“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.
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?
“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.
“She was not accustomed to thinking about things changing, old ways dying and new ones arising. She did not find it comfortable to look at things in that light.” p 29
The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle #2) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My edition Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 2001; originally published 1970.
Middle grade fantasy, 180 pages.
Lexile: 840L .
AR Level: 5.9 (worth 7.0 points) .
NOTE: Second book in the original Earthsea trilogy.
Young Tenar has become Arha, the Eaten One, servant to the highest powers of her land. Solely in charge of rites to infrequently-worshiped deities, she is set apart, both the most powerful and powerless priestess. Shortly after accepting her full powers, she faces an unexpected challenge – a Havenorian wizard entered the sacred labyrinth and walks where none but her must tread.
All of the books in the original Earthsea trilogy are said to be variations on coming-of-age, and I’d have to agree. Although set in the same world as A Wizard of Earthsea, Tombs of Atuan is told entirely from Tenar’s viewpoint, and it isn’t immediately clear how the two connect. Back when I first started reading LeGuin, I read this before either of the other Earthsea books, which don’t seem to have been obviously numbered in most versions.
“Just as he turned Ged saw a change in his face, a slurring and shifting of the features, as if for a moment something had changed him, used him, looking out through his eyes sidelong at Ged. Yet the next minute Ged saw him fullface, and he looked as usual, so that Ged told himself that what he had seen was his own fear, his own dread reflected in the other’s eyes.” page 104
A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle #1) by Ursula K. LeGuin. My copy Bantam books New York, 1977; originally published 1968. Fantasy, 184 pages. Lexile: 1150L . AR Level: 6.7 (worth 9.0 points) . NOTE: First book in a trilogy, later expanded to become a series.
The early life and first adventures of the wizard Ged, a future archmage of Earthsea.
So much to unpack in this novel. First, I’d like to point out the original publication date. As I’ve mentioned before, my reviews of older books are based on somewhat different expectations than a newly released publication.
This book was written for young adults at a time when that wasn’t even a category in most libraries, but it’s been variously marketed to MG or adult readers. I had so much to say about how the majority of Earthsea covers utterly fail in their depiction of any main character that it’s a separate post. Here I’ll simply say that if you happen to pick up a copy that avoids depicting the main character’s race by putting a dragon on the cover instead, don’t expect a dragon story. As the title indicates, this story follows a wizard as his magical gifts and personal life develop, and the dragon plays only a small role.
A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of a young boy with a strong magical gift who leaves his rather pastoral homeland of Gont in stages to move ever onward, convinced by his natural talent and strong will that he will never meet a problem he can’t solve. Of course, he eventually meets his match and ends up literally and emotionally scarred and driven to correct his mistake – but having waited longer than others to find his boundaries, the corresponding payment is also higher.
“Her choice to flee the United States and spare her sons further repercussions, rather than tell her story, left me unsettled. I firmly believed this story needed to be told.” page viii
Us In Progress: Short Stories about Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre.
Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017.
Realistic fiction, 242 pages.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 5.0 points) .
A collection of stories about young Latinos from various backgrounds.
This is a unique collection in many ways. One is that the author is also the illustrator. Delacre’s Introduction is an important part of the book as it explains some of the nuances behind the artwork and writing, including the three layers used on each piece.
“One of the things I hate most in life is people telling me to calm down, as if I’m some out-of-control lunatic who isn’t entitled to have feelings.” page 160
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez.
Ember, Random House Children’s Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
YA fiction, 362 pages.
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 12.0 points) .
Julia is not the perfect Mexican daughter. That was her sister, Olga – until she died in a tragic accident that left everyone reeling. Now her already strained relationship with her mother has shattered, her father is a lump, and Julia is obsessed with investigating her sister’s life, trying to get to know the sister who was ignored when she was alive.
Because the majority of this book is about the unfolding drama of Julia’s quest to understand her sister Olga’s life, it’s incredibly difficult to discuss this book in any depth without spoilers. The action spans a space of just about two years, from a few months after Olga’s death, through Julia’s high school graduation.
“I guess associating with Black culture felt safer to me. They weren’t in danger of being told to go back where they came from or of anyone saying they didn’t belong.” page 110
Left in America: The Story of Juan Terrazas by Sally Salas.
Left in America Organization, Dallas, Texas, 2015.
Biography, 219 pages.
The story of an undocumented child who was left behind when his parents were deported at 14 years old, including his struggles with homelessness and journey to Christianity.
The book is clearly self-published but a good effort was made to make it standard. My copy had a few formatting errors, and some photos were blurred or pixelated, including the back cover. The back matter consists of one quote which might be about the book (it isn’t quite clear) and lacks a standard blurb.
“In 1960, few Americans could have predicted that within 10 years the civil rights movement would dismantle a century-old system of social, political, and economic controls that had condemned millions of black Americans to second-class citizenship.” page 12
Civil Rights in America by Rick Beard. (America’s National Parks Press Series)
America’s National Parks Press, Eastern National, Fort Washington, PA, 2016.
High school informative non-fiction, 24 pages.
This is a short little book, almost a pamphlet, giving an overview of the Civil Rights Movement from the Declaration of Independence to the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
Before we get into the review, let me explain how I came across this book. Teachers will already be well aware of the wonders of Dollar Tree. Some time ago I came across a nifty little book about Black Soldiers in the Civil War there, and ever since I’ve been looking out for more diverse titles in the National Parks Service series.
“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!