A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

A Wish in the Dark

Information

Goodreads: A Wish in the Dark
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, and inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

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Review

A Wish in the Dark has a compelling premise: a middle-grade retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables set in a fantasy world, where light shines only on the “worthy.” The attempt to reimagine a classic work of literature for a younger audience, and thereby highlight inequality between the rich and the poor, is admirable. However, in the end, A Wish in the Dark lacks much of the power I would expect from a book based on one of the heart-rending stories I know. In attempting to make the material more child-friendly, the story loses something. A Wish in the Dark is a solid book with a worthy goal–but not quite the standout novel I had been led to expect.

Writing a story based on Les Misérables was always going to present challenges, as Victor Hugo’s work has a depth and a scope unmatched by many works of literature. A Wish in the Dark attempts to circumvent some of these challenges by focusing on a smaller cast of characters during a shorter period of time. It thus makes the story something that is more correctly described as “inspired by” Hugo’s work, rather than a retelling of Hugo’s work. This is all well and good, but, if the story is not going to attempt a critique of society and its morals set against a stunning historical backdrop, I at least want it to move me with its depictions of its characters. I want it to make me feel the injustice of it all through their eyes. A Wish in the Dark failed to do that.

Presumably because A Wish in the Dark is meant for children, the story often shies away from describing poverty, injustice, and their effects in too much detail. Readers are given pertinent information about the gap between the rich and the poor: the poor have no schools, the poor are herded into prisons where they lack enough to eat, the poor cannot even afford better lights for their homes. However, much of these is described very broadly; I never really felt their hunger, their anger, or their despair. The characters do not burn for justice like Enjorlas and his idealistic followers. The tone is not really clinical but, rather, kind of just describing what is.

Since much of what is in the book also is in the real world, I would hope that the story would inspire some passion around the injustices shown. But, frankly, once our hero Pong escapes to prison and to safety, it is relatively easy to forget that others suffer. Even when he is in hiding, he is cared for better than many, and a few scenes of people begging in the streets do not quite illustrate the full extent of the injustice that is presumably being carried out in the city. Also disappointingly, the book suggests that injustice is solved fairly easily by peaceful protest, love, and democracy. While I recognize that children’s books tend to be upbeat and hopeful in an attempt to inspire people to change instead of making them despair, the too-easy ending feels a bit dishonest.

Critiquing a book with a laudable goal–to expose the gap between the poor and the rich–is difficult. It is natural to want to praise any story that discusses injustice and that seeks to make readers more aware of important social issues. However, though I liked the characters in a general way and though I wished them well, I do not know that pointing out that the poor suffer in many ways more than the rich is enough to make a story amazing. A Wish in the Dark is a fine fantasy. A solid middle-grade novel. It is not, however, a book I will likely want to read again. It lacks the depth and insight I would want from a book attempting to tackle difficult issues.

3 Stars

How to Save a Queendom by Jessica Lawson (ARC Review)

How to Save a Queendom

Information

Goodreads: How to Save a Queendom
Series: None
Source: ARC from publisher
Published: April 20, 2020

Official Summary

From critically acclaimed author Jessica Lawson comes a whimsical fantasy about an orphaned twelve-year-old girl who is called upon to save her queendom when she finds a tiny wizard in her pocket.

Life’s never been kind to twelve-year-old Stub. Orphaned and left in the care of the cruel Matron Tratte, Stub’s learned that the best way to keep the peace is to do as she’s told. No matter that she’s bullied and that her only friend is her pet chicken, Peck, Stub’s accepted the fact that her life just isn’t made for adventure. Then she finds a tiny wizard in her pocket.

Orlen, the royal wizard to Maradon’s queen, is magically bound to Stub. And it’s up to her to ferry Orlen back to Maradon Cross, the country’s capital, or else the delicate peace of the queendom will crumble under the power of an evil wizard queen. Suddenly Stub’s unexciting life is chock-full of adventure. But how can one orphan girl possibly save the entire queendom?

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Review

How to Save a Queendom by Jessica Lawson is a rollicking middle-grade adventure that takes all the best parts of a fantasy quest, mixes them up, and presents a story sure to enthrall its readers. From the moment twelve-year-old orphan Stub appears, bullied by the tavern owner she’s apprenticed to, and finding solace only in her pet chicken, readers will know that this is a quirky tale that means to entertain. The appearance of a tiny, grumpy wizard, magically bound to Stub by accident, along with a chef’s apprentice who can’t seem to stop talking about food, only add to the delightful chaos. Will all three be forced to go on a journey together across the nation to stop an evil queen from taking over? Of course!

There’s something kind of irreverent about the way Lawson takes fantasy staples–orphans, wizards, dragons, and evil regents–and puts her own spin on them. The orphan holds no special secret powers, but she is plucky. The wizard is small and impotent. The dragon is somewhat beside the point. And the evil regent almost gets our pity. But, somehow, it all works. The presence of the tropes gives readers something familiar to hold on to. But the way Lawson subverts them makes the book feel not only unpredictable, but also fun.

The characters, along with the plot, are sure to delight. Readers will be sure to fall in love with the protagonist, Stub, who is forced to live in a chicken coop and put up with her mistress’s abuse. Over time, however, Stub finds her strength by learning to trust others and allow them to help her. She is joined by Orlen, a somewhat cranky wizard who is not always as good at spellcraft as he would like everyone to think, but who proves lovable nonetheless. And by Beamas, who provides much of the comic relief by babbling on about recipes and spices when he ought to be thinking about how is life is in danger. Together, they make an unlikely team to save a queendom, but, somehow, it works.

Readers who enjoy middle grade fantasy, fantasy quests, and quirky humor will be sure to love How to Save a Queendom. Its irreverent take on genre tropes, along with its unlikely heroes, prove an irresistibly charming combination.

4 stars

Brightly Woven: The Graphic Novel by Alexandra Bracken, Leigh Dragoon, & Kit Seaton

Brightly Woven The Graphic Novel

Information

Goodreads: Brightly Woven: The Graphic Novel
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Sydelle Mirabil is content enough in her village, until the wizard Wayland North appears. He claims to have evidence that will stop a war, but he needs to get to the capital before war is declared. He takes Sydelle as his navigator, and to help repair his magical cloaks. But it may be Sydelle who saves them all.

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Review

Brightly Woven: The Graphic Novel adapts the novel of the same name, presenting the story in vibrant colors sure to appeal to tweens who enjoy reading comics. However, despite the appealing illustrations, the book lacks a cohesive plot, as well as any meaningful character development or worldbuilding. Ultimately, the book is a lackluster affair, one that draws in readers with its looks, but then fails to deliver.

Details about the setting of Brightly Woven are vague from the start, which features Sydelle gathering plants in a remote village, then meeting the wizard Wayland North. North announces to all and sundry that he has important intelligence exonerating a foreign nation from an evil deed that will bring their nations to war. However, he has to get to the capital in a few days’ time, but he is being pursued by enemies. He makes lots of explanations about how the mail service and messengers are untrustworthy (though he just trusted an entire random village with his secret and his life) to ensure that he has to go himself, on foot. Also, apparently he can teleport, but apparently conveniently not that far. At any rate, this almost all the worldbuilding readers are going to get for the rest of the novel, until they learn that somehow colorful cloaks are magical (what different colors mean and how they work remains unexplained) and there is a wizard organization (which is maybe kind of evil, but maybe not. Who knows.). In the end, it feels like Sydelle and North are moving through an empty wasteland, devoid of any meaningful geography, culture, or politics.

The character development does little to help save the story. Sydelle is pretty much a blank slate for readers to maybe project themselves onto. At any rate, she is a kind of standard small town girl who is swept up into a greater adventure. Sassy and smart. Presumably in love with the moody, mysterious wizard who took her travelling. But what her hopes and dreams, her fears, her motivations are readers will never know. Ultimately, she turns into a deux ex machina in a confusing and unexpected turn of events that rush by too quickly to feel meaningful.

North is perhaps worse than Sydelle in terms of character development. Readers mainly know that he is a wizard with a sad backstory pertaining to his father, and he has a teen wizard nemesis. How exactly all of this affects him or why readers should care remains unexplained. He also has magic, but what kind and how it works is a mystery. Sydelle appears to be in love with him, but readers may have to question why since he is so amazingly bland.

Ultimately, Brightly Woven left me confused and disappointed, unsure of what I had just read. The plot makes very little sense. The worldbuilding is all but nonexistent. The character development is severely lacking. The ending does leave room for a sequel, but it seems questionable how many readers will be interested in continuing reading a series where nothing is explained. The illustrations are well done, but they are not enough to salvage the work.

2 star review

Across the Pond by Joy McCullough

Across the Pond

Information

Goodreads: Across the Pond
Series: None
Source: ARC received from publisher
Published: March 16, 2020

Official Summary

From the author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost comes a heartwarming story about new beginnings, burgeoning friendships, and finding your flock.

Callie can’t wait for her new life to start. After a major friendship breakup in San Diego, moving overseas to Scotland gives her the perfect chance to reinvent herself. On top of that, she’s going to live in a real-life castle!

But as romantic as life in a castle sounds, the reality is a little less comfortable: it’s run-down, freezing, and crawling with critters. Plus, starting off on the wrong foot with the gardener’s granddaughter doesn’t help her nerves about making new friends. So she comes up with the perfect solution: she’ll be homeschooled. Her parents agree, on one condition: she has to participate in a social activity.

Inspired by a journal that she finds hidden in her bedroom, Callie decides to join a birding club. Sure, it sounds unusual, but at least it’s not sports or performing. But when she clashes with the club leader, she risks losing a set of friends all over again. Will she ever be able to find her flock and make this strange new place feel like home?

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Review

Across the Pond is a delightful travel novel sure to please readers who enjoy vicariously exploring other countries. Callie and her family move to Scotland when her parents decide to renovate an old castle left to them by a deceased friend. Callie is initially excited to be leaving her old life behind–her friends were mean and she now has some anxiety about attending school and fitting in. But Scotland does not turn out to be quite the new start Callie hoped, and she soon realizes that she will have new problems to confront. Across the Pond is a fairly conventional middle-grade novel about growing up, making friends, and finding one’s place in the community. But the Scottish setting and Callie’s somewhat unusual new hobby–birding–will initially hook readers and then keep them engaged.

The setting will likely be one of the first things to attract readers to Across the Pond, and Joy McCullough makes sure to give Scotland a starring role. Callie wonderfully gets to live in a castle, complete with locked trunks to spark the imagination and old diaries to give her (and readers) a glimpse of growing up in the 1940s. McCullough also spends time describing the small town life (slowing giving way to modernity as the family-owned stores of the past go out of business and chain stores move in) and playing up the comedic differences between American English and the words Callie learns from her new friends. All this gives readers a sense of being able to explore a new place and a new culture with Callie.

Also notable is Callie’s new hobby, twitching (or birding, as most readers would probably call it). The book goes to great lengths to connect birding to Callie’s difficulties with making friends, but, ultimately, comparing people to specific types of birds does not add much to the story. More relevant is that birding gives the homeschooled Callie (homeschooled because she’s afraid to meet the kids at the local school) an opportunity to connect with her peers while learning a new skill she really enjoys. Sexism in birding also receives a lot of attention, with Callie having to deal with a prejudiced birding leader–something she does in part by learning more about the activity and the women and girls who have worked hard to make it more welcoming and equitable. Readers will enjoy getting to learn more about birding, and may even be inspired to try it out for themselves.

Across the Pond is not exactly a standout novel, but it is a solid book, one that will appeal to readers who enjoy books set in different countries or books about unusual hobbies. The sympathetic characters also add a certain charm to the story. Joy McCullough is definitely an author I want to read more of.

3 Stars

City of Secrets by Victoria Ying

City of Secrets

Information

Goodreads: City of Secrets
Series: City of Secrets #1
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Ever Barnes is an orphan living in the Switchboard Operating Facility. Like his father before him, he guards a secret that could save his city, although he does not know what it is. But the men who killed his father now mean to kill Ever, as well. Fortunately, he has Hannah, a new friend determined to help, no matter the cost.

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Review

City of Secrets is a fun steampunk adventure sure to delight its target audience of middle-grade readers. The story jumps immediately into the action, introducing the fascinating Switchboard Operating Facility, a call center that has moving staircases, hidden trapdoors, and more. And it is all overseen by Ever Barnes, a shy orphan boy who hides from the Switchboard’s menacing supervisor. Exactly what is going on in this building remains unclear, but the narrative sets up enough mystery to intrigue readers and get them hooked.

Initially, I admit, all the mystery left me more than a little confused. City of Secrets prefers to do its worldbuilding as it goes, meaning readers simply need to accept that they have entered a city full of spies, secret societies, and puzzle-like buildings without knowing precisely why all these things are necessary or what is going on. The main thing to hold on to is that Ever and Hannah are the protagonists, so one simply decides to cheer them on, whether or not they understand why. Truth be told, however, Hannah and Ever do not understand what is going on, either, so, really, the story is mostly a wild ride through secret passageways, hidden slides, and life-threatening booby traps. Presumably, all this action is meant to keep readers reading, in the hope that, eventually, something will be explained.

Most of the explanations, strangely, are left for the sequel, however. The quick overview given to Hannah and Ever of the city’s secrets feels more than a little unfulfilling, as does the book’s conclusion, which raises more questions than it answers. Again, I think readers are meant to be satisfied with the action–giant steampunk robots! giant cogs that can squish people! giant scary horror dogs!–and so distracted from asking for any real narrative meat. In fact, I strongly suspect that many of the questions raised by the plot do not have actual answers. Action-adventure excitement trumps narrative logic here.

Middle grade graphic novels are, however, in high demand right now, and avid readers tend to tear through them very quickly. I imagine this one will do well and be eagerly read by fans of steampunk and fantasy adventures, even if the worldbuilding and the plot are sorely lacking. The story has enough danger and mystery to be engrossing, even if reflective readers eventually realize that too much information is missing from the book for City of Secrets to be one of the year’s standout graphic novels.

3 Stars

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells

Information

Goodreads: A Ceiling Made of Eggshells
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 2020

Summary

Paloma (Loma) lives in the judería of Alcalá de Henares, where she dreams of one day becoming a mother and having children of her own. But her abuelo wants her to travel with him, to see the king and the queen of Spain, and to help Jews across the country. Loma agrees, because her abuelo insists it is for the good of the Jews. But, as the years pass, she wonders if she will have to give up her dream forever.

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Review

Gail Carson Levine’s latest book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, is a historical fiction set in the Spain of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. It follows young Paloma–known as Loma to her family–from the age of eight to the age of sixteen, as she travels with her grandfather, a man who works tirelessly for the good of the Jews. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern what age range this book is meant to appeal to, and the characterization of Loma is not strong enough to make her seem particularly interesting. A Ceiling Made of Eggshells does draw attention to a period of history not often covered in middle grade books. However, while the premise is intriguing, the execution ultimately falls short.

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells has a slow start, covering the days as they pass Loma by in the (relative) safety of her home. The plague visits her family and she witnesses some anti-Semitic action in the neighborhood. As a child, however, she is mostly concerned with the household, and obsessed with her all-consuming desire to one day be a mother and have children of her own. To that end, she always volunteers to look after her nieces and nephews, as well as her mother’s new babies. This peace is finally interrupted when her abuelo declares Loma a smart girl who must travel with him “for the good of the Jews.”

Here the book exhibits a flaw: Loma’s grandfather insists she is unusual and that her traveling with him is of the utmost necessity. However, as the book progresses over eight years, Loma exhibits no incredible talents, no quick thinking, no exceptional intelligence–until the final chapters of the book. Most of the time, it is unclear why she is traveling at all. The reality is simply that her abuelo likes having her around; Loma is not doing anything directly to help her people, except being a comfort to her important relative.

This dynamic introduces the main conflict of the story. Loma desires to have children, but her grandfather insists that her “work” with him is more important. I think readers will largely appreciate Loma’s selflessness, her desire to do good for others. Unfortunately, to build up this conflict, Levine relies on one of her signature writing moves: the constant repetition of a single trait to define a culture or a character. In this case, Levine wishes to define Loma as child-loving, so Loma spends the entire book obsessing over children. She notes every time she sees one, every time she wishes to speak with one, every time she gets to share a bed with one on her travels. A lot of people like children and many people want to have children. But I don’t know anyone who can’t see a child pass by in the street without obsessing over their extreme desire to be wed and finally be a mother. It’s just…weird.

Because the book covers eight years, it is a little difficult to determine who the audience is. Loma starts out as an eight-year-old and ends as a teenager. She starts as a naïve child who believes in magic amulets and ends as an almost-woman who worries over what unsavory men might do to her on her travels. Annoyingly, however, despite this change, her voice remains exactly the same throughout the book. One can only assume Loma is meant to be narrating years later, though this is never specified. This large gap, along with the slow pacing of the story, makes the book rather unusual for the modern market. Older titles such as Little Women have covered the transition from girlhood to womanhood, of course, but I cannot say that A Ceiling Made of Eggshells does so with the same fluidity.

Ultimately, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells will probably appeal to readers who love Gail Carson Levine and readers looking for a historical fiction set in Spain–something not commonly found on the market today. However, I admit that, even though I am a fan of Levine, I do not believe A Ceiling Made of Eggshells lives up to her previous works like Ella Enchanted or The Two Princesses of Bamarre. It was interesting to see what Levine is up to today, but I am not overly impressed.

3 Stars

Blended by Sharon M. Draper

Blended

Information

Goodreads: Blended
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Eleven-year-old Isabella is tired of switching houses, of switching lives. Her parents are divorced so, every week, she has to pack up and change houses. Her parents never seem to consider how she might feel. Will they ever realize that the divorce affects her, too?

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Review

This review will contain spoilers for the story!

Sharon M. Draper’s Blended tells the story of Isabella/Izzy, a middle school girl torn between two identities. Her mother is white and her father is Black. They are also divorced. So, every week, Izzy flip flops between their houses, angry that her parents only ever seem to think of what they want, and not what she wants. The book attempts to address a range of issues from being a child of divorced parents to experiencing microaggressions to witnessing a hate crime at school to being victimized by police brutality. The book’s goals are laudable, but ultimately the attempt to include so many serious issues in one volume means that the story fails to address many of these issues adequately and meaningfully. Readers may be torn between their desire to like a book that tries so hard, and their realization that the execution falls a bit short.

Blended has a very unusual structure which contributes significantly to its failure to address many of the issues it raises with the expected nuance. Typically, books that include something like an incident of police brutality will start with the event, then use the rest of the book to deal with the protagonist’s reaction and response. Blended, however, meanders pleasantly along for at least half the book, just telling random stories from Izzy’s day, and veering into unrelated musings like her feelings on specific bug types, until the middle of the story, when a hate crime occurs. There is some fallout from this, but no real closure.

The book continues on, heading towards what appears to be a happy conclusion at Izzy’s long-awaited piano recital. Then, suddenly, in the final pages, Izzy experiences police brutality. The book ends with characters in the hospital, so there is no time for the characters to really process what happened or for the author to put it into context. Instead, the author uses the event as the impetus for Izzy’s fighting parents to reconcile, then ends the story. Readers may well be confused. Sometime so serious seems like it ought to be treated more extensively, especially for younger readers.

Blended laudably tries to deal with many issues that reader may be facing in their own lives. However, it is difficult for one book to cover divorce, microaggressions, hate crimes, and police brutality in one slim volume and, ultimately, none of these topics feel like they are covered with the level of attention they deserve. I wanted to love Blended because I loved the character of Izzy so much. However, I think the book would have worked more effectively to convey its message if some of the serious topics raised at had occurred at the beginning, giving the author more time to address them.

3 Stars

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Fighting Words

Information

Goodreads: Fighting Words
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

Ten-year-old Della has always had her older sister, Suki: When their mom went to prison, Della had Suki. When their mom’s boyfriend took them in, Della had Suki. When that same boyfriend did something so awful they had to run fast, Della had Suki. Suki is Della’s own wolf — her protector. But who has been protecting Suki? Della might get told off for swearing at school, but she has always known how to keep quiet where it counts. Then Suki tries to kill herself, and Della’s world turns so far upside down, it feels like it’s shaking her by the ankles. Maybe she’s been quiet about the wrong things. Maybe it’s time to be loud.

In this powerful novel that explodes the stigma around child sexual abuse and leavens an intense tale with compassion and humor, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells a story about two sisters, linked by love and trauma, who must find their own voices before they can find their way back to each other.

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Review

Fighting Words is one of those important books that parents and educators know is addressing one of the traumas many children experience each day, but which so often adults feel they cannot or should not talk about. In this case, Fighting Words addresses child sexual abuse–and makes it clear in the summary that it intends to do so. Some adults might worry about exposing children to this content. But, as the narrative explains, many children have already been hurt by sexual abuse, and, for many, the knowledge that they are not alone could be precious. So Fighting Words gives readers the irrepressible Della, a ten-year-old girl who has been hurt, but who is determined to write her own story from now on. This is a book readers will not soon forget.

Importantly, Fighting Words does not focus on the bleak side of things. Even though Della and her sister Suki have experienced trauma, and even though they have been placed with a fair number of terrible foster parents, the book opens with them trying to have a new beginning. Their latest guardian is a gruff, but caring woman, who knows when to talk, when to press for answers, and when to stay silent. Her presence is a welcome relief against all that Della and Suki have undergone so far. She never pretends she can be a replacement parent, but she is there for the girls–and that is a great gift, both to Della and Suki, and to readers, who may need to know that things can get better.

Della is still trying to process what happened to her and Suki, and the book depicts her struggles sensitively. On the one hand, Della seems excited about their new beginning–new clothes, a new school, a new chance. However, she cannot quite let go of her past. Importantly, however, she also has to come to terms with the realization that her process is different from Suki’s. Della is eager to move on and she seems more able to do so. She believes that her testimony against their abuser is important to keep him from hurting others, and she is ready and willing to use her words to fight back. Suki, however, is clearly suffering in silence, afraid to voice the terrors that haunt her, and unwilling to testify in public about what happened. Della has to learn to respect that Suki’s experiences, and her reaction to them, are different than hers.

Fighting Words is ultimately a book full of hope, with Della choosing to begin again and Suki learning how to reach out for help. Things are not perfect, but they are better, showing readers that there are still good people out there–people who care and who will fight for them. It’s not a surprise that early readers were predicting this book to be a possible Newbery Award contender.

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Parental Notes

Parents may want to be aware of certain issues that arise in the book, so they can discuss them with their children. (Note this section will contain spoilers. Trigger warnings: child sexual abuse, suicide.)

The book follows ten-year-old Della and her older sister Suki after they escape from a man who tried to sexually abuse Della. What actually happened is kept unspoken until near the end of the story, when Della reveals that the man pulled down her pants and tried to touch her. It is implied heavily, throughout, however, that Suki experienced years of abuse that she never told Della about–and this, too, is revealed towards the end of the book, when readers learn that the man would come home at night and take Suki to his room.

As a result of this trauma, Suki attempts to commit suicide. She is found by Della and receives medical treatment. Over the course of the story, Suki improves, though she admits that she cannot promise Della that she will be perfect going forward, only that she will try.

Ultimately, Della and Suki are placed with a caring guardian who treats them well and works to get them the counseling they need. Suki is unsure about testifying in public about her experience, but Della decides to testify in person about what happened to her–and about the little she knows about Suki’s experiences–in order to get their abuser more time in prison so he cannot harm others. The book ends on a hopeful note, with Della finding that she can use her words to do good.

4 stars

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

Maya and the Rising Dark

Information

Goodreads: Maya and the Rising Dark
Series: Maya #1
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

Twelve-year-old Maya’s search for her missing father puts her at the center of a battle between our world, the Orishas, and the mysterious and sinister Dark world.

Twelve-year-old Maya is the only one in her South Side Chicago neighborhood who witnesses weird occurrences like werehyenas stalking the streets at night and a scary man made of shadows plaguing her dreams. Her friends try to find an explanation—perhaps a ghost uprising or a lunchroom experiment gone awry. But to Maya, it sounds like something from one of Papa’s stories or her favorite comics.

When Papa goes missing, Maya is thrust into a world both strange and familiar as she uncovers the truth. Her father is the guardian of the veil between our world and the Dark—where an army led by the Lord of Shadows, the man from Maya’s nightmares, awaits. Maya herself is a godling, half orisha and half human, and her neighborhood is a safe haven. But now that the veil is failing, the Lord of Shadows is determined to destroy the human world and it’s up to Maya to stop him. She just hopes she can do it in time to attend Comic-Con before summer’s over.

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Review

Maya and the Rising Dark is a fun fantasy adventure that will appeal to fans of middle-grade series based on mythology, such as the Tristan Strong or the Percy Jackson books. Maya is a twelve-year-old girl who begins seeing mysterious events no one else seems to have noticed. Then, her father disappears, and she learns that he is at the center of an age-old war between the orishas and the Lord of Shadows. Now, it is up to Maya, half orisha and half human, to enter the world of the Dark and save her father. Episodic in nature, the book is packed with encounters with supernatural creatures that will keep readers engaged. Maya and the Rising Dark is a solid offering that will entertain its target demographic.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of Maya and the Rising Dark is that it is based on West African mythology, so readers get to learn more about the spirits known as orishas. In this book, it is explained that the orishas are spirits, some of whom have taken on human form, and now guard the human world. Each orisha is associated with a specific aspect or trait, and Maya gets to meet a number of them as she begins the search for her father. However, some of the supernatural creatures in this mythology are more malevolent, and they provide much of the action as Maya encounters them and must figure out how to fight them or escape.

In this way, Maya and the Rising Dark feels a little bit like The Hobbit, as it is episodic in nature, with Maya traveling into the Dark and across the human world, and meeting a number of challenges (many unrelated to her quest) until she finally reaches her end destination. This writing strategy keeps readers engaged since the action never flags. Even when Maya seems safe from her enemies, a dangerous creature might still be lurking about, ready to take unsuspecting travelers back to camp for dinner. Maya and her poor friends never get a rest!

Ultimately, for me as an adult, the book does feel a little unsatisfying. The characters are not strongly drawn, mainly being delineated by one defining feature (Frankie likes science, Eli likes ghosts, etc.) And the writing style somehow keeps the episodes of the narrative from feeling fully cohesive. Finally, Maya achieves her supernatural powers far too easily and is able to defeat a terrible power even the orishas fear with no prior training. However, I recognize that this book is written for a middle grade audience, one who already devours this type of book, and they will probably enjoy it a lot more than I.

Maya and the Rising Dark delightfully incorporates West African mythology into an action-packed narrative that will delight readers looking for another book in the vein of the Rick Riordan Presents books. Its episodic nature, which presents a number of supernatural perils Maya and her friends must face, will keep readers hooked.

3 Stars

Little Kid, Big City!: New York City by Beth Beckman and Holley Maher

Little Kid Big City New York book photo

Information

Goodreads: Little Kid, Big City!: New York City
Series: Little Kid, Big City
Source: Review copy from publisher (Quirk Books)
Published: February 1, 2021

Official Summary

If you could have an adventure in New York City, where would you go? Curious readers will find plenty of sights, smells, and tastes to explore in this illustrated pick-your-own-path travel guide series.

Would you walk the Brooklyn Bridge for a huge slice of pizza, see the dazzling lights in Times Square, or visit the whale at the Museum of Natural History? With Little Kid, Big City!: New York you can create your own itinerary by choosing where to go next at the end of every page! Whether you’re an armchair traveler or a real-life tourist, here are dozens of ways to explore iconic sights, venture to nearby locales, and wander off the beaten path. 

In this first book in the Little Kid, Big City series—in which travel guides collide with an interactive format—kids are empowered to imagine, create, and explore their own routes through the world’s greatest cities. Featuring whimsical illustrations, lovable characters, an invaluable resources section, and a foldout map, Little Kid, Big City has everything you need to invent your own adventure! 

Star Divider

Review

Little Kid, Big City!: New York is a whimsically entertaining, yet also useful, guide to the sights of New York City.

The book is formatted as a pick-your-path book, so you can imagine yourself going through a day of touring New York, making choices at each stop. For instance, do you want to check out some of New York’s famous bagels next, or do you want to head to a zoo? This structure makes the book fun to read even if you have absolutely no intention of going to New York City in the near future because you can simply pretend you’re there! (Super useful during COVID-19 but also in general.)

However, the book also has merits as an actual guide to the city. I’ve been to NYC a number of times myself, but the book definitely pointed out places I haven’t gone yet that I’d love to add to my list. And, in addition to the main book, the back includes a list of sites that are near the featured ones, so you can 100% use it as an actual reference guide to help you plan an actual trip. (All suggestions are also kid-friendly, as the title of the book implies, though of course anyone can enjoy them.)

Finally, the book also includes little fun facts about each site, so you can learn interesting tidbits while reading/planning your trip!

I love the formatting of the book and think this is an immensely fun idea for an entire series featuring different cities. (Quirk Books plans to publish a guide to London next.) I definitely recommend it!

Briana
5 stars