April 19, 2018

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Middle Grade: New Titles from Frances Hardinge, Mariko Tamaki & More | November 2017 Xpress Reviews

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Davies, Nicola. Elias Martin. illus. by Fran Shum. 40p. Graffeg. Oct. 2017. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9781910862506.

Gr 5-8 –Set a century ago in a cold, unnamed northern region, this fable, one in a series of short stories in illustrated novel format, tells of a bitter young man living a harsh, isolated existence as a fur trapper, until his discovery of a ragged little girl asleep on his woodpile transforms his life. Elias names her Birch and slowly becomes a nurturing father figure, but she is distressed by his killing of animals and expresses it by carving miniature replicas of his prey. When a wolverine begins stealing the trapped animals, Elias sets out to kill it, leaving Birch home alone, only to find her gone when he returns. The mythical ending is both fascinating and heartbreaking. The rich, lyrical narrative is coupled with dramatic black-and-white drawings that enhance but don’t always correspond exactly to the text. VERDICT A well-written, thought-provoking tale for older and reluctant readers who enjoy a touch of the supernatural.–Marie Orlando, formerly at Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY

Guevara, Glynis. Under the Zaboca Tree. 232p. Inanna. Jun. 2017. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9781771333290.

Gr 5 Up –Guevara’s debut novel is an ambitious story of family, community, and individuality. Told through the eyes of Melody (Baby Girl) Sparks, who moves from Toronto to Trinidad with her dad, Smokey, at age 10, her story is one of a young woman coping with a series of changes while trying to assert herself as an emerging person. From the Toronto airport to fancy Paradise Lane to the poorer community of Flat Hill Village, Baby Girl has little control over the circumstances of her life, but she’s able to find a place for herself in each situation and to see the people around her in all their complexity. The book is full of memorable characters, especially Smokey and Petal, Baby Girl’s stepmother, and neighborhood community organizer Arlie. The plot moves as chaotically, if not swiftly, as real life—with abrupt turns of violence, discovery, and generosity. The quality of the writing doesn’t match the storytelling. Sudden transitions, cliched descriptions, and a flat, stilted style keep readers at a distance from the narrative, although this is mitigated by passages with more dialogue that flow naturally. VERDICT An interesting and unusual story, worth the purchase in spite of some style flaws.–Katya Schapiro, Brooklyn Public Library

redstarHardinge, Frances. A Skinful of Shadows. 432p. Abrams/Amulet. Oct. 2017. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781419725722.

Gr 6 Up– Makepeace is raised in a strict Puritanical environment by her single mother in 17th-century England at the brink of civil war. Right before her tragic death, the girl’s mother reveals information about her daughter’s parentage. In a quest to learn more about her ability to interact with spirits of the dead, Makepeace travels to Grizehayes, the home of the rich and sinister Fellmottes. There she befriends other Fellmotte illegitimate offspring, including one who becomes her best friend. The two constantly try to run away, but are always brought back because of their ability to be vessels for spirits. As the years pass, Makepeace is finally able to make her escape, but at a great expense. The sharp, intelligent protagonist is also keeping a secret of her own: she’s possessed by the ghost of a once-imprisoned bear, giving her preternatural abilities. The rich language, distinct and eerie world-building, and truly evil villains make this a layered, thought-provoking tale about power, friendship, survival, and love. Makepeace is caught between identities, religions, and loyalties. As she slips from one misadventure to another, meeting intriguing figures along the way, her fierceness and sheer will keep her alive and true to herself and those she protects. Hardinge continues to create multifaceted characters, well-researched historical settings, and laugh-out-loud dialogue that will enrapture strong readers of fantasy and complex historical fiction. VERDICT A book that only Hardinge could write; add this masterful and spooky historical fantasy to upper middle grade and YA shelves.–Shelley M. Diaz, School Library Journal

Harry, Matt. Sorcery for Beginners. illus. by Juliane Crump. 300p. (Codex Arcanum: Bk. 1). Inkshares. Oct. 2017. pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781942645689.

Gr 5-8 –This novel is presented as a textbook for spellcasting, with techniques explained through the story of a young sorcerer-to-be. Thirteen-year-old Owen Macready has just moved to Las Vegas with his father. His mother, a veterinarian, has left the family to follow her dream of helping orangutans in Sumatra. Owen is miserable and plans to proceed through life with as little effort as possible. Instead, finding himself in possession of the sorcery book, he has to fight off the Euclideans, a group determined to destroy the book and magic along with it. Along the way, Owen meets friends who join him in learning sorcery. This enjoyable premise suffers in the execution. In addition to general illustrations and diagrams of hand and body motions used to cast spells, there are three types of sidebars: “Sorcery for Beginners,” “Enchanting Details,” and “Beware the Euclideans.” Rather than add to the story, the overuse of visuals are a distraction. The voices of the teen characters don’t sound authentic in either language (“supes cliché” “you think I like this pansy crap?”) or content; the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol and Microsoft Word’s talking paperclip are not likely to be familiar to most 13-year-olds. Questionable choices, such as suggesting someone might “hir[e] a bunch of underage Cambodians” to do a job, and crediting magic for the success of real Native American and Chinese historical figures adds to the tone deafness. VERDICT This appealing premise is hampered by awkward creative choices. Not recommended.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, Oakland

Imfeld, Robert. Baylor’s Guide to Dreadful Dreams. 320p. (Beyond Baylor: Bk. 2). S. & S./Aladdin. Oct. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481466394.

Gr 5-8 –Baylor Bosco, 13, is anything but average; he can talk to the dead. He does so with the help of his twin sister, Kristina, who died as the result of a miscarriage. Following the events of the first book, Baylor creates a new amulet to protect him from a growing supernatural threat. A side effect of this amulet’s creation is Baylor’s new ability to walk through dreams. Using “Loved One’s Lane,” Baylor travels through the dreams of his family and friends. Soon, however, Baylor enters the dreams of Archie and Helena, two teenagers lost at sea. With no way to locate the two lost teens and the demonic Lost Souls closing in on them all, Baylor must use every means at his disposal, natural and supernatural, to emerge victorious. Though the story gets bogged down in a few places, it is a well-paced adventure overall. Baylor is a believable hero with the foibles of an average teenage boy and he is a relatable character throughout. Of equal importance are the other ghosts who visit Baylor, and his sister’s no-nonsense nature contrasts nicely with Baylor’s inability to let things slough off. VERDICT Fans of the first title will enjoy this second adventure with Baylor Bosco. A solid series with a mix of realistic and supernatural elements.–Wayne R. Cherry Jr., St. Pius X High School, Houston, TX

Tamaki, Mariko. Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power! (Lumberjanes #1). illus. by Brooke Allen. 256p. Abrams/Amulet. Oct. 2017. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9781419727252.

Gr 5 Up –The girls of Roanoke cabin return in a new series of books which capture much of the cute and quirky energy of the original graphic novels set in a very unusual summer camp. The girls decide that they want to earn the “Living the Plant Life” badge. They discover a clowbell flower, a favorite food of unicorns, which leads them to a real unicorn, which, in turn, leads to them accidentally discovering a mountain that might not really be a mountain. Chaos and hilarity ensues. Tamaki’s writing captures the spirit of the source material, and the book is illustrated by Allen, who illustrated the original series. It is not necessary to have read the graphic novels to understand what’s going on here, though new readers will likely be inspired to seek out all of the previous “Lumberjanes” books after this taste. VERDICT A smart, silly, fast-paced adventure that will bring even more readers into the Lumberjanes fan club.–Andrea Lipinski, New York Public Library

Torres, Carlos. The Lion’s Paw. illus. by Oscar T. Perez. 160p. Talking Donkey. Oct. 2017. pap. $11.95. ISBN 9780996375672.

Gr 5-8 –Twelve-year-old Keela, an African boy, knows he is destined to someday be a great warrior. His acts of bravery and fierceness will serve him well as a future leader of his tribe. His mentor is the great warrior-hunter, Zun, who single-handedly captured and killed the lion that killed his own father. Zun proudly wears the lion’s paw around his neck as a testament to his fearlessness. Keela’s desire to be like Zun earns a perplexing warning from his father about pride: “[t]he power of a warrior comes two ways. First he is chosen…then he must choose.” As Keela grows in strength and years, he learns that acting like a great leader and being a great leader are two different things; it takes a war with a neighboring tribe and a subsequent dream to show him that a true leader and warrior-hunter relies on more than just himself. An action-filled first chapter reels in readers. Unfortunately, later chapters introduce supporting characters and a plot line that moves somewhat unsteadily. Keela grows into almost-manhood very suddenly, and his relationship with childhood friends is tested as his pride gets in the way of his maturity as a leader. His subsequent battle with a former friend and tribesman still do not teach Keela what it is to be a great leader, and his discussions with Zun also do not produce understanding. It is only after the battle and later, the dream in the last chapter, that Keela realizes that he must trust in a higher power, the Guardian, to show the way. While the story begins with an action-packed narrative and thrilling battle scenes, the dream and the reliance on a higher power to guide Keela’s actions seems almost like a postscript, which may be confusing or frustrating for some readers. VERDICT An additional purchase where coming-of-age, faith-based stories are needed.–Carol Connor, Cincinnati Public Schools

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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