Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne

Cover image for Josephine Against the Sea.

Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne (9781338642087)

After her mother’s death, Josephine knows that she wants to keep her Daddy’s attention on her. So she manages to chase off any woman looking to be his new girlfriend, using pranks and fish guts. Her father used to love watching cricket matches with her on the weekends, and she is desperate to get him back to doing that again. When one of her pranks goes wrong though, she is forced to use the money she’d been saving to take him to a real match in person to pay for the damages. Josephine also loves to play cricket herself, but at her school only boys play. After being disappointed about the team, Josephine also finds that her father has a new girlfriend. But Mariss isn’t like the other women and doesn’t scare off easily. As strange things start to happen around Mariss, Josephine realizes that she be very different from everyone else and may not even be human!

Full of Caribbean magic, this novel starts out as a story about the loss of a mother and steadily turns into a fantasy about a sea monster who is both kind and vengeful. The author’s own Bajan heritage is reflected throughout the book in the lilt of the dialogue. She also shares Caribbean folktales about a variety of beings and creatures.

Josephine is a grand protagonist. She is hot headed and determined to get what she wants, something that causes both problems and also creates opportunities. She is also willing to reconsider and learn from others, including members of her community and her best friend. Mariss is a complicated villain and monster, which is great to see in a children’s book. She is a mix of kindness and control, a being who wants humans to belong to her and who will destroy them if they don’t obey.

A book of Black girl magic and monsters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

Cover image for This Poison Heart.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (9781547603909)

Briseis has a magical gift that she works hard not to reveal. Plants respond to her touch and presence, growing more lush and leaning in towards her, sometimes with destructive force. When Briseis inherits an estate in rural New York, she and her mothers jump at the new opportunity. The home is dirty and needs attention, and it also holds a lot of secrets for Briseis to figure out. There is the apothecary shop that seemed to deal in more normal herbs, but also ones that are extremely poisonous and rare. Then there is a trail of clues that lead Briseis to a neglected garden on the property that has regular herbal plants but also hidden poison gardens that only Briseis can reach thanks to her newly discovered immunity to poisonous plants. As strangers arrive on the property to seek services from Briseis, she finds herself part of another mystery. What is behind the locked door in the garden, and could it have been why so many women in her family have died or disappeared?

There is just so much to love with this novel. It’s a mesmerizingly lovely look at contemporary Black life that is imbued with magic and mystery. Briseis’ talent with plants moves from being problematic to being celebrated, something that really shines at the center of the book as she gains confidence in her own powers. Against the green wonder of her magic is the danger of poison that darkens the entire story very effectively, and is steadily revealed as more characters appear in the story.

Bayron paces the mystery out very cleverly, allowing readers to both enjoy and doubt several characters who are close to Briseis. The inclusion of queer characters is done naturally and woven into the story. Briseis has lesbian mothers and is queer herself. Briseis herself is a great protagonist, richly drawn in both her self doubt, her initial friendlessness, and how that transforms into a dangerous dance of trust and betrayal.

Beautifully written, full of strong Black women and filled with magic, this teen novel is spellbinding. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Cover image for All Our Hidden Gifts.

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue (9781536213942)

When Maeve finds a deck of tarot cards while clearing out a closet at school during her suspension, she soon realizes that she has a talent for telling people’s fortunes. Maeve isn’t talented in general, not musical or good at school. As she starts to tell everyone’s fortunes secretly at school, she becomes friends with Fiona, perhaps her first real friend after she pushed Lili away. But when she tells Lili’s fortune reluctantly and wishes Lili would disappear, a frightening Housekeeper card appears and soon after, Lili vanishes. Considered a witch by all the students at school, Maeve tries to figure out what happened to Lili and if she is the one who made her leave. Meanwhile, Maeve is growing closer to Lili’s older brother, Roe, who is honest with Lili about being genderqueer. As they try to solve the mystery of Lili’s disappearance, a malevolent force emerges, one who is putting people Maeve loves in direct danger. With growing desperation, Maeve must decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to fix the imbalance she may have created.

Looking for a fantasy book for teens about witches and tarot that is legitimately creepy and not trite in the least? This is the book for you! Free of tropes that plague this sort of teen novel, this Irish read is a dark delight of a novel. Add in the modern issues of women’s rights, racism, hate crimes and the threats against LGBTQ people and this is also a book that looks deeply at our world and insists that Maeve acknowledges her own privilege and bias without scolding.

The three main characters are a marvel. Maeve is the best mixture of lack of self-esteem, witchcraft power and sarcasm. Roe is at first shy and near silent and steadily reveals himself to Maeve and to the reader. The hot kisses are marvelous, particularly as they involve an unapologetic and genderqueer character. Fiona is a talented actress with almost no friends, a huge extended family and a desire to be something more than what society is always assigning to her as a Filipina girl. This is not a cast you see often in teen novels about witchcraft.

Haunting witchcraft with social justice and feminism. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Walker Books.

One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu

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One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu (9780062689856)

The author of Eventown returns with another book showing how children can see beyond the social façade to what is actually happening. Rose is the daughter of the most famous and successful magic capturer in her town, which is the most magical in the world. She has grown up as “Little Luck” knowing that she is the one who will be the one to carry on her father’s legacy, unlike her older brother. She spends her days going barefoot despite the cold, practicing by catching fireflies, and wearing her father’s sweaters and scarves. But all is not quite right in her family, and deep down Rose knows it. The entire family tiptoes around her father’s expectations, making sure they are perfect and happy all of the time. So when New Year’s Day finally comes, Rose just knows she will be the best at finding the magic, but she isn’t. In fact, she just gets one little jar of magic. Now Rose’s father won’t speak to her, her previous friends mock her and ignore her, and everything has changed. Rose has a strange new freedom, accompanied by a new friend who doesn’t use magic, where she can start to see what is really going on not just with magic and her town, but in her family as well.

Haydu moves smoothly into full fantasy with this latest novel for middle grades. She laces magic throughout a world that looks much like our own, adding glitter, rainbows and wonder. She manages to take readers through the same process that Rose goes through, dazzled at first by the magic around them, then questioning it, and finally seeing beyond it to the marvels of the real world beneath.

Haydu’s depiction of Rose’s father is particularly haunting: a man who himself is all glitter with real issues not quite hidden by the magic that surrounds him. His anger, insistence and control are all revealed steadily through the book, alarm bells that grow louder and steadier as it progresses. Rose is a great protagonist, raised to believe herself the most special of all, fallen from that pedestal and able to lift herself to a new place based on reality and her own resilience.

A great fantasy read that asks deep questions about magic, control and freedom. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

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Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston (9780062975164)

Amari still believes her brother is alive, even though everyone else thinks he is dead, including the bullies at her private prep school that she attends through a scholarship. When she gets a strange delivery, sending her to her brother’s closet where she finds a briefcase, she is introduced to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where her brother works. Offered a spot in their competitive summer program, Amari finds herself learning about the hidden supernatural world that surrounds us all. It also turns out that her brother is part of a very famous two-person team who brought down the evil magicians. He has disappeared, and Amari is determined to find him, even though the Bureau doesn’t want to share any of the information they have. Helped by her roommate, who happens to be part dragon and a classmate connected to a famous family, Amari starts to unravel the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, but not before discovering that she has powers of her own that mark her as evil in everyone’s eyes.

A perfect new title for fans of Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Percy Jackson, it is great to see a Black author create a Black protagonist who enters a fantasy world. Brilliantly, Alston layers the prejudice of the real world with that found in the supernatural, showing how profound racism is by combining it with hatred of magicians, who are labeled as illegal. The writing is strong and the pace is fast, quickly bringing readers and the characters into the world of the supernatural.

The world building is delightful, with nods to Harry Potter and classic myths but also staying connected to an urban landscape and modern issues. Amari is a great character, who sees little potential in herself while revealing throughout the book how unusual she actually is in more than her powers. Her loneliness, courage, loyalty and desire to figure out what happened all make for a book that has real depth but also offers a wild and fun ride through the supernatural.

Sure to be a popular read, this book has plenty of substance too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron (9781328635181)

Maya has started noticing strange things happening at school and around her South Side Chicago neighborhood. Cracks appear, black lightning forms, and time freezes for others near her. Her best friends try to help her figure out what is happening: one thinks it might be paranormal and ghosts which he loves, and the other believes that it can be explained by science. Maya’s father travels regularly for work, but when she follows him he doesn’t seem to be heading for the airport, instead vanishing right in front of her as if he was swallowed by the shadows. Soon Maya discovers the truth, that her father is a god-like orisha who protects the veil between their world and the Dark. That makes Maya (and her two best friends) half-orisha or godlings. When her father doesn’t return from the Dark, Maya and her friends use their budding powers to enter the Dark themselves and rescue him. But things are not that simple as the human world itself is threatened by the Lord of Shadows.

Barron blends modern American Midwestern life with African legends into one amazing world where gods walk among humans, veils obscure parallel worlds, and dangers emerge from darkness. The Chicago neighborhood is full of gods and godlings, all black and brown characters who create a real community. The world building offers explanations of the various legendary creatures that the characters encounter, woven nicely into the narrative.

Maya and her friends are a great team, offering a mix of beliefs in paranormal, African magic, and science. The three of them also always have each other’s backs, using their powers to help, their intelligence to solve the puzzles they face, and their care for one another and their community as a foundation.

A great middle-grade fantasy with African origins and strong characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HMH Books for Young Readers.

The Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson

Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson

The Daughters of Ys by M. T. Anderson, illustrated by Jo Rioux (9781626728783)

Based on a Briton folktale, this graphic novel takes us to the fantasy world of Ys. There, two sisters grow up together in a castle crafted by their mother at the edge of the sea. The two sisters each have elements of their mother’s personality, but when their mother dies the two drift apart. Rozenn, the eldest and heir, is most comfortable out on the moors with the animals. Dahut though enjoys the castle and figures out how to control the sea monster that protects their city from attacks from the sea. Dahut must make dark choices to keep her power flowing, something she resents as Rozenn spends her time away from court. When that darkness attacks Ys, secrets are revealed and battles waged.

Intriguing and fascinating, this graphic novel is marvelously dark and twisted. Anderson focuses on the two sisters, leaving the weak king to his own devices. The two are very different, one abandoning her station and the crown while the other sacrificed herself to keep Ys vibrant and safe. At the same time, Rozenn remains the pure and natural one while Dahut must do the dirty work of power. The question of who is the heroine of the book is haunting.

The art is equally unique, moving from brightness to almost murky underwater colors. The illustrations follow the story perfectly, becoming almost oppressive as the choices made come back to challenge both sisters. The two sisters on the page are depicted very differently too, showing one beautiful but plainly adorned while the other wears finery and jewels.

Rich, dramatic and wild. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by First Second.

The Montague Twins: The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page

The Montague Twins The Witch's Hand by Nathan Page

The Montague Twins: The Witch’s Hand by Nathan Page and Drew Shannon (9780525646761)

Pete and Alastair make money solving mysteries along with their stepsister. When a magical storm appears near the lighthouse, elements of their skills are suddenly revealed. Despite being separated from one another during the storm, all three of the teens meet the witch behind the magic. Soon they are taking new lessons from a student of their guardian, magic power lessons! With three girls missing, including the daughter of the prominent Bradford family, there is a mystery to be solved that will require both their detective skills and their emerging magical powers.

This is the first graphic novel in a planned duology, which is good enough for readers to hope for even more than two! The book is set in the late 1960’s, giving it an engaging original Scooby Doo meets Sabrina vibe. Sprinkled liberally with humor, thanks to the twins, the book offers adults who stand back and let the teens solve mysteries but who also provide solid support and knowledge themselves. It also has a great villain, though untangling who that might be is a big part of the fun.

The art is engagingly 1960’s as well with apparel and cars clearly placing it in time. Using bold colors and classic cartoon boxing, the result is dynamic and engaging with clear nods to comics that have gone before.

A winning new series that offers magic and mystery. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay (9781534462762)

When Abi’s father starts to date and then marries Max and Louis’ mom, her entire life is upended. The best part though is that they move into a very special house together, where Abi has her own room, there is a cemetery with foxes, and Abi can have a bit of space. Still, she does have to put up with a new mother, a rather dirty little brother, and become a middle child instead of being an only child. The house the family moves into, after a long search for a home they can afford, is covered with ivy and soon strange things start to happen. When Abi, who loves to read, truly becomes engrossed in a book, she actually enters it, returning covered in salt spray or with parrots flashing across the room. Louis finds a new friend who emerges from the ivy, a cat-like thing that becomes larger as time goes by. It’s all beautiful and enchanting, until suddenly the danger becomes real and the three children must figure out how to save themselves from the magic of the house.

I have always adored McKay’s books about realistic families who tumble through life in a mash of spilled book bags, beloved stories, messy rooms, and lots of love. McKay uses that same template here, providing readers with a blended family just barely making things work with damp school uniforms, a French babysitter more interested in art, and three new siblings finding their way at school and home. Here though, she injects a burst of real magic that takes the story directly into magical realism and fantasy, something she is incredible good at as well.

As always, it is McKay’s characters who are at the center of her book and story. Here we have the quiet and deep Abi, Max who is in a desperate fight with his best friend at school, and Louis who is looking for comfort. Take their blended family and remove the mother to work for a few months and you have a teetering story full of adoration, messes and wonder.

A marvelous venture into fantasy by an acclaimed author, this is worth entering the green ivy for. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.