The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye

The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye
Publisher: Puffin Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.) (6-11 yrs.)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Along with Wit, Charm, Health, and Courage, Princess Amy of Phantasmorania receives a special fairy christening gift: Ordinariness. Unlike her six beautiful sisters, she has brown hair and freckles, and would rather have adventures than play the harp, embroider tapestries . . . or become a Queen. When her royal parents try to marry her off, Amy runs away and, because she’s so ordinary, easily becomes the fourteenth assistant kitchen maid at a neighboring palace. And there . . . much to everyone’s surprise . . . she meets a prince just as ordinary (and special) as she is!

What a delightful story! It’s quirky, enchanting, entertaining and a wonderful fairy tale that was a true pleasure to read.

The style is third person narrative and Princess Amy is most often referred to as The Ordinary Princess for most of the book. It’s very reminiscent of Cinderella but it has a mixture of Snow White as well, what with the addition of Mr. Pemberthy and Peter Aurelious; they act as the prerequisite forest friends to the princess.

As in Sleeping Beauty, there is the one fairy that uses her magic to gift the baby Princess Amy with a very unexpected, unique and shock-worthy gift. It causes the Queen to have fits, and the King basically crowing “I told you so!” because he just knew something ghastly was going to happen. Everyone in the castle believed that it was a horrible thing, and that belief lasts until the very day the princess gets her happy ever after.

What I liked about this story was its easy style. It had an innocence to it that was refreshing, from the dialogue, the choices the princess makes and her relationship with Peregrine, the man-of-all-work. I enjoyed watching as they escaped the drudgery of their lives by visiting the forest when they had time off – a place they could be themselves without anyone telling them nay, or reprimanding them if they wanted to climb trees, get muddy or lay back among the flowers and watch the clouds drift by. I even thought the creation of The Birches was romantic in and of itself. It was a commitment of sorts, a foretelling of what could be because of how it was built. A romantic idea crossed my mind and the happy ever after wrap-up proved it true. It was sweet and adorable, and I could believe in the fairy tale – they lived happily ever after.

I found humor in the most unlikely places. The king and his flamboyant reactions to when he was pleased or displeased was one example. The wild and wacky dragon idea was worthy of an eye roll.

The one thing I noticed was the author’s clear descriptions about the environment, the jewels, the castle, how people dressed, descriptions of rooms – it’s quite easy to envision the scenes. The illustrations helped get some perspective on some of it, but there weren’t that many of them to classify this as a picture book. This is a story of words and ideas. It’s not flashy, loud or full of adrenaline. It’s a nicely written and well-told story of a girl meeting her forever sweetheart in a most unlikely fashion; of princesses, princes, kings and a crusty old fairy named Crustacea (kids will probably need help pronouncing that name plus some others in the story) who has a well-guarded marshmallow heart hiding inside all those shells and seaweed.

The Ordinary Princess is a treasure of a story and should be on anyone’s reading list who likes Cinderella, Snow White, any princess story you can name, or just fairy tales in general. Princess Amy is no ordinary princess. She’s special and readers will enjoy finding that out for themselves when they read it too.

Angie and Me by Sam Telpin

Angie and Me by Sam Telpin
Publisher: Shalchufa Books
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Sam loves his home and social life but hates his new teacher, Ms Brown. She enjoys humiliating Sam and his friends (or, at least, he believes she does). After a classroom incident, Sam’s best friend, Angie, decides to take matters into her own hands. Angie knows it won’t be easy for her to get Ms Brown fired, but, whatever it takes, she’s determined to make it happen. Even if it means lying to adults, deceiving parents, bullying friends and stealing money from a charity. Sam has to reconcile his desire for Ms Brown’s downfall with his conscience as Angie hatches, reveals and executes her ruthless plan.

Justice can only be delayed for so long.

Even one year with an awful teacher can seriously damage a student’s self-esteem, grades, and interest in learning. I loved the way this book showed how all of these things can happen and why it’s so important to recruit kind and emotionally stable teachers who love spending time with kids and teaching them. Readers had plenty of opportunities to discover why Sam and his classmates disliked their teacher and why she should have never been hired to work in a school.

I found myself wishing for more descriptions in this book. For example, it was hard to imagine what the characters looked like because of how little time was spent on that topic. The settings were given more attention, but even some of them were difficult for me to picture in my mind as well. I would have happily gone with a higher rating if this hadn’t been the case as the storyline itself was humorous and memorable.

While I totally understood Sam’s anger about how terribly his teacher was treating him, I also found it interesting to see how his behavior affected someone whose patience for the typical antics of kids his age was already paper thin. His mischievousness could be disruptive in class, and he didn’t always listen the first time he was told to do something. This is in no way a defense of the horrible way Sam was treated, but it did show off memorable portions of both his personality and his teacher’s personality in ways that I don’t think either of them were necessarily aware of. It’s cool to discover stuff like that in stories, and it made me curious to check out more of the author’s work.

Angie and Me made this reader smile.

The Mystery Hat by Rune Brandt Bennicke and Jakob Hjort Jensen

The Mystery Hat by Rune Brandt Bennicke and Jakob Hjort Jensen
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Crow, Pig, and Beaver are taking a nice stroll in the woods when they come across a red hat sitting in a puddle. Whose hat is it? What mysterious circumstances could have brought it to this very puddle? Crow thinks that Bear lost the hat when he fell into a giant hole. Perhaps Bear is holding his breath underground, waiting to be saved! Beaver thinks he’s got a better idea. Maybe Turtle, who was wearing the hat, was snatched up and made into yummy turtle soup by a crazed snowman! Can Pig come up with a logical explanation so that the friends can be rid of all these hogwash ideas?

Imaginations run wild in this hilarious picture book from Rune Brandt Bennicke and Jakob Hjort Jensen. The Mystery Hat is sure to get a chuckle from all during the cold winter months.

Who wouldn’t want to solve a mystery in a peaceful winter forest?

It was amusing to see how Pig’s calm and rational personality reacted to the creative and sometimes dramatic things his friends said. He was nothing like them in many ways, and yet their friendships were strong and kind ones. This was one of the things that first drew me into the storyline given how warmly the narrator described every character no matter who they were or how they behaved. I was curious to see how characters with such wildly different personalities would get along.

There was a scene involving a snowman who wanted to add one of these characters’ friends to a pot of soup he was making that I thought was a little too scary for the younger portion of this audience. Some kids might find it amusing, but I would have been frightened by that idea as a preschooler. This is one of those situations where grown-ups should know their audience well and be prepared to tailor that plot twist to something gentler if needed. As much as I liked the storyline in general, I would need to think carefully before reading this to younger kids who are sensitive to things like mistreating animals.

I enjoyed seeing how Pig used logic and reason to figure out what really happened to the missing hat. He was a smart animal who clearly took his time to consider all of the explanations before offering his own opinion about what happened. Critical thinking also isn’t something I’ve seen addressed in many picture books, but it’s an important skill for everyone to learn.

The Mystery Hat made me smile.

Deep, Deep, Down: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench by Lydia Lukidis

Deep, Deep, Down: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench by Lydia Lukidis
Publisher: Capstone
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

Deep, deep down, at the very bottom of the ocean, lies a secret world. Through lyrical narration, this spare-text STEM picture book takes readers on a journey to a place very few humans have ever been–the Mariana Trench. The imagined voyage debunks scary myths about this mysterious place with surprising and beautiful truths about life at Earth’s deepest point. Deep, Deep Down shows a vibrant world far below, and teaches readers how interconnected our lives are to every place on the planet.

Let some of the mysteries of the ocean be revealed!

Surviving in such an extreme environment isn’t easy. I was intrigued by the many different adaptations the fish and other animals in the Mariana Trench had evolved in order to withstand things like limited food supplies and heavy underwater pressure. These were some of the most educational and descriptive lines of the tale. I could easily imagine exactly what the author was talking about, and it made me want to dive even deeper into this subject.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this picture book was the deep respect it held for nature and other living beings. Whether it was describing specific creatures who live in the Mariana Trench or discussing how dark and freezing cold it is there, the narrator always spoke gently of the topics at hand and gave them the attention they deserved. There was no need to sensationalize what’s down there because the truth was more than incredible enough on its own.

What happens on the surface or in shallower waters trickles down to life at the bottom of the ocean. I should leave the specifics of that up to other readers to discover for themselves, but I can say that I learned a few new things about how connected we all are on this fragile planet. It’s amazing to think that one decision or event can echo so far through the food chain, yet that is exactly what happens every single day.

Deep, Deep, Down: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench was a lyrical read that I’d heartily recommend to kids and adults alike.

Atticus Everheart, Fifth Grade Tutor, and Monster Hunter? by C.L. Colyer

Atticus Everheart, Fifth Grade Tutor, and Monster Hunter? by C.L. Colyer
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Nothing frightens Atticus Everheart more than monsters, thanks to his older brothers, who often threaten to feed him to the beastly creatures. Fearing that’s what they will do if he doesn’t replace the book he accidentally ruined, he takes a job tutoring a boy in his neighborhood. Although nervous about the job, Atticus soon discovers there’s a lot more in store for him than teaching. Never in a trillion years would he have imagined he’d be hiding from monsters, working with ghosts, or searching for werewolves and witches. He’s not brave, and he has no plans to change. Until he’s forced to.

Tutoring isn’t always as easy as it looks.

Ms. Colyer has a smooth writing style that makes her work a joy to read. She knew exactly when to explain things in a way that would make sense to her target audience as well as when to leave other details a little vague for the amusement of older readers or later chapters when all would be revealed. I appreciated her sense of timing and her willingness to allow some of her readers to be a little confused for a while in order to build tension for future scenes. This was my second time reading one of her books, and I hope to have many more adventures with her characters in the future.

In a review of a previous work of hers, I had mentioned wishing the author had spent more time on world building. It was delightful to see exactly that happen this time around. The plot didn’t require the characters to dig too deeply into why half-vampires existed in their universe, to share but one example, but it did give me exactly enough information about what sorts of supernatural creatures existed here and how ordinary humans reacted to the idea of them. Would I have liked to know even more? Yes, but it wasn’t strictly necessary for the storyline, and I walked away pretty content with what I did know. Sometimes it’s better to leave an audience wanting more, after all.

Kids don’t always interpret our world the same way grownups do, and that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy middle grade fiction so much. There’s something magical about seeing a character attempt to figure out an unusual and rare social convention or discover the meaning of a complex word for the first time. I had plenty of opportunities to do just that in this tale, and I relished every miscommunication and misunderstanding Atticus faced as he attempted to earn the money he needed to replace his brother’s book. Those moments were as funny as they were necessary for everything else that was about to happen to him.

Speaking of that, I was also impressed with how focused the writing was on its target audience. While adults can enjoy it, too, it truly was written for middle grade readers from the first scene to the last one. This isn’t something I see nearly as much as I’d like to in this genre, and it was refreshing to read a story that knew exactly who its audience was and never wavered from speaking to them in ways they’d best understand.

Atticus Everheart, Fifth Grade Tutor, and Monster Hunter? was a spooky and delightful read.

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The Unforgettable Logan Foster by Shawn Peters

The Unforgettable Logan Foster by Shawn Peters
Publisher: Harper Collins
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Dicentra

Logan Foster has pretty much given up on the idea of ever being adopted. It could have something to with his awkward manner, his photographic memory, or his affection for reciting curious facts, but whatever the cause, Logan and his “PP’s” (prospective parents) have never clicked.

Then everything changes when Gil and Margie arrive. Although they aren’t exactly perfect themselves—Gil has the punniest sense of humor and Margie’s cooking would have anyone running for the hills—they genuinely seem to care.

But it doesn’t take Logan long to notice some very odd things about them. They are out at all hours, they never seem to eat, and there’s a part of the house that is protected by some pretty elaborate security.

No matter what Logan could have imagined, nothing prepared him for the truth: His PP’s are actually superheroes, and they’re being hunted down by dastardly forces. Logan’s found himself caught in the middle in a massive battle and the very fate of the world may hang in the balance. Will Logan be able to find a way to save the day and his new family?

Shawn Peters’ debut novel The Unforgettable Logan Foster is a simply unforgettable read!

Logan Foster is a unique kid, and he’s sadly given up on the dream of ever being adopted. Despite being fostered out to Prospective Parents, or “PPs” multiple times, adults have never connected to his awkward personality, his love of comic books, or his other quirks (namely his photographic memory, being on the autism spectrum, and developmental coordination disorder). Things change for him though when he’s introduced to Gil and Margie, and he quickly learns that there’s more to his new foster parents than meets the eye.

As a loyal fan of the superhero genre, I’m always happy when there’s a great new book to read. The book is action-packed and fast-paced. I loved how the author built comic books and superheroes into the worldbuilding of the story. I also appreciated how the big superhero organization in the book did not try to copy the Justice League or the Avengers. MASC (Multinational Authority for Superhuman Control) occupies a very different role in the world than the two other organizations do.

While superheroes are a big focus of the book, Mr. Peters also focuses on some more mundane topics like adoption and neurodivergence. Logan’s been somewhat hardened by the multiple failed fosterings, so he resists warming up to Gil and Margie (expecting he’ll be back in the orphanage before the month is out). Their initial awkwardness (due to hiding their secret identities as superheroes) doesn’t help matters. There’s also the issue of Logan’s quirks. Most are put off by the multitude of random facts he spouts (courtesy of his photographic memory), and his autistic nature makes some of the more nuanced social interactions in his new school challenging. Never fear though – things work out well in the end for Logan, and he even has his own “superpower” just like his new parents! You’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what I mean.

The only weakness of the book I noticed, and an area of confusion for me as a reader, was the connection to Logan’s (possible) sibling. Logan opens the book directly speaking to a sibling, and the book is pretty much a diary addressed to them. He even has a best big brother shirt that means a lot to him. However, said sibling doesn’t actually show up in the book. That was a letdown for me, so I’m hoping they’ll show up later in the series.

It’s reminiscent of a cross between Disney’s The Incredibles and Meet the Robinsons. If you or a young reader would enjoy a story filled with superheroes, friendship, found family, and lots of comic references, then pick up this book today! It would also be a great choice for those looking for a mainstream book featuring adoption and fostering. I’m excited to see what’s next for Logan in the sequel, The Unforgettable Logan Foster and the Shadow of Doubt (which comes out in January 2023).

Go With the Flow by Karen Schneemann & Lily Williams

Go With the Flow by Karen Schneemann & Lily Williams
Publisher: First Second
Genre: Middle Grade, YA, Contemporary, Graphic Novel
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Good friends help you go with the flow.
Best friends help you start a revolution.

Sophomores Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha are fed up. Hazelton High never has enough tampons. Or pads. Or adults who will listen.

Sick of an administration that puts football before female health, the girls confront a world that shrugs―or worse, squirms―at the thought of a menstruation revolution. They band together to make a change. It’s no easy task, especially while grappling with everything from crushes to trig to JV track but they have each other’s backs. That is, until one of the girls goes rogue, testing the limits of their friendship and pushing the friends to question the power of their own voices.

Now they must learn to work together to raise each other up. But how to you stand your ground while raising bloody hell?

A guide to periods, but with friends and not a manual? I’m in.

I wish I’d have had this book when I was the age that I got my period. While I got the cursory explanation at school, this would’ve been a lot more helpful. Periods are normal. They’re something menstruating people deal with. It’s scary when periods show up the first time, but it shouldn’t be. This book helps get rid of the stigma.

Sasha is a younger student at the high school and one day she gets her period. Some make fun of her, but a few girls take her in, help her out and help her feel normal. It’s a common thing that happens at schools all over the place. Abby, one of the friends, realizes there are issues with getting period products at school. There is a bit of a political bend to this story, but it’s not so much to take away from the story. It showcases that there are issues some deal with and others won’t ever understand.

I liked this story of friendship, finding a place to belong, finding a cause and standing up for one’s self. It’s a cute tale and does take the stigma out of getting your period. If you’re looking for another way to talk about this topic, then this might be the right book for you.

Loukas and the Game of Chance by Anthony L. Manna

Loukas and the Game of Chance by Anthony L. Manna
Publisher: Mascot Books
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

While Loukas is playing his flute at the seawall one day, he befriends a mysterious talking, dancing snake that rewards him with fortune and favor. Some years later, tempted by greed and pride, Loukas loses all his riches and his family. He must now set off on a treacherous journey through a frightening forest filled with suspense and strange creatures to find Destiny, her son Ilion, the Sun, and her daughter Luna, the Moon. These celestial guardians will surely allow him to reverse his misfortune, restore his honor, and win back all that he loves and treasures, won’t they?

A reimagined Greek folktale, Loukas and the Game of Chance is illuminated with dramatic and evocative pen and ink drawings that provide an ideal backdrop for the dark intrigue that fills this haunting story of human struggle, courage, and resilience.

Everyone deserves a second chance.

It’s tricky to describe Loukas in a few sentences. He was a talented musician who was deeply loyal to and generous with his friends and relatives. With that being said, he also had moments of selfishness, greediness, and thoughtlessness just like many folks do sometimes. I had a wonderful time peeling back the various layers of his personality and figuring out how all of them were connected. He felt so three dimensional to me that I could have easily accepted the idea of him being based on a real person.

My favorite scenes were the ones that explored what true repentance and forgiveness mean. When someone makes a terrible mistake that harms others, the damage can’t be undone with a simple apology. Instead, Loukas needed to demonstrate that he regretted his actions and was going to make things right again. I found myself smiling and nodding along as he searched for ways to repair everything he’d destroyed.

Folklore appeals to me because of how often first impressions can be deceiving in this type of storytelling and how many lessons it can teach us about being what it means to be a good person. For example, not every powerful character is necessarily trustworthy, and wealth is only as good as how it is used. I enjoyed getting to know the characters in this story and seeing how they treated one another. As much as I want to gush more about this topic, it’s best for other readers to discover everything for themselves.

I should also mention that the author’s note at the end provided some helpful backstory for readers who aren’t familiar with the Greek legends this story was based on or who want to read more about this topic. It does contain spoilers, though, so keep that in mind when deciding when to read it!

Loukas and the Game of Chance was perfect.

Bats, Bandits, and Buggies by Nancy Oswald

Bats, Bandits, and Buggies by Nancy Oswald
Publisher: Burro Books
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.) Historical, Fiction, YA
Rating: 5 stars
Review by Snowdrop

Bat, Bandits & Buggies is the fourth book in the Ruby and Maude Adventure Series. These books can be read in any order.

In Colorado Springs, the summer of 1898, thirteen-year-old, Ruby is bored, bored, bored. What starts out as a plan to train her donkey, Maude, to pull a buggy, ends up in a prickly business deal with her friend Roy, who has run away from Cripple Creek to escape his misery of working in the mines.

Roy lives with his peculiar Aunt Agnes, the caretaker of a mansion where things go bump in the night. Ruby suspects his aunt is involved with two bandits who dress in black and appear and disappear without a trace.

After eavesdropping on a mysterious couple, Ruby is terrified Roy may be the bandits’ next target. Her suspicions come true when the gun-brandishing bandits capture her and Roy.

Will the two escape? Is there a connection between the bandits, Aunt Agnes, and the mansion? What other surprises await Ruby and Roy in their seemingly sleepy little town? Find out in Bats, Bandits, & Buggies.

While I am not of this reading age anymore (9 to 12), who could possibly ignore a book with this title? Regardless of age, I had a blast. Set in the late 1800’s, this middle grade children’s historical fiction story would be a quick and fun read for anyone. Ruby and Roy with her donkey Maude, decide to run from bad personal situations and end up right in the middle of a mystery. In some ways, out of the fire and into the pot, a possible very dangerous place to be.

What a neat change in genre this is. It’s almost a cozy mystery for middle grade readers. I love the historical fiction setting. This is clearly written and very easy to follow, but it sure never lets up on suspense.

Of course, it’s biggest draw is what I mentioned previously. Who can resist two kids, a donkey, some bandits, and a mystery?

Bats, Bandits, and Buggies is Book 4 in a series titled “Ruby and Maude Adventure”. Check it out.

Born to be Naughty by Hina Nauman

Born to be Naughty by Hina Nauman
Hanna the Guardian of Nature Book 1
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

How naughty can one child be? Did you ever put lizards in the food to end some boring adult party or did you ever wear a secret ink ring to mess with kids who annoy you, did you ever had this motto :

If someone gives you pee to drink, simply give them a potty to eat.

Imagine a kid like this.

And then imagine a kid like this makes her naughtiness double with a perfect addition of a best friend forever in her life.

If you have imagined all this, then it’s time to meet Hanna from the series Hanna the Guardian of nature. Hanna’s mischievous spirit is about to press her to one of her most daring thrills in these summer vacations.

Don’t confuse your head with Guardian and naughtiness going hand in hand. Simply read the book and let the confusion rest in peace.

Getting into trouble is easy when the adults aren’t paying attention!

Hanna was such an amusing main character. I adored her spirited personality, limitless energy, silly sense of humor, and cleverness. She was the sort of kid who made everything exciting and unpredictable. I could never guess what sort of mischief she was going to get into next or how the adults in her life would react to her hijinks! There was a lot of room left here for character growth, and that’s something I always like to see in the beginning of a new series. Hopefully, future sequels will spend more time exploring her personality and showing how she will change as she grows up.

It would have been helpful to have a tighter storyline in this book. The narrator often wandered off into tangents about Hanna’s early life, explanations of why Allah created so many different skin colors for people, or other topics. As interesting as they were to read, they were also a distraction from what was currently going on in her life. This was the only thing holding me back from giving a full five-star rating.

The relationship between Hanna and her parents made me smile. They were loving and accepting of her no matter what was going on in any of their lives. This isn’t always an easy thing for grownups to do when looking after an intelligent and hyperactive child, so it was nice to see her surrounded by understanding people who knew the difference between misbehavior and exuberance.

Born to be Naughty (Hanna the Guardian of Nature Book 1) was a funny and heartwarming read.