middle grade

Review: The Two Princesses of Bamarre

The Two Princesses of Bamarre Cover“I was no hero. The dearest wishes of my heart were for safety and tranquility. The world was a perilous place, wrong for the likes of me.”  

I’ve been downsizing and that means I’ve been going through my bookshelves. And it’s something that really makes me pause when I see how well-worn some of the books I have are. There are books I read over and over and over again, so entrenched I was in their stories. And they didn’t even have to be big names.

One of them was The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine. She’s best known for writing Ella Enchanted (which in no way is at all similar to the movie).

The Two Princesses of Bamarre is set in a classic fairy tale kingdom, focusing on two royal sisters. There’s twelve-year-old Addie, who looks up to her courageous sister Meryl. Meryl wants to follow in Drualt, their legendary hero’s footsteps and do the same as he did–go on adventures and rid the kingdom of the evil beasts that lurk in the wilderness.

Addie would be content with staying at home, and not doing any of those things. After all, they already lost their mother, why risk endangering themselves any further?

But Meryl falls victim to another one of the kingdom’s evils—the illness known as the Gray Death. Finding courage she didn’t know she had, Addie sets out into her kingdom to do the impossible and find a cure.

This story reminds me of The Princess Bride because it has everything: adventure, danger, twists and turns, wit, and romance that won’t make you gag. Spectres, ogres, griffins, and even dragons lie in her path, but she keeps going for her sister. She doesn’t have strength to rely on, just her own pluckiness and willpower. As a kid who was athletically-challenged and constantly with my nose stuck in books, this appealed to me. If I ran into danger, I just had to persevere and keep fighting in spite of fear.

Acting as a backdrop against Addie and Meryl’s story is the story of the legendary hero who disappeared mysteriously ages ago. It fleshes out the kingdom’s history, a bit of world building for future readers of A Song of Fire and Ice or Lord of the Rings. 

The novel has a complex ending, one that doesn’t tie things up as nicely as you might expect in a children’s book. Like life, there is both happiness and sadness in the ending. But the one constant through the story is the sisters’ unshakable love and devotion to one another.

This is not one of your “one day my prince will come” fairy tales. Gail Carson Levine has a penchant for taking the fairy tale world and empowering girl characters within her worlds to face their fears and overcome challenges.

Even as a middle grade novel, I am ready to read this book again! And… again. Addie’s quest speaks to the feelings within all of us. About finding our inner strength, and doing what we need to for the people we love.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

magnuschase Ever since I started reading, I’ve been a big fan of series. They’re the best. I get more time with my favorite characters than I would reading a stand-alone book, and I don’t have any issues finding my next story. You might think that’s why I started reading Rick Riordan’s novels, but you would be wrong.

Actually, I started Riordan’s books because my cousin refused to read the Harry Potter series.

I know. That doesn’t make sense. How does one person’s refusal to read a series impact another person’s next book? Well, when my cousin refused to read Harry Potter, I decided to go to some drastic measures to correct her error. Since my cousin loved the Percy Jackson series, I struck up a deal. I started reading Percy Jackson, and she took on Harry Potter. I expected my cousin’s eyes to be opened wide to the joys of the wonderful world of Harry Potter, but honestly, I wasn’t expecting much on my end. I was wrong. Our little deal left us both loving our experiences more than we thought we would. And so, my journey into the mythological mind of Rick Riordan began.

As I’m sure many of you already know, Riordan has moved far beyond Percy Jackson and his Greek mythology. You may have even read Riordan’s take on Roman myths in the Heroes of Olympus or checked out his Egyptian endeavors with The Kane Chronicles (Editor’s Note: Gabriele reviewed the series here). If you haven’t read them, give them a shot. They’re great.

Now, Riordan has embarked on a new journey: one filled with Viking war ships and the nine worlds of Norse mythology. He’s done a fantastic job.
When I first began The Sword of Summer, the first book in the new Magnus Chase series, I thought it would be a little weird. I was expecting a lot of POV shifts like the Heroes of Olympus and some pacing issues. But The Sword of Summer is different. Riordan goes back to what he does best and gives us the entire story from Magnus’s sarcastic, wonderful point of view, and his pacing is pretty good (if you ignore the first couple of chapters). Like all of Riordan’s characters, Magnus has an incredibly strong voice. He’s funny and, as an added bonus, he’s really up-to-date on his pop culture references. I mean, who doesn’t love getting a little T.A.R.D.I.S. or Britney Spears on the side of their Norse mythology? Plus, Riordan’s inclusion of pop culture references, especially those surrounding the Thor movie franchise, helps the reader understand the history and myths included in the story. And seeing as Norse mythology is already slightly less popular and more unknown than something like Greek or Roman mythology, it’s important to have a place to start from.

Riordan also gives the readers something to connect his previous stories and new stories together. Having read his other books, I really love that. His connections do get a little over the top at times, like when he titled a chapter using a reference to Jason Grace, who our main character, Magnus, has never met or heard of. But, I still enjoyed those little pats on the back for being one of Riordan’s followers.

Rick Riordan excels at including people of different backgrounds in his novels, as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean he gives a completely accurate representation of the diverse characters in his books, but seeing as, yes, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and Riordan is a white male trying to include diverse characters, I appreciate his efforts.

The Magnus Chase series includes one of my favorite characters in all of Riordan’s books, a Muslim girl named Samirah al-Abbas. She’s strong and smart, and she’s not afraid to do what’s right, making her a really kick-ass character to root for. Also in the story is another one of my favorite characters, a deaf character named Hearthstone. I haven’t read many books that include people who are deaf, so this was a nice surprise. I’ve also always wanted to learn sign language, so it was fun having a character use ASL in the story. I wanted a little more time with him, but since this is just the first book in the series I’ll let it slide for now.

The book is a tad predictable and formulaic, but not in a way that makes me want to put it down. I’m not sure if I could handle another five-book series where I know exactly what’s going to happen and how, but for a trilogy I’m definitely not upset that I can guess the endings. It makes it kind of fun, and when I’m wrong I’m all the more excited to learn how.

The Sword of Summer had some ups and downs, but overall, I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in mythology or comedic adventure stories. If you’re already a fan of Rick Riordan, you won’t be disappointed. If you aren’t a fan yet, you will be after reading this book. The only thing you’ll be upset about is the wait you have until you can read book two.

Hannah Levine is a senior at The University of Michigan majoring in Creative Writing and Literature and minoring in Digital Studies. She grew up in Oakland County, Michigan and loved every second of it, although she would never pass up a trip to travel and see the world. Hannah is most proud of the moment she met J.K. Rowling and didn’t break into tears until after getting Rowling’s autograph. She is least proud of the time she walked past Mitch Albom at Campus Martius and was too nervous to say hi. You can check out more of Hannah’s random thoughts on Twitter at @hannah_levine or on her blog, Just Hannah dot Rose.

Review: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

rainreign Twelve-year-old Rose Howard loves following the rules. She obsesses over homonyms and prime numbers, and frequently shouts both out loud, especially when she’s upset.

Rose has Asperger’s syndrome, and she stands out in her small town of Hatford, New York because of it. Rose wants to “belong” in a world she can’t quite grasp. Her father wants her to “be normal.” Her teacher and school aide struggle to help Rose adapt. Only Rose’s uncle, Weldon, and her pet dog, Rain, accept her as she is.

When a super storm wipes out the area and the roads flood, Rain goes missing. When Rose attempts to track down her dog, she’s faced with a lot of situations that normally unnerve her (speaking to people on the phone, for example). When Rose finds out some startling information about Rain, she must make a tough decision. Should she listen to what her father tells her because he’s her father, or should she do what feels right?

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is told in Rose’s first-person point of view. There are some interesting things about this narration because of Rose’s developmental disorder; for example, Rose refers to certain chapters before their happen by their chapter title name:

I will tell you more about the rain my father brought [Rain] home in another chapter, Chapter Five, which will be called “When We Got Rain.”

Homonyms in parentheses are interspersed throughout the narrative, reminding the reader of how Rose’s mind works:

When Rain and I are at home… Rain puts one (won) of her front feet (feat) in (inn) my lap.

I found the supporting characters of Rain Reign to be incredibly strong figures. Rose’s father, Wesley, is a single parent. Gruff and quick to anger, he shows obvious frustration at Rose’s outbursts and often pleads with her to be “normal.” This seems to stem from a feeling of helplessness in his situation. He is neglectful as a parent; he spends his time at the Luck of the Irish bar down the street. He gives Rain, who he finds behind the bar, to Rose as a present, in the  some love and trust from her. Wesley and his brother, Weldon, were placed in foster care when they were younger after a teacher found burn marks on Wesley.

Uncle Weldon is Wesley’s younger brother and Rose’s confidant. He is gentle and kind to Rose, and does not dismiss her like father does. Weldon encourages Rose’s love for homonyms and helps her works on the list of words she keeps. When Rain goes missing, Weldon offers to drive Rose around to various shelters. He is timid around his brother and does not want to step on any toes as far as Rose’s upbringing is concerned, but he’s always looking out for his niece’s best interest.

If you’re looking for a book with a lot of action and character development, this book may not be for you. Rain Reign is more of a character study, and while certain new character traits come to light, no one really changes. However, if you’re looking for a lens into a new perspective, and a story with a lot of heart, I recommend picking up Ann M. Martin’s book.

The suggested age range for Rain Reign is grades 4 through 6, but you’re never too old to enjoy a good middle grade novel, you know?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess by Meg Cabot

notebooks of a middle school princessWho didn’t grow up with Meg Cabot’s the Princess Diaries series? The series is follows Mia Thermopolis, who is just an awkward high school girl until she discovers she is heir to a small sovereign European nation. Mia has to bumble through princess lessons with her crazy grandmother, being in the gossip magazines, AND going through all the trials and tribulations of being a teenager.

Well, after ending the book series a number of years ago, Meg Cabot brings us back to the lives of royal Genovians again. This time, we meet Olivia Harrison, who is a completely average twelve-year-old from the suburbs of New Jersey. And… A princess.

It turns out Mia has a half sister.

Olivia goes through some of the same stuff as Mia did. She has to deal with a bully, she feels like there isn’t anything special about her, and she’s not at all popular. But unlike Mia, Olivia has some attitude. She’s not at all intimidated by Grandmere and thinks Grandmere’s poodle posse is the coolest. For a middle-grade novel, she is surprisingly well-rounded and fresh. Olivia loves art, animals, and wants to get her hands on a phone so she can finally text her best friend Nishi. Oh, and eat things with gluten, since her aunt only lets the family eat rice cakes.

I also really enjoyed how Meg Cabot was able to play with some very mature themes in a middle grade novel—multiculturalism, blended families, and families who don’t always have your best interest at heart. She framed the story well and linked overarching themes back to the beginning of the book.

It was too short but I suppose that is a common problem in great middle grade novels, you want them to go on and on.

I’m really looking forward to if they adapt this one to a Disney movie because Mia and Olivia’s father isn’t alive in the movies. I thought they cut out the father because you can’t say testicular cancer in a Disney movie, but Meg Cabot revealed the truth at BookCon. They cut out the father to give Julie Andrews his lines (and totally Disney-fy the acerbic Grandmere in the process). I still suspect my theory plays into it, so any retcon will be interesting!

Oh, and now I need to go back and reread the entire Princess Diaries series, since Meg Cabot also wrote Royal Wedding, a book about Princess Mia, Genovian politics, and and her wedding to Michael! I’m not sure if Meg Cabot’s going to write more about Princess Olivia but I hope so. If you love the Princess Diaries, then you really have to read about the latest addition to the Genovian family.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: George by Alex Gino

[Editor’s Note: Please welcome Hannah to BiblioSmiles! I’m really glad that Hannah struck up a conversation with Gabriele at BookCon and decided to contribute to the blog! I hope you enjoy her review of George, which is set to release on August 25th from Scholastic Press.]

george This summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend both Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon, two wonderfully nerdy book events that really just make me happy to be a reader. While there, I attended a panel discussing upcoming middle grade novels. Now I know I’m slightly above a middle grade reading level, but I truly love the stuff, so I couldn’t resist going to the panel.

Every book sounded amazing! One of them, presented by an almost tearful, gushing David Levithan, really got my attention. That book was Alex Gino’s George. Like so many books before it, and hopefully so many after, George sounded like one of those books Hermione Granger might even neglect her charms homework to read. I knew I absolutely had to get my hands on a copy, so I ran to grab myself an uncorrected proof before they ran out. And, I’m so happy I did.

George is about a little girl who just wants to be the person she knows she is. She was born into a boy’s body, but she doesn’t feel like a boy. However, because of her age and the negativity surrounding the LGBTQI+ community, she doesn’t know what she is supposed to do with this heavy knowledge. Transgender stories have become incredibly relevant stories in the news lately, but before George, I had yet to see it in many literary sources, and that wasn’t really fair.

George does everything she can to keep her secret, until one day she realizes that she really doesn’t want to anymore. She decides she’ll have to play Charlotte, the cunning and elegant spider from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and then everyone will know who she really is. But, she can’t do it alone. George enlists her best friend, Kelly, to help her on her quest to play Charlotte, and to be herself, and, as a reader, we get to join in and root for our girl as well.

George examines identity and acceptance in a way many children’s books do not. I wouldn’t say George is the best book I’ve ever read, but it certainly ranks high on my list. It’s perfect for anyone, whether they’re eight or seventy-eight, because it shows a perspective we rarely have the fortune, let alone the opportunity, to read. Alex Gino clearly spent a lot of care writing their characters, and it felt very special to share that with them. I’m looking forward to their future books, and I have high expectations to see more books like Gino’s in the near future.

Hannah Levine is a senior at The University of Michigan majoring in Creative Writing and Literature and minoring in Digital Studies. She grew up in Oakland County, Michigan and loved every second of it, although she would never pass up a trip to travel and see the world. Hannah is most proud of the moment she met J.K. Rowling and didn’t break into tears until after getting Rowling’s autograph. She is least proud of the time she walked past Mitch Albom at Campus Martius and was too nervous to say hi. You can check out more of Hannah’s random thoughts on Twitter at @hannah_levine or on her blog, Just Hannah dot Rose.

Review: The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

honesttruthThe beauty of working in children’s publishing is getting the opportunity to read some great young adult and middle grade novels.

(I highly recommend reading a middle grade novel when you’re looking for a nice escape and a book with limited time commitment.)

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart, released by Scholastic Press in January 2015, has been getting a lot of great reviews – and for a good reason. This novel tackles sensitive topics in a unique way, and the writing is really quite profound.

The novel is told in alternating first-person and third-person chapters, which I initially found jarring but ultimately embraced. It was a choice made for a reason, and I like when authors try something different.

The protagonist of The Honest Truth is twelve-year-old Mark. Mark is “normal” in that he likes writing haikus with his best friend, Jessica, and taking photographs with his grandfather’s camera. He has a loyal dog named Beau who has been through everything with him. But Mark is not normal in the fact that he is very sick. This sickness has disrupted his life for so long that he decides to run away. And so, Mark packs his backpack and sets off to climb a mountain, with Beau by his side. It’s his one goal, and the one thing he can control.

As a reader I had to suspend my disbelief as this young boy and his dog face challenges and meet all sorts of characters. Back at home, Mark’s parents are scared and heartbroken; Jessica, in her third-person narration, worries about responsibility. Is it her responsibility to tell Mark’s parents where he’s gone? Is it her responsibility to keep her best friend’s secret?

The Honest Truth is tastefully-done, and certainly brought a few tears to my eyes. One of my favorite relationships in the novel? The bond between Mark and Beau! I’m sure all pet owners will understand that unbreakable bond.

I think this is a great novel for middle grade readers because the characters are vivid and the novel’s format is engaging. The topics of pain, grief, responsibility, and friendship will hopefully spark discussion between friends and in the classroom.

Have you read The Honest Truth? What middle grade novels have stuck with you over the years?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Meaning of Maggie

maggieI often forget about middle grade books. With young adult fiction stealing the spotlight and tons of adult fiction titles taking up space on my Kindle, middle grade gets lost in the pile. And it shouldn’t. Some of my fondest reading memories revolve around these not-quite-kiddie, not-quite-teenage titles. These characters were my friends. I realized I wanted to be a writer when I realized that in the pages of books, the characters of authors’ imaginations could come alive.

And yes, there are the classic middle grade titles like Ella Enchanted and Holes that every young bookworm should read, but I’m happy to see that there are some great new protagonists coming on the scene, too.

Like Maggie Mayfield.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern stars Maggie Mayfield who, at the age of twelve, decides to write a memoir of her “most important year.” This is the year before, and the story begins on Maggie’s eleventh birthday. Maggie is an overly-ambitious middle schooler with dreams of becoming the President of the United States, and her life revolves around her pursuit of knowledge.

Family is the center of this novel: Maggie struggles to relate to her “hot” older sisters, she constantly tries to get her overworked mother’s attention, and she wants desperately to understand – and fix – her father’s multiple sclerosis.

Maggie’s father is one of Maggie’s favorite people. He is a “cool dad” who jokes around and makes his family listen to his record collection during dinner. He is forced to quit his job as his disease worsens, and he is cared for by his wife and daughters. He remains optimistic in spite of his condition, and it’s obvious his family adores him.

Although Maggie wins tons of school awards and has quite an advanced vocabulary, she does not understand (or comically misunderstands) “adult” situations. Maggie’s parents drink cocktails with “1/4 Coke and 3/4 bad stuff,” and her parents have a photo album from their hippie days with one page dedicated to “a leaf.”

Maggie thinks her father’s legs are sleeping. Only after reading the M encyclopedia does she begin to comprehend multiple sclerosis. And despite the fact that she appears adult-like when she discusses the stocks and the oil crisis, Maggie wears a lucky scarf, tattles on her older sisters, eats a lot of candy, and gets nervous about gym class. Despite feeling mature, she is still a kid in dire situations, and her father’s disease presents a challenge that Maggie must learn to work through.

Serious subject matter aside, The Meaning of Maggie is a funny book. The story, told in first person point of view, is narrated in Maggie’s overeager know-it-all voice. She is the definition of precocious, so there’s a lot of back-patting, but it’s funny. The excessive use of footnotes bothered me, as they did not add much to the story in terms of content. However, young readers may enjoy these humorous asides.

Some of the jokes, or Maggie’s hilarious misinterpretations, may go over the heads of middle grade readers. As a 23-year-old, I got a kick out of the humor. I think this book would be a great option to share with the younger children in your life. And by that I mean buy it for your younger brother and sister and then steal it to read yourself. Share the joy of the written word, you know?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.