Christmas in Ireland, c.1970

Rumer Godden’s novel, The Diddakoi, features a half-Romany (gypsy) and half-Irish orphan girl named Kizzy who after her grandmother’s death must come to live with the “gorgios”, or non-gypsies. One of those gorgios is Admiral Twiss:

“Admiral Twiss . . . made models, chiefly of ships, sometimes sail, sometimes steam; he never spoke to the village children, nor they to him—they were afraid of the eyebrows and moustache—but he made a model church, big enough for each child to creep into, and every Christmas stood it at the House gates. The church was lit up so that its stained-glass windows shone, every tiny piece perfect, and from inside came music, carols that Kizzy liked to think were tiny people singing—Prudence would have told her at once it was a tape—and at midday and midnight, bells would ring a miniature carillon.
In the wagon Kizzy could hear them and knew it was Christmas. Admiral Twiss, too, always sent Kizzy’s Gran a cockerel for Christmas, some oranges and dates, and a bag of oats for Joe. Sometimes Kizzy thought the oranges and dates were for her; sometimes she thought the Admiral did not know she existed.”

This one is another of my book-buying finds. I knew the author from her adult novels, In This House of Brede and Black Narcissus and also her doll stories for children. This story, of a child who experiences prejudice and bullying but manages to learn to trust the trustworthy adults in her life and with their help overcome the racist attitudes of her peers, looks to be a winner.

Christmas on Galveston Island, Texas, 1840

From Carol Hoff, author of Johnny Texas and Johnny Texas on the San Antonio Road, comes this story, Head to the West, of German immigrants to Texas in the early days of the Texas Republic. in the first chapters of the book, Franz and Rosa and their parents land on the Texas coast on Galveston Island on Christmas Eve:

“They worked until almost dark. With sunset a fine rain began to fall, but the norther the captain expected did not come. The sailors had built two shelters, enclosed on three sides with the sail canvas, open to the west for the fire. Inside they had laid mattresses from the ship, and each woman had carried in a little pile of her belongings.
After a supper of venison steaks broiled over the coals, everyone sat in the women’s shelter and sang Christmas carols. Rosa sat watching the flickering firelight on the faces of the shipwrecked singers as the lovely melody of ‘Silent Night’ flowed about them. Some looked sad and lonesome, and some afraid, but a few were gay with the love of adventure.
Rosa thought of the lonely stretches of sand and sea about them, the wind sighing around their makeshift shelter and the rain dripping from the canvas. She thought of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in faraway Bethlehem. ‘Franz,’ she whispered, ‘I think I understand about Bethlehem and Baby Jesus in the manger better than I ever did before.’
‘Yes,” Franz whispered back. ‘So do I.'”

This book is one I discovered on my most recent book-buying jaunt, at a Half-Price Bookstore in north Houston. I am looking forward to reading the entire story, since the first few chapters that I did read are wonderful.

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

Mr Nix acknowledges the “inspiration and positive influence” of five authors in the conception and development of Frogkisser!: Lloyd Alexander, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, and T.H. White. The influences of T.H. White and Lloyd Alexander are easy to spot: a spunky princess (or two or three), Merlin himself making an appearance, a librarian owl who may be a descendant of Archimedes, quests and journeys, bewitching and magicians’ duels. Robin McKinley, too, shows up in the general idea of reworking fairy tales and in the specifics of having mostly female protagonists. I’ve heard of the other two influencing authors, but I’ve never read anything by Ms. Jones (not interested), and although Nicholas Stuart Gray is on my wishlist/TBR list, I’ve never even seen any of his books in the library or the bookstore. Mostly British and only available in Britain< I believe? Have you ever read anything by Mr. Gray? Recommendations?

Nicholas Stuart Gray (23 October 1922, Scotland – 17 March 1981) was a British actor and playwright, perhaps best known for his work in children’s theatre in England. He was also an author of children’s fantasy; he wrote a number of novels, a dozen plays, and many short stories. Perhaps his best-known books are The Seventh Swan and Grimbold’s Other World. Gray often produced adaptations or continuations of traditional fairy tales and fantasy works, as in his Further Adventures of Puss in Boots. His The Stone Cage is a re-telling of Rapunzel from a cat’s point of view. Over the Hills to Fabylon is about a city whose king has the ability to make it fly off across the mountains if he feels it is in danger. ~Wikipedia

As far as Frogkisser! is concerned, I give it a thumbs up. There’s a deliberate attempt to turn traditional fairy tale expectations upside down and surprise the reader, especially in regard to gender. Most of the active characters are female, including female knights, wizards, robbers, and dwarves. And the protagonist is definitely female, Princess Anya, and she’s a girl who’s not about to wait to be rescued by anybody. She will rescue herself if need be, or proactively look for allies and friends to help her in time of need. However, this feminist emphasis wasn’t too annoying and didn’t interfere with the story or the humor.

The story of a younger sister princess who becomes the leader of a frog kissing rebellion against the evil authoritarian sorcerers who have split the kingdom into warring mini-fiefdoms is full of wry humor and the aforementioned subversion. Thieves become heroes; princesses fight battles (and kiss frogs); and even a newt has his moment in the sun, so to speak. Travel along with Princess Anya as she searches for the ingredients for a magical lip balm that will allow her to transform frogs back into whatever they were before they were enchanted and as she learns how the common folk live under the yoke of magical tyranny. A Quest is not half as comfortable or fun as it is portrayed to be in books, but it’s doable if you have a lovable, drooling Royal Dog along as a sidekick and protector.

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman

Two worlds. The first world is our world, and various historical events and places make an appearance in this magical realism/fantasy/folktale story about escape from persecution and horror and about forgiveness and peace-making. The second world is only accessible through a crack in the sea that only opens at unexpected times to people with unexpected gifts, like the gift of talking to fish or that of walking on the bottom of the sea.

Three stories. The first story is about Pip, the boy in the second world who can talk to fish. And the second is about Venus and Swimmer, two young people captured in Africa in 1781 and taken on a doomed slave ship, and how they escape. The third is about Thanh and his sister Sang, boat people from South Vietnam whose escape from their own war-torn country goes terribly wrong when they meet with storms and pirates and near-starvation.

A Crack in the Sea is also another story about the power of stories. Although I believe in the “power of stories”, that particular meme is getting a little shopworn. Nevertheless, this novel has some new things to say about tenacity and communication as avenues to restoration and forgiveness. And the author manages to bring the three separate stories together to make a complete picture in a way that was surprising and satisfying.

The question, of course, is what do all of these characters and situations have to do with one another? And indeed, it’s not really clear until near the end of the book’s 350 pages what the relationship is, but trust in the author and the book is part of the journey. If you are interested in reading more fantasy featuring diverse characters, people of color, brother/sister relationships, and peace-making themes, A Crack in the Sea is the book for you.

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas

Effie Truelove’s grandfather Griffin Truelove refuses to teach her to do magic, until it’s too late. When Effie needs magic and all the friends she can find to protect her grandfather’s library from the Diberi, evil users of twisted magic, she does find the friends, but the magic is a little tricky. Effie and her newfound friends—Maximilian, Wolf, Lexy, and Raven—must fight off the Diberi both in this world and in the Otherworld, and Effie must find her own way through the most important book that her grandfather gave her, a book called Dragon’s Green.

The world-building in this first book in a series called Worldquake is a little complicated, and I’m not sure I got it all. But what I did get, I liked. There are magical books, and Spectacles of Knowledge, and a ring of power, and portals to Otherworld, and dragons, and princesses, and liminals (not sure about that one), and boons, and magical currency that only works in the Otherworld. That’s just a sampling of all the concepts and magical rules and properties that have to be understood to get through Dragon’s Green. As I said, it’s complicated.

And yet, I enjoyed the complications. I think the story could have been stretched, explained and slowed down a little, but I often think that while reading modern fantasy. Tolkien and Nesbit and George Macdonald took their world-building at a lot more leisurely pace, uninfluenced by movies and TV. I wish the television pace could stay on TV and that books could be books instead of movies-in-the-making. However . . .

I did like the writing in this middle grade novel. Here are a few samples of Ms. Thomas’s vivid descriptions and explanations:

“Mrs. Beathag Hide was exactly the kind of teacher who gives children nightmares. She was tall and thin, and her extraordinarily long fingers were like sharp twigs on a poisonous tree. She wore black turtleneck sweaters that made her head look like a planet being slowly ejected from a hostile universe, and heavy tweed suits in strange, otherworldly pinks and reds that made her face look as pale as a cold moon.”

“The dragon . . . noticed Effie, and started. He looked at her rather the way you might look at a pepperoni pizza when you were sure you had ordered a margherita. He blinked and looked again, taking her in, up and down and up and down, until he took a step back and frowned. The piano music continued as if this were the most elegant restaurant, rather than an appointment with death.”

“Odile Underwood had tried very hard to keep magic from her son. For a start, she had called him Maximiliam, which she had felt to be quite an unmagical name. She had also made sure they lived in the least magical place imaginable. A bungalow by the sea (but with no sea view). What could be less magical than that? Maybe a semi-detached on a new housing estate, but the bungalow had at least been cheap.”

Final verdict: I like it, and I would like to continue the story with the next book in this series, The Chosen Ones (publication date: May 29, 2018).

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

I don’t think I’ve read many books in which the protagonist is a talking tree. The only other tree protagonist I know of is The Giving Tree. Of course, Tolkien was fond of trees: Old Man Willow, The White Tree of Gondor, and the Ents and their tree herds. In this novel by the author of the Newbery Award winner The One and Only Ivan, Red is a venerable old oak tree who has a traditional role as the neighborhood “wishtree”: people hang rags and papers and other pieces of cloth with wishes written on them on the branches of the red oak, Red. Apparently the wishtree is a Celtic tradition.

“A wish tree is an individual tree, usually distinguished by species, position or appearance, which is used as an object of wishes and offerings. Such trees are identified as possessing a special religious or spiritual value. By tradition, believers make votive offerings in order to gain from that nature spirit, saint or goddess fulfillment of a wish.” ~ Wikipedia

Who knew? Anyway, as this particular story goes, the wishtree, Red, watches over the neighborhood, until a new family moves in and the neighborhood is divided by prejudice and bigotry. Can Red fulfill a wish and bring two friends together, even though the old oak has never done such a thing before? And can Red’s friends—Bongo the crow and HairySpiders the mother opossum and Agnes the owl, among others—save Red from being cut down and stump ground?

This story was a nice, gentle tale about countering hatred and misunderstanding with loving persistence. It wasn’t particularly memorable or outstanding, but it does have a good theme and a decent ending. And I liked the idea of the wishtree, stripped of all the pagan elements. Maybe my tree in my front yard that was was just planted last year will become a wishtree. I’d like that.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine by Caroline Starr Rose

The Klondike Gold Rush. I’ve read lots of books about the early 1850’s and the California Gold Rush, but I don’t really know much about the Klondike Gold Rush of the late nineteenth century.

The Klondike Gold Rush was a migration by an estimated 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada between 1896 and 1899. Gold was discovered there by local miners on August 16, 1896, and, when news reached Seattle and San Francisco the following year, it triggered a stampede of prospectors. Some became wealthy, but the majority went in vain. ~Wikipedia

Eleven year old Jasper and his older brother Melvin become two boys caught up in the maelstrom that was the Klondike Gold Rush in this adventure story. As the boys travel to gold rush country together, they learn to depend on one another and to persist in their quest, even when it looks as if all is lost.

The characters in this novel were quirky, but believable for that place and time when there were a lot of quirky and cantankerous old prospectors running around. I liked the fact that there were good people who helped each other out and followed the “miner’s code” and others who were thieves and lazy schemers who just wanted to get rich quick. Also, the consequences of Jasper’s foolishness were realistic and dangerous. The riddle part was a bit hard to swallow, but it made a nice mystery to hang the plot onto. All-in-all, a good story.

After reading this fictional take on the Klondike Gold Rush, I wanted to read a couple of other titles from my shelves on the same subject, but I haven’t had time yet to do so. Anyway, here are the wo that I plan to read as soon as I finish the dozens of middle grade speculative fiction books I have on deck for the Cybils:

The Gold Miners’ Rescue: Sheldon Jackson by Dave and Neta Jackson. Historical fiction about real-life doctor and missionary, Sheldon Jackson. A boy, Adam, recently graduated from the Sitka Industrial and Training School, joins Dr. Sheldon Jackson on his 1897 expedition to the Yukon to rescue hundreds of starving gold miners and to bring reindeer to the indigenous peoples of the area.

The Alaska Gold Rush by May McNeer. Landmark book #92. The story begins with a morning newspaper headline: “Gold! Gold Strike in the Klondike!” And it ends with a chapter on all of the stories that came out of the Klondike Gold Rush from writers such as Robert Service and Jack London and Rex Beach and from old-timers who still talk (or still did talk when this book was published in 1960) of the sourdoughs and miners such as Belinda Mulroney and Skookum Jim and Big Alex, King of the Klondike. I really want to read this book soon.

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Little Girl With Seven Names by Mabel Leigh Hunt

Before there was Tikki-tikki-tembo-no-sa-rembo-chari-bari-ruchi-pip-peri-pembo, author Mabel Leigh Hunt (b.November 1, 1892, d.September 3, 1971) told the story of a little Quaker girl named Melissa Louisa Amanda Miranda Cynthia Jane Farlow, a girl with a great long name almost as long and almost as troublesome to her as Tikki-tikki-tembo’s name was to him.

Melissa Louisa is named after her two grandmothers and her four maiden aunts, and even when the other children make fun of her very long name, she finds that she can’t get rid of any part of it, for fear of offending or hurting one of the family members that she dearly loves. What is a little girl to do?

This beginning chapter book of only sixty-four pages is just the right length for beginning readers who are working their way up into books with more text than pictures. Melissa Louisa is about six or seven years old in the stories, and she acts like a six or seven year old. The ensuing misunderstandings and adventures are tame enough but also surprising and delight-filled for young readers.

Author Mabel Leigh Hunt is not to be found in Jan Bloom’s two volumes of Who Should We Then Read?, but she is a worthy author with a gift for storytelling. Two of her books won Newbery Honors: Have You Seen Tom Thumb? in 1943 and Better Known as Johnny Appleseed in 1951. Ms. Hunt was born into a Quaker family herself, and as an adult she became a librarian and then an author, often writing about Quaker boys and girls in her books. The books, which have an old-fashioned air and a childlike sense of humor, are fresh and lively and suited to a new generation of children who like to read about “olden times and places.”

Other books for young readers about Quaker children:
The Double Birthday Surprise (or Present) by Mabel Leigh Hunt.
Cupola House by Mabel Leigh Hunt.
Tomorrow Will Be Bright by Mabel Leigh Hunt.
Lucinda, A Little Girl of 1860 by Mabel Leigh Hunt.
Beggar’s Daughter by Mabel Leigh Hunt.

The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac.

Thee, Hannah! by Marguerite de Angeli.

The picture book series of Obadiah books by Brinton Turkle:
Obadiah the Bold
Thy Friend, Obadiah
Obadiah and Rachel
Adventures of Obadiah

For middle grade and young adult readers:
Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont. About a Quaker family in England.
The Lark on the Wing (The Haverard Family, #2) Carnegie Medal winner, 1950.
The Spring of the Year (The Haverard Family, #3)
Flowering Spring (The Haverard Family, #4)
The Pavilion (The Haverard Family, #5)

They Loved to Laugh by Kathryn Worth.

Downright Dency by Caroline Snedeker. Newbery Honor book.

Books about real Quaker heroes and heroines:
The Quakers by Kathleen Elgin.
The Thieves of Tyburn Square: Elizabeth Fry (Trailblazer Books #17) by Dave and Neta Jackson.
Key to the Prison by Louise A. Vernon. Historical fiction about Quaker founder George Fox.
Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin by Marguerite Henry. Fictional story of Quaker artist Benjamin West.
William Penn: Quaker Hero (Landmark Book No. 98) by Hildegarde Dolson.
Penn by Elizabeth Janet Gray.
The World of William Penn by Genevieve Foster.
John Greenleaf Whittier: Fighting Quaker by Ruth Langland Holberg.
Windows for the Crown Prince by Elizabeth Gray Vining. A memoir about Ms. Vining’s experiences just after World War II in tutoring Crown Prince Akihito, the heir apparent to the Japanese throne. Ms. Vining was a convert to Quakerism.

2014: Quaker Books for Quaker Kids by Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production.

Journey’s End by Rachel Hawkins

A ghost story seems appropriate for today, All Hallows Eve, and a ghost story that takes place in Scotland is particularly fun. Journey’s End starts out mysterious and kind of confusing with the first three chapters set in three different time periods with different characters, but the confusion clears up fairly quickly and the mystery and spookiness remain throughout to the end.

Nolie Stanhope, from Georgia, is spending the summer with her dad in Journey’s End, a village on the coast of Scotland that is sustained by a mysterious fog bank, the Boundary, that hovers just off coast and swallows up any boats that try to go into the fog. Yes, the boats and people simply disappear if they get too near the wall of fog, and now boats take tourists near the Boundary to give them an adventure, but not too near. Nolie’s dad is a scientist who is studying the mysterious and perilous fog, and Nolie’s new friend, Bel, helps out in her family’s business, a souvenir shop where tourists can buy woolly Scots stuffed lambs and postcards and other knickknacks as memories of their trip to the Boundary.

Much is made in this book of the differences between Scots speech and American vocabulary, maybe a little too much. Nolie wonders why Bel is talking about carrying a flaming torch to explore a cave, and Nolie and Bel trade words to reference everything from mad/crazy to bum/bottom to holy cow! or holy hairy coo! Frequent word discussions and interpretations add humor to the story, but maybe they are a little too frequent by the end of the book. Still, we Americans do enjoy a Scottish dialect and accent, and I’m sure, vice-versa.

The ghost story itself is standard: a person was wronged long ago, and her ghost hangs about with the unfinished business of revenge in mind. The fog, the Boundary, is an interesting touch, and it was just scary enough, with just enough humor, for middle grade readers, without becoming evil or morbid. If you’re up for a good ghost story, I’d recommend this one.

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

For more middle grade ghost stories, I can recommend:

The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston, and its sequels.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.
The Court of the Stone Children by Eleanor Cameron.
The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co., #1) by Jonathan Stroud, and sequels.
The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter.
The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage
The Saracen Lamp by Ruth M. Arthur.
Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett.
The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn by Dorothy Hoobler.

The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky

“Six kids from around the world have been chosen for the first-ever mission to Mars.”

Miranda Regent is the genius thirteen year old from the United States who is one of the six astronauts in training for the international mission to Mars, a peace-keeping mission that will unite the world in a cause that transcends national interests and the recently concluded AEM war. But someone is out to sabotage the mission and the six kids who have been chosen for it. Can Miranda figure out who is behind the threatening emails and the attacks on her and her fellow astronauts before they succeed?

NASA fans and aspiring astronauts, aeronautical engineers and space scientists will geek out on this science fiction/mystery/adventure story. Since I live with a NASA engineer, I think I know what will appeal, even though my own “science gene” has never been in evidence. Miranda and her fellow teen astronauts are an engaging crew, and the tension and adventure really ramp up about halfway through the book when something big goes wrong with the whole program and the kids are left to save themselves and the space program and to preserve world peace all at the same time.

The fact that the kids in this novel are all geniuses may make them a little less relatable, but it also shows that kids are kids no matter how intelligent and talented. Miranda worries about her grades in astrophysics and calculus, but she also wonders a lot about how she can make friends with the other cadets and how they can become a team before the Mars mission blasts off. She thinks about how she looks, and even a little about the guys on the team and whether or not they are attractive and attracted. Not too much mushy stuff, lots of science, and a good solid plot make this book a must-read for sci-fi fans.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.