Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyami

34728667

“As it fades, I see the truth – in plain sight, yet hidden all along. We are all children of blood and bone. All instruments of vengeance and virtue. This truth holds me close, rocking me like a child in a mother’s arms. It binds me in its love as death swallows me in its grasp” (Adeyami 2018, p. 519).

ll I can really say is “Wow.” This book was absolutely phenomenal, and blew me away with the richness of its world and characters. I find it extremely difficult to believe that this is Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel, as she writes with the skill and precision of master fantasy authors like Tolkien or George R. R. Martin. And, like the best authors of fantasy, Adeyemi is adept at writing realistic characters and situations that feel like they belong in our world, despite involving other-worldly elements. She breathes vibrant life into her characters, making you feel the raw emotions of each one no matter whose point of view is being shown. Children of Blood and Bone is a truly masterful work of fantasy, and one that I could barely put down from start to finish.

Children of Blood and Bone focuses on the story of young Zelie Adebola, a diviner hated and feared for the magic that runs in her veins. Before her mother was killed in a ruthless raid against maji (those possessing magical abilities), she was a Reaper who could command departed souls and ease the journeys of those as they passed from one world to the next. Now, however, magic is gone, and those who might have become maji are now reviled and hated by the ruling class. One fateful night, Zelie is given the chance to bring magic back to the land of Orisha when a powerful scroll is stolen by the rogue princess Amari. Though Amari has grown up learning to fear magic, she senses the wrongness of her father’s doings, joining Zelie in her quest to restore magic to those most oppressed. The two team up with Zelie’s brother Tzain for the journey, but are hunted every step of the way by Amari’s brother Inan. Filled with romance, adventure, suspense, and betrayal, Children of Blood and Bone is a reminder that we are all human beings deserving of compassion and mercy.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this book, so I’m going to jump in with what was perhaps my favorite part: Super. Strong. Female. Heroines. And I’m not just talking about the characters who act like Katniss, either. I’m talking about two characters who are perhaps polar opposites, but both strong and powerful in their own ways. Zelie is fierce, hot-headed, brave, and strong, while still having moments of genuine fear and fragility along the way. Amari, though a princess from a life of privilege, leads with her compassion and moral compass. Though she can fight when necessary, it is her gentle nature that brings true value to the team of heroes. I loved seeing the friendship between Amari and Zelie develop, as they worked well together to balance one another out as a team. As I always say in my reviews, I appreciate strong friendships between female characters as much as I do strong characters themselves, as it shows that women can be more than just rivals for a man’s affection.

Even characters like the elderly Mama Agba and Binta, who play such small roles, end up impacting the story in major ways. I loved this, as it proved that there are many different ways for a woman to be strong. Women don’t have to be indestructible to be strong, feminist characters: they can just as easily be fierce by showing fierce compassion and embracing their femininity. Though I love “kick-ass” heroines, sometimes it’s nice to see that there is more than one way to be strong. Emotional intelligence is every bit as important as having street smarts or knowing how to fight.

Another thing I enjoyed about this story is the way it portrayed evil. No one character is entirely good or entirely bad. Though Inan has been raised to believe magic is the source of all evil, he comes to understand Zelie’s pain and learns to see the other side of his father’s actions. Even the king, who is ruthless and tyrannical, is only acting out of fear and his own devastating loss; he was not borne evil, but conditioned to act the way he does. Meanwhile, Tzain is too wrapped up in old hatred to see that hearts can change, making it more difficult for piece to form between the four main characters in the story. As I mentioned above, this is crucial in fantasy, as the reader can easily get lost in the mystical elements without strong characters to root the story in reality. Magic might not be real, but the struggles and heartbreaks faced by these characters is.

I didn’t realize it until reading the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, but Children of Blood and Bone was inspired by the real-life deaths of children like Jordan Edwards, Tamir Rice, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. As Adeyemi herself writes, “Children of Blood and Bone was written during a time where I kept turning on the news and seeing stories of unarmed black men, women, and children being shot by the police.”

Though fictional, the pain and suffering Zelie (and many other characters in the book) is rooted in the real-life suffering of those who have faced police brutality first-hand. Though this message is obvious after reading Adeyemi’s words, the book never feels like it’s preaching a message or pushing an agenda. Characters like Inan are not portrayed as being entirely bad, and the “good guys” do not always make the right choices either. Because the reader is privy to the thoughts of multiple characters, we are able to see the conflict from both sides. This was an incredibly unique way to tell the story, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about what is right and what is wrong. The message is certainly there, but it is a gentle one, seeking to soothe rather than stir further hatred over a tense subject. I admired this, and appreciated the novel all the more for the sensitive way in which it handled this subject.

As with the message, the characters in this story were incredible as well, each motivated by their own intricate histories and life experiences. For Amari, seeing the brutal murder of her childhood friend and handmaiden Binta spurs her into action, driving each of her decisions throughout the book. For Zelie, it is the death of her mother and the desire to fight back against those oppressing her that spurs her on. Tzain is motivated by a desire to protect his sister, while Inan is desperate to please a father who has never outwardly shown any pride in his children. Though you might not always agree with the choices of the characters, you feelwhat they’re going through, and understand their fear and pain. More than anything, this book presents fear and hatred as being the ultimate evil, propelling otherwise kind souls into being ruthless killers. More than ever, it is this message that we as a society need to hear, as it is only by listening to one another that we will be able to achieve any peace.

While I don’t know much about African mythology or folklore, I have also heard that this story draws from many of those elements, making it a fun learning experience for me as an outsider to this culture. Because there is no glossary in the back of the book (perhaps my only gripe), I found myself Googling many of the terms so that I could picture the clothing the characters were wearing, the weapons they were carrying, and the buildings they lived and worked in. I love learning about new cultures, and every page in this book provided me with a new piece of knowledge to absorb. Adeyemi has created a rich world with fascinating creatures and interesting rules. I found myself wanting to ride a lionaire, or experience the thrill of ashe as described by those in possession of magic. The world is extremely immersive, and one that any fantasy buff would be ecstatic to experience. Above all, the mythological elements left me wanting to know more, and I learned many words I’d never heard or seen throughout the course of this book, for which I was excited and grateful.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, whether that person is a teen or an adult. Even for those who don’t like fantasy, this book is rich enough that almost anyone would be able to find something to love about the story. From the immersive world to the believable relationships and characters, Children of Blood and Bonepaints a portrait of love and loss, bravery and oppression. It’s a worthy addition to anyone’s YA library, and I feel extremely lucky to have gotten the chance to review it for ROYAL (Reviewers of Young Adult Literature). It was a magical journey I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

I have always loved fantasy, and I love it even more when it is sending a subtle but important message, infusing the fantastical story with real-world problems and emotions. In my humble opinion, good fantasy needs to be rooted in reality, helping us to examine ourselves as both individuals and as members of a greater society. While good fiction entertains, great fiction asks us to search inside ourselves for the answers to bigger questions, making us think about the world around us as we are taken on a journey through mythical lands. Children of Blood and Bone does this beautifully, and I can’t wait to see where this series goes in the future.

Reference:

Adeyemi, Tomi (2018). Children of blood and bone. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Advertisements

Ready to Fall by Marcella Pixley

51tjem2bxawl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

“I gather everything good that is inside me that came from her. I gather everything that is strong and everything that is courageous and everything that has a heart and that can trust that when I fall, the people I care about will be there to catch me” (Pixley 2017, p. 342).

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve updated this blog, mostly because I’ve been in the process of moving and haven’t had as much time as I would like for reading. To those of you still following my rambling posts, thank you. I promise to continue writing reviews as long as I’m still reading… which will be forever, as I have an addiction that can’t be cured.

Though parts of this book felt contrived and needlessly quirky, I still found myself enjoying the message and characters quite a bit. This novel felt very much like something John Green would write, with both gut-wrenching moments and an upbeat positivity that is extremely infectious to the reader.

Ready to Fall follows the story of Max Friedman, a high school sophomore who has just suffered the devastating loss of his mother to cancer. Upon her death, Max imagines that his mother’s tumor has taken root in his brain, infecting his brain and taking control of his thoughts. With the vicious tumor now in charge, Max begins to lose himself: his grades start slipping, he stops caring about his friends and family, and he finds himself drowning in a deep depression that nobody can seem to shake.

Hoping to help him shake his grief, Max’s father enrolls him in a new, artsy private school. While there, Max meets a new host of new friends, including the quirky and mesmerizing Fish (for whom he feels an instant attraction). After being coerced by his new friends into joining the cast of the school’s steampunk rendition of Hamlet, Max soon begins to come alive, realizing that it’s possible to look forward to a future after harrowing loss.

Without a doubt, the best part of this book is the way it handles loss and grief, which is different for every individual. In Max’s case, he becomes almost schizophrenic, feeling a tumor that isn’t there and personifying it in his mind. While I couldn’t relate to this (I experience personal loss very differently), I can imagine this metaphorical take on grief could be extremely healing for some readers. The “tumor” is described as a rude tenant, making a mess in Max’s mind while verbally berating him at every turn. In that sense, it almost seems like the tumor represents depression, feeding catastrophic thoughts to Max while keeping him from enjoying his former life. This was cleverly done, and helped to explain difficult emotions in a way that was very easy to visualize.

I also enjoyed the comparisons to Hamlet throughout the book, as Shakespeare’s play also famously deals with both grief and madness, paralleling Max’s emotional journey throughout the story. As I said before, the writing can be pretentious and unrealistic (no high school students would actually act or talk like the students in this book), but it does capture the pieces of Hamlet that continue to make it a gripping story in today’s society. Max is cast as the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the play, which is fitting for him because he feels like a ghost himself after losing his mother.

As he and his classmates rehearse, Max slowly learns more about himself and his own grief through the character he is portraying onstage, culminating in the progression of his healing progress. For example, Max’s feelings about his father and Lydia directly parallel Hamlet’s anger at his own mother for moving on with his uncle. I have to give Pixley a lot of credit for this creative use of classic literature and metaphor, as it made Max’s grief very easy to understand. It might also help someone struggling to appreciate Hamlet understand why it’s so compelling as a piece of theater, which is an added bonus for those teens being forced to read it in high school.

Other than the sometimes over-the-top scenarios and writing, however, the thing that irked me the most was the forced romantic sub-plot. I’ve seen this idea floating around in other reviews, and I have to agree that Fish (short for Felicia) is a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl. She has a tragic past, yet hides her feelings by acting quirky and bubbly. She’s edgy, thoughtful, deep, and has bubblegum-pink hair. She’s not a bad character, per say, but it often feels like Pixley is trying way too hard to be John Green when writing both Fish AND Monk. Even the nicknames in the book are ridiculous, as I can’t think of a single high school student who would call their friends Fish or Monk. To be fair, however, I haven’t been in high school for a very long time, so things might have changed since my time there.

This leads me to the romance. I hate to say it, but I really didn’t feel like Fish and Max had any real chemistry. It felt like every “moment” between them was being forced for the sake of having a romance, though this novel would have worked perfectly well without one. I feel like the story would have been much stronger if it had focused solely on Max’s grief and healing process, leaving out the romantic subplot entirely. What was wrong with Fish being his good friend? Friendships are just as important as any other relationship when it comes to personal healing and re-entering society, and the forced romance almost takes away from this idea.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It had fun (if unrealistic) characters, a gripping plot, and a healing message for those who might have experienced deep loss in their lives. Though I was not personally moved by Max’s grief, I could easily see this novel helping a high school student who has experienced a recent, devastating loss. This novel takes an interesting approach to the subject of grief and loss, and one that I found to be both refreshing and creative. I would recommend this to fans of John Green, as this felt very much like a John Green book. There are quirky characters, as well as both touching and humorous moments. The story has a positive message, and might help someone going through a similar struggle.

While I would be extremely cautious about reading this if you’ve lost a parent (or any close relative) to cancer, it might help you through your own grieving process if you’re brave enough to try it out. I think this book could use a trigger warning, however, as anyone prone to depression who has suffered great loss could also be negatively impacted by what Max is going through in this story. This is the first book by Marcella Pixley that I’ve read, and I must say that (despite its flaws) it was a captivating story from beginning to end. I will definitely be on the look-out for more of her work in the future!

 

Reference:

Pixley, Marcella. (2017). Ready to fall. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers.

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan

23228

I find my greatest strength in wanting to be strong. I find my greatest bravery in deciding to be brave. I don’t know if I’ve ever realized it before… I think we both realize it now. If there’s no feeling of fear, then there’s no need for courage (Levithan 2003, p. 156).

My first experience reading David Levithan was the novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which he co-wrote with John Green (one of my favorite YA authors). Much like Will Grayson and Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Boy Meets Boy is a funny, light-hearted romantic comedy that focuses mainly on LGBT characters. The difference between Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Boy Meets Boy, however, is that Boy Meets Boy seems to take place in a utopian town where being LGBT is not only okay, but wonderful. While this might not be realistic, it was certainly a refreshing change from LGBT fiction that shows young people facing terrible obstacles and hardships for coming out in a conservative area. Those books are extremely important as well, but it’s nice for young LGBT people to see happy, bubbly, positive fiction that represents them along with the grittier titles.

Boy Meets Boy follows the story of Paul, a teenage boy who has known he was gay since Kindergarten, when his teacher wrote on a report card that he was “definitely gay” with “a very good sense of self.” From this point on, Paul took his sexuality in stride, using it to win his third-grade presidential election and paving the way for other students to come out. At the beginning of the story, Paul meets a cute new boy named Noah at a concert in his local bookstore. He is instantly smitten and jumps head-first into a relationship with the boy who seems hand-crafted just for him. As Paul tries to navigate this thrilling new romance, he finds trouble in the planning of a big school dance, dealing with the confusing emotions of his ex-boyfriend Kyle, and the fallout from his best friend’s Joni’s relationship with a new guy that Paul absolutely hates. It’s a fun, zany, lovable romantic comedy that helps to show the reader the importance of friendship and embracing who you really are.

While I’ve heard through the grapevine that Two Boys Kissing is a much better work, I have not yet read that book and can’t compare the two. By itself, however, I thought this book was a quick, easy, and light-hearted read that would be perfect for anyone in high school who might be questioning his or her identity or place in society. The book features characters from all parts of the LGBT spectrum, from its gay main character to the bisexual character of Kyle. All facets are represented, and the only characters who see a problem with this are very much shown to be in the wrong. While some might be a little overboard or stereotypical (I’m looking at you, Infinite Darlene), for the most part these characters seem well-defined and fleshed out high school students.

Let’s discuss Infinite Darlene briefly. While I loved her character (she was hilarious and made me laugh out loud at many points in the story), it sometimes felt as if she was furthering negative stereotypes against the LGBT community. Infinite Darlene is VERY over-the-top and flamboyant, and while there are certainly LGBT people like this, it sometimes felt as if she was a caricature of transgender people. Despite this, I absolutely loved her sassy wing-woman role, and thought she was a great and supportive friend to Paul. It was also unique and awesome that she happened to be the star quarterback; that’s something I’ve never seen in any fiction before, much less YA. Because David Levithan himself is a member of the LGBT community, I will have to trust that he knows more about the accurate portrayal of the community than I do, though I still worry that this character might seem insensitive to some transgender readers.

Of course, it might be difficult for me to nit-pick accuracy when this high school was clearly meant to be an idealized version of the way LGBT individuals should be treated by society. From the very beginning, it’s obvious that this entire town exists almost in a fantasy realm; the cheerleaders ride in on Harley Davidson motorcycles, there are more clubs than there are students, and the parents of LGBT students have formed an organization to stop any kind of bullying of LGBT youth. In fact, here is very little bullying in this school at all, and the bullying that does exist is quickly squashed by most of the student body. Even most of the parents are supportive, with Paul’s parents exclaiming, “He’s learned a new word!” when he announces that he’s gay instead of being horrified or shaming him. I found myself wishing that my own high school had been like this, even though my high school felt fairly safe and open-minded in comparison to some.

Honestly, while reading this book, my most common thought was, “This reads exactly like the ‘This is the future liberals want!’ meme that circulates on social media.” The town in Boy Meets Boy is full of loving, supportive, and openly LGBT characters, something that we’re still trying to achieve in modern society. Considering this book was written in 2003, it breaks my heart to think of David Levithan picturing such a society in his mind while fighting for equality in the real world. While our society still has a long way to go before we’ve reached this level of acceptance, books like this help young LGBT individuals to feel less alone in what sometimes feels like a cruel and intolerant world, like a brief pin prick of light in a life that can sometimes feel dark and hopeless.

This book is highly beneficial to readers who aren’t part of the LGBT community as well, as it sends a message of love and friendship, as well as loving yourself un-apologetically for who you are. Though this high school is idealized, Levithan does a great job of making the characters and situations relatable: we’ve all had moments of self-doubt, or times when our truest and oldest friendships seemed to be on the rocks. Break-ups, make-ups, and school dance drama are all part of high school, and I think there’s something in this book for everyone to relate to, as we’ve all experienced similar hardships. Add a little bit of romance and humor, and you have the perfect formula for a coming-of-age tale that’s both heart-warming and fun.

I can certainly see why David Levithan paired with John Green to write a joint novel, as their styles are very similar. Both have quirky, lovable characters who get into zany situations. Both inject humor and heart into their stories and write with an honesty that makes their work truly come to life. I would recommend this to fans of realistic fiction (especially YA), romance, and John Green, as it has all the elements of a rom-com written in prose. It was a fun journey that had me smiling and laughing the whole way through, and I look forward to reading more of David Levithan’s work in the future.

Reference:

Levithan, D. (2003). Boy meets boy. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.

 

The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M Romero

34079578

“Please, be kind.

Please, be brave.

Please, don’t let it happen again”

(Romero 2017, p. 323).

Though I’ve begun to love reading historical fiction (especially historical fantasy), I’ve come to dread books about the Holocaust because they never fail to break my heart. The Dollmaker of Krakow was no exception to this rule. This book was both splendid and sad, heart-warming and heart-wrenching. The writing was simple, but easy for the reluctant reader to understand, and the fantasy elements perfectly mirrored the true horrors of the Holocaust. While most middle grade students are already aware of the atrocities that took place during World War II, this book could be an excellent way to start a discussion about painful historical events.

The Dollmaker of Krakow focuses on the journey of a doll named Karolina, whose soul has just been summoned to the human world for a purpose she does not yet know. Karolina has lived in the Land of the Dolls so long that she no longer remembers the human she once belonged to. While her friends lament losing their lives in the human world, Karolina busies herself by sewing wishes into the beautiful clothing she creates for others.

When evil rats from a nearby kingdom invade her home, Karolina flees with the help of a kind wind, soon finding herself in Krakow, Poland just before the Nazi occupation. There she meets a kind dollmaker named Cyryl, who is in the process of making a beautiful dollhouse for a young Jewish girl named Rena. As World War II begins and life becomes more and more difficult for Rena and her father, Karolina must find a way to convince the dollmaker that he has magic worth performing.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this book, as it was absolutely breath-taking from beginning to end. At first, I was a little skeptical about the idea of a quick, magical fix for the atrocities of the Holocaust, as it felt too much like lessening their impact. I was pleased, however, to find that the dollmaker’s magic can only perform small miracles, allowing him to save only a few people in the end of the story. The magic adds a whimsical aspect to the story being told, but does not in any way diminish the true horror of the Holocaust.

Because this is a middle grade novel, it is not explicit in describing what happened at death camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, but it leaves the reader with no doubts as to the fate of everyone sent there. Like Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo, the fantasy elements do not distract from the true lessons from history being taught to the reader, which I appreciated. I also really enjoyed the beautiful illustrations, as they added a visual element to the beautiful storytelling throughout the novel. My only gripe is that I wish they had been in full color!

The characters in this story were absolutely delightful, making it feel like a fairy tale tale rather than a novel. There is a very clear line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” even going as far as calling Nazi officers and Anti-Semitic Germans “witches.” Where The Apprentice Witch (the last middle grade novel I read) is too simple, however, The Dollmaker of Krakow is uncomplicated without ever feeling like the author is talking down to the reader. She makes it very clear throughout the novel (as well as in her Author’s Note) that even magic cannot mend the broken souls of those with hatred in their hearts, and I genuinely felt the losses and heartbreaks of each character as if they were real people.

Romero also avoids dumbing any of the characters down; Erich Brandt starts off innocent (when he first meets Fritz), but then shoes his true colors later on as his mindset changes. The reader also learns that hatred is not born, but learned; the child who injures Mysz is clearly only parroting behavior he has learned from the adults around him, as the dollmaker explains. Despite the simplicity of the story, I felt that this novel presented an excellent introduction to the Holocaust for young readers, likely causing them to ask questions about why the Jews were treated the way they were during World War II, and how Hitler could gain so much unchecked power so quickly.

Along with the characters, I thought the simplified metaphor was also a creative way to explain the Holocaust. In order to mirror the events taking place in the human world, Romero occasionally flashes back to the Land of Dolls, where Karolina must flee from evil rats who have killed her leaders and taken over her kingdom. At one point, the rats invade her home, injuring her and forcing her to leave while they take everything she owns away from her. Other dolls are forced to work for the rats, while still others are burned and tossed away.

Though simplified, this fantasy world represents very real horrors happening to Jewish people like Rena and her father in the human world. Though the rats instantly made me think of The Nutcracker, I loved that their story was used to help soften the blow of real-world horrors for a middle grade audience. After all, it’s much easier to read about the burning of dolls than it is to read about the burning of actual humans with chemical weapons. Despite this, you definitely still feel an emotional punch when things go badly for both the dolls and the humans in the story, so nothing of historical importance is diminished by the fantasy.

To me, the most important part of the novel lies at the end, when R.M Romero presents the reader with a timeline of the events that took place during World War II. For the uninitiated, this provides a helpful overview into what was going on in the real world during the time this story takes place. This lets young readers know that, while the elements of magic are fictional, the Holocaust was not, opening their minds to this tragedy so that it never happens again.

I was also incredibly touched by Romero’s Author’s Note, which explains that she was inspired to write this story after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau for herself. Her last words in particular struck me as being incredibly powerful, especially when read by a middle school student, as it calls young people to action in a way that might not sway an adult audience. While the story itself captured me and tugged on my heartstrings, it was this Author’s Note that made me decide this was an incredibly important book.

It’s obvious to me that Romero took great care in being both sensitive and honest when it came to writing about such heavy historical events. Based on her Author’s Note, I can tell that her trip to Auschwitz deeply affected her, compelling her to write a story for middle grade audiences to teach them important history, while also enchanting them with the idea that there is real magic in acts of kindness. I highly recommend it to lovers of both fantasy and historical fiction, as it will both enchant you and make you think deeply about humanity and the way we should treat one another. As it is often said, those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it, and this book would compel any reader to seek meaningful change in order to make the world a kinder place in the future.

Reference:

Romero, R. M. (2017). The dollmaker of Krakow. New York: Delacorte Press.

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

9780545930802_p0_v1_s550x406

“Humans are as drawn to hope as owls are to miracles. It only takes the suggestion of it to stir them up, and the eagerness lingers for a while even when all traces of it are gone” (Stiefvater 2017, p. 287).

It’s been a while everyone, and I apologize profusely for the delay! I read a lot of books, but choose to only do in-depth reviews for those I feel are the most worthy. This, of course, does not include guilty pleasure reads or books I read simply because they’re popular. All the Crooked Saints, however, was one of many books I’ve read that really made me feel something, and thus I’ve decided to review it here. I will try to post more often in the future, but I can’t make any promises! The life of a teen librarian is, as you might expect, very busy. Without further ado, however, here is my review for Maggie Stiefvater’s All the Crooked Saints.

One of the things I love most about Maggie Stiefvater is her ability to sound like a completely different writer depending on the story being told. I have now read three of her books, and each one has felt completely different. I wasn’t a fan of Shiver, as it seemed to be a werewolf-focused version of Twilight, but both The Scorpio Races andAll the Crooked Saints have blown me out of the water with how good they were. This book was definitely strange, but it took me on a journey, and it was often hard for me to put it down.

All the Crooked Saints follows the lives of the mysterious Sorias, a family of Saints who perform miracles for passing strangers. These strangers, or pilgrims, are given one miracle to unleash their inner darkness, and then must work to perform the second miracle on themselves to release that darkness. This darkness can manifest in several ways: for one pilgrim, it means she produces rain wherever she goes. Another lives as a giant, while still another is cursed to repeat everything said to her and nothing else. Each miracle is a code that must be unlocked to grant the pilgrim true happiness, and the Sorias (the performers of these miracles) must not interfere. As you can imagine, however, one of the Sorias makes the tragic mistake of falling in love with a pilgrim, setting in motion a whirlwind of events that lead the Soria family to view their miracles in an entirely new way.

This universe was, to put it mildly, absolutely fascinating. It mixes elements of magical realism, fantasy, and historical fiction to create a unique story with a great deal of heart. The beginning of the novel is set up like a play, with each character being introduced by what he or she wants and what he or she fears. We learn that not only are the pilgrims facing darkness, but the Sorias as well, each dealing with demons that others are powerless to save them from. The story puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of family and friendship, and helping one another through tough times despite the risks.

In addition to this very powerful theme, I also appreciated the importance placed on both independent media and music. The younger Sorias, Joaquin and Beatriz, operate an underground radio in their broken-down truck, a station that eventually wields great power in helping the pilgrims. The two use music to reach out to others and connect with the world, and the result is both moving and powerful.

Also important to this story is the theme of love, which is presented as being both something that should be fought for (despite the risks) and something that cannot be ignored. Despite this, however, the book never feels cheesy or sappy like many YA romances. Instead, the romances play out realistically; two of the characters must come together after being estranged, two must overcome trepidation to accept their feelings, and two must prove a willingness to fight for one another despite a world telling them not to. The relationships are subtle and nuanced, and kept to the side in favor of each character’s unique journey. I’ve certainly never read a romance like this, and it pleasantly surprised me

The last theme I’ll touch on in this novel is the theme of underlying darkness that lives inside of all of us. We are, as human beings, deeply flawed, and the novel presents a ray of hope in the fact that even those with extreme darkness can defeat their demons and find happiness. Though you might expect the novel’s Saints to be above such darkness, Stiefvater shows that they harbor the moat darkness out of anyone. This seems like a metaphor for overcoming life’s struggles in an attempt to become a better person, and inspires the reader to reflect on what his or her own darkness might be. It’s incredibly powerful, and something that really forces you to think about life and your purpose on the earth.

I would recommend this book to fans of magical realism or highly advanced readers. The language can be tough to get through; it took me at least 50 pages to begin grasping the plot. Reluctant or struggling readers might not see this book as being worth the effort, but those who enjoy a challenge will love slowly uncovering the mysteries presented by the plot and characters.

As a fan of magical realism and stories that make me think, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. We all struggle with darkness and self-doubt, and All the Crooked Saints helps to remind us that we are not alone in the battle to become our best and most authentic selves. It’s a powerful read with an even more powerful message, and I highly recommend it to lovers of YA everywhere.

Reference:

Stiefvater, M. (2017). All the crooked saints. New York: Scholastic Press.

Proxy by Alex London

16101023

“Only humans could stand in for one another. They all began as equals, but a contract, like a confession, changed their relationship. One became debtor, one became creditor… A goat would always be a goat, but humans could change how they defined one another and how they defined themselves. That was civilization. But beneath it all, everyone bleeds” (London 2013, p. 234).

I went into this novel with no earthly clue what it was about, intending solely to review it for a local publication I occasionally contribute to. I gathered from the title and cover that it was going to be sci-fi, and knew that it contained LGBT themes (which is, incidentally, why I am reviewing it), but otherwise went into this book fairly blind. What I discovered, however, was that it is a delightful work of dystopian fiction with both complex themes and likeable characters. I will admit that my copy of this book is a galley, meaning it is not the final print version of the book. Because of this, some parts of the writing seemed a little rough (there were grammatical errors and a few typos), but I will not be judging the book based on the merits of its ARC. This is also a disclaimer in case I get any details that might have changed wrong.

Proxy follows the stories of two teenage boys: Syd (short for Sydney) and Knox. While Knox has grown up in a world of wealth and privilege, Syd knows only poverty and desperation. Knox is a patron, meaning his family has enough money to instantly forgive any and all of his crimes, pushing the punishments onto a proxy. Syd, a proxy, has been indebted to Knox since birth, brutally punished for each and every crime Knox has ever committed. And, unfortunately for Syd, Knox breaks the law quite frequently. When Knox gets into a car crash and accidentally kills one of his friends, Syd is sentenced to a life of hard labor for his crime. Fed up with the system, Syd decides to run away, but not before taking his patron with him. On the run from both the law and Knox’s father, the two teens begin to forge a bond that neither of them ever expected.

I will first begin by addressing the LGBT content, my initial reason for reviewing this book. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was not only a gay character in this novel, but a gay character of color. This is becoming increasingly more common in the world of young adult literature, and I could not be more thrilled about this fact. I am a proud supporter of the We Need Diverse Books movement, and I think it’s important for minorities and marginalized groups to be represented in all literature, not simply relegated to their own niche genre. By including diverse characters, authors are showing not only the reality of our diverse society, but implying that minorities deserve just as much attention as the majority culture in fiction.

Another thing I admired about Syd (the aforementioned gay character) is that his sexuality does not define him as a person. While it’s certainly a part of what shapes him as a character, Syd is ultimately a product of his upbringing, growing up poor and indebted to those much more powerful than he is. Though he is mocked and looked down upon for being a “Number Eleven” (meant to be a derogatory term for homosexuals in this universe), Syd’s story does not focus on his sexuality. In fact, there isn’t even a forced romantic subplot, just a few good-humored jokes between the ramrod-straight Knox and Syd. Instead, it focuses on unraveling his personal history in order to embrace an inevitable destiny. This is certainly no run-of-the-mill coming out story, though those narratives are certainly equally valid in young adult literature.

I was also pleased by how interesting and creative this dystopian universe was. While I sometimes wished there had been more detail in the technology and inner workings of this world, I was fascinated and intrigued by what was shown. The idea of constant ads being played for everyone made me think of M.T Anderson’s Feed, and I was also intrigued by the idea of a zoo of genetically engineered “extinct” creatures (though I will admit the scene with the penguin being eaten by a lion traumatized me a bit).

In addition to the subtle commentary on “Number Elevens,” I also liked the subverted religious themes of sacrifice and chosen ones. At one point, proxies are compared to sacrificial goats, unique only because of their ability to ascribe worth and meaning to other human beings. This thread continues as the novel progresses, making the reader think deeply about concepts such as morality and self-sacrifice. When is it okay for a few today for the greater good? How many deaths are too many? Where do we draw the line between morality and self-serving evil? These are deep questions explored in this novel, and while I wish the author had delved deeper, I was impressed to see how he worked religious faith into this dystopian novel about debts and social injustice. The themes of self-sacrifice and debt come to an ultimate head at the very end of the novel, though I won’t spoil it for you here!

Though imperfect, this was an extremely entertaining work of dystopian fiction that kept me on my toes and wanting to read more the entire time. It’s incredibly easy to write bad dystopian fiction, and I commend London for finding an interesting way to explore deep concepts. I was also impressed to see a gay character for whom coming out was not the focus. While coming out stories are important, it’s nice to simply see gay characters be heroes every once in a while. Because of this, I would recommend Proxy not only to LGBT youth, but to fans of dystopian fiction in general. Trust me; you will not be disappointed!

Reference:

London, A. (2013). Proxy. New York: Philomel Books.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

353342

“‘Crispin,’ said Bear, ‘a wise man – he was a jester by trade – once told me that living by answers is a form of death. It’s only questions that keep you living (Avi 2002, p. 111).'”

I apologize for my long absence from this blog, but I’ve been doing a fair amount of ‘fun’ reading, and haven’t found anything quite worthy of reviewing here until now. I had the distinct pleasure of getting to meet Avi at a conference for youth literature recently, and I was quite impressed by both his humor and his sincerity. While speaking of his life and his decision to write for children, Avi shared one of his most famous quotes with the audience: “Writers don’t write writing, they write reading.” Though Avi grew up without knowing he had dysgraphia, he strove constantly to prove to both his teachers and the world that he had ideas worth writing. These ideas later became the inspiration for many children worldwide, compelling him to write over seventy books throughout his lifetime. I found his story to be extremely inspiring, and thus decided to pick up one of his most famous and critically-acclaimed works.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead tells the story of a young boy living in a small, poor English village in the early 1300s. While his life has never been entirely pleasant, the boy (known at the beginning of the novel only as “Asta’s son”) has recently endured the tragic and sudden loss of his mother, catapulting him into a new world of danger and misfortune. Crispin’s only friend, a priest known as Father Quinel, is murdered shortly after the death of the boy’s mother for knowing a terrible secret, one he intended to share with the boy. Before the priest’s death, however, the boy learns that his name is Crispin, and that he must do all in his power to flee the only home he has ever known.

While fleeing his home, however, Crispin is also fleeing the cruel John Aycliffe, a man who has become the steward of the land on which Crispin lives in the absence of Lord Furnival, the land’s true owner. Terrified, Crispin flees with a little bit of food and his only possession, a lead cross given to him by his mother. While on the run, Crispin meets Bear, an odd and interesting red-bearded man who makes his living as a jester. Together, the two embark on a journey that will teach them that the family we choose is sometimes far more important than the family we were assigned at birth.

Though this wouldn’t have been the type of book I would have picked up as a child (I read a lot of fantasy and books about talking animals), I find that I really appreciate it as an adult. Reading stories about history, even fictional ones, is incredibly compelling, making me ponder what it might’ve been like to live in different time periods. While I would’ve liked to see how the story might’ve changed if the main character were female, Crispin’s story was both heart-breaking and incredibly empowering, showing that it’s possible to pull oneself out of even the most terrible of situations and find true joy.

What begins for Crispin as a fight for his life soon leads him to the best thing that has ever happened to him: meeting a true father figure in Bear. At first, Bear seems gruff, cruel, and uncaring; but the reader soon learns that he knows Crispin’s secret and longs to protect the boy from those who would kill him. As they travel, Bear begins teaching Crispin useful skills such as hunting, trapping, and fighting, as well as how to play music and earn a living. When they happen across trouble, Bear protects Crispin, sacrificing himself to keep the boy out of danger.

I’ve always said that characters – and the relationships between those characters – are my favorite part of any story, and this was no exception. Even at his worst, I instantly adored the character of Bear, knowing that his cruel exterior masked a soft and caring interior. Even Avi, when I shared this with him, acknowledged that he thought Bear to be the far more compelling character (despite the book’s title and chosen lead character).

I liked that Bear seemed to represent progress, challenging and criticizing the status quo in the hopes of finding something better. He struck me as being an incredibly brave man, and one who would stop at nothing to make the world a better place – even at the cost of his own life. I think it’s important for children to see that family can encompass many things; it does not have to be defined by biology. As Crispin himself states, Bear is far more of a father to him than the biological father he has never known, and I think that sends a wonderful message about choosing family based on those who love and care for us even when it isn’t required of them.

I was also intrigued by the heavy theme of religion that permeated this novel. While I am a Christian myself, I couldn’t imagine letting my religion dictate my entire life, to the point where I so feared the wrath of my God that I would refuse to break a promise to save my own skin. I can imagine that a modern child reading this story would be highly confused by this time period, as religion today isn’t nearly as life-or-death as it was in England during the 1300s. In fact, children might have trouble reading this novel altogether, as it contains both an extremely advanced vocabulary and several words (such as ‘mazer’), that children have likely never come across before. This is definitely a title I would recommend for either advanced readers or those reading far above their grade level who would like a challenge.

Despite the difficulty of the text, however, I think children would be fascinated to see how different life was during this time, and how hard many people had to work just to survive. A child already facing poverty might understand (at least to some extent) Crispin’s struggles, but a child who was born into wealth might find this novel to be an excellent window into the struggles of others. This novel would be of excellent use in a history class, as the teacher could explain that this time period was incredibly difficult for many people, who lived both in poverty and constant fear of deadly illnesses like the Plague. Stories like Crispin’s have the power to teach both empathy and understanding, alerting children to the privileges that come with growing up in the United States in the present day.

Though it was short and simple, this story was powerful, and I could easily see why it earned a Newbery Medal. It takes place far from our own time, but the lessons Crispin learns are universal. He learns both to defend and stand up for himself, while also learning how to survive in an incredibly cruel and unforgiving world. He transforms from a passive character, afraid of his own shadow, to someone willing to fight for the people he cares most about. This shows children that they have an innate power to change their lives, and that they don’t have to resign themselves to simply living with injustice or cruelty. As mentioned above, Crispin also teaches children the true meaning of family, and that the strongest bonds are sometimes forged when we are at our lowest points.

I felt incredibly honored to have met Avi, and I hope to read more of his work in the near future. Reading Crispin, I had a hard time believing that the author suffers from a learning disability; his writing is detailed, emotional, and incredibly well-structured. Avi, much like the character of Crispin, is proof that (with a little effort and determination) anyone can pull themselves out of a terrible situation and turn it into a lesson or an inspiration, and I think any child in need of such a lesson could greatly benefit from reading this book.

Reference:

Avi. (2002). Crispin: Cross of Lead. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.

 

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

18222556

“Home isn’t just a house or a city or a place; home is what happens when you’re brave enough to love people” (Lloyd 2015, p. 302).

This was such a fun and whimsical story to read! Friends and trusted former coworkers of mine recommended this book to me many times, but I never had the chance to read it for myself until recently! I chose to listen to the audio-book version of this story, and I loved the narrator’s quirky voice. It seemed to fit not only Felicity, but each of the other characters as well (the narrator performs distinct voices for almost all of them). I have many good things to say about this book, however, so I won’t bore you with my thoughts on the format!

The instant I started this book, I couldn’t help but feel that it was Natalie Lloyd’s response to a growing trend of magical realism in young adult literature. While I’ve read many wonderful titles like When the Moon Was Ours and The Strange anf Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I hadn’t really come across magical realism in the realm of children’s literature before this book. While I’m sure they exist, this was a first for me, and it was really refreshing to see some magical realism for younger audiences.

The story focuses on Felicity Juniper Pickle, who has just moved to the town of Midnight Gulch with her mother and sister. While Felicity’s mother explains that Midnight Gulch was once full of magic, it’s obvious to everyone that very little remains. Though Felicity and her family have wandered all over the country, she wants nothing more than to put down roots in a permanent home. In a tale full of blackberry sunrise ice cream, hot air balloons, and word collecting, Felicity learns that sometimes magic can be much easier to find when we know where and how to look for it.

I absolutely adored the character of Felicity. She’s just so spunky, quirky, and full of energy! And, though it’s clear she hates having to move constantly, Felicity rarely complains, wanting to find genuine happiness for her mother while looking out for her younger sister. Felicity struck me as being an incresibly selfless character, one who enjoys making others happy far more than pleasing herself.

I also really enjoyed the relationship between Jonah and Felicity, which was (in my opinion) the best part of the book. In life, most of us can only hope to find a friendship as rare and beautiful as the one formed by these two characters throughout the novel, and I was incredibly moved by Felicity’s selfless act (without spoiling, the one involving the bird on her wrist) near the end of the book.

Part of me wonders how on earth Lloyd came up with such a wacky and inventive narrative, but I applaud her creativity. I certainly couldn’t have come up with ideas like memory-inducing ice cream and a literal moving tattoo of hope (in the shape of a bird, of course). At every turn, I was exposed to a new twist, and I really appreciate how neatly everything was tied together in the end. This definitely took some excellent planning!

I also really enjoyed the idea of the Beedle, a mysterious figure who does good deeds around the community while remaining completely anonymous. Without giving away too much about the Beedle’s identity, I loved this aspect of the novel, and I think it could do a lot to inspire children to do kind things for others without being prompted. I think the overall message of this book is that everyone has a little magic, magic that can be unleashed when we decide to value others more than ourselves.

This book was quirky, funny, and utterly charming, and I only wish I’d chosen to read it sooner! The characters were genuine in unique, with stories and personalities that make the reader instantly care about each and every one of them. Though magic features heavily in the plot, the world is so real that the entire story seems like it could really happen in our world. Nothing ever seems unrealistic or preachy, and the book teaches important lessons while never being afraid to take a leap of faith when it comes to humor and whimsy.

A Snicker of Magic, while being a genuinely witty and fun read, reminds us that it’s crucially important to remember the things that make life meaningful and worthwhile. Themes of friendship, family, and showing kindness to others come up frequently throughout the book, sending an incredibly positive and uplifting message to children about how we can find our own brand of magic in the real world. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to once again view the world from the eyes of an innocent child, as I truly believe that A Snicker of Magic has a lot to teach each and every one of us a new lesson, whether we are children or adults.

Reference:

Lloyd, Natalie. (2015). A Snicker of Magic. Turtleback Books.

Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

51cqx6euxal-_sx350_bo1204203200_

“Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard… Maybe the snow will come soon. She feels herself smile. And maybe, just maybe, things are different from what she had thought. Maybe everything starts with the first snow” (Kaurin 2017, p. 95).

According to her author’s note, Marianne Kaurin was inspired by a single idea to write this story: What if, during the German occupation of Norway in 1942, a single member of a Jewish family happened to be away from home when the Nazis came to take them to the concentration camps? As Kaurin explains, 532 Norwegian Jews were sent aboard the Donau to Auschwitz, where only nine survived. In addition to being inspired by her own family’s history (many of the characters in the book are named after family members or friends of her family), Kaurin wanted to explore the idea of a bizarre twist of fate that would spare one member of a large family during this dark time in history. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve always been fascinated with the history of World War II, as well as the history of the Holocaust. Because of this, I usually find historical fiction based upon this time period to be incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. This work was no different.

The novel focuses on a young girl named Ilse Stern, who is eagerly awaiting autumn, when she believes her life will change for the better. Devastated after being stood up on a date by Hermann Rod, her crush since she was a little girl, Ilse scolds herself for being so easily tricked. What Ilse doesn’t realize, however, is that Hermann is hiding many secrets – both from her and his entire family. The year is 1942, and Ilse’s family is Jewish in Norway, a country being occupied by German soldiers. Ilse’s sister, Sonja, longs to work as a seamstress in a local theater, though her father has always expected her to take over the family business when he retires.

Sonja and Ilse’s father, meanwhile, has been coping silently with a failing business and a steady stream of hate, trying to hide the nasty messages on his shop windows every morning. The novel jumps from character to character as the story progresses, allowing each character to share his or her ambitions and desires with the reader. The story reaches its climax one day when Isak (Ilse and Sonja’s father) is taken suddenly and sent to a labor camp, prompting his worried family to wonder whether they should flee for the safety of neutral Sweden.

I really enjoyed the poetic quality of this book, as it helped to immerse me in this time and place. Marianne Kaurin’s writing has an almost lyrical quality, making it very pleasing to read. Autumn, as its place in the title implies, is incredibly important to the story, as it represents the season in which warm, bright summer transitions to hard, cold winter. At the beginning of the novel, Ilse feels like being stood up is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her, but soon finds a much darker and colder winter coming for her and her family. I thought this use of foreshadowing was both inventive and well-placed, as it warns the reader of what is to come. That being said, I found myself getting a little thrown off by the constant tense switches, as Kaurin would swap from past to present tense within only a couple of sentences. I suppose there was likely a symbolic reason for this that I was missing, but it was sometimes confusing to read.

Even though I love reading historical fiction about the Holocaust and World War II, I’m usually fully aware going into it that it’s likely not going to end happily for any of the characters involved, even if they’re non-Jewish Germans. In this case, however, I had no idea this was historical fiction until after I started reading it, as I went in mostly blind. At first, it seems like it’s going to be a simple love story between Ilse and Hermann, but turns much darker and deeper as the novel progresses and more is revealed. The instant the novel Ilse explained to the reader that she and her family were Jewish, my stomach dropped. I then knew exactly what I was in for with this story. It’s nowhere near as dark as The Book Thief in tone, but it still manages to be devastatingly sad in the end.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, as this would ruin the entire book, but I will say that this was an incredibly powerful and moving read. I don’t think I will ever tire of devouring stories about the Holocaust, even if they often leave me feeling depressed and wondering why any of this was allowed to happen. Books like this are a grim reminder of all that was lost during the Holocaust, but I believe it’s incredibly important to continue sharing stories from this time period, both fictional and true. If we refuse to let the horrors of this time period dull with time, we are far less likely to let another Holocaust happen. Experiencing how inhumanely our fellow humans were treated simply because of their religion should not only horrify us, but inspire us to take action when we see injustices taking place in our own time period.

Almost Autumn, though short, is beautifully written and will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction that deals with the Holocaust and World War II. It’s a fairly quick read, and one that appeals to reluctant readers. I’m very pleased that I had the chance to read it, even if it did trod mercilessly on my heart.

Reference:

Kaurin, M., & Hedger, R. (2017). Almost autumn. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

51onv891e1l-_sx336_bo1204203200_

“Tonight, there was a brilliance in the hall, a communion of spirits, as if Ivy and the conductor and the pianist and the orchestra and everyone in the audience were one, breathing in and out to the same tempo, feeling one another’s strength and vision, filling with beauty and light, glowing beneath the same stars… and connected by the same silken thread” (Ryan 2015, p. 578).

This book was absolutely incredible in every sense of the word. It was told incredibly creatively, with three realistic stories that intertwine with just a hint of magic thrown in. I listened to the audio-book version of this title, which added beautiful pieces of music and distinct narrators for each child’s story. As I read each section, I desperately wanted to know what would happen to each child. I got invested in each story, only for the narrative to move onto the next story. Fortunately, all three stories were equally captivating, with believable characters who each had very compelling conflicts to overcome. Just as I was itching to know what happened to Friedrich, I became equally invested in Mike’s story, and then in Ivy’s story after that. Ryan did a wonderful job leaving me in suspense, but making me care just as deeply about the third child as I did the first.

Echo begins with the story of Otto Messenger, a boy who is sold a mysterious harmonica by a gypsy woman in his small German town. With the harmonica is an unfinished story book about three princesses who are left to die by their cruel father the king when they are born. Thanks to the interference of a kind nursemaid, however, the three sisters – Eins, Zwei, and Drei – are given to a witch in the forest to be cared for in her cottage. After the death of their father, the three princesses are given the chance to return home to their brother and mother, but not before the witch curses them, confining them to a woodwind instrument until the day they are able to save a soul on the brink of death. Otto hears their tale and helps seal their souls into the harmonica, which is then passed on to three children many years later. The rest of the novel follows the stories of Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California, each of whom is facing their own tribulations related to the conflicts of World War II. As the harmonica comes into each of their lives, the children’s stories become intertwined in a way that none of them could have ever expected, culminating in the moment the three sisters are finally able to save the life of a person on the brink of death.

Though I enjoyed all three stories, it was Friedrich’s story that affected me the most. I have read many fictional stories about World War II and the Holocaust, and they never fail to fill me with anxiety and leave me worrying about the fate of the characters involved. Friedrich’s story was unique in that he was not Jewish, but a pure-blooded German who happened to have a highly visible birthmark on his face, thus making him an “undesirable” in Hitler’s Germany. While his older sister finds herself sucked into Hitler’s regime, he and his father turn against it, putting themselves in extreme danger as political dissenters. It was interesting to see the perspective of an average German who did not agree with Hitler during this time, as many stories about this time period tend to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust. As someone with German heritage, I found Friedrich’s story to be the most compelling of the three.

Though Friedrich’s story personally affected me the most, I appreciated the portrayal of injustices in each child’s story. In Mike’s story, he and his brother are mistreated by both the owner of the orphanage and by others (such as the shop owner) who see them as lesser and unworthy simply because they are poor. Even though both Mike and Frankie are highly educated and well-behaved children, they are treated differently because they were not born into the upper class. In Ivy’s story, she directly observes the injustices done to Japanese citizens in America during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She also experiences injustice herself, when she realizes that Mexican children in her town are forced to attend a different school than the white children because they are seen as dirty and uneducated. Ivy, like Mike, is treated differently than others even though she is well-educated and speaks fluent English. Each child’s story portrays injustice in different ways, but helps to teach readers about darker parts of American and German history, during times when certain individuals were treated as being lesser because of their race or social status.

My favorite thing about this book, however, was how Ryan skillfully tied each child’s story together with the magical harmonica. The fairy tale at the beginning, as well as Otto’s story of finding the book, helped to set a mystical tone before the novel jumped into reality with the story of the three children. Ryan uses this story as a bookend at the very end of the novel, when the three sisters are finally able to save a life and return to their castle. The most powerful words in the opening are, “Your fate is not yet sealed. Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed” (Ryan 2015, p. 6). Though this isn’t mentioned again until the very end, each child’s story seems to (no pun intended) echo these words, as each one is able to pull themselves out of a terrible situation through the hope and power provided by the harmonica’s music.

Even when I had a clear idea of where the story was going, Ryan still managed to surprise me with the sheer amount of detail she worked into the narrative to tie the five stories together. The most magical part of the book, in my opinion, is the concert at the end, when the three characters (as well as the magical harmonica in Kenny’s coat pocket) come together, and we are finally able to see how the harmonica affected each of them in positive ways. We also get to see how the harmonica ended up in Friedrich’s possession after being given away by Otto, and what eventually happens to the three sisters who first enchanted the harmonica. I had a feeling that Kenny would be the one the harmonica ultimately saved, as Ivy transfers it to him to keep him safe during the war. That being said, the harmonica saved all three of the children in a way, as it gave them hope during a time when hope seemed entirely lost. Each of them ended up being world-renowned musicians due to their experience and talent with the harmonica, fostered by their passion for music.

I found the ending of this book to be incredibly clever, and while it was already wonderful, it was the epilogue that really sealed the deal for me and pushed this book into the “spectacular” category. I’ve come to love historical fiction in recent years, and the element of magic only helped to further my enjoyment of this novel (as fantasy is my favorite genre). The novel discusses themes such as intolerance and injustice without talking down to children, showing them parts of history that some people would rather forget. I could easily see this novel appealing to children who don’t normally enjoy historical fiction, as the fantasy element and narrative quality of each of the stories makes it feel much more like a fairy tale than traditional historical fiction.

I would also highly recommend listening to the audio-book version of this story, as the music is integral to the emotions behind each character’s journey. I found myself getting chills and goosebumps when the orchestra played “Some Enchanted Evening” at the end of the novel, as it seemed like a perfect way to tie all of the stories together through music. I also enjoyed the melodic quality of each narrator’s voice, and the fact that each character was given a distinctive voice for their part of the story. Intricate touches like this made the audio-book a wonderful performance, and I likely enjoyed this more than I would have if I[‘d simply been reading silently to myself. Regardless of how you enjoy it, however, I highly recommend giving Echo a try, even if you don’t generally enjoy historical fiction. It’s an incredibly engaging and beautiful story that speaks to the power of music to improve lives and fill people with hope for the future. It was a truly magical tale, and one I’m glad I was finally able to read for myself.

Reference:

Ryan, P. M., Bramhall, M., De, V. D., Andrews, M., & Soler, R. (2015). Echo: A novel. New York, N.Y: Scholastic Audiobooks.