Yotsuba&! vol. 10

by Kiyohiko Azuma

In this volume, Yotsuba plays with her dad, learns how to make pancakes, and gets a visit from an old friend. I managed to ration the stories in this volume over three whole sittings! Although the genre is “slice of life,” the first story feels more aimless than usual and made me worry that the series was losing its charm. However, the second story–“Yotsuba & Pancakes!”–is the funniest instalment of Yotsuba&! yet, surpassing even “Yotsuba & No Bother!” (and you may remember how dearly I love that chapter). The rest of the chapters in this volume are decent, some eliciting more laughs than others, as per usual. As much as I loved the pancakes story, some of the other chapters are only just okay, and the funnier ones depend on the reader having already been acquainted with the characters.

Recommended for those who have already read some of the series, although the pancakes episode may win over some new fans.

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A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, ill. Jim Kay

Late at night, Conor wakes from a nightmare to hear someone calling his name. No, not someone: something. The yew tree from the neighbouring graveyard has transported itself into his yard, twisting its branches into a monstrous shape with arms, legs, and a face. Having been woken by a nightmare more horrifying than a monstrous yew tree, Conor isn’t afraid. He thinks it’s just another dream. But when he wakes up in the morning, the floor of his room is covered in yew leaves. Conor has more going on than midnight visits from a monster–in the waking world, his mother is struggling with cancer and everyone at school is treating him like some innocent victim. The yew tree continues to visit Conor and tell him stories about other times he has been called to enact justice, and Conor starts to hope that the yew tree can help him fix his life. But the monster’s ideas about justice are quite different from Conor’s.

I found this book hard to get into at first, even though the illustrations are really dark and beautiful. I was expecting a straight-up monster story, and the first few pages describe a visit from a monster but it’s not scary. Conor isn’t even afraid, so how was I supposed to be? Then I got to the part about Conor cleaning the house and fixing his own breakfast because his mom is still in bed. I thought it was the typical neglectful parent you find in most horror stories. Once I picked up on the clues that Conor’s mom had cancer, the story shifted for me. Usually kids’ stories about cancer or other illnesses are too after-school special for me to enjoy, with more predictable trajectories than monster stories, but this one is different. This one overlaps the horror element of monster stories with the real life struggles of a child whose parent has cancer. The story is beautifully told, and portrays Conor as he would like to be seen–a flawed hero in a horror story of epic proportions, not the victimized subject of an uncomfortable “issues” book taught in school. Both genres are enriched by this story’s inclusion of the other: the horror aspects of the story embody the dark issues of Conor’s situation, making it easier to empathize with him than if he was merely telling readers about how scared he is about his mom; conversely, the mundane and realistic possibility of Conor losing his mother to cancer makes the horror story more threatening than it would be if simply the fate of the world hung in the balance. While it took me eight or so goes to get to page 20, I found Conor’s complicated dilemma absolutely compelling and read the rest of the book straight through. It is an original, beautiful read with excellent illustrations that bring out both the horror and the sadness of the story.

Recommended for older kids and younger teens who can handle dark books about horror and death. Older teens looking for fanged monsters and blood will be disappointed, but those looking for a sad story will still enjoy it even if they do not care for supernatural horror.

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever

by Jeff Kinney

This installment of Wimpy Kid features a great many things, including but not limited to Christmas stress, school property vandalism, e-pets, a creepy lost doll, and, as always, a few cockamamie schemes of Greg’s to make money with minimal effort.

Of all the Wimpy Kid books, this one is the least cohesive. Yes, the other books go on a number of humourous tangents, but this one is pretty much all tangent, to the point where the plot as described on the back of the book doesn’t actually happen until the last twenty pages. There are some really funny parts and it is an enjoyable read, but it gets off to a rough start mostly because Greg seems so much younger than a middle school student. He believes in Santa, and it’s not even framed as a funny thing he hasn’t outgrown. Plus, his school–supposedly a middle school–has playground equipment. Both of these details distracted me and had me wondering if middle school starts in grade three in some states. It felt like these parts were targeted at the 7-year-olds reading the books, which can only detract from how cool these books are to their original audience of early middle schoolers. This audience shift, along with the general lack of plot makes me worry that the series is fading.

Still recommended to fans of the series, and it’s probably the most accessible of all of the books for a much younger audience. I wouldn’t recommend it as the one you give to another adult when you’re trying to convince them how funny the series is.

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Beastologist: The Flight of the Phoenix

by R.L. LaFevers, ill. Kelly Murphy

When Nathaniel Fludd is told that his parents are lost at sea, he is thrown into an uncertain world. Miss Lumpton, his caretaker, obviously doesn’t care for him and is all too happy to take the Tidy Sum the Fludds left for her and leave Nathaniel behind. Nathaniel now has to take his suitcase and go live with a distant relative, named Phil. Upon arriving at Phil’s house, Nathaniel discovers that Phil is a lady and that she is, like his parents were, a beastologist. Beastologists study and care for beasts that are either unknown to exist or that are thought to be extinct. It’s a dangerous trade, and one the timid and inexperienced Nathaniel is not sure he is suited for. Despite his doubts, he joins Aunt Phil on a beastologist errand. When Aunt Phil is detained, Nathaniel must learn to do an important beastologist task on his own. The book is illustrated with maps and drawings, as well as Nathaniel’s own sketches of the different beasts he comes across.

A promising enough orphan fantasy premise, but a pretty boring read despite its many plot developments. The writing style just gives this book such a slow pace. Parts of Nate’s adventures that seem like they should be thrilling have zero tension. I wanted to like it because it seems like a promising series and the covers look really nice. The amount of information held back–what happened to Nate’s parents, why didn’t he receive their letters, what was Miss Lumpton’s role in everything, who is working against Aunt Phil–makes the series somewhat compelling, but I can’t be bothered to continue.

The illustrations throughout make this book an approachable read for younger elementary kids, but I wouldn’t recommend it for kids looking for an action-packed adventure or those who are easily distracted from reading. More patient readers or kids who like their adventures gentle will enjoy this book, especially as a bedtime story.

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Protector of the Small: First Test

by Tamora Pierce

Keladry wants to be a knight. Fortunately, the page program for knights in training has been open to girls for the last ten years. Unfortunately, Kel is the first girl to enroll, and a lot of people want to stand in her way. It’s hard enough to get by with so many boys avoiding her or outright picking on her, but the training master has also put Kel on probation for her first year in order to voice his displeasure at having to admit a girl to the program. Having grown up with the stoic Yamani, Kel has learned to master her emotions and rise above such provocation. She is determined to show them all just what she can do.

Your basic girl power story, with a girl showing that she can excel among male peers. What I enjoyed about this one was that Kel made sure to not just behave like a boy in order to gain acceptance; although she never wears skirts or dresses at home, she wears them to dinners at training school to remind everyone that she is a girl. It’s rare to find a girl character who wants to do things boys do but doesn’t express a distaste for all things feminine, so I was pretty pleased with Kel as a character. As for the storyline, it’s is pretty obvious, and it gets really cheesy when these birds Kel feeds decide to follow her on a mission and help her out. It seems like the whole series will go on without anyone nice dying, which is always a bummer for me but it makes it a lot better for younger kids who just want an inspirational story.

I would definitely recommend this to kids nowadays, even though it seems like something written in the 80s (it was published in 1999). I think it’s pretty standard fare, and I’ve heard Pierce’s other Tortall stories are more original. It would still be enjoyed by a lot of kids who like the other series set in Tortall by Tamora Pierce, The Ranger’s Apprentice series, books with girl characters doing boy things, or castle fiction in general. Some book sites say this is for 12 and up, but it’s super tame so I would shift the age group to 8-12.

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The Prince of Neither Here Nor There

by Seán Cullen

Brendan is your typical awkward teen. He gets pimples and has to wear braces… and he hears animals speaking to each other. That last detail is the newest one to cloud his life, and he believes it is a sign that he is going crazy. Until he learns that he is of course a faerie prince with immense power. The spell that has been protecting him all his life is starting to fade, and some evil faeries are trying to hunt him down so that they can recruit him to the dark side.

The book flows well enough and is a pretty good supernatural adventure. Some funny stuff about faeries vs fairies, plus a lot of Toronto-ness (if you’re into that sort of thing). I read it because the cover is cool, and I won’t be reading the second one because the cover isn’t cool and the story isn’t as addictive as other supernatural orphan stories.

Despite my faint praise, this book would still be a really good read for those who liked Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. It’s missing something I can’t put my finger on, but it’s still a good adventure fantasy. The Canadian setting might make it more interesting for Canadian kids as well.

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The Unforgotten Coat

by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Julie remembers grade six well. She tells the story of her year as it relates to a series of Polaroid pictures. Grade six Julie just wants two things in life: for Shocky to notice her and for Mimi to invite her over to her house. She becomes interested in bigger issues when two mysterious Mongolian brothers show up at her school. Chingis, the older of the two, tells everyone to call his brother Nergui–Mongolian for “no name”–and tells Julie that a vanishing demon is hunting his brother. Chingis makes Julie their “Good Guide,” making her responsible for teaching them about their surroundings so they can blend in and the demon won’t find Nergui. Julie gets so involved in Chingis’s stories about Mongolia and the demon that she starts to notice some inconsistencies. Like, how did he take photos of Mongolia if he got his camera last summer at a refugee camp in England? Is he even from Mongolia? Doesn’t he know that demons don’t exist and people don’t just vanish?

Like some other reviewers who picked up this book, I thought it would be a pure fantasy story. I would still classify it as fantasy, but it binds fantastical conflicts with reality more closely than most. A lot of fantasy takes place in other worlds but reflects on our own; this story manifests fantasy elements from real situations. In fact, many story elements are based on a true story, which Cottrell Boyce tells in the afterword. I loved the genre blending, and I liked the way in which the mystery about the two brothers unfolded. For such a short book, the characters are well developed and I grew to like them. The Polaroid pictures sprinkled throughout the book made it visually enjoyable, and the writing was easy to follow. Although I wouldn’t categorize it as a book I couldn’t put down, I actually couldn’t put it down and stayed up later than I wanted to in order to finish it all in one go.

Recommended to adults who like kids books and kids who enjoy character-driven realistic fiction, curiosity-driven plots, and intersections of fantasy and reality. A good one for teachers of older elementary students to read aloud in units addressing social issues such as refugees.

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The Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang

by Amy Ignatow

Done in the diary style of Wimpy Kid, The Popularity Papers reports the story of two fifth graders, Lydia and Julie, trying to figure out how to become popular. They start by observing the popular kids, then they try to dye their hair, dress like a grown-up, and do popular activities. They both find ways to infiltrate the popular group, but what will it mean for their friendship? The story is told by both Lydia and Julie, alternating between neat printing with great drawings and cursive writing with stick drawings.

I enjoyed this book well enough, but it seemed odd to me that they were supposed to be in 5th grade. 7th would have made a lot more sense. Even though it follows a pretty familiar story arc and includes an afterschool special-esque “diverse” cast of characters, it doesn’t get didactic. I personally don’t understand characters whose goal is to become popular because it isn’t a goal I have ever heard a kid or teen express, and it certainly was never the goal of anyone I knew growing up. I’m not exactly sure any kids actually outwardly express a desire to be popular in real life, but it is a trope we are all used to seeing in stuff made for this age group, so this book is relatable via popular culture tropes, if not via anyone’s own experiences. Lydia and Julie are both likeable and funny, the subject matter is enjoyably light, and the story is palatable enough. Surprisingly good for something I thought would just be another Wimpy Kid knock-off.

I’d recommend it to fans of Wimpy Kid, but I’m not sure if it would appeal as much to boys. Maybe if they’re desperate for a funny book with lots of illustrations for a book report, but it’s pretty intentionally girly. The characters are supposed to be 10, but I’d give it to kids aged 8-12.

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The Perilous Realm: The Shadow of Malabron

by Thomas Wharton

The first book of the trilogy follows a boy named Will Lightfoot, whose father has packed his family up to move them across the country. Will is unhappy about moving away from the house he lived in when his mother was still alive, and as an act of defiance steals his father’s motorcycle to go to The Perilous Realm, a circus he sees from the highway. On his way, he crashes the motorcycle and is hurtled into a tumultuous alternate reality where the stories from our world originate. He teams up with a motley crew and sets out to find the gate through which he may return home.

This is an epic quest type of book, with references to Lord of the Rings, Little Red Riding Hood, and the King Arthur legends. The idea of a world where all of our stories originate is super interesting, as is the idea that malicious characters can wage wars within that world in order to make all stories their own. The ideas are what made this not a tedious read for me, but the characters are so stock it hurts. What? A boy who is secretly special? A feisty girl who is smarter than the boy but who has no character development? How about a wise old man who knows everything but says very little at a time? The reviews of this book all laud Wharton’s writing style, but the first 80 pages are brutally amateurish. Will looked into the shards of mirror and got that feeling–you know, the one where you know the person looking back at you isn’t you but some malevolent force that now knows your thoughts and memories and will try to find you to harm you? Get that one every morning! The book does pick up, though, and the twists and turns are compelling. I’d read the next one.

A good read for kids who are willing to pick up thick books and who love adventure, Arthurian legends, or creatively imagined worlds. And there’s a talking wolf!

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City Dog, Country Frog

by Mo Willems

City Dog goes into the country and sees a creature sitting on a rock. It is Country Frog, and he is waiting for a friend… but City Dog will do. So they play games all spring. They play games all summer. In fall, they remember all the fun they had. In winter….

I picked this book up, thinking it was going to be classic weird Mo Willems humour, albeit with a different style of illustration. I was wrong! Definitely a sad story, with a bittersweet ending. The watercolor illustrations are perfect, capturing the joys of friendship and the sorrows of mourning. I actually can’t stop myself from leafing through this book every time I see it, so much so that I have memorized the story and can tell it without having the book handy (which is not recommended because the illustrations really do enrich the story). It is a beautiful story with such expressive illustrations. I don’t typically add “issues” books to my own personal collection, but I definitely want a copy of this to call my own.

Good for someone looking for a picture book story about death or loss, without it being didactic or about a specific person in a child’s life. I wouldn’t reserve it for that type of storytelling, though, since I think it can be a nice conversation piece about friendship, disappointment, the seasons, life cycles, things being beyond your control, moving on, and probably a lot more. The death in it is subtle and there is no talk of any sort of spiritual afterlife, so it is acceptable for any belief system.

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