“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.
“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.
“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…
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.
“Grace just looked at me and asked what I was waiting for. She says it doesn’t matter how old you are, or what you’ve learned – being a Black geek is about who you are, and what you’re interested in. Nobody gets to decide that but you.” page 75
Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Paul Davey. Knopf, Penguin Random House, New York, 2019. MG fantasy, 280 pages. Lexile: 750L . AR Level: 4.8 (worth 7.0 points) .
A biracial Black/German-American boy clearing his uncle’s basement finds a sauerkraut urn haunted by his great-great-grandmother, who insists he help her make pickled ethnic food to enter into the county fair. HD has to balance his own summer plans and responsibilities with his new ghostly relative’s goals.
Reading this after the Unusual Chickens series might be unfair. We eagerly anticipate the next installment in that favorite series. Sauerkraut is a separate story with familiar modus operandi – biracial MC (white German-American and African American) lives in a mostly white, semi-rural area and has unusual hobbies (caring for goats, making things) runs into some strange magic (ancestor haunting the sauerkraut pot).
HD is established in his community, has a strong connection to both sides of his heritage (identifies more as Black), already has a best friend, and isn’t on a farm despite the goat subplot. And he’s a nerd who loves the library and comics and is very familiar with supernatural fiction, so after the original scare he copes with magic more easily.
“Of course the dragon would try to distract him if it really was guilty. But Violet wouldn’t let it. He was a professional, specialised in dragon crimes. This dragon’s crimes.” page 15
The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen. Atthis Arts, Detroit, Michigan, my edition 2020, originally published 2018. All ages fantasy, 132 pages including back matter. Not leveled.
Sir Violet’s duties as knight have fallen into a familiar pattern – he goes to the dragon’s cave, and after some banter a missing item is returned. Until instead of his morning cinnamon roll, he finds the baker’s wife distraught – Juniper is missing! This sends Sir Violet on a quest for not only the missing baker, but a few other things he didn’t know he was missing.
I bought this book entirely because of a post; I didn’t realize the age level until it crossed my feed. Not that this is only for kids, it’s especially written as All Ages – a rare find!
Much like the dragon, I’m a collector, only my hoard is books. I like the collection to fit together in various pleasing ways and am always looking for new releases that fit categories seldom seen in diverse MG fantasy. Three areas have been elusive -stories set in South America or Australia, LGBTQ+ representation, and indigenous stories. We are finally seeing movement on the latter two, so I have high hopes for more English-language South American MG fantasy in the next five years.
I was initially disappointed at the length. The main story is only 118 pages with generous spacing. MG fantasy novels (which this isn’t, but is the comparative genre I’ve been most heavily immersed in lately) tend to run longer, so on my first reading this was at the back of my mind… until the fairly detailed back matter. Knowing that the $13 list price goes towards fair payment for editors, sensitivity readers, and others made me much happier about the price versus length.
Although the book is smaller, it’s well formatted. The cover, while not especially exciting, conveys the gist and is nicely laid out. Simple works better than wrong! As someone who personally and professionally handles dozens to hundreds of books daily, I can tell it’s not from a mainstream publisher – but nowadays well made titles aren’t obviously POD to most casual readers.
“She had mocked the children as batty and delusional. But in the end, they had known what she didn’t – that the line between stories and real life is very thin indeed.” page 72
The School for Good and Evil (#1) by Soman Chainani, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. HarperCollins, New York, 2013. Fantasy novel, 488 pages. Lexile: 830L . AR Level: 5.2 (worth 16.0 points) .
Sophie cannot wait to be stolen from her village and attend the mysterious School of Good and Evil. She’s been doing everything she possibly can to prepare – an intensive beauty regime, rigorous fashion design, and of course good deeds such as befriending the town witch. Agatha has no interest in getting kidnapped, but when her best friend is taken, she just has to intervene. But then Agatha finds herself on the Good side, and Sophie is attending Evil classes…
Not sure how I missed this series for so long. Perhaps since all the main characters are so clearly white, I overlooked that the author is Indian American. But these have been fairly popular.
Chainani’s plotting and characterization, as well as his detailed fairy-tale-based world, truly impressed me. For the last few years, I have been reading a LOT of fantasy novels for young people while working on my first diverse fantasy booklist. Particularly in middle grade fantasy, by now I can often guess what is coming next. This book was gripping because Chainani managed to continually take the plot and characters in new directions while still keeping the developments believable.
“I do not like waste and destruction. I do not want an enemy. If I must have an enemy, I do not want to seek him, and find him, and meet him. … If one must hunt, the prize should be a treasure, not a detestable thing.” page 113
The Farthest Shore (Earthsea Cycle #3) by Ursula K. LeGuin. My edition Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001. Fantasy, 260 pages. Lexile: 920L . AR Level: 6.1 (worth 10.0 points) . NOTES: Please see review for age appropriateness. See my other posts under the Earthsea tag for more information on this series.
Arren travels with his idol Ged to solve the mystery of why magic is slowly disappearing from the islands of Earthsea.
The Farthest Shore is not without problems. Female characters continue to be minor or even unnamed. One secondary character suffers from mental illness and I had so many thoughts on that subplot they might not all fit in this post.
Parents and teachers should be aware of several aspects before handing this to a child. First, Arren has a crush on Ged. I read this as the sort of schoolchild hero worship that many children experience during puberty, but other readers have seen an unrequited romantic love. The text supports either interpretation. Ged absolutely does not have romantic or sexual feelings towards Arren, and their slightly forced companionship grows into mutual respect and esteem as events progress.
“Though the distance from cabin to gangplank wasn’t more than twenty feet, I was protective of the ship. Slate had told me from a very young age not to talk to strangers about Navigation.” page 168
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig.
Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2016.
Speculative fiction, 454 pages.
Lexile: 750L .
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 13.0 points) .
NOTE: This book is not suggested for MG readers despite the reading level.
Nix’s father is a Navigator who can travel to any place, real or imagined as long as he has a map for it, but he’s only obsessed with getting back to the one place he cannot reach – 1868 Honolulu, where Nix’s mother died.
Now having read this book, I can finally fully appreciate why all of the reviews were so maddeningly vague. This is, unfortunately, the type of book that you can’t discuss with any real depth unless you’ve read it, because to discuss anything interesting is to give away part of the action.
So I apologize in advance that you might find this review to also be maddeningly vague. In a book where the majority of the setting and even the time frequently changes (and further changes amongst real and imagined places), the focus is rather on both the characterization and the action. Both are fast-paced!