The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat

The Last Mapmaker

Christina Soontornvat, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Apr. 12, 2022

Pages: 368

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Fantasy, Mapmaking, Explorers, Ship, Adventure, Dragons

Book Jacket Synopsis:

In a fantasy adventure every bit as compelling and confident in its world building as her Newbery Honor Book A Wish in the Dark, Christina Soontornvat explores a young woman’s struggle to unburden herself of the past and chart her own destiny in a world of secrets. As assistant to Paiyoon, Mangkon’s most celebrated mapmaker, twelve-year-old Sai plays the part of a well-bred young lady with a glittering future. In reality, her father, Mud, is a conman.  In a kingdom where the status of one’s ancestors dictates their social position, the truth could ruin her.

Sai seizes the chance to join an expedition to chart the southern seas, but she isn’t the only one aboard with secrets. When Sai learns that the ship might be heading for the fabled Sunderlands—a land of dragons, dangers, and riches beyond imagining—she must weigh the cost of her dreams. Vivid, suspenseful, and thought-provoking, this tale of identity and integrity is as beautiful and intricate as the maps of old.

Why I like The Last Mapmaker:

Set in a Thai fantasy world, The Last Mapmaker is a suspenseful and thrilling high-seas adventure that will captivate readers, It will introduce them to some history of early colonizers exploring uncharted countries and staking their claims. And sometimes there are environmental consequences that are detrimental to the country.  

Soontornvat’s richly textured novel is original, fast-paced and tightly plotted with surprise twists, secrets, and betrayals that will keep readers engaged. Her prose is lyrical and visual. Readers will experience both the beauty and wrath of the sea, deal with sea sickness, smell the salty air, and enjoy the time in ports.

The diverse cast of characters are complex, messy and real. Sai is a determined and resourceful character who dreams big. She gets her chance when the aging mapmaker, Paiyoon, invites Sai to assist him on expedition to chart and discover the fabled Sunderlands for the Queen. His handwriting has become shaky and Sai can duplicate his writing without anyone knowing — their secret. He is somewhat fatherly toward Sai. The Captain of the ship is a female war hero, Anchalee Sangra, who is professional and aloof. Sai connects with the Captain’s friend Rian Prasomsap, who takes her under her wings, but she has her own agenda. Readers will enjoy seeing women in leadership roles.  Sai recognizes a crew member on the ship, Grebe, who could reveal some of her own secrets. And Sai’s relationship with with a colorful pickpocket/stowaway, Bo, could get her in a lot of trouble. 

When the Captain suddenly falls ill, the voyage takes a dramatic turn and the captain’s friend, Rian takes command of the ship. She convinces the crew to chart a course for the fabled Sunderlands, a place thought to be beseeched by dragons. 

This story deals with some serious themes written in a way that is relatable to middle grade students. It has a contemporary takeaway for readers about being true to yourself and charting the right course in your life when others disagree — much like navigating a course through an unmapped ocean.  It is easy to lose yourself in The Last Mapmaker. I highly recommend this story to those who enjoy fantasy, adventure and history. I will be reading this gem again!

Christina Soontornvat is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books for children of all ages, including A Wish in the Dark and All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, both of which received Newberry Honors. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, two young children and one old cat.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

The Christmas Pig by J. K. Rowling

The  Christmas Pig

J.K. Rowling, Author

Jim Field, Illustrator

Scholastic Inc., Fiction, Oct. 12, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8 and up

Themes: Boy, Stuffed toy, Family relationships, Magic, Adventure, Christmas

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Jack loves his childhood toy, Dur Pig. DP has always been there for him, through good and bad. Until one Christmas Eve, something terrible happens — DP is lost.

But Christmas Eve is a night for miracles and lost causes, a night when all things can come to life…even toys.

So Jack and the Christmas (DP’s irritating replacement) embark on a breathtaking journey through the magical Land of the Lost. With the help of a talking lunch box, a brave compass, and a winged thing called Hope, the set out to rescue the best friend Jack has ever known from the terrifying, toy-crunching Loser…

From one of the world’s greatest storytellers comes this heartwarming, page-turning adventure about one child’s love for his most treasured thing, and how far he will go to find it. With dazzling illustrations from renowned artist Jim Field, The Christmas Pig is destined to become a beloved classic for the whole family.

Why I like this book:

Another thrilling and magical adventure from J.K. Rowling about a six-year-old boy and his love for his  stuffed pig. The story is meant for middle grade readers, but it feels like a family story that can be read a few chapters at bedtime. Younger children will identify with the beloved stuffed pig and older readers will enjoy the magical journey into the Land of the Lost, where both good and bad is present. Jim Field’s full-page illustrations are lively and expressive and give readers a sense of the various lands Jack and the Christmas Pig travel through to search for DP.    

The story features a family with real life issues. Jack’s parents are splitting up and Jack and his mother are moving into a new home closer to his grandparents. He has to leave behind his friends and start a new school. His mother meets someone new, Brenden and his teenaged daughter Holly. When they become a blended family, tension erupts and that’s how DP is lost. 

There is a sweet relationship between Jack and DP. DP is a well-worn pig with a long history with Jack.  DP is no longer pink and puffy, but kind of limp and gray, with bent ears and buttons that replace his eyes. He’s been dropped in puddles, buried in sand on the beach, and lost all over the house. Due to all of his adventures, DP has a smell about him that Jack likes. And he’s always been there for Jack when he needs his tears wiped or is scared.  DP always seems to know exactly how Jack is feeling.

A master storyteller, Rowling’s world building is amazing and imaginative. Her plot is enchanting, dangerous, and humorous. It will keep readers fully engaged. There is a large cast of unusual, lovable, quirky and unforgettable characters. The ending is a heartwarming surprise. There are 58 chapters in the book, but they are short. Jim Field’s full-page illustrations are lively and expressive and give readers a sense of the various lands Jack and the Christmas Pig travel through to search for DP.

J.K. Rowling is the author of the seven Harry Potter books, which have sold over 500 million copies, been translated into over 80 languages, and made into eight blockbuster films. She has also written three short companion volumes for charity, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which later became the inspiration for a new series of films, also written by J. K. Rowling. She then continued Harry’s story as a grown-up in a stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which she wrote with playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. In 2020, she returned to publishing for children with the fairy tale The Ickabog.  She’s received many awards and honors for her writing. She also supports a number of causes through her charitable trust, Volant, and is the founder of the children’s charity Lumos. She lives in Scotland with her family.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a purchased copy.

 

 

Daughter of the Deep by Rick Riordan

Daughter of the Deep

Rick Riordan, Author

Disney – Hyperion, Fiction, Oct. 26, 2021

Suitable for ages: 10-14

Themes: Adventure, Underwater exploration, Marine sciences, High schools, Orphans, East Indian Americans

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Ana Dakkar is a freshman at Harding-Pencroft Academy, a five-year high school that graduates the best marine scientists, naval warriors, navigators, and underwater explorers in the world. Ana’s parents died while on a scientific expedition two years ago, and the only family’s she’s got left is her older brother, Dev, also a student at HP. (And they’ve heard all the Harry Potter jokes already, so don’t go there.)

Ana’s freshman year culminates with the class’s weekend trial at sea, the details of which have been kept secret. She only hopes she has what it’ll take to succeed. All her worries are blown out of the water when, on the bus ride to the ship, Ana and her schoolmates witness a terrible tragedy that will change the trajectory of their lives.

But wait, there’s more. The professor accompanying them informs Ana that their rival school, Land Institute, and Harding-Pencroft have been fighting a cold war for a hundred and fifty years. Now that cold war has been turned up to a full broil, and the freshman are in danger of becoming fish food.

In a race against deadly enemies, Ana will make amazing friends and astounding discoveries about her heritage as she puts her leadership skills to the test for the first time.

What I love about this book: I am only going to leave bullet comments, because I know this book will be a popular gift for many teens over the holidays. So, no spoilers! 

Rick Riordan has captured my heart with Daughter of the Deep. The brilliantly crafted novel is action-packed, fast-paced, and full of unexpected surprises, right from the start. His storytelling is magnificent. And take a good look at that stunning book cover!

Daughter of the Deep is inspired by Jules Vern’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I believe fans of Vern will find this modern take a thrilling read with a new spin on Captain Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus. Riordan takes world-building to another level. And the believer in me sees the potential for a  series. 

Riordan has created a cast of characters who are complicated, original and represent a wide range of ethnicities, faiths and abilities. Ana Dakkar is very relatable, believable and will capture reader’s hearts. She’s thrown into a situation she didn’t ask for. But her courage shines in the face of what she faces on an emotional level. She quickly gains the respect of the other students, and has a strong team of friends in Nelinha, Ester, Gem and many other HP students. And I love Jupiter the orangutan chef who communicates through sign language. He adds some humor and lightness to the story. First time I’ve seen attention given to menstrual cramps in novel.      

This high-stakes undersea adventure, re-imagines technologies so far advanced that readers will keep turning pages. STEM students will especially love this book — especially those who dream of about the world beneath the ocean and the advanced technologies of the future. But readers will also be challenged to think about the caution required in using them. Who do these advanced technologies belong to and how will they be used for the good of all mankind and nature? Which makes this a perfect discussion book.

Rick Riordan, dubbed “storyteller of the gods” by Publishers Weekly, is the author of five New York Times #1 best-selling middle grade series with millions of copies sold throughout the world: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the Heroes of Olympus, and the Trials of Apollo, based on Greek and Roman mythology; the Kane Chronicles, based on ancient Egyptian mythology; and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, based on Norse mythology. Rick collaborated with illustrator John Rocco on two New York Times #1 best-selling collections of Greek myths for the whole family: Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods and Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes. He is also the publisher of an imprint at Disney Hyperion, Rick Riordan Presents, dedicated to finding other authors of highly entertaining fiction based on world cultures and mythologies, and a contributor to an RRP short story anthology, The Cursed Carnival and Other Calamities. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife and two sons. He’s even known to go scuba diving on occasion. Rick’s Twitter handle is @RickRiordan.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter by Jamie Michalak

Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter

Jamie Michalak, Author

Kelly Murphy, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Jun. 23, 2021

Suitable for ages: 3-7

Themes: Animals, Mouse, Adventure, Art, Museum

Opening: “In the Great, Big City, / in the great big museum, / a clock tick-tocks past midnight. / Doors are locked. / Guards keep watch. / All is still, until…”

Synopsis:

In the dark of night, in the big museum, a tiny creature emerges from the shadows. Who is this mouse of mystery? It’s Dakota Crumb, scurrying through the great halls, hunting for treasure with a map in and sack in hand. Hundreds of eyes peer from paintings and follow this mouse as she searches for a famous priceless treasure, that is hidden somewhere in the museum and is marked with an X on her map.

Along the way she spots other treasures left behind by daytime’s human visitors and Dakota pops them in her sack. Will this be the night she will finally find the purple jewel of Egypt she’s been searching for? The sun is rising and off she scampers into her mouse home. And what a home it is!

Why I like this story:

What a delightful and entertaining picture book that will remind readers of the “Night in the Museum” theme. Children will love the suspense of what is lurking around each gallery corner, as Dakota makes her way past exhibits of knights in armor, frozen statues, stuffed animals, pyramids and mummies.

Readers will enjoy guessing just what she does with all the hidden treasures in her mouse hole. Such a clever story with beautiful double-page illustrations that support her nightly journey. Kelly Murphy’s eye-popping art really gives the reader a sense of drama and movement as Dakota scampers about. At the end of the story, readers will get a peek at Dakota’s list of treasures and can go on their own seek-and-find hunt looking for a lot of the treasures on her list. This is a perfect read aloud.  

Resources: Kids will have fun searching for all of the hidden items in the book on Dakota’s list.  Parents can help them invent their own rainy-day treasure inside the house or outside. I use to hide items with clues that kids can follow to find the treasures in our yard.  A nature theme would be fun for outside.

Jamie Michalak is the author of numerous books for children, including the Joe and Sparky series, and Frank and Bean.  Jamie lives in the smallest state, Rhode Island.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.
 
*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

The World Between Blinks by Amie Kaufman and Ryan Graudin

The World Between Blinks

Amie Kaufman and Ryan Graudin, Authors

Quill Tree Books, Fiction, Jan. 5, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes:  Cousins, Family vacation, Loss, Fantasy, Adventure, Mystery, History 

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Whenever Jake and Marisol get together, adventure follows. They have their late Nana to thank for that. Her epic trips and treasure hunts were the stuff of family legend.

This summer, with the whole family reuniting for one last summer vacation at Nana’s home in South Carolina, the cousins are in for a legendary trip of their own.

Following a map Nana left behind, Jake and Marisol sneak out to a nearby lighthouse hoping to search for treasure. —they accidentally slip into another world! The World Between Blinks is a magical place, where all sorts of lost things and people wind up. Everywhere they turn, the cousins find real mysteries from history and a few they thought were just myths, from pilot Amelia Earhart to the fabled city of Atlantis. Proof to Marisol that the world is as as weird and wondrous as Nana has always claimed.

But the man who holds the key to Jake and Marisol’s journey home doesn’t want to be found . . . and if the cousins don’t catch him fast, they could end up lost in this world good.

Why I like this book:

The World Between Blinks is  heartwarming story about family, love, loss and memory. It’s an entertaining and magical summer adventure into a world where lost people, places and things go when they are lost or forgotten. If you ever wanted to see dinosaurs, London’s Crystal Palace, Atlantis, and the Loch Ness Monster, or meet Queen Nefertiti and Amelia Earhart, or hold the Great Mogul Diamond, than this book is for you — history made fun.

The world-building is magical. The plot is clever and imaginative. The authors take readers on a journey that will surprise them at every turn. Readers will discover what happens to the memories of the lost people who are living in this magical world. They will encounter the Curators who document every new arrival. I appreciated how seamlessly everything was woven together. 

Chapters alternate between Marisol’s and Jake’s voices, giving great insight into the reasons why they embark upon their journey. Marisol struggles with the grief of losing not only Nana, but her beach house which holds so many good memories. The family members want to sell and don’t want to deal with the upkeep. On the other hand, Jake is sad because he is constantly saying goodbye to friends, schools, and homes — his mother is a traveling diplomat. And there is a mysterious villain who convinces the cousins he can get them home if they steal a special ledger for him.    

Make sure you check out the Curators’ Files that has catalogue entries on just a few of the people and places you’ll find in The World Between Blinks. There are many more fun details added.

Favorite Quote: “The world between blinks is always there. It is everywhere and it is nowhere…People see it every day, but they rarely pay attention. The grown-ups are too busy doing grown-up things to stop and look, really look. Most kids are too distracted to examine it for long…But there are those who pause a little longer. The daydreamers….They stare into the dark places: blink, blink. They see.”  

Amie Kaufman and Ryan Graudin are two bestselling, award-winning authors united by their love of history, adventure, magical stories and lost places. Ryan has explored the ruins of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, and Amie has picnicked in the lost Roman city of Ostia Antica. When the learned about a vanishing island off the coast of South Carolina and the lighthouse left rising alone from the waves, the knew they had a story to tell. Amie lives in Melbourne, Australia, and Ryan lives in Charleston, South Carolina. You may visit Annie and Ryan at their websites. 

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Rescue at Lake Wild by Terry Lynn Johnson

Rescue at Lake Wild

Terry Lynn Johnson, Author

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fiction, Apr. 27, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Animals, Beaver kits, Orphaned, Wildlife rehabilitation, Adventure, Mystery

Synopsis:

Everyone knows that twelve-year-old Madison Lewis is not allowed to bring home anymore animals. After harboring hairless mice, two birds, a rabbit, and a tomcat that ended up destroying the front porch, Madi is forbidden from inviting one more stray into the house. If she does, she risks her chance to meet her hero, Jane Goodall, at a gala during the summer. 

But when she and her best friends Aaron and Jack find two beaver kits whose parents were killed, they know the kits will die without their help. They know, too, that more beavers will die unless someone can solve the local environmental crisis that is brewing because of the dams flooding the town roads and crops. 

Can Madi find a way to show everyone how smart and amazing and vulnerable beavers are in time to save them? Can she show the community how humans can live in harmony with wild creatures?

Why I like this book:

Terry Lynn Johnson’s Rescue at Lake Wild is a fun and engaging adventure story for readers who are interested in wildlife rehabilitation. They will learn from a budding young naturalist, Madison, who has inherited her late grandmother’s passion and gift of caring for injured and orphaned wildlife. Like her grandmother, she listens to and observes animals.

Animal lovers will enjoy getting to know about beaver kits. Madi is an excellent teacher. Much of what she learns is through her observations, which she faithfully records in a journal. Who knew beaver kits are so intelligent, sociable, bond with other orphans from other lodges, like to cuddle and hug, chatter with each other, problem-solve, and eliminate themselves only in the water. Readers will cheer Madi’s journey with the beavers. 

Madi is so lucky to have two great friends in Jack, who is hot on a trail with his dog to track down the individuals who are killing the beavers, and Aaron who has excellent engineering and observation skills. They make a perfect team and know how to use their skills to make a difference in their community.

Make sure you read Johnson’s author’s note at the end, because you will discover many scenes in the book are inspired by stories shared with Johnson from experts who have experience rehabilitating beaver kits. In true Johnson style, she also includes “The Dos of Wildlife” for readers who may find a baby animal in need of rescuing. This is important for readers to know before they take a lost bunny home.

Rescue at Wild Lake is written for younger middle grade students. There are shorter chapters and and the narrative is perfect for bedtime read aloud with younger children. Adults will also enjoy this book because of the backmatter. It’s just a feel-good story for the entire family.

Terry Lynn Johnson writes about the wild with the wisdom and passion of someone who has spent her life working to preserve and protect it — both as a back country canoe ranger in Quetico Provincial Park and in her current job as a conservation officer with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. She lives at the edge of a lake in northern Ontario, Canada, where she loves watching all wildlife, including beavers. She is the author of Dog Driven, Sled Dog School, Ice Dogs, and four Survival Diaries. Visit her at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle

The Secret Starling

Judith Eagle, Author

Jo Rioux, Illustrator

Walker Books US, Fiction, Jun. 8, 2021

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Orphans, English Manor, Adventure, Family, Mystery, Secrets, Murder

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Clara Starling lives at Braithwaite Manor with her cold Uncle Edward Starling. Her life is full of dull rules, deadly routines, boring lessons with a governess and flavorless meals under her mean-spirited uncle’s strict regime. Clara’s mother died in childbirth. Clara knows she has a father somewhere, but Uncle tells her “he doesn’t know she exists.” End of question.  Clara’s only salvation is Cook, who she chats with her on the rare occasions Uncle leaves the manor. And she has her mother’s books to comfort her. 

Clara begins to notice things disappearing — portraits, china, and silver bowls.  Uncle fires staff, including Cook. One day Uncle informs Clara they are leaving the manor and orders her to pack a suitcase. He drops her off in the village, while he runs some errands. He hands her a thick wad of 10-pound notes and disappears. Clara spends the afternoon in a café and soon realizes that she’s been abandoned. Not wanting to end up in an orphanage, she trudges back to the old manor. She’s on her own now and no one is going to order her around anymore.  The manor is hers, even if there is a “For Sale” sign in the yard.  

When she arrives home, she finds a streetwise orphan, Peter Trimble and his rescue cat, waiting for her outside. He’s been sent to stay at the manor by his granny while she recuperates. The children seize the  chance to live by their own rules. But when the pair’s wild romps through the halls of Braithwaite Manor reveal a single, worn ballet slipper, they are hurled into a mystery that will lead to London’s glittering Royal Opera House, Russian dancers  and the unraveling of twisted Starling family secrets of poison, a villainous ex-ballet dancer, passion, and murder.

What to like about this story

Readers are in for a treat with Judith Eagle’s fast-paced adventure that is full of plot twists and surprises. The story is original and an exciting read. Even the cheerless opening will intrigue readers. And the run-down manor with feel like they’ve stepped into the late 19th century.

The relationship between Clara and Peter is intriguing. They both have pasts that are kind of a dead end. Peter was abandoned in a train station and adopted by a cleaning woman he calls Granny.  Peter loves the ballet and dances all over the manor. And Clara never knew her mother or has seen a picture of her. Uncle won’t tell her anything. But together they compliment one another. It’s fun to watch Clara’s growth, determination and bravery.

There are other lively characters in the story, Cook’s three grandchildren, who come to play at the manor when Uncle disappears. The manor now feels like a real home and that makes Clara feel happy and hopeful. It’s uplifting to see the children in charge and having a ball exploring, hiding and eating what ever they want. They also are clever and outsmart the grown-ups by destroying the yard sign and tricking realtors. They are the rulers of the manor…for now.

There is so much more to the story once Clara and Peter identify the owner of the ballet slipper. Sorry, no spoilers. The story speeds up and readers will be caught up in a mystery that takes them on a thrilling journey. 

Readers will also enjoy Jo Rioux’s eight full-page, pen and ink illustrations, which contribute significantly to the storytelling.

Judith Eagle’s career thus far has included stints as a stylist, fashion editor, and features writer. She currently works in a secondary school library and lives in South London with her family and Stockwell the cat. The Secret Starling is her first novel.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Walker Books US in exchange for a review.  

 

Amanda in Malta by Darlene Foster

Amanda in Malta: The Sleeping Lady (The Amanda Travels Series 8)

Darlene Foster, Author

Central Avenue Publishing, May 11, 2011

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Malta, Travel, Adventure, Mystery, Theft, Friendship

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Amanda receives a postcard from her best friend, Leah, and is surprised to learn that she is in Malta with her Aunt Jenny. Reading between the lines, she senses Leah is in trouble. Desperate to help her, Amanda strikes the lottery when she’s invited to travel to Malta with her classmate Caleb Sorenson and his parents.

Amanda is intrigued by this exotic island in the middle of the Mediterranean, full of colourful history, sun-drenched limestone fortresses, stunning beaches and fascinating birds. But…who is killing the protected birds? Who stole a priceless artifact from the museum? And why is Leah acting so strange? She couldn’t possibly be involved in these illegal activities, or could she?

Join Amanda and her friends as they visit ancient temples, an exciting falconry and the enchanting Popeye Village, as they try to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Sleeping Lady.

What to like about this Amanda in Malta:

Readers who dream of visiting exotic places, will be captivated by Darlene Foster’s lively adventure story to Malta where there is so much history, unusual places to explore, problems to solve and a dangerous mystery. Fans of the Amanda Travels series will be thrilled with this fast-paced story set in paradise.

Amanda is an upbeat, inquisitive, caring and memorable character that teens will want to befriend — especially since she has keen radar and really enjoys solving a good mystery. And she has a knack for mishaps, like getting stung by a jellyfish her first day in Malta. It’s fun to see Amanda reunited again with her best friends Leah and Caleb. Leah is caught up in a dangerous situation with her Aunt Jenny, an archeologist, and is trying to outrun and outsmart some really bad guys. Although Caleb is deathly afraid of fish, he is a great super sleuth, the group photographer and a good balance for Amanda through some awkward moments. 

I find Foster books educational for young readers and adults as Amanda, Leah and Caleb learn about the history, geography, architecture, local cuisine, and visit some very cool sites in Malta that include:  

  • Ghar Dalam, “cave of darkness, ” that is over 500,000  years old. It holds evidence of the first humans on the island, such as Neanderthal teeth, from 7,400 years ago.
  • A boat trip through the Blue Grotto Caves where the crystal clear waters change colour from the reflections off the cave walls. Simply paradise.
  • The Falconry Center for many rescued birds of prey. The Maltese falcon is known for its speed as it can reach over 320 kilometers per hour or 200 miles per hour. It is an endangered species in many places of the world. Storks nesting on the St. Lucian Tower.
  • The Popeye Village in Anchor Bay, the location where Robert Williams’ filmed the movie in 1980. 
  • St. John’s Cathedral, built by the Knights in 1572. As each knight gained wealth, he and his family donated art and decorations. The inlaid marble graves show where many knights were buried.
  • The Museum of Archeology, where there is a 4,000-year-old sculpture of the sleeping lady. 

Resources: Make sure you check out the discussion questions at the end of the book.

Amanda in Malta: The Sleeping Lady is the eighth book in the Amanda Travels serves: Amanda in Arabia: The Perfume Flask; Amanda in Spain: The Girl in the Painting; Amanda in England: The Missing Novel; Amanda in Alberta: The Writing on the Stone; Amanda on the Danube: The Sounds of Music; and Amanda in New Mexico : Ghosts in the Wind; and Amanda in Holland: Missing in Action. Foster has written the books in such a manner that they can be read in any order, but I recommend you start with the first book.

Darlene Foster was brought up on a ranch in southern Alberta. She dreamt of writing, travelling the world and meeting interesting people. She believes everyone is capable of making their dreams come true. It’s no surprise that she’s now the award-winning author of a children’s adventure series about a travelling twelve-year-old girl. A world-traveller herself, Darlene spends her time in Vancouver, Canada and Costa Blanca in Spain with her husband and her amusing dogs, Dot and Lia. Visit her at her website or on Twitter @supermegawoman.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for a review.

The Problim Children – Island in the Stars by Natalie Lloyd

Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays

The Problim Children – Island in the Stars (Book 3)

Natalie Lloyd, Author

Katherine Tegan Books, Fiction, Aug. 11, 2020

Pages: 304

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Siblings, Adventure, Rescue, Hidden treasure, Magic, Pirate Ship, Family relationships, Courage, Humor

Book Jacket Synopsis:

When the Problims’ baby brother, Toot, is kidnapped by the evil Cheesebreath, Sal and his six siblings set sail on a pirate ship to get him back. But Cheesebreath won’t let Toot go until the Problim children lead him through the barrier islands to their grandpa’s treasure.

The problem is the treasure could be dangerous in villainous hands, and the Problims don’t know exactly where it is! Grandpa’s clues say it lies “where the stars fall into the sea,” but there are all sorts of dangers along the way — like angry neighbors, kid-eating plants, and Miserable Mist!

Now Sal and his sibling only have three days to figure out the puzzle, destroy the treasure, and rescue Toot before Cheesebreath gets his hands on their grandpa’s secret and uses it to break apart the Problim family…forever.

Why I like this book:

Natalie Lloyd’s final book in her The Problim Children series is a delightful romp in weirdness, danger and magic, as the beguiling siblings race against time to rescue their kidnapped baby brother, Tootykins, and Mama Problim, and search for and destroy their grandfather’s treasure. Island in the Stars will please Lloyd fans with this exciting conclusion to the series.

Unknowingly, the seven children have been carefully groomed to take on this mission for years. Even though their grandfather is dead, he knows that that their combined talents and magical gifts must be used together to carry out his instructions and stop the evil Augustus Snide — Cheesebreath. And they will be challenged to heal the rift among their treasure-seeking extended family members on the Desdemona O’Pinion side.

Readers will watch how each Problim child begins to grow into the amazing person they were born to be. Sal keeps his siblings together and calls out the best in each of them. Mona sails fearlessly through the threatening mist. Wendell commands the ocean. Thea unlocks doors and turns her face to the light. Frida throws beams of fire from her hands. Sundae speaks sunlight into every dark corner. And flatulent Toot, a hero and not a captive, leaves his trademark farts to communicate with his siblings. “#45 The Braveheart Fart: The toot, used by Toot to summon his courage and drive fear into his enemies hearts. Smells like moldy cheese and sweaty victory.”

Lloyd’s plot is an lively and dangerous. Her narrative is notably original with clever wordplay, rhymes and vivid imagery. Scattered throughout the story are pen and ink drawings that heighten the action and add to the story’s quirky appeal. The book reminds me of Pippi Longstocking, who lives on her own and is free to develop her imagination and goes on great adventures. Today’s readers will liken Lloyd’s middle grade work to Lemony Snicket, The Penderwicks and Roald Dahl. Verdict: Island in the Stars is an entertaining page turner that is full of heart and courage. It is perfect for gift-giving!

Natalie Lloyd is the New York Times bestselling author of A Snicker of Magic, which has been optioned for television by Sony TriStar. Lloyd’s other novels in The Key to Extraordinary,  Over the Moon, and The Problem Children series. Lloyd lives in Tennessee with her husband and her dogs. Visit Lloyd at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his fascinating Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Mananaland by Pam Munoz Ryan

Mañanaland

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Scholastic, Fiction, Mar. 3, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Refugees, Oppression, Loss, Underground movements, Adventure, Courage, Hope, Freedom

Synopsis:

Maximiliano Córdoba loves stories, especially the legend Buelo tells him about a mythical gatekeeper who can guide brave travelers on a journey into tomorrow.

If Max could see tomorrow, he would know if he’d make Santa Maria’s celebrated fútbol team and whether he’d ever meet his mother, who disappeared when he was a baby. He longs to know more about her, but Papá won’t talk. So when Max uncovers a buried family secret–involving an underground network of guardians who lead people fleeing a neighboring country to safety–he decides to seek answers on his own.

With a treasured compass, a mysterious stone rubbing, and Buelo’s legend as his only guides, he sets out on a perilous quest to discover if he is true of heart and what the future holds.

This timeless tale of struggle, hope, and the search for tomorrow has much to offer today about compassion and our shared humanity.

Why I like this book:

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Mañanaland is a beautifully crafted novel that sweeps readers into a fantasy world that feels oddly familiar, but is set in the Americas, past or future.  The setting, the characters, the courageous plot and the gorgeous imagery are carefully intertwined and create a thrilling experience for readers.

Max’s family are masons who have built 200  bridges all over the country.  But there is a secret that links the bridges to people who need to escape from oppression to a neighboring country. Max discovers his Papá and Buelo are part of the underground network dedicated to helping people. I love the symbolism of the bridges they build.

Readers will admire 12-year-old Max and his brave resolve to take on a dangerous and arduous journey to help a young girl, Isadora, escape abuse and meet up with her sister in Mañanaland. His father and Buelo are gone and wouldn’t approve. Max may be inexperienced as a guardian, but he is smart, brave, and resourceful. He is determined to prove that he can responsibly and safely guide Isadora to Yadra, the next guardian. Yadra is a towering woman with long silver hair, who lives beneath a secret bridge. Max also hopes she may shed some light on his mother’s disappearance, which his Papá has kept a secret. Is his mother in Mañanaland?

The story parallels our world today with a timely and relevant message that will introduce readers to the refugee crisis, without pinpointing a location. The role of guardians is to help those who are seeking asylum because they are abused, marginalized, and oppressed by a dictator and his military. Many have lost  loved ones and families have been split. However, as Max learns along his journey, “Mañaland is not a destination. It’s a…way of thinking.” (Page 209)

The plot is dangerous with many harrowing moments. Ryan’s deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. She nicely pulls everything together in a realistic and satisfying ending.

Pam Muñoz Ryan is the recipient of the NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Award and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. Her celebrated novels –Echo, Esperazna Rising, The Dreamer, Riding Freedom, Becoming Naomi León, and Paint the Wind — have received countless accolades are are treasured by readers around the world. Ryan lives near San Diego, California, with her family.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library book.