The Poisoned Apple by Anne Lambelet

Cover image for The Poisoned Apple

The Poisoned Apple by Anne Lambelet (9781645670605)

This picture book retells the story of Snow White and the poisoned apple. This version focuses very cleverly on the witch herself. It tells of the hard work she put into creating just one poisoned apple and no more. The witch gets the apple directly into Snow White’s basket, but then her plans go awry as the apple is passed to the dwarves as part of their lunch. Luckily, none of them take a bite, instead sharing the apple with some hungry forest animals, who in turn share it with a squirrel looking for food for her babies. As the squirrel climbs high into the tree, the witch follows, desperate to get the apple back and give it to Snow White. But her plans continue to fail her as the branch snaps from beneath her weight.

Lambelet has very nicely twisted and fractured this retelling of the classic Snow White story. The book will work best for children who know the classic version, as this one quickly moves away from that tale and into a riff of its own. Snow White and the dwarves make appearances, but are not the main focus of the story. The witch herself stays at the center, conniving and evil, making this just right for a witchy Halloween read.

The art is marvelous, full of fine lined details that come together to form dramatic moments that fill the page. From the creation of the poisoned apple itself to the witch’s fall from the tree, these moments are elongated by the art and the format to great effect.

This witch-focused retelling of Snow White is creepy, dark and satisfying. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Page Street Kids.

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.

Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky

Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky (9780593124185)

When Lalek and Sanja meet at the marketplace, their lives could not be more different. Lalek is a traveling witch while Sanja works at her family’s market stall. Lalek also sells fake items, which lands her in some trouble. It’s during one of those incidents that the two girls meet, with Lalek taking Sanja hostage and forcing her to teach Lalek how to fight. Soon the two reach an understanding where Lalek won’t use her magic to force Sanja to comply, Lalek will stop cheating people, and Sanja will teach her to fight. The two also come up with a plan on how to make money by challenging the witches in each village to a duel. As the two journey on, Lalek’s tragic story is revealed along with the loss of her real magic. The two bond with one another from the beginning, steadily forming a romantic connection with each other.

Set in a diverse medieval fantasy universe, this graphic novel demands that people of all races and abilities be seen and accepted. The various witches are a marvel of different ages, magic types and races. There are bigots and evil in the world too, some close to home. The book is full of action from the witches’ battles as well as journeys through fascinating lands with interesting features. The development of the two main characters is well done and their romance feels organic and fills the pages with joy.

The art is fresh with nods to manga. It takes time to offer special glances between the two characters before the true romance begins as well as dramatic frames that are quiet yet profound. Zabarsky successfully plays with light and dark in the illustrations, illuminating space with Lalek’s candle.

Perfect for fans of Nimona, this book beautifully shows LGBTQ romance in a magical fantasy world. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Graphic.

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon

Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon (9781534449671)

Yolanda’s family has lived on the pecan farm for generations, but they aren’t accepted by the townsfolks who call the brujas, or witches. Yolanda herself seems to have not gotten a magical gift though. Her younger sister has hers, with bees flying around her head and the ability to make plants grow and flower. It’s similar to her Wela’s gift with butterflies. Now though, Yolanda’s family is dwindling with only her sister and grandmother left. As her grandmother falls into a strange sleep, Yolanda sets out on a journey across their property. Joining her is her ex-best friend, her sister whom she also isn’t really speaking to, and a boy who may have a big crush on Yolanda. The grass has magically grown over the last few days, obstructing the view across their land, lengthening the journey to several days rather than hours, and putting real dangers in their path. They must all work together, Wela included, to complete the journey and find the answers to their family puzzle.

Impossible to summarize in any way that makes sense, this novel is a marvel of natural magic, connection to a place, and an in-depth exploration of a family. The connection to nature is evident throughout the novel both in the way that characters can work their magic with insects and plants but also through the grass that grows and the way the land stretches to create a world to explore. Throughout the book there is an intensity, a focus that allows the strange world to become solid and real.

A large part of that intensity is Yolanda herself, a character who holds grudges and demands to walk her own path, even if it’s foolish. She has lost contact with the people she had been closest to in the world, her best friend and sister, and had also lost connection with her grandfather before his death. The journey is just as much about her finding a way back to these people as it is about solving the larger family puzzle.

Strange and unique, this magical realism novel is an enticing summer read. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy provided by McElderry Books.

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh (9781250171122)

Snap knows that the witch has taken her dog, probably to use him for a ritual or eat him. So she sneaks into the witch’s house to rescue him. But Snap discovers that Jacks isn’t really a witch after all and was actually trying to save her dog after an accident. Jacks is actually pretty cool, creating skeletons of animals from road kill and selling them online. Jacks also helps Snap when she discovers finds some baby opossums. As the two rear the opossums together, Snap discovers her own love of bones and science. But Jacks still has a surprise herself, real magic, that she can help Snap learn too.

This graphic novel is such a treat of a book. It offers a heroine who is not afraid to be different from the stereotypical girl, exploring death, animals and magic. In the story, Snap gains a best friend, Lou, someone who is exploring their gender. Lou finds support with Snap and her mother, who share clothes and offer a safe space. The story also offers background on Jacks and Snap’s grandmother with a sad tale of love that had to make way, or did it?

The writing is superb, the plotting is clever and clear. The art is phenomenal with race and gender playing major roles. The characters are deep, well conceived and very diverse.

A marvelous and magical graphic novel that includes LGBT, race and gender elements. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.

Review: Mooncakes by Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker (9781549303043)

Nova lives with her grandmothers and helps out in their magical bookshop where they serve witches in the community with potion ingredients as well as spell books. One night, she discovers someone from her childhood in the woods, a werewolf named Tam. Tam has been battling a horse demon in the woods. Nova’s grandmothers head into the woods to capture the demon and discover something with far more power than they expected. Something is out to get Tam and merge werewolf magic with the demon. As Nova and Tam try to figure out the key to accessing Tam’s werewolf powers, they steadily fall for one another too. When the villain targeting Tam is revealed it will take everything they have to defeat them.

This graphic novel is an intoxicating mix of fantasy and romance with strong LGBTQ elements. The characters are layered and complex, something that is more difficult to achieve in a graphic novel format. The childhood connection between Tam and Nova gives them a place to build from in their relationship. The romance is lovely and sweet, progressing naturally as the two become closer. Family elements are also vital to the story from the grandmothers to ghost parents who also have opinions about how Nova is being raised.

Tam uses the pronouns they/them/theirs which is great to see in a graphic novel for teens. The grandmothers are a lesbian couple as well. These elements offered in a matter-of-fact way create a harmonious world full of queer love. The book offers this in a way that makes it simply part of the fabric of life, which is very refreshing.

A fantasy romance graphic novel worth falling for. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin (9780062878021)

Lou lives in the city as a thief, stealing what she needs to survive, feasting when possible on sweets, and dressing herself in costumes from the theater attic where she lives. Because her life depends on it, she tries to never use her witch magic, lest her mother discover where she is. Reid is a witchhunter, raised from an orphaned baby into one of the leaders of the Church Chasseurs. He not only hunts witches but kills them, usually ultimately burning them at the stake if they live that long. When Lou tries to escape Reid by publicly shaming him, they end up being forced to marry one another. As the war between the witches and the church escalates, Reid and Lou find themselves at the center of it just as they discover their increasing feelings for one another.

If you are looking for one amazing teen fantasy novel, you have found it here. Mahurin builds a great world for her characters, one with extensive history that impacts the action in the novel in an understandable and fascinating way. As more of the details of the history are revealed, the cunning nature of the witches’ plans become more clears as well as the motivations of the church. It’s a book that untangles itself in front of the reader and yet leaves plenty of questions to be answered in a future volume.

The book mixes romance and fantasy. It has one of the hottest sex scenes I have read in a teen novel too where details are not skimped on and the woman takes the lead. As with that scene, Lou is not ever one to shrink away from saying what she thinks and needs. She is prickly and jaded, falling for Reid despite all of the guards she has in place. Reid could have simply been the bemused soldier in all of this, but Mahurin has made him Lou’s equal in the book, so that readers understand the damage done by both the witches and the church to society and individuals.

An amazing and gripping fantasy romance. Appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner (9781534431454)

Moth has always loved everything to do with magic and witches. So when Halloween comes, she dresses up as a witch. That does nothing but encourage some school bullies who tease her in the hall in front of the new kid in town. But something strange happens and Moth’s hands start to glow. It turns out that Moth comes from a family of witches, something her mother had never shared with her. Now it all makes sense why Moth has felt so different from everyone else and struggled to make friends. As Moth learns more about her family and the secret separate magic land her grandmother helped create and still lives in, Moth’s powers grow. She meets a talking cat, makes her first real friend, and then discovers that while witches are real so are those who hunt them!

Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel for youth is a delightful mix of diversity and magic. While comparisons can be made with other teen witches, this book stands entirely on its own. Part of that distinction comes from the unique world that the town’s witch elders created for safety. It is a world of floating islands, crystalline colors and flowing robes. It contrasts dynamically with the world of middle school. Moth is the one who brings both worlds together as her magic begins to take form.

The characters in this graphic novel really make the book special. Moth moves far beyond middle-school misfit and is a friendly, funny protagonist with a talking cat who is brave and conflicted. Her mother too is complicated in all the best ways.

A great middle-grade graphic novel that is full of magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.

Review: The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (9781338209969)

Marinka never asked to be a Yaga, but since she is the granddaughter of a Baba Yaga, she has been learning to speak with the dead and guide them through the Gate and into the stars. All Marinka really wants is to make a real human friend and do things that other twelve-year-olds do. Making friends is nearly impossible though when you live in a house with chicken legs that can move you all over the world overnight. So when Marinka gets another chance to make friends with someone, she takes it, even if it breaks all of the rules that she has been taught. As her decision changes her entire life, Marinka is left to figure out who she really is and what she wants to be.

Anderson has a clear love of Russian folktales, taking a beautiful view of Baba Yaga and giving her a larger community, more chicken-footed houses and a longing for family. The folktales at the center of the book continue to reverberate throughout the story, offering Marinka distinct choices. Marinka makes her own decisions though, ones that readers will not agree with though they might understand. As her situation grows direr, Marinka becomes almost unlikeable, and yet Anderson is able to bring us back to loving her by the end.

Anderson surrounds Marinka with a beautiful and rich world. There is her own Baba Yaga, filling the house with good cooking, lots of love and ghosts every evening. Then there is Jack, Marinka’s pet jackdaw, who sits on her shoulder and puts pieces of food in people’s ears and socks. A baby lamb soon joins them as well. Yet by far, the most compelling member of Marinka’s home is the house itself. Filled with personality and opinions, the house is intelligent and ever-changing.

A dynamic retelling of the Baby Yaga folktale, this picture book offers a big world of magic and ghosts to explore. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.