The Last Windwitch

Author: Jennifer Adam

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: April 13/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

This is one of those stories that continues to stay with me after it’s over. I miss it, and wish I could visit Brida and her world again. It’s also one of those stories that I hate to try and review it, because I know my words won’t do it justice.

Brida is an apprentice to a hedgewitch named Magdi, who adopted her an infant. Although she has magic, it doesn’t quite work the way Magdi’s does; she follows her instincts instead. As the weather around Oak Hollow becomes more tumultuous, Brida discover the legendary stormhorses that control it are real, and being pursued for their magic. She desperately wants to protect them, but her magic has drawn the attention of Queen Moira, and she goes into hiding to avoid a summons to the castle. She meets new friends along the way, and discovers a secret about her family that puts her in even greater danger, but she learns she might have the power to defeat the dark magic consuming the land.

What I loved most about this story was how beautifully it was written. The description of the stormhorses, the beauty and decay of the land, the secrets woven into the history of Brida’s family, and the haunting creatures that rose from the ground were so well developed. I felt like I was part of Brida’s journey, travelled the miles along with her, and was invested in her mission to free the stormhorses. I loved watching her begin to understand her magic, and trust her instincts as she ran into situations where she called upon it to help her. I also appreciated that she had to combine her talents with others to make the magic stronger, rather than being the sole heroine of the story, and her tenderness and kind-heartedness endeared her to me even more.

This book was the perfect escape from reality, and though I often have trouble picking up a long book, it’s one I miss now that it’s over. I felt completely immersed in it, without the niggling details that often pull me out a story when they don’t sit right with me. I would definitely recommend this story to fantasy lovers who enjoy a quest rich in detail and adventure, filled with magic, where good strives to triumph over evil.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

Unsettled

Author: Reem Faruqi

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: May 11/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

5 stars!!! What an absolutely beautiful story. This novel in verse comes out in May 2021, and is perfect for fans of stories like Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga.

Nurah and her family live in Pakistan, but her father find works in the States and decides to move the family for job security and better schooling. Nurah doesn’t want to leave her grandparents, friends, or the life as she knows it. Although she already speak English, she feels like she stands out because of the way she dresses and the color of her skin. She joins the swim team at school, where she desperately wants to prove herself, but is always in the shadow of her athletic brother, Owais. Adjusting to life in the US is challenging for each member of her family in different ways, but like the stages of plant life referenced in the headings of the parts of the book, Nurah eventually finds a way to bloom in new soil.

This is one of the most poetic and beautifully written novels in verse I’ve read. I wrote down so many quotes that jumped out at me with vivid language. I loved not only the nature imagery, but also the way she describes skin colors. I’m amazed at how much the author was able to communicate with such few words, and the story moves very quickly because of the format. It’s inspired by many of the author’s real life experiences immigrating to the US, and the feelings ring true and honest. I love how watching Nurah grow, enduring challenges and disappointments, but continuing to develop into her own unique person.

Although I read the book in eARC form, the illustrations inside the book are absolutely beautiful. Soumbal Qureshi did the cover design, and I believe she was responsible for the artwork throughout the novel, which truly makes this book a work of art.

I highly recommend this story, and think it would be a wonderful read aloud for middle grade classrooms.

Recommended: Gr. 4-7

The Last Shadow Warrior

Author: Sam Subity

Publisher: Scholastic Inc.

Release Date: April 6, 2021

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

I heard this book referred to as Beowulf meets Percy Jackson, but I have to be honest, I never read Beowulf in school and didn’t know the story. Fortunately, it wasn’t a requirement to enjoy this book. The Last Shadow Warrior is a story that puts a spin on Norse mythology the way that The Lightning Thief puts a spin on Greek mythology, and it’s an excellent book to recommend to those fans.

Abby’s mom was a Viking warrior known as an Aesir, and after her death, Abby held on her to desire to follow in her footsteps. When she is attacked at their home by a creature she suspects is a Grendel, the same monster that killed her mom, she and her dad immediately take off to Minnesota to go into hiding, where Abby can attend the same school her mom did. Unfortunately, they are in an accident just as they arrive, and her dad is seriously injured and taken to the hospital unconscious. As she tries to deal with his condition, she is taken to her new school, Vale Hall, which she quickly discover is not an ordinary school. But no one believes that Grendel’s still exist and are hunting Abby. In fact, the Viking Council plans to make Aesirs obsolete. Abby and her new friends must figure out a way to save Abby’s dad from his mysterious injury, convince the Council that Grendels do exist and are wreaking havoc, before Abby is their next victim.

I really enjoyed the relationship between Abby and her dad. This can be a difficult time for girls to stay close to their dads, and there’s still a strong bond between them that I loved to see. I also really liked Abby’s friends Gwynn and Grimsby, and how they offered support when Abby was suddenly thrust into a world about which so knew so little. There is also a lot of humor in this story, with monsters doing unexpected things (like playing ping pong) that will make readers laugh. Most of all, I love seeing authors take classic stories and find ways to present them to today’s young readers that will pique their interest in the subject. With a mix of engaging characters, an action-packed and humorous storyline filled with monsters and magic, I think this story will find many readers who will enjoy it as much as I did.

I think there’s so much potential for this book to become the start of a series, so I hope readers love it and allow the author to keep telling us Abby’s story.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

Meow or Never

Author: Jazz Taylor

Publisher: Scholastics Inc.

Release Date: Jan 5/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and Scholastics Inc. for an eARC of this book.

I really enjoyed this story about Avery, a girl with social anxiety who signs up to be part of the school play to be around her crush and to calm her dad’s fears about her panic attacks, and is horrified to discover she is cast as the lead role. Avery has to first deal with her difficulty speaking to others, and then must figure out how to sing and act in front of an audience, with only 6 weeks until the play. Fortunately, she makes some friends along the way that support her, including a cat who lives in the closet of the school’s theatre. But will it be enough to help her get up on stage and perform the night of the play?

This is a very cute cover, but there’s a lot of depth to this book. I really appreciated that it’s a story about a Black girl written by Black author. I liked that Avery’s crush is on Nic, the prettiest girl in her school who also becomes her friend. I also felt the anxiety representation was very good. Avery’s friends learns to help her with her panic attacks, and offer support rather than judgment. We clearly see that her physical reactions are not a choice, and the process of preparing herself for the play feels very realistic. I especially like the resolution of the story. Avery works hard to face her fears, and many of the techniques she uses will be helpful for young readers. I loved watching her persistence and determination, continually making steps toward her goal even when it’s hard.

I think this is an excellent addition to middle grade collections, and I hope it’s available in Scholastic flyers so it reaches a larger audience.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

Rea and the Blood of the Nectar

Author: Payal Doshi

Publisher: Mango and Marigold Press

Release Date: May 2021

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to the author and Edelweiss+ for an eARC of this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, which is the first book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series by debut author Payal Doshi. Although this book doesn’t come out until May 2021, I’m excited to help spread this word about it and make sure that readers are aware of it.

Rea and her twin brother, Rohan, live in Darjeeling, India with their mother and grandmother. Rea resents the favoritism that Amma and Bajai show toward Rohan, and that Rohan isn’t including her in the secret birthday party he’s planning on THEIR special day. She crashes the midnight cricket party, but discovers the next morning that her brother didn’t make it home and has gone missing. Rea desperately wants to find Rohan, so she enlists the help of her friend, Leela, go with her to visit the fortune teller she knows Amma recently visited in the hope of finding out more about his disappearance. She and Leela are given clues that lead them through a portal into the magical world of Astranthia, where they enlist the help of a barrow boy named Xeranther. Their quest to free Rohan involves battling deadly monsters, finding a missing flower petal, and wielding magic that Rea didn’t even know she possessed to stop the queen from using Rohan in her nefarious plans. But Rea also learns Amma and Bajai have been keeping a very big secret from her and Rohan, and suddenly her entire family, and the future of Astranthia, is in jeopardy.

I love stories that are set in countries different from my own, and seeing characters from different cultures be the heroes of stories. There is a lot of Indian culture that runs throughout this book, while incorporating fantasy elements such as magic, deadly creatures, and the necessity of developing special powers for good to triumph over evil. At the same time, it’s a story about family, friendship, betrayal, and taking risks to protect the people that you love. This story is so immersive because of the world that the author created, and how her descriptions were rich, imaginative, and detailed. I will be anxiously awaiting the next book in the series so I can revisit Astranthia and these wonderful characters.

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy the Kiranmala series by Sayantani DasGupta, Aru Shah series by Roshani Chokshi (or any of the Rick Riordan Presents books, although this story is not based on Indian mythology) or anyone who loves reading an adventurous fantasy rooted in culture.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

The Gilded Girl

Author: Alyssa Colman

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

Release Date: April 6, 2021

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

Although I’ve never read The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the classic story that inspired The Gilded Girl, I was intrigued to start with reading a modern day reimagining of it. I read Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe before I read its inspiration, Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, and enjoyed comparing the original to it rather than the other way around. I thought I’d try something similar with this story, and I enjoyed The Gilded Girl so much that I am eager to read the classic.

In this story, Emma is sent to Miss Posterity’s Academy for Practical Magic in preparation to kindle before her 13th birthday when her magic with otherwise be snuffed out. Her father is wealthy and well-respected, so despite her lack of obvious talent, she is treated as a special student at the school…until her father dies. Once Miss Posterity realizes she will not any more financing from him, she demotes Emma to an unpaid servant to pay back her debuts, and Emma realizes that her status and friends at the school are gone. She is forced is work with Izzy, a servant girl who’s had little use for her, but the pair realizes they have one thing in common…neither girl wants to lose their magic. They create a pact to help each other; Izzy will teach Emma how to be a servant if Emma will teach Izzy everything she’s learned about preparing to kindle. Together, the girls create other alliances to help them gather the knowledge and supplies they need, but when the day to kindle arrives, no one is prepared for the trouble that the winds bring with them.

What I enjoyed most about this story was the character development, especially that of Emma. She went from an entitled girl used to having things done for her, to one with strength and confidence. I also found Izzy inspiring as she grew from a jealous servant girl to a loyal friend who was willing to share her vulnerability and dreams with Emma. I wish the house dragon had played a bigger role in this story, but I will hope that this is a retelling that will have a sequel and pick up where this story left off.

I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

RECOMMENDED: Gr. 4-6

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls

Author: Kaela Rivera

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: April 13/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

Cece and her family live in the small desert community of Tierra de Sol. She hasn’t fit in since her encounter with the criatura, Tzitzimitl, who many believe cursed her when she was seven. Now that her older sister, Juana, has been invited to do the Amenazante dance on Noche de Muerte to scare away the powerful spirits who threaten her community during the criatura months, Cece doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to prove herself and live up to the example of her sister. But when Juana is kidnapped by El Sombreron, Cece is determined to find a way to get her back. To gain entry into Devil’s Alley, she will have prove that she is a bruja, a witch, and find a criatura to control who will make it to the final round of the Bruja Fights. Cece doesn’t want to become a bruja, but she doesn’t know another way to save her sister. She manages to enlist the help of Coyote, and although he wins the first round, there is a major setback. Cece must discover how she can stay true to herself while developing trust with others to help her, especially once there is suspicion about her true motives and the stakes are raised.

I really enjoyed this book based on the stories of Mexican folklore that the author’s abuelo told her when she was young. I love learning about cultures different from my own, and the stories that are told as part of it. I loved that Cece was committed to rescuing her sister on her own terms, and used her kindness to succeed rather than succumbing to darker emotions. I also liked watching her discover what she was capable of, and connecting to her soul. We watched her grow into her power with the support of her criaturas, and demonstrate her bravery by being scared by persevering against the odds. The setting of the desert was unique, and I love how the preparations for Noche de Muerte helped us understand Cece’s culture and some of their beliefs.

I would definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoy fantasy stories based on mythology, with courageous female protagonists determined to prove good can triumph over evil.

Recommended: Gr. 5-7

A Place To Hang The Moon

Author: Kate Albus

Publisher: Margaret Ferguson Books

Release Date: February 2/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

5 STARS!! I readily admit that what I think about a book is directly proportional to my emotional reaction to it. In this case, A PLACE TO HANG THE MOON by Kate Albus gave me ALL the feels, and I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. Historical fiction is not my favorite genre, but this story about three siblings who are sent to the countryside in England during World War II grabbed me from the beginning and held on until the very end.

William, Edmund and Anna have lived with “the” grandmother in London since their parents died many years ago. When she dies and the children are left without a guardian, its decided to quietly send them to the countryside with a school group evacuating London, in the hopes that their billeting family might be willing to keep them forever. Their hopes are dashed when they end up with the Forrester family, whose two sons endeavor to make their stay extremely unpleasant. As one bad situation leads to another, and the kids must adjust to some terrible conditions, the one constant in their life is the local librarian, Mrs. Muller, and the welcoming atmosphere of the library. She is an outcast in the community because her missing husband is German, but when the children need her most, she is the one adult they can count on.

I absolutely love the author’s writing. There is a hopefulness runs throughout the story, even when the children face extremely difficult circumstances. The relationships are the key for me; not only those between the three siblings (I love how devoted William is to his younger siblings, especially Anna), but each of their attachments to Mrs. Muller for different reasons. Each of their foster families gives the reader a look into the challenges facing the people in the community in the early part of the war without being a heavy story, and though the harsh realities are not ignored (the scene with the rats was pretty intense for me) they are not the central focus.

It’s a heartwarming story that I am anxious to add to my collection so I can share this story with young readers. It’s the author’s debut MG novel, but I look forward to reading more from her.

RECOMMENDED: Gr. 5-7

Take Back The Block

Author: Chrystal D. Giles

Publisher: Random House

Release Date: January 26/20

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to the author and publisher for an eARC of this book.

Here’s an example of a great debut middle grade novel; it’s an excellent length at 240 pages, has short chapters, and tells a story that focuses on community and taking action to protect things that matter. It sheds light on the important issue of Black neighborhoods that are being sold and transformed into middle or upper class areas, and the history that is lost in the process.

Wes has grown up in Kensington Oaks, in the same house his mom grew up in, and that his grandfather spent ten years saving to purchase. He knows his neighbors, his friends all live here, and he’s got lots of wonderful memories from his neighborhood. But things start to change when a development group offers to buy the homes in the area to make way for new ventures. Not only does it divide the residents as people wonder what to do, but it also starts to break up Wes’s group of friends. Wes tries to bring everyone together in an effort to Take Back The Block and save it from being demolished, but even with hard work there are some changes that just can’t be prevented. Wes and his friendships are transformed, as is Kensington Oaks, in ways that no one could have predicted.

There are a lot of elements of this story that I really liked. I loved the sense of community that existed in Kensington Oaks, even when people where fighting over whether to stay or leave. Seeing a close-knit Black community in a positive light, with little crime and families who cared about their neighbors, broke many stereotypes that we often find in books (I loved that the Black police officers used to coach the baseball teams). I also loved that the history of the neighborhood was tied to the only Black lumber mill owner, and that his legacy is remembered as the story unfolds. The characters come from very different family situations and backgrounds, so we get a chance to see a wide-range of experiences, while the group of friends maintain their connections. The involvement of Wes and his family in protests for different causes, Wes’s social studies project on a modern issue in today’s society, and his involvement with Save Our City and other aid organizations is inspiring for young readers who desperately want to find ways to bring about change.

I was reminded many times of TIGHT by Torrey Maldonado and his books that focus on young middle graders, while at the same time I thought of SO DONE by Paula Chase and her characters that dealt with Black friendships and the bonds of the neighborhood. I would definitely recommend this book and look forward to reading more from the author.

Recommended: Gr. 4-7

Real

Authors: Carol Cujec and Peyton Goddard

Publisher: Shadow Mountain Publishing

Release Date: February 2/21

Reviewer: Kathie

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for an eARC of this book.

I have learned to shy away from reviewing books about neurodiversity. Well-meaning friends have reached out to me on more than one occasion and told me a book I’ve reviewed did not have good representation (for which I’m very grateful). I do not have family members or friends who openly discuss their neurodivergence, nor do I work in an environment where I get to build close relationships with kids who think differently than I do. Although I enjoy reading and learning about topics such as autism through middle grade books, I listen to conversations but rarely share my thoughts anymore.

But this book touched me so deeply that I bumped the post I had scheduled for today to tell you about it. In a similar way that Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper is one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, REAL by Carol Cujec and Peyton Goddard is the new title I will add to that list. The beauty of this story is that it is based on Peyton’s life, who was nonverbal and unable to speak or control her body as a child. She went through experiences similar to that of Charity, the main character in the story, and suffered neglect and abuse at the school she attended. At the age of 22, her mom learned about supported typing, and Peyton was finally given the opportunity to use words to communicate. The extent of her intelligence was revealed, and she soaked up the education she was given, graduating as the valedictorian from college.

REAL is told from the perspective of Charity, a thirteen year old girl who is autistic and nonverbal. She is unable to control her body, which makes it difficult for all but her closest family members to understand how smart she is. She is enrolled in Borden Academy, a school that is supposed to support alternative learning, but has a secret and dark reality. Charity’s behavioral changes prompt a surprise visit from her mom, who discovers the truth and immediately removes her from Borden. She advocates for Charity to attend a local public school, where Charity meets a wonderful, supportive team of individuals who teach her new skills and help her participate in regular classes. When one of Charity’s team suggests they try supported typing, it’s discovered that Charity is an intelligent girl with a gift for math. Charity make new friends, and impresses both the teachers and students with her thoughtful comments communicated through her device with the help of her aid. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy to have Charity included in their classes, and on the basketball team, and she faces bullying both online and in person. Charity is determined to speak up for those who do not have a voice, especially those individuals like her friend Isabella who is still at Borden, but she has many obstacles she must overcome to do it.

This story is not an easy one to read, but I believe some of the ones we most need to hear aren’t. The voice is perfect for a middle grade audience, but the subject matter makes it an excellent book to discuss with an older audience as well. I think it’s so important that students have an opportunity to understand the individuals or classmates in their schools with whom they are unable to communicate, and to see interactions through a perspective like Charity’s. The publisher includes inclusion tips from the authors to help facilitate classroom discussions, and I would love to see this book shared as a read aloud.

I highly recommend this story, and hope that your compassion, empathy, and understanding are fueled by it the way mine were.

Recommended by publisher: Ages 8-11