Book Reviews: March 2020 Picture Book Roundup: Important Lessons and Cartoonish Animals

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Click to visit BN's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.

A Whale of a Mistake by Ioana Hobai. Page Street Kids-Page Street, 2020.

I have been waiting for the release of this book since going to a talk by an editor for Page Street Kids who had an ARC with her. The cover is SPLENDID. The illustrations are SPLENDID. I adore the color scheme.  I hadn’t been able at that talk to spend time with its text. The text actually fell a little flat to me. I know that this book was inspired by the author’s divorce, though the text for children speaks more broadly to any large or seemingly large mistake. I was reminded strongly of Kobi Yamada’s What Would You Do series, and I think if I was not so familiar with these books, I would like this one better. It would be more standout. Still, this is a message that Yamada has yet to cover, and it is a good message—that large mistakes when we take a step back from them, are small in the face of a vast universe, and become less frightening to rectify when seen from this perspective.  This book just feels like it should be part of that series, and in that way, the contrasts of blues and salmons seem out of place; I expect sepia, and I expect my round-faced, medieval-ly dressed protagonist, not someone white-faced and blue-haired.

The mistake here is represented as a whale that takes the protagonist out to sea, away from help and community, and then shrinks as she faces it and steers it back towards land.  In much the way that Yamada’s problem seems overwhelming until it is faced and reveals its opportunity.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

You Will Be Found by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman (inkymole). Little, Brown-Hachette, 2020.  Intended audience: Teens and young adults.

The text of this picture book, shelved at Barnes & Noble right now in the teen section though I think it is absolutely for any age, is the lyrics from the song of the same title from the musical Dear Evan Hansen. This song in particular has always made my eyes sting, and it could not have come out at a more appropriate time. The song in the musical (to my understanding from memorizing the soundtrack but never having actually seen the play) is the speech given by the title character, Evan Hansen, at a school assembly honoring the memory of a schoolmate who has committed suicide. This speech is filmed by one of the students and goes viral.  The general message is that we are never alone, that there is always help.  The illustrations in this edition are watercolors in mostly blues and purples but with flashes of yellow and warmer colors and one page that is a rainbow of text. It all looks very modern and very soothing. I think the illustrations chosen represent the text on the pages well. If you need this reminder (and I think we all probably need this reminder), this is a good book to keep on a coffee table. Is it as moving as the song? Probably not. Can I read the book to myself without singing the song in my mind? Also no. So my impression of it may be skewed.  The text isn’t 100% word for word, but it is near enough. I am glad though that the authors opted against keeping in, for example, the bridge text of the newscasters and Facebook comments and likes. I think it makes for a stronger book as it is than if they had done. For what this is, this is excellently done. I’ve read several books the texts of which are song lyrics, and I think this has been my favorite.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Llama Unleashes the Alpacalypse by Jonathan Stutzman and illustrated by Heather Fox. Henry, Holt-Macmillan, 2020.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.  Intended release May 2020.

I received an ARC of this book about a lazy llama who doesn’t want to clean. His friend Alpaca loves to clean though. So Llama invents the Replicator 3000, into which he tricks his friend Alpaca. Two Alpacas clean Llama’s house with ease, but Llama wonders what he could do with more Alpacas. The legion Alpacas get loose and wreck havoc by cleaning the town. Llama sits happily in his clean home with a pizza. The pizza draws the many Alpacas back to Llama’s home, where Llama realizes his mistake and rectifies it with a reverse switch. But now he and Alpaca are both at his home in time for dessert, and Llama has only one slice of cake. And a Replicator 3000. This book is silly. But this book made me smile. Llama’s unthinking hijinks remind me of Pig the Pug, though Llama’s illustration style is even more cartoonish, sharing Pig’s and Trevor’s bulbous eyes but simplifying even more their bodies. I like this better than Blabey’s books though. Alpaca is unhurt. Llama is unhurt. Everyone gets cake. The damage is not permanent. And if Stutzman has a Replicator 3000 and a cleaning alpaca, now would be the time to release a legion of alpacas on the world and scrub everything clean.  I also enjoyed the framing of this story, opening with “By dinner, Llama will unleash a great Alpacalypse upon the world” and continuing to mark the passage of time by Llama’s meals, which include second lunch and second dinner.  Llamas eat often like hobbits.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

How to Catch a Unicorn by Adam Wallace and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Wonderland-Sourcebooks, 2019.

This is narrated not by the would-be-captors but by the unicorn herself. Bored, she sets off for the zoo, but she is spotted by some kids who set out to capture her. She eludes their creative traps occasionally helped by the zoo inhabitants, so you could use this book as an animal primer. The unicorn lore in this was… interesting. A good bit of it I had never heard and I think was made up by Wallace for this story rather than pulled from previously established lore. You can’t say that any of its wrong, though, as unicorns, if they ever existed, exist no longer.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

How to Catch a Dinosaur by Adam Wallace and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Wonderland-Sourcebooks, 2019.

This is the fourth book that I’ve read from this series (missed from this blog is How to Catch a Dragon, a book written for the Chinese New Year; I may go back to review those picture books eventually). This one is about a boy who hopes to win a school science fair by catching a dinosaur. Though ultimately unsuccessful in his hunt, his contraptions for catching the dino do snag him the trophy. I was pleasantly surprised by the modern dino facts that this book alludes to: that some dinos had feathers, that dinos are nearer to birds than other living creatures. In this particularly the “better luck next time” refrain that ends of each of the the books in this series is jarring because the narration and the perspective changes from the children to the dino for this last line.

***1/2

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Shelfie: July 22, 2017: In Over Our Heads

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This has been a hell of a week or two.  How fitting that the next photo in my shelfie album is from a time when I was dealing with a personal, medical emergency (then a broken humerus).

But that was no hell compared to this.

Unlike most of the world, it seems, I am still working at a store with the public.  The fear, the grief, the unknown, the added precautions, the stress of my coworkers and the public have all compounded—and we had a death in the family from covid-19, and I’ve had to deal with that ordinary grief while those around me discuss death and the statistics of dying as if the deaths are numbers.

I can’t write or edit the partial review that I had had ready.

So here instead is a photo of one of the most heart-twisting sentence fragments in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

SPOILERS!

(In this time of stress, I’ve turned again to Harry Potter.  I’m right now re-reading Chamber of Secrets.)

I hope you are all doing better than me.  I hope you are staying away from public places and staying safe.  Be well.  Be careful.  I won’t promise that we’ll make it through this whole and hale, because I already haven’t, and chances are that many of us will be affected in some way—and all those promises have been painful for me to hear and read this week.  But look for the helpers, as Mr. Rogers said.  There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for, as said Tolkien.  Or was that bold, brilliant speech the invention of the writers of the Lord of the Rings film scripts (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens)?

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Book Review: Studying Portal Fantasies and Asexuality and Solving Murders in Every Heart a Doorway

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, reviews, and author's bio.

Being asexual can feel like being one of the Whos of Whoville during the trial of Horton the Elephant, shouting desperately “We are here! We are here! We are here!” but feeling like no one can hear. This is only the second book that I have read with a character that identifies as asexual. The protagonist in this actually uses the word asexual to refer to herself and her orientation, which the other, Felicity Montague from Mackenzi Lee’s Montague Siblings does not. And it’s such a relief. It feels like someone hears. Even if it is only one kind-hearted elephant with ginormous ears and the rest of the jungle still can’t hear and refuses to believe.

I was a little disappointed that Nancy, the asexual character in question here, is marked as an outsider and considered a suspect by her peers for her association with the dead.  I would have enjoyed more I think a story about an asexual character who is liked and accepted by her peers—as much as Nancy’s social exile is here not related to her asexuality.  And I did enjoy Nancy’s story apart from her asexuality.  I just wish in a way that the two stories—that of her asexuality orientation and what that means to her and that of her disassociation from the land of the living—hadn’t been found in a single character.

It was the knowledge that the protagonist describes herself as ace that got me to pick up this book, though it had been recommended to me on the basis of its concept before.

It recommends itself well. The eponymous wayward children are those who have visited other worlds and have returned and are struggling now with how to live in our world. That is a unique concept. And I enjoy the idea of exploring what happens after most plots end, after the world has been saved, after the villain has been slain.

But this is a weird book.

It will not be for everyone.

Beyond increasing asexual visibility, I’m still trying to decide if it is for me.

I enjoyed it.

But I didn’t love it like I expected to do.

I didn’t fall in love with McGuire’s prose the way that I expected to do.

This is a book that seems partially a murder mystery, partially a bildungsroman, a school story specifically, partially a study of portal fantasies as a genre—all while refusing to settle into a genre itself. There’s only a little magic in this world. We visit none of the portal worlds for more than a glimpse.

I did enjoy the murder mystery, but I didn’t get wrapped up in the whodunit the way that I expected to do or the way that I wanted to do. I didn’t feel drawn to guess or invested in guessing I think because I felt like I lacked information as characters were slowly added to the novel even after the murders had already begun.

I liked the characters, but I didn’t really feel as though I got to know any of them as much as I would like to do. This is a series, and it seems like later books might more fully explore some of the characters to which we are introduced, but not Nancy and not Christopher as far as I can tell who were some of the more intriguing to me, Nancy because I want to savor time getting to know other aces and Christopher because I found his world and his magic intriguing, which seem to be closely tied to the Land of the Dead found in Mexican mythology.

I did like and enjoy getting to know Kade whose coming out as transgender got him expelled from his world and his childhood home in this world, though not before becoming a hero and the goblin prince.

Jack grew on me. I look forward to getting to know her better, but I’m not sure that I want to explore with her her High Reason, High Wickedness world, which is where the next book heads.

I am glad that I read this. I am debating still whether or not I will continue the series.

****

McGuire, Seanan. Wayward Children, Book 1: Every Heart a Doorway.  Tor/Forge-Tor.com, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Seanan McGuire, Tor, or Forge. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Eurocentric Study of Curious, Mostly Christian Myths of the Middle Ages

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Click to visit WorldCat to find a copy in your local library and summary.

In his introduction to this edition, Hardy writes that he “ruthlessly abandoned the farther shores of [Baring-Gould’s] research,” and I am inclined to believe that he was utterly ruthless (14-15). I have sought out copies of Baring-Gould’s unedited text and have found 600 page volumes where this one is 159.  I found Hardy’s edit of Baring-Gould’s original to be wonderfully readable and accessible, mostly because in this edit each story and its dissection is only a few pages long, most entries less than 10 pages, making it an easy book to read in pieces.  I found most of what I would want from this book—the myths themselves and some information about their possible antecedents—to be present in the abridged edition.  I have not yet and probably won’t read the ponderous 600 page volume; there is too much more modern scholarship to read, and this was a library book acquisition literally picked up when the book that I came for could not be found.

Please note that from now on whenever I cite “Baring-Gould” I really mean “Baring-Gould filtered by Hardy” because I suspect that Hardy’s edit has greatly influenced my impression of this book.

This is both a collection of myths and a study of myths.

Although Baring-Gould often points out similarities between the myth that he is telling and myths of other continents, this book is whoppingly Eurocentric, focusing most of its time on myths of Germany, France, and Great Britain—somewhat understandable as Baring-Gould seems to have spent most of his time in these countries—but his evaluation of and the language that he uses to speak about peoples outside of Europe is often uncomfortable to a modern reader.

Most of the myths that Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest and hymnist, explores here elevate and presuppose a Christian worldview—again, understandable given the focus on European myths of the medieval period when and where the Church had more power and more greatly effected everyday life and given Baring-Gould’s own religious occupation, though again the disregard for other religions and even other branches of Protestantism than Anglican is again uncomfortable.  Baring-Gould’s view of Christianity seems more militant than some too; his perhaps best known hymn is “Onward, Christian Soldier,” so his militancy doesn’t surprise me either, though even that hymn has always made me uncomfortable.

Some myths discussed here are stories of holy objects or people who interacted with Jesus on earth. Some are about devils or portals to Hell or Purgatory. Some are stories of saints or fallen Church officials. A few are more secular, like the tale of Gellert or of Melusina.  Many are myths that have made their way if not in their entirety then in pieces or into the framework of the imagination of modern, Western consciousness.  The story of Gellert, for example, I knew almost exactly as Baring-Gould reports it.  The story of the Man in the Moon I had never heard, but of course I know the phrase.  The barest bones of the story of Pope Joan I knew but not the particulars.

Baring-Gould at times comes off as stunningly condescending towards any who disagree with his assessments of the origins and meanings of these myths. “It need hardly be stated that the whole story of Pope Joan is fictitious and fabulous, and has not the slightest historical foundation” (72).

Though often he traces his assumptions through a list of sources and presuppositions, at times in this edition—too often—there is little to no explanation of particular statements, making me wonder if such statements were considered fact by the everyday nineteenth century literate who might have found this volume in its original printing—or perhaps were facts to Hardy’s readers in the 1970s. For example, Baring-Gould connects the English Jack and Jill to the Scandinavian Hjuki and Bil largely based on a supposed similarity between the names which seems like it could to me be coincidental and not an etymologically sound conclusion then decides that the trek of Jack and Jill up the hill and tumbling back down represents the waxing and waning of the moon because of his connection to the two Scandinavian children who are kept on the moon.  Past his word, there’s little evidence presented here.  Again, “Ursula is in fact none other than the Swabian goddess Ursel or Hörsel (Hürsel) to whom human sacrifices were occasionally made and who became the Venus of Venusberg, or Hürselberg, who entranced and debauched Tannhäuser” (105). I have learned being even a casual reader of Tumblr posts about etymology to be skeptical of such seemingly direct lines of etymological connection. I might believe a shared etymological source for the name of the saint and the name of the goddess before I would believe a direct descent from stories of the goddess to stories of the saint—especially without any proof of such, which I do not get from Baring-Gould.

I enjoyed the introduction to a few new European myths and further explanations of ones with which I was already passingly familiar, but much of what Baring-Gould states seems like it ought to be taken with a healthy dose of salt as his biases are very much on parade here and his evidence is at times thin and his observations sometimes not backed up at all.

**1/2

Baring-Gould, Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. Ed. Edward Hardy. New York: Oxford U, 1978. This edition first published London: Jupiter, 1977.  Original source text by Baring-Gould published 1866.

This review is not endorsed by Edward Hardy, Sabine Baring-Gould, Jupiter Books, or Oxford University Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Entering Amulet’s Alledia

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, and reviews.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.Spoilers.

The first book in this series felt incomplete to me, as if the whole were a prologue and maybe a first chapter, but certainly not a full story.

I decided that I really needed to read the Amulet series after opening one of the later books (I’m not sure which) and discovering the rebellious prince of the elf court and the political allies and enemies that he has in his father’s palace. He was present in this first book but only barely, given not even a name.

This book focuses on the humans who find themselves in this alternate earth, a brother and sister and their widowed mother.  It seems too to want to be about building the world, but the world introduced in this book is so shallow compared to what comes in the second.

This first book started more darkly than I expected, with the death by a car crash of the protagonist’s father, who while still alive but trapped beneath the dashboard and steering wheel plunged in the car over a cliff.

Seeking a new start and a less financially burdensome house, the widowed mother moves her family into an old house inherited from her eccentric grandfather. In her great-grandfather’s library, Emily pricks her finger on a handprint, which causes the revelation of a pendant that she cannot leave behind and which ties itself onto her neck.  (Are you getting One Ring vibes?  Because I was.)

In the house’s basement, chasing odd noises that she expects are caused by a wild animal, Emily and Navin’s mother is swallowed whole by a tentacled creature. The creature gets Navin too, but Emily and her mother are able to rescue him.  By the time that they do, though, all three of them and the creature have entered a strange land through a portal in the basement.

The amulet speaks to Emily and leads her to the home of her great-grandfather in this land.  Its instructions include telling her to leap off a cliff while clinging to a large mushroom which is too reminiscent of her father’s death, though that parallel seems never to be addressed within the text.

But her great-grandfather is dying.

His power over the amulet is passed to Emily when she accepts the power, and by accepting the power, she maintains the life force of her great-grandfather’s magical, mechanic creations.

Together with the machines, Emily and Navin chase after the creature that swallowed their mother.

With the amulet’s help, they manage to wrest her from the creature, but Emily is almost abducted by an elven prince who has his own stone amulet and who wants her help to kill his father. The amulet wants Emily to kill the prince for his attempted abduction, but Emily resists and lets him go. Emily’s desire for mercy I think will be central to what makes her an effective heroine of the series and of this fantasy world.

Emily’s mother is poisoned by the creature, and the second book takes the heroes of this tale to the nearest city where they seek the help of a doctor.

There Emily and Navin witness the cruelty of the elves who rule the city.

They are offered help from a vulpine bounty hunter, which they initially refuse, focused on merely helping their mother.

But the elves follow them to the doctor’s, and they narrowly escape into the arms of the resistance.

Emily, Leon Redbeard the bounty hunter/resistance fighter, and the leporine Miskit seek out the prophetic gadoba forest and the fruit that will cure Emily’s mother, pursued by the elves, but Navin discovers himself the commander of the resistance army.

The end of this second book is far more satisfying. The personal and societal stakes are heightened. The magic is a little better explained though still quite nebulous. The roles of the main pro- and antagonists are better settled. The family has a new home—the three of them, everyone conscious and mending.

I think I will continue on with the series, though I read the description of the last of the HiLo books the other day, and now I want to read that series too.  Kazu Kibuishi has only one more book planned for this series, so perhaps I will wait until the series is complete then binge my way through the war for Alledia.

My advice to you, though, if you’re just coming to this series is to read past the first book, to read at least through the second before deciding whether you will or will not continue.

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Book 1: The Stonekeeper.  New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2008.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Book 2: The Stonekeeper’s Curse.  New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2009.

Intended audience: Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7.

This review is not endorsed by Kazu Kibuishi, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: DNF But I Have Opinions

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Now for something a little different

This year there were a few books that I never finished but about which I still wanted to say a few words. I realized that when I pass them on to someone else and take them off my Goodreads lists as neither read nor to be read, I will lose any reviews that I might leave on them, so I’m taking advantage of having a blog, and leaving those thoughts here. Even if I never finished these books, I hope my thoughts will help you decide whether or not to begin them yourself.

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and awards list.

Mahurin, Shelby. Serpent & Dove, Book 1. New York: HarperTeen-HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 14+.

I left off reading the ARC of this book at page 257 of 514, but I want to take a moment to organize my current thoughts about the novel:

I’ve struggled to enjoy this one.

First I didn’t realize going into this book that it is far more a new adult novel than a young adult or teen novel. I perhaps should have known, knowing that the protagonists are married. I have read so few new adult or even adult novels that I wasn’t prepared for the tone and the themes.

But what is most keeping me from connecting with it I think is the seemingly unequal power dynamic of the supposed romance, which thus far in the novel, does not feel like a romance, though Reid is starting to begin making an effort towards connection with Lou. Lou is choosing to live with the threat that Reid poses to her because he poses a threat to those who would harm her too, choosing to live with him though she knows that if he knew her secret he would regard her as inhuman and fit only for death. That to me is unsettling. Perhaps we are meant to think that she too poses a threat to him, but Lou hasn’t killed; she does not view even witch-hunters like him in the same inhuman way as he does witches. I don’t like to see that sort of unequal power dynamic romanticized or marketed as a romance.

I think I would have given up this book entirely after the book club discussion except that I read a summary of the plot, and I now know where the novel is headed. I like the spoilers that I have, but I don’t know if it will be worth slogging through the uncomfortable relationship to get to see them acted out, and after several months of not touching the book I have decided to give up and give my copy of this book to someone who I hope can enjoy it more than I.

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.

Wen, Abigail Hing. Loveboat, Taipei.  New York: HarperTeen-HarperCollins, 2020.

Intended audience: Ages 13+.

Spoilers between the asterisks.

There are so many parallels between this and Christine Riccio’s Again, but Better. The protagonists of both books are girls whose parents set them on tracks for medical school but who would rather pursue the arts, who travel for the first time abroad to study, who find ways to circumvent their parents’ plans for their time abroad, who struggle with liking boys who already have girlfriends, who make lists of things that they will do to reinvent themselves while abroad, who drink for the first time, who dance in a club, who kiss a boy.

But Wen’s was so much better written!

I all but forgot every character of Riccio’s except the main romantic pair, Shane and Pilot, after reading this book—and Shane I keep wanting to call Christine for her strong parallels to the author, a booktube celebrity, and Pilot I was never sure I wholly liked.

The characters of Wen’s novel are fully-fledged and interesting. Their lives are complicated. They have motivations and individual desires. They are many of them shaped by their parents’ expectations.  They each get to defend themselves, to explain themselves to Ever.  They don’t feel like props or catalysts for the protagonist Ever. Two characters are dyslexic. It feels like anyone of the characters could have held the story on their own.

Reading Wen’s novel, I was given a peek into another culture than my own. Almost every character is Taiwanese American or Chinese American or a local Taiwanese citizen. The default is not white.

Despite it being outside of my usual genre, I found compelling Ever’s fight between her passions and her duty to her family and their expectations for her. I might have continued to read if it were any closer to a genre that I generally enjoy. I may hang onto this one, and I might go back to it one day, but there’s no magic system here for me to explore, there’s not a whole lot of the type of adventure that I enjoy, and frankly the drama of teenage romances is just… not holding my attention. It didn’t in high school, and it doesn’t now.

But I want to know if Xavier can finally get the help that he needs. I want to know if he’ll be okay. (If someone who has finished this book wants to tell me the answer to that question in the comments, I’d thank you.)  I already read a spoiler * promising that Ever gets her parents’ approval of her passion for dance in the end *—though I have not found out yet which path she ultimately pursues in college.

This is a book I will recommend to those who tell me that they enjoy this genre—and definitely to anyone who read Again, but Better.

I am currently on page 240 of 414 of this ARC.

This review is not endorsed by Abigail Hing Wen, Shelby Mahurin, HarperTeen, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: How to Confront Hate and Discrimination with A Tale of Magic

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and excerpt.TaleofMagic

Spoilers.  The one spoiler that is of the book’s ending instead of its beginning is in white.  Highlight between the stars to read.

I have never read any of Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories series though it has been recommended to me, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I opened this one to try to prepare for an event at the store. A Tale of Magic… is I think a prequel series to The Land of Stories. I began an ARC of the story in October and didn’t finish it until the very end of December, but I kept reading it past the event, and I finished it, which I can’t say of every book that I begin for an event. There seemed near the middle to be enough parallels between the story that I thought Colfer might be telling and the story that I am struggling to tell that I decided that I had to finish this one, even if the event was long over. (I managed just about 150 pages before the event.)

The book didn’t end up going quite the direction that I thought that it might.

In the Southern Kingdom we are introduced to Brystal Evergreen. Brystal is living beneath laws that are deeply misogynistic. Women are allowed only to pursue motherhood. They are banned from reading or even entering the library. But Brystal has brothers. She has studied law alongside them and reads novels that her younger brother sneaks to her. She manages briefly to hide a part-time job as the library’s nighttime maid, reading through the library’s offerings after close.

One book reveals to her the corruption of the government, the manipulation of laws for the purpose of consolidating the power of the government, and another reveals the existence of good magic, fairy magic instead of witchcraft.

I would actually have liked to have spent more time with Brystal’s family, the dynamics of which I found very interesting, while she slowly picks apart the prejudices that have built her world, but that wasn’t the story that Colfer wanted to tell.

Reading a passage from that second book reveals Brystal to be a fairy, and her magic lands her in a Correctional Center that is really a workhouse, from which she is rescued by a mysterious and obviously magical Madame Weatherberry, author of the book that landed her in such trouble.

The magical community is even more oppressed than women are in the Southern Kingdom. Magical peoples have been pushed to the dangerous In-Between, which is outside of the control of any of the four kingdoms and where resources are scarce for such a large population.

Madame Weatherberry begins a school for magic with the intention of training fairies to do good works for the non-magical inhabitants of the kingdoms and by so doing erase the prejudice and suppression that causes non-magical people now to hunt the magical.

That was the original thought of my own WIP’s protagonist, though recent years have made me more cynical. I wanted to see if Colfer was able to convince me that there was some good to be achieved through such a plan.

Then I thought that Colfer’s characters might begin to see as I have that “Stonewall was a riot!” and that only through revolution is revolutionary change achieved.

Neither was really the direction that the book went.

Instead Brystal * learns to leverage society’s fear of magic by leaving alive a greater threat that only she and her classmates are powerful enough to fight.   She and her classmates attack no one but neither do they perform good works across the kingdom.*

The writing was at times not subtle enough for me, perhaps a little didactic. I was not wholly on board with how easily Brystal accepts the leadership role into which she is thrust nor how adult she acts or how quickly the protagonists pass through their challenges.  The magic system was vague, but it worked, because I never felt that the magic was anything other than a stand-in for other inborn traits that lead to discrimination in our world.

Knowing some of Colfer’s biography, I felt it likely that magic was here a stand-in for an LGBTQIA+ identity, though there was no instance in this book of any romance—which itself is a welcome change.  This book touches too on the dangers of a culture of toxic masculinity with the character of Xanthous, the only masculine-presenting fairy that we meet.

I marked several poignant ideas from the novel, thoughts mostly on how to change the world and why the world is hateful and how to react to the hate in the world.

My ARC is 61 pages shorter than Goodreads advertises that the book is in the final print; I don’t know what was added or what other changes may have been made between the ARC that I read and the final print copy, though I know that mine lacked much of the artwork, most places where illustrations will appear merely held with the phrase “ATK.”

****

Colfer, Chris. A Tale of Magic…  Illus. Brandon Dorman.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Chris Colfer, Brandon Dorman, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

People of Color in Books That I Read in 2019: Part 1: The Novels

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It’s Black History Month here in the US, a time when we stop to recognize specifically the achievements of African Americans and the influence they have had on our history, society, and culture. And that seems a good reason for me to post my annual review of the books that I read the previous year that included people of color, some of whom are African American.

I read 141 books altogether in 2019. 69 of those included a character of color, 49% of the total, very nearly half (28% in 2018, 27% in 2017, 26% in 2016, 23% in 2015). 26 of those included a character of color as a protagonist, 18% of the total.  38% of the books with a character of color at all (7% of the total in 2018, 14% in 2017, 9% in 2016). Those numbers are far better then than any year for which I have done this survey of my own reading.  Finally some significant increases in the numbers of characters of color represented!

28% of the novels that I read had a person of color as a protagonist. 61% included a person of color in any capacity. I read 4 with African American protagonists. I also read 4 novels with protagonists of East Asian descent (or protagonists from fictional cultures influenced by East Asian cultures). I read 4 books with Latinx protagonists. I read 2 with Spanish protagonists.

I’m using the location on Barnes & Noble’s shelves to help me determine the intended audience on a few of these that I think could easily be read and enjoyed by younger audiences too.  Use your own discretion when deciding whether or not a book is appropriate for the intended reader.

Fiction for Young Children (Ages 4-8)

Books with a POC as a protagonist

Japanese Fairy Tales by Theodora Yei Ozaki. 1992. Originally published 1903.

Being a book of Japanese fairy tales, the characters and the stories in this book are Japanese. The stories were translated in 1903 by a woman who is half-Japanese, half-British and split her life between the two countries.

Middle-Grade Fiction (Ages 8-12)

Books with a POC as a protagonist

New Kid by Jerry Craft. 2019.

Earning a well-deserved Newbery (the first to go to a graphic novel!), this book follows Jordan Banks as he attempts to navigate his new school, one that is primarily white while going home to his neighborhood, which is primarily African American. This book deals particularly well I feel with the damage of microaggressions.

Young Wizards, Book 1: So You Want to Be a Wizard? by Diane Duane. 1983.

Young Wizards, Book 2: Deep Wizardry by Diane Duane. 1985.

Young Wizards, Book 3: High Wizardry by Diane Duane. 1990.

One of the two main protagonists of the series, Kit Rodriguez, is Latino American. He and his family speak mostly English with the occasional word or two of Spanish.

Demigods & Magicians by Rick Riordan. 2016.

The two magicians, Sadie and Carter Kane, are mixed race, their father is African American, their mother is a white, British woman.

Stargazing by Jen Wang. 2019.

This is a story partially about growing up as Chinese American. The characters listen to Korean pop music.

A diverse cast with no protagonist

9 From the Nine Worlds by Rick Riordan. 2018.

This book features short stories loosely threaded together. Each character gets a story in which they are the protagonist, but the book itself has no one protagonist. Those protagonists include a Muslim, Iraqi American who wears a hijab; her fiancé, who is also Arab American; an African American civil war veteran; a Mexican American character; and a darker skinned Svartalf.

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

PopularMMOs Presents a Hole New World by Pat and Jen (PopularMMOs). 2018.

The one darker skinned character, Carter, is a rival for Jen’s affections and not much liked by Pat. He helps the pair on their quest to save Bomby, but he has been poisoned by Evil Jen and betrays them once before redeeming himself.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan. 2015.

Magnus is white, but he is helped by Sam, who is Muslim and Iraqi American and wears a hijab. Among his hall-mates is TJ, who is an African American civil war veteran. He is also helped by Blitz, who is dark skinned.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan. 2017.

Apollo and Meg are helped by Leo, who is Latino American and by Jamie, who is descended from the Yoruba in Western Africa.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 3: The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan. 2018.

Apollo and Meg are helped by Piper, who with her father the (former) movie star is Cherokee. Leo returns briefly.

NewsPrints by Ru Xu. 2017.

Jill and the Admiral seem to have a skin tone faintly more dark than that of most in Nautilene. The mayor and newspaper owner and head of Blue’s found family—all one man by the name of Nancy—has a skin tone that is a little darker still. A few of the boys in Blue’s family share his tone. There is one nameless woman employed by the navy to build and repair ships whose skin tone is even darker. Nothing is made of these variations in this novel.

A white protagonist with diverse background characters

The Giver adapted by Craig P. Russell from Lois Lowry.  2019.

All the speaking characters are white that I remember, and only two of those characters can see color at all—literally not figuratively. This is a world that has given up color among other things to eliminate choice and to eliminate violence. I have never read the original novel to know if Lowry writes all these characters as white.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 3: The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan. 2007.

Zoë Nightshade is described as looking like a Persian (Iranian) princess. You might infer that from that her whole family looks Persian, but godly or Titanic DNA seems to be a very odd thing, and the gods at least can choose how they appear in this series.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 4: The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan. 2008.

Kelli the empousa, who is a reoccurring antagonist in this book, is described as appearing to be African American.

Teen Fiction (Ages 13-19)

Books with a POC as a protagonist

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. 2019.

Every character I think in this novel is African American. Jam’s father Aloe peppers his English with Igbo, a language spoken primarily in Nigeria.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal. 2019.

A fight is sparked at a high school football game when racial slurs are slung. The two narrators, Lena who is African American and Campbell who is white and working class, at the school and the police’s response to it, spark a protest that becomes a riot on one of the city’s more commercial streets. The two narrators trade chapters and react to the encounters with the other’s reality. They come out nearer to being friends than they were at the beginning of the novel.

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys. 2019.

An American oil baron and his family, including his Spanish wife, travel to Madrid to make a deal with Franco. The story follows their mixed race son Daniel Matheson as he bonds with the maid assigned to the family by the hotel, Anna, and then with her family. Together Anna and her family and Daniel unravel the secret snatching of children by the orphanage. The Mathesons adopt a daughter from one of these orphanages.

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater. 2017.

The Soria family of Bicho Raro, Colorado, the main characters of this novel, is Mexican American. People come to them for the miracles that they perform. Some of those that come to them are Latinx themselves including Padre Jiminez and Marisita. I listened this year to an audiobook preformed by Thom Rivera, which really brought the characters to life. If you have the choice, I recommend listening to rather than reading this one.

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

Montague Siblings, Book 2: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee. 2018.

Sim, an African, Muslim pirate, finances Felicity’s cross-Europe trip and accompanies her on that trip before taking her to Africa, where they chase the dragons that Sim’s family protects.  Sim makes a good go, really, of being a protagonist herself, but the POV is Felicity’s.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power. 2019.

None of the three protagonists are cued as other than white, but one of the girls, Julia, on Boat Shift with Hetty is darker skinned and one of the girls at the school is Chinese American.

Again, but Better by Christine Riccio. 2019.

Shane herself is white. One of her roommates in London is Sahra who is Indian American. I think she is in the pre-med program that Shane’s parents believe that Shane is in. Atticus’ last name is Kwon, which cues me that he is likely Asian American, but I didn’t remember this and only found his last name researching this book for this review. Frankly, I don’t remember Atticus.

A white protagonist with diverse background characters

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. 2018.

Prince Sebastian does welcome a visiting princess whose clothing and coloring seem to place her as being from a culture inspired by India. Frances is portrayed with a skin tone darker, so perhaps she is of a different race, but I can’t find any other review or interview that claims this to be the case, and the difference is slight, perhaps indicating the amount of time each character would have spent in sunlight.

Adult Fiction (Ages 20+)

Books with a POC as a protagonist

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Imbalance, Part 1 by Faith Erin Hicks. 2018.

The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire, Part 1 by Michael Dante DiMartino. 2019.

The world of Avatar consists of four main cultures that are inspired by Eastern Asian cultures. The Water Tribes of the North and South Poles, of which the titular character of the second series, Korra, is one, are darker skinned than people of the Earth Kingdom or Fire Nation who share physical features of more like those of the people of Japan, China, or Korea. In the previous series, the Air Nomads had one living descendent. His children and grandchildren are in this series. His wife was from the Southern Water Tribe. She and her brother are protagonists as part of Team Avatar in Imbalance.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. 2015.

This is a difficult book to describe or summarize with prose that jumps between time periods and a battlefield that encompasses the whole of two parallel worlds, our Earth and Fairyland. The jinniyah known alternately as the Lightning Princess of Qaf or as Dunia, the name that she chose when she appeared as a mortal woman around the year 1195 CE, love ibn Rushd, the Spanish, Muslim philosopher and bore him many children. In a future not long past our own present, their descendants have spread across our Earth, their unifying physical feature being their lack of earlobes. Among these descendants are Geronimo Manezes who is the illegitimate child of an Indian woman and a British priest, Jimmy Kapoor who becomes the hero of his unpublished graphic novel, and Storm who appears as a baby on the mayor’s doorstep swaddled in an Indian flag.

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

Vox by Christina Dalcher. 2018.

Jean’s college roommate is an African American woman. She is a vocal protestor of the new administration. She is eventually rescued by Jean and her Italian lover. Her part was small.

Do you think or know that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know.

Book Reviews: An Original Fairy Tale Reimagining and a Timely War Story by Ru Xu

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.This review contains spoilers for both books. They are too many in this review to be hidden.

This first book ends on something of a cliffhanger! I was unprepared. I went out and bought the second in the series—new not used—when I could not get it from the library, something that is becoming for me quite rare for me unless I can get the book at half its list price. The first book’s cover has intrigued me for a long time with its buoyant protagonist in turn of the 20th century garb, surrounded by crows and being trailed by one bright canary.

Xu did something neat by having the cover art of the first book run neatly into the action of the book, the cover serving as—if not the first page then—the prologue to the novel.  (In the second book the cover does not serve as an opening for the story, but the title page and edition notice do.)

I was not expecting when I opened this novel to find a steampunk-y science-fiction/fantasy about warring countries and conscious war machines.

I was not displeased.

Where are my Legend of Korra fans? I was getting some serious Republic City vibes from Nautilene.

Blue masquerades as a boy to remain a part of the found family of newsboys that she has found at The Bugle, a family managed by the paper’s owner (who is also the city’s mayor) and his wife, who uses a wheelchair. Blue shares her secret only with Mrs. Nancy and an older boy who has left the Nancys’ home and is now a reporter in the capitol city—and he knows her secret because he was the one who found an orphaned girl on the street and invited her to the Nancys’ found family.

This first is a story about finding family, about truth and propaganda, about embracing truth, about morality, about personal autonomy.

Both books discuss the effect of war on civilians.

The second book gets into more of the grit of the war. I love how much of the politics of war Xu includes in this book supposedly written for children; she gives her intended audience ample credit.  This book expands on the way war changes the civilians’ mindsets on both sides as well as the cost of war and empire-building on colonies.

Blue chases after the friend that she made in the first book who turns out to be an automaton that controls a fleet of weaponized airships for the country of Goswing. She is abducted by a spy who has been working as Jack Jingle’s assistant. The spy, a girl about Blue’s age, reveals herself on the sea crossing to be a mixed-race child like Blue. Rejoining the Grimmaean air fleet, the pair are immediately shot down—by the Grimmaeans who distrust the spy, Snow, and her transgender brother, Red, who is Snow’s getaway pilot.

The three mixed-race children and Crow help to stop the war by making the adults in the room see reason—with the help of a natural disaster caused by the fighting that destroys a vital fuel source for the emerging world. But this is a book that gives me hope that a new generation can undo an old world’s prejudices, violence, and imperialism.

This second book deals with the prejudices that are ignited and are inflamed by governments to justify and sustain war and the prejudice.

We are introduced to another differently abled person in Goswish’s young, newly crowned queen who is blind but has learned to use a form of modified echolocation to help her navigate. She fears that her people will think her weak for being blind, but she proves an able and wise ruler.

In reading the second book particularly I noticed the fairy tale inspiration for the characters and their names. The Goswish take their inspiration from Mother Goose’s rhymes while the Grimmaeans take inspiration from Grimm’s. Blue herself echoes Little Boy Blue, and the queen is advised by a team of Jacks (Jack being a name that a person takes as part of the team): Jingle, Horner, Nimble, and Anory. There are Grimmaean twins named Snow-White and Rose-Red, and there’s brave little Leonhart Tailor and the kings Jacob and Wilhelm. It’s exciting to see someone doing something so different with fairy tales and clashing fairy tale characters when their worlds collide. This series is at once a fairy tale reimagining and a timely, original story of war and prejudice.

It is strongly hinted I think though never confirmed that Leo and Hector become a romantic pair.

This series feels complete to me.  I don’t think that there will be a book 3.

*****

Xu, Ru. NewsPrints, Book 1. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2017.

Xu, Ru. NewsPrints, Book 2: EndGames. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Ru Xu, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.