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: 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.

Review: A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar (9781250154989)

Donut’s pops has passed away in an automobile accident and now her Aunt Agnes has come to stay in their small house in rural Vermont. Donut has grown up there, surrounded by the woods and all of the people she considers friends. There is Tiny, a huge boy with a big heart, who is her best friend. There is Sam, the man who taught her to do taxidermy and who creates displays for museums. It’s the place that Donut belongs, one where she can see her father in every part of their home and also her mother, whom she never knew. So when Aunt Agnes decides to take Donut back to Boston with her, Donut knows she must do everything she can to stay, even running away.

Kalmar has created a story with one heck of a heroine at its heart. Donut is unusual in so many ways, from her passion for rivers and geography to her taxidermy of small rodents and birds to her willingness to test out her father’s foldable boat. Donut is not one to shrink away from stating her mind or from taking action to support herself. Readers will immediately feel for Donut being taken away from her home, and in the end they too will be surprised at how Donut has grown and changed.

This historical fiction for middle grades is set in an interesting time period that we don’t see a lot of. It’s in rural Vermont around the 1920s. There is talk of bobbed hair, flappers and Prohibition. The setting of Vermont is fully realized in the book, particularly once Donut heads into the woods on her own. Then nature really emerges around her, beautiful and dangerous at once.

A strong piece of historical fiction, get this into the hands of readers who enjoy a strong protagonist, wilderness settings and cows. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feiwel & Friends.

Review: Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant (9781534412774)

Flora is a quiet child, who loves the purple chair in the window of the used book store more than any other place. That’s particularly true now that her parents are separated and living in different houses from one another. Flora has also lost her dog recently, so things feel very off kilter. Even fourth grade seems very different from other school years. Still, as Flora navigates the changes in her life, she also has some happy surprises. She meets Yury, a boy from the Ukraine, who enjoys animals and survival stories too. The two become close friends and soon each of them have new pets in their lives too. Flora’s other friend Nessy is steadily discovering her own talents. And though Flora hasn’t discovered her own yet, she soon will.

Set in Indiana in 1972, Rylant has created a book that captures being a worried and anxious child just right. Flora is quiet and a tad shy, unless she knows something. She worries about different things and her family is gentle and understanding with her. Even as she grows in this short novel, that aspect of her personality is embraced and not being fixed by others. The book itself is gentle in tone, slow paced and lovingly written.

A book that will have a specific audience who will adore it, this one may not be for everyone but will be just right for some children. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (9780553535327)

Ami has grown up on Culion, an island in the Philippines filled with people who have leprosy, like Ami’s mother. Ami loves her home, the others who live there with her, the kind nun who helps everyone out. But then things change and new government rules are implemented. Ami and her mother must be tested to see if Ami is also “Touched” with the infection. When Ami is declared to be free of leprosy, she is taken with the other children to a neighboring island and placed in an orphanage. Watched over by a cruel man who is terrified of disease and by extension hates the children from Culion, Ami slowly makes new friends, longing for news from home. After finding a letter withheld from her, Ami makes a desperate journey to see her mother once more.

Using butterflies as a beautiful metaphor throughout the book, one of strength and fragility, Hargrave has crafted a book that looks past the surface level of leprosy and deeply at the people who suffer from the infection and those who love them. Throughout the book, butterflies emerge from cocoons, appear suddenly and inspire those who see them, die at the hands of a collector, and eventually form a way of life. There is a resilience throughout this novel, a tale of overcoming not leprosy but expectations and limitations of all sorts.

The setting of Culion and the Philippines is brought lushly to life on the pages. From journeys through the jungle with its fruits, fish and streams to the coral reefs that tear at boats to the colony itself, each place is drawn with care. The setting is evoked through sounds, scents and sight.

A complex book that takes a deep look at grief, loss, courage and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Alfred A. Knopf.)

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (9780062570604)

Released April 3, 2018.

This inventive teen novel mixes a zombie apocalypse with American Civil War era history into one compelling read. Jane was born on a plantation, an African-American child to the white mistress of the house. The dead started to rise only days after her birth, so Jane never knew a world without Shamblers. Now Jane is attending Miss Preston’s a school for African American girls that teaches them how to kill zombies. As she nears graduation, she begins to question how the zombies are being managed in her area near Baltimore. Though she is seeing more of them around, claims are being made that they are being exterminated. As the lies that surround Jane come crashing down, she is sent to a new city in Kansas, but life there is even more brutal than the one she has left behind. It is up to Jane not only to save herself but an entire community from destruction.

Ireland’s world building is incredible rich as are all of the details of the story. It makes it almost impossible to summarize the book effectively, because there is so much more to say! Ireland was inspired by the Indian Boarding Schools in the United States and based her model of zombie training schools from them. This book tackles racism in the same clear cut way that you take a zombie’s head off.

Jane is a great protagonist. She is smarter than almost everyone else in the book, cunning as she quickly creates solutions to impossible situations, and still deeply flawed. She is judgemental of others, often misunderstanding them and falls for the wrong people. She is beautifully proud, almost entirely unable to bite her tongue, and always creating trouble for herself.

A wild and bloody book with a fierce protagonist who sears the page. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (9780735232112)

This strong and intense verse novel tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a painter born in sixteenth-century Rome. This fictional account is based on her true story of working in her father’s art studio and becoming more skilled than him in her late teens. As her father brought in a teacher for her, Artemisia first enjoyed his company and then it became something else entirely. Raped by her teacher, Artemisia has to decide whether to stay silent or try to fight back in the limited ways that she could. With her dead mother’s stories of two strong women from history to inspire her, Artemisia did accuse her rapist and found justice hard to come by but worth fighting for.

Told in Artemisia’s own voice, this verse novel is entirely captivating. Firmly feminist in tone and content, the reader learns not only of Artemisia but also of Judith and Susanna, two historical figures who found their own way to justice. Perfectly timed with the #MeToo movement, this novel calls for women to understand their own strength and find their own voices.

Throughout the book, even with the anger and aggravating unfairness of the time, the book has beautifully soft moments filled with art and creativity. Yet it is firmly footed in reality and doesn’t sugarcoat or turn away from impossible choices, horrible violence, and the importance of strength even when you feel weakest.

A necessary and vital call to action, this book shows that women have stood up all the way through history and their voices will not be ignored. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Dutton.

Mary’s Monster by Lita Judge

Mary's Monster by Lita Judge

Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge (9781626725003)

The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist author, Mary never knew her mother except through her writings. Sent away as a child to live in Scotland, Mary eventually returned to her family where her stepmother rejected her. Believing firmly in free love and the right for a woman to choose her own life, as a teenager Mary ran off with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who left his wife behind to be with her. But things are not that simple and their lives were filled with Percy’s madness and womanizing. Soon Mary is a pregnant teen, unmarried and disowned by her family. But she does not give in and begins to write her masterpiece of a novel, Frankenstein. She pours all of her grief of losing several children, her love for a man who is unable to commit to anyone, and the wound of the loss of her mother.

This verse novel is pure wonderment. Judge illuminates each page with her illustrations, capturing the emotional anguish that filled many of Mary’s days. A few of the pages are voiced by the monster himself, the typeset crooked and voice uniquely that of the creature. It is beautifully handled, the words crafted to evoke emotion and to show the desperate choices that Mary was forced to make.

In my undergraduate thesis, I read the works of the early feminists and Mary Wollstonecraft was one of those writers. It is fascinating to see how her ideals shine in Mary’s life and yet played out into tragedies at times. The fact that Judge read Mary’s diaries is evident on each page of this book, since Mary’s voice rings so clearly on them and her passion for change, love and creativity shines through the darkness of her life.

A masterful look at one of the greatest works of literature and the woman behind it. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

(Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.)

The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross

The Queen's Rising by Rebecca Ross

The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross (9780062471345)

Brienna has never known who her father is, only that he is from neighboring Maevana. When her grandfather takes her to Magnalia House and has her accepted as a student of passion, Brienna discovers a new home. Among the handful of other students, Brienna discovers sisters as well as her own interest in history. As Brienna gets ready to master her passion for knowledge and leave Magnalia House, her plans go awry and she doesn’t complete the graduation ceremony and find a patron. Instead, her flashbacks of memories from a mysterious ancestor tie her closely to those who would restore a queen to the throne of Maevana and dethrone the imposter king. As war brews, Brienna becomes the linchpin to a plan that takes her into the heart of her homeland of Maevana and the dangers of political intrigue generations in the making.

Ross has deftly woven a story set in medieval times with glimpses of magic. Her story is firmly feminist, calling for queens to sit on thrones, the power of magic in women’s hands, and the ability of women to create plans that are daring and effective. The world created here is tightly drawn, two neighboring nations with differences in cultures that come together in Brienna. Ross also incorporates the fall of a queen and the resulting ramifications of her loss. It’s beautifully drawn, some of it revealed only towards the end of the novel to complete the picture.

Brienna is an incredible protagonist. She is humble and yet clearly bright and gifted, just with different gifts than the school for passion may be looking for. Her ability to plot and plan, learn to use a sword, and adjust her reactions to political turns shows how clever she is. There is a lovely romantic tension in the book as well, kept quite proper and reserved and yet smoldering at the same time.

An intelligent and well crafted teen novel filled with political intrigue and a woman who will lead the way to change. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and HarperTeen.