt to save the universe.

What makes this for teens rather than the kids of Rick Riordan’s audience is that there’s more kissing and relationship issues. Genie and Quentin are fighting for most of the book. Also, Genie has some college choices to make. She visits a college on a long weekend and ends up getting pulled into a raucous college party. It’s unfortunate that then a bunch of demons show up, fleeing a power that frightens even them.

This book ended up being a lot of fun and perfect for high school students who still want to read about modern day teens hanging out with gods and goddesses and saving the universe.

fcyee.com
amuletbooks.com
piquebeyond.com

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Review of Anya and the Dragon, by Sofiya Pasternack

Anya and the Dragon

by Sofiya Pasternack

Versify (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2019. 394 pages.
Review written May 19, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sidney Taylor Book Award Honor, Middle Grade

Anya and her family live in a village in Russia during the time of the tsars. Their family is Jewish, and they’re trying to blend in. But Anya’s papa has been sent to fight in the wars, and the magistrate says that doesn’t give them relief from taxes because they’re Jews, so they’re likely to lose their house.

Meanwhile, magic has been forbidden by the tsar, but everyone in the village quietly uses magic anyway – except for Anya, who hopes she will discover that she has magic at the time of her bat mizvah.

When the tsar’s fool and his family come to their village, the youngest son, Ivan, makes friends with Anya. His father tells Anya that they have come to capture the local dragon and take it to the tsar. He will pay Anya to help them find it, which could solve all their problems.

Is there a dragon in their village? And if Anya hands him over, would she be responsible for his death? Meanwhile, a foreigner has come to the village who is also looking for the dragon. And he’s strong and magical and determined not to let anyone stand in his way.

Based on the title, readers won’t be surprised when Anya does meet a dragon. But there are many surprises about what the dragon is like.

I like the way this book takes a simple fantasy tale about a magical creature and weaves in thoughts about right and wrong and doing good as Anya is getting ready for her bat mizvah.

I also like Anya’s courage, persistence and cleverness as she faces many dangerous mythical creatures as well as a supernaturally strong man who wants to kill her. This story has adventure and danger as well as humorous, kind, and loving characters.

hmhbooks.com

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Review of The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle

The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle

by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale

illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Candlewick Press, 2019. 90 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 9, 2019, from a library book

I love the Princess in Black! These are simple chapter books with lots of pictures. They include fun stories about princesses who disguise themselves as heroes who fight monsters – and one goat boy who disguises himself as the Goat Avenger. They are rewarding for beginning readers and a whole lot of fun.

In this latest installment, the foe is a horrible stinky smell. How do you fight a smell?

As the Princess in Black and the Goat Avenger manage to blow the stink away, it goes into other kingdoms, so other heroes come and investigate. But that’s a good thing. When they discover that the source of all the trouble is a super-stinky monster, the stink is so bad, it takes all the heroes working together to clean up the stink.

I like the way Shannon Hale and Dean Hale use some of the same elements in each book – but add something new every time. In this book, the battle is about bathtime. And I love that all the heroes get to take part.

This book encourages the reader to think what kind of hero they can be.

candlewick.com

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Review of Spark, by Sarah Beth Durst

Spark

by Sarah Beth Durst

Clarion Books, 2019. 311 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a fun fantasy about a quiet girl who tends to get overlooked. She’s one of the lucky few children who gets an egg of a storm beast to bond with and she expects to hatch a rain beast or sun beast like her father or older brother.

Everyone is surprised when her egg hatches the flashiest beast of all – a lightning beast!

Her family is convinced some sort of mistake happened. Mina knows that bonding with Pixit is not a mistake, but she still doesn’t feel adequate as the guardian of a lightning beast.

This book, like so many others, is about a 12-year-old going to school to learn magic, but this setting with dragon-like storm beasts is innovative and interesting. And there’s more. The storm beasts control the weather in their country of Alorria. But when Mina has an accident and lands outside the border, she learns that their control of the weather may have repercussions. But what can a 12-year-old girl do about that? Especially one who isn’t even sure she’s cut out to be the guardian of a lightning beast.

This is not a story about a quiet girl learning to be loud. It is the story of a quiet girl learning that being herself has power.

sarahbethdurst.com

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Review of A Comb of Wishes, by Lisa Stringfellow

A Comb of Wishes

by Lisa Stringfellow
read by Bahni Turpin

Quill Tree Books, February 2022. 5 hours, 32 minutes.
Review written July 23, 2022, based on a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Oh, this story was wonderful, and the audiobook version adds the perfect touch of atmosphere to pull me into its spell.

Set on the Caribbean island of St. Rita, Bahni Turpin used appropriate accents for the characters, but my favorite was hearing her say “Crick! Crack!” at the start and end of the chapters about the Sea Woman, as a storyteller on the island would do.

In the chapters set in our world, we see a girl named Kela whose mother died three months earlier in a car accident, whom Kela is still deeply grieving.

So when a magical comb seems to call to her in a sea cave, and Kela learns she can use it to get a wish, it’s no surprise what she would wish for. Of course there are consequences. Especially when adults get wind of the comb, and she can’t give it back to the sea as she had promised.

I loved the way this story is woven. Normally, I’d see all the drawbacks of magic messing with something so major — but the story itself brought those to the front, and I could believe the way it played out. The depiction of the island and the sea people added to the beauty of the story.

I loved the way Kela made jewelry with sea glass — something humans had thrown into the sea so she was allowed to remove — and the common name for them of mermaid’s tears.

This tale features a Black girl in the starring role, and people of all backgrounds will be enchanted.

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Review of The Chupacabras of the Río Grande

The Unicorn Rescue Society

The Chupacabras of the Río Grande

by Adam Gidwitz and David Bowles
illustrated by Hatem Aly

Dutton Children’s Books, 2019. 202 pages.
Review written November 13, 2019, from a library book

This is the fourth book in The Unicorn Rescue Society series about some kids and a very eccentric professor helping out mythical creatures. I have read the first book, but not any others before this one, and I don’t think that hurt my understanding of this one any, so it is the sort of series that you can jump in where you are.

In this case, there’s a chupacabras on the loose – a mythical creature that sucks blood from goats. Usually, they don’t kill their victims, simply taking a drink while the victim sleeps, but a small calf has been killed, with all its blood drained, and Professor Fauna wants to take a look, bringing Uchenna and Elliot along, of course.

The adventure is light-hearted and has some silly jokes, with the inevitable bad guy trying to beat them to the magical creature adding some tension. It’s not designed to be a child’s first chapter book, but neither is it far advanced, and has short chapters and plenty of pictures.

I did like the way this light-hearted fantasy adventure ended up overlapping with a serious political issue. The creation of a border wall and border fences disrupt territories for wildlife – and that turns out to be a problem for mythical wildlife, too.

I also like that the publisher took the issue seriously and treated the people of the region so respectfully that they put David Bowles on the authorial team. I loved what David Bowles said at the back of the book about that, so I’m going to include it here:

Writing about the border brings me a lot of joy, but also some worry. This is my community, full of my people – relatives and friends on both sides of the river. Our lives overflow with two cultures, two languages, two national identities. Trust me. You’d love it here.

But it’s easy for people to misunderstand what they’re not familiar with, so this book had to be not just about an amazing adventure in South Texas, but also about how easy it is for outsiders to get the wrong impression of my community. Heck, even those of us living down here don’t always agree about how this side of the border and that one fit together.

We couldn’t just pretend that some people aren’t nervous about the border. We also couldn’t ignore the fact that many border folks don’t like the choices the government is making.

So Adam and I decided to include that disagreement in the book. We know people who feel both ways about the barrier that’s been going up along the border in bits and pieces for years now. It was important to get a good look at those two sides without assuming that either group wants to hurt anyone.

As a Mexican American, I also wanted to make sure that the bilingual and bicultural nature of my people came through loud and clear. I am proud of my heritage, my roots along either bank of the Río Grande. And that also meant taking the chupacabras — pretty recent cryptids in the long history of creepy creatures in South Texas – and finding where they fit into the larger indigenous mythology of our ancestors.

I can only hope that the low whistling I hear drifting over the water as I write these words is a sign of their approval.

I, for one, approve of the care taken in a light-hearted fantasy chapter book. All the more reason for me to recommend this series.

UnicornRescueSociety.com
penguinrandomhouse.com

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Review of Here We Come! by Janna Matthies and Christine Davenier

Here We Come!

written by Janna Matthies
illustrated by Christine Davenier

Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), 2022. 40 pages.
Review written May 26, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Okay, I just recently got news that I landed my dream job of Youth Materials Selector for my library system — and this is the first picture book I’ve read since that news that makes me sad I’ll no longer be doing storytimes. (I anticipate lots of picture books like that in the future.) However, the good news is that I have one last storytime next week, and this book is going to be featured. *Update* – the day I’m posting this is the same day I did my last storytime ever – and used this book.

Here We Come! has the kind of rhythm and rhymes that beg to be read aloud. The illustrations portray a joyful fantasy parade at night.

It starts with a boy heading out the door on a moonlit night playing a musical pipe with his teddy bear marching behind him.

The only line on that first spread is:

Here we come with a rum-pum-pum

When we turn the page, we see a dog peeking out of its doghouse with the teddy bear beckoning. The caption is:

Wanna come?

From there, we’ve got a parade and a cumulative rhyme going. Next is “a pick and a strum.” Then “Little Lu on her thumb with a swish-swish bum.” And so on. After each new line is added, we see another creature ready to join and the question, “Wanna come?”

The action is reminiscent of the classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, because we do have something that prompts the group to run back home — in this case, it’s rain and thunder. But instead of going right to bed, there’s a nice meditative bit at the end that continues to rhyme and finishes up with “Here we come!”

This book is almost impossible to read silently as the rollicking rhymes bring out the joyful exuberance of the illustrations. Although I’m going to use it in Baby Storytime, I think the ideal audience would be toddlers, who would surely start marching around the room. Check it out and read it with a child.

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Review of The Ogress and the Orphans, by Kelly Barnhill

The Ogress and the Orphans

by Kelly Barnhill

Algonquin Young Readers, 2022. 392 pages.
Review written May 3, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is by the Newbery-winning author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I think I actually liked The Ogress and the Orphans even better.

This is an old-fashioned fantasy tale, with just a touch of magic here and there and fantasy characters like an ogress and a dragon. We learn about the village of Stone-in-the-Glen, which used to be a lovely place. But since the library burned down, things haven’t been the same. After that the school burned down, and a sinkhole opened up at the park, and people started to keep to themselves. An ogress lives on the edge of town, an ogress who likes to make delicious treats for the townsfolk to leave on their doorsteps at night. There’s also an Orphan House in the village, where fifteen orphans live. The town used to provide money for the Orphan House, but it’s been a while since anything has come in. Another important person in the story is the mayor.

The town of Stone-in-the-Glen had a mayor, and everyone loved him very much. How could they not? He cut a fine figure and had a blinding shock of blond hair and a smile so bright they had to shade their eyes. He glittered when he spoke. He was well mannered and seemed so sensible. When people went to him with their problems, well, they came away feeling so fine that they completely forgot what had vexed them in the first place. And isn’t that, really, what a mayor is for?

The fifteen orphans are delightful characters. Their names are alphabetical, with the oldest being Anthea, then Bartleby, then Cass, so you can keep them straight. The Orphan House is run by Matron and her husband Myron, and the children all help look after one another. Some of the books from the old library got transferred to the Reading Room of the Orphan House, and some of the orphans have learned surprising things, such as how to speak Crow.

There’s a lot of setting the stage, but tension builds when the people in town decide the ogress must be at fault for a recent problem. It’s up to the orphans to save the day and set things to rights while they’re at it.

When I finished this book, I had a big smile on my face. My only complaint was that it took a very long time to actually finish it. It seems long for a simple story suitable for young readers.

However, I think this book would be truly perfect for a read-aloud. It would be wonderful for classroom after-lunch reading sessions or nightly bedtime stories. And it would work for a wide range of ages. In that case, the length would be a feature — all the more reading sessions! The chapters are short, so you could decide how many to cover each night with lots of flexibility. The voice of the narrator is a storyteller’s voice, and I find myself wishing I had a child to read it to myself.

kellybarnhill.com
AlgonquinYoungReaders.com

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