Posts from the ‘Children’s Fantasy’ Category

The Tea Dragon Society

Tea Dragon SocietyTitle: The Tea Dragon Society
Author/Illustrator: Katie O’Neill
Lettered by: Saida Temofonte
Designed by: Hilary Thompson
Edited by: Ari Yarwood
ISBN: 9781620104415
Pages: 72 pages
Publisher/Date: Oni Press, Inc., c2017.

“I don’t want blacksmithing to be forgotten. . .
. . . I want to keep making objects for people to love and give them a story. Maybe one day, someone’ll think about who gave it to them or where they bought it. Or who they shared it with. Or who owned it long ago.
. . . That’s a kind of magic, isn’t it?”
“I believe it is.” (56)

Greta is learning from her mother the art of blacksmithing, an old skill that made blacksmiths as important as magicians but now is a dying art. Upon encountering a dragon in the market, Greta returns her to her owners and begins to learn how to care for the unique creatures. Tea-shop owners Hesekiel and Erik have recently picked up a stray of their own, a promising prophetess named Minette who is suffering from self-protective memory problems. All these stories converge into a year long collection of vignettes exploring friendship, loyalty, and memory.

These are sweet characters occupying a world where its residents have a mixture of human and animal attributes that don’t seem to phase anyone. Pale-skinned Minette has tiny antlers, a tail, and cloven hooves, dark-skinned Greta has horns that are smaller versions of her mother’s and a squared off nose, and Hesekiel’s gray fur, elongated face, ears, and bent legs remind me of a kangaroo. The two most human characters are Greta’s dark-skinned father and wheel-chair bound Erik, also dark-skinned (but lighter then Greta and her father), with braids mimicking those of his magic wielding partner, Hesekiel. A group photo from another time shows several other types, including something resembling an abominable snowman, possibly an escaped elf from Lord of the Rings, and someone with a long bushy squirrel’s tail. The diversity is never remarked upon, and the small cast of characters makes the whole community feel very intimate and close. It’s not just diversity in physical attributes, but in relationships (same sex vs. heterosexual) and professions (mom is a blacksmith).

It’s also surprisingly tight-knit, as even in the market scenes you see no one besides the named characters. There is no supporting cast except for that one previously mentioned group photo shown during a retold story and a blink and you’ll miss it (I know I did) street vendor and no customers even though we come in contact with four business owners. The story is equally narrow in plot, as Minette’s memory loss is relayed as a matter-of-fact, and just as easily brushed off as it’s not a problem because she’s making so many good new memories with people who care about her.

The dragons uninspired names reflect the tea that they are used to create. Half have round, squat bodies like dogs, and the other half are more slender and serpentine in nature, with the narrower tails that have a puff of fur at the ends. In fact, the non-textured coloration means none of them have the scales that most people picture when the word “dragon” is used. Unique attributes are given to each dragon that make them seem more like Pokemon. More intriguing is Greta’s sidekick Brick, who seems to be an animated burning coal that does nothing but follows Greta around, although he also seems to get left out of events regularly. How did he come into existence? What is his purpose? He reminds me of the soot sprites from Spirited Away.

You can tell that this quirky society is an act of love for the author, and its quiet moments will allow readers to have a quiet moment to themselves with this book. It’s a simple meandering plot with very little tension, action, or mystery. More of a character study, it’s done so beautifully that you probably won’t mind, but instead hope to be reunited with them soon. This is the quintessence of a feel good story.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

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The Witch Boy

Witch BoyTitle: The Witch Boy
Author/Illustrator: Molly Knox Ostertag
ISBN: 9781338089516
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2017.

“I don’t understand why Juniper and Hazel and them can all learn how to talk to trees and make potions and do spells and I can’t. It’s not fair.”
“But, Aster, that magic isn’t for you. How many times do I have to explain that?”
“But I want to learn it!”
“Women and men have different types of magic, and witches pass down their knowledge from mother to daughter. That’s how it is and how it’s always been, my son.
But it’s not like there’s nothing for you! Soon your shapeshifting will begin, and with it, the ability to see demons and to fight them. You’ll be one of the men.” (7-8)

In an insular community in the woods, a family of witches and shapeshifters pass along their skills to their daughters and sons, respectively. All except for Aster, who is more interested in learning magic and spells then shape shifting. When first one, and then multiple, young shapeshifters go missing, the family rallies to find them, but they still don’t stop to listen to Aster’s findings. Past problems come back to haunt them, and Aster might be the only one who can figure out what’s going on in time to stop it.

I find myself evaluating my views about this book. I originally felt that this is a relatively heavy-handed, thinly-veiled allegory of coming out as transgender, which a number of reviewers and bloggers have mentioned. However, I am reminded of Tamora Pierce, who wrote the Alanna series about a girl becoming a knight and assuming the disguise and role of a boy in order to accomplish her goal. Upon reading that series when I was younger, and even today, it never dawned on me to make those same assumptions about Alanna. Alanna was simply a tomboy, much like myself at that age, who enjoyed pursuing hobbies that were typically deemed masculine. Aster, in the same way, doesn’t want to be a woman, he just wants to do things that are identified in his society as feminine. That’s not transgender, but instead it’s fighting societal stereotypes of gendered activities.

I think the difference between my perception of Alanna and Aster is not only the modern day awareness of non-gender conforming actions, but also the use of this characteristic in the stories. Alanna’s story, while dependent upon keeping her identity a secret, has other traits that appear throughout the story, such as her impulsiveness, reluctance to ask for or accept help, her fears and hopes and dreams and motivations. Aster wants to do what “girls” do and has the magic of a witch inside of him, even though everyone else perceives him as a shapeshifter and expects him to be a shapeshifter. He seems quiet, but he is dedicated to his family, even though they continue to deny him his desires. That’s the entirety of our knowledge about his personality. The story is dependent upon the “I want to do what I’m not allowed to do” troupe with very little backstory or explanation of how or why events proceed as they do. His entire purpose is to be recognized as someone who can perform feminine tasks, which doesn’t yield itself to much engagement from readers.

There are a number of additional questions regarding the background of the characters. They all seem to be related, but there is no information about where the in-laws came from and how people who married into the family acquired their powers. What prompts these disappearances to begin now, after all these years? Even after the cause of the disappearances is discovered, the culprit’s consequences are left unresolved. As already discussed, the transgender analogy is not quite the appropriate term, but if you insist on using it that label also falls apart at the end, where one of the characters claims to have a little bit of both witch and shapeshifter. Is that a nod to individuals who identify as pansexual or intersex? Instead, I think it’s meant on commentary that men and women can pursue tasks regardless of if they are seen as masculine or feminine in nature.

The artwork is similar to a lot of the graphic novels produced by Graphix, with solid, digital illustrations. I’m beginning to hope that in the future we see more variety in the artwork of graphic novels done by that company. They have good stories, but there is a sameness that is starting to make their work distinguishable from other publishers. The scenes where we discover the cause of the boys disappearances are appropriately scary and thematically colored in a wash of red, definitely distinguishing it from the more cheerful and vibrantly colored outdoor daily scenes.

It’s a nice story, but I feel like the commentary on it’s merits might be misguided. A sequel arrives on shelves later this fall, so we’ll have to see if more character development occurs. Aster’s new friend Charlie takes center stage alongside Aster on the cover, so maybe more interplay between their two lives and worlds will give us more interest and insight in their personalities then the one-dimensional portrayal provided.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

The Marvelwood Magicians

Marvelwood Magicians.jpgTitle: The Marvelwood Magicians
Author: Diane Zahler
ISBN: 9781629797243
Pages: 188 pages
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, c2017.

“Stand there, and look at the pendulum,” Master Morogh ordered Bell. Bell planted himself in front of the metronome, and Master Morogh started it up. Click-clack, click-clack it went, back and forth. Mattie watched Bell fearfully. It took only a couple of moments for the light to leave his eyes. Like the frat guy and the woman before him, his expression went slack and lifeless.
“No!” Mattie said again. She started for the stage, her heart pounding. “Bell, come back here!” But Bell couldn’t hear her. […]
“Bell, wake up!” Mattie cried. There was something wrong here, something very wrong. (90-91)

Mattie Marvelwood’s big mouth and mind-reading have gotten her in trouble again, resulting in her gifted family being fired from the traveling carnival where they worked.  They think themselves lucky when they stumble across a circus, with ringleader Master Morogh instantly adding their acts. The circus has two tigers, an elephant, and another family, with a daughter who instantly becomes Mattie’s friend. But something isn’t right, as one entertainer after another begin to lose their talents. Some are more ordinary, like singing and tumbling, but the Marvelwood’s abilities are more magical in nature. Suspicious that Master Morogh might be the mystery manipulator, it’s up to Mattie to save the day, without losing her own abilities in the process.

With the recent popularity of The Greatest Showman, I wonder if there will be an influx of people looking for circus themed books.If they are young enough, you can give this title to them.  The cover reminds me of the classic cover of The Great Gatsby mixed with Kehret’s Danger at the Fair for some reason, but it’s tamer than both of those books. Mattie is understandably weary of strangers due to her talent of mind-reading and predictably frustrated that her life and family aren’t normal. There is some diversity, with Mattie’s dad being Scottish and her mom being “India Indian.” The mystery is not a “who done it” but more of a “will they get away with it” as about half way through the story you know who is to blame for the missing abilities. Besides Mattie, most of the characters are one dimensional, acting to emphasize aspects of plot or Mattie’s personality rather then develop their own attributes, only being identifiable by their act or relationships to each other. Mattie’s own feelings of her mind-reading talent changes drastically, from exasperation to acceptance in very little time, but the conclusion is solid and ties up all the loose ends. A fast read, entertaining but not very memorable, emphasizing that no matter the circumstances the show must go on and you can trust your family, even when they aren’t related by blood.

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon.jpgTitle: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Narrator: Michael Page
ISBN: 9781491502167 (audiobook)
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 12 hours 51 minutes
Pages: 475 pages
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014. (audiobook) Candlewick Press, c2014 (hardcover)

She is an insane old woman, though Cat, but at least I’m safe in the warmth, and she knows ho to cook. The old woman was ladling pink broth into a bowl whose sides were etched with obscure runes. “Drink up, my dear. I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” […]
Cat demurred and said, “Who are you really?”
“I’m Queen Victoria. I’m Nellie Bly. I’m Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean — what difference does it make? I’m hungry and I want to eat, so do my bidding.”
“I couldn’t dare take your supper. I have nothing to pay you with.”
“You’re not taking my supper, you’re supplying it.” (141-142)

Gregory Maguire creates a tale reminiscent to the Prince and the Pauper. Even though Ekaterina isn’t a princess, she has many more advantages than Elena, who is essentially starving to death as she tries her best to care for her sick mother after her father has died and her two brothers taken away from home. A lightning strike forces their unlikely meeting, and Elena finds herself in an enviable position when the Ekaterina’s train takes her away from the poverty and towards the Tsar’s palace. She hopes to use that opportunity to reclaim her brother from army conscription, but she doesn’t know that Ekaterina is hot on her trail with her own transportation. In their travels, they realize that Russia might be in more trouble than either girl, and are recruited by the fabled folkloric witch Baba Yaga to solve the problem of melting ice and disappearing magic.

Michael Page’s voice is properly moderated between the high pitched, stereotypical screech of Baba Yaga and the clipped tones of the prince (although he does sound vaguely English and not Russian). Even the two younger girls have slight differences that easily distinguish between the educated Ekaterina and the more rurally raised Elena. The sweeping landscape is described beautifully, and Elena’s situation is especially heart-wrenching when readers realize the troubles behind her meager existence.

Maguire’s tale is less impressive, for if readers are familiar with the story of the prince and the pauper, then they essentially have the plot of the first part of the book. The second half pairs the girls on an adventure to save Russia. It’s discovered that the floodwaters and dampened winter and magic are connected, involving the firebird and ice dragon. I was unfamiliar with the ice dragon legacy, and was intrigued by my introduction to this Russian myth. By the end of the novel, the twist, feel good resolution revealing the cause of the trouble is somewhat moralistic and preachy, encouraging the human race to whine and want less and focus more on reducing the wants of others. It’s an unexpected altruistic message, and while anti-materialists might appreciate the thought, I was disappointed that such a long journey yielded so little action in the conflict.

The magic in the story is supplied by the magic that the girls encounter through their association with Baba Yaga, who has multiple distinguished and unique traits including her unpredictability, attitudinal house which reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, sarcastic shape-shifting familiar, and pattern of speech which allude to time travels or future premonitions. She is by far my favorite character in the whole story. I can only imagine the fun Maguire must have had in writing her scenes considering the fun I had reading them. Her nontraditional exclamation “Honey Buckets!” became a term of endearment towards her guests, who while certainly unpredicted are not entirely unwanted, regardless of what she alludes. I find that same sort of unexpected endearment towards her in what ultimately is a overly long, predictable plot. Extreme fantasy and fairy tale/folklore fans might appreciate this exposure of not-often portrayed Russian mythology, but most will probably loose interest before the quest even begins.

A Nearer Moon

A Nearer Moon.jpgTitle: A Nearer Moon
Author: Melanie Crowder
ISBN: 9781481441483
Pages: 150 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

[…] It was one of Mama’s never-to-be-broken rules:
Don’t go past the bend in the river.
Don’t go below the dam.
Steer far away from the slick.
People said there was a creature that lived beneath the slick lying still as a gravestone on top of the water, a creature that cast a curse on the swamp and sickened anyone who drank it. But Luna didn’t believe in the creature, and she didn’t believe in curses. (10-11)

Luna and her little sister Willow love going out on the water on their pole boat, trying to catch fish in the dam that their village of stilted houses lives over. Only the oldest residents remember the days before the dam mysteriously appeared, stopping the river and turning the bright waters into the treacherous swamp. Luna doesn’t believe in curses until their boat mysteriously dips under the water line and Willow ends up with the swamp sickness. With only weeks until the wasting illness kills her sister and no cure in sight, Luna might have to start believing in magic and miracles.

Told in alternating perspectives, first from Luna’s and then from the view of a water sprite decades prior, it’s at first a little confusing. But very quickly readers will realize that they are similar stories of sisterly bonds and the lengths sisters will go to maintain them. Having just watched My Friend Totoro, the two stories are similar, with an independent pair of sisters who take advantage of the world around them, encounter a magical creature, and have to overcome an illness. Crowder’s writing style and word choice also remind me of Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly, very lyrical and descriptive. Luna’s grandmother at one point “raised her eyes to the ceiling, searching the cobwebbed corners of her mind” which just sounds so poetic.

Luna is a likeable character, who feels guilt over her involvement in her sister’s illness and that it’s her sister and not herself who got sick. She adventures time and again out by herself, or with steady childhood friend Benny by her side, in efforts to cure this disease that everyone else has resigned to the fact that it’s incurable. “It was a supremely stupid thing she was doing. And if the brief history of her life was any indication, if she was set on doing a supremely stupid thing, it was best to have Benny along.” (33) I’m envious of her freedom of movement, as I don’t think my mother would have let me out of her sight after the first attempt, much less the second or third. Any other book would have made Benny and Luna a romantic pairing, but I’m so glad they are just friends here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sprite’s side of the story. It proves Crowder’s efficiency with words, that she’s able to so effortlessly squeeze two stories into only 150 pages. Perdita is an adventurous water sprite whose twin sister worries about her never-ending ramblings and roving. She and Luna are a lot alike in their independent and inquisitive natures. The stories start decades apart but they finally catch up to one another in the end. I loved the ending, as (if blog readers will allow me one final comparison) just like in Frozen there really isn’t a bad guy, but only broken hearts that once mended heal everything. A beautifully told story.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickens.jpgTitle: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
Author: Kelly Jones
Illustrator: Katie Kath
ISBN: 9780385755528
Pages: 216 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.

“Dear People Who Sell Special Chickens,

Look, maybe Mom was right about not writing while I was angry. I’m really sorry I said that stuff. Probably you’ve been busy too. But now I really need you to write back, even if you don’t send me a catalog. Because a chicken showed up yesterday, and I think it must be one of yours, because it is really definitely not an ordinary chicken. I’m pretty sure my parents are going to freak out, and I really need to figure out what to do. What are you supposed to do with a found chicken—is it like a found dog? Do chickens go to the pound? But it’s got to be yours. It’s really unusual, for sure. Can you please come get it quickly? Sincerely, Sophie […]

“Dear Great-Uncle Jim,

You know that chicken I told you about? It can use the Force.” (33-36)

Sophie moves with her mom and dad to her Great-Uncle Jim’s farm, which her family inherited upon his death. Through letters she writes, but can’t send, to her dead grandmother and great-uncle, and letters to the Redwood Farm Supply, which she does send, Sophie details her exploits as she discovers first one, then two, then even more chickens on her great-uncle’s farm. These chickens are anything but ordinary, and Sophie is not the only person who notices the unusual attributes. There may be a chicken thief on the loose, and Sophie is going to do everything she can to protect her posse of poultry.

This is a book that needs to be read aloud to classes everywhere, perfect for fans of Charlotte’s Web or other farm based fantasies. Sophie is a biracial only child, which is addressed but never obsessed over. She is self-reliant, strong-willed and independent, writing at one point “Don’t you dare send someone to take my chickens.” Knowing when to ask for help, she consults the library and other experts in researching the care and feeding of chickens. Sophie occasionally has a sarcastic way of approaching things, like telling her grandmother “I’m really sorry you’re dead” that make her an endearing and relatable protagonist. The most realistic aspect of the narration style used is there is very little directly quoted dialogue, which is rarely found in actual letters and lends a more realistic tone to the story. The illustrations are quirky and charming at the same time, adding to the plot’s humor without turning into slapstick. Give this to fans of humorous stories who are uninterested in the potty humor of Underpants. Get it, read it, share it, and recommend this unusual book. One of my favorites and one of the most memorable of the whole year.

Space Dumplins

This week, in honor of World Space Week, we’ve got reviews featuring space, in all it’s many forms. Today, I’m presenting an action packed space adventure by an award-winning graphic novelist.

GRX050 Silver Six COV TEMPLATETitle: Space Dumplins
Author/Illustrator: Craig Thompson
ISBN: 9780545565431
Pages: 316 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., c2015.

Violet Marlocke’s father is a lumberjack in a futuristic space-age time and her mother works as a fashion designer for a pretentious boss who only cares about next season’s trends. Lumberjacks in this alternate reality don’t cut down trees, but harvest and transports whale poop produced by giant flying space whales, which is then processed into energy. One whale has recently eaten Violet’s school, and areas in the path of destruction are being evacuated. When Violet’s father goes missing after a whale diarrhea environmental disaster, she heads off in a slightly restored space junker, along with a young chicken and a lumpkin, who’s contrariness is seen not just in his attitude but his uncharacteristically short and round body, resembling a walking talking kidney bean. Enlisting the helps of her father’s lumberjack buddies, Violet quickly realizes that there is more happening than she realized, her father’s life is on the line, and her actions might affect more than one family.

Rather than stick to a monochromatic scheme like some graphic novelists, Craig Thompson’s latest creation is literally BURSTING with color, starting with the raised lettering on the cover for the title. The roids, or asteroid belt, where Violet and her family work is the darker shades, lending to its recognizable position as lower class. By comparison, the space station reminds me of the Capital from The Hunger Games series, with overly prejudiced and super stylized citizens in neon and bright shades. Whale poop is portrayed as clingy green goo, reminiscent of the slime made in science class or seen on Nickelodeon, and the whales are bold purple. Even the aliens and fashions and ships are unique, with some of the aliens having claws, suction-shaped fingers, or appendages protruding from their heads. The details are also incredible, down to the tattoos on Violet’s father, which are distinct, identifiable, and most certainly contain significance, even if we don’t figure it out.

The plot is smart and sophisticated as well. Elliot the chicken has a dream journal and cites Biblical references. There’s commentary about socioeconomic classes, prejudices, environmental disasters, unions, and government conspiracies. At one point when talking with Elliot, Violet comments “You must go crazy cooped up here all the time.” and Elliot responds “COOP? Please no speciesist slurs.” Two panels later (on the same page), Violet deadpans “So, you’re no FREE-RANGE CHICKEN, huh?” (41) and we’re not quite sure if she meant it as a “slur” or seriously. The ending reminds me of Men in Black, and I even liked the epilogue, even if it does get slightly hokey/preachy towards the end. With plenty of action and subplots, this is meant for invested and engaged readers. For fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or any slapstick, unimaginable science fiction space odyssey that somehow meshes into a coherent, believable, and satisfying read, this one will surely entertain both kids and adults. This is poop humor done right.

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