The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo

Beatryce Prophecy Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Beatryce Prophecy
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

One day, a girl appears at the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. She cannot remember who she is, but the king wants her dead. Brother Edick wants to help the girl, but the head of his Order does not. So the girl sets out with a goat and an orphan boy to try to find her way in the world. She only hopes that she will be shown the way back home.

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Review

The Beatryce Prophecy is, I suspect, one of those books beloved by adults, but perhaps not as much by children. The book takes on an almost fable-like feel, one created by the flatness of the characters and the generous repetition of ideas, phrases, and thoughts. The moral? That Words Are Important, of course. For some readers, any story about the power of stories is an automatic gem. For my part, however, I found the story veering a little too close to self-indulgent. I can see this one being a contender for many awards, but more because I think adults will find it Important and not so much because children will be lining up to read it.

My feelings towards The Beatryce Prophecy are, I must admit, very ambivalent. While the plot is not particularly original, the characters are winning, and I think many a reader will fall in love with Jack Dorey, Brother Edick, and, of course, Answelica the goat. The titular character, Beatryce, is beloved in turn by all the characters, but it must be admitted that she exhibits the least personality (which is saying something in a book where pretty much no one has a personality). Readers are supposed to take it for granted that she is special because she can read, and that she is intelligent because her mother and her tutor say so. Why Beatryce should be treated like an angel because someone taught her to read is beyond me–she just happened to be rich and lucky. And Beatryce, in fact, does not make any intelligent decisions during the course of the book. But because love prevails and other people love her, it doesn’t much matter–they keep saving her from herself.

The slow pacing and the repetition of words, phrases, and thoughts also weigh the story down. Listening to a long ramble about the demon goat Answelica at the opening almost made me put the book down. Fortunately, however, the book is short, so I figured I could try to power through. This did prove a little more difficult than I had imagined, since nothing much happens in the book–the bulk of it really does come from the repetition. Three phrases are often needed just to describe something like the sky or someone’s thoughts that they are afraid. While this is soothing at time, I do think repetition is often most effective in smaller doses.

Finally, the ending of the story proves confusing–if one thinks about it too closely. The trouble comes from revelations about Beatryce’s mother that make her one of the most rounded characters of the book, though she barely appears except in flashbacks and through other people’s memories of her. However, readers do learn that her husband died years ago, that she allegedly thinks her children might one day take the throne (maybe the reason she saw that they were all educated), that she is proud of her family’s bloodline, and that she (again allegedly) is classist and would not be amenable to marrying someone of common birth.

All this makes Beatryce’s mother intriguing and fleshed out. But. In a story where everyone else is flat and pretty much divided into Good and Not So Good–what does that make her? The story wants to make her Good. But she’s too complex for this type of tale. Her pride and her apparent ambition (in a story where ambition for the throne is coded very negatively) suggest that she should be on the Not So Good Side. So why does the book try so hard to make her seem wonderful? Just because she is Beatryce’s mother? It’s a knotty problem and one that the book closes with unresolved.

I do think that there are readers out there who will love The Beatryce Prophecy. The types of readers who love romantic tales of old, who enjoy knights and ladies, who dream of going on medieval adventures. I also realize that these types of readers are probably less abundant than the ones repeatedly bringing humorous books like Dog Man and Wimpy Kid to the top of the bestseller lists all the time. But I do think it’s worth pondering whether this book has more kid appeal, or more adult appeal. To me, it seems like a book that will be most beloved of adult readers who already love everything Kate DiCamillo writes.

3 Stars

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

The Jumbies

Information

Goodreads: The Jumbies
Series: Jumbies #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Corinne La Mer does not believe in jumbies–trickster spirits said to live in the forest near her home. But then one day she sees a pair of yellow eyes in the trees. And then a beautiful woman follows her from the marketplace and appears in her house, trying to win over her father. Corinne learns that the woman desires to take over the island and reclaim it for the jumbies. Can Corinne stop her before she loses everyone she loves?

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Review

Inspired by Caribbean folklore and the tale of “The Magic Orange Tree,” Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies offers supernatural thrills and chills to middle grade audience. Corinne La Mer does not believe in jumbies–malevolent spirits said to live in the forest–until the day one shows up in her house and puts a spell on her father. Now, she must unlock her own magic in order to save him, and the rest of the island, from being turned into jumbies forever. An original fantasy sure to delight–and scare–young readers.

Much of the joy of The Jumbies comes from watching Baptiste introduce a new audience to the tales of her own childhood. An author’s note at the end explains some of the stories of the jumbies, as well as the ways in which Baptiste adapted them to create a story of her own. These tales are not for the faint of heart! Creatures who carry their own coffins with them? Or lure children into the woods when they learn their names? Eek! Fortunately, Baptiste’s versions are slightly less terrifying. They, at least, seem able to be beaten, either with physical resistance or a bit of magic.

Though I enjoyed the concept behind the story, I have to admit that the pacing of it is a bit uneven, particularly at the start. Baptiste likes to jump around the perspectives of different characters and one of those happens to be the villain, the jumbie who calls herself Severine. By showing Severine’s movements and trying to get into her mind, Baptiste loses some of the suspense she might have been able to build. Readers know upfront that she is a jumbie, that she is bad news, and that she has a very specific plan regarding Corinne and her father. I think a stronger tale would have unfolded from Corinne’s point of view, leaving readers to piece together the mystery along with her.

And, strangely, even though readers get several chapters from Severine’s perspective, her motivations remain unclear–as do the motivations of all the jumbies. Jumbies are initially introduced as basically pure evil–they are bad creatures who lure in the unwary in order to harm them. Severine does seem pretty awful, but then she seesaws between wanting to…love? Corinne and her father and wanting to hurt them. Maybe Severine is just really confused, with competing and contradictory desires. But it makes for an unusual reading experience, with readers not knowing precisely if they are supposed to feel bad that Corinne fights Severine’s evil magic. Because, you know, the rejection hurts Severine’s feelings.

Ultimately, however, The Jumbies is a fun and spooky middle grade fantasy that will have readers rooting for Corinne and her friends to save the day. There are currently two sequels, but the book also works as a satisfying standalone.

3 Stars

Salt Magic by Hope Larson & Rebecca Mock

Salt Magic

Information

Goodreads: Salt Magic
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When Vonceil’s older brother Elber returns to their Oklahoma farm after the end of WWI, Vonceil imagines things will go back to the way they were before. But Elber has changed. He’s serious and grown-up now, and he even proposes to his boring girlfriend. Then a sophisticated woman arrives all the way from France, looking for Elber–and she is furious to find Elber married. The witch curses the family’s well so it turns to salt water and, now the town people who will rely on it will likely die. So Vonceil grabs a horse and runs away to find the witch and break the spell before it is too late.

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Review

Salt Magic is the kind of enchanting tale that only comes along once in awhile. Vonceil lives what she considers a boring existence on a farm in Oklahoma. But, after a witch curses her family’s well, she has to journey into the wilderness to find the witch and reverse the spell. Along the way, she discovers that magic and adventure are not as elusive as she thought, but also that dangerous journeys always come with a price.

Though Salt Magic is set after the end of WWI, the beauty of it comes in how relatable it all feels–even with the magic. Vonceil is a young girl waiting for her life to start, and she is convinced that will happen when her beloved older brother Elber returns home. But going to war has changed Elber in ways Vonceil cannot understand; he values safety and stability and home, while all Vonceil wants is to get away. Plus, she feels alienated and betrayed when Elber marries his girlfriend; Vonceil cannot accept that someone else might be more important to Elber than she is. Vonceil’s growth comes from meeting a witch who also lashed out because she feels lonely and betrayed. In helping the witch, Vonceil also helps herself.

Plenty of magic appears in this tale, and readers will likely find themselves charmed (and alarmed!) just like Vonceil. However, the real depth and beauty comes from the character development. From Vonceil realizing that she and a witch are not so different, after all. From Vonceil realizing that a bit of good and bad resides in everyone. From Vonceil realizing that doing the right thing does not always mean a person will end up happy.

Growing up is bittersweet–and so is Salt Magic. This is the kind of story that stays with a reader. The kind of story that makes them want to return to it again and again.

5 stars

Hooky by Miriam Bonastre Tur

Hooky

Information

Goodreads: Hooky
Series: Hooky #1 (implied by ending)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When twins Dani and Dorian miss the bus to school, they head to their aunt’s house, hoping she will teach them magic instead. But it seems like their aunt might be in league with some witches intent on reviving an old war between magic workers and the non-magical. So the twins go on the run once again. With a group of friends, they will have to figure out what the witches are up to–and what role they want to play in the approaching conflict.

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Review

Hooky by Miriam Bonastre Tur begins a little rough–perhaps because it started as a web comic and the conventions for setting up background and characterization may be different. However, soon the story hits its stride, bringing together a lovable (and comedic) cast of characters for an exciting magical adventure. Though I initially thought of DNFing the story, by the end I was hoping for the sequel.

The start of Hooky admittedly had me baffled due to a lack of exposition. It begins in media res, with twins Dani and Dorian missing the bus to magical school, saying something about having to hide their identity as witches (even though Dani’s openly flying through the street), and then wandering off to their (obviously evil) aunt’s house, where they unquestioningly do her bidding–down to taking some hapless young man to a secret prison where (for unknown reasons) Dorian attempts to steal a dragon, leading the twins to be branded traitors (why? who knows!). It’s all kind of frenetic, which is compounded by Dani’s (and later other characters’) peppy personalities–illustrated by a lot of enthusiastic yelling and popping up with big grins. The story does not really seem to know where it is going at this point, only that it needs to keep adding exciting scenes (missed bus! evil aunt! stolen dragon!) to keep readers coming back for the next installment.

At some point, however, the story calms down and the background starts to get fleshed out a little more (even though it’s honestly still confusing and even seemingly self-contradictory). What really helps is that the story gets a main goal around which the other events can kind of cluster. Dani and Dorian have heard about a gathering of witches dedicated to taking back the kingdom from the non-magic folk and they want to check it out–whether to join or resist is still up in the air. Their friends, yes, have their own problems, like finding a lost prince and trying to reverse a spell gone awry, but the sense is that finally the story has some sort of plot that is driving the narrative. And it’s a relief.

By the end of the book, I was finally invested in the characters and interested to know what they might do next. The beginning is rough, yes, but the writing and the structure improves–and it can improve still further! The ending leaves room for a sequel and I hope that we get one!

3 Stars

Garlic and the Vampire by Bree Paulsen

Garlic and the Vampire

Information

Goodreads: Garlic and the Vampire
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When a vampire moves into the castle in the woods, Garlic’s friends convince her that only she can confront the threat.

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Review

Garlic and the Vampire is a short graphic novel for the lower middle grade crowd. It follows Garlic (a sentient garlic bulb) when her fellow vegetables volunteer her to confront the vampire who has moved in across the way. Garlic lacks self-esteem and is hesitant and shy, so the thought of having to defeat an evil monster frightens her. However, this is a children’s story so, of course, in the end, mistaken assumptions are corrected and friendship triumphs. There is nothing particularly new or notable about the tale or its message, but the sentient vegetables make the story intriguing if only because readers will have a lot of questions about how sentient vegetables work.

The story here offers nothing fresh; readers know going in that Garlic and the vampire must become friends. And, because the book is so short, not even the “journey” to that friendship proves worth mentioning. Essentially, Garlic just walks up to the vampire’s door, and the vampire introduces himself. He also clarifies that he only snacks on the local wildlife sometimes and that mostly drinks juice. Crisis averted in the span of about two pages. There is zero sense of drama or suspense.

What really interested me about the book is the sentient vegetables. The story opens with the titular Garlic running to the farmer’s market to sell…garlic. Her friend Carrot sells carrots. Tomato sells tomatoes. And so on. Even after the story explains that Garlic and her friends are magical vegetables that have been given life by a witch, it seems more than a little weird. How do the vegetables feel about growing vegetables for other people to eat? Even if those vegetables are (hopefully) not alive? Some readers may find this book cute and winning with its talking vegetables and message of friendship, but the more one thinks about it, the darker the book seems to be.

I read this book in about 15 minutes, so I would not say it is a waste of time to pick it up. I just do not find the book remarkable. There are plenty of stories about unlikely friendships out there, and some of them will likely tug at the heartstrings in the way this one does not. Still, maybe the target audience will enjoy this one more than I.

3 Stars

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow by Emma Steinkellner

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow

Information

Goodreads: The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow
Series: Okay Witch #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Now a witch, Moth Hush has no hope that things at school will get any better. Her mom will still let her learn only small spells, and she is not allowed to use magic to make the school bullies stop. Then Moth finds a powerful charm that promises to make her cool and popular. There may be a cost involved, but it is nothing Moth can’t handle, right?

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Review

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a powerful, and empathetic, follow-up to The Okay Witch. Now practicing as a witch with the blessing of her mother, Moth hopes that she can use her powers to make her life at school better. But her friend Charlie and the grown-ups around her just keep telling her to ignore the bullies and to accept herself as she is. For Moth, that is not good enough. So she steals a charm that promises to make her more popular. The result, as readers might expect, instead threatens to erase Moth completely. The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a beautiful story about learning to love one’s self, with the support of friends and family along the way.

Stories about accepting one’s self and learning to appreciate one’s friends are common for middle grade, but The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow gives a little twist by making the protagonist a witch. While many characters might wish that they could drastically change themselves, or that they could instantly become popular, Moth actually can. The ultimate lesson is still, of course, that magic cannot solve all of life’s problems. But it is fun to see how magic might try–the scene in the cafeteria where magically popular Moth begins a High School Musical-esque number and gets everyone to join in was amazingly hilarious. A reader starts to wonder if magic might not be a great solution. How else would one get to actually live in a musical for a moment?

The book is filled with moments of humor, from when Moth accidentally “twins” outfits with the dorkiest teacher at school to the scenes where her talking cat gets absorbed in a sitcom about a teenage witch. Though Moth is not happy with her life, readers can see that she is, in fact, surrounded by wonderful people. Even the dorky teacher turns out to be empathetic, sensitive, and, well, pretty cool. (Though it’s probably hard for a preteen to admit that.) Readers will delight in getting to enter into Moth’s world and experience all the loving support she has, if only she would recognize it.

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a wonderful read, more effectively executed even than book one. Hopefully, there are yet more of Moth’s adventures to come!

4 stars

City of Dragons: The Awakening Storm by Jaimal Yogis, Vivian Truong

Information

Goodreads: The Awakening Storm
Series: City of Dragons #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

When Grace moves to Hong Kong with her mom and new stepdad, her biggest concern is making friends at her fancy new boarding school. But when a mysterious old woman gifts her a dragon egg during a field trip, Grace discovers that the wonderful stories of dragons she heard when she was a young girl might actually be real–especially when the egg hatches overnight.

The dragon has immense powers that Grace has yet to understand. And that puts them both in danger from mysterious forces intent on abusing the dragon’s power. And now it’s up to Grace and her school friends to uncover the sinister plot threatening the entire city!

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Review

The Awakening Storm follows a familiar premise–a girl moves to a new city, then finds out she has been Chosen to save the world–but the story still feels fresh. Grace is a winning protagonist with a team full of smart–and funny–friends who have the most delightful camaraderie. Further, the inclusion of Chinese mythology adds a a beautiful layer of depth to the story, as Grace must learn more about her past in order to determine her future. I loved learning along with Grace and her friends, and I hope this is one series that continues!

In many ways, The Awakening Storm is not the most notable graphic novel to recently hit shelves. Chosen One stories certainly offer few surprises, and readers will hardly find themselves shocked by plot twists here. Fortunately, however, Grace and her friends manage to carry the story though a combination of winsome eagerness and comedic interactions. As the series progresses, it seems likely that their personalities will as well, making this team more than just the language girl, the teacher’s pet, and the tech guy.

The illustrations are possibly the highlight of the story–which perhaps is fitting for a graphic novel. The opportunity to draw upon mythology here and to include as much dragon awesomeness as possible is not wasted. Grace’s little water dragon happens to be adorable, but, in time, will no doubt be as majestic as his forebears. I love a good dragon story, so I was excited to see all the different types of dragons. Future installments no doubt will provide even more information.

Altogether, The Awakening Storm is an engaging graphic novel. It will likely perform particularly will with its target audience–tweens–who may not have read as many Chosen One stories and will be able to immerse themselves in the action without worrying about originality. I know this is a book I would have really loved when growing up.

3 Stars

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani (Spoilers)

Beasts and Beauty

Information

Goodreads: Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales
Series: None
Age Category: Marketed as Middle Grade; More Suitable as YA
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

You think you know these stories, don’t you?

You are wrong.

You don’t know them at all.

Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that capture hearts long kept tame and set them free, truths that explore life . . . and death.

A prince has a surprising awakening . . .                           

A beauty fights like a beast . . .

A boy refuses to become prey . . .

A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.

New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.

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Review

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales promises readers that these are stories “for a new era” and that they “understand you” and “reflect you.” The question while reading, however, is whether making the characters diverse and gender swapping some of the characters is enough to make them fully new. In many of the stories, negative gender stereotypes against women remain. And in many of the stories, there is no modernized “enlightened” moral. Rather, the “heroes” in several of the tales become the villains. It is unclear whether readers are supposed to cheer them on for taking on the role of their enemies– or not.

Ultimately, the book does a wonderful job in being dark, gritty, and somewhat depressing. Virtue does not really triumph over evil in this volume because none of the characters are that virtuous to begin with. And most of the endings are more bitter than sweet, with princesses finding themselves unloved by their husbands and many of the fairy tale characters getting divorced. Presumably this makes the stories more realistic. But most people do not read fairy tales for the realism.

Further, the content of the book really veers more towards adult or YA fiction, making this a really odd choice for the middle grade audience. Yes, tales such as “Bluebeard” have always had violence in them. But it does seem like the stories are crossing some sort of invisible line here over from MG to YA when there are (positive? neutral?) depictions of cannibalism, “happy” endings with the prince marrying two girls at once, and a lot of uncomfortable sexual overtones throughout the book. Usually this type of content is considered mature, and I am not sure what to make of a publisher marketing this content to educators, parents, and children who are likely unaware that it is in this book. Frankly, it does feel like a violation of trust because many people use age categories to find content that is developmentally appropriate for children–and this, by most people’s standards, is not probably not for the average 8-12 year old.

Below, I give my thoughts on a few of the selections from the book. To fully review the tales, however, I do spoil the endings and as well as any notable deviations from the original stories. Read on only if you do not mind being spoiled!

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“Bluebeard”

Not too original for a retelling. Instead of marrying and murdering girls, the titular character buys orphan boys. It’s unclear exactly what he does with them, but there does seem to be a creepy sexual undertone to this story, as with many. The story is not too remarkable, however, since the main feature is the gender swap.

“Cinderella”

I admit I had no idea what to make of this one. The original twist is that Prince Charming actually fell in love with a different girl–not Cinderella–who ends up being turned into a mouse by a witch. Now the mouse lives with Cinderella and is using Cinderella (by lying to her) in order to get into the castle for the ball. The mouse has a lot to say about the evil stepsisters, in a way that links their evilness with their ugliness. There is no clear messaging that this is wrong or that the mouse is just nasty and jealous, and probably should not be criticizing other women about their looks the way she does.

Normally, I would suggest that a book does not need a clear moral message from the narrator, but this is a fairy tale. More than that, it is a retold fairy tale in a book touting how wonderful it is that we have these updated stories that are presumably supposed to align with contemporary values. So why the woman-on-woman hate?

Additionally, the ending was unusual, to say the least. The prince ends up marrying both Cinderella and the other girl (yes, bigamy). I have to admit that I was not aware that this is something most contemporary readers would celebrate as a happy and appropriate ending.

“Hansel and Gretel”

The big twist here is that, instead of the witch trying to eat Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel team up with the witch to (apparently) eat their evil stepmother. Usually fairy tales try to have morals about how being virtuous will bring good things to a person. Are Hansel and Gretel actually the good characters here, though? Why do they get a happy ending for engaging in cannibalism? Is the point of this story something about how darkness is within us all and no one is really that good? Is that the modern twist–a belief that the world holds no light? Or are readers supposed to cheer on Hansel and Gretel for becoming like the witch readers are used to hating because, you know, killing and eating people is wrong? It’s all very unclear, but neither option seems like a good one.

“Jack and the Beanstalk”

This retelling shows how ineffective merely writing a gender-swapped ogre is in any attempt to make old stories feel less sexist. Negative gender stereotypes about women still abound here. They have, in fact, been added to the story! The ogre becomes a female who henpecks her husband. Jack’s mother, meanwhile, is understandably stressed and bitter because she married a lazy man who squandered all their wealth, and then got himself killed, and now her son seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps. Somehow, however, Jack’s mother becomes the villain because Jack thinks she’s a nag. So evidently she needs to suffer so that Jack can go and be happy with a new family. Ouch.

“The Little Mermaid”

This one is one of the less imaginative retellings, largely because it is not really a story. It reads like a Tumblr-esque critique of the Disney film, with the sea witch merely running a monologue about how silly and shallow the little mermaid has to be in order to give up everything for a guy she has never even spoken to. I imagine most readers will not be particularly impressed by this one.

“Peter Pan”

This is possibly the highlight of the collection. It is told by an older Wendy, who recounts her early adventures in Neverland, and then her growing understanding of how vile Peter Pan really is. She ends up falling in love with a pirate instead. The one aspect I really didn’t like was that Wendy marries someone, but has a years-long affair with the pirate. And I guess readers are supposed to be okay with that because her husband is boring. But being boring is hardly wrong. Why are readers supposed to be disdainful of anyone who does not want to engage in deadly adventures? I so wish that the husband had been fortunate enough to marry a boring woman who would have loved him.

“Sleeping Beauty”

I was not sure what to make of this one, either. It begins with the prince waking up every morning with bleeding wounds, and he worries that he is being attacked by a demon. It seems clear that this is supposed to be a metaphor for his being gay. However, he attacks the boy who has been attacking him at night, then ends up marrying a countess. But he now he is not happy, so he locks himself in a tower, so the boy can return to…hurt him?…every night? This does make him happy. His wife gets upset that her husband has locked himself in a tower, but readers aren’t supposed to worry about her too much because she’s a gold digger (ahem, sexist stereotype!) so she deserves what she gets.

I don’t understand the link between violence and pleasure here. Also, if the wounds are supposed to be some uncomfortable metaphor for sex, like in vampire lore or something, does that mean the the prince was being raped…and then decided later to become lovers with his rapist?? Because, remember, initially the night attacks were unsolicited and not consensual. They hurt the prince and worried him. How is this an appropriate story for anyone, let alone children?

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Conclusion

Ultimately, I was not overly impressed with the collection. The originality of each tale varies a lot and often the author seems to rely on a gender swap alone to make a story “new,” but without removing gendered stereotypes. The content, too, is too mature for a middle-grade book. I imagine most 8-12 year olds are not developmentally ready to read a book where cannibalism is depicted as either a neutral or a laudable act, and certainly not ready for one where sex is equated with violence and where apparent rape is depicted as the prelude to romance. This is not what children should be learning about sexuality when they are at an impressionable age. That these stories are specifically marketed as updated to reflect contemporary values and sensibilities only makes many of the narrative choices stranger because it implies that readers should take the stories at face value.

Maybe read this one if you like dark tales where no one is the hero and everyone is the villain. But go in knowing that the content here is mature and that the book is not what most would typically call a middle-grade read.

2 star review

Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?! by Sophie Escabasse

Witches of Brooklyn What the Hex

Information

Goodreads: Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?!
Series: Witches of Brooklyn #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Sophie loves exploring her new powers as a witch and, even better, she’s starting to meet the other witches in town. They’re really cool women who do their best to help others! But there’s a new girl at school, and suddenly everyone seems way more interested in her than they are interested in hanging out with Sophie. Can this witch figure out how to save her friendships?

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Review

The sequel to Witches of Brooklyn is an engaging, if not particularly memorable read. Like many middle-grade graphic novels, it focuses on the drama of changing friend groups, though with the added twist of making the protagonist a witch. Sophie, however, does not experience any real struggles with her magic in this installment, thereby lessening much of the drama and keeping the focus on her jealousy towards her friend’s infatuation with the new girl at school. What the Hex?! is a pleasant read, but not the type of story that invites rereading.

What the Hex?! attempts to intertwine two parallel stories, with only partial success. One thread follows Sophie’s anger at her friend for paying more attention to the new girl than to her. Another follows Sophie as she meets more neighborhood witches, and learns about a city corner that seems to be cursed–at least, everyone who goes by seems to meet with bad luck. Predictably, Sophie’s ability to move past her jealousy and reach out is what ultimately enables her to solve the conflict at the corner, as well.

Unfortunately, however, the magic system is somewhat undeveloped, as is the process whereby Sophie solves the problem of the curse. As a result, the ending scene feels a bit rushed or perhaps unearned. Sophie has a random idea about the corner, based on little evidence, that just happens to be right. And then all is solved by the power of friendship! I support messages of friendship, but sometimes just throwing out that love can solve everything seems a bit too facile to be believable. There needs to be work involved, as well.

In the end, I did enjoy What the Hex?!, but the story and the art do not stand out from all the similar titles. Witchy middle-grade books are trending, as are middle school friendship dramas. As are witchy friendship dramas, which is apparently now its own subgenre. What the Hex?! simply is not as strong as the titles it is competing with. And it is not really the kind of book that I see lasting.

3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu (ARC Review)

Tidesong by Wendy Xu instagram photo

Information

Goodreads: Tidesong
Series: None
Source: PR company for review
Publication Date: November 16, 2021

Official Summary

Perfect for fans of Studio Ghibli and The Tea Dragon Society, this is a magically heartwarming graphic novel about self-acceptance and friendship.

Sophie is a young witch whose mother and grandmother pressure her to attend the Royal Magic Academy—the best magic school in the realm—even though her magic is shaky at best. To train for her entrance exams, Sophie is sent to relatives she’s never met.

Cousin Sage and Great-Aunt Lan seem more interested in giving Sophie chores than in teaching her magic. Frustrated, Sophie attempts magic on her own, but the spell goes wrong, and she accidentally entangles her magic with the magic of a young water dragon named Lir.

Lir is trapped on land and can’t remember where he came from. Even so, he’s everything Sophie isn’t—beloved by Sophie’s family and skilled at magic. With his help, Sophie might just ace her entrance exams, but that means standing in the way of Lir’s attempts to regain his memories. Sophie knows what she’s doing is wrong, but without Lir’s help, can she prove herself?

Star Divider

Review

Tidesong by Wendy Xu is a whimsical graphic novel that has the feel of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but with dragons and a setting by the sea. The result is a story that ebbs and flows with protagonist Sophie’s struggles but ultimately will feel warm and familiar and cozy to readers.

The greatest struggle, I find, for many graphic novels is to create a complex story using limited words and space, and I do think Tidesong ultimately feels a bit sparse. There’s the main conflict of Sophie’s wanting to learn magic but then getting her magic tied up with a dragon’s and needing to sort it out so she can continue to practice for her audition for the esteemed magic academy she wants to attend, and there are side plots about Sophie’s family and Sophie’s own inner turmoil. It’s simply not as developed as I’d expect it all to be if the story were told in novel form. However, I don’t think it this will be an issue for the target audience of middle grade readers. As a child, I often imagined fuller stories into the books I read and was surprised to find as an adult that many of the books I loved so much seemed so short and simple. So I think young readers will absolutely fall in love with Tidesong and its world.

And the world has a lot to offer. In a brief space, and with the help of her gorgeous illustrations, Xu brings readers to a seaside town where Sophie’s family works magic and consorts with dragons. You can practically smell the salty air on the pages. I love the idea that Sophie’s magic is tied to water and that her family has a history of special magical traditions they have passed through the ages.

Finally, Xu ensures each character in the book has an arc, from Sophie who has to deal with learning magic in ways she didn’t expect, to Lir who has to come to terms with his memory loss and family problems, to Sophie’s extended family members who need to learn to let go of the past in order to truly see the present. The journey for each of them has up and downs but is a joy for readers to watch.

Tidesong is a book that is sure to delight readers and have them hoping Xu will return to this world with a sequel.

Briana
4 stars