Mighty Jack, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke, color by Alex Campbell and Hilary Sycamore
published in 2016 by First Second
Turning Ben Hatke loose with Jack and his magical beans is like, I don’t know, giving J.K. Rowling the keys to Oz? Letting Lewis Carroll slip into Narnia? Suddenly even the ordinarily-magical gets cranked up into neon, technicolor heights! And at the same time, a vein of tenderness wends its way through the whole account. Seriously magical.
Jack is a nice kid with a single mom working two jobs over the summer to make ends meet, and a younger, autistic sister who needs watching. Maddy clearly loves Jack, and just as clearly has intense ideas and tastes, but she doesn’t talk. At all. Which makes caring for her a tricky business.
One day at the flea market Maddy wanders off and bumbles into a mysterious sort of fellow with some peculiar seed packets for sale. Jack doesn’t have the money to pay for them but when the craziest thing happens — when Maddy suddenly does talk and begs him to buy the seeds — Jack gets tipped off balance and recklessly pays the fellow off with…No, I won’t tell you but his mom is furious!
When Jack and Maddy set to work planting those curious seeds, stranger, far more malevolent things sprout up than simply a sky-high beanstalk! It takes all Jack’s wits plus the help of a new, sizzlingly-spunky, homeschooled neighbor girl, Lilly, and her rad swordsmanship, to confront the menacing jungle.
Hatke’s characters knit their way into my heart with magical speed — wait’ll you meet those Onion Babies! — and the pace and electric energy of his story make this a wild page-turner. And then — cliffhanger ending! For this is Book One. The conclusion comes out later in 2017.
Turn folks ages 8 and up loose with this for a wild ride!
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Beetle Boy, by M.G. Leonard, illustrations by Júlia Sardà
published in 2016 by Chicken House, Scholastic
It all starts with the mysterious disappearance of Dr. Bartholomew Cuttle, an enigmatic, punctilious scientist who enters the collection vaults in the Natural History Museum one ordinary day, and *poof* disappears.
12-year-old Darkus Cuttle, his son, is taken in by his uncle, Professor Maximilian Cuttle, a kind, honest, if slightly distracted archaeologist. All well and good BUT! what can have happened to his father? Despite what the detectives and journalists insinuate, Darkus is certain foul play is involved. His father would never abandon him. So where is he?
The answers to Darkus’s questions come from the most extraordinary sources beginning with a large-ish black beetle, eyes glistening like blackberries, sporting a pointy horn and capable of some downright terrifying hissing. Oh, and it understands human language. Comes when called. Darkus names him Baxter.
Baxter turns out to be just one of a whole collection of intelligent super-beetles, genetically altered in a sinister plot by the Cruella DeVille-esque Lucretia Cutter. Truly someone worth hissing about! Darkus and Baxter team up with a pair of new friends and a veritable army of phenomenal insects, but the clock is ticking. Can they find his father, plus defeat Lucretia, her sinister staff, and a pair of odious, ghoulish neighbors, in time to prevent her diabolical scheme?
This is the fast-paced first novel in a new trilogy with loud echoes of Dr. Who and Roald Dahl and a pinch of Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander series. With its fiendish, outlandish characters, crisp, polished prose, and relentless tension, it’s a sterling beginning. I know — super-beetles sound unpalatable to you. Believe me, though — you will love these guys! Their jeweled beauty and extraordinary abilities will make you not only cheer for their valor, but turn a newly-appreciative eye on their counterparts in the real, marvelous, curious world of beetles.
My U.S. copy did not have any of Júlia Sardà’s great illustrations, which is too bad. But an added Entomologist’s Dictionary helps readers understand terms used, from Coloeptera to transgenic. I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it for ages 10 and up.
Here’s the Amazon link: Beetle Boy
And consider this…
A fantastic pairing would be Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long’s gorgeous nonfiction book, A Beetle Is Shy. After reading about these amazing creatures’ sci-fi adventures in Beetle Boy, gazing at their true beauty and learning some amazing facts from this book will certainly appeal.
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Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure, written by Ann M. Martin with Annie Parnell, illustrated by Ben Hatke
published in 2016 by Feiwel and Friends
How many of you have read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? If you have, I’m guessing a warm wave of happiness just washed over you!
For those of you unacquainted with her, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is the short, plumpish little woman who lives in an upside-down house full of marvels, fresh baked cookies, and magical cures for ill-behaved children. She’s one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, having made her first appearance in 1947, in Betty MacDonald’s collection of chapter books about her.
With her wise notions and secret potions Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is always the right person to call on whether children suffer from resisting baths, tattling, or downright selfishness. Her clever cures work like a charm every time! You can read more about her in my earlier review of that book here.
Now, almost 70 years later, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s grand-niece has arrived on the scene to welcome a whole new batch of children into that magical home. It seems that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has finally decided to find out what happened to her mysterious pirate-husband who’s been missing ever-so-long, and has left the house in charge of Missy.
Sequels written by others can be touchy things. Putting such a beloved person as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle into another’s hand for potential mistreatment — that raises the hackles on any bonafide booklover, right? Well, rest easy. The skillful Ann M. Martin has beautifully handed over the keys of the house to this newcomer and written an excellent first entry into what I’m hoping will be several episodes.
As a matter-of-fact, I think Martin anticipates the trepidation of long-time fans. The House itself is decidedly mistrustful of Missy upon her arrival, employing all the underhanded tricks a House might have up its sleeve in order to propel her right back where she came from. As our hearts warm towards Missy, so does the House, and we all wind up happily, comfortably, nestled in together.
Missy has her own set of ill behaviors to cure in the children she meets, including greediness, gum-smacking, the ol’ just-one-more-minute-itis, and a know-it-all who needs setting straight. She tackles them with the same mix of gravity and kindness as her great-aunt, winning the trust of the townful of children and their parents. There’s also a blush of romance between Missy and the awkward young bookseller in town, Harold Spectacle, just to sweeten the deal.
Ben Hatke brings these characters into the 21st century beautifully as well, with his knack for infusing personality into his figures. He mixes the freshness needed by a new generation of readers with a lovely old-fashioned sensibility that respects the atmosphere of both the original stories and this new batch. Just look at that enticing cover!
I heartily recommend you read the original story first. No need to read all five of those previous books, but do read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Then dip into this new installment for a delightful treat. Great read-alouds for a wide age-range, or trusted staples for independent readers ages 7 and up.
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The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill
published by Algonquin Young Readers
ON SHELVES BEGINNING TUESDAY, AUGUST 9!
Minnesota-author Kelly Barnhill has come out with another powerful middle-grade fantasy starring a short, bustling witch named Xan, Glerk the swamp monster, and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. There’s magic-aplenty in her story, not the least of which is how quickly these three will wrap themselves around your heart and cinch you into their lives, troubles, and urgent endeavors.
Life in the forest utterly changes when a small girl named Luna is folded into this trio’s company. Rescued as an infant by Xan, Luna takes a mighty slurp of moonlight and becomes enmagicked. Oops. There’s nothing for it but to raise her as their own. But an enmagicked child, as you might guess, is quite tricky to raise. Gobs more potential for disaster than with your ordinary, mischief-making toddler!
Luna needed rescuing because of the cold, cruel practice of the Protectorate: every year the elders mercilessly abandon a child as a peace-offering to the witch of the forest. Xan, unbeknownst to them, makes a habit of rescuing those babies. Eventually, a young man rises up with a brave plan to put an end to all this unspeakable sorrow and death. By killing Xan.
Barnhill’s impeccable writing makes for effortless reading, while she spins her plot with perfect pacing. Packed within the story are some tremendously thought-provoking themes which elevate this quite beyond an ordinary fantasy and make it a superb choice for a middle-grade-and-older book club.
Appearances are not what they seem. Behind the labels we place on people, quite the opposite character might lie. The hag might be good, and the councilmen evil. The weak might be strong, and the powerful, weak. Ugliness might mask beauty.
A great deal of commentary on governance also runs through the narrative, commentary I think George Orwell would have welcomed. The rulers of the Protectorate — an ironic name if there ever was one — control the populace through fear, lies, and oppression. They brook no questions or dissent. Those who control the narrative, wield the power, so it becomes critical to utterly control the narrative. And in their power, these gluttons and cowards refuse to actually protect the weak. Instead, they feed on them. Ordinary citizens are chained to despair through ignorance and fear.
That’s the dark side. The moonlit side of the story is that love and self-sacrifice open the way, empower, restore. It’s a treacherous road to get there, but an incredibly satisfying one.
386 pages. Ages 11 through adult. Great book to hand a fan of fantasy, but I read little fantasy and thoroughly enjoyed this so don’t simply skip it if that’s not normally your genre of choice. I predict this will garner some awards.
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Forest of Wonders (Wing & Claw Book 1), by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by James Madsen
published in 2016 by HarperCollins
Raffa, age 12, is the son of two apothecaries who live in a quiet settlement near the mysterious Forest of Wonders.
Though young, Raffa has already demonstrated an uncanny knack for mixing up effective tinctures, infusions, and poultices purchased by villagers. He has acquired a great store of knowledge about the marvelous botanicals growing in the Forest, and how to make use of their powerful healing properties.
One day, Raffa is startled by the literal dropping-in-to-his-life of a little bat. A grievously injured bat. In the process of mending its shredded wings and broken bones, Raffa collects and uses a scarlet vine, an ancient remedy known to his grandmother as a particularly potent agent of healing. And yes, the bat’s wounds heal nicely. But that vine possesses far stranger powers than anyone would suspect. And now some of that vine has gone AWOL.
To prevent the vine from harming others — human and animal — Raffa ventures off to the capital city, Gilden, an overwhelming and menacing place for a country bumpkin. There he encounters a heap of troubles, meets some unusual compatriots, and learns of a sinister plot underway courtesy of the Chancellor of Obsidia.
I do not pick up a lot of fantasy literature, partially because I am cowed by the length of most of the series — often 3 to 5 thick volumes long. With all the titles on my want-to-read list, I usually cannot bear to begin those formidable sets!
Linda Sue Park
However. This one has Linda Sue Park’s name on it, and when I see her name on a book, I grab it. And I’m never sorry.
I loved this book. As we’ve come to expect from Linda, the plot, pacing, setting, dialogue, are perfect. And the characters! Incredibly engaging. By the end of this volume, you’ll have grown to love smart, tenderhearted, conscientious Raffa and his seriously-intrepid band of friends. You’ll also meet Echo — the most endearing little bat on the planet — and several other animals who will steal your heart.
See how cute a bat can be?!
If my kids were 10 again, they would absolutely lovelovelove this book.
One of the charms of the story is its focus on the wild plants in the Forest of Wonders and their extraordinary powers of healing. I felt like I was back in Pomona Sprout’s laboratory at Hogwarts, chopping and blending roots and shoots to magical effect! The fact is, our forests are filled with plant life imbued with medicinal potential, and the awe we feel reading about the Forest of Wonders would be well-cultivated for the amazing, often-threatened, vegetation around us.
Apart from being a magnificent adventure, the story raises thought-provoking questions about civil disobedience, the wise use of environmental resources, the potential for adverse consequences to scientific advances, the ethics of using the ends to justify the means. It’s a thrilling story in which success hangs on tremendously difficult choices, and on friends who trust one another and do not betray that trust.
Grab this for kids ages 9 and up. The only problem is the cliff-hanger ending! No idea when Book Two will release. (330 pages)
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