In Zaman’s well-paced debut YA novel, 11-year-old Clara Skilten has adventures at a training academy.
Clara has always sensed that she is different, particularly after a tragic fire consumed her home and stole her family’s lives. Lifted from an upsetting, stressful experience at an orphanage, she shows promise at a new academy, particularly in her fighting classes. She makes a new friend in a young girl nicknamed Lithium. Yet mysteries abound; for example, the name Muscaria seems to terrify students and faculty alike. Gradually, Clara learns that Queen Muscaria is a tyrannical ruler who plucks children from the academy, whisks them away to her palace, and imprisons them. Clara is offered a chance to go to Muscaria’s palace to try to find out the queen’s intentions. It turns out that Muscaria is responsible for many other crimes, and she has many enemies, including Clara’s own deceased father. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that Clara was chosen for the task not at random, but as part of a calculated plan. She finds herself tested physically and emotionally as she fights for her life and those of her peers and countrymen. Zaman shows remarkable finesse in her ability to situate readers in an unknown world, balancing expository descriptions with thrilling fight scenes and creative wordplay (one aggressive character’s name, for example, is Diator Glad).Clara is a compelling heroine whom young readers will cheer as she battles against pure evil. At times, the worldbuilding seems shaky, as it’s hard to determine whether the book is meant to be fantasy, dystopian, or contemporary realistic fiction. Furthermore, Clara seems to be a remarkably mature preteen, speaking with an elevated vocabulary and sophisticated syntax that seem somewhat unrealistic. However, the teenage Zaman is a promising new voice in YA fiction who can clearly write circles around much older authors.
An entertaining tale for adventure-hungry readers.
In this debut middle-grade novel, a lonely boy finds friendship and learns about the magic of human connection.
Defined by the large mole on his lip, 10-year-old Gregory has grown distant from his family. He is friendless and withdrawn. Then one night a strange little creature emerges from Gregory’s mole. It is riding a (quite lovable) cockroach and can change size. This is the Grimbockle. The Grimbockle—one of many Bockles, who, like Palmer Cox’s Brownies, live at the peripheries of human awareness—tends to the exoodles that bind people together. Exoodles are long, transparent, noodlelike threads and are usually invisible. Once Gregory has his eyeballs painted with Carrot Juicy, though, he can see them. He joins the Grimbockle and the roach, traveling the exoodles as if on a high-speed roller coaster. Exoodles wither and die when people don’t look after their relationships. The Grimbockle is trying to repair a particularly sickly exoodle that links a boy to his mother. Can Gregory help—and can he mend the exoodles in his own life? Schubert follows delightedly in the footsteps of Roald Dahl, opening her unfortunate young protagonist’s eyes to a previously unseen world both weird and wondrous (yet for all its outlandish magic, oddly logical). The scenario is one of riotous imagination, while the Grimbockle himself—brought sweetly to life in black-and-white illustrations by Kraft—is a sprightly and good-natured little person, full of the type of singsong infelicities found in Dahl’s beloved nonhuman characters: “Is you ever seeing glimpses of squiggles in the corners of your twinklers but then they is disappearing in a snippety blink?” “ ‘Exoodles!’ shouted the Grimbockle in triumph. ‘Sometimes, hoo-mans is getting so twisty and wound up in extra exoodles that they is feeling gloomy blue and heavy all day long.’ ” The story is perhaps too much of a parable to fully match Dahl’s template; the adventure is safer and the threats less dark. Nonetheless, readers should fall willingly and with thrilled abandon into the fizzy, fanciful world of Gregory and his Grimbockle friend.
A beautifully realized daydream; a fun yet thoughtful exploration of the complexities and possibilities hidden beneath surface appearances.
A lost bunny searches for his mother in this debut picture book.
The youngster is already lost in the beginning of Lakhiani’s version of the time-honored tale of a lost child reuniting witha parent. On a foggy day, a young rabbit finds that he doesn’t recognize where he is. He calls for his mother, but instead of her voice in response, he hears the hum of a bumblebee. The nameless little rabbit asks if the bee knows where his home is, but the bee doesn’t and sends him on to the wise owl, who “sees everything.” As the little rabbit runs through the “eerie” fog toward the owl’s tree, he meets a kind squirrel. “I’ve lost my mother….I am lost and scared,” explains the little rabbit. The squirrel leads the rabbit to the wise owl’s tree, which the rabbit climbs to ask the owl, “[C]an you see where I live?” The fog is too thick for the owl to spot little rabbit’s home, so he gives the little rabbit a snack and invites him to rest. Falling asleep, the little rabbit dreams of his mother but is awakened by the hooting, buzzing and chattering of his three new friends. Looking around, he sees his mother, who embraces him: “I will never again let you out of my sight,” she tells him. The digitized art by Adams, some of which is credited to Thinkstock, is in a cartoon style that clearly delineates the characters but includes a few anthropomorphic details—a graduation cap for the owl, spectacles for the squirrel and only four legs for the bee—that add little value. Since the story centers on the little rabbit failing to recognize where he is, the choice to make the right-hand page of every spread identical is potentially confusing; regardless, it’s repetitious. The text fails in the opposite direction: It doesn’t create the typical patterns that can help toddlers follow the story, build anticipation and learn to chime in—steps on the path to reading alone. Erratic rhythms, changing stanza lengths and rhyme schemes, and awkward syntax undercut attempts to enliven the tale with poetry.
A story with a tried-and-true plot that needs to freshen up its presentation.