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

City of Ice, by Laurence Yep (2011)

City of Ice, by Laurence Yep (Starscape, a Tor imprint, 2011, middle grade, 384 pages), is the second book in a trilogy set in 1941 in an alternate version of our world, a place where there are dragons, and shape shifters, and all manner of other "mythological" creatures living among human-kind. And in this world, there are also gods and goddesses...not always kindly, but incredibly powerful.

In City of Fire, young Scirye swore an oath to the goddess Nanaia to avenge her sister's death at the hands of a foul dragon, and his foul master, Mr. Roland, and to rescue the priceless artifact that they had stolen, one of the Five Lost Treasures of Emperor Yu. If Mr. Roland gains control of them all, he will have mastery over the whole world.

Scirye and her brave lap griffin are joined in this quest by two street urchins Leech and Koko, both of whom have more to them then meets the eye, and by Bayang, a dragon whose mission to assassinate Leech (its a long story) takes a back seat to the more important goal of revenging herself on Mr. Roland's dragon, an ancient enemy of her people.

In City of Ice, the quest of the odd assortment of companions takes them to the frozen north (where Canadian mounties patrol the skies riding on the backs of giant birds, among other marvels). There they must confront Mr. Roland and his minions (both human and monstrous ones), but there they find new friends, not least of whom is the great bear spirit of the north himself.

The action and adventure are virtually non-stop, and the pages are full to the brim with fantastical creatures and places. Yep's world is a place where ancient peoples are alive and well-- the Sogdians, the masters of the Silk Route, are thriving as traders in the wilds of the north, and Scirye's people, the Kushans, ancient rulers of the region around Afghanistan and northern India, are still a major world power. For shear extravagant fun with alternate world building, this series is hard to beat.

My one reservation is that there wasn't enough time spent on character development (plot comes out ahead here, hands down). I think that part of the problem, for me, is that the point of view keeps switching between the three main characters, so that we don't get to see for ourselves what they are thinking and feeling, we are told. The introduction of several new major characters here in City of Ice further diluted the personalities of the main characters.

There is, however, one truly interesting relationship, that between the boy Leech and the dragon Bayang (who is hands down the most interesting character). I'm curious to see how this relationship plays out in the third book, but what I'm really hoping for that Leech and Scirye, who up to this point seem not particularly interested in each other in any way, despite being travelling companions, Notice each other and emotional complications ensue. One thing that makes it clear this is a middle grade book is that so far in the series there are no hints of any romantic feelings whatsoever!

Perhaps in book 3, City of Death, things will be different, and this will happen. I'll definitely be reading it--like I said, the world building is tremendously fascinating...and even though I lean toward character, I still enjoy an exiting story, such as this series offers.

This is a series that deserves more attention than it seems to have gotten--what with the adventurous pursuit of the bad guys, the direct participation of sundry deities in the course of events, the panoply of monsters and mythological creatures, and the quirky cast of characters, it's one I'd recommend to younger fans of Percy Jackson, for whom the romance aspect of that books was the least interesting part!

Added bonus: the diverse cast of characters (none of the central characters are European, or of direct European descent), and the non-Eurocentric mythological background, makes this another one for my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list.

Here's another review, at Eva's Book Addiction

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

Chronicles of the Red King, Book 3--Leopard's Gold, by Jenny Nimmo

Leopards' Gold (Chronicles of the Red King Book 3), by Jenny Nimmo (Scholastic, 2013), continues the saga of Timoken, who left his African home 300 years ago, and who has now established a magical castle in Britain.   But even the magic of Timoken and all his companions can't keep his family safe from treachery.

Petrello is one of Timoken's younger sons, watching as his siblings come into their inheritance of magic, and wondering if he will ever manifest a gift of his own, and Leopards' Gold is primarily his story.   When his father is captured by an evil spirit, the more mundane forces of the real world close in, and it's no longer clear who within the castle can be trusted, Petrello finds himself in the role of hero....whether he wants it, or not.

This is one of those third books in a series that works best for those who have books 1 and 2 fresh in their minds.   Readers who remember everyone will enjoy seeing them again, and there is plenty of magic to add interest.   The plot is kind of a piling on of bad things, and not that subtle, but it works well enough.

However, the shear number of characters means it was hard be convinced I was caring about them as individuals.   The book really is excessive in this regard--surely nine siblings gives one plenty of scope, without having to bring in two more orphaned kids to add to the mix.   Though I have read books 1 and 2, it was a while ago....and I kept getting distracted from the main thrust of the story by a feeling that I was at a family reunion of someone else's family.

I was also bothered by the fact that Timoken and his wife are pretty awful parents.   I myself would try to take steps not to let my kids grow up into psychopathic sadists with magical powers (and in fact I'm doing well on that front).  Some of these kids do nasty, bullying things to each other that everyone just shrugs off, and it was not nice.

So in any event, I enjoyed the first book of the series (The Secret Kingdom) lots, the second (The Stones of Ravenglass) was fine, but this third one just didn't work for me.

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.

Chronicles of the Red King Book 2--The Stones of Ravenglass, by Jenny Nimmo

The Stones of Ravenglass (Chronicles of the Red King, Book 2), by Jenny Nimmo (Scholastic, June 1, 2012, ages 8 and up).

Long before the story of Charlie Bone began, a boy named Timoken fled from his African home, protected by strong magic from the supernatural enemies who killed his parents, and who seek to destroy him. The first part of Timoken's adventures is told in The Secret Kingdom, in which he finds new friends (including a lovely camel, with whom he flies through the air, and three magical leopards, as well as human companions), looses his sister, and survives attempts to kill him.

In The Stones of Ravenglass, Timoken's hope that he and his companions have found a safe haven in a British castle are shattered by the evil machinations of its steward, and Timoken is imprisoned. He and a mysterious wizard (along with Gabar, the camel) escape...and Timoken sets off on a new quest.

This time, instead of looking for refuge, Timoken will build one--a place where he and his friends can be truly safe. But in a war-torn land, safety is hard to come by...even when a friendly dragon joins your cause.

This series is, I think, extremely well suited for children on the younger side of the "middle grade" spectrum--third and fourth graders. As with the first book, there's a fairytale feel to it, a sense of events unfolding in a somewhat episodic way, a story told to the reader as if it happened long ago. It's a story filled with magic--rather miraculous magic, coming from a source external to the main character, in fairytale fashion.

In the first book, I felt somewhat distanced from Timoken as a person--here that distance is lessened, but he still seemed to me "the hero of the story" rather than a fully developed character. I think that although this might not be what I as a grown up am looking for, this might make him a very appealing hero for the younger reader--I imagine it would be very easy for such a reader to step into his shoes, and trill to his adventures.

And those adventures, although not on the grand and sweeping scale of the previous book (which might be a disappointment to that one's readers), have exciting moments of great magic (literally), and the ensemble cast of camel, kids, wizard, and dragon work well together to create an interesting story.

In short: a good one for its target audience, though not one I'd insist that the five or so grown-ups I know of who visit here looking for books for themselves (you know who you are!) get a hold of for their personal reading pleasure.

And yay! for an African boy hero, shown as such on the cover. 2012 has been a year in which multicultural speculative fantasy and science fiction seems especially thin on the ground (I have only encountered 2, besides this one*), and so I hope it does really well.

(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)

*In case anyone is curious, these are The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Please let me know of any others you've read!

Chronicles of the Red King, Book One: The Secret Kingdom, by Jenny Nimmo (2011) of the Red King: The Secret Kingdom, by Jenny Nimmo (Scholastic, 2011, middle grade, 224 pages)

Long ago, in a secret kingdom in Sub-Saharan Africa, a baby boy named Timoken was given wondrous gifts by a forest jinni--a cloak of moon spider silk to give him magical powers, and a vial of the water of life--and his sister was given a magical ring. But when Timoken was still a boy, evil viridees, deadly spirits from the forest, came hunting for the gifts, and overran his peaceful land. Timoken and his sister were the only survivors, escaping by flying away into the night....

Now Timoken and his sister are wanderers. Joined by a camel, also alone in the world, they search for a place that they can call home. But as they fly over Africa, and beyond, the viridees pursue them....and Timoken's sister is lost to him.  Timoken and the camel travel on, and at last meet an unlikely band of allies--children captured from Europe to be sold as slaves. To bring these children home again, and to find a home for himself, Timoken must draw on all his powers and confront the viridees head on.

This story is a prequel to Nimmo's Charlie Bone series--Timoken will grow up to become the Red King of legend, Charlie's ancestor. But it is not at all necessary to have read those books first. The Secret Kingdom stands on its own, although Charlie Bone makes cameo appearances.

This book has an old fashioned, fairytale feel to it, quite different from the Charlie Bone books (which might disconcert, and even disappoint, fans of that series). The story is unfolded slowly, and is told in somewhat formal language. There's a sense of things described rather than intensely lived, and a slight distance from the thoughts and feelings of the characters. I'd suggest reading this before the Charlie Bone books--it seems to me more suited for younger readers who want a linear story-line, where event follows event in (more or less) unbroken flow.

That being said, this isn't a passive story in which nothing much happens. There is action, some of it violent; once Timoken meets up with the other children, the pace quickens, and dangers are more immediate. People are killed, but not gruesomely. Three magical leopard cubs somewhat randomly, but not unpleasantly so, add to the excitement.

But it is the fairytale images of Timoken, innocent and brave, and Gabar the camel, grumpy but loyal, flying over the world, always in danger, never at home, that stick in my mind. Although I can easily imagine young readers enjoying this on their own, I think it would make a particularly lovely book to read out loud--it's easy to imagine the eight year old child asking eagerly for more...

"Spring came, and the boy and the camel moved on. Sometimes they would stay on the edge of the same village for almost a year, and sometimes they moved on, swiftly. They flew over a sea that Gabar thought would never end. They soared over mountains so high that the camel's hair froze into rigid tufts of ice, and Timoken thought his cold nose would drop off. But still the ring urged them on. "Not safe, yet," it would whisper." (page 95)

I was a tad disappointed that the fantasy elements didn't have more of a Sub-Saharan African feel; it seemed like a missed opportunity. But on the other hand, it a refreshing change to see an African boy becoming a hero king with magical powers, and shown as such on the cover!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2013)

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time (Candlewick, March 2013) is Frank Cottrell Boyce's second book about what happens when a modern family rebuilds the famous flying car, which takes them one fantastical adventures during which they must a powerful, twisted villain (Tiny Jack) who wants Chitty for himself.

The first book (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, my review) ended when Mr. Tooting accidentally yanked Chitty's chronojuster, sending the family hurtling back into the Cretaceous.  Little Harry, the baby of the family, is thrilled to see his first T-Rex, but his sibling, Lucy and Jem, join their parents in a more adult reaction--terror.  Fortunately they escape, but Chitty doesn't take them home to England....she has an agenda of her own, and takes them to New York in the 1920s.

There she seems determined to compete against her maker's newer, shinier car in a cross-continental road race.  And the Tootings have no choice but to enjoy the ride, even when it takes them to the lost city of El Dorado in the Amazonian jungle...but in the meantime, the stage is being set for Tiny Jack to reveal his true, twisted, identity....and will the Tootings ever get home again? (and will Chitty win her race?).

In a nutshell:  fun time-travelling adventure.   Adjectives that could be used include "fresh" "bright" "zesty" and "absurd."  It is pleasantly absurd, without coming close to farce, even when little Henry's T-Rex egg hatches in New York city.  Numerous black and white illustrations add to the fun--I love the one of Chitty flying through the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan.

What makes this book particularly nice is that the Tootings are a family who care about each other--rare is it to see the mother and father along for the ride.  It's also nice that the Tootings are a multi-racial family.  This isn't mentioned in the text, and has no bearing on the story, but they are shown as such in the interior pictures.

This isn't clear on the cover though, where Mrs. Tooting is only a teensy bit browner than her family--pity.

So if you are looking for fun fantastic adventure to share with a 7-10 year old who hasn't lost his heart to to High Fantasy/Talking Animals on Quests/Mythological Creatures (naming no names, but looking right at my own 10 year old), you could do far worse than to fly through time and space with Chitty!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, by Frank Cottrel Boyce

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, by Frank Cottrel Boyce, illustrated by Joe Berger (Candlewick, 2012, upper elementary/middle grade, 192 pages)

The Tootings (mother, father, Lucy, Jem, and the baby, little Harry) were a normal English family, with a normal English car. This all changed when Mr. Tooting lost his job...and the car that went with it. But when Mrs. Tooting brings home a derelict camper van, the Tooting family embarks on an adventure more fantastic than they could have dreamt.

Dad and Jem get the camper van running again, and supply Lucy with the black paint she needs to make her corner of it feel homey. And they set off to see the world. But first, they stop at a local salvage yard with an extraordinary past, and find a new engine for the van--one of incredible power, though it has to be started with a hand crank. When it gets going, it becomes clear that this new incarnation of the van has a mind of its own...and it can fly. Not only that, but it is a van on a mission!

Soon the Tooting family is zooming off to Paris, spending some quality time on the tip of the Eiffel tower,where the old engine is reunited with its original headlights. Next stop, Egypt...where the original wheels ended up. But Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as the van is now called, has attracted the attention of unscrupulous, fabulously wealthy bad guys! There is Danger! Brushes with Death! and finally, a daring escape....

It's lots of fun, made more so by the cheerful illustrations of Joe Berger (I especially liked the drawing of how everything fit into the camper van! The bad guys are over the top, but heck, if you can enjoy and accept a flying car searching for its missing pieces, what are a few implausible bad guys. The Tooting family are all nicely distinct people--fun and quirky and occasionally difficult.

In short, it's a fun, fast book that's both a lovely homage to the first book (which is more enjoyable than the movie!) and a fine read in its own right.

Note 1: it turns out that Chitty can do more than fly--we learn at the end of the book that she also has a Chronojuster, and it still works. So I almost counted this as a time travel book...but that really seems to be another story, which I hope is forthcoming.

Note 2: it's not mentioned in the text, and has no bearing on the Story, but the Tooting family happens to be multiracial--Mrs. Tooting is shown in the illustrations with dark skin, Mr. Tooting with white, and the kids fall in between. Yay! Another book for my multicultural sci fi/fantasy list.

Celia's Robot, by Margaret Chang

Celia's Robot, by Margaret Chang (Holiday House, 2009, 211 pages)

Fifth grade is proving to be a somewhat rocky road for young Celia. She's feeling self-conscious about being Chinese-American, the boy who was her childhood friend, Tim, has turned into a teasing, mean, pest, and her parents are busier and more stressed than ever with their careers (robotics for dad, music for mom). They just aren't around enough to make sure she'd done her homework and has clean short, her life is a disaster.

Fortunately, her father has a solution, and presents Celia with a gift beyond her wildest dreams for her birthday--her own personal robot. This prototype of all that is wonderful in the field of robotics not only gets Celia up and out of the door, with her schedule completely under control....but becomes someone for her to rely on.

But evil robotics competitors have their greedy eyes on Celia's robot...and one snowy day, the robot is kidnapped!!!! It's up to Celia, and (not that she planned on it) Tim to save it...regardless of the very real dangers that lie ahead of them....

I so enjoyed the detailed descriptions of Celia's life with her robot, which comprise the bulk of the book (the dangerous bit comes late, and isn't that long). The minutiae of life with an automaton are beautiful explored in the context of an ordinary, stressful, fifth grade experience. And Celia, in her extraordinary circumstances, does manage to be ordinary, in the way that great middle grade heroines often are--plucky, dense at times but with a good brain and a good heart, curious hobbies (old fashioned lock picking), often times frazzled....Somehow she just hit the spot for me (maybe because I could use a robot myself to make sure I don't forget my own lunch...).

I highly recommend this to the general middle grade audience, boy or girl, but especially to those that like robotics (or those whose closets are nightmares and whose homework is frayed). As an added bonus, Celia's experience growing up with Chinese father is described in quite a bit of detail, but it never felt in the least little bit as if Chang were forcing this part of Celia's life uncomfortably into the story.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

N.E.R.D.S.: The Cheerleaders of Doom, by Michael Buckley (2011)

N.E.R.D.S: The Cheerleaders of Doom, by Michael Buckley (Amulet Books, 2011, upper elementary/middle grade, 288 pages)

The N.E.R.D.S are a band of technologically enhanced kids, agents of a secret organization that has taken each members nerdy weakness, and made it into a super super power. In this third installment of the NERDS series, asthmatic Matilda, aka Wheezer, gets a chance to shine when a new disaster threatens to destroy not just the earth, but the whole multiverse. But Matilda isn't being asked to put her mad fighting skills and arsenal of super inhalers to work. Something much worse is in store for her--she has to become a cheerleader, infiltrate a crack cheering squad, and find the rouge NERDS agent responsible for the impending disaster...a girl named Gertie, once known as "Mathlete."

Gertie, desperate for the money she needs to create a new, beautiful, cheerleading self, has invented a device that allows her to travel to alternate versions of earth, and pilfer them at will. Now she is no longer a homely nerd; she is that wonderful, beautiful, bubbly thing--a top notch cheerleader. For Matilda to infiltrate the cheerleading squad, and crack Gertie's disguise, she's going to have to do the hardest thing she's ever done in her live--shuck her tough, grungy persona to become a smiling, perky, pompomed girl who whoops.

But in the meantime, there's another young mastermind at work--a criminal one. Former NERD Heathcliff "Choppers" Hodges doesn't really want to live the rest of his life in a mental institution for the criminally insane. He wants to take over the world (in an evil way)...and Gertie's invention might be just what he needs.

This is the first NERD adventure I've read, and I found myself nodding in agreement as I remembered all the reviews of the series recommending the books highly for the 8-10 crowd. There's humor, action, suspense, delivered in snappy style; there are cool gadgets and neat technology, such as would delight even young readers who aren't nerds themselves, and best of all, there are actually interesting characters giving weight to the somewhat goofy story.

In this case, Matilda is forced to confront questions of identity--the process of becoming a cheerleader requires her to consider why she had created her own tough girl identity, and challenges her preconceptions of cheerleaders. The result is a more tolerant, self-aware (but still tough) Matilda! It's a subtle enough message so that it doesn't grate on the reader's nerves, but it's enough to make this more than just fun fluff.

As an added bonus, the kids who comprise the N.E.R.D.S are, as you can see from the cover, a diverse bunch. Matilda, for instance, is Korean American.

Here's what I'm wondering--the first two books were told from the point of view of boy team members, and seem to be popular with boys. Now we have a girl central character, and Cheerleaders, no less! The (very doubtful) assumption that boys are reluctant to read about girls is all too prevalent...but I think the wacky zest of the series will have successfully captured it's young male readers, making that issue irrelevant in this case.

Here's another review at TheHappyNappyBookseller.

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu (2011)

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond Press, Sept 27, 2011, ages 9-12, 320 pages)

If it weren't for Jack, Hazel would be unbearably alone. She and Jack are the best possible friends, and have been for years. But then the unthinkable happens--Jack no longer cares about her. Hazel's mom says its just something that happens when kids grow up, but Hazel knows there is more to it than that.

And so, when Jack disappears one snowy winter's day, taken by a woman in white in a sleigh, Hazel follows. In a fairytale world where metaphors become real, she risks everything to keep Jack from being frozen in the realm of the Snow Queen forever.

The first half of the book sets the stage for Hazel's journey, showing the reader in lovely, heart-aching words Hazel and Jack's friendship, and why it is so important to both of them. Jack makes fifth grade in a new school bearable for Hazel--though she fits in not at all, and is taunted by other kids, one quirky look from Jack gives her strength. But more importantly, with Jack, Hazel can be herself.

"Jack was the only person she knew with an imagination, at least a real one. The only tea parties he'd have were ones in Wonderland, or the Arctic, or in the darkest reaches of space. He was the only person who saw things for what they could be instead of just what they were. He saw what lived beyond the edges of the things your eyes took in. And though they eventually grew out of Wonderland Arctic space-people tea parties, that essential thing remained the same. Hazel fit with Jack." (ARC Page 21)

And when Hazel's dad left, Jack gave her his heart--a signed baseball, his most prized possession. Jack's mom is no longer there either, metaphorically speaking--she has become so depressed that she can no longer see him. So Hazel does her absolute best to make sure that she is there for him, making sure that he knows that someone still knows he is there.

And then he isn't. So Hazel crosses into the snowy wood to find him.

"Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is a line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully bout whether you want to cross it, because once you do it's very hard to get back to the world you left behind. And sometimes you break a barrier that no one knew existed, and then everything you know before crossing the line is gone.

But sometimes you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead." (ARC pp 151-152)

And Hazel's adventures begin, in a frightening, magical world where every encounter has a story to it...a place from which almost no-one returns.

This is the sort of book that makes pictures in the mind to treasure. The sort of book best appreciated by those who already have all the stories they've ever read piled up in their own minds, those who sat, or sit, in fifth grade classrooms and stare out the window imagining that there is more out there than a parking lot (and get teased by classmates in consequence). Hazel's unhappiness with her life in the "real" world will call painful sympathy from that reader, and her journey into the world beyond the snowy woods will resonate most beautifully. Especially since Anne Ursu brings this part of her story to detailed, disturbing, lovely life, with words that fly of the page.

The first 150 or so pages, though, before Hazel sets off on her journey, are almost too sad to read. Hazel's unhappiness is all too sharp and clear. The pain of her father's betrayal, the pain of being a different sort of person from the kids around her, was hard reading. Part of her difference is that she was adopted from India, and her black hair and dark brown skin don't match her mother's light brown and white. But mostly she is different because she is Hazel, who has read and read until her mind is full of stories, who cannot find a kindred spirit among her classmates. Except, of course, for Jack.

So I suffered with Hazel during that first half of the book in the dismal winter of fifth grade, and it was a huge relief to set off into the woods! Suddenly things were real, and in color, and beautiful and deadly, and I wasn't reading a book anymore, but inside a story. And Hazel's determination to find her friend and bring him home made it a story with heart--both fierce and moving.

Highly recommended to imaginative book-lovers, who know just how important it is to find kindred spirits, especially those who don't mind reading a book that will make them ache for the central character....

Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy, by John Dougherty

Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy, by John Dougherty (Random House Children's Books, 2008) was tremendously enjoyable. Never once, while reading it, did I think "I would have enjoyed this so much as a child." I was too busy enjoying it as just me! As well as a zesty little plot, with a sympathetic heroine who's half-Indian (yay multicultural fantasy with non-whitewashed cover!), considerable humor, and dangerous Danger, it features two of the best older women characters (Bansi's granny and her granny's best friend) in children's fantasy that I can think of.

When Bansi O'Hara's Irish father and her Indian mother met and married, little did they know that they were bringing together the bloodlines of two legendary leaders of the Fair Folk, who had been exiled from the other world long ago. And naturally they'd never heard the prophecy about their union: "When the Blood of the Morning Stars, joined and flowing together at last, is returned to the scared earth as the light dies, then shall the power of Tir na n'Og awaken...And one who returns the blood to the land shall come into the inheritance of Derga."

[those of you who become skeptical when Ancient Prophecies come into play--do not be alarmed. Yes, it is the basis for the plot, but it doesn't take over the story]

In any event, when Bansi arrives in Ireland to visit Granny O'Hara at Midsummer, when the way between the worlds is open, quite naturally two factions (good and evil, as usual) are competing to be the returnees of the prophecy. On the good side, a mischievous pooka and a friendly brownie are guarding Bansi; on the bad side, a shapeshifting, evil wolf-boy is hunting her.

This is all very well and good--nothing too surprising. But what is surprising, adding just tons of fun to the story, is what happens when Granny O'Hara and her best friend become involved--beautiful little set pieces of comedy and snappy dialogue, and a wild ride in a Morris Minor Traveler to fairy land armed with a car jack and miscellaneous scrap metal.

And in the meantime, the danger grows as Bansi is captured by the dark side...and she has to find the courage to keep fighting (even though, and this is a good thing, she has no secret Specialness! Just pluck and determination!)

I did enjoy it awfully much, and I'm awfully glad I found about it through this post at Scribble City Central last April and took a chance on it!

Bridge of Time, by Lewis Buzbee (2012)

So this morning I had an actual time travel experience--I woke up and it was already eight thirty and we had missed the school bus, but then I really work up and had travelled back in time and it was only quarter to six. Sometimes time travel is a good thing.

For instance, as is the case in Bridge of Time, by Lewis Buzbee (Feiwel & Friends, May 2012, middle grade, 304 pages), time travel may be just what you need to help you cope with your parents' divorce, especially if you get to go hang out with Mark Twain in the past. This is what happens to best friends Joan Lee and Lee Jones. The coincidence of their names is just the tip of the iceberg of their close (non-romantic--they're in middle school still) friendship. And one horrible day another coincidence strikes--both their sets of parents announce they are splitting up.

The next school day just happens to be the class field trip, and Joan and Lee resign themselves to the boredom of yet another trip to the San Fransisco fort they'd seen a bazillion times already. But this time, they find themselves travelling back in time to 1864, which, what with the Civil War, is not a good year for being unauthorized visitors in a military fortification. Fortunately, the first person they meet is another person who has come unstuck in time--a friendly man named Sam Clemens (known, in the future, as Mark Twain), who gives them sanctuary.

Unfortunately, even Sam, helpful though he is, can't do anything about the violent racism against the Chinese inhabitants of old San Fransisco, and in fact there are a number of individuals who want to damage Sam in particular for his journalist work in exposing this racism. Joan, being Chinese, is in constant danger...

And on a more personal level, both Joan and Lee are deeply conflicted about going home--neither wants to go back to houses where the word "divorce" is still echoing in the air.

But unless they can fix their minds on sticking back in their own time, they'll be unstuck--passing through a multitude of various San Fransiscos (including a rather exaggeratedly beautiful Native American version). Fortunately, they each get to encounter their older selves, and are comforted thereby. But Sam is another problem--he is busily having a crisis of self-confidence, denying the future he's seen for himself as Mark Twain...

This one falls into two of my roughly delineated time travel categories--the Didactic Experience, and the Mechanism for Personal Growth. At first, what with all the attention paid to "this is San Fransisco in 1864" I found it hard to be deeply involved in the story, and was not sure I liked Joan and Lee (I got tired of the meaningful LOOKS (caps in the original) they kept exchanging). When they unstuck from 1864, the level of excitement picked up as they bounced through time, and the pages turned somewhat faster.

There's some humor, and a bit of mystery (just who is that mysterious man in black, and why is he following Sam around? Why isn't the author making more of him?), and a few mentions of pizza, enough to add a splash of middle grade reader appeal (although, perhaps, not quite enough to carry the book). And it might well resonate deeply with middle grade readers who are themselves feeling unstuck in their lives, particularly those whose parents, like Lee and Joan's, are splitting up.

If I were requiring seventh grade kids to read a historical fiction book, or if I were teaching about racism in the 19th century, I would probably put this one on the reading list. It's also the only time travel book I can think of in with a Chinese American protagonist, and I felt that Joan's experience confronted by the rascism of this particular past was nicely done. It's not one, though, that I'd strongly urge adult readers of time slip stories to try--it's just fine, but not desperately magical.

And having typed that, I realize that I have slipped through time again, and it is now almost seven, the bus leaves in 14 minutes, and my child is still asleep. Sigh.

The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards (2012)

The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards (HarperCollins, 2012, middle grade, 416 pages)

Thirteen-year-old Zardi longs to see the great wide world beyond her town. She loves the stories of adventure and magic that she manages to hear--not as many as she likes, because the sultan has banned all magic, and even all talk of it, from the kingdom of Arribitha. Disobey, and die. But Sinbad, the sailor, dared risk the sultan's wrath to tell his tales...and Zardi was there in the crowd along the waterfront, entranced.

So far Zardi has escaped the sultan's men, who are quick to break up crowds such as that, but since she is thirteen, a new danger looms. The sultan has a nasty habit of taking unmarried young women to be his praise singers, for a short term--and then killing them. It is not Zardi, though, who is taken, but her sister...

And so Zardi chops off her hair, dresses as a boy, and sets out into the world to find out if it the stories of an army of resistance to the sultan are true. With her goes her foster brother, Rhidan (abandoned as an infant), on a quest to find out the mystery of his own past. And fate leads them to Sinbad--storyteller, rouge, pirate, and charismatic leader of men. Whose mother just happens to be the daughter of a djinn, and a magic user in her own right.

When Zardi and Rhidan meet Sinbad's mother, Rhidan's own innate magic, the heritage of his mysterious father, is woken. And so, when Rhidan launches Sinbad's ship into a magical whirlwind to save it from the Sultan, a magical adventure begins, drawing on the adventures of Sinbad as told in the Arabian Nights, but combining them with the quest story of two young people seeking the magic and knowledge they need to set everything to rights.

The Book of Wonders is a good title for this--like the Arabian Nights, once things get going, the episodic adventures fall one after another like beads on a string, and just when seem things settled, another perilous encounter appears! If you are a reader who delights in one magical, dangerous, imaginative adventure after another, this is a book for you.

"The light bent and twisted. It grew arms and then legs, and Zardi gasped as a figure flickered into life beside her. It was a man who looked as if he were made out of green-tinted glass. He wore spectacles and had a neat, curling mustache and was no taller than her knee. A breath lodged in her thought. Could it be? Is he a djinni?

"You rubbed?" the man said in a dour voice, hovering up to eye level." (Page 220)

I myself would have liked a bit more, though--as readers of my blog have heard me say before, I prefer character to plot, and character here is definitely not as front and center. Although Zardi was reasonably real to me--brave, smart, and determined in the true middle grade fantasy way, Rhidan never came at all alive to me at all, and Sinbad, after a promising start that indicated interesting complexities of character, essentially faded out of the story.

By way of observation--sometimes, in fantasy books for "children," the writing and vocabulary can be complex and demanding. This is not the case here--Richards underlines her points, and keeps her sentences, for the most part, short and to the point. Which is either a good thing, or not so much of one, depending on the age, taste, and mood of the reader! But it does give the story a slightly younger vibe than some "middle grade" sff. And indeed, although there are some tense episodes of monster confrontation (those who don't like snakes, be warned--they play a scary role at one part), there's nothing here that pushes the story Young Adult-ward.

Although this story comes to a satisfying conclusion, many questions about Rhidan in particular are left unanswered--lots of room for a sequel.

Here's what I want to read next, though--Sinbad's original stories! I enjoyed picking up on many Sinbadian references, but I want to go back and see what I missed.

Other reviews can be found at Mundie Kids, The Book Monsters, The Book Cellar, and Michelle and Leslie's Book Picks

Edited to add: Here's an interview with Jasmine Richards at TheHappyNappyBookseller, who also has this review.

The Atomic Weight of Secrets, by Eden Unger Bowditch (2011)

The Atomic Weight of Secrets,  or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, by Eden Unger Bowditch (Bancroft Press, March, 2011, middle grade, 339 pages) is the first book of The Young Inventors Guild, a historical speculative fiction story about five brilliant children.  Their parents are extraordinary too, so much so that one day in 1903, when the mysterious men in black come calling, the parents, with no explaination, have to leave their children.   But the men in black have a plan for the children too, one that involves sending them off to their own special boarding school in rural Ohio.  There they are cared for by the loving Miss Brett (the first adult to ever read out loud to them--the brilliant parents were too busy being brilliant to have much time for their kids), a seemingly normal woman who's unable, or unwilling, to provide any answers....

Twelve-year-old Jasper Modest (a young inventor) and his six-year-old sister, Lucy (gifted with a perfect memory), were taken from London.  Nine-year-old Wallace Banneker, determined to follow in the footsteps of his family of African American scientists, inventors, and mathematicians, was taken from New York.  Twelve-year-old Noah Canto-Sagas, brilliant both mentally and musically, was taken from Toronto.  And the oldest child, the thirteen-year-old Faye Vigyanveta, taken from the luxurious home of her parents, Indian scientists, is fiercely determined to find out the secret of the Mysterious Men in Black who have torn apart their lives for no clear reason.

And they are indeed Mysterious.  "In black," for them, includes black tutus.  Black bear suites.  Black scarfs concealing their faces, which are shrouded by black sombreros, Easter bonnets, and the like.  All manner of grab bag bits of clothing, concealing them utterly.   And they are not exactly forthcoming to the children--which is to say, they don't say anything. 

Although the children's strange school is a virtual prison, and their weekend trips to loving foster mothers carefully orchestrated to make escape impossible, this bizarre situation is one where the children can thrive, becoming each other's first true friends.   All the delicious food they want, adult attention and love, and beautiful lab equipment.

Except that there is no getting around the fact that their parents are missing (and though they might have been distant, un-nurturing parents for the most part, this is still disturbing), the men in black are their jailers, and if they want answers, they are going to have to escape.  And being brilliant young inventors, the answer comes to them--they must build a flying machine...

This is a book that requires from its reader an acceptance of the bizarre.  The children's situation is like a dream, and the reader knows no more about the men in black then they do (although I, having read more science fiction than the kids have, soon had a theory....what do they actually look like, under all that black concealment???).

Acceptance is also required regarding the pacing of the book.  We meet all five kids just as they are about to try to escape from their bizarre situation.  But then the author goes back to the start of things, before the arrival of the men in black, but doesn't introduce us properly to all of the kids at once, instead, she doles out the introductions at intervals.  She doesn't rush it--we don't get Wallace Bannaker's back story, the last one, until page 182, which I found extreme.   So it wasn't until the final third of the book that I felt I had a really firm handle on the kids, and could really appreciate their interactions and character arcs.    Likewise, although the book starts with the escape plan getting underway, it then goes back to tell all the story up to that point.

So I read much of the book with a slightly uninvested feeling (though I liked the kids, enjoyed the details of their strange school life, and was curious to learn more about the mystery).  It was not till the story catches up to closer to where the book begins, with the great escape project well underway, that the pieces all clicked for me.   At that point, all the disparate gifts of the kids combine to make things really start humming, the tension grows, and the reader waits with baited breath for the Great Reveal....and realizes she's not going to get it.  Nope, no little wrapping up the plot threads here, just waiting for the next book...

Still, though I have reservations, it never occurred to me to put it down.  And I think it might work well for the right young reader--smart, lonely kids in particular! 

Archer's Quest, by Linda Sue Park (2006)

Archer's Quest, by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2006, middle grade, 159 pp)

Kevin is home alone, trying to muster enthusiasm for his homework, when...THWOCK! An arrow lifts off his baseball cap, and pins it to the wall.

"My arrow would end your life before you took a single step," says the strange man who has suddenly materialized in his room. "Do not even think of fleeing. And if you are armed, place your weapon on the floor. Now." (dialogue from p. 5)

Kevin, being a typical middle school kid, is not, in fact, armed. Even if he were, he would stand no chance against this stranger, who is none other than Chu-mong, founder of the largest of the ancient kingdoms of Korea, and one of the greatest archers of all time. Chu-mong had not intended to visit Kevin's house--some strange twist of chance and magic has brought him into the present. And now Kevin must help him return home, before the Year of the Tiger comes to an end the next day.

Kevin scrambles to use math, the Chinese Zodiac, his grandparent's stories of Korea, and a visit to a tiger in the zoo and to the local museum to help the archer return home, all the while guiding Chu-mong through the perils of 21st-century life. And Chu-mong in turn gives Kevin, himself Korean American, not only a tangible connection to the land of his ancestors, but the more practical ability to focus that underlies his own skills as a warrior.

Fast-paced (it all takes place in less than one day) and told with considerable humor, this story combines puzzle solving, history and legend, and the workings of the middle-school boy mind to great effect. Because it's set in the present, it is, I think, a more accessible type of time travel story than the sort where modern kids travel back to the past. The reader can easily imagine himself in Kevin's position, for instance, as Kevin tries to explain the workings of cars to the strange visitor who has just jumped behind a hedge on first seeing one.

I'd especially recommend this to the middle-grade kid who doesn't necessarily read fantasy. The ones who do read fantasy might well like it lots too, but they might feel that they are getting something more realistic than they had bargained for. This a testimony to Park's writing, in as much as she has made an impossible situation seem strangely convincing.

I'd also like to recommend this one to kids who are considering taking up archery. It should inspire them nicely.