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.
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.
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.
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.
by Scott Westerfeld
Alek is the prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents have been murdered, his country is in turmoil, and his life is in danger. He has had a few lessons on how to operate a Stormwalker, a biology-inspired war machine, but he has to learn most of it while he is on the run from rebel forces who do not want him to ascend to the throne.
Meanwhile, in England, a tomboy named Deryn disguises herself as a boy in order to be allowed to serve in the air forces. She earns a spot aboard the Leviathan, a whale-like airship woven from strands of animal DNA. As Deryn and the Leviathan make their way toward the Ottoman Empire to deliver a top-secret package, Alek and his Stormtrooper head toward neutral Switzerland for safety. Their meeting complicates everything.
This book is fantastic, even if it ends without resolving much (paving the way for a sequel). The narration switches perspectives depending on whether the focus of the chapter is on Alek or Deryn, which gets pretty neat when they meet and Alek believes Deryn to be a boy named Dylan and refers to her with male pronouns. Even though the characters were unoriginal (rebellious rich boy who has to learn about real life the hard way, daring common girl whose unexpected romantic feelings undermine her ‘masculine’ ambitions), it was overall an original read, and the characters develop a lot more in the sequels. Definitely one of the most imaginative steampunk stories I’ve read so far, and with beautiful illustrations.
A good read for anyone who is interested in steampunk, alternate history, books with a World War I setting, or plucky cross-dressers. Very similar story elements to Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, with a more complicated setting.
Rossamund is a boy with a girl’s name, who must travel from his orphanage to his post as a lamplighter. He encounters pirates, a magically-enhanced lady, and a bunch of monster creatures. That’s about it.
With a series name like Monster Blood Tattoo, I had high expectations for an action-packed adventure, but this book was so boring I could hardly get through it. The author spent years and years inventing the monsters in the book and creating a seamless magical world. It has been praised for standing out as an original fantasy series. The monsters are interesting, but Rossamund, the main character, is not. His journey from the orphanage to his work post is fraught with adventure, but none of it comes across as exciting. There are just too many things to describe, and the old fashioned England-ish setting doesn’t help hasten the pace. The book is a description of everything Rossamund encounters, but by the end of this sizeable tome I felt like nothing had been discovered. Also, there are over 100 pages of reference materials in the back. Yawn.
Probably a hit with Tolkien fans or anyone with a pre-80s attention span.