YA – Six Crimson Cranes

Lim, Elizabeth. Six Crimson Cranes. Hodder & Stoughton, 2021. 978-1-529-37026-3. 454 pg. $18.99. Grades 9-12.

Shiori has a secret – she has forbidden magic. As the only princess of Kiata, if her secret came to light it would have disastrous implications.  Usually Shiori keeps her secret concealed except on the day of her betrothal ceremony. That day, her stepmother Raikama notices and banishes the young princess with a curse, turning Shiori’s brothers into cranes and for every word she speaks one of her brothers will die.  Shiori is left alone and unable to speak; she sets off to find her brothers and figure out a way to save them. While she is looking for a solution, she discovers there is more to her stepmother’s deceit than meets the eye. Will Shiori be able to save herself, her brothers, and her kingdom?

THOUGHTS: This was amazingly well written, with memorable characters and great pacing throughout. Elizabeth Lim does a great job of weaving in the elements of the original fairy tale while also making the reader feel that they are reading something new. This is a must own for every high school and public library collection, as well as a must read for any fan of fantasy.

Fantasy          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

YA – The Bright & the Pale

Rubinkowski, Jessica. The Bright & the Pale. Quill Tree Books, 2021. 978-0-063-07712-6. 328 p. $17.99. Grades 9-12.

When Valeria was 17 years old, her village was encased in a magical frost that froze everyone and everything in her village. She is the only survivor. Ever since that happened, she has been hiding from the Czar, who wants to throw anyone who survived, in jail. When the book starts, Valeria is working for the Thieves Guild with her best friend Alik and doing what she can to survive, which all comes crashing down when Alik is murdered. A year later, Valeria finds out that Alik is alive. Now she needs to lead a group of criminals into her home town in order to buy Alik’s freedom.

THOUGHTS: This is a great read for fans of the Grisha trilogy, as it has a similar feel in the mythology and folklore. This is also a great book to read during the winter, with the majority of the book taking place outside with snow.

Fantasy          Mary McEndree, Lehigh Valley Regional Charter Academy

MG – Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City

Heidicker, Christian McKay. Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City. Henry Holt and Company, 2021. 978-1-25018-144-2. 386 p. $17.99. Grades 5-8.

O-370 only knows of life on the farm. The elder foxes tell him stories about wild foxes who have adventures beyond anything he can imagine. O-370 and his cousin, R-211 dream of having their own adventures like Mia and Uly, the foxes they hear about in the stories. Even though they want to have adventures, they also know that the farm is a good place for them. All the foxes who live here get food twice a day and have a warm place to sleep. Best of all, when they are done at the farm, they get to go to The Barn, a special place where foxes eat centipedes all day and play with all the foxes that have gone before them. One night, O-370 is desperate for an adventure and slips out of his cage to explore The Barn. What he discovers sends him running into the forest and to the edge of the nearby city. After meeting a group of tough city foxes, O-370 realizes he may not have the skills to survive away from the farm. O-370 decides he must use the strategies in the stories he heard as a young kit to survive in the city.

THOUGHTS: In the follow-up novel to Scary Stories for Young Foxes, author Heidicker follows a similar format. He intersperses the story of O-370 with an older fox storyteller who is relaying O-370’s story to kits. Fans of his first novel will be happy to see previous characters Mia, Uly, Beatrix Potter, and others make appearances throughout the book. This book is a great addition to middle grade libraries, especially for young fans of horror and animal stories.

Horror/Fantasy          Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – Amber & Clay

Schlitz, Laura Amy. Amber & Clay. Candlewick Press, 2021. 978-1-536-20122-2. 532 p. $22.99. Grades 5-9.

Told in the alternating voices of Rhaskos and Melisto, this book transports readers to the richness of life in Ancient Greece. Rhaskos is a Thracian slave, serving his masters and making his way through the world with his wits, his passion for art, and his camaraderie with donkeys. Melisto is the daughter of wealthy Greek parents who, try as they might, cannot stifle her wild spirit within the confines of a weaving room. They lead incredibly different lives, but their paths cross when Rhasko’s mother appears in Melisto’s house as a slave. Brightly drawn and multi-dimensional, these two Greek youths are easy to like, even if they are not always easy to understand, and readers will cheer for them when they finally meet and work together to fulfill their destinies.

THOUGHTS: This is the latest offering from Newbery-prize-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz, and it does not disappoint with its lyrical prose and abundant historical details. Full of ancient Greek culture, references to gods, goddesses, and the philosopher Socrates himself, fans of Greek mythology will be happy to immerse themselves in the time and place of this story.

Fantasy Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

Elem./MG – A Glasshouse of Stars

Marr, Shirley. A Glasshouse of Stars. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-534-48883-0. 246 p.  $17.99. Grades 4-6.

Meixing has just arrived in a New Land to live in a New House with her parents. She and her mother and father have traveled from the Old Land to live with First Uncle, but he passed away only weeks before their arrival and now they are adrift in a strange place, not quite speaking the right language and not quite understanding the right customs. When tragedy strikes Meixing’s family, she retreats into the backyard of her new home and discovers a magical world hidden away in a broken down greenhouse where the ghost of First Uncle helps her discover her inner strength. Meixing displays incredible courage in the face of xenophobia in her new school as she tries to learn her place in this New Land, but new friends and an understanding new teacher also help her overcome her family’s difficulties as they begin to build a life in the New Land.

THOUGHTS: This story offers a unique glimpse into the struggles of immigrant children who deal with poverty, discrimination, and cultural miscommunication. The magical realism in this book provides Meixing with a symbolic escape from her troubles and a way to process her feelings with the help of her family, and adds a beautiful, lyrical layer to the storytelling. This story would be an excellent addition to studies about the immigrant experience, and should be added to collections with a focus on immigrant experiences and diverse voices.

Realistic Fiction          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG – Kaleidoscope

Selznick, Brian. Kaleidoscope. Scholastic Press, 2021. 978-1-338-77724-6. 208 p. $19.99. Grades 5-8.

Have you ever woken up from a dream and only remembered bits and pieces, like a blur in the back of your memory? Have you ever felt that stories are all loosely connected but not sure exactly how the thread begins or ends? Have you spun a kaleidoscope and wondered about the tiny pieces that get reflected and refracted and turned again and again into patterns of endless combinations? Brian Selznick brings some of those ideas to print in his latest genre twisting novel. Using his classic black and white illustrations, he offers one picture that is in kaleidoscope vision, then a focused image accompanying a short vignette depicting mainly scenes from a narrator’s first person view. Often a character named James shows up for comfort or reminiscing or the narrator is grieving his passing; however, there is not a linear narrative or consistent plot. Instead, the reader is invited to take in each snapshot and interpret for themselves. Themes and objects repeat through the book, much like gems in a kaleidoscope tumble and change focus. The view at the end may surprise and delight some readers and will certainly encourage repeated readings for further meaning.

THOUGHTS: The short stories stand well on their own, but may not help younger readers to keep focused on the arching story. However, classes could easily study literary examples such as setting, narrative, theme, allegory, and allusion throughout. Recommended.

Fantasy          Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

A thirteen-year-old narrator wants to find out more about the world around him, so he sets sail with his friend James. The journey takes them to the moon. They find that the moon is at war with the sun because the sun believes no one needs the darkness the moon brings. But James defends the moon’s side, arguing that people need to have the dreams that come about when the moon is high. James is crowned king, and he defends the moon’s honor for years and years to come. In the subsequent chapters, the narrator and James have a bunch of different adventures that transcend time and space. Although the stories are different, there are common threads running throughout, including references to biblical and mythological items that tie the stories together. Much like a kaleidoscope itself, each scene (or in this case, story) is unique but made up of a different combination of the same bits and pieces.

THOUGHTS: Brian Selznick has once again written a fascinating book that children will enjoy. Each chapter is accompanied by his signature black and white drawings, this time of kaleidoscope scenes. This would be a great pick for a book club or class novel as it might be a bit confusing for readers to understand how the stories connect. Overall, Selznick’s story collection should definitely be included in middle grade libraries.

Fantasy/Short Story Collection           Danielle Corrao, Manheim Central SD

MG – City of the Plague God

Chadda, Sarwat. City of the Plague God. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05150-7. 400 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7. 

Sik, a thirteen-year-old Iraqi-American, lives with his mother and father in New York City, running a family deli specializing in middle-eastern food. He and his parents mourn his older brother, Mo, who was killed while traveling in Iraq. Alone in the deli one night, Sik encounters two scary guys in the back alley, eating rats and talking in rhyming couplets. Then Sik meets their boss, an insect infested, maggot producing 10-foot monster who proceeds to demolish the deli looking for something he says Mo stole from Iraq. If that wasn’t weird enough, Sik is saved by a pint-sized ninja, who turns out to be Belet, the new girl in his class at school. And if THAT isn’t weird enough, Belet is the daughter of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Ishtar explains to Sik that his nighttime visitor was Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of war and plague, and New York City has just become an immortal battle zone. Another entry from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint introduces middle grade readers to really ancient mythology – stories from the Fertile Crescent. The original super hero, Gilgamesh, appears in the story, having renounced his former violent ways. This story is not for the faint of heart. Bugs, blood, and bile dominate in this action-packed adventure. Characters come back from the dead, and Sik must visit the underworld in his pursuit of Mo’s mysterious treasure. Learning about Sumaria was never so much fun! Sik is a charming character who cares deeply about his family, and resents his brother for dying, while Belet desperately wants a family like the one Sik treasures.

THOUGHTS: Those students who may have previously eschewed the RRP family of books will be drawn in by the delightful grossness of this story. Readers may not run for a translation of Gilgamesh, but they will undoubtedly be more receptive to learning about Mesopotamia in history class.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – Last Fallen Star

Kim, Grace. Last Fallen Star. Disney-Hyperion, 2021. 978-1-368-05963-3. 336 p. $16.99. Grades 3-7.

Riley loves her Korean family and community. Her parents are healers, part of the Gom clan, and Riley longs for the day she can join them, with her almost-twin sister, Hattie. Unfortunately, Riley, an adopted daughter, has failed to show an affinity with any of the five magical witch clans, let alone an indication she is a Gom. However, an offhand comment shows the girls an option, albeit a dangerous one: once Hattie is initiated into the clan, she can cast a spell to share her magic with Riley. But when the girls attempt the spell, truths are revealed that Riley and Hattie never imagined. An appeal to the clan goddess ends with Hattie’s life in peril and Riley pledged to locate the Last Fallen Star. Only she has no idea what it is, let alone where to find it. Luckily, Riley is blessed with a great friend in Emmett, a non-magical member of the Korean community who undertakes the quest with Riley. Along the way, Riley and Emmett locate the sixth witch clan, long outlawed from the other clans, and uncover the truth of the rift between them. This first book in a new series from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint delves into the fascinating world of Korean mythology. All characters are members of the Korean community in Los Angeles. Readers will love the intricacies of the witch clans, their associated skills, and patron goddesses. Riley is a spunky protagonist whose adventurous spirit and deep love for her sister keep the story moving. Kim writes with wit, and the story is often laugh-out-loud funny (the Gostr app to locate spirits is quite humorous). Riley discovers she has more friends than she realized, which is a comfort when she makes a startling sacrifice to save Hattie.

THOUGHTS: This enjoyable action adventure will please readers who cannot get enough of mythology-based series. Purchase where RRP books are popular. Delightfully, the main characters are thirteen years old, making the book potentially attractive for middle school collections.

Fantasy (Mythology)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

MG – The Memory Thief

Anderson, Jodi Lynn. The Memory Thief. Thirteen Witches Book 1. Aladdin, 2021. 978-1-481-48021-5. 325 p. $17.99. Grades 4-7.

Rosie finds great comfort in writing fantasy stories with happy endings, to compensate for her less-than-perfect life with a mother who cannot remember she has a daughter. But when Rosie’s best friend, Gemma, suggests the girls are getting too old for stories, Rosie, shocked and hurt, burns her writings. Later that night, the ghosts come. When a young boy ghost realizes Rosie and Gemma can see them, he takes it up himself to educate Rosie of her family’s heritage. Armed with The Witch-Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, Rosie learns of the existence of 13 witches, who steal the good from inside of people. Her mother, the last known witch hunter, was cursed by the Memory Thief. Now that Rosie has triggered her own sight, the witches will be aware of her existence and will come for her. Anderson, author of the ethereal Midnight at the Electric, creates an equally luminous fantasy for middle grade readers. The main characters are fully nuanced, and the evolution of friendship is a major theme in the story. The layering of the magical world over the ordinary world is an element sure to pull in readers, as they cheer for Rosie and Gemma to succeed in holding off the darkness. This is the first book of the series, and the ending will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next volume. The main characters are presumed white.

THOUGHTS: This is a top-notch fantasy with three dimensional characters to whom readers can relate. There should be a wide audience for the book, beyond fantasy readers.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

YA – My Contrary Mary

Hand, Cynthia, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows. My Contrary Mary. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-93004-0. 496 p. $18.99. Grades 8-12. 

For readers who like their historical fiction a bit more on the fiction side, the trio of authors known as the Lady Janies offer their fourth rollicking rewrite of history, this time turning to Renaissance France for felicitous fodder. Mary, Queen of Scots has been engaged to Francis, Dauphin of France since they were tiny tots. They are best friends, and Francis keeps Mary’s deepest secret: she is an Eꝺian, a shape shifter with an animal alter ego. In a country ruled by Verities, this is a death sentence. This story returns to the highly enjoyable world of the trio’s first book, replacing religious warfare with Eꝺian/Verity strife. While historical events form the basis of the plot, the authors never let facts get in the way of a good story, and certainly not a happy ending. When King Henry suddenly dies, (possibly probably with an assist from Mary’s uncles), and Francis is placed on the throne, the maneuvering begins to gain control of France. Ari, the daughter of the court prognosticator, Nostradamus, finds herself thrust into the middle of the messy machinations, as her skill as a potion maker is in demand on all sides. Can Mary save Francis, save France, save Scotland, save her mother, save Eꝺians, and save her marriage? Of course she can! This is history as it ought to have been, and far more fun than anything you were taught in school. All characters are presumed white, but Ari develops a romantic relationship with one of Mary’s ladies-in-waiting.

THOUGHTS: This is a delightful, giggle-inducing romp through history, containing just enough facts to send readers to Wikipedia to discover what really happened. A steady stream of asides from the authors adds to the hilarity.

Fantasy (Historical)          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD