Autumn and her family are servants at the Inglenook School, a magical boarding school for wizards. Her family cares for the magical monsters in the menagerie, including plant-loving gardening dragons, wisps who need to be clubbed before they are gathered up, and a grumpy Boggart who loves Autumn more than anyone. But Autumn has a mystery to solve, her twin brother Winter disappeared almost a year ago, and she is certain that he isn’t dead. The Boggart spotted him in the school kitchens, but she is not allowed to venture much into the school itself. Meanwhile, Cai Morrigan, the boy prophesized to one day kill the Hollow Dragon, needs Autumn’s help. It turns out that he is terrified of dragons to the point that he can’t stay conscious around them. The deal is that he must help her find Winter while she helps him stop fainting dead away. Now the two of them must search the school and discover hidden parts while also entering the dangerous forest and dealing with dragons big and small.
It is inevitable that people will compare this to Harry Potter due to the magical boarding school at its center, but this middle-grade fantasy novel is something quite different. With a broad sense of humor about monsters, posh wizards, and older brothers, the book also takes on serious subjects like discrimination against different magics, the treatment of those who are different, and one girl’s determination to find her brother no matter what.
The characters are marvelously written. From the powerful and gruff Gran who raises Autumn and her siblings to the brothers who are both heroic and terrible to the family dog who just knows everyone loves him to the dark Boggart who loves deeply and hates to use his full powers. There are monstrous delights throughout the book, the creatures beautifully detailed and fascinating.
A grand fantasy full of twists, magic and mucking out stalls. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
From the dawn of World War II through the course of the war, four young people grow up. There is Ruby, born with speckled birthmarks on her face, who is bullied for them and spends much of her time alone or in her family’s British news shop. There is Kate, who has a constant cough and anxiety and who is looked after by her older siblings until they have to leave the house. In Germany, Erik and Hans grow up as best friends living in the same building. They tend to swallow chicks together, dream of working in a zoo and pastry shop, and spend time at the airfield. As the war progresses and the Nazis take over, they become part of the Luftwaffe. The girls are also impacted by the war, rescuing a dog who has been released by his owner, moving to safer areas due to the bombing, and helping neighbors understand what is happening in Europe. Both the English and German characters have loving uncles who appear in their lives, fix things and set things up and then disappear again. As these characters survive the war, their lives impact upon one another in tragic and unexpected ways.
I am a great fan of McKay’s work. Her writing takes on serious issues yet she manages to truly show the deep humanity of all of her characters through small memorable moments that impact their lives. It may be a wild and drunken Christmas that ends with a crash, it may be saving a diminutive elderly woman with fierceness and physical strength, it may be rescuing a very smelly dog from the streets, or it could be visiting with women who have staunch victory gardens and a tendency toward hoarding. Each one of these is so well written and described that the scenes are vivid and the moments uniquely special.
The characters themselves are also beautifully written, each with their own tone and style. It is particularly noteworthy to have two German characters from World War II who retain their humor and humanity through the entire story. They are written with a deep empathy for the situation of the German people during the Nazi regime and an eye towards also showing that families did what they could to save neighbors. The English girls are a delightful mix of bravery, steadiness and wild adventures that keep the book lighter than it could have been.
Another gorgeous read from McKay, this time illuminating both sides of World War II. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Borders by Thomas King, illustrated by Natasha Donovan (9780316593069)
When his older sister decides to move to Salt Lake City, a boy and his mother take her to the border between Canada and the U.S. His mother decided one day to make the trip to Utah to visit. They got dressed up and ready to leave the Blackfoot reserve. When they reached the border though, his mother refused to say that she was Canadian, giving her citizenship as Blackfoot. Caught between two countries, refusing to deny her true citizenship, the boy is caught with her as they demonstrate the power of their identity and family.
Written by an award-winning author of Cherokee and Greek descent, the graphic novel is illustrated by a well-known Métis illustrator. The book insists that readers see Native identity and recognize it as valid in a way that neither country is willing to. The story is immensely uncomfortable as readers wait for a resolution to come along with the boy and his mother. There is a brilliance to this discomfort, allowing readers to sit with it and learn.
The illustrations honest and simple, portraying the love among the family, even when his sister leaves for the United States. The focus on the people allows the illustrations to move beyond the desolate border and into the people being impacted.
An important middle-grade graphic novel that will inspire thought and discussion. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Addie is neurodivergent just like her older sister. She has had good luck with teachers at school until she gets Ms. Murphy, who clearly doesn’t appreciate having Addie in her class. Meanwhile, Addie’s previous best friend has found someone else to be friends with, a girl that bullies Addie constantly. The new girl in class though clearly wants to be Addie’s friend and is also willing to stand up and defend her. As Addie navigates friendship and school, she learns of her village’s history of witch trials and the women who were killed. She is determined to have a memorial created for the women who were killed, many of whom were likely different from the norm, just like Addie and her sister.
Written by a neurodivergent author, this middle grade novel won the Peter Blue Book Award for Best Story of the Year. It is clear to see why. This portrayal of being autistic is filled with compassion and empathy, but also doesn’t apologize for being different instead pointing out how important different perspectives and voices are. Written in the first person from Addie’s point of view, readers get to understand how it feels to need to control autistic behaviors and the toll it takes.
Addie explains directly how it feels to be autistic, how it is to have to suppress stimulation behaviors, and what having a meltdown feels like to the person having one. This book offers everyone a way to see underneath autistic presentation to the person underneath who has so much to say and contribute. This is done simply by allowing us inside Addie to deeply understand her as a human.
A compelling look inside autism and activism. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Crown Books for Young Readers.
Garlic works at the farm market with the other living vegetables brought to life by the witch. Garlic tends to stressed and anxious, and is even more so when she accidentally sleeps in again on market day. The next day, the witch encourages Garlic to try using some magic to get her garlic to grow, encouraging Garlic to look beyond helping her in the garden too. But Garlic doesn’t want adventures at all, she’s much happier staying on the farm. So when a vampire moves into the abandoned castle nearby, it seems that Garlic is exactly the right one to send to get rid of him. After all, vampires can’t abide garlic.
This debut graphic novel for children is a look at anxiety and stress, all in one garlicky wrapper. With one bully on the farm to contend with, Garlic can’t seem to see the kindness of the others around her, instead getting fretful, sleeping too much, and doubting her own abilities. When she is sent on her mission, she finds her footing and eventually takes care of it in her own special way, making the ending satisfying on multiple levels.
The art style is unique and is something that will draw readers into the story. It has a great vintage feel to it from the classic vampire to the vegetables themselves. The humanoid veggies are marvelous characters, their emotions clear on both their faces and in their body language. The book plays characters that one might be afraid of against their tropes, showing dimensions to them in inventive ways both in the storyline and in the images.
A cozy graphic novel full of witches and vampires. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Quill Tree Books.
In 1990s Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, girls were being kidnapped from the streets, so Anamaria’s parents were very careful about where she was in the city and what she was doing. She spends most of her time studying and trying to get top rank in her class at a private middle school, since she plans to be a doctor. Then one day, a limping woman who claims to be Anamaria from the future arrives to change the past. She is by turns frightening, cheesy and just plain strange. The woman also says that she is a poet, not a doctor, something that Anamaria can’t even comprehend. She also insists that Anamaria needs help and needs to change the way she is living and get help.
The wild title and cover lead readers to an exploration of depression and overwork in young people in schools. Written in verse, the book also shows the power of being willing to take a chance and find a way to express yourself in poetry and words. Varela chillingly captures the smallness of Varela’s world, a toxic trudge of schoolwork and messed up friendships and working for her parents. Even as everyone works to protect her from the dangers of the streets, they are unaware that the real danger may be invisible and inside Anamaria herself.
The writing here is marvelous. Varela shows how halting first attempts at poetry grow into true self expression and a way to release internal pressures. Anamaria shows herself to be deep and thoughtful, far more interesting than the girl striving to beat everyone at school. The author uses clever poetic formats to transform larger poems into something altogether different and drawings combined with words to create apologies and new connections.
A deep delve into depression and the power of poetry. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Cinco Puntos Press.
The author of The Story That Cannot Be Told returns with her second book for middle-grade readers. Essie is scared of a lot of things, so many things that she keeps a list of the things that scare her like cats, electric lights, closets, darkness, and doors. Her mother has remarried after the death of Essie’s father and the two move from where they live in poverty in the Bronx to North Brother Island where Essie’s new stepfather runs a hospital for those with incurable contagious diseases. Of course, Essie is also terrified of disease, and is particularly worried when she learns that Typhoid Mary is a resident of the island. Once on the island, Essie starts to see a girl her age and have nightmares about the red door that leads to the attic, which is just like the one that she has seen in her dreams for years. Essie must follow the clues to see if her new stepfather is conducting horrible experiments on his patients and who the girl is, a process that will force Essie to face all of her fears.
This historical novel for middle-grade readers is a fascinating look at contagious diseases in the past. It is given particular weight given the Covid pandemic, adding to the tension and fears of the book. The setting of North Brother Island plays a large part in the story, giving it a gothic loneliness, foreboding mists, and a marvelous creepiness both due to its landscape and to its purpose as a quarantine hospital.
Essie is a character who changes and grows as the book progresses. At first entirely paralyzed by irrational fears, she slowly reveals the grief and reasons behind her frights. Her willingness to face a ghost along the way, plays against her fearfulness and shows exactly who she is without her shame and grief clouding her world. It’s a complex rendering of a character that is immensely satisfying as she untangles the mystery she finds herself in.
A creepy and ghost-filled read that also offers historical context of our current pandemic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Yevgeny only seems to disappoint his parents who are rather desperate for him to find a natural gift that will let him escape Soviet Russia. They already know he’s not much of an athlete, unlike his older brother who is going to be a famous ice skater. When his mother takes him to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance, Yevgeny tries to become a ballet dancer, practicing the movements in their tiny shared apartment. But what he truly loves to do is draw. Since he sleeps under the huge table, he steals his father’s pencil and draws on the bottom of the table where no one can see. Could those small doodles be the talent that his family has been waiting for? And what about the KGB agent who lives down the hall? And what happened to the grandfather whose pictures have been removed from the family album and no one speaks about? There are so many questions to be answered, but Yevgeny must be willing to start insisting on answers.
In this hilarious and touching book for middle grade readers, Yelchin shares a memoir of his own childhood in Russia during the Cold War. Yevgeny is a wonderful naïve protagonist, who doesn’t understand the immense political and social pressures hovering over his family and the entire Russian people. His misunderstandings of this and his growing desire for answers add tension to the story as readers will understand far more than he does.
As Yevgeny covers the bottom of the table with drawings, readers are shown Yelchin’s illustrations of his family and others in his life. They are humorous and filled with a wry charm that shows Yevgeny’s point of view.
Filled with an honesty about life in Cold War Russia, family expectations, and one gifted child. Appropriate for ages 9-12.