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.

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.

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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.

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.

2017 Middle Grade Fiction: Short Takes

Apartment 1986 by Lisa Papademetriou. While skipping school, Cassie meets Cassius, an unschooled and independent spirit who is doing research on art at museums all over NYC. Cassie is dealing with her own family and personal issues, and she and Cassius become friends and allies as they discover that Callie’s family history is both surprising and complicated. The story deals with homosexual behavior, family dynamics and regrets, and forgiveness and restoration, all in a fairly standard, morally tolerant, and one-dimensional manner. The “bad guy” is Callie’s grandfather, a homophobic bigot, who is conveniently dead and gone. The “good guys” are all the ones who realize and understand that “people are born gay.”

Posted by John David Anderson. When cell phones are banned at Branton Middle School, a new communication method becomes a fad: sticky notes. But when the sticky notes begin to turn ugly, Frost and his friends are forced to decide where their loyalties lie. Will they be able to remain friends and even take a new kid into their “tribe”—or will the ugly taunts and bullying notes break up the friendships they have built? The story is told from the point of view of one of the middle school kids, Frost, and I found him to be pretentious and whiny at first, but his voice grew on me. By the end of the book, I was absorbed in the story and fond of most of the characters. Some kids may find the book to be too introspective, but for others it will hit a sweet spot of just right.

Feliz Yz by Lisa Bunker. A gay thirteen year old named Felix lives with his bisexual mother and his gender-switching grandparent (three days a week as Vern and three days a week as Verna; Wednesdays are spent alone and genderless) as Felix deals with he repercussions of a childhood accident that fused his psyche together with that of a fourth-dimensional creature called Zyx. Yeah. If Posted was introspective and angsty, this one is beyond—altogether in another dimension.

Me and Marvin Gardens by A.S. King. Obe Devlin spends his days picking trash out of the creek behind his house and mourning the loss of his family’s land to housing developers. He also spends a lot of time nursing his frequent nosebleeds. Then, one day he finds a new species of animal, and things get interesting. Can Obe save the animal he calls Marvin Gardens from the encroaching housing developments and the curiosity of neighbors? Is Marvin himself a danger to the neighborhood, or is Marvin the solution to the problem of pollution? The story is quite pessimistic and didactic, but if you’re looking for a preachy environmental title, this one will fit the bill.

Gnome-a-geddon by K.A. Holt. Buck Rogers and his best friend, Lizzie, enter the world of their favorite book series, The Triumphant Gnome Syndicate. Immediately, things start to go wrong when Buck realizes that he isn’t necessarily the hero of this adventure, and maybe the gnomes aren’t even the good guys in the story, and trolls, well, trolls are different in the real underground land of the Gnome Syndicate, too. The story alludes to several popular fantasy books, movies, and series, including Harry Potter, Star Wars, LOTR, Princess Bride, Back to the Future, superhero comics, and the Narnia books. Fun for fans.

One for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn. I didn’t like any of the people in this ghost story, except for the elderly lady who befriends the narrator at the end of the book. A group of girls bully and torment Elsie, a girl of German heritage, during World War I and the influenza epidemic. Elsie is a liar and a tattletale, and Annie, the new girl in school, must choose whether to befriend Elsie or the mean girls who pick on Elsie. It’s not much of a choice. Unfortunately, there’s no one at school for Annie to be friends with, so Annie becomes one of the bullies. It just gets worse from there with a nasty, mean ghost who harries Annie into a mental asylum.

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Some of these books are also 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 Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

As I was reading A Face Like Glass, those lines from J. Alfred Prufrock kept floating through my mind, especially those first two lines: “there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” In the underground city of Caverna the inhabitants are born with blank faces. They must learn to put on faces that serve the wearer’s ends, set expressions that are learned and bought and sold, such as “World Weary, with a Hint of Sadness” or “Wry Charm” or perhaps, “Careful Disinterest.” These Faces enable the citizens of Caverna to lie and dissemble and carry on political intrigues that would make the most crooked politician dizzy with their multiple layers of trickery and subterfuge.

But the girl Neverfell is different from all of the other inhabitants of Caverna. Her guardian, Grandible the Cheesemaster, insists that she wear a mask whenever she meets with anyone else from Caverna, perhaps because Neverfell has such a hideous, ugly face? Maybe “Ugly” is the only Face she has been given? Or maybe it has something to with Neverfell’s past, a past that, before the age of seven and the endless cheese tunnels of Grandible’s massive cheese factory, she can’t remember at all?

The other piece of literature that this book reminded me of was C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. A Face Like Glass is much more layered and complicated than Lewis’s story and Hardinge’s writing style is utterly different from Lewis’s, but the underground city and the pervasive deception and manipulation of memories and the longing for an elusive otherness aboveground are all similarly key to both books. Neverfell doesn’t remember the world above Caverna, the lands on the surface of the earth, but she does long to escape the deception and darkness of the underground world. There are other similarities between the two books that I can’t talk about without spoilers, but suffice it say that I was intrigued by the parallels.

“And the worst thing about it was that you began to feel as if you had always lived on that ship, in that darkness, and to wonder whether sun and blue skies and wind and birds had not been only a dream.” The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis

And I loved the ending of A Face Like Glass. It was perfect, made so much sense, but also unexpected. I would recommend this one for older middle schoolers and high schoolers and adults. A Face Like Glass provides a lot of food for thought and enjoyment; it’s a “True Delicacy”.

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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.

Thick As Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

I liked Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, but I didn’t love it. I think I liked Thick As Thieves better, but I don’t really remember too much about The Thief.

Set in the same world as the Queen’s Thief books, Thick as Thieves chronicles the journey of Kamet, the slave of the Mede nobleman, Nahuseresh. When he hears that his master has been assassinated, Kamet knows that his own life and the lives of all of Nahuseresh’s slaves are in danger. Can he flee to the kingdom of Attolia for safety, or is that destination a trap where even greater danger awaits?

Lots of palace intrigue, plots and conspiracies, plans within plans, ambition and power-seeking— all combine to make Thick as Thieves an exciting and compelling read. Wanted Kamet to escape not only from the Mede emperor but also from his own pride and ambition that kept him from trusting the very people who were obviously his friends and helpers. Kamet is a flawed protagonist; he knows his own faults. However, surviving a life of slavery has required him to deceive others and find ways to maintain his own self-respect despite mistreatment and subjugation. Feigned humility is a tool for survival as a slave; real humility and trust in the goodness of others are not wise or needed for life as a slave.

Thick as Thieves helped me to think about what it means for a person to be enslaved and thought of as a piece of property. What would such a life do to one’s sense of self, to a person’s decision-making abilities, and above all to the slave’s faith in God or other people or his own ability to live a life of freedom and integrity? What does a person who has lived a life of slavery do with freedom? It’s true that some of us don’t want freedom when it is offered to us. We prefer the “devil we know” to the possibilities that lie before us. What if we are tricked into freedom? Will we be able to deal with the choices and the loss of comfort that freedom entails?

A good book for adults and for older middle grade students. I always like a book that makes me think.

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Nine on an island, orphans all,
Any more, the sky might fall.

Nine orphan children live on an island. When the green boat brings another young child to the island, the oldest one must leave. Then, the next oldest one cares for the new little one, until it’s his or her turn to leave. That’s how it’s been for as long as anyone can remember. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Life is good on the island, almost magical. And it will continue to be good and nourishing and life-giving as long as the children follow the rules and care for one another.

I think this book is supposed to be about our world and how we live in it. We live in a world that is beautiful and full of wonder, but we’re sort of trapped on this island Earth. We don’t really know how we got here, and we don’t know where we are going when we leave. We have a set of rules, handed down by tradition or codified in books (the Bible) and stories, and we have books that give us intimations of what the world beyond this one might be like. But we don’t really know. At least from a Jewish point of view, we have the Law, and we’re not sure why we have many of the rules that are in the Law. But it’s important and life-giving to follow them anyway.

This story is also about growing up. We all have moments when we want to be like Peter Pan and never grow up, but we really have no choice. We must leave childhood and the innocence of the island and enter into adulthood. We learn the important lessons of childhood, and we take those lessons into adulthood. That grown-up life is an unknown territory, and some of us go into it with alacrity, anxious to know what’s out there in the great big world. But others enter into adulthood kicking and screaming, metaphorically speaking, longing to just stay in the simple, joyful, idealized world of childhood.

Opinions are going to be divided on this book, mostly because of the way it ends. It’s probably not a spoiler to warn you that not all of the questions you may have as you read Orphan Island will be answered by the ending of the book. In fact, you will probably be filled with multitude of questions by the end of the novel. Will there be a sequel? I almost hope not. I still remember when the writers from the TV show LOST tried to tie up the loose ends and answer all of our questions; it wasn’t pretty. I really believe that this is a book that should stand on its own with all the questions left for the reader to resolve and answer. Maybe that way some child somewhere will imagine his or her own ending, his or her own answers. That’s not such a bad thing at all. In fact, it may be the purpose of the book.

I liked it. Please come back and let me know what you think after you’ve read it.

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.

The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Aventurine the adventurous dragon meets a food mage and gets turned into a puny, thin-skinned human girl, but she still has the heart of a dragon. She still believes that she is the fiercest creature on the mountain or in the city of Drachenburg. At least, most of the time she believes it, until she looks down at her pitiful human body. But never mind, the food mage also introduced Aventurine to the wonderful, delicious, scrumptious flavor of chocolate, and Aventurine is willing to go anywhere and do almost anything for another taste of chocolate delightfulness.

What a romp! Chocolate and dragons and an independent girl/dragon and a testy chocolate maker and lots of political intrigue and, did I mention, chocolate? Aventurine is impetuous and somewhat foolhardy, but she does grow and mature as the story progresses. And the characters around her—Marina the chocolatier, Horst the chocolate house proprietor, Silke the marketer, and all of Aventurine’s dragon family—are well-rounded and interesting in and of themselves. Even the minor characters are fun. Aventurine’s brother, Jasper, studies philosophy. Her older and practically perfect sister, Citrine, writes epic poetry. Greta, the selfish and manipulative townswoman who tries to turn Aventurine into her own personal, unpaid maid, is hilarious.

The entire book is only 244 pages, well-edited, and well paced. Kudos to Ms. Burgis for a fun and rollicking adventure with heart, a chocolate heart, of course.

What others say

The Book Smugglers: “In the tradition of the best middle grade storytellers—such as Diana Wynne Jones, Catherynne M Valente—The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a story with multiple layers. Hot-tempered and fierce, Aventurine experiences loss, anxiety, and fear just as she has to deal with questions of power and identity and to find a new family and friendships.”

The Reader Dragon: “First off, if you ever plan on reading this book, make sure you have chocolate nearby, because you’re going to get the munchies! There is oh-so-much talk of chocolately goodness throughout the entirety of this book, that I guarantee you’ll be craving sweets in absolutely no time at all.”

Pages Unbound: “However, Aventurine’s journey is not just about embracing her spirit and the things that make her unique. It’s also about finding the strength to be vulnerable and to allow others to carry her at times.”

An interview with Stephanie Burgis about dragons and chocolate at Cracking the Cover.

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.

The Button Girl by Sally Apokedak

I want to talk one of my adult children into naming one of my grandchildren Repentance Joyous Forgiveness Abounding (Atwater), the name of the main character in this fantasy novel about a world of slaves and masters and societal upheaval. Sixteen year old Repentance lives in the foggy lowlands in a breeder village where the village couples are forced to “button” (marry) and produce slave children or become slaves themselves. Repentance refuses, and thus she suffers the consequence, slavery to the overlords in the City of Ice, Harthill. Repentance spends the entire remainder of the novel learning that her actions not only have consequences for her own life but those actions and decisions also influence the lives and fates of others, usually for the worse.

The Button Girl was absorbing and entertaining. Repentance was a bit slow on the uptake, impetuous and unheeding of the effect of her actions on others. She takes the entire book to learn to control her tongue and her rash decisions. But some of us are like that, passionate and headstrong, with little understanding of the cost of our hasty deeds. The book is firmly in the YA category; although not explicit, there are numerous references to concubinage, prostitution, and rough sex. The prince, Lord Malficc, is the villain, and he’s a lewd and cruel man, although again his cruelty is more implied than explicitly described.

There are a lot of overheard conversations used as a plot device to advance the action. I think that particular contrivance of convenient eavesdropping is a bit overused. And Repentance has way too much time to think about the many and usually horrible implications of her various past and possible future courses of action. But I enjoyed the novel and stayed up late to finish it. The themes, that our choices affect not just ourselves but also other people and that justice can be a tangled and difficult end to pursue, are well demonstrated in the actions and choices of the characters. For those readers who are interested in books about how society is ordered, for good or for evil, and how individuals can work to effect positive change, The Button Girl is a sure bet. Repentance Joyous Forgiveness Abounding Atwater is a lovely girl heroine with flaws who grows into a mature young woman, still flawed but showing true repentance and growth over the course of the novel.