Not fantastic.

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THE BASQUE DRAGON

From the Unicorn Rescue Society series , Vol. 2

Elliot and Uchenna, now full-fledged members of the Unicorn Rescue Society, are back for a second adventure following series opener The Creature of the Pines (2018).

Opening the day after the previous book ends, Elliot finds a mysterious package awaiting him on his front step. He is afraid that the package, containing a book called The Country of Basque, portends another strange day—and he’s right. He and his friend Uchenna are whisked away by Professor Fauna in his unreliable single-propeller plane to the Basque Country. Even if readers can suspend disbelief long enough to believe that a single-prop plane with three passengers (and a small Jersey Devil) could safely cross the Atlantic, they may still wonder, as Elliot does, about the wisdom of flying off with a weird teacher, especially without informing anyone of their whereabouts. In the Basque Country, they meet fellow Society member Mixtel Mendizabal. Mixtel explains how he took up the mantle of caring for a dragon that has been kidnapped by—no surprise—the rich, greedy Schmoke brothers, villains of the first book. Gidwitz and Casey sprinkle in some substance by examining the difference between isolation and independence and, refreshingly, questioning and rejecting gender norms through Uchenna’s character. However, the lack of character development and the combination of unrealistic and predictable elements of this second offering may leave readers cold. Elliot is white, Uchenna is black, and Professor Fauna is Peruvian.

Not fantastic. (Fantasy. 7-10)

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-3173-3

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: April 25, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2018

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Sweetly low-key and totally accessible.

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THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER

Billy Miller’s second-grade year is quietly spectacular in a wonderfully ordinary way.

Billy’s year begins with his worry over the lump on his head, a souvenir of a dramatic summer fall onto concrete: Will he be up to the challenges his new teacher promises in her letter to students? Quickly overshadowing that worry, however, is a diplomatic crisis over whether he has somehow offended Ms. Silver on the first day of school. Four sections—Teacher, Father, Sister and Mother—offer different and essential focal points for Billy’s life, allowing both him and readers to explore several varieties of creative endeavor, small adventures, and, especially, both challenges and successful problem-solving. The wonderfully self-possessed Sal, his 3-year-old sister, is to Billy much as Ramona is to Beezus, but without the same level of tension. Her pillowcase full of the plush yellow whales she calls the Drop Sisters (Raindrop, Gumdrop, etc.) is a memorable prop. Henkes offers what he so often does in these longer works for children: a sense that experiences don’t have to be extraordinary to be important and dramatic. Billy’s slightly dreamy interior life isn’t filled with either angst or boisterous silliness—rather, the moments that appear in these stories are clarifying bits of the universal larger puzzle of growing up, changing and understanding the world. Small, precise black-and-white drawings punctuate and decorate the pages.

Sweetly low-key and totally accessible. (Fiction. 7-10)

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-226812-9

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Greenwillow

Review Posted Online: April 24, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

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Fantasy training wheels for chapter-book readers.

THE CREATURE OF THE PINES

From the Unicorn Rescue Society series , Vol. 1

Elliot’s first day of school turns out to be more than he bargained for.

Elliot Eisner—skinny and pale with curly brown hair—is a bit nervous about being the new kid. Thankfully, he hits it off with fellow new student, “punk rock”–looking Uchenna Devereaux, a black girl with twists (though they actually look like dreads in Aly’s illustrations). On a first-day field trip to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, the pair investigates a noise in the trees. The cause? A Jersey Devil: a blue-furred, red-bellied and -winged mythical creature that looks like “a tiny dragon” with cloven hooves, like a deer’s, on its hind feet. Unwittingly, the duo bonds with the creature by feeding it, and it later follows them back to the bus. Unsurprisingly, they lose the creature (which they alternately nickname Jersey and Bonechewer), which forces them to go to their intimidating, decidedly odd teacher, Peruvian Professor Fauna, for help in recovering it. The book closes with Professor Fauna revealing the truth—he heads a secret organization committed to protecting mythical creatures—and inviting the children to join, a neat setup for what is obviously intended to be a series. The predictable plot is geared to newly independent readers who are not yet ready for the usual heft of contemporary fantasies. A brief history lesson given by a mixed-race associate of Fauna’s in which she compares herself to the American “melting pot” manages to come across as simultaneously corrective and appropriative.

Fantasy training wheels for chapter-book readers. (Fantasy. 7-10)

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-3170-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

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