The School Between Winter and Fairyland by Heather Fawcett

Cover image for The School Between Winter and Fairyland.

The School Between Winter and Fairyland by Heather Fawcett (9780063043312)

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.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzar + Bray.

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.

Monster Friends by Kaeti Vandorn

Cover image for Monster Friends.

Monster Friends by Kaeti Vandorn (9781984896827)

When Reggie arrives at his cousin’s home to housesit during their summer vacation, he gets a warm welcome from the huge monster family who are all busy in the cave complex below the main house, making clothes, fixing pipes, and playing cards. Reggie has left his life of exploring and finding treasure for a quiet summer alone. When his first morning is interrupted by a vivacious doglike monster named Emily, he is a bit overwhelmed and not ready to stop being alone and grumpy. Emily though persuades him to head out into the field and explore his new surroundings, discovering a beach but also a rather intimidating cave. Reggie heads over to Emily’s woodland home a little later, meeting her large family and enjoying a spiced apple for his return home. When Emily goes missing, it is Reggie who knows just where she might be, but he has to face his fear of dark caves and revealing his fear to find her.

This graphic novel for chapter book readers offers a world full of furry monsters who are marvelously human, full of self doubt, a need to prove themselves, and struggles to be honest with one another. Readers will love the small world that is built here, full of wonderful nature like the woods, beach and cave. The world is populated with all sorts of monsters, some scaly, some furry, and some shapeshifters. The art style is full of small details that fill out each of the settings. The mushrooms on the shelves in the family cave complex, the spilling bathtub, the toys spread all over the room.

The writing is just as joyous as the illustrations. Reggie is a grand grump of a character, ready to sulk his summer away until Emily literally bounds right into it. Emily is the perfect foil for Reggie, both visually and in personality. But Emily too has her own struggles with her siblings and family that play out on the page. The two become friends naturally, bridged by warm drinks and shared snacks.

A fuzzy monster of a graphic novel full of caves, serpents and surprises. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House.

Rot: The Bravest in the World by Ben Clanton

Rot The Bravest in the World by Ben Clanton

Rot: The Bravest in the World by Ben Clanton (9781481467643)

This follow-up to Rot: The Cutest in the World is a squirmy, squelchy, muddy read. Rot is a mutant potato and just like all mutant potatoes, he loves mud. They play in it, eat it, even sleep in mud. So when Rot found a massive mud pit, he couldn’t wait to jump right in. But before he can, his older brother Snot tells him to watch out for the Squirm, a monster that lives in deep mud, slimy and gross and hungry! Snot leaves laughing, but Rot is not deterred. He just needs a good plan. Perhaps a superhero costume will make him brave enough? When that wasn’t enough, he adds a knight costume on top, but even that doesn’t work. Perhaps adding something that loves mud too? Soon Rot is dressed up as “Sir Super Rot, the Pigtato!” When he goes back to the puddle, he discovers that there is something squirmy in the mud. Will he be brave enough to find out what it is?

Clanton imbues his picture book with a marvelous sense of humor from beginning to end. At the same time he has created a picture book with a strong story arc with Rot as a central compelling character that children will root for. When he begins to put on costumes to make himself more brave, the humor is there but also a strong sense of empathy for this courageous potato.

As with the first book, the art is bold. It is filled with rich potato and mud browns. The handwritten dialogue is shown in bubbles that look like potatoes too. Keep an eye out for the little pink insect who follows Rot on his adventures.

Squidgy and muddy fun. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street by Lauren Oliver 

The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street by Lauren Oliver 

The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street by Lauren Oliver (9780062345073)

There are monsters in the world, though few people believe they are actually real. Cordelia and her father help monsters that get hurt, moving them into their house on Cedar Street. The house is bedraggled and unkempt, but the monsters love it, each one finding their own special space inside. The only place that no one is allowed to enter is Cordelia’s mother’s study which has been forbidden since her disappearance nine years ago. Cordelia is used to a house filled with weird noises, so when she awakens to silence one morning she knows that something has happened. Her father and all of the monsters have disappeared. The only ones left are hiding in the oven: a baby dragon and an old filch. As Cordelia sets off to find them, she is joined by Gregory, a boy who lives on the streets and has a monster of his own, a zombie puppy that Cordelia helped save. They must find the monsters and her father, rescue them and perhaps even expose a sinister organization that is targeting monsters of all kinds. It’s a harrowing journey for a girl, a handful of monsters and a new friend. 

The book begins with passages from Cordelia’s mother’s book about monsters which explain the monster themselves and then also link them to how they evolved. This clever use of a book mentioned regularly in the story also allows Oliver to keep the story streamlined and not filled with monster exposition when each new one arrives. The story itself is animated and great fun with wild dashes of action, near catastrophes, kindred spirits and harrowing danger. It’s a story that could feel out of control, but Oliver keeps it pointed in the right direction even when the reader isn’t quite sure which way is up. She also asks larger questions about who the monsters really are and how humans become a true evil monster on the inside. 

The characters are marvelous, each one unique and interesting. Cordelia is brave and creative, nicely solving some of their most dire situations. Gregory is a natural with the monsters and is always willing to lend a hand even if he might get nipped. The monsters are fascinating and varied with just enough similarity to other animals and creatures to be able to be pictured clearly in one’s mind. After all, who wouldn’t want a zombie puppy!

Fast paced fantasy with lots of monsters both wild and human. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.

Review: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (9780525647072)

Jam lives in Lucille, a place cleansed of monsters by the angels who still live among them. There are no monsters in Lucille any more. But just as Jam is learning about the original angels, who looked more like monsters than humans, she accidentally releases a creature from her mother’s painting. The creature is Pet, who has crossed dimensions to hunt a monster. Pet reveals that the monster is living in Jam’s best friend, Redemption’s house. Now Jam must figure out how to enlist Redemption’s help without accusing his family of doing something terrible and harboring a monster. Or perhaps Pet is the real monster as he hunts without remorse? Jam must learn the truth and then get others to believe her.

Wow. What a book! The voice here is what hits you first, unique and strong, it speaks in a Nigerian-laced rhythm that creates its own magic immediately. Add in the power of Jam herself, a black, trans girl who often chooses not to speak aloud but with sign language. Then you have the amazement of Pet, the nightmare creature who hunts for monsters but also explains the importance of not hiding from the truth. Surround it all with families who love and care and are wonderfully different from one another.

Emezi leads readers through this wonder of a book, filled with LGBTQIA+ moments that are so normal they become something very special. They insist that you understand what is meant by a monster and by an angel, that one can be disguised as another, that monsters are normal people, but must not be tolerated. It’s a book about abuse, about standing up, about angels and demons, and about humans.

An incredible middle-grade fantasy full of power, monsters and beauty. Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Make Me a World.

Review: Otto and Pio by Marianne Dubuc

Otto and Pio by Marianne Dubuc

Otto and Pio by Marianne Dubuc (9781616897604)

Otto the squirrel happily lives alone in the biggest tree a very old forest. One morning, he discovers a strange green ball outside his door. He steps over it and ignores it, but later the ball cracks open and a very furry creature emerges. The creature calls Otto “Mommy” and Otto decides to continue to leave the creature outside as night falls. But then later, he reconsiders and invites the small creature in. The creature says “Pio!” so that becomes his name. Pio begins to grow, doubling in size every night while he sleeps. Otto tries in vain to find Pio’s mother, but none of his neighbors know anything. Pio continues to grow as Otto tries different ways to find his mother: posters and visiting other trees. Pio takes care of the house while he is gone, making soup, sweeping and decorating. When Pio is too big to stay in Otto’s house anymore, Otto knows something must be done. So once again he heads out to try to find a solution. He is so distracted, he puts himself in danger. Perhaps one huge furry monster could be a help?

First published in Canada in French, this picture book is another charmer from Dubuc. She has a way of capturing changing deep emotions and emerging friendships that is gentle and filled with empathy. Here, Otto is often frustrated with being burdened with Pio, though Pio works hard to make life good for both of them. As Otto tries to get rid of Pio, his anger grows but then is refreshingly resolved when he understands what a loss Pio would be. The book builds to that new understanding, steadily increasing the pressure on the small squirrel.

Dubuc’s illustrations are very effective. She creates a grand tree for the pair to live in, huge and leafy. The prickly green ball that Pio emerges from is completely alien, and Pio himself looks rather like a very small abominable snowman with his white fur and rosy cheeks. Otto himself is busy and rushing, often avoiding really thinking about how he feels.

Another great read from Dubuc, this one is all about unlikely friendships and family members. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Princeton Architectural Press.

Review: A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

a curse so dark and lonely by brigid kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer (9781681195087)

Prince Rhen has been cursed along with his entire kingdom into repeating the same season over and over again until a girl falls in love with him. At the end of each season, he fails and turns into a monster who slays his own people. Now he is left with a single guardsman, Grey, who has pledged to stay at his side. Each season, Grey transports himself to Washington, D.C. and steals a girl to try to break the curse. Then one year, he steals Harper, a girl who was not his chosen one but instead one who tried to attack Grey and save the girl he was attempting to kidnap. Harper may not have been Grey’s choice, but now she is the only chance they have at breaking the curse since the sorceress who placed the curse has declared this the final season. As Harper steps into the role of princess, she refuses to conform to expectations. She is intent on making a difference to the suffering people of the kingdom even if they underestimate her due to her cerebral palsy. But will it be enough to end the curse? Will love come?

I approach every retelling of a fairy tale with trepidation. There are few that can really transform the tale into something new and fresh. Kemmerer does exactly that with her retelling of Beauty and the Beast. She creates two amazing male characters, each compelling in their own way and with their own special bond with one another too. She adds one of the nastiest sorceresses around, Lilith, who is willing to provide endless pain to Rhen, Grey and anyone else she can. Kemmerer then laces this story with the psychology of reliving the same year again and again, with immense failure, slaughter, remorse and despair. The result is a dark rather than dreamy story, filled with pain, blood, battles and strategy.

Harper is an incredible heroine. Her having cerebral palsy is interwoven into the story, not as an aside but as a part of her life experience that gives her context for helping others and seeing beyond the surface to their potential. She is honest and forthright, and yet willing to use subterfuge and lies to make a positive difference for those she cares about. She is entirely complicated and every inch a princess and heroine.

A great retelling of Beauty and the Beast, this book stands on its own merits. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri

Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri

Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri (9781626725355)

After dinner, Tiger takes an extra plate of food to share with her monster. Monster had been under Tiger’s bed, but they soon became friends. Now they spend time together playing games until bedtime when Monster scares Tiger’s nightmares away. All of Tiger’s family thinks she has an imaginary friend, but Monster is real. Monster fights all sorts of nightmares away until she encounters one that is too big and scary to chase off. As Tiger starts to have nightmares, she realizes that the two of them will need to work together to get rid of this huge nightmare.

Tetri, a cartoonist, has written a captivating graphic novel that is just right for the picture-book set. The pacing is brisk with a concept that shines. There is plenty of humor on the pages that sets off the more dramatic parts of the story. The art is done in watercolors, adding a wonderful traditional feel to the book. One of the more delightful parts is when Monster battles one nightmare after another. The pace slows beautifully in this part and mimics epic battle montages in comic books.

A tale of friendship and teamwork, this is a great early graphic novel. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by First Second.