A new fairy tale to tell

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill (2016)

Opening line: “Yes. There is a witch in the woods.”

I realize I’m a little late to the reviewing game on this one, seeing that big shiny gold medal in the corner of the cover, but I can’t help but talk about it. And there may still be a few readers out there like me who haven’t picked it up yet! That shiny gold medal can be a divisive one for readers… some will automatically gravitate toward award winners, because they know they have been thoroughly vetted by a group of knowledgeable people. Others, though, will particularly avoid Newbery medalists (in particular), because they have had a bit of a reputation in the past for not choosing readable books for kids. They might be literary gems, but aren’t engaging for the relevant audience of (typically) middle grade readers. That seems to have changed in the past several years though, with the likes of The CrossoverLast Stop on Market Streetand of course, One and Only Ivan (which I can literally give to any student and know it will be a positive experience). I’m not sure where this year’s winner will fall in that spectrum, but I’m sure going to try to make it be one of those that kids will devour too.

This one reads like a delicious fairy tale, one that has dark and twisty edges like “Hansel and Gretel” or “Rumpelstiltskin”, rather than “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, for instance. In the village known as the Protectorate, villagers know that every year on the Day of Sacrifice, the youngest baby in the Protectorate will be taken out into the woods to be left for the witch. Because of this annual tragedy, a cloud of sorrow hangs over the village, although the parents of the sacrificed baby have always willingly complied. Until this year, that is. This year, the youngest baby’s mother is driven mad with grief, and is locked in a tower in the center of the Protectorate to live out her days. Her baby is taken to the clearing in the woods and left for dead. Here’s the really grim part: the leaders of the Protectorate know the witch story is just made up. They know the baby is likely just eaten by wild animals or dies of starvation or thirst. The Day of Sacrifice is a tool of manipulation, one meant to keep the people in line.  Yikes.

HOWEVER! There IS a witch in the woods! And she DOES come to get the babies each year! Of course, this witch is a good witch who has no idea why these infants are being left in the woods. She’s practical though, and when she sees a problem (particularly one like an innocent babe being left to fend for itself in the woods), she’s apt to solve it. So every year, she embarks on a journey through the deep and dangerous forest to retrieve the child and take it across the world to the Free Cities where she finds a loving adoptive family to raise it. On the journey, she typically feeds the baby starlight, giving them a little magical glow that stays with them for the rest of their lives. But this year, this baby, she accidentally feeds her with moonlight. And it turns out moonlight gives you more than a magical glow. It gives you MAGIC. Babies aren’t supposed to be enmagicked because they can’t control it, so the witch decides to adopt the baby herself to look after her. Add in a sweet swamp monster and a tiny dragon who thinks he’s huge, and we’ve got the beginnings of a fantastic fairytale.

The layers to this tale are complex and suspenseful, and the narrator’s language made me want to read this aloud. (I did. I did read it aloud. To my dog.) I think this would be a great classroom novel that could also be used in short chunks to discuss mood, tone, or word choice. I don’t think that every middle grade reader is going to love this one if tackling it on their own (like Crossover or Ivan), but maybe that’s another reason why it’s special. It has a special reader in mind.

2.5 stars

 

 

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Snow Day = Graphics Day

We had a snow day Friday, which is much different in South Carolina than it was in Illinois. First off, they called it at about 6pm the night before (unheard of), and we didn’t get snow until late Friday night, although the freezing rain and sleet all day did make the unsalted roads fairly treacherous. I’m not complaining, to be clear. Plus, I had been forewarned by my new coworkers to expect it, so I took home a whole stack of new graphic novels we got in this past week, and put my snow day to good use!

51vjlju6ullDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, by Don Brown (2015)

Opening line: “An unremarkable wind leaves Africa and breezes toward the Americas.”

Don Brown, gaining a reputation for his graphic non-fiction for young people following The Great American Dust Bowlpresents a graphic representation of the most horrific natural disaster our country has seen so far this century: Hurricane Katrina. His artwork is haunting, and he will give students new to this topic a lot of surprising and jarring details about this disaster. I wanted to love this one, but found myself having trouble connecting one panel to the next, and also found some of his details confusing or strangely placed. I wished for a more cohesive narrative. And although written for a slightly older audience, I loved A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge much more.  1.5 stars

51p2bmkuorjlLost in NYC: A Subway Adventure, text by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sanchez (2015)

Pablo is new to NYC, and although he is used to new places (as his family moves a lot), he’s not at all used to the NYC subway system. He quickly becomes separated from his class on their field trip to visit the Empire State Building, and has to navigate the crazy colors and numbers to get himself to the right place. A very quick read, but the drawings are full of rich and fun details that could easily let you spend a long time on each page. 2 stars

51fryuowq-lThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Volume 1, by Ryan North and Erica Henderson (2015)

Opening line: “Squirrel Girl, Squirrel Girl! She’s a human and also a squirrel!”  (sung to tune of the SpiderMan theme song)

I don’t read a lot of superhero comics, but Squirrel Girl is one I can get behind. Doreen (aka Squirrel Girl) is starting college at Empire State University, simultaneously trying to blend in as a regular college student (although stuffing her enormous tail into her pants gives her a hiney rivaling Kim K’s), and jumpstart her career as an awesome superhero. As part squirrel, Doreen can climb and leap with the best of them, but her real power lies in her ability to communicate with and instruct squirrels to do her bidding, besting even the strongest of villains. Plus, she and her sidekick Tippy Toe are generally hilarious. I’m a big fan. 2 stars

41vjt-xeoalTrickster: Native American tales, A Graphic Collection, ed. by Matt Dembicki (2010)

This is a compilation of more than 20 Native American trickster tales, adapted into graphic novel format. Each story is collected from a different Native American storyteller or author, and is illustrated by a different artist. I have to say, with the vast variety of stories and artists, some I liked better than others. A couple of my favorites included the brightly-colored “Mai and the Cliff Dwelling Birds” and the dark and haunting “Coyote and the Pebbles.” There were others, however, that I did not enjoy, like “When Coyote Decided to Get Married” (in which everyone was turned to stone because Coyote was pissed that one of the maidens he sent for was tarnished goods) and “Paupaulenalena” (which combined a hard-to-read font, creepy pictures, and a super bizarre story). I don’t know. I guess I feel good that we have it in my library, but it was not my favorite of the pack, to be sure. (1 star)