The Promise Witch by Celine Kiernan


Description*

Third in a darkly enchanting trilogy after Begone the Raggedy Witches and The Little Grey Girl, The Promise Witch opens in a time of heat and thirst. The deposed old tyrant of a queen sent a cursed winter to bury Witches Borough in snow. Months later, the clouds have vanished, but an equally cursed drought has settled over the castle and its river, now bone-dry. Witches Borough is dying, and though Mup is the pathfinder, the stitcher of worlds, is she strong enough to mend a scorched landscape and bring the water home? Enter a raggedy witch trailing a storm of ashes: Magda, Crow’s mother. She wants Mup to fulfill a promise. She wants Mup to help her. And woe betide any who stand in her way. Irish storyteller Celine Kiernan’s breathtaking tale of family, loyalty, and risk caps a timeless trilogy brimming with drama and danger—and heartbreaking resonance to the struggles of today.

I discovered Celine Kiernan’s series quite by accident while browsing online. I was thoroughly captivated by Begone the Raggedy Witches and eagerly read the follow-up Little Grey Girl. In The Promise Witch, Kiernan brings the family through the hardest of times, guiding Mup and Mam and the people through terrible thirst and vengeance from a power in decline.

As in the two previous stories, Mup is the center, the “stitcher of worlds” who provides the path for the new through the terrible landscape of the old.

Kiernan’s characterization is outstanding. Mup, wise beyond her years and powerful beyond belief, is still a little girl who needs her Mam. And Mam is a little girl all grown up finally understanding her role in this magical world.

This can be read as a straightforward fantasy for middle graders, but also as an allegory for climate change. Kiernan layers magic, friendship, and loyalty over top of environmental changes similar to what’s happening in our world. Her story implies that good change can happen when people come together, trust one another, and make decisions that may involve sacrifice for the benefit of others.

This is storytelling at its best. Highly recommended.

Published By: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Thanks to *Edelweiss.Plus for the review copy

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston


New York Times bestseller! Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

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.

I haven’t been this excited about a debut fantasy book for kids since I read the Sorcerer’s Stone ARC way back in 1997. Amari & the Night Brothers is the first in what I hope will be a long-running series featuring a young Black girl and her brother, who are magical investigators. While Quinton, the brother, is a super-talented investigator, it’s Amari who is the magician and has the most power. What a powerful message to send to girls.

When we first meet Amari, she’s confused, worried, angry, and sad for many reasons. She is targeted and bullied at school, her mother works too hard, and her brother has mysteriously disappeared. Like the boy living in the cupboard under the stairs, Amari discovers a whole new, magical world where she suddenly finds power, acceptance, and friendship – qualities that appear again and again in this story.

The author imbues Amari with integrity and loyalty, two traits that help her adjust to life at “camp” and help her through the trials she experiences there. B.B. Alston has captured the magic of a young girl starting to grow up and grow into herself.

Amari is set to become a new and improved Harry Potter for girls and boys who found a hero on the screen in Black Panther. I’ll be buying copies of this and handing them out liberally.

The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book by Kate Milford


Nothing is what it seems and there’s always more than one side to the story as a group of strangers trapped in an inn slowly reveal their secrets in this new standalone mystery set in the world of the best-selling Greenglass House, from a National Book Award nominee and Edgar Award–winning author.

The rain hasn’t stopped for a week, and the twelve guests of the Blue Vein Tavern are trapped by flooded roads and the rising Skidwrack River. Among them are a ship’s captain, tattooed twins, a musician, and a young girl traveling on her own. To pass the time, they begin to tell stories—each a different type of folklore—that eventually reveal more about their own secrets than they intended.

As the rain continues to pour down—an uncanny, unnatural amount of rain—the guests begin to realize that the entire city is in danger, and not just from the flood. But they have only their stories, and one another, to save them. Will it be enough?

Kate Milford’s Nagspeake series has been one of my favorites for the last few years. She has built a vibrant, mysterious, and wholly unique world in which her characters move in seemingly disconnected paths and times.

The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book is the string that winds it all together.

Readers of the Nagspeake books first encounter the Raconteur’s book in Green Glass House as a book being read by the protagonist, Milo. Here, we actually get to know the people in the book – their secrets, their talents, their imaginations, their deceptions, and their hearts.

Essentially a book a short stories, fables even, glued together with an overarching people-stuck-in-a-house-by-impending-disaster trope, Raconteur pulls threads from each of the earlier Nagspeake books, giving the reader pleasant memories of past reading experiences.

As a fan of Milford’s books, I enjoyed this immensely; however, if this is your first entry into Nagspeake, stop and go right to your library and get Green Glass House, then read all the books. I can’t recommend an order (even Milford can’t do that and she tries here https://clockworkfoundry.com/faq/in-what-order-should-i-read/), but read them all, then pick up Raconteur and enjoy the ride, or better yet – share it with the middle grade reader in your life!

Publication Date: February 23, 2021
Published By: Clarion Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay


8F336876-C457-4438-91E5-BBE856C38066From Netgalley & the Publisher:

From award-winning author Hilary McKay comes a beautiful, enchanting story about a girl adjusting to her new family and their new house—which just might be magical.

When Abi’s father marries Max and Louis’s mom, their families start over together. Abi suddenly finds herself the middle child, expected to share far too much—especially with grubby little Louis. Then they move into an eerie, ivy-covered house, big enough for all of them.

But for the children, strange things start to happen in that house. Abi reads alone, and finds herself tumbling so deep into books, they almost seem real. Louis summons comfort from outdoors, and a startling guest arrives—is it a cat or something else? Max loses his best friend…and falls in love. Meanwhile, Louis’s secret visitor is becoming much too real. Now Abi, Max, and Louis must uncover the secrets of their new home—for there can be danger in even the most beautiful magic.

Moving into a new home can be very traumatic for children. Moving into a new home with a new family can be even harder.

The Time of Green Magic is more about the intricacies of family dynamics than it is about magic. The three children in this blended family all struggle with some serious emotions. Abi feels unwelcome in her new blended family, resenting sharing her Dad with her two new brothers and missing her grandmother terribly. Max and Louis are also struggling to accept Abi and her Dad as parts of their lives with mom Polly. Louis especially has issues with separation and anger.

Moving into a new house, completely covered with ivy, sets in motion a series of events that results in the family being renewed and bonded, but not without some excitement along the way. Truly, this is about the children coming to grips with love, loss, and fear.

McKay does a good job of telling a captivating, exciting story that seamlessly blends fantasy and reality. As a librarian and reader, I especially appreciate that books are the vehicle used to introduce magic to the children’s lives.

Kids exploring fantasy will enjoy this, and I expect it will lead them to other, more complex stories.

Recommended.

Publication Date: July 28, 2020
Published By: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing; Margaret K. McElderry Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Hood by Jenny Elder Moke


cover182367-mediumYou have the blood of kings and rebels within you, love. Let it rise to meet the call. Isabelle of Kirklees has only ever known a quiet life inside the sheltered walls of the convent, where she lives with her mother, Marien. But after she is arrested by royal soldiers for defending innocent villagers, Isabelle becomes the target of the Wolf, King John’s ruthless right hand. Desperate to keep her daughter safe, Marien helps Isabelle escape and sends her on a mission to find the one person who can help: Isabelle’s father, Robin Hood. As Isabelle races to stay out of the Wolf’s clutches and find the father she’s never known, she is thrust into a world of thieves and mercenaries, handsome young outlaws, new enemies with old grudges, and a king who wants her entire family dead. As she joins forces with Robin and his Merry Men in a final battle against the Wolf, will Isabelle find the strength to defy the crown and save the lives of everyone she holds dear?

In Hood, author Jenny Elder Moke reimagines the world of Robin Hood in lush, historical detail and imbues her story with more breathless action than has ever come out of Sherwood Forest before. This novel is a must-read for historical-fiction fans, adventure lovers, and reluctant readers alike!

There has been a spate of creative re-imaginings of old stories, so I was curious to see how Moke reinvented Robin Hood. What I found was not a re-telling or even a re-invention but a freshly drawn sequel answering the question “so what happened to Robin and Marien?”

There is plenty of action here, featuring both men and women, and some gore which pushes this firmly up into end-of-middle-school category. Moke’s writing is crisp and lively, with memorable characters. Isabelle, daughter of Robin & Marien, sometimes is a little silly, but Moke successfully portrays her as the sheltered-girl-finding-her-spine. The climax was unexpected and sad, but Moke brings everything full-circle and sets the stage for what could be a really cool series. Well done.

Ages 12 and up

Publication Date: June 9, 2020
Published By: Disney-Hyperion
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Quintessence by Jess Redman


9780374309763_aa1faIn this heartfelt middle-grade novel perfect for fans of Barbara O’Connor, a girl goes on a quest to return a fallen star to the sky, and along the way discovers friendship, magic, and the strength of her own soul.

Three months ago, twelve-year-old Alma moved to the town of Four Points. Her panic attacks started a week later, and they haven’t stopped—even though she’s told her parents that they have. Every day she feels less and less like herself. But one day she finds a telescope in the town’s junk shop, and through its lens, she watches a star—a star that looks like a child—fall from the sky and into her backyard. Alma knows what it’s like to long for home, and decides she’ll return that star home to the sky. With the help of unlikely new friends, she sets out on a quest that will take a little bit of science, a little bit of magic, and her whole self. Quintessence is a stunning story from Jess Redman about friendship, self-discovery, interconnectedness, and the inexplicable elements that make you you.

Quintessence was the first book I read in 2020 and is one of my top 10 books so far this year. The unique plot revolving around a fallen star unfolds into this lovely story about a young girl struggling with identity, loneliness, and self-worth in a new town.

There are so many good things about this book but perhaps the most touching is the message that we all have a light inside – we just need to figure out how to ignite it. Alma remembers that light and is frustrated with trying to find it again. Anyone struggling with depression will recognize that feeling and identify with Alma as she searches for her inner fire.

This is Jess Redman’s second book. Her first, The Miraculous, also featured a child protagonist struggling with a difficult time. I wrote about that book here. The Miraculous was a lovely, heartbreaking book; Quintessence is absolute joy.

So good for kids to know that they are enough.

Well done!

Publication Date: July 28, 2020
Published By: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy

Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap


cover180004-mediumFor fans of The Hazel Wood, this middle grade novel takes the dark stuff of fairytales and crafts it into a powerful story of friendship and light.

Every evening Lampie, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, must light a lantern to warn ships away from the rocks, but one stormy night disaster strikes. The lantern is not lit, a ship is wrecked, and someone must pay.

To work off her debt, Lampie is banished to the Admiral’s lonely house, where a monster is rumored to live. The terrors inside the house aren’t quite what she thought they would be–they are even stranger. After Lampie saves the life of the neglected, deformed son of the admiral, a boy she calls Fish, they form a close bond. Soon they are pulled into a fairytale adventure swimming with mermaids, pirates, and misfits. Lampie will discover the courage to fight for friendship, knowledge, and the freedom to be different.

Ready for a weird and harsh twist on The Little Mermaid fairytale?

This twisted tale imagines the life of the offspring of the union between a mermaid and a human, told through the voice of a young, uneducated but fierce girl named Emilia.

Emilia, also known as Lampie, endures a hard life as a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, made more difficult by the loss of her beloved mother and her father’s subsequent drinking and depression. A horrible lapse in memory causes a terrible disaster, which separates Lampie and her father. Sent to live in the “Black House,” Lampie quickly comes to understand that there is something very wrong there. Lampie uncovers the secret of the household, the deformed son of the master who is kept locked in a tower room. Lampie finds that he is a rude little boy, but also much more. The two form an unusual friendship, which grows out of Lampie’s natural inclination to treat Edward, or Fish as she calls him, as any other person. Ultimately, they both find their way “home.”

This is not a sweet fairy story and includes some violence. It examines the darker side of human nature, focusing on the suspicion, fear and intolerance associated with people who are different, but also demonstrates the utter joy and beauty that can be found when human beings connect despite their differences. Beautifully written, with characters that jump off the pages and swim around in your mind long after the book is closed, Of Salt and Shore should be one of the most anticipated books of the year.

Publication Date: September 15, 2020
Published By: Charlesbridge Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Thief Knot by Kate Milford


cover168401-mediumGhosts, a kidnapping, a crew of young detectives, and family secrets mix in this new standalone mystery set in the world of the bestselling Greenglass House, from a National Book Award nominee and Edgar Award-winning author.

Marzana and her best friend are bored. Even though they live in a notorious city where normal rules do not apply, nothing interesting ever happens to them. Nothing, that is, until Marzana’s parents are recruited to help solve an odd crime/kidnapping, and she realizes that this could be the excitement she’s been waiting for. She assembles a group of kid detectives with special skills—including the ghost of a ship captain’s daughter—and together, they explore hidden passageways, navigate architecture that changes overnight, and try to unravel the puzzle of who the kidnappers are—and where they’re hiding. But will they beat the deadline for a ransom that’s impossible to pay?

Legendary smugglers, suspicious teachers, and some scary bad guys are just a few of the adults the crew must circumvent while discovering hidden truths about their families and themselves in this smart, richly imagined tale.

Kate Milford’s Nagspeake books just keep getting better. The world-building that began in Greenglass House continues with this latest entry featuring characters introduced in The Ghosts of Greenglass House last year. Marzana and her parents are back, as are Lucky and Emmett, in this case living a peaceful (if boring) life in The Liberty of Gammerbund. Marzana chafes at the ordinariness of her life, not understanding why her parents keep her from fully understanding their old lives as smugglers.

As the story picks up steam, Marzana finds herself making friends and taking charge, two things that have been difficult for her. Milford often includes a character who struggles with some sort of issue. For Milo in the Greenglass books, it’s anger. For Marzana, it’s shyness and anxiety that takes the form of a bear gnawing away at her insides. Milford wraps bibliotherapy into a cracking good story, which will keep kids reading at the same time it makes them feel better about themselves. Well done.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020
Published By: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Author Spotlight – Robin L. Flanigan


RobinRobin L. Flanigan grew up among the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, and launched a writing career in the early ‘90s while living in a Baltimore graveyard.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in language and literature from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she studied for a semester at Oxford University’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Robin worked in newsrooms for eleven years, winning several national awards. Her essays have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies.

Her children’s book, M is for Mindful, uses inspiring verses to help children cultivate self-awareness, compassion, respect for diversity, and other practices—for an intentional, balanced, considerate life.

How did you get started as a writer?

I wrote my first story when I was seven, and have been writing ever since. As a newspaper reporter, I came up the old-school way—-writing for free to get bylines, then using those bylines to sell stories to various publications. That led to jobs at newspapers in Maryland, North Carolina and eventually, Rochester, New York. I have been freelancing now for 14 years, working mostly for newspapers and magazines around the country. When it comes to writing, I feel like I’m never off the clock. If I’m not on deadline, for example, I’m usually drafting a personal essay or jotting notes about future book ideas.

Who has influenced your writing career?

One of my friends from the Little Italy section of Baltimore is Rosalia Maria Scalia, and she raised three children on a freelancer’s salary. A former Baltimore Sun reporter named Rafael Alvarez, who taught me about persistence and the importance of place, introduced me to her. Good mentors are critical. For me, these two offered detailed instructions on how to turn my passion into a career. I’ve always wanted to make them proud. Other writers I admire and use as inspiration include Julia Cameron, Jo Ann Beard, and Sonja Livingston.

What prompted you to write M is for Mindful?

The idea for the book started because I wanted to be a better mother. When my daughter was three, I’d wake up early, do a yoga session by streetlight in the living room, and read a book passage or online article about mindfulness. I wanted her to grow up understanding what mindfulness is, instead of having to learn about it as an adult like I was doing, so I started creating poems to help her. This went on for years. At bath time, in the grocery store, we would play with countless versions of verses. I would discard a concept because it didn’t feel right to me; she would reject a rhyme because it didn’t sound right to her. The manuscript spent years in my desk drawer. My daughter just had a birthday—she’s 14. Now that M is for Mindful exists in the world, as the parent of a teenager I’m finding myself relying on many of the verses in the book—especially “A is for ATTITUDE.”

accept what comes
your way with grace
lessons come
from every place

There’s irony here somewhere…

What is your favorite story from your writing past?

Unfortunately, it is a tragic story, one in which a friendship ends in tragedy. I wrote a series of stories for the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper more than a decade ago about a boy who accidentally killed one of his best friends with a bow and arrow. It’s odd to use the word “favorite” here, but the reason I chose this story is because this boy, his family, and his friends let me spend months with them learning about what it’s like to go through something so horrific. Their honesty and bravery live with me and, from my perspective, spotlight how difficult it can be to be human—and how we all can help each other heal.

Praise for M is for Mindful:

“This is the kind of book I want on my shelf, and when I have grandchildren I will read it to them daily—for them and me too.” —Andie MacDowell, Golden Globe-winning actress

M is for Mindful will teach children values and attitudes that will give them a positive direction to live their lives.” —Temple Grandin, PhD, award-winning author of Thinking in Pictures, autism spokesperson, National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee

Robin Flanigan’s book, M is for Mindful, is available from online retailers.

Dead Voices by Katherine Arden


cover165699-mediumFrom the Publisher: Having survived sinister scarecrows and the malevolent smiling man in Small Spaces, newly minted best friends Ollie, Coco, and Brian are ready to spend a relaxing winter break skiing together with their parents at Mount Hemlock Resort. But when a snowstorm sets in, causing the power to flicker out and the cold to creep closer and closer, the three are forced to settle for hot chocolate and board games by the fire. Ollie, Coco, and Brian are determined to make the best of being snowed in, but odd things keep happening. Coco is convinced she has seen a ghost, and Ollie is having nightmares about frostbitten girls pleading for help. Then Mr. Voland, a mysterious ghost hunter, arrives in the midst of the storm to investigate the hauntings at Hemlock Lodge. Ollie, Coco, and Brian want to trust him, but Ollie’s watch, which once saved them from the Smiling Man, has a new cautionary message: BEWARE.

Horror for kids is not an easy genre, but with this second book featuring Ollie, Coco, and Brian, Katherine Arden cements her place as the Queen of Shivers for middle grade readers. Picking up a couple months after the events of Small Spaces, we find our plucky trio trapped in a remote ski lodge by a doozy of a snowstorm. As the action progresses, the three find their courage and friendship tested again by the Smiling Man and a gaggle of ghosts.

Arden is adept at creating an atmosphere that will leave you shivering and glancing over your shoulder at every little sound. She makes this old ski lodge seem like the creepiest, scariest place ever, and that’s before she opens another dimension. The horror is countered by the solid friendship enjoyed by Coco, Ollie and Brian, and by the growing affection between Coco’s mother and Ollie’s father.

Arden also focuses the action on the kids using their brains to think their way out of the scary situations. Coco and Ollie especially rely on deductive reasoning to ultimately defeat the Smiling Man.

With this second entry in the series, Katherine Arden takes her place on my scary story bookshelves with Mary Downing Hahn, R.L. Stine, and Patricia Clapp. Recommended.

Publication Date: August 27, 2019
Published By: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy