Emma and the Blue Genie by Cornelia Funke, illustrations by Kerstin Meyer
Emma often spends her nights out by the sea with her dog, away from her pesky brothers. One night she finds a bottle floating in the waves and opens it to discover Karim, a very small blue genie inside. Karim has had most of his magic stolen away when Sarim, the huge yellow genie, stole his nose ring and trapped him in the bottle. Now Karim has to head back to avenge himself and to save the kingdom from the evil rule of Sarim. Emma decides to go with him and she sets off aboard his magic carpet for the kingdom of Barakash. There, she is quickly caught up in the battle against Sarim, but once he sees her yellow hair, he immediately takes her prisoner. There’s not much that a girl can do to escape from an evil genie who keeps you in a cage, but all is not lost when you have a blue genie and a brave dog on your side!
Funke has written a wonderfully original book for young readers. The Middle Eastern setting comes alive as Emma walks through the busy castle on her way to see the young king. Funke incorporates many references to the desert into people’s vernacular, even more firmly setting this book in a specific place. Emma is a great female character, filled with plenty of gumption and not scared of much. She doesn’t shrink away from anything in the book, enjoying flying on a magic carpet, seeing new places and having wild adventures.
The illustrations are in full color and add a lot of life to the book. Used differently from one page to the next, they add a dynamic piece to the book design. The differences between the two genies could not be more clearly shown, with the calm blue and the wild yellow. Meyer also manages to show the opulence without things becoming too busy and overwhelming for the eye.
Fun and original, this book will share aloud well with a class and will be an inviting pick for children reading chapter books. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Random House Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
Hunters of the Great Forest by Dennis Nolan
Released October 28, 2014
This wordless picture book is the story of a group of hunters who head out from their small village one day and into the forest. Bringing only a handful of items with them, the group must face large rocks, mountains and enormous trees. It quickly becomes apparent that the hunters are tiny people as they are forced to run from buzzing dragonflies and then from a hungry toad. After escaping those creatures, the hunters must then flee from a bird and a chipmunk. Sneaking out later from their hiding place, the hunters discover a girl sitting by a campfire roasting marshmallows. But even though they have food to bring back to their village, the dangers are not over for our intrepid group of hunters.
Wonderfully detailed pictures make this a spectacular picture book to share. The journey of the hunters makes for a page-turning delight filled with dangers, mishaps and surprises. If you pay close attention to the illustrations, some of the surprises can be predicted with clues about the next page. For example, you can see the toad’s legs in the corner of the page before the toad is fully revealed after the page turn. This makes for a book that reads as a continual stream of story, rather than individual images strung into a story.
I applaud Nolan for including plenty of little female hunters on the journey as well. There are young and old little people too. And even better, if you watch, it is not the women who need rescuing on the journey. In fact, the older of the little women carries the spear the entire journey and seems ready to use it at times.
Join the hunters on their quest for the elusive marshmallows in this journey through a forest filled with dangers of all sorts. It’s a jolly read that is sure to please. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen
Gabriel is a 12-year-old who loves riddles, he collects them and loves puzzling over them, just like his father did. But his father has disappeared, leaving Gabriel behind in the care of his loving aunt. Outside the house, Gabriel is unaware of the raven’s nest and the little raven growing up in it. Paladin is a special raven though, one that is destined to have a magical bond with Gabriel, but only if he can survive the attacks upon him. Owls hunt ravens for food, but worse are the valravens, creatures who serve Corax, a half-man, half-raven. As Gabriel learns more about his father and his family’s special relationship with ravens, he is drawn into a quest that will lead him and his friends into the underground world of Aviopolis to confront Corax and save his father.
Inventive and unique, this middle-grade fantasy novel is something special. Gabriel is an interesting protagonist, cautious with the friends he makes and living in a world where magic is suddenly part of his life. He adapts quickly but believably to what is happening and responds with bravery but also curiosity. He and his friends have a variety of skills, and they all nicely come into play during their adventures. There are other characters who may be friends or not, they are written with a wonderful ambiguity that is allowed to be unresolved for a long time, adding richness to the tale.
Hagen has added a lot of depth to her novel with his creation of a raven society where they test one another to see if they are valravens with riddles. Valravens don’t care for humor, so they are easily identified opposed to the merry ravens. Much to my delight, it is revealed later in the book that owls love puns. So the book is filled with wordplay, a grand element of the plot.
A vibrant mix of riddles, adventure and animal tale, this book is definitely one worth discovering. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.
The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Two masters of the fantasy genre come together to create a strong new series for middle graders. Call was raised by his father to fear the Magisterium and magic itself. When he accidentally split the sidewalk wide open with his powers as a child, his father was not pleased. So when Call is required to go through testing for entering the Magisterium, he makes a plan to fail. But the tests are not what he expected at all and soon he is entering the dreaded Magisterium, a place where he believes people are imprisoned against their will and killed for the sake of magic. As Call joins the students, he finds himself making friends for the first time in his life. But all is not what it seems, even for the nightmares that Call has thought up. It is the ultimate battle of good and evil, but not in the way you’d ever expect.
Black and Clare play with similarities with the Harry Potter series, since theirs is also set in a school for magic. But the magic here is different, as is the school itself. Call too is no Harry, being a prickly and unusual protagonist who is at times quite nicely unlikeable. This book is also set during a magical war, one that is actively being waged. There are tests that are literally as dull as dirt, others that have the students battling elementals, and then there is a student who tries to escape the school.
Black and Clare have great pacing throughout the book. They have also created a very strong setting with the book, the school has a feeling of eternity about it, though we also know that Call is somehow very special. It is that specialness that makes the book’s twists work so well. They are completely surprising, shocking even. In a genre like this where readers will come to it with a certain jadedness, it is great to read a book with that kind of zapping electrical charge.
Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy both the differences and similarities here, though readers of Percy Jackson will also find themselves right at home. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Scholastic and NetGalley.
Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
The final book in the Grisha trilogy, this is an amazing ending to an incredible series. After her failed battle with the Darkling, Alina has been hiding in the White Cathedral, slowing healing from the damage of the fight. But Alina has lost much of her power and must rely on trickery to display the light of the Sun Summoner. She is surrounded by those who believe her to be a saint, but also by those who would control her for their own means. It is soon time for Alina to escape, but in her battered body and mind, planning such a thing is insurmountable. Luckily, she still has some of her faithful friends around her, who are only too pleased to free her and themselves from the protection of the Cathedral. Now Alina must figure out how to find the final amplifier that will allow her to complete the set and access her full power. But the Darkling is still hunting her, and he will not stop until she is under his control.
This is one of those books that you read at breakneck pace, turning the pages quickly. Bardugo has created such a rich world in this series that it is one that is hard to leave behind, and when you do it continues to call to you as a reader to finish the story. Mixing Russian aspects into the story makes this very unique, but she also has a world that has its own rules, ones that make sense and hold true throughout the books.
Rife with romance, the book also offers different choices in future lives to Alina. There is the ever-steady Mal who is the only one who can track the final amplifier for Alina. There is the prince who is charming and funny, giving Alina freedom but also making her a queen. And of course, there is the choice of the Darkling himself, destructive and evil but so alluring. Alina is a wondrous mix of delicacy and steel. She is a stunning heroine.
Make sure to start this trilogy from the beginning, but also make sure to read it through to this riveting, dark and sun-streaked ending. Pure bliss! Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Fire Wish by Amber Lough
The war between the jinnis and the humans has been going on for years. Najwa is a young jinni who is being specially trained in covert operations and visiting the human world. Zayele is a human, selected to marry a prince whom she’s never met. When the two of them meet, Zayele makes a wish on Najwa and switches their places. Now Zayele is the jinni, living among other jinnis in the crystal caves under the earth and Najwa is the human, heading for marriage to a prince. The two must keep themselves secret, both knowing that they will be killed by the people around them if they are discovered. But war and love make everything more complicated and the two discover secrets about themselves and their worlds that will change everything.
Lough’s debut novel is the first in a series. It intelligently combines the author’s experience in the deserts of the Middle East with the fantasy elements of jinnis and wishes. The setting is vividly depicted, both the crystal caverns of the jinnis with the lakes of dancing flame and the desert world of the humans are well drawn. The differing cultures juxtapose clearly against one another, each with different freedoms and neither considered wrong or right. There is a lot of respect for cultures in this novel.
The two main protagonists are also nicely different from one another. While Najwa is a character who is very likeable and easily related to, Zayele serves as her foil. Najwa worries more for her entire people while Zayele makes choices that focus more on herself and her situation. Neither character would completely work without the other there too and both display nice and natural growth as the story progresses. The book also has an element of romance to it, it too is handled with a natural pace and progression.
A strong debut book that is a tantalizing blend of romance, magic and wishes. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke
The author of Zita the Spacegirl has created his first picture book and it has all of the charm and zip one would expect. Julia lives in a house carried on the back of a turtle. They arrive on a quiet beach by the sea where Julia quickly settles in, but it is far too quiet. So Julia makes a sign that says “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.” She didn’t have to wait long before something is at the door, and then more and more creatures. Soon she has a house full of odd beasts, including a dripping troll, a patchwork cat, a dragon, a ghost, and a mermaid. Things quickly get out of hand as they all make themselves at home. Now Julia needs another plan, and maybe another sign or two.
Hatke’s jaunty protagonist is what makes this book work. She moves quickly and with plenty of determination and is filled with ideas. One can almost see her thinking on the page. Perhaps the best part of the book is when she becomes overwhelmed and has to rethink. The book has been galloping along and then pauses as Julia does, slowing to a pace that lets one catch their breath. It’s a wonderfully done moment just like many others in the book.
Told very simply, the book relies nicely on the illustrations to show much of the action rather than the text explaining it. This makes for a very readable picture book, but also one that is better for lap reading than for a group. Listeners will want to look closely at the page even before the amazing creatures fill them.
An exceptional picture book debut, one hopes that Hatke keeps created both picture books and graphic novels for children. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel
Will found his first adventure when he headed out into the wilderness on a train to see his father after the transcontinental railroad was completed. Will not only got to witness the final golden spike being driven but got to finish driving it in himself! After the ceremony though, disaster struck with an avalanche that took Will and his father along with it. They survived despite the large amount of snow and being attacked by sasquatches. Now a few years later, Will and his father are aboard the Boundless, the most amazing train ever created. Will’s father is no longer a laborer, instead working as an engineer aboard the train where Will will be riding first class. The train carries with it a circus as well as thousands of people riding in different classes. But there is also danger aboard the train and it’s headed right for Will.
Oppel, the author of Airborn, has created a great adventure aboard a marvelous train. The train itself is incredible from its sheer size to the number of people aboard. The descriptions of each class of the train are done with an attention to detail and to the feeling of each area, each one significantly different from the others. This setting is richly drawn and used as a clever device to keep the plot moving and also to isolate Will and the others from help.
Will is a fine protagonist. He is brave, somewhat bored, artistically gifted and living a surprising life. Through it all he shows a spunk and willingness to throw himself into life, exactly the thing that his father despairs of him ever having. The other characters are also well drawn: the villains are horrifically awful, Will’s companions are complicated and have their own motivations that are revealed as the book progresses.
This is top-notch adventure writing set on a moving train traveling across a world filled with monsters, many of which are human. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
The first book in a trilogy, this fantasy is dark and marvelously filled with monsters. Rye has grown up in the worst part of Village Drowning. Her mother owns a shop in the market section of town where Rye helps out. Together with her two best friends, Rye begins to piece together the story of her family and her father. It all has to do with the monstrous Bog Noblins, creatures that are considered extinct but that Rye is convinced have returned to the village. The problem is that the only people who can defend the village against the monsters are the illegal Luck Uglies, a troupe of villains who had been driven from the village and are considered just as evil as the monsters. But all is not what it seems in Village Drowning as Rye is soon to discover.
Durham has crafted a fabulous fantasy for middle-grade readers. The book is filled with moments of real fear and true danger, making it ideal for that age. It also has plenty of humor along the way, usually involving Rye’s friends and family, allowing a lightness in the novel that is very appealing in such a dark novel. Durham has created a world in this book that is unique and fascinating but also pays homage to more traditional tales. This book slips neatly into European tales of monsters and goblins, yet still manages to be telling its own story.
Rye is a wonderful heroine. She is bright and inquisitive and immensely brave particularly when someone she loves is in danger. At the same time she is fully human, frightened at times, holding on tight to her own viewpoint, and learning to trust too. She is certainly not without flaws, but she is immensely likeable and exactly the person you want when the Bog Noblins return.
Dark, dangerous and delightful, this book is a strong new fantasy series for middle-grade readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.