By Way of Introduction

This blog gathers together my reviews of speculative fiction books for kids and teens in which the central protagonists are multicultural. The reviews were originally published at my main blog, Charlotte's Library. I'm adding labels (a rather fraught process), so that people can find specific diversities...doubtless I"ll be tweeking them as I go.

This blog is a work in progress--I have well over 100 more reviews already written to add to it, and I hope I'll add many more new books, interviews, and other content about diverse books!

(also to come are links to other websites and blogs....)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Dream Stealer, by Sid Fleishman (2009)

The Dream Stealer, by Sid Fleischman, illustrated by Peter Sis (Greenwillow, 2009, middle-grade, but a good read-aloud to younger children, 89 pages)

The story begins one night in Mexico:

"Unknown to her, Susana had a night visitor. Outside, a great bird with big feet was flying in as silently as an owl. It circled the pink house.

After a long journey, the strange creature came to rest on a limb of the old pepper tree in the patio of Susana's house.
A bird, did I say? Yes and no. Its wings and feathers flashed orange and red polka dots like bloodshot eyes--and green spots and purple ones, too. You'd think the night visitor had the allover measles. Now, think of teeth as sharp as broken crockery. And a full moon of a face, with cunning eyes protruding like a frog's." (page 2)

This creature is the Dream Stealer, with his lasso ready to capture dreams and take them far away. He's supposed to take nightmares, but has grown tired of being frightened. Now he is making off with happy dreams, like Susana's own dream of being reunited with Consuelo Louisa, her best friend.

Consuelo and Susana had had an argument. A bad one. And then Consuelo had moved away, without saying goodbye, leaving Susana alone and grieving. So this dream that was stolen from her, jerking her out of sleep, was more precious than the Dream Stealer could have guessed. Now Susana wants it back. Even if it means confronting the Dream Stealer, and setting out on a scary journey to the castle where all the stolen bad dreams are kept.

The Dream Stealer turns out not to be that villainous, but the nightmares trapped in his castle are plenty scary! Fortunately Susana is smart and plucky enough to save the day, and the Dream Stealer itself when the nightmares get loose...and she finds her lost dream.

The Dream Stealer has a lovely fairy tale quality to it--the brave girl confronting dangerous fantastical creature, the quest and safe return. It's a satisfying story, but it is, I think, a much better read-aloud book than one a child would read alone (unless the child in question is a fan of illustrated fairy tales). There are consistent authorial intrusions, which I found distracting when reading it to myself, but much less so when reading it to my children.

The illustrations by Sis, deceptively simple black and white drawings that pack lots of subtle atmospheric punch, didn't quite complement the book, at least in my mind. Fleishman goes all out (maybe even a bit too much so) to make it clear that this is a book set in Mexico, and Sis, not so much (like the castle on the cover, which doesn't look Mexican at all to me, though I'm prepared to be proved wrong). You can see some of the illustrations yourself, and read quite a bit of the book, here.

Here's a vague uneasiness I have about this book. One the one hand, I think it's great to have a lovely fairy tale story set in Mexico, featuring a brave Mexican girl (in as much as brave Mexican girls in fairy tales are rather thin on the ground). And this is a fine story--I'm glad it's in the world. On the other hand, I think I would feel more celebratory if I had more assurances of authenticity.  But that reservation may be unfair, especially in the case of book such as this, which is an original fantasy rather than a re-telling...

Here's another review of The Dream Stealer at Eva's Book Addiction

Dragon Magic, by Andre Norton (1972)

Well, you know, you win some, you lose some...and Dragon Magic, by Andre Norton (1972), sadly fell into the later category for me. 

The premise was interesting enough--four middle school boys of desperate backgrounds and interests all living in the same neighborhood in the early 1970s, but not interested in being friends.  Then one of them discovers the magic of the beautiful dragon puzzle he finds in an old abandoned house--a puzzle with four dragons.  Each boy in turn puts together a dragon, which whisks him on a journey back in time, and they become friends in the present when they share their experiences.

The boys whose interactions in the present make a framing device for the stories of the past are:

Sig--an ordinary guy of Germanic heritage, who finds himself helping Sigurd take on Fafnir.

Ras, aka George--a black kid, whose big brother has embraced the Black Power movement, finds himself a Nubian prince enslaved in Babylon along with Daniel.  He gets to watch Daniel overcome an African swamp dragonish creature.

Artie--would be cool boy, goes back in time to King Arthur and learns a valuable lesson about meaningful relationships.

Kim--adopted from Hong Kong, goes back to ancient China where there is a very confusing war going on, and comes back knowing he should try harder to make friends.

So a diverse cast of kids who don't get all that much page time, but who actually manage to be somewhat more than stereotypes, which is good, and four stories that varied a lot in interesting-ness, which wasn't so good.  The first two (Sigurd and Daniel) were very interesting, the last two I found tedious.

Which could have been just me.  But the particulars of the stories aside, the whole ensemble never felt enough like a cohesive story to rise above the fractures of its form and make me really care.  In large part this is because the time travel magic put the boys into characters in the past--they weren't themselves, so there was no ongoing metacommentary about having travelled in time.  The stories were told straight up, with no ties back to the present, in much the same way as you might find stories anthologized in a book of "Dragon Stories of Many Lands."  And on top of that, the boys had almost no agency within their stories, which made them even less interesting.

So that's generally why I didn't care for it.  Here's a particular thing that vexed me--in Ras's story, Norton keeps referring to him as "the Nubian" and not by his name.  All the other boys were referred to by name, and it bothered me that he was depersonalized this way. 

But the dragon puzzle was beautifully dragon puzzle ever.

The Creature Department, by Robert Paul Weston (2013)

The Creature Department, by Robert Paul Weston (Razorbill 2013) is a fun addition to the "magical creatures amongst us" sub-genre of children's fantasy.   In this particular case, a whole panoply of creatures of great strangeness are working alongside a human inventor, sharing their magical twists on the laws of possibility to bring fantastical inventions to reality.   The only problem--a rival company is staging a hostile takeover--more magically hostile than normal!  And two ordinary kids, Elliot von Doppler and Leslie Fang, find themselves right in the middle of all the shenanigans.  If they can't help the creatures come up with a new invention in time to keep the shareholders happy, the company will be destroyed...

This is one for those who love Creatures in all their fantastical fantastical-ness (think way past your ordinary griffins, gargoyles, dragons, etc. and more toward the creatures of Monsters, Inc.).  There's humor and adventure, with plenty of excitement--first the thrills of discovery, as the kids explore the world of the Creature Department, and secondly the zippy tension of battling the bad guys, human and creature, who want to take over.  The illustrations add to the fun of meeting all the myriad creatures and their marvelous world of inventions.

That beings said, The Creature Department doesn't push much past the fun of the set-up into any sort of emotionally powerful territory.  Though the beginning promises an interesting character-arc for Elliot and Leslie, two science-loving kids forced by cirumstance to become friends, once they make it to the Creature Department, the focus of the story becomes almost entirely external, and character development falls by the wayside.

So maybe not one for the adult fan of middle grade fantasy, but for monster-loving kids (aged 9 to 10ish) looking for a fun read, it's a good one that might well spark their own imaginations.   Here are some other reviews, at The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia and Cool Kids Read

(Leslie's family is Chinese, a fact of life rather than a plot point)

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (2003)

The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (2003, Roaring Book Press, middle grade, 265 pages) is a fantasy set in India, that tells of a boy named Anand, who must restore a Magical Object (a mystical conch shell) to its proper place in a high and hidden valley where a community of wise men live in secret. Anand has been chosen to go on this journey by one of the wisest of this brotherhood--an old man with mystical powers. The old man and the boy, along with a street girl named Nisha (feisty and spirited) who insisted on intruding herself into the quest, set off for the high mountains, with Anand carrying the Conch Shell, whose magic he has been told is too dangerous for him to try to use himself.

But there is a bad, power-hungry enemy trying to get his own hands on the evil man with magical powers who will do anything to thwart Anand and his companions. When their mentor exhausts all his strength fending off an attack from this enemy, the two children are left on their own, to battle their way to their final destination...But as Anand travelled with the Conch Shell, it began to speak to him, and though it cannot guide him directly, it sets him on the path toward wisdom...(There's a much more detailed plot summary on Wikipedia, if you are curious).

So, it's not the most Original of plots. And aspects of it are a bit hard to swallow (a magical, sentient conch shell???), and I really didn't think the encounter with the bad Yeti tribe added much (that being said, I don't think Yetis in general ever add anything, the only exception being the one in Monsters Inc. I never liked Tintin in Tibet, for instance). However, there is a nice mongoose. I think mongooses add value every time. And I think I am too old and jaded and cynical to deal well with hidden valleys where wise brotherhoods live.

On the positive side, The Conch Bearer is smoothly written and fast-paced, and the two kids are interesting characters presented with interesting dilemmas, not just of the Daring Adventure sort, but the sort that require them to make ethical and moral decisions. The Indian setting of the story by default made book interesting to me, and Divakuruni does a fine job making its places and people (and its tasty food) come alive.

The net result is a book that will broaden the imaginative horizons of fantasy reading kids while staying within the confines of a familiar story-line. But I myself didn't find anything quite exciting enough here to make me want to recommend this one enthusiastically to grown-up readers of mg fantasy...

(And especially I wouldn't recommend the original hardcover, shown at right, because what the Heck were they thinking to stick a pair of blue eyes on it??????? It is also an unpleasing image in general; the more I stare at it, the more the mountains are looking like hair, with a green sweat band over the white kid's forehead. I wonder if this is what they meant to happen. The paperback cover is a little odd too, but at least conveys the fact that this book takes place in India).

That being said, I have read good things about the sequel, The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming...and so I shall seek that one out. I hope there is more Nisha in it, livening up the complacent world of the Brotherhood! 

Chronal Engine, by Greg Leitich Smith (2012)

Chronal Engine, by Greg Leitich Smith (Clarion Books, 2012, middle grade, 192 pages).

Imagine being transported back to the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  Then imagine desperately driving your time-transported VW Bug across this landscape filled with danger, while searching for you kidnapped sister and wondering if you will ever get home. That's what happens to Max, the narrator of Chronal Engine.

Max and his siblings didn't want to dumped on their grandfather while their mom was off on a dinosaur dig in Mongolia. 13-year-old twins, Kyle and Emma, and Max, a year younger, had never met their grandfather, let alone visited his isolated ranch in Texas (famous for its trail of fossilized dinosaur footprints). But they have no time to be bored or mopish. Just a few hours after they unpack and meet Petra, the housekeeper's daughter (a crack shot with a bow, as indicated by the rabbits she's killed for supper), their grandfather makes a surprising announcement.

"It is time," Grandpa began...."for you to see the family legacy. Downstairs. In the workshop. Petra, this concerns you as well."

"You don't want dessert?" Mrs. Castillo asked, setting her napkin beside her plate and looking vaguely alarmed. "The pecan pie will be ready in a moment."

Grandpa stood. "Perhaps the children would like some when we're done. As for me...." He hesitated. "Thank you, no. In fifteen minutes the ambulance will be here to take me to the hospital after my massive heart attack." (page 12)

In that short space of time, Grandpa shows the kids the Chronal Engine--built by an ancestor in the early twentieth century, and perfected (?) over the years. It's a working time machine. But then the heart attack happens, as predicted. And then, the next day, Emma is kidnapped, and taken back in time. The three other kids must use the Chronal Engine to go after her...and fortunately Grandpa had predicted this too, stocking a Volkswagen bug with all the gear they'd need for a trip back to the time of the dinosaurs.

The days that follow will push the kids (and their car) to the limit as they race across the prehistoric landscape, outwitting/desperately fleeing from the assorted fauna (many big scary things with teeth!). It's non-stop action as they follow the sparse clues that will, they hope, lead them to Emma...if they don't get eaten first.

Max is a dinosaur buff, and his knowledge proves very useful.   The author generously shares lots of it with the reader--the kid who already knows dinosaurs will doubtless be pleased, the kid (or adult) who doesn't will be educated. Much as I like being educated, though, I found this information dropping to be a bit much in places, overlaying the emotional tension of the dinosaur encounters with perhaps too heavy a hand.

And indeed, in general the emotional side of the adventure plays a distant second-fiddle to the survival quest aspect of it. Which is fine--it's fast paced, fierce, and exiting story! But don't expect much nuanced character development or even much reflection on the part of the characters about what is happening--they are too busy surviving. Petra's archery skills come in very handy...the Volkswagen, however, bites the dust (although I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did...).

This very straightforward, descriptive and to the point approach to the story makes this a good one for young middle grade readers, those who enjoyed the Magic Treehouse books, perhaps, and who are looking for something a tad older and more sophisticated. Older readers, however, might feel the lack of emotional responses. And they might, as I was, be disappointed that the climax of the story is rather abrupt, and is accompanied by a brief third party explanation. The central characters don't directly figuring out things for themselves, and turn out to be latecomers to a pre-existing story, The way the ending is written, however, clearly sets things up for a sequel in which, perhaps, the kids will have a more active role.... (and in which we might find out what happens to the baby dinosaur Petra has adopted!)

So, in short, a good one for a younger reader who likes adventure stories; not so much one for anyone much older than twelve.

Note on diversity:  Max and his siblings are half Japanese, half Caucasian; here's Greg Leitich Smith talking about this (and other aspects of the book) at Writing With a Broken Tusk.

Here are other reviews: Jen Robinson's Book Page, BooksYALove, and Popcorn Reads

Come Fall, by A.C.E. Bauer (2010)

Come Fall, by A.C.E. Bauer (Random House 2010, middle grade, 229 pages)

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania and Oberon are in the midst of a bitter quarrel over a human changeling--each of them wants the boy. Titania says, of the child's mother:
"But she, being mortal, of that boy did die.
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him."

What if, Bauer asks, this changeling boy were a modern child, living in Bridgeport, Connecticut? What if the quarrel of the fairy king and queen spilled over into our 21st century world?

Enter Salman Page, a foster kid living in a trailer near the town line, working hard in the garden under the firm hand of his "mother," and threatened by his unpleasant foster "father." He's determined to fly under the radar of his new school, sitting with his back to the wall in the cafeteria where his dark skin and hair will blend with the darkness of its paint.

His plan doesn't work. He's been assigned a mentor--a lonely, kind girl named Lu, who soon moves from "designated buddy" to real friend. And joining them at the lunch table is Blos--a kid so literal, so set in his ways, so odd--that he is shunned by most of the kids at school; only Salman and Lu have the understanding to accept him for who he is. And Salman has a third friend--Bird, a great black crow, who keeps attendance on him. With friends like this, it is hard to stay invisible (especially when your crow flies up to bring you something shinny, right where everyone can see it).
This unlikely trio (quartet, if you count Bird), aren't going to be left in peace. Because Oberon and Titania are engaged in a power struggle, and Puck has been charged by Oberon to sow mischief in Salman's path. Gradually, things become harder for the kids, as their classmates turn against them. For Lu, who's never been an outsider, it's especially incomprehensible. But then Puck is ordered to turn his attentions to Salman's foster father...and things get worse.

In essence, this is a middle grade story of friendship, one of negotiating the complexities of growing up and being true to one's self. And it's a fine example of that genre. The magical underpinnings are unobtrusive, linked to the events of the "real" world, but not so much as to make the kids' story, in itself, a fantasy. In fact, the story of Salman, Lu, and Blos could stand alone without the fairies.

But Titania, Oberon, and Puck add a dimension to it that gives it a special zest, a magical intrigue that makes a fairly predictable story into something more. I wish, myself, that there had been even more magic spilling into the mortal world. In general, the fairies are kept confined to their own short sections of text, which disappointed me (fan of magic in the real world that I am). But still, an excellent book full of vivid characterization (although I think it might be enjoyed by fans of realistic fiction more than by fans of fantasy).

Here's Bauer talking about how Come Fall came to be, at John Scalzi's Whatever.

For those interested in diversity in kids' fantasy--Salman is shown front and center on the cover (they're all tiny, but he's in front). He isn't certain of his own ethnicity (since his parents are an unknown quanity to him) but the assumption made about him is that he's South Asian, and this is supported by Titania's recollections of his mother. Blos is a fine addition to the growing group of kids in mg fiction with Asperger's/autism spectrum. (Lu isn't "diverse", but she is one heck of a nice girl).

Claws, by Mike and Rachel Grinti (2012)

There are hundreds of YA books that tell of the Girl and the Fey/Angel/Demon/Vampire/Whatever Dude who fall in love. They are written for teenagers, and there is often Smoldering.

Claws, by Mike and Rachel Grinti (Chicken House, Sept. 1, 2012), is not one of those stories. Rather, it's a story for girls who still love their cats more than any boy, girls for whom Smoldering is few years away. Emma, the central character, is the little sister; it is her older sister, Helena, who's gone missing into a world that has been over-run with magical and mythological creatures. And Emma's parents have spent everything to find Helena, and so now they must live in a dingy trailer park, right on the line between human folk and magical.

Emma's new neighbors include a hag and a coatl (a serpent/human cross)...and a black cat who had been using her new room as his own. He's a cat who's lost all his magic...but he can help Emma take advantage of a treasure trove of cat magic that will not only give her the power to transform herself, but to draw a whole pride of magical cats into her quest through a land full of strange and often hostile creatures.

But now that Emma has enough power (perhaps) to save her sister, what will she do if her sister doesn't want to be saved?

Give this one to the eleven or twelve year old girl who loved the Warriors series who is only just starting to look with interest at the YA Paranormal Fantasy scene. It is a sure winner for that girl. It is also quite possible that a boy in similar circs. would be interested, as neither the story or the central characters are boy-unwelcoming. Emma isn't a girly girl, she's not thinking about boys or make up--she's just exploring new powers, meeting strange creatures, and saving her sister. Likewise the cover is nicely gender neutral.  Still  I just can't help but feel that "adolescent cat-loving girls who are readers of fantasy" are, in this case, the quintessentially perfect audience.

(And following on from that thought, this isn't one that I personally as an adult reader took my heart. It didn't quite have the subtlety/emotional tension/shear wonder that makes a mg fantasy book appealing to grown-ups).

Bonus for those looking for diversity in mg fiction: Emma's parents are Vietnamese. It is a fact of her life, not an Issue; it's firmly there in the background as part of who she is.

Here's another review at Ms. Yingling Reads

And here's a picture of our own little black kitten, who goes very nicely with the book:

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher