William and the Witch’s Riddle, for MMGM

Last night as I picked up a pizza I drove past the movie theater near us, and noticed that the parking lot was full and overflowing. Perhaps due to the release of the live action Beauty and the Beast movie? Fairy tales never fade, it seems, they simply reinvent themselves, and this Snow White re-imagining is proof of that!

Cover William and the Witch's Riddle

I confess that I debated whether to put William and the Witch’s Riddle in the spotlight–but not for long. When I find myself reading a book I’m not head over heels in love with it, I usually use the marker of how much the book makes me finish it as the deciding factor of whether to spotlight or not. In this case, the book definitely made me finish it. And as an added bonus, the characters from the book stayed with me, and became part of my internal landscape even weeks later. So, into the spotlight it goes!

The story begins with William and his kid brother, Pinch, stranded on top of a mountain in their tiny house, running out of turnips and the last of the weathered apples. Their Pa disappeared and hasn’t come back, and his reason for leaving was to look for their Ma, who disappeared even longer ago. Worse, there’s a witch at the door.

*spoilers below–though not too spoilery since they’re introduced early in the story and/or easy to guess*

As the story unfolds we learn that–despite their very humble circumstances–William and Pinch are part of a bigger story that began with Sleeping Beauty, except in this world the curse was put off, and has been hanging over their family’s head for generations. Unfortunately, the first person to fully fall prey to the curse is Pinch and William’s mother. Because William’s father has failed to finish the business and do as the witch asks, she’s here for William. And if he won’t do, she’ll take Pinch, instead.

The plot is a bit thin, with very few twists and those twists that exist more an inverted loop that goes nowhere than an actual twist. The Rules of Magic, or World Building, also seemed a bit iffy at times, without the solid sense of structure behind it which I personally prefer. And (if all that weren’t enough) the story-telling was itself more dour than I like, without the sense of magic or wonder to it I like. All that said, the book simply would not let me put it down, and it’s rather impressive that the characters stood out crisp and compelling in my mind for so long after. William was highly relatable, and felt like any kid would if he had the seeds of heroism planted in the soil of his love for his family, and fertilized by desperation. The companions he meets and befriends were equally memorable, and highly unique! And while Morga herself was more interesting than compelling as a bad guy, and her riddles were a bit transparent, she did the job and was satisfying in the end.

Now let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

Apricot back over shoulder laying down“Do you really need to ask? Of course those kittens, Lirian and Heldor, were my favorite. You’ll notice that they were about or involved at pretty much every crucial turning point in the book, yes? Dragons are all very well, and do nicely if cats can’t be found, but it’s felines who really provide the magic in these tales.”

 

 

 

 

Ah yes, the dragon. I really enjoyed the tiny yellow dragon, Squarmy, and wasn’t overly thrilled with the way his story is resolved. However, if it turns out that Ms. Crum has a second book in store for us that will be Squarmy and Tuli’s story, all will be forgiven.

What are you reading lately? Have you discovered any great fairy tale retellings or mashups lately? Since that’s one of my favorite genres to write, I read them compulsively whenever I’m not working on my own book, and would love to discover some I haven’t uncovered! Tell me your favorites in the comments, and while you’re looking for books, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for the full Marvelous Middle Grade Monday roundup!

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Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, for MMGM

Many thanks to Joanne for my copy of Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine. I won it in a giveaway she hosted on her blog, and was thrilled to do so! As my long time readers will remember, I’ve become a big fan of Caroline Starr Rose, and have spotlighted both of her previous books, Blue Birds and May B. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll also admit that somewhere along the way, Caroline became a good friend, as well!

Jasper is a different kind of hero, and this book is uniquely his–as I’ll go into in a minute–but Caroline’s established readers will love this one, too. I certainly did! As you can see, it inspired me to do a bit of book photography, which is something I’ve dabbled with on my instagram account. Do you like it?

Cover bookphotography for Jasper

Were I to do it again, I’d sets the lights a little farther from the cover, but live and learn. 🙂 So, what’s the scoop on this book? Well, aside from it having a boy protagonist, the other major difference is it’s not written in verse, but first person pov prose in the traditional novel style. Which made me a little nervous! I have to laugh at myself a bit for that, because I was initially wary of picking up May B because I didn’t know if I’d like a novel in verse. Now I’ve flipped it around, because I loved Caroline’s verse novels so much! However, from the moment I opened the first page and slid into Jasper’s head, none of that was an issue. Caroline brought with her the gorgeous imagery and amazing voice of her first books, and simply channeled Jasper’s story in the most effective way for him. Here’s a favorite sentence from page 190 describing Caribou, in case you doubt me:

 They move as one, like an invisible rope binds them together. They run filled up with life, their powerful brown bodies and fine white beards as big and untamed as this wilderness that stretches from the river to the shore and straight up to the sun.

Isn’t that lovely? And still poetic? Yet it’s all solidly in Jasper’s voice and there’s never anything girlish about it. I don’t mind saying it–I was seriously impressed. However, I may be once again running away with myself! This is the story of how Jasper and his older brother, Mel, run away from home and the tough times there, to join the gold rush on the Klondike and hopefully get rich beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately, things go further south the farther north they get, which is another way to say that everything which can go wrong, does. The brothers press on, however, trusting to the clues which will hopefully lead them to old one-eyed Riley’s abandoned mine and the wealth of gold he’s left behind for anyone who can sort out his riddles. The story rips along at a good pace, from attempting to beat the coming ice on a raft in the fast moving rivers of Canada, to the nuns who help them do it, to the fascinating look inside mining life, the book is full of adventure and never slows down until the twist ending. And when you get there, just keep an eye on–no. I want spoil it. 😉

Let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

Apricot snide sitting“Clearly the only people with any brains were those who kept store and sold to the green horns and greedy gold diggers. Why muck about searching for gold yourself, when folks would hand it to you, in exchange for the supplies they forgot to bring? Any cat would have known that.”

 

 

 

As usual, Apricot-kitty makes a good point, and the book did a good job of touching on every angle of the gold rush, without slowing the story down. In fact, it’s my opinion that discussing with a class the way that news became distorted the further from the gold fields it went would make an excellent way to talk about how ‘news’ can become distorted and sensationalized on the internet, as well. I’ll bet it would make for a great discussion!

What are you reading? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog for more reviews, spotlights, interviews and giveaways. Happy MMGM, and happy reading!

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El Deafo, by Cece Bell, for MMGM

I have to give a shout-out of thanks to a little girl I’m close to, for giving me the nudge to read El Deafo. I think I’d come across it, but it wasn’t till I heard how much she loved it that I pulled it to the top of my TBR pile.
Cover El Deafo
You see, this little girl–whom I’ll call Kay–is deaf. She was born without any ability to hear, thanks to a virus she and her mother contracted when her mother was pregnant with her. Kay is an energetic, warm, generous and bright-eyes girl, and she’s done really well in the hearing world thanks to hearing aids and a cochlear implant. But it hasn’t been easy. She’s sometimes felt isolated, and there are so many things that are so much harder for her than they are for hearing kids. So much Kay misses, even when everyone is trying. Since she has three hearing siblings and her parents and friends can also hear, she often felt like the only one who had to deal with these things. The. Only. One.

Then she read El Deafo, and it blew her world wide open. Even better, she got to meet the author, which thrilled her all the way down to her pinkie toes and back up to the tips of her curly hair. And I sat there listening to this and thinking–this is why we need #ownvoices. This is why we need children to have both windows–so they can see into each others’ challenges–and also mirrors, so they can clearly see themselves and be seen. Of course I knew that we needed this movement, have known it since I was a rather stranger-among-us child, myself. But I’ve never before seen with my own eyes the beauty of an #ownvoices book in action captured so well!

So, what’s this book about? Well, it’s a graphic novel told with animals–bunnies, etc.–walking around as the people, and tells the author’s own story of how she lost her hearing at a young age and coped with that through her growing up years. The isolation of being the only deaf kid in a school, the frustration of having people sign at her just because she’s deaf (even though she never learned sign language) and the typical coming-of-age challenges as she learned how to make friends, lose her heart to the new boy, and speak up for herself. What’s really neat to read is the progression as she went from being embarrassed by her difference to seeing it as her own private super power!

I highly recommend the book, not only to any kids who feel different but also for use in classrooms and family circles, because it shares so beautifully the inside scoop on this experience.

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

apricot-one-ear-back-mystified“Compared to cats, every single one of you is nearly deaf. And that’s without bothering to go into all your other inadequate senses. I don’t know why some of those kids gave that girl such a hard time when she was only slightly harder of hearing than they were.”

 

 

 

That does…illustrate a different perspective, I suppose! And would perhaps make a good discussion topic, to go alongside the book. I think every one of us feels insufficient in some way. Too awkward, too tall, too short, too heavy, too geeky, etc. So what are the super powers that each of us can find in our own lives, the way that Cece found hers? Something to think about. 🙂

For more MMGM spotlights, reviews, posts and giveaways stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!

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Among the Imposters, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, for MMGM

Happy MMGM, my friends! I’ve been so focused on all things romantic suspense–we’re exactly one week out from my Lily Black launch–that I feel I’ve been neglecting my middle grade side. And since I truly believe that in the center of my soul is a girl of some age between 11 and 14, curled up with a book, that was something I needed to change. In other words, hugs all around and it’s great to be back! 😀

When I sat down to write about Among the Imposters, I first went looking for my blog post on The Hidden, so I could link this sequel back to that post. However, I didn’t find it! Was it possible I never spotlighted it? Astonishing as it is to me, that appears to be so. Suffice it to say that I absolutely adored The Hidden, and it’s on the stack of books that the child in my center keeps close, just because she can. If you haven’t read it, quickly go and read it now, and come back to this post after you’ve finished it because there will be one or two unavoidable spoilers in discussing this sequel.

Okay, on to our actual spotlighted book today!

I prefer to get the bad news over with upfront so I’ll just admit that in many ways I didn’t enjoy Among the Imposters as much as The Hidden. However, I suspect that this was due in large part to the character, Luke/Lee, going through a rough point in which he’s grieving losses, adjusting to a new kind of life, and trying to navigate an unpleasant environment. I’ll also readily admit that a school without windows left me feeling claustrophobic and caged in. I’ve had a similar reaction to books which take place mostly underground, like Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles. In that case, I knew I was reading an enjoyable story rather than felt I was, because I could never find the underground environs of the story pleasant. My response to the Imposters wasn’t so marked as that, but I still suspect the closed in aspects of the school negatively impacted my ability to enjoy the tale, and when added to the abuse Luke/Lee endures at the hands of the other children, compounded the feeling that this story was a much more challenging endurance test for the reader as well as the character.

That said, the hard-won triumphs of the end were all the more delightful because they were hard won! I also will never forget Luke/Lee’s feelings as he works on his secret garden. If ever there was a story that would help city kids understand a farm-child’s connection with the earth, this was it. So while this was perhaps not a book that left me jumping up and down and telling everyone how great it was, it’s still one I highly recommend. At the least, it was the kind of book that leaves you with a glow of deep-seated satisfaction, and a determination to be better than you were when you began the book.

Now let’s see what Apricot-kitty thought of it:

Apricot kitty straight on superior“That Mr. Hendricks was too clever for his own explanations. And so were those kids, who kept testing the Exnays. The boy Luke was interesting and I’m glad he won in the end, but much of the book was too much muddle without enough explanation.”

 

 

 

 

Okay, so that may be true to a point. Many of the questions Luke/Lee has in the middle of the book may not feel adequately answered at the end. However, part of the point was that the school was intentionally set up to seem confusing, and appear poorly managed and idiosyncratic. So it worked for me! Have you read this series? What were your thoughts?

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, interviews, reviews and spotlights, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!

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Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer, for MMGM

Happy Snow Day! That’s our status, anyway. Everything whited over and cancelled yesterday and Saturday, and the roads just beginning to become navigable today. I hope you’re all staying warm, wherever you are!

Stepping into the spotlight today we have Magic Below Stairs, by Caroline Stevermer. More on the author below, because you may not have heard of her, but I’d like to change that!

magic-below-stairs-cover

It was wonderful to see Caroline’s book in the library. She and Patricia Wrede have jointly written some of my most beloved YA books: The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, The Grande Tour, and The Mislaid Magician. Just lovely, delightful reads, all of them. From there I was happy to branch out (both as a youth and adult) to read Patricia Wrede’s books such as Dealing with Dragons and Mairelon the Magician. But books by Caroline Stevermer have been harder to come by, and this was actually the first I read which was hers alone. However, for those who’ve read the stories above about Kate and Cecilia, Magic Below Stairs takes place in the same world, and is primarily set in Kate and Tomas Schofield’s household sometime between The Grande Tour and prior to The Mislaid Magician.

Okay, so what’s this book about, anyway? Frederick Lincoln is an orphan in Victorian England, and forced to make the best of a less than perfect life. As the book begins he’s unfortunately attracted a bit of unwanted attention from the orphan master because he was caught helping in the kitchen (for hope of some scraps) and is told to clean up by hand hundreds of peas and beans which the master scatters across the kitchen floor. If they’re not all clean by morning, it’s the still room for Frederick. For hours he works, because he’s not one to give up easily. But the task wasn’t meant to be possible, and some time in the wee hours of the morning he drifts off, his fingers raw and the task undone.

In the morning the peas and beans are all clean, however, and the floor spick and span. The master looks at Frederick sideways and trusts him even less, and Frederick is left with a hazy dream memory of a small green fellow named Billy Bly, humming as he worked to sort the peas and beans.

So begins their adventures as Frederick learns all he can from life and doubly so after being chosen–under somewhat mysterious circumstances–to work ‘below stairs’ as a footboy in the wizard Schofield’s household. the first snag is of course the fact that Billy Bly is a brownie and has followed Frederick, and Lord Schofield has forbidden all such magic creatures from his home. A second snag, if you could call it that, comes in the form of a terrible curse on the Schofield home. Frederick and his friend navigate the first with aplomb and go after the second with tenacity and grit.

Mysterious magic in the night, a baby in peril, secrets to be kept and guarded, and all of it set against a background that’s so detailed as to feel lush, bringing to life a Victorian England where magic and mystery are rampant. The book ends with hints of a sequel to come and I went looking eagerly for news of it, but see nothing as yet. However, the book works well as a standalone should a sequel never occur.

But enough meandering from me. Let’s get Apricot-kitty’s two cents:

snow-and-apricot-jan-2017“You expect me to share my wisdom, when you still haven’t cleaned up this nasty white stuff spilled all over the ground? Oh, very well. The boy showed wonderful ingenuity for a human child, and was clever in his never-ending hunt to learn. The Brownie was precisely what one would expect from such a creature–like a cat, but requiring magic to accomplish the same role. The character I liked best was actually the girl who became Frederick’s friend in the big house. That Bess was savvy and fun. We should read a book focused on her!”

 

 

 

I’m all for it–just give me more books set in this world, and I’m happy! And a note on the world: the addition of magic changes things, of course, but otherwise the research and work spent getting details about Victorian England correct is impressive. Readers (and reviewers!) will pick up a bit more about life in another time, and never notice the history lesson. Far from being a bitter medicine, the book is such an easy, delightful read that one never knows there was any medicine at all.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, spotlights, giveaways and discussion, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!

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Magical Animal Adoption Agency: Clovers Luck, by Kallie George, for MMGM

Happy MMGM, my friends! As I type this, we here in North Carolina have had minor freezes and threats of freezing rain, but no snow. That’s still quite cold enough for me, and it’s easy to see how a lovely (warm!) summer book like this one could be a hit for some young reader to unwrap. 🙂

Magical animals and a hidden super cool place for the protagonist to explore? You’ve got all of that and more in Magical Animal Adoption Agency: Clovers Luck, which is in the spotlight today.

This was a super short story that will appeal to boys and girls who want the kinds of stories the stronger/older readers are enjoying, but at an easier level to plow through them the fatter fantasy books that are generally available.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed the book, initially I almost put it away and stop reading. So to coax you through these negatives (which I do want to discuss) I’m first going to give you a pic of a fairy house. To remind you of where we’re going with this post. 😉

Fairy House 2

 

My first hesitation came when we quickly shifted from modern life to fairy tale/olden days type setting without any actual shift or transition–more of a lurch. The initial setup is that Clover has just gotten out of school and is disappointed when she finds that her friend has gotten into the Pony camp they both wanted to go to and were wait-listed for, while Clover did not get in. She thinks this is just her luck as she is a very unlucky girl and is happy for her friend but sad that there will be no ice cream runs or sleepovers adventures, and she can forget the excitement that she would have had with her friend all summer. She knows she will be bored since her parents work all the time. Typical modern-day kid, yes?

But, wait! Shortly after this we find that Clover lives in a village with a deep dark woods nearby, where no one lives and in which no one goes because they’re afraid of it, and that even the adults don’t know what is on the other side of this mysterious woods. My difficulty was that none of that sounds remotely modern, does it? And the story carried on with this kind of juxtaposition of fairy tale and modern, going back and forth the entire time. Another example: the adoption agency for magical creatures where Clover eventually volunteers feels like something straight out of a fantasy or fairy tail if you don’t mind the modern refrigerator. Initially this really pushed me out of the story. And another–Clover’s parents appeared to be reasonably on the ball professionals, caring and aware of their daughter, yet they never find out even the address of the new place she’s volunteering or who she’s working with on a daily basis.

So, there are some definite world building quirks that require suspension of disbelief and a willingness to ignore possible discrepancies. If those weren’t enough, it also bothered me that right up front Clover is asked to keep secret from her parents where she is going during the day by a man who is supposedly a good guy and cares about all creatures, Clover included. A chapter or two later we learn that she is only keeping secrets about the fact that she is working with magical creatures, and not that she is working with animals at an animal adoption agency, so that helped. But I would have preferred different handling of the situation.

All of that said, I do think the book is worth pushing into! And I also suspect these issues will not be as problematic for young readers as they were for me. The creatures found in the adoption agency were delightful and unique while remaining true to the tropes readers expect from fantasy beasts. In addition, Clover’s need to be ingenious and reach within herself to solve problems that she encounters, once she is left to manage the adoption agency on her own, is delightful to read as an adult and I’m sure would fill a younger reader with triumph. I also enjoyed reading about her encounters and interactions in the woods with both those who are adopting animals and the animals themselves.

Best of all, in the end, Clover finds the resources inside herself to create her own happy ending for the magical creatures of the adoption agency, and for herself. The message is that you create your own luck if you’re lucky enough, and that message came through very clearly without beating the reader over the head with the message stick. And finally, I have to give a shout out to the illustrator Alexandra Boiger, whose delightful drawings throughout really added a touch of whimsy and fun to the story. Sometimes I barely notice the drawings in a book, and sometimes, like here, they add a whole ‘nother layer of character. 🙂

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

Cat on bench“A bit simple for my taste, but I liked this book. As for luck, so far as I can see humans have little of it. Cats, on the other hand, are some of the luckiest creatures out there. We generate good luck when we purr. A lesson for you humans in there, eh?”

 

 

 

I think we’d all agree that’s true. For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, interviews, reviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog. Happy reading, and happy holidays!

 

The Sun Trail (Warriors: Dawn of the Clan #1), by Erin Hunter, for MMGM

Happy December, folks! With Christmas and Hanukkah right around the corner, I think a lot of us are wondering what books kids will get really excited about unwrapping. I’m definitely seeing more requests for book recommendations on Facebook, and answering that question is one of my all time loves! The only down side is that I often feel bad for any books I forget to suggest, or can’t recommend for that reader. So even as I offer these December picks, I’m sending a little love pat to all the books I couldn’t choose!

For this week, The Sun Trail, from Erin Hunter’s Warriors series, is stepping into the spotlight.

I think every reviewer, teacher, and librarian out there is familiar with the Warriors books. My oldest (who’s nearly 20 now) got into them and got me reading them when he was around ten. A decade later they take up an entire shelf in most book stores and libraries, and have been reinvented and added on to in a dozen ways. So, why the spotlight on this one? Well, I think most kids start the Warriors books with Into the Wild, the first book, which features Firestar as he transitions to the wild and becomes a clan cat. And from that series it’s an easy transition for kids to read on, following the story into the next generation of clan cats. But what about this prequel series? Are they a good fit for young Warrior’s fans? Will they have the same vibe, and make young readers stay up all night reading? Should they actually be read first, since that’s the chronological order?

The answer to that is 96% yes, and maybe not. I read this the first of the Dawn of the Clan books with an eye for age-appropriate material, that matched the intensity and handling of tricky subject matter of the original series. And in that regard, I felt the books were a solid match. I can also say that Gray Wing (the main character) and the other cats experience a good balance of adventures and what MLP fans call ‘Slice of Life’ moments, in which relationships are developed and we see the characters explore their daily life. Additionally, the introduction of the various cats is quite good, so the reader can readily sort out and identify with the most integral cats at each point along the way. As usual, the Erin Hunter team of writers did a superb job.

So, what about that other 4% and maybe? Well, I felt that the overall subject matter was a bit heavier than is generally seen in the original series. In both series, we see situations of betrayal, and moments where the main character cat must face the reality that he can’t save all his friends, and is deeply disappointed in those cats he looks up to or relies on. But in The Sun Trail, those incidents far outweigh moments of lightness and fun. In fact, after finishing the books, I was hard pressed to remember any happy times for the cats that weren’t also tinged with sorrow or sacrifice. As I said, the individual examples were handled well…but the sum total could overwhelm young readers. In this story, Gray Wing is not exiting a cozy kittypet home looking for adventure (as was the case with Firestar), but in the beginning has made a wrenching decision to face a dangerous unknown, for the survival of himself and his fellow cats. Moreoever, that danger is punctuated along the way but painful losses. So, Gray Wing’s world reflects more desperate times and the viewpoint of a cat who has exited the kitten years and faces responsibilities at every turn. For that reason, I recommend that young readers begin with Into the Wold and progress forward through the books closer to how they were written. Following that route, they’ll be ready for The Sun Trail’s more stark world when they’ve read their way to it. And I suspect at that point will thoroughly enjoy it!

Now, let’s see what Apricot-kitty has to say about the cat heroes:

 

apricot-reading-warriors“Go away. I’m reading.”

 

 

 

 

 

Hmm, I suppose I should speak to her about her manners…but then again, I was the one who interrupted her in the middle of a book, wasn’t I? So I shouldn’t be surprised at her response. At any rate, I give you all permission to recommend these books to your friends as ‘cat approved’ since they’re definitely a favorite of Apricot-kitty’s!

What books are on your holiday wish list? Which are you recommending? I’m always eager to find and read more books! Speaking of which–after you’ve stopped by Shannon Messenger’s blog and indulged in the full awesomeness that is Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, I recommend you stop by the Kidlit Drink Night Podcast Facebook page and see which books they’re giving away today. First off because the podcast is highly amusing and run by friends of mine (best reason to recommend something, yes?), and secondly because it’s super easy to enter to win, and there’s a new author-signed FREE book given away each day through I think the 13th or 14th of December! So, check that out. 🙂 And happy reading!

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Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale, for MMGM

What does Palace of Stone have to do with Thanksgiving week? Well…I’m tempted to say absolutely nothing, but here are a couple things that come to mind, right off the top of my head:

  • Gratitude that our presidents have limited terms, and that no matter how awful the choice in whomever gets voted in (notice how careful I’m being to try and stay neutral?) we do not have to put up with said person for a lifetime, and do not have to resort to violence to bring about change.
  • Gratitude that most of us enjoy incredible degrees of personal freedom, safety, and comfort, even when things are lean and difficult, when compared to much of human history.
  • Gratitude that we have books, books, and more books than we can ever read at our finger tips and available for us to read. They give us transport to other times and places, and provide an excellent release for our day to day stresses. Besides, they’re fun!

So, there you go. Princess Academy: Palace of Stone is stepping into the spotlight this week, and not the least concerned about its lack of turkeys or an autumn theme!


*WARNING: there be spoilers below*

Putting what I feel is a fair spotlight on this book is a little trickier. But, let me first talk about what it’s about and what I loved. In this second book, or sequel, to Shannon Hale’s first Princess Academy, we see Miri navigating the ins and outs of bustling life in the city, far from the comfort and familiarity of her life on Mount Eskel. And the city isn’t exactly a peaceful place. Early in the book, when she arrives, she witnesses a man make an assassination attempt on the king, resulting in the would-be assassin being shot. That establishes the pulse of the city, wherein the people are poor and angry with their king for the tax burden he’s placed on them. They are desperate, and some among them are ready for revolution. They see in Miri a girl of the people, who is accustomed to poverty and able to bring about change, as she did in helping the village of Mount Eskel get a fair price for their linder.

Unfortunately, this puts Miri in a bad position. She just wants to help Britta and Prince Stefan prepare for their wedding (and work through whatever has gone wrong in their relationship) while learning all she can as a student in the prestigious Queen’s Castle school. But she feels deep sympathy for the poor of the city and for the people’s revolutionary desires for change. Soon, without her really intending it, she’s deeply embroiled in schemes on both sides, and headed toward serious danger. In and around and in the middle of all this, Miri stretches and grows into broader and more complex views of the world. She comes to understand that the problems of the kingdom are much bigger than she ever could have imagined on Mount Eskel. She navigates some tricky relationship ins and outs, and learns to look her enemies in the face and (most of them) find there a person she can respect and have empathy for. She also has to closely examine her own heart, and the person she’s becoming, and figure out what it is she really wants and who she wants to be.

In other words, she grows up. Some people complain that she’s less active in this book than in the first–and that’s true. She does appear less the solution and struggles more to find the answer. But that’s often the case when a person grows from the early teen years–with energy and often all the answers–through the challenging time as an older teen when you discover that despite your hard work, good intentions, and proactive resourcefulness, the problems of the world have not gone away. Moreover, sometimes you can’t save a friendship, and you can’t win over every enemy. These are painful truths that older teens face and adults know well, but often preteens and younger teens are spared. So, I felt the book accurately reflected Miri’s older mindset and maturity, down to and including her challenges in finding ready-made solutions. She’s still a strong character with a big heart and a determination to overcome no matter what, and she’s still a daughter of Mount Eskel, with a connection to the stone of the mountain’s mysterious magic. She’s still Miri, in other words, and this is still a Princess Academy story.

That said…to fans of the first book, it may be a disappointment. Especially the younger fans, who’ve just finished the first book. A beloved (one could say classic), Newbery Honor book is a tough act to follow, and in many ways, this sequel falls flat. In growing Miri up in the ways she does, we lose much of her innocence and freshness. In broadening the scope of the story’s stage, many new characters are brought in and we see very little of the original band from the Princess Academy. Katar, Esa, Frid, Gerti, they all get sidelined. We see so little of Peder that he seems more a representation of the mountain and Miri’s love for it than an actual character. Even Britta gets very little page time, despite the book supposedly being about Miri helping her, and most of the conflict centering on her role as the new princess. From a writer and editorial stand point, I can see what Shannon Hale did and why, and appreciate the wisdom of her choices. From a readers perspective, I could only sigh. At the end of the day, the story simply does not feel like a sequel to the first, and would get better reviews and leave behind a happier readership if it were completely divorced from the first and meant to be a read as a stand alone. It simply doesn’t feel connected to Princess Academy in any way that speaks to the soul.

But, there. Enough from me. I feel for authors who receive pressure from fans (for years!) to write a sequel to a beloved book. The odds of anyone being truly happy with the result if the author caves and writes it are slim to none. So, let’s get the wisdom of a cat and see what Apricot-kitty has to say:

apricot-kitty-no-way-face-and-paw“Haven’t I told you all to stop this before? That’s right, you remember when I said you shouldn’t let yesterday’s mouse spoil today’s mole. And what is it I hear you doing? Complaining about a perfectly delicious book because it’s not the same as the first. Just stop.”

 

 

 

 

And there you have the crux of the problem, of course! We love the first too much to love the second as it stands…and can’t quite help ourselves. That said, the political world building in this sequel was truly amazing! Just as the first book taught unsuspecting readers superb negotiating skills, this book teaches them more about political science and the art of government than they ever thought they’d retain. It may not satisfy the same craving as the first, but it’s a good book, and one I’ll still recommend.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, reviews, interviews and giveaways, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog! If you live in the US or celebrate our holidays, have a scrumptious and joy-filled Thanksgiving, and to all of you–happy reading!

 

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Full of Beans, by Jennifer Holm, for MMGM

I was fortunate enough to win my copy of Full of Beans from Joanne Fritz–many thanks, again!–and found this story to be delightful and satisfying in unexpected ways. Full of Beans is the tale of Beans Curry, who has big plans for himself and his friends that will see them comfortably through the lean times of the Great Depression. The one catch? His plans don’t seem to be working out so well.

(just a note in case you’re thinking of purchasing–the book is actually a lovely true green in person, not this pukey color)

However misfires, sabotage-by-gluttony, and the meddling of his arch enemy won’t keep Beans down for long. And that’s the first thing I loved about this book–the spunk and ingenuity Beans demonstrates. It may seem an obvious connection, but it occurred to me while reading this story that the ‘Greatest Generation,’ as the folk who saw the US through WWII are often called, were children of and came of age during the Great Depression. Is it too much of a stretch to think the challenges they faced as part of their daily life were how they learned the ingenuity, fortitude, and courage they became known for later? I don’t think so, and one of the first things I loved about this book was Beans determination and grit.

The second thing was definitely his attitude. Now, I should warn you that he’s…not what you’d call angelic. He has no quibbles over lying (even to his beloved mother) when he feels the need, because he feels that adults are the biggest liars around…and he’s got a point, since the adults in his life do have a habit of lying to him. Many times it’s because they want to spare him worry, but even then Beans sees through them. And then there are the adults who are happy to make some shady arrangements with Beans and lie about the legality of what they’re doing. Of course, Beans is no fool and sees through that, too, but even with his streets savvy and ingenuity, it’s impossible that he’ll land on his feet every time.

Even scarier is the question of what happens if he lands on his feet…and then feels really, really bad about it? This is the question that we spend a good portion of the novel considering, and prompts Beans to take a second look at several particulars and pieces in his life, and his priorities.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I can definitely recommend this one, and promise that you’ll soak up this bit of history without ever noticing the ‘pill’ going down, as it’s more a street-kid-caper that happens to be set in a colorful part of the Florida Keys, when they’re in the midst of the Great Depression. You’ll love it. 😀

Now, let’s hear what Apricot-kitty has to say:

apricot-puzzled-curious“What was with those names? Beans? Peas? Curry? Pudding? Pork chop? Yes, okay, the story was delightful and I loved the way Beans got his gang all set up in the end, but please tell me, because I’ve heard whispers about gingerbread houses and that sort of funny business…when the parents named their children were they planning to eat them?

 

 

 

 

 

Ha! Okay, so yes, the names in the book are a little odd. In addition to those listed above, we have Too bad, Kermit, a dog named Termite, and you should also know that ‘Peas’ is actually Beans. However, I’m quite positive that no children were ever in any danger, and if food was on people’s minds when the passed out nicknames, can you really blame them?

And on that note–I also really loved a subtle impact of Full of Beans, which was that it makes being thankful for small and simple things extremely easy! I recommend it to any readers who want to take a fresh look at their lives and this month’s focus on gratitude.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday reviews, interviews, giveaways and spotlights, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and wish her happy book touring and congrats on her launch of Lodestar while you’re there!

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Invisible Inkling, by Emily Jenkins,for MMGM

I know Halloween isn’t til next week, but on my new schedule I won’t be posting. So I hope you’ll all forgive me a slightly early Halloweenish post–starting with this very important PSA:

Beware of jack-o-lanterns which develop an appetite for candy! You never know when they’ll sneak into your stash and eat all the treats you planned to give cute little trick or treating kids.

pumpkin-mean-candy-eater

There’s no good outcome when a pumpkin goes bad…so consider yourself forewarned, take the necessary precautions, and have a Happy Halloween from me and mine!

Today’s spotlighted book–Invisible Inkling–isn’t technically a Halloween story, but it felt like a good match to me. I’ll blame it on all the talk about pumpkins, since the ice cream shop which Hank’s parents own is called Big Round Pumpkin, and his new invisible friend has a serious squash craving that won’t be denied. And a Bandapat needs to keep up his strength, you know!


You can (sort of) see Inkling in Hank’s backpack, on the cover, though we don’t learn what Inkling looks like–exactly–til well into the book. Probably in the last third. This is because Inkling is a highly endangered Peruvian Bandapat, and as such is invisible. He’s too cute, you see, so he’d be irresistible if folks could see him. He comes to New York and shows up in Hank’s family’s ice cream shop in search of pumpkins, but his arrival is a lucky thing for Hank because he is about to start fourth grade without the benefit of his life-long buddy and best friend. This catastrophe is somewhat mitigated by Hank having Inkling to distract him at home, since the two quickly become fast friends.

Of course, that leaves Hank to navigate the realm of fourth on his own, and the navigating isn’t going too well. An unfortunate incident in soccer brings Hank to the attention of a school bully, Gillicut, and in the escalating battle between the boys, Hank discovers unpleasant depths within himself as well as unexpected allies and resources in himself.

The story does a wonderful job of balancing the realistic with the fantastic, blending it all together so that it comes to feel that perhaps there really do exist such creatures as Bandapats, and it seems quite reasonable that they would be invisible and consider themselves experts on the lunchroom scene, even if said expert advice backfires more than it doesn’t. I also felt the book did a great job of showing how a persons perception of bullying can shift depending on the lens brought to bear. Not that this book gives good advice to adults or kids on how to handle bullying–because frankly, it really doesn’t–but I did like the way it showed Hank realizing how quickly the ‘bully’ seesaw could shift. That’s not something I see often in middle grades.

Now, let’s get Apricot-kitty’s two cents:

apricot-one-ear-back-mystified“Do you really mean to tell me you have nothing to say about Hank’s father? He was quick enough to scold when Hank crossed the line, at school, but not so quick to help Hank out so the kid stayed comfortably back from the line, was he? I mean…really. Any cat with an attitude like that wouldn’t be worthy of her claws.”

 

 

 

 

I did mention being unimpressed with how the adults in the story handled the bullying, yes? Well, that’s all I want to say, cause I’m running the risk of dropping spoilers as is. ‘Sides, it’s my view that kids aren’t picking up Invisible Inkling for practical advice, and it does a decent job of illustrating the various things that won’t work, anyway. Oh, yes. And it also brought home to me that I–like my cat–am not a pacifist. And I’m entirely okay with that. 😉

Do you have any fun and not too scary Halloween books to recommend? Do you plan to dress up? I’m on the fence, myself, but will probably throw on a wig or pull something together. Because, Halloween!

For more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday spotlights, reviews, giveaways and interviews, stop by Shannon Messenger’s blog, and happy reading!

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