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.

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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.

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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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.

Joplin, Wishing by Diane Stanley

Diane Stanley, the same Diane Stanley who wrote all those wonderful children’s biographies of everyone from Peter the Great to Saladin to Charles Dickens, has published a new children’s fantasy book, Joplin, Wishing. I can’t say I like this book as much as I do her biographies or even her other fantasy novels that I have read, Bella at Midnight and The Cup and the Crown, but Joplin, Wishing is a decent enough story.

Joplin, named after both the singer Janis and the composer Scott, has a hard time at school after her dead and famous novelist grandfather is caricatured in the newspapers as an eccentric, wild, and crazy recluse. The bullies come out of the woodwork and make her school life unendurable. Joplin just wishes for a friend or two, one at home and one at school, and she gets her wish. The fulfilled wish, however, comes with complications; the Dutch girl from Joplin’s delftware plate who grants Joplin’s wish is really a slave to the plate and to the maker of the plate. Can Joplin find a way to set her free?

The book is very anti-journalism, as it is currently practiced. The reporters in this story are villains, making up “fake news” and hounding Joplin and her family to get a thread of something to hang the story on. It’s also an anti-bullying story, which is all the rage these days, but it doesn’t present any clear solutions to the bullying problem. The bullies in the story are forced to apologize for their behavior, but the apologies are mostly as fake as the news, and Joplin just has to endure and hope that the bullying behavior will get old and go away. Finally, the book is anti-slavery, and a little on the dark side in that regard, since Joplin’s friend from the plate was groomed by the magician and artisan who made the plate to be his personal slave and wish-granter in the same way that a child molester would groom a victim. That part of the story is downright creepy.

Most of the novel, however, deals with how to manage to get the girl from the plate back to her own time and place, how to free her. And the mechanisms and plans for doing that are interesting. It’s the first time I’ve seen a legal contract used as a plot device to solve the magical problem of the novel.

Joplin, Wishing is okay, but it could have been better with a little less darkness and cruelty, and a little more whimsicality. I like my novels, even middle grade fiction, to have some serious, thoughtful themes and ideas, but a little humor and whimsy go a long way toward making those serious ideas palatable.

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.

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.

Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley

Cassie and Kate Beasley are sisters who both write children’s fiction. They live in rural Georgia, near the swamps, hence the setting of Tumble and Blue in a rural town near the Okefenokee Swamp. Tumble and Blue is dedicated by Cassie to Kate. It seems the sisters not only share a vocation, but also are close friends and writing encouragers. Cassie’s first book, Circus Mirandus, and Kate’s debut, Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, were both intriguing and rewarding reads.

Tumble and Blue are also friends. Tumble Wilson is a girl who wants to be a hero. She admires and tries emulate her hero, Maximal Star, author of the best-selling book, How to Hero Every Day. Blue Montgomery is cursed with a terrible fate, just like all of the Montgomerys. Actually, some of the Montgomerys have an awesome fate, like always winning or charming animals into submission. But others are not so fortunate. Blue’s fate is that he always loses, every game, every contest, every fight, every time. His last fight earned him a broken arm, so his daddy has left Blue to stay with his Grandmother Eve for the summer at the family homestead in Murky Branch, Georgia (Population: 339).

This book is about fates and talents and persistence and optimism in the face of disaster. Tumble is determined to a hero, even though the results of her previous attempts at heroic deeds have been less than stellar. And Blue is determined not to try anymore, since he always loses anyway. Can the two friends teach each other something, like when to be optimistic and try and when to fold and walk away?

Some of the “gifts” of the Montgomery family members turn out to be curses in disguise, and vice-versa. I was reminded of Ingrid Law’s Savvy series and of Adrian Monk, of course: “It’s a blessing—-and a curse.”

Only in this story, it’s a swamp instead of a jungle.

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.