Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

Information

Goodreads: Witches of Brooklyn
Series: Witches of Brooklyn #1
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

After her mother’s death, Effie goes to live with her aunts in Brooklyn. But they’re a little weird. Could it be they are really witches? And, if they are, could Effie be one, too?

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Review

Witches of Brooklyn is a delightful middle grade graphic novel about a young girl discovering that her aunts may actually be witches! When her mother dies, Effie goes to live with her family she never knew. They’re definitely a bit weird, but she never suspects that their jobs as herbalists and acupuncturists are actually a way to disguise the fact that they have magic powers! But then someone shows up on their doorstep, apparently having been cursed, and Effie’s aunts may not have the solution. Witches of Brooklyn combines the elements of a coming-of-age tale with a bit of magic to create a tale sure to enthrall readers from the start.

One of the great strengths of Witches of Brooklyn is the characters. Some of them may be considered a bit odd, but the book treats each one with dignity and respect. There is room for everyone in Effie’s world and, though the characters may have disagreements, these are never based upon how a character dresses or looks, or what they enjoy. Even the one character who acts like an entitled snob is taken seriously by the others and treated kindly, something which ultimately helps her to learn and grow. I loved how welcoming Effie’s friends and family are! It made me wish I could visit her world.

The illustrations, too, drew me in. They are perfect for the story, having a kid-friendly feeling to them, but also utilizing a color palette that suggests magic and mystery, without being too scary. Illustrations are a large part of what will make me decide to pick up a graphic novel. These did the job of attracting me to the book, and then keeping me glued to the pages.

Finally, the plot kept me engaged. Like Effie, I wanted to figure out what her aunts were all about. And then I became interested in their mystery. Why can’t they figure out how to lift the curse? Who put it there? Will this person be a friend or a foe? Combined with this sense of drama, however, is a sense of whimsy. There’s a talking suit of armor who acts as a librarian. There’s the character who keeps baking for everyone, often with comedic timing. And there’s the babysitter who has unusual fashion sense, but who clearly has a big heart. These light moments balanced out the little bit of darkness that could have stemmed from the idea of someone being cursed, keeping the book more magical than scary.

Witches of Brooklyn is only the first book in a series, but it is the perfect book to get readers hooked! I know I’ll be keeping my eyes out for the sequel.

4 stars

Dead Voices by Katherine Arden

Dead Voices

Information

Goodreads: Dead Voices
Series: Small Spaces #2
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Ollie, Coco, and Brian are headed to the mountains for a week at a ski resort. But when a snowstorm traps them in the lodge, spooky things start to happen. Ollie is having nightmares about a girl looking for her bones. And all three of them are seeing ghosts. The girl warns Ollie not to listen to the voices. But Ollie is determined to contact her dead mother, and she is willing to endanger everyone to get what she wants.

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Review

Dead Voices reunites readers with Ollie, Coco, and Brian as they head out of town for a week at a new ski resort. However, they soon learn that the lodge was once an orphanage with a shady reputation–and it is believed to be haunted! Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom do not believe in ghosts. But a mysterious ghost hunter offers to help the children find out the truth. Whom can Coco and her friends trust as they begin to hear different voices? And will they ever find their way out of the lodge alive? This is a thrilling sequel to Small Spaces, perfect for readers looking for a ghostly read as the autumn leaves begin to fall.

Dead Voices works well as a sequel because it brings together a beloved cast of characters for another creepy adventure, but it makes that adventure feel entirely new. The children have left town, of course, so they get to explore a new location, but they are also facing a rather different foe. Instead of the smiling man and his scarecrow allies, they are facing ghosts–ghosts who seem to have control over the ski lodge where they have been trapped by a winter storm. Some seem friendly, but others do not, and the children will have to stake their lives on choosing the right ones to trust.

Though I did not find the story particularly remarkable, it is a solid ghost story for middle grade readers. It contains plenty of action and adventure, along with a hint of mystery, but never becomes too scary to bear. Tween readers will rest content in knowing that the children have the wits to figure out the rules of the game, and that they have a fighting chance to make it out alive.

Dead Voices is the second book in a project four-book series that presumably will cover each season: autumn, winter, spring and summer. Readers who enjoyed this installment have plenty more adventure to look forward to!

3 Stars

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces

Information

Goodreads: Small Spaces
Series: Small Spaces #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

When Ollie finds a woman trying to throw a book into the local swimming hole, she can’t help herself–she grabs the book and runs. It tells the story of a farm where, long ago, a woman’s husband disappeared, taken by the smiling man. Then Ollie finds herself on the same farm for a school field trip–and something is not right. The bus driver gives an eerie warning, leading Ollie to flee the bus. Can she survive through the night? Or will the smiling man come for her, too?

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Review

Small Spaces is a deliciously creepy middle grade tale about a man who grants one’s heart’s desire, but always for a price. When Ollie’s sixth grade class goes on a field trip to the smiling man’s roaming grounds, she fears that her classmates and herself may be trapped in a bargain gone wrong. Desperate, she sets off through the woods, hoping she can find a way to stay alive until morning. Thus begins a thrilling story full of mystery, danger, and suspense.

Small Spaces hits all the right notes for a middle grade horror story, introducing readers to a terrifying villain and his unnatural servants, but never becoming so scary it is overwhelming. The villain, you see, has his limitations and, if Ollie and her friends can figure them out, they will have a sporting chance at winning his game. This lends a bit of hope to the story, even when the darkness threatens to become too much.

What makes the story really enchanting, however, is the feeling that it is rooted in a bit of folklore. The demonic figure who offers bargains too good to be true is a recurring type, and Katherine Arden uses it here to great effect. The audience knows that the smiling man can never be trusted–but will Ollie and her friends be able to resist? How does one outwit a master bargainer, without getting the short end of the deal?

Readers looking for a creepy middle grade read in the vein of Victoria Scwab’s City of Ghosts will delight in finding a new series full of supernatural thrills. Small Spaces is only the first book of what is projected to be a four-book series, so there are plenty chilling adventures to come!

3 Stars

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker, Junyi Wu (Illustrator)

Scary Stories for Young Foxes Cover Image

Information

Goodreads: Scary Stories for Young Foxes
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Seven young foxes gather round to hear a scary story. But will the heroes, Mia and Uly, make it through unscathed? The kits cannot bear to find out. Will any of them stay long enough to hear the end?

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Review

Scary Stories for Young Foxes is a book rather unlike any I have ever read. The framing story features seven young foxes who want to hear a scary tale, so their mother sends them to the storyteller. But what they hear is so frightening, they each begin to leave, one by one. The storyteller’s tale is actually a series of short stories, or perhaps it might be thought of as a serial tale, with each segment ending in a cliffhanger or at least a foreboding sense that the good times cannot last long. The marriage between the framing story and the internal story creates a deliciously meta book about the power of words and the tales we tell. Scary Stories for Young Foxes may sound like it is only frightening for woodland critters, but human readers will be afraid to turn the lights out, too.

What I really loved about Scary Stories for Young Foxes is that it makes the worries of foxes seem so immediate. The tale opens with a horrible story of a yellow disease overcoming the foxes one by one. They try to flee, but cannot seem to outrun the yellow. Human readers will understand the foxes have gone rabid, but, seen through the eyes of a fox, there is only the terrible transformation into an unthinking, biting creature. Zombie foxes. Yeah, I was terrified. And I’m not a fox.

The book continues in this terrifying vein, but the most affecting horrors of the tale ultimately turn out not to be the monsters the young foxes fear in the woods, but the cruelty of friends and family. Mia and Uly, the protagonists of the storyteller’s tale, face abandonment, mockery, and abuse from animals they trust. This makes the story almost unbearably dark, and certainly a serious work adults may want to discuss with their children. Don’t write this story off just because it’s about animals we tend to find cute.

Scary Stories for Young Foxes may seem like a weird or unusual book. It may seem so unusual, readers may overlook it, just because it is difficult to categorize. However, the extreme originality of the book is part of what makes it worthwhile to read. This, along with the heartwarming heroism of the protagonists, the action-packed plot, and the creepy atmosphere that envelops the whole, make Scary Stories for Young Foxes a must-read for fans of middle-grade literature.

4 stars

Consent (for Kids!) by Rachel Brian

Consent (for Kids!) by Rachel Brian Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Consent (for Kids!)
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 2020

Summary

A graphic novel introduction to the topic of consent, told through kid-friendly scenarios and illustrations.

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Review

Consent (for Kids!) by Rachel Brian is an incredibly accessible introduction to the concept of consent for both children and adults. It covers the basics of consent, discussing boundaries, bodily autonomy, trust, different relationships, changing boundaries, and, importantly, the need to reflect not only on whether you are in healthy relationships with people who respect your boundaries, but also whether you are the type of person who respects others’ boundaries. The book is a bite-sized introduction that manages to hit all the key points with clarity and insight, as well as a great deal of humor.

What I really love about this book is how accessible it is. The cartoony illustrations are inviting and kid-friendly, but so are the scenarios Brian presents. For example, Brian explains consent as “like being the ruler of your own country. Population: YOU” and goes on to illustrate things like scenarios you may be comfortable with (sharing fries with a friend) or not comfortable with (sharing your friend’s half-eaten fries). Relationship boundaries are illustrated by acquiring a badger as a pet– a scratching, violent badger= a situation where boundaries have to change! And she explains that clothes do not equal consent with an illustration of a person in a bathing suit who does not want to be pushed into the water just because she is dressed for swimming. The important ideas are all here, but explained in relatable and often humorous ways.

I also appreciate that Brian discusses different relationships, and how readers might be comfortable doing some things with some people, but not others. She also addresses the tricky matter of family, asserting that no, you don’t have to kiss your aunt just because your parents told you to. You still get to set your own boundaries. I think it is important for children to understand from a young age that they do not “owe” anyone physical affection, even if people they love and trust –like their own family–insist that they do.

Finally, Brian does not neglect to have the reader reflect on their own behavior. Have they pressured others to do something they did not want to do? Threatened them? Bribed them? Have they shared secrets told to them in confidence? Maybe shared photos that were sent to them and meant for their eyes only? It is never too early to start thinking about how one’s behavior affects others. Brian does not let readers off the hook. They should expect others to respect them, but they also must respect others.

Consent (for Kids!) is a valuable tool for parents and educators, touching on all the key points of consent and bodily autonomy, while doing so in an accessible, kid-friendly manner. The concepts learned here in somewhat humorous scenarios can be applied throughout life to all sorts of situations. This is a book that will really grow with the reader, helping them navigate life.

5 stars

The Secret of Danger Point by Kim Dwinell

The Secret of Danger Point by Kim Dwinell Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Secret of Danger Point
Series: Surfside Girls #1
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Sam and Jade’s friendship has felt a little off lately. Jade keeps giggling over boys, which annoys Sam. And now Sam can see ghosts–and Jade thinks she might be losing it. The ghosts want Sam to help save their home. But what can one girl do?

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Review

The Secret of Danger Point begins the adventures of Sam and Jade, two friends who solve supernatural mysteries at their home on the beach. The book feels like an instant classic, reminiscent of serial mysteries like the Nancy Drew stories, but updated for a modern audience. The cheerful illustrations will appeal to tween readers of graphic novels, as will all the adventure–and romance! Anyone who has ever dreamed of solving mysteries like the Boxcar Children or the Hardy Boys will love the Surfside Girls books.

Admittedly, The Secret of Danger Point feels very much like the first book in the series. Readers have to spend time getting to know Sam and Jade, their likes and dislikes, and the ups and downs of their friendship. Sam likes to surf and swim, while Jade prefers to kayak and visit the library. Sam is not very interested in boys right now, but Jade is beginning to act silly whenever they see someone of the opposite sex. Sam has been chosen to be the guardian of Danger Point, but Jade can’t see the ghosts–and she is not convinced Sam is seeing them, either. All this exposition takes some time that takes away from the mystery. However, I think it is worth it to get to know Sam and Jade and their home.

The book is very charming, and I think the illustration-style will appeal to the intended tween audience. The artwork is done in bright, beachy colors that make Danger Point and its inhabitants come alive; readers may close the book wondering when they can schedule their own visit to the seaside. It is also not remotely scary. The ghosts are depicted as friendly people who just want to keep their home, and who become friends with Sam. I loved the concept of Sam and Jade helping spirits, but in a fun way!

Readers looking for a delightful summer read, a new mystery series, or the perfect graphic novel series to keep themselves (or their tween readers) engrossed will love the Surfside Girls. So far, there are two books in the series. But I hope there are many more!

4 stars

Goldie Vance, Vol. 3 by Hope Larson, et al

Goldie Vance Volume 3

Information

Goodreads: Goldie Vance, Vol. 3
Series: Goldie Vance #3
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Teen detective Goldie Vance teams up with her long-time rival Sugar Maple to find out who has been sabotaging the drivers in the Prescription One Race. Can Goldie uncover the truth before someone gets hurt?

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Volume 3 may be my favorite Goldie Vance mystery yet. It follows sixteen-year-old hotel employee Goldie as she agrees to help her childhood rival, Sugar Maple, figure out who has been sabotaging the drivers for an upcoming race. Throughout the series, Goldie has been resentful of Sugar Maple’s money and good fortune, as well as justly annoyed by Sugar’s dismissive attitude towards the hotel employees. However, as the story progresses, readers begin to see that there may be more to Sugar than meets the eye. This an uplifting story all about girl power!

The Goldie Vance mysteries have, thus far, been rather uneven in quality. Volume 1 is solid, if a little unrealistic, while volume 2 fails to explain key plot points, making it rather confusing. Volume 3, however, combines an action-packed plot with fantastic character development, making it the strongest installment so far.

In this volume, readers will love to see Goldie finally interacting with her nemesis Sugar Maple, who has been making regular cameo appearances. And they, like Goldie, may be surprised to find themselves cheering for Sugar’s success. After all, she’s a female race car driver in a male-dominated sport and she supports other women by hiring an all-female crew. Could it be Sugar is not totally evil? Watching Goldie come to the same, reluctant, realization is part of what this book so satisfying.

And the illustrations! I absolutely love the bright colors and the bubblegum, 1960s teenagery feel they give off. The artwork of a graphic novel can often be the factor that makes me pick up or put aside a volume. So far, I have immensely enjoyed all the art for the Goldie Vance comics.

Readers looking for an upbeat mystery series appropriate for tweens and young teens need look no farther than the Goldie Vance stories. The appealing artwork, bold female protagonist, and fast-paced plot make a winning combination. Hopefully this comic series continues!

4 stars

Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap, Trans. by Laura Watkinson (ARC Review)

Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap

Information

Goodreads: Of Salt and Shore
Series: None
Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: October 13, 2020 by Charlesbridge (first published March 2017)

Summary

Every night, Lampie lights the lighthouse lantern for her father, who has trouble with the stairs due to a bad leg. One night, however, she forgets. The ship that foundered on the rocks will have to be paid for. And so Lampie is placed as a servant in the Black House, a mysterious mansion where a monster is said to live. But the monster is not what Lampie was expecting.

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Review

Of Salt and Shore is a haunting story that imagines what happens after the events of “The Little Mermaid.” Young Lampie, daughter to the lighthouse keeper, is sent to work at the Admiral’s house after one night when the lighthouse lamp is not lit and a ship founders upon the rocks. She fears the monster rumored to live within, but soon discovers that the monster is not what it seems. As she befriends the Admiral’s son and his servants, Lampie starts to bring life back to the house. But not everyone in town is as welcoming as Lampie, and their fear could ruin everything Lampie has worked to gain. Of Salt and Shore is a beautiful tale of processing loss, finding friendship, and creating hope. Lovers of fairy tales will be spellbound by its magic.

It is rare to find a novel based on a fairy tale that feels as enchanting as the original. Annet Schaap, however, has created a story that possesses that ineffable something— that hint of the supernatural, that haunting taste of bittersweet, that feeling that things will never be fully explained and never should be. The magic is in the not knowing. That magic is in what is. Of Salt and Shore pulls readers into a world where mermaids and pirates coexist side by side with ordinary life–and it makes such a world seem both wholly possible and wholly desirable. Who wouldn’t want to return to Lampie’s world again and again?

Laura Watkinson’s effortless translation helps that world come to life. The prose not only flows smoothly, but also feels completely natural. I can imagine many a reader finishing the book without ever realizing it has been translated at all. This is a testament to Watkinson’s skill, of course, but also a great gift to Schaap’s work, helping it reach a wider readership who can fall in love with her story and its characters.

If you love retold fairy tales, if you love mermaids, if you love worlds where the fantastic and the everyday intertwine–then this book is for you. Of Salt and Shore promises magic–and it delivers.

4 stars

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung (ARC Review)

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung

Information

Goodreads: The Boys in the Back Row
Series: None
Source: ARC from Edelweiss
Published: October 6, 2020

Summary

Matt and Eric are best friends, but now Eric is moving away. Before he goes, the boys plan an epic last adventure. During the annual marching band competition at an amusement park, they will sneak away to a comic con to get their favorite comic signed by the artist. But unexpected complications arise when a bully learns of their plans.

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Review

The Boys in the Back Row is an unabashed homage to male friendship. Focusing on the bond between middle schoolers Matt and Eric, the story celebrates a masculinity strong enough to allow the boys to admit that they care for another, even when the other kids at their school make fun of them. The plot revolves around their final big adventure together–sneaking away from a school function to attend a comic con. But, at its heart, the story is about far more than shared interests or even shared adventures. The love the two have for one another is the real story here–as is their comfort with sharing it.

Books with male friendships can be difficult to find, both in middle grade and YA. So I was thrilled to see The Boys in the Back Row start to fill this gap in the market. In doing so, it also subtly addresses the topic of toxic masculinity, showing how the fear of not fitting in at school causes the other boys to deny their emotions. Lacking a safe place to share their inner selves and fearing the social repercussions if they do, the other boys perform a type of masculinity that degrades women and gay individuals. Some of these kids are obviously the villains of the story–the bullies who make Matt and Eric’s lives a nightmare. But, sadly, a good portion of the school often participates in the bullying either by laughing or standing by idly. These kids–the bystanders–are often the ones who cause Matt, our narrator, the most pain.

The Boys in the Back Row takes a stand against toxic masculinity and apathy by revealing their hurtful effects. Some of the kids escalate their toxic masculinity into physical violence to demonstrate their dominance, but readers can see that much of the harm results from the failure of the other kids to step in, as well as their tacit participation in the bullying cycle by spreading rumors. And, sadly, the book also illustrates how so much bad behavior can go unnoticed even by teachers who have their students’ best interests at heart. The teachers cannot be everywhere, nor hear everything. So student apathy allows bullying to grow unchecked. In this depiction, The Boys in the Back Row feels very, very real.

Ultimately, however, The Boys in the Back Row is not a depressing book. Matt and Eric’s friendship and support for one another proves stronger than any hate and the book ends with a message of love. Readers who have been searching for a book that validates male friendship will want to check out The Boys in the Back Row.

4 stars

Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

Information

Goodreads: Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl
Series: Mighty Jack #3
Source: Library
Published: 2019

Summary

Jack and Lilly have travelled between worlds and defeated giants. Now the next adventure comes knocking on their door when Zita the Spacegirl arrives with news of an inter-dimensional threat. The giants are ready to wage war and reclaim the Earth. Can the three team up to save the day?

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Review

Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl is a crossover event that brings Ben Hatke’s Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl graphic novel series together. One could consider it book three of Jack’s series or book four of Zita’s. That being said, readers should be very familiar with both series, or all the allusions made in this book will likely go over their heads. I, for instance, have not read the Zita books in years, so the repeated references to her old adventures and former friends got tiresome very quickly. On the whole, however, the book is a fun adventure and a solid addition to Hatke’s work.

The greatest strength of the Mighty Jack books is, in my opinion, how wonderfully they feel like old-school adventures. I used to spend my childhood summers reading books like King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Andrew Lang’s fairy tales, and Ben Hatke’s work makes me think he must have done much the same. The Mighty Jack stories give me that same thrill of heroism and wonder.

Still, I do wish that Hatke would make some changes as the series progresses. At times, I think the books feel like an old-school adventure in part because they feel so resistant to changes that have occurred in the publishing world. For example, the cast of characters has not grown any more diverse over the years. And this book features that tired old trope of the two female leads–Zita and Lilly–meeting each other, and Lilly becoming jealous of Jack’s attention. Really? Did our two strong female leads have to fight over a boy? Did that add anything at all to the story? It doesn’t, and I, like many other women, am tired of seeing female characters pitted against each other as rivals for a boy, when they have so much more to offer.

As an added disappointment, the book leads up to a huge fight between the giants and the Earth, which ends up being laughably anti-climatic. [Don’t read farther if you want to be totally unspoiled!] It almost feels like the author worried either 1) that the book was becoming too long and had to be wrapped up pronto or 2) that the author worried the full-scale epicness promised would actually be too violent and/or devastating to depict in its entirety, so instead he chose to gloss over all that. Option 3 is that the book is really supposed to be a message about the power of love, peace, and words and how they triumph over violence. It’s still a disappointment.

Hardcore fans of Zita and Jack will probably love this crossover, especially the tweens to whom the books are primarily marketed. I loved it, too, but I still cannot overlook its flaws. I hope to see more Mighty Jack books, but I also hope that the cast can become more diverse and that we can throw away tired tropes like females fighting over a boy’s attention.

3 Stars