Review: Making Your Human Smarter

“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!

A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre.

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.

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Review: One Shadow on the Wall

“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.

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson.

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.

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Review: Betty Before X

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.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson.

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.

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Review: On These Magic Shores

“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.

On These Magic Shores by Yamile Saied Mendez.

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.

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Review: Care and Feeding of Humans

“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?

A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder, illustrated by Mary Grandpre.

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.

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Review: When the Sea Turned to Silver

“Pinmei looked at Yishan, but he did not meet her eyes. Instead, he was gazing upward. Another star was flying across the sky, making a silver scratch on the black-lacquered night.” page 191

When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 380 pages + extract.
Lexile:  750L  .
AR Level:  5.3 (worth 9.0 points)  .

Pinmei and her grandmother live simply high up on the mountain.  Pinmei rarely ventures far from home, and hardly speaks to anyone beside her grandmother and friend Yishan.  But she doesn’t need many words when her grandmother tells the most wondrous stories – until the emperor’s soldiers kidnap her grandmother and leave her with an impossible quest.

When the Sea Turned to Silver cover resized

This is technically the third book in a series, but it’s very possible to read them out of order even though all three are set in the same world.  I’ve already reviewed Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky.  If you read those first, then this one will have all sorts of little connections to delight avid readers.  But if you’ve accidentally started with this book instead, don’t worry, you can still enjoy the others!

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Review: Into the Tall Tall Grass

“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…

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon.

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.

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Review: House in the Cerulean Sea

“Linus Baker, for what it was worth, did care about the children he was tasked with observing. He didn’t think one could do what he did and lack empathy, though he couldn’t understand how someone like Ms. Jenkins had ever been a caseworker…” page 88

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.
Tom Doherty Associates, Tor, Macmillian, New York, 2020.
YA/adult fantasy novel, 398 pages.
Not leveled.

Although not cruel or careless like many of his coworkers, Linus Baker is an uninspiring caseworker who’s given his life to the minute rules of the bureaucracy of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, down to the point of purchasing for personal reading (and occasionally quoting from memory) the official Rules and Regulations. So when an unusual and extremely delicate situation arises, he’s the only real choice. But what Linus finds at the island orphanage is so much more than he expected…

The House In the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune.

I’ve been excited to read this one because a book about a 40 year old civil servant monotonously documenting magically gifted youth and slowly coming alive to the true meaning of his work and life is exactly the sort of thing I would have loved at the target age (and still do today).

This book has an interesting dual nature of being both an engaging fantasy novel with several mysteries to unfold, and a very useful teaching tool for the process of learning to see systemic problems that are right in front of your face, so blatant they become invisible. I initially read hoping for a more complex, higher reading level but still MG appropriate diverse book to add for younger kids with high reading levels (like UnLunDun was on my last list). Unfortunately this wasn’t that.

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Review: City of Islands

“She tried to keep her voice light, as though she wasn’t asking the most important question she had ever asked.” page 23

City of Islands by Kali Wallace.
Katherine Tegen imprint, HarperCollins, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 328 pages.
Lexile:  not leveled
AR Level:  5.8 (worth 12.0 points)  .

Mara has been orphaned twice over – once when she survived her family’s shipwreck, and again when the bone mage who raised her was killed by a rival.  Now she’s a diver for the Lady of the Tides, but worried about finding herself homeless again if they keep coming up empty-handed.  A chance tip has her trying a new location where she finds a pile of strange spelled bones that don’t make sense.  Her dream is to study magic with the Lady, but instead she’s rewarded with a challenge – find a way to break in to the impregnable Winter Blade fortress island.

City of Islands cover
City of Islands by Kali Wallace.

Before I finished this book and started to write this review and checked the back flap of the book cover and got around to looking the author up, I knew that she would be white.  By the time I was halfway through the book it was obvious, and here’s why – the hair.  Wallace’s heroine, Mara, is a diver by profession.  She lives on a small island in an archipelago where most everyone grows up swimming and boating and generally transitioning from water to not with ease.

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Review: Dragon Steel

“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.

Dragon Steel by Laurence Yep.

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.

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