“But when you’ve ridden a dragon, had lunch with Nessie, and fought monsters, it would take more than a fussy hotel clerk to scare me away. I gave him my best imitation of Miss Drake’s glare.” page 249
A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter (Dragon’s Guide #2) by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrations by Mary Grandpre. Yearling, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016. MG fantasy, 296 pages + exerpt. Lexile: 790L . AR Level: 5.4 (worth 9.0 points) . NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous book.
Miss Drake’s training of her pet human is starting to pay off. Winnie has been accepted into the local magical school and seems like she is starting to enjoy life. Miss Drake and her magical friends will take any precaution to keep her beloved pet from harm. But Winnie seems to think Miss Drake is her pet!
I wasn’t sure what to expect – the last book was good but not overly compelling. One of my biggest concerns was if the series was sustainable. The idea of a dragon and her pet human is a fun take on a fantasy trope, but not enough for a whole series.
Yep and Ryder get around that in two ways for this second book. First, this is a novel in two voices. Regular readers will recall I generally prefer books written in the third person or with a single narrator. The authors here make it bearable several ways: clear plot reasons necessitate the two voices; rather than always alternating chapters, the two trade off as needed (headers indicate the switch); our narrators may share many common events, but generally have distinct voices.
“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.
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.
“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.
“Ah, dear Winthrop! I called him Lucky, because that was what he was, after wandering away from his father’s hired riverboat and into the Malaysian jungle.” page 11
A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans (Dragon’s Guide #1) by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre. Yearling, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015. MG fantasy, 152 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 840L . AR Level: 5.6 (worth 5.0 points) .
Ms. Drake is mourning the loss of her beloved pet Fluffy when a near-feral new critter barges rudely into her den. She’d planned to spend a few decades in retirement before getting a new pet, but will Winnie convince her otherwise?
So, first I need to clear up a mistake I made back in my review of Dragon of the Lost Sea. That book is the first in the Dragon Quartet, and at the time I reviewed it, I’d started this trilogy but hadn’t decided whether to review it for this blog. The voice of the dragon Shimmer from that book, and Miss Drake in this story, were so markedly similar that I thought they were the same character in two different stories. However, upon rereading this book it’s clear that couldn’t be the case – because they are different colors!
For the record, I still think it would have been neat if this was the same character appearing across different settings and time periods. Even the naming (Ms. Drake is basically a word for dragon with an honorific) led me to think these were the same characters, and that would have been a nice nod to his previous work. However, it’s also understandable that across publishers and editors, Yep may not have been able to include the same character even if that was his desire.
“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.
“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.
“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.
A plethora of problematic details ultimately ruin this widely hyped pro-dyslexic novel. See review for quotations.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
Puffin, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
MG realistic fiction, 276 pages + sketchbook of impossible things and excerpt.
Lexile: 550L .
AR Level: 3.7 (worth 7.0 points) .
NOTE: This review is a lot longer than my usual. If you’d just like a general opinion, scroll down to the final paragraphs.
Ally’s been to half a dozen different schools. With a military dad and working mom, it’s easy to hide things from teachers, like not being able to read. If trouble arises, she just goes with the laughs and builds on her trouble-making reputation. But the new teacher is bringing light to her gifts and might illuminate her struggles also, if she lets him.
I wanted to love this book. It’s been on my wishlist for ages and I hoped this would be a good book to share with the kids. Instead, I feel ambivalent. None of the individual issues alone were major enough to ruin it; some parts I liked, but many aspects were problematic.
“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.