Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (J Fantasy)

Princess Academy

Shannon Hale (J Fantasy)

It was the last trading of the season and Miri was ready. At fourteen, she was very small for her age and not allowed to do the one thing she wished to do—work in the quarry. But one way or another, she would make her father proud and would get that stingy lowlander to give up more than he wanted. That would bring a smile to her father’s face and being useful would bring a smile to hers. But along with the traders came a painted blue carriage that carried word from the king—a prophecy that the future princess of Danland resided in Miri’s own Mount Eskel. All girls aged twelve to seventeen would go to an academy for one year’s training before the prince would select his bride and young Miri was to be among them. Could little Miri, too useless to even work in the quarry alongside her fellow mountain folk, EVER be considered worthy of a prince? She’ll have a year to find out.

Hale delivers a masterful and brilliant story of class and privilege and explores the problems associated with stereotypes and prejudices. Set against the backdrop of a chiseled mountainscape and a secret language stored deep inside the mountain’s linder stone, Princess Academy is the story of a young girl’s desire for acceptance while remaining true to herself and all that she holds dear. Recipient of the 2006 Newbery Honor Book award, Princess Academy shows us courage and the consequences that come with standing up to unfairness and protecting the most vulnerable among us.

There are so many valuable lessons in this book, especially for young girls who feel unnecessarily driven to be wittier or prettier or smarter than their peers. Miri understood the toxicity behind this kind of competition when she said, “I don’t like the feeling in competition with everybody to be seen and liked by Prince Steffan.” And it was Miri’s friend, Esa, who so wisely suggested, “We should make a pact. We’ll be happy for whomever he chooses, no jealousy or meanness.” Although written in 2005, these lessons still hold true today. There are so many empowering quotes about lifting each other up without tearing one another down or how a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. Hale, through a “useless” girl who had very modest dreams, shows us the power for standing up for what is right and never turning your back on a friend.

I love Miri Larendaughter and have added her to my growing list of favorite fictional heroines. Besides her tenacity and courage and goodness, I believe it is her ability to lighten even the darkest places or the direst of circumstances that stands out the most to me. Prince Steffan said it best during his conversation with Miri when he said, “I would pay a deal of gold to have your talent of making other people smile.” In this age of competing for likes and followers, attention and approval, I hope we all remember how much value a simple act of kindness—especially a smile—is worth.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.betterworldbooks.com

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Savvy by Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

Savvy 

Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

There are certain things that the Beaumont family knows about secrets: they need them, they have them, and they keep them. In just a few days, when Mibs turns 13, she’ll join her mother’s side of the family and will have a secret of her very own. That’s when she’ll get her own savvy and her world—as she currently knows it—will never be the same. But before her big day, her father is involved in a terrible accident and left seriously injured. With her newly acquired supernatural power and a pink bible bus filled with a handful of misfits, Mibs encounters bikers, brawls, and plenty of banana cream pie in a race to bring her whole family together and to save her broken father.

A 2009 Newbery Honor Book, Savvy is an imaginative and heart-pounding adventure story filled with many relatable themes that are standard fare for young readers: bullying, standing out, fitting in, first love, and making friends. The first in a series of three books (Scumble and Switch are both complete stories, but make small references to the original book), Savvy is an easy-to-read, thrilling ride that introduces us to a quirky set of characters including the preacher’s daughter, a belittled bible salesman, and a waitress with a heart of gold. Each of these people allow Mibs to slowly understands that perhaps the Beaumonts aren’t the only ones that possess supernatural powers. The ability to encourage, to help, to listen, and to accept are just as powerful as any savvy and Mibs quickly realizes just how special her new friends are in their own way.

Ingrid Law packs so many wonderful lessons in this book and that alone is worth the read. Along the way, Mibs learns that sometimes a bad thing can make a good thing happen or that happy endings come in all shapes and sizes or that things don’t always happen the way you want them to. Perhaps the most valuable lesson Mibs receives was from her mother who told her, “In most ways, we Beaumonts are just like other people. We get born, and sometime later we die. And in between, we’re happy and sad, we feel love and we feel fear, we eat and we sleep and we hurt like everyone else.” Through the eyes of an awkward teenaged girl, Law reminds us of how much good can be accomplished and gained when we focus on our similarities rather than our differences.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

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The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio by Lloyd Alexander (J Fantasy)

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio

Lloyd Alexander (Juvenile Fantasy)

 If you were to ask Evariste what he thought of his nephew, Carlo Chuchio, he would say that the lad was nothing more than a thankless, dimwitted daydreamer.  A “chooch”.  And perhaps he was right.  Having an uncle who was an importer, Carlo spent his days loitering at the docks and imagining places waiting to be visited and explored—places far beyond his home in Magenta.  Adventure, as fate would have it, was a lot closer than Carlo had imagined for when he happened upon a bookseller in the market, he was offered a book of fantastic tales.  Stories of magic carpets and genies in lamps and caves filled with treasure.  But this particular book didn’t just contain wondrous stories, it also hid a map with the most intriguing and irresistible two words that Carlo could ever imagine: “Royal Treasury”.  Soon, Carlo would be embarking on a journey that involved an unlikely set of traveling companions…all heading to Cathai and the fabled “Road of Golden Dreams”.

Lloyd Alexander takes readers on a magical journey filled with suspense, danger, mishaps, missteps, humor, and romance.  Although there’s no flying carpet or bottled genie, there is plenty to delight and entertain readers of any age.  At the heart of this story is young Carlo Chuchio, a dreamer filled with integrity who would not let his desire to be held in high regard outweigh his need to do the right thing.  He soon realizes the burden of having a conscience, but the blessing that comes with listening to it.

Along Carlo’s journey, he meets up with a delightful set of companions.  Baksheesh, a camel-puller, proves to be an invaluable adviser and is always ready with a fast line or two in order to escape trouble…or work.  There’s quiet and observant Salamon, who is childlike in his eagerness, curiosity, and joy when discovering something new.  Then there’s Sira, who is not what she appears to be.  She bears a tragic past and although her heart is filled with vengeance and heartache, perhaps there’s still a bit of room left for love.  Together, the group encounters ruffians, warlords, a dream merchant, a painter, rivaling tribes, armies, a horse master, and perhaps the most repugnant of them all, a storyteller.  While encountering danger and death at almost every turn, our ragtag troupe reminds us that it is often cunning and cleverness that have a sharper edge and can cut just as deep as any saber or tulwar.

Of all the characters in this book, it is Salamon who is perhaps my favorite.  He is a kind and gentle man of few words, but when he does offer up some advice or wisdom, they are balm to the soul.  When Carlo was unsure about what his future held, Salamon replied, “What remains to be seen is always the most interesting.”  And when Carlo was telling Salamon about his quest for treasure, Salamon came up with a gem of his own: “As if a fortune could make up for the bother of gaining it.  No, no, my lad: The journey is the treasure.”

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio teaches us so many lessons: not to judge a book by its cover, the virtues found by putting your faith in the untrustworthy, or the comfort gained from seeking hope amongst the impossible.  But above all, Lloyd Alexander gives us a wonderful and exciting story about a boy who discovers all the possibilities and treasure that the world has to offer all because one day, he seized upon the remarkable opportunity to open up a book.  How much richer can you possibly get?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (J Fantasy)

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting

Natalie Babbitt (Juvenile Fantasy)

Winnie did not believe in fairy tales.  She had never longed for a magic wand, did not expect to marry a prince, and was scornful—most of the time—of her grandmother’s elves.  So now she sat, mouth open, wide-eyed, not knowing what to make of this extraordinary story.  It couldn’t—not a bit of it—be true.  And yet…

Ten-year-old Winnie Foster lives with her father, mother, and grandmother in Treegap.  They were the first family in the area and laid proud claim to Treegap wood and the touch-me-not cottage that laid on its outskirts.  She was the only child in the household and, on this particular day, she was bored.  And hot.  And it’s only the first week in August.  After being pecked at by both her mother and grandmother, Winnie ventures outside to seek solitude.  But peace won’t be hers that day for a man in a yellow suit comes up to the iron fence and is looking for a family.  He also has a particular interest in their wood.  Winnie has never ventured outside the fence let alone into the wood.  Maybe she can find some solitude there.  And who knows?  Maybe she’ll find something interesting.

Written in 1975, Tuck Everlasting has sold over 5 million copies and is considered a modern classic in children’s literature.  It’s the story of the Tuck family—father and mother (Angus and Mae), and brothers Miles and Jesse—who drink from a spring in Treegap wood and inadvertently discover immortality.  They’ve been able to keep their secret safe until a chance encounter with Winnie Foster threatens everything they’ve been concealing.  Tuck Everlasting is folkloric in nature and woven with bits of fantasy, drama, and a touch romance.  It’s written for ages 10 and up and its broad-based themes of sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, love, and family ensures a very wide appeal.

Babbitt delivers a detailed and beautifully told story that is rich in symbolism.  Watch for the toad that pops up throughout various points in Winnie’s story.  He’s more than just a convenient friend and marks notable shifts in Winnie’s maturity.  There are also numerous mentions of imprisonment or feeling trapped.  At one point, Winnie recalls a verse from an old poem (Richard Lovelace’s 1642 poem “To Althea, from Prison”) which goes, “Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage.”  Winnie feels imprisoned by her mother and grandmother (and the literal iron bars that surround her yard) while the Tucks are prisoners of time itself.  Both are trapped, but Winnie alone has any future chance of escape.

Tuck Everlasting was a quick read packed with moral lessons and questions (Would you want to live forever?).  The only criticism I had was that the ending felt forced and rushed.  Babbitt spent such an inordinate amount of time painting this detailed image of the wood and the Tucks into our minds, that the end fell a little flat.  This was one of those stories that an additional twenty pages might have helped give a more ample and satisfying conclusion rather than a one- to two-page condensed summary that wrapped everything up.  It just left this wonderful journey feeling incomplete and inadequate.

In closing, I will repeat a bit of wisdom that Miles imparted to Winnie, “People got to do something useful if they’re going to take up space in the world.”  During my limited time of taking up space in this world, it is my hope that my reviews and insights provide you with something useful and perhaps even help you discover a book and a story that will stay in your heart forever.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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The White Stag by Kate Seredy (J)

The White Stag

The White Stag

Kate Seredy (Juvenile Fiction)

“Hadur, Powerful God, Thou hast indeed turned the sword against me, Thy sword, Hadur, not mine!  But Thou hast given me a scourge in its place and I swear to Thee, I, Bendeguz the White Eagle, that I shall use that scourge, that I shall make it into the most dreadful weapon ever known to men.  Thou hast given me a son, Hadur, he will be that scourge!  My son, Attila the Red Eagle, the Scourge of God!”

And so it was that in the year 408, Attila the Hun was born to Bendeguz the White Eagle and Alleeta, a girl captured during one of the many Hun raids.  Alleeta who would die in childbirth but would give her tribe one of the greatest and most brutal leaders it would ever know.  A leader who would take his people on a journey foretold by his great grandfather Nimrod, Mighty Hunter before the Lord, and started by his grandfather, Hunor of the Hun tribe, and his great uncle, Magyar of the Magyar tribe, and then continued by his father Bendeguz the White Eagle.  Great warriors who would bear the flag of the Red Eagle and follow the mythical White Stag from the headlands of wild Altain-Ula in the west toward the east.  A pilgrimage sweeping from Asia to Europe and leaving countless men, women, and children dead, dying, or enslaved.  A journey that wouldn’t stop until the promised homeland was reached.

Through her poetic prose and beautiful illustrations, Kate Seredy delivers an epic story mixing fantasy, legend, myth, biblical references, and history.  Although Seredy doesn’t fully plunge into the breadth of Attila’s savagery and conquests, she gives her young audience enough information to fully understand that the Huns were a rather nasty and savage lot.  Readers know from the onset that what they are about to delve into is going to be more epic fantasy than straight-from-the-books history: “Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book.  It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.”

Through her rich illustrations that bring this magnificent tale to life, Seredy immerses her readers with a story of moonmaidens and miracles, life and death, and bravery and barbarism.  But above all of these, she gives us a tale of courage and faith and how the two are tightly woven together.  Because my own words often come up short, I sometimes choose to end my reviews with a quote (some known and others not so much) that manages to encapsulate the feelings and lessons I’m left with after the last page is turned and the book has been reshelved for another.  I found the perfect one from self-help writer Edmond Mbiaka who said, “At every given moment in your life, you have the option to move backwards with fears and doubts or to keep pushing forward with faith and courage.”  Although our own personal moments may never compare to those of the Huns or Magyars, we can find comfort in knowing that we too can reach our own “promised land” if we hold fast, stay true, and never waiver in our convictions and belief.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill (J)

The Mostly True Story of Jack

The Mostly True Story of Jack   

Kelly Barnhill (Juvenile Fantasy)

In the town of Hazelwood, Iowa, everything is neat and quiet and predictable.  Everything, that is, except the deep purple house with its bright green door that sits on the edge of town.  It belongs to Clive and Mabel Fitzpatrick (they’re kooks) and will soon be home to their nephew Jack (he’s a nobody).  But something is happening in the town of Hazelwood.  Something is different.  There’s a buzzing sound that you can hear in the air and feel on the ground.  And there is a sweet smell all about.  Frankie Schumacher is the first to notice it, but he’s usually the first to know most things.  What Frankie doesn’t know is that this newcomer, a boy named Jack, is at the center of everything strange, weird, and disturbing that is happening…again.

Barnhill gives us a story that is full of magic, bravery, and friendship.  The plot gets a little confusing as the reader is provided cryptic clues through old diary entries and postings by Jack’s uncle—both contained in The Secret History of Hazelwood—in order to piece together the bizarre events not only occurring in the Fitzpatrick home, but also around town.  Also, the premise of the story seems a little faulty since we are led to believe that Jack’s character feels “invisible”; however, throughout the book and especially near the end, we see that he is actually being forgotten and not just simply ignored.  This feeling is actually more appropriate in conveying a sense of foreboding and trepidation as the action intensifies and Jack begins to realize the truth about the town and himself.

Overall, I liked that the main characters in this book were loyal, fearless, and chose decency over convenience.  Whether standing up to bullies or corrupted townspeople, they always erred on the side of right, regardless of the consequences they knew they would eventually face.  I do have a slight warning for younger readers or readers that are easily frightened.  There are a few creepy parts in this book where kids get sucked into the ground and have their souls taken so just keep this in mind.  All in all, The Mostly True Story of Jack is a book about trying to feel comfortable in your own skin, trying to fit in, and most of all, just trying to be true to yourself…or mostly true.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com