Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
Readers of all ages will be intrigued by the inventive storylines of the recently published fantasy and science fiction books reviewed in this column. From picture books for the youngest readers to chapter books for middle grade readers to complex (and some lengthy) series and stand-alone books for older readers, each book offers readers the opportunity to exercise their imaginations as they meet traditional fantasy characters as well as a diverse group of humans having fantastical adventures set in make-believe worlds or on futuristic Earth.
Ashes of Gold (Wings of Ebony #2). J. Elle. (2022). Denene Millner.
In the conclusion of the Wings of Ebony duology, African American Rue from Houston, Texas, returns to her father’s homeland, Ghizon, a fantastical island near Madagascar (where she is known as Jelani) to fight against the loyalist Grays and restore the magic the Chancellor stole from the native Ghizonis. While leading a rebellion against the loyalist in which half of the Ghizoni population is killed, Jelani is captured. Waking up in prison, her memory is spotty. After being rescued from her cell by Ghizoni rebel warriors, she is determined to bring an end to the Chancellor’s rule, but what she doesn’t remember about magic, betrayal, and truth can kill her. Transporting back to Texas to recruit the help of her former boyfriend, Julius, she knows that the outcome in Ghizon will affect her battle-scarred Houston hometown, for better or worse, too. (Gr 9-12)
Castles in Their Bones (Castles in Their Bones #1). Laura Sebastian. (2022). Delacorte.
In this series opener, triplet princesses, Saphronia, Daphne, and Beatriz, born under the constellation of the Sisters Three with silver magic in their eyes, have just celebrated their coming-of-age sixteenth birthdays. Their mother, Empress Margaraux of Bessemia, is sending them to their betrotheds the next day: Beatriz south to Cellaria, Sophronia west to Temarin, and Daphne north to Friv. Educated in the history, traditions, and habits of their future husbands and their families, the girls have been instructed in strategies to sow dissension in court and among the other kingdoms. According to their mother’s plans, after they marry and become queens, they’ll be able to drive their monarchies to war so that she can swoop in to rule the entire continent of Vestria. The sisters leave fully expecting success in their goals and to be reunited with each other within the year, but best-laid plans can go awry—as readers learn in this engaging fantasy (told from the rotating points of views of the princesses) which will leave them eager for the sequel. (Gr 9-12)
A Dragon Used to Live Here. Annette LeBlanc Cate. (2022). Candlewick.
When Thomas and his younger sister, Emily, go in search of the arrow he accidentally shot through the basement window of one of the castle’s towers, they meet Meg McThorn, the grumpy supervisor of the castle’s scribes who are busy creating elegant handwritten invitations for a surprise anniversary party for their parents. Meg tells them she used to be their mother’s best friend even before a dragon lived in the castle, but their mother has never mentioned her or a dragon—and they want to know more. Thomas and Emily return again and again with baskets of freshly baked treats for the scribes, and while helping to pen invitations, they listen to Meg’s avowed “completely true story.” In short chapters, Annette LeBlanc Cate interweaves Meg’s story with its decidedly once-upon-a-time fairy tale tone about the fire-breathing dragon who held their mother, young Lady Catherine, captive in his castle and the story of how the “little nobles” orchestrate the reunion of their mother and Meg at the party. (Gr 3-5)
Healer & Witch. Nancy Werlin. (2022). Candlewick.
In 1531, 15-year-old Sylvie, who has grown up in the small French village where her mother and grandmother are healers, discovers that she, like Grand-mère Sylvie, has the power of healing by the laying on of hands. However, when Sylvie touches someone, she not only can see their thoughts and memories, she can also remove them. When her grandmother dies before she has had time to train Sylvie about this special power, in an attempt to lessen her mother’s grief, she removes all memory of Grand-mère Sylvie and Sylvie, herself. Accompanied by young Martin, the farrier’s son, Sylvie sets out for Lyon to find a wisewoman who can teach her how to use her unusual healing power safely. In this beautifully crafted historical fantasy, Sylvie’s quest to understand her gift is fraught with danger as they travel across France, encountering individuals who consider her a witch or wish to use her gift for personal gains and not knowing if they will ever return home. (Gr 6-8)
Monsters in the Fog. Ali Bahrampour. (2022). Abrams.
On a foggy morning, Hakim, a donkey, is making his way up the mountain to visit his friend Daisy when he meets an old goat who inquires where he is going. The goat warns, “Don’t do it! There are monsters up there!” Hakim, who doesn’t believe in monsters, continues on until he hears a groan, and out of the ever-increasing dense fog comes the strangest creature he has ever seen (readers also see the spooky figure on the facing page, and a turn of the page reveals the identity of the creature, who joins Hakim in his trek). This pattern of strange encounters in the fog occurs two more times until Hakim and his traveling companions hear a loud scream and see what looks like a MONSTER! Young children will be delighted when the creature who was afraid of the foggy image of Hakim and his new friends is revealed and agree with Hakim that “everything looks like a monster in the fog,” but up close it’s not so scary. (PreK-Gr 2)
Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs. Pam Muñoz Ryan. Illus. by Jacqueline Alcantara. (2022). Disney Hyperion.
Solimar, a tomboy, dreads her upcoming Quinceañera, where she will be crowned Princess Solimar Socorro Reyes Guadalupe, a descendant of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain; she’d rather have a barbeque. When Solimar and her royal bird, Lázaro, cross the forbidden river and enter the oyamel forest to greet the butterflies who overwinter there, the Monarchs cover her rebozo (shawl), embedding their silken wings into the fabric. Solimar soon discovers that while wearing the rebozo in daylight, when asked a question, she blurts out the truth. After her father (King Sebastián) and brother leave on an expedition, greedy King Aveno from a nearby kingdom learns of the rebozo’s power and takes everyone in the castle hostage—except Solimar, who escapes—planning to them exchange for the rebozo. Solimar, hunted by Aveno’s soldiers during her flight to alert her father and brother and save her family, is desperate to divest the rebozo of its futuristic, truth-telling magic by freeing the butterflies. (Gr 6 Up)
A Thousand Steps into Night. Traci Chee. (2022). Clarion.
In this Japanese-inspired fantasy, 17-year-old Otori Miuko, an ordinary girl from the servant class, lives with her innkeeper father in the decaying village of Nihaoi in the realm of Awara and follows society’s restrictive rules for women until she is kissed by a demon during the forbidden “verge hour” of dusk. Cast out by her father, she pursues a quest along the Thousand Step Way to break the curse as the demonic spirit takes over causing her body to slowly turn blue. Accompanied by trickster Geiki (part human, part magpie), Miuko engages in a journey of self-discovery. She wrestles with injustices wrought by humans and demons, battles against dark spirits, and creates unusual friendships. Then, the story deftly flips on itself, taking readers on a mind-bending trip back through key events that aren’t what they seemed to be first time through. Returning to Nihaoi two weeks later, Miuko’s transformation is complete, and she is ready to take on whatever her universe throws her way. The invented words of the language of Awara that Chee uses in the text are defined in footnotes. (Gr 6 Up)
Tortoise and Hare: A Fairy Tale to Help You Find Balance. Susan Verde. Illus. by Jay Fleck. (2022). Abrams.
“Once upon a time there were two neighbors, Hare and Tortoise.” They did things very differently. Hare did everything quickly. “Some might say she was too fast.” Tortoise did everything slowly. “Some might say he was too slow.” When Hare suggests that Tortoise can’t move fast for anything, he challenges her to a race. As expected, Hare is off in a flash while Tortoise creeps slowly. However, Hare’s nap at the halfway mark becomes a deep sleep, and she awakes to find Tortoise by her side and enjoys slowing down to stargaze with him. When the sun comes up, they finish the race together with Tortoise on Hare’s back enjoying going fast. Susan Verde and Jay Fleck turn Aesop’s fable into a fairy tale with a gentle lesson as Tortoise and Hare discover that it’s sometimes good to be fast and sometimes it’s good to be slow “but mostly, it’s good to have a friend to help you find the balance.” (PreK-Gr 2)
Wakers (Side Skip Trilogy #1). Orson Scott Card. (2022). Margaret K. McElderry.
Seventeen-year-old Armenian American Lazarus Davit Hayerian, a clone, comes to consciousness, with an intact memory, in a facility filled with pods of dead clones—except for one girl. While he waits for Latina Ivy Maisy Downey (the viable clone) to awaken, Laz remembers that he can “side skip” (move to parallel worlds), and finds clever ways to survive in the abandoned city with a pack of feral dogs that becomes his companions. After Ivy comes to life, they coexist in their current time as well as in side skips. Created by a team of scientists who expect Lazarus and Ivy to carry on the work of their originals (OrigiLaz and Ivy-O, who didn’t get along), the two teens will need to work together to save the inhabitants of earth from “Shiva,” a giant planet hurtling through space toward Earth, by locating safe side skips into which humanity can be relocated. (Grade 9-12)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
What began as National Drop Everything and Read Day on April 12th (the birthday of popular children’s book author Beverly Cleary) has become an annual month-long celebration in classrooms in April. Join the 2022 D.E.A.R. celebration by dropping whatever you are doing to read for a period of time each day during April and then keep the celebration going throughout the year.
All Star: How Larry Doby Smashed the Color Barrier in Baseball. Audrey Vernick. Illus. by Cannaday Chapman. (2022). Clarion.
African American Larry Doby (1923-2003) grew up in a time when the color of his skin was a barrier to his playing Major League Baseball despite his remarkable athletic talent. When Jackie Robinson was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, it seemed change was beginning. Doby, who was playing in the Negro League, became the second Black player in Major League Baseball and the first in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians in July 1947 (less than three months after Robinson made his debut in the National League). He faced racism from teammates, opposing teams, and fans alike. Audrey Vernick’s engaging text and Cannady Chapman’s vivid digital illustrations clearly depict Doby’s struggles to overcome racial discrimination in Major League Baseball. This biography would be a timely read-aloud choice for opening a discussion about the fight against discrimination in sports that still continues to this day.
Back matter includes an author’s note with additional facts about Doby’s life and accomplishments and a bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
Big Dog, Little Dog. Sally Rippin. Illus. by Lucinda Gifford. (2022). Kane Miller.
Big Dog had everything he needed and loved the life he lived with his human friend. However, all of that changed when Little Dog came into the picture. Once Little Dog moved in, Big Dog just had to find a way to get rid of him. In a series of amusing stunts, including stealing socks that he places on Little Dog’s bed and pulling bread off the dinner table that he drops in front of Little Dog, Big Dog makes his best effort to paint Little Dog as a troublemaker before adjusting to the addition of a new family member. This story of struggling to adapt to changes at home is effectively communicated through Sally Rippin’s simple text and Lucinda Gifford’s colorful illustrations. (PreK-Gr 2)
Endlessly Ever After: Pick Your Path to Countless Fairy Tale Endings! Laurel Snyder. Illus. by Dan Santat. (2022). Chronicle.
For lovers of fractured fairy tales, this book offers the classic story of Little Red Riding Hood with twists. Just how the tale turns out depends on the reader, who chooses the path of the storyline throughout the book. At the beginning, the reader assumes the role of Rosie, whose mama wants her to take a cake to her ailing grandmother. First, she has to choose which coat to wear. Will it be a “faux” fur coat or red cape? From there, her journey can take any number of paths depending on the choice the reader makes to the reoccurring question, “What next, Rosie?” The use of “endlessly” in the title is clever and fitting. As Laurel Snyder’s rhyming verse details Rosie’s misadventures, Dan Santat’s double-spread illustrations filled with characters and objects from other fairy tales add to the uncertainty, humor, or impending doom that comes from the path that is chosen. (PreK Up)
Eyes That Speak to the Stars. Joanna Ho. Illus. by Dung Ho. (2022). Harper.
This companion to Eyes That Kiss in the Corners (2021) carries a similar message of embracing oneself. The book starts with a young Chinese American boy lamenting his friend’s depiction of him in a “My Friends” drawing in which his eyes look like lines rather than round like those of his other friends. As he is reminded of his extraordinary heritage by his Baba (father) and Agong (grandfather), the refrain “eyes that speak to the stars” is repeated. Joanna Ho’s lyrical text is accompanied by Dung Ho’s stunning illustrations that vividly expand on the details shared in words. Readers can see what Agong’s eyes have seen over the years from rice paddies to night markets and how important cultural elements awaken his grandson’s pride in his heritage. (PreK-Gr 2)
Even Robots Aren’t Perfect! Jan Thomas. (2022). Beach Lane.
In three silly stories, the friendship of Blue Robot and Red Robot is tested. While painting, attempting to avoid rusting, and undertaking the “perfect plan,” one of the robots inevitably makes a mistake or says something wrong and offends the other. Nevertheless, by the end of each story, they realize that they can still be friends since even they aren’t perfect. This early reader in comic-book format features panels of humorous artwork, rendered digitally in a palette of primary colors, with the conversation between the two robots in speech bubbles. Jan Thomas takes readers on comical adventures and offers a valuable lesson about the ups and downs of friendship and the importance of forgiveness. (PreK Up)
It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit. Justin A. Reynolds. (2022). Scholastic.
In this hilarious middle grade novel, 12-year-old African American Eddie Gordon Holloway’s perfect plan to avoid doing his laundry goes terribly wrong when his mom discovers his huge pile of dirty clothes on the day of the town’s biggest event of the summer, Beach Bash. While Eddie is forced to stay home to do his laundry (dressed in his only clean outfit, a bathing suit), the power goes out before he has finished the first load. What follows is a tale of how he and four neighborhood kids cope with a potential apocalypse. With relatable characters (Eddie has ADHD) and an entertaining storyline, this book is sure to interest even the most reluctant reader. Justin Reynolds pulls in readers from the beginning by addressing them from Eddie’s point of view. The cliffhanger ending will leave readers eager for the sequel. (Gr 3- 5)
Just Help! How to Build a Better World. Sonya Sotomayor. Illus. by Angela Dominguez. (2022). Philomel.
Just as the title suggests, this book, based on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s childhood memories, promotes a powerful message of the impact helping others can have. Each morning, Sonia’s mother asks, “How will you help today?” Readers follow Sonia throughout her day as children and adults work to make a difference. Sonia and her classmates carry out various service projects, such as making care packages for American soldiers overseas, having a park cleanup day, donating to those in need, and helping to get out the vote on Election Day. Angela Dominguez’s cheerful illustrations show a diverse group of children and adults participating in activities to help make their community and the world a better place. (PreK-Gr 2)
Once Upon a Tim. (Once Upon a Tim #1). Stuart Gibbs. Illus. by Stacy Curtis. (2022). Simon & Schuster.
Tim and his best friend, Belinda, are tired of living as peasants and willing to do whatever they can to change their station in life. When Princess Grace from the neighboring kingdom is kidnapped by a horrible monster with a “malodorous stench” known as the Stinx, they see it as their opportunity. They volunteer as knights and embark on the dangerous mission of saving the princess with their kingdom’s Prince Ruprecht and his wizard, Nerlim. Chock full of rich vocabulary comically defined along the way in “IQ booster” asides, this giggle-inducing chapter book takes readers on a precarious quest. Humorous black-and-white drawings interspersed throughout the book help tell the tale of their uncertain encounters. (Gr 3-5)
Pig and Horse and the Something Scary. Zoey Abbott. (2022). Abrams.
Pig wakes up feeling worried and visits her friend, Horse, in hopes of forgetting about what is bothering her. After Pig tells Horse that something in her head is scaring her, Horse suggests various activities—bike riding, swimming, and trying on silly hats—to help make what is scaring her go away. When these attempts prove unsuccessful, Horse suggests that they take “whatever-it-is” to tea so Pig can talk about what’s on her mind. It turns out that Pig has quite a bit to talk about. With whimsical illustrations accompanying the text, Zoey Abbott addresses the reality of fears and worries that many young children experience. Friendship and the value of talking about what you are going through with someone are clear themes in this delightful book. (PreK-Gr 2)
Wombat Underground: A Wildlife Survival Story. Sarah L. Thomson. Illus. by Charles Santoso. (2022). Little, Brown.
Through Sarah L. Thomson’s poetic language and Charles Santoso’s captivating, realistic illustrations, readers are introduced to several animals that live in the Australian outback: a wombat, a wallaby mother and her joey, an echidna, and a skink. While Wombat digs an underground burrow, each of the other animals is going about its normal activities in the bush until lightning strikes and starts a dangerous wildfire. As they flee for safety, Wombat’s underground home serves as a refuge for them all. In the author’s note, readers learn more about the realities of Australia’s fire season, especially the particularly devastating fires of 2019-2020 that destroyed somewhere between twenty-four and forty million acres of land. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Year We Learned to Fly. Jacqueline Woodson. Illus. by Rafael López. (2022). Nancy Paulsen.
Throughout the year, as a brother and sister navigate various feelings such as boredom at being cooped up in their apartment on a rainy day in spring, their grandmother encourages them to use their imaginations to take them someplace else. “Lift your arms, / close your eyes, / take a deep breath, / and believe in a thing.” Readers learn that the grandmother’s wise words come from her own experiences of “learning to fly” from her ancestors, who used their imaginations to withstand the horrors of slavery. Rafael López’s expressive mixed-media artwork done in bold colors helps bring the poetic text to life. In an author’s note, Jacqueline Woodson shares her inspiration, Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly (1985), and asserts that imagining another way can be the first step towards change. (PreK-Gr 2)
Nicole Maxwell is an associate professor in the Elementary and Special Education Program at the University of North Georgia
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).