November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Just a Touch of Magic | SLJ Spotlight

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Looking for something to entice readers who like their flights of fancy grounded in reality? These creative and inspired offerings deal with realistic themes—bullying, health issues, family troubles—but incorporate a hint of the fantastical: magic, fairies, folktales, and more. Deftly balancing the real and the spectacular, these novels are sure to appeal to a wide range of middle graders.

redstarCarroll, Emma. In Darkling Wood. 240p. ebook available. Delacorte. Mar. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399556012; lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780399556029.

MG-SL-Carroll-InDarklingWoodGr 5-8 –When Alice’s younger brother is summoned for heart transplant surgery, her mother sends her to stay with her paternal grandmother, Nell, a curmudgeonly woman she has never met. Learning to deal with prickly Nell is one more stress for Alice, added to her worries about her brother and her frustration with her father, who seems to be avoiding his family, including his estranged mother. Soon Alice discovers that her grandmother is a local pariah for planning to cut down three acres of trees on her property, the Darkling Wood. Wandering in the woods one day, she meets Flo, a young girl near her own age. Flo attempts to convince an unbelieving Alice that she must stop her grandmother from cutting down the woods or the resident fairies will take revenge. Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters from an unnamed young girl to her brother, who is serving in World War I, confiding that she has seen fairies in the woods behind their home. As Alice begins to feel the magic of the wood, she tries to unravel the past events that led to her father’s alienation from his family. From the very first sentence, readers are caught up in the tapestry Carroll weaves, though the full picture is not revealed until the very last pages. This is a tale brimming with emotion and atmosphere. The pacing is deliberate—each thread of the tale is woven with care. VERDICT Absorbing and well written. Hand this to readers who enjoy fantasy, fairy tales, and magical realism.–Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor School District, Lancaster, PA

Ephron, Amy. The Castle in the Mist. 192p. ebook available. Philomel. Feb. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399546983.

MG-SL-Ephron-CastleintheMistGr 3-6 –It’s been a topsy-turvy year for Tess and her brother Max. Sent away from their New York home to a boarding school abroad, they are now spending the summer in the English countryside with their aunt Evie. Isolated and bored, Tess stumbles upon a mysterious gate atop a hill beyond her aunt’s home. She unlocks the gate and discovers beautiful castle grounds and a boy her age named William. Tess is quickly charmed by William’s earnestness, and the two develop a fast friendship, despite the curious circumstances surrounding the castle’s sudden appearance and William’s cryptic warning to avoid hawthorn trees. Strange happenings occur at the castle, and events become subsequently stranger each visit, culminating in Max’s disappearance. Though the story is set in the present day, the use of old-fashioned, sentimental prose works well. References to the lack of Wi-Fi and Tess’s father reporting from war-torn Afghanistan help ground the book as a contemporary tale. There is also an undercurrent of danger that adds a layer of depth and suspense to the storytelling. Readers new to the fantasy genre will appreciate the conflict Tess feels: she is torn between doubting the fanciful episodes and embracing the existence of magic and other worlds. VERDICT A slightly darker, updated take on magical realism classics such as Edward Eager’s Half Magic and E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.–Sophie Kenney, Vernon Area Public Library District, IL

redstarKelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. illus. by Isabel Roxas. 320p. ­HarperCollins/Greenwillow. Mar. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062414151.

MG-SL-Kelly-HelloUniverseGr 3-7 –The universe comes together unexpectedly when a unique set of circumstances cause four tweens to cross paths. Central to the story is Virgil, an 11-year-old Filipino American whose grandmother, Lola, helps him to come out of his shell and face the world. When Virgil and his pet guinea pig, Gulliver, end up trapped in a well in the woods at the hands of a bully, Chet, it is up to the stars to align before it’s too late. Coming together like spokes on a wheel, everyone converges in the woods—Valencia, a Deaf girl on whom Virgil has a crush; Kaori, an adolescent fortune-teller and free spirit; Kaori’s sister, Gen, her jump-roping apprentice; a feral dog Valencia has befriended; and a snake, which is the only thing Chet fears. Unlikely friendships are formed and heroism abounds as the group of young people try to find their way in the world. Plucky protagonists and a deftly woven story will appeal to anyone who has ever felt a bit lost in the universe. VERDICT Readers across the board will flock to this book that has something for nearly everyone—humor, bullying, self-acceptance, cross-generational relationships, and a smartly fateful ending.–Michele Shaw, Quail Run Elementary School, San Ramon, CA

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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