Review: The Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi

The Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi

The Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi (9780802855091)

In this wordless picture book, a barbarian mounts his horse and proceeds across a series of challenges and obstacles. They leap a crevasse, are attacked by a flock of birds, jump a pit of snakes, dodge arrows, avoid orcs and much more. Page after page is a new obstacle and the little barbarian blithely marching, leaping or galloping across the page. Children who enjoy fantasy creatures will love this barbarian who faces the challenges with his eyes closed and sword and shield raised. When the truth is revealed at the end of the book, everyone will want another ride.

There is plenty of space for young imaginations to fill in the stories. That is probably the best part of this. I don’t expect the book to read particularly quickly with small children, who will want to supply monster noises, sword crashes and heroic details to the tale. Still, the oblivious way the barbarian crosses the pages is quite funny. The high and low paths the barbarian takes make perfect sense at the end of the book with the twist. The illustrations are humorous, colorful and filled with imagination, making the book entirely compelling.

A delight of a wordless read, this is one that children with their own toy swords will love. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older (9781338268812)

Magdalys Roca lives at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York during the year 1863. It is a different world than the one we know, with dinosaurs still roaming the earth. While on a field trip to see a theater performance, riots break out in New York City. Magdalys and her fellow orphans are caught in the situation. As she helps her fellow orphans survive, Magdalys discovers that she has a strange ability to communicate with the dinosaurs around her. Discovering that the orphanage has been destroyed in the riots, Magdalys and several other orphans are taken in by New York freedom fighters in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood where people of color have created a place of safety. Magdalys and her friends are soon involved in saving the other children from being taken into slavery.

Based loosely on real history, this novel has just enough historical reality to keep it grounded. Add in the dinosaurs and you have a wonderful novel of alternative history that will keep children enthralled. The pace is fast and becomes almost wild during fight and battle scenes. The children face real horrors of slavery, including a lynching, mobs of people intent of capturing or killing them, and a network of men working to send free people into bondage. The setting of a historical New York City is deftly woven into the story line as well.

It’s not often that you have children’s fantasy books that offer alternative takes on history. It is even more rare that those books have children of color as the main characters in the novel. Magdalys is a great heroine, full of bravery and a sense of purpose as she joins those trying to change the world. She is a natural leader though she views herself as a loner, something that others won’t allow her to be.

A rip-roaring read that will have children longing for a dactyl to ride. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Review: Deadendia: The Watcher’s Test by Hamish Steele

Deadendia The Watcher's Test by Hamish Steele

Deadendia: The Watcher’s Test by Hamish Steele (9781910620472)

Barney has just gotten a job as the janitor at the Dead End theme park in the haunted house. His best friend Norma works there too. But Dead End is not just a haunted house, it’s much more a portal to literal hell. There are visiting demons, some of them friendly like Courtney who serves as an ambassador and others terrifyingly evil and powerful like Temeluchus. Temeluchus is the demon that Barney and Norma defeat in the early part of the book, who ends up possessing Pugsley, Barney’s dog. Pugsley gains magical powers and the ability to speak. Soon the three of them discover the dangers of running a portal to hell but also manage to work on their love lives along the way.

Steele has created one of the zaniest, twistiest and most demonic graphic novels around. The novel is a collection of his web comics and sometimes starting a new chapter is rather like starting a new story. That’s not a complaint, because it suits the spirit of the book but those looking for a more linear tale will find themselves confused at times. Just go with it!

The diversity here is very strongly represented. Barney is a transgender character and the book deals with this in an upfront way and also allows readers to see glimpses of Barney’s past. Perhaps the best part is the love storyline for Barney and Logs, though I also appreciate his friendship with Norma who is equally enjoyable, strong and multidimensional, sometimes literally.

A graphic novel for teens that has enough demons, laughter and romance to entice anyone. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Sweep by Jonathan Auxier (9780735264359)

Released September 25, 2018.

Nan Sparrow is one of the only girls working in London as a chimney sweep and she’s one of the best that ever climbed a chimney. She works for a brute of a master who pits her against the other top sweep, dangling an apprenticeship in front of them both. The work they do is dangerous with possible falls, and tight spaces where children can get trapped. Even skilled Nan can get stuck and one day that happens to her and the chimney is set ablaze. As she burns alive, Nan is rescued by a mysterious creature, a tiny char she has been carrying in her pocket that was left behind for her by the Sweep, a magical man who cared for her as a baby and child until he disappeared. Nan and her creature live together away from everyone since they all think she died in the fire. They build a family with one another until the time comes for Nan to stand up for chimney sweeps throughout London.

My goodness, this book is remarkable. I loved the London that Auxier has created for us with all of its Victorian charms. He peels away the charming veneer though and shows us the brutality of child labor, the dangers and the cruelty of chimney sweeping in particular. He blends his fantastic golem into this world, adding a fantasy element to a world that desperately needs some magic to brighten it. Without Charlie, the golem, this book would have been too hard and cold to bear. The same goes for the Sweep, who filled Nan’s early years with care and love.

Nan is a remarkable heroine who is witty, intelligent and caring. She has a wonderfully tough exterior that allows only a few people inside her real life. And yet, she gathers an amazing group of people who care for her and she for them. Throughout the book, Auxier warns readers that Charlie will be leaving eventually and readers will see him start to change through the story. Still, even with that warning, expect the heartbreak of the end of Charlotte’s Web as you read the final chapters. Have tissues at hand.

A new children’s classic that reveals the dark underworld of London and the incredible magic of making your own family, monsters and all. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Puffin Books.

 

Review: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (9780763698225)

Released September 25, 2018.

The goblins and elves have found peace after a long war. Brangwain Spurge, an elf who studies goblin history, is catapulted into the goblin kingdom to deliver a gift to the strange being who rules the goblins. He is hosted there by Werfel, a goblin who studies elven history. Werfel is delighted to host Spurge, but that soon changes as Spurge is cantankerous, judgmental and hates everything goblin. He even detests an elven feast put on in his honor. Werfel also discovers that Brangwain is actually a spy, sending messages in images back to the elves. As the political intrigue grows, readers discover that Spurge is being used by his own government to start a new war, one that the elves will have the upper hand in thanks to duping him. But never doubt the ability of Spurge to ruin a solid plan!

What a pairing of master storytellers! Anderson writes the clever text, showing Werfel’s point of view and delighting in the slapstick comedy moments, the clashing of two cultures, and the dangers of hosting a guest. Meanwhile, Yelchin tells Spurge’s side of the tale through sly images alone, depicting what Spurge is sending back to the elves. The tales of course do not match and yet the also work together to tell a more complete story of misunderstandings, biases and prejudice more fully than words ever could.

The political pieces of the tale are particularly well drawn, showing how forces at work are not really in charge but may just be playground bullies who are being bullied themselves. The focus on differences and similarities is cleverly crafted into the story with the finale strengthening the connection and leaving no doubt that change is possible.

A timely look at political intrigue and getting beyond what holds us apart with plenty of humor to make it a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: Otherwood by Pete Hautman

Otherwood by Pete Hautman

Otherwood by Pete Hautman (9780763690717)

After Grandpa Zach died in the storm, pages of his book strewn around him, Stuey and his mother packed his writing up and put it all away. Grandpa Zach had told Stuey that ghosts walk on the golf course that has now become an overgrown wood. It was where Stuey’s great grandfather disappeared along with the district attorney who was prosecuting him. The two were never seen again. Now when Stuey and his best friend Elly Rose go into the deadfall of trees that seems to form a sort of castle or ship in the woods, they hear voices and music. Stuey has even seen a figure like his grandfather appear. When Elly Rose disappears one day right before Stuey’s eyes, no one believes him. But Elly Rose is gone though Stuey can occasionally still make contact with her. It seems she has entered a different reality where Stuey is the one who vanished. In this splintered new world, how can the two of them restore their own reality?

Hautman beautifully combines a mystery with a ghost story with quantum physics in this ode to a woods. The woods itself, the overgrown golf course, is as much a character here as the two children. It is a woods from all of our childhoods, one that seems far larger than it actually is, one that invites you in, scares you a bit, and releases you back into reality. Hautman cleverly uses the woods as the way that people vanish, that hatred is fought and that people take a stand.

Stuey and Elly Rose are unlikely friends which makes the book all the better. Stuey has suffered great loss in his life with only his mother left. He is surrounded by his grandfather’s home and his grandfather’s secrets. Elly Rose is imaginative, playful and a bit bossy, deciding what games they will play together. Still, they are fast friends even as their reality splits apart around them.

Smart and sophisticated, this middle grade novel is a dynamic mix of fantasy and science. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

 

Review: The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee (9781452149868)

Released August 28, 2018

After their parents made an Agreement with Death, the Vickery twins had to live with it. It meant that Felix had to serve Death alongside his father, witnessing healing and dying every day. Felix was not allowed to go to school and could not ever see his mother. His father could not see his brother Lee or his mother ever again. Lee in turn lived with his mother on the other side of the house serving Memory. He took bottled memories, labeled them and placed them on shelves. Both brothers had errands in Poplar Wood, Lee to dispense of the memories and Felix to gather herbs. Their life was terrible but steady until Gretchen entered it, determined to figure out how Essie was killed. From a family of Summoners, Gretchen is second born and unable to conduct the Rites. Still, she insists on untangling what is happening in their small town as Death, Memory and Passion let their rivalry get out of hand.

Just writing that summary demonstrates how unique this book is, yet it also plays with existing myths about shades and summoning. The book makes Death, Memory and Passion into figures that are non-human but still have human desires like revenge and dominance. The book is constructed so that the reader learns more about this fictional world alongside the characters. Each brother knows separate elements and Gretchen brings her own understanding of the other part of the relationships with Shades to the book. The organic way that it plays out via the story itself makes it immensely satisfying.

The characters are definitely worth noting as well. Gretchen is the most compelling character. She is wonderfully curious, prickly and determined. There is no way to tell her no that she will accept and her tenacity drives the story forward. The two brothers are unique from one another as well, one who goes to public school and the other who doesn’t. Their lives are as different as can be, each raised by not only one parent but also influenced deeply by the Shade too. These factors play out in their personalities in a way that is subtle but also clear.

A great fantasy Gothic novel with a mystery at its heart. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.

 

Review: The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr (9781452159584)

When Grisha was a young dragon still learning of the dangers of the world, he is trapped by a magician into the shape of a teapot. He spends decades trapped in that form, decorating the rooms of the emperor and then joining the household of a small family. Luckily, the father of the family knows how to see magic and realizes what Grisha is. When Grisha is finally released from the spell, he is sent to Vienna to join the rest of the world’s dragons there. It is now after World War II and Grisha is one of the lucky dragons who still walks the streets of the city. He meets a very special little girl, Maggie, and they become close friends. But when Grisha starts to remember what happened to the other dragons, the two feel compelled to try to solve the puzzle and rescue the surviving dragons from the magic that binds them. But at what cost?

Weyr has written a very unique fantasy novel for children that is firmly grounded in the real city of Vienna and world history, but adds dragons and other magic as a vibrant layer on top of that foundation. The world building is cleverly done, meshing history and fantasy into something new and very special. The story is accompanied by illustrations done in black and white that are like small framed windows into the story.

The characters of Grisha and Maggie are compelling. Grisha is immediately fascinating partly because he is a dragon who isn’t quite sure of how a dragon should act. Maggie is a character who has grown up very lonely and then makes one of the best friends ever. Throughout the story there is an air of tragedy, of lost years, of forgotten tragedies. This melancholy only grows larger as the end of the book nears. I recommend having a few tissues on hand.

Beautiful, haunting and tragic, this is a special fantasy for young readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

3 Deep and Watery Picture Books

Aquarium by Cynthia Alonso

Aquarium by Cynthia Alonso (9781452168753)

A little girl heads down to the dock near the water to watch the fish, dreaming of one day swimming alongside many fish at the same time. When a small orange fish jumps out of the water, she catches it in a water bottle and runs home with it. With a black hose, lots of containers, and plants, she creates a new watery space for the fish. When she swims along with the little fish in her pool though, the fish jumps out into a puddle. In that moment, the girl decides to return the fish to the sea.

This wordless picture book beautifully explores a little girl’s connection to nature and her own desire to be part of it and have a piece of it for herself. Through the images, one knows that the little girl means no harm, only to celebrate the fish and her connection to it. Still, readers will know that it will be a problem if the fish is kept from his home for too long. The illustrations are full of the blues of the sea which contrasts with the rest of the scenery that is left barely sketched and uncolored. It is water that really brings the book alive, combined with trees and rushes. A beautiful look at connecting with nature by preserving it. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.)

Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers

Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers (9781481470377)

Finn lives by the sea, On the day that would have been his grandfather’s birthday, it is a good day for sailing and for building a boat, one that will help him find the place that his grandfather told him about, where the ocean meets the sky. So Finn spent his morning building a boat that was suitable for a long journey and then he took a nap. When he awoke, the boat was rocking in the sea and the journey had begun. As Finn got lonely in the open sea, a large golden fish emerges from the water and agrees to show him the way to the place he is searching for. They travel past Library Islands filled with birds and books, an island of giant shells, and a sea of glowing jellyfish. Until they finally reach the place where the ocean meets sky and Finn’s boat soars out of the water and into the sky, all before dinner.

This beautifully rendered book is exceptional. There is a lovely consistency throughout even in the more dreamlike sequences. The text is simple and inviting, creating a world that children will enjoy exploring alongside Finn himself. The book moves from a feeling of grief and loss that is handled with delicacy to hard work in honor of Finn’s grandfather and then into a world of dreams and wonder.

The illustrations move from black-and-white memories of Finn’s grandfather to pastels for the real world of today and then into sharp details and deeper colors of dreams. I love that the dreamworld is the most defined and colorful. Grandfather appears throughout the dreams in the form of the large fish and the moon. His presence is everywhere.

A lovely and layered picture book about grief, memories and wonder. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.)

Water Land Land and Water Forms around the World by Christy Hale

Water Land: Land and Water Forms around the World by Christy Hale (9781250152442)

One of the most inventive uses of cut pages that I have seen! This picture book takes water forms and with a turn of the page creates corresponding landforms. A lake becomes an island. A bay turns into a cape. Strait and isthmus compare beautifully. It goes on and on. One will turn back and forth between water and land, stunned by the comparisons and the feeling of a complete ecosystem on the page.

It is the art that is central in this book. With cut pages, the drawings are active around the land and water forms. Boats and trucks cross land and water, diverse people play on the sand, sharks circle in the water. A brilliant book that will have young readers looking at water and land in a new way with plenty of terms to name what they are seeing. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)