Two 2017 Middle Grade Spec Fic Releases

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she’s ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.

But she’s still the fiercest creature in the mountains — and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?

  • The cover and genre of this book appealed to me, but when I came to the plot, I thought “That’s a bit too quirky for me” and didn’t add it to my TBR. After positive reviews from Ms. Yingling Reads, Charlotte’s Library, and Random Musings of a Bibliophile, I decided it might be worth a shot.
  • The story itself is a simple one. The appeal is in the combination of elements not usually taken together – dragons, apprenticeship, chocolate making, royal politics and elitism.
  • Aventurine, being a young dragon transformed into a human, brings a unique perspective to this style of fantasy. Youthful energy and dragon stubbornness combine for some interesting moments in Aventurine’s human form. I enjoyed reading about her new found passion for the craft of making chocolate.
  • The relationships Aventurine develops as she learns to trust in the love and support of others give this story some warmth.
  • I would enjoy a sequel that features more of Aventurine’s dragon family and the difficulty Aventurine may face in balancing her two identities.
  • The Bottom Line: A fun bedtime read that served its purpose in distracting me from grad school life.

Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eagar

Race to the bottom of the SeaWhen her parents, the great marine scientists Dr. and Dr. Quail, are killed in a tragic accident, eleven-year-old Fidelia Quail is racked by grief — and guilt. It was a submarine of Fidelia’s invention that her parents were in when they died, and it was she who pressed them to stay out longer when the raging Undertow was looming. But Fidelia is forced out of her mourning when she’s kidnapped by Merrick the Monstrous, a pirate whose list of treasons stretches longer than a ribbon eel. Her task? Use her marine know-how to retrieve his treasure, lost on the ocean floor. But as Fidelia and the pirates close in on the prize, with the navy hot on their heels, she realizes that Merrick doesn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy his loot. Could something other than black-hearted greed be driving him? Will Fidelia be able to master the perils of the ocean without her parents — and piece together the mystery of Merrick the Monstrous before it’s too late?

  • Not quite sure where to start with this book. It turned out to be a lot more mature, and fairly dark, than I expected.
  • The details of Fidelia’s parents’ death alarmed me a bit. I had expected them to have died prior to the start of the story. The fact that the Fidelia had invented the submarine in which they died was tough enough. But then add the fact that she decided to ignore an incoming storm, when her mom explicitly asked if they needed to head in for safety… ouch.
  • I generally enjoy having adult characters interact equally with the younger main characters in middle grade novels. However, all the characters aside from Fidelia are adults, and most of the story is really their story. I often felt like Fidelia was just along for the ride. For her part of the story, she does learn to be herself again after the death of her parents, but the plot is driven by the actions of the adults.
  • My opinion of this book isn’t as bad as you might think! There are a lot of fun elements that made this an entertaining read – pirates, ocean faring, sea creatures, and Fidelia’s inventions.
  • The Bottom Line: Another fun read, but darker and more mature than The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart. Not recommended for sensitive readers.

Have you read any speculative fiction releases (especially middle grade) from this year? What are your favourites?

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Jessica Miller’s Elizabeth and Zenobia Exemplifies Gothic MG

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

Elizabeth and Zenobia coverFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Amulet Books
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Middle grade gothic
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

When Elizabeth and her unusual and fearless friend Zenobia arrive at Witheringe House, peculiar things begin to happen.

Especially in the forbidden East Wing.

The flowers and vines of the wallpaper sometimes seem to be alive.

A mirror has a surface like the water of a pond.

And an old book tells a different story after midnight.

Zenobia is thrilled by the strangeness, but Elizabeth is not so bold…

Until she makes a mysterious and terrifying discovery.

Here is a spooky middle grade tale I can get behind! There is a countryside estate that’s been boarded up for some years, there is an overgrown garden and labyrinth, there is a distant father with a mysterious past. While the story doesn’t scare, not in the way of Coraline or The Nest, it uses a handful of gothic tropes to create its own tense and atmospheric moments. Miller writes well for this genre. Her descriptions aren’t too flowery, yet they are creative enough to set an evocative scene. What really brings the setting and story to life, however, are the delightful cast of characters.

Elizabeth and Zenobia play off each wonderfully. Miller gives each a distinct voice. If I described both girls, I might make them sound like caricatures, but they come across as believable young girls. Elizabeth makes for a unique protagonist in these kind of stories – she is not a daring and adventurous child. Zenobia is brash and bold; Elizabeth is scared of many things. Zenobia wants to contact the spirits she assumes inhabit Witheringe House; Elizabeth would rather not. And a similarity – Zenobia can only be seen Elizabeth; Elizabeth wishes her father would see her better. Zenobia’s eager tendency towards the gruesome also helps shape the darker tone of the story. They are the best of friends, and the story explores how they navigate that friendship when their personalities clash. While the plot takes some time to show itself, I found the daily interactions of Elizabeth and Zenobia in their creepy new home entertaining enough.

In addition to Elizabeth and Zenobia, there is a housekeeper whose ability to appear without warning greatly impresses Zenobia and serves as a running gag. There is a tutor who is not the antagonist of the story. And there are a few more characters that I’ll leave you to discover…

My primary criticism lies in the ending. I felt the story concluded abruptly. The mystery surrounding Zenobia never receives an explicit explanation. I like stories neatly wrapped up at the end, though I am coming to learn that’s not always necessary. Zenobia’s nature being revealed was never a promise of the main story line (though I crossed my toes hoping it would come up). The illustrations were not at all to my taste. I tried to be forgiving – “Maybe they’re meant to look like they’re drawn by a kid…” – but personally, I just think they’re bad. Edit (Oct. 13): I did not think to consider that the illustrations were not finalized in my ARC. (As a blogger who’s been reviewing ARCs for awhile, I am a little embarrassed…). Thank-you to the author for politely pointing this out to me. I have since purchased the book and am happy to report that the illustrations are much more tidy and refined, yet they still retain a quirky quality that’s very appropriate to the story and characters.

The Bottom Line:

A delightful tale of friendship between two very different young girls, Elizabeth and Zenobia is an example of Victorian Gothic middle grade fiction that other books could look up to.

Further Reading:

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Charis Cotter’s The Painting Explores Mother-Daughter Relationships via Time Slip

The Painting by Charis Cotter

The Painting by Charis CotterFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 19 September 2017
Publisher: Tundra Books
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade time slip
Rating: ★★★½
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound
I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Annie and her mother don’t see eye to eye. When Annie finds a painting of a lonely lighthouse in their home, she is immediately drawn to it–and her mother wishes it would stay banished in the attic. To her, art has no interest, but Annie loves drawing and painting.
When Annie’s mother slips into a coma following a car accident, strange things begin to happen to Annie. She finds herself falling into the painting and meeting Claire, a girl her own age living at the lighthouse. Claire’s mother Maisie is the artist behind the painting, and like Annie, Claire’s relationship with her mother is fraught. Annie thinks she can help them find their way back to each other, and in so doing, help mend her relationship with her own mother.

But who IS Claire? Why can Annie travel through the painting? And can Annie help her mother wake up from her coma?

Back in 2014, I was so charmed by Charis Cotter’s debut The Swallow (review here) that I nominated it for a Cybils award. Today I’m reviewing Cotter’s sophomore middle grade novel. The mention of a lonely lighthouse caught my interest. Cotter, a native of Toronto who now lives in Newfoundland, evokes crisp imagery in her descriptions of the coast and lighthouse. The atmosphere, for me, makes up for the lack of explicit ghosts.

Annie soon deduces Claire’s identity, so I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to state that Claire is Annie’s mother, some years in the past. I enjoy books that explore the familial relationships between children and adults (an enjoyment that can be traced back to my reading of Inkheart at 10 years old). The mother-daughter relationships explored in The Painting are the kind where the daughter wants one thing for herself and the mother wants something else for the daughter. Conflicts sparks as they fail to understand each other’s needs. (The Pixar film Brave also did a great job at exploring this kind of relationship.) Annie sees her relationship with Claire inverted in Claire’s relationship with her own mother Maisie – Maisie paints, Claire studies, Claire wants to attend high school in town and Maisie wants her to stay at the lighthouse. In the modern timeline, Annie finds herself clashing with Claire over Annie’s interest in art and her introverted demeanor.

A number of poignant moments are scattered throughout the story. The death of Claire’s younger sister complicates Claire and Maisie’s relationship and gives further depth to their relationship. The first person narrative of a young girl who thinks she’s to blame for her sibling’s death or who believes her mother doesn’t love her can sting to read.

If you liked the style of The Swallow, you will probably like the style of The Painting. The narrative alternates between the two girls in short segments. As with The Swallow, I found Annie and Claire’s voices to be very similar. There is less creepiness in The Painting than in The Swallow – though atmospheric, the characters drive The Painting even more so than in The Swallow.

The Bottom Line:

A touching story primarily set along Newfoundland’s atmospheric coast, Annie and Claire work together across decades to save Annie’s mother and in the process repair their own relationships with their mothers.

Further Reading:

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Patty Ain’t No Junk – Review of Patina by Jason Reynolds

Patina by Jason Reynolds

Cover of PatinaSeries: Track #2
Format/Source: ARC/Publisher
Published: 29 August 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Middle grade contemporary
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound | Wordery
I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Patina, or Patty, runs like a flash. She runs for many reasons—to escape the taunts from the kids at the fancy-schmancy new school she’s been sent to since she and her little sister had to stop living with their mom. She runs from the reason WHY she’s not able to live with her “real” mom any more: her mom has The Sugar, and Patty is terrified that the disease that took her mom’s legs will one day take her away forever. So Patty’s also running for her mom, who can’t. But can you ever really run away from any of this? As the stress builds up, it’s building up a pretty bad attitude as well. Coach won’t tolerate bad attitude. No day, no way. And now he wants Patty to run relay…where you have to depend on other people? How’s she going to do THAT?

I first encountered Jason Reynolds last year when I read Ghost, the first book in his Track series. Ghost ended up winning the 2016 Cybils award for middle grade fiction. Patina, the follow up to Ghost, hits just as many right notes as Ghost -even if they’re different notes. In his first novel from a female perspective, Reynolds has crafted a unique voice that brings Patina to life in a distinct way from that of Ghost, the previous novel’s male protagonist. If you haven’t read anything by Reynolds, I highly recommend this series. The Track books do a great job of exploring middle grade life, the importance of friends and family, and how sport can benefit kids in more ways than one. Patina would be a good story if Reynolds tackled even just one of these topics, but he has managed to bring them all together in a well-balanced blend.

Patina’s plot differs from Ghost in that it lacks a central conflict stemming from Patina’s own actions (i.e. Ghost steals a pair of shoes and has to deal with the consequence). There is a tense pivotal moment, yet one of a very different nature than in Ghost. Instead, Patina focuses more on the exploration of Patina’s relationships with friends, family, and track mates.  I loved reading along as Patina realizes how much she loves her family and how much she values everything they do for one another. She learns to balance her competitiveness and her track life with her school and family life.

Beyond his on-point exploration of life as a middle schooler, Reynolds also explores how Patina’s life differs from her White classmates as she and her younger sister (who are Black) are raised by her White aunt and Black uncle. Patina’s mother has lost her legs to diabetes and can no longer raise her children, but she still plays a large and important role in her children’s lives. This is a family situation I haven’t seen before in a middle grade novel. It sends a strong message that just because a mother of father can’t provide for a child in a traditional sense, doesn’t mean that they don’t love and care about them.

Something would be missing from this review if I didn’t mention track! I have (had?) no interest in sports novels before I was required to read Ghost. Now I can see where they get their appeal from. Track practice provides a unique setting for the characters to interact in. The advice from the coaches and banter between team mates felt refreshing to me – a change from the usual school or home life based discussions. And of course, the build-up to the big race creates a solid structure for pacing the novel.

The Bottom Line:

If you enjoyed GhostPatina won’t disappoint. Patina demonstrates all of Reynold’s writing chops as he tells an engaging story through a strong voice.

Further Reading:

Read Diverse 2017
This post counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 reviewing challenge!

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Exploring Biracial Identity in The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods

The Blossoming Universe of Violet DiamondFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: January 2014
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Contemporary middle grade
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBound Wordery

Violet is a smart, funny, brown-eyed, brown-haired girl in a family of blonds. Her mom is white, and her dad, who died before she was born, was black. She attends a mostly white school where she sometimes feels like a brown leaf on a pile of snow. She’s tired of people asking if she’s adopted. Now that Violet’s eleven, she decides it’s time to learn about her African American heritage. And despite getting off to a rocky start trying to reclaim her dad’s side of the family, she can feel her confidence growing as the puzzle pieces of her life finally start coming together. Readers will cheer for Violet, sharing her joy as she discovers her roots.

Earlier this year, my mom and I read Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill, a non-fiction book which profiles the experiences of biracial Black Canadians. That book opened my eyes to the unique challenges biracial people can face. The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond explores those challenges from a middle-grade perspective.

This book focuses on Violet finding her space within both her White family and her Black family. There are brief yet important discussions about race. For example, when Violet mentions her Greek friend’s grandmother’s belief that ‘there is no race, just the human race’ and Violet’s grandmother responds, “It’s not so simple, Violet. White folks made the race laws in the first place, and our history is complicated” (pg. 165). Violet’s grandmother’s initial negative attitude to her son marrying a White woman is also addressed. There are other places that allude to debated issues on racial identity, but as Violet is just 11 years old and learning for the first time about what it means to be Black and biracial. She isn’t drowned in too much information and neither is the reader.

Early in the book (around page 50), Violet learns about the circumstances of her father’s death, which explains why Violet’s paternal grandmother doesn’t like Violet’s mother. In two short sentences, Woods reveals the awful truth. Violet yelling at her mother caused me to cringe. I can’t imagine what it would be like to learn that about your parent’s past. The backstory is pretty intense way explain the disconnect between Violet and her father’s family.

I think this would be a good book to ease kids into the concept of and challenges surrounding what it means to be biracial, as well as to start a discussion about coming to terms with a particular identity. A young adult novel featuring Violet as a teen would make an excellent follow-up, giving the opportunity to delve further into ideas that Woods briefly introduces in this book.

The Bottom Line

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond features a spunky protagonist who learns what it means to be biracial. The book can serve as a good introduction to discussion about race and identity for younger readers.

Further Reading

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