Braidy Punch, Draculola and Scream Soda: How To Roller Derby for Girls

In this graphic novel for children, Victoria Jamieson tell the story of Astrid, who loses her best friend but gains roller derby. It wasn’t a trade-off she chose, but sometimes it happens like that. Fifth grade can be one of those turning points when you and your BFF suddenly have different interests, and can’t seem to get along anymore, no matter how you try.

When Astrid and Nicolle, who’ve been best friends since first grade, go with Astrid’s mom on an “evening of cultural enlightenment” to women’s roller derby, you can see the writing on the wall. Astrid is energized, while Nicolle is freaked out. Astrid wants to do junior roller derby camp together, but Nicolle doesn’t tell Astrid she’s doing ballet camp instead until the last minute, so Astrid lies to her mother about carpooling with Nicolle.

Astrid quickly finds out how demanding roller derby is, that it requires not only a tough spirit, but physical endurance and skill. She’s never even skated before, unlike the rest of the girls, and she’s one of the youngest girls, so she feels doubly disadvantaged. But with encouragement from the other girls and her roller derby hero, Rainbow Bite, she keeps at it.

I knew nothing about roller derby before reading this book, so it was fun to learn about how it works. The skating skill required reminds me of hockey, while the theatrics bring WWF wrestling to mind. There are legal hits and illegal hits and a penalty box, like in hockey. Players get to choose their own derby names, and they are usually a bit tongue-in-cheek: Braidy Punch, Draculola, Blondilocks, and Scream Soda, to name a few. The author’s bio on the back flap shows a photo of her in full roller derby regalia: Her derby name is Winnie the Pow.

Jamieson obviously speaks with authority on the subject of roller derby, but she is also convincing in her portrayal of this early coming of age story, and the loneliness of losing your best friend and realizing how much you were defined by that friendship. Astrid has to make new friends while somehow making peace with Nicolle, as well as explaining to her mother what is going on when mom finds out she’s been lying. 

Jamieson’s drawing style is realistic and expressive, while the color palette is bright and fun. Younger readers will enjoy Astrid’s bulldog persistence and feistiness; older readers will appreciate Astrid’s growing confidence in herself; moms like me will savor the bonus of Astrid’s pride in becoming a role model for younger girls.


Brandon Mull – Series Addiction

So this time I made sure there more in the series before I started on book one of Fablehaven by Brandon Mull.  There are five in the series, all published, and I just finished book three, Grip of the Shadow Plague. Needless to say, I love them! These might be good reading for someone who loved Harry Potter, because although there is no school for wizards, the two protagonists, brother Seth and older sister Kendra, are immersed in magic up to their necks when they visit their grandparents at what turns out to not be a ranch but a magical preserve, sort of like a wlidlife preserve but for magical creatures.  Their grandparents are the caretakers, and hope to pass on the job to Seth and Kendra.  And so begins their training. 

Ok, I just went down the rabbit hole looking for images of the covers, and there is a lot of wonderful fan art, including sculptures, of the different characters in the books, like the lovable golem, Hugo, who is made of earth and twigs and rocks, is about ten feet tall, and can easily carry Seth and Kendra comfortably in his huge palms while running away from baddies to the sanctuary of their grandparents’ house.

So, yes, there are naughty magical creatures as well as friendly ones. But they have just as much right to be there as the benign creatures, and there is a pact at Fablehaven that does not allow any creature to kill another, so that keeps mayhem in check. Sometimes.  Of course there are loopholes, and there is a rival organization to the caretakers of such places as Fablehaven, The Society of the Evening Star, who want to do away with all magical preserves and release the power of some really nasty demons upon the world.  

Seth and Kendra find themselves battling for the survival of Fablehaven, learning skills from different magical tutors, and gaining special powers as a result of some of these battles.  Their parents have no clue what’s really going on, as they are not receptive to the idea of the existence of magic.  Too bad! So the kids find themselves forming new bonds with not only their grandparents, but with their tutors, and even with some of the magical creatures.  Some of the tutors will turn out to be traitors, but some will be loyal to the death.

This is an engaging, exciting series full of magic, but also down-to-earth enough to include sibling rivalry between Seth and Kendra, and each kid deals with their own age-appropriate challenges that every kid reading this can relate to.  Seth is always looking for adventure, so he has a habit of breaking the rules, which gets them all into serious trouble at times.  Kendra is book-smart but doesn’t feel brave enough to deal with some of the unexpected challenges thrown at her.  She sometimes wonders if it would be better never to have known about Fablehaven and her grandparents’ secret.

Oh, did I mention Mull has written several other series’ as well?  When I couldn’t wait for my hold on the next book in the Fablehaven series to come in to the library, I grabbed this one: The Candy Shop War. I mean, how can you resist that title? I couldn’t. If you’re not into fairies, satyrs, and naiads, check out this action, that happens right in town. When a new candy shop opens, pals Nate, Summer, Trevor and Pigeon stop in on their walk home from school.  The proprietor, Mrs. White, offers them some free candy if they’ll help out around the store. They willingly agree. At first, she just wants to them give white fudge to all their families and friends, but warns them not to eat it themselves.  This seems a little odd, but they do as they are asked, and pretty soon they notice everyone eating the fudge is oblivious to what’s going on around them. Then Mrs. White starts asking them to steal things, artifacts that will assist her in some kind of treasure hunt.

With each new task, the group gets new magical candy to try out, which is fun, but they start to question whether or not they are doing the wrong thing, and whether they should trust this woman. Then along comes another magician, someone they all thought they knew, and the kids have to decide who to trust. It’s not an easy decision, and probably one a lot of children can relate to (minus the magic), trying to figure out which adults in their lives are trustworthy and which are just using them for their own gain.

There are two books in this series, and it’s very different from Fablehaven, although just as entertaining!

Ack! What Have I Done?!

Oh no! How did I get myself into this  mess?  You’ve probably done the same at one time or another–thought you were safe, just picked a title off the shelf with no prior knowledge of it, right?  So you start reading this randomly chosen book, and you find it’s really good, you’re completely engaged, when suddenly you realize–it’s the first in a series, and the second one hasn’t been published yet!


I hate it when I do this to myself.  Oh well. The book in question is called The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. I’ve read Black’s Doll Bones and vowed to read more of her work, when this popped up on the shelf in front of me.  

The basic story is that there’s a magic school (the Magisterium, also the series title) that kids with special talents are going to, and Callum really doesn’t want to go.  All the other children treat their selection as a special honor, but not Callum.  He tries to fail his entrance test, but they choose him anyway. From as far back as he can remember, Call’s father Alistair has told him that the Magisterium is evil, that it uses children, that the teachers don’t care about the children, and that magic is nothing but trouble. But now that Call is stuck attending the Magisterium (you can’t refuse to go), he finds that he’s enjoying himself.  Yes, it’s unpleasant to be underground all the time (think boarding school in caves), and the teachers can be demanding, but the food is really good, and for once he doesn’t stick out as the weird kid (he’s got a permanent limp from a childhood accident). He’s got a talent for using magic, and for the first time ever, he’s making real friends who care about him.  This is confusing, and makes him feel disloyal to Alistair, who is still adamantly opposed to the school and trying to find a way to get Callum home.

A Prologue hints at why Alistair is so bitterly opposed to the use of magic: as a young mage, Alistair was the one to discover that the Enemy had tricked the Magisterium and its army, so that while their greatest warrior mage waited on the battlefield, the Enemy slaughtered the women and children in the Magisterium’s hideout. The only one left alive was Alistair’s infant son, Callum, and if his wife’s dying message was to be trusted–“kill the child”–he should have died as well.

I really enjoyed the complexity of this story, how the sides of good and evil are unclear, and even though it’s about magic, that experience of trying to figure out who to trust in the adult world when you’re a kid is all too familiar.  That transition period that you go through when you realize you can’t just rely on your parent(s) to figure out the world for you, it’s an important time.  Lucky for Call he’s got real friends now to help him.  I look forward to reading the next in the series, which is supposed to be out in the Fall, so I shouldn’t complain, I don’t have to suffer too long, and I’m already on the library’s waiting list for it. 

Snow White and The Seven Robots: A Graphic Novel by Louise Simonson

Now here’s a Snow White we feminists can get behind! There is not one mention of Snow White’s beauty in this entire “Far Out Fairy Tale,” a new series of children’s graphic novels from Stone Arch Books, a Capstone Publishing imprint.  Instead, this girl’s threat to the queen is her intelligence. On a planet called Techworld, scientists create a future successor to their queen, only the selfish queen messes with their potions, which makes the child’s skin a pale white–did I mention that everyone’s skin is green on Techworld?  Snow White is born.

As Snow White grows up, she turns out to be a quick study and soon becomes smarter than the queen, at which point the queen banishes her to live in Lowtown and apprentice to the trash robot. Snow makes friends with another human, Doc, and while he tends to people, she uses her intelligence to learn to fix robots. She also builds a rocketship with spare parts that she uses to save herself during one of the queen’s attempts on her life. 

The seven robots of the title are a motley assortment who finish each other’s sentences, but we never know their names and they are important in the story only as far as they are the ones who send out a plea for help after Snow is poisoned. With less time spent on the robots, there’s more space for Snow’s character development and adventures. Kindness and friendship are the main themes, and it’s a fun adventure in an attractive format for kids.

Is there anything missing in this retelling?  Oh yes, no prince. Prince absent. Prince, in a word, unnecessary. 

Next in the “Far Out Fairy Tales” series that we’ll be reading: Ninjarella. Bring it. 

Darwin for Kids

One Beetle Too Many, by Kathryn Lasky with illustrations by Matthew Trueman, is a fabulous introduction to Charles Darwin for children.  Published by Candlewick, known for putting out gorgeous all-ages picture books, this is evidently one of about a dozen Candlewick Biographies, “Portraits of People Making History and Shaping the Future,” and I will definitely be checking out other books in the series.

Beetle is a relatively short chapter book at forty-three pages, yet each chapter distinguishes itself with the kind of detail a child delights in, like the fact that one time Darwin ran out of places to hold the beetles he was collecting, so he popped one in his mouth! The book is loaded with richly colored, detailed illustrations that reward close study and feel like an integral part of the story. With titles like “Butterflies and Gauchos” and “Seashells on Mountaintops,” each chapter is its own adventure, propelling the reader along further.

As a homeschooler, I couldn’t help but be delighted to learn that Darwin was a rotten student and hated school.  He was an excellent observer, and had his own methods of study that didn’t fit with the education his father tried to force on him. Lasky shows how important Darwin’s early curiosity was in his development as a scientist, and describes how difficult it was for Darwin to put his ideas about evolution out into the world, which felt like an important facet of his life to share with children, that sometimes the most important ideas you have can give you a stomachache, and that’s okay.  Highly recommended.

Dolphins and Creaky Old Houses

Okay, not in the same book.  But still, both topics are kind of irresistible, no?

greenglass house cover

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, is a children’s book for 8-12-year-olds that was recommended by another blogster, although the way she described it gave away a crucial part of the plot, which was annoying because it ruined the surprise for me.  Like describing The Crying Game as a transgender story–oh, thanks, you just gave away the whole thing.  Anyhoo, I won’t do that.

Twelve-year-old Milo lives in a creaky old four-story inn with his parents.  He’s just been released from school for Christmas break, and he’s looking forward to being with his parents and celebrating the holidays, as Christmas is a notoriously slow time for the inn, and there’s a terrific snowstorm that should keep anyone with any sense at home.

But visitors start arriving, annoying and disappointing Milo, as now his parents’ attention is taken up by being innkeepers.  They call in the cook, who usually takes off Christmas break, and her daughter Meddy is the only person around who’s Milo’s age, so they start hanging out.  The guests all seem to have some odd connection or interest in the history of the house, which intrigues Milo.  The two start an investigation of their own, and the results are unpredictable and exciting.

One of the most effective facets of the story for me was Milo’s changing understanding of himself, and how he fits into his family, as he is an adopted child.  He feels conflicted in a way I’m sure most adopted children go through, wondering if it’s ok to wonder about his birth parents or if even thinking about them is disloyal to his adoptive parents.

I also loved the creaky-old-house stuff, learning the history of who lived there before, and the significance of different design elements of this unique relic. Jaime Zollars’ illustrations are intricate (look at the that cover!) and fun.

Part coming-of-age story, part adventure, Greenglass House was a fun adventure with heart.  Not as creepy as Doll Bones, so good for the kid who doesn’t like their adventures too icky or scary.

neptune project cover

The Neptune Project, by Polly Holyoke, is a middle grade novel, so it’s aimed at a slightly older audience.  It’s a dystopian tale, which is one of my favorite genres, for child or adult.  In this version of the near future, much of the United States is now uninhabitable, thanks to global warming.  There is famine and war as well, so it’s not a super fun place to live anymore.

Nere and her mother live near present-day  Goleta, California, in a coastal fishing town, where they do important oceanic research, part of which involves a pod of dolphins.  Nere can communicate telepathically with the dolphins, which, okay, c’mon! How cool is that?  Yeah, I wanted The Day of the Dolphin (1973 film in which George C. Scott trains a pair of dolphins to talk) to be real, just like everyone else who saw that movie.  My mom tells the story of seeing it with my Dad and asking him afterwards if he thought it could be real, if the dolphins could really talk.  “Oh, yeah,” he said.  Well, she wanted it to be true! I like to think of it as optimistic gullibility (because I inherited it from her). Anyhoo, tangent.

Nere’s world turns upside down when she finds out that her mother has genetically modified her and some other children in town so that they can live underwater.  Nere is both excited and infuriated, since she had no say in this decision to change her life so dramatically.

Nere’s parents and a few others have realized that there is no future on land for humans, that the real future lies in the ocean, and more specifically, under the ocean.  So they genetically modified their children to be able to–or rather, to have to–breathe water.  Nere is part of an experiment called The Neptune Project.

Nere must quickly adjust to life under the sea to survive.  She and the others have to be alert at all times for the dangers of both marine predators and the government police looking to arrest them.  She is with a small group, and they must travel hundreds of miles at sea to meet up with the larger group that consists of the Neptune Project.  For years she thought her father was dead (her mother kept the truth from her for her own safety), but now she knows he is the director of the Neptune Project, and she can hardly believe she will see him again when (if?) she makes it to the rendezvous.

The long journey is a brilliant adventure, with close escapes and life-and-death decisions that must be made on the spur of the moment.  Nere doesn’t know most of the other children in her group, and yet she must decide who to trust almost immediately.  Sometimes things turn out well, but not always.  When one of the group is injured, they can’t simply go to a hospital, and blood in the water puts them all in danger of being attacked by sharks.

Used to being a bit of a loner, Nere is forced to find her place in a group, to find where she fits in this new life.  She’s suddenly had to become completely self-reliant, with no adults around to fall back on.

This is a great adventure about fascinating possibilities, wonderful sci-fi for kids. And the sequel comes out next month!!