“The Ironmonger was speaking, and his voice was deep and rich and bitter. ‘It took fighting against the States to be able to walk free. Is it so different a place now that I ought to forgive it after so short a time? To say nothing of binding myself to it.’ ” page 30
Bluecrowne by Kate Milford, illustrated by Nicole Wong. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2018. MG/YA fantasy adventure, 262 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 840L . AR Level: 5.9 (worth 10.0 points) .
Melusine Bluecrowne, or Lucy for short, is going to be grounded. As much as she loves her half-brother and stepmother, she’s always imagined a life on board her father’s privateer (aka letter-of-marque), not living ashore, no matter how grand their new home appears.
Sutler Foulk Trigemine is in 1810 Nagspeake to see about several matters of business for his boss Morvengarde, one of which is the collection of a specially gifted conflagrationist. Meanwhile young Liao Bluecrowne is fascinated by fire and can create fireworks like nobody’s ever seen…
I debated reviewing this. Full disclosure – it’s not really diverse. The author is white and so are both of the main characters, and while there are important secondary characters of color, Milford’s AU world is, at least at this time and place, mostly white. Greenglass House has the same conditions except the main character is an Asian domestic transracial adoptee, which put that book firmly within the scope of this blog. This book is more diverse-adjacent, which is okay but I just wanted my readers to be forewarned.
“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.
“Harper didn’t realize she’d walked into the room to take a closer look until she heard the door slam shut behind her. She whirled around, her heart beating loudly in her ears.” page 73
Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh. Harper, HaperCollins, New York, 2017 (my edition 2018). MG horror, 280 + excerpt. Lexile: 680L . AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .
Harper Raine is getting some seriously bad vibes from the creepy old house her family just moved into. She’s already upset about moving from NYC to DC, but now their house gets cold or hot in weird spots, has a haunted reputation, and her little brother is acting seriously weird…
Much better than The Dragon Egg Princess – some parts still didn’t work for me, but overall I enjoyed this much more.
I’ve written before about how important it is to see realistic microaggressions in children’s literature, and here Oh does that well. A mere 20 pages in, an old white lady does the “no, where are you really from?” routine and brings in some Asian stereotyping too. Her mom intervenes in a politely passive-aggressive way that gets the point across.
An unusual thing Oh does though, is that later a neighborhood kid asks “where are you from?” in an innocent, where’d you move from, way – and Harper still braces herself until the meaning is fully clear. While I don’t love that this happens, I very much appreciated seeing it in a children’s novel. Oh makes it clear how that woman’s racism was not only harmful in their encounter, but also impacts Harper’s self esteem and her future meetings with others.
“Ann also had a certain Javanese sense of propriety, which Holloway went so far as to describe as prudery. It surprised him, because most of the Americans he knew were the opposite.” page 210
A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott. Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2011, my edition 2012. Biography, 386 pages. Not leveled.
A biography of Barack Obama’s mother.
Barack Obama led a unique and fascinating life long before he ever went into politics. A great deal has been made of his father, including his now famous first book, Dreams from My Father, but much less has been said about his mother, a white woman from Kansas. After Barack’s father returned to Kenya, she married a man named Lolo and moved to Indonesia, where Maya was born. Eventually they split up too, and Barack then lived with his grandparents.
There might be other details depending on which book you’re reading, but little insight into who she was or why she made the choices she did, although those choices were so formative for a man so many have opinions about. Janny Scott was different – she saw Stanley Ann Dunham* from the beginning and wanted to know what her life was like.
The result is this fascinating biography which will probably be little read and even less appreciated. Yet the story of Dunham’s life holds merit alone, even though it probably never would have been written without her famous son’s accomplishments drawing intense public scrutiny to their family. She was surprisingly countercultural yet drew from certain deeply conservative attitudes.
“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!
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“Every day you should fill this glass with milk and put it on the windowsill for them. You mustn’t forget now. The Little People cannot live unless humans do this for them.” page 15
The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Pushkin Children’s Books, London, UK, 2015. Historical fantasy, 188 pages. Not leveled. NOTE: Reviewing the 2015 translation of a 1959 Japanese novel.
Although the little people first came to Japan in the 1890s, this unique story covers the time from 1913 until World War II when they were in the care of the Moriyama family.
I finished my first read-through thinking I must review this, and immediately after wondered how I was possibly going to review it. How does one review a book they personally loved, but know won’t work for everyone?
When reviewing books for this blog, I do my best to consider the book through multiple lenses. I adored this book and sincerely hope more of this Inui’s books are translated. But… I can also see why other people might not adore it.