A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn
Marni lives with her Gramps on the edge of the woods where they grow flowers that the wealthy lords and ladies from the castle come to buy. The woods is not just a normal woods, it is filled with small creatures and a lady who has sung and knitted with Marni since she was a child. Marni doesn’t speak with the creatures of the forest anymore, but she had spent many hours as a child with them. Marni is not just any peasant girl, she is the daughter of the sister of the king, and her Gramps was once king himself. The current king, her uncle, killed her mother and now may be turning his attentions to Marni. After all she is not just human, she is half dragon, and her dragon father is expanding his woods to find her.
A large part of the delight of this book is uncovering secrets along the way. Hahn plays with this in her many-layered story, slowly revealing things that the reader may have guessed at. Startling readers with revelations at other times, ones that make perfect sense and click into the story with a neat precision. Told in a series of parts, the book takes place in three distinct locales. There is the hut that Marni lives in with Gramps and their odd but also stable life together. There is the king’s court where Marni is not only out of place but also targeted and unsafe. Finally, there is the world of the dragon, the lure of the woods and its dangerous beauty.
At the heart of all of this is Marni, also called Tulip, who finds herself a princess raised as a pauper. She is separate from the royal court but not entirely, still connected through her flowers and through her mother and the violent act that killed her. She is a girl who is strong enough to deny the fairies in the woods what they want, smart enough to survive at court without understanding the politics, and determined enough to find her father when she needs to. She is one of those heroines who is vulnerable and real but also startling and incredible.
Complex and rich, this debut novel gives us a new voice in high fantasy for teens. One who is definitely worth exploring and reading. Get this into the hands of fans of Seraphina. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HMH Books for Young Readers.
The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie
Girl power is celebrated in this picture book that turns the princess role firmly on its head. Princess Sue has been lingering in her castle for over 100 years, waiting for her prince to come and rescue her. Just as she is about to lose it, her prince appears on horseback and whisks her off. But just as Sue thinks that she is heading to freedom, the prince arrives at his castle where Sue is given her own tower filled with dresses and shoes and informed that she shouldn’t even be thinking of adventures. But Sue refuses to give up on her dreams and when she sees a fearsome dragon flying nearby, she gets a clever idea.
I must admit to a certain adoration for books that take girls away from the stereotypical princess role and make them active participants in their own destinies. So this book is right up my alley. Told in rhyme, the effect is dashing and active rather than sweet and stately. It also has the feel of a bard’s story about Princess Sue. The writing is also humorous and fun-filled.
The illustrations of the book are bright-colored and also filled with humor. Sue’s long braids dangle down, her dress changes as the story progresses, and the sharing of tea with a dragon is definitely something to see.
Get this in the hands of modern children who want to be more than princesses (and princes) as well as dragon-lovers. Appropriate for ages 3-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House.
The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston
When the world saw Lottie Thorskard fall from a girder, everyone wondered what she would do next. No one expected her to move to the tiny town of Trondheim and start slaying dragons there with her wife, her brother and his son. But that is how Owen started attending the same school as Siobhan. Siobhan is not a popular student, but she gets good grades and loves to play and write music. None of this should have made her even noticeable by Owen, whom everyone wanted to know better. Somehow though Siobhan with her biting wit gets invited over to Owen’s home for dinner and Owen’s family including the famous Lottie have a plan that involves Siobhan. They want her to be Owen’s bard. Which will involve being nearby when they fight dragons. So Siobhan must train to defend herself with a sword, learn more about different types of dragons, and she becomes an important piece of Owen’s story herself.
This is one of those books that surprises right from the beginning. Somehow I didn’t realize that this is a modern-day dragon tale set in Canada. In this book, the world has always had dragons and they form the heart of literature and song going back into history. Johnston takes the time to rewrite the lives of famous people for the reader, building her world so successfully that it all makes perfect sense that dragons are here and have always been.
The juxtaposition between the two main characters is brilliantly done. But perhaps the very best part is that this is not a romance. Yes, a male and female main character but no sparks, no kissing, no sex. Instead they are busy trying to save their community together. Siobhan and Owen are both vibrant and intelligent. They have the sort of brilliant dialogue that one would expect from a John Green book. Except they do it while fighting dragons! Amazing.
A completely incredible debut book, this takes fantasy and turns it on its head with a thoroughly modern take on battling dragons and extraordinarily deep world building. This is one of the best and most unique fantasy novels I’ve read in years.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Carolrhoda Books.
Again! by Emily Gravett
It’s nearly bedtime and that means a bedtime story. Mama dragon and little dragon curl up together to share the story of the bright, red dragon Cedric who has never gone to bed. When they finish, the little dragon asks for it “Again?” Mama dragon agrees and readers will see another full page of the book that tells more about Cedric and his not sleeping. Mama reads it one more time before falling asleep herself. Readers will notice the little dragon getting redder and redder just as Cedric in the story is turning back to green. But this little dragon has a burning desire for one more story that leads to a fiery ending.
Gravett cleverly reaves two parallel stories together here. There is the main story of the little dragon who wants to be read to over and over again. Then there is the story of Cedric in the book that Mama dragon reads. The two play off of one another, with tension in one ebbing as the other picks up.
The art is just as clever. Towards the end, the little dragon shakes the book in disgust and the characters take a tumble across the pages. This leads to the surprise of the ending, which is sure to delight young readers.
A perfect ending for a story time, this book is one that young children (and dragons) will want to read AGAIN! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Lovabye Dragon by Barbara Joosse, illustrated by Randy Cecil
Once there was a girl who lived in a castle and longed to be friends with a dragon. There was a dragon who lived far off in a cave who wanted a girl for a friend. The girl was so sad that she wept silver tears of loneliness. Those tears trickled all the way out of the castle and to the cave of the dragon where they awoke him. The dragon followed the trail of silver back to the castle where he found the girl waiting for him. The two became immediate friends, spending all of their time together. Best friends forever.
Remarkably, Joosse does not feel the need to make the friendship between the girl and the dragon scandalous or attack it in any way. The two of them long for one another, find one another, meet and are immediately friends, and it works. A large part of why it works is Joosse’s writing which has them doing many things together but also explains their friendship clearly in passages like this:
On the outside, Girl is little.
On the outside, Dragon’s biggle.
But they’re just the same size
exactly the same size
in the middle.
Cecil’s illustrations are done in oils and have a wonderful richness and depth to them. The palette is more blues and greys than many primary-colored picture books. It plays to the sophistication of this story. Often the girl is the only spot of bright color in her yellow dress.
This solid picture book offers a shimmering story of unlikely friendship that really works. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
A Gold Star for Zog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Zog is a young dragon who desperately wants to win a gold star in his dragon classes. Unfortunately, he isn’t having much luck. Flying classes ended with him crashing into a tree, though he was patched up with a band-aid from a young girl. In Year Two, Zog learned how to roar. The same girl, a little older now, offered him a peppermint for his scratchy throat after he tried too hard. The next year, Zog learned how to breathe fire but set his own wing on fire. Again, the girl was there to bandage his wing. The final test was to capture a princess. Zog tried and tried, but could not manage it. The girl showed up and revealed herself as a princess and offered to be captured by Zog. Zog got a gold star from his teacher, and the princess revealed herself to want to be a doctor instead. To find out how it all works out, you will have to quest into the story for yourself.
Told in a rhyme that is great fun to read aloud, this book is fanciful and humorous. Donaldson has nicely melded dragons and princesses with a classroom setting, achievement and aspiring to be something else. The princess character is nicely integrated throughout the story, though at first readers are not sure she is anything other than a girl with a medical kit. That reveal is done nicely and then her further dreams to be something else add a freshness to the tale.
Scheffler has created zingy art filled with bright colors, action and plenty of prat falls. The class of dragons in a rainbow of colors alone is enough to brighten any book. Scheffler’s style keeps the dragons friendly and cartoon-like, making the book particularly fun to read.
A great pick for reading aloud to elementary and preschool classes, this book’s dragons and humor will have it soaring high. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Seraphina has a secret that she can tell no one. It’s a secret that is marked on her very body, permanently and from birth. Her mother was a dragon. Her father had not known her mother’s true identity until she died giving birth to Seraphina. So Seraphina has lived her life mostly in secret, tutored by her dragon uncle. But someone as talented as Seraphina is difficult to hide. Her music draws people to her. She joins the royal court as a music teacher just when a murder happens that points directly at the dragons. Seraphina starts investigating things, using her special mental abilities that even she doesn’t fully understand. That’s how she meets Prince Lucian, who is also captain of the royal guard. He’s also a person who seeks to solve every mystery he encounters, and what a mystery Seraphina is! Now decades of carefully constructed peace between the humans and the dragons may be at an end. The question is where a girl who is half human and half dragon fits into a world at war.
Hartman has created a book for teens that has all of the detailed world building of an adult fantasy novel. The politics of the society are complex and pivotal to the plot. The heart of the book is a mystery that is complex with many possible villains.
Her dragons are a delight. They can change into human form, but never quite understand humans and their emotions. They are beings that are purely intellectual, carefully structuring their minds to be in balance at all times. Love is forbidden; music and art is something they cannot create. They are a wonderful foil to the humans of the story who are awash in teen emotions.
But it is the humans who make this story work. Seraphina is a heroine who is a mix of human and dragon in many ways. She is prickly yet feels emotions fiercely. She’s a study in contrasts. She wants to be accepted, yet pushes people away. She wants to perform and yet needs to stay hidden. She is drawn to the prince and yet has to lie constantly to him. Prince Lucian too is a complex character who is a worthy pairing with Seraphina. Their relationship grows and shrinks, changes and matures throughout the book. It’s organic and slow, unlike the many lightning-bolt love stories we see in teen novels.
This is a book that took me a long time to finish because I never wanted it to end. Immerse yourself in this tale of dragons, music and mystery. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from library copy.
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King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bently, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Open this book and you are immersed in a wonderful world of make-believe that you will not want to leave. There is a timelessness to not only the story here, but the way it is told.
Jack, Zack and Caspar were making a fort for King Jack out of a large box, a sheet, a blanket, some sticks, broken bricks, some trash bags, and other odds and ends. Then they spent the entire day fighting dragons and beasts until they returned back to their fort for a celebratory feast. Unfortunately, after that a giant came and took Sir Zack home. Then another giant came and took Caspar off to bed. That left King Jack alone on his throne in his fort. As darkness fell, he tried to not feel frightened of the noises of wind and the scurrying of animals. He wasn’t really truly scared until he heard the four footed beast approaching in the dark.
Beautifully told by Bently, this book reads aloud with zest and style. The story moves from the building of the fort to the playing of pretend through to the end of the day when reality comes calling for each of the children. It is a story that speaks to the power of imagination, the ability of children to create worlds that they fall into, and the love of play. The entire text captures that sense of play, merrily creating tension towards the end of the book without any real fear.
Oxenbury’s illustrations help to strengthen the timelessness of the story. The sweetness of her illustrations is tempered by the ferocity of the dragons and beasts she depicts. Yet there is no real danger here, and her illustrations help underline that to the youngest of readers.
Have large boxes and plenty of “swords” ready after you share this book. It is sure to create some new knights out of any children who listen to it. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
When a Dragon Moves In by Jodi Moore, illustrated by Howard McWilliam
One day at the beach, a little boy builds the perfect sandcastle and immediately a dragon moves right in. Together the boy and dragon roast marshmallows, fly kites, float in the water, and defend the sandcastle against bullies who would knock it down. The little boy tries to disguise that he is hosting a dragon in his castle, but then wants to tell his family about it. He can’t get his mother’s attention, his father just tickles him, and his sister insists she knows better. But trouble comes along with dragons too, and perhaps this one is more trouble than he’s worth. Perhaps.
Moore uses the engaging second-person point of view, referring to the reader as “you.” It draws you directly into the story and gives it a strong and inviting structure as well. The story moves quickly from one moment to the next, which creates a vibrant feel to the story. It’s a story that speaks to the power of imagination in creating a special time.
McWilliam’s art has a cinematic quality to it that children will immediately respond to. He captures emotions on faces with comedic skill. This is a refreshing style to have in a children’s book because it closely mimics what they see in films. It’s a friendly and lovely thing to see.
A great beach read, this will have children scrambling to get their castles up and welcoming to dragons. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Flashlight Press.
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A Good Knight’s Rest by Shelley Moore Thomas, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas
The Good Knight has had a very busy day of saving princesses and even rescuing a cat from a tree. He is worn out and weary and decides to go on vacation. When he goes to say goodbye to the dragons, they ask if they can come with him. Being the good knight he is, the Good Knight agrees to bring them along. As they travel, the dragons have them stop again and again to stretch and use the bushes. Each time, the knight does not want to stop but ends up finding a peaceful spot. Just when he starts to relax, the dragons want to leave again. So it goes again and again until finally the dragons realize that the knight really needs some rest and they solve the problem perfectly.
I have long enjoyed the Good Knight series with its gracious and patient Good Knight and the three rambunctious dragons. This book works particularly well with its strong structure, repetition and the ending that will have everyone smiling. Thomas writes with a great touch for pacing and an ear for repetition so that it adds to the humor and the tone of the book.
Plecas’ art is bright, colorful and engaging. Readers will be able to visually see the Good Knight getting more and more tired as they continue their travels. The wide-eyed dragons are never frightening, rather they are child-like and goofy.
A great book to take on your own summer vacation or to share at naptime or bedtime. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Dutton Children’s Books.