Tag Archives: middle-grade

Book Reviews: Clearing the Fog with The Dam Keeper

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and authors' bios.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and authors' bios.When Pixar art directors get together to work on a graphic novel series, you have to expect excellent illustrations and story. It seems that the series is actually based on a short film from the two animators from 2014, and that they had intended a feature length film that, to my knowledge, has not been released. There seems too to be a series of short episodes under the title Pig: The Dam Keeper: Poems, released the same year as the first graphic novel. I’ve seen none of the animated pieces.

I am less attracted by the art style of these characters—which is very cartoonish and round—than to the background illustrations, which are soft and subtle and gloriously detailed. It was the description on the book’s flap and then the first few pages of text and illustration that got me to take the first home from the library, though, on a whim.

“Nothing lives in the fog… except memories. Painful memories. They haunt me. Memories of emptiness and loss. The dam holds back the sea of black fog.”

That’s fantastically poetic for a children’s graphic novel and fantastically bleak.

The protagonist Pig becomes the de facto dam keeper after his father, mad with grief, leaves the dam for the world beyond, which is shrouded in a dark and deadly fog. Still a child, Pig tries to balance his responsibilities as dam keeper—a job that the townsfolk have forgotten the importance of—with school and a friendship that he has built with Fox. Fox, more free of responsibility than Pig, has made a new friend in the school bully, Hippo, who frequently targets Pig. Fox tries to bridge her two friends into a trio, but neither Pig nor Hippo is particularly willing to see past first impressions.

An accident at the dam strands the three characters together in the wasteland beyond the town. Lost, they attempt to find their way back home and must rely on each others’ strengths to see them there: Pig’s brains, Hippo’s brawn, and Fox’s kindness.

Fox’s kindness leads them to the blind lizard Van, who promises to help the children home—but first they must retrieve—liberate—Van’s truck from a city very like their own with an even more impressive dam—but in this industry has made the air inside the city walls so foul that the three require their gas masks to breathe.

As they travel across the wasteland in Van’s stolen truck, they find more cities and more civilizations that have found ways to survive in what Pig has always believed to be a dead wasteland.

They narrowly escape being sacrificed by one such civilization to a creature of smoke, which they discover to be a machine with the insignia of the dam keepers on its side.

Throughout all of this, Pig keeps seeing the ghost of his father.

By the end of the second book, the reader begins to see the changes that their adventures have wrought in the three friends manifest. Pig loosens up enough to join his friends in attempting Van’s silly dance. Hippo crushes Van in a hug when they are reunited, and he is friendlier towards Pig.

It must be mentioned too that I appreciate a series with a female and two male protagonists that has no romantic entanglement in sight.

These authors favor a slow reveal through dropped bits of dialogue over a more straightforward and immediate reveal.

A good deal of the storytelling is done through the illustrations. Many of the issues driving the misfortune of the world are only hinted at and must be inferred: pollution, unsafe industrial practices that harm the environment and quality of life, forgetfulness, tribalism, ignorance, deforestation. Some of these I may be incorrectly inferring without the whole story too. There’s a third book that I have yet to read.

I think for this series about child protagonists who find their world turned upside down learning so little so slowly works.

Both of these books ends on a cliffhanger, and given the current state of things, I have not been able to arrange to have the third book in my hands.

The villains in Ru Xu’s Newsprints & Endgames and Kazu Kibushi’s Amulet series are (literally) more concrete than the ones here, but I think there are certainly some thematic similarities between the three, and this may be a new series for those who have enjoyed either. I have read two volumes of each, which is the full story (100%) for Ru Xu’s, two-thirds (about 66%) for Dam Keeper, and only about 22% of Amulet, so my comparisons may yet prove flawed.

***1/2

Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 1. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2017.

Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 2: World Without Darkness. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 7-11.

This review is not endorsed by Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi, Tonko House, First Second Books, Roaring Brook Press, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: Modern Little Women

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

Spoilers.

After 150 years, it was perhaps time for an updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. This isn’t the first attempt to update the classic, but I think it might be the first to do so as a graphic novel, and it is the first that I have read. In this, the sisters are from a blended family. Jo is Mrs. March’s daughter by her first marriage, Meg is Mr. March’s by his first marriage, and Beth and Amy are Mr. and Mrs. March’s. Meg and Mr. March, who is a soldier stationed in the Middle East, are African American. Mrs. March and Jo are white. Amy and Beth are mixed race, but as Jo explains to Mr. Marquez (who has replaced Mr. Laurence) and Laurie, even without the ties of blood to Meg, they are all four of them sisters.

Terciero and Indigo have moved the story from small town Concord to the more vibrant New York City with the Marches living in Brooklyn.

Chapters are frequently ended by emails sent by one of the girls to their father abroad.

On the whole this novel sticks well to the original’s plot, but there are some significant changes that Terciero and Indigo make to the original.

In this Jo has a secret she is keeping from her family, hinted at in diary entries and in her dialogue, which I don’t remember her having in Alcott’s original (it’s admittedly been a while…). And it isn’t the secret that I thought that it might be. I thought it likely that Jo would come out as transgender by the novel’s end but instead she comes out as lesbian. Her bravery in coming out to her family encourages Aunt Cath to wrestle with her own prejudices and come to the revelation that she herself is lesbian.

Meg does not marry the rich and well-connected Brooks when he laughs at her notion to become a lawyer for the less fortunate instead of taking the Vogue internship that he with his connections has secured for her. She is the catalyst in her family attending the Women’s March in DC. I was disappointed not to see Aunt Cath with them there, knowing that Meg had wanted her to come.

The novel still has the symmetry of the original, opening and closing on Christmas, covering only Little Women and not Good Wives, which is often nowadays released as the second half of Little Women, the two together in a single volume.

This was a longer graphic novel with a lot of text on each page compared to others that I have read, but still a much more accessible adaptation of the original work for both its length, its color, and its modern vernacular.

This story remains a celebration of familial love and a wholesome read in a time of darkness. It’s only that what was revolutionary in 1860s is less so now.

I think it a great introduction to the story, characters, and themes of Little Women, though those who are looking for the classic story on a one-to-one level, the text only modernized and simplified for a younger, more modern audience, would find other abridged versions more to their taste—and there are many.  I would consider this an excellent companion and comparison piece more than a abridgement.

But I personally really enjoyed what Terciero and Indigo have done with the story and celebrate this more diverse adaption.

****

Terciero, Rey and Bre Indigo. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Rey Terciero, Bre Indigo, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. 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 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.

Book Reviews: Wizards in the Deep Sea and in Deep Space

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.I was reminded recently of my love for Diane Duane and for her Young Wizards series after stumbling back upon her blog as I occasionally do. This time I fell into a rambling piece about Duane struggling to write a scene and working through it with the Transcendent Pig.

So after six years, I reread the first book.

It had been more than eight years since I’d last read the second or the third, which I tumbled right into after closing the first this time, and I only ceased with my reread of the series because reading for work got in the way (perhaps I will pick up with book 4 again soon; I remember enjoying that one immensely).

On this blog, I’ve reviewed the first, eighth, and ninth in this series. In one of those reviews I defended Nita and Kit as the ultimate BroTP. Rereading these earlier books, I realized that I’d missed or I’d forgotten or I’d blocked the memory of Nita’s parents’ worry that these young teens are sneaking off to have sex with one another at the beach—and that Nita flounders around fears even within these first three books that her feelings for Kit are not wholly platonic—though so far as book 9, that relationship is not consummated with kiss, a profession of romantic love, or anything else. The piece that I’d found on Duane’s blog actually names Nita and Kit as her OTP and deals with her trying to force the two of them into a romantic scene (please don’t force what isn’t there, Miss Duane!).

I found in my reread that these books are as beautifully written and as intelligent as I’d remembered. Nita’s pure intentions and her willingness to sacrifice herself for the good of humanity in Deep Wizardry drove me to tears as I saw again in her that desire to do good, to help others, to defend us from the horrors that we are still facing 34 years after this book’s publication (this second book is older than I am!).

I again applaud Duane’s inclusion of a Spanish-speaking Latino American protagonist, a shorter and stockier boy, unafraid to cry when the situation demands while writing in the early 80s before the clarion calls rang throughout the publishing world for non-white characters and for gentler masculinity.

The third book takes a step away from Kit and Nita and turns its attention to Nita’s sister Dairine. This book expands wizardry beyond our planet and beyond our solar system.  The worlds that Duane builds in this book are delightful.  Dairine chases after “Darth Vader,” and of course she finds It—and takes part in a new species’ Choice, their decision whether or not to accept entropy and death, whether to accept the temptation of the Lone One and the chaos that It desires.

This third book was published in 1990, and I wonder what today’s readers make of the technology in this book. The Callahans are excited to get their new Apple computer, an Apple IIIc+, “a cream-colored object about the size and shape of a phone book—the keyboard/motherboard console” requiring “loose-leaf books, and diskette boxes” (6). How many of today’s kids have seen a phone book? I had to look up what the Apple IIIc+ probably looked like; the Apple IIIc+ was never invented, but there were computers called Apple //c+. Even my childhood computers were upgrades from this. I don’t know how many computers today use DOS as their primary programming language, though I think that DOS still exists if it is no longer the most relevant or advanced computer language. But from that Apple IIIc+, Dairine produces a mobile, tech-based version of the wizard’s manual with unlimited processing power and memory.

(Duane has been publishing updated versions of this series, calling them New Millennium Editions.  Perhaps those updated texts update the technology, but I have not read her updates.  The links that I provided—accessible by clicking on the cover photos—are to those editions of the texts.)

The tech might be outdated but the text is, like the first and second books in the series, otherwise as relevant now as it was when it was published.

These books are near and dear enough to me that a properly impartial book review is fairly impossible, so these read a little more like some highlights of my thoughts.  I hope you will forgive the lapse and let me take a week to just remind myself why I love these books so.

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 2: Deep Wizardry.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 1985.

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 3: High Wizardry.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 1990.

Intended audience: Ages 10-12, Grades 5-7.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane, Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which acquired Harcourt in 2007. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Surprising Sweetness of Dog Man

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

This was my first Dav Pilkey novel. I missed the Captain Underpants books when they were coming out during my elementary school years; I didn’t have any interest. I never had any interest in Dog Man either as an adult and a bookseller despite their popularity among the children. Then I was asked to throw a release party for the 8th novel in the Dog Man series, and I thought I had better at least introduce myself to the characters and the story.

Lucky for me, the 7th book at least begins with a recap of the story thus far. In sum, a police dog’s head is surgically attached to a policeman’s body when the two are in a horrific accident (a bit of a creepy premise, but okay). The two become Dog Man. Dog Man continues to protect the city from evil, which seems to come primarily in the form of other even more anthropomorphized animals, because Dog Man himself doesn’t talk.

Among his foes is Petey, a cat inventor, and Piggy, an evil mastermind who was shrunk with his henchmen to the size of a flea prior to the start of For Whom the Ball Rolls.

Petey’s heroic deeds in the previous novel earn him a pardon from the mayor at the beginning of For Whom the Ball Rolls.

Petey comes to claim his son/clone Lil’ Petey from Dog Man and 80-HD, who have been parenting Lil’ Petey during Petey’s incarceration.

Lil’ Petey is conflicted about leaving his found family to live with his father/clone Petey, but Petey insists, though he does quickly compromise by saying that he will allow Lil’ Petey to spend weekends with his found family if he can have weekdays.

This is what first sold me on Dog Man. How many other books are dealing with incarcerated parents right now? While I wish such books weren’t needed, there is a need. I can think of few other fictional parents who have been incarcerated and released (Lucius Malfoy, the Titan General Atlas) but no books that have at all dealt with a child’s return to a formerly incarcerated parent’s custody.

Ultimately, I think this book was about the meaning of family. Lil’ Petey, Dog Man, and 80-HD have become a family through proximity that becomes love and a bond. Petey believes at first that his blood bond with Lil’ Petey gives him more claim to Lil’ Petey. With that lesson, Lil’ Petey discovers that Petey doesn’t know his own father and sends 80-HD to retrieve the tomcat. Petey’s father remains critical and curmudgeonly as he was in Petey’s youth. He steals all that Petey and Lil’ Petey have, and Petey explains that it is okay that his father won’t be in his life; his father’s blood bond with Petey and Lil’ Petey does not promise him a place in their life. Petey as promised leaves Lil’ Petey with Dog Man and 80-HD for the weekend, and Petey goes home to his empty house with his love of Lil’ Petey to keep him warm.

Lil’ Petey is this story’s heart and conscience, though here he briefly falters and has to be uplifted again by Petey.  Love, Lil’ Petey espouses, sometimes must be an act before it can be a feeling.  So too good acts prove goodness; good intent without good acts are not enough for goodness.

The book is ridiculous. There’s no denying that. We’re introduced to a superhero this book whose superpower is less a superpower than a compulsion to eat cupcakes and knock over whatever baddies stand between him and the treats. But there’s also a great deal of sensitivity and positivity in this book.

Petey sees the mud and the pollution and the weeds but with Lil’ Petey’s help he learns to see the beauty in the world. He learns that a world that is shared with those he loves is never only horrible.

This was such a short book that I was able to finish it in the time that it took for my 20 oz of brewing tea could cool to lukewarm (maybe 20 minutes?). Do you have 20 minutes to spare? Perhaps while waiting for a cup of tea to cool or a pot of water to boil into spaghetti? Perhaps like me you’ll feel good about having completed a book in so little time. Perhaps like me your soul will feel just a bit better, the future will look just a bit brighter, and you’ll trust a bit more that the littles know good literature when they find it.

****

Pilkey, Dav. Dog Man, Book 7: For Whom the Ball Rolls. Graphix-Scholastic, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 7-10, Grades 2-5.

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

Book Review: A Well Written, Realistic Tale in Awkward

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

I read Awkward to prep for an event for work, but it is one that has caught my eye before with its adorable leads, embarrassed it seems on the cover by the nearness of the other, and the later books, the next of which features a girl in a hijab (Akilah we learn in Awkward).

Peppi Torres manages to break Cardinal Rule #1 of surviving on the first day at her new school when she smacks into a boy in the hallway, causing a scene, and getting noticed by the bullies of the school. He shoves away the boy when he tries to help her, and almost immediately the guilt of doing so shreds her conscience. She knows that she ought to apologize to him, but she can’t seem to make herself do it; she is too embarrassed by what she has done and too afraid of his reaction to her.

Fate thrusts the two of them into an awkward alliance when he becomes her assigned science tutor. It seems for a moment that they might smooth over the awkwardness of their initial encounter, though still Peppi can’t force the apology out.

But then of course Peppi discovers that Jaime is in her art club’s rival science club, which makes talking to him outside of tutoring even more impossible.

The two clubs are competing for a table at the club fair, and the principal has said that the club that the school votes as having made the greatest contribution to the school will win the table. The rivalry, the pranks only escalate in the face of the competition.

The diversity in this novel is fantastic, not only racial diversity in Peppi Torres herself, the students in the clubs, and in the fantastically cool, African American science teacher, Miss Tobins; the diversity within the student body and clubs themselves, but also with the inclusion of Jaime’s mother, a successful artist who happens to use a wheelchair, at least one character who is differently-able. Chmakova has realistically peopled her middle school. I see many students and teachers that I have known in the ones at Berrybrook. Each character seems to have such dimension, even the ones whose names I know only from the character design gallery at the back of the book.

Peppi is a realistic role model. She may not always do the right thing, but she wants to do the right thing. She is a clever problem-solver, and that makes her a leader.

It is also really refreshing for a book to so honestly deal with a crumbling marriage and an emotionally abusive father. The book does not spend long on the situation, but it is good to see so stresses acknowledged and openly discussed on this level.

This is a book of lessons in being your best self, how to react in awkward situations: new schools, competitions that seem to prevent cooperation and stymie friendships, being asked by a friend to help them do something wrong and against the rules.

Ultimately, Peppi and Jaime, who become friends outside of school when they discover themselves to be neighbors, help the two clubs come together to complete a project that requires the talents of both groups, and their collaboration helps them face down the bullies that are the true enemy of them all.

I appreciated the absence of any romance in this novel.

This book uses a limited, pastel palette that is easy to read, soothing to look at.

This story is very well structured, using the title Awkward and the refrain situations defining “awkward” as “This.”  It encourages the exploration of several hobbies: art, cartooning, tinkering, science, and geocaching.

I enjoyed this time at Berrybrook, though here was nothing earth-shattering, no thrilling quest.  These were good characters to get to know.

****

Chmakova, Svetlana. Berrybrook Middle School, Book 1: Awkward.  JY-Yen, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12 per a comment by the author on Goodreads.

This review is not endorsed by Svetlana Chmakova, JY, or Yen Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.