“The Last Mapmaker” by Christina Soontornvat

Title: The Last Mapmaker

Author: Christina Soontornvat

Publication Info: 2022 Candlewick Press

The Plot: Sai lives in the kingdom of Mangkon and works as an assistant to the famous mapmaker Paiyoon Wongyai.  Unbeknownst to her master, Sai comes from the troubled underclass of Mangkon society and has little room for advancement in life.  When the Queen of Mangkon announces a voyage to map the unknown lands of the southern ocean, Paiyoon and Sai find themselves part of this dangerous expedition.  Sai hopes that this maritime adventure will be her way to a better life, but she must keep her true identity guarded even as she comes to question the true intentions of the voyage.   

My Take: With a light does of fantasy and adventure, Soontornvat paces this novel in such a way that it sweeps the reader along with Sai in her dangerous journey.  Soontornvat also does an excellent job presenting the complicated questions of advancement in a morally compromised society. Recommended for ages 11-14

One Interesting Note About The Author:  According to her website, Soontornvat “spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science.”  She is passionate about STEM. 

“Lalani Of The Distant Sea” by Erin Entrada Kelly

The Plot: Twelve year old Lalani lives on the island of Sanlagita, in a village that is suffering from drought and an oppressive patriarchal structure. The village elders have long warned of staying away from Mount Kahana, the dangerous mountain on the island, as well as the beauty of Mount Isa, the mythical mountain across the sea that supposedly holds magic that could bring prosperity to Sanlagita. When misfortune provokes Lalani to explore the sides of Mount Kahana, she begins an adventure that will place her in conflict with her village and compel her to set sail across the distant sea in search of Mount Isa.

My Take: This is a wonderful book because author Erin Entrada Kelly has a fine sense of pacing. She weaves in themes of oppression, sexism, and environmental degradation while also including elements of magic and mythology. There is also enough action and danger to satisfy adventure lovers. Kelly manages to pack all of this in while maintaining a sense of urgency throughout the story. She also daringly introduces new characters and settings in the 3rd act without slowing things down.

I also credit Kelly with an appropriate level of world building. She gives the reader just enough information about the fantasy setting without overburdening us. She will, for instance, give a broad description of a fantasy animal, but leaves most of it to our imagination. This trust in the reader is a welcome departure from many other fantasy writers.

One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her bio on her website, Erin Entrada Kelly’s favorite scary movie is Poltergeist (1982).

“The Girl Who Drank The Moon” by Kelly Barnhill

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Every year the members of the Proctectorate have taken an infant and left it in the woods as a sacrifice to the witch.  Unbeknownst to them, the witch, who name is Xan, has shepherded each baby to another town so that it can be raised by a loving family.  One year, however, Xan accidentally feeds a baby with moonlight, thereby enmagicking it.  She names the girl Luna and raises her by her side. As Luna’s powers develop, her past comes calling in the form of two women: one that has gone insane and another that feeds on sorrow and prowls with a tiger’s heart.

My Take:  This was an engrossing read and worthy of its winning the Newberry Medal.   Barnhill has the ability to create a fantasy world that is convincing but not indulgent.  Her writing moves the narrative along at a good clip while also taking the time to build the characters.  I particularly appreciated that so much of the story revolves around, in several forms, a mother’s attachment – or lack thereof -for her child.  You can tell that Barnhill enjoys exploring this subject from several different angles, ultimately arriving at a positive answer.

One Interesting Note About The Author:  On her website, Barnhill describes herself as a “former teacher, former bartender, former waitress, former activist, former park ranger, former secretary, former janitor and former church-guitar-player.”

“The Lost Track of Time” by Paige Britt

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:   The one thing that Penelope wants to be is a writer, but she has no time in her busy schedule to put her thoughts on paper.  But that’s all about to change, because one day, while looking at her schedule, she falls into the Realm of Possibility.  It’s a magical place filled with people who do nothing all day but moodle–sitting around thinking, daydreaming, letting your mind wander so you can come up with marvelous ideas.  But all is not well in this land because a man named Chronos has taken over with his army of Clockworkers and these guys make things run on time.  They don’t believe any time should be wasted and when they realize that Penelope is a threat, they vow to track her down and lock her in the great clock tower.

My Take:  If you like fantastical places, if you like the Wizard of Oz, if you like Alice in Wonderland, you will love The Lost Track of Time

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to her website, Paige Britt’s favorite place to write is her local public library!

Amulet Book One: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

The Plot In 5 Sentences:  After Emily and Navin’s dad perishes in a horrible accident, their mother moves them to a spooky, rural house once owned by their grandfather.  The children soon discover his old workshop as well as an amulet that Emily ties around her neck.   That night, when a creature kidnaps their mom, the children chase after them and stumble into a strange world.  There they learn that the amulet has magical powers and that they have been charged with using it to gain power over this weird place known as Alledia.  With this knowledge, Emily and Navin embark on a dangerous adventure to find their mother.

My Take:  This is a highly requested item in my library, so I felt compelled to read it.  I was not disappointed.  The plot is unencumbered and the pace is brisk.  Kibuishi’s art is eye catching when necessary, but shorn of detail when the narrative speeds forward.  Children will appreciate the fully realized fantasy world and the dangers that lurk there.   I think that I’ll be reading the second in the series.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Kibuishi will design the covers for the rerelease of the Harry Potter series.

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Will, raised as a ward of the castle and having never known his parents, faces his destiny on his Choosing Day.  Hoping that he will go to fighting school, Will is surprised when the shadowy figure of Halt requests that Will join his team of Rangers, a stealthy band that polices and keeps watch over the realm.  Will takes to his training well, mastering such Ranger arts as camouflage, stealth, and of knife throwing.  As his skills mature, Will earns the respect of Halt and makes a name for himself by slaying a large wild boar in the forest.  But the a wild boar is nothing compared to the dreaded and evil Kalkara, whom the evil lord Morgarath has sent on a mission to kill the Rangers.

My Take:  I was suitably impressed by the opening shot of this now 12 part series.  Flanagan gets right the balance between character development and delivering a suitable level of excitement for younger readers.  I was expecting that the entire book would be spent on Will’s training and his efforts to please Halt, with the obvious attending disappointments until then end, when, through some personal breakthrough, Will finally earns the respect of his master.  I was pleased that this was not the narrative arc, or at least not the entirety of it, and that, by the final quarter of the book, Flanagan has ushered us to the larger stage where we are meeting the Kalkara of Morgarath.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Flanagan conceived these books in a series of short stories that he wrote for his son to interest him in reading.

“The Sister’s Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives” by Michael Buckley

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Daphne and Sabrina have bounced among foster homes for the past few years ever since their parents passed away.  Their latest foster mother is an eccentric old woman calling herself Mrs. Grimm and claiming to be the girls’s grandmother.  She takes the girls to her old house stocked with eccentric items and, in time, strongly hints that the girls are part of an old family tradition of keeping fairy tale characters–known as everafters–in line and out of sight.  The girls are mostly skeptical until the grandmother and her chauffeur are kidnapped by a giant.  It’s up to Daphne and Sabrina to track down their grandmother, solve the mystery of why this giant is terrorizing the town, and live up to their family name of Grimm.

My Take:  This light hearted romp featuring a cast of characters from well known fairy tales and children’s literature is a good choice for children looking for a fun read.  Buckley manages to balance the right amount of realism and zaniness so that even when the book incorporates darker elements, it never takes itself too seriously.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to his website, Michael Buckley attempted to be a stand up comedian and lead singer of a punk rock band before going to college.

“Gregor the Overlander” by Suzanne Collins

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  While mourning the disappearance of his father two years prior, Gregor and his younger sister Boots are sucked into an underworld through a grate in their apartment building’s laundry room. They soon discover thriving societies of crawlers (cockroaches), humans, spiders, and rats that live together through a fragile truce.  Unfortunately, war is brewing as the humans believe that Gregor is the one predicted by an ancient prophecy to bring aid to their kingdom in the face of their enemy the rats.  Not wanting to be entangled in the politics of the underworld, but desperate to find a way home, Gergor and Boots set out on a quest dangerous quest to fulfill the prophecy.

My Take:  This is one of those books/series that I have meant to tackle for a couple of years now.  I found it to be an immensely readable juvenile fantasy that kept the pace going.  I was impressed by Collin’s ability to immerse the reader in another world, provide adequate detail for the characters and setting, without losing the narrative momentum.  I also appreciate that the book works well as a stand alone or as a beginning to a delightful series.  Recommended ages 9+

One Interesting Note About the Author:   C’mon!  It’s Suzanne Collins!  You probably know all about her already.

“Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin” by Liesl Shurtliff

rumpThe Story in 5 Sentences Or Less:  Rump lives with his Gran in a village in the mountains where people pass their miserable days working the gold mines to receive their weekly food rations from the town Miller.  Rump’s life changes when he salvages a spinning wheel that was once his mothers and soon discovers that he has the power to spin straw into gold.  At first, the greedy Miller demands all of the gold that Rump spins, but soon the King wants his cut too and mistakenly kidnaps the Miller’s daughter, Opal, thinking that she is the one performing the magic alchemy.

My Take:  I found this book to be an interesting take on the old Grimm’s fairy tale.  Shurtliff presents Rump as an unlikely hero on a journey of adventure and self discovery.  Despite the use of well worn juvenile fantasy elements, (castles, trolls, witches, etc.), I found myself pulled along by the character of Rump.  I was with him all the way as he grappled to control his power and unearthed more secrets about his past.  I would recommend this book for kids grades 3 and above who like fairy tales and fantasy.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to her website, Shurtliff grew up in Utah with 7 brothers and sisters.  The license plate on the family van was “8SGREAT.”



Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo by Obert Skye


Leven_Thumps_and_the_Gateway_to_Foo_coverThe Plot (in 5 sentences or less):  Leven Thumps is a 14 year old boy in Oklahoma whose life changes when he meets Clover, a small fantastical furry creature.  Through his time with Clover, Leven finds that he has the power to summon lightning and also to see into the future.  They soon meet a girl named Winter, who is blessed with the ability to change anything into ice, and Geth, a shape shifting being that was once a king.

In time Clover and Geth reveal to them that their powers are to save a magical world named Foo which is being threatened by the evil Sabine.  The four set out to find the doorway to Foo before Sabine and his shadows can find and kill them.

My Take:  This is a YA fantasy that gets the job done.  It is paced quickly enough to keep the plot going without sacrificing character development.  Fans of Harry Potter and of that ilk will appreciate the first in this 5 book series.  Ages 11+

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to his website, Obert Skye “currently lives indoors and near a thin, winding road.”  Now that IS interesting!