MALAMANDER, by Thomas Taylor
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
Who wants to go swimming inside a shipwreck in the middle of winter with a sea monster that lays a glowing ruby egg that can grant wishes? I do! I do! Sign me up! This book is a delight and swept me up from page one! With zingy humor and a fanciful cast of characters, MALAMANDER (Candlewick/Walker Books 2019) is a mystery/fantasy about two young orphans: one a worker at a hotel's "lost & foundery," the other a newcomer to town searching for the truth about what happened to her parents. Together, the go on a fantastically daring adventure, discovering along the way that all people are not as they seem and that some creatures are best left alone. Quick-moving, funny, engaging read!
Thomas Taylor creates a strong, atmospheric setting with his creation of the ocean side town of Eerie-on-Sea. The reader shudders at the whip of the icy wind off the water and tastes the salty fog hanging in the air. Taylor also excels at creating a sense of whimsy and magic that isn’t forced but rather is interwoven seamlessly into the plot. The pacing of this middle grade would keep even an antsy reader engaged, as Taylor hooks the reader from the get-go with questions of how and why a young boy, Herbert Lemon, would be employed in the “lost and foundery” of a hotel, then efficiently and smoothly slides into the appearance of a mysterious character, Violet Parma, outside the boy's window. Strong setting, intriguing charaters, curious unknowns...and you're off on an imaginative adventure!
To learn more about Thomas Taylor, visit his website at http://www.thomastaylor-author.com/. And check out the second in the Eerie-On-Sea series, Gargantis, released in paperback on April 6, 2021.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA (Tor Books, 2020) is a delightful story about 40 year old Linus Baker, a simple, straightforward fellow employed as a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Things go along rather routinely for Linus, until one day he is summoned to the Office of Extremely Upper Management and given a mysterious assignment: go to the orphanage on Marsyas Island and report back on the welfare of the six children there. With very little to go on, and with the knowledge that he will be given information only as it is warranted, Linus heads off. What he finds on the island challenges every notion he holds of the “magical” children he has previously encountered in his work. With each passing day, he finds it increasingly difficult to remain objective to the charms of the orphans—and their caretakers—all the while growing more suspicious of his employer’s true motives behind his visit.
Part magical adventure, part social equality piece, part romance, THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is a charming, emotional, thoughtful novel that takes the reader on a journey to a beautiful island inhabited by unique, intriguing characters, all the while reminding us that not everything is as it seems—or, more importantly, as it should be. Read this story, and you’ll be dreaming of eating cherry ice cream with Linus and Arthur, gardening with Talia, listening to records with Lucy, and writing poetry with Sal! TJ Klune’s novel is an example of a beautifully written story laced with humor and infused with the themes of compassion and acceptance.
So, why did I chose an adult book for my book pick when our blog’s focus is kidlit? Because sometimes the most valuable books to use as mentor texts are not always within your writing genre, and THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is one such example. And it’s interesting to note that this book does not fit neatly into any genre. Most libraries and bookstores have it in their adult fiction section. A few have chosen to place it on their Young Adult shelves. Others have it in Science Fiction. Regardless of where you find it, the story is the same: a delightful adult fiction story with a childlike whimsy. But more importantly for writers, this novel is a solid example of developing strong characters and allowing them to unfold and develop as the story moves along. In particular, the six magical orphans in this novel seem at first glance to be somewhat unlikeable and not fully in focus, but as the story progresses and the layers of each child are pulled back, what is revealed is truly magical and illustrates how characters must be given the space to grow and develop depth within a story’s arc. Rather than rushing to dump too much information at once, Klune patiently and expertly discloses his characters, allowing the reader to connect with them in a “real time” sort of way. THE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA is also a strong example of straddling the magical world and the realistic one in terms of setting and character-building. The reader is able to understand the underlying themes of social justice and kindness through this unique approach to world-building, all the while keeping the emotional aspect relatable, relevant, and appealing.
To learn more about TJ Klune, visit his website at http://www.tjklunebooks.com.
~Reviewed by Amanda Smith
“You control the story, you control the narrative, you control the power.” – High John
Tristan Strong carries a lot of stories with him. The stories of his father and grandfather’s boxing success, compared to his first-match failure. Or the story of how his best friend, Eddie died in a bus accident, while he survived. The folk lore and African mythology his nana had told him. The journal in which Eddie collected those stories.
So, when a sticky little doll baby appears in Tristan room at his grandparents’ house in Alabama, squelches its way across the floor and nabs Eddie’s journal, Tristan fights hard to retrieve it. In the fight with Gum Baby, he punches a hole in the fabric that separates our world from the realm where folk heroes are gods of Midpass and African gods rule Alke. On his epic hero’s journey to stop the destruction caused by his punch, he meets a fascinating cast of gods, heroes, and villains. He travels to amazing cities; fights alongside fierce warriors; meets the pain of his past head-on; and discovers the strength of story and his power as Anansesem (magical storyteller) to wield it. He learns the rip between Midpass and Alke existed long before his careless fist caused the tear in the sky, and healing lies in telling all the stories of the past – even the painful ones.
TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY (Rick Riordan Presents, Disney.Hyperion 2019) is Kwame Mbalia's powerful debut novel and Coretta Scott King honors recipient. It tells not only Tristan’s story, but also, through symbolism, the history of slavery and the Middle Passage. Bringing often untold African-American history, alongside West African Mythology adds a fascinating, educational and important layer to this novel. While one could read the novel as pure entertainment, I often paused my reading to research a character or name, and discovered deeper meaning. And some of the history on which Mbalai touches directly connects with current conversations around systemic racism.
However, the novel is never dull or didactic. Mbalai delivers mythology and history with huge doses of humor, Marvell-movie-like fast-paced-action, lovable characters, authentic dialogue, goosebump-inducing place-descriptions, and the most beautiful magic scene I have ever read. Mbalia’s use of language is decadent: smuggled in bits of internal rhyme, dashes of alliteration, sensational imagery, clever humor, and masterful never-forced use of dialect. Tristan Strong might be an Anansesem, but the true story weaver here is Kwame Mbalia!
Even though the entire novel is a perfect mentor text for use of language in world building, I was truly struck by the tightness of the first chapter, and would highly recommend it as a study in beginnings. At the end of page fourteen, internal and external conflict have been established, we know Tristan’s shame and struggles, names of African gods have been introduced, we have a mysteriously knowing Nana, and a strangely glowing journal that keeps showing up in unexpected places. As Tristan Strong stated, “I mean really, what could go wrong?”
The sequel, TRISTAN STRONG DESTROYS THE WORLD will release October 6, 2020. I can hardly wait to revisit these characters and this world!
To learn more about Kwame Mbalia visit https://kwamembalia.com/
Review by Amanda Smith
Hannah Jordan lives in a Gilded Age mansion. Well, actually, she lives in the converted servant’s quarters of a mansion. Her father is the caretaker of The Elms, one of the most esteemed historical properties in Newport, RI. Hannah is a history buff and loves all things antique, but mostly she adores the reproduction portrait of Maggie and longs to spend a day in the rich heiress’ shoes.
Maggie is the twelve-year-old niece of the coal tycoon who built The Elms. Even though she loves her aunt and uncle, she finds her life mundane. Portrait sittings, tea with her stuck-up cousin, lawn tennis, and her aunt’s stifling opinions on what girls can and cannot do leave Maggie wanting.
In FREAKY FRIDAY-like fashion, Hannah and Maggie swap places though a mirror in the mansion. Hannah, who revels in everything 1905, is set on solving the mystery surrounding the heist of the original Maggie portrait, with the help of kitchen boy, Jonah. Both girls believe solving the heist will switch them back. While Hannah plays investigator and has to swallow archaic beliefs about women, Maggie navigates modern technology, encounters vastly different family relationships, and experiences the liberties and opportunities brought about by the women’s rights movement.
In this fun mystery adventure, the reader goes on a time traveling journey with Hannah, and experiences the wonders and restraints of the Gilded Age through the eyes of a modern twelve-year-old. The narrative leads the reader to reflect on today’s privileges and liberties that are often taken for granted. An endearing cast of characters strings readers along multiple twists and turns. They are forced to make difficult decisions and have us rooting for them all the way.
Even though THE ART OF THE SWAP (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin; 2018) has two girl main characters, the adventure and mystery aspect, humorous situations, and a strong male character in Jonah make this a story boys and girls will enjoy. The story sheds light on women’s rights and gender inequality. It had both my sons thinking, noticing, and commenting. THE ART OF THE SWAP is an enjoyable book to read aloud with your kids and a perfect classroom book for 5th - 7th grade that will springboard interesting and important discussions.
Hop on over to our blog here to read how Kris and Jen co-wrote THE ART OF THE SWAP.
A Review by Kelly Carey
Cassie Beasley’s middle grade fiction novel, Circus Mirandus, certainly deserves a space on the shelf with The Polar Express and Alice in Wonderland, as all three explore the importance of a belief in magic and the unexplainable through a creative explosion of fantastical characters that pluck at the very heart strings of love and life. On the surface, Beasley’s Circus Mirandus is a visual delight of fun house creatures, sideshow oddities and mind bending magicians, but pull the tent flap back just a bit and readers will find a touching examination of the special bond between a devoted grandfather and his grandson and a stunning message about faith and the magic of love.
In Circus Mirandus, Beasley conjours up a mystical traveling circus that appears like Brigadoon to the faithful who believe. The circus first materializes to a young Grandpa Ephraim and it both changes and shapes his life in essential ways. When the story opens, Ephraim is a dying old man whose powerful relationship with his grandson, Micah, makes them both reach out to Circus Mirandus for a miracle. Beasley wonderfully complicates Ephraim and Micah’s quest with a horribly wicked Aunt Gertrudis. Even her name sticks in your throat as you read it and her actions make you hate her in a most satisfying way. Then along comes clever and logical Jenny, a classmate and friend of Micah’s, to act as a perfect foil to both Aunt Gertrudis’ nastiness but also to Micah’s faith in the existence of magic.
The search to find Circus Mirandus will be just as harrowing as the sights and characters of the circus itself. Readers will feel their hearts swell and swoon as they join Micah on his quest to discover the circus and the miracle he and his grandfather desire. Along the way, it would be a good idea to adhere to British science fiction writer Arthur Clarke’s second law – The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. This is true both when hunting for a magical circus and in our universal pursuit of happiness.
Enjoy the discovery!
Plot, character and creativity are Beasley’s greatest strengths as she masterfully pulls readers into her story of magical realism. First, she makes you care about Ephraim and Micah. Then, she enthralls you with the fanciful charm of her circus and its performers. Finally, she presents a life or death problem plagued with a vile villain.
The formula may seem simple, but Beasley plays out her plot and characters with the skill of a master puppeteer and, at some point it may be true, that the strings are attached to the reader who happily allows Beasley to move them through her wonderful tale. Beasley lets her story unfold with a seamless flow back and forth between Ephraim’s boyhood to the present, where the reader is following Micah’s struggle to save his grandfather, find the circus and survive horrible Aunt Gertrudis. Backstory comes through chapters told within the tents of the circus and Beasley offers up each new bit of information just as the reader is relaxing. She ramps up the rising tension of her plot by removing the limits of Aunt Gertrudis’ wickedness, pushing Grandpa Ephraim closer and closer to death, and then snatching away the certainty of Circus Mirandus as a solution.
In the end it is simply magic.
THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner
~ Amanda Smith
Twelve-year-old Charlie’s life is filled with normal twelve-year-old stuff: friends, school, science fairs, Irish dancing, and missing her a sister who went off to college. When we first meet Charlie, her biggest problem is having too little money to buy the Irish dancing solo dress of her dreams. An opportunity to ice-fish, and sell her catch to the local tavern, offers Charlie a way to save for her perfect solo dress. However, her very first catch is a wishing fish. Soon she realizes the fish is not a figment of her imagination, but really grants her wishes (although not exactly as she would have liked it too). She hooks the fish again and again to manipulate things she cannot control by herself. Through a devastating family crisis, Charlie learns that some things cannot be controlled, not even by a wishing fish.
In THE SEVENTH WISH Kate Messner masterfully weaves fantasy elements into realistic fiction. The silliness of the fish, and the hilarious outcomes of Charlie’s wishes form a striking paradox with the true conflict in the story: Charlie’s inability to control her sister’s choices or addiction. THE WISHING FISH is rich in imagery. Charlie ‘s dependency on the wishing is parallel to Abby’s dependency on drugs. The more Charlie goes out on the ice, the less she fears it, so even when there are clear warning signs, she ignores them, trusting that she will be fine. The ice becomes a false security, similar to Abby’s addiction.
THE SEVENTH WISH is an important and timely novel. In an age appropriate manner, Kate deals with the emotional turmoil drug addiction causes in families. Even though it deals with a heavy subject, it is an enjoyable read with relatable, multi-faceted characters, which makes it a perfect conversation starter. I will definitely be sharing this book with my kids.
THE SEVENTH WISH contains numerous swoon-worthy sentences delivered at just the right time. However, Kate Messner’s brilliance is most noticeable in the tight first chapter of this novel. Off the bat, Kate establishes a solid relationship between Charlie and Abby, and by page 6 we can already see the change in Abby and the resulting cracks in their relationship. Seamlessly throughout this chapter the reader is introduced to Charlie’s family and friends; conflict is established; magic is referenced; and a major theme is set up in a friend's warning, “Wish all you want. Wishing doesn’t make a thing so.” For writers, the first chapter of THE SEVENTH WISH serves as an excellent mentor text.
For a behind the scenes look at THE SEVENTH WISH, click here to read our interview with Kate Messner.
Review by Kelly Carey
For adults who loved All the Light We Cannot See, here is a middle grade novel for the young reader that similarly embraces the universality of the tiny threads that bind all of humanity together. This 2016 Newbery Honor novel blends a mystical fairy tale, complete with kings, queens, evil witches, spells and curses with the grounding historical reality of Nazi Germany, the Great Depression and the treatment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. On the surface, Ryan uses music, and specifically harmonica music, to connect the stories. But, on completion of this amazingly crafted novel, readers will find a linkage that goes beyond music, time and place.
Echo reels readers in with an opening story filled with enchantment and make-believe. The opening story is left incomplete as Echo introduces three separate tales told through the eyes of three young protagonists. As each protagonist faces their own daunting challenges, the history around their lives becomes relatable and personal. Friedrich is caught in Nazi Germany just before World War II. Mike struggles during the Great Depression, and Ivy’s story plays out after Pearl Harbor. For young readers who devoured the Magic Tree House series, and are ready to jump up a level, Echo is the natural next step in historical fiction for children.
Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo proves that a single story can jump genres and be more successful for the leap. Her novel is equal parts fairy tale and historical fiction. The combination has an amazingly readable effect.
While the history is there, Pam Munoz Ryan uses poetic, yet solid and simple characters, to show rather than tell the history. As a result, readers become entranced with each character. You will cheer for them and weep for them because they are complete in their humanity, in their flaws, in their hopes and in their struggles. Ryan’s characterization is so full that you know things about her main characters without her ever even telling you. Here is an author who didn’t just create characters, she created souls.
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.