Serafina and the Black Cloak

23507745by Robert Beatty
Children’s Fiction
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: July 14, 2015

I bought a bunch of MG books last year and this one has sat on my shelf the longest. I wasn’t sure what to expect (especially given my limited experience with the Disney imprint) but it was not the “safe” adventure I expected!

Serafina and her father secretly live in the basement of the Biltmore mansion. Her father is the estate’s head engineer, and Serafina does not exist, as far as the Biltmores are concerned. But when children start disappearing from the estate, Serafina reveals herself to the Biltmore’s nephew, Braeden, and they try to save the children before it’s too late.

What surprised me is just how dark this story got when it came to tracking down the Man in the Black Cloak! Not only is the Cloak super sinister, the things Serafina encounters as she hunts him down made me squirm with the creeps. (I read it on a plane and actually squirmed, several times). Encounters with various bloody remains and dark places in the Forest had me cringing in the best way! Serafina is a tougher girl than I am, and could grit her teeth and keep going.

It’s not the subtlest in terms of Serafina’s mysterious past and such, but it was fun and pretty satisfying. Gothic vibes made for middle-grade readers!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Serafina and the Black Cloak is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – The other gruesome MG book I have read. Coraline’s family moves to a new house, and she has fun exploring it. Then she finds the Other Mother, who is determined to keep Coraline forever if Coraline can’t outsmart her trap.
  • Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi – A girl’s quest to locate her father in a neighboring magical realm goes horribly wrong. This is an interesting blend of total lighthearted whimsy and the darker depths of human nature. Enjoy this journey through two realms who use magic very differently! See my review here.
  • Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke – Definitely YA, but with that same creepy, country vibe. Three unreliable narrators tell you what they think happened one dark night at the haunted house. See my review here.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

29417336by Kelly Barnhill
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this middle grade adventure! The narrative style is cute (featuring stories within stories) and the chapters flew by.

There are several protagonists of varying ages who take up parts of the tale. The old Witch, Xan, who lives in the Bog. Antain, a conscientious objector to the village’s tradition of sacrificing one child a year to the Witch to keep everyone else safe. And Luna, one of the abandoned babies. Xan decides to raise Luna as her own–accidentally feeding her moonlight and filling Luna with magic.

These three stories converge and piece together the history of the sorrowful town and the Witch. Themes of when someone must grow up, what protection truly is, and each person’s responsibility to uphold human rights are deftly illustrated through the tragic and tumultuous lives of families in the town.

The magic is unpredictable, emerging in energetic, vibrant ways which I loved!Characters like swamp monster Glerk and Fyrian the Simply Enormous Dragon provide insight and comic relief as we explore the world.

I found myself connecting a lot with all these characters torn between wilfull ignorance and knowledge that brings a demand for action, and I liked how this was given so many facets. The journey sticks in your mind long afterward!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Girl Who Drank the Moon is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary – Saki accidentally unleashes a death curse on her family and has just three nights to undo it with the help of mischievous spirits. See my review here.
  • Risuko by David Kudler – Risuko is just a girl who loves to climb, until a woman realizes her skills might be put to use for her country. This historical fiction highlights an interesting group of women determined to change history. See my review here.
  • Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi – Alice journeys to the strange land of Furthermore with her nemesis, Oliver, hoping to find her missing father. It’s told in a similar style to “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” with tangents, adventures, and strange magic. See my review here.

Not Quite Narwhal

30312747by Jessie Sima
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel: February 14, 2017

This little story is everything I could want in a picture book! Colorful, adorable, and full of narwhals and unicorns. I literally gasped out loud three times while reading this book, because of how adorable it is!

Kelp has never really fit in with his narwhal family and friends. His tusk isn’t as long, and he’s not a great swimmer. But then one day a current takes him to a beach where he sees strange creatures that look a lot like him!

This sweet story of acceptance is just delightful! There are some fun details tucked away on each page. A welcome escape for me that I’ll enjoy many times! I don’t often pick up picture books and definitely wanted to give this one a plug. I’m excited to see what the author/illustrator does next!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Not Quite Narwhal is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Percy and TumTum: A Tale of Two Dogs by Jill Hen – When floofy TumTum arrives in Percy’s home, he is not happy about everyone fawning over the new dog. But maybe Percy’s dislike is misplaced. This story is adorable, of course!
  • The Poet’s Dog by Patricia McLachlan – A dog saves two children in a snow storm and they spend a few days snowed in getting to know each other. Emotional and insightful, a cozy read! See my review here.
  • Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman – An illustrated adventure about one dad’s quest to get milk for breakfast and the mayhem that ensues along the way (including aliens).


28110143by Tahereh Mafi
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars

“Color my life with the chaos of trouble…” I knew right away this is the type of strange and beautiful that I love! This is a cute, modern fairy tale about a girl on a quest to save her father.

Alice Alexis Queensmeadow is the only girl in Ferenwood who lacks color—and presumably magic, since magic is color. When her father vanishes she is naturally distraught and her family becomes dysfunctional. And then three years later, Alice’s nemesis Oliver shows up, declaring he is tasked to save her father, and he needs her help. The two of them go to Furthermore—a dangerous neighbor of Ferenwood where magic is wild and aggressive rather than constructive.

Although the pacing is a bit odd, I enjoyed this story so much! Alice is a charming but flawed heroine and her determination to press on even when Furthermore makes no sense at all is endearing. She and Oliver must confront a variety of dangers at work against them, and their own relationship is fraught with lies and manipulation. Their journey through Furthermore depends on learning to trust each other, and the two of them make progress with wariness and humor.

This is a fast read with enough twists and turns to keep you starting with surprise—and yet the world of strangeness and unpredictability follows undeniable rules. A whimsical delight that was a nice break at this dreary time of year!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Futhermore is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – The original Alice to explore a strange world of magic and mayhem! Young Alice follows a white rabbit and quickly finds herself dealing with all manner of strange creatures and customs as she tries to find her way back home.
  • The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd – Emmaline’s quiet life with other invalid children is interrupted by a quest to save a white winged horse named Foxfire by shielding her with color to prevent the Black Horse from finding her. See my review here.
  • The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary – When Saki accidentally invokes a death curse, she must use the help of three spirits to save her family before the Night Parade is over. Her dangerous journey in the spirit world is both dark and funny.  See my review here.
  • The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi – For beautiful language in a land of magic and mystery, look no further! This YA fantasy based on Indian mythology captivated me from the first chapter. Maya’s horoscope of death and doom makes her a pariah, until a mysterious prince sweeps her away from the harem and offers her a kingdom unlike any she has imagined. See my review here.

The Poet’s Dog

28594336by Patricia MacLachlan
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars

It would be nearly impossible to write a fictional dog I won’t love. Children and dogs are expected to tug our heartstrings–in fact, typically a protagonist’s humanity and morality is judged by how they relate to children and animals! They are so universally beloved, they can feel like a literary crutch. Yet this story portrays them as you’d expect in ways that do not feel full of exploitative sugar.

When Teddy the Irish Wolfhound finds two children alone in a snowstorm, he leads them back to his cabin. For most of his life, Teddy shared the cabin with Sylvan, a poet who taught him words. Only poets and children can understand Teddy’s words, but he doesn’t mind. As the children keep Teddy company and prepare food, Teddy thinks back on his time with Sylvan and wonders what his future will hold.

Just as children have a way of seeing truths with clarity adults don’t always possess, Teddy has equally moving insights about humans. This short book is full of good and bad poetry, and what things or events spur people into creating art (and how lying to yourself makes for bad art). Honestly the only little thing that kept pulling me from the story is that the only color mentioned is red–and dogs can’t really distinguish red…but this is probably something only I would care about!

This is a quick, cozy read for the winter! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Poet’s Dog is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell – Feo and her half-wild wolves must journey to St. Petersburg to save her mother. Naturally, things do not go entirely according to plan. See my review here.
  • Pax by Sara Pennypacker – The story of a boy and his fox who will do anything to reunite when the boy’s father and war separate them. See my review here.
  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo – A brave little mouse teaches everyone he encounters about honor, love, light and dark as he pursues knighthood.
  • Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley – A tear-jerking and hilarious story detailing a lonely man’s relationship with his old dachshund. For any dog-lover. See my review here.

The Wolf Wilder

24885821by Katherine Rundell
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars

This is the perfect winter fairy tale! I loved every page of this story. Set in the heavy Russian winter a hundred years ago, we spend a week with Feo, the wolf wilder’s daughter.

Russian nobility started a trend of keeping beautiful wolves as pets—or as much of a pet as a wild wolf can really be. But when the wolf attacks a friend or the aristocrat tires of it, what happens to the wolf? It’s bad luck to kill one. So they make their way to Feo’s door for her mother to teach the wolf to be wild again, able to survive on its own after years of pampering.

But when General Rakov decides the half-wild wolves are pests, he will stop at nothing to kill them and everyone Feo loves if they don’t stop looking after the pack and keep the wolves away. When he imprisons her mother, Feo knows she and her half-wild wolves must save her.

Feo must traverse the wilderness outside St. Petersburg and find a way into the prison in only a week—but she and her wolves find surprising allies on her journey, and Feo realizes that sometimes people can provide comfort and help instead of just interrupting her solitude.

Full of charming and surprising side characters, true moments of darkness, and insightful comments on humans and the nature of community, this short story captivated me from start to finish! It’s the perfect blend of adventure and tension while keeping the mood of a legend told by the fire.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Wolf Wilder is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee – Another wintry story, this time in Vermont. Two sisters cope with their mother’s death in different ways, but when Sylvi disappears, Jules must figure out how to go on alone—until a fox kit finds her. See my review here.
  • Pax by Sara Pennypacker – A boy and his fox part ways when his father enlists in the army. But Peter soon realizes he shouldn’t have left Pax in the forest, and begins the journey back to find him. Meanwhile, Pax waits for his boy, learning all he can to survive until they are reunited. See my review here.
  • Risuko by David Kudler – Another girl accustomed to isolation is taken in by a noblewoman who runs a secret organization that might turn the tide in Japan’s war. Risuko just wants to climb, but she must also see if her fate has other plans. See my review here.
  • Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin – Much darker and not about actual wolves. In alternate 1956, the Axis Powers won WWII and a desperate underground rebellion plans to assassinate Hitler at the Victor’s Ball for a grueling cross-continent motorcycle race. Yael is impersonating the only female racer, and she must win if she wants to take the shot that will avenge her family and friends. See my review here.
  • The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis – This may seem too dark to compare, but aspects of Feo’s character strongly reminded me of Alex Craft. This story is about her, and her attempt to fit in and be normal in a small town after her sister’s murder—and her own secret vengeance. See my review here.

Ice Whale

18554571by Jean Craighead George
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars

I picked up this slim novel at a used bookstore in Glenwood Springs this summer (incidentally there is also a delightful shop there called Kaleidoscoops where yes, you can get any flavor or color of ice cream you can imagine). This is an interesting read for a number of reasons!

The author is known for writing children’s books that highlight the delicate and symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, and this, her last book, is no exception. Set in the northern reaches of Alaska, this is the Moby Dick of children’s books. There’s all kinds of information about Alaska’s climate, the wildlife, two hundred years of whaling, and the indigenous people that possess a wealth of knowledge on how to survive in the harsh conditions. Yet the simplistic language and voice don’t detract from the vivid setting and the cast of characters around the bowhead whale, Siku.

Told through multiple characters over the 200-year lifetime of Siku (including Siku’s POV), we see how drastically the ocean changes and what it means both for the people and the animals living there. When Toozak witnesses the birth of the ice whale he knows they will have a special relationship. But when he accidentally gives away the whales’ location to hunters, he must atone for this betrayal by protecting Siku until the whale’s death. For generations, Toozak’s family tracks Siku’s migration and livelihood, attempting to lift the curse on their family.

Just as interesting as the changing landscape for Siku is the Toozak family’s evolution. As time passes the new generations must face changing beliefs and priorities as Siku becomes more legend than sworn duty.

It’s not often I read a kid’s book (I’d say this is barely middle-grade) and feel like I learned so much! Although the author’s stance is clear, she does a good job of presenting everyone’s point of view, including those of the whale hunters, to study how and why things changed over time. A good read for winter!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Ice Whale is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Pax by Sarah Pennypacker – A story about the special relationship between a boy and his fox. When his father enlists in the war, Peter must give up his pet fox and go to live with his grandfather. But no sooner does he arrive than he realizes he must go back for Pax. Meanwhile, the little fox who knows nothing about the wild must learn to survive while he waits for his boy to return. This has beautiful writing, told from Peter and Pax’s POVs. See my review here.
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – Carolina’s family goes to her grandfather Serge’s remote desert ranch to ready it for sale. Serge’s mind is not what it used to be, so at first Carolina merely humors his story about bees bringing the rain and a village of people in the past. Until bees begin following her around and she thinks the story might be true. A gorgeous story about being yourself and staying true to your family’s roots. See my review here.
  • Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee – A story about two sisters in Vermont and the winter one of them disappears. A fox kit sees the grieving sister left behind and knows she is meant to help the girl somehow. See my review here.
  • The Night Parade by Kathryn Tanquary – Saki doesn’t want to spend the summer at her grandmother’s remote and antiquated village. When she disrespects her family’s shrine on a dare, she invokes a death curse she must undo in three days! See my review here.
  • The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shephard – Only Emmaline can see the winged horses in the mirrors of the children’s mansion-turned-hospital. When the Horse Lord writes a letter asking her to protect one of them on her side of the mirror, Emmaline rises to the challenge. See my review here.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – When her family moves to a new flat, Coraline’s exploration leads her to discover a portal to an alternate world where her parents are better in every way–except for their creepy button eyes. Soon Coraline realizes she must defeat the evil lurking in that world to save her family and other children who were trapped there.

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