Reviews With Lilah: Sticks and Stones (Upside-Down Magic #2)


Lilah (age 8 at the time) loved the first Upside-Down Magic book by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins. And I mean LOVED it. I appreciated the message and thought it was cute, but she loved it. I think she reread it immediately after we finished reading it aloud and asked regularly if the sequel was out yet. She repeated jokes from the book and said things out of the blue like, “Remember when Nory turned into the dritten? That was so funny!” I spent probably excessive amounts of time trying to figure out why I didn’t love it the way she did. It’s an easier reading level than say, the Harry Potter books, shorter (208 pages), and geared a bit younger, but there are similar series (the Imaginary Veterinary series by Suzanne Selfors is one) that I find immersive and engaging instead of plodding through. Naturally, after the sequel was out, we needed to reread both books after reading #2, giving me a chance to sort out where the series disappointed me.

In short, there’s so much potential, but the follow through is superficial, and that’s a shame, because the well-executed parts really shine. I’m not sure if it’s a problem of fiction-by-committee (three authors for 200 pages seems excessive), or a focus on the message (diversity is good; be yourself) at the expense of character development and world building. The message is a good one, and the series stands out in its diversity (both in magical ability and in race/background). The first book is told from the point of view of Nory, a Fluxer (Fluxing is one of five types of magic, involving changing into animals) whose magic is “wonky.” She tries to keep her magic under control for her audition for the fancy school where her jerk of a father is headmaster, but she turns into a dritten (dragon + kitten), so her father sends her to live with her Aunt Margo to go to the Upside Down Magic class at a public school in another town. This *inappropriate language redacted* not only refuses to talk to her, he’s forbidden her siblings to contact her as well. Yet Nory is barely bothered by this. She thinks about it a couple of times, but it’s not the huge looming presence in her life you’d expect.

I have so many questions about this world and the nature and history of upside down magic. There are five types of magic, and children first demonstrate their type around their tenth birthday. The next school year, they switch to magic school, where along with the usual school subjects they learn their particular type of magic. Until that time, I guess they just try to control their new magic? At schools with no upside down magic (UDM) class, what happens to kids with unusual magic? Are they sent away somewhere else? Are they left to struggle in their assigned class? This isn’t clear. Does type of magic and/or unusual magic run in families? Also unclear. They don’t seem to learn much about magic up through grade four, or be prepared for the possibility of unusual magic, so it’s unclear how unusual it is to fall outside normal parameters for a magic type. Ms. Starr refers to a time when unusual magic was revered, but there’s no explanation as to why this changed. The lack of worldbuilding is so frustrating.

The first book focuses on Nory getting used to the other UDM students and dealing with being called names by the normal students. She and Elliott, an upside-down Flare, decide to try to pass as normal and get out of UDM. In the second book, the point of view is split between Nory and Bax, a Fluxer who only turns into a rock. Splitting POV in a 200-page book makes things even more superficial. The main plot is a mystery: someone is turning things to stone at school and the UDM kids are suspected, so the resident mean girl starts a petition to get rid of the UDM kids as too dangerous. The solution proves to be fairly obvious (to me and to Lilah). 

A secondary plot involves individual tutoring for the UDM kids, and this is where the potential of the series is really obvious. Nory and Bax are assigned to Coach, whose rah-rah attitude, obsession with Kittenball (the sport of young Fluxers; professional-level is Tigerball), and belief in healthy foods makes him a caricature at first. He’s excited about having Nory’s dritten on the Kittenball team and ignores Bax at first. But he quickly becomes a more nuanced character, with real insights and compassion for Nory and Bax. This character development stands out in the series, and by comparison other characters seem like sketches.

Lilah gives this book all the stars for creativity, but I’m rating it only okay. Maybe the third book will improve on the limited worldbuilding and lack of character development, but I’m not optimistic. Great idea and message, so-so execution.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Reviews With Lilah: The Ninja Librarians: Sword in the Stacks by Jen Swann Downey


Lilah (age 9) and I read this sequel to THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND out loud. For me, it took a while to get moving, but it held Lilah’s interest from the start. Here’s what happens when you buck middle-grade fantasy tradition, which prefers dead, absent, or oblivious parents: the observant and involved parents have to be convinced to allow the heroes to pursue their fantastical adventures. This takes the first two chapters, which dragged a bit for me but sums up the backstory and first book well. Then the third chapter is getting through the public library, and then we’re finally back in Petrarch’s Library. From this point, we were constantly disappointed when it was time to put the book away for the night, and we stayed up too late more than once.

Dorrie is poring over the available practicums, including “Swords, Daggers, and Coffee Can Tops: A General Survey of Sharp Edges and Their Uses,” “Codes, Invisible Inks, and Smoke Signals: Keeping Communication Maddeningly Secret,” and “Damp Dungeons, Desolate Moors, and Dreary Parties: How To Survive Inimical Environments With Style,” when she learns she won’t be apprenticed to Savi, her beloved sword fighting tutor. Instead, she’ll spend the term assisting the Archivist, a crazy old man who reads excessive quantities of oranges out of books. But she, Marcus, and Ebba are too busy for Dorrie to dwell too much on this: they have an Athenian musician whose fate they are sort of responsible for, a secret or two hidden away in a new library, and an anti-suffragette newspaper to save. Meanwhile, the Foundation is gaining power it plans to use to take control of the written word in all wherens (time-places).

The sibling relationship between Marcus and Dorrie is believable and often funny. Marcus’s crush on Egeria adds plenty of comic relief in the midst of serious adventures. There is a really interesting discussion of means and ends–in the context of whether to torture a prisoner to save other lives–that was quite well done and sophisticated for a middle-grade fiction book. There is also a discussion of the importance of defending all writing, even abhorrent writing, that runs through one of the main plotlines. And another theme involves the true meaning of courage in the face of fear, so the comic relief is very welcome. 

Downey balances the lighter “magical boarding school” elements nicely with the “fighting evil” plot. Dorrie, Matcus, and Ebba get away with really impressive amounts of rule breaking with few consequences, and I occasionally found myself thinking the library needed a McGonnagal or a Snape patrolling the corridors, but this is a minor quibble. We couldn’t wait to read the end, and then we were sad it was over. One last plot twist at the very end should wind up being very important in the third book, and Lilah and I actually gasped at the revelation and then sighed over having to wait another year or so for the third book.

Highly recommended, but it’ll be more fun if you read THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND first.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title via NetGalley.

Reviews With Lilah: The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey


Obviously, I was going to read a book called THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, and Lilah (age 9) was excited about reading it aloud. She wanted to make sure I put in my review that it’s awesome, so: it’s awesome.

Downey starts off the story telling the reader how ordinary twelve-year-old Dorrie is: “thoroughly un-chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she’d never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister.” Dorrie is unusual in one way, though: she longs to fight with a sword in real life, not just at Mr. Louis P. Kornberger’s Passaic Academy of Swordplay and Stage Combat. She also lives in one wing of an old mansion owned by her great-aunt Alice, who has mysterious visitors, with her parents, her fourteen-year-old brother, Marcus, and her four-year-old sister, Miranda, whose habit of stealing shiny things will affect the story. After agreeing to duel with snotty Tiffany (a real fencer) at the Pen and Sword Festival, Dorrie ends up chasing a mongoose named Moe into the public library and, with her brother, plunges through a supernatural portal into Petrarch’s Library, a library outside space-time with archways leading to “spoke” libraries at many different “wherens” (points in space-time). The lybrarians (with a Y) of Petrarch’s Library use these archways to defend the written word from all who would suppress it, particularly the Foundation. Several lybrarians and apprentices are suspicious of Dorrie and Marcus, but they are allowed to train while they wait for the new opening they fell through to cool off so they can return home.

It’s a complicated setup, but Downey introduces it gradually and with great attention to detail. We learn as Dorrie and Marcus do, so the worldbuilding is integrated into the story and doesn’t feel overly expository. And it’s a fun premise. The lybrarians execute missions in different wherens to protect the written word and defend those whose words are censored. But there’s a traitor in their midst, and Marcus and Dorrie (along with their new friend, Ebba, an apprentice) will have to find out who it is while searching for a missing page to the History of Histories and trying to get an ancient Greek musician acquitted of blasphemy. Dorrie wants to help her sword fighting tutor win the woman of his dreams, and Marcus is mooning after the lovely Egeria, so the plot is jam-packed.

Downey works plenty of historical figures and literary references into the book (with a helpful reference guide at the end). The strong anti-censorship mission is irresistible, and the plot moves quickly enough to make it a difficult book to put down. Lilah and I both recommend it highly.

Source disclosure: Lilah received this book as a gift.

Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond by Jayne Barnard


I find the details of steampunk irresistible; if they’re done well, I overlook deficiencies of plot or character development. So imagine my delight at a fun steampunk novel that also provides a memorable heroine and an absorbing mystery AND is surely the start of a series.

Maddie Hatter is the alter ego of Madeleine Main-Bearing, wealthy daughter of a Steamlord. Maddie is a fashion writer in Egypt hoping for a story that will give her more meaningful reporting jobs than what gloves the ladies in Cairo are wearing, when her potential big break falls from the skies–Baron Bodmin has disappeared while seeking the Eye of Africa, a priceless diamond. If Maddie can find either the baron or the diamond, her career will skyrocket. But when the mystery leads her back to England, she has to tread carefully–revealing her identity would incur her powerful father’s wrath.

The steampunk world Barnard has created is rich in detail. Maddie’s clockwork bird in particular is inspired, and even steals a scene or two. There are nods to Agatha Christie, Clue, and Indiana Jones (and Alice in Wonderland, of course), which add to the fun. Maddie is an engaging heroine, and her decision to abandon her birthright in favor of adventure and a career makes her a sympathetic one. She’s smart and capable, but asks for help when she needs it. There are plenty of clues and red herrings to keep Maddie and the reader guessing until the end.

A throughly enjoyable steampunk mystery.

Source disclosure: I purchased this e-book.

Reviews With Lilah: Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles by Rupert Kingfisher


If I were into one-word reviews, this one is “charming.” If I’m allowed a second word, it’s “utterly charming.” But I’m rarely so concise. This is the delightful story of Madeleine, whose neglectful parents send her to her uncle’s restaurant to work every summer. Madeleine loves to cook, but Uncle Lard (characters have food-related last names, which adds to the fairy-tale feel) treats her as Cinderella. One day, he sends her on an errand to buy more pate, and she stumbles upon Madame Pamplemousse’s otherworldly shop, which is filled with exotic delicacies. Monsieur Lard becomes obsessed with finding out Madame Pamplemousse’s secrets and sends Madeleine as his spy. What will she find out and, more importantly, how will she use the knowledge?

This reminded me of a shorter Roald Dahl book. Even the little drawings are reminiscent of Quentin Blake’s illustrations. It has a timeless feel, a larger than life villain, a discovery of something magical, and a plucky heroine. Lilah and I both loved it. Character last names are a bonus treat for anyone with a little knowledge of French, and Paris is beautifully evoked. This was a delightful read-aloud, both sweet and a little gross (just like Dahl).
Source disclosure: This book was received as a gift.

Reviews With Lilah: Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein


I gave this one three stars on Goodreads because Lilah (age 9) loved the first one and was happy to return to some of the same characters. There’s also a plotline about banning books that, while simplistic, spurred a good conversation about censorship. But the sequel lacks the charm of the first book, has fewer puzzles to solve, and suffers from a less compelling plot, all of which makes the flat characters and lack of character development harder to ignore.

Kyle Keeley and his friends are enjoying the fame they attained in the first book, but all across the country, kids are complaining that it’s unfair and they could have done better. Mr. Lemoncello decides to organize the first Library Olympics to pit carefully selected students from various parts of the US against Kyle and his teammates in a series of challenges, with college tuition as an incentive to win. The most memorable competitor is Marjory Muldauer from the Midwest team, a snotty know-it-all with the Dewey Decimal System memorized, determined to take down Kyle and friends. Meanwhile, Charles Chiltington and his mother are trying to take control of the fantastic library and make it boring.

There are too many contestants (32) and too many games (12), and the fun is simply stretched to the breaking point. In the first book, Mr. Lemoncello is the Willy Wonka of books; in the second book, he was so over-the-top that he annoyed me (but not Lilah). The Olympics kicks off with a book cart relay race, which wasn’t particularly fun to read about, and progresses to a few interesting games along with others like paper airplane folding and video games that fell flat for me. A couple of the games are just summarized. Very few of the contestants have any real presence in the book, so I’m lost as to the reason for including so many. One character from the first book is abruptly removed. There are some ridiculous plot twists at the end to wrap things up neatly, if somewhat predictably. 

There is an emphasis on banned books and freedom of expression that partly overcomes these disappointments, however. And the portrayal of books and libraries as fun places is always a good thing. Lilah wants me to write that the book was really fun, and she’s in the age range for it, so perhaps I’m overly critical. But there are middle grade books I love reading aloud, and others I can’t wait to be done with, and this was the latter.

We will definitely be checking out Flora and Ulysses, which plays a prominent role in this book.

Source disclosure: This book was received as a gift.

Reviews With Lilah: PIPER GREEN AND THE FAIRY TREE by Ellen Potter

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My first encounter with Ellen Potter’s writing was with her delightfully whimsical Olivia Kidney series, so I was interested to read this series geared toward early chapter book readers. It follows Piper Green, a second-grader who lives on Peek-a-boo Island in Maine and takes a lobster boat to school. Once island children reach eighth grade, they head off to boarding school on the mainland. Piper’s older brother has just made that jump and she misses him so much that she insists on wearing his monkey earmuffs. Every single day. Piper’s new teacher does not appreciate this, and Piper decides she simply won’t go to school. While she is hiding from her mother, her neighbor, Mrs. Pennypacker, tells her all about a fairy tree in her yard. If you leave a gift for the fairies, they will leave a gift for you.

Piper is a delightfully authentic little girl, just trying to cope with change to the best of her ability. Skipping school isn’t an act of defiance; it’s simply the best option she can come up with when her teacher tells her not to come to school wearing her beloved earmuffs but she can’t bear to take them off. Adults around her discuss the seriousness of her action, but they are also wonderfully supportive and understanding. The remote island, the fairy tree–it’s all very magical, and by the end, Piper will have found a way to enjoy second grade, with some help from fairies and her family.

Lilah and I were both charmed by the story, enhanced by Qin Leng’s sweet illustrations, and immediately turned to the sequel.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

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Lilah and I were both eager to see what Piper is up to this time, and it’s a doozy. Piper is such a realistic little girl, not perfect, but not mean-spirited, and she sometimes makes big mistakes. When she has a run of good luck, she starts to worry that bad luck will soon follow, and it does, in the form of a new student who is allergic to the class rabbit, Nacho. Piper adores Nacho, so she decides to loathe the new girl, Camilla, and tells her a horrible story that their teacher is actually a witch. (“Oh, Piper,” Lilah said at this point. “That is just not okay.”) Her parents make her apologize (while sympathizing with how much she misses Nacho – that’s something I love about the adults in these books – they listen) and the fairy tree helps her in an unexpected way.

The magic of the remote island setting (Camilla lives in the lighthouse) is charming, and the fairy tree provides a touch of the supernatural without giving Piper solutions to her problems outright. She lives in a supportive community (the lobster boatman who takes the children to Mink Island to school every day has a wife who sends baked goods for them every morning, for example). Her parents don’t just yell at her when she behaves…well, like a child. They listen and understand (though note that they still made her apologize when it was called for) and try to help Piper deal with her emotions. She’s navigating childhood the best she can, and she’s charming while doing it.

Lilah and I might have liked this second book in the series even better than the first, and we look forward to more.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.

Reviews With Lilah: THE ISLAND OF DR. LIBRIS by Chris Grabenstein

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I read this one to Lilah immediately following ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY, and the initial comparison is not great. WHERE ARE THE GIRLS? Like LEMONCELLO, this one is clearly geared toward the boy reluctant reader, but where LEMONCELLO had a couple of girl characters who actually did things, this one has Maid Marian and Pollyanna, who are really window dressing, and the little sister of Walter, Billy’s new friend. Right, the plot. Billy goes with his mom to live at a cabin by a lake for the summer while she works on her dissertation and she and his dad have some time apart. He is horrified to learn there is no television and he manages to break his iPhone. Oh no! He will have to resort to reading the gorgeous books in the locked bookcase! (I realize I’m abusing sarcasm at this point, but that’s the effect this book had on me.)

He reads one of the books and hears some strange sounds coming from the island in the lake. Hercules has come to life on the island. And he’s not the last. The Three Musketeers (and D’Artagnan), Robin Hood and Maid Marian (and, unfortunately, the Sheriff of Nottingham), Tom Sawyer, and Pollyanna quickly follow. Oh, and Jack, the guy with the beanstalk. Lilah and I both really enjoyed the scenes of the characters from different books interacting, actually. And the premise! What a premise. Execution was middling, but I’m giving it three stars for a fabulous premise and the scenes where Hercules has joined the Merry Men (and Billy’s promotion to Sir William of Goat – trust me, it’s hilarious).

Why is all this happening? Dr. Libris, the owner of the cabin is conducting a study of dubious ethical quality (seriously, how did he get funding for this? must be from an evil conglomerate). He thinks Billy’s imagination makes him a great candidate. Billy’s imagination brings the books to life with theta waves pseudosciencebabble. This is very cool, but Billy’s friend Walter is also able to bring characters to life (not even characters from books – a character from his Magic: The Gathering knockoff game) but only while on the island. Even the bully brings a video-game character to life from the cheat guide he carries around. I had a problem with this internal consistency. Why make such a big deal out of the locked bookcase if anyone can bring any character from any written material to life by standing on the island and reading? Dr. Libris’s experiment notes were rather intrusive to me as well.

Billy meets a Mean Kid who is the archetype of bullies everywhere. No nuance here. This kid shows up to create false suspense while Billy and Walter have their adventures. Alyssa, Walter’s little sister, is actually a lot of fun, but she’s barely in the book. They fob her off on Pollyanna to babysit. So that’s what you do with girl characters. Have them babysit. Anyway, Billy also cooks up a ridiculous PARENT TRAP kind of plot involving pretending that Billy has fallen off a cliff) when his dad visits the island. This is utterly ridiculous and distracting. Dr. Libris finally shows up to do a mad-scientist kind of rant and then fly off in his helicopter.

Still, the scenes with the various characters interacting are magical and fun, and there’s a lot to like here, even with all this infuriating mess.

Source disclosure: Lilah received this book as a gift.

Reviews With Lilah: ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY by Chris Grabenstein

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This homage to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is clearly geared toward the boy reluctant reader, but Lilah and I thought it was fun. Alexandriaville hasn’t had a public library in twelve years, but its most famous citizen, game creator Luigi Lemoncello, is about to change all that with a state-of-the-art library built in the old bank building. To celebrate, he’s inviting twelve twelve-year-olds for an overnight library lock-in so they can preview all the wonders within before the official opening. Our hero is Kyle, who is not much of a reader, but who loves games (board and video) and decides to enter the essay contest for the overnight stay when he’s grounded from his own video games. The lock-in seems like the perfect workaround.

When the party is over the next morning, the kids are given the option to participate in  extra festivities: figure out how to exit the library without using the front door. Clues will be provided. Most of the kids decide to participate. There’s one Mean Kid who will obviously be the archenemy of Kyle. Or, rather, of Kyle’s team, because he gathers kids to work together. Lilah is a very cooperative child, and we both liked this aspect of the book. The clues the kids work through to find the way out are fun and interactive.

Were the characters really complex? No. Was the plot riveting and unpredictable? No. But Grabenstein captured the elements of whimsy and magic that I loved in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and Lilah and I had a great time reading this. At the end are clues to a final puzzle and lists of all the books mentioned throughout the story.

Source disclosure: Lilah received this book as a gift.

Reviews With Lilah: THE CURIOUS CAT SPY CLUB by Linda Joy Singleton

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Lilah and I read this chapter book, the first in a series, over just a couple of days. We had trouble putting it down.

Lilah’s assessment: “Come on! It’s about kids who rescue cats! That’s awesome!”

The narrator, Kelsey, is having a rough time. After her father lost his job, she had to move from her house to an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. So she lost her beloved dog, Handsome. She still gets to visit him at her grandmother’s house, but it isn’t the same. She is a bit obsessed with Becca, one of the popular girls, but Kelsey is more or less invisible. Her path crosses with Becca’s when she helps Becca catch a runaway zorse (from the animal sanctuary Becca helps her mother run) and they hear kittens meowing pathetically from a dumpster. They are unable to open it themselves, and Becca runs for help. The only help she can find is super-nerd Leo Polansky, but he manages to use some physics to pry open the dumpster and rescue the kittens. The three become unlikely friends, caring for the kittens in a disused shed at the animal sanctuary. They decide to find the horrible person who dumped the kittens and raise money for kitten supplies by finding lost pets (and there are a LOT of lost pets in town).

The good: I really liked the emerging friendship between three very different kids who probably would never have even talked to each other without the strange circumstances throwing them together. Their dedication to helping animals was also commendable. Singleton also makes a point of discussing ridiculously lax animal welfare laws (when Kelsey assumes the bad guy will go to jail, Becca explains that the laws mean that isn’t true), which are worth talking about. The group has a really strong sense of justice, and they place the welfare of the animals above their own petty disagreements. The mystery was very well-plotted, and each member of the club contributes in a way fitting to his or her strengths (I especially enjoyed brilliant but socially awkward Leo’s contribution via a drone he builds).

The bad: Really, nothing too bad here. I was afraid that Lilah would be too upset by a person tossing kittens in a dumpster to die to even read past the first chapter, but a reassurance that they were fine kept her going. Kelsey’s obsession with Becca is a little weird, but they become genuine friends. There’s some weird “romance” kind of thing with Becca and Skeet, who bullies Leo. I found Becca’s unwillingness to believe Skeet was a jerk to be unrealistic. I also was perplexed by the way the three pretend not to know each other at school. Sure, they don’t want anyone else to know about the kittens, but couldn’t they at least sit together at lunch? Say hi? Other than these minor quibbles, this was an enjoyable read for both parent and child.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.