Tess of the Road

by Rachel Hartman
First sentence: “When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.”
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Others in the series: Seraphina, Shadow Scale
Content: There are many allusions to sex (including rape). It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

As a head’s up, while this one references Seraphina and Shadow Scale, it’s a completely separate story, and you can probably get away without reading them if you’re not interested. (I didn’t re-read them, and so really didn’t remember much, and still enjoyed Tess.)

Let me say this at the start: I love Hartman’s writing. It’s not elegant like Laini Taylor or Maggie Stiefvater, but Hartman knows how to tell a story in such a way that you lose yourself in it. Tess is a human girl — Seraphina’s half sister — who just wants to be intellectually challenged. But raised in a strict household (they’re paying for Seraphina’s “sin” of being a dragon), what’s expected of her is to marry well. But Tess messes that up when she gets pregnant (at age 14!) and has a baby. And now, when she’s 17, faced with the prospect of raising her twin sisters children or going to a convent she does the unthinkable: she disguises herself as a boy and takes to walking the road, ostensibly to help her quigutl (a sub-species of dragon) friend find the World Serpent.

This is such a remarkable book: a heartfelt and emotional tale as Tess’s story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, but also an adventurous one, as we experience Tess and Pathka’s adventures on the road. It’s a deeply feminist book as well, as Hartman explores the consequences of not teaching your kids sex ed or discouraging girls from getting an education, if they want. It’s all about expressing anger and compassion and helping others out along they way and redemption and forgiveness.

And it’s left open-ended, so we may (or may not) get to join Tess for more adventures.

It’s wonderful.

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Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded

by Sage Blackwood
First sentence: “A secret nearly cost Chantel her life, on a dark summer morning when the rains ran down the stairstepped streets of Lightning Pass.”
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Content: There are some frighting parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Chantel (pronounced shan-TAL not CHAN-tel) has grown up learning magic in Miss Ellicott’s orphanage/school. She’s quite talented at it, one of the best students, except she has a problem. All the magic users in their walled city-kingdom are supposed to be “shamefast and biddable”, and those are two things that Chantel, well, isn’t. It turns out to be a good thing though, for when Miss Ellicott and the rest of the kingdom’s seven sorceresses disappear, Chantel takes it upon herself to Figure Out and then Solve the problem, which grows to include an invasion, treachery, and a dragon.

On the one hand, this is a delightful magical tale, well and complexly told, by a very talented writer. I loved Blackwood’s Jinx series, and while this one is a stand-alone (hurrah!) it’s much more of the same elegant, interesting writing with a good dose of snark, something that I think the most reluctant readers will enjoy.

On the other hand, this is a fantastic allegory about the state of women throughout history. (Or at least, that’s what I saw.) I saw women taking their power and conforming it to the patriarchy (in this case, there was a king, but the men who ruled the kingdom were called The Patriarchs), working to maintain the Status Quo, because upending it is unthinkable. And then there was a girl who asked “WHY?” and started doing things differently, even though she was told — by the king, the patriarchs, the older women — that she Couldn’t. Still, she persisted, and Change — not just small change, but Large Sweeping Change. It was not only entertaining, but it was hopeful and empowering.

And I loved it.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

by Stephanie Burgis
First sentence: “I can’t say I ever wondered what it felt like to be human.”
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Content: There are some fantasy action moments, and a few intense scenes. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Adventurine is a young dragon, up in the mountains with her family, who longs for something… more. She’s supposed to find her passion — it was philosophy for her brother, and being amazing for her sister (there’s a lot of sisterly comparison by Adventurine, which is something I noticed, because of my daughters) — but she mostly just wishes she could fly around without an escort. So, she does what most rebellious dragons will do: she sneaks out. And subsequently gets turned into a human by a food mage’s magical cup of hot chocolate. The upside: she’s discovered her passion in chocolate. The downside: she’s a human.

Thus begins an adventure that is chocolate-filled and so much fun. Burgis captured Adventurine’s confusion at being a human as well as her lack of knowledge about human culture so well. But Adventurine never slid over into being annoying. She always remembered she was a dragon at heart, and while that sometimes put her in awkward situations, it also meant that she was able to make the most of her situation. Additionally, her family is fantastic! They’re a bit over protective (but she’s not a fully formed dragon!), but in the end, their love of her is part of both the conflict and the solution and it’s quite sweet. Actually, that’s a great word for the book as a whole: sweet. It’s sweet and charming and a delight to read.

The Supernormal Sleuthing Service

by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe
First sentence: “Stephen stepped over the low iron fence and past a sign that said ‘DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS.'”
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Content: There’s some mildly scary situations. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Stephen has grown up his whole life with his father believing that it was just the two of them, plus a grandmother who came to visit every once in a while. But after his grandma’s death, Stephen and his dad move to New York City, and Stephen is thrust into a whole new world. One with “supernormals” which is how the supernatural — faeries, ogres, dragons, vampires, gargoyles, etc — prefer to refer to themselves, and one where Stephen, who isn’t always the best with rules, quickly learns that he’s got a LOT to learn. Especially when a priceless heirloom, and his family’s “permission” to stay in this world, goes missing.

This was a lot of fun. I liked Stephen’s growth arc as he learned about the supernormal world, and the friends he made — there’s a team of three kids who solve the mystery about the missing book. I liked the other characters he met, especially the dragon (whose name escapes me right now). I thought the authors did really well with their worldbuilding, and it was an interesting take on the whole supernatural world. I also like that, though this looks like it’ll be a series, it didn’t feel like a “first-in-a”.

Definitely worth taking a look.

Wings of Fire: Moon Rising

moonrisingby Tui T. Sutherland
First sentence: “The volcano was restless, and so were the dragons in the NightWing fortress.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Wings of Fire, The Lost Heir
Content: There’s some violence, and a couple of dragons are seriously hurt. But other than that, I’d give it to a confident 8 year old reader. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

If you’ll notice, this is book SIX in the Wings of Fire series and I only read the first two. I have issues with series that go on and on and on, and I lost interest with this one pretty quickly.

However, this is like the second series in the larger story. The narrative shifts from the Dragons of Prophecy in the first book to the second generation after the war (there was a war? Okay then.). There are attempts to build a peace between the dragon clans (tribes?) and one way to do this is to have them all come together at a school to live and learn to get along.

Moon is a NightWing, one of the least trusted dragon clans (tribes? breeds? I don’t know what they’re properly called.) and Moon is an outcast among them. She was basically raised in the rainforest rather than in their volcano, and because of that (well, it’s because she was born under the moons) she can hear other people’s thoughts as well as seeing visions of the future.

When she’s dropped off at school, her mother tells her to keep her gifts secret. Except someone is trying to kill other dragons. And she’s hearing this mysterious voice inside her head of a dragon everyone thought was long dead. What’s a dragon to do?

It worked well as a stand alone, which surprised me. Sure, it’s the start of another adventure, but you can come in to this series on this one and not be utterly lost. Other than that, it’s got pretty much all the standard boarding school tropes: Moon feels left out, she makes friends, friends leave her when she reveals her differences, they end up working together to solve the problem that Moon’s difference plays a crucial role in.

It wasn’t all sorts of brilliant writing, but it’s a good, solid, fun story.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans

dragonsguideby Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder
First sentence: ”
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Content: It’s short, there are lots of pictures, and the words aren’t terribly difficult. It’s a great bridge book between beginning chapter and middle reader, and good for ages 7 and up. It’s in the middle reader (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Miss Drake, a dragon who has been around a long time, is happy with her lifestyle. Sure her “pet”, a human she calls Fluffy, recently died and she is grieving that. But when another human, the 10-year-old great-niece of Fluffy (aka Great-Aunt Amelia), comes into her life, she is not at all happy with it.

And thus begins the relationship between Miss Drake and Winnie. Sure, there’s a little adventure with a magical sketchbook and a rabid magic-eating monster, but mostly it’s about overcoming grief of the death of a loved one (Winnie’s father has recently passed away as well) and making friends.

My favorite thing is that it’s written from the dragon’s point of view. Beginning each chapter is a word of “advice” to magical creatures about how to deal with their “pets”, but the narrative is from the point of view of a very old, somewhat cranky dragon. It’s a clever take. That, and it’s blissfully short. Yep and Ryder know their audience, get to the point, and don’t bother putting in a whole lot of backstory. There are clues here and there about Miss Drake’s former pets and Winnie’s family (I’d like to read more about them in other books!), but there are no long-winded passages, no extra words. It’s refreshing.

My  only complaint is that while there is a child character, the protagonist (and the one who propels the action, in the end) is the dragon. And that felt a little off. But other than that, it’s an enjoyable story.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Dragons Beware!

by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Giants Beware!
Content: There’s nothing that a capable third grader couldn’t handle, and I would have willingly read this aloud to a second- or first-grader. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

There are a few graphic novels that my girls — especially K — will go to over and over and over again, thoroughly immersing themselves in the story each time. Giants Beware! is one of them, and so when I brought home the sequel every single one of my girls was super excited. (K wins, though. She practically grabbed the book out of my hands and ran off to read it.)

And none of us were disappointed with the story line. After “slaying” the giant, Claudette, Gaston, and Marie have basically gone back to their lives. However, things have changed: Claudette is still trying to prove herself to her father and is living it up as a hero in Mount Petit Pierre. Marie has been locked in a tower by her mother, her princess lessons intensified, with a camp of foppish princes at the base. And Gaston (who my heart went out to) decided to give up his love, cooking, and try to be more like his father and sister, determined to be a warrior and a blacksmith.

Then ?, the wizard, escapes from his prison, and heads toward Mount Petit Pierre, bent on revenge. Claudette and Gaston’s dad takes off for ? to get his sword back from the dragon ?. And, of course, Claudette, Gaston, and Marie follow him.

A quick aside: one of the running themes throughout the book is that it’s really quite impossible to do something on your own. EVERYONE (well, maybe except Gaston and Marie) in this book starts off thinking that they need to protect everyone else and just do things on their own. But, in the end, it’s only together that they succeed. I loved that.

Of course, there are adventures on the way. I don’t think you need to have read Giants Beware (though why haven’t you??) before you read this one, but it is better if you do know the story, if only to get the little illusions dropped throughout the book. I love how it’s paced, with epic battle scenes at the end, and everyone playing a different role. Which is something else I loved: Gaston finally stops trying to be what he thinks he “should” be and embraces his passion. Marie is awesome in her own way: she’s not a warrior, but without her, they wouldn’t have succeeded. And Claudette learns patience and a willingness to work with others. They’re all better off for their adventure.

It was an absolutely delightful read. Hopefully, there will be more!