Sunday, February 26, 2023

MMGM: Fenris and Mott, by Greg Van Eekhout, and Freddie vs the Family Curse, by Tracy Badua

Here are another couple of books from the Cybils Middle-grade Spec Fic shortlist that I can highly recommend. 

Fenris & Mott is a funny and thought-provoking take on the Norse idea of Ragnarok.

What if Fenris, the wolf in Norse mythology who will consume the world during Ragnarok, was discovered as a little starving wolf-pup in a back-alley in California?

Mott is the highly-engaging character who finds Fenris and really, really wants to adopt him, even though she knows she can't. She vows to keep him safe, despite the mundane and mythical obstacles that spring up at every turn. Various characters from Norse mythology show up, either wanting to kill Fenris to prevent Ragnarok, or set him free to begin it. But Mott cares about Fenris himself. Her single-minded devotion forges a path through the middle of all the prophecies: is it possible to save Fenris and save the world, too? The combination of Mott's compassion, integrity and wry humour with Fenris's adorable puppy nature is irresistible. And Van Eekhout throws in some pointed metaphors about climate change and human shortsightedness as the vehicles for the end of the world, with the empowering message that kids still have a choice and can make a difference.

Freddie vs the Family Curse is a very funny and relatable story about a boy whose notorious bad luck and clumsiness aren't his fault: he's been cursed!

If anything can go wrong for Freddie, it definitely will, leading to all sorts of slapstick and embarrassing scenarios. Freddie isn't a victim, however, and he has a staunch supporter in his cousin, who at least understands about the family curse. When Freddie discovers an amulet inhabited by the spirit of his great-uncle, he learns the origin of the curse and how to break it. This leads to more shenanigans, including a road-trip to a break-dancing competition—nothing could possibly go wrong with that!  All along Freddie is a character with a great deal of agency and cleverness in dealing with his problems.

The best part about this book is Freddie's family and the rich representation of Filipino culture. I loved that everyone in the family has a different attitude toward the idea of the curse, and toward religion and superstition in general. I loved how everyone cares deeply about each other but that doesn't prevent conflict and frustration. Freddie's great-grandmother is a wonderful character, and the glimpses we get into Filipino history are rewarding.

Monday, February 20, 2023

MMGM: Children of the Quicksands, by Efua Tratore

A Middle-Grade Spec Fic finalist for the Cybils, Children of the Quicksands was one of my top choices for winner. (Here is my review of The Mirrorwood, the one we picked.)

We begin in Lagos, Nigeria, with the common middle-grade trope of the city child being sent to stay with a relative in the country. And of course there's going to be something mysterious going on in the forest behind grandmother's cottage. But this isn't Kansas, and these are not the European folk tales we've seen so much of! 

Simi is such a likeable protagonist, and she drew me right into her voice and her world. I loved being immersed in modern-day Nigeria, and then I loved being taken with Simi into a country village, where we gradually learn about her grandmother's Yoruba religion and the mythic dangers hidden in the forest. 

The magical and the real are integrated seamlessly; I loved that this is a story set firmly in the "real" world, and the world under the quicksands that Simi falls into is just one more part of reality. I loved that this is a story about families, about relationships, healing and forgiveness, whether it's within mortal families or relationships between gods.

Every character is rich and rounded; there is convincing conflict without anyone being a villain. I loved how the interplay between religion and politics was represented—simply enough for a middle-grade audience, but nuanced. There are all sorts of interesting themes going on, but the story never bogged down, never faltered from its clear arc of Simi discovering her heritage and reuniting her family.

Have I mentioned how much I love Simi? And her grandmother, and Jay, the son of the chief, who insists on becoming Simi's friend. Lots of humour and very relatable situations.

The writing is excellent, the descriptions vivid, the dialog easy to hear—and I loved the incorporation of Yoruba language into the text (with a helpful glossary).

I can't claim to have eaten authentic Nigerian food, but I am now looking up Nigerian restaurants in Vancouver, and I shall correct that lack with all due haste. I do love peanut soup, which is at least West African in origin—maybe that's what I'll have for dinner tonight!

Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday is hosted by Greg Pattrige at Always in the Middle, and is always an excellent source of middle-grade recommendations.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Cybils Winners! The Mirrorwood, by Deva Fagan

Happy Valentine's Day! For those whose greatest love may be books, it is more than appropriate that the winners of the Children's and Young Adult Book Lovers Literary Awards are announced today! Time to update your TBRs!

I'm excited that I finally get to talk about the winner in the Elementary/Midde-grade Speculative Fiction category: The Mirrorwood, by Deva Fagan.

Every one of the judges was impressed by the compelling writing and the imaginative world-building in this one. It starts with a girl who has been cursed with a blight: she has no face of her own, and has to borrow faces from people she touches. What an interesting curse, full of metaphorical possibilities! Appearance, identity, how our relationships with others define us—all the deep stuff!

Our heroine, Fable, escapes from blight hunters through a wall of thorns into an enchanted kingdom caught in time with a sleeping prince in a tower in a castle. 

People, it's a gender-reversed spin on Sleeping Beauty!

This was just such a fun story. Whimsical, likeable characters, a vivid, colourful world with interesting magic, and a lot of examination of fairy tale tropes: fairy godmothers, curses, demons and monsters, quests. Before Fable can end the blight and save the kingdom, she has to figure out who the good guys are, and just what, exactly, the curse is.

Also there's a great talking cat, and the annoyingly loquacious skull of a bad poet! So much to enjoy!

If I were to pick a food analogy for The Mirrorwood, I think I would go with the amazing chocolate chunk salted caramel cookies my sister and brother make, with chunks of Belgian chocolate and homemade caramel in a meal-sized cookie. Sweet and salty deliciousness with hidden depths and a different combination of flavours in every bite.

I will post reviews of the rest of the short-listed books over the next few Mondays, for Marvelous Midde-Grade Monday. Some very cool stories, and I'm excited to share them with you!