Category Archives: Review

My Latest New York Times Reviews Are On Fantasy Books, Baby!

Beloved by young readers, speculative fiction often gets a very different reception from grown-ups, some of whom lament that such books lack the depth of literary fiction, especially if — horrors! — they are popular ones in a series. It took a tsunami of media attention to get such adults to capitulate to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and, once they did, they raved about the series as an exception, seemingly unaware of its distinguished lineage. Fortunately, others feel differently, aware that some of the most inventive, enthralling, provocative and (yes) literary writing for children comes in this form. Setting their stories in invented places, a magical version of the real world or far across the universe, these authors explore weighty themes in highly original ways. For established fans, new readers and open-minded skeptics, four new titles offer distinctive and rich reading experiences.

Read on here to see what I thought about Corey Ann Haydu’s Eventown, Anna Ursu’s The Lost Girl, Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl.


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Coming Soon: Kekla Magoon’s The Season of Styx Malone


This book. Oh, this book. How much do I love you?

The Season of Styx Malone is not out for a couple of months yet, but I just had to write something so that you all get it on your radar. I knew Kekla Magoon from her other work,  say such hard hitting urban YA works as How It Went Down, a delightful futuristic reworking of Robin Hood, and X: A Novel, her collaboration with  Illyasah Shabazz which I adored, adored, adored.  And now this — one of the most delightful middle grade books I have read in some time.

The black Franklin boys, 10 year old Caleb and 11 year old Bobby Gene, have spent uneventful lives in a small town outside of Indianapolis. It is a place where everyone knows each other, where children can roam without parental worry, and where the bigger world stays away. While Bobby Gene is relatively content, Caleb is not. He wants to see the world outside of Sutton, but that isn’t going to happen if his father has anything to say about it, refusing to sign permission forms for yearly field trips to the city’s Children’s Museum.  When his father says he is extra ordinary, it infuriates Caleb; he wants to be more than ordinary not less. That it is the dangers for black boys out there that is behind this, a belief that staying under the radar is best, that it all comes from a paternal place of love and fierce desire to keep them safe, matters little to this boy yearning to break free.

And then a stranger comes to town. One Styx Malone, a sixteen year old foster child who gives them a summer to remember. They meet in the woods, not far from the boys’ home, where they are trying to figure out what to do with a bag of ill-gotten fireworks. (Won’t spoil how they got them other than to say it is hilarious.) Styx, exuding cool with an improbable candy cigarette dangling out of his mouth, convinces the boys that he can help them — mediate or parlay he says — to get rid of the loot for something better. And so begins the Great Escalator Trade in which they trade up and up and up to get the object of their dreams.  The escapades and adventures are absolutely delightful, at times breathtaking, and all completely true to the circumstances of these characters and the book’s setting. That is, it all seems completely plausible. This is because Magoon has not only created a wonderful array of characters, nuanced and unique each of them, but she has placed them in a superbly constructed world. There is a timeless quality to the boys’ lives that makes one understand why their father is trying so hard to keep them so penned in, yet Caleb’s yearning is so beautifully rendered along the way that it makes for a contemporary feel as well.

In addition to superb character development, elegant world building, and compelling plotting, Magoon is outstanding at sentence level writing. I was too busy reading to stop and mark favorites, so will reread to do so. Meanwhile, to give a taste, here are a few I picked out randomly:

Styx twirled the candy cigarette over his knuckles. “Your old lady’s really keeping the jam on you, eh?”

It didn’t occur to us to study his every move or wonder what he was hiding. How could he have been hiding anything? He was too busy showing us a whole new world.

The white of the sky and the chug of the train, the speed and the rocking and the grease scent tipped me toward giddy.

This is a book that leans toward happy while exploring deep themes that aren’t so happy. There are moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, others that will bring you to tears, and still more that will have you pondering. The Franklin family and Styx Malone will be staying in my heart for a long time. I hope they will do likewise in yours.



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Elizabeth Partridge’s Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam


“This indispensable volume brings a wise and humane lens to a confused and brutal conflict.”

Please check out my starred Horn Book review of this outstanding book.

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Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Journey of Little Charlie

I am on the record as being a huge fan of Curtis’s Buxton books –from Elijah of Buxton (was on the Newbery Committee that gave it an honor) to Madman of Piney Woods (my starred Horn Book review). This one is as terrific as the others.

While the other two books featured black male protagonists in this one Curtis is featuring a young white male, the child of poor white pre-Civil War sharecroppers. After horrific events that leave him without family, Little Charlie Bobo (actually a twelve-year-old the size of an adult man) is forced to go with the local plantation’s overseer to capture some runaway enslaved people. Little Charlie’s voice and dialect is spot-on for a person of his class and situation; he has never been to school and can’t read. That is, spot-on, as much as I can tell — I’m certainly no expert on what it would sound like. Some have referenced Twain which makes sense as he certainly did use such dialog himself in his writing. Some have complained that it was challenging to read — I found it quite easy. Curtis is able to give you such a great sense of his boy protagonists — they are always a tad “fragile”, pensive, and so so good at heart.

From the start Little Charlie is good, everything that happens early on makes that very clear. What he is also is racist, prejudiced, and extremely ignorant. His journey with the evil slave catcher is one of learning, growing, and changing — what we would wish for all who are as limited in early experience as Charlie is.

There are some very dark moments in this book, extraordinary cruelty and brutality, yet all presented in a way that older children can definitely manage — this is very much a middle grade book. I noticed someone writing that she planned to read it aloud to her 5th graders. I would be cautious with this, be mindful of the listeners — who they are, their own lives, and how this could make them feel. I see it as for those ready for this harsh history lesson, say 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

There are also some warm moments, Curtis’s trademark humor, and description. I feel that I can recognize his style when he describes the slave catcher’s rankness, a train ride for a boy who has never been on one, and the pain of enslaved people being retaken and separated. Most of all, there is the strength and power of the Canadians — whites and blacks together.

This feels like a book of the moment, a #blacklivesmatter for the 19th century and today. Outstanding.


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Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down


This was a book I knew I needed to be in the right place emotionally to read. Which I did, at last, yesterday.

And I thought it magnificent.

While I’ve read and admired other works by Reynolds, this may well be my favorite to date. The man has a way with language that is remarkable. Structured as a series of experiences/encounters/events for fifteen year old Will as he heads down in an elevator to take revenge on his brother’s killer, Long Way Down is powerful, gut-wrenching, and, all and all, extraordinary. Reynolds weaves together what happened, what is going through Will’s mind and his body, glimpses of the pain of others (notably his mother), layering who Will is within his progression down and engagements with a series of people from the past, some close to him, all connected to him somehow. The sensory details are blowing in your face, literally as many of the visitors are smoking, but vividly and viscerally throughout. The boy’s fear, anger, confusion, and pain are communicated in a myriad of ways, obvious and not. Reynolds plays with words in so many ways — with titles, with placement on the page, with anagrams (and these were so perfect and that isn’t always the case when writers try to do them), and far more.

This has definitely shot to the top of my list of favorites of the year.

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Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride


As I’ve written here before, I’m extremely wary of books that are described as heartbreaking, poignant, tender, et al. Too often I feel that I’m being manipulated into tears as regularly happens in the movies with music. Happily, there are books thus described that DO work for me. Such a one is Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride. The structure is that of a girl with a very sad past traveling on Amtrak to a new life. Over several days on the train she meets people, builds relationships. has a romance, and slowly reveals her complicated history. What makes this book work so well for me firstly is the lovely character development. There is, of course, Ryder, but — as the book moves back and forth in time — also her recently departed grandmother, Amtrak employee Dorothea who is looking out for her on the train, Neal at the train cafe, a caring school counselor, some scouts, and a kind crossword puzzler fellow-rider. I’d read that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl featured in the story and was very skeptical, but it works beautifully and in a way that is necessary. Best of all is the sentence level writing which is a delight. Here’s a taste: “It was comfortably dreadful.”  Glad to see this getting some Newbery buzz and hope this little post helps.


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Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust Vol. 1: La Belle Sauvage

There will be many paths into this book. Some will come to it cold having not read His Dark Materials, curious about what the fuss is all about. Others will come to it having read His Dark Materials long ago and so with a vague sense of the world they are re-entering. Some may read it because of an encounter with The Golden Compass movie. Others may have had the early books read to them when young.  And some will come to it with a deep love and appreciation of the previous books, having read and reread them many times.

I’m definitely one of the latter. I came across The Golden Compass shortly after publication and fell madly in love with it, a feeling that only solidified when I read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Since then I’ve read the books and listened to the full-cast audio recordings many, many times. It is a comfort experience, one of solace, one that has me admiring the trilogy more and more with each encounter. When the play was put on at London’s National Theater I went. With heart in my throat I followed the controversies around the movie and finally went to see it — yes, reader, I was disappointed. And now I wait eagerly for the forthcoming BBC series.

All this is to say that I entered La Belle Sauvage with high hopes, with high fears, and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the previous books and their world, characters, and themes. And so my response to the book is predicated on all of this. Someone on a different path will likely have a different response.

I began with some anxiety — it had been seventeen years after all–but it was like dropping into a scented warm bath surrounded by flickering candles — in other words, a delight. The world was that of His Dark Materials, the characters multi-faceted whether major or secondary. the pacing tense and urgent, the ideas demanding and true. Best of all is the writing — Pullman is a wordsmith like few others. Again and again I just stopped to reread a gorgeous sentence, to admire a word or phrase, a clever construction, or the elegant weaving of information. Just look at this very first sentence:

Three miles up the river Thames from the center of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the Priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

Taking us from the great colleges to mastery of boat races to  misty levels to gentle nuns he lands us at the unadorned (no adjectives for it) Trout. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. As a writer I aspire to create anything even remotely close to that opening.

Moving into the story proper we meet eleven-year-old Malcolm (and his daemon Asta) whose parents run the inn and so he works there too. As good in his own way as Lyra and Will, but a person distinctly all his own, this is a boy who is inquisitive, loves to make things, supremely sensible while also able to dream, honest (but able, in dire circumstances to lie effectively),  solid (with adults and peers), and with a heart that is as big as the flood that comes midway in the story.

In the first half, Pullman chillingly evokes a time when the country is still nominally free, but the various ecclesiastical dark forces that figure so prominently in His Dark Materials (set around a decade later) are rearing their ugly heads. Familiar characters appear or are referred to, notably Mrs. Colter and Lord Asriel. But most of all there is Lyra, a beautifully realized baby of six months old. Pullman’s development of her character at this age is masterful — I mean, it isn’t easy to show personality with a child who doesn’t have words yet. I suspect it is his remarkable invention of daemons that makes this possible as he describes wondrous moments throughout the book of baby Lyra and baby Pantalaimon.  At one point there is a description of the tiny daemon trying to change into another creature, but unable to because he doesn’t know it yet. At another point an adult points out that their babbling to each other (made me think of the private language that sometimes exists between twins) is a way of learning how to speak.

The plot involves saving the baby Lyra from the various nefarious people and organizations who are after her. Among them is an absolutely chilling villain (or malefactor as Malcolm might well call him), George Bonneville, who proves in horrific ways to be completely mad. Pullman sets things up in the first half of the book —- showing Malcolm’s cosy home life with his sensible parents, his enjoyment in helping out the nuns at the priory across the street (where he meets baby Lyra), his stolid firmness with friends and at school (where a creepy Hitler-Youth-like organization takes hold), and his handiness, especially with his beloved canoe, the eponymous La Belle Sauvage. And then things take off literally — there is flood of Biblical proportions and Malcolm along with Alice, a somewhat older and sulky worker in his parents’ inn, are off in the canoe to save Lyra. They are chased, they have narrow escapes, harrowing experiences, and otherworldly encounters.

I enjoyed every moment of the book which I both listened to and read on my Kindle (so as to avail myself of the highlighting option). I attempted to savor it, but it was impossible to slow down during the second half any more than could the children in the canoe as it was born away in the raging flood. Now I’m planning to go back and listen to it again. (I am such a speedy readers that I love listening, especially when the writing is gorgeous, as it is much slower.) And again — in preparation for the next in The Book of Dust, set evidently some twenty years later. I waited seventeen years for this one so I think I can wait a bit longer for the next one.

Thank you, Philip Pullman, for giving all of us, so completely and wonderfully, this chance to be lost again in your remarkable literary world.


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Rick Riordan’s The Ship of the Dead (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, #3)

Just finished this last night and the more I think about it the more impressed I am.  A few months back I wrote a post celebrating Rick Riordan and all the things I noted there are in his latest, The Ship of the Dead. Here’s what I just wrote on Goodreads:

Highly enjoyable. Interesting how Riordan reuses a plot trope (deadly deadline) so freshly and imaginatively in different titles including this one. I think this is because he develops each character so distinctively, brings in the mythology smoothly (so not didactic), and has a crisp and witty writing style. And also, regarding those characters — he is brilliant at weaving in so many different life experiences. The gender fluid Alex and the devout Muslim Samirah stand out here most of all. And in this case, he takes on religious belief — really terrific. Then there’s Magnus’s (the main character) love life. How often do we see this in the main character of a highly popular work of genre literature for middle grade readers? (Right now, as I’m hoping that this will change in the next few years.) Hmm…. started by giving it four stars because the plot seemed a tad standard, but as I write this I am in such admiration for what this writer has done here that I’m bumping it up to five. Yay to Rick Riordan!


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Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth A. Odhiambo


Set in a 1980s Kenyan Luo village during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Auma’s Long Run is a piercingly honest account of the struggles, pain, hardships, deaths, famine, and challenges faced by a determined young girl and her community with grace and fortitude. Debut author Eucabeth A. Odhiambo, who grew up in a Luo village, beautifully brings out the complicated ways thirteen year old Auma, her family, and neighbors cope with the scourge. Lack of resources, traditional practices, personalities, and more make this a riveting and complex read. While this is not a story that wallows in misery — Auma is too determined to ever give up — there are still many loses; in one case after the death of a friend’s parents, lack of food causes her little sister to die of malnutrition. How to get to the clinic to see a doctor, whether to consult with a traditional healer, where to get money for school fees and school uniforms, frightening cure mis-beliefs (one causing a man to threaten Auma sexually), and more swirl around this tale. Auma desperately wants to go to secondary school, to become a doctor, to then learn more about this disease and help find a cure. But her obstacles are daunting. Odhiambo relates Auma’s story in clear and direct prose, as practical and realistic as her protagonist. Her descriptions of Auma’s life are vivid and authentic, her scenes raw and real.  While there is indeed sorrow and sadness, there is also humor and joy. Highly recommend this one.

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Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams


A few weeks ago I visited New York City’s Whitney Museum and became besotted with a new-to-me artist, James Castle. Obsessed I took the following photos:

Perhaps a week later I saw Betsy Bird’s review of Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams, was gobsmacked that this fictionalized overview of Castle’s life was in the works, and eager to get an advance copy. Now I have and think it completely and utterly superb. It is fiction, the text and the art, carefully and respectfully researched. Some have wondered if the art is all Say’s, but I feel confident it is. He writes about his own research, process, and materials in his author’s note and indicates that his wife made the constructions of dolls and birds. There is a solid bibliography. (For more of Castle’s art, check out online exhibits here, here, and here.)

And it is all quite fabulous — the text (a fictionalized memoir of Castle’s nephew) and the art, the hues and viewpoints very much in the style of Castle’s work.

One of my oldest friends is the curator of the American Folk Art Museum so I’ve long been aware of the work outsider/self-taught artists. In fact, one reason Castle’s work caught my eye at the Whitney (along with several others ) was delight in seeing it in such a museum in the same space of more famous conventional artists. Well-known outsider artists include Henry Darger, James Hampton, Achilles Rizzoli, Simon Rodia (who did the Watts Towers), Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, and Adolf Wölfli.

While I don’t want to make any assumptions about those artists whose lives for one reason or another were outside of the world of art as we usually know it, I can’t help being fascinated by those like Castle who, lacking certain ways of communicating, find others in spectacular ways. What we know of his life — being deaf and never speaking and living on a very isolated farm — makes his work all the more wonderful. Say has absorbed the man’s life and given us a gift to know about him, it, and his art.

Thank you, James Castle and Allen Say, for beautiful, beautiful reveries on the world.

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