Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Keynan Masters and the Peerless Magic Crew

Sanders, DaVaun. Keynan Masters and the Peerless Magic Crew
October 17, 2023 by Inkyard Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Keynan lives with his mother and father in Bizzy Block, in a slightly futuristic dystopia where no one drives cars and relies on drones instead because of the frequency and severity of storms. He is content to help his parents with the crops, write poetry, and attend virtual school through Build-a-Scholar, where his best friend is Starbreaker. His parents, however, are obsessed with the idea that he attend Peerless Academy. Keynan doesn't want to go, and even when he gets a very insistent letter and agrees to go, he chickens out at the last minute. When a terrible storm hits Bizzy Block not long after that, Keynan thinks that if he attends Peerless, he might find a way to stop the storms. Taking a huge risk, he makes his way to the academy, which gets him in big trouble with Headmaster Kinder, since students were put into danger looking for him. Once of these students is first year scholar Leah, who doesn't mind, because she was hoping to see her older sister Yolanda out on the patrol. Keynan is put on the Wiley Squad, named for the professor in charge, and tries to get along with his squad members, including Amari. He has an easier time with that than getting along with Dez, who seems to have it out for Keynan. When the group starts to notice that the building and rooms keep changing, and that the storms around the academy keep increasing, Keynan is worried that it is his fault. He does discover that his poetry has magical qualities, but is he combining different types of arts in ways that are causing storms? When he and his friends accidentally unleash some evil, they don't feel that the can tell their professors about it. Instead, they must hone their skills and hope that a good performance at the recital will save the school. Will it be enough? And what is the secret behind Keynan's parents? There looks to be another book needed to explain the final pages!
Strengths: Keynan is an engaging character who is apprehensive about going away to a magical boarding school; that's new and refreshing. He does have a lot of motivation, since his mother was badly traumatized by the storms, and he hopes to find a way to make them not as bad. The adults at the academy are vaguely evil, but just the right amount; they are hiding things from the students more than making things hard for them. The connection between Keynan's poetry and magic was interesting, and this is a good choice for any student who is fond of writing. The cover is great.
Weaknesses: I love poetry, but my students tend not to. This starts with Keynan scribbling his verses, but I think with some encouragement, my students will struggle through that part of the book to get to the magical academy part. Even though I'm not a fan of info dumps, I could have used a little more information about the state of Keynan's world. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who can't get enough magical academy books like Alston's Amari and the Night Brothers, Clayton's The Marvellers, Perry's Cameron Battle, Hendrix's Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans, and Okogwu's Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun.

More fantasty books that you need to keep in mind!

Lee, Yoon Ha, Fox Snare. (Thousand Worlds #3)
October 17, 2023 by Rick Riordan Presents 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

This is the conclusion to this trilogy by the author of Dragon Pearl

From the Publisher:
"While on a mission to cement peace between the Sun Clans and the Thousand Worlds, Min the fox spirit and her ghost brother Jun get stranded on a death planet with Haneul the dragon spirit and Sebin the tiger spirit. To survive, the young cadets will have to rely on all their wits, training, and supernatural abilities. And let's not forget the Dragon Pearl . . .

Cervantes, Angela. Dawn of the Jaguar (Shadow Bruja #2)
October 10, 2023 by Rick Riordan Presents 
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus 

From the Publisher: "Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents the breathtaking finale to J. C. Cervantes's Maya-inspired Shadow Bruja duology, in which Ren makes a bargain for her life.
Shadow bruja Ren Santiago was relentlessly pursued by the evil Aztec Lords of Night, who claimed that she was destined to be their queen, a destiny she wasn't willing to accept. So she chose death instead.

Too bad death wasn't the answer to her problems. Ren soon realizes she must return to the land of the living to make things right. Unfortunately, that means negotiating with Ixtab, queen of the underworld. Ixtab offers her ten days aboveground in exchange for the discarded crown of jade and shadow. If Ren fails, she will return to the darkness for eternity. Ren agrees, knowing full well that she also has to save her friends Marco, Monty, and Edison and, while she's at it, put those pesky Lords of Night back to sleep forever.

The only problem is, Ren lost her shadow magic and time rope when she lost her life. How will Ren manage to accomplish what feels impossible? The answer lies not in manipulating shadows or time, but in recognizing the awesome power that has always been inside her." 

Monday, October 30, 2023

MMGM- Spooky Stories of the World and Sparkle

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Shearer, Wendy and Georgiev, Teo (illus.) 
Spooky Stories of the World
September 26, 2023 by Lonely Planet
Copy provided by the publisher via Sabrina Dax, publicist

Tired of reading Alvin Schwartz's 1981 Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark every Halloween? Need to find scary stories from a wider range of cultures? This slightly larger book (9.5"x11") combines eerie illustrations with tales from around the world, and is a great choice for reading aloud to a class or perusing under the covers with a flashlight! 

This starts with a map of the world behind the table of contents, and the stories are organized by region, with four or five tales for each are represented. North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Oceania all contribute. There's a brief description of the area and culture at the beginning of the chapter, as well as "More Spookiness" at the end, where various supernatural creatures, and their place of origin, are discussed. The stories are 4-8 pages long, with slightly larger text and lots of white space on the page, and accompanied by great illustrations in appropriately muted colors. The illustrations are especially helpful, since they show the background against which the stories are set, which makes them easier to envision. 

Stand out stories inclue "The King and the JuJu Tree" from Nigeria, where a king tries to cut down a tree that does NOT want to be cut down, "The Ghost Wife" from Bangladesh, where a woman is turned into a ghost and it takes a little while for her family to figure this out, and "The Two Sorcerers" from the Maori people of New Zealand. There are a couple of familiar tales, like Baba Yaga and the the death of Osiris, but most of these tales were new to me. 

There are many good collections of scary stories from different cultures out there, from the late Robert San Souci's Haunted Houses (2010) to Jones and Alvitre's 2021 Living Ghosts and Mischievous Monsters: Chilling American Indian Stories. This is a great addition to those books, and I'll probably shelve this in the 398s for the folktale aspect, especially since the effort was taken to identify the country of origin for every story.

Wilson, Lakita. Sparkle
24 October 2023, Viking Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Sparkle and her sister Nova live in Maryland with their father, who was a sit com start for ten years, and their mother, who works hard to manage their social media accounts. Sparkle has just had a successful photo shoot with a toothpaste company, and feels like this might be her big break. She also goes to a performing arts school where she is a drama major. The school's spring production is a big deal, and she and her friends Rae and Taryn try out. Sparkle is embarassed when the director, who is retiring at the end of the school year, picks her, as a 6th grader, to be the understudy for the lead. The lead, Amelia, isn't pleased that a 6th grader has gotten this perk out of turn, and Sparkle keeps the news quiet. She's also struggling with something else that she is keeping from her friends; Sparkle's hair has been falling out more than usual, and when her mother takes her to the doctor, he diagnoses alopecia in the "active hair loss" phase. Sparkle is mortified, and not happy that all the doctor has her do for a month is keep a hair journal. She tries to keep up with the play, and even tries to keep up her social media accounts, but the hair loss becomes profound. For a while, she wears a pink wig to school, and has her mother pencil in her eyebrows but an incident uncovers her baldness. Her friends are angry that she kept this secret from them, and it's devastating to have people know. She finally decides to cut off her remaining hair, and joins the National Alopecia Areata Foundation support group, where she gets the confidence to go to school without wearing her wig. There's enough outcry from others in the play that she steps down from her roles, which is hard, especially since her younger sister Nova is doing so well with the social media accounts and sponsorships. This is a good thing, because the father's residuals are not what they once were, and the family needs money. Will Sparkle be able to go forward with her acting career, and will the familiy find a way forward to support themselves while remaining true to their dramatic callings? 
Strengths: I am always surprised when the 6th graders make posters at the beginning of each year about their "dream jobs". Half want to be social media stars, and the other half want to play professional sports. I wanted to be a dentist, until I realized my math skills weren't good enough. That just shows the generational differences. Social media careers are out there, and this book shows just how much work they really take. To her credit, Sparkle not only has a plan, but she has help from her mother. She has an enormous focus on her appearance and is determined to be an influencer and actor. I'm impressed that companies are offering her partnerships; I've been blogging for almost 20 years and haven't managed that! The performing arts school is interesting, and there is all of the attendant middle school drama. This is also on trend with friends feeling hurt when other friends don't share their unhappiness with them; another generational difference I don't quite understand! Pair this with Ortega's Frizzy or Winston's Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution for other views on hair styles and hair care. 
Weaknesses: Sometimes the characters sounded so much older than middle school, but maybe that's just students in performing arts schools. At one point, Amelia complains that she can't "work on my craft and teach"; I can't say I've ever heard any of my students talking about working on their craft! 
What I really think: Having a family with famous people, and the desire to be famous, reminded me a bit of Kendrick's Squad Goals or Chase's Keeping it Real. Friend's 2018 This is How We Roll or Haddix's 2002 Because of Anya both include characters with alopecia, so there is certainly room for more books on this topic. This also reminded me a bit of Greenwald's The Real Us or Howse's Zitface in how it treated a big physical change for the main character. This could make a really interesting choice for lit circle discussions.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Sixteen Souls

Talbot, Rosie. Sixteen Souls
August 1, 2023 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Life is hard for Charlie Frith, who lives in York, England with his busdriver father, hairdresser mother, and two much younger sisters. His aunt is struggling with cancer, so her three children are often at the house. After a battle with meningitis when he was young, Charlie lost both of his lower legs. He has prostheses, but occasionally uses a wheelchair. He's gay, but hasn't really come out to his family at all, but some of his friends, like his crush Mitch who is now dating Leonie, have some clue. All of that would be manageable, even with exams looming, but there's more; Charlie is a seer, who can see and communicate with ghosts. This power descended on him when he died briefly, but was saved by a young doctor, Heather. She was attacked as she left the hospital and died herself right after dealing with Charlie, so appears to him as a ghost and is very helpful. He also has Ollie, a young boy who died 100 years ago, as a friend. Dealing with these abilities is a challenge at the best of times, since ghosts sometimes seek him out to either communicate or, in the case of "moldy oldies", try to kill him. There's also the threat of being caught in a ghost's "death loop" and experiencing their death, which has brought him to the attention of parents and teachers who witnesses an episode when he was on a school trip. His mental health was questioned, and he had to go through therapy and be on medication, so he is not keen to mention that this was not a one time episode. When Audrey, another ghost with whom he is familiar, warns him against another seer, Charlie takes this seriously, but when he meets Sam Harrow, he seems to be helpful. Not only that, but Sam needs Charlie's help: the historical ghosts of old York are going missing, and Sam is trying to figure out who is responsible. Worried that he hasn't seen Audrey or a couple of other well known and benevolent ghosts in a while (and because Sam is rather cute), Charlie joins forces with him to try to figure out what is going on. Suspicion falls on a local tour guide, and Mitch and Leonie join the group to help figure out the mystery. When the tour guide is found dead, things become even more dire. Fighting both the spirits and the humans who are trying to control him often ends in Charlie being wounded, which makes his parents very concerned. When it seems likely that there is a concerted effort to collect ghosts and use their essence for evil, Charlie knows he has to keep investigating no matter what the cost, but it may be higher than he expects. 

Fans of Stroud's Lockwood and Company and Schwab's City of Ghosts will love this one, and it has the deeply creepy atmospheric feel of a good BBC crime drama, mainly due to the rich descriptions of the city of York and its historic ghosts! Charlie's interactions include the ghost of a recently deceased neighbor, but also 1940s military spies as well as George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, from the 1600s! The setting and the history complement the story well and don't detract from the spooky nature or harrowing adventures that Charlie has. 

The depiction of Charlie's dealings with his prostheses is well done; there are some problems with mobility and pain, but these don't stop Charlie from investigating the ghosts. The parents are very concerned about both Charlie's physical problems as well as what they percieve as his mental health struggles. At one point, his father speaks up in support of the fact that Charlie is gay, even though Charlie hasn't said anything, and the mother also acknowledges this and affirms her love for her son. 

Heather and Ollie are well developed, and Charlie relies on these ghostly friends since he is having trouble navigating relationships with the living, including Mitch and Leonie. I loved that Mitch and Leonie were concerned about Charlie, and were willing to believe his involvement with the ghostly world. They both lend their help and skills to the missing ghost mission in very valuable ways. Sam is a trans man, and this comes up briefly when Charlie broaches the subject in a rather regrettable way. for which he later apologizes. There are a couple of brief kisses between the two. 

This is a Young Adult book mainly because of the ghost violence, and expecially because of the horrific ways that some of the ghosts met their end. I read some reviews that mentioned more mature language, but I wonder if that has been removed for the US edition, because I don't remember seeing any of it. There is a content warning at the beginning of the book. 

I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would, and am looking forward to reading the sequel, Twelve Bones, when it is released in October 2023!

What I'm not sure about is where we are with writing representation. For a while, I wouldn't have considered this "own voices" since the author is a white nondisabled woman, but now... I am not sure. She does mention sensitivity readers, and this has been out long enough that any controversy about it would have surfaced, so I may go ahead and buy a copy. This is the type of book that my readers liked twenty years ago, before middle grade skewed younger and younger. Sort of a Garth Nix or Neil Gaiman vibe.

Ms. Yingling

Saturday, October 28, 2023


Lawton, Moss. Hellaween
August 8, 2023 by Razorbill
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Gwen is a young witch trying out her magic in our world, and it's been a struggle to get spells right. She's broken several wands, and is currently using one made out of the wood of her beloved skateboard. As Halloween approaches, she welcomes the visit of her friends Miles and Sloane. Miles is a vampire, and Sloan is a werewolf, and they live most of the year in the Hallowlands, where all manner of monsters run rampant. They enjoy visiting Gwen and spending time in the somewhat less dangerous world she inhabits, and this year bring her a grimoire, so she doesn't have to make up all of her own spells. Of course, there are always problems. This year, Hiro is bound and determined to investigate Gwen and her odd doings, ala the Ghost Scramblers show that he watches. He runs afoul of Bea, who just wants Hiro to cool it. Gwen and her friends visit a haunted house and talk to the spirit of Esther, who lets Miles and Sloane stay in the house. They run into problems as Hiro's attempts to take them down intensify, Gwen tries to ramp up her magic to fight him, with mixed results. At one point, she summons a monster from the Hallowlands, and at the end of the book a portal in the corn maze is shown being closed, so there are a lot of opportunities for a sequel. 
Strengths: Halloween is a very popular topic in middle school, and there are very few books set during this holiday time. Gwen's magic is something that many middle grade readers firmly believe they could master with enough practice, and even if they can't, they can emulate her pink hair. Having friends from an alternate universe is always cool, even more so when they are a vampire and a werewolf. Hiro is a motivated adversary who doesn't have quite enough information about Gwen and her friends, so he heads off in completely wrong directions a lot of the time. The illustration style is very different from many middle grade graphic novels, which gives this an eerie, weird vibe that goes well with the story. 
Weaknesses: I felt like I was missing some back story on this, but it does seem to be the first book. I didn't enjoy the misbehavior at the mall, especially when the three were in a Spencer's Gifts type store, and when they are kicked out, yell nasty things to one of the clerks, calling him old in a denigrating way. There's also some garden variety swearing, and Gwen calls a monster she is fighting b****, so this seems more young adult and might not be the best choice for elementary schools. 
What I really think: This annoyed me a bit because of the questionable behavior, which means it will be an excellent choice for middle school students who think that wearing all black and ripped fish net stockings is new and innovative.  Hand to fans of Davault's Misfit Mansion or Thummler's Sheets

Ms. Yingling

Friday, October 27, 2023

Friday- Underdog City

Negron, Chris. Underdog City
October 31, 2023 by HarperCollins
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Mortimer Bray used to enjoy his neighborhood of Townsend Heights, where his lawyer mother is a councilwoman, but the last year has been tough. His father, a science teacher, has started taking apart a lot of small appliances, thinking he can "fix" them. A beloved elderly neighbor, Ms. Opal, fell and broke a hip and had to move to assisted living. Mortimer hasn't been in touch with her because he feels guilty. He also feels guilty about what happened to his dog, Trevor, who ran away from him on a walk and was hit by a car. This impacts his dog walking business, which he has handed over to his best friend, Frankie, since he doesn't feel capable of continuing with it. There are new neighbors in Ms. Opal's house, the Cortez family, who are at odds with the other neighbors, especially the Brewsters, because they have a rooster that wakes everyone up each morning. When the Cortez' granddaughter, Will, spends the summer with them, she starts a rival dog walking business. Even though he is no longer in the business, Mortimer feels like he should help out his friend Frankie and find out what is going on. He and Will start an tentative friendship, and start delving into neighborhood issues, mainly because of the problems the family is facing because of the rooster, Gustavo, as well as some prejudice because the grandparents have come from Puerto Rico. They find out that Mr. Brewster has some plans to buy an empty lot and build a development called Brewster Station. He claims that it will raise property values, provide needed businesses, and generally improve the neighborhood, but Mortimer has his doubts. He finally visits Ms. Opal, because he can remember that she always reacted strongly to the vacant lot, and he finds that she has deep ties to decades old "urban renewal" that negatively impacted her family as well as the entire neighborhood. Is Mr. Brewster using his project to cover up a similar building project that might decimate Mortimer's neighborhood? When Frankie gets him some secret information that ties in with Ms. Opal's historical perspective, he and Will feel that they need to go to the council to protest. Given Mortimer's anxiety, will he be able to get up and address the group to let them know what's going on in order to save his community, especially since his mother seems to be supporting Mr. Brewster?
Strengths: Townsend Heights sounds like an interesting neighborhood, and Mortimer's investment in it is an unusal example of Kids Doing Things. I appreciated that he was willing to get to know Will and became friends with her, instead of relying on the middle grade trope disliking neighborhood interlopers. The Cortez family's history, and their reasons for having a rooster, were interesting, although I'm not sure how well a rooster would go over in my neighborhood! The trauma of losing his dog, and the guilt Mortimer feels, are understandable. Ms. Opal is a great character, and her family history in Townsend Heights was so interesting that I wish Mortimer had visited her a lot earlier. The parents were some of the better middle grade ones I've seen; briefly but fully developed as humans with their own issues, supportive of Mortimer but annoying in various ways, and ultimately there for Mortimer. The friendships with Will and Frankie also made sense. This is a great example of the type of realistic fiction that I'd love to see published more, since it's the kind of title apt to be purchased for literature circles and class discussion sets. 
Weaknesses: The council meeting scene at the end of the book had a lot of information about the neighborhood history, as well as a lot of description about Mortimer's anxiety. The history would have been better presented spread throughout the book, and the entire scene tightened up a bit. 
What I really think: While I enjoyed this author's Dan Unmasked and The Last Super Chef, they haven't circulated as much as I had hoped, mainly due to the longer length. Underdog City seems a bit shorter, and has a fantastic cover. I've added a copy to my list to purchase, and will hand it to fans of Fairbairn and Assarasakorn's Paws graphic novel series, Hoyle's Just Gus, Finnegan's New Kids and Underdogs, or Benedis-Grab, Daphne. Army Brats.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Just a Pinch of Magic

Dow, Alechia. Just a Pinch of Magic
October 10, 2023 by Feiwel and Friends
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Winifred Mosley lives in the small town of Honeycrisp Hill, Rhode Island, that is a sort of sanctuary for people with magical abilities. Her adoptive father and aunt run the Wayward Sentiments Cafe and Sweetery, a business her grandmother started but which has fallen on hard times. Winifred's mother, Coraline, put a curse on the town that resulted in many of the residents being unable to leave, which has not endeared her to most of the population. When Kaliope Clarke moves to town with her father Lachlan and grandfather Ian, they plan to reopen a local bookstore. The Clarkes specialize in word magic, and have lived in Boston up to this point, where they have had to hide their magic. Kal's mother was never around much. Since the Mosley's cafe is in dire financial straits, Winifred uses her magic to try a spell that will allow her to gather a much needed magical ingredient, but she suspects that something went wrong, and that the Enchantment Agency will eventually come after her. She and Kal end up in magical Saturday school together, they realize that Kal's magic doesn't seem to be limited to words, and she seems to be able to enchant food as well. She has another secret as well; one of the books from her father's shop has a character in it named Violet who has been speaking with her and guiding her study of magic. To make things even more complicated, Winifred and Kal are trying to get their fathers to date each other. With the magic in Honeycrisp Hill going awry, will the girls be able to harness their powers enough to keep everyone safe and acchieve their goals? 
Strengths: It certainly would not be easy if your mother had cursed an entire town and then left, and dealing with the fall out of this makes for an interesting background story similar to Puckett's The Glass Witch. Honeycrisp Hill is an interesting town, and I'm apparently a sucker for small businesses; I found myself rooting for both the cafe and the book store, and wanted to know more about both. Of course, the curse, the voices speaking to the girls, and the fact that Winifred might have let an evil force loose of the town is more important, as is fixing up their fathers. This took a few unespected twists and turns, but was great fun. Even has some recipes that look intriguing. (Although I've vowed not to make any more chocolate chip cookies from middle grade books!)
Weaknesses: I found it hard to believe that Winifred found a vintage 1950s in a clearance bin of a thrift store. I admire her fashion sense, but seventy year old dresses rarely show up anywhere! Also, Kal's anxiety is mentioned in passing, but we never really see her dealing with the ramifications of it. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like their magic with a cup of cocoa and an enchanted pastry and who enjoyed Callaghan's Just Add Magic, Villanueva' Sugar and Spite, Meriano's A Dash of Trouble, or Littlewood's fantastic Bliss series. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Alex Wise vs. The End of the World and Futureland: The Nightmare Hour (Futureland #2)

Benton-Walker, Terry J. Alex Wise vs. the End of the World 
September 26, 2023 by Labyrinth Road
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Alex's parents are divorced and he hasn't seen much of his father since he moved out, especially now that he is remarried and has a step son, Nick, who is interested in basketball in the same way that the father is. Now that summer break is here, Alex is hoping to invite his former best friend, Sky, to a concert. The two fell out after Alex came out to Sky, Sky admitted that he also was sometimes attracted to other boys, and a classmate, Larry, called both friends gay. After that, Sky stopped talking to Alex. When his mother cancels the concert and forces both Alex and his sister Mags to go on a cruise with their father and their new family, Alex feels like he has lost his chance to reconnect with Sky. There's also the small issue of a shadowy figure who is skulking around both him and his sister. They aren't sure what's going on, but it's frightening. On the ship, Nick, Alex, and Mags are hanging out, getting burgers, when the shadowy figure attacks Mags and drags her overboard. Alex jumps in after her, and Alex's teacher, who also happens to be on the cruise, does as well. Unfortunately, the ship is in trouble as well, and in the chaos, the three can't be helped. Still, the wake up on an island, having been saved by Liam. Liam is the lone surivor of Paradisium, a world that was destroyed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse. They're back, and Death takes over the body of Mags. Alex is channeling Orin, the advisor of Liams' mother. Orin (who uses the pronouns they/them) can do magic, but Alex doesn't see a lot of that. He, along with his best friend Loren, eventually meet up at the hospital, and when they see Mags on television spouting off about the end of the world, they know they have to save her, even if it means fighting major forces of evil. THe group forms a plan, but not everything works the way they want it to, and their fights are interspersed with periods of planning and personal reflection. Will Alex be able to avert the end of the world? 
Strengths: This gets bonus points for tying in to the mythology of the Four Horseman; I can't think of another middle grade book that does that. There are some good dystopian elements to this, with factions taking over supplies, people dying (there's Famine and Pestilence gadding about, after all), and worried folk pledging themselves to the Horsemen as Riders. There's also a lot of positive behavior being modeled, with people apologizing for their behavior, Alex trying to retain the idea that he "is enough" even those his father doesn't make him feel that way, and a lot of acceptance about different issues of gender and sexuality. 
Weaknesses: If you fall off a cruise ship, your survival rate is only about 15%. This is just one of the reasons I've never been able to commit to going on a cruise. This bothered me; both Mags and Cam would almost surely have been killed. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like Perry's Cameron Battle or Oshiro's The Insiders, both of which are mentioned in this book. 

As an old person, one of the current trends that I find hardest to embrace is the idea of "You Are Enough". I can hear my mother deriding it every time. That, and "self care". To my mother, self care was washing up and getting dressed even if you had spent the night throwing up. There is work to be done, and a little thing like being sick should not stop you from doing it.

Doesn't really matter if our parents were right; we still internalize what we were taught. 

Hunter, H.D. Futureland: The Nightmare Hour (Futureland #2)
November 7, 2023 by Random House Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by Netgalley

After losing his best friend, the rev Dooley, Cam Walker is glad to have the friends Yusuf, Rich, Angel and Earl, with whom he was solving mysteries. Their school has a research project, so they all start planning to work on that. His parents and uncle are still very busy running Futureland, and they have a surprise for him: they are leaving Atlanta because of all of the public relations problems caused by Blaise Southmore and his evil plans and are heading to New York City. Cam is devastated, but knows there is fighting it, and is at least glad to be back in New York. When his friend Yusuf shows up wanting to stat in New York, Cam agrees to hide him, and the two sneak into Futureland. Yusuf has an odd wristband that he claims came from his mother's work and is just for fitness. Uncle Trey has a new technology that he is debuting; kids can wander around the theme park with Holo-pets to accompany them. When things get glitchy, Cam starts to think that maybe Yusuf's wristband is not what he claims it to be. When Cam takes it and starts wearing it, he can feel that it is changing his brain waves. How is HavenTech involved in the strange things happening in Futureworld? When Cam eventually comes clean to his parents about his knowledge of the problems that are arising, will they be able to help him with the threat posed by evil forces?
Strengths: Who doesn't want to spend time in a theme park that travels around to different cities and has Holo-pets and revs (like androids)? Cam is making a good transition to being friends with real people after Dooley was put out of the picture, and the move to New York made sense. Something is clearly up with Yusuf, and the prominent position of the wristbands is the book is pretty prescient; I've seen a LOT Of my students with smart watches, and people are clearly invested in them. 
Weaknesses: Fantasies are skewing more and more dystopian. It would be great to bring back some of the optimism of the 1950s and 60s science fiction instead of having everything be evil villains trying to wreck everything. George Jetson is a year old in 2023; can we have a happier, shinier future in some books? 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like fantasy books with technology in them, like Team Chu, Jinxed, or Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation. Sadly, I'm having trouble getting  my students to read fantasy SERIES to such an extent that I'm not buying some sequels. I'm debating, since the first book of this could stand alone. 

N.B. Wrote both of these reviews on the first full day of school and strongly suspect I have lost some of my ability to... word. Only checked out 200 books, but there are so many technology problems that I was constantly running. Walked excessively all summer so I wouldn't be tired, but that was not the case. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Project F

DuPrau, Jeanne. Project F
October 10, 2023 by Random House Books for Young Readers 
ARC provided by the Publisher

Keith Arlo lives in Cliff River City, in a future where there are onlky seven fairly small cities, since there are no fossil fuels being used at all. There are trains, horse carts, and a society where sustainable environmental practices are encouraged so that the world doesn't devolve into the chaos that existed before the Sudden Fall. When Keith's aunt and uncle are swept out to see in their new home of Sandwater City, they leave behind his young cousin, Lulu. She's being held in a children't home, and Keither father is too busy with his battery shop to go and get her. His mother, who designs doorways for municipal buildings, has just broken her ankle. It only makes sense that Keith, who is 14, will get on the train with a  note and bring her home. Unfortunately, he managed to switch his blue knapsack for the one belonging to Malcolm, a stranger who mentioned he is working on a secret project at Graves Mountain. Keith reads some of the papers, hoping to find some contact information, and decides to stop by Malcolm's facility after retrieving Lulu, because he wants to bask in the gratitude of returning the important papers. Malcom is grateful, but he's also not happy that the security was compromised. Despite this, because Keith is lighter than the men working on the project, he is asked to test pilot it. The deep secret is that Project F is bringing back a coal powered jet pack that will give people more freedom than they currently have. It's awesome to fly, but Keith soon has to get Lulu home. He also has concerns about the legalities of the creation, but doesn't think too hard about what the "black powder" fuel is. He also hasn't paid very close attention to the history of the Sudden Fall, but forgets to return a book Malcolm had that details the history of this time. Lulu settles in, with understandable sadness about returning to her former home city without her parents. When Malcolm contacts Keith and says that his group is going to come to Cliff River City and debut the new technology, Keith is somewhat conflicted. Is it illegal? What might be the consequences of this new techology if it does invovle reintroducing fossil fuels? 
Strengths: There have been so many dystopian books written, including this author's The City of Ember, and I often wonder why there aren't more eutopias. The answer is, of course, is that a lack of conflict makes for a boring story. Since Project F details a working endaxitopia (resorting to modern Greek to form this!), it makes sense that while things are pretty good, the conflict comes from a threat to the society. The beginning gets off to a good start, with Keith being entrusted to retrieve his cousin, and getting the opportunity to fly. Perhaps it was the fact that there was some technology (trains, apartment buildings) but no planes of cars, that gave this an early 1900s feel to it. Cliff River City seemed like something set almost during the Great Depression, and was fairly rich with outdoor spaces that are gorgeously described. Keith is a fairly typical 14 year old, who is a bit self absorbed but willing to learn about the world around him, and his feelings about the possibility of flight are realistic. 
Weaknesses: This became extremely didactic about fossil fuels, and I would have been okay with that if I had felt for a moment that Malcolm and his Project F were any sort of real threat. Instead, he seemed like a slightly off kilter inventor with little support whose project didn't seem to be a threat at all. The launch was not a success; Malcolm crashes and ends up being banished, but just to another city, which shows that even the government didn't find him threatening. His operation is easily closed down, and no one seemed that interested in it at all. Keith doesn't really get to save the day, which I would have enjoyed more. I also didn't see the point of the scenes with Amity, a girl from his apartment building, at all. 
What I really think: I feel like I understand what DuPrau was trying to do here. I feel like this was meant to be written in a way similar to 1950s science fiction books, sort of like a middle grade Asteroid City. (Which I haven't seen, but whose trailers look rather fun.) It's a cautionary tale to be sure, but also involve jet packs. As I said, some of the writing is gorgeous, but the plot was sacrificed a bit to the message. I'm going to hand this one to a fifth grade neighbor and see what he thinks. 

Ms. Yingling

Monday, October 23, 2023

MMGM- See It, Dream It, Do It and Hidden Truths

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Nelson, Colleen, MacIssac, Kathie and Ritchie, Scot (Illus.) 
See It, Dream It, Do It: How 25 People Just Like You Found Their Dream Jobs
October 17, 2023 by Pajama Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In this follow up to their 2022 If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It: How 25 Inspiring Individuals Found Their Dream Jobs, the team of Nelson and MacIsaac are back with more story of individuals who worked hard and were lucky enough to have jobs that they love. A wide range of careers is highlighted in this new installment, from science oriented fields like cave microbiologist and paleontologist to more liberal arts oriented choices like stand up comedian and ballet dancer. There is also a lot of diversity shown in the physical ability, ethnic, cultural, and gender related identifications of the people being showcased. The mostly two page spreads include not only a brief overview of the person's career, but also pro tips, "why not try" recommendations, spin off jobs, and other individuals who have followed similar paths. There are photographs of the people interviewed, and page decorations by Ritchie to enliven the pages. There are lots of words in bold print and a glossary at the back of the book, where there are also explanations of the careers associated with producing the book. 
Strengths: Studies have shown that children do better in math if they can feel a sense of purpose and tie their education in to future goals, so a book like this could be helpful in explaining the educational backgrounds needed for different careers. Upper elementary school seems like a time when children are just starting to realize that they will soon need to decide "what they want to be when they grow up", but don't have a great idea of what is available in the larger world. Books like See It, Dream It, Do It are instrumental in showcasing what choices are available, and provide a lot of food for thought. 
Weaknesses: I wish that career books for young readers would focus more on jobs that society really needs, even though they might not be as glamorous. I worry about all of the Ohio students I know who want to become marine biologists when they could use their love of science to go into medical fields where they could actually find jobs. Please remember that I am exceedingly bitter about this entire topic, since my dream job was to be a Latin teacher, and that did NOT work out. Most people are not in a position to "live the dream".
What I really think: This is a good choice for schools where there is a lot of interest in career education, or where students are apt to explore this topic on their own. 

Swartz, Elly. Hidden Truths
October 31, 2023 by Delacorte Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Dani and Eric are longtime neighbors and friends, even though they have very different interests. Dani is heavily invested in playing baseball, and has finally made the local boys' baseball team, so is very excited. Eric is not coordinated, and prefers more sedentary activities like reading comic books. They are both excited about their annual camping trip, especially since they were not able to go the previous year because of the death of Dani's grandmother, Gigi. Eric's father has gotten a used camper for the trip, along with a remote controlled vehicle that looks like the camper, and the trio take off with Dani's dog Casey for their adventure on Cape Cod. Sadly, the next morning starts with the father out fishing and Eric enjoying the outdoors, but a loud explosion rocks the area and the camper is on fire! Dani is still inside, but Eric braves the flames and rescues her. The two children are taken to the hospital, where the extent of Dani's injuries seems to be excessive. Her leg is broken, and she has severe trauma to her shoulder. Her first thoughts, after realizing that everyone, including the dog, has made it out okay, is that she won't be able to play baseball. Eric's first thought is that perhaps he didn't turn off the stove, and this led to the explosion. This wracks him with guilt and makes it harder for him to visit Dani. While she is in the hospital, she gets a visit from schoolmate Meadow, who is one of the popular kids and is at the hospital because her sister is recuperating from accidentally having her hand slammed in a car door, which has worsened into an infection. The two girls start spending time together. When Eric admits to his parents that he thinks he caused the accident, they hear his concern, but think it is unlikely. Dani and her mother, however, are very upset with him. Meadow capitalizes on this as a way to distance Dani from her long time friend and put her more firmly in her own clutches. Even after the cause of the blaze is determined to come from another source, the two friends are stuck in the loop of their own feelings about the event as well as the way they have interacted. Eric starts hanging out with Rachel, who is interested in investigating the accident as a way to have material for a private school essay, and Meadow and Dani post together on social media, occasionally saying mean things about Eric. While this drives the two further apart, Eric still wants to find out more about the remote control car battery so that accidents like this don't happen to other people. Dani's recuperation is very long, and she mourns the loss of a year of baseball. Will the two friends be able to make amends, both with each other and with themselves?
Strengths: Swartz has investigated other characters facing challenges in books like Dear Student (2022),  Give and Take (2019), Smart Cookie (2018) and Finding Perfect (2016) which was one of the first books in the now solid middle grade trend towards book examinging mental health issues. I love that there are supportive families, and that mental health issues are portrayed openly and in constructive ways. The misunderstandings and miscommunications that Eric and Dani have are very realistic, and it was interesting to see how they navigated new relationships when they were missing their former friends. Eric's investigation of the remote control battery added a level of interest to the story, and Dani's longing to return to sports will resonate with many young readers. 
Weaknesses: The characters are in fifth grade, and start sixth grade after their summer of trauma, so the way relationships are portrayed in the story might speak more strongly to elementary school students. Also, there is a mention in the end notes that Eric has ADHD. Looking back, this made sense, but since most of the book is set during the summer, the symptoms are harder to see, just as they are in real children. It does help explain his insistence that he often forgot things, like turning off the stove. I just didn't pick up on it quickly enough. 
What I really think: This is a great choice for readers who liked this author's other works or heart print books like Feldman's The Puttermans are in the House and Tandon's The Way I Say It.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Green and Deephaven

Gino, Alex. Green
October 3, 2023 by Scholastic Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Set in the same Jung Middle School setting as Melissa (once titled George; update your copy if you haven't already) and Rick, we meet Green, a nonbinary student who lives with their father. Green is friends with the aforementioned characters, and they are all in the Rainbow Spectrum club. Mr. Sydney was the faculty advisor of this group last year, when Mx. Abrams was on parental leave. Now that Mx. Abrams is back, there is going to be a school play. The kids are concerned that (because of very real financial concerns) the play chosen is the very old The Wizard of Oz. This means that not only are all the main characters male and female, there are also no queer characters, which concerns the Rainbow Spectrum contingent. Melissa is bound and determined to play Dorothy, but the kids want to make sure that roles are not assigned across gender lines, and write a letter asking that this be considered. The director says that is fine, and people can decide to portray their characters any way they want, and also tells them about the queer connections the play has, especially when it comes to Judy Garland. This makes the group feel better, but Green is dismayed when they don't get to play the part of the Tin Person, especially given the iconic line that character has, "Of course, some people do go both ways". It's not all bad, though, because Melissa's friend Ronnie is on the crew, and Green has a bit of a crush on Ronnie and doesn't mind spending time with him. They've had conversations, though, and Ronnie has identified himself as a cis het male who has only ever been interested in girls romantically. Green can accept this, and is glad they are friends. It's harder to accept the changes that puberty is causing in their body, however. Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB), Green is enjoying the new curves and softness their body has, but finds getting their period to be rather horrifying. Ideally, Green would like to keep the curves, but have a beard like her father's. Green has a conversation with Melissa about hormone blockers, and tries to be grateful that there are options available to Green that are not as easy for Melissa. As the play progresses, the Rainbow Spectrum starts to enjoy the play and the performing, learns a lot about LGBTQIAP+ history, and is able to share it with the larger community. Green tries to come to terms with their changing body, but does at least have a satisfactory relationship with Ronnie, who returns Green's affections. 
Strengths: Green is a very happy and confident seventh grader who has a very supportive family as well as an understanding group of friends. Jung Middle School is a very diverse school where teachers generally know how to talk to students about a wide range of issues and are welcoming and inclusive. Of course, seventh grade is hard for most people, and first crushes are always confusing, even without the different levels of complexity that come with Green's identity. The students interest in working on an older play but making it relevant to today's concerns is interesting to watch; having seen a production of Oklahoma a few years ago and been horrified by it, I wish that more plays werre held up to this kind of scrutiny. The best thing about this book is the generally upbeat tone and the wide array of characters. 
Weaknesses: While I appreciate why it is necessary to describe all of the characters in great detail and also cover a lot of gender politics and LGBTQIAP+ history, it does slow down the book down a bit. There are also several scenes, like the pancake breakfast, that don't further the action of the book. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who like Melleby and Sass' Camp Quiltbag or Federle's Better Nate Than Never. I make sure I read all of the books that are in my school library in case students have questions about them, and if you want to include this in your school or classroom library, it's not a bad idea to read it yourself so you are aware of information that students may want to unpack. 

I preferred Deephaven's approach to a nonbinary main character; little is explained. Nev just is who they are, and adventures are had. Just depends on how much you want a book to be ABOUT identity. In middle grade, I find that while identity is important, plot is the deciding factor in whether or not readers like the books. 

Aldridge, Ethan M. Deephaven.
September 5, 2023 by Quill Tree Book 
Copy provided by Edelweiss Plus

Guinevere "Nev" Tallow (who uses they/them pronouns) has been living in the city during the Great Depression. Their mother has died, and their father has been making sketchy choices, and is hauled off by loan sharks shortly after Nev has gotten an invitation to attend Deephaven, an exclusive private school in a secluded New England Valley. They are offered a scholarship, and when the father is no longer in the picture, Nev writes to accept the position. Still, even though there is someone to pick them up, the school is eerily deserted when they arrive. Patience Sleepwell is there, and shows Nev around, even making them a sandwich since the cooks aren't on duty. Each scholar at Deephaven gets a private room, and this is fairly luxurious to Nev, who is used to trying to earn a living selling small clockwork toys from a blanket in the park. Nev constantly wears a heavy, dark green jacket, and frequently appropriates objects lying about, like spools or pens, secreting them in their jacket just in case. Principal Blanchly is very stern, and tells Nev that the clockwork animals are what brought them to the school's attention, and that this is a rare opportunity that shouldn't be taken lightly. Nev does fairly well, but comes to the attention of a supercilious prefect, Thaddeus, who doesn't like their kind. They do make friends with Danny, a fencer, and the two investigate the forbidden East Wing together. The wing was closed after a partial collapse killed a student, and is strictly off limits. Nev feels that there is a bigger secret, and gets into trouble for entering the area, but doesn't give up. After Patience has a soiree to which Nev is invited, Nev finds out that the school harbors a dastardly secret that they hope to unravel. Will this be possible without losing the position at the exclusive school?

The Depression setting does allow Nev to travel by train and communicate by letter, and also lets students wear older styles of clothing that Aldridge can render beautifully in line drawings throughout the book, but there's no reason to set it during this time, unless it is to deprive Nev of parents. Middle grade fantasy manages to do that regularly anyway, but the threat of a poor house in the 1940s is something different. 

Nev does manage to uncover secrets that the staff is hiding, and that the students are complicit in. The monster is rather scary, and the reason behind its existence is definitely dark. I would have liked to have known more about why Deephaven existed, and what its specialized curriculum covers, but since academy tales often come in series, perhaps we will find out more in the next book. 

Alexander's Gallowgate is the most closely related book to this spooky title, but readers of academy stories like Elle's A Taste Of Magic, Thomas' Nic Blake and the Remarkables, Whitesides' Janitors School of Garbage, and especially Fournet's Brick Dust and Bones and Royce's Conjure Island will find that Deephaven is a school that they would like to attend rather than the one in The Book That Shall Not Be Named.

This author's graphic novels Estranged and The Changeling King are very popular in my library, which is a bit unusual, as most of my graphic novel readers don't want fantasy. There are a lot of elements in Deephaven that will resonate with different readers; it has an LGBTQIA+ element for fans of McCarthy's B.E.S.T. World or Perry's Cameron Battle, and the darkness of Noble's The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane. I'll probably purchase for my school library because I think it will be popular, as it will appeal to readers who like to dress in all black and color their fingernails with black Sharpie markers. Just not my favorite.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Super Boba Cafe

Chanani, Nidhi. Super Boba Cafe
October 24, 2023 by Amulet Paperback
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After an incident involving social media, Aria is sent to spend the summer in San Franciso with her grandmother, who runs a very small boba tea cafe. The two have a great time together, even though Nainai can be a little embarassing, and also disappears for a period of time every evening without explanation. Aria is usually picking up takeout for dinner, but definitely notices her grandmother's apprehension at this time. Aria tries to spruce up the shop by painting, fixing table, and otherwise making things look better. Aria thinks that the cafe could do much better, and when the cafe cat Bao has eight kittens, she thinks she has a way to increase foot traffic and sales. She finally tells her grandmother about the social media incident and says that if they are smart about it, they can use social media to promote the kittens. This works all too well, and one night her grandmother misses sneaking out at 6:00. And there is an earthquake. Her grandmother is very anxious, but doesn't want to share too much information with her granddaughter, but is very cross when there are people in the cafe at 6:00 the next night as well. Aria connects with the grandson of one of Nainai's friends, Jay, and he helps her investigate Nainai's strange behavior. It's nothing that Aria could have predicted, but does explain the hordes of snack chip eating prairie dogs that love to hang out behind the restaurant. Once she uncovers her grandmother's secret, will Aria be able to help her grandmother break free of a job she's had for 38 years? 
Strengths: Well, the book description gives away more details than I wanted to, but yes, the grandmother has to make a giant boba every night and deliver it. I'm not saying anything more than that, other than this thought: If prairie dogs have the same consistency as boba, do I want to try very hard to find boba tea near me? I love that Nainai has soldiered on so bravely by herself, not being able to take vacations or see her family often because she is dedicated to keeping San Francisco safe. Aria's attempts to improve her grandmother's business were charming, and I very much wanted to get take out of some kind after reading about all of the different tasty food available in San Francisco! The prairie dogs figure largely into the plot, and while I was personally a little disturbed by them, I think it is time for more prairie dog representation in middle grade literature. Of course, the kittens will be a big draw for many readers. 
Weaknesses: Aria's brush with social media problems didn't seem serious enough to send her off for the entire summer; I was a little interested in finding out more about what happened. 
What I really think: Boba is definitely having a moment of popularity, with Chen's recent It's Boba Time for Pearl Li. This graphic novel, by the author of Pashmina and Jukebox, is a little quirky but has a solid plot, good characters, and a great grandmother/granddaughter relationship. I'll be interested to see a finished version with color illustrations. I'm also curious to find out if Aria's plans to keep the city safe even when her grandmother isn't in town work out. 

Ms. Yingling

Friday, October 20, 2023

Nowhere Special

Wallace, Matt. Nowhere Special
October 24, 2023 by Katherine Tegen Book
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus
Elpidia and Stan both attend school in a small, impoverished desert community in Southern California. They both struggle with their family lives as well as getting along with people at school. Stan's father is out of work, drinks a lot, and frequently beats his mother. Stan is a big and heavy kid, and he feels that people on his bus make fun of him and don't want him to sit next to them. Elpidia is living with her abuela after her parents' drug addiction leads to their house burning down and their incarceration. This has caused a rift between the two sides of her family, with her father's relatives from a nearby reservation blaming Elpidia's mother for everything that occurs. Some of Elpidia's cousins, who go to her school, have accosted her and beaten her up several times. After Stan's father's last episode, his mother takes him to Charlie, a Filippino man who occasionally teaches people how to fight. Elpidia's grandmother takes her, as well, so she can defend herself from her cousins. The two bound over a love of writing, as well as their tough circumstances. Having the support of someone else is very helpful, and Abuela takes Stan under her wing, sending food to school from her restaurant for Stan, since his mother struggles to provide for him. Elpidia's grandfather on her father's side tries to mend the relationship between the families, and Elpidia has come to a detente with her cousin after Stan stood up for her. As their fighting lessons continue, they come to the attention of the local gang leader, Mezco, who wants to recruit Stan for his gang, so that he can be a lone white face in the group, and because of his size and fighting skill. Stan doesn't think this is a good idea, and tells Charlie about it. Charlie takes Stan to Mezco and tells Mezco very politely to leave Stan alone. Later, things blow up both at Stan's home and with Charlie. Stan may have the skills to protect himself, but is he a danger to others?
Strengths: I appreciate that Wallace has a note at the beginning of the book with a content warning about the abuse, as well as the drug related content. He also notes that he has tried to make this middle grade appropriate, and I think he has done a good job. There's no bad language, the violence isn't glorified, and the outcomes improve life for both main characters. There is hope and redemption. Abuela, Grandpa Jamie, and Charlie are all adults in somewhat difficult circumstances who are trying their best to help Stan and Elpidia. 
Weaknesses: This is still pretty bleak, although not as bleak as the somewhat similar but more YA Desert Angel by Price. Several other reviewers have mentioned that they would probably not put this in an elementary library. It's not necessarily any bleaker than all the middle grade novels where everybody dies, so it really depends on what your students ask for. In Februrary, my 7th graders always start asking for problem novels where children are abused, so this would be perfect. (I understand it, but I still don't really grok it.)
What I really think: This would be a good choice for readers who want books like Braden's The Benefits of Being an Octopus but who want a more Southwest setting with more of a sports focus, or for readers who like Rex Ogle's memoirs. 
 Ms. Yingling

Thursday, October 19, 2023

How Not to Be A Vampire Slayer

Birchall, Katy. How Not to Be A Vampire Slayer
October 3, 2023 by Scholastic Inc.
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

When Maggie Helsby's Great Uncle Bram leaves his run down house to her dentist parents, they decide to move to the small town of Goreway to take over the practice there. The house is right next to Skeleton Woods, a shadowy and dangerous looking place that now one in town enters. Luckily, she is befriended at school by Ari and Miles, who share her fascination with the woods. Mayor Collyfleur, however, thinks that the woods should be razed and a golf course built there. He had even had his eyes on the Helsby's house. Ari and Miles are up for exploring, but when the three enter the woods, Maggie is oddly drawn further and further in, where she finds Skeleton Castle and meets Sharptooth Shadow, a young vampire who manages to save her from the evil head of the school there, Count Bloodthirst. Sharptooth is the first vegetarian vampire, and she subsists on beet juice instead of blood. Maggie warms to her, shares human books and music with her, and even invites her to have dinner at her house on Halloween. Of course, her mother uses the plentiful garlic that Uncle Bram has planted around the house, but Sharptooth remains calm. Sharptooth is the Chosen Leader of the group, but thinks that the vampires need to change with the times a bit. Maggie, on the other hand, learns some interesting facts about her own family background. When the future of Skeleton Woods is in question, the girls work together to save the vampires' environment, creating a new culture of collaboration along the way. 
Strengths: Maggie wasn't thrilled to be moving, but took to her new environment, and Air and Miles were welcoming right away. She does some research in the school library, and goes about her exploration of the woods in a fairly mindful way. I was tickled by the fact that there Skeleton Castle was a home for vampires in the woods, and that the townspeople just... stayed away for all those years. I loved the family secrets that Maggie uncovered, although they were hinted at pretty broadly. (All those mirrors Uncle Bram had were NOT coincidental!) Sharptooth was an intriguing character, and the way that the two very different girls bonded and then extended that cooperation to all of the residents just made me happy. I would have adored this when I was in middle school even though I didn't really read any paranormal or horror books. Oh! This author also wrote the It Girl series. 
Weaknesses: I know that even young adult books are using the more cartoon style of cover illustrations, but it's just not my favorite. This could have had a much more serious cover, especially if the role of Mayor Collyfleur had been downplayed. (He was okay, but a bit Scooby-doo-ish.)
What I really think: There are some middle grade novels that are just pleasantly easy to read. They are well developed but not confusing stories, characters who try to do good but run into surmountable challenges, and both make sense and are fun. This is one of those. Perfect for fans of Scholastic's Poison Apple Series or the P.J. Night Creepover series, and a bit reminiscent of the underappreciated Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon. Order extra copies of this if you are hosting a Scholastic bookfair. 

There are apparently four million middle grade fantasy novels coming out in October, and reading through them in June has been a challenge. Since a lot of these have been sequels, I have to admit to reading them but phoning in reviews. I will probably purchase this sequel if vampire interest remains strong. 

Bayron, Kalynn. The Vanquishers: Secret of the Reaping (#2)
October 10, 2023 by Bloomsbury Children's Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

After finding out about their parents' past in The Vanquishers, Boog, Cedric, and Jules are back. They spend a lot of time learning about the past, dealing with their friend Aaron, who has been turned into a vampire. It's a difficult situation, but Aaron's mom protects him, and while some of the adult Vanquishers think he should be taken care of, he's allowed to keep on being undead because there are bigger problems to deal with, like more widespread appearances of vampires. Everyone thought the situation had been taken care of, but it apparently was not. This feels like it could use one more book in the series. I like the cover a little better than the first one. 

From the publisher:
The Vanquishers are back and ready to defend their town against the undead in this spooky middle grade from New York Times bestselling author Kalynn Bayron.

Boog and her best friends, Cedrick, Jules, and Aaron--aka the Squad--stick together, no matter what. Now that vampires have returned, they'll need to take their Vanquisher lessons more seriously than ever. But who is behind this return of the undead?

When strange disappearances begin across their community and the Department of Vampire Affairs not-so-subtly warns Boog's mom to keep quiet about vampires returning, it looks like uncovering the truth won't be so easy. The Squad is eager to kick some undead butt, but will they be able to convince their parents they are ready to fight alongside the Vanquishers?

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

The Cricket War

Phạm, Thọ and McTavish, Sandra. The Cricket War
October 3, 2023 by Kids Can Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Thọ and his friends often train crickets to fight. Thọ does very well, and even has a special cardboard case for carrying his insects. When he wins another battle against Lâm, he feels bad when he runs into  Lâm's sister, who tells him that her brother was sent "to the country to take care of an ailing uncle". Given the atmosphere of South Vietnam in 1980, Thọ knows that his friend has been sent away to avoid conscription into the Communist army. Thọ's father even arranges for Thọ and his brother Vũ to be sent away, but at the last minute the man ferrying them demands more money than the family has. Thọ returns home, but is eventually sent to an aunt's in the country, and starts the journey to the Philippines. This goes very poorly, and Thọ manages to lose the address of an uncle as well as everything he had with him after the boat he is on is attacked by pirates. He does run into Mia and her family again, and makes friends with another boy. The group is saved by Cap Anamur, a group of Germans working together to help Vietnamese who are trying to flee their country by sea. Thọ ends up in a refugee camp where he learns English and is able to find out that his brother made it to Malaysia, and then was sponsored by a teacher in Canada. Eventually, he is sponsored as well, and glad to reconnect with his brother, although he doesn't see his mother for many years. 
Strengths: This short book is loosely based on Phạm's life, and offers valuable insight into the types of journeys that are still being undertaken by people fleeing places like Syria, Sudan, and Libya. This had special relevance to me personally, as I had relatives who adopted a young girl from Vietnam in 1975, and I'm sure that her experiences were not too dissimilar, although it was not something discussed in the family. Thọ's escape was even more harrowing than Nadia's experiences in Senzai's Escape From Aleppo, since he lost nearly everything he had. It was surprising that his family was able to get news to him. 
Weaknesses: This is not for the faint of heart, and I would not purchase this for an elementary school library. There are people who die on the boat, and the book starts out with a discussion of the cricket wars, which involve training crickets by taunting them with a dead cricket's head on a stick. 
What I really think: I will purchase this one, as it is a good slice of life book for US students who don't understand the travails that people have to endure to flee terrible conditions in their home countries. 
This reminded by of Leaving Vietnam: the True Story of Tuan Ngo by   Sarah S. Kilborne (1999), but I'm glad to have an updated book for my readers.