“I feel for the mugwort in my pocket, but it’s gone – and in a flash of orange and black, the tiger disappears, too.” page 147
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller. Random House, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 298 pages. Lexile: 590L . AR Level: 4.1 (worth 8.0 points) .
Lily, her older sister Samantha, and their mother have left California to live with Halmoni (grandmother), which Sam resents and Lily quietly accepts. But as they arrive, Lily begins to see something nobody else does – a tiger who can talk and walk through buildings and strike bargains, who wants something from her family.
I had gotten this book, read and enjoyed it, started a review, and was in my second reading when… it won the Newberry. All of a sudden everyone was reading and reviewing it! I frequently am surprised by, or disagree with, the Newberry awards – but it isn’t often my reaction is disbelief that others chose a book I personally loved.
“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.
“Yolanda squeezed Rosalind Franklin to her chest and nuzzled her nose in the dog’s fur. She was not going to get rid of her dog, and she and Sonja were not going to foster care. There was no way she was going to let any of that happen.” page 59
Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon. Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon & Schuster Children’s, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 330 pages. Lexile: 660L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
All the women in Yolanda’s family have some sort of magical gift, including her twin sister, but not her. Her father is away in the military, she’s become estranged from her best friend and her twin, her grandfather has died, and her ailing grandmother asks Yolanda to take her to the only pecan tree left standing on their property after the grass starts growing taller and taller…
Occasionally I run into a book that seems to be severely underhyped. Sometimes, like with The Secret of the Blue Glass, I can look objectively at the book and see why it might have trouble finding an audience or why it might not appeal to everyone even if I personally loved it. Others I can’t understand why it hasn’t been popular! My only thinking for this one is 2020, or perhaps that some readers disliked the lesbian aspect which is not immediately apparent.
I’ve written about “diverse-adjacent” books before; this one is more stealth diverse. The cover is gorgeous and represents the characters well, but even reading the synopsis, other than the names Yolanda Rodriguez-O’Connell and Wela, nothing that stands out as Latina, and particularly not LGBTQ.
“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.
“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!
“Rosa said nothing. She said it loudly. Rosa was not impressed with the basement apartment, or the library above it, or the town of Ingot. She missed their old place in the city.” page 1
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, illustrated by Kelly Murphy.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2017, my paperback edition 2018.
MG fantasy, 184 pages plus excerpt.
Lexile: 640L .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points) .
Rosa Diaz has been training her whole life to one day be a librarian specializing in ghost appeasement, so she’s disgusted when her mother moves them to the only unhaunted place in the world. Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot and never seen a ghost, so when one appears his world turns upside down. Can these unlikely friends solve the mystery of their oddly unhaunted hometown before it turns on them?
The mythology and worldbuilding of this is extensive. Alexander has imagined an entire alternate universe where ghosts are a normal part of everyday life and always have been, outside of Ingot, at least. The way he uses Ingot to introduce us to this world is clever – Jasper gasps at everything and Rosa is constantly annoyed or saddened by the small differences between Ingot and the properly haunted places that she’s used to living. This then gives Alexander a reason to constantly be telling us all those little details that build up into a coherent alternate world.
Both kids have unique family situations. As the only child of two founders, Jasper is the lead of the ren faire kid pack. Rosa is something that doesn’t quite exist in our world, perhaps a cross of homeschooled and army brat? She’s comfortable with every kind of ghost, but less familiar with people. Her knowledge is excellent but scattered, based on the books she’s been reading and had interest in. As the child of appeasement librarians, she has always lived in libraries and had a much different upbringing than Jasper. Continue reading “Review: A Properly Unhaunted Place”
At one point, I didn’t tag any of the books with Black content because that was the primary content of this blog, but it was recently brought to my attention that since the original scope of Colorful Book Reviews has greatly expanded, I should probably start using that tag.
After some reflection, I’ve decided to add the following tags:
Black African American white/presumed white Afro-Latinx
It was also brought to my attention that I probably should be tagging books with biracial main characters also. After some conversations, what I’ve decided to do is tag each ethnicity as well as using biracial tags. I understand that the biracial people in my life are not necessarily representative of all biracial people everywhere, and that some might differ in opinion. For now I’ll be making two tags, biracial (white) and biracial (nonwhite). This is not to diminish the importance of literature about biracial people from two different nonwhite cultures, but simply to reflect the reality that far more children’s literature currently exists including biracial characters with partially white heritage.
While embarking on this tag clean up project, I’m also toying with the idea of region-specific tags for Africa, and will probably consolidate the Caribbean tags since I just don’t post enough about most countries there.
It will probably be May or June before I have time to actually start implementing these changes on past posts in the blog, since my main priority continues to be reading and writing reviews. But I wanted to mention it early to have a chance for feedback before all these changes.
“There must be a logical explanation for all of this. I just don’t know what it is yet.” page 57
Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Momotaro #1) by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon. Disney Hyperion, New York, 2016. MG fantasy, 310 pages. Lexile: not leveled. AR Level: 3.9 (worth 10.0 points) .
Xander Musashi Miyamoto is your average 6th grader – obsessed with video games, could care less about his homework project on climate change. Also latest in a long line of Momotaros – with a life-or-death quest. As the smallest boy in his class, it’s a good thing his best friend was around when the magic hit – Xander will need all the help he can get.
Xander is biracial white/Asian, and Dilloway specifies both. I was intrigued to see how his Ainu heritage would play out. Indigenous people of Japan, Ainu are even today subject to racism, cultural appropriation, and suppression. His father’s Ainu/Japanese family could be mixed, but if they teach him he’s part Ainu, presumably they’d retain other cultural markers too. Although today considered white, Irish Americans like his mother were once a hated minority.
People remark on Xander’s ethnicity, from a mean classmate to overheard remarks from his best friend’s father and even his own grandmother’s suggestion that his powers will be completely different because he’s biracial. Xander also remarks specifically on the lack of a local Asian community. I wondered why his father chose to stay in the San Diego suburbs and how the local university supported an Asian mythology professor if his family are the only Asians there, but was mostly willing to accept the hand-wavy magic of it.
“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”