Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
Released March 1, 2015.
This sequel to The Story of Owen continues the dragon-slaying adventures of Siobhan and Owen. Upon graduating from high school, Owen joins the Oil Watch, the international organization that trains dragon slayers and their support teams to fight a variety of different dragons. Despite the damage to her hands, Siobhan manages to qualify to join the Oil Watch too, the first bard in a long time to do so. They must first survive basic training, designed to get them working as a team and Siobhan has the added problem of figuring out a role for a bard in a situation where it is about killing dragons, putting out fires, and tending medical emergencies. As their basic training ends, the dragon slayers are sent all over the world to where they are needed most. But the Canadian government has not forgiven Owen for what happened and their posting is not one that will forge a new dragon slaying hero. That is unless Siobhan can create the songs and stories that tell a different story.
With writing just as fresh and engaging as the first book, this new novel is superb. It builds upon the first novel, returning us to that wonderful world of alternate history with a modern Canada and North America awash in dragon fire. Johnston continues to show her prowess is rewriting history and filling it with dragons as well as creating a new Canada and United States with boundaries that shift and politics that are complexly drawn.
At its heart always though is the intense friendship of Siobhan and Owen, a bard and her dragon slayer, a musician and her muse. Johnston continues as she did in the first book to create a story that is not about romance but instead two complicated people who care deeply for one another as friends. Again, there is no kissing between the two and no longing glances either. It makes for a refreshing change.
A riveting read with a powerful ending that I am working hard not to spoil in the least. This novel is beautifully written, bravely done and purely epic. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Carolrhoda Books.
The Dragon and the Knight by Robert Sabuda
This new pop up book by Sabuda, a master of the form, is very child friendly. While I admired his remakes of the classics like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, those books spoke more to adults than to children. This new book is perfect to share aloud with a child who will enjoy a romp through different fairy tales. A knight starts chasing a dragon through different stories including Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood. Each page opens to a different scene that pops open showing the characters of the story created out of the pages of their book. Entirely clever, quick reading and worthy of revisiting again and again.
Sabuda’s art in creating pop up designs will astound young readers. Two pages in particularly are stunning. There is the entire gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel that pops into being in 3D complete with awnings, windows, door and chimney. Another amazing page is Little Red Riding Hood where the trees pop into a woods that has different dimensions and lots of height. Readers will also enjoy the little reveal at the end as the knight takes off HER helmet.
As always, pop up books aren’t really for very small children, but this is one of those that could be shared carefully with preschoolers who will love the detail and the incredible joy of the format. Appropriate for ages 4-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
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.