Review: Silverworld

“She couldn’t hear anything, not the wind or the crickets of the distant thunder. It was silence almost more than silence because, for the first time since she’d gotten to Silverworld, she couldn’t hear the thoughts of the Flickers.” page 119

Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber.
Crown Books for Young Readers, Penguin Random House, New York, 2020.
MG portal fantasy, 294 pages.
Lexile: 800L .
AR Level: not yet leveled.

Sami’s family has recently moved, her beloved Teta is speaking gibberish, and there’s a plan to put her in a nursing home. In desperation, Sami tries finding and reciting something from her grandmother’s spellbook, even though she doesn’t believe magic is real – right until she falls through the portal into Silverworld.

Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber.

Many aspects of this will resonate with readers beyond the Lebanese-American children for whom this book is a mirror. Sami feels stuck between two cultures: her family’s traditional Lebanese culture, and the American lifestyle that surrounds her. To her, the closest connection to her culture is her grandmother’s stories and precious artifacts (although her family also has other aspects, such as her mother’s cooking). Although I am not Lebanese, that aspect of the book rung very true to my own life experiences. Parents and other community members play an important role, but the wisdom of elders and bond between a child and their grandparent is stronger than most other forms of cultural transmission I’ve seen.

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Review: Making Your Human Smarter

“But when you’ve ridden a dragon, had lunch with Nessie, and fought monsters, it would take more than a fussy hotel clerk to scare me away. I gave him my best imitation of Miss Drake’s glare.” page 249

A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter (Dragon’s Guide #2) by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrations by Mary Grandpre.
Yearling, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 296 pages + exerpt.
Lexile: 790L .
AR Level: 5.4 (worth 9.0 points) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous book.

Miss Drake’s training of her pet human is starting to pay off. Winnie has been accepted into the local magical school and seems like she is starting to enjoy life. Miss Drake and her magical friends will take any precaution to keep her beloved pet from harm. But Winnie seems to think Miss Drake is her pet!

A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – the last book was good but not overly compelling. One of my biggest concerns was if the series was sustainable. The idea of a dragon and her pet human is a fun take on a fantasy trope, but not enough for a whole series.

Yep and Ryder get around that in two ways for this second book. First, this is a novel in two voices. Regular readers will recall I generally prefer books written in the third person or with a single narrator. The authors here make it bearable several ways: clear plot reasons necessitate the two voices; rather than always alternating chapters, the two trade off as needed (headers indicate the switch); our narrators may share many common events, but generally have distinct voices.

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Review: One Shadow on the Wall

“After he finished his prayers and left the mosque, he headed father away from the noise of the market. He was excited to spend the rest of the day with Oumar and his other friends, kicking the soccer ball and forgetting all he had to do – at least for a couple of hours.” page 228

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson.
Antheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017.
MG contemporary/fantasy, 442 pages.
Lexile: 760L .
AR Level: 4.9 (worth 15.0 points) .

Orphaned Mor is a little concerned when he starts hearing the voice of his deceased father and seeing visions of his deceased mother, but he’s got bigger worries. His paternal aunt wants to take him and his two sisters away from their village and separate them, but she’s given him just three months to prove he can care for them all. Unfortunately, the Danka Boys also have their eye on him and will stop at nothing to get him to give up his family and join their gang.

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson.

I saw this book while compiling my first diverse middle grade fantasy novel list – the synopsis caught my eye but I mistakenly assumed the author was white. When later reading a review for The Magic of Changing Your Stars, the reviewer mentioned that it was ownvoices so I gave Henderson a second look, thankfully! True, this book is light on fantasy, with only one fantastical element, but that aspect is strongly present throughout and the book as a whole is gripping.

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Review: On These Magic Shores

“It wasn’t my job to provide food, toys, or dress-up clothes for my sisters, but I felt ashamed that someone ended up giving them what my mom never could although she worked so much.” page 212

On These Magic Shores by Yamille Saied Mendez.
Tu Books, Lee and Low, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy/contemporary, 278 pages.
Lexile: not yet leveled .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 8.0 points) .

Minerva Soledad Miranda (call her Minnie, please) just wants to fit in as much as possible, but it’s not easy to keep up with seventh grade, let alone audition for the school play, when she has to watch her sisters while her mom works two jobs. It’s hard to focus when they are crying from hunger. And it’s especially difficult when Mama suddenly doesn’t come home.

On These Magic Shores by Yamile Saied Mendez.

As soon as this book arrived, it stood out because of the unusual format. I bought the hardcover, but it’s smaller than any other MG fantasy on my shelf, sized more like a softcover novel. The blurbs were also impressive for a first edition of a new author’s book from an imprint with less than 50 releases.

Tu books is a MG/YA focused imprint of Lee and Low which publishes mainly genre fiction. Their historical fiction has a good reputation, but they’ve only published one other middle grade fantasy novel so far. However, they have a schedule of intriguing books coming up over the next few years, starting with this story of fairies and hardship.

First, just a note to apologize. I’m aware that the author’s last name includes an accent, but with the new version of WordPress, I have not been able to type special characters. No disrespect intended, simply a technical failure here.

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Review: Dragon War

“I knew that smile. Neither the Butcher nor the Boneless King liked to be crossed, so whoever the ruler might be, the future of the capital was at risk. Once the Boneless King had disposed of the dragons, he would turn his attention to the uncooperative citizens of Ramsgate.” page 67

Dragon War (Dragon Quartet #4) by Laurence Yep.
Harper Trophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1992.
MG fantasy, 314 pages.
Lexile: 850L .
AR Level: 5.9 (worth 11.0) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for previous volumes.

Princess Shimmer’s companions have faced many challenges during her quest to restore the inland sea and bring her people back to their home. One has died, one was magically transformed into an inanimate object, another learned that her entire home and people have been destroyed, and the Monkey King has had his pride and several of his tail hairs wrecked. But probably the worst was when they let the Boneless King out of his long imprisonment…

Dragon War by Laurence Yep.

… from which he has joined forces with a ruthless human called the Butcher, Shimmer’s traitorous brother Pomfret, and a variety of other characters who may or may not understand that the Boneless King’s ultimate goal is the total destruction of theirs and every world.

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Review: Cattywampus

“The weight of Delpha’s secret tugged at her gut, promising to rearrange her life nine ways to Sunday if she’d let it.” page 5

Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo.
Scholastic Press, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 280 pages.
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: not yet leveled

Delpha’s strict mother’s biggest rule is a total ban on magic. But as they sink deeper into poverty, Delpha is ready to break any rule to prevent more of her beloved grandmother’s treasures from being sold off as tourist souvenirs.

Since finding out she’s intersex, Katybird has desperately wanted magic to prove she’s the successor to her family’s magical traditions. When that longed-for Hearn magic doesn’t manifest as planned, she’s desperate for a magical fix – even from a McGill like Delpha.

Together the girls unleash a terrible curse – threatening not just their families, but the whole valley.

Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo.
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Review: Gloom Town

“One melancholy voice rose in the air and he smiled. It was his mum, singing a sad sea ballad, one that she had sung to him when he was a child, and he knew the tune well” page 25

Gloom Town by Ronald L. Smith.
Clarion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York 2020.
MG fantasy, 274 pages.
Lexile: 650L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .

Rory’s mother has two jobs, is taking as much extra work as she can, and living cheaply, but they still have simply run out of money. With the landlord taking their last cash and still threatening eviction, it’s clear that the only choice left is for Rory to work – but town rules won’t allow him in a seafaring job for another two years. So when a position at Lord Foxglove’s creepy mansion is advertised, he doesn’t see any option but landing the position, even if it turns out to be not quite what he thinks.

I’ve reviewed just one of Smith’s books before, Hoodoo. That one takes place in the American South in the 1930s, so I was mildly surprised, and impressed, to find that this book takes place in an atmospheric near-Britain seaside town in a vaguely Victorian (but more progressive) time. Most of the women in this novel work in some form or another. Some wear skirts while others choose pants, and women are aboard ships at the harbor. In fact, while Rory is certainly capable himself, his friend rescues him from physical danger multiple times, in a pleasant turn on the normal damsel in distress storyline.

Smith has certainly worked out the bumps in his writing now – this is his fifth novel, and clearly I need to go back and read the other three. His format here is many relatively short chapters, exactly the style my sons most enjoy. While some segments understandably have more action than others, none felt slow or irrelevant.

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Review: When the Sea Turned to Silver

“Pinmei looked at Yishan, but he did not meet her eyes. Instead, he was gazing upward. Another star was flying across the sky, making a silver scratch on the black-lacquered night.” page 191

When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 380 pages + extract.
Lexile:  750L  .
AR Level:  5.3 (worth 9.0 points)  .

Pinmei and her grandmother live simply high up on the mountain.  Pinmei rarely ventures far from home, and hardly speaks to anyone beside her grandmother and friend Yishan.  But she doesn’t need many words when her grandmother tells the most wondrous stories – until the emperor’s soldiers kidnap her grandmother and leave her with an impossible quest.

When the Sea Turned to Silver cover resized

This is technically the third book in a series, but it’s very possible to read them out of order even though all three are set in the same world.  I’ve already reviewed Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky.  If you read those first, then this one will have all sorts of little connections to delight avid readers.  But if you’ve accidentally started with this book instead, don’t worry, you can still enjoy the others!

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Review: Dragon Cauldron

“As long as I live, I’ll never forget that look on his face. It wasn’t fear; it was the expression of someone who had lost everything – friends, loved ones, the entire world.” page 121

Dragon Cauldron (Dragon Quartet #3) by Laurence Yep.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1991, my edition 1994.
MG fantasy, 312 pages.
Lexile: 770L .
AR Level: 5.5 (worth 10.0 points) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for previous volumes.

The quest to restore the dragon homeland continues with new enemies and allies. At this stage the cauldron must be mended, and only the Snail Woman and Smith can do so, but reaching them is tricky. The humans at war with the main dragon kingdom make no distinction between Shimmer’s enslaved clan and her wicked uncle’s rule; they just want to kill or imprison all dragons. Meanwhile, the Monkey King’s penchant for boasting, Indigo and Thorn’s competition, Shimmer’s prickly attitude, and Civet’s lust for magic also brew up trouble for our adventurers.

After a strong first volume, and a fine second volume, the story is starting to coalesce in this third volume. The Monkey King is the viewpoint character for this book, and I found the switch a bit abrupt, although it makes sense since the reader needs to know and witness certain things that he sees differently than the rest of the group.

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Review: The Dragon Warrior

“On the morning of the Lunar New Year Day, I didn’t dare mention that I’d helped slay the nian. Ye Ye would be too busy scolding me for sneaking out to congratulate me on slaying a demon. That’s Asian-style tough love for you.” page 26

The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao.
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 344 pages.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 11.0 points) .

Faryn Liu wants nothing more than to become a warrior in the exclusive Jade Society her family was born into, but the current leader sees her gender and mixed race as fatal flaws. With her grandfather sick, only finding her legendary, long-lost father can get her the entry into demon-fighting she desires. All it would take is a cross-country, multiple-realm trip wielding the legendary Fenghuang and facing dragons, demons, and rogue gods.

This book calls out colorism from the very first page, and that’s incredibly unusual in a middle grade genre novel. Although I wish it wasn’t needed, and agree that it shouldn’t be in every book, I also remember students struggling with this, and wish I’d had this book then to offer. There’s a unique power to being able to see one’s struggles in a fictional hero. She identifies as half-Chinese and half-Other (Egyptian/Greek/Turkish); I have used both the part-white and the non-white biracial tags here because sometimes those groups are classed as white, other times they are not. Faryn herself points out that she is darker skinned than the norm for her Chinese community.

I spent perhaps more time than I should have trying to pin down the exact year this was meant to be set in. It’s frequently mentioned that it’s the Year of the Horse, but that could be 1990, 2002, 2014, or 2026. Since the kids have a handheld video game but none of them have cell phones, I’m going to cut the first and last of those out and say it’s either 2002 with surprisingly good tech, or 2014 and they either can’t afford or have too strict of a family to have cell phones. I’m leaning towards 2014 because in 2002 kids would have been a lot more worried about approaching the District of Columbia with magical flight. However, the scenes of deserted streets also feel strangely familiar post-pandemic!

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