Children

Fantasy Literature for Children ages 9-12.

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

Verdigris Deep: Be careful what you wish for

Reposting to include Rebecca's new review.

Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

A glance back at former reviews of Frances Hardinge’s work reveals that I have overused the word “weird.” Hardly the nicest word, and yet I meant it as a compliment. It’s a testament to my struggle to pinpoint what it is that makes Hardinge’s books stand out. Nevertheless, stand out they do.

Verdigris Deep (2008) is a weird book and, once again, that’s meant as a compliment. Ryan, Josh and Chelle get stranded in a forbidden village when they miss their bus home. Finding they have no money for the next bus they resort to pinching coins from an old wishing well hidden in the wood. What they don’t know is that the well is inhabited by an angry well spirit who doesn't react well to h... Read More

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking: A whimsical feast, with teeth in it

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

A dead body is an awful thing to find on the floor of a bakery, especially when you’re a fourteen-year-old baker’s assistant with just a minor talent in magic, enough to make gingerbread men dance and biscuit dough turn fluffy on command. It’s worse when the city inquisitor decides to accuse you of the murder, for no particularly good reason. It’s even worse when you realize that there’s a mysterious assassin on the loose, targeting people who have magical powers, no matter how insignificant.

Mona is an orphan who works in her Aunt Tabitha’s bakery, using her talent with baking (and a little magic) to help with her job. It’s not an easy life, but Mona loves being an apprentice baker … and there’s the fact that her magical powers only work with bread products. But the city government and constables are turning against wizards, even minor ones like Mo... Read More

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars: Read it for the art

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars by Alex Alice

Castle in the Stars: A Frenchman on Mars
 (2020) is the fourth book in the graphic novel series by Alex Alice that follows a steampunk journey first to the moon and then to Mars. Like the others, it’s a bit of a mixed bag in its art-text balance. I’ll let you read the reviews of the first two here and here rather than recapitulate the plot, focusing here instead on the artwork and the words. The few plot points that are vitally important is that one character is searching for his lost father, another for her lost king, all while an imperialistic Prussia is readying for war not just against nations on Earth but perhaps against other worlds as well. Read More

Kiki’s Delivery Service: A warmhearted coming-of-age tale

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri

Kiki’s Delivery Service, a 1985 children’s fantasy novel first published in Japanese as Majo no Takkyūbin (or “Witch's Express Home Delivery”), is best known outside of Japan as the basis for a 1989 Studio Ghibli anime film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, the book won several prizes in Japan and Kadono has published five sequels over the years (unfortunately none of the sequels are currently available in English translations). Kiki’s Delivery Service was first published in English in 2003, but a new translation is now available.

Twelve-year-old Kiki lives in a small town with her mother Kokiri, a witch, and her human father Okino. Her coming-of-age day is nearing, and tradition requires young witches like Kiki to strike out on their own and find a town or village th... Read More

Catalyst: An incredible journey

Catalyst by Sarah Beth Durst

Just before her twelfth birthday, Zoe finds an impossibly small, breathtakingly cute kitten hiding behind her parents’ garage. Having been forbidden from bringing home any more animal rescues — and there have been many — the obvious course of action is for Zoe to sneak the kitten into her bedroom, text photos to her best friend Harrison, and go eat cake. The next day, she tells her family about the new arrival (christened Pipsqueak) and, to her great joy, she’s finally allowed to keep this one. After all, Zoe’s beloved brother Alex is making plans for college courses in Paris, her mom is starting a new job with the mayor’s office, and her dad is renovating part of the house.
“You all have something you’re excited about,” Zoe pleaded. “… I think … I need something that’s mine?”
But two days later, Pipsqueak is the size of a full-grown cat, and she keeps growing. And t... Read More

Blackbringer: An interesting early work from a favourite author

Blackbringer by Laini Taylor

Although now best known for her DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy, I was interested in checking out some of Laini Taylor's early work, specifically her duology DREAMDARK, made up of Blackbringer (2007) and Silksinger.

Magpie Witchwind is a young faerie that travels the globe, searching for devils (or "snags") that are gradually creeping back into the world. Originally trapped in bottles and other containers, the arrival of human beings and their insatiable curiosity means that these devils are now escaping their prisons and leaving destruction in their wake.

With her family of raucous crows, Magpie hunts down these devils, following in the footst... Read More

Legends of the Sky: Strong emotions, interesting politics, weird pacing

Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan

Legends of the Sky by Liz Flanagan, first published in the UK in 2018 as Dragon Daughter and reprinted in the US in 2019, is set on the island nation of Arcosi. Dragons have long been extinct on Arcosi, but still play a powerful symbolic role in the culture. (For what it’s worth, I like the UK title better! I think it more effectively conveys both the importance of dragons and the revelations about long-lost family that the heroine, Milla, will experience.)

Milla is a young servant girl who witnesses a murder. The killer doesn’t find the prize they were looking for, but Milla does—a bag containing four dragon eggs. In time these eggs come to the attention of the Duke, who wants control of them to increase his power, but it turns out that dragon hatchlings bond strongly to one person and cannot thrive without that person. O... Read More

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe: A wacky MG SF story

Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Readers who enjoyed Carlos Hernandez’s Nebula-nominated Sal and Gabi Break the Universe are likely to also enjoy the sequel, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe (2020). The story picks up where the previous one left off. Sal’s “magical” abilities have left holes in the universe and his father (Papi) is building a machine (in the living room) that he hopes will fix the holes. But Sal notices that the machine makes him feel sad when he’s around it… and it might be developing consciousness.

Other weird things are happening, too. Sal meets a Gabby from another universe who has come to warn him about Papi’s machine. The new toilet at school wants ... Read More

Cog: Many elements gave me pause

Cog by Greg Van Eekhout

Cog (2019), a nominee for the Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction, is the story of a robot who was built to learn. Mentally and, by all appearances, the titular character (Cog) is a 12-year-old boy whose function is to be a learning artificial intelligence. When he discovers that the best way to learn is to make mistakes, he resolves to make lots of mistakes — a decision which kicks off the narrative arc of the story.

Cog has an underdog main character, key themes of friendship and found family, and a quick pace. These middle grade/young adult mainstay themes make the more experimental parts of the narrative stand out, but not in a good way. The first plot point that gave me pause occurred early in the story, when Cog was taken to a grocery store for the first time and he has what is essentially an anxiety or panic attack. ... Read More

Nevertell: Occasionally rises above its mostly solid nature

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

Nevertell (2020), by Katharine Orton, is an engaging if somewhat limited Middle Grade book set in the wild north of Stalinist Russia and focused on a young girl trying to escape a brutal work camp and make her way south to Moscow and the grandmother she’s been told would be able to take her in.

Twelve-year-old Lina was born in the camp (her father is rumored to be the cruel commandant Zima) that her grandfather, mother, and uncle had been brought to years earlier. Only she and her mother Katya have survived, and when a trio of prisoners come up with a desperate escape plan, Katya provides the distraction that allows them, along with Lina’s best friend Bogdan, to get beyond the fence and into the frozen Siberian woodland. The weather is deadly enough, but the forest is also home to a powerful sorceress known as the “Manhunter.” And Lina and Bogdan’s fellow prisoners may not b... Read More

Minor Mage: Questing with an armadillo sidekick

Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher

Oliver is a minor mage in two senses: he’s only twelve years old, and he only has three magical spells, and the one to control his allergy against armadillo dander doesn’t count for much. The aged and increasingly absent-minded village mage wasn’t able to teach Oliver much before he died. But he’s all the magic his village has, so when a severe drought strikes, Oliver is ordered by the frightened villagers to go to the distant Rainblade Mountains to somehow “bring back rain.” No one, including Oliver, is at all clear on exactly how this is to be done, but they are clear on the concept that it’s a mage’s job. The villagers conveniently wait to gang up on Oliver until his mother, a retired mercenary, is out of town.

Oliver is frightened but willing; he was planning to do it anyway, though he resents being forced. (At least, he thinks, now his mother will be mad at the villagers and not him... Read More

The Way Past Winter: A simple but evocative fairy tale

The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The first thing about this book that caught my eye was just how beautiful it was: the green binding, the interior pattern, the embossed cover-art — I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it really is a lovely object to behold.

The story itself rides the current popular wave of Scandinavian-based fairy tales, and reads a little like Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”. Winter has lasted for five years in Eldbjørn Forest, and siblings Oskar, Sanna, Mila and Pipa are barely hanging on. After their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, the four of them live all alone in the woods, seeing nothing in their futures but more of the bitter cold.

But after a strange encounter in the forest with a huge, bear-like man and his silent entourage, Mila wakes up to find her brother has disappeared. She insists he wouldn’t abandon ... Read More

Warrior Genius: Raises the stakes

Warrior Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino

Warrior Genius (2018) is the sequel to Rebel Genius, the second in a planned trilogy by Michael Dante DiMartino, one of the co-creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender. There are plenty of similarities between the two tales: a gang of four precocious kids and their exotic pets, a richly imagined historical/fantasy setting (though one based on Renaissance Italy instead of Medieval Asia) and a complex set of rules that makes up a quasi-magical system of power wielded by a chosen few.

In this world artists (whether they're sculptors, painters or musicians) each have a Genius that acts as their muse: an animal through which they can channel their talent to create work... Read More

Rebel Genius: The start of a new imaginative trilogy

Rebel Genius by Michael Dante DiMartino

I'll admit that I picked this up from the library shelf because I knew the author was Michael Dante DiMartino, the co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the greatest animated shows of all time. Naturally I was curious to see what he would do in another storytelling format, and Rebel Genius (2016) certainly had a compelling blurb.

Young Giacomo Ghiberti lives in a world where artists — whether they're painters, sculptors or musicians — have bird-like creatures who help channel their creative powers. Called Geniuses, they're beautiful creatures, who provide inspiration and life-long companionship to their artists, but unfortunately they're also outlawed. The city of Virenzia is ruled over by the self-styled Supreme Creator Nerezza, who has decreed that anyone caught with a Genius should be executed.

That's how Gi... Read More