Kids Fantasy

SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA by George Jreije

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Shad Hadid excels at cooking up new recipes, whether they’re baked goods from his Lebanese heritage or magic charms like the stink bomb that never fails to disperse the bullies. But when a confrontation with queen of the bullies Sarah Decker attracts a shadowy ghost-like necromancer, Shad learns that his family’s magical recipes are actually works of alchemy and that he is one of the few alchemists left in the world, a legacy left him by his late parents.

Shad receives an invitation to study alchemy at Alexandria Academy, an overseas boarding school, and not a moment too soon since the necromancers who recently discovered his existence are circling closer. Unfortunately, Sarah Decker somehow got an invitation, too, along with Shad’s nightmare of a stepbrother, and even more unfortunately when he arrives at boarding school, no one else seems to have heard of alchemy, believing they’re all there to study advanced science. The presence of math whizzes and almost magical tech is enough to make Shad doubt his own sanity. But the necromancers have found their way into Alexandria Academy, and if Shad wants to protect his friends (and maybe even his bullies) he’s going to need to trust all of his outlandish skills and accept the role he was always meant to fill.

A fresh, funny voice and rich backdrop of Arabic culture elevate classic middle grade fantasy tropes in a wild, thrilling, and unique adventure. Fans of magical boarding school fantasies and intrepid groups of teens battling mystical evil won’t want to miss this stellar debut.

THE CURSE ON SPECTACLE KEY by Chantel Acevedo

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Frank Fernández was looking forward to finally spending a second year at the same school. As fifth grade ended, he had plans with his best friend and the prospect of a cool summer internship at the public library. But then his parents blow his plans to smithereens: they finished their renovation job early, so they will all be moving. Again.

The only consolation is that this time, the historic landmark they’ll be living in and fixing up won’t be a place they plan to sell. It will be their forever home, a lighthouse in the Florida Keys, close to Frank’s grandfather and more connected to his dad’s Cuban culture. But when the family arrives on Spectacle Key, things immediately start to go wrong. The local historical society is protesting their renovations, the dilapidated lighthouse itself seems to be trying to drive them away, Frank’s parents are always arguing, and to top it all off, Frank stumbles upon an old ruin inhabited by a scared, lonely girl who can’t remember who she is or where she came from and who no one but Frank can see. As strange happenings multiply, Frank and his invisible friend suspect that the key to breaking the Spectacle Key curse must be to discover the girl’s true identity–even if it means facing the unpleasant possibility that she might be a ghost.

Atmospheric and spooky, Acevedo’s speculative mystery focuses on uncomfortable truths in personal and community histories and the importance of confronting them to bring about healing and growth. Although creepy, the story stops short of being a truly terrifying horror, keeping friendship and hope in the forefront throughout. I’d recommend this one to fans of middle grade ghost stories and eerie mysteries. It could also suit for a middle grade book club.

THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY by Kate DiCamillo

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Answelica the Goat is a demon. At least, that’s what the monks believe. She’s certainly given them enough bites and bruises over the years. So when Answelica takes a liking to a mysterious girl who showed up at the monastery with no memories, the monks can hardly turn her away–even when they find out that she can read and write, a pastime forbidden to the common people and especially to all girls. But when the girl’s memories start to come back, she realizes that the king’s soldiers are searching for her, and she can endanger the monks no longer. Accompanied by Answelica, a prophetic monk, and a village boy who is eager to learn to read, Beatryce embarks on a journey to uncover her past and change the world.

This medieval adventure story is funny, suspenseful, and heartfelt with the classic feel of a folktale. It is a quick read, and I loved every minute of it. I highly recommend it to upper-elementary aged fantasy fans.

HOLLOW CHEST by Brita Sandstrom

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Charlie can’t wait for his brother Theo to come home from the war. Since losing his father when the German’s bombed London, Charlie has been trying to fill the absence in his family, to help his mother around the house and especially to care for his grandfather who has dementia, but terrible nightmares of falling bombs and wolves clawing at his chest leave him exhausted. Once Theo returns, things will finally feel more normal.

But Theo comes home changed–no longer the supportive big brother, but irritable and closed off. Charlie’s grandfather assures him that Theo just needs time to heal, but Charlie soon discovers the truth: the wolves from his nightmares are real and one of them ate Theo’s heart. Despite the danger that lies ahead, Charlie is determined to find the war wolves and do whatever it takes to get his brother’s heart back.

This historical fantasy novel is really an extended metaphor about the effects of war on mental health and the ways that love can help families heal. Though the premise may sound frightening, this novel is a far cry from horror; the fantasy elements are introduced and resolved gently, the focus always on real-world character relationships. I’d recommend this book to fans of Anne Ursu and similar “metaphorical folklore” middle grade stories.

Hollow Chest: Sandstrom, Brita: 9780062870742: Amazon.com: Books

ARROW by Samantha M. Clark

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Arrow has spent his entire life living in the rainforest, raised by the Guardian Tree and at peace with the creatures who live there. But the curtain that hides the rainforest from the desolate human world is beginning to tear and the Anima, the magic at the core of the forest’s spirit, is fading. And then the humans begin to arrive.

First a plane crashes, leaking gasoline into the earth, and then a herd of human children stumble in through one of the tears in the curtain. Though the Guardian Tree fears the humans, Arrow is intrigued to finally see creatures of his own kind. And when a baby human is sick with a rash, Arrow disobeys the Guardian Tree’s orders to stay hidden and emerges to help. Arrow and the human children soon become friends. But the children aren’t the only humans to stumble on the forest, and when the forest is threatened with destruction, Arrow will have to figure out where his loyalties lie and whether he has the strength to protect the Anima himself.

Told in first person narration by the Guardian Tree, this inventive middle grade fantasy is charming and inspiring. Readers will love the adventure and teachers and librarians will find plenty of fuel for book club discussion in the environmental message and the coming-of-age story. This book will be best suited for readers in grades 4-6.

Arrow by Samantha M. Clark

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


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CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


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ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

SECOND SLEEP by Diane Stanley

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Max’s mother first disappears, his father assures him that she’s fine. The voicemail she left was kind of cryptic–helping a friend with a health thing?–but she said not to expect her to be in touch for a few days, so they shouldn’t be alarmed. Until they find her cell phone hidden in her bedroom.

In an attempt to keep the kids from worrying, Max’s grandma takes him and his sister up to a cabin by the lake where his mother spent her childhood summers. But the first night after Max goes to bed, something not exactly worrying but certainly confusing happens. He and his sister both wake up in a dream world–the lake, but somehow brighter and more exciting–where all the children who have ever visited the lake that particular week in August are playing together in what one girl calls the “collective now,” a reality where it is 1983 and 1995, and 2021 all at the same time. Once he’s gotten over his shock and begins making deep friendships with the other children, Max realizes that the dream world might be the answer to his problem. If he can find his mom in this reality, maybe he’ll figure out a way to find her in real life, too.

I’m kind of madly in love with this book. In some ways, it’s a quiet read, focused on heart-warming relationships. But the suspense of the missing mother and the mystery of the magical dreams add enough urgency to make it difficult to stop turning pages. And although the fantasy/sci-fi element runs into the usual unresolvable issues that crop up whenever someone travels back in time and befriends a parent, the mechanics of the time travel wasn’t really a concern for me–it’s not what the book is really about. I’d recommend this one to any middle grade reader who enjoys magical realism. It could also be a peaceful family read aloud at bedtime for upper elementary age kids.

GUSSY by Jimmy Cajoleas

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Gussy knows never to open the gates after dark. It’s one of the first things she learned from Grandpa Widow when he trained her as a Protector: if you open the gates after the sun sets and the rites have been performed, the Great Doom could slip inside. But there’s a girl outside in the desert, and if Gussy leaves her out there in the middle of the hailstorm, she’ll be dead before morning. Gussy wishes Grandpa Widow hadn’t left, leaving these difficult decisions up to her. But then, there’s really only one choice. Gussy opens the gate.

At first, it seems like things are going well. There’s no sign of the Great Doom, and although the girl is a little odd–and determined to practice strange magic in Gussy’s house. But the mayor is acting oddly, and strange people are sneaking around in the dark. And when the first sinister signs of the Great Doom appear, Gussy will have to embrace her role as Protector and save the villagers–whether they want her to or not.

This charming story is both grounded and transportive, told through the quirky, confident voice of Gussy herself and set in a desert community where rituals and faith that would not be out of place in our world blend with the magic of the fantasy. Though the magic system itself isn’t revolutionary, the way it fits into the rich, unique world- and character-building makes it feel truly inventive. This novel is a wonderful choice for middle grade readers who love to be immersed in a fantasy world with characters they’d love to hang out with.

THE STARS OF WHISTLING RIDGE by Cindy Baldwin

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Ivy and her two sisters have spent their whole lives on the road, living out of an RV and watching their mom grant other people’s wishes. But it’s because her mom is a fallen star with the ability to grant wishes that Ivy’s own dearest wish will never come true: to have a forever home, a place to put down roots.

As her thirteenth birthday approaches, Ivy takes a desperate chance, stealing nine wish jars from her mother and opening them all at once. Making so many simultaneous wishes gives Ivy pneumonia, but when her fever breaks, the RV is parked–broken down, actually– in her mother’s star sister’s town of Whistling Ridge. Pneumonia aside, Ivy is ecstatic; the town is a perfect place for a forever home! But all is not well in Whistling Ridge. Something is draining the magic and making Aunt Agatha sicker and sicker. And as Ivy researches the town’s history to try to convince her family to stay, she starts to realize that finding a cure for her aunt might require a sacrifice Ivy isn’t sure she can make.

This imaginative, immersive middle grade fantasy gripped me from page one. I’m a sucker for a well-intentioned protagonist who makes terrible choices! Every character is well-developed and authentic, and the problems are relatable even in their fantasy. I highly recommend this one to fans of contemporary magical realism and to middle school book clubs!

The Stars of Whistling Ridge: Baldwin, Cindy: 9780063006416: Amazon.com:  Books

THE TROUBLED GIRLS OF DRAGOMIR ACADEMY by Anne Ursu

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

If Marya’s brother Luka is destined to make their parents proud, then Marya is destined to disappoint them. She’s good at it—although to be fair, sometimes Luka helps her along. Marya was prepared to be the perfect sister and daughter when the sorcerer came to evaluate Luka for magic potential. She was even going to enjoy wearing the gorgeous gown that her mother bought her. It really wasn’t her fault that Luka stuffed it into the dirty chicken coop (even if it was in retaliation for her putting honey in his underwear), and it really wasn’t entirely her fault that the goat got out of its pen and charged the sorcerer (because she wouldn’t have left the pen open if she hadn’t been looking for her dress), and okay, maybe she should have known better than to shout at the sorcerer when his loud spells were frightening the goat further … but no matter what happened on that disastrous visit, Marya knows she doesn’t deserve to be sent to an Academy for Troubled Girls.

Unfortunately, the king’s council doesn’t see it that way. And so the next day, Marya must say goodbye to her dreams of becoming an apprentice to the local tapestry weaver and head out to boarding school. At Dragomir Academy, Marya hears echoes of the things she’s been hearing her whole life: girls should be quiet and orderly, helpers to the sorcerers so that they can fight the magical Dread that seems to keep spreading across the kingdom. But some things are new. For example, the teachers actually encourage the girls to read—a skill Marya had to learn in secret from her friend the weaver. And Dragomir castle seems to be filled with secrets. Like what happened to the Dragomirs’ daughter Nadia, who apparently disappeared as a teenager? And what causes the mysterious hallucinations that all the girls experience at some point—and how (and where) are they cured? It isn’t until Marya stumbles upon a secret code in the Countess Dragomir’s embroidery that she realizes these mysteries may be connected. And the truth points to a grave danger for all of the troubled girls–and everyone in the kingdom.

My new favorite Anne Ursu book! Ursu tackles systemic sexism through the lens of a medieval-based fantasy world. Laced with humor, heartfelt relationships, and well-developed secondary characters, the immersive world is one I was reluctant to leave when the book ended. The story itself is a powerful allegory for injustices in our modern world that asks young readers to consider “Who benefits?” from lies and mis- (or dis-) information. As a librarian, I swooned for Ursu’s accessible and subtly-incorporated guidance on how to evaluate historical sources (in this case, tapestries) for bias. But all of this comes within the package of an imaginative boarding-school-fantasy that is as fun as it is thought-provoking. Pick this one up for your middle grade reader or your 4th-7th grade book club!