by Morgan Reeves on February 29th, 2016
Diversity in middle grade fantasy is hard to come by, particularly high fantasy featuring dragons, goblins, princesses, and kings. The Goblin’s Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton provides all of these, as well as a good dose of humor and plenty of logic puzzles.
A dark-skinned slave boy with no name finds himself suddenly free, and for the first time in his life able to choose how to live his life. His choice to free a similarly enslaved goblin may provide him with more adventure than he bargained for, as goblins are notoriously tricky creatures. When the goblin tells him that it was not the boy’s fate to be a slave, he sets off to find his true destiny. With the goblin in tow, he learns many things along they way, including how to catch bats with a sling.
At the same time, a dragon has kidnapped Plain Alice, a case of mistaken identity, as he meant to capture Princess Alice. As the dragon goes off to rectify his mistake, Plain Alice begins doing what she does best, thinking. The soon-to-be-captured Princess Alice is at the center of a royal mess, as her father is trying to make her his heir to skip over the obviously evil Duke Geoffrey. To pay for the costly process, Princess Alice is to be married to a suitably wealthy person, to be decided upon by everyone but Princess Alice. All of these plans go literally out the window when Princess Alice is captured by the dragon. If ever there was a need for a nameless hero in search of his destiny, it is here in the Kingdom of West Stanhope.
The boy volunteers to rescue both Alices, though finds he needs their help just as often as they need his. The multiple threads of the story are finally and carefully woven together in a rooftop duel, a royal declaration, and one last trick from the goblin. In another rarity in recent middle grade fantasy, the story ends without a cliff-hanger to lead us to a sequel. Final word: A fantastic, thought-provoking, stand-alone fantasy adventure.
by Morgan Reeves on November 23rd, 2015
A couple of people told me I had to read Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate. Now I have to add my own recommendation, please read this book. This story made a huge impact on me in just a few hours (because that’s all it took to finish this page turner). Ostensibly, a middle grade novel, it brings hard issues front and center in a way that people of all ages can relate to. Poverty and homelessness are not issues often featured in middle grade fiction, but Applegate portrays them masterfully here. A father with a crippling disease too proud to ask for help. A mother underemployed after being laid off. A boy trying to cope. A little sister to be protected from the truth. A true friend. And one imaginary cat named Crenshaw.
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by Morgan Reeves on February 20th, 2015
Moments ago I finished reading Pennyroyal Academy by M. A. Larson. I’ve been reading it on the bus, before bed, while I cook, and even on my walk home. It has been my constant companion since I first became enthralled by the girl with no name and her encounter with a witch and enchanted forest. After running into Remington, a knight-to-be, she soon finds her way to Pennyroyal Academy, where Princesses of the Shield are trained to fight witches. Here anyone can become a princess, if only they train hard enough and learn well enough. Given a diagnosis of suffering from a memory curse, the girl is also give a name, Cadet Eleven or Evie for short. With only a dragon scale and clothes of cobwebs as hints to her past, she feels a bit out of place. However, she soon befriends other outcast girls, though she does have trouble with a sour princess-in-training, aptly named Malora. Learning the history of princesses, navigating warrior training with a Fairy Drillsergeant, and even sewing lessons with the master tailor troll offer challenges Evie must find the strength to overcome. Twists and turns throughout the story left me guessing (and sometimes peeking to the last chapter). By discovering the truth of her memories and family, Evie is finally free to be herself. A slight undercurrent of romance between Evie and Remington satisfies without overpowering the main story of a girl deciding for herself who she is and what she wants to be. Cheeky nods to classic fairy tales round out this world of witches, princesses, dragons and knights. Pick up this story of self-discovery and adventure for a dose of princess power.
by Vickie Pasicznyuk on February 3rd, 2015
On Monday, February 2, the American Library Association (ALA) announced the 2015 Newbery and Caldecott award winners. These books have won the most prestigious prizes in children’s literature.
John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander–Twin brothers Josh and Jordan are basketball stars and great friends, until a girl gets in the way. A middle grade story of brotherhood and basketball told in a variety of poetic styles.
Newbery Honor Books: El Deafo by Cece Bell and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, written and illustrated by Dan Santat–An imaginary friend sets out on a journey to find a real child to befriend.
Caldecott Honor Books: Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo, The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPre, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet, and This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.
For other award winners, see the full list.
by Morgan Reeves on November 29th, 2014
Two dads, four boys, one dog, one cat, and one invisible cheetah. The Family Fletcher is preparing for a new school year, the first school year where all four of the very different boys will be in school. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Levy follows this unique, and at the same time totally normal, family throughout the year as they deal with their individual problems. Twelve year-old Sam is a soccer player, a cool kid looked up to as the example for his younger brothers. Can he transfer his talent for storytelling into a part in the school play, and more importantly still be cool? 10 year-old Jax thinks Sam is the coolest, and wants to be accepted as part of the same crowd, now that he’s in the same school building. But with a changing friendship and a school project hanging over his head, Jax might end up more behind than ever. Eli, also 10 (but a couple of months younger), is starting a new, expensive, academically minded school, trading familiar faces for scholarly challenges. When his new school turns out to be less amazing than he had hoped, he struggles with the his ability to admit he made a mistake. Six year-old Froggie (not Jeremiah) is excited to start kindergarten with Flare, his invisible cheetah. His biggest problems are asking for kittens, turtles and convincing his family that his new friend Ladybug is real girl.
Even with all of their individual issues to work through, the whole family comes together for the biggest Halloween party ever, camping trips, and convincing their grumpy neighbor Mr. Nelson that they mean no harm. With loving support from both Papa and Dad (who have some misadventures of their own), the Fletchers work together to overcome all obstacles that come their way. This is a fun romp that just happens to have a diverse family at the heart of it.
by Morgan Reeves on October 30th, 2014
Not since first picking up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone have I read a book that started off full of so much life and mystery. But this is just how Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt begins. As dramatic as any play, the scene is set when a letter arrives inviting Max Starling’s actor parents to visit the Maharajah of Kashmir. His parents say Max will be coming too, but when the steamship leaves, Max is left behind. Determined to be independent until his parents return, he decides to find a job. But jobs for twelve year old boys don’t pay very well, so Max uses his experience of growing up in the theater to disguise himself and act older. To his surprise, he discovers he has a talent for solving problems for other people. He is not quite a detective and not quite a life coach, but something in between, a Solutioneer, as he calls himself. Cases start rolling in, a lost dog, a lost Baron, even a lost spoon, Max finds the solution to them all. This wonderful beginning of a trilogy weaves tricky problems and spirited characters into the the overarching story of what has happened to his parents. A story that leaves readers both satisfied with Max’s solutions and eager to find out more about Mister Max, Solutioneer.
Mister Max: The Book of Secrets is the recently released second title in the trilogy, which follows Max on his most important case yet. The problems are bigger and more complex, but Max is sure he can handle them. Fires have been springing up in small businesses, but no one will talk to the police, and with a visit from the Royal family approaching, the Mayor is desperate stop the fires without a fuss. Enter Mister Max and his ability to get people talking without knowing who they are really talking to. But with the appearance of an old schoolmate, for the first time he must deal with the possibility of being recognized, which could ruin Max’s independent lifestyle. Help is provided in the form of his librarian Grammie; his tutor Ari; and the sometimes irritating, very talkative Pia, who insists she is his assistant. All the while Max continues to receive troubling hints on the whereabouts of his parents. A great follow-up to the first, this story manages to leave some solutions open-ended while setting up the last book and what readers will hope to be Max’s reunion with his parents.
by Morgan Reeves on September 30th, 2014
I listen to very few books on disc. I am generally just not able to immerse myself in the audio version of a book as well as I can in the print version. I end up listening to the same passage multiple times because I zoned out or got busy doing something else. If that sounds like you, try listening to anything written and narrated by Neil Gaiman. So far I have listened to three of his audiobooks; The Graveyard Book, Fortunately the Milk, and Odd and the Frost Giants. In the telling of all three stories Gaiman is engaging and brings each character to life with a distinct and unique voice. As the author, he of course has special insight into how characters are supposed to sound, but his range of believable voices is impressive. Gaiman can imitate the confused innocence of a child and in the next breath reply in the piercing tones of a talking eagle. In addition to Gaiman’s performance, the stories themselves are always imaginative and full of life. I imagine they would be riveting in any format, not just audio.
The Graveyard Book follows the story of young Nobody Owens, or Bod for short. His entire family was murdered when he was just a toddler. He would have been killed too, if not for wandering into a graveyard and being adopted by the resident ghosts. He grows up under the tutelage of his two ghost parents and his guardian Silas, who may or may not be a vampire. As a child given the freedom of the graveyard Bod learns lessons both practical, moving through shadows, and personal, how to do what is right even when it is hard. At times scary, this is great coming of age story for grades 3rd-6th.
Odd and the Frost Giants introduces Odd, a perpetually grinning Norse boy with a bit of bad luck. His leg has been crippled, his father died in a Viking raid, and winter has gone on much too long. In an attempt to get away from it all, he retreats to his father’s old woodcutter’s hut in the woods. While out walking he befriends a bear, a fox, and an eagle, who quickly reveal they are the gods Thor, Loki and Odin. They have been trapped in animal bodies by a Frost Giant who has taken over Asgard and is the cause of the long winter. With his usual good humor Odd decides he has nothing to lose by attempting to defeat the Frost Giant, returning the gods to their true forms, and ending winter. Nothing too scary here, good fantasy adventure for grades 1st-5th.
Fortunately the Milk is a shorter story about the extraordinary adventure a father endured in order to bring his children some milk for their breakfast. Dinosaur scientists, volcanic sacrifices, time travel, pirates, aliens, and even ponies are all a part of this very funny book. An amusing tale that can be enjoyed by the whole family, particularly grades 1st-5th.
by Morgan Reeves on August 25th, 2014
The Search for WondLa has been on my “To Read” list for awhile now, since it was published in 2010. But having learned a valuable lesson in series anticipation from Harry Potter, I put off starting this trilogy until the last book was published. This May the final book was published, The Battle for WondLa, and the time was ripe to start this series.
DiTerlizzi has mixed a good bit of science fiction into his fantasy to create a fascinating world. Eva Nine is a human girl being cared for and trained by Muthr, a humanoid, multifunctional robot. They live in an isolated Sanctuary with no contact with other humans. Eva longs to go outside and venture into the real world, but up until now Muthr has prevented this, deeming it safer to stay inside. But when their home comes under attack from an outside force, Eva is forced to flee on her own. Outside, her encyclopedic Omnidroid cannot identify any of the strange creatures she encounters. Feeling increasingly unprepared for life on the surface, Eva is captured by the strange hunter Besteel, but is able to escape and free his other captives at the same time. Thus, she has made her first friends, Rovender Kitt, a tall blue alien, and Otto, an enormous water bear.
Rovender has some news for Eva, instead of being on Earth as she had assumed, they are on a planet known as Orbona. To help make sense of this new world, she insists on rescuing Muthr from the ruins of their home. Reunited, the group sets off in search of other humans using Eva’s most prized possesion, a photo of a girl, robot and book with only the letters “Wond L a” still visible. Along their journey they encounter both kindness and cruelty from the natives. Eva and Muthr soon realize that they are oddities that no one has seen before, and thus valued for their rarity. The mystery of their origins is left unanswered for most of the book, with the only tantalizing hints coming at the end. Told in four parts with short chapters, this a fairly quick read accompanied by DiTerlizzi’s sylistic illustrations. An interesting tale that leaves you wanting to more, a demand that can gladly met by the sequel, A Hero for WondLa.
by Morgan Reeves on July 28th, 2014
I have been looking forward to reading this latest and perhaps last tale from the late and fantastic, Diana Wynne Jones, ever since it was announced. Finished by her sister Ursula, The Islands of Chaldea is a fitting bookend to such a long and varied career. The story begins as Aileen, a young magic user in training, discovers that she doesn’t seem to be all that magical. Devastating news for a girl from a long line of powerfully magical Wise Women of Skarr. Aileen is not given any time to dwell on this as she and her no-nonsense Aunt Beck are sent on a quest by the king of their stony grey island. Their quest is in response to a prophecy, that only a Wise Woman and a man from each of the four Islands of Chaldea will be able to remove the barrier that separates them and reunite them as one kingdom. At the end of the last battle between the islands, Logra was magically sealed off from Skarr, Bernica, Gallis, with the barrier in place for most of Aileen’s life. They set off accompanied by Ivar, an arrogant prince of Skarr, and Ogo, a Logran abandoned during the war.
After an eventful start involving poisoned clothes and a sometimes invisible cat, the companions arrive on Bernica. As they wander through rolling green hills, a traveling monk joins them, bringing with him a bird who may tell the future. After Aunt Beck runs afoul of a queen and her donkeys, Aileen begins to come into her own as a leader. She gets them all safely to Gallis, where spells are sung and a religious order reigns supreme. Here they find the relatives of Aileen’s long lost father, who offer them a way over the barrier to Logra, via hot air balloon. Together with her newly discovered cousin and his size changing dragon, they make it over the barrier only to crash land and be taken prisoner. In the capital, the companions find that the poor Lograns have blamed the barrier on the other three islands, and hope for its removal as much as the rest of Chaldea. Who then put up the barrier in the first place? As a decades long conspiracy begins to unravel, Aileen must become the Wise Woman she was meant to be and bring together the four magical guardian animals of Chaldea to overcome the great evil intent on keeping the islands apart.
A great read for fantasy fans, The Islands of Chaldea is a fantastic coming of age adventure, full of the magical comedy Diana Wynne Jones was best known for.
by Morgan Reeves on June 30th, 2014
Trains, Sasquatches, and a circus make for an exciting combination in this steampunk adventure story from Kenneth Oppel. During the late 1800’s in Canada, Will Everett grows up witnessing the expansion of the continental railroads as the son of the railway company manager. A shy boy with a talent for drawing, he has always wished for adventure, but never seems to find it. Now on the maiden voyage of The Boundless, the longest train ever built, his adventure finally begins, as he witnesses a murder. In order to stay alive and warn his father about the criminal plot, Will disguises himself as part of a circus with the help of an old acquaintance. He teams up with Maren, the highrope walker from his past, and Mr. Dorian, the circus ringmaster who has an agenda of his own. Together, they try to reach the front of the seven mile train before the criminal gang catches them. The journey, full of perils both magical and real, puts Will’s drawing skills and new friendships to the test. As the train reach the snowy mountains, danger finally catches up to the circus trio, and not everyone will escape uninjured.
The only hitch in this otherwise fantastic story, is the present tense narration takes some getting used to for most readers. Overall this is a page turning story bolstered by mild fantasy elements and plenty of detail from a lesser-known period of history, with some edge of your seat moments that lead to a suspenseful climax.