I don't tend to seek out books for early elementary grade kids, but I'm by no means averse to reading them when they come my way (not just because it's a fast way to notch a few more books read with an eye to meeting my Goodreads goal for the year). I just read the first two books in a new series for kids 5-8ish--Kitten Kingdom: Tabby's First Quest, and the second book, Tabby and the Pup Prince, by Mia Bell (Scholastic, May 2019) and am happy to recommend them!
Tabby is a kitten princess, but she and her brothers sometimes find it hard to behave with royal decorum (they are kittens, after all). And Tabby dreams of having wild adventures...One day an adventure falls into the kittens' paws when the evil lord of the rats, Gorgonzola, steals the magic scroll that confers the power to rule on their parents. If it isn't recovered, the rats will take over the kingdom of Mewtopia! So Tabby squelches a bit of self-doubt and transforms herself and her brothers into heroes (the Whiskered Wonders) and leads her brothers on a quest into the subterranean rat realm to find it....and saves the day.
In her second adventure, Tabby and her brothers are apprehensive when a state visit from the neighboring dog royalty means they'll have to entertain a puppy, something they've never even met before. Fortunately the cat royals have a magic orb that will allow them to produce all the food cats and dogs love best. But then the orb is stolen by Gorgonzola and his rat minions! The puppy prince joins the Whiskered Wonders, using his gifts of sniffing and fetching to bring the orb back safely.
These are entertaining books, with fast paced adventures and entertaining illustrations. The text is substantial without being overwhelming for readers still finding their feet, and the second book has the added bonus of the kittens and puppy working together despite their differences. There's no nuance in the villainy of the rats, but Gorgonzola is an age-appropriate enemy.
Well I remember the relief I felt when my boys would find a new series they liked, and I could relax for a bit about what to give them to read next! Books 3 of Kitten Kingdom, Tabby and the Catfish, is out this July, and book 4, Tabby Takes the Crown, comes out in October. Charming fun. disclaimer: review copies received from the publisher
Back to blogging after vacation time, happily with a book I loved to write about!
Brightstorm, by Vashti Hardy (published in the UK March 2018, Scholastic), is a gorgeous middle grade adventure, one of my favorite books of the year so far! I am so happy that some savvy Rhode Island librarian (Ashaway RI to be precise) reached across the Atlantic to add it to our state library system!
Twins Arthur and Maudie are left destitute in an alternate version of London when their father never returns from a voyage in his airship to reach the South Polaris on the mysterious Third Continent. He's considered guilty of failing to render aid to his chief competitor in his quest for the polaris, the powerful Eudora Vine. Then Arthur and Maudie are taken on as crew by a young captain, Harriet Culpepper, who flies an airship like no other. She's determined to beat Eudora in a second race to the polaris, and Maudie and Arthur are determined to all they can to help, partly for the large cash prize and the thrill of it, but in larger part, especially for Arthur, to find out what really happened to their father.
The journey through the skies goes smoothly, but disaster strikes when they reach the third continent. Their ship has been sabotaged, and now they've crashed into a wasteland where giant beasts, who apparently attacked their father's crew, prowl through the snow. Harriet, Maudie, Arthur, and the indominable ship's cook, Felicity, race through bitter cold across treacherous ice...but Eudora Vine is an enemy who will stop at nothing.
In the end, the mystery of their father's death is solved, Eudora is thwarted, and all is well. Not only is it a good story, with a steady buildup to the exciting race at the end, but it has great characters. I'm of course all in favor for strong girls who are geniuses at mechanics, like Maudie and Harriet, but it's also lovely to see a boy like Arthur, who isn't particular gifted at practical, boy-coded things find his own gifts of intuition, observation, and thoughtful communication. It's this later gift that wins the group surprising allies who keep them alive in the cold south. Arthur was born without his right arm, and though this is a hindrance in some respects, and though he's sick of people's reactions, it's not a handicap that defines him in anyway, which I also appreciated.
A final appreciation is for the condemnation of rapacious, violent colonial exploration and exploitation, not made a heavy handed Point of, but made very firmly clear.
An even more final appreciation--Harriet's airship has a great onboard library which both twins love.
And one more quick one--Felicity the cook is a real hero! (her actual age isn't specified, but she read as a middle-aged women to me, which was nice for me). In short, a quick bright read that's a true delight!
The Opposite of Always, by Justine Reynolds (Katherine Tegan Books, March 2019), is a sweet, funny, poignant time travel YA with a lot going on in its turning pages.
Jack, a high school senior, and Kate, a college freshman, meet and fall hard for each other. Their chemistry is immediate, and their enjoyment of each other's company seems to Jack to promise the possibility to love. Jack's two best friends, Franny, the boy he's been best buddies with forever, and Jillian, the best friend he was in love with before she started going out with Frannie, hit it off with Kate when they finally get to meet her, and all seems golden when she agrees to go to prom with Jack. But then Kate doesn't show up on prom night, and Jack is only just able to find her in the hospital to say good-bye before she dies from complications of sickle cell anemia.
That isn't the end of the story. Jack loops back in time to meet her all over again. Over and over, trying to save her, and sometimes messing up his friendship with Franny and Jillian, and not saving Kate after all. Some choices are disasters, others promise that Jack might be able to get through Kate's medical crisis to a happy ending...
Jack and Kate are a great couple, even after seeing their relationship multiple times. Their lively banter is a delight! Franny and Jillian are solid supporting characters, each with their own issues (Franny's dad, for instance, is just getting out of prison, though there's lots more to Franny's story) and any reader would want to have these friends. It's also nice to see good parents--Jack's mom and dad are supportive and present in Jack's life, and madly in love with each other, and they also are beautifully supportive of Franny.
Though we revisit the same general timeline of events multiple times, there's enough that's different in the repercussions, in the dialogue (these are some of the snappiest teens in their jokes and comebacks and banter I've read), and in Jack's growth as a character (it's not dramatic growth, but rather a growing up a bit, and realizing he can't fix things as if he were a puppeteer).
The cast of characters is diverse; as shown on the cover, Jack and Kate are both black, and Reynold's make this clear very naturally and gracefully, without dumping direct description all over the place. Franny is Latinx, Jillian's dad is West African.
I enjoyed it very much, and thought it's well over 400 pages long, it only took a few hours to read it becuase the pages were turning so fast (and of course at one point they turned very quickly indeed to the end, becuase I had to make sure it turned out all right. Which it does). My only regret is that somehow Kate's death, even the first time, didn't make me all that sad, even though I liked her lots. I'm not sure why this was; perhaps becuase I went it to the story knowing about the time loop, but I would have liked to have found it more moving.....
We never know why or how the time loop happens, which might bother some people (and bothers Kate herself a little bit when she finds out--she wonders why the universe would bend itself to save her--but that's not something I myself care too much about. short answer--a really impressive debut, and a great read!
My first try at writing my thoughts about Bad Order, by Barb Bentler Ullman (Stirling Children's Books, June 2019), went through some rip in the reality of Blogger, and so I'm quickly trying to redo it before the deathless prose of my first try is lost.
(which is appropriate, given what the book is about. But sigh).
In any event, this is the story of a little boy, Albie, who doesn't speak. He does, though, communicate telepathically with his loving big sister, Mary, sending her "memes," as she thinks of his messages. One snowy day Mary, Brit and Albie are out for a walk, when Albie sends a frightening meme--"Bad order." He can't convey anything more specific, but it's clear that he's perceived a wrongness. Then the kids see a mysterious red mist, that pulls at them. To their horror, anyone pulled in by the mist becomes distorted, angry, and violent. Clearly the mist is part of the "bad order" Albie was sensing.
When news of the violence engendered by the mist spreads, the Feds arrive to try to stop it, but the agents are no better at fighting it than anyone else. Fortunaly three holographic alien constructs, trying (and failing) to pass as human, also arrive, and they help the kids get out of the hands of the Feds via a flying Volkswagon bus. They also explain that the bad order is much worse than the mist; there's a rip in the interdimensional fabric of the universe. Albie, who is linked to the creation of that rip, can fix it again...maybe.
It was impossible for me to not think of a Wrinkle In Time. There's the special little brother and his protective big sister, the three aliens trying to be human, the group of friends trying to save the universe, and there's even Mary and Albie's missing scientist father, whose final experiment went wrong. But though this similarity was a distraction, it didn't keep me from appreciating Bad Order on its own merits (and this was helped by Mary and Meg being nothing alike).
Partly this was because the group of kids, including Brit's big brother Lars (a helpful, goodhearted teen, who takes the kids seriously, which is pretty rare in middle grade fantasy), are really likeable. Partly it was because the three alien constructs are really truly funny. Partly because the threat was explained in almost believable science, and so suspension of disbelief was pretty easy. But mostly because the red mist was terrifying, transforming ordinary people into monstrous versions of themselves, and the horror the kids felt was really well done.
So if you are in the mood for a horror tinged book that comes to a warm ending after some sci fi high jinx, this might be just the thing for you!
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher. disclaimer 2: my first try was better. Sigh again.
A recent article, YA Twitter Can Be Toxic, But It Also Points Out Real Problems" by Molly Templeton on Buzzfeed, took me back in time:
"In the late 2000s, the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community — which overlaps greatly with YA — had something of a reckoning. Eventually known as RaceFail ’09, it was, as author N.K. Jemisin wrote in a blog post a year later, “a several-months-long conversation about race in the context of science fiction and fantasy that sprawled across the blogosphere. It involved several thousand participants and spawned several hundred essays — and it hasn’t really ended yet, just slowed down."
RaceFail started as MammothFail, when Patricia Wrede's Thirteenth Child was widely called out for its erasure of Native Americans (there were lots of mammoths, but no indigenous people). I was part of that conversation, and it was a watershed moment for me as a reader, a reviewer, and a purveyor of books for my own kids.
The conversations that took place on line were a real wake up call for me, and I set out to do what I could to promote diverse books. Here's my post about what I did in the immediate aftermath, which included a trip to the local bookstores to try to put my money where my mouth was by buying diverse books (this did not break the bank). Subsequently I made a concerted effort to seek out diverse middle grade and YA fantasy and science books, and started compiling the list of my reviews (around 240 of them so far). In the past few years, my attention has shifted some from my own blog; I now write for the B. and N. Kids Blog, where I try to make sure diverse books get included (which is annoying to me for the purpose of my own list of review, because once I review a book there I don't review here, so my list is missing all the Rick Riordan Presents books, for instance....).
It was good to have this reminder of MammothFail because I have been becoming complacent, and need to make sure I keep reviewing diverse books here, and supporting new authors by actually buying books from local bookstores (I've mostly just been keeping up with what comes in the mail....). Happily I think it would actually take more money than I have to go back to the same bookstores I went to in 2009 to buy every book with non-white kids on the cover (I can't go today, but will try to later this week....), but of course they're still outnumbered by the white kids and animals, as this infographic from CCBC shows (the full article in which this image appears can be read here):
I squirm a bit reading some of my 2009 thoughts; "own voices," for instance, wasn't something that had come into my consciousness, and I'm glad for all the folks on twitter who keep educating and informing me. That being said, this reminder of MammothFail also made me badly miss the blogging days of yore; twitter is a thin substitute for the conversations that took place in blog comments. Reading blogs made it easier to connect to people in meaningful ways, both because you could say more and give more context in posts than in tweets, and because you actually could get to know the people you were interacting with. Of course, blogs attracted toxicity too, and for many of us it was an echo chamber, so it wasn't perfect, but I still miss those day!
And just for kicks, looking back at 2009, I found another controversy I'd forgotten about. From my post about it:
There was a bit of a stink recently when it was revealed that a new anthology, The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF, edited by Mike Ashley, had in it not a single story by a woman or a person of color--here's the table of contents, and some interesting reading in the comments. I found at Feminist SF-The Blog this quote from Ashley, explaining that this "...probably has something to do with my concept of “mind-blowing”. Women are every bit as capable of writing mindblowing sf as men are, but with women the stories concentrate far more on people, life, society and not the hard-scientific concepts I was looking for."
The Last Beginning, by Lauren James (YA, Sky Pony Press, 2018) is a joyful, chaotic romp of a time travel adventure that I devoured in a single sitting.
Clove, a Scottish teenager in 2051, gets hit with two emotional wrenches in one week. Her best friend Meg, who she has a crush on, has just fallen in love with a boy, Clove's cousin. On a more earthshaking note, Clove's parents tell her that she is adopted, and that her birth parents, Matt and Kate, are famous for saving the world from a bioterrorist threat developed by England, and then disappearing. Clove sets the family's AI device, nicknamed Spart, to work trying to track them down (she is a whiz at computer programing).
And in the meantime, her mother has almost finished getting her time machine up and running.
Spart the AI delivers the strange information that Matt and Kate keep showing up in history, starting in 1745. So Clove decides that she will use the time machine to go back to find them, to try to figure out what happened to them and why they keep showing up a various crisis points of history. The time machine works, and Clove becomes friends with Ella, a girl a little older. She also meets then-Matt and then-Kate, and unfortunately changes the past. When she returns to her own time, everything is horribly altered, and she starts disapparating...but a bit more time travel shenanigans patches things up.
I don't want to go into any more details about what happens next, but it involves lots more time travel, Ella and Clove falling in love (Ella keeps popping up....and has an interesting story of her own), and Matt and Kate saving the world....
I was very doubtful about how easy a time of it Clove had in 1745, but it turns out there's an explanation for this that made me smile. And though there are many bifurcations and manipulations of time, I managed not to get overwhelmed with confusion. Clove and Ella's romance is very sweet, as is the love between all the different Matt and Kates, and the love in Clove's nuclear family. The story includes on-line exchanges between the characters, some from the future, including Clove's chats with Spart, and some steamy exchanges with Ella, and these lighten the weight of the world saving and time travel confusion very nicely, and made me chuckle.
This is the sequel to The Next Together, but it stands alone just fine, and quite possibly works better if you have never read that one (which is the story of Matt and Kate). Not knowing the details of their lives makes the reader feel closer to Clove as she figures things out. Although of course reading about Matt and Kate second might mean their story is less gripping...so really one should probably read both books first!
But in any event, I liked this one lots, and am glad to have an excellent lesbian sci fi time travel with smart girls saving the world to recommend! (we need more!)
Mr. Penguin and the Lost Treasure, by Alex T. Smith (Peachtree, April 2019), will delight young readers (1st-4th grades) who enjoy easy to read, quirky, and funny mysteries.
Mr. Penguin has always dreamed of being an adventurer. So when he sets up shop along with Colin, a spider friend, offering his services to the townsfolk, he expects to be inundated with requests for help. Finally the phone rings. Boudicca Bones, owner of the Museum of Extraordinary Objects (who's human) needs his help finding the treasure supposedly hidden in the museum.
So Mr. Penguin and Colin set out, and find that being adventurers isn't a walk in the park! Beneath the Museum is a marvelous and dangerous landscape, full of things that could seriously damage anyone exploring there. And then the danger gets even more dangerous, when the adventurers face a dastardly double-cross! Fortunately, Edith (another human) who lives in the park with her pigeon friend, Gordon), thought Mr. Penguin might need some help, and comes to the rescue! The day is saved, the bad guys are caught, and Mr. Penguin and Colin are famous (poor Edith gets a reward, but not the fame....).
It's a fun fast read, that should go down very nicely indeed for younger readers. I didn't see the twist coming, and it upped the level of tension beautifully! The illustrations are amusing, and Mr. Penguin, in his own unheroic and not tremendously useful way, is an appealing character (Colin is much more useful, and I actually liked him better!). Young pedants might be annoyed that Mr. Penguin lives in a igloo and can't swim, but they can get over that.
And as is so often the happy case with series starters for the young, there's not too long to wait for the next installment--Mr. Penguin and the Fortress of Secrets comes out October, 2019! disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.