Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson. Square Fish, Macmillan, New York, 2018. MG historical fiction, 250 pages. Lexile: 810L . AR Level: 4.9 (worth 5.0 points) .
The life of one preteen girl in Detroit in 1945 – who later become the wife of Malcolm X. Betty wants nothing more than to be loved by her biological mother, but they disagree at every turn. She believes strongly in justice and fair treatment for all, but not everyone will stand with her.
So much is happening in this book yet all balanced very well. Reading the prologue introduces several of the issues that will become themes throughout. When just five pages in, first-person narrator Betty tells us about seeing a lynching as a young girl in Georgia, it is immediately clear that this book will be sensitive but not dishonest.
The fostering/adoption/kinship narratives are also handled well. The prologue briefly covers Betty’s early life. At one year old, she was taken from her teenaged mother by her grandmother, and raised lovingly by her aunt. After her aunt’s sudden death, she moved in with her biological mother and learned that she has three half-sisters and two step-brothers.
Her role ends up being more like a caretaker to the seven other members of her family; she constantly feels unappreciated and faces harsh punishments and constant misunderstandings. Church is a source of hope and light for Betty – her Christian faith and involvement with various activities at Bethel AME specifically are a major part of the book.
“Linus Baker, for what it was worth, did care about the children he was tasked with observing. He didn’t think one could do what he did and lack empathy, though he couldn’t understand how someone like Ms. Jenkins had ever been a caseworker…” page 88
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune. Tom Doherty Associates, Tor, Macmillian, New York, 2020. YA/adult fantasy novel, 398 pages. Not leveled.
Although not cruel or careless like many of his coworkers, Linus Baker is an uninspiring caseworker who’s given his life to the minute rules of the bureaucracy of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, down to the point of purchasing for personal reading (and occasionally quoting from memory) the official Rules and Regulations. So when an unusual and extremely delicate situation arises, he’s the only real choice. But what Linus finds at the island orphanage is so much more than he expected…
I’ve been excited to read this one because a book about a 40 year old civil servant monotonously documenting magically gifted youth and slowly coming alive to the true meaning of his work and life is exactly the sort of thing I would have loved at the target age (and still do today).
This book has an interesting dual nature of being both an engaging fantasy novel with several mysteries to unfold, and a very useful teaching tool for the process of learning to see systemic problems that are right in front of your face, so blatant they become invisible. I initially read hoping for a more complex, higher reading level but still MG appropriate diverse book to add for younger kids with high reading levels (like UnLunDun was on my last list). Unfortunately this wasn’t that.
“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!
“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.
“It had grown so wild that what had once been neat, orderly arrangements of coral and anemones were now as wild a tangle as any sea reef; but that gave us plenty of hiding places.” page 101
Dragon Steel (Dragon Quartet #2) by Laurence Yep. HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1985, my edition 1993. MG fantasy, 276 pages. Lexile: 800L . AR Level: 5.8 (worth 8.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book.
Exiled princess Shimmer and the Thorn by her side continue their quest to restore the lost dragon sea, although it’s a more complicated task than they first believed.
As I was reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that it was everything I wanted from The Dragon Egg Princess, although this series was published long before and now out of print. The very 1990s covers are starting to grow on me – while definitely dated and not of any interest to my own children, they do accurately depict characters and scenes from the books. I also am easily impressed by pre 2010 books with openly diverse covers.
In this volume we are still following Shimmer and Thorn, and several characters from the previous book are around too, but there’s a different focus. Civet is no longer the main villain and what they’re up against now is much trickier. We find out more about what happened to Shimmer’s people after their homeland was lost and finally get to meet some other dragons.
“But to my annoyance, he did not seem in the least bit frightened. In fact, I seemed to amuse him – just as an elderly, eccentric aunt might have.” p110
Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep. Charlotte Zolotow, HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, my edition 1988, originally published 1982. MG fantasy, 214 pages. Lexile: 830L . AR Level: 5.8 (worth 6.0) . NOTE: First of a quartet, see review for the relationship this has with other Yep books.
An unremarkable human boy with a generous spirit and a magical dragon princess team up on a quest for revenge and restoration that doesn’t go how either of them expect.
This was one of those Yep books that always gave me a pause since his books with Dragon in the title could be either fantasy or historical fiction. Thankfully, this one has a dragon front and center on the cover, so it’s pretty clear that it’s a fantasy novel – which is probably also why I’d never read it before, since most Yep books I read were in order to catalog them properly.
Yep opens with the main viewpoint character as an elderly, impoverished woman traveling a beaten, broken down land, who smells something strange in a small village. It’s pretty clear within a few chapters that this is going to be high fantasy, and I am excited. We meet the main character Thorn, about whom several things will seem very obvious to experienced or adult readers and probably less so to the intended middle grade audience.
“She stared at the ceiling as little white wood lizards darted up the walls and over her head, stopping every time the house shook. She wanted to tell them it would be all right, but the truth was, she wasn’t so sure.” page 35
The Jumbie God’s Revenge (Jumbies #3) by Tracey Baptiste. Algonquin Young Readers, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2019. MG fantasy, 264 pages. Lexile: not leveled AR Level: 4.9 (worth 8.0 points) . NOTE: This is the third book in the Jumbies series so this review will include spoilers for the previous volumes.
Corinne has defeated Severine, brokered a peace with Mama D’Leau and Papa Bois, and still has to face some fellow islanders who distrust her because she is part jumbie. And now there is a new problem – dangerous out of season storms are brewing, laced with lightning and an angry face in the clouds.
After the last Jumbies book gave me all the feels, I wasn’t sure of two things – first, how Baptiste could possibly manage to up the ante, and second, if this would be a trilogy or continuing story. But this book answered both questions.
“Moody never thought much about money, because he had never needed to. Lights went on when he flipped switches; water came out when he turned the tap.” p. 13
Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel by Celeste Ng.
Penguin, Penguin Random House, my edition 2019 (originally published in 2017).
Fiction, 338 pages plus Reader’s Guide.
Lexile: 1000L .
AR Level: 6.8 (worth 18.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not posting it on Fiction Friday.
A tense novel about the unexpected connections between two families, which change all of their lives.
Well. Sometimes I hesitate to review a book because it feels like everything there is to be said about that work is already out there. While I don’t mind reviewing popular works, especially if my opinion differs vastly from the usual, sometimes it simply doesn’t seem like there is much for me to add to the discourse. That is the case with this novel, which seems to have been generally well-reviewed, and which I generally agree with other reviews I’d seen prior to reading the book. Continue reading “Review: Little Fires Everywhere”
“In the middle sat an elegant woman with a medium brown complexion who appeared ageless and formidable. She held a large ivory staff decorated with leaves and flowers in one hand. There was no doubt in Jiho’s mind that this woman was in charge.” page 109
The Dragon Egg Princess by Ellen Oh.
HaperCollins, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 248 pages.
Not yet leveled.
Jiho Park is an anomaly in his highly magical kingdom – part of a family not affected by magic, which makes him destined to become a ranger protecting the Kidahara. But he wants nothing to with the forest and the magical creatures it protects and instead is intrigued by the foreigners from technologically advanced lands trying to tear down the forest in the middle of Joson. Meanwhile, two girls whose lives have been heavily affected by magic both have their own agendas – and when all three cross paths, the whole kingdom might be affected, for better or worse.
I wanted to love this so much – bought the hardcover, so yes I fully invested in this story. Sadly, it underwhelmed me on many points despite the appealing blubs from several authors I trust and the fabulous cover. Let me just take a minute to mention that I completely support Oh’s mission, her work on WNDB, and even her excellent anthologies, and continue to do so despite really not liking this book.
The setting had a unique feel. The land of Josen, the Kidahara forest, the permeation of magic in the kingdom, everything had a twist to it somewhere. But on the other hand it had some steampunk or even science fantasy elements, as some of the other kingdoms have no magic but focus instead on technology. The one other region with magic was also different, so a lot was packed into this book.
Worldbuilding was clearly a major focus of Oh’s, and she has a fairly detailed mythology likely to appeal to young fans of speculative fiction. While this book focuses on Joson, based in Korean mythology, Shane and Calvin are from another country called Bellprix and mention vampires, werewolves, and zombies. I only wish that more of the essential information about this world had been organically included in the action or dialogue, instead of being infodumped .
“There are only so many years you can fool your friends – or yourself – into thinking you are a real Indian princess, banished from your fairy tale and hiding out in a suburban split-level in northern New Jersey. No matter what your crazy parents insist.” page 3
The Serpent’s Secret (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1) by Sayantani Dasgupta, illustrated by Vivienne To. Scholastic, New York, 2018. MG fantasy, 358 pages. Lexile: 730L . AR Level: 5.2 (worth 10.0 points) .
Kiranmala is so over her parents’ stories and dressing up like “a real Indian princess” for every birthday – they’re already overprotective and weird, do they have to keep lying about a magical land too? Then they go missing, and a rakkhosh shows up at her house closely followed by two princes. Kiranmala will have to draw on every bit of help, magic, and story to figure out how to save her parents, herself, and maybe a few others too.
Dasgupta focuses on Bengali stories as her main inspiration, and it definitely gives the fantasy a fresh slant. But the writing truly brings two places to life – The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers and Kiranmala’s home in Parsippany, New Jersey – and while most of the magic happens in the Kingdom, Dasgupta manages to make New Jersey surprisingly compelling.
In particular, I was very impressed with the mix of science into the story. Science fiction and fantasy are distinct genres (along with horror and the less popular science fantasy) under the speculative fiction umbrella. Although a lot of people enjoy both, many readers don’t like to mix these two, especially in the MG range. Dasgupta takes an interesting approach – magic is fully magical and has its own internal logic, but science is also real and has parallels and applications within the story. Kiranmala discusses how astronomy and physics relate to her quest without ever losing the magic, thanks to a deft narrative hand.