“They got only this one egg a year even though the children’s mother tended chickens and ducks that produced seven or eight eggs a day right there in the front courtyard. But the eggs weren’t for the family. They were a small business that Gao Xiuying ran to earn a little bit of extra money.” page 49
A Girl Named Faithful Plum: The True Story of a Dancer from China and How She Achieved Her Dream by Richard Bernstein. Originally Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, New York, 2011. My edition Yearling, Random House Children’s Books, New York, 2012. Middle grade (YA?) nonfiction, 272 pages. Lexile: 1080L . AR Level: 6.6 (worth 11.0 points) .
In 1978, an eleven year old girl traveled from her small town on the northern border of China to the Beijing Dance Academy for their open auditions, along with sixty thousand other applicants. Against all odds, she managed to be one of the twelve girls chosen – but that was just the start of her troubles.
Zhongmei spent years in training, and had a long career, but this story focuses mainly on preparing to audition and her first year at school. About half the book focuses on her journey to even make it to auditions and then her progress through the seven layers of audition. The second half covers her first year at the school, and finally an epilogue tells what happened to her after.
Bernstein employs a number of timeline skips to maintain the pacing, although he’s not always successful. His most frequent device is the letters sent back and forth between Zhongmei and her beloved da-jie Zhongqin. He also occasionally has Zhongmei think back on past events. At some points there are skips forward, when reasonable within the story.
“The ‘ohana felt a deep loyalty to their ahupua’a. It was their ‘aina, their homeland. ‘Ai means ‘to eat.’ ‘Aina, the word for homeland or birthplace, means ‘that which feeds.’ It was the ‘aina that nourished, or fed, the ‘ohana. This made it the responsibility of the ‘ohana to take care of their ‘aina.” page 87
From the Mountains to the Sea: Early Hawaiian Life by Julie Stewart Williams, illustrated by Robin Yoko Racoma. Kamehameha Schools Press, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1997. Middle grade non-fiction, 178 pages. Not leveled. NOTE: I read a physical copy of this book, and this review is based on the print book. However, it is also available as a free ebook, currently at this link: https://ulukau.org/ulukau-books/?a=d&d=EBOOK-ENGLISH.2.1.1&e=——-haw-20–1–txt-txPT———– .
A classic school text on early Hawaii.
I came across this text some time ago through the acquaintance of a friend who was offloading some books before moving back to the islands. My friend generously passed many books that her family had read or weren’t interested in to us. I’m always interested in titles from small presses or exploring cultures I don’t know too much about, so this was fascinating to me even though it was dry at points.
This particular book was also especially interesting because I’ve always heard that there aren’t accessible texts for young readers about indigenous life pre-European contact. This is an area I’ve been actively seeking out books on, so it was rather shocking to find one that was not only published in the 1990s, but is part of a series. Indeed, after exploring the ulukau.org link above, I’ve discovered that several books from Kamehameha Schools Press are available there, and hope to review some others which would be cost-prohibitive to have sent to the Midwest.
Way back in 2017, I started working on a list of diverse MG fantasy novels. It took three years to compile the first list, and since many books on it begin a series, it has only been growing ever since. But finding a stopping point was also difficult because I kept coming across more books. Certainly there were some I’d overlooked or had not been able to access, but there was another reason my list of recommended diverse fantasy novels was quadruple what I’d scraped together five years ago – new releases!
We are living in a time when MG fantasy is rapidly diversifying. With the success of a few bold publishers and authors, others seem more willing to consider diverse fantasy, or are just interested in market share of an uncornered niche. Or maybe even, people have been pushing for diversity a long time and the environment is finally right. I’m not sure why now but this explosion of diverse literature is wonderful.
Today there is no excuse for a fantasy list that does not have even a single book with a character of color, let alone diverse authors. And there are enough books and series to make not just one, but many lists of diverse MG fantasy! I did make one change – on this list I included a few white fantasy novels with main characters who had disabilities, were LGBTQ, or had diverse living circumstances. This list also includes books in translation, and a handful of out-of-print but (as of this writing) still obtainable books.
“Up until now, we hadn’t told anyone about the Sight – at least not anyone who hadn’t already known about it.” page 59
Double Cross (Twintuition #4) by Tia and Tamera Mowry. Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2018. MG fantasy, 202 pages. Lexile: 600L . AR Level: 4.2 (worth 5.0 points) . NOTE: Review will contain spoilers for previous books in the series.
The final installment of a quartet about tween twins with visions of the future.
I’m glad I persisted with this series as this last book was definitely the best of the four. Honestly, if the social hijinks of sixth graders don’t highly interest, an older reader could probably skip ahead and read just this book without missing too much. All the major plot points important to this finale are summarized within the text somewhere anyway.
“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.
“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.
“Each time the doctor asked me to move a part of my body and I could not move it, my terror increased.” page 10
Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret. Albert Whitman & Company, Chicago, IL, 1996. Middle grade nonfiction/memoir, 168 pages + preview. Lexile: 830L . AR Level: 5.2 (worth 4.0 points) . NOTE: This review is of the nonfiction polio narrative, not the fictional Louis Sachar Holes sequel.
Seven months in 12 year old Peg’s life, starting in September 1949 shortly before she became ill, and continuing with her illness and survival for the rest of that school year.
When COVID hit, I went through a phase of reading children’s books about other epidemics. Books for young readers have the happy endings that adult authors rarely do, and there was something comforting about knowing others had survived the spread of contagious diseases.
Everyone in this story is either described or presumed white, but many characters, including the author/narrator, experience physical disability as a from the polio epidemic. I also wanted to write about this book because it was one of the best family read-alouds we did during quarantine, and ought to be better known.
“I could still feel my sister glaring at me. But I forced a smile as Ms. Xavier patted my shoulder, thankfully without bringing on a vision this time. I mean, what was I supposed to do?” page 75
Double Dare (Twintuition #3) by Tia and Tamera Mowry. Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017. MG fantasy, 204 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 610L . AR Level: 4.4 (worth 5.0 points) . NOTE: This review may contain spoilers for previous books in the series.
Twins Cassie and Caitlyn Waters can see into the future, but they never anticipated a surprise grandmother showing up or a classmate taking on a life-or-death prank. Can they balance foretelling training, using their visions to prevent disasters, and their schoolwork without becoming social pariahs?
Finally some action. Although some MG fantasy novels appeal to a wide range and can be enjoyed by older readers or read aloud to younger children, this is definitely meant to be read alone by the target audience.
After being teased about the family legacy for two whole books, there are finally some answers (and more questions, there’s still another book). The future visions this time were showing a legitimately dangerous possibility and had real consequences while also feeling like something that could happen in middle school.
This book ends on what I’d normally consider a pretty heavy cliffhanger… if the result hadn’t been so heavily foreshadowed that it’s inevitable.
“I no more wanted Parz’s help than I wanted to be helpless. I didn’t want him – or anyone – to see me as weak.” page 54
Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell. Harper, HarperCollins Children’s Books, New York, 2013. MG fantasy, 328 pages. Lexile: 770L . AR Level: 5.4 (worth 10.0 points) .
A princess’ work is never done, even if said princess is visibly disabled, especially if said princess is the only heir to valuable property. When Tilda’s cousin steals her lands, she sees it as the perfect excuse for freedom and adventures. She’ll be free of all her onerous duties, and her people will be free of her and won’t have to whisper horrid comments behind her back. But even as she learns about dragons, the wild hunt, and other magics, she also learns a lot about herself and what she truly wants.
Tilda is a princess (and as a sole heir, will inherit despite her gender and disability) but she secretly dreams of living in a monastery. This is partly because she doesn’t know the realities of that life, thus can idealize it, but it’s also because of the realistically awful yet appropriate for the time period way she’s treated.
“Dante nodded, and Pao immediately felt bad for using her phony posh voice. Emma never sounded like that. That was her life, the same way this ones was Pao’s. It just felt strange that they were so far apart sometimes, like Emma was in a world Pao couldn’t reach.” page 24
Paola Santiago and the River of Tears (Paola Santiago #1) by Tehlor Kay Mejia. Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 354 pages. Lexile: 840L . AR Level: 5.9 (worth 15.0 points) .
Paola loves space and finds her mother’s fantastical beliefs embarrassing – there’s no scientific reason why she and her friends shouldn’t meet up near the Gila River. But then Emma never arrives at their rendezvous, so Paola teams up with their best friend Dante to mount a rescue that involves little science or logic, and a whole lot of mythology.
I’ve been wanting to read more Latine MG fantasy novels, and Mejia certainly delivered with this series starter. Paola is a practical dreamer who wants to be a scientist but knows it’s going to take hard work to get there. She has two best friends; Dante lives in the apartment above her with his abuela, and Emma joined their circle when she moved to the area from Colorado a few years ago. Although we hear a lot about Emma and Pao even talks to her parents, Emma herself is not present – it’s her disappearance that leads her friends into the magical world.