Children

Fantasy Literature for Children ages 9-12.

The Specter from the Magician’s Museum: Might be the scariest story yet

The Specter from the Magician's Museum by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The Specter from the Magician's Museum (1998) is the seventh novel in the LEWIS BARNAVELT horror series for middle graders. The first novel, The House with a Clock in its Walls, was written by John Bellairs and published in 1973. There was a 17-year hiatus after the third book, The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, was published in 1976 while Bellairs was focused on his JOHNNY DIXON series. Bellairs died in 1991, leaving both series to be finished by author Brad Strickland. I haven’t read the JO... Read More

The Doom of the Haunted Opera: The kids encounter a necromancer

The Doom of the Haunted Opera by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The Doom of the Haunted Opera (1995), the sixth book in John Bellairs’ and Brad Strickland’s LEWIS BARNAVELT series for middle grade readers, has best friends Lewis and Rose Rita back together again after having separate adventures in the previous two novels, The Ghost in the Mirror (Rose Rita) and The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder (Lewis).

The adults are away — Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman have gone to Florida to execute the will of a frien... Read More

The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder: Strickland respectfully continues this series

The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

Thanks to author Brad Strickland, who picked up John Bellairs’ children’s series after Bellairs’ death, the LEWIS BARNAVELT adventures continue with the fifth installment, The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder (1993). Surprisingly, I can detect no difference between the writing styles of the two authors. Strickland continues this series with the utmost respect for Bellairs’ vision and characters.

In The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder we learn what Lewis and his uncle Jonathan were doing while Lewis’s best friend Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmerman were having their own adventure in Read More

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring: Rose Rita in the spotlight

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring (1976) is the third novel in John BellairsLEWIS BARNAVELT series for kids. Each is a stand-alone horror mystery. It’s not necessary to read them in order but it’d be ideal, if you can, to start with the first book, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, because that’s the one in which we watch Lewis, recently orphaned, come to live in the house of his uncle, a jovial man who’s a bit of a magician. In the second book, The Figure in the Shadows, you’ll meet Rose Rita, a tomboy who’s Lewis’... Read More

The Figure In The Shadows: Exciting, scary, and sweet

The Figure In The Shadows by John Bellairs

Lewis Barnavelt, 11 years old and recently orphaned, has been settling in at his uncle’s house. It's 1949, about a year since we saw him last (in The House With a Clock in Its Walls) and he has made a new friend – a tomboy named Rose Rita.

When Uncle Jonathan opens a trunk owned by his father (Lewis’s grandfather), Lewis, a lover of history, is bequeathed with his grandfather’s lucky coin. When he begins wearing the coin around his neck, weird things start happening to Lewis. He gets strange postcards in the middle of the night. He suddenly overcomes his cowardice and punches a bully. He fights with Rose Rita and becomes suspicious of her. He gets the feeling that someone is following him.

Lewis is coming undone but, thankfully, he has a few people w... Read More

The House with a Clock in Its Walls: Lewis is an appealing hero

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

Lewis Barnavelt is a chubby middle schooler whose parents recently died in a car accident. He has just arrived in a new town at the house (mansion, actually) of an uncle he hardly knows. Uncle Jonathan is eccentric, as is his neighbor and best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, a middle-aged widow who loves the color purple.

As Lewis begins to adjust to a new living situation, new school, and new neighborhood kids, he gradually becomes aware that there’s something weird about Uncle Jonathan and his house. It turns out that Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman aren’t just eccentric – they are magicians. Uncle Jonathan’s main skill is to create benign entertaining illusions. Mrs. Zimmerman might be more powerful, but it’s not yet clear what exactly these powers might be.

The mansion used to be inhabited by an evil magician. That guy’s now dead, but he left a clock tic... Read More

Da Vinci’s Cat: Solidly charming, but has its issues

Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock offers up a solidly charming Middle Grade portal story involving travel through time and space, the painting of the Sistine Chapel, shifting timelines, feuding Renaissance artists, and of course, a cat. With a quick pace, high stakes, and two comically mismatched young protagonists, Da Vinci’s Cat (2021) will probably satisfy most young readers, despite some issues.

In 1511 Rome, 11-year-old Federico Gonzaga is a “guest-hostage” to Pope Julius II, ensconced in the Pope’s sumptuous villa to ensure the loyalty of his aristocratic family, particularly his father, who leads the Pope’s army. It’s a lavish, pampered existence for sure, but also constraining (he’s not allowed to leave the admittedly huge complex/grounds) and more than a little lonely. That loneliness is eventually abated by a strange trio who s... Read More

Even and Odd: Fun and thought-provoking

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth Durst

Even and Odd are pre-teen sisters living in Stony Haven, Connecticut, where their parents operate a border shop carrying “supplies for the mundane world, as well as imports from the magic world — anything a magical customer might need for their visit here.” Those imports and magically-inclined customers come from the land of Firoth, where Even and Odd were born, and which is accessible via magic portals. The sisters trade off magical abilities on alternating days, leading to their nicknames, though each girl has different opinions on their access to magic: Even, more than anything in the world, wants to become an Academy of Magic-certified hero, while Odd wants to focus on her volunteer work at the local animal rescue center and pretend that she’s completely mundane (unless the opportunity arises to transform Even into a talking skunk, at which point all bets are off).

Much to everyone’s ... Read More

Race to the Sun: An exciting and educational family story

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Nizhoni Begay wants to be a star, or at least popular. She’s hoping to make the game-winning score at her middle school basketball game but, instead, she’s humiliated when she gets distracted and gets hit in the face by the ball. The reason she was distracted was that she saw a man in the stands watching her. She could tell he was a monster. When that same man shows up at her house for dinner because he’s her dad’s new boss, Nizhoni tries to warn her father that he’s a monster but her father doesn’t believe her and seems very eager to please the monster.

When the new boss tells Nizhoni that she and her little brother Mac have powers he’s interested in, and then kidnaps their dad, it’s up to Nizhoni, Mac, and Nizhoni’s best friend Davery to rescue him.

This sets them on a quest in which they will need to find a map, solve riddles, pass tests, procure special weap... Read More

A Game of Fox & Squirrels: A moving allegory

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

11-year-old Samantha and her big sister have just arrived at their Aunt Vicky’s farm in Oregon. Samantha is not happy that the girls have been taken away from their parents and she wants to go home, even though her dad sometimes has a pretty bad temper. Aunt Vicky and her wife are clearly not prepared to take the girls in, but they do their best to make the sisters feel at home.

Aunt Vicky gives Samantha a game called The Game of Fox & Squirrels and one night, when Samantha is playing with it, the fox from the game visits her room. He’s charming and offers to give Samantha anything she wants if she can find the Golden Acorn. Samantha, who just wants to be back with her family in Los Angeles, is nervous about the challenge, but decides it’s the only way to get out of her current situation.

As Samantha attempts to complete her quest, various dangers arise ... Read More

Oddity: In a folkloric USA, a brave girl fights magic with magic

Oddity by Eli Brown

2021’s Oddity is a wonderful middle-grade adventure, with a valiant and compassionate young heroine, a beguiling take on alternate early-USA history, and a plethora of action and magic. Adults who read it with younger readers might discover it sparks a serious conversation about loyalty, values, and how we decide what’s right and what’s not.

Karin Rytter’s illustrations, which look like woodcuts, enhance the reading experience. So does the tone Brown employs, which reminded me a little of some of Philip Pullman’s middle-grade books, like The Ruby in the Smoke and The Tin Princess. Brown captures the nuance of a folktale while still giving us living, breathing people we care about. Some of those people are other than human.

Clover Cons... Read More

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls: Younger readers will enjoy the fresh setting

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

Kaela Rivera sets her novel Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls (2021) against a backdrop of Mexican/Meso-American/Southwestern folktales and legends, sending the titular protagonist on a quest to rescue her older sister. The story will probably mostly satisfy its target Middle Grade audience but is less likely to appeal to even slightly older readers.

Tierra del Sol is a remote town surrounded by desert that each year enacts a ritualist dance to frighten away the dark criaturas that have long threatened Cece’s people. Cece herself is too young for the dance and is as well more than a little distrusted by the townspeople due to an incident from her childhood. Her sister, on the other hand, is loved by all. Unfortunately, she’s also caught the eye of El Sombreron, one of the worst of the dark criaturas, and when he kidnaps her on the nigh... Read More

Hilda and the Black Hound: A slightly scarier adventure for our Hilda

Hilda and the Black Hound by Luke Pearson

The fourth book in the HILDA series by Luke Pearson sees our little blue-haired adventurer grappling with two brand new mysteries. Taking place in a Scandinavian-inspired setting filled with all sorts of mythological creatures, Hilda and her mother have recently moved to the city after their log-cabin was destroyed — and Hilda is finding it a bit difficult to adjust.

Her mother suggests she join the Sparrow Scouts, something she was involved with as a little girl, which will give Hilda the opportunity to once again enjoy the outdoors. Immediately struck by the idea of collecting badges, Hilda embraces the club and its motto: to be a friend to all people, animals and spirits.

It’s for this reason she’s confused when her mother refuses to let he... Read More

Hilda and the Bird Parade: Hilda’s adventures continue

Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson

The third book in the HILDA series by Luke Pearson sees our blue-haired adventurer in quite different surroundings. After the events of Hilda and the Midnight Giant, Hilda and her mother have moved to the city, far away from the open spaces of the countryside and the multitude of magical creatures that live there.

Still, Hilda is trying to make the best of it, even if her mother is far more nervous about her roaming the city by herself than she was the country. But when some friends from school unexpectedly turn up at her door, Hilda is allowed to accompany them as they show her the sights of the neighbourhood.

Pearson writes with nuance: y... Read More

The Year I Flew Away: Full of heart and humor

The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold

The Year I Flew Away (2021), by Marie Arnold, combines the timelessness of a fairy tale with the timeliness of the immigrant experience, all while being set in the 1980s amidst Whitney Houston and Prince. It’s a charming middle-grade novel full of heart and humor.

Gabrielle is a young girl living in Haiti; though she’s poor, she’s surrounded by family and friends. One day her parents have big news: Gabrielle is going to America to live with her aunt and uncle. She has to go alone, though, because of issues with her parents’ paperwork.

Gabrielle thought America would be heaven, but instead she finds herself terribly lonely; the other kids make fun of her and leave her out. And when her uncle and aunt take her to their respective workplaces, she learns that they have to deal with bigots on a daily basis. Gabrielle feels li... Read More

Death Weavers: Finally, some answers

Death Weavers by Brandon Mull

Death Weavers (2016) is the fourth of five novels in Brandon Mull’s FIVE KINGDOMS series. This is a fun adventure that I’d recommend for middle grade readers. You’ll want to read the first three books, Sky Raiders, Rogue Knight, and Crystal Keepers, before picking up Death Weavers. I’ll assume you’ve read them and I may include minor spoilers for those earlier installments in this review.

Cole and his companions continue to visit each of the kingdoms in the Outskirts a... Read More

Cathedral of Bones: Lovecraftian YA done right

Cathedral of Bones by A.J. Steiger

Young teen Simon Frost has had a rough start to his early life. His twin sister was murdered several years ago, his mother vanished shortly thereafter leaving only a note, his father was expelled from the Foundation amid darkly ominous rumors about his research, and Simon himself has shown so little talent as a Foundation animist not a single mentor will take him on, leaving him relegated to working in the mailroom sorting requests for the Foundation’s aid from citizens and towns/cities. When the Foundation ignores a letter from a small asking for assistance against a dangerous monster, Simon takes it on himself to come to their aid, the first step on a journey that will find him an unexpected ally and change everything he knows about the Foundation, himself, his family, and his world.

In Cathedral of Bones (2020), A.J. Steiger has crafted a Lovecrafti... Read More

Crystal Keepers: An exciting installment in this fun middle grade series

Crystal Keepers by Brandon Mull

Crystal Keepers (2015) is the third of five installments in Brandon Mull’s FIVE KINGDOMS series for kids. It follows Sky Raiders and Rogue Knight, which you’ll want to read first. There are a couple of spoilers for those novels in this review.

The story is about some middle grade kids who went to a haunted house on Halloween and were kidnapped and sold into slavery in a parallel universe called the Outskirts or the Five Kingdoms. Cole Randolph, a classmate of the kidnapped kids, managed to hide from the kidnappers and follow his friends into the Outskirts. He’s been trying to find them, save ... Read More

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The harrowing adventures of two brave fox kits

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

One chilly autumn night, seven fox kits beg their mother for a scary story, “[s]o scary our eyes fall out of our heads.” Don’t go to the Bog Cavern, she tells them, because the old storyteller lives there, and the tale she would tell them would be so scary it would put white in their tails. So naturally the seven kits scamper off through the woods to the Bog Cavern as soon as their mother is asleep, and beg the spooky-looking storyteller for a scary story.
“All scary stories have two sides,” the storyteller said. “Like the bright and dark of the moon. If you’re brave enough to listen and wise enough to stay to the end, the stories can shine a light on the good in the world.”
But, she warns, kits who lose heart and don’t stay until the end of the stories may lose all hope and be too frightened to ever leave their den again. Then she embarks on a se... Read More

Over the Woodward Wall: Follow the improbable brick road

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Over the Woodward Wall (2020) began its life as an imagined book, existing merely as a set of excerpts “quoted” at the end of certain chapters in Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame. But these excerpts were compelling enough that McGuire decided to use them as the building blocks for an actual fantasy series, using the pseudonym A. Deborah Baker (the alchemist credited with authoring this book in Middlegame).

Avery and Hepzibah (“Zib”) are two “very different, very ordinary” children who live on the same ordinary street but don't know each other at all. They’re as far apart as A and Z in their personalities: Zib is free-spirited and adventurous, ... Read More

Anya and the Nightingale: Into the woods

Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack

Last year, Anya and her friends Ivan and Håkon defeated a bloodthirsty Viking named Sigurd, who wanted to murder Håkon for his river dragon magic. Since then, Anya’s been bat mitzvahed, Ivan’s family has settled into their lives in Zmeyreka, and the local magistrate has been expelled, with the result that Anya’s family has been openly welcomed among the other villagers, but her papa still hasn’t returned from war. When Anya learns that there’s been a miscommunication and her papa has been sent to Rûm rather than home, she embarks upon a secret journey to bring him back, accompanied by Ivan and Håkon — who, thanks to a friendly forest spirit named Lena, has been transformed into a human boy. Additionally, Lena magically transports the trio to Kiev, saving them from what would certainly be quick deaths along an arduous journey, but is nowhere near Anya’s papa.

As fate w... Read More

Anya and the Dragon: The magical adventures of a plucky young heroine

Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

With just a month before her bat mitzvah, Anya’s life is mostly preoccupied with keeping her family’s goats out of the garden, her worries over being unable to see the hidden threads of magic connecting everything in the world, and staying out of trouble both at home and in the neighboring village of Zmeyreka, since the local magistrate is actively working to throw Anya’s family out of their home. If only her beloved papa would come home from the Tsar’s faraway war against Sultan Suleiman! But then she stumbles across a bright-red river dragon named Håkon, a brand-new family of fools (literally; they utilize fool’s magic, and the seven sons are all named Ivan) moves into town, and dangerous men in the tsar’s employ arrive in pursuit of the dragon. Eventually, Anya is forced into a terrible position: help her family by not involving herself in the sudden swirl of activity, or help her newfound... Read More

Hatch: Oppel’s alien invasion remains full of action

Hatch by Kenneth Oppel

Hatch (2020) is Kenneth Oppel’s continuation of his MG alien invasion tale that began with Bloom. Oppel maintains the fast-paced excitement, keeping his focus on the three young protagonists Petra, Anaya, and Seth, while adding a few new characters as well. Fans of book one will not be disappointed, save by a killer of a cliffhanger ending. Inevitable spoilers for book one ahead.

In the first book, aliens were softening up Earth and preparing it for their impending invasion by seeding our planet with various deadly plant species that weren’t just dangerous to touch or eat but were actively carnivorous, though their biggest danger was a growth rate that was quickly obliterating humanity’s food crops.... Read More

Bloom: A scary plant pandemic that now seems possible

Reposting to include Bill's new review.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel

Three kids battle an invasive plant in Kenneth Oppel’s latest middle grade fantasy. Bloom (2020) is mysterious and thrilling all the way through. Our heroes are:

Anaya, who’s allergic to almost everything.

Petra, who’s allergic to water. She used to be Anaya’s best friend until Anaya betrayed her.

Seth, the new kid in town who’s being fostered by farmers.

When black weeds appear suddenly and grow tall overnight, nobody knows what they are, even Anaya’s botanist father. The townsfolk pull out and chop down the weeds but they just come back the next day. Nothing kills them.

It’s soon discovered that these weeds are growing all over the planet and causing sev... Read More

The Wizards of Once: A rock-solid premise

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell

What caught my attention with The Wizards of Once (2017) was the opening paragraph, which describes the forests of ancient Britain thusly:

These were forests darker than you would believe possible, darker than inkspots, darker than midnight, darker than space itself, and as twisted and as tangled as a Witch’s heart.

Who wouldn’t want to read a story set in such a place? The hook continues with an introduction to the two main characters: a boy from a wizard tribe with no magic, and a girl from a warrior tribe with a banned magical object. The boy Xar is desperate for magic, and the girl Wish is just as determined to keep hers a secret.

Naturally their paths will cross, and it should come as no surprise to learn that because their respective tribes have been at war for so long, they don’t exactly get off on the righ... Read More