Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyami

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“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.

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The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M Romero

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“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

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“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.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

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“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.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

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“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.

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

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“Now that he knew [she] was like him, he understood, and she knew that both he and she were creek beds, quiet when they were full and quiet when they were dry. But when they were half-full, wearing a coat of shallow water, the current bumped over the rocks and valleys in the creek beds, wearing down the earth. Giving someone else a little of who they were hurt more than giving up none or all of it” (McLemore 2016, pp. 101 – 102).

“‘We don’t get to become who we are for nothing. It costs something. You’re fighting for every little piece of yourself. And maybe I got all of me at once but I lose everything else. Don’t you dare think there’s any water in the world that makes this easy'” (McLemore 2016, pp. 154-155).

As with most magical realism, this book is rather difficult to describe without giving away the entire plot. I’ll admit that, at first, I had a hard time getting into it; I remember thinking to myself, “What drugs was McLemore on while she was writing this book?” As with most things I read, however, I decided to push through the awkward phase of beginning an unfamiliar book, giving it a chance even though I wasn’t feeling it at first. I am so very glad I did. This book is gorgeously written, with descriptive language and stunning imagery. It feels almost like reading Shakespearean language or a work of complex poetry, and the messages inside are simply beautiful.

When the Moon Was Ours follows the story of two teens, both of whom are known for being the odd ones out in their small town. Samir, nicknamed “Sam” or “Moon,” is known best for painting and hanging moons all over town and in the forest, moons that help young children sleep at night. Miel was discovered when she was only five years old, toppling out of an old and rusted water tower as it was torn down. This, however, is not the only strange thing about Miel; she is best known for growing roses out of her wrists, roses that will not wilt or die after being plucked. Also in town are the mysterious Bonner sisters, four inseparable girls believed by the rest of the town to be witches. For many years, they were able to charm any boy in town, but after one of the sisters is sent away for getting pregnant, the sisters seem to lose their mysterious powers. Desperate, they seek out Miel, believing her roses have special powers. The sisters begin to blackmail Miel, threatening to share every secret she’s tried desperately hard to hide if she doesn’t give up the flowers that grow from her wrists. What follows is a slowly unraveling mystery, as both Miel and Sam attempt to discover who they really are.

This book was, in a word, trippy. During the first few chapters alone, there is a girl growing flowers from her wrists, pumpkins turning into glass, and a woman who cures people of their love-sickness by creating a magic potion and literally pulling it out of their bodies. I wondered more than once what on earth was going on, and initially thought I’d made a big mistake in choosing this book to review. Though I enjoyed Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap and Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, magical realism is still sometimes hard for me to grasp. It took a little while for me to get used to the style of writing, and I had to read slowly and carefully to make sure I didn’t miss any details about the plot. This book definitely lends itself to repeat readings, as I’m sure there are many things I missed the first time around.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this book was the way it took me out of my comfort zone, transporting me to a world that resembles our own but seems almost like a really bizarre dream. Many of the elements (such as pumpkins turning into glass) don’t make a lot of sense, but the story itself hearkens back to old folklore and cultural practices. One such practice is the idea of bacha posh, “a cultural practice in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan in which families who have daughters but no sons dress a daughter as a boy. This daughter then acts as a son to the family. As an adult, a bacha posh traditionally returns to living as a girl, now a woman” (McLemore 2016, p. 272). I was absolutely fascinated by this phenomenon, as I know very little about Afghani culture and couldn’t imagine growing up as a boy. Samir, who comes from this culture, imagines himself as a bacha posh, but feels he can never go back to living as a girl after being a boy for so long. McLemore goes on to explain that “often a bacha posh has difficulty adjusting to her role as an adult woman after years of living as a boy” (p. 272). Though I don’t believe the word transgender is ever uttered in this book, it’s very clear that Sam is undertaking a very powerful journey towards understanding his identity throughout the novel. I thought it was interesting to see this very personal journey tied into the practices of another culture, as it adds to the diversity and stylistic nuances of the book.

In addition to the elements of Pakistani and Afghani culture, there are also elements of mestiza culture. Miel and Aracely (the woman who takes Miel in after she is found) not only use Spanish phrases throughout the book, but portions of the mythology (such as the mother trying to drown her child to expel dark spirits) come directly from this culture (as the author explains in the author’s note at the end). I can only imagine the sheer amount of research the author did into both of these cultures, and how much work it must’ve taken to portray them accurately. I’m honestly not sure if roses growing from someone’s wrist or curing someone of love-sickness through magic are traditions from any particular culture’s mythology, but I have a feeling they’re connected in some way to the traditions McLemore  is pulling from throughout the novel.

Another thing this novel helped me to understand was the plight of two teenagers who love each other coming to terms with their sexual and gender identities. Before I realized Sam was transgender, I had no issue with the (very tastefully written) sex scenes in the book. Once I knew he was physically a girl, however, I’m ashamed to say that I felt a bit uncomfortable reading about their romance. I kept wondering, “Well how does that even work?” and my curiosity was piqued. Even though I felt I was already pretty open-minded about LGBT issues, this story helped open my eyes and my mind a little bit more, and for that I’m grateful to McLemore. It’s entirely possible to feel like a certain gender without having the genitalia to match, and it’s entirely possible to be attracted to someone who doesn’t have the genitalia you expect for that gender. I generally avoid thinking about what sex and dating might be like for someone who is transgender, mostly because I understand that it’s none of my business but also because I don’t want to think too hard about it. This fictional tale of two teens fighting to be together despite these circumstances allowed me to examine these issues without hurting anyone else or invading personal space, and I think this novel is a great way to help explain gender and sexuality to someone who has a very close-minded view of these concepts. This book taught me that, despite my progressive views, I don’t know everything about the LGBT community, and that this is perfectly okay. The important thing for allies to understand is that we don’t know everything, and we need to make our best efforts to listen to the plights of others in an effort to understand their feelings better.

As Miel herself explains in the novel, “[E]ven if they were the same inside their jeans, he was so different from her that she could not imagine his body as her own… No matter what their bodies had in common, she and Sam were not the same” (p. 182). If this book could help me to understand this sometimes difficult concept, I can only imagine how much it might help someone struggling with his or her own gender identity, or someone questioning their own sexuality because they happen to love someone who is transgender. Though Miel loves Sam, and is constantly teased by the Bonner sisters for “liking girls,” she does not consider herself to be a lesbian. She sees Sam as he wants to be seen, as a boy in every way. To me, this creates a beautiful love story, as it shows that the right person will accept you no matter what, despite your deepest flaws and insecurities. This book explores love and gender identity in very meaningful ways, and I think it could do a lot of good for a teen who is going through some of the same issues.

Magical realism is certainly an acquired taste, and it’s not right for everyone, especially reluctant readers (who might want to start with something easier to comprehend before diving into this work). This book seems more suited to people who feel as though they’ve read everything, and want to try something challenging or different. It’s perfect for people like me, who love the craft of writing and enjoy exploring new and poetic styles. McLemore is excellent at playing with language, and conveying the story in unconventional ways. The book starts slow and is pretty difficult to get into, but if you can stick with it, the story will pay off ten-fold. This was a truly beautiful work of fiction, and one that I’m very glad I gave a chance. If you’re ever feeling adventurous, or just want to give something new and unusual a try, then this is a perfect story for you. It also explores sensitive issues in an extremely real and heartfelt way, and I think it could do a great deal to help teens feel more comfortable in their own skin. In the end, I leave you with the author’s words, from her dedication at the beginning of the book:

“To the boys who get called girls,

the girls who get called boys,

and those who live outside these words.

To those called names, 

and those searching for names of their own.

To those who live on the edges,

and in the spaces in between.

I wish for you every light in the sky.”

(McLemore 2016)

Reference:

McLemore, A.-M. (2016). When the moon was ours. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

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“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 25).

“Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 183).

This book was incredibly sweet! As with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I remember seeing the movie for this book a long time ago. Unlike the C.S Lewis work, however, I did not remember anything about this story, making the book a fresh and exciting experience.

The Tale of Despereaux, as you might expect, follows the story of Despereaux, a tiny mouse with big ears and even bigger dreams. Shunned by his fellow mice for being different (and for talking to humans), Despereaux is thrown into the dungeon to be eaten by rats, but not before meeting and falling in love with the beautiful princess Pea. Spurred forward by his love for the princess and his desire to be an adventurous knight, Despereaux is able to survive the dungeon and save princess Pea from a vengeful rat named Chiaroscuro and a simple, misguided servant girl named Miggery Sow. The Tale of Despereaux is a modern fairy tale at its finest, with suspense, adventure, intrigue, and a whole lot of heart.

Once again, I found this tale to be both simple and cute, inviting children into a world where anything is possible, and where even a mouse can be a hero. In my opinion, the overall messages of this story are that love and hope are wonderful, and those who are different are usually the ones who have the best adventures (as the above quote implies). From his birth, Despereaux is seen as an oddity, a mouse with big ears who doesn’t act like a mouse. Despite this, his optimism, bravery, and love for the princess are what make him successful, delivering a subtle but wonderful message to the reader.

Similarly, the themes of redemption and forgiveness are explored in a way children can understand, without ever pandering to or talking down to the audience. For example, Roscuro turns to revenge after seeing the princess’s hatred for accidentally killing her mother, but realizes the error of his ways when she forgives him. Forgiveness also makes Despereaux feel better when he chooses to forgive his father, letting go of any anger or resentment he might have held. This, too, is a very deep and crucial message, delivered in a way that makes it easier for children to understand.

Grief, too, is explored in the way the kind bans soup after the death of his wife. As the book says:

“This is the danger of loving: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying. Making soup illegal, outlawing rats, these things soothed the poor king’s heart. And so we must forgive him” (p. 119).

This is a very simple, yet powerful, way to explain love and loss. As the narrator points out, the king’s actions may have seemed extreme, but they were done in an act of grief, something that we all experience and handle differently. While a younger reader might not immediately pick up on this theme due to the subtlety in which it is presented, older children (and adults like me) can look back on stories like Despereaux and appreciate these very complex themes presented in simple ways.

Despite the simplicity of the story, The Tale of Despereaux also features quite a bit of darkness, much like the original versions of the Grimm fairy tales. I was shocked at the abuse poor Miggery Sow had to endure, being beaten so badly that she became both “simple-minded” and nearly deaf. That is a concerning level of violence for a children’s book, though I agree that sometimes a little violence is necessary to convey a realistic story (even if the setting and characters behave in a way that’s fantastic). My problem, however, is that the violence is almost played for laughs rather than serious issues. Miggery is a sympathetic character, but also constantly mocked for being “dumb” and played as the comic relief.

The book’s treatment of Mig, to me, is the only real mixed message the book sends, and the positive messages outweigh it enough that I don’t see it being a huge problem. That being said, I would hope it doesn’t encourage kids that it’s okay to bully and make fun of those who are different, especially if they have disabilities or aren’t as smart as other children. Of course, Despereaux himself is different, and played as the hero, so perhaps this isn’t the message the author intended to convey at all.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story, yet another that I missed out on during my own childhood. I remember readingBecause of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising as a child, but this is a Kate DiCamillo story that unfortunately slipped by me when I was younger. After reading it, however, I can honestly say that I’m very glad I gave it a try!

Reference:

DiCamillo, K., & Ering, T. B. (2006). The tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

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“When she was little, someone gave her some weird book called The Wife Store. It was about a very lonely man who decided that he wanted to get married. So he went to the wife store, where endless women lined enormous shelves. He picked himself a wife and bought her. She was bagged up and put in a cart. He took her home. After that, the two of them went to the children store to buy a few kids.

Petey read this book over and over. Not because she liked it, but because she kept waiting for the story to change, kept waiting for the day she’d turn the page and a woman would get to go to the husband store. She kept waiting for justice. But, of course, the story never changed. She never got justice If Petey were keeping one of her lists of the things she hated, she would have to add: the fact that there was no justice. But The Wife Store was still on her shelf at home, if only to remind her that there were assholes in the world who would write such things, believe such things” (Ruby, 2015, p. 207).

This book was… unique, to say the least. While I most definitely enjoyed it, it was very surreal and bizarre from beginning to finish. That being said, the magical realism kept me invested, curious, and reading on until the end. Without a doubt, the best part of this novel was its characters; even the side characters were unique, quirky, and vibrant, and they kept me reading even when the surreal elements confused me. The novel has a surprising message about beauty, love, and relationships, and I really appreciate the creative way in which the author made that message come through.

The story focuses on a town named Bone Gap, where a girl named Roza has just been kidnapped. Unfortunately, the only boy to have witnessed the kidnapping,  Finn O’Sullivan, cannot remember the man’s face. Roza, a mysterious girl from Poland, entered the town of Bone Gap and irreversibly changed it, altering the lives of both Finn and his older brother Sean. In Roza’s absence, the two must learn how to connect as brothers once again. At the same time, Finn finds himself falling for the local beekeeper’s daughter Priscilla, who insists that everyone call her Petey. Bone Gap uses elements of both fantasy and realism to tell an interesting tale of brothers, family, and the kinship that comes from living in a small town with just a hint of magic.

Like I said before, my favorite aspect of this book was the characters. Though Finn suffers from an unknown condition (which is later revealed near the end of the novel), he has a heart of gold. When he meets Petey, he sees past the fact that she is not the most beautiful girl in the world. When others mock her and call her ugly (at one point even telling her she was “wrecking the view” when she turned her face to the crowd), Finn sees the soul inside of her (p. 161). He sees that she’s smart unique, and brave, and falls for her soul rather than her face or looks. This is such an important message for both young girls and boys; that it’s more important to see someone for who they are than it is to focus on looks.

In contrast, Roza’s looks actually cause her quite a bit of trouble. At the beginning of the novel, she has been kidnapped by a mysterious man. As the novel progresses, we find out that this is because the man has formed an unhealthy obsession with her beauty. Though the novel clearly shows us that the problem is in the man’s mind, and not with Roza’s beauty, the juxtaposition of this unhealthy obsession with the relationships between Petey and Finn and Sean and Roza. The latter two relationships are built on love, trust, and inner beauty, while the man who kidnapped Roza sees only beauty (and nothing else). As surreal and strange as this novel is, this is the theme that shines through the most. The characters, strong and unique as they are, carry this message, and it is their personal stories that made it so fun to read.

This book reminded me of Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, in that it takes place in our world but adds a touch of magic and wonder. This story is not something that could happen in reality, but the characters seem like they could very much be real people. I’ve noticed that my favorite part of any book is its characters; without strong characters, a book will easily fall flat for me. This book had both an interesting premise and amazing characters, and the characters carried me through the more confusing parts of the novel. This, like Challenger Deep, is not a book I would recommend to reluctant readers; it’s very strange, and very unusual, and is definitely not a book for everyone. In my opinion, however, this book is a creative work with characters I loved and a story that kept me turning the pages until the very end.

Reference:

Ruby, L. (2015). Bone Gap. New York, NY: Balzer + Bray.

Week 8 – Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Fairest Cover

“In a world in which elegance, beauty, and singing ability are revered, Aza is bulky, awkward, and homely. Her saving grace is that she can sing and has a gift of voice manipulation that she calls ‘illusing.’ …The plot is fast-paced, and Aza’s growth and maturity are well crafted and believable. Readers will enjoy the fairy-tale setting while identifying with the real-life problems of living in an appearance-obsessed society. A distinguished addition to any collection” (Buron, 2006).

This was my first experience listening to the audio-book version of a book, and I have to say that (even though I really enjoyed the book itself) I had a hard time really enjoying it. Not only is it incredibly difficult to concentrate on an audio-book, but it’s incredibly difficult to pin-point and cite specific quotes. That being said, I absolutely loved this book! I’m a long-time fan of retold fairy tales (one of my favorite series is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer), so this was right up my alley. I loved the message that it was trying to send, and the unique way it twisted the well-known fairy tale of Snow White.

The story focuses on young Aza, an inn-keeper’s daughter who hides her face because of what she considers to be her extreme ugliness. In Ayortha, the kingdom in which her family lives, singing is viewed as being the most important skill someone can possess. Fortunately for Aza, this is something she excels in. In fact, Aza is so talented that she even has the ability to project her voice from other places, imitating the voices of others as she does so. She calls this power “illusing,” and it is a power that brings her both a lot of attention and a lot of trouble. When she gets the unique opportunity to attend the wedding of Ayortha’s king, Aza finds herself wrapped up in a massive adventure involving romance, deceit, a magic mirror, and more than a few gnomes.

The best part of this book, in my opinion, is the message that there are some things that are far more important than one’s outer appearance. As someone who has always struggled with self-image and self-worth, this book was an anthem for me and ordinary girls everywhere. As the review from School Library Journal (shown above) states, we live in an extremely appearance-driven society. For women and young girls, especially, the pressure to be constantly perfect and beautiful is a monumental one, driving many to develop eating disorders and body image issues.

While I am fortunate enough to love my body now, there was a time when I felt a lot like Aza does at the beginning of the novel. This book is important because it speaks to those girls who might not feel themselves to be “the fairest,” and to those who might feel too heavy or too blotchy or not attractive enough. Throughout the story, Aza learns to love herself exactly the way she is, and to embrace her gift of singing as the thing that makes her unique and special. To me, that is a beautiful lesson to come from a book meant for children, and I definitely think that it’s one a younger (or even older) teen might appreciate. My favorite quote from the entire book can be found near the end, when Aza realizes that the prince sees her as beautiful:

“I had grandeur. I breathed in the cool night air. Perhaps I could learn to wear myself without apologies, with dignity. Perhaps I could become what Ijori already saw. Perhaps someday, I might even be able to smile at myself in a mirror. Not yet, but maybe someday” (Chapter 37, 2:25, Levine).

While Aza, arguably, should not have needed a prince’s affection to tell her this, I think it’s important that her character arc involved learning to love and accept herself for who she was. Many young girls need this affirmation, and to know that there are people out there who will look past their outward appearance to see what they have on the inside. After all, it is what’s on the inside that counts the most; Aza does not win everyone over because of her looks, but because of her beautiful voice and kind, caring nature. This may not be the most complicated or deep message, but it is an important message nevertheless.

That being said, I do think this book is best suited for younger girls. While the message is important for young boys to hear as well, I don’t think this title would necessarily appeal to them. Fairest is a small part of a developing genre known as the “re-told fairy tale” genre, and this genre is not usually marketed to teenage boys. The covers usually always feature a beautiful girl, or a traditionally feminine object like flowers or a mirror. While there are certainly many titles a teenage boy might enjoy in this genre, the covers and descriptions might deter many of them from reading a “girly” book. Regardless, I would gladly recommend this book (whether in a classroom or a library) to a young girl who either loves this genre, loves the other work by Gail Carson Levine, or who simply feels down on herself and needs an inspirational tale.

As far as re-told fairy tales go, this one does resemble Snow White, but might not be the best choice for someone who wants something closer to the classic fairy tale. A reader looking for an instant connection to the story of Snow White might be disappointed, as it takes over half the book for this tale to begin to look anything like the fairy tale from which it is borrowing. I, personally, find this to be a good thing, as I like seeing a fresh take on an old story, but those who prefer a more classic version of the fairy tale would be better off trying a book like Winter by Marissa Meyer. Fans of Ella Enchanted (also by Gail Carson Levine) will be pleased, however, as the story takes place in the same universe and features many nods to the other work. Overall, I was enchanted by this story, and think there’s a lot of worthy material to be found in this simple little book about a girl named Aza.

References:

Buron, M. C. (2006). Fairest. School Library Journal, 52(9), 209-210.

Levine, G. C., (2015). Fairest [Audio Book, Read by S. Nankin]. Charlotte Hall, MD: Recorded Books.