Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster

Curse of the Night Witch

Information

Goodreads: Curse of the Night Witch
Series: Emblem Island #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source:
Library
Published: 2020

Summary

On Emblem Island, most people are born with a mark that gives them special powers–anything from breathing underwater to singing to baking.  Twelve-year-old Tor has a leadership emblem, just like his mother, but wishes it away one fateful night.  He awakes to find a curse on his skin instead, the mark of the Night Witch, a terrifying creature of legend.  Now, Tor must embark on a quest with his friend Engle and his annoying classmate Melda in order to find the witch and break the curse.  Inspired by Colombian folklore.

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Review

Curse of the Night Witch is obviously a debut novel, one that is crammed full of action and adventure, but sometimes stumbles with pacing, plot inconsistencies, and too-obvious parallels to other fantasy works.  Likely, however, the target audience of tweens will not notice or mind, instead focusing on all the marvels of Emblem Island.  While more seasoned readers might be tempted to point out some of the flaws, younger readers will likely find this one to be a new fantasy favorite.

Curse of the Night Witch will no doubt appeal to avid readers because of how steeped in story it is.  The book is interspersed with tales from folklore, the stories that Tor and his friends grew up hearing from the Book of Cuentos each night–”The Weeping Woman,” “The Cave of Cosas,”  “The Lake of Bones, and more.  The stories grow increasingly more disturbing the closer the protagonists get to the Night Witch.  And this is done on purpose; the author knowingly weaves the stories into the fabric of Tor’s life.  He, in fact, uses the Book as a guide to get him to the Night Witches realm.  Thus, anyone who believes in the power of story to guide and transform lives will love the importance given to stories here.

At times, however, Curse of the Night Witch veers a little too closely to other stories told before.  Echoes of The Hobbit, for example,  are seen in an encounter with cave trolls, as well as in a (superfluous) statue carried around by Engle–the statue glows blue when danger is near.  The protagonists, meanwhile, feel extremely reminiscent of Harry Potter.  Tor is the Chosen One (with a bit of a bland personality and no real reason readers should believe he deserves to be the leader).  Engle is the loyal friend, who is also comic relief (mostly because he eats too much).  And Melda is the annoying overachieving girl at school, who soon reveals herself to be capable, brave, and loyal–and Tor and Engle’s new inseparable best friend.  I also could not stop thinking about this book as “My Little Pony, but with humans,” which may or may not be fair.

Many readers will not be bothered by such comparisons, however, or may find them to be fun allusions.  The story itself, though, still has some awkward flaws.  It has too much action, for instance, leading most episodes to be over before they begin.  In about a week or two, the trio manage to cross an entire island, going from their village to the capital to the mountains to the jungle to the desert to the frozen world to a place called the Shadows.  Often what happens in each place is very quick–for instance, they are in danger, but a god-like voice or a bird or a boy miraculously saves them at just the last minute.  Or they endanger an entire village, but quickly save it again by lighting some torches and leaving.  It is so quick that readers can not really fall in love with the places visited, or feel like any of the characters met are memorable.

Then, too, there are the plot inconsistencies.  For example, the capital is supposedly led by a tyrant queen who can force everyone to do her will.  It is guarded fearfully so no one can threaten her.  Except the trio get let in the gate without being questioned by the knights who are bored.  And the queen is more like a spoiled child than a tyrant.  Then there are the giantesses who are supposed to be the kind, wise protectors of humanity.  They see the protagonists from afar, shoot at them with arrows, tie them up as captives, and bring them to their camp.  Because they are so wise and loving they fear children with no reason and cannot be bothered to ask them questions before shooting at them?  And then there are the small things, like when Tor picks up a golden watch in an abandoned village, but a few pages later cannot tell the time because he has no watch.  Or the fact that jewels are so common on Emblem Island (I think they grow on plants?), they are eaten in cakes in small villages–but also sometimes thieves steal jewels because they are greedy and want to be wealthy. (Actually, the beginning of the book is really self-indulgent with all the, “Oh, look at how magical it is here!  Sapphires are eaten as cakes!  The crabs in the ocean have legs like tree trunks!”  But I digress.)  A bit of editing would have been appreciated.

I suspect many readers will not mind all this, however.  The book is stuffed full of magical creatures and places.  Readers who just want to escape into an adventure story will certainly find themselves on a whirlwind ride that includes everything from tornado-causing gemstones to man-eating snakes to wish gods to abominable snow monsters.  There is little time to stop to think if it all makes sense–the plot just keeps going.

3 Stars

The Truth About Stacey by Ann M. Martin & Raina Telgemeier

The Truth About Stacey

Information

GoodreadsThe Truth About Stacey
Series: Baby-Sitters Club Graphic Novels #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Official Summary

Poor Stacey. She just moved to a new town, is still coming to terms with her diabetes, and is facing baby-sitting problems left and right. Fortunately, Stacey has three new friends — Kristy, Claudia, and Mary Anne. Together they’re the BSC, and they will deal with whatever’s thrown their way…even if it’s a rival baby-sitting club!

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Review

The second installment of Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series gets a graphic novel adaptation, bringing the books to a new generation of fans! The challenges encountered by each member–divorced parents, health-related issues, fitting in at school–are still relevant, while the illustrations carefully try to provide a feeling of timelessness (even if the BSC still uses a landline). Readers old and new alike will love returning to the world of the Baby-Sitters Club.

Book two focuses on Stacey, the new girl in Stoneybrook, CT. It turns out that she has moved from New York City for health reasons–but she is not yet ready to tell her friends. Instead, she is trying to balance all her doctor’s appointments with her schoolwork and baby-sitting, while also trying to convince her parents that she should have some input on her treatment. Young readers will no doubt relate not only to the challenges of trying to fit in at school and make friends, but also with the feeling of helplessness that sometimes comes when it feels like adults just will not listen.

The illustrations only add to the appeal. Graphic novels are possibly the hottest thing in children’s publishing right now, and Raina Telgemeier’s winsome characters and bright colors are exactly the type of artwork sure to draw in readers. Each character is drawn with an individual style, so readers can readily recognize the “types” they represent–sporty Kristy, shy Mary Anne, artistic Claudia, and glamorous Stacey–and hopefully feel some sort of connection with the characters they relate to most. Telgemeier is also wonderful at capturing emotions through drawings.

Return to the Baby-Sitters Club with these charming graphic novel adaptations and relive the magic all over!

4 stars

Kristy’s Great Idea by Ann M. Martin & Raina Telgemeier

Baby-Sitter's Club Book One Kristy's Great Idea

GoodreadsKristy’s Great Idea
Series: Baby-Sitters Club Graphic Novels #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Official Summary

In this new graphic novel edition of the very first Baby-Sitters Club book, Raina Telgemeier captures all the drama of the original in warm, spunky illustrations. Witness Kristy’s eureka moment, when she gets the idea for a “baby-sitters club” and enlists her best friends, shy Mary Anne and artistic Claudia, in an exciting new venture. But the baby-sitting business isn’t the only thing absorbing their attention: Kristy is having a hard time accepting her stepdad-to-be, and the newest member of the gang, Stacey, seems to be hiding a secret.

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Review

This graphic novel adaptation captures the fun of the Baby-Sitters Club books for a new generation. Kristy, Mary-Anne, Claudia, and Stacey are back–now in full-color–to teach readers life lessons as they encounter changes ranging from a new step-dad to Kristy to a new diagnosis for Stacey. Readers who enjoyed Ann M. Martin’s original books will feel all the nostalgic feels with these books, but readers new to the books will also find a lot to love.

Much of the appeal of the Baby-Sitters Club probably comes from the diverse set of personalities and experiences that the members bring them. In book one, for instance, readers are first introduce to sporty Kristy who is a great leader, but who also cannot keep her mouth shut. But there is also artsy Claudia, struggling with living up to her academically over-achieving sister Janine. Shy Mary Anne, whose father is too controlling since his wife died. And Stacey, the glamorous new girl from New York City, who is also trying to navigate learning that she has diabetes. Readers can probably find something to identify with in at least one of the characters, whether they feel out-going or shy, artsy or bookish, sporty or not.

But the appeal does not rest solely in the depiction of all these differences, but in their celebration. The members of the Baby-Sitters Club know that each member has strengths, which they praise and encourage each other to use. They also know that each member has weaknesses, which they support each other in working through. The members each has moments of growth, and their friends are always there to celebrate that.

A feel-good book celebrating the power of friendship and the fun of growing up just can’t be beat! Pick this one up if you feel nostalgic for the Baby-Sitters Club, or if you want to discover what all the hype is about. You just might be a new fan!

4 stars

Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots: The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Liz Rosenberg, Ill. by Diana Sudyka

Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsSorrows, Scribbles, & Russet Leather Boots
Series: None
Age Category: Upper Middle Grade/Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary


Moody and restless, teenage Louisa longed for freedom. Faced with the expectations of her loving but hapless family, the Alcotts, and of nineteenth-century New England society, Louisa struggled to find her place. On long meandering runs through the woods behind Orchard House, she thought about a future where she could write and think and dream. Undaunted by periods of abject poverty and enriched by friendships with some of the greatest minds of her time and place, she was determined to have this future, no matter the cost.

Drawing on the surviving journals and letters of Louisa and her family and friends, author and poet Liz Rosenberg reunites Louisa May Alcott with her most ardent readers. In this warm and sometimes heartbreaking biography, Rosenberg delves deep into the oftentimes secretive life of a woman who was ahead of her time, imbued with social conscience, and always moving toward her future with a determination that would bring her fame, tragedy, and the realization of her biggest dreams.

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Review

Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots brings the author of Little Women to life for a new generation of readers. With its younger audience in mind, the book attempts to balance the tribulations of Louisa May Alcott’s life with the moments of joy she found in her family, her vacations, and her career. The biography feels comprehensive without feeling overly detailed or too long. Fans of Little Women will not want to miss this insider’s look at the real-life Jo March.

Louisa May Alcott’s life is compelling in large part because it feels so contradictory. Alcott grew up in a poor household with a transcendentalist father who cared more for his ideals than for feeding and housing his family. Louisa went to work at a young age to help keep the family afloat, and she never did stop caring for her parents. When she died, she was still busy supporting her widowed older sister Anna, Anna’s two sons, her invalid father, and her deceased sister’s daughter Lulu. She did this while suffering from the effects of what many consider to be mercury poisoning–the result of the calomel treatment she received for the typhoid fever she caught while working as a Union Army nurse. And yet, Alcott never stopped loving her family and even seemed to cherish her time growing up. Her appreciation for her family and many of the freedoms she enjoyed are evident in her fictionalized account of her formative years in Little Women.

Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots pulls back the curtain on Alcott’s life, however, showing just how bleak it could sometimes be. Like Jo, Alcott often felt lonely, overworked, and jealous of the lives of her sisters–Anna with her comfortable home and May with her ability to travel abroad and pursue her artistic interests. When trouble arrived, the family always looked to Louisa to fix things. Glimpses of potential romances Alcott may or may not have had make the store even more bittersweet. “Couldn’t be!” Louisa wrote of one Polish boy she met, and tore out the journal entries about their time together before she died. Louisa’s first duty always seemed to be to her family, and it seems that, even though they recognized her failing health, they did not do much to lighten her burdens.

This combination of good times with the bad is what makes Alcott’s story so poignant. And Liz Rosenberg effectively highlights the contradictions, even as she perhaps makes them a bit more palatable for her audience. What Rosenberg does most effectively, however, is highlight just how remarkable Alcott was–a true visionary, dedicated to abolitionism, women’s rights, and the poor. Alcott was generous with her money, too, generously funding the causes she advocated for, always trying to be of practical use (unlike her philosophizing father and his friends). This side of Alcott–radical social reformer–is not one readers often associate with the author.

The biggest flaw of Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots is that it lacks any period photographs, instead including illustrations from Diana Sudkya. The illustrations are utterly charming (though they feel a bit young for the subject matter and intended audience). They are not, however, the same as actual photographs of Louisa and her family, and I found myself searching for these after I finished the book. Historical photographs and sketches give a lot more context, showing how haggard Alcott looked as her health failed her, and giving more weight and sorrow to her story. I was also fascinated by some of May Alcott’s artistic works, which are referenced in the book, but, again, not included as photographs.

Scribbles, Sorrows, & Russet Leather Boots will appeal to fans of Louisa May Alcott and her work. It is a highly readable and engaging biography that details the sorrows of Alcott’s life without getting bogged down in them. A wonderful way to introduce new fans to her work, as well.

4 stars

How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, Trans. by Bruno Navasky

Information

GoodreadsHow Do You Live?
Series: None
Age Category: Upper Middle Grade/Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 1937 (Translation: 2021)

Official Summary

Anime master Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite childhood book, in English for the first time.

First published in 1937, Genzaburō Yoshino’s How Do You Live? has long been acknowledged in Japan as a crossover classic for young readers. Academy Award–winning animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) has called it his favorite childhood book and announced plans to emerge from retirement to make it the basis of a final film.

How Do You Live? is narrated in two voices. The first belongs to Copper, fifteen, who after the death of his father must confront inevitable and enormous change, including his own betrayal of his best friend. In between episodes of Copper’s emerging story, his uncle writes to him in a journal, sharing knowledge and offering advice on life’s big questions as Copper begins to encounter them. Over the course of the story, Copper, like his namesake Copernicus, looks to the stars, and uses his discoveries about the heavens, earth, and human nature to answer the question of how he will live.

This first-ever English-language translation of a Japanese classic about finding one’s place in a world both infinitely large and unimaginably small is perfect for readers of philosophical fiction like The Alchemist and The Little Prince, as well as Miyazaki fans eager to understand one of his most important influences.

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Review

How Do You Live? is a gentle, philosophical tale that I have a difficult time imagining being published today. Or, frankly, even garnering interest in the United States, were it not for the cover’s loud proclamation that this is one of acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite books. The story follows fifteen-year-old Copper through a school year as he makes new friends, faces school bullies, and reflects on his place in the world. Interspersed with these slice-of-life chapters are chapters from the notebook of Copper’s uncle–a man desirous of dispensing wisdom to his nephew and guiding him to lead a life of courage and compassion. How Do You Live? will appeal to readers who enjoy character-driven coming-of-age stories, and who believe in art as a form of self-reflection to inspire people to lead better lives.

To be honest, I enjoyed the interludes from Copper’s life a whole lot more than I enjoyed the lessons from Copper’s uncle. While what Copper’s uncle has to say no doubt has value, it does come across as a little self-important. There are probably not many people who would feel themselves qualified to teach someone else how to live by leaving them a notebook full of their philosophical musings! It also feels a little like the author does not trust readers to understand the lessons from Copper’s life themselves, unless someone spells it out for them.

Strangely (or perhaps not), Copper and his friends also like to converse about philosophical musings. The book starts with Copper reflecting on humanity and, later, the sister of one of his friends gives a long speech on the life of Napoleon, what makes a hero, and why she admires the man. It goes on… forever. I spent a lot of time wondering if this speech was shoehorned in, or if maybe teenagers really do like to sit around and reflect on the biographies of great men. Maybe it’s all part of growing up and trying to figure out who one wants to be and how to find one’s place in the world. But Copper’s uncle later gives a speech on Sir Isaac Newton, and then on the Buddha, so ultimately it seems like just a way for the author to teach the reader about people he thinks important.

I can appreciate the vision of the author in uniting the two elements of the story: the scenes from Copper’s life, juxtaposed with the lesson his uncle wants Copper to learn. I can even imagine that many teens might enjoy this type of book. After all, they are at the perfect time to start wondering about what it means to live a good life, and how they ought to do it. Teens tend to be deeper thinkers than many adults acknowledge; I appreciate that this book expects them to be self-reflective and philosophical, and encourages them to continue. Still, I did not really enjoy the uncle’s musings. I can acknowledge the artistic vision without finding it fun.

How Do You Live? was an interesting foray into a type of literature that would probably be considered unpublishable today, with all this insistence on readers learning to live lives of integrity. I enjoyed the quiet atmosphere of the book, the reflective tone, the focus on Copper’s inner life. But, while I enjoyed the story, I am not sure that I would find myself rereading it.

3 Stars

Castle in the Stars: The Space Race of 1869 by Alex Alice

Castle in the Stars Book One

Information

Goodreads: The Space Race of 1869
Series: Castle in the Stars #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

In days past, Seraphin’s mother died looking for the fabled aether, a substance in the air that will allegedly be able to power vehicles through the sky. Then a message arrives saying that her logbook has been found, and Seraphin’s father is needed in Bavaria. Seraphin and his dad answer the call, only to find themselves in the middle of a political intrigue, with rival rulers seeking to control the air.

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Review

Initially, I was unsure I would enjoy the Castle in the Stars series; I nearly decided to return the two sequels I had also requested at the library. The drawings are incredibly detailed for a graphic novel and, while, beautiful, they felt so overwhelming to me that I often found myself wanting to skip them. Then, too, there is lot of technical talk, I guess to make the book more “realistic” or maybe just to get across the point that the main character really loves technology. Finally, the premise just did not feel original. A group of scientists want to prove that air travel is possible by collecting the mythical “aether,” but they are spied upon and sabotaged by members of a rival nation. Yawn. In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book, though it seems to have been generally well-received.

One might hope that other aspects of the book might improve the experience. However, the characters feel uninspired along with the plot. There is our young hero, traumatized by his mother’s death in the aether, and now desperate to prove her theories right. His professorial father. The spunky maid at the castle. The lovelorn king and the flame he missed out on. And…the kid who wears lederhosen around everywhere because…? I’m not sure if it’s because he has national pride or if it is supposed to be funny. I guess he is the humorous sidekick. But do any of the characters have a personality that extends beyond stock character status? Not really.

In the end, the best part of this book is probably the illustrations. They are gorgeous and detailed, and one could spend what feels like an infinite amount of time poring over them. The storyline feels more like an excuse to have all these illustrations, more than an actual, original plot. But, of course, the story is hampered by the fact that is just the beginning of the series and it serves mainly as a setup for whatever will follow.

Final verdict? Beautiful pictures. Read if you really, really love stories with a steampunky feel, where fantasy and technology intermix. But pass if you are looking for an original plot with well-developed characters.

3 Stars

Adventure Kingdom by Steve Fox and Pedro Rodriguez

Adventure Kingdom Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Adventure Kingdom
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: December 2021

Summary

When Clark sneaks into the abandoned theme park Adventure Kingdom to livestream his explorations, he does not expect to find someone else there. But Karoline, the theme park founder’s granddaughter, still misses the park’s glory days, too, and she says her family has been caring for the park after her grandfather disappeared. Then, suddenly, Clark and Karoline realize they are both wearing two halves of the same coin–a magic coin! It turns out that Adventure Kingdom is but a shadow of a real, magical land that can be accessed by using the coin and jumping through the wishing well. And Karoline’s grandfather is trapped on the other side.

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Review

Adventure Kingdom has a fun premise, but the book unfortunately falls flat. A lack of characterization, hurried pacing, sparse worldbuilding, and predictable plot twists all make for a lifeless reading experience. It seems almost unthinkable that a book about an abandoned theme park, a lost magician, and an evil villain should be boring, but there it is. With plenty of other excellent graphic novels on the market, I cannot recommend spending time with Adventure Kingdom.

The problems with this book are evident from the start, when readers meet our heroes, Clark and Karoline. The two receive very little introduction–Clark is trying to become a successful livestreaming and Karonline is the granddaughter of Adventure Kingdom’s founder. More about their motivations, their hopes, their dreams, and their backgrounds is not forthcoming. Only later does Clark receive a blip of backstory when he faces betrayal. This is supposed to be heartbreaking for him because he has lost relationships in the past. But…when readers know Clark so little, the emotional pull just is not there.

And the plot pacing is too hurried for any emotional impact, anyway. Even if Clark does face betrayal, readers know that he will overcome any obstacles thrown his way in a few pages. No sense of drama or suspense can ever build because the characters simply solve every problem immediately. So it never feels like they are in danger or like they might not succeed. No life-changing event is going to happen that will alter their futures forever. Adventure Kingdom is just a book about a series of random things happening to two teenagers in succession.

The pacing, of course, necessarily also affects the worldbuilding, which is shoddy at best. Readers get a handwavy explanation about a magic coin and a portal to another world, but how that world is exactly related to Adventure Kingdom remains unexplained. As do the politics, the geography, the inhabitants, and more. Clack and Karoline race around the fantasy world in an effort to find Karoline’s grandfather, but all that is apparent from their journey is that there is a boardwalk, a traveling circus, and a fun house maze. Some inhabitants are helping the villain of the tale, but they are so remarkably incompetent that they never pose any real danger.

In the end, I felt no connection to the characters, the world, or even the plot. Adventure Kingdom is a lackluster reading experience that failed to make me feel even any yearning to visit a real theme park. The magic just is not there.

2 star review

The Circus at the End of the Sea by Lori R. Snyder

The Circus at the End of the Sea Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Circus at the End of the Sea
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: October 2021

Summary

Maddy has never had a family or a place to call home. So when she feels the tug of magic calling her in Venice, California, she hops off the bus headed to her new group home. She discovers by the sea a magical circus, but, with the Ringmaster missing, the circus may soon have to close. Maddy offers to help, and suddenly finds herself on a wild adventure.

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Review

The Circus at the End of the Sea seems like just the quirky kind of middle grade fantasy I would love. It is filled with plenty of heart as well as magic, and I yearned to connect with the characters and to immerse myself in the world. Ultimately, however, it felt like the story was trying just a little too hard to be quirky for me to find it truly delightful. And I never connected with the protagonist Maddy, who possesses an amazingly bland personality, yet still overcomes each obstacle thrown her way with relative ease, as the apparent Chosen One. The Circus at the End of the Sea may find more love from its target audience, but I never felt the enchantment.

The story begins, of course, with an assurance that the protagonist Maddy is not like the other kids–and that, frankly, was enough for me to start the book with skepticism. Maddy, you see, can feel the tug of magic. And she still believes, even though she has learned not to tell anyone else. Yet there seems to be nothing particularly special about Maddy. She is not particularly kind or wise or brave–she actually comes across as kind of unlikable in her aversion to other children and her seeming resentment at having to be nice to her seatmate on the bus, a young girl who is worried about going to a new group home, but who is unable to see magic and, thus, ultimately too boring for Maddy to want to engage with forever. When thinking about her potential future, Maddy actually thinks back on this girl with horror–she can’t go back to that life and to more kids like that! So it was kind of hard for me to buy into the idea that Maddy was the only one who could save the circus, the only one who could complete the special tasks. The only thing special about her is that she loves magic. While this is often a sign of some great insight or openness or love of life in story books, Maddy does not really have any of that, just a desire to escape her current world.

The actual plot somehow seems rushed, as Maddy passes each challenge on her journey with comparative ease. Yes, there are few times when Maddy is confused, or fails, or has to ask for help. Generally, however, after a brief hiccup, she finds her way. The stories that often really grip me, that make me remember them long after I finish reading, are the ones where the heroes are truly challenged and even suffer. Maddy does suffer from loneliness, of course–because she apparently does not like any of the kids she has ever met before finding one who is, gasp, part of a magical circus–but most of this comes from telling rather than showing. And it is only sometimes related to the journey she must make to find the Ringmaster. While the book ultimately has a heartwarming message about finding one’s self by accepting one’s self, the good as well as the bad, Maddy finds this acceptance without much struggle, and that weakens both the story and her characterization.

Ultimately, The Circus at the End of the Sea is not the kind of story that will stay with me. I enjoyed many of the characters, I was entertained briefly by the plot, and I approved (as a stuffy old grown-up, I suppose) of the Good Messages imparted to the intended child audience. However, I was not moved, and I do not foresee myself rereading this book, or even reading a sequel. It is a good book. Just not the gem I was hoping to find.

3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu

Tidesong Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsTidesong
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: November 2021

Summary

Sophie longs to attend the prestigious Royal Academy of Magic, but instead is sent to learn her family’s special magic from her aunt and grandmother. But all her grandmother does is assign her chores! Determined to prove her power, Sophie attempts a difficult spell–and accidentally traps a dragon in human form. Can Sophie find a way to undo her magic?

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Review

Tidesong is a gentle fantasy reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli film. Young witch-in-training Sophie longs to prove herself, but her self doubt gets in the way of her ability to take direction. As a result, she creates a magical mishap that nearly results in disaster for both humans and dragons. The plot is simple, but also fast paced, so young readers can feel like they experienced a lot of action and growth in a short time.

The greatest strength of Tidesong just may be its illustrations, which are charming and sweet–and sure to appeal to the growing number of manga fans. The high stakes that are supposed to be a result of Sophie’s actions are not always effectively conveyed. However, Sophie’s emotions are–and those form the heart of the story.

Because, in the end, Tidesong is not really a book about human-dragon relationships, or magical training, or even finding one’s self. Tidesong is about a girl who seems to be experiencing anxiety, and who must learn not to listen to the voice in her head that tells her she is a failure. Every time someone offers constructive criticism, even in an encouraging and supportive way, Sophie hears that she is not good enough, and never will be. Her self-doubt is helpfully conveyed in red text boxes with jagged edges, showing struggle she experiences to believe in herself. But only by believing in herself can she undo the trouble she has caused with her magic.

Tidesong is not exactly the world’s most memorable story, or the most heartfelt. The action occurs too quickly, and so do the character arcs, to feel truly meaningful. It is, however, a sweet, feel-good book. Just the kind to cozy up with when one needs something uplifting.

Read Briana’s review of Tidesong.

3 Stars

Stuntboy, In the Meantime by Jason Reynolds & Raúl the Third (Illustrations)

Stuntboy in the Meantime Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Stuntboy, in the Meantime
Series: Stuntboy #1 (implied by ending)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Portico Reeves has a secret identity. He’s…Stuntboy! He uses his powers to protect the people around him. His best friend Zola from the class bully. His parents from themselves. But Portico is having difficulty processing the fact that his parents are divorcing, and his anxiety is getting worse. Can Stuntboy still save the day when he does not feel his best?

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Review

I am a huge fan of Jason Reynolds, so it hurts a little to say that I do not think Stuntboy, In the Meantime is his best work. The protagonist Portico Reeves comes across as a little too young to be relatable to what seems to be the intended audience. And I am not really sure what the benefit is of having Portico not understand familiar concepts and words. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it just so the narrator can take time out to teach readers the correct pronunciation of words like “anxiety” and define things like “meditation?” Whatever the reason, I found the narration to be grating, though I appreciate the concept of the book and the author’s commitment to writing about real things that affect young readers, from divorce to mental health.

Stuntboy, In the Meantime is apparently marketed towards readers 7-12 (according to the book cover), which is a fairly large range. I think the younger readers might actually appreciate it more. Gen Z and mental health have received a lot of press, and many schools are now trying to teach things like mindfulness and social-emotional learning. So I’m not really sure older readers would be as patient sitting through chapters on how to breathe and meditate, if they’re already getting a lot of that information from other sources. I also think they might be less inclined to find Portico cute when he does things like call his anxiety “the frets” or thinks about his physical responses by referring to his kidneys as “beaner cleaners.” But Portico does not seem to be assigned any particular age, grade, or even school (elementary or middle?) so I suppose readers of varying ages are meant to be able to relate.

Aside from Portico’s strange misunderstandings of basic concepts (like thinking the superintendent of his apartment is a superhero, and apparently maybe actually believing his apartment building is a castle??), the book does have classic Reynolds’ strengths. The characters are vividly drawn, the situations the characters experience are difficult ones readers may also face, and the language flows with a vibrant read-aloud quality. Oh, and this book also is heavily illustrated (though I wouldn’t call it a graphic novel, as I have seen it described), which will be a bonus for readers who like journal-type books like the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series.

Stuntboy, In the Meantime is not my favorite Jason Reynolds book and it is not a book I can see myself reading again. I do appreciate the effort that went into it, though, and the concern that the author clearly has for readers who struggle with anxiety and who might need some strategies to help process their emotions.

3 Stars