A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

A Wish in the Dark

Christina Soontornvat, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 24, 2020

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes:  Fantasy, Privilege, Oppression, Poverty, Justice, Friendship, Courage, Self-discovery

Book Synopsis:

After a Great Fire destroys the city of Chattana, a man appears before the starving people and offers to bring peace and order to the city. He is called the Governor and he magically lights the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights across the river represent freedom and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them in the city. But when Pong escapes from the prison, he realizes that the world outside is just as unfair as the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb lights, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, Christina Soontornvat’s twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a dazzling, fast-paced adventure that explores the difference between law and justice — and asks whether one child can shine a light in the dark.

Why I like this book:

A Wish in the Dark is a timeless Asian fantasy that is exquisitely penned by Christina Soontornvat.  Her storytelling and literary style elevate readers’ sense of wonder. The magical Thai setting, well-crafted characters, riveting plot and the gorgeous imagery are so beautifully intertwined that they create an electrifying experience.

At the beginning of the story, the main characters Pong, Somkit and Nok, are 10 years old. As the story unfolds readers will experience their character growth to age 13, as they journey towards self-discovery, which is different for each. Pong is an observer, who has become restless in the confines of a prison. He wants his freedom. Pong looks out for his best friend, Somkit, a small boy who has health issues. When Pong flees, he feels guilt over leaving his defenseless friend behind. The bond between the boys is so natural that they feel like brothers. Nok is the warden’s daughter. She lives a privileged life and is brainwashed by the Governor’s magic and believes his teachings are sacred. Pong and Nok are complete opposites and their journey is fraught with tension and excitement.

This stand-alone novel deals with many social justice issues: the inequality among classes, poverty, oppression, greed, corruption and power. In this novel, power is used by the Governor to control and manipulate those he claims to care about. In Father Cham, a monk, and Ampai, a woman living among the poorest citizens, power is used in loving kindness for the good of all people.  It is a particularly relevant discussion point for students in classrooms.

Verdict: This book is a gem. It may appear to be dark, but don’t let that fool you. Because at its center, there is heart and light.

Christina Soontornvat grew up in a small Texas town, where she spent many childhood days behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant with her nose in a book. She is the author of engaging picture books, chapter books, and middle grade books for children, including the fantasy series, The Changelings, and the upcoming nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue, All Thirteen. She now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher in an exchange for a review.

Keeper of the Lost Cities: Legacy by Shannon Messenger

Keeper of the Lost Cities: Legacy, Volume 8

Shannon Messenger, Author

Aladdin, Fiction/Fantasy, Nov. 7, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Fantasy, Magic, Abilities, Magical Creatures, Evil, Relationships, Friendships

Synopsis:

Sophie Foster wants answers. But after a liftime of lies, sometimes the truth is the most dangerous discovery. Even the smallest secret comes with terrifying new responsibilities.

And Sophie’s not the only one with blank spots in her past or mysteries surrounding her family. She and her friends are part of something much bigger than they imagined — and their roles have already been schosen for them.

Every clue drags them deeper into the conspiracy. Every memory forces them to question everything — epecially one another. And the harder they fight, the more the lines blur between friend and enemy.

Illusions shatter — and Sophie and her friends face impossible choices — in this astonishing eighth book in the New York Times and USA Today bestselling Keeper of the Lost Cities series.

Why I like this book:

Shannon Messenger is a superb storyteller. Her writing is powerful and richly textured.  Her settings and magical world building in Legacy continue to be vividly creative and seductive. Her plots are thrilling and DANGEROUS.  Once you begin Legacy, you will be drawn into her magic until you have read the nearly 800 pages. And when you reach the last 100 pages, you’ll want to slow down because you don’t want the story to end.  Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, as does the book’s ending. And yes, adults enjoy her books too.

Like other reviewers, I don’t want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read their Christmas copy or are just beginning the series — like my great granddaughter who’s on Volume 6. So my review will focus on my observations.  I will say that the verdict is still out on Sophie’s relationship with Keefe and Fitz. And both relationships are very important and different, providing a certain amount of support and stability for Sophie.  However there is a lot of drama and adventure in Legacy, and more reveals to come in Unlocked, Volume 9, that may leave us all speechless.

Even though the books are known for their magic, there really is a lot of realism in Legacy and the series. I don’t know why it took me a while to realize it, but Legacy brought the realism more into focus. Yes Sophie is the Moonlark, who’s DNA is genetically engineered to give her certain powers. But she is also human and makes big mistakes. She has flaws, stumbles, misjudges, and disappoints, but she always picks herself up and doesn’t give up.

Sophie realizes some flaws in her abilities and she asks Mr. Forkle and the Black Swan team to reset her abilities, a huge risk to her life. The adjustments enhance her abilities. Another major character undergoes a resetting, but I won’t give that away.

We see Sophie and her friends, Bianca, Fitz, Keefe, and Dex, Tam and Lihn maturing and trusting in each other’s abilities — even though one member is forced to join the Neverseen enemy.  I was delighted to see characters we haven’t seen or heard a lot about in earlier books, take more prominent roles — like Stina and Maruca, who were once at odds with Sophie. Their confidence is growing and it has opened the door for strong teamwork to form. We also see the parents, the Black Swan, and the Councilors taking a huge step back and trusting Sophie and her friends. This may be a build-up for the finalé next year.

And, yes there is one HUGE reveal in Legacy that jolts Sophie and we won’t know how that works out until Unlocked is published November 17.  But there also is some happy news with a  birth.  So in Volume 8, we are beginning to learn some secrets that will have to find resolution at the end. Legacy did advance the story for me.

Shannon Messenger graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she learned — among other things — that she liked watching movies much better than make 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.

Because by Mo Willems

Because

Mo Willems, Author

Amber Rem, Illustrator

Hyperion Books for Children, Fiction, Mar. 5, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Music, Musicians, Concerts, Serendipity, Chance, Magic

Opening: “Because a man named Ludwig wrote beautiful music — a man named Franz was inspired to create his own. Because many years later, people wanted to hear Franz’s beautiful music — they formed an orchestra.”

Synopsis:

Best-selling author and illustrator Mo Willems composes a powerful symphony of chance, discovery, persistence, and magic in this moving tale of a young girl’s journey to center stage. Illustrator Amber Ren brings Willems’ music to life, conducting a stunning picture-book debut.

Why I like this book:

There is so much beauty in this book. The tone of the text is wistful and wondering, inviting readers along a journey with a powerful life lesson — if you work hard at something you love, it pays off. The story is inspiring with a lot chance and serendipity woven throughout. Because someone’s uncle caught a cold — someone’s aunt had an extra ticket for someone special. This someone special was a girl who heard the beautiful music written by Franz and it changed her life. Willems shows how one chance can have a ripple effect leading to another, and another, and culminating in a chain of events that inspire others.

Amber Rem brings the story to life with her stunning illustrations. She creates a ribbon of musical notes that float through the pages and weaves its own magic. She pays a lot of attention to detail, especially with facial expressions. This is Rem’s debut picture book, and her artwork is gorgeous. And make sure you check out the endpapers to see Franz Schubert’s music, and a composition composed for this story, called “The Cold,” by Hilary Purrington.

Resources: This is a spectacular book to share with children about music. Take them to a children’s concert, or a performance where there is an orchestra. And, check out Mo Willems’s story behind the story by visiting his website and watching this creative video.

Because Mo Willems grew up writing and drawing comics — he became a writer and animator on Sesame Street (where he won six Emmy Awards). Because Mo also loved reading as a kid — he wanted to make books. Because of many other becauses, Mo has written and illustrated over fifty children’s books and has been awarded three Caldecott Honors, two Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals, and five Geisel Honors.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu

The Lost Girl

Anne Ursu, Author

Erin McGuire, Drawings

Walden Pond Press, Fiction, Feb. 12, 2019

Pages: 356

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Twin sisters, Differences, Bond, Magical realism, Mystery, Friendship

Opening: “The two sisters were alike in every way, except for all the ways that they were different.”

Synopsis: When you’re an identical twin, your story always starts with someone else. For Iris, that means her story starts with Lark. Iris has always been the grounded, capable, and rational one; Lark is inventive, dreamy, and brilliant — and from their first moments in the world together, they’ve never left each other’s side. Everyone around them realized early on what the two sisters already knew: they had better outcomes when they were together.

When fifth grade arrives, it is decided that Iris and Lark Maguire should be split into different classrooms. Something breaks in them both. Iris is no longer so confident and acts out at school. Lark retreats into herself as she deals with challenges at school.

At the same time, something strange is happening in the city around them when things both great and small go missing without a trace. And a peculiar store, “Treasure Hunters,” opens across the street from the Maguire home. The sisters are intrigued with the odd messages that appear on sign outside the shop –“We Are Here,” “We Are Hunters,” “We Can Find Anything.” While Lark focuses on redecorating a doll house, Iris is secretly trying to uncover the mystery of what is hiding behind the walls of this unusual shop with its very peculiar owner and a crow perched outside. Iris begins to understand that anything can be lost in the blink of an eye in her neighborhood. She decides it’s up to her to find a way to keep her sister safe.

Why I like this book:

Anne Ursu has written an exhilarating, multi-layered and complex novel that touches on magic and realism. The Lost Girl is a coming-of-age story about the magic of sisterhood. The magic of friendships you least expect. The magic of losing yourself, but discovering you are stronger than you imagine. But there is another mysterious magic lurking nearby that is morphing into something that is far more sinister and dangerous.  Fans will find her plot twist suspenseful and gripping and cheer for the sisters “when the monsters really come.”

Ursu is a lyrical writer, so readers will experience many poetic turns of phrases. The storytelling is exceptional, because a mysterious narrator tells the twins’ story, adding another layer of meaning and wonder. I will admit it did drive me crazy trying to identify the narrator. But, never fear. All is revealed at the end. McGuire’s beautiful pen and ink drawings compliment the story and draw readers deeply into the mystery.

Ursu’s character development is outstanding as she aptly captures how teen girls express themselves. In the beginning Iris and Lark appear to be normal girls, who are different in the way they dress and see the world. But they perfectly balance each other with their strengths and weaknesses. Iris is practical and Lark sees beyond the story. The twin bond is powerful and the story revolves around their relationship. Readers really begin to understand the twins when they are separated at school and join different afterschool clubs. Lark retreats into herself and Iris acts out. And I would be remiss in not mentioning Iris’s gang of capable girlfriends who appear to help the twins defeat the darkness in an unusual turn of fate.

The Lost Girl is an excellent book for school libraries and for group discussions. It is an exciting mystery, a tribute to family, sisterhood and new friendships, and finding yourself when you feel lost.

Anne Ursu is the author of Breadcrumbs, named one of the best books of 2011 by School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com., and the Chicago Public Library, and The Real Boy, which was long listed for the National Book Award and chosen as one of the New York Public Library’s “One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing.” You can visit her at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday (MMGM) 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.

Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd

Over the Moon

Natalie Lloyd, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Mar. 26, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Coal miners, Servants, Disability, Courage, Friendship, Competition, Magic, Legends

Opening: Dustflights are trained to sense explosions in the Down Below. Honeysuckle is my papa’s Dustflight, a tiny yellow bird they give every miner in Coal Top. 

Synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Mallie Ramble knows better than to dream. In Coal Top, you live the story you’re given: boys toil in the mines in the Down Below and girls work as servants. Mallie can’t bear the idea of that kind of life, but her family is counting on her wages to survive. Her father is injured in the mines.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the Dust came, the people of Coal Top could weave starlight into cloth. They’d wear these dreaming clothes to sleep and wake up with the courage to seek adventure . . . or the peace to heal a broken heart. But now nothing can penetrate Coal Top’s blanket of sorrow.

So when Mallie is chosen for a dangerous competition in which daring (and ideally, orphaned) children train flying horses, she jumps at the chance. Maybe she’ll change her story. Maybe she’ll even find the magic she needs to dream again. Maybe she will help her community to heal.

But the situation proves even more dangerous when Mallie uncovers a sinister mystery at the heart of Coal Top’s struggles — a mystery some powerful people, like Mortimer Good and his Guardians, will do anything to protect.

Why I like this book:

Over the Moon is an enchanting tale that will transport readers to Coal Top, a community that has lost its joy and is blanketed in sadness. And there is a girl, Mallie, who is pure of heart and brave enough to dream of flying among the stars. Natalie Lloyd creates a magical experience with a touch of realism. Her storytelling and literary style sets her apart as an original voice in children’s literature.

The characters are complex and unforgettable. Mallie is the loveable narrator who is wild and brave on the inside, “a fire-popper in a glass jar.” She has a short right arm and wears a fake orange “Popsnap,” that attaches at her elbow. She is her family’s breadwinner. She’s spirited and determined to keep her younger brother, Denver out of the mines. Adam is Mallie’s best friend and only sees her abilities. Together they make a good team. Honor and his friends are bullies. Iggy is a three-foot tall woman who cares for the flying horses. She is a tough trainer with a tender heart. Mortimer Good, is a beguiling and evil manipulator who wields a lot of control over Coal Top.

The plot is courageous, thrilling, and dangerous, with a sinister twist. Seeking “riches untold,” Mallie, Adam, Honor and other mountain kids show up for Mortimer Good’s competition. But they must prove themselves by capturing a magical flying horse (Starbirds) in the dangerous West Woods, which is full of monsters. There is adventure in training their horses, wonder in flying, danger in collecting riches from the mountains, and mystery in the origins of the dust.

Over the Moon is a labor of love for Natalie Lloyd, as she draws upon her own experience with a physical disability to create her main character, Mallie. In doing so, Lloyd shows her own source of courage as she pours her heart into brave, adventurous and kind-hearted Mallie.   

The heavy Dust that blankets Coal Top and snuffs out the light, becomes a powerful metaphor for the “dust” in our daily lives. Mallie is a reminder for readers that they need to push through their own challenges and darkness to find their inner light.

Over the Moon will touch your heart and soul. It is a tale of love, friendship, hope and courage. Lloyd’s fans will be “over the moon” with her new novel.

‘Mountain girl, lift up your eyes,

The stars are shining bright for thee.

Reach out and take the silver chord,

Braid beauty there for all to see.”

Natalie Lloyd is the New York Times bestselling author of A Snicker of Magic, which has been optioned for television by Sony TriStar. Lloyd’s other novels include The Key to Extraordinary, and The Problim Children series. Lloyd lives in Tennessee with her husband, Justin and her dogs Samson and Biscuit. Visit Lloyd 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.

*Review copy provided by the publisher.

Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

Bob

Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead, Authors

Nicholas Gannon, Illustrator

Feiwel and Friends Book, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family, Friends, Magic, Fantasy, Creature, Lost, Mystery

Synopsis:

It’s been five years since Livy and her family have visited Livy’s grandmother in Australia, which is under a severe drought. Now that she’s back, Livy has the feeling she’s forgotten something really, really important about Gran’s house.

It turns out she’s right.

Bob, a short, greenish creature dressed in a chicken suit, didn’t forget Livy, or her promise. He’s been waiting five years for her to come back, hiding in a closet like she told him to. During that time he learns to count to 987,654,321, six times; build a Lego pirate ship, 63 times; and reads and memorizes the dictionary. But Bob can’t remember who—or what—he is, where he came from, or if he even has a family. But five years ago Livy promised she would help him find his way back home. Now it’s time to keep that promise.

Clue by clue, Livy and Bob will unravel the mystery of where Bob comes from, solve a community problem, and discover the kind of magic that lasts forever.

Why I like this book:

Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead work their magic to create an enchanting and heartwarming story about a girl, Livy, and a little green creature, Bob. This will be a popular summer read inviting teens on an adventure to solve the mystery of Bob.

Livy is on a quest to discover exactly who and what Bob is, where he  comes from and how she returns him to his home and family. The story is told by Livy and Bob in alternating chapters. Stead wrote Livy and Mass wrote Bob. The storytelling is seamless with the tone of the text wistful and wandering, with a sense of urgency that there is much to discover.

The characters are lovable and relatable. Livy is a sweet 10-year-old girl struggling to feel comfortable in Gran’s home, a place she barely even remembers. She is troubled that she has forgotten Bob. How could she forget a little green zombie-creature? Bob is a kind-hearted and jovial and patient friend who tells  stories about the “old 5-year-old Livy” who wasn’t curious and took risks. He often refers to the “old” and the “new” Livy, when he wants to nudge her. There are many other memorable characters in this story, especially young Danny who has made his own discoveries about green creatures.

The plot is one big mystery with many subplots. Livy discovers that something peculiar happens to her whenever she leaves Bob for the afternoon to go with Gran into town — her memory of Bob fades. So she carries around Bob’s chipped chess piece in her pocket she can stroke and remember him. She also discovers that not everyone can see Bob.

I enjoyed the collaboration of these two celebrated middle grade authors, along with the entertaining illustrations of Nicholas Gannon, which contribute significantly to the story. It’s easy to lose yourself in Livy and Bob’s world because it is an inspiring story about the importance of family and friendship, with a sprinkle of magic. Even thought this story is rated for middle grade students, I believe it is a perfect read for fourth and fifth graders.

Resources: Visit Wendy Mass’ website, where readers will find a Book Club Guide, an Educator’s Guide and book trailers.

Greg Pattridge is the host for 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.

Carnival Magic by Amy Ephron

Carnival Magic

Amy Ephron, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Siblings, Carnival, Fantasy, Magic, Adventure, Family relationships, Vacation

Synopsis:

This companion to Castle In the Mist features a mysterious carnival, an ominous psychic, and a wind that whisks Tess and Max away from their vacation in South Devon, England. Which fantastical world will they find this time?

Tess and Max are back in England for another summer with their Aunt Evie–this time by the seashore in South Devon. And they’re incredibly excited about the travelling carnival that’s come to town. There are rides, games, acrobats, The House of Mirrors–and even a psychic, with a beautiful wagon all her own.

In a visit to the psychic’s wagon, while Tess is being hypnotized, the wagon seems to move. Before Tess can shake herself out of the hypnosis, before Max can do anything, they seem to be travelling–along with the rest of the carnival–too quickly for the two of them to jump out. But where are they going and what awaits them? Will they be caught in a world different from their own? And do the Baranova twins, acrobats who miss their sister almost as much as Tess and Max miss their family, hold the keys to the mystery?

Why I like this book:

Amy Ephron returns with a companion novel to The Castle in the Mist and creates a magical tale filled with adventure, mystery, fantasy, family, and fun. Readers will feel like they’re in the middle of the action and find Carnival Magic the perfect summer read.

The fun carnival setting will appeal to readers. Who doesn’t like cotton candy, a baby tiger, a Ferris wheel, a Hall of Mirrors, psychics, and acrobats. The chapters are short and fast-paced, propelling readers forward into this magical ride.

The plot is one adventure after another, as the brother-sister duo literally work themselves through a magical maze of adventures that are not of their world. Tess saves a baby tiger, rescues a child dangling from a stuck Ferris wheel, stands in as an acrobat, and tries to reunite three siblings, while Max figures out the mystery of the Hall Mirrors and navigating worlds.

Tess is a smart, strong and independent female protagonist, following in the footsteps of her mother and Aunt Evie.  Max is the logical and sensible of the two. He has a way of looking to the future and finding the positive, which Tess envies. Tess tends to jump in and not worry about where she’s jumping until later. She’s good at making snap decisions that lead her into some very hair-raising moments. Tess and Max are a nice balance to one another, especially when they enter another worldly dimension. Both siblings are resourceful and supportive in their attempts to right some wrongs and get back to South Devon — or did they really ever really leave it? A question readers will ponder.

The novel is entertaining, imaginative and filled with unexpected twists from beginning to end.

Amy Ephron is the author of The Castle in the Mist, which was her first middle grade novel. It was nominated for a SCIBA Award and selected as a February 2017 Barnes and Noble Best Book for Young Readers and Amazon Best Book of the Month. She has also written several adult books. A Cup of Tea was an international bestseller. Visit Ephron at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the host for 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.

The Problim Children by Natalie Lloyd

The Problim Children

Natalie Lloyd, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Magical Realism, Jan. 30, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Siblings, Adventure, Mystery, Courage, Friendship, Treasure

Book Jacket Synopsis: When the Problims’ beloved bungalow in the Swampy Wood goes kaboom, the seven siblings have no choice but to move into their grandpa’s abandoned old Victorian house in the town of Lost Cove. No problem! For the Problim children, every problem is a gift.

Wendell and Thea — twins born two minutes apart on a Wednesday and a Thursday — see the move as a change to make new friends in time for their birthday cake smash. But the neighbors find the Problims’ return problematic — what with Sal’s foggy garden full on Wrangling Ivy, toddler Toot’s 365 stanktastic fart varieties, and Mona’s human catapult.

Truth be told, rumors are flying about the Problims! Rumors of a bitter feud, a treasure, and a certain kind of magic that lingers in the halls of #7 Main Street. And an evil neighbor, Desdemona O’ Pinion, will do anything to get her hands on those secrets — including sending the Problim children to seven different homes on sever different continents!

Why I like this book:

Natalie Lloyd’s newest novel, The Problim Children, is a thrilling read packed with a lot of eye-popping kid-appeal. Readers will be happy to know it is the first of three books in the series.  It is a boisterous and rollicking ride through a wild and wacky world that is magical from the start. The children bring with them circus spiders, a purple robotic squirrel and a pet pig, Ichabod.

Lloyd is a master with clever wordplay, rhymes and clues. Her writing is lyrical and her voice is original. Scattered throughout the story are pen and ink drawings of the action, which adds to the quirky feel of the story. The book reminds me of my hours spent with Pippi Longstocking. But today’s readers will liken it to The Penderwicks and Lemony Snicket.

Meet the seven weird and lively Problim Children, each one born on a different day of the week and named after that day: Mona, Tootykins, Wendell, Thea, Frida, Sal and Sundae. These seven are open-minded and have heart. Their parents are off on an archaeological dig somewhere in the world, while 16-year-old Sundae is in charge of her siblings. For me, the strength in the story is in Lloyd’s richly developed characters. Baby Toot communicates with his siblings through his farts, which are footnoted at the bottom (i.e. #227: The Hushfart: Softer sounding than a referee’s whistle, but still shrill. Smells like dirty clothes. Means: be quiet!)

The plot is enchanting filled with wonder, mystery, danger and a lot of humor. And there are clues to a hidden  treasure. Moving into their grandpa’s house is an adventure, a new beginning and a chance to make new friends. Except the residents are suspicious and don’t welcome the children to their new town. There is history with the Problim family and people are afraid history may repeat itself. But the children are charming and find a way to work their way into some of the their hearts. Prediction: This will be a winner with readers! And they will be teased with the inclusion of the first chapter of the second book at the end.

Natalie Lloyd was born on a Monday (but she’s a Thursday girl at heart). She loves writing stories full of magic, friendship and the occasional toot, including A Snicker of Magic, which was a New York Times best seller, and Key to the Extraordinary. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband, Justin, and their dogs, Biscuit and Samson. Visit Natalie Lloyd at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the host for 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.

The Castle in the Mist by Amy Ephron

The Castle in the Mist

Amy Ephron, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, Feb. 7, 2017

Pages: 167

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Castles, Wishes, Magic, Family relationships, Siblings

Book Synopsis:

Tess and her brother, Max, are sent for the summer to their aunt’s sleepy village in the English countryside, where excitement is as rare as a good wifi signal. So when Tess stumbles upon an old brass key that unlocks an ornately carved gate, attached to a strangely invisible wall, she jumps at the chance for adventure. And the world beyond the gate doesn’t disappoint. She finds rose gardens, a maze made of hedges, and a boy named William who is just as lonely as she is.

But at William’s castle, strange things begin to happen. Carnival games are paid for in wishes, dreams seem to come alive, and then there’s William’s eerie warning: Beware of the hawthorn trees. A warning that chills Tess to the bone.

In a magical, fantasy world that blurs the line between reality and imagination, readers are left to wonder exactly what they’d wish for if wishes could come true. Perfect for fans of Half Magic and The Secret Garden—and for anyone who’s ever wondered if magic is real.

Why I like this book:

Amy Ephron’s world building in this fantasy is magical and readers will feel like they’re in the middle of the action. I was enchanted with the idea of a huge castle hidden in the mist behind an invisible wall that can’t be penetrated. The grounds are large and beautiful with a pond with swans, a hedge maze, an odd sculpture garden, a carousel and stables.

Tess and Max are the grounding factors in the fantasy. They are separated from their parents, having finished boarding school in Switzerland and then sent to their Aunt Evie’s for the summer. Like most siblings they have their squabbles, but they have a strong bond and depend upon one another. William is the lonely and mysterious boy who lives at the castle. He warns Tess from the start to stay away from the Hawthorne trees, but never explains why. Tess and Max wonder about William’s identity and the odd things that happen at the castle. William introduces the siblings to a world where they question the real from the imagined and wonder “did that just happen?”

The entire story is an enjoyable fantasy from beginning to end. The plot is imaginative and fast-paced. There are unexpected twists, like the scenes surrounding the carousel and the overlapping blue, blood and super moons that occur together that influence the story. My only wish was that the book had been a little longer. The book ends with the potential for a sequel. However, Ephron has written a companion book, Carnival Magic, with Tess and Max returning in a new summer adventure with Aunt Evie. It will be released May 1, 2018.

Amy Ephron is the internationally bestselling author of several books written for adults, including the award-winning A  Cup of Tea. She is also a film producer, an essayist, and a contributor to Vogue and Vogue.com. The Castle in the Mist is her first book for children. You can visit Amy at her website.

For the next few months Greg Pattridge will be hosting Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Author Shannon Messenger will be on a whirlwind tour promoting her sixth book, Nightfall, in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which will be released November 7. Thank you Greg!

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar

hour-of-the-bees-41ovl5tbiol__sx344_bo1204203200_Hour of the Bees

Lindsay Eagar, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 8, 2016

Pages: 360

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family relationships, Heritage, Magic, Grandfather, Dementia, Forgiveness, Understanding, Loss

Book Jacket Synopsis: While her friends are spending their summers having pool parties and sleepovers, twelve-year-old Carolina –Carol — is spending hers in the middle of the New Mexico desert, helping her parents move the grandfather she’s never met off his dying sheep ranch and into a home for people with dementia.

At first Carol keeps her distance from prickly Grandpa Serge, whose eyes are impossibly old and who chastises “Caro-leeen-a” for spitting on her roots. But as the summer drags on and the heat bears down, she finds herself drawn to Serge, enchanted by his stories about an oasis in the desert with a green-glass lake and a tree that gave the villagers the gift of immortality — and the bees that kept the tree alive.

When Serge weaves details of his own life into his stories and tells her to keep an eye out for the bees he is certain will return to the ranch and end the century-long drought, she chalks it up to dementia. But as the thin line between magic and reality starts to blur, Carol must decide for herself what is possible — and what it means to be true to her roots.

Why I like this book:

Lindsay Eagar’s heartfelt and sensitive intergenerational story is about finding and honoring your roots.  The language is strong and lyrical and captures the growing bond between Carolina (Carol) and Grandfather Serge. And there is an intermingling of Spanish and English that adds authenticity to the setting.

It also is a coming of age story for a 12-year-old Carol, who is the only family member interested in really getting to know her grandfather and is spellbound with his storytelling about a special tree that keeps the Spanish community safe, a girl who dares to leave and explore the world, and living forever.

The characters are realistic and believable. Carol is a curious, sweet, patient and reliable tween who is the only family member who respects and even admires her grandfather. She attempts to connect with him, even when he lapses into the past and mistakes Carol for her Grandmother Rosa. Grandfather Serge is a crusty old man who is battling dementia and won’t leave his run-down sheep ranch. He can spin a great story and Carol wants to hear them all.

The plot is original with moments of action and tension in the ravaged desert environment that will keep readers engaged. There are personality struggles that teens will relate to with Carol and her sister, Alta, and Carol’s father and Grandfather Serge. This magical story inside the story is beautifully written and one you won’t forget.  I LOVED The Hour of the Bees.  The ending is very satisfying and will capture  readers’ imaginations.

This is a helpful story for teens who have grandparents suffering with dementia. It gives them insight into ways of communicating and connecting with loved ones. It is also an interesting story to read, discuss and write about because of the many  layered themes.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.