Category: Middle Grade

Howl’s Moving Castle

Cover image for Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jonesby Diana Wynne Jones

ISBN 9780062244512

“What an outspoken old woman you are! I’ve reached that stage in my career when I need to impress everyone with my power and wickedness. I can’t have the King thinking well of me. And last year I offended someone very powerful and I need to keep out of their way.”

All the residents of Market Chipping have heard of the terrible Wizard Howl, whose moving castle lurks over the hills and moors surrounding the town. The Wizard Howl is a terrible fiend known for stealing and eating the hearts of young girls. Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and everyone knows that in fairy tales the eldest is doomed to meet the worst fate, while the youngest has all the adventures and marries the prince. Sophie tries to tell herself she is resigned to her fate, sewing hats in her father’s shop. But when she accidentally runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie leaves home to seek her fate, despite being the eldest daughter. Cursed to look like an old woman, Sophie seeks out the moving castle, and strikes a bargain with Howl’s fire demon that will have far reaching consequences.

Howl’s Moving Castle is perhaps my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, so it is a bit surprising that it took me this long to get around to reading the book it was based on, which was originally published in 1986. Part of the appeal of this narrative is Sophie, a strong-willed character, but one who has been hiding her opinions and forcefulness behind the polite, timid façade expected of a young woman and dutiful eldest daughter. The witch’s curse, which transforms Sophie into an old woman, frees her from much of that expectation, allowing her character to come through more strongly. Diana Wynne Jones writes that “as a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief.” She is well-matched against the tumultuous and mercurial Howl in temperament, and her new life also frees her to discover her own magic.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the emphasis on the portal fantasy, including Howl’s connection to our world. As in the film, the castle has four entrances, each in a different physical location. In the book, but not the movie, the black door leads to our world, specifically to Wales, where Howl—aka Howell Jenkins—has left behind his sister, niece, and nephew. The addition of Howl’s family adds an important dimension to his character, and provides an angle of attack for the Witch of the Waste that is missing from the film. This eventually leads to a confrontation with the witch’s fire demon, the source of her power, and possibly also the cause of her wickedness. Overall, the witch’s storyline is more satisfying and coherent in the book as a result of these developments.

The book has room to flesh out characters and subplots that were cut from the film, including Sophie’s family as well as Howl’s. In the book, Sophie has two sisters, one apprenticed to a baker, the other to a sorceress, while Sophie stays at home to inherit the hat shop. Their father dies early in the story, leaving Sophie, her sisters, and stepmother to pick up the pieces. The book also develops a variety of connections between the characters, such a romance between Howl’s apprentice Michael—who is a teenager rather than a young boy as in the film—and Sophie youngest sister, Martha. Miyazaki’s film did excellent work with the source material, but the extra layers of detail and character development allowed for in the book add something to this whimsical and endearing story that is now hailed as a forerunner to modern British fantasy.

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Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Over the Woodward Wall

Cover image for Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Bakerby A. Deborah Baker

ISBN 978-0-7653-9927-4

“Are you sure you want an ending? Endings are tricky things. They wiggle and writhe like worms, and once you have them, you can’t give them back again. You can hang them on hooks and sail the seas for sequels, if you realize you don’t like where your story stopped, but you’ll always have had an ending, and there will always be people who won’t follow you past that line. You lose things when you have an ending. Big things. Important things. Better not to end at all, if you can help it.”

Once upon a time, on an ordinary street, in an ordinary suburb, in an ordinary town, two perfectly ordinary children wake up on what should be an entirely ordinary day, only to find themselves on an adventure. Restless and quick, Zib Jones loves messes and surprises, and playing in the woods behind her house. Quiet and steady, Avery Grey is a boy who likes order and polish, and long hours spent at the library looking for the secrets of the universe. Though they are neighbours, these two very different children have never crossed paths, so the paths are about to cross for them, whether they will it or not. Despite being students at two entirely different schools, both children find a mysterious wall cutting through their neighbourhood where it has no right to be, blocking their way to school. On the other side is the Up-and-Under, and the adventure that awaits them there.

Over the Woodward Wall is the middle grade debut of fantasy author Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker (she also writes horror as Mira Grant). Tor describes it as a companion book to Middlegame, one of her books that I have not read yet. In many ways, however, it actually feels like a sibling book to McGuire’s Wayward Children series, but for a slightly younger audience. A wall leads to the Up-and-Under, not a doorway, but what comes next is much of a kind, a portal fantasy with two children on an adventure that is about self-discovery and finding their place in the world(s). This is as much about knowing where you do not belong as where you do, the choices that you make along the way, and the companions that you choose or discard.

Over the Woodward Wall employs a fairly self-conscious narration style, wordy and clever, one that draws attention to the fact that the story is being narrated rather than allowing you to relax into it. Baker does not want you to forget that this is a story, and that stories have rules, even if rules are meant to be broken, or at least interrogated. Although it is like a fairy tale, it is one that warns children against many of the things fairy tales sometimes perpetuate. The Queens of the Up-and-Under are beautiful, but “it is a myth that goodness is always lovely and wickedness is always dreadful to behold; the people who say such things have reason for their claims and would rather those reasons not be overly explored,” Baker warns. Similarly, “sometimes anger is a good, true thing, because the world is often unfair and unfairness deserves to be acknowledged. But all too often, anger is another feeling in its Sunday clothes, sadness or envy or—most dangerous of all—fear,” she cautions.

This book is only two hundred pages, and the ending still came more quickly than I expected, but Over the Woodward Wall is listed as first in a series, so there is likely more to come for Zib and Avery. I’ll definitely be sailing the seas for that sequel.

Ghosts

ghostsby Raina Telgemeier

ISBN 978-0-545-540629

“No, girls. November first. It’s a day to welcome back the spirits of the loved ones we’ve lost. I haven’t celebrated in years.”

Cat’s family has just moved to Bahía de la Luna, leaving behind their life in southern California. Cat is sad to be separated from her friends, but the coastal weather will be better for her sister’s health. Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the cool seaside air may help her struggling lungs. Bahía de la Luna turns out to be haunted, and the residents of the town take living alongside ghosts for granted. This terrifies Cat, but Maya is determined to meet a ghost for herself. Unfortunately for Cat, their new neighbour Carlos knows all the best spots as the local tour guide, including the abandoned mission. In order to help her sister, Cat will have to face up to her own fears.

Back in April, I received a preview of the first twenty-three pages of Ghosts at Emerald City Comic Con. I was excited by the potential of the story, because it features sibling relationships—one of Raina Telgemeier’s signature strengths—while venturing into fantasy where Telgemeier is generally known for her realistic contemporary stories. But by summer and early fall, I was seeing a series of blog posts that raised concerns about certain details of the story. I cancelled my pre-order, and put the book on hold at the library instead. Due to Telgemeier’s popularity, I only recently topped the holds queue and finally got to read Ghosts in full.

The strongest aspect of Ghosts is undoubtedly the sibling relationship between Cat and Maya. Cat’s parents have given her extra responsibility as the older sister, because in addition to keeping an eye on Maya, she must also be hyper-aware of the consequences of any choice on her sister’s health. Cat struggles with this role, and when Maya is too sick to start school in Bahía de la Luna, she doesn’t tell her new friends she even has a sister. Like the other members of her family, Cat is afraid of what will happen to Maya, because there is no cure for cystic fibrosis. And Maya is keenly aware of her own mortality, which plays into her determination to meet a real ghost who can help her understand what is waiting for her.

lacatrinatelgemeierAs I mentioned above, other readers have highlighted a couple of aspects of Ghosts that are problematic. Debbie Reese has called out the fact that Ghosts glosses over the history of California’s Catholic missions, which existed primarily to force the conversion of the Indigenous population. The abandoned mission plays a crucial role in the story as the most haunted place in the fictional Northern Californian town of Bahía de la Luna. Others, such as Faythe Arredondo and Laura Jiminez have pointed out additional problems with Telgemeier’s depiction of Dia de los Muertos.

ghostssketchbooktelgemeierFor my part, I noticed that on page 43 and 44, Cat’s mother corrects her when she equates Dia and Halloween. But this one line of dialogue is pretty thoroughly undermined by the fact that later in the story Cat dresses up as La Catrina for Halloween. This image (page 158) is much more likely to stick with readers than a single line of dialogue from early in the book. Telgemeier also includes a Sketchbook page in the back of the book, showing her early ideas for Ghosts as far back as 2008. Maybe it is the fact that these sketches aren’t in colour, but all of the characters look white, causing me to wonder if the diversity of Ghosts may have been grafted on later.

Ghosts will no doubt remain popular due to Telgemeier’s wide readership, and I did enjoy the sibling story, as well as the atmosphere created by Braden Lamb’s wonderful colours. But I hope readers will be aware of the issues that have been raised regarding this story, and also seek out own voices perspectives.

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Also by Raina Telgemeier:

Sisters

Drama 

The Bronze Key (Magisterium #3)

Cover image for The Bronze Key by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

ISBN 9780545522311

“He felt as though no matter what he did, he veered closer and closer to Constantine’s life and Constantine’s decisions. It was like being on a collision course with himself.”

Call, Aaron, and Tamara are heroes in the world of mages, having presented the head of Constantine Madden, the Enemy of Death, to the Collegium. But it seems that not everyone appreciates their efforts, because on the night of the ceremony acknowledging their service, someone tries to kill Call. Call thought his secret was safe, but why else would someone be trying to kill him? Worse, being caught in the middle costs a fellow student her life.  Not even the Magisterium can protect them, but the teachers have forbidden Call and his friends from trying to catch the killer. But since the Masters don’t know that Call is the reincarnation of Constantine Madden—and he isn’t about to tell them—he is sure that they will never catch the killer without his help.

The Bronze Key is a fast-paced magical adventure laced with the signature humour that Holly Black and Cassandra Clare have brought to the series. But the Magisterium series turns on playing with tropes, using both the magic school setting and the Chosen One narrative to advantage in this regard. In an introduction to The Iron Trial, Black and Clare wrote “we wanted to tell a story about a protagonist who had all the markers of a hero: tragedy and secrets in his past, magic power. We wanted people to believe they knew what kind of story they were in for. And then we wanted them to be surprised…” Readers expecting a simple Harry Potter rehash were met with twists and turns in both The Iron Trial and The Copper Gauntlet.

That said, Black and Clare do not seem to have brought that philosophy fully to bear on the third installment of their series, which marks the mid-point of Magisterium. With the Enemy of Death publicly defeated, Call and Aaron’s Makar powers suddenly look more threatening. What if they become evil, too? There is a spy inside the Magisterium, and a new overseer of the school assigned by the government. Black and Clare typically play their hand late in the book, and this is true again here, with several plot twists and major events coming in the last few pages. But they don’t succeed in subverting the tropes in the same way as in previous installments, and that has been a large part of the allure of this series. As we ramp up into the two final volumes, there may still be room to play with these narrative choices, but it remains a disappointment for this volume.
The Bronze Key does have a good helping of mystery and adventure which will continue to hold many readers who are less interested in playing with convention. In addition to trying to identify Call’s would-be assassin, the trio also faces new magical tests, tensions within the group, and the daunting task of trying to save the Chaos-ridden animals like Havoc from extermination. Tamara is brought face-to-face with the fate of those, like her sister Ravan, who are Devoured by their power, and Aaron’s family secrets come out into the open. However, even those who enjoy the fast-paced plot may find the one-two punch of the cliff-hanger ending overwrought.

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Odd and the Frost Giants

Cover image for Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddellby Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Chris Riddell

ISBN 978-0-06-256795-6

“Nobody knew what Odd was feeling on the inside. Nobody knew what he thought. And in a village on the banks of a fjord, where everybody knew everybody’s business, that was infuriating.”

When Odd’s father dies while off raiding with the other Vikings, his mother eventually remarries. Feeling unwelcome in their new family, Odd decides to go live in his father’s old woodcutting lodge in the woods, even though it has been an unusually long and cold winter. It is in the woods that he meets a bear, a fox, and an eagle, but these are no ordinary animals. In fact, they claim to be the gods Thor, Loki, and Odin, banished from Asgard by a frost giant. So Odd sets out to help the gods reclaim Asgard, and bring spring back to the human realm of Midgard.

Originally published in 2008 for World Book Day in the UK, this is a newly illustrated edition of Neil Gaiman’s story. This new version imitates the style and design of Chris Riddell and Gaiman’s 2014 collaboration The Sleeper and the Spindle, though Odd and the Frost Giants is a little less opulent. It lacks the semi-translucent slip cover, and the silver highlights used here provide a less striking contrast than the gold used in The Sleeper and the Spindle. However, the silver does give an appropriately cool feel to this wintery tale. Riddell’s highly detailed line art remains consistently excellent.

It might stretch credulity that a human boy is called on to solve a problem that has stumped three Norse gods. But Gaimain has an interesting take on the gods; as immortals their natures are fixed, their personalities immutable. The frost giants have exploited those weaknesses to seize Asgard.  As a mortal, Odd is not just clever—Loki, obviously, is plenty clever—but he is also able to learn, change, and adapt, enabling him to tackle a problem that has stumped the immortals. He makes for an endearing protagonist, both resourceful and determined.

Early in the story, Odd injures his leg trying to cut wood after his father dies. He ends up with a limp and uses a crutch, but still strives to maintain his independence, especially since his new family can be cruel, calling him a cripple and an idiot.  A common trope in fantasy fiction featuring characters with disabilities is for them to be magically cured as result of their heroic deeds. A partial version of that takes place here, when Odd is rewarded by the goddess Freya. She heals his leg as best she can, taking away his pain, though he still ends the story with a limp, a cane, and one leg that will never be as strong as the other. Feelings about whether this is good disability representation could go either way.

The story here remains unchanged from the original, making this a beautiful new edition of a fun children’s adventure into Norse myth. And it will no doubt help whet the appetite of fans who are excited for Gaiman’s Norse Mythology collection, due out in February 2017.

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More by Neil Gaiman:

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The Copper Gauntlet (Magisterium #2)

Cover image for The Copper Gauntlet by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare  by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

ISBN 978-0-545-52228-1

“He knew that having the rare devotion of a Chaos-ridden beast counted for a lot of Evil Overlord Points, but he couldn’t regret keeping him. Of course, that was probably a problem with being an Evil Overlord. You didn’t regret the right things.”

Despite his father’s wishes, Callum Hunt is determined to return to the Magisterium and continue his magical education, along with his friends Aaron and Tamara. But when he discovers a hidden room in their basement, he realizes his father may be more determined to prevent this from happening than Call ever would have expected. Worse, it seems that Alastair may suspect Call’s true identity as the reincarnation of Constantine Madden, the Enemy of Death. Call runs away before his father can execute his plan, taking his Chaos-ridden wolf, Havoc, with him. Back in the world of mages, he learns that a powerful magical artifact, the Alkahest, has been stolen, and that the Assembly suspects the allies of the Enemy of Death have taken it to use against Aaron, the new Makar. Along with his friends, Call sets out to recover the Alkahest, all while trying to conceal the fact that he suspects that his father has stolen it to use against him, not Aaron.

The Copper Gauntlet picks up shortly after the events of The Iron Trial, and follows Call as he tries to do the right thing while living under the weight of a terrible secret. His relationship with his father is strained by the fact that he knows that he is not just Alastair’s titular son, but also the murderer of his real son, even though he remembers nothing of that life. His every action feels weighted with undue significance, as he struggles with whether or not it is inevitable that he become evil like Constantine Madden was. However, it is his secretiveness—rather than his secret itself—which begins to threaten his closest friendships, as Tamara and Aaron begin to suspect that something is amiss. Aaron is preoccupied with the burdens of his own destiny, but Tamara won’t take no for answer.

“Magisterium” is a series about playing with tropes; the main thrust of this is Call’s discovery that he is not, as we might have expected, the Makar, but rather the one Aaron is destined to fight. However, also central to this volume is pulling in Jasper de Winter, the classmate who seems poised to be their at-school nemesis, and instead turning him into a reluctant ally in their latest adventure. When Jasper catches the trio trying to sneak out of school to go after the Alkahest, the friends decide he can’t be trusted not to tell, and take him along instead. Jasper is eager to be friends with Makar, but the realities of that friendship might turn out to be more than he bargained for.

The long build-up to the twist-ending in the first volume had many readers worried that “Magisterium” was nothing more than a tired “Harry Potter” rehash. Though certain similarities remain—and indeed seem to be essential to setting up and then dashing expectations—with the big secret finally out in the open, Black and Clare are free to really begin developing their world’s unique qualities. The character are growing, the stakes are rising, and “Magisterium” seems poised to stand on its own.

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George

Cover image for George by Alex Ginoby Alex Gino

ISBN 978-0-545-81254-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

Note (12/2/2018): Alex Gino has a post on their site where they talk about how to discuss this book and the main character’s name. The author now refers to it as Melissa’s Story. I’ve left my original review intact to reflect my thoughts at the time of publication.

“Trying to be a boy is really hard.”

George loves Charlotte’s Web, so when her school decides to put it on as a play, George immediately knows that she wants to play the part of the wise and beneficent Charlotte. And maybe if she can play Charlotte on stage, everyone—from her mother to her teachers to her friends—will finally be able to understand that George is a girl, not a boy. But her teacher refuses to let George try out for the part because she says she can’t give the role of Charlotte to a boy. So George and her best friend Kelly come up with a plan to help everyone finally see George for who she really is.

One simple stylistic choice makes George incredibly effective; Alex Gino uses George’s female pronouns from the start, which helps affirm George’s gender identity to the reader, but also clashes with George’s birth name. The male name combined with the female pronouns highlights the disparity between how George feels, and how the world perceives her. I was curious about Gino’s decision to use the male name as the title and throughout most of the book, but in fact George has a secret girl’s name that she wishes she could use, and part of the narrative is about her becoming confident enough to share that name with the world.

Throughout George, Gino does an excellent job of highlighting how many aspects of elementary school—from bathrooms, to line ups, to drama auditions—are gendered, often unnecessarily so. It seems quite unremarkable until, like George, you feel like you have been put in the wrong line. Forced in with the boys, who mock her effeminate behaviour, George has to cope with the fact that her dearest wish is their greatest insult. And even though George knows about transgender people from television and the internet, finding the words and the courage to tell her teachers what is going on just seems unfathomable.

In the midst of all this turmoil, theatre becomes an outlet for self-expression for George, a space where it might be okay to publically try out being a girl for a while without too much social sanction. Her teacher stands in the way, but that doesn’t stop George from rehearsing the part of Charlotte with her best friend. There are many fun moments and humourous touches, particularly in George’s friendship with Kelly, and her relationship with her older brother, Scott. This is a great hopeful story that presents both the difficulties George faces in being seen for herself, and the promise that she can eventually find her place.

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El Deafo

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bellby Cece Bell

ISBN 978-1-4197-1020-9

“Superheroes might be awesome, but they are also different! And being different feels a lot like being alone.”

When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. The next year she starts kindergarten at a special school for deaf kids where she learns lip reading. But when first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Trying to fit in at a new school is challenging enough, but Cece also has to wear the phonic ear, a large, two-part hearing aid that allows her to hear her teacher so that she doesn’t have to lip read all the time. Cece desperately wants to be taken for normal, but the phonic ear constantly draws attention to her deafness, and makes friendship complicated. Trying to make sense of her difference, Cece conjures up the character of El Deafo, who turns her disability into a superpower. Then Cece’s dream becomes a reality when her classmates realize that Cece can hear their teacher wherever she is in the school thanks to the microphone component of the phonic ear.

El Deafo is autobiographical but stylized; it draws on Cece Bell’s own personal experience of deafness, but the characters are portrayed as cartoony rabbit-like creatures, giving it a certain distance from real life. The graphic novel format gives Bell ample opportunity to experiment with the visual representation of sound. When the batteries in Cece’s hearing aid start to fade, the big black letters in the speech bubbles fade to grey and then go blank. When people fail to look at Cece so that she can read their lips, the speech bubbles are empty. But best of all is the way Bell shows that while Cece can sometimes hear the sounds just fine, they aren’t clear enough to understand; these speech bubbles are full of nonsense words, leaving the reader just as lost and confused as Cece.

Image from El Deafo by Cece BellWhile El Deafo is definitely about hearing loss, friendship is also a major theme. Cece just wants to find a friend who will treat her normally, and not make a big deal about her deaf friend, or do inconsiderate things like turn the lights off at a sleepover, leaving Cece unable to lip read. Cece’s first friend doesn’t make a big deal about her hearing, but she is also bossy and doesn’t want Cece to have any other friends. Her second friend is much less bossy, but she calls Cece her “deaf friend” and speaks so loudly and slowly that Cece has trouble reading her lips. However, there are complications and misunderstandings even with those friends who do treat her well, often because Cece struggles to pluck up the courage to speak up for herself.

Stories about kids with disabilities tend to contain a certain amount of bullying, but while the other kids in El Deafo are sometimes rude and inconsiderate, they are rarely outright mean. However, their behaviour still often results in Cece feeling excluded and lonely. Mostly, however, El Deafo is about Cece’s own internal conception of what it means to be deaf and therefore different. As much as she needs to find a good friend who accepts her and treats her well, she also needs to accept herself. One of the most heart-breaking moments in the story is when Cece refuses to learn sign language because she is worried people will stare at her. Bell is careful to point out in the afterword that these are her own personal memories from childhood, which aren’t always fair to the other people in the story, who were mostly well-intentioned but didn’t necessarily understand what they were doing wrong. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power; El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her. Cece’s struggles with communication are complicated by her deafness, but not solely due to it, and many of her experiences will be recognized hearing readers, as well as members of the deaf community.

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