Kaleidoscope: A Review

“Maybe this is what it’s like to be inside the mind of God. The past and the future mean nothing, and the time is always now.”

Kaleidoscope by Brian SelznickIt starts with a ship going to see. Or exploring a wondrous garden. It begins when a boy named James leaves a message for his father with a doll that will be discovered years later, encased in ice.

Always there is searching. There is missing, hoping. There is saying goodbye.

It ends with an invisible key. A spirit machine born out of a dream made reality. With answers found inside inside an apple.

Every spin of the kaleidoscope fragments one story while bringing another into focus. The beginning is always different. The end keeps changing. But always, slowly, there is peace in Kaleidoscope (2021) by Brian Selznick.

Find it on Bookshop.

Selznick’s latest illustrated novel reads as a series of interconnected short stories–mediations on the same themes of loss and separation examined through different lenses. In his author’s note Selznick explains the inspiration he drew directly from the early days of the pandemic when Selznick and his husband were separated for three months–a fracture that inspired more abstraction in his art and eventually led to this story.

Each chapter (or self-contained story depending on your interpretation of the text) begins with a kaleidoscopic image followed by the unabstracted image pulled directly from the story. A namesless narrator tells each story and although the characters change, always there is a nameless character trying to make their way back to James. In some stories like “The Ice” or “The Spirit Machine” the grief is overt while other standout stories (“The Apple” or “In the Dark”) offer more optimism.

Common images and themes throughout each story slowly unfold to bring a larger narrative of connection and loss into focus. While the story lacks any significant female characters, the nameless narrators do serve as a cipher of sorts allowing readers to insert themselves fully into each story.

Kaleidoscope is very much a product of the pandemic. Readers will see that in Selznick’s carefully rendered artwork, the disjointed narratives, the stories that almost but don’t quite but maybe do intersect. Kaleidoscope is a meditative and ultimately hopeful book, ideal for readers seeking a puzzle-like diversion. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales by Chris Van Allsburg et al

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories: A Review

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina CaiOnce upon a time there was a boy with a wicked tongue. Dressed in rags, raised on cat’s milk, he soon discovered that the best way to be seen was to be unkind. Later you might get to know him as a cruel prince and a wicked king. But before that he was a boy trying to make his way in a world that could have destroyed him if he hadn’t come to rule it in How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories (2020) by Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina Cai.

Find it on Bookshop.

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is a companion novella to Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy which includes The Cruel PrinceThe Wicked King, and The Queen of Nothing. The novella is largely focused on Cardan’s childhood but a framing story is set after the events of the trilogy so be sure to read all of them first to avoid spoilers.

This novella is really for the fans of the series. What a delight to return to the world of faerie and get another glimpse of my favorite monstrous girl (Jude) and my favorite wicked boy (Cardan). Black balances showcasing what comes after the original series in the framing story with flashbacks to Cardan’s upbringing as a neglected-if-spoiled youth in the royal court.

Questions of inevitability and change play out both for young Cardan and throughout the novella as Cardan encounters the same fairytale multiple times–each with subtle changes. This conceit brings the entire novella together with a dynamic finale while also nodding to the power of story–an element which imbues every book in this series.

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories is illustrated throughout with lavish full color artwork that brings Cardan and his world to live. Cai does a beautiful job giving life to these characters who already have so much personality in prose. A lovely return to a world that hints at even more stories to discover.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Legendary by Stephanie Garber, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

And the Ocean Was Our Sky: A Review

cover art for And the Ocean was Our Sky by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Rovina CaiAs a young whale Bathsheba was all too eager to join Captain Alexandra’s crew hunting men for both vengeance and the raw materials used in everyday whale life.

But after years spent working her way up to Third Apprentice on the fiercest crew in the sea and sailing down toward the air-filled Abyss to hunt men, Bathsheba has begun to question the raw hatred that drives hunters in their constant war.

Bathsheba’s weary narrative is heavy with foreshadow and circumspection as she relates the events that set her crew on a fateful hunt for the man Toby Wick–the devil known to both whale and man for his terrible deeds and his fierce white ship in And the Ocean Was Our Sky (2018) by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Rovina Cai.

If you haven’t guessed yet Ness’s latest standalone novel is a very loose retelling of Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick where harpoon-wielding whales are hunters every bit as fierce as men themselves.

Ness channels Melville’s original language well and uses the structure of Moby-Dick as a framework for this fast-paced and streamlined retelling filled with philosophical meditations and cautions against both the violence of war and the power of prophecy–especially self-fulfilling ones. Although Bathsheba’s warnings often lack subtlety they remain powerful and timely.

Cai’s accompanying illustrations interspersed throughout the book bring the depths of the ocean to life with jarring, full color artwork that calls back to the haunting setting and anguished tone of the narrative.

And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a stirring counterpoint to the original text, rife with questions about the inexorable nature of belief and violence.

*A more condensed version of this review was published the August 2018 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic: A Review

Leigh Bardugo follows up her popular Grisha trilogy and its companion Six of Crows duology with The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, a collection of atmospheric short stories which serve as an excellent introduction to the Grishaverse for new readers while expanding the world for seasoned fans.

Find it on Bookshop.

The six short stories (including three previously published by Tor.com) are inspired by the cultures found in the Grishaverse as well as traditional fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. In her author’s note Bardugo explains her thought process as she examined familiar fairy tales and pulled at the troubling threads found within.

Every story is accompanied by Sarah Kipin‘s border illustrations which grow around the pages as the tales unfolds culminating in a double page illustration at the end of each story. Two color printing enhances the collection and makes this a stunning addition to any bookshelf.

In “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” a Zemeni tale with nods to Cinderella, The Thousand Nights and Beauty and the Beast, Ayama ventures into the Thorn Wood where she must speak truth while placating a fearsome beast with fanciful stories.

The Ravkan story “The Too-Clever Fox,” follows Koja–an ugly fox–as he learns that sometimes help from a friend outweighs mere cunning when he tries to stop a ruthless hunter.

Bardugo’s answer to Hansel and Gretel, “The Witch of Duva” follows Nadya into the woods where she finds a wondrous witch who can help her discover the truth about her new step-mother–but only for a steep cost.

Beautiful Yeva questions her father’s decision to follow the common fairy tale tradition of setting nearly impossible tasks to choose her future husband in “Little Knife” as Semyon uses his abilities as a Tidemaker to get help from a river to complete them.

The Kerch tale of “The Soldier Prince” explores themes of identity and desire when a demon named Droessen creates a nutcracker soldier who comes to life–but is being alive the same as being real?

The collection finishes with the Fjerdan story “When Water Sang Fire” about a sildroher mermaid named Ulla who dreams of being able to use her singing magic as she chooses, until her attempt to create a fire that will burn underwater ends in betrayal and heartbreak, suggesting a possible origin story for the Little Mermaid’s notorious sea witch.

Themes of feminism and empowerment color each story with heroes and heroines given the chance to choose their own fates and stir the pot, for better or worse. Strong writing, compelling stories, and gorgeous illustrations make this collection a must have for fans of the author and readers eager for new fairy tale retellings to devour.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Entwined by Heather Dixon, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the October 2017 issue of School Library Journal*

The Time-Traveling Fashionista On Board the Titanic: A Review

timetravelfashionistatitanicTwelve-year-old Louise Lambert loves all things vintage. Her mother and her best friend Brooke don’t see the appeal of wearing someone’s old, used clothes but Louise adores the charm and glamor that comes from putting together the just-right vintage ensemble.

When Louise receives a strange invitation to a vintage fashion sale, she knows it will be the perfect place to find a dress for the upcoming school dance. While the traveling vintage isn’t exactly as sleek or well-organized as Louise thought, she does find the perfect dress.

After trying on a beautiful pink dress Louise finds herself magically transported through time to a luxurious cruise ship. Louise is more than willing to leave her boring, everyday life behind for a little while as a first class passenger with a promising acting career. The only problem is that Louise isn’t on just any ship–her magical dress has landed Louise on the Titanic in The Time-Traveling Fashionista On Board the Titanic (2011) by Bianca Turetsky with illustrations by Sandra Suy.

The Time-Traveling Fashionista On Board the Titanic is Turetsky’s first novel as well as the start to her Time-Traveling Fashionista series.

This book is a delightful blend of historical details with a time travel fantasy. Turetsky brings the world of the Titanic to life as readers experience the luxuries of first class travel on the cruise ship through Louise’s eyes.

Suy’s lush illustrations and the gorgeous book design add another special touch to this reading experience.

With adventure, fashion and a couple of crushes this is a fresh story that is ideal for both teen and tween readers.

Although many questions about the traveling vintage sale are left unanswered The Time-Traveling Fashionista On Board the Titanic is still a great standalone which even wraps up some of the story lines that were started on the Titanic in addition to Louise’s more immediate concerns with the school dance. This book promises many exciting things to come in future installments.

Possible Pairings: Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Boneshaker by Kate Milford, The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Check back starting tomorrow for my interview with the author!

The Popularity Papers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Popularity Papers by Amy IgnatowLydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang. Julie’s dads consider Lydia part of the family. Julie knows all about Lydia’s crazy goth sister Melody. Together the girls make a decision to venture into the unknown as they try to crack the mysterious code of popularity in fifth grade.

With Lydia acting as chief experimenter and Julie recording their (mixed) results, the girls are confident they will succeed where others have failed. The only problems: Lydia winds up with a bald spot early on, Julie unexpectedly becomes the object of Roland Asbjørnsen’s affections, all of their parents are mad (a lot). Worse, the more Julie and Lydia learn about the popular girls, the farther apart they seem to grow.

Lydia and Julie might be on the verge of being popular, but they’re both starting to wonder if their friendship will survive in The Popularity Papers (2010) by Amy Ignatow.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Popularity Papers is Ignatow’s first novel as well as the first book about the ongoing adventures of Lydia and Julie.

Ignatow expertly combines drawings and handwritten notes and observations to create a book with a mixed-media feel as the girls pass letters, notes, and the book itself back and forth to tell their story. By combining the girls’ exchanges with first-person accounts from both Lydia and Julie, Ignatow makes sure the concept behind her fun plot never becomes overdone.

The Popularity Papers is also funny, plain and simple. Filled with clever jokes and entertaining illustrations, this is a smart book that will appeal to readers young and old (provided they can get past the youngish-looking cover). A great choice for anyone looking for a laugh The Popularity Papers also houses my favorite ever love poem, a funny re-writing of a popular movie song, and possibly the best illustration of Thor of all time.

Possible Pairings: Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova, Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks, Alice, I Think by Susany Juby, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, Drama by Raina Telgemeier