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.

Tiger Honor by Yoon Ha Lee

Tiger Honor (A Thousand Worlds Novel)

Yoon Ha Lee

Rick Riordan Presents / Disney Hyperion, Fiction, Jan. 4, 2022

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Pages: 248

Themes: Families, Loyalty, Honor, Space adventure, Korean Mythology, Shapeshifting, Magic, Ghosts, Fantasy, Science fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Sebin is a young tiger spirit from the Juhwang Clan who wants nothing more than to join the Thousand Worlds Space Forces and, like their uncle Hwan, captain a battle cruiser someday.  But when Sebin’s acceptance letter finally arrives, it’s accompanied by the shocking news that Hwan has been declared a traitor. Apparently the captain abandoned his duty in order to steal a magical artifact, the Dragon Pearl, and his whereabouts are still unknown. Sebin hopes to help clear their hero’s name and restore honor to the clan.

Nothing goes according to plan, however. As soon as 13-year-old Sebin arrives for orientation, they are met by a special investigator named Yi and Yi’s assistant, a girl named Min. Yi informs Sebin that they must immediately report to the ship Haetae and await further instructions. Sebin finds this highly unusual, but soon all protocol is forgotten when there’s an explosion on the ship, the crew is knocked out, and the communication system goes down. It’s up to Sebin, three other cadets, and Yi and Min to determine who is sabotaging the battle cruiser. When Sebin is suddenly accused of collaborating with the enemy, the cadet realizes that the most dangerous for of all is … Min.

Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents Yoon Ha Lee’s companion to the best-selling and award-winning DRAGON PEARL, another space opera inspired by Korean mythology, this time told from the point of view of a nonbinary tiger spirit.

Why I like Tiger Honor:

Tiger Honor is a riveting, high-adventure sequel to Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl.  This is her second Rick Riordan Presents novel and another “space opera meets Korean mythology.” It is crafted out of Korean mythological themes. The mythology is never fully explained in this compelling story, because it is the foundation for the world and characters. The world-building is seamless.

The stakes are high in Tiger Honor, when an explosion leaves the new cadets in charge of the battle cruiser and trying to figure out who’s their enemy. But much more sinister things are happening behind the scenes. So Sebin’s first day on the ship starts of with an explosion that injures the captain and crew, and the new cadets are left to fend for themselves. 

Sebin is a nonbinary tiger spirit eager to join the Space Forces like his Uncle Hwan. He can change from his human form into his native tiger shape. He has a keen sense of smell and heightened hearing. Sebin has integrity because he’s grown up in a strong and strict Tiger clan that emphasizes rules, loyalty, honesty and grooms true warriors in martial arts. Min is a courageous character who is a fox spirit with heightened senses and clever charms that distract and manipulate people. Sebin and Min don’t trust each other, but are both dedicated to figuring out who sabotaged the battle cruiser. I enjoyed not completely guessing the ending and won’t give away any spoilers.

Lee handles gender neutral variances as an accepted fact of life. Cadets in the Thousand World’s Space Force wear pronoun pins that tell them how to address each other. Many of the characters in Tiger Honor are nonbinary.  Lee also addresses racism through the tension between the supernatural beings, like ghosts, foxes, and tigers. 

There is a mystery surrounding former general Hwan’s betrayal of the Space Forces in Dragon Pearl, and his scheming and treacherous activities in Tiger Honor, that will keep readers engaged. I was disappointed that more of the story from Dragon Pearl wasn’t shared with readers in Tiger Honor, which is it’s own story. I had to read the end chapters of the first book to remind myself of the details. 

I recommend Tiger Honor to lovers of science fiction, fantasy mythology and space adventures. It will transport you to a world far beyond your imagination.  I’m sure there will be another sequel!

Yoon Ha Lee is a Korean American who grew up in both Texas and South Korea, learning folktales of wily foxes, shapeshifting tigers and benevolent dragons. Lee was inspired to about tigers and foxes in space because everything is better in space. Lee is the author of NYT bestseller Dragon Pearl and is also the author of the adult book Phoenix Extravagant and Machineries of Empire trilogy: Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, and Revenant Gun. Visit him at this website or on Twitter @deuceofgears,

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 by a library copy.

 

River Magic by Ellen Booraem

River Magic

Ellen Booraem, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, Apr. 27, 2021

Suitable for ages: 10-13

Themes: River, Grief, Fantasy, Dragon, Neighbors,  Greed, Friendships, Family

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Donna’s always loved her life by the river. Aunt Annabelle taught her there was more to the world than meets the eye, and the two of them built tiny shoreside houses for fantastical creatures Annabelle insisted were real. But now Annabelle has died in the very river she claimed was magic, and nothing feels wondrous to Donna anymore. Money is tight with Annabelle gone. Her mom, “Mim,” and sister, Janice, work all the time, and her best friend, Rachel, spends way more time with her basketball teammates than she does with Donna.

When a strange old woman moves in next door and needs help cleaning her filthy home, Donna figures this is the perfect opportunity to forget her friendship troubles and help her family. Especially since the woman pays in gold. Turns out, Donna’s new neighbor is an ancient, ornery thunder mage, and it doesn’t take muck to make her angry. Before Donna knows it, Rachel’s in danger and Donna’s family is about to lose their home. Even Annabelle’s voice, an unexpected guiding presence in Donna’s mind, can’t fend off disaster. To save the day, Donna will need the help of a caring new friend and the basket-ball team…plus the mysterious, powerful creature lurking in the river.

Why I like this book:

Ellen Booraem has written a compelling contemporary fantasy that is thrilling, dangerous, action-packed, realistic and humorous. Take a moment to look at the gorgeous book cover of Donna and her friend Hillyard. It makes you want to peek into that river with them.

There is a lot going on in the fast-paced plot — the death of a beloved aunt, a family on the brink of financial collapse, shifting friendships, an angry and greedy magical neighbor, and a cunning dragon living in the river behind the house. That being said, Booraem manages to pull it all together and create an exciting and believable magical adventure story for readers. 

What makes this story strong is its cast of memorable characters who leap off the pages. Donna is a curious and resilient character who begins to hear dead Aunt Annabelle’s voice (in her head) guiding her. She share’s her aunt’s love of the river and believes in the magic surrounding it. So moving to live with Aunt Betty’s, is not a choice for Donna. She’s not old enough to get a real job. But one appears when a very odd woman, Vilma Bliksem, moves into the house next door. Things really start to get weird. Vilma is beguiling, greedy and dangerous. Donna also develops a relationship with a new quirky friend, Hillyard, who is the perfect side-kick for Donna. He sports unusual outfits, like a  purple-and-pink tie-dyed T-shirt, leather vest, battered leather shoes laced on the side, and a brightly colored yellow scarf with orange strips wrapped around his neck. His hair is pulled back into a short pony tail. Being friends with Hillyard won’t be cool at school, but he is clever and helps Donna figure out how to outwit their wicked neighbor. Together they survive some dangerous moments and release some spells Vilma has cast.    

I highly recommend this magical story to readers who are looking for an exciting adventure that will keep them glued to the pages and guessing what will happen next.  I love not being able to guess the ending and I was careful not to give away any SPOILERS.

Ellen Booraem, born in Massachusetts, now lives in Downeast Maine. She is the author of The Unnameables (an ALA Best Book for Young Adults),  Small Persons with Wings, and Texting the Underworld. All of Ellen’s books have been chosen by Kirkus Reviews as Best Books of the Year, among other awards. In addition to being a writer, Ellen is a writing coach at her local elementary school. She lives with a cat, a dog, and an artist in a house they (the humans) built with their own hands.

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 Thief of Worlds by Bruce Coville

The Thief of Worlds

Bruce Coville, Author

Random House, Fiction, Apr. 27, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Winds, Fantasy, Magic, Other worlds, Global disaster

Book Jacket Synopsis:

What happens when the wind stops? The air grows hot and still and hard to breathe. Hospitals fill with patients. The sky becomes hazy as dust clings to the air. The world begins to panic.

For Hurricane, the global disaster strikes at his core. He got his name because he was born during a hurricane, and he has always felt a strangely intense connection to the wind. And now his mother is one of the sick people in the hospital. But what can he do? He’s just a kid.

Then an old bearded man, Zephron Windlord, shows up from another world claiming he is in charge of making the wind. He seeks Hurricane’s help to find the wind thief and rescue the magical horn that will fix everything. In fact, the Windlord claims that Hurricane is the only one who can do it. Is he delusional? Can magic be real? And how can finding the magical horn rest on Hurricane’s twelve-year-old shoulders?

When all this turns out to be true, Hurricane embarks on the adventure of his life: a journey to different worlds where he will make friends unlike any people he has ever known. He will discover courage, strength, humor and ability to bring people together.

The classic epic fantasy from beloved author Bruce Coville will enthrall readers while it reminds them that magic lies in friendship — and that friendship just might have the power to save the world.

Why I like this book:

The Thief of the Worlds is a riveting, richly imagined epic tale of loyalty, bravery and friendship that will make your heart soar. It is an action-packed adventure with many complex plot twists that will keep readers guessing what will happen next. Then ending was a complete surprise. That’s a good story. 

The characters are rich, memorable and quirky. Hurricane is a 12-year-old Black boy from Chicago. His neighbors call him  “Breezeboy” and laugh about how he dances with the wind. So when the wind suddenly stops, he feels like he’s lost his best friend — until an odd bearded old man, Zephron Windlord, appears at his door and asks Hurricane to help  rescue a stolen horn that he uses to start the winds. Hurricane thinks he’s crazy, but travels with the Windlord to the top of the world on the back of a huge magical tiger with wide ebony wings. 

On Hurricane’s journey to find the horn, he enters different worlds. He meets Lura, the blue goddess of water, who is in search of a stolen basin from her world that has caused a drought; and Amberjon, a three-foot-tall man, who is seeking the lost spirit flame that lights and warms his frozen world. Together they realize that the environmental suffering everywhere is being caused by the same dangerous villain, so they join forces and search for him together.

Coville’s storytelling is brilliant and he amazingly builds four very unique worlds in a single novel. His writing is polished and his narrative will inspire readers to think about how friendship and listening to the pain of others may be the key to saving the world. 

Bruce Coville is the author of more than 100 books for children and young adults, including the international bestseller My Teacher Is an Alien and the wildly popular Unicorn Chronicles series. He has been a teacher, a toy maker, a magazine editor, a gravedigger, and a cookware salesman. He is also the founder of Full Cast Audio. Bruce lives in Syracuse, New York, with his wife, author and illustrator Katherine Coville.

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 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.

Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee (Rick Riordan Presents)

Dragon Pearl (Rick Riordan Presents)

Yoon Ha Lee, Author

Disney Hyperion, Fiction, 2019

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Brother and sister, Space adventure, Korean Mythology, Magical creatures, Ghosts, Science Fiction, Fantasy

Synopsis:

Thirteen-year-old Min comes from a long line of fox spirits. But you’d never know it by looking at her. To keep the family safe, Min’s mothers insists that none of them use any fox magic, such as Charm or shape-shifting. They must appear human at all times. She dreams of joining the Space Forces like her older brother, Jun. Together they dream of seeing all of the Thousand Worlds and to find a way to help their own neglected, dust-ridden and impoverished planet, Jinju. 

When a special investigator arrives at Min’s home and informs her family that Jun is suspected of deserting the Space Force with other cadets to go search for the Dragon Pearl, Min knows that something is very wrong. Jun wound never desert his battle cruiser, Pale Lightning, even for a powerful mystical object.  Min has only one option — to search for Jun. Using her fox-magic, she uses her shape-shifting and Charm casting abilities to navigate gamblers, pirates, vengeful ghosts and sneak onto find her brother’s ship. 

 What to like about this book:

This is the second Rick Riordan Presents novel I’ve reviewed (even though I didn’t read his series.)  The blurb I remember seeing for Dragon Pearl was “space opera meets Korean mythology.” This pretty much encapsulates the book.  It isn’t contemporary, but crafted out of Korean mythological themes. The mythology is never explained in this compelling story, because it is the the foundation for the world and characters.

Dragon Pearl is high adventure with a lot of risks. The world-building is seamless. Min is a courageous character dedicated to finding her brother and clearing his name, while risking her own life at the same time. Her fox traits (like heightened hearing and scent recognition) are an immense help to her. And she is clever with charms that distract and manipulate people. There are many unexpected plot twists in Dragon Pearl and a special ending that surprised me. I love not being able to guess the ending and won’t give away any SPOILERS.  

Kudos to Yoon Ha Lee for the way she handles gender variances as an accepted fact of life. Cadets in the Space Force wear pronoun pins that tell them how to refer to each other. Lee also addresses racism through the tension between the supernatural beings, like the dragons, goblins, tigers, and foxes.

I recommend Dragon Pearl to lovers of science fiction, fantasy, mythology and space adventures. It will transport you to a world far beyond your imagination. I hope there is a sequel.

Yoon Ha Lee is a Korean American who grew up in both Texas and South Korea, learning folktales of wily foxes, shape-shifting tigers, and benevolent dragons. Yoon was inspired to write about foxes in space because everything is better in space — except the ice cream. Yoon is also the author of the Machineries of Empire trilogy: Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, and Revenant Gun. For more information, follow Yoon on Twitter @motomaratai. 

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 Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim

The Last Fallen Star: A Gifted Clans Novel

Graci Kim, Author (Rick Riordan Presents)

Disney Hyperion, Fiction, May 4, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12 

Pages: 336

Themes: Witchcraft, Sisters, Quest, Goddesses, Korean Mythology, Korean Americans, Fantasy

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Riley Oh can’t wait to see her sister, Hattie, get initiated into the Gom clan — a powerful lineage of Korean healing witches their family has been part of for generations. Hattie will get her Gi bracelet and finally be able to cast spells without adult supervision. Although Riley is desperate to follow in her sister’s footsteps when she herself turns thirteen, she’s a saram – a person without magic. Riley was adopted, and despite having memorized every healing spell she’s ever heard, she often feels like the odd one out in her family and the gifted community.

Then Hattie gets an idea: What if the two of them could cast a spell that would allow Riley to share Hattie’s magic? Their sleuthing reveals a promising incantation in the family’s old spell book, and the sisters decide to perform it at Hattie’s initiation ceremony. If it works, no one will ever treat Riley as an outsider again. It’s a perfect plan!

Until it isn’t. When the sisters attempt to violate the laws of the Godrealm, Hattie’s life ends up hanging in the balance. To save her, Riley has to accomplish an impossible task: find the last fallen star. But what is the star, and how can she find it? 

As Riley embarks on her search, she finds herself meeting fantastic creatures and collaborating with her worst enemies. And when she uncovers secrets that challenge everything she has been taught to believe, Riley must decide what it means to be a witch, what it means to be family, and what it means to belong.

What to love about this book:

Since Graci Kim’s book is newly released and is sure to be a bestseller and favorite among readers, I will be careful not to give away any spoilers.

I was mesmerized by The Last Fallen Star!  I could not put it down. I normally take notes or put tabs in parts of a book I want to share, but I was so engrossed, I forgot. Her illustrious writing skills and beautiful world-building are perfect for this thrilling action-packed adventure that is magical, realistic, humorous, and dangerous. What an exciting way to learn about Korean mythology, witch clans, goddesses, and magical creatures with a contemporary Korean-American twist! I fell in love with this world right away! And I can’t forget to mention all the savory Korean food. 

What makes this story sing is Kim’s well-drawn characters that leap off the pages. Riley is an outcast because she is adopted and not gifted with a magical talent. Her heart longs to really belong to the Gom Clan. She wants to be a healer one day, but she’s vulnerable. She faces prejudice from both adults and peers. But what she really wants is to be accepted for who she truly is. Hattie is the best sister ever and loves Riley so much that she takes dangerous risks to share her own power with Riley. Riley couldn’t ask for a better friend in Emmett, who is somewhat of an outcast since his mother was a witch and his father a saram. He really understands Riley and supports her —  and he is funny, brave and loyal! There are many more characters and creatures that are lovable and evil, but they will find their way into the hearts of readers. In fact, I would love to have Boris in my life. You’ll have to read the novel to know who/what Boris is!

The fast-paced plot is complex with so many turns, that readers will enjoy being surprised! It is hard to guess what will happen next. And I didn’t see the ending coming at all — in fact I didn’t know what to expect. Readers will be interested in knowing that there will be more to Gifted Clans series with The Last Fallen Moon scheduled for release in the summer of 2022.  There is a lot more territory to cover in this mythical world. Make sure you read the introduction by Rick Riordan and check out his short interview with Graci Kim below.

Gracie Kim is a Korean Kiwi diplomat turned author who writes about the magic she wants to see in the world. The Last Fallen Star is her middle grade debut. In a previous life she used to be a cooking-show host, and once ran a business that turned children’s drawings into plushies. When she’s not lost in her imagination, you’ll find Graci drinking flat whites, eating ramyeon, and most likely hugging a dog.  She lives in New Zealand with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter @gracikim and Instagram @gracikimwrites. 

Rick Riordan is the author of five New York Times #1 best-selling middle grade series, including Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which brings Greek mythology to life for contemporary readers. The goal of Rick Riordan Presents is to publish highly entertaining books by authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to allow them to tell their own stories inspired by the mythology, folklore, and culture of their heritage. Rick’s Twitter handle is @RickRiordan. Visit him at his 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.

Unicorn Island by Donna Galanti

Unicorn Island (Volume 1)

Donna Galanti, Author

Bethany Stancliffe, Illustrator

Andrews McMeel Publishing, Feb. 9, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Unicorns, Mythical creatures, Mysterious Island, Fantasy

Synopsis:

Beyond the mist lies a magical secret waiting to be discovered . . .

When Sam arrives in Foggy Harbor, population 3,230, all she can see is a small, boring town that’s way too far from home. And knowing that she’s stuck there all summer with her grumpy Uncle Mitch only makes things worse.

But when Sam discovers a hidden trapdoor leading to a room full of strange artifacts, she realizes Foggy Harbor isn’t as sleepy as it seems. With the help of a new friend, Sam discovers an extraordinary secret beyond the fog: an island of unicorns whose fates are intertwined with hers.

Why I like this book:

Donna Galanti’s Unicorn Island is a compelling contemporary fantasy that is full of wonder, mystery and tension.  It will captivate readers’ imaginations and lure them into a magical world of mythical beasts.

Samantha (Sam) is a curious and resilient protagonist who longs for a place to call home. She moves every six months because of her musician mother’s playing with new orchestras. With an upcoming European tour, she literally dumps Sam on Uncle Mitch’s door step in Foggy Harbor for the summer without asking him. Fortunately Sam quickly becomes best friends with the Tuck, the veterinarian’s son. Uncle Mitch is somewhat stern and elusive at first, but Sam’s first impressions may be wrong.

Galanti’s narrative is engaging and immersive,  Her plot is solid with elements of danger that will keep readers quickly turning pages. The story also has a strong element of realism. This is the first volume with five books to follow. Yes, it ends with some interesting cliffhangers.

Although Unicorn Island is for students 8-12, it will also appeal to younger readers (7-10) who aren’t quite ready for wordy and lengthy MG fantasy novels. The book has a large type face and includes many gorgeous colorful illustrations by Bethany Stancliffe, which add to the magic.  I believe this book would also appeal to reluctant readers and kids with dyslexia.

Make sure you check out the great backmatter at the end of the book. Galanti shares some history on unicorns, wyverns, veterinarians, the pirates of the Carolina’s and Ocracoke and Assateague Islands, where the wild horses and ponies roam free.

Epic partnered with Andrews McMeel, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to release the series as an illustrated hardcover. The next 5 books in the series come out on Epic, a digital library this May. Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand (Volume 2), will be released in hardcover next winter.

Donna Galanti wanted to be a writer ever since she wrote a screenplay at seven years old and acted it out with the neighborhood kids. She attended an English school, housed in a magical castle, where her wild imagination was held back only by her itchy uniform (bowler hat and tie included!). She now lives with her family and two crazy cats in an old farmhouse and is the author of the middle-grade fantasy adventures Joshua and The Lightning Road and Joshua and the Arrow Realm.

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.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

Amari and the Night Brothers (Supernatural Investigations, 1)

B.B. Alston, Author

Balzer + Bray, Fiction, Jan. 19, 2021

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: African American, Heroes, Fantasy, Mythical Creatures, Supernatural talents, Racism

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

Why I like this book:

The cover is breathtaking with Black girl magic swirling around and through Amari’s hands. The title is done in beautiful gold lettering. Amari and the Night Brothers will appeal to readers! The book is pitched for fans of Harry Potter, Nevermoor and Men in Black — I’d also add Keeper of the Lost Cities.

B.B. Alston has created a thrilling action-packed adventure that is realistic, magical and humorous. Alston doesn’t shy away from including contemporary themes that address racism and discrimination, which Amari faces at home and at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.  At home she is an outcast because she is a Black girl from the projects attending a private school. At the bureau she is an outcast because she manifests as a magician, which is the only talent that is illegal in the supernatural world due to the evil Night Brothers — magicians who used dark magic to conquer death. Now she faces prejudice from both adults and peers. Amari doesn’t allow her challenges to define her.

The characters are amazing. Amari is determined, strong-willed and believable. She’s not at the summer camp to stand out, she is on a mission to find her brother, Quinton. She has a courageous spirit and believes that he’s alive somewhere and she’s going to track him down. She befriends her roommate, Elsie who is a technopath/inventor and is also bullied by her peers. Dylan manifests in physics and  technology. His sister, Lara, who bullies Amari, manifests as a superhuman athlete (superhero). Their missing sister Maria was Quinton’s partner. Dylan and Amari become partners as they train hard to make it into the Bureau of Investigations, so they can become junior agents.

The setting is contemporary. The bureau turns smart and talented students into geniuses who they put through a rigorous training programs required by the department they wish to join — and there are many departments like the technology bureau.  The Bureau of Supernatural Affairs resembles a NORAD control center where agents monitor magical creatures — boogie people, fairies, dwarfs, mermaids, witches, werewolves, aliens, Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman, and evil magicians — for their protection and the protection of the world. There are agents monitoring global activities, investigations, and imprisoned criminals. It is amusing when the new president of the United States is briefed by the Bureau about top secret supernatural activities in the world, he passes out.

I highly recommend this book to readers who are looking for an exciting adventure that will keep them glued to the pages and guessing what will happen next. It doesn’t contain an excessive amount of detail and may be perfect for reluctant readers. It is a sparkling read. Yes, there are major surprises. The ending is satisfying, but leaves a lot of room for the next two volumes in the trilogy. Readers will be interested in knowing that Universal Pictures has optioned the rights to Amari and the Night Brothers. So there WILL be a movie!

B.B. Alston lives in Lexington, South Carolina. Amari and the Night Brothers is hi debut middle grade novel. When not writing, he can be found eating too many sweet and exploring country roads to see where the lead.

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.

Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked by Shannon Messenger

Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked

Shannon Messenger, Author

Aladdin, Fiction, Nov. 17, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Fantasy, Comprehensive guide, Novella, Magic, Abilities, Magical Creatures, Evil, Relationships, Friendships

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Sophie Foster is regrouping — and Keefe is recovering — after the battle in Loamnore. And now, devastating discoveries threaten to destroy everything they’ve been fighting for.

Answers have never been more elusive — or more needed — and each new challenge drives deeper wedges between allies, friends, and enemies. Impossible choices lie ahead. So do necessary sacrifices — if Sophie and her friends are willing to make them.

Told through the perspectives of both Sophie and Keefe, this newest chapter in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series is packed full of hard truths, new powers and game-changing tsits — and that’s not all!

Unlocked Book 8.5 offers a comprehensive guide to the world of the Lost Cities, including never-before-seen artwork, a map of the Lost Cities, character profiles, world details, quizzes, and Iggy coloring page, and elvin recipes. Peek into the Council’s top-secret Registry files, as well as Keefe’s lengthy Foxfire disciplinary record and Sophie’s equally long medical report — and so much more!

Why I love this book:

Fans will find this book different from Shannon’s first eight novels. Unlocked actually gives readers a nice break to peer more deeply into all of the action and details of the first eight novels in greater depth. I find Unlocked a refreshing break to let my mind catch up before Shannon releases the conclusion of the series in Book 9 next fall. I’ve often wondered how she managed to keep all of the intricate details and plots straight in her mind. Unlocked will do the same for readers! The information is enlightening and fun.

The first two-thirds of the book is informational and full of secrets, profiles, information on the Council, the Black Swan and the Neverseens. There is a section on all the intelligent species, culture and their relationship with the elves.  And there are beautiful colorful illustrations of the main characters and eight significant scenes from each of the first eight books followed by a commentary of Keefe’s memories of the major events. What surprised me the most was the youthfulness of the elves — even though readers know that elves live many centuries — it still surprised me to see that the adults looked like they were in their early 20s and 30s. In my mind, Councilor Bronte is ancient — but he’s not.  My favorite illustration is of Flori under Calla’s Panakes tree.

The last third is a 200-page novella that focuses on Sophie and Keefe and is written in alternating voices. The novella picks up after the ending of Legacy, when Keefe’s mother-of-the-year, Lady Gisela, exposes him to a powerful energy with the hopes of triggering dangerous abilities within him. Actually I like this stand-alone novella and see how important it is for readers to hear directly from Keefe about what has happened to him, his fears, concerns and his decisions for the future. That is all I am going to reveal about the novella, as there are many who are reading their holiday copies of the book. I will add that the novella will make global readers eager for Book 9. You know Shannon couldn’t end the novella without one huge cliffhanger! And she did so with a big smiley face!

So while we read, Shannon is masterfully writing and plotting the finale. Unlocked has been an ambitious and important undertaking. But It sure is a handy guide for what is to come!

Resources: Visit Simon and Schuster for a free downloadable curriculum guide.

Shannon Messenger graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she learned — among other things — that she liked watching movies much better than making them. She studied art, screenwriting, and film production, but she realized her real passion was writing stories for children. She’s the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the award-winning middle grade series Keeper of the Lost Cities, as well as the Sky Fall series for young adults. Her books have been featured on multiple state reading lists, published in numerous countries, and translated into many different languages. She lives in Southern California with an embarrassing number of cats. Visit Shannon 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 purchased copy.