As much as I love fables, prior to reading Mulan: Before the Sword, my knowledge of Hua Mulan’s story came mainly from movie trailers. Grace Lin’smiddle-grade prequel blew me away. I’m a fan of Lin’s prior best-selling middle-grade trilogy and her picture books, so I was expecting to really like this book; instead, I loved it. The fast-paced story is balanced by gorgeous prose, bringing legendary Asian history to life. Lin’s writing beautifully blends myth, action, and suspense. The opening line, “She disliked it when they transformed into spiders” had me hooked. The story’s viewpoints shift between the plotting, treacherous villains and Mulan’s adventure to save her sister Xiu’s life (she’s succumbing to a poisonous bite from the evil nine-legged spider).
Mulan tries to suppress her adventurous nature and struggles to be a more restrained daughter. Contrarily, Xiu exemplifies all the “right” female traits. Yet, Mulan’s abilities allow her to set off on a quest with the legendary Jade Rabbit where she begins to realize that, just maybe, she’s exactly who she needs to be.
It’s easy to care about Mulan and root for her to save the day. The characters and scenery come alive and tension builds as setbacks delay their progress. En route, Mulan learns of the prophecy that a member of her family is destined to, one day, save the Emperor. Figuring that person must be Xiu, Mulan risks her life, sacrificing for the greater good. Yet, all is not as it seems and this tale wends its way to an amazing conclusion. Mulan, a powerful warrior, also finds compassion for her adversaries.
Lin’s Author Note provides interesting historical detail; Mulan may have been a real person, the first know mention of her was in a fourth-century folk song, “The Ballad of Mulan.” Today, Mulan continues to be a cherished character as Lin skillfully adds another layer to the saga.
Click here to read a terrific interview by Christine with Grace Lin at SCBWI’s Kite Tales of Southern California’s Tri-Regions.
Do you know what GORP stands for? Or that thimbleberries are a real thing? Or that you can plant a Three Sisters Garden using corn, beans, and squash which naturally help each other grow? Alison Farrell’spicture book,The Hike, shares many such fun and fascinating facts in this story of sisterhood among friends who share a deep love of the outdoors.
Since there is much flora and fauna to see, the hike starts off with a bang as friends Wren, El, and Hattie “run like maniacs.” But the plot slows down, too, so the girls can enjoy a bounty of thimbleberries (which I learned is NOT a make believe snack for Thumbelina or forest fairies) and a lesson on how to make leaf baskets (that this city girl would love to try making). Joining the group are Bean, the dog, and a curious little chipmunk who follows along and seems to play a hide and seek game with us readers, adding another level of entertainment and adventure to the story.
As the hikers face certain hardships on their journey their camaraderie grows stronger. We see values of kindness, perseverance, mindfulness, and respect as they help each other maneuver difficult terrain, find their way back to the trail, and stay present in their beautiful surroundings. The celebration at the top of the mountain also highlights everyone’s unique and important contribution to the group: Wren raises her flag, “El reads her poem, and Hattie releases feathers into the wind.”
I appreciate, too, Farrell’s gentle nod to poetry. In the opening page of the story, we see in El’s room a poster of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver, and later El working on a poem during a break from the hike. This emphasis on the strong connection between the natural world and the written word brings us closer still to the wealth of wonders the outdoors offer. Even as the friends’ hike comes to an end in the early evening hours, they marvel at the constellations.
The Hikeis the kind of book readers can curl up with to enjoy all its lovely details (and there are many!). Farrell’s labels of the animals and plants on every page plus notes from Wren’s sketchbook in the back matter will inspire readers to visit the book again and again to see what they’ve missed. Rendered in gouache, ink, and pencil, the warm illustrations showcase varying shades of that unmistakable green of the Pacific Northwest.
Grab a sketchbook, a bag of GORP ( hiker lingo for trail mix), and your little one’s hand. Nature is calling.
Perfect for fans of Dungeons and Dragons and Stranger Things, THE LAST DRAGON went on sale this past Monday, Oct. 8. This is the second novel, which can be read as a standalone, in New York Times bestselling author James Riley’s thrilling new series The Revenge of Magic.
When I read that this particular installment was “packed with mystery, magic, and mayhem sure to keep readers guessing until the very end,” I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to get started. In doing so I was rewarded with an action-packed story that introduced me to likeable and not-so-likeable characters, the Oppenheimer School for magical training, and an assortment of creatures and adventures that kept me turning the pages of this new middle grade fantasy. I don’t often read the second book in a series without having read the first, but was immediately swept into the main character Fort’s quest to rescue his father who had been taken by evil beings called the Old Ones in an attack on the National Mall in D.C.
Once I was eager to know what would happen to Fort and his friends Jia, Rachel, Cyrus and Sierra, I also became invested in the dangerous and risky journey being planned. When a new student, Gabriel, was introduced, I also had to know how he fit into the picture. Would he be a help or hindrance to his roommate, Fort? What did it mean that he too was haunted by nightmares similar to those that Fort kept having?
The novel has some clever scenes where telepathy plays a big role. If I say too much more it will spoil things. Teleporting also features largely in The Last Dragon and the descriptions are fantastic. I almost felt I could do it. And in some scenes, like those in London or New York, I could easily picture everything because of Riley’s deft writing. The way magic is used in this novel not only advances the plot, but feels believable and that matters when myriad novels include magic. There’s humor that tweens will appreciate too. I love how, for example, before Fort sets off to find his father, he makes sure to take a pee stop. A lot of the banter, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes funny, but mostly important, between the friends also feels real.
If your child is interested in an entertaining and super satisfying fantasy that delivers on all fronts, I’d recommend the The Last Dragon, book #2 in the The Revenge of Magic series. Now I just have to go back and read the first book!
Fort Fitzgerald can’t stop having nightmares about the day his father was taken from him in an attack on Washington, DC. In these dreams, an Old One, an evil beyond comprehension, demands the location of the last dragon. But other than some dragon skeletons dug up with the books of magic on Discovery Day, Fort has never seen a dragon before. Could there still be one left alive?
And weirdly, Fort’s not the only one at the Oppenheimer School having these nightmares. His new roommate, Gabriel, seems to know more than he’s letting on about this dragon as well. And why does everyone at the school seem to do whatever Gabriel says? What’s his secret?
Fort’s going to need the help of his friends Cyrus, Jia, and Rachel, if he’s going to have any chance of keeping the Old Ones from returning to Earth. Unless, the Old Ones offer something Fort could never turn down …
Buy the book from Once Upon A Time bookstore here to support a local independent retailer.
BEACH BATTLE BLOWOUT WELCOME TO WONDERLAND #4
by Chris Grabenstein, Illustrated by Kelly Kennedy, (Random House BYR; $13.99, Ages 8-12)
If you’re looking for an upbeat beach read or a book that keeps the summer feeling going strong as back-to-school time begins,Beach Battle Blowout is it. The fourth installment in the Welcome to Wonderland series continues with fast-paced silliness. Likeable main character P.T. Wilkie lives in “the funnest place on Earth” (a funky motel) with his mother and his grandfather who is Florida’s “other Walt.” P.T.’s best friend, Gloria Ortega, lives there too because her sportscaster dad moves around a lot for TV gigs.
Previous books focused more on P.T. wondering about the identity of his father; here, his questioning is mentioned in passing but with significance. Dad or no Dad, something exciting is brewing again. This time, the Hottest Family Attraction contest, hosted by Florida Fun in the Sun magazine, focuses on smaller attractions like the Wonderland Motel. To find winning strategies, Gloria serves as the brains and financial whiz, while P.T. follows in his grandfather’s footsteps weaving wacky stories that entertain the guests. Their competitors have larger, newer, and fancier offerings, but the Wonderland has heart.
Short chapters and 70+ comic-style illustrations engage even reluctant readers. Mix a cast of friendly characters—and maybe a few “villains”—with adventure and mystery and you get this middle-grade page-turner. Don’t miss the funny and spot-on Storytelling Tips at the end.
The first book in the Welcome to Wonderland series is a New York Times best-seller, a winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award, and on the Sunshine State Young Readers Award list. Chris Grabenstein is also author of the successful and popular Mr. Lemoncello series.
Good Reads With Ronna is delighted to be part of the Dear Justice League blog tour celebrating this week’s launch of a rollicking good read and recommended middle grade graphic novel from DC Zoom.
The premise is a simple yet oh so satisfying one. Fictitious kids from all over America pen Dear Abby-type letters to their fave superheroes and then lo and behold, they get replies. Not what you were expecting, right?
Middle grade readers, reluctant and struggling readers as well as fans of graphic novels will enjoy every single page of Northrop’s and Duarte’s fast and uproarious read. It’s playful and action-packed, and who doesn’t love a story where there’s never a dull moment? Northrup delivers dynamic dialogue that pairs perfectly with Duarte’s art. His hilarious illustrations, full of every facial expression possible, jump off the page and pull you in. They deserve to be looked at multiple times.
I got into the novel quickly, intrigued by the first question posed to none other than my childhood hero, Superman. Wondering if the Man of Steel had ever messed up, the letter writer is shown having botched up his attempt at an invention. And while you’d think heroes are especially busy saving the day in multiple ways with no time for correspondence, Clark Kent’s alter ego surprises young Ben Silsby with an answer. Texting, flying and superhero-ing however do not safely go together leading to a hilarious string of close calls demonstrating that it’s not just Kryptonite that can bring him down.
I especially loved having the chance to meet seven other members of the Justice League, each presented in their own chapter addressing a particular issue raised via email, text or snail mail. Hawkgirl, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg, and Batman all make appearances and make you want to spend more time with them. The Dear Justice League questions range from silly (does Hawkgirl eat small mammals, does Aquaman smell like fish) to those that will resonate with the targeted age group about bullying, moving to a new school, being perfect, fitting in, friendship and teamwork.
Another aspect of the book that worked well was the thread running through the entire story about an invasion of evil, insect-like Shock Troopers from the planet Molt-On. Here’s where I was first introduced to Hawkgirl and was impressed by her sense of humor though a bit wary of how much soda she seemed to consume. But most of all, I enjoyed seeing the superheros hang out at HQ, chatting together while revealing snippets of their characters. When they ultimately fought off the Shock Troops through a well coordinated team effort, I felt happy and eager to read more about each of them individually and as a league. Next up for me is definitely Superman of Smallville, available 9/3/19.
The start of a new school year is an ideal time to share this graphic novel showing sometimes serious, yet often tongue-in-cheek adventures that demonstrate how even superheroes have the same vulnerabilities kids have. They may fight foes but are far from perfect. So head to your local independent bookseller to buy a copy of Dear Justice League for your kids because these graphic novels are bound to win new DC superhero fans and delight old ones.
Written by Tom Fletcher
Illustrated by Shane Devries
(Random House BYR; $13.99, Ages 8-12)
The Christmasaurus, a middle grade novel by singer-songwriter and YouTuber Tom Fletcher, brings us holiday magic in a new way. The Earth’s last dinosaur lives at the North Pole surrounded by a hubbub of activity and some awesome flying reindeer, but, he’s lonely. Around the world, young William Trundle, a dinosaur expert, wants Santa to bring him a dinosaur more than anything. The two are bound to meet, but their adventure isn’t what you’d expect.
I like that Tom Fletcher mashes together the struggles kids face at school and at home with our love and fascination for dinosaurs. Add in a bully, an evil villain, and some twists on tradition—and you thought the elves made the presents!—and you’ve got an exciting holiday story. Better still, you will care about William Trundle and the Christmasaurus; the characters have dimension and heart.
Shane Devries’s illustrations add humor and charm. The Christmasaurus is cute, beautiful, and spectacular all at once. Seeing him is heartwarming, but, “believing [in ourselves and in others] is the most powerful magic of all.”
WHAT WE’RE READING
WEDNESDAYS WITH ONCE UPON A TIME
Always Time for Books –
A Roundup of Time Related Reads
Books have a way of making time do funny things; slowing us down as we settle into the story and speeding up whenever a clue is about to be revealed. And of course, there is never enough time to read all the books we want to read. There is so much power in the way that books and readers interact with time and we wanted to highlight some of our middle grade favorites here at Once Upon A Time.
The slow and careful buildup of love and trust is the star in Saving Winslow (HarperCollins) by Sharon Creech. A delightful family read-aloud that skillfully weaves empathy, compassion and family into a beautifully realized story, universal, timeless and, dare I say a new classic, in the mold of Charlotte’s Web (without the talking animals). Ten-year old Louie is determined to save a sick miniature donkey even though his past animal endeavors haven’t turned out well. His parents caution him but Louie names his new charge Winslow as a sign of faith and determination in the small creature’s survival. Louie uses his plight as a way to connect with his brother’s absence while serving in the Vietnam War. Saving Winslowcaptures an innocence and steadfast belief in miracles that are real and close at hand. ★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal.
Buy the book here: https://www.shoponceuponatime.com/book/9780062570703
Everything can change in just a few days. In Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking BYR), Pablo Cartaya shows how much time and place impact who you are. Marcus Vega may look like the average bully—large, silent, and overwhelming—but inside he is just a boy too big for the quiet kids and too small to fill the shoes of his absent father. Marcus is suspended from school for protecting his brother from a bully and decides his time off would be better spent searching for answers from his father in Puerto Rico. With his mother and brother in tow and only a few days to accomplish his goal, Marcus goes down a path of misadventure leading to understanding. A fast-paced journey of self-discovery about the role of family, friendship, and home. Perfect for readers ages 10 to 14. ★Starred Review – School Library Journal. Buy the book here: https://www.shoponceuponatime.com/book/9781101997260
For fantasy adventure readers that want to be blown away, Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic (HarperCollins) written and illustrated by Armand Baltazar is for them. First, the physical book is 400+ pages and weighs a massive 2.5 lbs! But that’s because there are over 150 full color illustrations throughout which pull the reader along the fast-paced story. And second, the premise—our world is 300 years in the future, has collapsed for a minute, and in that time reconfigured with past, present and future worlds meshed all together – without cell phones, electricity. “Diego’s middle school hallways buzz with kids from all eras of history and from cultures all over the world.” Dinosaurs are with robots (mechanical) and tall ships, sort of steam punk but not.
Diego is 13 and a mechanical whiz. He and his family live near the coast in New Chicago, a reimagined Chicago and its waterways. Diego has concocted a cool mechanical submarine in order to go to school! The plot goes crazy when Diego’s dad is kidnapped by a villain from Roman times. He’s aware that Diego’s dad is a mechanical genius who can help mechanize the robots and turn the world back to the proper time. Diego’s friends go with him as he tries to find his father. Help from his pilot mother and the Rangers set up this first in a series. I LOVED the vast world building, fast pace and those one-of-a-kind illustrations. Truly, this is what I think could be the next Harry Potter type series which will capture the imaginations of adventure fans all over and for years to come. Best for ages 9 and up. ★Starred Review – Publishers Weekly. Buy the book here: https://www.shoponceuponatime.com/book/9780062402363
Looking for a good way to spend your time in addition to reading? Meet Armand Baltazar, creative mind behind Timeless on Friday, October 19th at 7 pm for a special book signing and costume contest.
(A Neal Porter Book/Roaring Brook Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus
Aaron Reynolds (Creepy Carrots, a Caldecott Honor winner) channels his inner dude to bring us Dude! a one-word, wickedly funny 40-page picture book featuring a beaver and platypus who go surfing. The ingenuity of this book is how the inflections of one word carry the story line.
Kids will delight in this amusing friendship story that includes bird poop and ice cream—not together, of course. Dude! can be joyfully read aloud by all ages, encouraging the reader to act out the word with enthusiasm.
The no-trees-were-killed digital art by Dan Santat (The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, Caldecott Medal winner) adds lively and colorful action to the text. Each character’s facial expression captures the moment. And, if you’ve ever wondered how a shark can wear a pair of swimming trunks, you’ll find the answer here.
Beyond the text and illustrations, this book can be an opening for a conversation about the ability to interpret vocal nuances and facial expressions. Or, Dude, just let the book add a scoop of fun to your day.
LOVE & OTHER TRAIN WRECKS
Written by Leah Konen
(Katherine Tegen Books; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
★Starred Review – Kirkus,School Library Journal
This twenty-four-hour whirlwind journey in Love & Other Train Wrecks begins with Amarantha “Ammy” West and Noah Adler seated in the same Amtrak car. Their first impressions of one another are stiff and uncomfortable. Noah, eighteen, travels, pink roses in hand, to surprise his ex-girlfriend with fancy dinner reservations and a heartfelt poem. An optimistic, good-looking guy, he attempts to engage Ammy in conversation, but she bristles against his easy-going personality.
Seventeen-year-old Ammy is escaping from the mess her life has become since her father left and her mother plunged into anger and anxiety attacks. Though Ammy’s trying to be supportive of her mother, she seems to hit it off with her new stepsister Kat. Attending her father’s commitment ceremony (before the divorce is even final) tests Ammy’s allegiance to Team Mom. Ammy surely doesn’t want to share any of her personal drama with an annoyingly friendly stranger like Noah.
When the Amtrak train stops due to mechanical error, Noah and Ammy, determined to reach their respective destinations on time, disembark into a snowstorm. GPS makes a bus station seem an easy walk, but, instead, the frozen trek filled with mishaps turns into an adventure of a lifetime.
All the while, Ammy and Noah contemplate their places in the world including what it means to make your own decisions and then face those consequences. Konen’s choice to write alternating viewpoint chapters works well to show what each character shares or conceals. The chapters are also fast-paced and consistently satisfying. As the attraction between the main characters builds, Ammy struggles to come to terms with how romantic relationships can hurt friends and family and how to handle those conflicts of interest. Falling (and staying) in love, while wonderful, isn’t necessarily easy.
Written and illustrated by Mira Bartók
(Candlewick Press; $21.99, Ages 10-14)
Read Our Author Q & A Today & Attend a Book Signing on Friday, 11/10 in West Hollywood
Scroll down to find out more!
The Wonderling, written and illustrated by Mira Bartók and soon to be a major motion picture, garnered a great amount of attention, and deservedly so, even before the book deal was done. Reminiscent of classic literary odysseys and the best of contemporary fantasy, with a sprinkling of steampunk, The Wonderling opens in a thrillingly dreadful orphanage for young groundlings – part creature, part human. In this Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Children, all pleasures, especially music, are forbidden. But the hero of the story, a young one-eared fox-like groundling yearns for friendship and love. All he has is a half memory of a special song that will lead him to his destiny. After staging a daring escape with the help of a small mechanical bird, Trinket, the Wonderling sets off on a glorious adventure through forests and wild country, to the shiny city of Lumentown, ruled over by the High Hats, where he will discover the mysterious Songcatcher and unlock the secrets of his past.
Written in stunning prose and decorated with Mira’s exquisite illustrations, The Wonderling is a hugely enjoyable and original fantasy filled with vivid and eccentric characters and a plot that twists and turns. You will find echoes of King Arthur, of Dickens, of Kenneth Grahame; you will find brave mice in armor, and giant crows that terrorize the skies; you will find innocence, humor, hope, and ultimately triumph.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA INTERVIEWS MIRA BARTÓK:
GRWR: Can you please speak to the world building you so brilliantly created for The Wonderling – did you have certain places and buildings in mind when you wrote the novel and drew the map?
BARTÓK: The settings I created for the book came from various places—books, images online, dreams, my imagination, and travel. I probably gleaned the best ideas from looking at Gustav Doré’s images of 19th century London and Henry Mayhew’s 19th century descriptions of London’s poor. Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London was also essential, as was actually walking about in that wonderful city. I also spent many hours looking at maps from classic children’s books and in library archives. The feeling of Gloomintown, the City Below the City, came from a combination of re-reading Dickens’s Hard Times, looking at old engravings of London’s sewer system, and studying Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. A crazy mix!
GRWR: I’m thrilled there’s going to be a second book because I cared about your characters, well the good ones anyway! Who did you have the most fun imagining and why?
BARTÓK: I definitely had the most fun writing about Quintus, my Fagin/Artful Dodger Rat groundling! Mostly because he’s funny, he loves to make up songs (therefore, I get to make up his lyrics), and he’s complicated. He’s a thief, a rogue, and an opportunist, but he’s also a really good guy.
GRWR: In addition to sharing a strong sense of hope and tolerance, your story also touches upon the power of dreams. Do dreams influence your writing?
BARTÓK: I can’t even begin to tell you how much! Sometimes entire scenes are mapped out in my dreams. I have very epic dreams populated with many different kinds of creatures. If only I could sleep all the time and have some machine transmit my dreams directly into books, I’d probably finish my books sooner!
GRWR: The Wonderling gives a voice to the marginalized. I especially liked when Arthur, who was marginalized himself as a groundling, befriended Peevil, the mouse and Trinket, the bird. Was that one for all and all for one teamsmanship one of your intentions?
BARTÓK: Not really. I knew Arthur would make one good friend, but I had no idea he would make so many. I realized half way through writing the book that part of his journey is learning that he has friends who have cared about him all along.
GRWR: Wire, Miss Carbunkle, Sneezeweed, Mardox the manticore and even His Excellency the powerful White Hat, were so vivid and nasty, yet so unique in character. How difficult was it to create the villains?
BARTÓK: Easy as pie! I lOVE creating villains! But Miss Carbunkle was harder to write about since she has more of a backstory. She is and will continue to be the most complex villain, therefore she is the most interesting and difficult to write about. She will transform a little in Book Two, and her character will deepen in surprising ways. The Man with the White Gloves and Wire are really sociopaths and will continue to be nasty little fellows in Book Two. And I will, I am sure, have a ball writing about them!
GRWR: What is it about the Victorian era that interests you?
BARTÓK: I think that era appeals to me because I see such a parallel between the Industrial Revolution and all the problems we are going through today. And in London, things were exceedingly hard for children, women, immigrants, and the poor. When I read about the nightmarish working conditions for children in the coal pits during that time, and how horrible living conditions were for poor immigrants living in Spitalfields, it’s hard not to think of the sweat shops of today, or the global refugee crisis, and the rise in homelessness. The Victorian Era was also a time of great and wondrous technological inventions, just like today. And like today, people often didn’t think of the ramifications of the technology they created, for better or for worse.
GRWR: Quintus, your Fagin of sorts, is an intriguing individual. What can a character like him bring to the story for young readers who may not be familiar with any Dickens?
BARTÓK: I think he can bring a sense that some characters who do bad or illegal things aren’t always bad through and through. Sometimes there’s a good reason for their misconduct. And there’s also room for them to change and grow.
AUTHOR BIO: Mira Bartók is a writer and artist whose New York Times best-selling memoir, The Memory Palace: A Memoir,
won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. The Wonderling is her first novel for young readers.
She lives in Western Massachusetts.
MEET MIRA BARTÓK THIS FRIDAY IN WEST HOLLYWOOD!
Mira Bartók discusses and signs The Wonderling at Book Soup on November 10th
Event date: Friday, November 10, 2017 – 7:00 p.m.
Event address: Book Soup
8818 Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Below is an abbreviated schedule of upcoming appearances. Find a full listing of Bartók’s events on her website.
· Monday, November 13 in Portland, OR: Public book reading and signing at 7 p.m. at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005
· Saturday, December 2 in New Salem, MA: New Salem Town Library reading and signing event from 2-4 p.m. at Swift River School, 149 West St., New Salem, MA 01355
· Wednesday, December 13 in Northhampton, MA: Local author series event from 7-8:45 p.m. at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton MA 01060
TOTO: THE DOG-GONE AMAZING STORY
OF THE WIZARD OF OZ
Written by Michael Morpurgo
Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
(HarperCollins Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 8-12)
The beautifully illustrated middle-grade chapter book, Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Ozgives voice to Toto, providing an interesting and refreshing viewpoint. Each chapter orients the reader to current day as Papa Toto recounts his adventures to seven sleepy puppies; only Tiny Toto always stays awake until the tale’s end. Kids will enjoy Papa Toto’s sausage cravings—delicious food is scarce on that long yellow brick road.
More than 250 full-color drawings by Emma Chichester Clark create vivid, engaging scenes; Papa Toto is Chichester Clark’s recognizable black scruffy dog. Both artist and writer are masters at their craft. A former Children’s Laureate, Morpurgo has published over 130 books. His novel, War Horse, was successfully adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway play and a Golden Globe-nominated film by Steven Spielberg.
Morpurgo, an expert storyteller, introduces new generations to the timeless Wizard of Oz. Whenever Dorothy says, “Home is home, and home is best,” Toto woofs, “You’re so dog-gone right.” A gentle reminder to appreciate life before a twister strikes.
As the story progresses it becomes clear that Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion possess what they seek; they just don’t know it. The surprise, of course, is believing in an all-powerful wizard who proves to be “nothing but a humbug, a low-down trickster, a miserable fraudster.” However, with some “upside-down thinking,” the way home is within reach.
Written and illustrated by Deborah Marcero
(Peter Pauper Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
★ Starred Review – Booklist
As a preschool teacher, it is not lost on me when a child has a BIG idea, but may need some help executing the plan. Ursa’s Light, the debut picture book by author and illustrator Deborah Marcero, is about a young bear, Ursa, who has BIG ideas that often leave her peers and parents scratching their heads in wonder.
Ursa the bear knows that she is meant to FLY. She studies animals and planes in flight, intent on finding a solution, often encouraged by her baby brother. Just when she is about to give up, we discover that she was indeed meant to fly, but there is more than one way to SOAR.
One of my favorite moments in the story is when Ursa’s failed attempts at flying make her doubt herself, and her baby brother is wearing a shirt that reads ‘believe.’ What a beautiful moment, and something I strive to teach my kids, when one of us is down, someone else can help lift us UP.
What is so brilliant about Ursa the bear, is that she isn’t attempting to outshine anyone; instead, she is allowing her unique inner light to pour out, inspiring not only her baby brother, but everyone around her.
I fell in love with the energy and emotion of the illustrations which Marcero’s website describes best here: “When the pencil is done… I ink the lines in and add color with all the media I had used all along : woodblock cuts, watercolor, gouache, ink wash, etc. But instead of meshing everything together on paper with scissors and glue, I taught myself how to collage them in Photoshop. Ursa’s face is that same woodblock cut as my very first piece above, and all the textures and colors I integrate are things that I come up with using brushes and inks and watercolors on my drawing table.” I hope it’s obvious how much I adore this book and can’t wait to bring in Ursa’s Light for my preschoolers! I have a feeling they are going to want me to help them fly too!
Reviewed by Ozma Bryant, our newest reviewer. To learn more about Ozma, please click here.
ADELE IN SAND LAND
Written and illustrated by Claude Ponti
(Toon Books; $12.95, Ages 3 and up)
Adele in Sand Land by Claude Ponti is an ideal read for summer, especially for children eager to read on their own. Toon Books excels at its mission to provide easy-to-read comics in hardcover format with highly accessible content for children starting with Level 1 (First Comics for Brand New Readers) all the way through to Level 3 (Chapter-Book Comics For Advanced Beginners). This particular book, rated Level 1, will appeal to children as young as age 3 while geared for a reading level of K-1.
Originally published in French in 1988, this delightful story with its Alice in Wonderland-like fantastical plot line features a buoyant main character named Adele and her stuffed doll, Stuffy. Adele in Sand Land takes youngsters on an imaginative adventure spanning 48 colorful pages along with Adele and her charismatic cohorts Stuffy, Sandy and Masked Chicken. The action begins at her neighborhood sandbox, then inside a Sand Dragon, up to the top of the world, onto a dessert island (yes, that’s not a typo) with many other wondrous stops in-between, all before returning to the sandbox where Adele’s imagination first took flight.
Ponti wastes no time in introducing readers to a bevy of whimsical characters in the frames of the comics as the sandbox and everything around it begins to magically transform into a zany parallel universe where trees morph into birds, sand toys are caged inside a dragon and a rescued furball creature helps save the day. If you think that sounds inventive, there’s more! Ponti’s entertaining illustrations invite youngsters to explore every single image in every panel on every page because he’s managed to put such fun into every picture. Whether looking at people with “books and pots and pans to cover their heads,” a hot-dog tree or an enormous nosed Snack Man, readers won’t want to skip over a millimeter of artwork because you simply don’t know what unexpected treats you’ll find.
Prepare for numerous re-readings of this creative tale to experience the joyous journey that is Adele in Sand Land.
THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY
by Adrienne Kress
(Delacorte Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
THE BLOG TOUR
Allow me to take the liberty, given the wit and wildly sassy style of Adrienne Kress’s fantastical middle grade novel,The Explorers: The Door in the Alley, to share with you, readers, the several unused openings that I toyed with before settling upon something completely different though perhaps a bit more mundane:
Can a pig ever be considered precocious?
Teeny hats off (and I mean that in the best possible way) to author Adrienne Kress for her latest novel!
Kress had me at Explorers.
REVIEW: Now, all those intros aside, I thoroughly enjoyed being taken inside the thrilling walls, doors, rooms and slide (yes, slide!) of The Explorers Society, one of the most marvelous places I’ve been to in a long time, and the driving force (to say the least) behind this very imaginative adventure. Getting to know the cool cast of characters whose journey kept me turning the pages as more and more secrets were revealed, was also tons of fun.
The story of The Explorers unfolds with the rescue of a pig in a teeny hat by a 12-year-old, rule-respecting, STEM scholar named Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also got a photographic memory. The pig, it turns out, belongs to a member of The Explorers Society, located in a seemingly innocuous building in a back alley near Sebastian’s routine route home. Rather than being rewarded for his helpful deed as logic would dictate, logic being another characteristic that can be attributed to young Sebastian, he is punished by the society’s president. Sebastian must now, to avoid arrest (yes, arrest!), do chores daily after school at the society in order to learn to take risks and expand his limited horizons.
As he becomes familiar with the amazing interior of the society (trust me, it is absolutely unreal!), Sebastian, prodded by the president Myrtle Algens, seeks to do something inappropriate that only someone who thrives on appropriateness can do. Just what that is, he hasn’t a clue. So, while unsure exactly how to push these boundaries, Sebastian accidentally uncovers a small hidden door behind which sits a box. Sebastian takes this box home and discovers in its contents assorted articles, photographs and other information about a disbanded group of explorers called the Filipendulous Five. When he asks Algens about them he is less than politely asked to leave the society’s premises and never return!
Upon departing, Sebastian encounters a forlorn-looking girl sitting outside. The girl, we learn, is Evie, an orphan on the run from some scary-looking dudes, one with a jaw wired shut, the other with (I kid you not!), a partially melted face. According to a letter she was given before she escaped the bad guys, Evie discovers she has an important connection to the The Explorers Society. This letter, written by her grandfather who she didn’t know was alive, indicates he’s in grave danger. Somehow though, this information, when shared with Algens, has gotten her kicked out of the building despite believing it would be a place of refuge. Things become even more confounding for the poor girl when Sebastian explains that her grandfather is none other than Alistair Drake, the head honcho of the Filipendulous Five! Soon Evie and Sebastian team up and take off on a series of exciting and risky exploits (it’s true, Sebastian skips school!) at the local zoo, the university, as well as inside The Explorers Society, all in an effort to find a mysterious key mentioned in the letter and save Evie’s grandfather while trying to elude wired-jaw guy and melted-face man.
The Explorersis a fabulously funny, fast-paced read with 27 chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter contains just the right mix of mayhem, dialogue, description and derring-do. Kress’s imagination is boundless, something I’m certain middle graders looking to lose themselves in an adventure/mystery will appreciate. Her sense of humor is also spot on. I must mention here that I had the good fortune to be sent an advanced readers copy for the blog tour so the artwork that is due to accompany the novel wasn’t included. But I can’t wait to see it since the story itself is quite visual and would lend itself well to film or TV.
Now dear readers, the story doesn’t end here because there is definitely more to come in an as yet unnamed sequel that, I have to admit, is the appropriate thing to do when the author leaves you with a cliffhanger making you wonder what’s to become of Sebastian, Evie and the rest of the characters you’ve grown to care about. I’m also very curious as to whether Sebastian’s school ever calls his parents, that is unless all the action occurs on weekends. That would certainly calm his nerves. Watch this space!
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
More upcoming stops this week and next for the blog tour include:
THE WISHING WORLD
By Todd Fahnestock
– A Virtual Tour –
(Starscape Books; $17.99, Ages 8-12)
Join Lorelei, the eleven year old heroine of The Wishing World, as she goes in search of her missing parents and brother and ends up in Veloran, a place made up of children’s dreams, fantastical creatures and adventure on every page. Tweens who love action, adventure and fantasy will find that Fahnestock’s new novel successfully combines all three elements, key ingredients of a page turning read.
Narolev’s Comet and a necklace made from comet stone are clever clues the author introduces early on following the abduction of Lorelei’s family by a mysterious monster. These clues, coupled with Lorelei’s indomitable spirit, lay the foundation for a quest that she will mount with the help of a Disney movie-like crew of magical creatures named Gruffy (a griffin), Squeak (a mouse), Pip (a toucan), and Ripple (a water breathing princess). Yes, this fast-paced story is packed with the most unusual characters, some human, others not. What stands out the the most is how imaginative the plot is. If wishes can come true, like they do in the Wishing World, are all wishes good ones? And if not, what conflicts will ensue when good wishes encounter bad ones? That’s exactly what Lorelei is up against as she must navigate the unpredictable world of Veloran. In fact, there’s never a dull moment making this a go-to read for those with short attention spans in need of instant gratification.
Lorelei learns from her devoted cohorts that she is a Doolivanti, one with magical powers that are soon realized when she writes imagined words and thoughts in the air that help save her and her friends more than once. As she traverses Veloran in pursuit of her family, Lorelei finds her wish to locate her parents and bring them home is thwarted by the wicked Ink King, another Doolivanti who has caused wanton suffering and death. Together with a brave army of assorted Veloranians (my terminology), Lorelei must face off against the Ink King in order to rescue her family and head home. In doing so, this plucky young heroine makes some important choices that will have far reaching and lasting consequences for her future and for the future of Veloran.
There’s good news at the conclusion of The Wishing World and that’s that a second volume is due out in 2018 for those like me who want to see where Fahnestock goes with this engaging premise and endearing cast of characters.
Review by Ronna Mandel
TODD FAHNESTOCK won the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age Award for one of his short stories, and is the author of the YA bestseller Fairmist as well as The Wishing World. Stories are his passion, but Todd’s greatest accomplishment is his quirky, fun-loving family. The Wishing World began as a series of bedtime stories for his children.
In the Wishing World, dreams are real. You can transform into your own hero, find wild and whimsical friends, and wield power as great as your imagination. But Lorelei doesn’t know about any of that. All she knows is that a monster took her family.
It happened during a camping trip one year ago. Hiding inside the tent, she saw shadows, tentacles and a strange creature. By the time she got up the courage to crawl outside, the monster–and Lorelei’s mom, dad, and brother–were gone.
Lorelei is determined to find her family. When she accidentally breaks into the Wishing World, she discovers a way. It’s a land more wonderful than she could have imagined, a land of talking griffons, water princesses, and cities made of sand, where Lorelei is a Doolivanti–a wish-maker–who can write her dreams into existence.
There’s only one problem: the monster is a Doolivanti, too. What he wishes also comes true, and he’s determined to shove Lorelei out, keep her family, and make the whole Wishing World his. To save them, Lorelei must find the courage to face him, or her next wish may be her last.