Beautiful writing cannot compensate for weaknesses in worldbuilding.

PONY

A boy, accompanied by ghosts and a bald-faced pony, sets out to rescue his father.

Silas Bird, 12, his father, a Scottish immigrant bootmaker and experimental photographer, and Mittenwool, a ghost only Silas can see, live near the fictional Ohio town of Boneville in 1860. One night, three armed strangers on horseback insist that Pa come do some sort of business with them. Pa promises he’ll return in a week, but the next morning, when a pony one of the men was leading returns to the farm, Silas decides to ride after him, though it means braving the ancient and terrifying Woods, more ghosts, and his own fears. Palacio writes smoothly, with engaging details, but narrator Silas sometimes seems far younger than 12 and other times too adult. The presentation of the ghosts is also inconsistent: Some can see each other, others can’t; Silas recognizes some as ghosts but thinks others are living people. A conversation between Silas and a White settler, following a scene in which Silas encounters the ghosts of Native people massacred by the U.S. government, plays into unfortunate tropes of Indian nations no longer existing. The eponymous Pony drives several plot points but doesn’t come across as a real equine. Among other horse-related slip-ups, novice rider Silas manages a 12-hour day without either himself or the pony dropping from exhaustion. Atmospheric daguerreotypes front each chapter. All characters are White.

Beautiful writing cannot compensate for weaknesses in worldbuilding. (author's note) (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-553-50811-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2021

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The series keeps cruising along…though iffy casting may be an early sign that it’s losing steam.

SPY SCHOOL AT SEA

From the Spy School series , Vol. 9

In a new caper, the Spy School team thwarts a fiendish scheme on the high seas.

A fresh chance to catch up to world-class gourmand and perennial foe Murray Hill plants dogged CIA junior agent Ben Ripley and associates—including markedly more competent classmate Erica Hale and her equally able mom, Catherine—aboard the Emperor of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, for a fresh round of ridiculously destructive chases, startling twists, and repeated attempts on the hapless young spy’s life that are somehow always averted in the nick of time. Along with adding a grandfatherly, eco-conscious Costa Rican drug lord to the supporting cast, Gibbs flirts with stereotypes by trotting in, among the few characters who don’t at least present as White, a Chinese teen given to muddling her English idioms, her bling-loving mother, and a chipper shipboard event manager of Australian Indigenous descent. Still, the revved-up plot will leave readers as breathless as Ben is in the wake of a final, unexpected turn in his relationship with Erica. Finally, finally nabbing the slobby supervillain (at least for now) as well as saving the lives of hundreds of oblivious, hard-partying onboard tourists must count for something.

The series keeps cruising along…though iffy casting may be an early sign that it’s losing steam. (Thriller. 10-13)

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5344-7943-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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Poignant, respectful, and historically accurate while pulsating with emotional turmoil, adventure, and suspense.

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REFUGEE

In the midst of political turmoil, how do you escape the only country that you’ve ever known and navigate a new life? Parallel stories of three different middle school–aged refugees—Josef from Nazi Germany in 1938, Isabel from 1994 Cuba, and Mahmoud from 2015 Aleppo—eventually intertwine for maximum impact.

Three countries, three time periods, three brave protagonists. Yet these three refugee odysseys have so much in common. Each traverses a landscape ruled by a dictator and must balance freedom, family, and responsibility. Each initially leaves by boat, struggles between visibility and invisibility, copes with repeated obstacles and heart-wrenching loss, and gains resilience in the process. Each third-person narrative offers an accessible look at migration under duress, in which the behavior of familiar adults changes unpredictably, strangers exploit the vulnerabilities of transients, and circumstances seem driven by random luck. Mahmoud eventually concludes that visibility is best: “See us….Hear us. Help us.” With this book, Gratz accomplishes a feat that is nothing short of brilliant, offering a skillfully wrought narrative laced with global and intergenerational reverberations that signal hope for the future. Excellent for older middle grade and above in classrooms, book groups, and/or communities looking to increase empathy for new and existing arrivals from afar.

Poignant, respectful, and historically accurate while pulsating with emotional turmoil, adventure, and suspense. (maps, author’s note) (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: July 25, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-545-88083-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 10, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2017

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