A story that richly integrates a fairy tale, history, and a coming-of-age quest.

VASILISA

In this middle-grade fantasy/historical novel, a Russian American girl journeys into folklore to confront witches and save her family.

Vasilisa Petrovna Nikolayeva and her Babka (grandmother) were both named for Vasilisa the Brave, the Russian fairy-tale hero who overcomes Baba Yaga, a fearsome witch. Now 13 years old, Vasilisa still loves to hear her mother and grandmother tell the stories, which link their present-day lives in the 1919 steel town of Edenfall, Pennsylvania, to their homeland. The three cling even closer because Vasilisa’s Papa has been missing since fighting in the trenches near Flanders, presumed dead. The family’s financial difficulties have been lessened by the frightening Mr. Goladyen, also a Russian immigrant, who is pressuring Vasilisa’s mother to marry him. Further, Vasilisa suspects he has something to do with her once-hale grandmother’s sudden decline into confusion and weakness. Meanwhile, Ivan Ivanovich Volkonsky arrives in Edenfall, having promised his dying father to help the elder Vasilisa. Discovering that Mr. Goladyen was his father’s betrayer, Ivan vows revenge. To set things right, young Vasilisa and Ivan must go on a quest to legendary Old Rus, face three Baba Yaga witches, and find an ogre’s egg. In this series opener, Mathison offers two intriguing settings from history and myth, both with their own spooky mysteries, hardships, helpers, and villains. While the Edenfall scenes are well drawn, the storytelling becomes truly compelling in Old Rus, as myth comes vividly to life. The latter setting also better fits the book’s literary, Old World phrasing used throughout (such as, “Always was my daughter thus”), which feels jarring against Edenfall’s slangy American voices (“What a whopper”). Though usually a graceful writer, the author overuses quirk as a transitive verb.

A story that richly integrates a fairy tale, history, and a coming-of-age quest.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-73500-374-0

Page Count: 310

Publisher: Starr Creek Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2021

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THE GREAT DIVIDE

A MATHEMATICAL MARATHON

From Dodds (The Shape of Things, 1994, not reviewed, etc.), a rhyming, reckless text that makes a math process pleasurably solvable; Mitchell’s illustrative debut features a smashing cast of 1930s characters and a playfulness that will keep readers guessing. The premise is a Great Race: at the sound of the gun, 80 bicycle racers take off at top speed. The path diverges at the top of a cliff, and half the racers hurtle forever downward and right out of the race and the book. The remaining 40 racers determinedly continue in boats, their curls, spyglasses, eye patches, matronly upswept hairdos, and Clara Bow—lips intact. Whirlpools erupt to divide them again and wreck their ships, so it’s time to grab the next horse and ride on. The race continues, despite abrupt changes in modes of transportation and in the number of racers that dwindle by disastrous divisions, until a single winner glides over the finish line in a single-prop plane. The pace is so breathless and engaging that the book’s didactic origins all but disappear; few readers will notice that they’ve just finished a math problem, and most will want to go over all the action again. (Picture book. 5-10)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-7636-0442-9

Page Count: 32

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1999

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WESTWARD TO HOME

JOSHUA’S DIARY

Another installment in this year’s new “My America” series, this is the fictional diary of Joshua, a young boy whose family joins a wagon train to Oregon in 1848. Joshua’s tale offers language simple enough for emerging readers, but pulls few punches regarding the harsh realities of the westward pioneer journey. Joshua can hardly contain his excitement at the prospect of the journey. His diary begins as his parents and extended family make the difficult decision to uproot their lives. On the trail he experiences dust, heat, and fear, along with the births of babies and the deaths of others from cholera, accidents, and Indian attack. Joshua also finds his cousin, Rachel, dead one morning, the victim of an accidental hanging during the night. The story’s not all tragedy; there is a nice balance with more positive experiences, such as Joshua’s childhood friendships along the trail. His grandfather helps him kill a buffalo, and he saves his little sister Becky from drowning when she falls into a rushing river. Hermes sparks her tale with a budding romance for Joshua as he copes with the grief, anger, and charity of the adults in the wagon train. Decent historical fiction aimed at appealing to the reader who would enjoy the sense of reading a diary to learn more about the harsh realities and triumphs of America’s westward pioneers. (Fiction. 7-10)

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-439-11209-5

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2000

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