Curse of the Forgotten City

It’s been one month since Tor Luna inherited the Night Witch’s power and received a warning that greater threats would come to Emblem Island. Tor and his friends, Melda and Engle, have found the past month to be drearily ordinary, with Engle remarking that he misses a bit of adventure. That is, until a girl named Vesper washes ashore on the beaches of Estrelle proclaiming that a band of evil pirates, called the Calavera, have come to conquer Estrelle and Emblem Island. Before the pirates make their attack, the Calavera are searching for the Pirate’s Pearl, which would give them the power of the sea (and an easy way to crush any resistance from the people of Estrelle). Tor, Melda, and Engle, are determined to find the pearl before that happens.  

Along with Vesper, the four friends find a magical ship in the Night Witch’s castle and set sail. Like their last adventure, the group has a guide, The Book of Seas, which they use to outsmart creatures and curses they encounter on their journey. While tracking down the Pirate’s Pearl, the four also accept Captain Forecastle, a pirate, into their makeshift crew. In addition to battling threats at sea, Melda and Tor distrust Vesper’s secretive nature. They discover that Vesper’s brother is working with the Calavera. Vesper has no intention of helping the pirates but rather wants her brother to be safe. 

During a run-in with the Calavera, Tor, Melda, Engle, and Vesper manage to outsmart the pirates and obtain the Pirate’s Pearl. The group travel back to Estrelle to confront the pirates before they attack Emblem Island. Now that Vesper’s loyalty has been proven, Tor gives Vesper the pearl, which she uses to control the sea and defeat the Calavera. Emblem Island is safe once again. . . but not long after, Tor realizes that a strange mark on his arm has something to do with the Night Witch’s obscure powers.  

Curse of the Forgotten City’s plot twist and villains aren’t as complicated or shocking compared to the first book in the series, Curse of the Night Witch. However, readers will enjoy learning more about Tor’s newfound magical abilities since Tor must master the witch’s powers even though he doesn’t want them. For example, he finds its easier to accept his destiny as the Night Witch’s heir when he stops wishing he didn’t have her abilities and instead tries to use them for good. By embracing his new skills, Tor is able to command the ship that retrieves the Pirate’s Pearl. His willingness to accept something for the sake of others makes Tor a selfless and admirable character. 

Another key aspect in the book is the loyalty between Tor, Engle, and Melda. Their relationship is strained due to the secrets they keep from one another and their mixed opinions on Vesper. However, they find that trusting each other and extending that trust to outsiders is well worth the risk. For example, Tor realizes that he “had been focused on his own pain. His own regret. . . Tor should have realized that [Engle] had been hiding his hurt behind jokes and laughs.” Tor’s decision to be honest helps the friends not feel so alone in their struggles. Additionally, when three friends decide to trust Vesper, she ends up being their most useful ally as she is the one who defeats the Calavera in the end. The story teaches that letting others into our hearts is essential to bringing out our inner strength. Readers who want to jump into another magical world with a strong protagonist should also read Tristan Strong by Kwame Mbalia. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • The Book of Seas tells the Calavera’s history. “The Calavera made their ships from the bones of their victims – and there were many. . . They sunk each vessel that dared sail their way, vowing to be the last ships on the sea. And the killings did not stop when they reached land. They docked only to wreak havoc.” The Night Witch decides to stop them by sinking all their ships except one, which is cursed to sail forever without docking.  
  • The story of the blood queen is another story from The Book of Seas. In this story, Mora, a mermaid who unwillingly lost her tail for legs, becomes the blood queen with the help of the Night Witch. Mora “made a deal with the Night Witch. In exchange for being the keeper of keys to the Night Witch’s curses at sea, Mora’s lifeline would lengthen for every person she killed.” Mora has lived for over 200 years.  
  • The blood queen takes Tor’s blood in exchange for information, reopening an old wound he has. The blood queen “swiped a sword-sharp nail across [Tor’s] lifeline. Tor cried out, not just because of the pain, but because of the memory of another person who had done the exact same thing. The wound reopened, and blood came spilling out.” 
  • A giant squid attacks Tor. “Something wrapped around Tor’s chest so tight he gasped. It pulled him back down in a whoosh. . . [Tor] punched its tentacle with all his might, but its skin was tough as leather, its suction cups stuck tightly against him. . . The squid jerked its tentacle – and Tor – forward. Toward its mouth.” 
  • Vesper helps Tor fight the squid. She “jumped over a crumbled part of the balcony, landing on another one of the monster’s tentacles. It whipped her back and forth, but she gripped its skin and stayed on. Tor watched as she took a charm from her bracelet and made it big – a dagger. Then, she aimed for the soft skin in between the beast’s suction cups. It roared as the blade found its mark, and the tentacle around Tor loosened.” Vesper and Tor swim away from the squid without harming it further. It later comes back to attack them again, but no one is hurt. 
  • Bluebraid, a pirate, boards their ship with her crew and hurts Captain Forecastle. Bluebraid “dug her blade hard enough against Captain Forecastle’s throat that it produced a tumbling droplet of blood.”  
  • A pirate who is part of Bluebraid’s crew restrains Tor. He hurts Tor when Tor tries to escape. “The pirate’s scaled arm sliced against Tor’s [arm] as the pirate fought to get ahold of [Tor].” Tor is only scratched. He contracts a disease from the injury called stormscale that is lethal. Later, he’s healed by a magical object. 
  • Tor’s arm breaks when the ship crashes. “Tor hit the side of the ship and bone snapped – his arm erupted in pain, like fireworks going off beneath his skin. . . the bone in his arm stuck out in a strange direction, almost through his skin.”  
  • Captain Forecastle defeats a group of spectrals. A spectral “crumbled to ash as an arrow hit it. Another arrow whizzed right past Tor’s nose, finding its next target. The third remaining spectral . . . threw a mighty beam of purple fire through the air, aiming for where the arrow had come from. But another pierced it, from the opposite direction. And the spectral fell to pieces.” 
  • Vesper cuts her hand to activate a spell with blood. “Vesper made her dagger charm large enough that Tor could see its blade and pierced her hand with it.” 
  • Tor pierces his hand with a quill in order to use his blood to sign a magical contract. “He dug its sharp metal tip into his palm without hesitation. Crimson broke through the skin.” 
  • A Calavera spectral fights Tor, Melda, Engle, Vesper, and Captain Forecastle. “A fiery burst of purple lightning lit up the room, striking Tor right in the chest. . . Captain Forecastle aimed more arrows, one after the other, pushing the spectral back, getting close enough to make a deadly blow. The spectral narrowed its eyes, and, with a whip of his wrist, brought up a new barrier, purple as his fire. The two arrows hit it, then ricocheted and pierced [Captain Forecastle] right through the stomach. He slumped to the floor.” Tor and the Captain are injured in the fight, which lasts two pages. 
  • In the same battle, the spectral kills Vesper’s brother, Calder, who was working with the Calavera. “Before [Calder] could grip [Vesper’s] fingers, the spectral struck [Calder’s] chest with a fistful of purple flame. And he was thrown back through the window, down to the rocks below. Vesper’s scream coincided with another strike of lightning.” 
  • After the battle, Captain Forecastle is gravely injured. “Blood pooled out of Captain Forecastle. Two arrows stuck out of his stomach.” He is later healed and recovers.  
  • Vesper defeats the Calavera by using the Pirate’s Pearl. Vesper “sent giant waves crashing against each Calavera ship, forcing them together, their wood groaning and shattering as they rammed into each other. With the pearl clutched tightly in her fist, she split through two ships with slices of sea that she had honed to cut as sharply as blades. Screams pierced the air as the Calavera fell into the water, their ships falling to pieces around them. The Calavera captain yelled orders, and the shark at the helm of his vessel broke free, then made a path for Vesper. It was five times her size, a monstrous beast that could devour her whole without a single chomp of its teeth. But she controlled the sea. And, with a flick of her wrist, the shark turned, then launched toward its captain instead. The mammoth creature flew out of the water, mouth opened wide to devour him. He fell back, but the shark caught his hand – ripping it clean off before disappearing underwater.” Vesper spares the remaining pirates by making them and their ships so small they fit in a fishbowl. 
  • The Book of Seas tells of a girl named Lune who could control the waves, but accidentally kills people by using her power. Lune “created a wave as tall as a mountain, just to test her abilities. . . Little did she know, a ship sailed not far away. It [the wave] tore the vessel in half, and all were dead before Lune realized what she had done.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Due to Engle’s nightmares, Melda and Tor make an elixir to help him sleep that they secretly put on Engle’s pillow. Engle is upset when he learns Melda and Tor drugged him without his consent, but the friends talk it out and apologize.  
  • Captain Forecastle drinks a bottle of rum. 

Language 

  • Engle says Captain Forecastle is “nuttier than a cashew.” Melda calls him “Captain Cuckoo.” 
  • Captain Forecastle tells someone to have a “good, bloody day!” 
  • Melda asks Captain Forecastle to tell the truth by asking for “no exaggerated hogwash.” 

Supernatural 

  • Most people in the story have two features: an emblem and a lifeline. An emblem is a symbol on the body representing a skill that usually becomes their profession. For example, Tor’s mother, is the town’s chief and has a leadership emblem. The people also have a lifeline, which is a line on the body that shows the high and low points in their life, representing hardships and victories, as well as when that person will die. In this book, Vesper and her people commonly have two emblems and lifelines at sea become too unpredictable to read. 
  • Tor has inherited the Night Witch’s power, which gives him the ability to have multiple emblems. He gains a water breathing emblem that allows him to walk and talk underwater without the need to breathe. Melda has a leadership emblem to inspire others, Engle’s sightseer emblem lets him see long distances, and Vesper has two emblems: water breathing and the ability to change the size of objects, which she uses often. 
  • The world is full of magic creatures, objects, and curses.  
  • The Calavera are a group of pirates that want to take over Emblem Island. They were formerly cursed by the Night Witch to sail forever, however after she passed her power to Tor, the curse was broken. 
  • The group visits the Night Witch’s castle to find items to help them on their journey. They find a ship there that can be controlled by Tor and a magical snowflake that they use to freeze the Calavera ship in the water to buy them time to find the Pirate’s Pearl. 
  • A spectral is a creature that is part of the Calavera crew. One is always with the captain. He is humanoid “without a mouth” and “sickly pale flesh pulled too tightly across his face. His eyes were black, only a dot of bright yellow alive in them.” Another man in the Calavera company uses magic to teleport.  
  • The blood queen tells Tor that he is likely immortal after gaining the Night Witch’s power.  
  • The city Vesper is from, Swordscale, can teleport. It can be accessed by an underwater portal. 
  • Tor can control the ship Vesper finds in the Night Witch’s castle by magically commanding the rigging. 
  • Tor receives a new emblem, a shield. Tor’s “chest burned and he winced. It felt like the skin there had been charred and cut away. He pulled down the top of his shirt and saw something glimmering, fresh and still hot to the touch. A new emblem. A shield.” 
  • Tor talks about dark enchantments. “They were born from pain – usually from forcing someone to enchant an object. And they always required blood.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Enchantress Returns

Alex and Conner Bailey have spent a long time waiting to return to the Land of Stories, a magical world they thought only existed in their favorite fairytales. However, after the events of the first story, The Wishing Spell, the twins know that all their favorite stories are true. After they defeated the Evil Queen in the last book, they returned home dreaming of their next adventure. But, their Grandmother, the legendary Fairy Godmother, has been missing for months, cutting off the twin’s contact to the magic realm. Then, their mother is suddenly kidnapped by the evil Enchantress. In order to bring their mother home, the children are forced to return the Land of Stories without their Grandmother’s help. 

Once in the Land of Stories, the twins quickly realize why their Grandmother has been so busy. The Enchantress Ezmia, a wicked sorceress responsible for the former curse on Sleeping Beauty, has returned to take over the fairytale world and the human world. Their only hope to stop her is the Wand of Wonderment, a staff powerful enough to best Ezmia’s magic. The twins must travel through the fairytale kingdoms with their allies in search of magical items to make the Wand, all while avoiding Ezmia and the wrath of other evil beings. Once the staff is assembled, the twins confront the greatest threat of all: Ezmia’s unwavering cruelty. Is magic powerful enough to convince the Enchantress to put an end to her evil plans?  

The thrilling second installment in the Land of Stories Series has just as much action, adventure, and fairytale magic as the first book. The Enchantress Returns will hold the reader’s attention at every turn, and readers will be fascinated by the conclusion. Unlike fairytales and their shallow villains, the evil characters in this series have more depth than the average book, making this story an interesting read. In the final battle against the Enchantress, Alex says, “Ezmia, I’ll never be like you. I would rather have nothing and a big heart, than everything and no heart at all. . . I’ll always have the most powerful magic of all inside me–compassion. And I have enough inside of me even for you.” When Alex forgives the Enchantress, Ezmia loses her power, proving that love can overpower hate, even when it’s difficult to extend sympathy to others. Alex’s willingness to forgive shows that she’s not only kind but powerful, even without the use of magic.  

The Enchantress Returns also emphasizes the need for belonging. The Enchantress never felt like she belonged, so she made others feel powerless. Alex also never felt like she belonged in the human world since other kids didn’t understood her love for fairytales and magic. Even though it’s a hard decision, Alex chooses to stay in the Land of Stories where she doesn’t feel like an outcast. This parallel ending shows that the heroes and villains of the stories aren’t so different, but how they handle their situations shows their true character.  

Readers searching for a funny yet intricate fantasy about the characters from their favorite bedtime stories will find what they’re looking for in The Land of Stories Series. However, there are some scenes that may disturb sensitive readers. Despite this, The Enchantress Returns is an engaging book that teaches important lessons about forgiveness and compassion. Readers who want more fairytale action can jump into an intriguing world where famous villains such as Cinderella’s stepmother and the Big Bad Wolf have changed their ways and become good in the Fairy Tale Reform School Series by Jen Calonita. 

Sexual Content 

  • A kiss wakes Sleeping Beauty. 
  • Sleeping Beauty’s husband kisses her hand.  
  • Alex is in the library secretly looking at books. When Conner finds Alex, he says, that he is also reading, but “I didn’t try to get to first base with any of [the books].”  
  • Mother Goose says she had a “fling” with Leonardo da Vinci. 
  • While drinking, Mother Goose admits, “I haven’t had this much fun since I was so very young – and used to rub-a-dub-dub with the three men in the tub!” 
  • Jack and Goldilocks kiss once. 
  • Red kisses Froggy. “She pulled [Froggy] closer and kissed his slimy green lips.” She also kisses him later “repeatedly all over his big frog head.” 
  • The twins’ mom kisses her boyfriend. 

Violence 

  • Originally, the Enchantress cursed Sleeping Beauty and her entire kingdom to die after pricking her finger on the spinning wheel, but the curse was reformed by the fairies so that everyone fell asleep instead. 
  • The Enchantress causes a thornbush to grow over Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom. “Scattered all across the castle grounds, [Sleeping Beauty] saw soldiers and servants fighting off the rogue thornbushes and vines growing around them. The plants grew straight out of the ground and attacked them, like serpents wrapping around their prey. The vines crept up the sides of the castle, breaking through the windows and pulling people out, dangling them hundreds of feet in the air… [Sleeping Beauty] saw villagers fall victim to the leafy monsters.” 
  • The Enchantress attacks Sleeping Beauty’s carriage and her soldiers. “Sleeping Beauty looked out the window just in time to see a soldier and his horse thrown high into the forest beside the path. A whooshing sound swooped toward them, and another soldier and his horse were thrown into the trees on the other side of the path. Every other second was filled with the terrified cries of the soldiers and horses as they were flung into the forest. . . One final swoop took the remaining horses and soldiers with it; their cries echoed in the night.”  
  • In the same attack, Sleeping Beauty is hurt when her carriage is overturned. “The carriage crashed to the ground, falling on its side and skidding across the ground until coming to a stop. . . Sleeping Beauty crawled through the carriage door. . . she was limping and clutched her left wrist.” 
  • Soldiers attack Bob, the twin’s mother’s boyfriend. “A dozen soldiers dressed in silver armor barged through the door. One slammed Bob hard against the wall. Alex screamed.” No one is injured. 
  • The Enchantress, Ezmia, says that The Evil Queen, Evly, tried to kill her. “Evly laced a small dagger with poison and stabbed me with it. The poison almost killed me; I shriveled down to the state of a dying human.” Ezmia is later nursed back to health. 
  • The Enchantress kidnaps Cinderella’s daughter. Cinderella threatens the Enchantress by saying, “I’ll pull you apart limb from limb if you hurt my daughter.” 
  • Ezmia describes the abusive nature of one of her past affairs with a man she calls The Locksmith. “The Locksmith was a troubled man. A testament to his profession, he liked keeping his properties locked down, and I was no exception. . . He never looked me in the eye and when he touched me, it was rarely out of affection. He definitely left his mark on me – several, actually.” 
  • A polar bear hurts Goldilocks. The polar bear “charged toward Goldilocks. With one swipe of his paw, he knocked Goldilocks to the ground.” Goldilocks is not injured. 
  • Jack is hurt during a battle with the Snow Queen. “The Snow Queen heard [Jack] and pointed her scepter directly at him. A bright icy blast erupted from its tip and hit Jack. He crashed into a pillar. He scrambled to his feet but was hit again by another icy blast from the Snow Queen – this time, a sheet of thick ice pinned his hands and chest to the pillar behind him.” 
  • The Sea Witch’s cave is filled with her past victims. “Dozens of mermaids were hung upside down from their tails across the dome-shaped cave ceiling. They were all weak and frail; some breathed heavily while others didn’t breathe at all; some were just skeletons, while others were close to becoming one.” 
  • The Sea Witch attacks Froggy and the twins. “The Sea Witch threw her cuttlefish and it hit Froggy, wrapping its legs around his face. [The twins and Froggy] frantically fought off the sea creatures attacking them, but it was no use. The crabs pinched and poked the twins, scratching them and drawing blood. Jack ran to the twins’ side and, with two quick blows of his ax, chopped both the crabs in half.” 
  • Jack, Froggy, Goldilocks, Red, and the twins escape the Sea Witch’s lair, but she sends an army of sharks and fish after them. “Jack was quick to punch [a shark] in the nose. . . Froggy kicked another one and it crashed into yet another. . .” Then mermaids come to their rescue and “the twins saw hundreds of mermaids shooting through the ocean and tackling the harmful fish around them.”  
  • While visiting Sleeping Beauty’s Kingdom, the twins see the destruction left by Ezmia. “The twins saw soldiers and servants and villagers spread across the land with vines coiled around them like serpents covering their prey. Some were pinned to the ground, while others were suspended hundreds of feet in the air over the castle.” It’s unclear if they are living or dead. 
  • Ezmia dangles Queen Cinderella’s daughter, Princess Hope, over a fire. “Ezmia snapped her fingers and her vines pulled Princess Hope through the cage. The child was screaming; tears and snot ran down her terrified face. The vines dangled the princess over the flames of the fire.” Hope is not injured and is returned to Cinderella afterwards. 
  • Rumpelstiltskin, who formerly worked for Ezmia, saves Alex’s life. Rumpelstiltskin “came out of nowhere and jumped in front of Alex. The blast [from Ezmia] hit him in the chest and he fell to the ground. . . [Rumpelstiltskin] smiled up at the twins, closed his eyes for the last time, and died in Alex’s arms.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • The twins get a dog named Buster who misbehaves often. Conner says, “that dog needs to be on medication.” 
  • Mother Goose seems to be constantly intoxicated, indicated by the thermos she always carries with her. She calls the liquid inside “bubbly.” Conner says, “[Mother Goose] really lets loose after a few sips of whatever she was drinking.” 
  • Mother Goose was friends with Humpty Dumpty before he fell off the wall due to being intoxicated. Mother Goose says, “Humpty had a fall, right there and right then, because poor Humpty couldn’t hold his gin.” 
  • Alex gives Mother Goose a bottle of champagne, which Mother Goose drinks. 

Language   

  • Mother Goose reprimands her flying goose by saying, “Good lord. . . You call that a landing?!” She also calls the goose a “stupid gander,” and a “stupid bird.” 
  • Mother Goose says, “Jack is nimble, Jack is quick, but Jack can be such a —” the rhyme isn’t written, but implied. “[Mother Goose] stopped herself from finishing the thought, perhaps remembering she was talking to thirteen-year-olds.” 
  • Conner says, “what the heck.” 
  • Queen Red Riding Hood calls the twins “brats.” Alex calls Ezmia a brat later on as well.  
  • Queen Red and Goldilocks dislike each other. When Goldilocks visits, Queen Red says, “You bet your porridge-loving indecisive behind you won’t be harming me.” 
  • Conner says, “God, I hate this flipping cat.” 
  • Darn, damn, and crap are all used once. 
  • Conner calls Ezmia a “wench.” 
  • “Good lord” is said once. 
  • Sleeping Beauty says, “Dear God. . . Does the Enchantress have no soul?” 

Supernatural 

  • The Land of Stories is a fairytale world where classic fairytales are real, such as Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood. Talking animals and mythical creatures like unicorns, mermaids, and trolls are also featured in the story. 
  • Contact exists between the fairytale world and the human world (known as the “Otherworld”) due to portals. One portal exists in the Land of Stories storybook that belongs to Alex and Conner’s grandmother. 
  • The twins’ grandmother is the Fairy Godmother. Fairies can teleport and do magic. One fairy has hair that is constantly on fire. 
  • Buster, the twins’ dog, turns out to be a soldier in disguise. He is transformed from a human into a dog by the Fairy Godmother. 
  • Prince Charlie Charming is known as “Froggy” to the kids because he’s been transformed into a walking, talking frog. 
  • Conner sees a ghost, who eventually guides the twins on their journey. 

Spiritual Content 

  • The twins’ father is dead. When they learn their mother is dating someone new (Bob), Conner says, “It’s something I’ve always wondered about people who lose their husbands or wives. But one day, if we’re all in, well, heaven, I guess, isn’t it going to be a little awkward with Bob and Dad there?” 
  • Ezmia collects the souls of people she dislikes and keeps them in jars. 

Werewolf Myths

The werewolf, or lycanthrope, is a human that can take an animal form or an animal that can take human form. Shapeshifters are prevalent in legends across the world, including the Greek minotaur, Celtic selkies, Navajo skin-walkers, and more, dating back to the oldest myths from around the globe. Cave paintings from 25,000 years ago depict images of half-human, half-animal figures. Readers will learn about other cultures’ werewolf beliefs and how these beliefs were shaped. This thrilling volume is full of grisly tales as well as surprising scientific explanations for some werewolf anecdotes.  

Werewolf Myths is visually appealing. Each page has large illustrations that include short captions. In addition, each section is broken into smaller sections that have fun headlines such as “Hunt or Be Hunted” and “Puppy Love.” Another appealing aspect of the story is the fun facts that appear in a graphic that looks like a scroll. Throughout the book, readers will encounter bolded words that may be unfamiliar; however, the words are defined within the text, making the passage easy to understand.  

Since werewolves represent “humanity’s evil, murderous, dark side” many stories about them are violent and disturbing. The graphic descriptions of werewolves’ behavior and the ways “werewolves” were punished are disturbing. Despite this, the werewolf facts are interesting and refer to ancient myths as well as popular culture. None of the myths are covered in detail which allows the book to cover many interesting topics including movies, diseases, and convicted werewolves from history. Full of colorful pictures, interesting facts, and historical information, Werewolf Myths will entertain readers who want to understand where the legends of werewolves began. Readers who are howling for more werewolf lore should also read Behind the Legend: Werewolves by Erin Peabody. But beware: it’s even more graphic and gory than Werewolf Myths. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • In one myth, King Lycaon served the god Zeus “a special supper of roasted human flesh.” Angry, Zeus “kills all of Lycaon’s sons with bolts of lightning and turns the king into a yowling, bloodthirsty wolf-man.”  
  • Wolves “often dug corpses out of shallow graves.”  
  • If a werewolf was killed, “many European legends suggested decapitating the beast and burning its body to ashes” so the werewolf wouldn’t turn into a vampire.  
  • In France, if someone was accused of being a witch or werewolf, “they stood trial, and once convicted, the allegedly guilty werewolves were beaten, hanged, and burned.”
  • In Brazil in 1978, a “16-year-old Eliana Barbosa was nailed to a cross for three days while priests tried to exorcise the ‘wolf demon’ she claimed had taken over her soul.” 
  • In 1536, Gilles Garnier “killed and consumed the flesh of children. . . he howled at the moon after each killing.” For his crimes, Gilles was burned alive. 
  • In Germany, Peter Stump “attacked, mauled, and murdered many people.” Stump also “confessed to cannibalism. . . Authorities tied him to a wheel and pulled off his skin with hot pinchers. They shattered his bones and cut off his head. Finally, they burned what was left of his body.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Berserkers “were fierce warriors who dressed in animal skins to assume greater power and killer instincts. Today, we know that they also drank hallucinogenic potions, which made them truly go berserk!” 
  • During World War II, Nazis schemed “to commit mass murder by injecting poison into coffee, chocolate, and aspire.”  
  • To make a werewolf potion, people “set an iron pot over a fire and combined several ounces of hemlock, henbane, saffron, poppy seeds, aloe, opium, asafetida, solanum, and parsley.” This potion would cause hallucinations. 
  • Drinking wine with wolfsbane and nightshade would “produce powerful shape-shifting hallucinations.” 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Some cultures believed that magical wolf pelts allowed people to turn into wolves.   

Spiritual Content 

  • The book includes information about some ancient gods such as Anubis, “the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife.” However, the religious beliefs are not discussed. 
  • Norse mythology includes a story about “the wisest of gods, Odin” who created the first wolf.  
  • Before early people began farming, wolves were considered “heroic deities.” 
  • In one myth, “goddess Ishtar” punished a shepherd by transforming him into a wolf. “Ishtar was an angel-like goddess of love, power, and war.” 
  • Some cultures believed werewolves received their power from the devil.

Halloween Is Coming!

Halloween Is Coming! follows three unnamed friends delighting in the early signs of Halloween. Together, the friends enjoy the fall weather, hayrides at their town fair, picking pumpkins to carve into Jack-o’-lanterns, dressing up for their school parade, and several other activities. Finally, they make their own costumes to wear for trick-or-treating. Then, the long-anticipated night arrives. 

This sweet and short book is a celebration of autumn and Halloween, clearly written and illustrated by lifelong Halloween enthusiasts. Halloween Is Coming! is a great pick for younger readers who are looking for a story that captures Halloween’s fun side, while staying away from its scarier side. 

Most illustrations are spread across two pages, with monsters, ravens, and other symbols of the holiday hidden in the background. Typically using shades of orange and yellow, the illustrations feature multicolored trees, candy store windows brimming with detail, and unique costumes for every character. Younger readers will enjoy the characters’ diverse and elaborate variety of costumes, ranging from checkerboarded jesters to scaly dinosaurs. The narration is a passionate love letter to Halloween, told in rhyme and limiting itself to one to three sentences per page. 

Although the book does not follow a traditional story, readers will still detect themes of friendship, enthusiasm, and creativity. The relationship shared by the three main friends will teach kids that Halloween should be less of a day dedicated to scaring, and more of an opportunity for you to express your creative, unique self alongside the people closest to you. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • Friendly ghosts and monsters appear in the background of several pages, but none are threatening.

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Halloween Queen

It’s Halloween and time for trick-or-treating. But there is one little girl who is afraid to go near her neighbor’s house. However, the Halloween Queen has the best candy on the whole block and hosts a fun party too. What is the little girl to do?  

Young readers will relate to the little girl, who is excited to dress up for Halloween but scared by the neighbor house’s scary decorations. The person who lives in the house clearly loves Halloween, because “a ghost haunts her front yard, and bats hang out back. Wolves howl from her rooftop. Cats hiss from her trees.” Once inside the woman’s house, the little girl realizes there was no reason to be afraid. The cute conclusion reveals that the woman, who dressed as a witch, is actually the little girl’s teacher. 

The book’s full-page illustrations use all the fall colors and are full of black cats, orange pumpkins, and white ghosts. Despite skeletons hanging from the trees, flying bats, and a green witch with spiders on her glasses, the illustrations are not scary but are festive and cartoonish. Each page has two to four short, rhyming sentences. Even though The Halloween Queen is a picture book, the story is intended to be read aloud to a child rather than for the child to read it for the first time independently.  

The Halloween Queen is best suited for young readers who are still frightened by the thought of monsters being out on Halloween night. Readers will enjoy looking at all the kids who are dressed up: a monster, a vampire, a cat, and a cowboy can all be found within the pages of the book. For a fun, Halloween read that reminds readers that there is nothing to fear on Halloween night, be sure to grab a copy of The Halloween Queen! For more wonderful, witchy fun, add The Witch Who Was Afraid of Witches by Alice Low to your reading list. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • When the girl is afraid to go up to the door of a house, some of the kids call her chicken. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Zombie Dog

Becky’s family has moved right next door to the creepy, abandoned McNally house. Rumors fly around school about the ghosts and monsters that live there, and Becky isn’t sure what to believe. Even her mischievous dog, Bear, stays away from that house. When Becky starts hearing mysterious howls coming from next door, paired with an awful smell, she starts to wonder if the rumors might be true. Snarls and glowing eyes confirm it—something is over there, and it’s not happy. Worse, Becky’s parents are blaming Bear for all the unexplained damage around their property. Can Becky stop this creature before it’s too late? 

While the zombie dog plays a prominent role in Becky’s story, Zombie Dog is also a story about friendship. Two significant events happen to Becky—moving to a new neighborhood and starting junior high. Because of this, Becky spends less time with her best friend, Charlotte. Readers will relate to Becky and Charlotte’s changing relationship as they learn how to keep their friendship alive while also adding new friends to their life. Both girls learn that they can be friends even if they have different interests and don’t spend all their free time together. 

Zombie Dog will appeal to middle-grade readers who want a spooky story with suspense, without being overly scary. Becky discovers the zombie dog was a neighbor’s pet that was brought back to life. However, the dog is confused and in pain. In the end, Becky is able to send the dog back to its grave, where it will be at peace. The neighbor eventually realizes that bringing the dog back to life wasn’t the right choice. Anyone who has ever dealt with a loss will empathize with the neighbor and understand her motives.  

Zombie Dog is a perfect read for a dark and stormy night. With plenty of suspense, a relatable protagonist, and a positive message, Zombie Dog will entertain readers. While the book is part of the Rotten Apple Series, each book has different characters and many are written by different authors, so each book can be read separately. If you enjoy Zombie Dog but haven’t read Mean Ghouls, you will definitely want to grab a copy. The easy-to-read Rotten Apple Series introduces readers to the horror genre but won’t leave readers with nightmares. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • A zombie dog chases Becky. “Despite its limp, the strange little dog was moving fast. . . Its snarl was steady, without it seeming to have to pause for breath. The smell kept getting worse and worse, too. . . Becky was panting and shaking, tears coming down her face, and the little dog was still snarling, its lips drawn back from its teeth, looking ready to bite.” 
  • When the dog tried to bite Becky, she put out a stick. “The Chihuahua’s teeth fastened onto the stick and it held on as she tried to jerk it away. . .the Chihuahua’s eerie green eyes were fixed steadily on her with what seemed like cold anger. Pulling hard, Becky managed to yank the stick from the Chihuahua’s mouth. A slow trickle of what seemed to be black blood ran from the creature’s lip as it crouched down, ready to leap at her.” Becky gets away. The scene is described over four pages. 
  • Becky goes to the zombie dog’s house in order to give her a ball that has been filled with a potion to put the dog to sleep. When the dog appears, “its teeth were bared in a growl, and its eyes were glowing savagely at her. . . Her eyes met the zombie’s, and she saw how angry and confused it was, saw its eyes shift to her neck and imagined it leaping at her throat.” The zombie dog takes the ball and leaves. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • While researching zombies, Becky finds out that “voodoo practitioners would first poison their victims with a paralyzing nerve poison that came from blowfish, which they would secretly put in their targets’ shoes to be absorbed by the sweat glands in their feet.” 
  • Becky reads about how “a paste made out of poppy seeds and cloves can help put a zombie to rest.” 
  • In order to put the zombie dog to sleep, Becky and her friend make an herbal paste that can “put the undead to rest.” The herbal paste has angel’s trumpet flower, poppy seeds, and cloves. The potion is “poisonous.” 

Language   

  • Becky calls her brother a dummy. 

Supernatural 

  • While researching zombies, Becky learns “the kind of zombie that wants something before it goes away, it can’t be put to rest until it gets what it’s looking for. Like, if it lost something important to it.”  
  • Becky sees a zombie dog for the first time. The dog’s “green eyes shining unnaturally in the glow from the streetlights. She realized that it was dragging its left hind leg behind it, moving painfully. . . Becky saw that its fur was matted and full of dirt. One ear hung off at a funny angle, seeming to be attached only by a long strip of ragged flesh.”  
  • Becky’s dog brings her a ball. Later, Becky realizes that the ball belonged to the zombie dog and is the reason the dog is bothering her. Becky finds out that “certain objects important to the walking dead in life can on occasion be buried with them and bring them peace; if these are removed from the dead’s final resting place, they will walk again.” 
  • Becky finds out that the zombie dog was brought back to life by its owner. Her owner was, “horrified at what [the dog] became, and we manage to put her back to rest.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Vampire Hunter

Ham Helsing is the descendant of a long line of monster hunters—who often don’t live long enough to rest on their laurels. Ham has always been the odd pig out, preferring to paint or write poetry instead of inventing dangerous new ways to catch dangerous creatures.

Ham’s brother Chad was the daredevil, carrying on the family legacy of leaping before looking, but after Chad’s death, the family business is left to Ham. Reluctantly, Ham sets out on his first assignment: to hunt a vampire. But Ham soon learns that people aren’t always what they seem and that you need a good team around you to help save your bacon!  

Ham Helsing is a unique protagonist who doesn’t jump to assumptions about others. Ham’s original mission was to kill the vampire. Instead of killing him, Ham befriends the vampire and the two join up to find the real villain. Not only does the vampire forgive Ham for his original intent, he praises Ham saying, “The brave can make their own path—their own way.” Despite being from a long line of vampire hunters, Ham departs from his family’s ways and instead of slaying vampires, Ham is a kind and selfless pig who uses his head. The story reinforces the idea that fate doesn’t determine a person’s (or a pig’s) decisions. 

While the story focuses on Ham, there are many other interesting characters. There’s a boy who keeps turning into a werewolf, a warthog who has social anxiety, a huge bear who frightens easily and cries, a cute female pig who isn’t afraid to use her sword, and a rat who loves big words. These interesting characters add humor and depth to the story. In the end, the large group of characters works together to defeat an evil chicken, who will be back to rain terror in the second book of the series, Monster Hunter 

Vampire Hunter is told through full-color panels that are full of humor and action and have unexpected surprises. For example, the villain jumps out of a plane and is falling toward a hungry shark, but instead of being eaten, the villain “hugged his way out of it.” Readers will giggle as the villain clings to the shark. Each page has one to six sentences and many of them use onomatopoeia. The low word count and easy vocabulary make Vampire Hunter an easy read. Plus, readers will love the silly puns and jokes. For example, when Ham sees a group supporting vampires, a rabbit says vampires are just “immortal heartthrobs who are trapped in the bodies of lovesick teens!” 

Full of adventure, humor, visual gags, and interesting characters, Vampire Hunter is sure to entertain readers. There is plenty of sarcasm and suspense to keep readers flipping the pages. Readers looking for a fun read will come to love Ham Helsing and his friends. For another fast-paced graphic novel with an unexpected hero, grab a copy of The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick—but be warned, once you start reading you will want to read the entire series!  

Sexual Content 

  • When a warthog meets Ronin, a female pig, he says, “Hey there, cute thing.”  
  • When the warthog touches Ronin’s arm, she says, “I could be your undertaker. Hands off, vamp.”  

Violence 

  • Ham Helsing’s descendants all met their demise because of reckless behavior. For example, Bernard Helsing and his assistant both died when they jumped off a very tall cliff. Bernard’s plan was to “lather up our long johns with jelly from the Amazonian fling beetle. This will give us maximum zip. We’ll be like living toboggans, sledding past rock and creatures alike.” Their actual death is not illustrated, but their gravestones are shown.  
  • A large mechanical knight (controlled by a chicken) attacks Ham. The knight almost kills a female pig named Ronin who jumps in and takes the knight’s head off with her sword. The scene is illustrated over nine pages.  
  • After being defeated, the evil chicken is upset that “no one appreciates how diabolical I am.” To prove he’s evil, he kicks a squirrel.  
  • Ronin fights slices of bacon that attack her group. When Ronin cuts a piece of bacon, Ham yells, “AH! Watch it. That bacon grease burns. But it does smell good.” The bacon pieces run away.  
  • When a man ends up dead, Ham and his group are told that he was killed by, “Shadow creatures! Those spider-woman’s minions. She got Laurence. She made Laurence go bye-bye.” 
  • Ronin goes after a giant spider. Using her sword, Ronin cuts the spider in half. The spider’s green blood covers the ground. Later, the group finds Ronin cooking the spider and eating it. The attack is illustrated over three pages. 
  • In a multi-chapter battle, the spider-woman attacks Ham and his friends. The spider tries to impale Ham with her leg, but Ham slices it off with a sword. The spider-woman’s minions jump into the fight. During the fight, the warthog is tied up in spiderwebs.  
  • The spider-woman separates the group and ties up all of Ham’s friends. Someone goes into town and brings back reinforcements wearing clogs. The townspeople kill the spiders by stomping on them. The illustrations show two panels with dead spiders’ green blood.  
  • When the villain realizes that the spider-woman and her minions failed to kill Ham, he squishes one of the spiders to prove that they are “expendable.”  
  • When the villain flees, the townspeople finish stomping and squishing the spider minions. The spider killing is illustrated over a page. 
  • A doctor creates a monster. When the monster awakens, he beats up the doctor and flees.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Silly exclamations are used throughout the story like “pigeon pellets,” “horse cookies,” and “buffalo bagels.”  
  • One of Ham Helsing’s descendants’ tombstone says, “courage and stupidity—a fine line.” Another descendant’s tombstone reads, “He died as he lived. Like an idiot.” 
  • There is some name calling such as buffoon, knuckleheads, bloodsucker, and losers.  
  • Heck is used once.  

Supernatural 

  • At the story’s end, a doctor makes a Frankenstein monster. 

Spiritual Content 

  • The spider-woman says she is “like God herself. I wield the power to unseat the very hierarchy of the forest.”  

Stitch-or-Treat!

It is Stitch’s first Halloween on Earth! Lilo has prepared a list to ensure that the day is perfect. First, they need to find the right costume for Stitch. After several tries, Stitch finally decides on a vampire costume. Next, Lilo shows Stitch how to carve a pumpkin. Impatient, Stitch carves his pumpkin with his laser blaster. Finally, it’s time for trick-or-treating. Unlike Lilo, Stitch prefers tricks over treats. To Lilo’s chagrin, Stitch scares every person they meet. Stitch delights in this, but all these scares mean no candy for him or Lilo. Disappointed, Lilo walks away, believing that her perfect Halloween has been ruined. However, her spirits are lifted when Stitch catches up to her, boasting a mountain of candy! 

Lilo is thrilled. Her Halloween may turn out to be perfect after all! However, her excitement ends when Stitch admits that he stole the candy from other trick-or-treaters. Together, Lilo and Stitch do the right thing—return the candy. They board Stitch’s spaceship and fly over the town, dropping the candy on the trick-or-treaters below. That night, Lilo and Stitch sleep happily, with Lilo’s list completed. It was a perfect Halloween after all. 

Stitch-or-Treat continues the story of Disney’s beloved Lilo and Stitch and is sure to charm fans of the film. Readers who are unfamiliar with the characters will nonetheless be entertained by the sweet and short misadventure of the unlikely pair. The book’s art style matches the style of the film, with decorations drawn in the background to create a proper Halloween spirit. Readers will laugh at the illustrations of Stitch trying on various costumes and his confused, frustrated expressions. Fans of other Disney films will also delight in seeing background characters dressed as characters like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood. 

The book is part of the Step into Reading Level Two series, which targets readers in preschool through first grade. Each page features 1 to 3 short sentences in large font, making it an easy read. While it is an entertaining Halloween story, Stitch-or-Treat also teaches a valuable lesson about the importance of considering the needs of others. Stitch shows kindness and maturity by choosing to stop scaring others. Plus, both Lilo and Stitch show the same level of maturity by choosing to return the stolen candy, even if it meant that they both went without it. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Ogre Enchanted

Evie is content when she is treating people, diagnosing symptoms, and prescribing medications, with the help of her dedicated friend, Wormy. So, when Wormy unexpectedly proposes to her, she kindly declines his offer. She has too much to do as a healer. And besides, she doesn’t think of him as anything more than a friend.  

However, a fairy named Lucinda had been listening in on their conversation, and she doesn’t approve of Evie’s rejection. Suddenly, Evie finds herself changed from a girl into an ugly, hungry ogre. Evie now has sixty-two days to accept another proposal, or else she will be stuck as an ogre forever. But Evie doesn’t forget her human side.  

The close first-person style narrative allows the reader to better empathize with Evie and see how Evie navigates being an ogre. On her travels, Evie deals with the prejudices that humans have towards ogres. Out of fear, most humans attack her or run away from her, unaware that she is a human. For instance, when she returned from treating a patient, the villagers in her hometown attacked her. But Evie also meets people that accept her for who she is on the inside and do not care about her looks. These experiences remind Evie that she needs to take more consideration for people’s thoughts and not evaluate them solely on their physical appearance, afflictions, or first impressions.    

Ogre Enchanted is a fun, delightful book that takes inspiration from the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The story explores love, particularly romantic love. Several times, Evie thinks someone makes her “tingle” due to her inexperience with romantic feelings. Equally as important is Evie’s time spent with her potential suitors. For example, the merchant Peter wants to marry a noblewoman and isn’t romantically interested in her. He confesses that he “was fond of her family’s position and [her family’s] money” and “[he] made her love [him].” This example teaches that there are people who would choose their romantic partner based on attributes such as social status or wealth and then undervalue the romance in their relationship. Interactions such as these will help readers not only understand the concept of falling in love but also to see what people think about romantic relationships in general.  

If you like fairy tales and stories about romance, then grab a copy of Ogre Enchanted. The story has an interesting take on different views of romantic relationships. Readers will learn lessons about love and compassion as well as the difference between romantic love and platonic love. The story’s romantic aspects lean more towards puppy love than ardor, making the story good for middle-grade readers.  

The implementation of aspects of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, such as Evie’s transformation into a beastly, hideous creature, help highlight many characters’ tendency to judge others based on appearances. Readers will be eagerly flipping the pages to see how Evie finds the one person that accepts her for who she is and proposes to her. Evie quickly becomes comfortable with falling in love, despite her staunch opposition to romance. The external pressure of a proposal makes it hard to believe that Evie would have loved someone romantically had it not been for Lucinda’s intervention. Nonetheless, the topics of love and romance as well as the implementation of a well-known fairy tale makes this story a good introduction to relationships and the fantasy genre.  

Sexual Content 

  • Evie looks at a sleeping, young man. She thinks that he is handsome, his cheekbones are high enough “to speed [her] heart . . .” 
  • There are many instances where someone would make Evie “tingle.” She feels a tingle whenever she sees the merchant Peter because she is charmed by his intelligence and humor. 

Violence 

  • The citizens in Evie’s village shoot arrows at her when she is an ogre. “An arrow bored into the right arm just below my elbow.” A mob of people go into the streets and chase after her. Evie runs away and yanks the arrow out of her arm; she doesn’t feel any pain from her injury.  
  • A band of six ogres attack a giant and start to eat her. One ogre hypnotizes the giant so she will relax and then another ogre “bit into her leg.” 
  • To help the giant, Evie distracts the ogres with sticks of meat and then attacks two of the ogres. “With a healer’s certainty of where to thrust the sword, I stabbed the base of [an ogre’s] skull.” The ogre slumps forward. Then, Evie pierced one of the eyes of another ogre. “[The ogre] fell on his side.”  
  • Another ogre grabs Evie, but Evie slashes him. The remaining ogres rush at her. Evie closes her eyes, then opens her eyes. Two of the ogres are “sprawled on the ground near me, their faces blue.” The last two ogres are eating the giant, when Evie yells at the ogres. The giant grabs the ogres by the throat, “squeezed, then tossed them aside.” The giant sustained many injuries over the course of the fight. This lasts two pages.  
  • Evie, Squire Jerrold, and Peter fight in a joust. Squire Jerrold hurled himself at Evie. “The squire and [Evie] went down, rolling over and over, trying to pin each other.” Peter kicks Evie’s head, but Evie counters. With her “brain reeling, [Evie] grabbed his ankle, pulling him to the ground.”  
  • Both Squire Jerrold and Peter were on top of Evie, so she rolled over them and “rained punches on Squire Jerrold.” In the confusion, someone stabs Peter. “A rapier lay on the ground. Blood spurted from Prince Peter’s thigh.” Peter is injured; Peter had injured himself on purpose, attempting to frame Evie or Squire Jerrold as his attacker. The scene lasts for two pages. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Evie uses a liquid called purpine—also known as dragon urine—to cure illnesses and diseases. 
  • Evie also uses a variety of herbs and poultices to cure people. For example, she uses a “paste of galingale, zedoary, and ginger” to treat an elf boy’s rash. 

Language   

  • Evie thinks “Fie!” once.  
  • Evie calls Wormy an idiot. 
  • Fool is used many times.  

Supernatural 

  • Lucinda transforms Evie into an ogre. Evie’s “mind emptied. The kitchen tiles no longer seemed to be beneath me. Somewhere, fabric ripped. My mind filled again.” Evie has been transformed into an ogre and has sixty-two days to find a suitor and accept his marriage proposal. The side effect is that Evie feels more comfortable as an ogre as time goes on.  
  • Ogres are hideous creatures that are known for their voracious appetite and odiferous smell. They can charm humans by hypnotizing them with their words. When hypnotized, humans are compelled to obey an ogre’s every word and command. It is impossible for a human to break out of a hypnosis. Ogres cannot hypnotize each other. 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Curse of the Night Witch

Everyone on Emblem Island has a symbol that decides their fate, but Tor Luna seems like the only person who hates the one he’s been given. While other people can speak with animals, have beautiful singing voices, or culinary talent, Tor’s emblem is for leadership. He expects to live an uneventful life and take over his mother’s position as town chief. On the New Years’ holiday, Eve, the town gathers to send their yearly wishes to the wish god. Tor decides that this Eve he’ll wish for a new emblem. However, rejecting one’s emblem is a sure-fire way to get cursed, which is exactly what happens when Tor wakes up the next day with a curse mark where his leadership emblem once was.  

Tor teams up with his friends, Melda and Engle, to find the legendary Night Witch, a fearsome woman who is said to have hundreds of emblems that she gained from killing their original owners. To find her, the group uses The Book of Cuentos, a storybook that includes legends about Emblem Island’s history that turn out to be more than just stories. Eventually, they reach the Night Witch – but things aren’t as clear-cut as they have been written in the storybook. 

The Night Witch used The Book of Cuentos to frame herself as a villain in order to prevent her from getting her power stolen. She warns Tor that a greater darkness, one that is all evil, is rising and that she has picked Tor as her successor. Tor is unwilling to inherit her abilities, but the Night Witch passes on her power anyway. She picked Tor because the Night Witch believes he won’t abuse her skills. She says: “the best leaders are the ones who don’t want to lead.” The book ends with Tor shouldering the heavy burden of the Night Witch’s abilities with his friends and family at his side to defend Emblem Island from the coming darkness.  

Curse of the Night Witch is steeped in Latin American folklore amplified by the author’s rich imagination. The book is heavy on worldbuilding that is relevant to the plot and is an immersive part of the story’s adventure. The stories from The Book of Cuentos can be unsettling, but they help craft a world where darkness lingers under a colorful exterior. In addition to being a detailed story, Curse of the Night Witch is a coming-of-age story as Tor and his friends undertake a dangerous journey. When Tor thinks the Night Witch is going to kill him, Tor wishes he would’ve been more grateful for what he had. However, he realizes that his journey has taught him to appreciate what he’s gained: Melda and Engle, “two friends he would trust his life with” as well as a deeper respect for his former emblem.  

Tor is a thoughtful and determined main character who will quickly earn the sympathy and respect of readers. His drive to improve himself while still protecting innocent people shows his emotional complexity. The story emphasizes the power of friendship through Melda, Engle, and Tor, who are always ready to support one another and see their journey through until the end, no matter what happens. The plot twists and compelling lore make this an interesting story, however, there is gore and violence that some readers may find disturbing. Readers who want to read another tale that combines a rich cultural world with three friends who will protect each other until the end will enjoy Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • The Night Witch has an emblem that allows her to kill people by touching them. She kills her father and other innocent people. The Night Witch “had a gift never seen before. The power to kill with a single touch. And kill she did. One day, the girl emerged from her home, covered in blood, her father’s emblem on her skin. . . [The Night Witch] traveled across the island, leaving only death in her wake, emblems appearing on her arms after each kill, the ones she had stolen from children in their beds and from the poor souls who found themselves alone on a dark night.” 
  • A troll attacks Tor for trespassing in its territory. “A troll reached forward, and Tor screamed as its claw ran down the length of his arm.” The troll also bites him. Tor “screamed. It was like a giant needle had skewered his toes. Sparks of pain ignited in his toes and his entire foot went numb.” This feeling comes from a toxin that dissolves after a few hours, so Tor is not injured.  
  • A pelilarga attacked Melda. “[Melda] screamed as the pelilarga reached up and clawed her ankle, leaving five long, bloody scratches. . . The pelilarga hissed, and Melda winced, like it had scratched her again.” Melda is scratched up, but nothing worse. The attack ends when Melda, Tor, and Engle are able to distract the pelilarga with fireworks so they can escape. 
  • A giantess cuts Tor’s ear with an arrow for trespassing on her tribe’s land. “Tor winced and reached for his ear. His fingers came back covered in blood. The tiniest part of his ear, at the very tip, had been cut away.” Other than the cut, which later heals, Tor is not injured. 
  • The Book of Cuentos describes a mother who tried to kill herself and her children. The children escape, but the woman dies and becomes a monster called “The Woman.” The Woman “walked into the water, holding [her children’s] hands, intending to drown them and herself. But, before they were submerged, her children escaped. . . The Woman roams the island in search of children to take for her own.”  
  • A kidnapper hurts Tor for freeing his prisoners. “The man charged at Tor, managing to grab his arm so tightly Tor was actually afraid the bone might snap in half. . . Tor struggled until the man elbowed him right in the ribs. [Tor] bent over, gasping, the air sucked right out of him.” Engle saves Tor by hitting the kidnapper with The Book of Cuentos. “The kidnapper made a grunting noise, blinked, and fell to the ground. Engle stood there, The Book of Cuentos still held high above his head.”  
  • Emblem thieves are people born without emblems that kill others to steal their emblems. Killing someone allows the murderer to take the emblem of the victim. A group of prisoners caught by the emblem thieves are freed by Melda, Tor, and Engle. The prisoners fight back against their captors. “A woman cried out and leapt forward, taking down a guard in a single motion. . . A teenage girl disappeared right before [Tor’s] eyes, then reappeared after having struck a thief in the head with a bucket. An old man with a telekinesis emblem threw a chair at another.” The battle lasts a few paragraphs and ends when someone with a snowflake emblem freezes the remaining guards. 
  • An old woman in an abandoned town admits she resorted to eating her children to survive. 
  • Engle’s curse mark hurts him when he steps into the Night Witch’s territory. Engle “doubled over, crying out in pain and gripping his arm. . . the skin on Engle’s arm ripped open like the slow tearing of a seam. In a few horrifying moments, blood spilled over the cape Melda had made, and a clear message appeared, carved deep into his skin.”  
  • The same skin-tearing happens to Melda as the group gets closer to the Night Witch. “Then it was Melda’s turn to scream out. She clutched her arm, and loudly ground her back teeth together.” Lastly, it happens to Tor. “[Tor’s] palm suddenly split open. He gasped in pain, blood puddling at his feet.” 
  • Creatures take Engle into the water. After Melda rescues Engle, he’s very close to dying. “Engle’s eyes remained closed, and large gashes had been sliced through his clothes. He was bleeding, everywhere. But he was still breathing.” He lives.  
  • When Tor confronts the Night Witch, she admits that she didn’t kill her father; he was killed by other men. “The men who came [to the Night Witch’s home] were emblem thieves. There to take my father’s alleged two powers. By killing him. Once they realized one of his marks was false, they came back. And found me. But I was ready this time. I killed each one where they stood. My father’s emblem became mine. . . I roamed the island, searching for thieves just like the ones that had killed my father. I killed them before they could end anyone else. And so, my markings grew.” 
  • Tor fights the Night Witch. The witch “raised her hand, and the ground beneath Tor’s feet began to shake. It broke open, and dozens of shards of rock like teeth trapped his legs, then torso. The sharp stone tips pierced his clothes, crimson stains blooming through the fabric in blotches.” The battle lasts two pages and ends with the Night Witch transferring her power to Tor. 
  • Tor wakes in the middle of the night as his first new emblem appears. “He awoke screaming at the top of his lungs, feeling like someone was carving at his arm with a butcher knife, then scrubbing it with sea salt.” Tor learns that the process of getting a new emblem is painful.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Troll bites contain a toxin that induces drowsiness. Engle says, “Troll bites are nothing but annoying. Their teeth release just a bit of a chemical that promotes drowsiness, making it hard for their victims to escape.” 

Language   

  • Melda calls the Plains, a city on the island, “stupid.” 

Supernatural 

  • The Book of Cuentos is an important book of legends that tells the history of Emblem Island, as well as detailing information about the island’s creatures and curses. It is kept by the community’s leader, Tor’s mother, until she passes it on to him. Some of the stories from The Book of Cuentos appear at the end of chapters. They are often dark tales of murder, punishment, and otherworldly beings.  
  • The story takes place on Emblem Island, a place where everyone has two distinct features: an emblem and a lifeline. An emblem is a symbol representing a magical skill somewhere on the body. A lifeline is a line, usually around the hands, that shows high and low points representing hardships and victories. It also shows when the person’s life will end. 
  • People with two or more emblems are known as wicked or a witch. “Witch was a foul name for a person who had been born with multiple emblems.” The people of Emblem Island believe that people with multiple emblems have too much power which drives them to evil deeds. The Night Witch is the most infamous of these witches, as she has hundreds of emblems. 
  • Tor and Melda have leadership emblems, which help them inspire people. Engle has a sightseer emblem, which allows him to see long distances. There are emblems for just about everything, including cooking, talking to animals, and water breathing. 
  • The world is full of magic creatures and objects. Familiar objects, like peaches, grow purple, and some animals have gigantism; a starfish is the “size of a rug.”  
  • Some magical creatures include gnomes, mermaids, trolls, giants, and fairies, among others. 
  • A “barbed malkin” is a cat-like creature with spike-like fur along its back.  
  • The mention of curses or cursed objects is very common. Stories like this are present in nearly every chapter. “Tor knew that touching the Bone Boat’s treasure was strictly forbidden. Doing so would unleash a fury-storm of repercussions: a hundred years of curses, teeth falling from the sky, the sea turning gray, blah blah blah, the same old tales Tor liked to roll his eyes at.” These legends often turn out to be true.  
  • Due to his Eve wish, Tor is cursed. It manifests in the form of an eye on his arm that blinks. Engle touches Tor, and the curse spreads to Engle in the form of a mouth that can speak.  
  • A myth in The Book of Cuentos tells of the creation of a hydroclops, a snake with a head on either end.  
  • Melda has a necklace that contains a “drop of color.” “Drops of color were extremely rare – they could only be extracted from special creatures. The liquid from Melda’s necklace could turn anything in the world that shade of blue.” Colors on Emblem Island are very important and can be stolen or changed with powerful magic.  
  • Captivates, siren-like mermaids, capture Tor, but his friends help him break the spell. 
  • Pelilargas, fantastical women with long hair, have the ability to steal souls, which makes their hair grow longer and stronger.  
  • Goblins are greedy creatures who have the ability to suck color from objects. In exchange for passage on a boat, a goblin takes the color from Melda’s eyes.  
  • A vanor is a creature able to take on the appearance of other people and craft illusions. Tor encounters one. “The [vanor] had no face, only a flesh covered canvas where a face should have been. But he wanted one. All vanors did. They lived to steal faces to add to their collections.”

Spiritual Content 

  • The residents of Emblem Island believe in karma. Melda says, “I’m only helping you [Tor] because I don’t want any bad karma affecting my Eve wish.” 
  • Souls exist. Some creatures, such as pelilargas, have the ability to steal them. 

Poultrygeist

A chicken crosses the road and is promptly run over by a passing truck. When the chicken awakes, it realizes that it is now a floating spirit separate from its flattened body, and that the world around it is suddenly dark. From the darkness, the eyes of other spirits appear. The spirits explain to the confused chicken that while it was crossing the road, it got to what they call “the other side,” a realm where the spirits of animals exist. They tell the chicken that he has become a “poultrygeist.” 

Terrified, the chicken asks if he can be a friendly ghoul. His fellow spirits insist that they must haunt the living for eternity. The chicken declares that even though he’s a ghost, he will not haunt anyone, no matter what. When the chicken declares this, he suddenly takes on a form with disheveled feathers, furious eyes, and jagged teeth. When the chicken scares the other spirits away, he smiles and goes on his way, wishing the spirits good riddance. 

Poultrygeist is a fast and funny read with a darkly comedic twist on a familiar joke. The chicken’s violent fate might disturb younger readers, but his experience in the afterlife teaches them a thoughtful lesson about the dangers of peer pressure. Readers will be drawn to the vivid and colorful illustrations of the living realm, while the other side will interest them with a unique art style full of glowing, single-colored characters and muted backgrounds.  

The book does not feature any narration and instead uses illustrations and the characters’ dialogue to tell the story. Each character’s speech is distinguished by separate font colors that match the color of their spirit. For example, the font of the chicken’s dialogue is blue, matching the chicken’s blue spirit. Each page contains 1-6 sentences with simple vocabulary. Readers will enjoy the spirits’ habit of speaking in rhyme. Though the spirits’ furious eyes and sharp teeth may frighten younger readers, they can take comfort in the chicken’s unconditional kindness and ability to resist peer pressure. On one page, the chicken even breaks the fourth wall to check in on the reader, asking “Psst…you doing okay?” 

Poultrygeist is a particularly great read for readers adjusting to new situations and searching for the right crowd. The story teaches readers to be the version of themselves that they are comfortable being and to not allow the negative influence of others to change them. Poultrygeist readers will be amused by the exaggerations of the spirit world as well as the story’s wordplay. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • The chicken’s body is shown after it is run over. The chicken is flattened with a tire mark across its body and crossed-out eyes. While it is not explicitly violent, it could upset younger readers, particularly animal lovers. 
  • The spirit of a rat tells the chicken, “Time for you to play dead . . . then twist your head!” 
  • The last page of the book shows a squirrel starting to cross the road while a truck quickly approaches, implying that the squirrel will share the chicken’s fate. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • The spirits use rude language when trying to pressure the chicken into joining them. They call him names such as “weak”, and (ironically) “chicken.” 

Supernatural 

  • The story revolves around the ghosts of animals.  

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Behind the Legend: Werewolves

Behind the Legend looks at creatures and monsters throughout history and analyzes them through a scientific, myth-busting lens, debating whether the evidence provided is adequate proof of these creatures’ existence. In Werewolves, readers learn about all the sightings and “proof” of werewolves, from historical stories of wolves that terrorized towns—such as the Beast of Gévaudan—as well as people (even children!) who were believed to transform into wolves. This book also discusses additional history about the monster, such as how werewolves became major figures in popular culture, more recent supposed werewolf sightings and theories on werewolf transformations. 

Werewolves is incredibly engaging and will appeal to even the most reluctant readers. The oversized text and short passages are easy to read. Plus, large black-and-white illustrations appear on almost every page. The illustrations bring the legend of werewolves to life and are often comical. However, some of the illustrations may disturb sensitive readers because they show mob scenes, torture, and blood-thirsty werewolves. Despite this, the book’s conversational tone adds humor and makes it clear that “like a new moon, there’s a tiny sliver of a chance that werewolves exist.” 

Even though Werewolves is non-fiction, it is filled with many interesting stories that explain how different werewolves’ myths began. The book also examines ancient stories and beliefs. Anyone who has wondered how werewolves worked their way into pop culture should read Werewolves. The entertaining book that shows why werewolves fascinate people, is informative and interesting. And it leaves the reader with this thought: “Werewolves show us that changes are possible. That we can maybe turn ourselves into anything we can imagine (as long as it doesn’t involve fangs).”  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • In Caesar’s time, people who were “accused of being werewolves were burned at the stake or forced to endure other forms of barbaric torture that are simply too horrific to mention!” 
  • According to mythology, King Lycaon “serves Zeus a dinner that includes—gag alert!—a boiled person.” The King was known to be savage because he had a “penchant for human dinner entrees.” 
  • In the sixteenth century, the German town of Bedburg had a “savage killer on the loose.” At first, livestock was missing and “the farmers would find remnants of the animals, which had been mutilated, torn apart, or half eaten.” Then, children began to disappear. Townspeople learned that a man, Peter Stubb, was the culprit.  
  • When Peter Stubb was “tortured on the rack. . . Stubb admitted to being a werewolf.” He was put to death “by having his flesh poked with red-hot burning pinchers.” An illustration shows Stubbs on the rack. 
  • One story tells of a hunter who fights with a creature. “He’s able to slice off the animal’s paw, which makes the beast finally retreat.” When he pulled out the paw, he finds “a woman’s hand, adorned with a wedding ring.” A woman is then accused of witchcraft and put to death. 
  • One story tells of a Pernette, who was “overcome by dark and barbaric forces, [and] pounced on [a] girl. . .” The girl’s brother chases “off their crazed attacker, although the brother died shortly after. Pernette. . . was immediately killed by a mob of townspeople.” 
  • Pernette’s family was killed and “they died a brutal and barbaric death at the hands of their accusers.” 
  • A mob chased a creature that was killing people. “The expert gunman’s bullet struck the beast’s head, passing right through it. . . with Beauterne’s men repeatedly discharging their weapons at it, the long-feared killer finally collapsed for good.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • A boy said he had a “magical ointment” that “helped transform him into a werewolf.” 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • In mythology, the “mischievous god Loki. . .transforms himself into a whole assortment of animals. . .” 
  • Ancient Egyptians believed that Anubis was a god who was “part man, part jackal.” 

Escape from the Roller Ghoster

The Kersville Amusement Park is always a good time, but it also gives a new meaning to the term “thrill rides.” That’s because, in addition to being a popular destination for heart-pounding fun, the park is also just a little bit haunted. Join Desmond and Andres as they try to enjoy their day at the amusement park while being chased by ghosts! Warning: You must be this tall to read this book. 

Throughout most of the story, Desmond and Andres are running from one activity to the next. When they challenge the ghosts to a contest, the boys beat the ghosts, which is unrealistic. However, it does lead to some silly moments. Desmond tells Andres, “You know how we’re feeling right now? Well, that’s probably how the ghosts feel.” Once the boys realize how the ghosts feel, Desmond and Andres are able to come up with a creative solution that makes both the people and the ghosts happy.  

Escape from the Roller Ghoster’s plot is lacking, but readers will still enjoy Desmond’s and Andres’s silly antics. Each book in the Desmond Cole series is a separate story and the books can be read in any order. The story is told in ten short chapters with easy-to-read vocabulary that is perfect for emerging readers. A black-and-white illustration appears on almost every page. The illustrations are often humorous and use exaggerated facial expressions so readers can tell what the characters are feeling. 

Even though Desmond and Andres are completely different, the two boys are best of friends who work together to rid the amusement park of ghosts. Full of silly moments, this non-scary ghost story will appeal to a wide range of readers. Readers who love ghost stories should also grab a flashlight, a blanket, and a copy of Ghost Attack by David Lubar. Similar to Escape from the Roller Ghoster, Ghost Attack uses humor to make young readers smile. 

Sexual Content 

  • In order to escape the ghosts, Desmond and Andres go on the “scariest ride at the park: the Tunnel of Love.” The illustration shows couples hugging and one couple kissing.  

Violence 

  • While playing a game, “instead of using the baseball, the sneaky ghost shot a fireball that hit the stack of bottles and turned them all to ash!” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • While on one of the rides, the ghosts were “fraidy-cats.” 

Supernatural 

  • When Desmond and Andres go on a ride, a ghost winks at them. Then, “A ghost just asked us if we were having fun.” The ghosts continue to follow the two friends throughout the park. Later they find out that the ghosts were not real. Instead, the ghosts where “a leftover hologram from our Halloween show last year.”  
  • Desmond hands Andres a pair of glasses. “Suddenly, all [Andres] could see were ghosts! They were playing games, eating food, and riding rides.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Mean Ghouls

If Megan thought life at her new boarding school was going to be easy, she was dead wrong. Everyone has the same mysterious virus—one that’s slowly turning them all into zombies. The teachers are lifeless and the food stinks. Literally. And worst of all, the clique of popular mean girls who rule the school have already decided that Megan’s dead to them.

All Megan wants is to get back to her old school and her old friends, but until a cure is found, she’s stuck at Zombie Academy. How will she ever survive?

Squeamish readers will want to avoid Mean Ghouls because zombitus causes the students’ body parts to fall off and their teeth to sharpen, among other ailments. Plus, the bloody descriptions are detailed and gross. For example, when the limo driver picks up Megan, she is glad she’d only seen him from the back because “his head was barely attached to his neck. It kept lolling over to one side or the other. One of his eyes was hanging loosely from some kind of oozing stringy stuff. And though she hadn’t noticed from the backseat, whew, the guy stunk!”

Even though Mean Ghouls revolves around zombitus, the story is also a mystery that explores themes of bullying and friendship. When the zombitus cure is stolen, Megan jumps to the conclusion that the mean girls are the culprits. As she sneaks around looking for clues, Megan’s behavior unintentionally hurts her friends. However, the conclusion has several surprises that wrap up all the plot threads.

While none of the characters are well-developed, there’s a host of interesting characters that readers will love and hate. Megan’s brother, Zach, adds a dose of humor because he is totally obsessed with zombies and wishes he was the one that contracted zombitus. Plus, Megan’s high school crush, Brett, also gets infected and is befriended by the mean girls which leads to some comedy. For example, Brett’s zombitus causes him to attempt to eat Megan. “More scared than she’d ever been her whole life, Megan stopped fighting and closed her eyes. If this was the end, to be eaten alive by her first crush, she didn’t want to see it. She hoped it would be quick and painless.” Luckily, a teacher instructs Zach on proper zombie behavior, which doesn’t allow zombies to eat each other.

Fans of R.L. Stine will enjoy Mean Ghouls because the story is surprisingly entertaining with a unique premise that will draw readers in. The story has the perfect blend of action, suspense, and humor. Junior high readers who want an excellent scary story should also read Nightbooks by J.A. White and Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • While weaving through a crowded classroom, someone pushes Megan. “While she was picking her way toward her friends, someone shoved her from behind. . . she turned to see who’d pushed her. Brooke gave Megan a sharp-toothed smile.”
  • Brett is upset because eating Megan’s brownie gave him zombitus. Brett chases Megan. “Brett made a grab for the back of Megan’s black T-shirt and she stumbled. Rocks scraped Megan’s hands and knees as she lunged out of Brett’s grasp.” Brett and Megan wrestle until an adult “pulled Brett off of Megan with a strong hand.”
  • Megan thinks a group of girls are hiding the cure for zombitus. During a fashion show, Megan attacks. “Megan shoved Hailey out of the way. Her middle-school classmate stumbled on a spiked heel and fell off the stage. . . Megan grabbed a handful of the small glass tubes and rushed to the side of the stage.”
  • A group of people try to stop Megan’s attack. “Whirling and grunting and grabbing at anything she could, Megan tried to make a run for more of the vials, but Brenda and Betsy blocked her way.” Finally, someone grabs her, and, in the end, Megan finds out she was wrong. The attack scene is described over three pages.
  • Megan and her friend agree to appear in Megan’s brother’s horror movie. Megan’s friend “Rachel pulled out the thing Zach had given her. It was a dart gun. And before the zombies could shuffle away, Rachel fired darts at them.” The darts had the zombitus cure on the tips.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Megan calls her brother a dork numerous times.
  • Darn is used once.
  • An upset boy chases Megan. Megan’s friend causes a distraction and then yells, “You’ll never catch me, Zom-Bonehead!”
  • Megan calls a boy snaggletooth and dork.

Supernatural

  • Transforming into a zombie can take centuries because they are immortal.
  • When zombies have head wounds, they do not heal. Megan’s math teacher “had a huge gash in his head that revealed his brains. Megan was surprised that brains actually did look like the spaghetti that Zach had made for her last breakfast at home. A pink slime coated with gray, thick linking twist.”
  • Jones built the school after he turned into a zombie. “Mr. Jones was drooling blood. Wet, soggy blood stains covered the front of his shirt.”
  • Brooke gets injured. “The cut was small, but deep, and a sliver of her brain was slowly oozing out. Brooke used a tissue to push it back inside her skull. Betsy gave her a disgusted look and handed her a tube of hand sanitizer.”
    Spiritual Content
  • None

Curse of the Phoenix

Fraternal twins Zac and Lu live rather estranged lives despite living in the same household. Zac is always indoors due to his asthma and severe allergies. Lu can go outside and hang out with her friends, yet feels burdened by her brother’s medical emergencies. The only thing they have in common is that they both grew up listening to their mother’s stories about the Wildewoods, an imaginary land where mythical beasts roam free. These creatures fill up the pages of Zac’s sketchbooks and inspire Lu’s love of animals.  

When their mother dies, the twins are sent to England to spend the summer with relatives they’ve never met: their aunts Merle and Rowena, their uncle Conrad, and their cousins Penelope and Oliver. It doesn’t take long for the twins to discover the incredible secret hidden in the forest of their ancestral home. Their mother’s stories about centaurs, unicorns, and dragons were not made-up after all. Their family is the keepers of the Wildewoods, the last place on earth where mythical creatures can live safely away from human harm.  

There are many dangers that lie in these lands—and a terrible curse. When Zac and Lu become victims of the curse, their only hope is tracking down the last living phoenix. On their search, they discover family secrets, learn about the magical creatures, and come to terms with their mother’s death.

The chapters alternate between Lu’s and Zac’s perspectives which gives insight into each twin’s point of view. Because Lu is more cautious than her brother, Lu’s perspective focuses on the danger of the Wildewoods and helps the reader understand the lay of the land as well as how the family cares for the creatures. On the other hand, Zac sees the mystique of the magical creatures and is less mindful of their inherent danger to humans. Some readers will relate to the responsibility of an older sibling, and other readers will relate to the joy of discovering and exploring a new place.  

Zac and Lu stumble into danger whenever they venture into the lands and their relatives get hurt while fending off the mythical beasts that the twins stumble upon. For instance, their cousin Penelope fights a manticore to protect the twins but gets a lethal dose of the manticore’s venom, which incapacitates her for the rest of the summer. While the Wildewoods are scary and dangerous, they are portrayed as a traversable place for the family members to explore.  

The Curse of the Phoenix is a fun, magical story that captures the magnificence of magical creatures and depicts the weight of the consequences of one’s actions. This novel has a quick pace, and it seamlessly integrates the Wildewoods into Zac and Lu’s new lives. Questions about the curse are answered early on, giving more chances for the main characters to explore the vast parts of the Wilde, the family’s estate. Throughout the story, the relatives allude to past events, giving the story a sense of mystery. Readers will eagerly flip pages to see if their predictions were correct. This is a must-read book for its unique perspective on humans and their relationships with magical creatures. Readers who like exciting adventures with intriguing mysteries will enjoy Aimée Carter’s Simon Thorn Series as well as Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • On their first visit to the Wildewoods, Zac and Lu come across a dragon. The twins try to escape, but Lu accidently steps on a twig, grabbing the dragon’s attention. Lu tackles Zac into a heap of dirt right as the dragon attacks them with fire. “A plume of fire exploded from the dragon’s snout, missing them by inches.” A bright flash distracts the dragon, but it eventually refocuses on the twins. The dragon tries to attack with fire, but the twins’ Aunt Rowena protects them with a shield.  Then, she drives “the dragon into the trees with a massive shield.” Despite her protective equipment, “she was limping as she moved forward.” The encounter with the dragon lasts for two pages.  
  • Zac goes out to the Wildewoods to find the phoenix with Lu and Penelope in tow. They encounter the manticore. Zac draws its attention by throwing a stick at it. Zac “hurled his stick straight for its hindquarters. And as it made contact with a loud thwack, the monster roared again and whirled around, launching itself directly toward Zac instead.”  
  • To save Zac, Penelope jumps on the manticore’s back, and tries to cut the manticore’s flesh. “Penelope held on, clutching its stunted mane and continuing to press the knife into the manticore’s flesh, but it was too strong.” Penelope’s grip begins to slip, but their cousin Oliver cracks a whip at the manticore to distract it from her. However, the manticore had already stung Penelope and “she was unconscious and deathly pale.” Zac and Lu are uninjured, but Penelope remains bedridden for most of the story. The encounter with the manticore lasts for two pages.  
  • Oliver, using a bow and arrow, tries to shoot the phoenix so he can weaken it and capture it. The phoenix warned Zac about Oliver’s attempt. “That was when [Lu] heard it—a faint whistling sound. In that same instant, as her brother crashed into her, the whistling was punctuated by a loud rip, and Zac’s agonizing cry.” Lu stumbled backward, fighting to hold him up. “To her horror, blood began to stain his sleeve.” The arrow nicked Zac in the arm. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Zac takes Benadryl to stop his allergic reactions and an inhaler to relieve his asthma symptoms. 

Language   

  • One of the twins’ aunts uses the word “bloody” multiple times. “Bloody” is a British slang word that means “very,” but it is considered a swear word in other regions. 
  • Zac thinks of the word “crap” when he tries to hide from Oliver, but accidentally gets Oliver’s attention.  

Supernatural 

  • The phoenix cursed the Wilde family as punishment for their ancestor’s cruel actions against magical creatures. Those born into the Wilde family are forced to stay near the Wildewoods estate. At the age of thirteen or upon entering the Wildewoods before turning thirteen years old, each blood-related family member receives a W-shaped mark on the palm of one of their hands. The marked family members cannot travel too far from the estate or else they will die.  
  • Zac gets occasional visions about the past due to his bond with the phoenix.  
  • The phoenix blood is a powerful healing agent that can heal any injury and cure any illness.  
  • The phoenix willingly gives Zac a drop of phoenix blood so he can heal Lu from an injury. When she drank the blood, “the arrow began to work itself out of her body . . . he wound in her stomach magically [closed] on its own.”  

Spiritual Content 

  • None

Small Spaces Quartet #1

At night they will come for the rest of you. It’s with this ominous warning that eleven-year-old Ollie and her two friends, Coco and Brian, set out on a chilling adventure in the woods with nightfall fast descending and the ever-watchful eyes of scarecrows on their backs.

What began as an unremarkable school trip to a nearby farm soon becomes a frightening journey into the world behind the mist. In order to survive and not remain trapped there forever, Ollie and her friends need to be quick on their feet as they work to unravel a hundred-year-old mystery, save their classmates, and beat the villainous smiling man at his own game.

When night falls, Ollie and her friends must find small spaces to hide from the scarecrows, who follow the smiling man’s commands. During the daylight hours, the three friends search for a way back into their world. Along the way, they meet several ghosts, who were unwilling to leave their loved ones who the smiling man turned into scarecrows. However, before Ollie meets the ghosts, she finds Beth Webster’s book where she chronicled the story of her family and explains how the smiling man was able to turn her husband into a scarecrow.

Beth Webster’s story connects to Ollie’s own story. In Beth’s story, her mother-in-law was distraught over her son’s disappearance. In order to appease his grieving mother, Beth’s husband Johnathan makes a deal with the smiling man. The smiling man brings Johnathan’s brother back to life, but Johnathan then becomes the smiling man’s servant. Similar to Beth, Ollie is also grieving the loss of a loved one—her mother. However, Ollie doesn’t let her grief overshadow her life. When the smiling man offers to bring Ollie’s mom back to life, Ollie doesn’t accept the deal. Instead, she gives up the deepest desire of her heart in order to break the curse and restore her classmates.

While Small Spaces is predominantly a ghost story, it also touches on the theme of grief. Through her experiences, Ollie learns that her mother’s words and advice will continue to help her navigate life. Even though Ollie still grieves her mother’s loss, she is learning to find joy in life again.

Small Spaces will appeal to readers who want a creepy, scary story without bloodshed and gore. The easy-to-read story keeps readers on edge as the smiling man’s secrets are revealed. The story’s conclusion is a little confusing as it tries to piece together the stories of the past with the stories of the present.

While Ollie and her friends are not well-developed, they are an interesting group that learns to appreciate each other’s differences. If you’re looking for a fast-paced ghost story that will keep you guessing, then grab a copy of Small Spaces. Beware: when you get to the end, you will want to find out what happens in the next book, Dead Voices, in which Ollie and her friends get trapped in a haunted snow lodge.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • After school, Mike takes Coco’s notebook and begins taunting her. When Brian does nothing to help Coco, Ollie threw a rock that “caught Brian squarely in the back of the head, dropped him thump onto the grass, and turned everyone’s attention from Coco Zinter to her.” Then Ollie gets on her bike and races home.
  • At the farm, the kids were going to learn about “slaughtering hogs (cut the throat and then hang it up to drain).”
  • Before the book begins, Ollie’s mother died in an airplane crash. “Ollie dreamed of the crash, even though she hadn’t seen it. She hadn’t seen the firs afterward, or the bits of broken plane stuck in a tree, the things that haunted her nightmare.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • God is used as an exclamation twice.
  • The first time the scarecrows come for the kids, Brian asks, “What in hell was that?”

Supernatural

  • Ollie reads a book about a brother who makes a deal with the smiling man to bring his brother, Caleb, back to life. Caleb “came back. He was pale and blue-lipped; his eyes were strange and distant. . . It was his voice, his smile. Only the look in his eyes had changed, and he would not say where he was.”
  • Ollie’s teacher tells the class a story about the farm that the class will be visiting. The farm is rumored to be haunted because two brothers wanted to marry the same girl. The teacher says, “The younger brother disappeared. No one ever found traces of either of them. Eventually, the sheriff decided that the younger brother had killed the elder and then been overcome with remorse and thrown himself into the creek. That was when the rumors of hauntings started.”
  • In the past, there was a school at the farm. The schoolhouse “was burned to rubble, of course, right down to the foundation stones. . . The weird things is this: they never found any bodies.”
  • After Ollie’s mother dies, her father gives her her mother’s cracked watch. While running from the scarecrows, the watch gives her a countdown until sunset and tells her what to do. For example, “RUN” and “HIDE.” When Ollie whispers, “Mom? Is that you? Can you hear me?” The watch’s screen reads “ALWAYS.”
  • The scarecrows try to grab Ollie and her friends. They crawl into a small space under some rocks. “A nightmare face turned to Ollie: stitched-on snarl, eyes like two finger sized holes. The rake reached out again. . . A huge, straw-smelling arm thrust itself into the hole. . . Then the arm withdrew.” When the scarecrows realize they can’t reach the kids, they leave.
  • While running from the scarecrows, the kids go into a house where Ollie meets a ghost. Ollie discovers that two of the scarecrows are the ghost’s sons. When the kids leave the house, “Two scarecrows stood outside, one at each window. Somehow, they were not looking into the house anymore, but were watching the kids run, still smiling their wide smiles.”
  • Brian recognizes one of the scarecrows as his friend Phil. Brian says, “It’s wearing Phil’s clothes. Because that’s Phil’s hat and Phil’s hair and kind of Phil’s face—if it were sewn on.”
  • Ollie and her friends go into another house and Ollie sees a ghost. “A hand appeared on the doorframe. A thick, yellow-nail hand. Then a face popped around the edge of the doorframe. . . It was a woman. Or had been. Her skin was sunken in beneath the cheekbones, and when she smiled, her lips stretched too wide, the way a skull smiles.” The ghost tells her that the scarecrows are “neither flesh nor spirit” and that they are now the smiling man’s servants. The ghost says, “the cornfield is the doorway” to another world and the scarecrows hold the door between two worlds open.
  • While talking to the smiling man, Ollie figures out how to save her classmates. Ollie flings “a scattering of drops [of water] at the first scarecrow. . . the scarecrow screamed—a human scream.” The scarecrows that were from the past turned into dust but her classmates turned back into themselves.

Spiritual Content

  • After the scarecrows come for the kids, Brian says, “Deliver us from evil” and then did the sign of the cross. When Ollie and Coco look at him, he says, “I’m not a good Catholic but maybe God is listening.”

Maya and the Rising Dark #1

Maya believes herself to be an ordinary middle-schooler, until she witnesses a tear in reality. Suddenly, the stories her father tells about his travels across the world come true. Maya dreams of a man encased in shadows and is attacked by mythical creatures. In addition, her best friend Frankie discovers she has superpowers.

Maya learns that her father is an orisha, a divine spirit being. Beyond that, her community is a secret haven for orishas, meaning that she, Frankie, and their friend Eli, all have orisha powers. But, the one person Maya wishes to tell about the magic world – her Papa – disappears while repairing the veil, the magical barrier between Earth and the Dark. In his absence, Maya learns from the orisha council that her father is the guardian of the veil, which was created to separate Earth from the Dark and its master, The Lord of Shadows. This evil being with similar orisha-like powers wants to use the tears forming in reality to break through the veil once and for all.

As attacks in the human world become frequent, the orishas prioritize the community instead of sending out a rescue mission for Maya’s father. Maya, Frankie, and Eli decide to take matters into their own hands using Papa’s staff to open a magical gateway into the Dark at Comic-Con. Even though the plan is just as crazy as it sounds, Maya is able to open the barrier, and the three friends journey through the Dark. This sparse and dangerous landscape is populated with creatures of legend and beings called darkbringers, who serve the Lord of Shadows. When the group is forced to fight their way through, Maya realizes the danger that they face. She says, “I hadn’t thought through the consequences of our actions… I knew that our parents would ground us for sneaking out. But that was minor compared to the real consequences. That I might have to hurt many people to get Papa back.”

Before Maya reconnects with her father, she is tested when she is forced to part with her friends, who sacrifice themselves so she can go on. Maya says, “Every kid should be so lucky to have friends who believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself. Friends who accept you exactly the way you are. And help you be brave when you don’t know that you can.” Maya is able to manifest her orisha powers and distract the Lord of Shadows long enough to free her father and return to the human world, where she finds that Eli and Frankie escaped alive and unharmed. But, the crisis is far from over. With the Lord of Shadows still at large, the orisha council declares that Maya will be trained by her father to be a guardian of the veil, marking the beginning of her next journey.

Maya and the Rising Dark is an action-packed fantasy story with diverse characters. The principal at Maya’s school goes by they/them pronouns and Frankie has two moms. Maya’s story is laced with themes of community and sacrifice. While constant fighting scenes can distract from the main plot, Maya is a resilient and thoughtful main character to follow throughout this adventure. There is reverence for the divine orishas, and even for the Lord of Shadows; when he is about to kill Maya’s father, she displays sympathy for his motives, showing her maturity. Maya has to grow up fast when the responsibility of saving the world falls on her shoulders, but she does so while keeping her rebellious personality and her kindness. The story blends the African heritage of the author into a modern-day tale about a girl from Chicago’s south side. Readers that enjoyed Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi and stories blending cultural legend into modern adventure, should pick up this book! Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston is another amazing story that is perfect for readers who love action and adventure.

 Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Maya’s father, Papa, tells her a story about elokos – mythical creatures who eat people they lure in with magical bells. Papa describes his encounter with the creatures. “I didn’t come out of my trance until they stopped ringing their bells, but by then, they had strung me up between two trees and lit a fire. They were preparing to cook me with my clothes and all. No matter how much I pleaded, they wouldn’t let me go.” He escapes them by singing, which distracts them.
  • While searching for her father, Maya encounters the Lord of Shadows, who intends to kill her. “The shadows pressed in around me and felt slick against my face. . . When I backed away, something reached out of the dark and grabbed my wrist. Cold seared into my skin. I tried to free myself, but the thing only tugged harder. Shadows like writhing snakes crawled up my arm—and I knew it was him. The man from my nightmare. Come to make good on his threat to kill me. I clawed at the shadows with my other hand, only they slithered up that arm too. I screamed, and the darkness muted my voice. When I kicked, my foot connected with air. Pain shot up my arms. My hands had gone numb. Frost started to creep across my skin. I wriggled my stiff fingers, and the ice crystals cracked and shattered. Then, with all my strength, I closed my hands around the shadows, which felt like thick ropes. I was sure they would turn me into an ice cube, but I gritted my teeth and jerked my arms back even harder. This time it worked. . .” Maya escapes the shadows.
  • Frankie and Maya are attacked by shadows. Maya “jerked back, but not fast enough. The shadow slashed against my cheek. ‘Ahhh,’ I screamed and stumbled out of reach. Frankie wasn’t so lucky. The shadow snapped around her wrist. She shrieked . . .More shadows grabbed Frankie from behind, dragging her away from me. . .” Maya hit the shadows and they “hissed, low and menacing. I kept swinging until they let go and Frankie crashed into my shoulder.”
  • While running from werehyenas, Maya and Frankie are magically protected by a barrier. Still, Frankie gets hurt. “In one quick swipe, [the werehyena] scraped his claws against the force field that separated us from certain death. The noise was sharp, and sparks shot out. Thankfully, the barrier held, but Frankie stumbled back a few steps. She folded over like he had punched her in the belly.”
  • A group of darkbringers disguise themselves as school bullies and force Maya, Eli, and Frankie into a fight. “Winston charged first, and I sprang to action. With Papa’s staff, I blocked his path. Something happened then that I didn’t expect. The staff started to glow, and a warm tingling shot up my arm. The glowing shocked the bullies too because they froze for a moment. . .Winston shoved me in the chest so hard that I almost lost my balance. I twirled the staff fast and hit him across his knuckles. He yelped and drew his hand back . . . even with Papa’s staff, I got kicked and punched more times than I cared to admit. . . I attacked again with the staff, batting away barbed tails that stung when they tore into my skin… I slammed the staff into shoulders, chests, and ribs to keep them back.” No one dies, and the fight is described over two pages.
  • A tear in the veil causes massive panic and destruction on Maya’s street. “Outside was complete chaos. People I’d known my whole life tried to free themselves from writhing shadows. My ex-babysitter, Lakesha, dodged a shadow only to have another one rope around her ankle. She fell down, and LJ, her cousin, stomped the shadow over and over until it let her go. He helped her up, and they ran away. They were the lucky ones. Some shadows wrapped people in cocoons and dragged them toward the tear in the veil—toward the Dark.”
  • During this chaos, a darkbringer attempts to hurt Maya’s mother. “Looking down at Mama, he smiled, revealing pointed teeth. His razor-sharp, barbed tail whipped around in a flash, cutting through the air, aimed straight for her. . . Before the darkbringer knew what hit him, I cracked the staff against his tail. He fell back, howling in pain. . . I barely ducked out of the way as the darkbringer’s claws swiped within striking distance of my face. Going on the offense, I angled the staff up and slammed it into his chest. A burst of light came from Papa’s staff, and the impact sent the darkbringer hurtling through the air.”
  • The Lord of Shadows invades Maya’s dreams and tries to kill her. The Lord of Shadow’s “ribbons snapped at me, and I batted them away with the staff. When the staff connected with the Lord of Shadows, magic jerked me back into the human world. . .My wrist burned where one of his ribbons had touched my arm. It happened on the crossroads, but the pain was real.”
  • Maya suspects that a gateway to the veil will open at Comic-Con, so she goes there with Frankie and Eli to open a portal and find her father. While there, they are attacked by darkbringers. Maya “dodged darkbringers left and right, sweeping the staff along my body in a wide arc. I knocked down two who tried to double-team me. . . The sound of bones breaking made my stomach flip-flop, but I kept pushing. Eli ducked under my staff and rammed his shoulder into a darkbringer. He headbutted another one, and punched a third.” As the fight continues, “Maya caught a blow on my shoulder. Sharp pain shot down my spine, and I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. My knees shook. . .Then I rammed my staff into [the darkbringers’] stomach. When he bent over, that was the end of it. I knocked him out cold.” The fight is described over four pages.
  • After entering the Dark, Maya, Frankie, and Eli find magical birds called impundulus. After they destroy their nest by accident, “the birds tucked their heads between their hunched shoulders and charged. They ran straight for us, their wings fluttering wildly and their bloody spines fanned out for maximum damage. . . We dove out of the way, and only two of the impundulu collided. . . My stomach lurched seeing the birds tangled up like that. Each impaled on the other’s spines. There was so much blood . . . The two tangled birds fell into a heap of twisted spines and feathers and blood while the other two took to the sky.”
  • During the fight, “an impundulu’s talons raked across my shoulder, and I bit back a scream as searing pain brought me to my knees. The bird shrieked, coming at me again, and I rolled out of the way. I fell on my back and slammed the staff into the impundulu’s side. The impact sent the bird tumbling into a cornstalk.” Maya and her friends knock the birds unconscious. The scene is described over two pages.
  • While in the dark, vines erupt from the ground. “Vines covered in thorns shot up from the ground and whipped around Frankie’s feet. She cried out as she hit the dirt. More vines were sprouting up everywhere, thrashing and wriggling toward us. I slammed the staff into the ground, giving it the order to burn the vines. . . fire flared to life on top of a vine writhing toward me. Before long, the fire had grown into a full raging inferno that burned across the cornfield.” Maya accidentally sends the fire towards a group of darkbringer children. The kids throw stones at them, but none of them hit, and Maya and her friends escape.
  • Maya thinks about how Frankie’s first mother died, implying that something bad happened. Frankie “once told me about her first mom—how one day she’d gone to the store for groceries and never returned. The police said that her mom had died in a car accident. Now that I thought about it, that didn’t add up, especially since she was an orisha. She was immortal—no accident could’ve killed her.”
  • Eli inadvertently kills a darkbringer who was inside a bug-like helicopter. Eli “whipped out the prods he took from the darkbringer at Comic-Con and slammed them into the glass dome. An electrical current flickered down the length of the prods, then shot through the craft. Long cracks spread across the glass. . . The pilot yanked at the controls as the wings flapped wildly. He pulled up but didn’t get very far before the craft crashed a few feet away.”
  • Nulan, the darkbringer army commander, kills one of her men for disobeying her. “Nulan reached into her black vest and removed a slim knife of her own, her eyes on Papa’s staff the whole time. She flipped her wrist so fast that the knife was a silver blur. . . Nulan had aimed the blade for the darkbringer who went against her order. He stumbled and fell to his knees with the knife lodged in his chest. She’d killed him—one of her own men.”
  • Nulan also tries to kill Frankie. “Nulan removed another slim knife from her vest and sent it flying straight for Frankie’s heart. . . Just as the knife was inches from my friend, I leaped in front of her. Everything was a blur as I raised the staff to deflect the knife, but before I could, the ground shook hard beneath our feet, then it opened up and swallowed us whole.” Maya opens a portal and saves her friends before Nulan’s knife hits Frankie.
  • After returning to the Dark, Frankie and Eli sacrifice themselves in a fight with Nulan so Maya can find her father on her “Flashes of light crackling like electricity shoot out of Frankie’s hands. . . The darkbringers broke their flight path to get out of the way. Most moved in time, but two of them got caught in her blast and spiraled out of control… Frankie sent another blast, knocking the fire-breathing darkbringers to the ground. . . But as soon as she said it, Nulan sent a knife straight through Frankie’s shoulder.” Eli stays with Frankie and tends to her while Maya leaves.
  • Later, Nulan confronts Maya as she’s trying to free her father. She tells Maya that she killed her friends and insults her father. Maya lashes out. “I knocked my staff against the gym floor, and a streak of white light shot out. It hit Nulan so hard that she slammed into the line of darkbringers standing behind her. They crumped to the floor in a heap.”
  • Nulan orders her soldiers to attack. Maya and her father then fight the darkbringers. Maya “ducked to miss a club aimed straight for my face. Before the darkbringer could swing again, I cracked the staff against her knees. When she dropped to the ground, I landed another thrash across her head, knocking her out cold. . .Three darkbringers swung their battleaxes, and I thrust out the staff to catch the blows. . . Something as slippery as a snake lashed around my waist and jerked me backwards. My staff fell and hit the floor, then the thing lifted me up high in the air. I clawed at what turned out to be a darkbringer’s tail. . . As the barb drove toward my heart, I grabbed the darkbringer’s tail, stopping it from striking. The tail slammed me into the ground, and pain shot through my body. . .” Papa kills the darkbringer.
  • The fight against the Lord of Shadows is at first a long conversation, but it comes to a climax when he grabs Papa with the ribbons that make up his being. “Some of his ribbons had grabbed Papa by the ankle and dangled him upside down like he was a child. Papa clawed at the shadows, but the color was draining from his face fast. The Lord of Shadows was absorbing him, killing him.” Maya is then attacked by him, but escapes by shining light on him, distracting him until Papa and Maya escape.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • After seeing many strange occurrences, Frankie suggests that they are under the effect of a hallucinogen. Frankie says, “Maybe there was some mind-altering drug in the vanilla pudding at school today. My moms say that the government performs secret experiments on people all the time.”

Language

  • Eli and a high schooler have a verbal altercation where the bully raises their middle finger.
  • There is some name-calling such as fiend, half-breeds, and beanstalk.
  • Frankie breaks a twig, giving away the group’s hiding location to the darkbringers. In response, “Eli mouthed a curse that would’ve gotten him grounded for a month had Nana been here.”
  • When the Lord of Shadows appears at the story’s climax, Maya says, “Crap.”
  • The Lord of Shadows attacks Maya, and Maya’s Papa starts to curse at him using “some words I had never heard.”

 Supernatural

  • One of the main conflicts in this story is the rift between the real world and the Dark, a different plane of existence filled with creatures called darkbringers. A veil separates these two worlds, which is frequently damaged. Maya’s father fixes these “tears” in the veil.
  • Magic exists, as well as people who can wield magic. Papa describes this world to Maya, revealing that he is the guardian of the veil. He describes the veil between the worlds. “Think of it as an invisible barrier that keeps our world safe from creatures much worse than werehyenas.”
  • Papa also tells Maya that she encountered the Lord of Shadows in a dream. He father says, “He’s as real as you or I,” Papa explained. “He’s trapped in the Dark, but he can enter our world through dreams—which are crossroads between our two worlds.”
  • Maya’s favorite comic book is about an orisha named Oya. Orishas are spirit beings that have a variety of dominions and powers. Oya has these powers too. “Oya wasn’t like most superheroes. She wasn’t from another planet, and she didn’t have fancy gadgets. She was a spirit goddess, an orisha. She controlled wind, lightning, and storms, and never lost a fight.”
  • Eli, Maya’s friend, is obsessed with ghosts and talks about them often “Did you feel a cold spot?” Eli asked. “Like when there’s a ghost around.”
  • Eli also tells facts about ghosts. “Sometimes ghosts can inhabit the bodies of the living.” Eli believes that ghosts are responsible for many of the strange things happening before he learns about the Dark.
  • Eli also suggests that people’s strange behavior is a result of possession. “Maybe they’re possessed by evil spirits,” Eli offered. “One day they’ll try to turn us into zombies, and we’ll have to spray them with ketchup to snap them out of their trance.”
  • The book deals with a variety of other mythical beings and creatures such as elokos, orishas, and darkbringers. Shadows have the ability to attack. There are also creatures such as werehyenas and giant bugs.
  • Maya talks about kishi in reference to her dad’s stories. “I told Tisha Thomas that my father fought a kishi, a creature with a human face on the front side of his head and a hyena on the back side.”
  • Maya’s father also tells her stories of impundulu, magical birds. Impundulu “were magical giant birds that had sharp spikes like fishbones on their bellies. They hardly ever flew, but when they did, their wings sounded like helicopter blades.” Later, Maya, Frankie, and Eli fight multiple impundulus.
  • Maya and Frankie are cornered by were-hyenas, humanoid hyenas similar to werewolves. “It wasn’t until they stepped out of the shadows that I realized the hyenas had grown bigger. They stood on their hind legs, and their claws looked like curled knives. Their torsos stretched into a shape that was unmistakable and impossible. These were werehyenas, like from Papa’s stories, half hyena, half man.”
  • Maya’s Papa gives her a staff that has magical powers, which she uses to defend herself.
  • Maya learns that she is a “godling,” someone that has the blood of an orisha. This enables her to use magic. Frankie and Eli have orisha blood too. Frankie’s power is to create bursts of light, while Eli’s power is to turn invisible. Maya is unsure of her power until later on in the story where she creates a portal between the Dark and Earth.
  • Maya learns that her neighbor is an orisha when the neighbor saves them from being kidnapped by darkbringers. “A giant bird made of blue light circled the edges of the vortex. It was fast—too fast, enough to make my head spin. From what I could tell, it was causing the disturbance. Some of the darkbringers tried to escape, but it was no use. . .”
  • Maya learns that many people in her community are orishas or their descendants, as it is a secret orisha community. Miss Lucille, Maya’s neighbor, explains that humans don’t know of the existence of the orishas and magical beings because they are kept secret. “The orishas decided that the magical species must keep themselves hidden from humans. Among them are the aziza, woodland fairies wary of outsiders. The elokos, who are forest-dwelling elves with an insatiable appetite. There are also the trickster kishi, with their two faces, and the adze, who are fireflies that feed on blood. And of course, the werehyenas, who, as you’ve seen, can be unpredictable. There are countless more. It’s the orishas’ job to keep magic from interfering with human development, as the universe intended.”
  • A girl in Maya’s town opens a portal by snapping her fingers.
  • Maya attends an orisha meeting that happens in outer space.
  • The commander of the darkbringer army, Nulan, is an aziza. Maya reacts to her in awe. “The commander moved like she owned the sky, and even a flock of birds got out of her way . . . She was brown . . . She was golden. It took me a minute to figure out that she was from the aziza. . . The aziza were faeries notorious for not interacting with outsiders.”
  • Maya thinks about grootslang, a creature from one of her father’s stories. Grootslang “looked like a cross between an elephant and a snake. It had leathery black skin and ivory tusks that were venomous.”

Spiritual Content

  • Orishas are both supernatural and spiritual beings. One can pray to an orisha for good luck or wealth. When Maya attends a council meeting of the orishas, she describes them in detail. “A light flashed in front of us, and high-back golden thrones shimmered into existence. The council members sat on them in their semidivine state. . .”
  • The Lord of Shadows is considered a divine being of similar class to the orishas.
  • After learning that she, Frankie, and Eli, are descendants of orishas, Maya wonders if this gives them divine status. “I thought about how the leader of the werehyenas had called us godlings and wondered what it meant. Was it like being a god, but not? Like a pretend god?”
  • Maya is shocked when she learns that her father is a full-blooded orisha named Elegguá. “My father was an orisha—a spirit god, a celestial, and not human.”
  • Maya’s neighbor, another orisha, explains how the universe began. “The universe started as a vast blank slate. It existed without space, time, mass, or depth. It was endless and boundless and void. No one can say how long it remained that way before becoming aware, but soon after, it grew restless. Once the first sparks of matter and antimatter cropped up, the universe found its purpose. It would create. The universe birthed planets, moons, comets, asteroids, black holes, and stars. The things it made hummed with energy, and in their song came the universe’s first and oldest name, Olodumare…” The story continues for a few pages, but the most important part is that Maya’s father created the veil.

by Madison Shooter

 

Gargantis

Herbie Lemon and Violet Parma team up once again to solve another Lost-and-Foundery mystery. This time, the outcome of the case has implications on the entire island. Eerie-on-Sea is under attack as a violent storm, nicknamed Gargantis, tears through town, destroying buildings and causing stormquakes (earthquakes caused by the storm).

Amid the chaos, another case presents itself to Herbie. Mrs. Fossil has found a mysterious bottle on the beach. It seems to move on its own and has indecipherable ancient writing on its side. Everyone claims to be the bottle’s rightful owner. Dr. Thalassi and Mrs. Fossil want it for their respective collections. The town’s fishermen say it is theirs due to the presence of their own ancient language on the side. However, a frightening man in a hood makes it clear that he wants the bottle more than anyone and he is willing to sacrifice everyone in Eerie-on-Sea to get it.

Some want to discover what the writing on the bottle means, what fairy-like creature is living inside, and why the man in the hood wants it so badly. They seek the help of Blaze Westerley, a young, outcasted fisherman. Blaze’s uncle was recently lost at sea while investigating the ancient legends of the Eerie fishermen. Soon, Herbie and Violet realize the legends may be more relevant to the case than they initially believed. In fact, if they can crack the case of the fish-shaped bottle, they may be able to save Eerie rock from the terrible Gargantis.

Gargantis shows off the charming relationship between Herbie and Violet as they take on the town’s adults. Blaze Westerley is a welcome addition as he diversifies the group. Blaze is a little unsure of himself, but confident in his uncle’s mission. He, too, is a bit of a “lost thing” like Violet and Herbie were before him. The trio works well together, and each person has skills and knowledge that contribute to solving the mystery.

The book dives a bit deeper into Herbie’s backstory. He must reconcile his fear of the sea with his love of finding homes for lost things. Since the bottle came from the ocean and most of the people who want it are fishermen, Herbie spends a lot of time doing things that scare him, such as being on boats far away from shore. Herbie’s experiences develop the theme that sometimes we must do what scares us in order to help ourselves and others.

The story also highlights how a new perspective can bring the truth to light. Without Blaze’s input or Violet’s seemingly “bonkers” ideas, the mystery would not have been solved. Taylor also applies this idea to Herbie’s book from the mermonkey. Herbie believes that the cover of the book is a message that he will meet his end at the bottom of the sea. However, he never reads the contents, which say something different. In the end, the townspeople gather and give their own interpretation of the cover, none of which end with Herbie drowning. The book, therefore, reinforces the importance of perspective and the value of individuality.

The fast-paced book introduces new characters and interweaving plotlines. For this reason, it is recommended that readers not read Gargantis as a standalone. In addition, the resolution may fall flat for those who did not read the first book, Malamander. Black and white illustrations bring some added visualization to some of the scenes. Plus, the characters are just as charming and quirky as before. If readers enjoyed Malamander, they are likely to enjoy Herbie and Violet’s deep dive into the ancient fishermen’s legends.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • A mechanical shell attacks Violet and Herbie. Herbie fends it off by throwing “the bucket at [it], knocking it to the ground.” Violet “wrestles with it” trying to get it to stop.
  • Violet tells Herbie that the fishermen cannot fish in the storm. She explains, “The one motorboat that tried got its engine exploded by lightning.” She then says, “One fisherman has drowned already.”
  • Amid the argument, Herbie fears “some sort of riot is about to break out in the hotel.”
  • Herbie narrates that when Lady Kraken, the owner of the hotel, slaps him “on the back. It feels like being hit with a sock full of dry twigs.”
  • Violet shows Herbie an image in a book that depicts a large creature who “uses its giant flippers to smash the town to pieces, while lots of little medieval people run away screaming.”
  • The book Herbie receives from the mermonkey, a prophetic machination who gives customers a book, has a picture that shows “tiny figures of men and women and children writhe and twist as they sink down, down, down to the depths.” Herbie thinks this describes his fate as well as his unknown family’s. The cover also shows these bodies being received by “the white tentacles, feelers, and claws of the abyssal horrors that lurk at the cold, dark bottom of the sea.”
  • The clockwork crab makes “steel blades slide out from each of [its] four raised arms.” It aims for Herbie. Herbie wonders if there is a rule for his profession about smashing “a lost object to smithereens if it tries to pinch your stuff and then attacks you with swords.” When the clockwork crab attacks, “Herbie experiences a sudden flash of pain” and then a thin line of blood runs down the back of his hand.” Herbie gives “the blasted thing an almighty kick up the trumpet” and knows “with certainty that something has broken” after hearing it land with a “PANG!
  • Herbie keeps a sprightning, a fairy-like creature that can produce lightning, under his cap. He feels “a small explosion” at one point, followed by “smoke and the unmistakable stench of singed hair.”
  • Without a word, the man in the deep hood, nicknamed Deep Hood, threatens Mr. Mollusc, Herbie’s boss. He merely shows him what is under the hood, which is enough to make Mr. Mollusc go “so white he’s almost see-through” and agree to the Deep Hood’s terms.
  • When faced with two difficult possibilities, Herbie outlines his choices. He says he can either “get on the boat — despite the mermonkey’s warning — and run the risk of a watery end on the cold, dark bottom of the sea, or don’t get on the boat, and face the certainty of being nabbed by a bunch of angry fishermen with ropes and knives.” He chooses the boat.
  • Blaze explains that his uncle was once “swept overboard and swallowed into the swirling mouth of the Vortiss,” a whirlpool in the ocean, but he survived. His uncle told his fellow fishermen that he saw “the wrecks of all the ships the Vortiss has gobbled up over hundreds of years. And the skeletons of all the men who were gobbled with them, too.”
  • Blaze explains that his uncle wanted to return to Vortiss to investigate, so he took Deep Hood with him. However, they began to argue. Blaze remembers that his “Uncle had his ax out.” Then, Deep Hood threw something like a bomb. Blaze was “thrown to the deck.” That was the last he saw of his uncle, as the rope connecting the two men to the ship was “cut clean through.”
  • Blaze sees Deep Hood and blames him for his uncle’s fate. Blaze then “leaps forward, the wrench raised like a club.” Deep Hood uses his tentacle to ward the boy off, “smashing Blaze in the face.”
  • Herbie’s sprightning makes his cap explode, shocking Deep Hood’s hand, and causing Deep Hood to be “hurled backward.”
  • When a fisherman, named Lanky Beard, questions Deep Hood’s intentions, Deep Hood’s tentacle “shoots out and strikes Lanky Beard in the face.” It then “[grabs] his beard and [yanks] his head down onto a tabletop.” Finally, the tentacle punches the man’s feet out from under him, causing him to go “down with a sickening crunch, and [stay] down.”
  • Deep Hood is the clockwork crab’s master. He becomes disappointed in it and “kicks the shell… a strong, cruel kick, designed to punish.” Soon other fishermen join in, kicking the shell around in what Herbie describes as a “spiteful game.”
  • The sprightning defends Herbie and Violet by shooting lightning at a fisherman. “The man is thrown off his feet as electricity scorches the moldy wallpaper right down the corridor.”
  • When trying to leave the pub, Deep Hood’s tentacle yanks Violet back. Herbie frees her when he “takes the door in both hands and slams it shut with all [his] force on the tentacle,” which is followed by a “sickening, rubbery crunch—and a roar of pain from Deep Hood.”
  • The sprightning uses its lightning on Mr. Mollusc, sending it “crackling up Mr. Mollusc’s arm and down into his trousers.” This causes him to “go stiff as a board and fall over backward in a puff of smoke.”
  • Deep Hood discovers Herbie and Violet eavesdropping. Herbie sees “Violet’s terrified face as the tentacle shoves her into the open sarcophagus and slams the lid shut.” Herbie also says, “I remember the smashing of glass in the tower as I was pulled out a window and carried away into the night.” He does not remember anything other than that, as he assumes he has been “knocked out.”
  • The fishermen use a rope to restrain Herbie. Herbie narrates, “It’s pulled tight, trapping my arms, and I’m jerked off my feet and out through the metal door.”
  • The fishermen and Deep Hood launch their first attack on Gargantis, using Herbie as bait. Herbie sees the weapons the fishermen and Deep Hood plan to use on Gargantis. It is a gun, “the type once used to hunt whales” with spears as projectiles that have bombs attached. The fishermen fire multiple times at Gargantis. The fishermen continue to attack the creature and use Herbie and the sprightning as bait. Herbie describes that the boat is “struck violently,” but everyone aboard is unharmed. Herbie sees that the fishermen are now armed with “axes and spears.” Herbie observes as “Gargantis attacks” the fishermen’s boat. Herbie thinks that by now all the fishermen are “down to the ocean floor.” It is later discovered that they all survived. This first attack takes place over 22 pages.
  • Herbie, Violet, and Blaze come across a swarm of sprightnings that singe Violet’s hair.
  • Later, Deep Hood attacks Gargantis again. Herbie sees the spear land “in the neck, embedding itself deep,” followed by “a sickening ball of fire that bursts out of the storm fish’s mouth” when the bomb explodes. Gargantis “writhes and twists, shrieking with pain and spouting flame.” This wound is nearly fatal to the monster, and the characters believe she is dead.
  • In response to Gargantis’s injury, the sprightnings “swarm around the iron fishing boat, darting and zapping at the fishermen and running in hot angry arcs across its surface.” The sprightnings’ electricity causes an explosion that results in the loss of the power engines, leaving the fishermen victim to the whirlpool, Vortiss. This second attack takes place over two pages.
  • When both the sprightning and Gargantis are close to death, Deep Hood launches another attack. Deep Hood explains that he wants Gargantis’s “carcass” for his potion. The Westerleys and Deep Hood grow increasingly angry with each other. Deep Hood calls Blaze to fight. Deep Hood “punches Squint in the face” and throws an ax at Herbie and Violet, but misses. In the final moments of this encounter, Gargantis returns, and Deep Hood is swallowed by her. This final attack takes place over six pages.
  • Squint tells the story of what happened on the day he was pulled into Vortiss. He remembers that Eels “threw the bomb . . . at his boat.” That act made Squint realize that Eels “wanted to kill us, so that no one else would know he was here, or how to find the Vortiss”. Later Eels “threw another bomb, right at Gancy’s head” and “seemed desperate to kill her before she could wake.”
  • Herbie identifies the remains of Saint Dismal by the features of the skeleton. He sees that, “On the chin of the skull, attached to scraps of mummified skin, is a long dangling beard that reaches all the way to his bony toes.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • The fishermen frequent a pub in which they drink “pints of Clammy Dodger.”
  • Blaze says his uncle was “brought . . . back to life with brandy and a slap.”
  • Herbie describes that in winter, it is normal to see the fishermen at the pub drinking beer and smoking pipes.
  • Violet refers to some “drunken sailors.”
  • Lady Kraken has a “long-stemmed glass with a little golden wine inside.”
  • Dr. Thalassi “prescribed [Lady Kraken] an ointment” for her tentacle growth.
  • Herbie explains how the fishermen’s behavior at the pub changes when the tourists leave for the colder season. He says, “Pipes are smoked once more as sea songs are sung and beer is spilled and fights erupt, and Boadicea Bates presides over it all.”

Language

  • Some of the characters are called ridiculous, crazy, annoying, a fool, and other similar terms.
  • Fishermen often say phrases like, “Bless his Beard,” and, “By Dismal’s beard.”
  • Herbie wants to know why Deep Hood “[had] to be so creepy about” turning in a lost object.
  • Herbie references Deep Hood to Mollusc, calling him one of “the strangest ones.”
  • Herbie thinks only “weirdos and crackpots” would visit Eerie-on-Sea in the winter.
  • Herbie mentally refers to the clockwork crab as a “stupid shell.”
  • Mollusc tells Dr. Thalassi to “take this frightful object away,” which turns out to be Mrs. Fossil caught in a net. He later calls her a “scruffy person.”
  • Lady Kraken calls Herbie a “dunderbrain.”
  • Herbie mishears Lady Kraken when she is brushing her teeth. She says she has yet to “[brush her] backside…the backside of [her] toosh.” She means to say tooth, but due to the foam in her mouth, the joke refers to her bottom.
  • The phrases “how on earth” and “bladderwracks” are used as exclamations.
  • Herbie occasionally uses the word “blasted” as a descriptor for frustrating objects.
  • Herbie’s narration calls Deep Hood the “awful man.”
  • Mrs. Fossil refers to Sebastian Eels as, “That rotter.”
  • Herbie sees a fisherman outside of the bathroom “doing up his fly.”
  • Deep Hood calls Blaze “dim-witted.”

Supernatural

  • Herbie encounters a clockwork crab, a machine that looks like a hermit crab. The crab seems to act autonomously. Herbie says, “I don’t see how a clockwork hermit crab, no matter how complex, can want things for itself.”
  • The book’s plot centers around the legend of Gargantis, a sea storm monster that travels through both the sky and water. The saying goes, “Gargantis sleeps, Eerie keeps . . . Gargantis wakes, Eerie quakes and falls into the sea.” Herbie describes the storm as “a vast creature—with the head of an anglerfish and dozens of fins along its sinewy body.” It also “is wreathed in storm clouds and lightning that seems to pour off its fins.”
  • The book revisits the mermonkey contraption from the first installment. The machine picks a book that it feels the customer needs to read. Herbie explains that “some people have only to touch the hat in the creature’s hand to set off the mechanism and be dispensed a book.”
  • The characters encounter a “fish-shaped bottle.” Within the bottle is a creature called a sprightning. The sprightnings are fairy-like creatures who can produce lightning, glow, and fly. Herbie sees that “two electrical arcs flicker out from the figure’s back, forming shapes that look for all the world like wings.”
  • When someone mentions the word “dismal,” “the storm spews lightning and thunder once more.” Herbie thinks the weather is “conjured by these words.”
  • Erwin, the cat, speaks again.
  • Deep Hood has a pink tentacle that he uses to attack his enemies. Deep Hood seems to have a supernatural sense of smell.
  • Lady Kraken is given a gold tincture made from the flesh of Gargantis that heals her incurable legs. Herbie watches as the “golden liquid . . . turns purple and strange.” She drinks it and temporarily can walk.
  • After the language Eerie script is decoded, Violet discovers the remainder of the saying regarding Gargantis and Eerie Rock. It continues, “Gargantis dies, Eerie dies, and all falls into the sea.” It turns out that Gargantis has “been holding [Eerie Rock] up all these years” and that Eerie’s stormquakes have been the result of Gargantis leaving her cavern to try to find her lost sprightning.
  • The sprightnings have the ability to “signal” to Gargantis to help their queen get back to them.
  • Squint explains the relationship between Gargantis and the queen sprightning. “The sprightning gives light to the storm fish, and Gargantis gives the sprightning electrical power in return, so she can breed her swarm. They bind forever and should never be separated for long.” They must reunite the two creatures to save their lives.
  • Once Deep Hood is revealed as Sebastian Eels, he shares that the tincture he offered to Lady Kraken allowed him to regrow the hand he lost in the previous book.
  • Eels has “dozens of little pink feelers” that “clutch at his lips and gums.” He also has gills.
  • Herbie narrates, “There’s a rushing sound as air is drawn into [Gargantis’s] mouth, and I sense her long body inflating and filling the cave beneath Eerie Rock completely.” She returns to her post holding Eerie Rock up.

Spiritual Content

  • The story refers to the legend of Saint Dismal, an Eerie-specific tale of the island’s “first Fisherman.” He is the “patron saint of calamitous weather and first fisherman of Eerie-on-Sea.” He is portrayed as having a “strange and holy light over his head,” which eventually is revealed to be a sprightning. They call this his “Gargantic Light.”
  • Violet reads that the people believed the sprightning to be a “miracle” because it was accompanied by an abundant catch of fish. In addition, the fishermen often use the phrase, “Bless his beard” in reference to their saint.
  • When Erwin, the cat, turns counterclockwise three times, the fishermen believe that a “bad omen” is upon them. The saying goes, “When Eerie cat turns widdershins thrice, ’tis dreary luck for men and mice.”
  • The fishermen are “extremely superstitious. When Herbie asks why the fishermen did not try to stop Erwin from turning, Violet says, “He who touches Bad Luck Cat will nary catch a cod nor sprat!”
  • Blaze explains that the whirlpool Vortiss is said to be “the place where storms are born” and has “strange lights and treacherous winds.” He also says that Saint Dismal talked of an “underwater world beneath Eerie Rock, where lie the wrecks of all the ships the Vortiss has gobbled up over hundreds of years.”
  • Gargantis is “a storm fish from the lost tales of creation” and “a creature from the beginning of the world, who should endure till its end.”

by Jennaly Nolan

Monstrous

The city of Bryre suffers under the magic of an evil wizard. All the young girls get sick because of his curse and disappear without a trace. No one is allowed outside at night, but for Kymera, night is the only time she can enter the city. Kymera was a victim of the wizard, but her father brought her back to life, and he replaced her burnt body parts with the remains of other girls and modified her body with animal body parts. According to her father, people would not understand her wings, her claws, or her spiky tail. They would not comprehend her purpose: to rescue the missing girls from the wizard’s prison.

Even though she was cautious, Ren, a boy from the city, sees Kymera and leaves a perfect rose for her every evening. Over time, they become friends, and as they talk, Kymera realizes that Ren knows about the missing girls’ plight, the wizard, and the evil magic encroaching on Bryre. And what he knows will change her life.

Set in, near, and around the cities of Bryre and Belladoma, each chapter follows Kymera’s perspective, and the first page is decorated with shifting side profiles of Kymera, her father, Ren, and Batu, a rock dragon, allowing the reader to visualize the characters. However, each chapter details one or more days in her life, which leads to the unique chaptering of non-consecutive days: the chapter format does not make the story confusing. Instead, the chapter format assists in thoughtfully unveiling the setting as Kymera becomes accustomed to her new body and old memories.

Due to her interactions with Ren, Kymera rethinks everything she had known about herself, her father, and her relations with the city. Though Ren and Kymera have a wonderful friendship, their relationship does not extend from their mutual feelings as allies. At first, she is cautious of Ren because she does not know how he will react to her animal traits. Eventually, Kymera fully trusts Ren as she learns the truth about her mission. Despite her initial ignorance about the city of Bryre, Kymera is a fascinating narrator, but her monologues about her true nature make the story drag.

Monstrous takes pieces from classic fairy tales and uses them to make a compelling, unique story. Readers will take away one lesson from the story—know who you can trust. For instance, the king and queen of Bryre make a deal with a wizard to protect Bryre from an unnamed city but decline to compensate the wizard when he asks for their first-born child as payment. Ten years later, he betrays the king by killing the queen and his first-born child—Rosabel.

Rumpelstiltskin is the inspiration behind their deal; The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the inspiration behind its consequences. Readers will enjoy pointing out the fairy tale inspirations and figuring out the true villain’s identity within Kymera’s limited perspective. There are few scenes with graphic violence and many acts of magic scattered throughout the story. All in all, this debut novel by MarcyKate Connolly stands out as an original story while feeling like a classic. Readers who enjoy reading fairytale-inspired stories will also enjoy Royal Academy Rebels Series by Jen Calonita.

 Sexual Content

  • Ren leaves perfect red roses for Kymera, but her father “would not be happy that a boy is leaving [Kymera] gifts.”
  • When Kymera tests her abilities for the first time, a man approaches her and asks her to take off her cloak. “His gait appears nonchalant, but it is faster than I think. . . Why did he [Father] leave me to face this unsettling man alone?”

Violence

  • Father tells Kymera that a powerful wizard killed her mother. “Your mother attempted to stop him, and the wizard murdered her in the ensuing struggle.” Later, Father elaborates, “The queen [Kymera’s mother] tried to block my path to the princess. I killed her. . . I killed [the princess], too. I took [the princess’s] body and disappeared.”
  • Kymera hunts a rabbit for dinner. “I pounce, my teeth tearing into the soft flesh of its neck.” She does not know if she was meant to kill the rabbit. Then, she returns to her cottage with the “limp, bloody creature.” This scene continues for two pages.
  • There used to be a lot of magical creatures, but several species have been hunted to extinction. Father says, “The last griffin died more than a century ago, and dragons have been hunted to the brink of extinction for their magic powers. . .” When Kymera meets Batu, he adds, “[Wizards] take our blood, they take our magic.” Magical creatures’ extinctions are mentioned throughout the book.
  • Kymera fights a multitude of guards in the wizard’s prison. “Two guards peel off the wall and hurl themselves at me . . . I duck and sting them. . . others succumb to the effects of Father’s weapon. . .” She harms the guards.
  • A corpse of “the sickly girl…lies inside . . . the cold box.” Father said the young girl was buried in Belladoma. Kymera wonders why the sickly girl’s body was in Father’s basement instead.
  • When they see she killed a girl, the townspeople call for Kymera’s murder. “The crowd chants as a tradesman carries the limp body up to a platform in the middle of the square . . .” Oliver, a friend of Ren’s parents, attempts to calm the rioters and clear Kymera’s name. This scene continues for seven pages.
  • When Kymera and Ren are leaving Belladoma, King Ensel and Albin, his captain, fight them. “The blade sings past my [Kymera’s] arm and cuts a few feathers off my left wing.” After the Sonzeeki, an ancient, tentacled sea creature, eats Albin, Kymera hurls the king into the sea, and “the sea catches him in its maw and swallows.”
  • A man abducts Emmy, a missing girl from Bryre, and Kymera chases after him. When she finds him, she swoops down, pins him to the ground, and kills him. “The flame of rage in me explodes into a bonfire. . . My body acts of its own accord.” After she kills him, she finds Emmy dead from a blade embedded in her back. “[The crossbow] must have been set with the blade. . . One flick of his wrist and she was dead.”
  • When the wizard and King Ensel gather their troops in Bryre, Kymera gives chase. She stings King Ensel “until his shirt is shredded and bloody, and his eyes are dull.”
  • Kymera and Batu are fighting the wizard. The wizard kills Batu with vines and “drops of blue, glittering liquid—dragon’s blood—dot the ground. [Batu] stops moving.” Then, Kymera fights the wizard by herself. She kills him by dropping him “into his own funnel cloud. . . Then it spits him out . . . in seconds his body crumbles to dust.” Including the initial encounter, the final fight lasts for twelve pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Kymera’s barbed tail can put “people to sleep.” She frequently uses this function.
  • Kymera uses “vials of sleeping powder” to put the guards to sleep.

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • Magic is used by wizards and magical creatures, and the most prominent type of magic is dark magic. “Dark magic is the most powerful in shadows and moonlight. . .”
  • The wizard created a curse that only affects young girls and is transmitted like a disease.
  • Batu and Kymera make “a blood oath” so they can protect each other from the dark wizard. The spell prevents Batu and Kymera from mentioning their names and identities in front of individuals outside of their blood oath. Batu says, “We must keep each other secret to keep each other safe.”
  • Besides dragons, a lot of magical creatures exist, such as “centaurs, fauns, and mermaids.”
  • The dark wizard planted vines that would grow all over Bryre. “A huge gnarl of vines and thorns rises in front of us. It appears to be swallowing a building whole.”
  • Kymera’s father set up warding charms to “prevent anyone who would do the city harm from entering.”
  • King Ensel angered an ancient sea creature, the Sonzeeki, and “if he [King Ensel] doesn’t send a young girl off the cliff at the apex of each full moon, the Sonzeeki floods the city.”
  • The evil wizard revives King Ensel without inflicting any ill effects.

Spiritual Content

  • During one of Kymera’s conversations with Batu, he says, “Humans, dragons, hybrids–we are all animals in some form. And we all return to the universe when we pass from this life.”

by Jemima Cooke

Castle Hangnail

When twelve-year-old Molly appears on their doorstep claiming to be the new Master of the castle, every minion in Castle Hangnail is doubtful. Molly’s short height and politeness are different from the tall, intimidating Masters of the past. However, the castle needs a Master or else the Board of Magic will decommission the castle, leaving the minions without a home. Molly assures the minions that she is a bona-fide Wicked Witch and begins completing the Tasks required by the Board of Magic, leaving everyone with hope. But Molly has a few secrets—the biggest one being that she is not who she claims to be.

Castle Hangnail uses tropes of old-school baddies to create a humorous story that will leave readers laughing. Molly hides her secrets as she is learning magic, casting magic, and imitating the wickedness of the previous Masters. Majordomo, the head of the minions, finds out that Molly was not the intended Master and confronts her about her claim to Castle Hangnail. When the intended Master, a Sorceress named Eudaimonia, arrives to take the castle by force, Molly and the minions work together to defeat her.

At Castle Hangnail, Molly interacts with many magical creatures, all of which are based on the supernatural and fantastic. To add to the zaniness, stories about the former Masters are sprinkled throughout the book. At one point, Majordomo talks about the previous Vampire Lord, who “liked to keep the hearts in jars in the basement, but he was rather old-fashioned.” Stories about the former Masters and snippets about the magical creatures add levity and humor to the story. Readers will enjoy the humor of the story as well as how Molly finishes the Tasks and defeats Eudaimonia.

Fun black and white illustrations of the characters and scenery add to the hilarity of the book, alongside two-page spreads so readers can visualize the happenings in Castle Hangnail. The blend of text and pictures help to keep younger readers engaged with the story. The beginning is slow because of the initial worldbuilding, but the interactions between Molly, the minions, and the villagers keep the action going. Castle Hangnail shows the value of standing up against bullies and will engage even the most reluctant readers. Although Castle Hangnail is a stand-alone title, readers will be asking for a continuation of Molly’s adventures. Readers who enjoy Castle Hangnail may also want to try Ursula Vernon’s series Dragonbreath.

Sexual Content

  • Lord Edward, an enchanted suit of armor, remarks that Miss Handlebram, the gardener, is a “fine figure of a woman.”

Violence

  • Angus, the son of the cook at Castle Hangnail, suggests that Molly should cause a ruckus for Old Man Harrow because Old Man Harrow “beats his donkey.”
  • After Miss Handlebram stood up for Molly, Eudaimonia “froze Miss Handlebram in ice.” Later, Molly and the rest of the minions defrost Miss Handlebram, so Eudaimonia “zapped Majordomo” because he was the head of the minions and betrayed Eudaimonia’s trust.
  • After seeing Old Man Harrow punch his donkey “between the eyes,” Molly turns the donkey into a dragon by saying, “Accreus Illusus Equine Accomplicia Margle Fandango” while holding a sprig of moonwort. Molly expected the spell to last for a minute, but it lasted for “seven minutes and forty-three seconds.” The dragon “tore at the stack of firewood with its claws” while Old Man Harrow hid in one of the animals’ stalls. Then, the dragon smashed its tail “through an old water trough” and scorched the roof when it learned it could “breathe fire.” Molly grabbed the dragon’s attention, calmed it down by scratching it “behind its ears,” and takes the donkey off “[Old Man Harrow’s] hands.” The scuffle between Old Man Harrow and the dragon lasts for four pages.
  • Freddy Wisteria, a real estate developer, tried to throw a rock into a window but “dropped the rock on his own foot.” He ran away when Molly threatened to turn him to the police for questioning.
  • When comparing the different Masters of Castle Hangnail, a minion comments that “the old Vampire Lord used to drain the blood of villagers.”
  • Gordon, one of Eudaimonia’s minions, knocked over Lord Edward, leaving the suit of armor in “multiple pieces.”
  • To gain the title of Master of Castle Hangnail, Eudaimonia and Molly fight in “a formal challenge.” Throughout the fight, Molly uses the many spells she learned from the Little Gray Book and Eudaimonia shoots bolts “of ice” from her wand, which freezes her targets. First, Molly turns the stone under Eudaimonia’s feet into cheese by yelling, “Grappa Electroi Caseus Formatus” while holding mint leaves. The minions help as well; she transforms Bugbane into a small dragon by reciting, “Accreus Illusus Chiropteran Accomplicia Margle Fandango” as she holds a piece of his fur. Bugbane sets “the bodyguard’s hair on fire” and breathes fire everywhere, but Eudaimonia shoots at the dragon-bat. Molly notices Eudaimonia “keeps using [Molly’s] magic against [her]” and she stops Eudaimonia from taking her magic by picturing “a silver cord coming out of her chest and sliced her hand down across it” while the Clockwork Bees distracted Eudaimonia. Angus “dove between Molly and the blast of ice” but was cold and took a shot. The other minions handle “[Eudaimonia’s] minions”. Finally, Molly uses the shadow spell. The shadow breaks Eudaimonia’s wand and drags Eudaimonia into a large pool of shadows called the “Kingdom of Shadows.” Molly stops the shadow by jabbing a forefinger with a pin. “She held out her hand. A single drop of blood fell onto the mint leaves” and offered the bloodied herbs to the shadow, ending the fight.  The fight lasts for 11 pages.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Majordomo gives a cup of hot milk and “brown flecks” to Gordon, one of Eudaimonia’s minions, to sedate him.

Language

  • When Majordomo admits to the rest of the minions that Molly lied to her parents about where she was going to camp for the summer, Majordomo exclaims, “For the love of Hecate . . .”
  • When Molly’s sister arrives at Castle Hangnail, she remarks, “Hecate’s ghost! She is the good twin, isn’t she?”
  • The Cursed Beastlord, one of the previous Masters of Castle Hangnail, gave Majordomo the name “Wretch.”
  • Miss Handlebram calls Eudaimonia, the intended Master of the Castle, a “nasty girl.” In return. Eudaimonia calls Miss Handlebram an “interfering old Majordomo biddy.”
  • Freddy Wisteria tries to force the townsfolk into selling their homes to him and attempts to buy Castle Hangnail, so Molly calls him a creep.
  • When hearing a noise from downstairs, Majordomo says, “Blast.”
  • Eudaimonia calls Angus “stupid” when he asked about the food for her cockatrices.
  • Eudaimonia refers to Castle Hangnail as a “pathetic run-down little backwater.”

Supernatural

  • To prove herself to the Board of Magic, the association that gives the Masters places to own, Molly must “smite” or use magic to punish people, and “blight” or use magic to harm objects or plants.
  • Molly uses the spells she learned from spell books and from Eudaimonia. She can make a ward by pinning a sprig of rosemary near a door and saying “Zizzible zazzible…watch-and-report.” The smell of rosemary fills her nose when someone steps through the door. In addition, she “could start a fire with her thumbnail…get tangles out of the worst tangled hair…turn a leaf into a teacup, and a teacup into a leaf.”
  • Molly can turn invisible by holding her breath, and the only side effect is light-headedness.
  • Molly casts a spell to allow her to talk to the bats in “the belfry.” To cast the spell, she holds the fur or feather of an animal and says, “Avack! Auilriuan! Arwiggle!” She uses the spell again to speak to the moles. There are no ill effects with this spell.
  • Molly gives some of her magic to Stonebreaker, a mole shaman, so the moles can summon Wormrise, a “great spirit,” for luck and fortune.
  • Eudaimonia and Molly use rosemary in “an alarm spell” to alert them to intruders in Castle Hangnail.
  • Molly gives the power of speech to a statue who “muttered insults. . .in Latin, so they sounded very grand and impressive.”
  • During Eudaimonia and Molly’s formal challenge for Castle Hangnail, Molly turns the goldfish into a “sea serpent.”
  • Molly animates her shadow with a shadow spell by reciting, “Shanks and shadows—up and down—inner and outer and magic unbound!” She can command her shadow to dance; she uses the animated shadow once to intimidate Freddy Wisteria when he is caught breaking and entering and attempting arson on her barn, and once against Eudaimonia during their “formal challenge”.

Spiritual Content

  • Molly’s sister “sings in the church choir.”

by Jemima Cooke

Malamander

Twelve-year-old Herbie Lemon has always been fond of lost things. After all, as an infant, he was a “lost thing.” Herbie was found and given a home in the town of Eerie-on-Sea, where he was eventually put in charge of the Lost-and-Foundery at the Grand Nautilus Hotel. His job now is to keep track of every lost item in the hotel and, when possible, find its home.

One day, a new kind of lost thing arrives, inspiring quite an eventful case for the young detective-of-sorts. Violet Parma puts Herbie in charge of helping her track down her missing parents, who became “lost” when she was an infant while staying at the Grand Nautilus. Herbie reluctantly takes the case, and the pair works together, discovering that one legend from the town’s past may have more to do with the Parmas’ disappearance than they could have imagined.

The Parma mystery leads the duo to the malamander, a mythic creature that supposedly lives in the water surrounding Eerie-on-Sea. The malamander only comes inland once a year to lay its wish-granting egg. The power of the egg draws a variety of characters into the fray, including a gruff man with a boat hook for a hand. Herbie and Violet must consult the eclectic townspeople and watch their backs as they work to uncover the mysteries which are hidden in the mist of Eerie-on-Sea.

Taylor wonderfully builds the world of Eerie-on-Sea. From the very first chapter, it is clear Eerie-on-Sea is no ordinary island. It is home to ancient legends regarding the existence of sea monsters, which Herbie and Violet discover to be more fact than fiction. The legends– and the people who tell them– are enthralling, and each person is essential to the story being told. By the end of the novel, readers will feel as if they were on the island themselves.

Herbie is a loveable narrator who provides much needed information about the culture of Eerie-on-Sea. Herbie’s friendship with Violet also helps readers understand the mysteries of such a place. She is new to the island, as is the audience, allowing readers to identify with Violet as they learn about the stories which the townspeople know well. The balance between Herbie and Violet is engaging from their first meeting. Violet is a go-getter, who thinks quickly and is strong-willed. Herbie, while confident in some moments, is much quieter and cautious.

The malamander’s egg is central to many of the characters’ motivations, and Taylor’s story touches on the harmful nature of greed that has lasting effects it can have on others. For example, the legend of Captain K demonstrates how the captain’s desire for the egg causes his entire crew to be lost to the malamander. Captain K wishes for eternal life, and while he gets what he wished for, he becomes a shell of a man. Consequently, Captain K’s family spends generations trying to fix his mistakes. On the other hand, Herbie acts as a counter to this greed. Herbie’s job is dedicated to helping others find what they have lost. His decision to help Violet as well as his concern for the townspeople teach readers that selflessness and caring for others can lead to happiness.

The author occasionally uses advanced vocabulary, but the context clues provided make Malamander a good option for children looking to learn new words. Black and white illustrations bring the quirky characters to life; the illustrations are used periodically to aid in the visualization of some of the more significant moments in the story. Young readers who love mysteries and myths will enjoy Malamander as the story creates an interesting setting that has endearing characters and a gripping plot.

Sexual Content

  • Mrs. Fossil, a beachcomber, thinks she has some “beach finds” which would “suit a young man looking for something for that special someone in his life.” She assumes Violet and Herbie are romantically involved.
  • After hugging Herbie, Violet “looks a bit embarrassed and tries to hide it by punching [Herbie] on the arm.”

Violence

  • A man has a “large iron boat hook, ending in a long gleaming spike” for a hand. He is called “Boat Hook Man.”
  • When the Boat Hook Man comes looking for Violet in Herbie’s Lost-and-Foundery, he “shoves [Herbie] against the wall as he pushes past.”
  • Boat Hook Man uses his hook to break into the chest where Violet is hiding. “He raises his spike and brings it down with a sickening thud, driving it deep into the lid of the chest.” When he cannot find her, Herbie says the Boat Hook Man “[goes] berserk.” Herbie narrates, “He starts ransacking my cellar, sweeping his massive arms from side to side.”
  • Violet’s history becomes a large part of the story. She was “found abandoned” as a baby. Her parents left behind only “two pairs of shoes . . . left neatly on the harbor wall.” There were also “footprints in the sand, leading from the harbor wall to the sea.”
  • Herbie’s cap almost never cooperates when he tries to put it on his head. At one point he narrates “the elastic strap pings and nearly takes [his] eye out.”
  • Violet tells Herbie that “a fork bounced off the wall behind [her]” when she ran out of the hotel kitchen, where she was not supposed to be. Herbie knows that these were the actions of the head chef who “guards his kitchen like a fortress.”
  • In Herbie’s lost and found system, if red lines are crossing out a name, that means “the owners were declared dead.” Violet’s parents’ entry is crossed out in red, and Herbie apologizes while giving Violet her parents’ lost belongings.
  • Herbie teases his boss, Mr. Mollusc, to the point that he “is close to bursting a blood vessel.”
  • While walking with Violet, Herbie mentally describes how “the snow is like a swarm of icy bees—stinging [their] eyes and trying to get up [their] noses.”
  • Herbie fears he may have seen “a shadow stepping back into a doorway” when he checks to see if he and Violet are being followed.
  • While eating at the diner, Herbie notes, “Outside, where the sea mist is gathering, someone screams.” Herbie and Violet see Boat Hook Man head for the beach, “his long, hooked spike dangling like a weapon.” However, they never find out where he was going, because instead they find Mrs. Fossil, a townsperson, “clutching one arm and sobbing with pain.” Her clothes are “torn to shreds” and “there are angry red marks on her skin.” She had been bit by something with what she calls “teeth like needles.” She passes out.
  • Boat Hook Man sees Violet on the beach and “grabs Violet by her collar, lifting her in the air.” She has a hard time speaking because of where he grabbed her. She is left “clutching her throat.”
  • Herbie says, “I need to get some work done, or Mollusc will have me stewed and served up as today’s special.”
  • Mrs. Fossil receives treatment for her wound and reports that she “can already move [her] fingers again.”
  • Mrs. Fossil tells the children about the legend of the malamander. She says the creature lays an egg and then “devours it.” Since the egg has the power to grant wishes, she explains, many people have sought it. However, she tells them, “Every single one of them . . . gobbled up by the beastie!”
  • Herbie points out “all that’s left of the battleship Leviathan” is in the sea. He says, “It was wrecked years ago.”
  • Boat Hook Man corners Herbie and Violet in the fish shed. They try to escape using a rope, by jumping from the window to a suspended fishing net. Herbie misses the first opportunity for release and is left “dangling, four stories up.” He thinks, “At this point, I can let go of the rope and probably break both my legs, or I can stay dangling where I am and be filleted like a small lemon-flavored herring in a Lost-and-Foundery’s cap.”
  • Just before Boat Hook Man can use his hook to capture Herbie, Violet “strikes Boat Hook Man in the eye” with her book. Violet and Herbie manage to escape, but they fall before they get all the way to the ground. Herbie notes “the air escaping from [his] lungs with an OOF.” Violet hurts her ankle on impact and needs help running away. This event is described over four pages.
  • Jenny, the bookstore owner, explains how Sebastian Eels and Violet’s father knew each other. They were both authors interested in the malamander, and at one point “they went monster hunting together.”
  • The malamander comes to the museum when Herbie and Violet are there. It “slaps the window right in front of us with such force that it shatters.” Herbie feels “points of pain on my hands and face as the pieces cut in.” Then, the creature tries to “throw itself over the edge” of the museum walls, but Violet grabs its tail. Herbie thinks, “All I can see is that if Violet doesn’t let go, she’ll be pulled over the ramparts too, down onto the toothlike steeples of Maw Rocks, far below.”
  • When trying to save Violet, Herbie is dragged hard against the wall.” He cannot yell, because he feels “the air being crushed out of [his] lungs.” When the creature strikes Violet with its tail, they let go and the malamander falls. Herbie expects “to hear a thud, and maybe the crunch of breaking bone” but the creature simply slithers back to the ocean. This encounter is described over two pages.
  • When Herbie and Violet are caught in the museum by its owner, Dr. Thalassi, Herbie notices, “The folded umbrella [the owner] brandished as a weapon is on the desk, too, like a polite threat.”
  • In anger, Dr. Thalassi attempts to justify his luring of the malamander, which caused the attack on Violet. Herbie exclaims, “An experiment that just slashed off half of Vi’s face!” Herbie knows it’s “an exaggeration” but she was injured by the creature.
  • The museum owner tells the story of the Leviathan and its Captain. The captain led his crew into a cavern where “they found a great stinking mound of seaweed, bones, and shipwreck salvage.” They found the malamander and took its egg, causing it to attack the ship. Dr. Thalassi says, “Many lives were lost defending Leviathan against the creature.” Despite the crew’s use of weapons, the monster kept attacking. Dr. Thalassi explains, “Bullets sparked off its scales, leaving scarcely a mark, and its claws could rend iron.”
  • While the Captain was holding the egg, the malamander “delivered a . . . good, hard bite, which injected stinging venom” that numbed the captain. Then, the creature “with a single snap of its jaws tore his right hand—the hand that held the malamander egg—clean off and swallowed it whole.” The story is recounted in seven pages.
  • Herbie notices in the museum, “Above us the skeleton of a whale hangs suspended, and in the cabinets all around, stuffed and desiccated sea creatures peer out at us through glass eyes.”
  • The hotel’s owner, Lady Kraken, says, “I have no doubt [Violet’s dad] wanted the egg, too, and no doubt that the malamander devoured him for his trouble.”
  • Sebastian Eels plans to carry a weapon to confront the malamander. He claims it “will be for protection only, to scare it away if I’m seen.”
  • When Boat Hook Man is arguing with Eels, Eels says, “Don’t you wave that hook at me.” Boat Hook Man then warns Eels that the malamander will kill him if he goes after its egg. Later, Herbie watches as “Eels brings his fist down on the desk.”
  • Sebastian Eels’ plan for the malamander is to “put a dozen harpoons through its stinking fish guts before it can even spit.” If people come to stop him, he will do the same to them. Eels says, “the sea will quickly dispose of the bodies.”
  • While hiding from Sebastian Eels and Boat Hook Man in Eels’ home, Herbie and Violet are caught. Boat Hook Man goes after them, using his hook as a weapon, though he misses Herbie by inches. Erwin the cat protects them by “attacking the old mariner’s head ferociously, raking at [Boat Hook Man] with his claws.” Herbie watches as “instead of blood, only water spouts from the wounds.”
  • Herbie narrates, “the poor cat is flung to one side” by Boat Hook Man. When trying to escape the building, Sebastian Eels uses his harpoon gun multiple times on the children with one missing and “ricocheting back . . . and clonking Boat Hook Man in the face” causing him to fall. He is not fully human, though, so he is not injured when he hits the ground. Another harpoon makes its target, Violet. The harpoon hit the book in Violet’s pocket, narrowly saving her life. The incident occurs over six pages.
  • Herbie says of Eels, “hopefully the big bully will get himself eaten by the monster.”
  • Eels steals an important paper from Violet. When she tries to fight back, “he picks her up with one hand and throws her out of his way.” Erwin comes to the rescue, “hissing as he claws up [Eels’] legs and sinks his teeth into the man’s hand, making him drop the paper.”
  • Eels throws the cat away, and the cat “hits the corner of a bookshelf and . . . falls limply to the ground.” Eels then “brings his fist down on [Herbie’s] head.” This event is described in one page.
  • Eels retells the story of Achilles and the “arrow in the heel that brought about his death.”
  • Violet says to Eels, “I hope the malamander bites your head off.”
  • Eels promises to “wipe [Violet] out of existence and end [her] misery for good” with the power of the malamander egg.
  • Violet discusses the legend of the malamander, including its annual move “near the town to hunt” and lay its egg, which it then “devours.”
  • Aboard the Leviathan, Herbie thinks, “I shrink back into the darkness, still pulled by Violet, desperately hoping it is Violet pulling me and not some flubbery faceless horror from the deep.” Later, he sees actual sea creatures around him and kicks them off.
  • Herbie observes the malamander open “its cavernous tooth-needle mouth and roars an earsplitting, soul-tearing, nightmarish cry of saurian fury.” This is followed by the creature charging the pair. Herbie wonders “if it’s worth fighting for a moment or two of extra life, or if it’s better to just fall down into the water and hope the end comes quickly.” He then remembers Eels’ comment about bodies being disposed by the sea and thinks it could be true, “especially if the bodies are quite small — and devoured by a folkloric fish man in the belly of a sunken warship.” The malamander passes them over in its search for Eels.
  • Herbie sees “human bones” in the malamander’s nest.
  • Eels threatens to shoot Violet with the harpoon gun but does not.
  • In a flashback to Violet’s parents’ disappearance, her dad comes to believe that Eels could be responsible for the infant Violet’s disappearance. He says to his wife, “He said I’d pay a heavy price if I kept my discoveries from him. But surely he wouldn’t . . .”
  • Eels tries to get the egg from Violet. Eels “grabs the egg with one hand and punches Violet in the face with the other.” She falls into the cold water. Herbie dives in after her and wonders “for a moment if I’ve died without noticing” due to the “cold and dark.” When he finds her, “she gasps and coughs.”
  • The malamander resurfaces. “In its claws it is holding the broken body of Boat Hook Man.” Herbie recognizes Boat Hook Man is not dead, but “he has clearly lost the fight with the monster” as his “face is white and awful”.
  • The malamander tries to get its egg back from Eels, but he “shoots it” first. He repeatedly fires and Herbie hears the “th-TOUM” sound the gun makes. Herbie then sees that “the harpoon has buried itself deep between two of the monster’s scales, where — now that we look closely — a slim opening in its armor can be seen.” This opening is the only way the malamander can be killed. The malamander has been shot “straight through its heart” and “with a gurgling sigh, the malamander twitches one last time and then goes still.”
  • After Boat Hook Man was attacked by the malamander, Herbie describes that the creature’s victim “looks awful, his twisted body half submerged, his skin raked over with great gashes and slashes.”
  • Boat Hook Man tells Eels about his pursuit of the egg. He says, “I lost everything — my ship, my fine men, even my family, in the end.”
  • Eels uses the egg to transform malamander into a tentacle-ridden sea creature to restrain Boat Hook Man. “As we watch, the scaly corpse of the monster quivers and splits, and dozens of fleshy tendrils shoot up from it.” Eels then magically replaces Boat Hook Man’s hook with a crab pincer. Boat Hook Man uses it “to cut through one of the tentacles holding him by using his new claw.” In response, Eels turns Boat Hook Man “into a mass of squid and jellyfish and sea slime.”
  • Trying to get the egg away from Eels, Violet shoves him. She then “lands a kick in the man’s face.” Eels tries to shoot Violet at “point-blank range” but there are no harpoons, so it only makes a “fut! Fut!” sound. When Violet gets the egg, Eels pulls “his knife from its sheath.”
  • Eels gets the egg back, but the malamander’s “mouth, lined as before with tooth needles, closes with a sickening crunch over the hand that holds the egg.” The monster drags him under the water and “there’s a ripple or two . . . then there’s nothing”. The entire fight between the malamander, Herbie, Violet, Eels, and Boat Hook Man aboard the Leviathan takes place over 30 pages.
  • Herbie thinks he has drowned aboard the Leviathan. He thinks, “It’s not cold, though, so I guess being as dead as driftwood has an upside.” However, Herbie is warm because he was rescued. He feels the effects of nearly drowning, his “chest and throat feel as if they’re on fire”.

Drugs and Alcohol

  • Mrs. Fossil explains that the town doctor has prevented her from “languishing in a hospital bed somewhere, pumped full of goodness-knows-what.”
  • Violet’s cut is treated with “a wad of cotton, soaked in disinfectant.”
  • In Eels’ house, Herbie sees “an empty bottle of whiskey” on the floor near Violet. She insists she did not drink it and asks him, “Do you think I drink whiskey?”

Language

  • Many of the characters use names such as weasel, fool, stupid, and creep. For example, Herbie calls Mollusc a horrible, hideous man, though not to his face.
  • Herbie narrates that “Lady Kraken is almost a recluse.” Herbie thinks, “The way her wrinkly head emerges from her sumptuous silky gown reminds me of a turtle.” He watches her “clawlike hand” and “wizened eye.”
  • Lady Kraken calls Herbie an “incorrigible dunderbrain.” She also asks if he has “cloth for brains.”
  • Lady Kraken exclaims, “Curse the clouds!”
  • Violet refers to the mermonkey cards as “freaky” and “weird.”
  • Herbie mentally describes the mermonkey as “grotesque” and “ugly.”
  • Violet thinks Eels looks “booky” and he gives her the creeps. Herbie calls him “a bit full of himself.”
  • Mrs. Fossil collects “coprolite” which she explains is “doodah…dino turd…petrified poo.”
  • Herbie thinks Boat Hook Man is an “awful man” and “freaky.”
  • Herbie calls Mollusc “old Mollusc breath.” He then refers to him as “that whiny old whinge-bag.”
  • The characters occasionally “swear” to show honesty. Jenny says Violet’s father “swore blind that he saw things” that were supposed to be only legend, not real.
  • Herbie often internally describes the museum owner as having a “Julius Caesar nose” or a “beaky nose.”
  • Mrs. Fossil uses the expression “goodness-knows-what.”
  • Herbie uses the expression “bladderwracks” occasionally.
  • Eels calls himself “just an old daydreamer” in a disparaging way.
  • Eels uses the expression, “Goodness me.”
  • Herbie calls Eels “Eel Face” in conversation with Violet.
  • Violet asks Herbie if he thought Jenny was a bit “shifty.”
  • Herbie calls himself a “ninny.”
  • Herbie says that he and Violet are “freezing [their] cockles off.”
  • In the story of Captain K, the captain calls his men “cowards” for wanting “to turn back.” They later plead, “for the love of grog, give it back its egg!”
  • The captain calls the malamander “just a dumb animal” and a “fiendish creature.”
  • Herbie calls an action in the story of Captain K “bonkers.” The museum owner agrees and says the captain was “drunk with power.”
  • After his encounter with the malamander, the captain is described as becoming “a ruin of a man, ranting and raving.”
  • Herbie asks himself, “How could I have been so stupid?”
  • Lady Kraken calls the museum owner “sly” and Violet “that sneaky little friend of yours.”
  • Damned is used occasionally. For example, Eels says, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that bleeding-heart Peter stand in my way, even from beyond the grave.”
  • Eels tells Boat Hook Man, “It’s not my fault you didn’t have the wit or the will to use the egg properly.”
  • Eels calls the behavior of the malamander “pathetic” and asks, “doesn’t it just make you want to puke?” He also adds, “But also, how very unsurprising that a softy like Peter Parma would be the one to discover such a ridiculous fact.”
  • Herbie assumes Eels believes “no one in their right mind would crawl into such a small and dismal hole.”
  • Hell is used several times. For example, Herbie calls the shipwreck “watery hell.”
  • Violet’s dad uses the expression “dear gods.”
  • Eels calls Violet “wretched, unimaginative child” and “as weak and pathetic as [her] father.”

Supernatural

  • The legend of the malamander is central to the story. According to the townspeople’s beliefs, “It’s a monstrous creature — half man, half fish, half goodness-knows-what” with “rows of quivering spines.” The creature lays a “magical egg” once a year. The egg’s abilities are described as the “grants-you-your-dearest-wish kind.”
  • The malamander can climb walls and swim very well, as well as survive long falls. The malamander “was not invincible . . . it could be killed” by attacking the small opening to its heart. Eels says, “the monster opens its heart when it lays its egg. Quite literally — the armored plates over its heart fold back so that its beatings can be heard in the ocean. That’s how it calls its mate.”
  • The book dispensary has an animatronic mermonkey, a monkey that “has the lower body of a fish” and dispenses the identification code for a book that it feels the reader needs. Jenny, who owns the dispensary says, “It’s the book that chooses you.” Herbie also tells Violet that many believe the machine to have “a sense of humor, too” because Herbie “met a man once who swears he belched in front of the mermonkey and got dispensed a copy of Gone with the Wind.
  • Lady Kraken, the hotel owner, has a mechanism called a “cameraluna” which uses the moon to project “a moving image of the pier at Eerie-on-Sea, seen from above.” She uses it to spy on the townspeople in real time. She can also reverse the recordings, making the “little figures of the townsfolk dart around, walking backward at high speed, as if [Herbie and Lady Kraken] are going back in time.”
  • Herbie explains that the rumor is that the diner owner “came here as a young man and saw a mermaid from the end of the pier. Heard her sing. No one ever recovers from that.”
  • The cat, Erwin, speaks occasionally.
  • The egg can vaguely communicate telepathically with its holder. “In the captain’s wondering mind, a thousand voices seemed to whisper as one: I can make your dreams come true.”
  • Captain K, also known as Boat Hook Man, wished to “live forever” and the egg granted that wish. The egg responds, “But if you lose [the egg], your wish shall become your curse.” Captain K’s “wounds closed up as soon as they opened, and his injuries healed.”
  • Boat Hook Man exists today as half-man, half-water. He arrives in the form of a “cloud of mist” which gathers into a shape.
  • The egg’s power is used multiple times by Eels and Violet. Violet uses it to see her parents’ disappearance in a mist “like a tornado,” which displays images and sound. In addition, the mist “encircles” Boat Hook Man and transforms him into his former self, Captain K. “The boat hook on the end of his right arm evaporates, and a new hand appears there, pink and perfect.”
  • Eels uses the egg to replace Captain K’s hook with a “red crab pincer” and then turns the malamander body into multiple sea creatures. “Captain Kraken’s body trembles and ripples, then collapses into a mass of squid and jellyfish and sea slime.”
  • Violet then uses the egg to make the malamander “miraculously whole again,” raising it from the dead.

Spiritual Content

  • The diner owner says, “In my country, we leave gifts for beings like this, for spirits. Offerings. At night, when I close up, I, too, leave gifts — the fried fish that is left over — outside on the pier. In the morning, it is gone.”

by Jennaly Nolan

Daughter of the Deep

Ana Dakkar is a freshman at Harding-Pencroft Academy, a five-year high school that graduates the best marine scientists, naval warriors, navigators, and underwater explorers in the world. Ana’s parents died while on a scientific expedition two years ago, and the only family she’s got left is her older brother, Dev, also a student at HP.

Ana’s freshman year culminates with the class’s weekend trial at sea, the details of which have been kept secret. She only hopes she has what it’ll take to succeed. All her worries are blown out of the water when, on the bus ride to the ship, Ana and her schoolmates witness a terrible tragedy that will change the trajectory of their lives.

But wait, there’s more. The professor accompanying them informs Ana that their rival school, Land Institute, and Harding-Pencroft have been fighting a cold war for a hundred and fifty years. Now, that cold war has been turned up to a full boil, and the freshman are in danger of becoming fish food.

In a race against deadly enemies, Ana will make amazing friends and astounding discoveries about her heritage as she puts her leadership skills to the test for the first time.

In Daughter of the Deep, the books 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island written by Jules Verne are more factual than fictional. One of the teachers explains who the book’s characters are and where they fit into modern society. Ana also discovers that she is a descendant of Captain Nemo who “hated the great colonial powers. . . and had personal reasons to hate imperialism.” While introducing the above topic, both the Land Institute and Harding agree that “turning Nemo’s technology over to the world’s governments, or worse, the world’s corporations, would be disastrous.” Riordan repeatedly reminds readers of the danger of the world’s governments and corporations, who are more concerned with keeping their monopolies than helping citizens. This theme is not well-developed, and most teens will quickly forget these passages.

The story is told from Ana’s point of view. Even though she is the heroine, Ana is not portrayed as a perfect person. After her parents died, Ana dissociates; the narrative explains that Ana has talked to the school counselor regarding her grief. While Ana’s talk of her painful menstrual cycle makes her more relatable, the topic will make some younger readers uncomfortable. After the hostiles destroy Harding-Pencroft Academy, killing anyone on campus, Ana decides that the hostiles will be let free without any consequences. In the story’s conclusion, Ana unrealistically forgives the people who destroyed the school and then tried to kill her and her friends.

The story has a large group of characters who are both racially and religiously diverse. Plus, one character, Ester, has autism and needs an emotional support animal. However, even with readers paying close attention, the large cast of characters is difficult to keep track of. Daughter of the Deep has a unique premise, interesting characters, and fun technology; however, the story leaves the reader wondering if justice was served or if Ana’s opponents will just regroup and come back to continue their killing spree. Before jumping into Daughter of the Deep, readers who are intrigued by Jules Verne’s books should read the Max Tilt Series by Peter Lerangis.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • In order to demonstrate a Leyden, Dr. Hewett shoots a student. “The only sound is a high-pressure hiss. For a millisecond, Gem is wrapped in flickering white tendrils of electricity. Then his eyes crossed, and he collapsed in a heap.” Gem recovers quickly.
  • Students from the Land Institute attack the Harding-Pencroft Academy’s yacht. When they board the vessel, they use grenade launchers. “Two fist-size canisters plunk onto our gangway and roll hissing. . . the explosions still leave [Ana’s] head ringing.”
  • A student’s dog helps defend his person. The dog, Top, “joins the party, clamping his jaws around the guy’s throat . . . As it is, he [the attacker] crab-walks backward, screaming and trying to shake off the furious twenty-pound fluff demon attached to his windpipe.”
  • During the attack, “Two hostiles fire their silver weapons. Miniature harpoons impale Elois’s shoulder and Cooper’s leg. White arcs of electricity bloom from the projectiles, both [students] crumple.” When the hostiles continue to fire, “Drue Cardenas shoots another intruder. Unfortunately, the electricity also arcs to Nelinha, who had been in the process of pummeling said intruder with a socket wrench. Both of them go down.” No one is killed, but several are injured. The fight is described over six pages.
  • Caleb, a student from the Land Institute, attempts to kidnap Ana. They are in the ocean when Ana snaps her “head backward and hears the satisfying crunch of Caleb’s nose breaking.” As the two struggle, “help comes from an unexpected direction. Right next to us, a mass of sleek blue-gray flesh explodes out of the sea, and Caleb is body-slammed into oblivion under the weight of a six-hundred-pound bottlenose dolphin.” Ana is able to escape.
  • A huge octopus, Romeo, likes the submarine, the Nautilus. When Ana and Gem first see it, “Gem tackles me and jets me out of the way, but the creature isn’t interested in us. Eight tentacles the size of bridge cables wrap themselves around the Nautilus.” The group manages to safely detach the octopus from the sub.
  • Ana’s brother, Dev, who is captain of the Aronnax, attacks the Nautilus. “The Aronnax’s four torpedoes sail straight over our heads. . .” Before the Aronnax can cause any damage to the Nautilus, “Romeo’s enormous tentacles wrap around the Aronnax, pulling her into an embrace… Romeo snaps the Aronnax like gingerbread. Fire and sea churn together. Giant, silver air bubbles, some with people inside, billow toward the surface.” The Aronnax is destroyed, but everyone survives.
  • There is a multi-chapter confrontation between Dev’s group and Ana’s group. When Ana and Gem try to get back to base, they see “Dev’s skiff is waiting for us. . . a black wedge bristling with weapons like the spines of a porcupine fish. It faces us from only fifty feet away. . . and in the pilot’s seat is my brother. . . We sail over the Dev’s stern . . . Gem shoulders his Leyden rifle and fires two rounds straight into the submersible’s propulsion system.” Once the skiff is out of commission Ana and Gem go to free the hostages.
  • Back at the base, Ana and Gem are attacked before they can get out of the ocean. “The nearest diver jabs [Ana] with his knife. . . The razor-sharp edge rips the fabric and grazes my ribs. . . White spots swim in my eyes. Nevertheless, I use my boots to wrestle my attacker, pushing him backward into one of the pier’s pylons.”
  • In order to get away from her attacker, Ana unsheathes her “blade and stabs him in the BC vest. . . With his vest’s air bladder punctured, my opponent is blinded by bubbles. He starts to sink . . . On his way down, I kick him for good measure.” Socrates, Ana’s dolphin friend, helps in the fight. “While he headbutts the blue-eyed diver into submission, three of the local bottlenose dolphins descend on the other guy . . . The dolphins welcome him to the neighborhood with an extreme tail-fin smackdown.”
  • Gem shoots several of the opponents with non-lethal bullets. The bullets leave them with “nasty red welts in the middle of their foreheads.”
  • When Gem and Ana get to the base, they see their friends “are being held at gunpoint.” Gem uses an alt-tech flash-band and then enters the dining room “but there’s no one left to shoot at. Our friends are still alive, though they’ve looked better. . . All four hostiles are out cold, spread-eagled on the floor, goofy grins frozen onto their faces. . .”
  • Dev finds Ana and Gem. “My brother smacks [Gem] across the head with a ratchet. Gem collapses. . . My brother glares at me. . . He grabs my wrist, slapping the gun from my hand, then steps in and twists, attempting to throw me over his shoulder.” The brother and sister fight until, “[Ana] shoot[s] him three times. The last rubber bullet snaps his head back, raising an ugly red spot right between the eyes.” Dev is taken as prisoner and locked in a room. The casualties from the battle are minor. There were no deaths on either side.

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • Students from the Land Institute attempt to kidnap Ana. Ana describes, “Someone behind me locks his forearm across my throat. I feel a sharp pain like a wasp sting in the side of my neck.” Ana discovers that she has been injected with sea-snake venom.
  • Ana takes Midol for period pain.

Language

  • God, oh god and my god are all used as exclamations several times.

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • When Ana’s school is attacked and destroyed, she prays, “Three-Eyed One, Lord Shiva, who nourishes all beings, may He liberate us from death.”
  • While thinking about her ancestors, Ana thinks, “Ester and I were bound together before we were born. It makes me wonder about reincarnation and karma, and whether our souls might have met at another time.”
  • After Ana realizes that her brother destroyed their school, she said “a prayer for my brother, and for the future.”

Witches Don’t Do Backflips

Howie, Eddie, and Melody are convinced that the new gymnastics teacher, Miss Brewbaker, is a witch. When the kids decide to take Prince Diamond to gymnastics, the teacher doesn’t want the dog near her. Then, when Prince Diamond disappears, Eddie is convinced that Miss Brewbaker has turned the dog into a frog.

Eddie and Melody are determined to prove that Miss Brewbaker is a witch. Melody says, “It all adds up: a moving broom, strange rhymes that come true, and flips that look like flying.” Is Miss Brewbaker really a witch? And if she is, how will they find a way to reverse the spell and turn Prince Diamond back into a dog?

Young readers will enjoy trying to piece together the clues to prove Miss Brewbaker is really a witch. Miss Brewbaker looks like a stereotypical witch, with a big nose and a wart. However, she is nice to the kids…that is, until Prince Diamond appears. Miss Brewbaker and her black cat both want to avoid dogs. This leads to some silly speculating among the four friends. None of the clues prove that Miss Brewbaker is a witch, but the kids are still convinced that she has witchy powers.

The kids go to the library to research witches. Then during gymnastics, the kids keep finishing Miss Brewbaker’s rhymes because “the library book said that finishing a rhyme takes away the spell’s power.” In addition, the kids distract Miss Brewbaker so Eddie can look for her spellbook. Afterward, Eddie says, “I found the cookbook, or rhyme book, or spellbook, or whatever you want to call it. Then I said each one backwards. . . I bet it broke every one of Miss Brewbaker’s spells.”

In order to help readers visualize the characters and understand the plot, Witches Don’t Do Backflips has illustrations every 2 to 3 pages. The large black and white illustrations emphasize the characters’ facial expressions to show their emotions. Witches Don’t Do Backflips is perfect for emerging readers who are ready for chapter books because it has easy vocabulary, short chapters, and many illustrations.

Black cats, spells, and a missing dog combine to make a fast-paced story that readers will enjoy. Even though the story focuses on a witch, there are no spooky scenes. Witches Don’t Do Backflips is a fun story that will appeal to many readers and get them in the mood for some fall fun.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Eddie says gymnastic lessons are sissy lessons.
  • When Eddie meets the gymnastics teacher, he says, “Look at the size of her nose. If she sneezes, we’ll end up somewhere over the rainbow. Look, she even has a wart on that huge honker.”
  • Because the gymnastics teacher dresses in all black, Eddie says, “I hope she’s a better teacher than she is a dresser.”
  • The kids call each other names such as chicken, dope, and bunny brains
  • When Carey brags about how good she is at gymnastics, Eddie says, “I’d like to carefully rearrange your face.”
  • The kids are not always nice to each other. For example, when Eddie says black cats are bad luck, Liza says, “You’ve got a hairball stuck in your brain.”

Supernatural

  • Lisa thinks “witches used gingerbread houses to lure and trick kids.”
  • The gymnastics teacher uses rhymes that the kids think are spells. Below are a few examples.
  • Carey doesn’t want to mess up her hair at gymnastics. The teacher says, “Straight or curly / Black or gold / You’ll love tumbling / when all is told!” After the spell, Carey does several cartwheels.
  • Melody has a hard time doing a cartwheel until the gymnastic teacher says this rhyme, “Replace that frown, / No time to cry! / Keep on practicing and / soon you’ll fly.” After the rhyme is spoken, Melody does a perfect cartwheel.
  • Several dogs disappear and frogs show up after Miss Brewbaker says, “Leave us be, / We don’t like dogs. / Especially spotted ones / Like warty frogs!”

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Help! We Have Strange Powers!

Jillian and Jackson are twins having a normal day at the movies until a fortune teller machine changes their lives by zapping them with superpowers. Now Jillian can read minds and Jackson can make objects levitate. The twins are excited to live their new lives as real-life superheroes, but what if superpowers come with super villains?

Scientist Dr. Cranium kidnaps the twins and takes them to a lab. Dr. Cranium wants to drain the twins not only of their powers but of their minds. The twins escape the lab by lying about their powers, but their troubles are not over. They eventually go to HorrorLand, and become trapped in a creepy theme park run by monsters. Will they be able to escape, or are they trapped in HorrorLand forever?

Help! We Have Strange Powers is the tenth book in the Goosebumps HorrorLand series. The first part of the story is interesting as it focuses on Jillian and Jackson’s new powers. However, once the twins are trapped in HorrorLand, the plot becomes confusing because the twins meet all of the characters from the previous books. This will be confusing for readers who have not read the previous books, as there is no explanation for what HorrorLand is or how Jillian and Jackson get there.

Help! We Have Strange Powers is told in the first person from Jillian’s perspective. In true R.L. Stine fashion, each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, making the reader want to continue with the book. Jillian and Jackson are not admirable, as they only use their powers for selfish reasons and to mess with others. The plot is not cohesive and it uses the typical Goosebumps elements. Even though the story is just average, fans of R.L. Stine will enjoy Help! We Have Strange Powers because it is an easy-to-read thriller.

Sexual Content

  • Jillian reads her classmate’s mind. He thought, “Wow. Jillian is looking totally hot today.”
  • Jillian says the gym teacher is “young and tall and very hot. The girls in school all have crushes on him.”

Violence

  • Angry that Artie, an annoying kid, got butter on his sweater, Jackson “wrapped an arm around Artie’s neck and began wrestling with him…The two of them tumbled into the aisle, wrestling, grabbing at each other, punching.”
  • As Jackson reaches into a fortune-telling booth to grab his fortune, the machine shocks him and Jillian. Jillian’s “whole body shook and danced as a powerful shock stung [her]. Jolted [Jillian] hard. And sent pain shooting out over [her] arms and legs.”
  • During a soccer game, Artie kicked the ball, which “crashed into Jackson’s stomach.” Jackson “opened his mouth in a sick groan. His face turned purple, and his eyes nearly goggled out of his head.”
  • Jackson and Artie are playing Wii boxing when Artie’s “punch went wide – and he slammed his fist into [Jackson’s] jaw.”
  • Jillian and Jackson try to see if they can fly. They break into a run and leap up. Jillian “crashed headfirst into the wire fence . . . and staggered backward, struggling to keep [her] balance. Pain shot through [her] body.” Jackson “hit the fence with a loud clang. He bounded off and tumbled onto his butt.”
  • While Dr. Cranium tries to wipe Jillian and Jackson’s thoughts, Jackson uses his powers to crash a mannequin into him. “The mannequin dropped hard and fast. It landed headfirst on top of Cranium, and he crumpled to the pavement.”
  • Jackson uses his powers to crash a chandelier onto the Purple Rage, a superhero who was trying to hurt the kids. “The chandelier crashed onto the superhero’s head and shoulders. The Rage uttered a weak cry. He toppled facedown onto the floor.”
  • Because the Purple Rage is so angry, he “exploded. His body burst apart with a loud splat . . . his purple guts went flying all over the room.”
  • Jillian, Jackson, and a few other kids try to go through a portal in a mirror that leads to Panic Park. It doesn’t work because the mirror turns back into solid glass, and Jillian runs into it. Jillian “screamed as [her] forehead cracked into solid glass.”

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • Jackson and Jillian go see a movie called Butt-Kicker II.
  • Jackson used his powers to hurl a soccer ball at Artie. It missed Artie because he bent down to tie his shoe. Jackson said, “I’m sorry I missed that jerk.”

Supernatural

  • Jillian and Jackson obtain telekinesis and mind-reading abilities after getting zapped by a fortune-telling machine. Jillian can read people’s minds and Jackson can make things levitate. They are kidnapped by Inspector Cranium, who tries to erase their memories by “going into their brains.”
  • Jillian and Jackson eventually end up at a theme park called HorrorLand. The workers there are monsters, and they trap the two siblings and other kids in a basement where superheroes try to hurt them.

Spiritual Content

  • None

by Jill Johnson

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