“Haroun noticed that old General Kitab himself, mounted on a winged mechanical horse very like Bolo’s, was flitting from Barge-Bird to Barge-Bird to keep in touch with the various discussions; and such was the freedom evidently allowed to the Pages and other citizens of Gup, that the old General seemed perfectly happy to listen to these tirades of insults and insubordination without batting an eyelid.” page 119
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. Granta Books London, Penguin Books, New York, originally published 1990, my edition 1991. MG fantasy, 216 pages. Lexile: 940L . AR Level: 6.9 (worth 7.0 points) . NOTE: This is longer than my usual review, as I had much to say about this book. The final paragraphs will contain content warnings and my overall thoughts as usual.
Twelve year old Haroun’s father has fallen into a pit of deep despair and he himself can’t focus for longer than eleven minutes at a time. This causes a problem when Rashid Kalifa the Ocean of Notions is expected to speak at a politician’s rally and can’t perform. Catching a Water Genie uninstalling the tap from the Sea of Stories makes Haroun question if his father’s stories might actually have an element of truth to them, and he is determined to set his family right.
I wanted to love this book but did not. Rushdie has good elements in an increasingly frustrating telling. The Biggest Thing for me, this Reviewer, were the Lots of Unnecessary Capitals (LUC) and the Frequency of Pointless, Unclear, Initialisms (FoPUI). Was that sentence nearly unreadable for you? Now imagine an entire book. If I wanted all the nouns to be capitalized, I would read it in German.
It was difficult to finish this book because of the random unneeded capitalizations in particular. If I had not already purchased this and the sequel, I would probably have given up. Eventually I pushed through by rewarding myself with a different book after every two chapters read. It is one of the few fiction books reviewed here that I have not fully read twice.
“The girl stretched her arm, her large belly getting in the way. From the girl’s young age, Malala guessed it was her first child and she hadn’t been married long.” page 3
She Dared: Malala Yousafzai by Jenni L. Walsh. Scholastic, New York, 2019. Elementary/MG biography, 120 pages. Lexile: not leveled AR Level: 5.0 (worth 2.0 points) .
A highly problematic youth biography of Malala Yousafzai.
It’s rare that by the third chapter of a children’s book I’m continuing to read only for due diligence. I tend to avoid or delay negative reviews – it’s more fun to write about wonderful books, or try to analyze the ones I feel lukewarm about. Since leaving daily school librarianship in a slight (and given the pandemic, well-timed) rerouting of my career, I haven’t followed Scholastic as closely. It’s no longer part of my professional duties to coordinate book fairs and Scholastic purchases, and in my personal and blog life, I prefer to focus more on smaller publishers and lesser known authors. One of my kids still orders from them though, which is how this book ended up in our house.
A quick glance at the series and it’s obvious that this was an attempt by Scholastic to capitalize on the success of female biography series such as Rebel Girls. Even the name here is a rip off of the She Persisted books. But being derivative isn’t always bad in children’s literature – while these books are less fun for adults to read, simplified plots and repetitive sentences can also help early readers in some circumstances.
What bothered me most about this book is that it was very clearly written for white readers (although it doesn’t state that openly) and panders heavily. If you read Malala’s own books, her perspective involves criticism of her culture – but from a place of deep love, respect, and understanding. For her as a cultural insider to denounce the Taliban and some aspects of traditional life, involves very different nuance than what Walsh uses here.
“He nocked an arrow. Their armor looked good, but there were gaps he could aim at. Except he’d never shot at a man before. He wasn’t sure he could.” page 197
Dream Magic (Shadow Magic #2) by Joshua Khan, illustrated by Ben Hibon. Disney Hyperion, New York, 2017, my edition 2018. MG fantasy, 340 pages. Lexile: 580L . AR Level: 4.5 (worth 12.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book. FURTHER NOTE: Pictures on this review are part of the pink posts.
Lily and Thorn are back in the gloomy sequel, with added trolls and spiders and sinister intent!
While we were teased a lot about Lily doing forbidden magic, it didn’t really have any consequences in the first book – she was easily able to pretend it wasn’t her and the focus was more on the murders and political intrigue. This time around, there’s still plenty of court politics (now with actual courting, since Lily’s assumed to be available again) and a few murders (which sort of have the edge taken off by Lily’s ability to revive the dead). But Lily is also properly studying magic, and Thorn is doing more regular squire work, and the social mores and consequences of their situations start to catch up with them.
“She couldn’t hear anything, not the wind or the crickets of the distant thunder. It was silence almost more than silence because, for the first time since she’d gotten to Silverworld, she couldn’t hear the thoughts of the Flickers.” page 119
Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber. Crown Books for Young Readers, Penguin Random House, New York, 2020. MG portal fantasy, 294 pages. Lexile: 800L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
Sami’s family has recently moved, her beloved Teta is speaking gibberish, and there’s a plan to put her in a nursing home. In desperation, Sami tries finding and reciting something from her grandmother’s spellbook, even though she doesn’t believe magic is real – right until she falls through the portal into Silverworld.
Many aspects of this will resonate with readers beyond the Lebanese-American children for whom this book is a mirror. Sami feels stuck between two cultures: her family’s traditional Lebanese culture, and the American lifestyle that surrounds her. To her, the closest connection to her culture is her grandmother’s stories and precious artifacts (although her family also has other aspects, such as her mother’s cooking). Although I am not Lebanese, that aspect of the book rung very true to my own life experiences. Parents and other community members play an important role, but the wisdom of elders and bond between a child and their grandparent is stronger than most other forms of cultural transmission I’ve seen.
“The castle was darkness made solid. No natural light had entered it since the day Prince Shadow, the original lord of darkness, had built it.” page 133
Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan, illustrated by Ben Hibon. Disney Hyperion, New York, 2016. MG fantasy, 324 pages. Lexile: 540L . AR Level: 4.1 (worth 11.4 points) . NOTE: First in a trilogy.
Thorn was just trying to find his outlaw father when he got caught by slavers and was sold to executioner Tyburn of House Shadow. Lilith Shadow was never supposed to rule Gehenna, but then her family was killed.
I picked this one up because of this review. Initially this series didn’t strike me as particularly diverse from reading the blurb, but the author’s commentary on the Middle Eastern inspiration as well as an #ownvoice Muslim reviewer’s thoughts quickly confirmed that this was a trilogy I wanted to read.
“Their heavy suspicion made them appear an unwelcoming lot, but this was only partly true. The truth was that they were a lively, cultured sort of people – when you got to know them – who felt they had a great deal to be afraid of; it was this last bit – this certainty of fear – that helped substantiate the paranoia that demanded their isolation.” page 81
Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi.
Dutton Children’s, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages.
Lexile: 1080L .
AR Level: 7.5 (worth 11.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a direct sequel to Furthermore, although it focuses on a new character.
Laylee’s mother has died (but still haunts the house) and in his grief, her father left her alone as the final mordeshoor in the magical land called Whichwood. At thirteen, she is overburdened by unceasing demands of the living and the dead, struggling to survive with the pittance given her and care for all the dead while desperately ill herself.
I definitely enjoyed this book just as much as the first, maybe even more. Furthermore was a magical romp, a playful but also very serious journey through an ever-changing fantastical landscape. Whichwood takes place almost entirely in one place, and while highly magical, it’s an orderly magical place similar to Ferenwood, so the reader has some time to get fir bearings and delve into the culture and peculiarities of Whichwood.
Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi.
Dutton Children’s Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 404 pages.
Lexile: 840L .
AR Level: 5.5 (worth 12.0 points) .
Alice Alexis Queensmeadow lives in the rather dull (at least by her standards) town of Ferenwood. She doesn’t quite fit in, partly because she is nearly colorless, and partly because of her quirky, temperamental personality.
Mafi has an unusual writing style – you are likely to either love or hate it, and it’s difficult to describe, so I’d highly suggest reading an excerpt from this book to see if her method will be a good fit for you. Much like her unique setting and eccentric protagonist, she writes with a blend of humor, sarcasm, drama, and pragmatic melancholy. Even on the chapters that proceed the main adventure and are mostly worldbuilding, really, everything moves at a breakneck pace.
In the hands of another writer, any one of the many places and magics that Mafi describes could be its own story, but much like Alice in Wonderland, this Alice is focused on meeting her goals. Her beloved Father is missing, former classmate Oliver is a thorn in her side, and her mother is cold and dismissive.
“She resented the fact that her veil, which to her was a symbol of her sacred relationship to God, had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols.” page 103
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi.
Random House, New York, my edition 2004, originally published 2003.
Adult memoir, 358 pages including reading group guide.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level: 8.4 (worth 25.0 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, this is an adult book not recommended for children.
As the title states, a memoir of the author’s career in Tehran told through the lens of various literature she read and taught.
“Just then, the massive pendulum he’d seen in the outer caverns swung into the chamber, lifting Stefan’s hair in its wake. In the light of the Cogworks, it shone like a slice of the sun.” p. 122
The Toymaker’s Apprentice by Sherri L. Smith.
Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 392 pages.
Lexile: 710L .
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 14.0 points) .
By the second reading, I’d worked out how to describe this book when recommending it. It’s a bit like a cross between Hugo and Redwall, without really being like either at all. While this is technically a retelling of the story of the Nutcracker, I believe it could stand alone even if a reader had no previous knowledge of the stories and ballet it’s based on.
Sherri L. Smith is one of those rare authors who seems to write many genres well. You might recall my review of her historical fiction Flygirl, and the dystopian Orleans is one of my favorite books (though I’m still struggling to review it). She’s also written several contemporary novels that I haven’t gotten to yet, and this piece is a middle grade fantasy retelling.
“You definitely feel conflicted when you stand out in a group, and you’re
going through different experiences. You feel a little bit discouraged. But
if you already stand out, you might as well shine. ” Maly, p. 74
This book gives encouragement and advice to students who may be the first in their families to attend college. It includes many personal stories and quotations from students who have similar journeys.
This short book is aimed at encouraging teens from minority groups (or who are economically disadvantaged) to persevere in college. When no family members or friends have attended college, students can find themselves at yet another disadvantage as they have no guide to help them navigate college classes or culture. This book is here to help, with stories and tips from real students who have made it through part or all of college although they were the first in their families.