Tag Archives: middle-grade

Book Review: A Good Cast Triumphs in Taggerung

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I can't find a link to audiobook but click to visit the Penguin Random for links to order the paperback and ebook, summary, and author's bio.

I was introduced to the world of Redwall long ago and grew up with my mouth watering for candied chestnuts and deeper ‘n ever pie and strawberry cordial. Brian Jacques (RIP) has a flare for description that I have always admired and continue to admire. No one writes a feast like Jacques, and he paints such beautiful pictures of the country in which his novels take place, pausing with his creatures beside a river to describe the flora and fauna, the flight of a dragonfly and the drape of wild strawberries down the sharp embankment into which the river cuts to create a sheltered ledge (I’m inventing my own landscape now rather than quoting or describing any of his, but you get the idea).

I’ve read and remember reading fewer of the Redwall novels than I would have thought. There are apparently 22, and I am now certain that I’ve read 5 of them, though I think I’ve read more that I’ve forgotten.

Jacques’ view of the creatures of Redwall and the surrounding country is starkly divided into good and evil. Badgers, hares, mice, otters, moles, squirrels, hedgehogs are good—just inherently, irrevocably good, as this tale proves. Rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels, foxes are irrevocably, inherently bad—cruel and viscous, the Orcs of Mossflower Country, though they are given far more personality and character than Tolkien ever gave the Orcs. I tend not to enjoy such stark divisions of good and evil (“the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters”), but I admit that rarely it is nice to escape into a world where a creature’s nature and alignment is possible to determine from a glance, to be given the excuse to think less, emphasize less, and still be able to be on the side of right.

In this novel, the otterbabe Deyna is kidnapped by the leader of a vermin clan and his father killed because Deyna is prophesied to be the Taggerung, an unmatched and unmatchable warrior, the most feared throughout all of the vermin clans known collectively as the Juska. Deyna is rechristened Taggerung and is raised as the clan chief’s son, but though he grows into an impressively strong and skilled fighter, Tagg refuses to kill. (Because of this I think too little is made of his first kill of an anthropomorphized creature later in the novel, admittedly a weasel who attacked Redwall, was hunting him with intent to kill, and hurt his own clansmen, including his chief, but early in the novel, Tagg refuses to kill one of the vermin members of the clan that raised him, beginning his banishment and his adventures, so one would think that this weasel’s death would still weigh on his conscience. Before even that he does kill an eel that is terrorizing a shrew clan, but the eel is more animalistic than humanized.)

This novel rambles more than some of the others in this series, perhaps because it has multiple protagonists in different parts of Mossflower Country as well as the regular competing plot that follows the villain. The book follows the life of Deyna, though it focues on the time after his banishment from the Juska, his long and roving return to Redwall Abbey. Having been banished from the Juska clans as a fifteen-seasons-old otter, he is hunted by his clansmen, meets a plethora of amusing families of voles and shrews and hedgehogs and one ebullient mouse named Nimbalo the Slayer, who becomes his travel companion and best friend. Meanwhile at Redwall, Deyna’s sister Mhera is trying to unravel a riddle that will determine the next abbot or abbess of Redwall. Honestly, there are several times I thought that the story ought to have come to an end (though if I’d thought about the series’ formula, I ought to have known that I would have to wait for an epilogue by the Abbey Recorder). Deyna’s story wrapped up quite well by the time that he was healed and back at the Abbey, Gruven’s story had not, and Jacques decided to end both plots and end the Juskarath before closing the novel.

The cast of this audiobook, though, sells the story, singing whenever necessary, with unique voices and accents appropriate to the character and species of each beast—and I was willing to follow them through whatever escapades Jacques had concocted. The “full cast” is not given nearly enough credit for their work—in fact, I can’t find their names anywhere on the case for this CD set—and I want to know their names. Jacques himself does the narration, which I always appreciate because you know then that you’re hearing this story as the author intended, each line precisely nuanced and inflected as he would have wanted and each word pronounced correctly.

The audio recording itself is probably a full 5 stars, but the story itself is merely a three.

****

Jacques, Brian. Taggerung. Recorded Books Productions, LLC-Haights Cross Communications Company, 2003. Audiobook, 11 CDs.  First published by Redwall Abbey Company Ltd 2001.

This review is not endorsed by Brian Jacques or any of the full cast of this audio recording, Recorded Book Productions, LLC, Haights Cross Communications Company, Redwall Abbey Company Ltd, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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People of Color in the Books I Read in 2017: Part 2: Novels

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I read 68 books that included people of color this year, which sounds impressive compared to last year’s 44, but that is only 27% of the total books that I read this year. However, of those 68, 34 had a person of color as a protagonist—a full HALF, 14% more than last year! But again, those 34 are only 14% of all of the books that I read this year.

Did those numbers go up from last year? Yes, yes they did, but not by enough, never by enough. The percentage of books that I read with any mention of people of color increased by only 1%, but the percentage of books with people of color as protagonists rose by a full 9%.

For fun, within the age grouped sections, I’ve arranged the series by their most highly rated book, and the series themselves with their highest rated at the top of the list and lowest rated at the bottom, so for example, the highest rate book in the Harry Potter series is more highly rated than the highest rated book in Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Deathly Hallows is more highly ranked than Half-Blood Prince, and so on.

 

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Book 7 by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2007.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Book 6 by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2006.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Book 5 by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2003.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, and J. K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2016.

Despite some prevalent but far from universal fan theories and some casting decisions made by those heading the new West End play, the Harry Potter series is pretty white. There’s Dean Thomas, a boy of African descent from Harry and co.’s year, who gets a larger role in The Deathly Hallows, and Blaise Zabini, also of African descent, a Slytherin of indeterminate gender even, no more than the last name in the Sorting queue until Half-Blood Prince, where he emerges a member of the Slug Club. There’s Cho Chang, a girl of Chinese descent, whom Harry briefly dates during his fifth year. There’s Kingsley Shacklebolt, an Auror and Order member who later becomes Minister of Magic. There’s Lee Jordan, a classmate of African descent in Fred and George’s year, who reemerges as a radio host in The Deathly Hallows. There are the Patil twins, Parvati and Padma, who are of Indian descent. In The Cursed Child in an alternate universe created by meddling in the past, Ron marries Padma and has a half-Indian son, Panju, though neither Padma nor Panju are ever on stage, and Ron is pretty miserable as her husband. As far as speaking parts go… that’s pretty much it.

 

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. First published 2009.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2005.

Percy Jackson is also pretty white. Charon is described as having darker skin. He’s a god, the ferryman of souls to Hades’ realm, and an employee of Hades’. I feel like another of the gods was described as darker skinned, but I cannot remember whom. I know Thanatos, Death, is, but he doesn’t appear till the next series. Charles Beckendorf, head of the Hephaestus cabin, who dies a hero, is African American, at least in fan art that is now the official art, but I’m not even sure it says for certain in the series that he is African American. But Riordan learned.

 

The Trials of Apollo, Book 1: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

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

The supporting cast of The Trials of Apollo is pretty wonderfully diverse, though Riordan handles it much better in the second than the first book. But now there is a Brazilian demigod at Camp Half-Blood who speaks very little English. One of Apollo’s children is African American. In the second, there’s Jamie, a graduate student and wielder of magic if he isn’t a demigod (which he might well be), descended from the Yoruba people of West Africa, to whom Apollo is pretty strongly attracted. There’s the Latino American Leo Valdez in all his marvelous impishness.

 

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

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

Now we get to Riordan’s best—or my favorite so far. Here is Blitzen, a dwarf with dark skin. Here is Samirah al-Abbas, a hijabi and Arab American. She lives with her Iraqi American grandparents. She is engaged to Amir Fadlan, whose father Abdel runs Fadlan’s Falafel, a restaurant that has always been kind to Magnus Chase, finding him extra food when he was living on the streets of Boston. Here is Alex Fierro, a Mexican American, whose family immigrated from Tlatilco. He/she becomes Magnus’ love interest. Here is Thomas Jefferson Jr., a Union soldier from the Civil War, the son of a runaway slave and the Norse god Tyr, who while living dealt with the prejudice against African Americans. All of these are primary characters.

 

The Kane Chronicles, Book 1: The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. First published 2010.

In this series of Riordan’s, the two narrators and primary heroes are biracial, half-white, half-African American. Carter is dark skinned. Sadie is paler. They go to live with their Uncle Amos, who is African American. Most of the action for this story takes place in Egypt, where they interact with the magicians of the First Nome beneath Cairo. Carter’s love interest, Zia, is born along the Nile.

 

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise: Part 1 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2012.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search, Parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2013.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Rift, Parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2014.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Smoke and Shadows, Parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2015.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: North and South, Parts 1-3 by Gene Luen Yang. Dark Horse, 2016.

I actually read these all in their individual parts. This is set in an alternate world, but the influences are mostly Asian, and most of the characters appear more Asian than Caucasian. The Water Tribes of the North and South Poles are darker skinned than members of other nations.

 

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.

This standalone of realistic, contemporary fiction–and hey! this year’s Newbery winner!–features a protagonist who is Filipino American and a pair of Japanese American sisters. Virgil’s Filipino American heritage is particularly explored. His grandmother is fairly newly immigrated.

 

Teen (Ages 13-19) 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017.

This story was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality against the African American community. Starr and her family are African American. Most of the characters are African American, but Starr attends a predominately white private school, and her boyfriend is white.

 

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2016. 

Some of Blue’s family seems to be African American, though Stiefvater is never very explicit about it. I suspect Calla may be. I suspect Jimi, Orla, and their immediate family may be. According to Stiefvater, Blue herself and Blue’s mother Maura are not. Henry Cheng becomes a much more prominent character in The Raven King, even becoming the third wheel to Blue and Gansey’s tricycle, joining them on the road trip that I most want to be on. He’s Korean American.

 

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2017.

Almost this entire cast, the entire Soria family is Mexican American.

 

Adult (Ages 20+)

Ender’s Game Alive by Orson Scott Card Exec. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Ender’s Game first published 1985.

Shadow of the Hegemon by Orson Scott Card. Audio Renaissance-Tor-Holtzbrinck, Sound Library-BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. Shadow of the Hegemon first published 2000.

The International Fleet picks the best from every nation. Most of the primary characters are white. Bonzo Madrid, with whom Ender fights, is Spanish. Alai becomes one of Ender’s closer friends and part of the jeesh. He is North African. Shen, one of Ender’s first friends, is Japanese. Commander Chamrajnagar, later Polemark, is Indian. In Shadow of the Hegemon, Bean and Petra with Achilles travel the world pretty expansively. Bean befriends Suriyawong, and joins then later commands the Thai army. Virlomi, an Indian Battle School graduate, helps Petra escape by escaping Achilles to get word to Bean and Suriyawong. Achilles brokers a brief peace between Pakistan and India, meeting with representatives of both nations. Bean lives for a brief time in Brazil and then later moves the headquarters of the Hegemon there.

 

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. First published 2005.

Fat Charlie and Spider are descended from Anansi the Spider of West African mythology. Fat Charlie’s mother and their neighbors in Florida are all Afro-Caribbean.  Rosie Noah and her mother are both Englishwomen of Afro-Caribbean descent, Rosie’s father having been instrumental in the introduction of Caribbean fusion food to England.

 

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White. Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Alice Stone and her family are all African American. Amelia is revealed later to be biracial. Bobby Banks’ grandmother lives in a predominantly African American neighborhood, but Bobby struggles to make friends with the African American children who live there.

 

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

Book Review: Everything I Love is in The Dark Prophecy–But So is Apollo

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

That title seems harsh, but it is nonetheless true.

Some spoilers!

This is a story of overbearing fathers or fathers who overshadow their children—Marcus Aurelius, Nero, Zeus, Midas, Apollo himself, maybe even Ssssarah’s father should be included in the list (is that Tartarus?)—the weight that they put on their children, and the right and wrong ways to react to that weight.

Apollo seemed to me less annoying in The Dark Prophecy, whether because this is a god much humbled or because the supporting characters are larger, helping to balance him better. Here is Leo, already well-developed and greatly loved, and Calypso with him. Their relationship, one in which I was fairly invested prior to the beginning of this series, serves as a good breaker of a subplot to Apollo’s narcissism. Jo and Emmie, new characters, are large characters too (and if you want to give us the continued or previous adventures of Emmie and Jo, Uncle Rick, I won’t complain). They loved each other so much that they left the Hunters of Artemis and its accompanying immortality. They are also not just lesbians, but an older, married and settled lesbian couple, particularly underrepresented in children’s literature maybe partially because adults are so rarely the heroes in children’s literature. I’d love to see more teen and child heroes raised by two women in love—or two men in love.

Riordan has introduced another new character that I want to keep an eye on: Olujime (Jaime). Olujime is descended from the Yoruba people of Western Africa. He is a graduate student in accounting, working as a gladiator to support himself. He fights using Gidigbo and Dambe, both West African fighting styles, and lightning, which I and Apollo in this writer’s world take to suggest godly parentage or patronage. I am both excited and scared that the appearance of Jaime suggests that Rick is researching for another series. I’m not sure that it’s his place to explore Yoruba myth and tradition, but I’d be interested to read such a series–and I already know that I’d love the style if Riordan wrote such a series. Moreover, I love the idea of a adult hero from Riordan, suffering the horrors of graduate school while also having to battle monsters and gods–probably with a good sense of humor and a passel of friends.

Apollo is really attracted to Jaime but backs off when Jaime lets slip that he has a serious girlfriend. We get to see Apollo’s bisexuality not as a long-ago myth as with his labeling last book Hyacinthus as one of his greatest loves (the other being Daphne)—not just through his attraction to Jaime but also through his broken relationship with Commodus, a relationship we visit in its prime in flashbacks that Apollo experiences. This book more than in the previous one Apollo’s past comes back to haunt him.

I’ve said a lot about Leo and Calypso in this review. For all that, their relationship was a bit of a letdown. Given that Leo quite literally died to rescue her and that Calypso has been waiting eons to leave her island, I expected and wanted a glorious ship. But their relationship was built on a few weeks when Leo was stuck on her island and spent most of that time devising a way off for himself and, a good bit of that time, the pair spent sniping at one another, neither wanting to be stuck with the other’s company. Calypso softened to Leo during that time and Leo to her, and he left, vowing as most heroes seem to do, to come back and rescue her. They had not seen each other again until Leo landed, having narrowly escaped death, to rescue her. They’re relationship now is tense. They are discovering that they don’t really know one another, and Calypso particularly is discovering that she doesn’t really know herself. I hope soon that Rick will leave them alone to discover life outside of monsters and quests and new foster homes. Maybe I expected too much of them. Still, I was glad to have them here. I was especially glad to have Leo here. He made a good balance for Apollo.

This novel still for me though does not hold up to the sort of love that I have for the rest of Riordan’s series, though this far more than The Hidden Oracle, climbed near them. In fact, I think if that first book had been as good as this, I would be completely on-board with this series, but The Hidden Oracle drags this down because this one cannot stand well without it.

Here again are more human villains, a more relatable foe for the reader than the gods and Titans and giants of previous series. Leo and Calypso are here. Grover will be here!  Apollo was one of the gods I was most excited to see whenever he showed up in Percy Jackson in the Olympians, though more because he made me laugh with his horrible, egotistic haikus than because he was a solid character.  There’s so much potential here.  I just struggle so much with Apollo himself and his narration.

****

Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Let’s Talk About The Ship of the Dead

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

This review contains some spoilers. The worst of the spoilers are in white and can be seen by highlighting those sections.

We need to talk about The Ship of the Dead. We need to. This. Book. Is. Amazing. For all of the social conversations that it facilitates, for its timeliness. For the miles I walked in others’ shoes—so many shoes in so few pages. For not seeming to preach when it’s facilitating these conversations nor seeming to hide its darkness behind humor, but balancing the two wonderfully—better, I’d even argue than many of Riordan’s novels; this was one of the more somber of Riordan’s novels that I’ve read. One of the funniest scenes that I remember was T.J. walking through modern York and thanking every Englishman for remaining neutral in America’s Civil War.

Speaking of T.J., we need to talk about T.J. Thomas Jefferson Jr. is a Union soldier who died in the Civil War. He’s the son of an escaped slave. T.J.’s mother gives young T.J. the same talk about appearing at all threatening that too many mothers must today give young African American children: “‘You don’t get to play,’ she snapped. ‘You play-shoot at a white man with a stick, he’s going to real-shoot you back with a gun’” (186). That line reverberates across the pages and across the decades between that scene and today; it shouldn’t. It should be a historical peculiarity at most. Riordan’s inclusion of that conversation highlights its source in the undeniable racism of slave-ownership in America and the Civil War. And it’s important that we all hear that speech. I am a white cis woman. My parents never had that dread, never sat me down to warn me about walking down the street. But I need to know that there are parents who do have that dread, and I need to hear what they say, and to understand how that knowledge, that fear curtails the childhoods of too many children. I need to hear it till it does become a historical peculiarity.

We need to talk too about Sam. We need to talk about an Arab American, hijab-wearing, Muslim protagonist whose faith is important to her, who fasts for Ramadan and believes that doing so will make her stronger despite her friends’ and her fiancé’s fears and their reminders that she does not need to fast for Ramadan if doing so will be harmful to her as they fear it will be. We need to talk about her strength in completing this perilous journey, confronting all of these foes while fasting. We need to talk about her being right, that fasting and observing the religious holiday does make her stronger and better equipped for the final battle of the series. We need to talk about the positive, well-researched representation of Islam and of Ramadan.

We need to talk about Alex—again. In this story, Alex’s Mexican (Tlatilco) heritage becomes more central to his/her story. In today’s America, under this presidency with this rhetoric, positive, respectful, well-researched representations of Mexican Americans are especially important. The Fierros are wealthy businessmen, founders of a successful company that creates high-class, luxury goods and American jobs, further turning about the stereotypical, racist image that the president and others reinforce. His/her Tlatilco heritage further informs his/her views of gender fluidity, duality masks and figurines with two connected heads but one body being among those artifacts from the Tlatilco that have been found. Positive, well-researched, respectful representations of members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also important.

Hearthstone continues to be important. The other protagonists’ reaction to and willing accommodation for Hearthstone continues to be important. Each of the main protagonists from the former books (Magnus, Sam, Blitz, and Alex) uses sign language with Hearth but also with each other. It has become another language in which the friends can communicate. Hearth’s reclaims his othala rune in this story, facing his father and the memory of his brother both.

Magnus, sweet Magnus, is the glue that holds this group together in some ways. He is the narrator and the protagonist and his propensity to protect his friends makes him the primary warrior in the final battle despite the obvious challenges that he faces. His weapon becomes friendship and kindness and love and affirmation, and that ultimately trumps the trash talk that has historically been victorious in this particular battle form: a flyting. Riordan again turns the narrative around, replacing hate and cruelty with love and showing that love trumps hate.

I also need to thank Riordan here.  I knew going into this novel (because it’s all but stated at the end of the second book) that Percy Jackson was going to make an appearance.  Percy swoops in like a deus ex machina in the first book of The Trials of Apollo, the first series within the world of living Greco-Roman mythology where Percy is not a main protagonist.  I feared that he might be overbearing here too.  He was not.  He was subtle.  He was just enough to remind us that the Greco-Roman and the Norse mythologies live and breathe side by side, enough to be fan service but not a primary character or even much more than a footnote, a proper cameo in the novel.

It should also be noted for those following my journey through this series that I did not listen to the audiobook of this novel, and I did not falter on the names.  I have now learnt enough Norse mythology to be comfortable with all the primary characters and make decent guesses at the names of some of the new faces.  So yeah, I guess these books are educational in that sense too.

Magnus Chase means a lot to me.  Magnus as a hero–for his kindness and his compassion and his empathy, a demigod blessed with healing and disarmament rather than skills to be used for fighting (though Jack does a lot of the fighting so that Magnus doesn’t have to)–means a lot to me.  His friends all mean a lot to me too.  I’m glad to have spent these three books with them all.  I hope–and think–that we haven’t seen the last of them, though this series has come to a fitting close.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Search: One Long-Awaited Answer Tangled in Many Threads

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This link will take you to the hardcover collection of all three parts of this trilogy.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

After the close of the television show, the team responsible for Avatar: The Last Airbender and a few fans (Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese among them) began a series of comics that follow Team Avatar beyond the television show and help to bridge the 70 year gap between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. There are currently five trilogies: The Promise, The Search, The Rift, Smoke and Shadow, and North and South. The television series ends with Zuko’s agonized and angry question “Where is my mother?” This second trilogy sets out to answer that question.

Finding graphic novels that appeal to and are appropriate for younger audiences can be difficult (though hopefully getting easier as we booksellers realize the demand and make concerted efforts to point out and to stock graphic novels for children). These are shelved with the adult graphic novels in Barnes & Noble, but there is nothing in these first two trilogies at least that is any more adult than what is in the television series, even though in The Search there are family dramas, madness, and politics. Often, I don’t think we give kids enough credit.  Really I think these stories have more appeal for the 7-17 age range than they do for most adults—at least than for those adults not already familiar with the television series and invested in the characters and the world.

This particular trilogy deals more with the personal stories of the characters than the larger world-building of The Promise.

Four years back now, I read the first part of this trilogy and was apparently impressed. It’s only now that I’ve gone back and read the three parts together (over the course of eight days).

The Search does quite a bit of bouncing backwards and forwards in time. The past plotlines are done in more of a monochrome (red for those that happen within the Fire Nation and blue for those that happen among the Water Tribe). Still, bouncing between the past and the present was distracting.

I see why doing so was if not necessary then certainly expedient, but I would have preferred I think to have one or several longer periods of backstory (some scenes in the present were 4 or so pages) than so many often abruptly interrupted storylines. I would have been quite happy spending two parts of this trilogy learning Ursa’s story and only one part having Zuko discover it and reconnect with his mother. I wonder if the creators underestimated the level of investment that fans would have in Ursa’s story separate from that of Team Avatar—which would frankly surprise me; they set us up for this level of interest, and surely this story was told partially in answer to scads of fans asking the same question that Zuko had done because Zuko had done.

I actually think that this story may suffer from too many storylines. Exciting as they all are individually, especially with the jumps between times, it was a lot to keep track of: Zuko’s quest with Team Avatar plus his sister, Azula’s madness, the letter given to Azula by Ozai that raises questions about the Fire Lord line of succession, then Ursa’s first lover and childhood home, her marriage and subterfuge and exile, her second marriage and new life, plus the story of Water Tribe siblings living in a haunted forest in the Fire Nation to try to find a spirit who can give new faces but tangling with its massive Wolf Spirit pet instead. The theme of reuniting families and restoring old lives runs through all, but in 228 pages of comic it’s all too much. In a 500 page novel, absolutely, but this isn’t a 500 page novel.

Now, all that said, I do want it noted that I read these online, and the format was a scrolling one rather than a facing page layout. That perhaps made some difference.

***

Yang, Gene Luen and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: Parts 1-3. Ed. Dave Marshall. Illus. Gurihiru. Dark Horse, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Gurihiru, Dark Horse Comics, or anyone involved with the graphic novel series or the television series. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: We Need to Talk About Alex Fierro and Magnus Chase

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

We need to talk about Alex. And we need to talk about the Magnus Chase fandom.

Having enjoyed the first audiobook in this series, I found the second too. This second book is narrated by Kieran Culkin. I didn’t love the voices that Culkin did for these characters as much as I loved Guetig’s, but I found his Magnus more palatable, so I was not displeased. Of the voices that Culkin does for the characters, Blitz’s is most memorable. He has a strong accent that actually sounded more like a Brooklyn accent than a Boston accent to me, but Boston is a diverse city, and Blitz is from Nidavellir, so really he can have any accent that the narrator fancies and who can tell him that he’s wrong.

I went running to find the audiobook after the announcement that this book had won a Stonewall for 2017. The Stonewall Book Award is given to books that best relate the LGBT experience. Usually this award ends up going to books that could be qualified as issue books, books that set out with the primary intention of relating the LGBT experience. I would argue that that is not The Hammer of Thor’s primary intention. This book remains—as all of Rick Riordan’s middle grade novels have been—an action/adventure story, a quest, and a fantasy adventure, but Alex Fierro is gender-fluid, sometimes using he/him/his and sometimes she/her/hers. Alex’s experience as a central and primary character in the novel is highly visible, but the story is not wholly his/hers nor is his/her story the focus; preventing Loki from starting Ragnarok is the focus. I was impressed that any book that isn’t an issue book could win a Stonewall. I was going to probably eventually read this story anyway because I do very much enjoy Riordan’s adventures and they are perennial bestsellers that are easier to discuss with customers after I’ve read them, but my pleasure at this surprising win did push me to search harder for a copy to listen to.

Alex says openly to Magnus that he/she does not want his/her story to be taken as the story of every trans, queer, or gender-fluid person. I highlight that because I think it important to recognize that there are different experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community. Riordan explicitly uses Alex to represent but not to define the LGBTQIA+ experience.

The primary characters of the novel are all fairly accepting of Alex’s gender fluidity. The einherjar at large and several of the gods are less so. Alex like Magnus comes from a well-off family but has spent time on the streets.

The more time I spend on Pinterest and the more pins about Magnus Chase that I find the more that I fall in love with Magnus. Other fans (particularly I credit Tumblr user magnusglows for these revelations) have noticed some of his more loveable quirks, like his tendency to refer to friends as “his.”  The series has made a point of discussing found family. Magnus is wonderfully supportive and respectful of his friends’ choices and feelings, and its wonderfully heartwarming to have a hero who is no less heroic for being so and no less heroic for being associated with healing and sunlight.

The more time I spend with this series the more disappointed I am by the first two Percy Jackson movies and particularly Riordan’s reaction to those movies. The representation in this series is so important, and I want this story to reach as many people as possible, but I know that Riordan will probably never allow another film to be made. He seems more supportive of the Percy Jackson musical, though, so maybe there’s hope for a filmed staged version.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

Riordan, Rick.  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor.  2016.  Narr.  Kieran Culkin. Listening Library-Penguin Random, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Importantly Diverse Cast of Relatable Characters in Hello, Universe

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, trailer, kaleidoscope instructions, and author's bio.

This review contains minor spoilers.

We were lucky enough to have an ARC of Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe show up at our store. Isabel Roxas’ cover art caught my eye, and then I enjoyed the first chapter or two that I read quickly on a lunch break, but it was the wonderfully diverse cast of minority and under-represented characters that made me hug the book to my chest and stuff it into my bag.

The story opens with Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American. He is a self-described “grand failure” and it’s not till several chapters in that the reader discovers why: because he failed to talk to the girl that he is crushing on and with whom he believes he is fated to be friends. He is very shy and lonely. He is a black sheep in his outgoing family, teased and misunderstood by his parents and brothers, closest to his Lola (grandmother) and, of course, to his guinea pig, Gulliver.

The following chapter introduces us to Valencia Somerset. Valencia has been having a repeated nightmare. She is lonely too, isolated by her impairment (she is deaf in both ears and wears hearing aids to help her interact with the world) and her mother’s lack of understanding. Valencia wraps herself in observing nature, taking detailed notes in her notebook and hoping to be like Jane Goodall. She seeks solace in religion but lacks any religious schooling and so has pieced together her own religion, centering mostly on Saint Rene, a martyr who was deaf, whom the Canadians believed was hexing a boy instead of blessing him.

Next comes Kaori Tanaka, whom I suspect is Japanese-American from the name alone, a self-proclaimed psychic with colorful past lives, whose assistant is her younger sister, Gen.

Last of the POV characters is Chet Bullens, a bully from Virgil’s and Valencia’s school, who comes by his prejudices and fears of others honestly.

Because this book takes place at the very onset of summer vacation, the problems and drama of the book are less about school and more about family, friendships, and budding romances, personalities, and overcoming fears.

There is danger and action and heroism.

Virgil goes to rescue his guinea pig, and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen come to rescue him.  And to quote another book in another genre entirely, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.

It wasn’t till after I’d finished the book and was pondering the title that I realized that what I’d taken as a writer manipulating a plot was meant to be a helpful and caring universe manipulating lives and interactions. That’s a clever way to hide a writer’s work in plain sight, Kelly. Every action the characters take is leading the three—Virgil, Kaori, and Valencia—towards friendship.

There are still choices that Kelly made that I don’t yet understand fully, even though I now am confident that she has a good reason behind what she does. Only Valencia’s chapters are headed with her name, every chapter but her last, which is called “Messages.” Every other character’s POV chapter is headed by a more traditional chapter title. Each POV character is assigned a particular illustration instead to denote that the chapter is from his or her point of view: a snake for Chet, Gulliver the guinea pig for Virgil, a songbird with her nest for Valencia, and an astronomy chart for Kaori. I didn’t actually notice till another reviewer pointed it out that Valencia is also the only one to have her POV chapters written in the first person, so close is the third person writing of the others.

I think it particularly important to have brave, strong, no-nonsense Valencia as a heroine and shy, quiet Virgil as a hero, no less so because he is so shy and quiet.  Though Virgil is changed by his experience, having gained more self-confidence from facing danger and his worst fears and at the end of the novel does stand up for himself both to Chet and to his family and does talk to Valencia, he is still shy, still quiet, and not faulted for being so–at least not by Valencia and it seems not by Kelly, who allows him to still mutter and avoid eye-contact.  This book is important for those who will see themselves in its pages, see examples of their cultures, of their struggles—and for those outside of those cultures to both recognize the unique perspectives and struggles of those others and to see their own struggles—of loneliness and shyness and hardheaded parents and feeling an outsider—in these characters from other cultures. Moreover, these were characters I enjoyed spending time with—all except Chet. I felt for them all, hoped for them all, enjoyed their perspectives and observations. I’ve already begun recommending it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and school stories.

****

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Erin Entrada Kelly, Greenwillow Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

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Book Reviews: Best of the Best of 2016

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It’s awards season again, and I’ve read next to none of the winners or honorees this year. The only book that won any medal that I have yet found postings for is Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat, one of this year’s Caldecott award honorees, which I gave four stars.

But I always believe in honoring the books that I’ve read and have awarded five stars.

Only the bolded books on this last were eligible for this year’s awards… and there are only five of them, all of them picture books.

Of the books that I rated five stars that were published in 2016, really, only Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? had any chance at any of the awards–I would have thought that a possible competitor for a Caldecott.

TODDLERS-KIDS (AGES 0-8)

MIDDLE GRADE-YOUNG READERS (AGES 8-12)

TEENS (AGES 13-19)

ADULTS (AGES 20+)

People of Color in My Books from 2016

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After last year’s jarring realization, this year I started a list of books with POC (people of color) and another list of books with a person explicitly not white in the role of a main protagonist in order to track my own reading and hopefully improve upon the lack of diversity of characters in 2015’s list of books.  This year I read 44 out of 168 books (26%) where any person of color is included, either as a protagonist or a background character, a sort of abysmal quarter but more than 2015’s 23% if only barely.  Only 16 of those 44 (36% of all books with any POC or 9% of the all the books I read) have a person of color in a starring role, less than half.  In some cases, as in Mike Cuarto’s Little Elliot books, the protagonist’s role is taken by an animal or usually inanimate object, but in most cases the POC play background characters to a white character’s story or share a stage where no one is given a spotlight within the pages (for the most part, the covers of such books feature white characters).

A coworker and I both realized recently that the majority of toddler books feature exclusively animal characters–or characters that are usually inanimate objects, like peas.  64 of 168 books (38%) that I read this year are in this category of books with no human or humanoid characters.  That means that in 2016 I read more books with completely non-human casts than ones that include even one POC.

Excluding these books that exclude humans and humanoid characters, the total percentage of books with POC rises to 42% but still does not hit even the half mark.

I have this year more actively sought out books with POC as protagonists, but I have not held–I’m sorry to say–to my November resolution to read books only about POC, women, or other marginalized groups.  (There’s a good new year’s resolution for me.)

This is the list of this year’s books that included POC.  Books where a POC is a protagonist are bolded.  Books where a POC is a secondary character, one with a speaking role, and more than a background character but still not a protagonist are underlined.  Books which arguably have no protagonist, where for example, a different character is featured on each page have a + sign beside them.  Books first published this year have an asterisk, because those are the ones that could be considered for the most recent round of awards, and because those are the books that were probably in some way effected by the current cultural climate.

Picture Books, Picture Storybooks, and Board Books (Ages 0-8)

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Teen (Ages 13-19)

Riordan as always has done a great deal to bring up the number of books that I’ve read with POC protagonists and characters.  The surprise aid has come this year from Disney, which not only set a story in Polynesia with an entirely POC cast of characters, but also even in their story about fish in the Pacific, where few human characters were at all present, they were sure to include POC, and in the books mentioned above, I think POC accounted for at least half but maybe 100% of the human characters present.  Santat, Curato, and Beaty should get honorable mentions for always including POC among their casts, and Beaty a shout-out for having this year’s picture book feature an African American girl.  Bildner and Parsley both deserve shout-outs as well for multiple books with POC protagonists.  I want to give a shout-out to Gassman too for having an African American on the cover of a book with a quite diverse cast where it would have been possible, as several others chose to do, to feature the white characters on the cover.

I also want to give a mention to Maggie Stiefvater.  I’ve begun to suspect that in her Raven Cycle many if not all of the people in Blue’s house are African American, but I can’t yet swear to it.

I want to give another shout out here to Elizabeth Bird, who recently published a list of picture, easy, and early chapter books published in 2016 with diverse casts and diverse main characters on The School Library Journal‘s blog.  This is a fabulous list, and fabulously organized.  Check it out.

Have I misrepresented any books?  Feel free to discuss below.  Sometimes–particularly in picture books–it can be difficult to determine a character’s race (sometimes probably intentionally so, and I appreciate that too), and sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether a character’s role is large enough to merit a place as a secondary character rather than a supporting or background character.