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Three Middle Grade Fantasy Book Reviews

 

MIDDLE-GRADE FANTASY NOVELS

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

 

 

The Ghost of Midnight Lake coverTHE GHOST OF MIDNIGHT LAKE
Written by Lucy Strange

(Chicken House; $17.99, Ages 8-12) 

Starred Review – Kirkus

The spooky middle-grade novel, The Ghost of Midnight Lake by best-selling author Lucy Strange, stands out because of its interesting and unpredictable riches-to-rags plot. Set in 1899, the story opens with twelve-year-old Lady Agatha Asquith’s world falling apart after her father, the Earl of Gosswater, dies. Cruel cousin Clarence (who inherited everything) states that since Agatha’s not really an Asquith she must get out. Shocked, Agatha struggles to come to terms with this news as she’s abruptly moved in with her possible biological father, a poor goose farmer, and (maybe) thief. Though Agatha yearns to hear the truth from him, he’s closed-lipped.

At the Earl’s funeral on Skelter Island, Lady Agatha realizes there is no going back and decides to try embracing her new life, renaming herself Aggie. She soon makes her first-ever friend—Bryn, a boy who works on this cemetery island—but cannot find the words to tell him her real identity.

As Aggie tries unraveling her history, she begins seeing a female spirit. Is this her past self? The ingenious plot shows Aggie’s growth from pampered to strong-willed where she bravely takes charge, seeking answers and forging her path forward. Gosswater’s a place with harsh contrasts between the aristocrats and the peasants. In this small community, the paths people live (determined mainly by their social status) differ dramatically.

Aggie and Bryn are very likable characters and their bumpy road as friends feels truthful. Some of my favorite elements include the presence of geese throughout and the contradicting information that Gosswater is either named after the geese there or after the ghosts! Susan the goose is quite a character, playing a significant role in this thrilling story.

Whether it’s a real ghost haunting Aggie or merely her past, this fascinating story about family, friendship, and self-discovery is one that will keep you enthralled as you follow Aggie into the uncertain future filled with lies, secrets, and one charming goose!

 

Secret of the Storm coverSECRET OF THE STORM
Written by Beth McMullen
(Aladdin BYR; $17.99, Ages 9-13))

In Beth McMullen’s middle-grade fantasy, Secret of the Storm, twelve-year-old Cassie King has lost everything lately: her father’s sudden death turned her mother into a shell of herself, and Cassie’s BFF now hangs with the cool girls. The future seems hopeless until some freaky weather, a scraggly kitten, and the school outcast, Joe Robinson, set Cassie on a new trajectory.

A mystery begins to unfold as the kitten, Albert, shows some decidedly un-catlike traits. During Cassie and Joe’s after-school volunteer duties at the town library, they suspect their beloved librarian may be hiding information related to recent, unusual activities. (Take a peek at the cover image for a clue about Albert’s secret!)

Beth McMullen accurately captures Cassie’s pain as well as the relief in her developing friendship with an unlikely classmate—depicting how a person’s perceptions can change. Still, Cassie struggles with whether to be a bystander or to do something when popular kids pick on individuals who don’t fit in. Woven in with the fantastic upheaval brought on by her unusual kitten are realistic friendship and family problems.

Short chapters with lots of action make this an ideal book for young middle-grade readers. Older kids will enjoy this story as well; even if they clue into the “secret of the storm” early on, the book is heartfelt and unpredictable enough to provide engagement throughout.

 

The Mirrorwood coverTHE MIRRORWOOD
Written by Deva Fagan

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 10-12)

I had to read Deva Fagan’s middle-grade fantasy, The Mirrorwood, because of the back-jacket blurb: “I was wearing my sister’s face on the night the hunters came to our cottage.” Awesome, right?! The Mirrorwood is an enchanted land sealed in with a wall of thorns where the inhabitants are locked in time under the rule of a demon-prince—kind of a twisted Sleeping Beauty. The main character, twelve-year-old Fable, has been cursed by magic that leaked from the Mirrorwood and does not have a face of her own; to stay alive, she needs to take faces from others.

Luckily, her loving family hides and helps her but there’s only so much they can do before hunters arrive to eradicate people like Fable (who are called “blighted”). Vycorax, an apprentice near Fable’s age is charged with destroying Fable, however, circumstances set these adversaries on a path where they seem to share the goal of freeing the Mirrorwood from its curse. The dynamics between these two girls are tensely portrayed.

One of my favorite characters is Fable’s fearless cat, Moth, who accompanies her into any situation, able to communicate with her telepathically. Cat people will appreciate Moth’s perfectly catty lines as he adventures along with Fable and Vycorax.

Strong female lead characters, friendship, family, coming-of-age, and adventure make this a well-rounded book that will keep you guessing who’s the bad guy and whether Fable’s wish to have her own face will ever come true. Fagan does an excellent job portraying realistic, dimensional characters in a familiar yet modern fairy tale. I would happily follow Fable onto more stories. This book may be better for older middle-grade readers because of the plot turns and creepiness of face-stealing.

 

 

 

 

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Kids’ Book Review – The Poisoned Apple

THE POISONED APPLE:

A Fractured Fairy Tale

Written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet

(Page Street Kids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

PoisonedApple cover

 

THE REVIEW:

Good effortlessly thwarts evil in this reimagined Snow White story, The Poisoned Apple:  A Fractured Fairy Tale, by author/illustrator Anne Lambelet

Irritated with a princess who is much too wholesome and “sweet” for her own good (how dare she be!), a witch is on the search for rare ingredients to concoct a “single apple-poisoning spell.” Kids will get a kick out of watching the witch carefully collect these ingredients in her hopes of getting rid of the princess once and for all; some ingredients on her list include such delightfully repulsive items as the toenail of a giant monster. 

 

ThePoisonedApple spread1
Interior spread from The Poisoned Apple: A Fractured Fairy Tale written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet, Page Street Kids ©2020.

 

Readers will equally love seeing the spooky font and haunting artistry whenever the words “the poisoned apple” are repeated in the text. It adds to the humor by highlighting the seriousness of the situationthe princess does, after all, accept the apple easily. But the phrase also hints at the unlikeliness of anything dangerous from actually happening due to the ripple effect of kindness. 

Goodness has a way of growing as the princess’s compassion for her hungry friend, one of the seven dwarfs, leads her to give the apple to him. In turn, when he notices “a couple of hungry forest animals,” he passes on the snack to them. They also show pity to a “foraging squirrel” who is “desperate for something to feed her babies.” Kids will erupt with laughter when they notice the horror and disappointment in the witch’s face as her perfect plan crumbles. She follows the squirrel, climbing ever higher and higher on the tree until a hilariously illustrated double-paged spread exposes the natural consequences of her greed. (Readers will enjoy holding the book up vertically to get the full effect). Down and down she falls, and when she comes to, a special gift awaits her, given by the squirrel out of genuine concern. The adage, what comes around goes around, plays out perfectly in this last scene. 

 

ThePoisonedApple spread 2
Interior spread from The Poisoned Apple: A Fractured Fairy Tale written and illustrated by Anne Lambelet, Page Street Kids ©2020.

THE ART:

Lambelet’s gorgeous illustrations, rich in texture, muted colors, and geometric shapes capture this intersection of whimsy and mystery. For those who enjoy a bit of dark humor and clever retellings of classic tales, The Poisoned Apple is an excellent choice. NOTE: Remove the jacket cover to enjoy the lovely illustration beneath.

Click here for a fantastic activity guide.

If you’d like to read more fractured fairy tales, click here for a roundup of recommendations.

 

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Kids Book Review – There Was An Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth

THERE WAS AN OLD GATOR WHO SWALLOWED A MOTH
Written by B. J. Lee
Illustrated by David Opie
(Pelican Publishing; $16.99, Ages 0-5)

 

There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth book cover art

 

You know that fab feeling you get when you hear a good joke and notice the corners of your mouth pushing out a huge smile? Well that’s also the feeling you and your children will get when reading B. J. Lee’s boisterous new book, There Was An Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth with illustrations by David Opie. Yes, all it takes is one hungry alligator to get the action going in this Florida-animals-themed variation of the beloved cumulative rhyme There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly and reminiscent of kidlit fave, A Fly Went By.

Soaking up the sun and minding his own business, the titular gator finds a winged visitor has landed on his snout. You can guess what happens but still be teased to read on.

“There was an old gator who swallowed a moth.
I don’t know why he swallowed the moth.
It made him cough.”

 

int illustration from There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth
Interior illustration from There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth written by B. J. Lee and illustrated by David Opie, Pelican Publishing ©2019.

 

int art of pelican from There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth
Interior illustration from There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth written by B. J. Lee and illustrated by David Opie, Pelican Publishing ©2019.

 

Gator then goes on to swallow a crab (I mean it did give him a jab!) And the slew of Sunshine State creatures eventually eaten also includes an eel, a ray, a pelican (see above), a panther, and a manatee. Opie’s illustration of ALL the animals squished inside gator’s stomach is spot on and one of my faves, but the one above where there’s still some room gives you a good idea of the vibe going on. While reading the book, be sure to take note of the expressions and body language depicting how no one wants to be anywhere near crab’s pinching claws.

 

int illustration from There Was An Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth
Interior illustration from There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth written by B. J. Lee and illustrated by David Opie, Pelican Publishing ©2019.

 

You may think that when the gator swallows the shark his tummy will be full, but no, he and Lee don’t stop there and that’s exactly why the (belly) laughs will linger with every page turn. What a humorous way to learn about survival of the fittest in a Florida setting!

 

interior illustr from There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth
Interior illustration from There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth written by B. J. Lee and illustrated by David Opie, Pelican Publishing ©2019.

 

This guy’s just greedy enough and silly enough to gulp down the entire lagoon which pushes him beyond capacity if you get my drift. In a series of hysterical illustrations that work wonderfully together with Lee’s terrific tale, it’s conveyed how totally stunned and slightly repulsed the ejected animals are. And if the above artwork doesn’t hint at a whopping “Get ready! I’m about to go gator-wild!” I don’t know what will!

Share this fun story with anyone you know who loves a rip-roaring read aloud and watch the grins grow along with the gator’s gut.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

 

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