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: Bluecrowne

“The Ironmonger was speaking, and his voice was deep and rich and bitter. ‘It took fighting against the States to be able to walk free. Is it so different a place now that I ought to forgive it after so short a time? To say nothing of binding myself to it.’ ” page 30

Bluecrowne by Kate Milford, illustrated by Nicole Wong.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2018.
MG/YA fantasy adventure, 262 pages + excerpt.
Lexile: 840L .
AR Level: 5.9 (worth 10.0 points) .

Melusine Bluecrowne, or Lucy for short, is going to be grounded. As much as she loves her half-brother and stepmother, she’s always imagined a life on board her father’s privateer (aka letter-of-marque), not living ashore, no matter how grand their new home appears.

Sutler Foulk Trigemine is in 1810 Nagspeake to see about several matters of business for his boss Morvengarde, one of which is the collection of a specially gifted conflagrationist. Meanwhile young Liao Bluecrowne is fascinated by fire and can create fireworks like nobody’s ever seen…

Bluecrowne by Kate Milford, illustrated by Nicole Wong.

I debated reviewing this. Full disclosure – it’s not really diverse. The author is white and so are both of the main characters, and while there are important secondary characters of color, Milford’s AU world is, at least at this time and place, mostly white. Greenglass House has the same conditions except the main character is an Asian domestic transracial adoptee, which put that book firmly within the scope of this blog. This book is more diverse-adjacent, which is okay but I just wanted my readers to be forewarned.

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Review: Rainbow People

“A culture defines its virtues and vices within its folktales.” page 69

The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep, illustrated by David Wiesner.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1989. (See review.)
Short story/folklore collection, 194 pages.
Lexile: 680L .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 6.0 points) .

Twenty stories drawn from the most common area of Chinese-American immigration, streamlined and retold for younger audiences.

So I’m pretty sure my copy is a knock-off. The cover is the 1992 version, although on close examination it’s subtly off, but the interior copyright page is taken from one of the early 1989 printings. The margins aren’t set correctly and vary too much, and while harder to quantify, the paper and bindings don’t feel right compared to other books from this time period from this publisher that I’ve handled.

I purchased this book online, ostensibly new. After investigation, I don’t believe that the seller of this was aware then that it might be a printing violating copyright, so I won’t mention them specifically. Normally I would get a copy from the library to check if this version is accurate, but in Covid times, that is easier said than done. Perhaps some kind person who has access to a proper version of this book will comment if my citations are correct. I decided to still write this review because I’ve been wanting to talk about Laurence Yep and this book is particularly interesting.

Turning now to this specific volume, it’s a unique work. While I’ve seen many volumes of, or including, Chinese folklore, this book by Yep is the first I’ve seen that suggests a uniquely Chinese-American variety of tall tales. He points out that since the majority of early Chinese immigrants to America came from a specific province, the stories of that region have greater significance than more general Chinese or Asian proverbs.

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Review: Shadow Magic

“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.

Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan, illustrated by Ben Hibon.

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.

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Review: The Dragon of Ynys

“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.

The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen.

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.

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Review: Secret of the Blue Glass

“Every day you should fill this glass with milk and put it on the windowsill for them. You mustn’t forget now. The Little People cannot live unless humans do this for them.” page 15

The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Pushkin Children’s Books, London, UK, 2015.
Historical fantasy, 188 pages.
Not leveled.
NOTE: Reviewing the 2015 translation of a 1959 Japanese novel.

Although the little people first came to Japan in the 1890s, this unique story covers the time from 1913 until World War II when they were in the care of the Moriyama family.

The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapely Takemori.

I finished my first read-through thinking I must review this, and immediately after wondered how I was possibly going to review it. How does one review a book they personally loved, but know won’t work for everyone?

When reviewing books for this blog, I do my best to consider the book through multiple lenses. I adored this book and sincerely hope more of this Inui’s books are translated. But… I can also see why other people might not adore it.

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Review: You Can Fly

“The sky’s no limit if you’ve flown / on your own power in countless dreams; / […] / not if you’ve gazed at stars / and known God meant for you to soar.” page 1

You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers Imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.
Second person historical novel in verse, 80 pages including timeline and notes.
Lexile:  910L .
AR Level:  6.0 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: I would consider this book for about 4th grade through adult reading.

This story told in the second person vividly delineates the journey of a black airman during WWII through sparse poems and black and white images based on historic photographs.

You Can Fly cover
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.

I did not expect to like this book.  A novel in verse – already something I feel ambiguous about.  Then you add the fact that this is in second person, which I tend to dislike even when it’s done well.  Finally, I was under the misapprehension that this was a work of non-fiction about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Yet this book which I should have disliked actually captivated me.

First, let’s discuss the illustrations.  There is one illustration on almost every other page.  A few are full page, but most are half or less.  They interact nicely with the text.  Some scratch into the page, and in other cases there’s white text on black background so the words flow into the illustration.  At a casual glance some of the illustrations look like photographs.

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Review: Zahrah the Windseeker

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn’t sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother’s womb. Imagine that!” page vii

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.
Graphia, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005.
MG or YA fantasy (see review), 308 pages.
Lexile: 720L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 11.0 points) .

Zahrah Tsami was born dada, with vines that grow amongst her hair. She doesn’t spend time with anyone other than her family and her best friend Dari, a charismatic boy newly obsessed with the Forbidden Greeny Jungle that borders their town. For much of her life she’s kept to herself and quietly tried her best to fit in, but puberty brings many changes. Can Zahrah complete a dangerous quest that only she is suited for? Could she ever accept her own unique self?

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.

Every so often I come to this blog to look up a review and realize I never actually wrote one, as with this excellent Afrocentric fantasy novel for young readers which really should have been on my first diverse middle grade fantasy booklist, but will have to wait for the next one instead.

Classifying works by genre is something I probably spend too much time considering. It interests me personally and professionally, especially when there isn’t a clear answer. Zahrah the Windseeker definitely fits into a category – science fantasy. But that category doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the science fiction | fantasy divide!

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Review: Amari and the Night Brothers

“Still, I’m pretty surprised at how easily moving in the Sky Sprints comes for me. After about an hour, I’m keeping pace with the legacy kids as we race along the walls and take turns avoiding the obstacles…” page 171

Amari and the Night Brothers (Supernatural Investigations #1) by B. B. Alston.
Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins, New York, 2021.
MG fantasy, 410 pages.
Not yet leveled
NOTE: I received a free Advance Reader Edition of this book from a publicist. The artwork and other details were not finalized yet.

Amari is floundering at school and home without her brother Quinton who has been missing, presumed dead, for the past year. Since he disappeared without a trace, even her mother is starting to believe he was mixed up in something criminal – not unusual for their neighborhood, but definitely unexpected for her prodigy older sibling. Amari is determined to find him without any clear idea how to do so when she starts seeing odd things, then finds a ticking briefcase with an invitation that will change her life.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston.

The tagline for this is “Harry Potter meets Men in Black with #blackgirlmagic.” That’s a weighty blurb to live up to, but Alston generally delivers. Potter for the magical (summer) school and hidden world alongside our own mundane reality. Men in Black for the investigations, competition, technology, and… hidden world alongside our own mundane reality.

A decade ago, students were much more specific in their genre requests. They liked fantasy or they liked science fiction and usually they didn’t like the other one. These days I have been seeing more and more genre-bending, -blending, or -blurring stories, especially in the middle grade market. Are young readers these days more open to multi-genre novels? I have long loved both, so it didn’t much matter to me which side this story ended up on.

I’ve written before about how important it is to see microaggressions appropriately portrayed in middle grade fiction, and that was an excellent aspect of this novel. Alston takes the popular fantasy trope of a “chosen one” and wonders – what if the chosen one was still Black and poor and feeling like an outsider? How would someone navigate those different realities – being different and exceptional and special, but doubly despised for being those things while also a different race or class or background than most around her?

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