Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home”

18961360Book: “The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwell and Friends, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Quite by accident, September has been crowned as Queen of Fairyland – but she inherits a Kingdom in chaos. The magic of a Dodo’s egg has brought every King, Queen, or Marquess of Fairyland back to life, each with a fair and good claim on the throne, each with their own schemes and plots and horrible, hilarious, hungry histories. In order to make sense of it all, and to save their friend from a job she doesn’t want, A-Through-L and Saturday devise a Royal Race, a Monarckical Marathon, in which every outlandish would-be ruler of Fairyland will chase the Stoat of Arms across the whole of the nation – and the first to seize the poor beast will seize the crown. Caught up in the madness are the changelings Hawthorn and Tamburlaine, the combat wombat Blunderbuss, the gramophone Scratch, the Green Wind, and September’s parents, who have crossed the universe to find their daughter…

Review: I delayed it for a few months, but here we are at last, woefully at the last book in the “Fairyland” series. But there are two things bolstering my spirits after finishing this series. 1.) It ended on such a great note! Always a concern that somehow something so good will be bungled and tarnished forever by a whiff on the ending. And 2.) now that it has been finished, and finished so well, I can happily go out and purchase the entire series and re-read them to my heart’s content!

Per my usual review method for this series, I’m going to include some of my favorite quotes from the book. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: the writing in this series is so beautiful and has to be its biggest selling point.

“One of the awful secrets of seventeen is that it still has seven hiding inside it. Sometimes seven comes tumbling out, even when seventeen wants to be Grown-Up and proud. This is also one of the awful secrets of seventy.”

We’ve watched September grow up throughout these books. If the theme of the entire series could be summed up, it would be: growing up is a terrible, onerous process and then once you get there, you realize it was all kind of a hoax to begin with. Throughout all of the books, I very much enjoyed Valente’s razor sharp views on childhood. It’s all too easy to let childhood morph into a time and place of wildflowers and carefree days, and as adults forget the truly awful parts about it. The helplessness, the lack of freedom, the unassuredness, the constant changes both in yourself and in how the world see/treats you.

“We have all of us got it jumbled up. You never feel so grown up as when you are eleven, and never so young and unsure as when you are forty. That is why time is a rotten jokester and no one ought to let him in to dinner.”

New to this book, we meet Septemeber’s parents and her Aunt more fully! The interlude chapters document their journey. It was particularly enjoyable reading about their experiences, both in Fairyland and as the ones who were left behind by a wandering September. We always hear about the kids who get swept off to magical lands, but nothing about the poor parents who are left missing their children. Further, the reminder that these same parents and adults were once children and had adventures of their own.

“The Land of Parents is strange and full of peril.”

While Hawthorne and Tamburlaine do play a role in this story, it was again September’s story and her friends that we follow throughout the book. However, Blunderbuss, the combat wombat, plays a much larger role than I had expected and it was awesome. She is by far the best new addition to group from the last few books. Her acerbic wit and blunt way of speaking often provided the most hilarious bits of the story. And her contribution to the ending was as surprising as it was welcome.

“You gotta be nice to strangers even when they are the worst, because they don’t know you well enough to understand how shut your big face can mean I’ve missed you more than the whole world can know.”

And, finally, I cannot end this review without talking a bit about my darling pairing of September and Saturday. I have to say, this was my biggest concern about the story and one of the reasons I held off reading this book for so long. How could this be resolved in a way that wasn’t going to be heart breaking somehow? And, while the ending wasn’t anything like I could have expected, it was so, so satisfactory. So, go forth dear readers without fear on this account!

“The tales lovers tell each other about how they met are hushed and secret things. They change year by year, for we all meet many times as we grow up and become different and new and exciting people–and this never stops, even for a minute, even when we are ninety.”

I really can’t rave enough about this book. While “The Boy Who Lost Fairyland” was very good, it did feel like a step away from the Fairyland books that I had come to love. So I was a bit concerned when starting this one that maybe the magic had worn off just a little. But this book comes roaring back, and I would say it most closely rivals my love of the first book in the series. When/if I have children, this series will definitely be making an appearance on the must-read-aloud list. If you like fantasy, especially of the sweet and nonsensical kind, ala “Alice in Wonderland,” don’t miss out on this series!

And with that…

“Endings are rubbish. No such thing. Never has been, never will be. There is only the place where you choose to stop talking. Everything else goes on forever.”

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Rating 9: An amazing story on its own, but also an unexpected and poignant ending to the series as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home” is included on this Goodreads list: “own the Rabbit Hole in Children’s Fantasy” and Best Chapter Books for Young Girls

Find “The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Reviews: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There,” and “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” and “The Boy Who Lost Fairyland”

Bookclub Review: “Revolution”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Across the Decades,” we each drew a decade and had to select a book that was either published or set in that decade.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub! 

Book: “Revolution” by Deborah Wiles

Publishing Info: Scholastic Press, May 2014

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.
 
Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.
 
As she did in her groundbreaking documentary novel COUNTDOWN, award-winning author Deborah Wiles uses stories and images to tell the riveting story of a certain time and place — and of kids who, in a world where everyone is choosing sides, must figure out how to stand up for themselves and fight for what’s right.

Kate’s Thoughts

So “Revolution” is part of a series called the “Sixties Trilogy”. A chunk of our bookclub read the first in the series, “Countdown”, in our Children’s Literature class in grad school, and I was wondering if “Revolution” was going to need “Countdown” to serve as a context and foundation. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that a reader could easily skip over “Countdown” and read “Revolution” first if they so chose. While I did enjoy “Countdown” (which is about a girl living on an army base during the Cuban Missile Crisis), I actually enjoyed “Revolution” a bit more. “Revolution” takes on one of the most important and tumultuous times from the 1960s, Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Like “Countdown” this book is both a novel and a documentation of the time period through photos, quotes, and documents. There are many photos of African Americans in Mississippi and the SNCC volunteers, along with biopic sections and influential quotes and song lyrics from civil rights leaders and activists. Being able to juxtapose the actual people in the movement along with the characters in the story and their progressions was incredibly powerful, and I think that this book would be very good to use in tandem with history classes when studying this time period and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The characters are fictional, but portray two different experiences of teenagers at this time. The first, and most prominent, perspective is that of Sunny. She’s about to turn thirteen, adjusting to a new stepmom and two new step siblings, and is becoming more aware of her surroundings, specifically the tensions in her community. She yearns for adventure and to learn, and is drawn to the Freedom Righters and activists that are ‘invading’ her hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. I felt that Sunny was a well written and believable tween girl, who thinks that she knows everything and that she knows what the world is like. She is close to her step brother Gillette, but resents her stepmother Annabelle, still holding out hope that her mother will eventually come back for her, even though she left her and her father Jamie when she was just a baby. This book is from Sunny’s perspective, so we explored the opinions of those around her through her eyes. We see her Meemaw who just can’t understand why the ‘negroes’ are being so ‘uppity’ when they were so ‘happy’ up until now. We see her great Uncle Vivian, who is a jolly older man who loves his grand niece, but harbors serious racist views. And we see Annabelle, who is seen as meek and weak by Sunny (or at least unapproachable), but is in actuality an activist with deep convictions and devotion to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Civil Rights Movement. Our other perspective is that of Raymond, a fourteen year old African American boy who is inspired by the galvanization of his community and the Freedom Righters who have come to his part of town. He goes from covert acts of defiance (like sneaking into the segregated swimming pool after hours) to blatant acts of rebellion, standing up for his rights in light of the Civil Rights Act, and facing violence from angry whites in the community.

I liked both of these perspectives, but I think that it’s a damn shame that the dominant perspective was that of the white girl. While Raymond did gets sections of his POV, this book was very much about Sunny and her discovering the evils of racism in 1964 Mississippi. It’s a story that’s been told before, over and over again, and I had gone in hoping that this was going to be more about the African American perspective. I was glad to see that the documentary sections of this book did have a lot of that POV, but even then there were three well drawn out bio sections of various important figures in the Civil Rights Movement, and two of them were of white people. Like, really?

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(source)

Overall, though, I did really like “Revolution”. I think that it’s a valuable resource and I feel that it was well written. I am also really really REALLY intrigued by what the final book in the trilogy will be about. I’m thinking it’s gonna be ‘Nam. Which is going to hurt like a bitch.

Serena’s Thoughts

As one of the aforementioned classmates in the Children’s Literature class that read the first book in this series, “Countdown,” I had a good understanding of what I was getting into with this book. While I liked “Countdown” well enough, what sold me on the book was the slick way the author incorporated real news articles, ads, and images from the time, creating a fictional story and a documentary style narrative side-by-side. While I wasn’t blown away by the story in that book, I was truly impressed by this take on historical novels, especially for middle grade readers.

I think here, in “Revolution,” she really comes into her own with this style. Even more so than “Countdown,” I feel like the historical documents and articles really added to the story. I was fascinated by what she chose to include, how the placement of certain items aligned with the facts of the fictional narrative, and just by the stylistic choices that were made in how, and what, was presented.

I also was more invested in the fictional story as well. I thought Sunny was a brilliant character and witnessing the events of Freedom Summer through her eyes was a very interesting choice. I especially appreciated seeing the many adults’ reactions to events as seen through Sunny’s perspective, both her stepmother who she initially dismisses but learns to appreciate, as well as her Uncle Vivian who’s love of her is unquestionable but has opinions and views that are less than praise-worthy.

I also very much enjoyed Raymond’s sections and the voice and perspective that he offered. While Sunny did get the majority of the narrative, Raymond’s portions were equally important when fleshing out the full story.

While I agree with Kate that it would have been preferable to have more from Raymond’s character, I’m going to play a bit of a devil’s advocate role here. I don’t remember if this came up with regards to this particular series and “Countdown,” but in the same Children’s Literature class, we discussed writers of different racial/cultural backgrounds writing across racial/cultural lines. There can not, and I believe, should not, be any right or wrong answer to this question, nor a hard and fast rule with regards to this. But I would surmise that the reason Sunny’s perspective was given more weight might have to do with, perhaps, a sense of imposition that could have arisen from Deborah Wiles, a white woman, writing this story primarily from the perspective of a young African American boy. I have no idea whether or not this was the case. Just goes to show how challenging it can be to be an author and write about tough subjects like these! All the more power to her, though, for tackling the subject, and discussions like this are always important.

Overall, I, too, found myself enjoying this book even more than I did the first in the series. The documentary style elements were even stronger I felt, and I was more connected to the characters in the fictional story.

Serena’s Rating 8: A really great combination of fiction and documentary. I would strongly recommend this to any middle grader with an interest in history (or to a classroom teacher who’s looking to pair some fiction with a lesson plan on this time period).

Kate’s Rating 8: Though I feel like there weren’t enough voices or perspectives from the African American POV, I did like the story and found the historical content incredibly fascinating and valuable.

Bookclub Questions:

1.) There are a lot of images/documents/quotes included in this story. Did any stand out to you? Why?

2.) Did you connect with the characters of Sunny and Raymond? With one more than the other?

3.) This book would pair well with a class that is learning about this era in time. Are there any particular issues/scenes/thoughts that are expressed that would perhaps be more challenging and need discussion when reading with children? How would you approach these discussions? Are there things that weren’t addressed?

4) What did you think of Sunny’s relationship with her stepmother Annabelle? Did Annabelle’s characterization surprise you in any way? What about her relationship with her father Jamie?

5) Did you learn anything new about Freedom Summer in this book that you hadn’t known before? Do you think that “Revolution” did a good job of bringing up new issues that some of us may not be as familiar with?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Revolution” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Middle Grade Fiction Set in the 1960s”, and “Black Lives Matter: Kids”.

Find “Revolution” at your library using WorldCat.

The Next Book Selection: “West with the Night” by Beryl Markham

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Forgotten Sisters”

22529349 Book: “The Forgotten Sisters” by Shannon Hale

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury, February 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: After a year at the king’s palace, Miri has learned all about being a proper princess. But the tables turn when the student must become the teacher!

Instead of returning to her beloved Mount Eskel, Miri is ordered to journey to a distant swamp and start a princess academy for three sisters, cousins of the royal family. Unfortunately, Astrid, Felissa, and Sus are more interested in hunting and fishing than becoming princesses.

As Miri spends more time with the sisters, she realizes the king and queen’s interest in them hides a long-buried secret. She must rely on her own strength and intelligence to unravel the mystery, protect the girls, complete her assignment, and finally make her way home.

Review: Sadly, this is the last “Princess Academy” story in the trilogy, and I was more sad to see it end than I had been expecting. While never the pinnacle of excitement, this series was a steady crowd-pleaser, and in a the book world where a series taking a sudden drop with follow up books after an excellent start is all too common, it not only maintains its core story, but goes out with a bang! I liked this third and last book almost as much as the first and more than the second.

“The Forgotten Sisters” picks up a few months after the last book, with Miri and Peder looking forward to finally returning home to Mount Eskel. But, because this is the end of a trilogy, nothing goes to plan and suddenly Miri finds herself charged to establish her very own Princess Academy for three noble-born girls who have run amok in the swampy southern lands for many years. No surprise, they are not what they first seemed and Miri quickly becomes tangled in the complicated web of politics that seems to find her wherever she goes.

This book differs from the previous two in the absence of several of the characters I had come to know and love from the previous stories. But Miri, steady and lovable Miri, is still at the center of it all. Further, while in the previous book I often found myself growing frustrated with Miri’s naivety and overly -simplified view of the world and people, in this book Miri was back on form: spunky, but grounded.

The three sisters were each a great addition to the cast. While it would be easy to pigeon-hole the girls (Astrid: the warrior! Felissa: the one who cares! Sus: the book-worm!), I found myself enjoying all three characters, most especially the way they each completed one another in their very strong, small family group. Though, Astrid, I did always picture her thusly:

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Astrid, kicking ass and taking names (source)

And, while some of my other favorite characters weren’t around much, Peder has an active role in this story. He always kind of existed on the periphery of the action in the last two novels, so it was refreshing to see him set into the spotlight somewhat. Not only did this give me for from the character, but it helped cement why Peder and Miri work together as a couple.

These are middle grade novels, however, so it must be admitted that a lot of the action gets wrapped up in a very “G rated” way. This can at times be jarring when the books are often tackling very serious issues, but things work out in the best way possible due to amazing amounts of luck and human understanding from all sides. But it’s very sweet nonetheless. That being said, this book did take a few unexpected turns into places that were quite sad. This added level of gravitas helped excuse later “easy outs.”

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and the series as a whole. When I finished the second novel in the trilogy, it was ended in such a way that could have allowed for the series to end, and if that had been the case, I would have left a bit disappointed. It was not only a relief to find out there was a third, but after reading it, this book bumps the whole series back up as a strong recommendation for any readers looking for light, middle grade fantasy, especially for young girls.

Rating 8: A great conclusion, with solid showings from staple characters and fun new additions!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Forgotten Sisters” is included on this Goodreads list: “Middle Grade Fairy Tales” and “Best Kick-Ass Female Characters From YA and Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction.”

Find “The Forgotten Sisters” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Review: “Princess Academy” and “Palace of Stone”

 

Serena’s Review: “Palace of Stone”

12926132Book: “Palace of Stone” by Shannon Hale

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury, August 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Coming down from the mountain to a new life in the city is a thrill to Miri. She and her princess academy friends have been brought to Asland to help the future princess Britta prepare for her wedding.There, Miri also has a chance to attend school-at the Queen’s Castle. But as Miri befriends students who seem sophisticated and exciting she also learns that they have some frightening plans. Torn between loyalty to the princess and her new friends’ ideas, between an old love and a new crush, and between her small mountain home and the bustling city, Miri looks to find her own way in this new place.

Review: Continuing my self-education in middle grade novels, after reading and enjoying “Princess Academy” it was a quick jaunt back to the library to scrounge up its sequel. And, while the first book can be read as a stand alone book (a trait I will never not praise), “Palace of Stone” is a worthy successor, expanding the world of Danland and challenging Miri’s own perceptions of right and wrong and her place within this society.

This story picks up shortly after the events of the first book with Miri and her village enjoying the boost to their local economy that came with Miri’s discovery of the true worth of the linder stone that their village mines. However, when Miri and a few familiar characters travel to Asland to join the soon-to-be princess, Britta, Miri discovers how tremulous this newly earned freedom can be. Revolution is rumbling throughout the kingdom of Danland.

One of the themes that I most appreciated from the first book was its emphasis on the joy of learning. Here, this concept is expanded even further with Miri attending university while in Asland and dreaming of her plans to continue and expand the local school she’s been running back home. The cast is also expanded when she gains an unexpected friend in fellow scholar, Timon.

Timon serves a definite purpose in this book, as he is the conduit between Miri and the underground swell of revolutionaries. And this concept of revolution, history, and democracy is at the core of the story. I greatly appreciate the care that Hale uses in laying out this path before Miri, with all of the temptation, confusion, and impossible choices that situations like this cause. And, while this is a middle grade novel and with this comes, perhaps, a few too many convenient solutions, Hale also spends a good portion of the novel fully exploring these themes before wrapping up the story.

Timon also brings with him a love triangle, and here is where I’m not so sure. While I think I understand what Hale was going for, forcing Miri and Peder to challenge the realities of their relationship and feelings in an adult manner (rather than the ease of an early crush), I question whether this was the best route. It also could just be that I’m so sick and tired of love triangles that even ones that are introduced for a good reason and, largely, executed well, are still frustrating to read.

In many ways this book was a step up from the first story. But at the same time, I struggled with it a bit more. Perhaps I just had higher expectations for Miri and wanted to see more growth in her as a character between the last book and this. Of course, she’s still young, and, of course, the point of this story was to challenge her even further, but perhaps when I’m reading about a character who is contemplating marriage, I also wanted to see a bit more perception from her. Her naivety in the first book was charming and believable. She’s still charming here, but there were points where her naivety was a bit much. We’ve been presented with a smart character, some common sense and ability to reason through certain things while still being challenged by others would have been more believable and enjoyable.

For readers who enjoyed “Princess Academy,” this book is a fun follow up. It retains many of the traits that made the first book so enjoyable while also adding complexity to the challenges the main characters face. While there were a few stumbling points, I definitely recommend it as a strong sequel story.

Rating 7: Worth checking out!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Palace of Stone” is included on this Goodreads list: “The Best Fairytales and Retellings” and “Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book.”

Find “Palace of Stone” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Review: “Princess Academy”

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Princess Academy”

85990 Book: “Princess Academy” by Shannon Hale

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury, April 2007

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.

Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.

Review: I was trained as a public librarian with an emphasis on young adult and children’s services. Bizarrely, this resulted in a high exposure to young adult titles, children’s stories, and pictures books with only a few books scattered in between that could be rightly categorized as “middle grade.” My definition for this group is books that are enjoyed by readers aged 10-13. Therefore, in an attempt to self-educate myself and to stay up to date with this segment of readers, I’ve been slowly working my way through Shannon Hale’s collection of works. She’s a well-known and respected middle grade author and I’ve enjoyed her other titles. “Princess Academy” is also a Newbery Honor Book, which further speaks to her prowess in this genre, and all in all, I can see why its praises have been so loudly sung.

Right off the bat, I was skeptical of this book’s premises. The title alone seems to imply that what we have here is a story about a bunch of girls vying for a prince’s attention and I’ve been burned by this before (side-eyeing “The Selection”). But I was relieved and surprised to discover that “Princess Academy” was so much more than that!

One of the most important aspects of this book, for me, was its depictions of friendship and family. The set-up is primed for catty-girl-drama, and while Miri does struggle with her relationship with some of the girls, the reader is presented with honest depictions of fully fleshed out teenage girls. Personalities may clash, but it is never reduced to silliness. If anything, it is depicted as the typical growing-up process that all children face. Lessons like diplomacy, sensitivity, and empathy are all in play.

Another of my favorite themes of this book was its emphasis on learning. Miri and her fellow academy girls come from a very poor village where education is completely lacking. In this way, the princess academy is presented as important in the most basic way: it is not only a tool by which to prepare a princess, but a unique opportunity to be taken advantage of by a group of girls who otherwise would have had very few options. Miri’s growing realization of the size of the world and all of the knowledge that exists is wonderful to follow. And, while the book does use this gained education as a plot tool, there is a clear emphasis on the fact that Miri realizes her own love of learning purely for its own merit. This is a great message for a middle grade novel.

There were also some fun elements of mystery within the story, including Miri’s friend Britta’s hidden past and the slow reveal of powers of her humble home. All of this is tied up neatly in simple, yet lovely, language. And, while the story does have sequels, it can also be read as a stand-alone book. All of this said, the book is firmly set in the category of middle grade. The writing style and language use is simple and the story is straightforward. However, if you enjoy middle grade novels, this book is definitely worth checking out!

Rating 8: Very strong middle grade novel highlighting great themes of friendship and learning!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Princess Academy” is included on this Goodreads list: “Best Princess Tales” and “Newbery Medal Honor Books.”

Find “Princess Academy” at your library using Worldcat!