“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.
“Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn’t sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother’s womb. Imagine that!” page vii
Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. Graphia, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005. MG or YA fantasy (see review), 308 pages. Lexile: 720L . AR Level: 5.0 (worth 11.0 points) .
Zahrah Tsami was born dada, with vines that grow amongst her hair. She doesn’t spend time with anyone other than her family and her best friend Dari, a charismatic boy newly obsessed with the Forbidden Greeny Jungle that borders their town. For much of her life she’s kept to herself and quietly tried her best to fit in, but puberty brings many changes. Can Zahrah complete a dangerous quest that only she is suited for? Could she ever accept her own unique self?
Every so often I come to this blog to look up a review and realize I never actually wrote one, as with this excellent Afrocentric fantasy novel for young readers which really should have been on my first diverse middle grade fantasy booklist, but will have to wait for the next one instead.
Classifying works by genre is something I probably spend too much time considering. It interests me personally and professionally, especially when there isn’t a clear answer. Zahrah the Windseeker definitely fits into a category – science fantasy. But that category doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the science fiction | fantasy divide!
“Only when they had little air left did Mama D’Leau let the water spit them out on the sand, where they crawled, sputtering, feeling lucky – grateful even – to touch the gravelly earth beneath their fingers, until Mama D’Leau sent another wave to scoop them back into the water, where they struggled again.” p79
Rise of the Jumbies (Jumbies #2) by Tracey Baptiste. Algonquin Young Readers, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2017. MG fantasy, 266 pages. Lexile: 690L . AR Level: 4.5 (worth 7.0 points) . NOTE: This will contain spoilers for the first book in the series.
Corinne LaMer might have defeated Severine, but things aren’t quite back to normal. If she wants to save the families of her island from a jumbie fate under the sea, she’ll have to work with powerful jumbies to restore the balance.
Even though she fought against her aunt’s wicked plan in the last book, as soon as something goes wrong people instantly assume it’s Corinne’s fault. This does pick up pretty soon after the previous book, so her father, and their home island, are still reeling from everything that’s happened. With grace and a little help, Corinne manages to handle it pretty well, which is good because she’s going to need all the help she can get!
“Kinchen pursed her lips, thinking. She never told anyone about Pip’s strangeness with people; not wanting anyone to make fun of her brother, she covered up for him.” page 61
A Crack in the Sea by H. M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.
Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages + excerpt.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 11.0 points) .
A layered fantasy draws together a 1781 slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a Vietnamese refugee boat in the South China Sea in 1978, and two very different groups in a magical place the inhabitants think of as the Second World.
I had seen this book even before writing my diverse fantasy booklist, but hesitated to read it as I was nervous. A fantasy story that blends African and Vietnamese and English and different worlds and time periods and difficult topics all into a readable middle grade novel? Many books struggle to do one of those and this was written by a white woman, so I was dubious.
But when I got to the sentence “Old Ren coughed, his unusually pale face even whiter than usual” I breathed a sigh of relief. So many authors make the error of describing the race of characters of color only, that to see a white person’s skin described is a benchmark for baseline acceptability.
Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia.
Kane Miller, EDC, Tulsa, OK, 2011.
Picture book, 36 pages.
Lexile: 500L .
AR Level: 2.1 (worth 0.5 points) .
NOTE: This picture book follows the same characters as the chapter books.
Anna Hibsicus is so happy she could burst! So what can she do to let some of her happiness out? Well it turns out there are all kinds of things she could do.
Finally, I got my hands on one of the Anna Hibiscus picture books! These are out of print in America, and I cannot figure out why. They were once available through Kane Miller, which in the US is distributed through Usborne. I tried to order them the same way I ordered the chapter books, but none of the distributors that I contacted were able to get them. They were clearly once published through Kane Miller in the USA, since the used copy I purchased in the end has that publication information.
“But he read my astrolabe as fast as my father, which both impressed and scared me.” page 14
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.
Tom Doherty Associates, Tor, New York, 2015.
Adult sci-fi novella, 96 pages.
NOTE: This is the first book in the Binti trilogy.
Binti is one of the Himba people, noted for their mathematical ability, never leaving their homeland, and for the clay mixture that they use for their skin and hair. She is also the first Himba ever accepted into the home of galactic intellectualism, Oozma University, and she’s decided to attend.
This relatively short book covers only the journey, although she speaks about her home life and decision to apply, so we get a small taste of what her world was before this momentous journey.
If you have even the mildest interest in diverse speculative fiction, I’m sure you’ve already heard of Nnedi Okorafor. The Binti trilogy is especially well-known as it’s won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards. The paperback copy I picked up was the 17th printing of a book less than 4 years old. So between the critical acclaim and popular interest, you can probably guess this is a well liked book.
“When I had my own restaurant someday, I thought, I would never rule out someone based on race or sex or nationality. I wouldn’t do it because it was egalitarian, I’d do it because cutting people out meant cutting off talent and opportunity, people who could bring more to the table than I could ever imagine.” page 160
Yes, Chef: a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson.
Random House, New York, 2012.
Autobiography, 326 pages.
The life story of Marcus Samuelsson, a chef across three continents.
This was a random find that was enchanting. I’ll admit that I was first drawn in by the appealing cover, and then after the generosity of the friend who gave this to me, I had to at least start reading it. What I found between the covers kept me up all night until the book was finished.
“But the aunties’ heads must be so hard by now, Anna thought. After centuries of pulling and tugging and yanking, their heads must be as hard as concrete.” page 39
Hooray for Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia.
Kane Miller, EDC Publishing, Tulsa, OK, 2010. (First published in London, 2008.)
Elementary chapter book fiction, 112 pages.
Lexile: 660L .
AR Level: 4.1 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: This is the second book in the Anna Hibiscus chapter book series.
The continued adventures of Anna Hibiscus and her family in amazing Africa.
I wrote a few years ago about the first book in this series, simply titled Anna Hibiscus. While I loved the story and one of my older children read it independently, at the time of that review, they hadn’t enjoyed it as a read-aloud. Well, it was indeed just a moody day, because we have since been loving this series as a whole-family read aloud choice.
Much like the first, this book is actually four interconnected short stories which could be read individually.
“Kids may need years of consistent, loving care before they begin to trust, and they may resist trusting even in the face of much love and care from new parents.” page 107
Forever Mom: What to Expect When You’re Adopting by Mary Ostyn.
Nelson Books, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee, 2014.
Nonfiction, 241 pages.
Mary Ostyn shares her experiences as a mother of ten, six adopted, children.
I’m always interested in reading books about adoption and foster care. Initially when I got this, I thought it would have more about fostering or domestic adoption. While Ostyn did go through the initial process of domestic adoption, in the end all of their six adopted children were foreign adoptions.
This is part memoir and part advice book. Ostyn writes from a Christian background so there are scripture quotations and references to Jesus and prayer. I didn’t realize before reading this book that like many international adoptive parents, she feels particularly called by Jesus to adopt the children who ended up in her home.