“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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…
… 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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!
“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.
“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!
“In that neighborhood, some of the houses had been knocked down to construct modern buildings, others were about to fall apart all by themselves, and some had their balconies strapped firmly to their walls lest they drop off and split open the heads of passerby on the street.” page 22
The Wild Book by Juan Villoro, illustrated by Eko, translated by Lawrence Schimel. Yonder, Restless Books, New York, 2017. MG fantasy, 234 pages. Lexile: 750L . AR Level: not leveled *The Spanish-language version has an AR of 4.8, worth 7.0 points. NOTE: This Mexican novel was first published in 2008, my review is of the 2017 translation.
Juan’s father is building a Parisian bridge, and his distraught mother is finding a new home. While his sister gets to spend the summer with her best friend, Juan’s shipped off to his strange uncle who lives within a labyrinth of books. There he learns that he’s got an unusual power to make books magically respond to him.
I’ve been searching and searching for MG fantasy novels set outside the US or in translation. Several are available from Asia, few from Africa, and I’ve found some great works by American authors of Latinx heritage, but mostly still set in the US. After finally finding this book and waiting some time for the mail, I immediately started reading. Unfortunately I didn’t end with the same enthusiasm.
“Cautiously, I nudged both of them with Charm. If they detected that I was a fox and ratted me out, I’d be toast.” page 93
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee. Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019, my edition 2020. MG speculative fiction, 312 pages. Lexile: 780L . AR Level: 5.9 (worth 13.0 points) .
Min Kim is stuck on the un-terraformed planet of Jinju with her family, pretending to be human, performing an endless cycle of dreary chores, and waiting for the day she turns 15 and can join her brother in the Space Forces and finally see the world. Then a stranger arrives saying Jun is a deserter who left to search for the fabled Dragon Pearl, which 200 years ago was supposed to transform Jinju.
My absolute favorite part of this entire story is that it’s assumed that space will be dominated by Asian culture, in the way that so very many speculative fiction authors have constantly assumed white dominance. Lee never explains away the setting, although he does keep it readable for all. I loved details like not looking a superior directly in the eye and larger worldbuilding aspects, like how important gi and meridians are in ship design and maintenance.