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

 

 

Big Top Mysteries

I can’t seem to help being swayed by a good circus story. What is it about the circus that generates such good stories? In any case, here I present to you two different circus stories, one fiction, one non-fiction; one set in today’s time, one set in the 1940s; both fantastic mysteries.

51jetsaox2blGirl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond (2014)

Opening line: “I planted my feet on the wire that ran parallel to the rafters.”

Jules Maroni’s biggest dream is to walk the wire as well as her father. Part of a circus family, Jules comes from a long line of circus performers, but no one has ever been as good as her father on the high wire. The problem is, hardly anyone knows that because the Maronis never perform with the bigger circuses, all due to a generations-old feud between them and another ancient circus family, the Garcias. But Jules is determined to join up with the new Cirque American, set to start touring this summer, despite the fact that the Garcias have already signed on. After an act of a tricky teenage manipulation, Jules is able to bring her family on board, and soon, the Maronis take the road with the Cirque American.

Jules is sure the old feud has no merit — rumors of black magic and age-old superstition fill the air — but when she falls off the wire during practice one night (which hasn’t happened since she was the tender age of four), she starts to wonder if the rumors can be true. Is there really someone out there who is bent on taking down the Maronis? Anxious to uncover the sinister plot, she teams up with a person she’d never expect, Remy Garcia, cute teenage son of the Garcia clan. But can they demask the villain Scooby Doo Style before it’s too late?

511x91-ta1lBig Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth, by Laura A. Woollett (2015)

Opening Line: “You could almost hear the buzz of excitement in the air over Hartford, Connecticut, leading up to the arrival of the one and only Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”

July 6, 1944 started as a fun and exciting day for hundreds of circus goers in Hartford. Many had already been to the sideshow attractions and seen the animals in the circus zoo, and were now looking forward to the clowns, trapeze artists, and lion tamers. But shortly after the Greatest Show on Earth began, a fire broke out in the Big Top, and within 10 minutes, the entire thing had burned to the ground, trapping 167 people inside. And the story doesn’t end there. Mysteriously, despite all the pairs of eyes in the tent that day, no one saw how the fire started, and although it was initially written off as accidental (due to a casually tossed cigarette butt on highly flammable hay), later investigation proved that to be highly unlikely. Additionally, one particularly precious victim to the fire, whose body remained almost entirely intact (unlike many of the other victims who were nearly unrecognizable), was never identified. Who was this sweet blue-eyed, curly-haired six year old girl, and why was she never claimed?

I just happened to read these right after each other, but they could easily be paired with purpose. I am on a kick now — I feel really desperate to get my hands on another circus story STAT.

2.5 stars, both.

Clinging to Winter (but not really, because winter’s the worst)

Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch (2014)

Opening Line: “Block!”

I’ve been falling behind on my blogging lately, guys. I was doing so well! Sheesh. But here’s another one for next year’s SC Junior Book Award list, and since I’m anxiously reading it’s sequel right now, I feel capable of blogging about it, even though it’s been a while. Plus, it’s one of my favorites so far, and before the list, I had never heard of it, which means you may not have either!

Set in a sprawling fantasy world with eight major kingdoms (complete with a map in the end papers!), Snow Like Ashes gives us our heroine, Meira, one of just eight refugees from the Kingdom of Winter. Meira was an infant when Winter fell to the evil hands of Angra, king of Spring, and all of her fellow Winterians were captured and put into slave labor. Only a handful — including Meira — escaped. Sixteen years later, the refugees are still quietly fighting to recapture the magic emblem of their fallen monarch, Queen Hannah, in hopes that when it is recovered, Winter can be restored, despite the fact that Hannah’s heir Mather (who was also a baby at the fall), does not carry his mother’s female-lined powers. All Meira wants is to help the cause, but she is routinely stopped by Sir, the leader of their pack, forced to remain in the safety of camp while Mather and the others regularly put themselves in danger. When she finally gets a chance, Meira goes way beyond Sir’s expectations — she actually recovers the treasure, Queen Hannah’s locket! Unfortunately, it’s only half the locket, and Meira’s actions send the group on the run again, right into a destiny Meira never expected, one that’s been in the making ever since Winter fell all those years ago.

I got totally wrapped up in Meira’s story. Like Katsa in Graceling (one of my faves), she’s independent, fierce, courageous (feeling her fear and acting anyway), and believable. She doesn’t always understand what’s happening around her or to her, but her determination just makes you desperate for her to succeed. And let’s be honest, the very mild love triangle interest has my heart beating just as fast as any tween reader’s.

So here’s the thing. I feel like fantasies sometimes get a weird reputation — I have a hard time selling them at school, especially to girls, unless they are the Rick Riordan/Harry Potter readers. “I don’t really like magic stuff,” they say. “Percy Jackson was okay when I was like ten,” they say. The set for the older crowd, again especially older girls, seems to somehow be overlooked. But this one, along with GracelingThe Red Queen, and a whole host of others, are oh-so-good, and I think would be devoured by the same readers who love Divergent and Matched and Delirium and Legend. Why is it that dystopians are so much easier to sell than fantasies? Perhaps it’s because they are often more difficult to explain than dystopians. I’m not saying dystopians are all the same (but, come on, a lot of them are), and I’m not saying fantasies are wildly unique, but somehow the typically complex setting and the array of fantastic elements are more challenging to encompass in a 60 second booktalk in the middle of the shelves, than, “Here, this one reminds me of Divergent because of this thing that happens in the future and and this character who has to go against everything she’s ever known to save the world. You want to read it? Okay, great.”

If any one has any tips for me for selling fantasies to middle schoolers, I’m all ears. Because I want this one to be a top contender on next year’s JBA list, and I’m afraid I’m not going to do it justice with getting it in the hands of my readers.

Onto the next one, Ice Like Fire, and anxiously awaiting the third, Frost Like Night, expected September 2016.

2.5 stars

 

Rainbow Rowling’s…I mean, Rowell’s…latest

51at-2bhwvqlCarry On, by Rainbow Rowell (2015)

Opening Line: “I walk to the bus station by myself.”

We all know I love Rainbow. As my Grandma would say, I would read her grocery lists. So of course I enjoyed Carry On.

For anyone who knows Rainbow, you’ll know that Carry On is a…continuation? Spin-off? of my most favorite Rainbow novel, Fangirl. In Fangirl, main character Cath and her twin sister have spent years developing a fanfiction story based on the characters of their favorite book and movie series Simon Snow (baaasically Harry Potter. With vampires). Their fanfiction story is called Carry On. And when Rainbow finished Fangirl, she didn’t feel done with the Carry On characters. Voila.

Carry On picks up in Simon Snow’s final year at Watford’s School of Magicks. Supposedly Simon is the most powerful wizard that has ever been, deemed The Chosen One, destined to save the world from the Insidious Humdrum, who is sucking up all the magic, and strangely looks just like 10-year-old Simon.  But Simon’s pretty terrible at magic. He can’t control it, which is arguably the most important thing when it comes to magic. Plus, there’s his nemesis, roommate Baz, who happens to be a vampire, and who has not shown up for school this year (which drives Simon crazy not knowing where he is). To top it all off, the Mage, Simon’s more-than-mentor, is avoiding Simon like the plague and Simon’s girlfriend Agatha has broken up with him (for Baz?). Let’s just say, it’s been a rough start. And he really better do something about the Humdrum before he wipes magic off the planet.

There are definitely mixed reviews on GoodReads about this one, due mostly to it’s obvious similarities to our greatest love, Harry. In fact, one of our book club members had a hard time getting over just that. It didn’t bother me much, because like a Goodreads reviewer said, it temporarily filled the HP hole in my heart. Is it as good as HP? Oh god, no. But is it good in its own merit? Absolutely!

Rainbow’s magic is the same here as it has been in all her other works, and her magic lives in her dialogue. It doesn’t seem to matter the setting, the genre, the audience, the plot. I love her writing because of the dialogue. Her characters always feel completely authentic to me because of the way they talk to each other. I can’t get enough of it.

Love. 2.5 stars

The grass is always greener… or creepier.

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (2002)

So this book is supposed to be awesome, or so I thought. But, frankly, I just thought it was weird. So, so weird.

Young Coraline is bored over summer vacation. Her parents are busy doing other things, her neighbors are quirky and never get her name right, and there’s no one to hang out with. One day, she finds a small, locked door in the parlor, and when she asks her mom about it, her mom shows her that the door leads to a wall of bricks, an old, boarded up passage between the apartments. But later, Coraline opens the door again to find the bricks gone, and the passage clear. When she wanders through, she doesn’t find the empty next door apartment, however, but an exact replica of her own apartment, complete with a man and woman who look just like her parents. Except for the eyes: their eyes are big, black buttons.

And it just gets creepier. This “other mom” is terrible, although she puts on a good facade. The rest of the book is Coraline exploring this new “other” world, realizing her “other” mom has trapped her, and trying to escape to her real home.

I’m not really sure what the purpose of this book was. A lesson to make your own fun? Or to be happy with what you have? To give kids nightmares?

What ever the purpose, I don’t really feel like it was successful (unless it was the last one). Can someone explain this to me, please?

Weird and scary, but somewhat captivating… 1 star, I guess.

Answering all the mysteries

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg and 13 other authors (2011)

Eighteen years ago, Chris Van Allsburg published The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a 32-page picture book, with 14 titled pictures, each labeled by one line of text. Suppooooosedly, Van Allsburg found the drawings in the office of one Peter Wenders, a children’s book publisher, who told him they had arrived in the hands of Harris Burdick, who brought them in to see if the publisher would like them and promised to return the next day with the full stories. BUT THEN HE DISAPPEARED, never to be seen again. So, knowing a good thing when he sees it, Van Allsburg published them drawings on his own. (You know this is a big ploy, right? There’s no Harris Burdick or Peter Wenders. You know this.)

Seventeen years ago, as part of a second grade class assignment, I finished writing Mr. Burdick’s story “Under the Rug” with a genius, twisting narrative, including some aliens.

Last year, Jon Scieszka rewrote my story, in a mildly less exciting way. Thirteen others, including Van Allsburg himself, Sherman Alexie, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, and Kate DiCamillo, contributed to complete Burdick’s fantastical and incredible book. This. is. awesome. It’s like my childhood dreams come true. I think my favorite is Stephen King’s expansion of “The House on Maple Street.” It’s imaginative and powerful and complicated and full of heart.

One thing: In most libraries, it seems to have a big “J” label on the spine, placing it in the children’s section, and I’m not sure it belongs there. I’m not saying there aren’t kids who would appreciate it, but I think this book is more directed toward the adults like me, who grew up with Harris Burdick, imagining the possible stories to accompany his pictures. Some of them are pretty dark, pretty elaborate, and the narratives may go over kids’ heads. But if, like me, you grew up with these images floating around in your head, go get this short story collection and indulge yourself.

2 stars

A new kind of magic

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (2009)

There’s a guy that rides the same bus as me who will talk to anybody who will listen (and sometimes even when no one will). The other day I was reading this book waiting for the bus, and Talker sat down next to me. After telling me about his daughter, his wife in Iraq, and how the chocolate bar he was eating was way too expensive at $1.09, he asked me if what I was reading was a good book. I paused, looked down at page 304 that I was reading from, and realized I wasn’t sure.

“I think so,” I answered.

“Well, I’d hope so, since you’re already that far in!”

I’ve been having a lot of those lately. I read enough of a book that I’m committed, but by the end, I’m not really sure I liked it. Mockingjay, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Savvy…I don’t know if I really liked any of them.

I started reading The Magicians this summer while I was bored to tears on a Sunday night behind the cash register. It was on the “Books to Know” table by the front of the store and the back said it was like Narnia and Harry Potter and something else I was unfamiliar with all rolled into one. Sounded good to me.

Quentin Coldwater is seventeen years old, in love with his best friend’s girl, frustrated with his nothing life, and still obsessed with his favorite childhood book series, Fillory (a.k.a. Narnia). After his university interview falls through (when the alum dies suddenly) he gets lost in an old, dying garden and wanders onto the grounds of a magic school, Brakebills. There he is asked to take an exam to determine if he’s a good fit for the school and if he passes, he will be trained to become a magician. Not a card trick magician. A for real magician. (If you’re more familiar with J.K. Rowling than C.S. Lewis, think “wizard.”) And since Quentin doesn’t feel like he has much going for him in his regular life, he’s like, “Hells yeah, I wanna be a magician.” Without so much as au revoir to Mom and Pops, Quentin enrolls into Brakebills Academy with confidence that his  real life is about to begin. And the reader thinks so, too.

But not so much. And then later, after he falls in love, Quentin/the reader thinks again that his life is about to begin.

And then later, after he graduates, Quentin/the reader thinks again that his life is about to begin.

And then later, when he goes to _____ (I don’t want to give any spoilers), Quentin/the reader thinks again that his life is about to begin.

Perhaps this was Lev Grossman’s intent. His lack of plot points and increasing let-downs are meant to reflect Quentin’s struggle with his dissatisfaction with his own life. This way the reader truly got in touch with the character.

Unfortunately, that just meant I was dissatisfied with The Magicians.

The one thing I did appreciate from this book was the idea that books we read as children (such as Quentin’s Fillory experiences) can have a lasting impression on us for the rest of our lives. Books can shape who we are and who we become in a way that a parent or guardian cannot.

Interesting, but not quite interesting enough. One star.