“I can still be sorry that you had to experience that. No child or woman should ever be treated like you, Suzie, and your mom were. It helps me understand a little bit why you think you wouldn’t be any good at fancy dancing.” page 9
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Heartdrum, HarperCollins, New York, 2021, my edition 2022. MG short story anthology, 312 pages including back matter. Lexile: not yet leveled AR Level: 5.0 (worth 9.0 points) . NOTE: This review is longer than usual since I discuss each piece and the book as a whole. Also see note on accent marks.
An anthology of pieces centered around one powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Despite having left school library life some time ago, I still get excited to see new collections and anthologies like this one published, because they are such important additions to the classroom. Ancestor Approved manages to take this to the next level by having the stories and poems all connected, despite most being by different authors. If it’s difficult as a reader to wrap your head around the many linkages and connections, just imagine the work Cynthia Leitich Smith did to bring this book together!
There are 18 different pieces by 16 different authors (and Nicole Neidhardt who contributed the excellent cover illustration is also rightfully acknowledged). Most are short stories although the book closes and opens with poems. There’s also considerable supportive matter, including a foreword, glossary broken down by story, notes, acknowledgements, and brief biographies of all contributors. As is my custom for anthologies and collections, I’ll discuss each of the individual pieces briefly before returning to the discussion of the work as a whole.
“It was meant to help other children experience the joy of magic. To guide them. The book finds those with true hearts. Hearts that love. Souls that are kind. Minds that believe.” page 156
The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Cordova. Scholastic, New York, 2020 MG fantasy, 238 pages. Lexile: 710L . AR Level: 5.0 (worth 10.0 points) .
Danny Monteverde has been in foster care for as long as he can remember, but it’s been much worse since his older sister Pili ran away. For years he took comfort in the book she left him, but since losing that he’s felt like giving up on fantasy.
I first came across this book through a review on Charlotte’s Library, and was intrigued as there aren’t many fantasy novels about children in foster care (enough to make a short list, but certainly nowhere near the level or quality of representation one could wish for). Thankfully, in most respects this book solidly delivers!
“It was like every single fear I’d ever had had gotten tangled into one huge knot. I wanted to hide under my bed and explode at the same time.” page 21
Xander and the Dream Thief (Momotaro #2) by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon. Disney Hyperion, New York, 2017. MG fantasy, 330 pages. Lexile: not leveled AR Level: 4.1 (worth 10.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book in the series.
After his surprising victory, Xander is now fully the Momotaro. Having magic powers is great and all, but also means oni attack constantly, his mother had to stay away from him, he’s got a new foster sibling, and has so many nightmares he can’t sleep. So Obachan gives him a baku charm, warning to only use it on the worst nightmares lest the creature take all his dreams.
I enjoy stories of antiheroes or deeply flawed heroes or heroes who don’t want the power. Xander is definitely that in this book, but it’s entirely reasonable that a 12 year old who just inherited unlimited magical power (and is much better at using it than his father) might have that go to his head. Of course, oni are constantly testing him and watching for these kinds of slip-ups.
Luckily, the reckless energy and exuberant imagination that got him into this might also help him get out – with assistance from friends old and new, and if he can manage to get his dreams back. I’m not sure the target audience will be as interested in reading about a not-so-heroic kid as I am, but it’s refreshing when the legendary chosen one is all too human (and a person of color besides).
Dilloway’s second novel again follows a Riordan-ish plot, but full of references to Japanese mythology and culture. Kintaro, Fudo-Myoo, Daruma, and Kaguya-hime are among the featured characters. He also learns/remembers a tiny but crucial bit about his Irish heritage.
“It is easy to understand the child’s bafflement. One has only to listen to an animated conversation in an unfamiliar language – our own language is built of discrete blocks, everyone else’s of quicksilver. It seems as hard to grab a word out of a foreign tongue as to clutch a fistful of water from a pond.” page 87
Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer. HarperPerennial, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1993, my edition 1994. Adult nonfiction, 222 pages. Not leveled.
The story of a girl used for scientific research, the scientists who worked with her, and the way their interactions changed many lives.
The story behind this is so poignant that I couldn’t help wishing again and again that it had been a bit better told. Indeed, if the blurb had not interested me so highly, I would not have persevered beyond the frankly boring first chapter. This was a frequent theme as Rymer often went into digressions which, even when intended to illuminate some aspect of the story, were often poorly timed.
And yet… the story here truly is compelling in every sense.
“Genie” as the name chosen to be used in the scientific research on her, had a truly unique and horrifying childhood. Kept entirely in one room and mostly forced into one or two positions by restraints, she spent more than a decade strapped to a potty seat, eating only liquid or mushed food, and only able to move her fingers and toes. Her blind mother finally escaped from her abusive father with her in tow and entirely accidentally ended up in social services by accident instead.
“Aru held her breath as the familiar weightless sensation of the portals swept through her.” page 50
Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes (Pandava #3) by Roshani Chokshi. Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 386 pages including back matter. Lexile: 760L . AR Level: 5.4 (worth 13.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for previous books in the series.
Aru and company manage to flub their mission to protect two targets and receive a prophecy, only to find that the targets are twin sisters and their last remaining Pandava siblings. Moreover, the prophecy has a line about one sister being untrue which has everyone second guessing each other and allows the Sleeper to sow dissension among the group. Aru believes the only way to fix this mess is to find Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree from the Ocean of Milk. She’ll need her allies both old and new to surmount this new quest!
I was not prepared for this to include foster children. Granted, some aspects of care are different in the magical world of the Pandavas, but that still was something I hadn’t seen in other reviews before reading this for myself. While it didn’t quite match with the logistical details of real-life foster care, the emotional aspects rang true, and I was willing to forgive some magical hand-waving here. In particular, the backstory about Nikita’s love for fashion and their parents leaving them in care to protect them were especially moving.
The twins are Guyanese – open for a wide variation in appearance, but they are described as Black and blue-eyed. The official illustrations are lighter than I’d imagined from the text. Nikita has plant-based powers, while prophetess Sheela is simpler and more sensitive. The girls are only ten, so even when officially recognized by their godly ‘fathers,’ they don’t receive weapons. Instead each gets a choker necklace (Sheela a silver star, Nikita a green heart) which serves as a tracking device and placeholder. Chokshi’s attempts to include such a wide variety of representation for Indian-Americans with various cultural backgrounds and family situations are welcome and well-done.
“Hector took the curve, tilting his body to the same side, and twisted his wrist back, accelerating. The engine hummed, and they passed between the idling buses, making obscene gestures to the drivers waiting to be dispatched to their routes.” page 93
The Immortal Boy by Francisco Montana Ibanez, translated by David Bowles. Levine Querido, New York, 2021. Billingual fiction, 154 pages English, 154 pages Spanish. Not yet leveled.
Two stories in Bogota, Colombia: five siblings try to stay together in their father’s absence, and a girl left in an orphanage follows a child called The Immortal Boy.
After rejecting the overwhelming stereotypes of Villoro’s The Wild Book, I was still searching for a Latine youth fantasy novel in translation. I respect David Bowles and had seen this mentioned without a clear age range, so hoped it would work for my diverse MG fantasy booklists.
Alas, it would be a stretch to consider this MG, although it may be suitable for individual readers. The Immortal Boy is disturbing and morbid… but still good? A difficult book to put down and also an emotionally challenging read. The story is one of nearly unrelenting misery, yet paradoxically beautifully written.
“The holes in his mind were obvious enough. He was still working well below grade level. He would probably never read a book for pleasure.” page 211
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, orig. pub. 2006, my edition 2009. Adult nonfiction, 340 pages. Lexile: 980L . AR Level: 7.2 (worth 19.0 points) .
The story of how the blind side revolutionized football, and a personal story giving one example of the new kind of recruit who is most highly sought after these days in American football.
Before getting into the review, I’ll tell you that I’ve read some of Michael Lewis’ other books – a relative is a fan. This one deals with race and adoption, which is part of why I’ve chosen to review it here. I was given a free copy of this book and decided to read it in part because of the sport enthusiasts I know who enjoyed it, but I myself am not much of a sports fan, which surely colors my opinion.
I think the major problem I had with this book was that Lewis starts out from a white perspective, and really never leaves that viewpoint, even when he’s purportedly trying to get into the minds of his POC characters. The point where this was startlingly clear to me was the first paragraph of Chapter Three, where Big Tony is dramatically driving the boys out of poverty.
Lewis states “Memphis could make you wonder why anyone ever bothered to create laws segregating the races. More than a million people making many millions of individual choices generated an outcome not so different from a law forbidding black people and white people from mingling.” (page 45). The ignorance is startling – clearly Lewis has never heard of redlining and didn’t bother to do even basic research on Black history before writing a book where race has a major influence!
“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.