“The air turned foggy, and Ash’s sweat turned to ice. He sank to the ground, his body wracked with pain.” page 164
The Savage Fortress (Ash Mistry #1) by Sarwat Chadda.
Arthur A. Levine, Scholastic, New York, 2012.
MG fantasy, 292 pages.
Lexile: 660L .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 10.0 points) .
Ash Mistry is the pudgy video-game-loving Indian mythology nerd we never realized we needed to save the world. Spending the summer with his sister visiting his aunt and uncle, he gets caught up in a strange archaeological dig, which leads to even stranger events.
This past year, two debut MG fantasy series drawing from Indian culture have gotten a lot of buzz – Aru Shah in the Rick Riordan imprint, and Scholastic’s Kiranmala Chronicles. But those series are only releasing about one per year, so what’s a fantasy lover to do in the meantime? Binge this already-completed trilogy, of course!
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“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.
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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.
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“It felt like the world was spinning and I was hanging on, hoping I wouldn’t get thrown off and fall into darkness.” page 155
Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith.
Clarion books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2015.
MG historical fantasy/horror, 214 pages.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 4.2 (worth 6.0 points) .
In small-town 1930s Alabama, Hoodoo Hatcher is an unmagical twelve year old born into a folk magic family. It’s embarrassing enough to not be able to do a simple spell when your name is Hoodoo, but it could be downright dangerous when the Stranger comes to town looking for a boy with that name.
Hoodoo is an incredibly unique book. Which makes it memorable and interesting, but also a bit challenging to discuss. How do you classify it? Hoodoo is decidedly set in the past, and some elements are very evocative of the time and place. But it’s also definitely a magical book. The magical elements are not simply magical realism – spells have effects (although not flashy ones) and the existence and efficacy of hoodoo are generally accepted in the town.
There are many creepy aspects. Astral projection occurs a few times, and messages and items are sent from beyond the grave. Lives are in danger, people are possessed, cemeteries are dug up. I find it challenging to classify MG horror since it’s so much less scary, but my sense is that this would mainly fall into horror, with aspects of historical and fantastical fiction that make it a good entry point for readers of those genres.
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“Outside, the neighborhood has been torn apart. Trees, snapped like toothpicks, are lying on the ground.” page 139
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2010.
MG speculative fiction, 218 pages.
Lexile: HL470L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: 3.3 (worth 4.0 points) .
Twelve-year old Lanesha is different from her peers in one major way: she can see ghosts. And several minor ways: she was raised by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who birthed her, but without the formality of kinship or an official foster care relationship. She loves to learn, tackling difficult math problems and learning new words with glee.
The book covers nine days directly before and during the events of Hurricane Katrina over 14 chapters. Within the chapters the text is further broken into sections, and the sentences tend to be short. Although Parker Rhodes doesn’t shy away from challenging words, they are decipherable with context clues if not defined in the text. These explain why this has a low reading level, but it’s not meant for very young readers. Children closer to Lanesha’s age would be a much better fit, because the novel does include deaths, extreme peril, hunger, destruction, and family rejection.
The story starts slowly, establishing Lanesha’s character, neighborhood, and routine before tearing everything apart. It’s a first person novel, and Lanesha is smart, independent, and loving. She’s in an unofficial kinship situation with Mama Ya-Ya since her mother died in childbirth without revealing her father and her mother’s family refuses to accept or acknowledge her.
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“The trick was in knowing how to dispose of people when you were through with them, and Gilly had plenty of practice performing that trick.” page 51
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1978.
Historical fiction, 178 pages.
Lexile: 800L .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points) .
At eleven years old, Gilly Hopkins already has a reputation for being unmanageable and a talent for moving homes. She has no interest in living with the Trotters and is determined to pull out all the stops to get out of this latest home.
I feel so conflicted about this book. On the one hand it seems to play into every old stereotype about foster care. The majority of Gilly’s homes are careless at best. But let’s start with some of the positives first.
Paterson must have had at least some knowledge of foster care, because there are some things she gets right. The difficulty of transitioning from one home to the next, the reluctance to love a new family, the battles over personal care and confusion over standards are all common. The dedication is to an adoptive child, so perhaps she learned about foster care through first-hand experience.
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“Just like that, Rendi became the chore boy at the Inn of the Clear Sky. He was not used to doing chores, so when he found a broom in his hand, he had to watch Peiyi to learn how to sweep.” page 20
Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2014.
MG fantasy, 289 pages + extras.
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: 5.4 (worth 7.0 points) .
Runaway Rendi seems to be the only one who noticed that the moon is missing above the village of Clear Sky! He’s aching for someone to visit this remote village so he can stow away and leave again, but while he’s stuck here, can he unravel the peculiarities of this very odd village?
I was very uncertain about how this read would go (the first book in this series was a 2017 favorite) but Grace Lin has delivered another superb MG fantasy. One of the fascinating aspects of this series is that so far each book focuses on a different character and has an independent plot, although set in the same world.
The previous book was all about journeys. Both the exciting physical journey that Min-li went on, and to a lesser degree, the emotional journey that her parents take as they are left at home without her. In contrast, this book is remarkably stable. The cast of characters is noticeably smaller (although used to full effect) and the setting limited – most scenes take place in one small town and its bizarre surroundings.
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