Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Night Garden puts a little spark of magic into WWII-era Canada

The Night Garden, by Polly Horvath, (Sept. 2017, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 9780374304522

Recommended for readers 9-13

Franny Whitekraft lives with her adoptive parents, Sina and Old Tom, on Vancouver Island while World War II rages overseas. They live a pretty quiet life until their neighbor, Crying Alice, shows up – crying – and asks to leave her three children with them while she goes to stop her mechanic husband, Fixing Bob – stationed at a military base – from doing something dumb. Zebediah, one of the children, knows what it is, but he’s not talking, and he’s not sharing the letters he gets from their father with his brother and sister, Wilfred and Winifred. Things take a sharp turn when Fixing Bob puts his plan into action, and The Night Garden seems to be everyone’s only hope in making things right. Can a garden really grant wishes? Franny and her friends are about to find out.

The Night Garden didn’t really come together for me. There are several plotlines that kind of wander in and out of the book, like Sina’s witnessing a UFO. Narrated in the first person by Franny, there’s humor throughout the novel, but overall, the story took a little too long to get there and meandering plots may keep some readers from fully committing to the book. I enjoyed the sense of humor that kept the book moving, and the characters, on their own, were a fun bunch that I enjoyed my time with. An additional purchase for collections where you have devoted magical realism readers.

Polly Horvath is the Newbery Honor and National Book Award winning-author of Everything on a Waffle. Her author website offers more information about her books, awards, and news.

 

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Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Cucumber Quest: Bunny Siblings Save the World!

Cucumber Quest, Vol. 1: The Doughnut Kingdom, by Gigi DG, (Oct. 2017, :01FirstSecond), $14.99, ISBN: 9781626728325

Recommended for ages 8-12

If you’ve never read the webcomic Cucumber Quest, now’s your chance to dive in. The seven kingdoms of Dreamside are in trouble when the evil queen Cordelia plans to unleash some serious havoc. Cucumber – who’s all packed and ready to start his studies at Puffington’s Academy for the Magically Gifted – gets a letter from his dad, telling him that it’s up to him to save the kingdoms. His brave and way-more-heroic sister, Almond, offers to go in his place, but their mother and father seem to have some pretty outdated ideas about gender, and tells her it’s too dangerous for her. Almond joins Cucumber’s Quest, regardless, and the two head out in search of the Dream Sword: the only weapon powerful enough to defeat Cordelia’s supernatural thug, the Nightmare Knight. On the way, Cucumber and Almond meet a batty Dream Oracle, a trio of hare-brained guards, and a host of other wacky characters.

Beginning life as a webcomic (that you can still read online), Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom collects the first 137 pages of Cucumber Quest (the Prologue and chapter 0); Cucumber Quest 2: The Ripple Kingdom will continue collecting stories from the online archive. Forty pages of additional comics, including Reader Q&A for various characters, and short bios for each character, complete with ability ratings in trading card format, concept art, and a tour of the world of Dreamside, home to the seven kingdoms.

The story is light and fun; the artwork is cute and Chibi-inspired. Manga fans will love it, as will adventure fans. Give this to your Adventure Time and Steven Universe readers; for your fantasy fans that want some lighter summer reading (or aren’t really passionate readers… YET), this will be a welcome addition to shelves.

Want to learn more? Check out the Cucumber Quest wiki and Cucumber Quest page, where you can access the complete comic archive and learn more about the characters.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

A new sleuth: Super Max and the Mystery of Thornwood’s Revenge

Super Max and the Mystery of Thornwood’s Revenge, by Susan Vaught, (Aug. 2017, Simon & Schuster/Pamela Wiseman), $16.99, ISBN: 9781481486835

Recommended for readers 9-12

Max is a 12 year-old girl living with her grandfather, Toppy, who also happens to be the chief of police in their town of Blue Creek. Her mother, an artist, lives in California, which is just fine with Max – ever since she and her mother were in the car accident that left Max wheelchair-bound at 4 years old, her mother has had trouble fitting Max into her life. She and Toppy lead a pretty happy life together; that is, if she’d stop getting in trouble for tinkering with her wheelchair to give it more power! When a cyber-bully starts a Facebook page and Twitter account slandering her grandfather and the town mayor, Max and Toppy try to blow it off, but things ramp up quickly, and the bully starts causing trouble for local businesses, too, all under the guise of an old town legend, Thornwood’s Revenge. Thornwood Manor is an abandoned mansion right next door to Toppy’s house, and it carries a lot of history with it, not all of it good. Is the bully really the ghost of Hargrove Thornwood, come to take his revenge, or is it someone with a grudge against an entire town? Max is going to get to the bottom of it.

I’m a Susan Vaught fan, so I was thrilled to read one of her middle grade books (I’ve only read her YA to date) and I’ve only read her heavier subject matter. This was good mystery reading all around. She’s got a very likable group of characters; I loved Toppy, gruff but lovable, whose disciplinary methods are creative and hilarious. Max is willful, complicated, and strong, like a middle grade heroine should be. She may be in a wheelchair, but she’s no victim: she’s an engineering whiz who loves to tinker in her eternal search for more power. Her relationship with her mother is complicated, and I liked Vaught’s exploration of that relationship. Max is driven by her desire to appear strong, not weak, not dependent; often to the point of frustrating her friends and family. She deals with her anger issues by reciting the names of Marvel and DC superheroes in alphabetical order, adding a nice geek check to the mix. I’d like to see another book or two starring Max and friends, and I think mystery fans will like this new supersleuth.

 

Susan Vaught is the Edgar Award-winning author of Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy (2016), and Trigger, which received three starred reviews and was an ALA Best Books for Young Adults. She is also a neuropsychologist at a state psychiatric facility, specializing in helping people with severe and persistent mental illness, intellectual disability, and traumatic brain injury. Her author website has more information about her books, essays, and links to her blog.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Good for historical fiction readers: Great Escapes

Underground Railroad 1854: Perilous Journey: Inspiring Tales of Courage and Friendship (Great Escapes), by Gare Thompson, (Oct. 2017, Barron’s Educational Series), $7.99, ISBN: 9781438009735

Recommended for readers 8-12

George is a plantation slave who dreams of being free. He’s singled out for abuse by the cruel overseer and threatened with being put on the auction block, like his father was. He can’t bear the thought of being separated from his sister, Ruth, and his mother, so he formulates a plan for the family to escape and seek out Moses, a mysterious woman who helps slaves to freedom. Moses – Harriet Tubman puts them in case of a white teenager, Nathan, who will take them from the deep South to New York, where they hope to find passage to Canada, but it’s not going to be easy. George doesn’t trust Nathan – he doesn’t trust anyone – and the bounty hunters are everywhere, tracking down escaped slaves. The four will have to work together and rely on the kindness of Underground Railroad stations to succeed.

Great Escapes is a fairly new historical fiction series by Barron’s Educational Series. Readers who enjoy the thrill of Lauren Tarshis’ I Survived books will dig into these readalikes, which are a little longer in page length (over 200 pages) and allow for more plot and character development. Stories emphasize working together for change while acknowledging that it’s not always an easy thing to do. Historical figures Harriet Tubman, William Still, and Frederick Douglass make appearances, and interesting facts about the Underground Railroad pop up within the narrative. My favorite? The coded messages communicated through song: songs like “Wade in the Water” told freedom seekers to get off the trail and into the water, so their scent wouldn’t be picked up by dogs. Sections on key terms, phrases used, songs sung, Underground Railroad profiles, and further resources make this a great next step for readers who are ready to take on longer books.

Underground Railroad is the second book in the Great Escapes series, the first being Mount St. Helens 1980: Fiery Eruption! I’ve been plumping up my library’s series fiction collection, and since the kids devoured my I Survived books the second they arrived, I think this will be a smart add to the collection. Like I Survived, readers can pick either Great Escapes book up never having read the other(s); they’re all separate moments in history starring different characters.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The World’s Greatest Adventure Machine will take you on the ride of your life

The World’s Greatest Adventure Machine, by Frank L. Cole, (Aug. 20017, Delacorte Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9780399552823

Recommended for readers 9-13

Take a little bit of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, toss in elements of Jurassic Park and The Matrix, and add a dose of Inception, and you have Frank L. Cole’s newest book, The World’s Greatest Adventure Machine. Four kids with varying physiological complexities – Trevor, the daredevil; Cameron, the genius; Devin, the video game master/burgeoning Internet sensation; and Nika, shy and sheltered by her overprotective grandfather – are chosen to test out The Adventure Machine, a ground-breaking new adventure ride from CastleCorp. They set out for the ride of their lives while their guardians watch, but no one expects what happens when the ride breaks down, and they discover that they’re stuck in the middle of a plot that threatens them and their families – or are they?

The World’s Greatest Adventure Machine is a big adventure for middle graders who love twisting plots, action, and a smidgen of conflict. As the kids’ adventure progresses, they grow as individuals and as a team; Trevor and Cameron learn to be aware of the impact their actions have on others, and they all learn the importance of self-advocacy.  It’s a fun read with characters that grow on you, with lots of thrills to keep pages turning.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Hispanic Heritage Reading: My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson

My Bridgadista Year, by Katherine Paterson, (Oct. 2017, Candlewick), $15.99, ISBN: 978-0-7636-9508-8

Recommended for readers 10-14

It’s 1961, and Lora is a 13 year-old girl who signs up to be one of Fidel Castro’s Brigadistas – groups of students, some as young as 8, most between the ages of 10 and 16 – who went into the rural areas of Cuba to spend a year with families, teaching them to read and write. Lora sees this as an opportunity to grow as a student and a person; she wants to be a doctor, and she wants the space to learn and discover on her own. Her parents protest: she’s lived a comfortable life in Havana, why would she want to live in poverty for a year? With some help from her grandmother, Lora’s parents relent, and she joins the Brigadistas, promising to come home if it gets too hard. Lora is placed with a family to teach, and before she knows it, is teaching a neighboring family, too. The group becomes an extended family as she takes part in the daily chores, taking as much encouragement as she gives, but all is not easy: not everyone is in favor of the Cuban Literacy Initiative. Counter-revolutionaries have martyred those who would lift Cuba out of illiteracy in the past, and the Brigadistas know that risk is part of what they’ve signed on for.

This was the first I’ve read about the Cuban Literacy Initiative. It’s a little-talked about moment in history, and it’s fascinating. Lora is a wonderful character who we see coming of age with each turn of the page, and her students consist of parents, grandparents, and children. Things don’t come easily to Lora, but she never gives up, her larger goals in mind, and her determination at her back. This is a short but powerful book that I’d love to see on summer reading lists next year. An overview of the Cuban Literacy Initiative fills provides more information for readers who want to learn more.

Katherine Paterson is the Newbery award-winning author of Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob I Have Loved. You can visit her website to find her bio, information about her books, and interviews with the author.

As our relations with Cuba continue to open, I’d love to read more first-hand accounts from brigadistas and the rural families with whom they lived. Until then, Tulane University’s Roger Thayer Stone’s Center for Latin American Studies has some information on the campaign, and Al-Jazeera posted an interview with a former brigadista.

 

 

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Dam Keeper: from screen to page

The Dam Keeper, by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, (Sept. 2017, :01First Second), $17.99, ISBN: 9781626724266

Recommended for readers 8-12

A young pig learns from his inventor father how to maintain the dam that keeps their village in Sunrise Valley safe. When Pig’s father disappears, it falls on Pig to keep the dam intact and the village safe. He’s an outcast at school, teased and ridiculed, but he never strays from his task. But a black fog is coming, threatening the Valley and the dam. Pig, with his new friend, Fox, and the reluctant Hippo, come together to answer the threat and discover what’s on the other side of the dam.

Based on the 2015 Oscar-nominated short, The Dam Keeper, this adaptation by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi – cofounders of the animation studio Tonko House – is breathtaking. They manage to give a graphic novel a stunning landscape, where the art comes alive for readers and the empathy for their main character is bottomless. Kondo and Tsutsumi create deep characters with Pig, Fox, and Hippo; one can’t help but fall in love with them and root for them.

You can rent The Dam Keeper online through YouTube and sign up for e-mails at the Tonko House website. It’s a beautiful little film that the graphic novel expands upon and enhances. A definite must-add to collections; I can’t wait to see what happens in Part 2.