“Yolanda squeezed Rosalind Franklin to her chest and nuzzled her nose in the dog’s fur. She was not going to get rid of her dog, and she and Sonja were not going to foster care. There was no way she was going to let any of that happen.” page 59
Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon. Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster Children’s, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 330 pages. Lexile: 660L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
All the women in Yolanda’s family have some sort of magical gift, including her twin sister, but not her. Her father is away in the military, she’s become estranged from her best friend and her twin, her grandfather has died, and her ailing grandmother asks Yolanda to take her to the only pecan tree left standing on their property after the grass starts growing taller and taller…
Occasionally I run into a book that seems to be severely underhyped. Sometimes, like with The Secret of the Blue Glass, I can look objectively at the book and see why it might have trouble finding an audience or why it might not appeal to everyone even if I personally loved it. Others I can’t understand why it hasn’t been popular! My only thinking for this one is 2020, or perhaps that some readers disliked the lesbian aspect which is not immediately apparent.
I’ve written about “diverse-adjacent” books before; this one is more stealth diverse. The cover is gorgeous and represents the characters well, but even reading the synopsis, other than the names Yolanda Rodriguez-O’Connell and Wela, nothing that stands out as Latina, and particularly not LGBTQ.
“A culture defines its virtues and vices within its folktales.” page 69
The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep, illustrated by David Wiesner. HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1989. (See review.) Short story/folklore collection, 194 pages. Lexile: 680L . AR Level: 4.8 (worth 6.0 points) .
Twenty stories drawn from the most common area of Chinese-American immigration, streamlined and retold for younger audiences.
So I’m pretty sure my copy is a knock-off. The cover is the 1992 version, although on close examination it’s subtly off, but the interior copyright page is taken from one of the early 1989 printings. The margins aren’t set correctly and vary too much, and while harder to quantify, the paper and bindings don’t feel right compared to other books from this time period from this publisher that I’ve handled.
I purchased this book online, ostensibly new. After investigation, I don’t believe that the seller of this was aware then that it might be a printing violating copyright, so I won’t mention them specifically. Normally I would get a copy from the library to check if this version is accurate, but in Covid times, that is easier said than done. Perhaps some kind person who has access to a proper version of this book will comment if my citations are correct. I decided to still write this review because I’ve been wanting to talk about Laurence Yep and this book is particularly interesting.
Turning now to this specific volume, it’s a unique work. While I’ve seen many volumes of, or including, Chinese folklore, this book by Yep is the first I’ve seen that suggests a uniquely Chinese-American variety of tall tales. He points out that since the majority of early Chinese immigrants to America came from a specific province, the stories of that region have greater significance than more general Chinese or Asian proverbs.
“… but our whole family lives in New Jersey now. So we are really, truly Americans – North, South, and Central!” page 7
Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda.
Scholastic, New York, 2018.
Realistic fiction, 108 pages.
Lexile: 690L .
AR Level: 3.8 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: This is the first book in the Sarai series.
Sarai Gonzalez is awesome. She can do anything she sets her mind to, right? But when her grandparents are about to lose their home, can she solve that problem?
I absolutely adored this book and am looking forward to reading more in the series. Sarai is like a modern-day, Latina Pollyanna without the syrupy sweetness. She radiates positivity and a can-do attitude, but also makes mistakes and sometimes meets problems she can’t solve (yet).
A large part of my love for this book was due to the incredibly appealing artwork, which brings me to the biggest problem, which is that the artist is not appropriately credited. Christine Almeda’s name appears only on the back cover and copyright page, and that in small print. Since this is a book with two co-authors (teen Sarai on whose real life the series is based and experienced author Monica Brown), it would be easy for young readers to mistake the cover credits for author and illustrator.
“Grace just looked at me and asked what I was waiting for. She says it doesn’t matter how old you are, or what you’ve learned – being a Black geek is about who you are, and what you’re interested in. Nobody gets to decide that but you.” page 75
Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Paul Davey. Knopf, Penguin Random House, New York, 2019. MG fantasy, 280 pages. Lexile: 750L . AR Level: 4.8 (worth 7.0 points) .
A biracial Black/German-American boy clearing his uncle’s basement finds a sauerkraut urn haunted by his great-great-grandmother, who insists he help her make pickled ethnic food to enter into the county fair. HD has to balance his own summer plans and responsibilities with his new ghostly relative’s goals.
Reading this after the Unusual Chickens series might be unfair. We eagerly anticipate the next installment in that favorite series. Sauerkraut is a separate story with familiar modus operandi – biracial MC (white German-American and African American) lives in a mostly white, semi-rural area and has unusual hobbies (caring for goats, making things) runs into some strange magic (ancestor haunting the sauerkraut pot).
HD is established in his community, has a strong connection to both sides of his heritage (identifies more as Black), already has a best friend, and isn’t on a farm despite the goat subplot. And he’s a nerd who loves the library and comics and is very familiar with supernatural fiction, so after the original scare he copes with magic more easily.
“The far wall of the glade exploded in a shower of broken branches and fetterlings. More butterflies took to the air as the largest fetterling I could’ve ever imagined tried to squeeze through a gap like a T. rex.” page 181
Tristan Strong’s lost his first big match as a boxer and is sent to stay with his grandparents in Alabama. His deceased friend Eddie’s journal, with a mysterious glow only he can see, keeps ending up in his bag although he didn’t pack it. When a strange thief tries to steal the book, Tristan fights back… even if it means disturbing a bottle tree, unleashing an ancient evil, and falling into the land of Alke.
Confession: I liked this book very much, but didn’t love it, and can’t quite figure out why. Perhaps I’m burnt out on MG fantasy? Over the past three years, I’ve read more than a hundred, so MG fantasy has taken up a larger than normal portion of my free reading lately. So many aspects I loved, somehow didn’t quite coalesce for me. Three times I put this down to finish reading another book that felt more compelling. Yet at the same time, I kept coming back and wanting to finish. I’ll definitely get the next book in the series.
Mbalia’s worldbuilding is excellent. His villains in particular strike the perfect balance for middle grade – the stuff of nightmares but not invincible, firmly grounded in myth, history, and real fears, and many with complex backstory or growth patterns. I loved the endpaper maps of Alke and want a poster for my wall!
Also, I appreciated that he didn’t follow the RRP template. This far in to the imprint, plus reading widely in the genre, there is definitely a difference between those who write a Riordan-style series with different cultural trappings, and authors with their own unique ideas. Both are important but the latter tend to have more longevity.
“Rosa said nothing. She said it loudly. Rosa was not impressed with the basement apartment, or the library above it, or the town of Ingot. She missed their old place in the city.” page 1
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2017, my paperback edition 2018.
MG fantasy, 184 pages plus excerpt.
Lexile: 640L .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points) .
Rosa Diaz has been training her whole life to one day be a librarian specializing in ghost appeasement, so she’s disgusted when her mother moves them to the only unhaunted place in the world. Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot and never seen a ghost, so when one appears his world turns upside down. Can these unlikely friends solve the mystery of their oddly unhaunted hometown before it turns on them?
The mythology and worldbuilding of this is extensive. Alexander has imagined an entire alternate universe where ghosts are a normal part of everyday life and always have been, outside of Ingot, at least. The way he uses Ingot to introduce us to this world is clever – Jasper gasps at everything and Rosa is constantly annoyed or saddened by the small differences between Ingot and the properly haunted places that she’s used to living. This then gives Alexander a reason to constantly be telling us all those little details that build up into a coherent alternate world.
Both kids have unique family situations. As the only child of two founders, Jasper is the lead of the ren faire kid pack. Rosa is something that doesn’t quite exist in our world, perhaps a cross of homeschooled and army brat? She’s comfortable with every kind of ghost, but less familiar with people. Her knowledge is excellent but scattered, based on the books she’s been reading and had interest in. As the child of appeasement librarians, she has always lived in libraries and had a much different upbringing than Jasper. Continue reading “Review: A Properly Unhaunted Place”
“Leo opened her mouth to protest – closing down would mean losing a half day’s profit! – but her voice didn’t seem to be working, so all that came out was a squeak.” page 96
A Mixture of Mischief (Love Sugar Magic #3) by Anna Meriano. Walden Pond Press, HarperCollins, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 292 pages. Lexile: not yet leveled AR Level: 5.4 (worth 8.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous books.
A mysterious new shop is opening that copies the menu as Leo’s family bakery, her friends are all gaga over her slightly older cousin, and her estranged paternal grandfather is trying to contact her. Meanwhile Leo is desperate to prove herself as both a baker and a bruja who can stand on equal ground with her older sisters. Can she figure out her birth order magic and master recipes for sugar and magic without whipping up a bunch of new troubles? Only with a heap of love from her family and friends, of course!
I wish this had been a quartet. While I enjoyed this final installment in the Love Sugar Magic trilogy, there were a few differences. The first two books didn’t exactly center on holidays but each included a specific celebration: Dia de los Muertos and Dia de los Reyes. This one encompassed Easter, but the celebrations around it were barely touched on.
“The castle was darkness made solid. No natural light had entered it since the day Prince Shadow, the original lord of darkness, had built it.” page 133
Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan, illustrated by Ben Hibon. Disney Hyperion, New York, 2016. MG fantasy, 324 pages. Lexile: 540L . AR Level: 4.1 (worth 11.4 points) . NOTE: First in a trilogy.
Thorn was just trying to find his outlaw father when he got caught by slavers and was sold to executioner Tyburn of House Shadow. Lilith Shadow was never supposed to rule Gehenna, but then her family was killed.
I picked this one up because of this review. Initially this series didn’t strike me as particularly diverse from reading the blurb, but the author’s commentary on the Middle Eastern inspiration as well as an #ownvoice Muslim reviewer’s thoughts quickly confirmed that this was a trilogy I wanted to read.
“She tried to keep her voice light, as though she wasn’t asking the most important question she had ever asked.” page 23
City of Islands by Kali Wallace.
Katherine Tegen imprint, HarperCollins, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 328 pages.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 12.0 points) .
Mara has been orphaned twice over – once when she survived her family’s shipwreck, and again when the bone mage who raised her was killed by a rival. Now she’s a diver for the Lady of the Tides, but worried about finding herself homeless again if they keep coming up empty-handed. A chance tip has her trying a new location where she finds a pile of strange spelled bones that don’t make sense. Her dream is to study magic with the Lady, but instead she’s rewarded with a challenge – find a way to break in to the impregnable Winter Blade fortress island.
Before I finished this book and started to write this review and checked the back flap of the book cover and got around to looking the author up, I knew that she would be white. By the time I was halfway through the book it was obvious, and here’s why – the hair. Wallace’s heroine, Mara, is a diver by profession. She lives on a small island in an archipelago where most everyone grows up swimming and boating and generally transitioning from water to not with ease.
“Of course the dragon would try to distract him if it really was guilty. But Violet wouldn’t let it. He was a professional, specialised in dragon crimes. This dragon’s crimes.” page 15
The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen. Atthis Arts, Detroit, Michigan, my edition 2020, originally published 2018. All ages fantasy, 132 pages including back matter. Not leveled.
Sir Violet’s duties as knight have fallen into a familiar pattern – he goes to the dragon’s cave, and after some banter a missing item is returned. Until instead of his morning cinnamon roll, he finds the baker’s wife distraught – Juniper is missing! This sends Sir Violet on a quest for not only the missing baker, but a few other things he didn’t know he was missing.
I bought this book entirely because of a post; I didn’t realize the age level until it crossed my feed. Not that this is only for kids, it’s especially written as All Ages – a rare find!
Much like the dragon, I’m a collector, only my hoard is books. I like the collection to fit together in various pleasing ways and am always looking for new releases that fit categories seldom seen in diverse MG fantasy. Three areas have been elusive -stories set in South America or Australia, LGBTQ+ representation, and indigenous stories. We are finally seeing movement on the latter two, so I have high hopes for more English-language South American MG fantasy in the next five years.
I was initially disappointed at the length. The main story is only 118 pages with generous spacing. MG fantasy novels (which this isn’t, but is the comparative genre I’ve been most heavily immersed in lately) tend to run longer, so on my first reading this was at the back of my mind… until the fairly detailed back matter. Knowing that the $13 list price goes towards fair payment for editors, sensitivity readers, and others made me much happier about the price versus length.
Although the book is smaller, it’s well formatted. The cover, while not especially exciting, conveys the gist and is nicely laid out. Simple works better than wrong! As someone who personally and professionally handles dozens to hundreds of books daily, I can tell it’s not from a mainstream publisher – but nowadays well made titles aren’t obviously POD to most casual readers.