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Animal Architects

Amy Cherrix, illus. by Chris Sasaki. Beach Lane, $17.99 (56p) ISBN 978-1-5344-5625-9

Inviting readers to view the natural world as a “construction zone,” Cherrix (In the Shadow of the Moon) looks at animals, insects, and invertebrates that build unusual dwelling places. Ants, bees, and termites construct ingenious hives in these pages; an alert-looking harvest mouse uses grass to weave a nest suspended between reeds; a bowerbird festoons its bower to attract a mate. Each highlighted species receives two spreads with text that provides plenty of chewy factoids (a beaver “can gnaw through a tall tree in just three minutes!”). Levels of detail vary, however: text about the Great Barrier Reef mentions that “tiny larvae have been building” it, but not how, while pages on the trapdoor spider detail its hunting mechanism: when an insect steps on strands that “fan out from the burrow... the burrow vibrates like a silent doorbell.” Similarly, layered art by Sasaki (Sakamoto’s Swim Club) focuses on visual impact and natural beauty, sometimes over architectural process (a finished beaver dam is pictured in stylized forms that may be difficult for young readers to scan, while an ant colony and prairie dog town provide more granular detail). A bibliography points to resources with more information. Ages 3–8. Author’s agent: Ammi-Joan Paquette, Erin Murphy Literary. Illustrator’s agent: Kirsten Hall, Catbird Productions. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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White as Frost (The Darkwood Trilogy #1)

Anthea Sharp. Fiddlehead, $24.99 (366p) ISBN 978-1-68013-143-7

After her mother weds the king of Raine, Rosaline, 13, who has “sun-bronzed skin and kinky red-gold hair,” relocates from the “grand capital of Parnese” on the Continent to the island kingdom. Waiting there is a sullen, pale, red-lipped stepsister, Neeve, also 13; a mysterious forest; and a castle full of secrets. Rose’s love of adventure tales spills over into her inquisitive nature, and it isn’t long before she’s spying on Neeve as Neeve slips from the castle walls and into the Darkwood outside them. Home to magical and dangerous creatures, the Darkwood is protected by Thorne, a pale-skinned Dark Elf from Elfhame, but the woods seem to distrust Rose and attempt harm until Thorne takes her under his protection; with Neeve, they begin exploring Rose’s possible powers. The sisters’ friendship grows slowly, however, and when Kian, a blond, blue-eyed Fiordland prince arrives, tensions mount. Characterizations feel frustratingly vague, and plot points lack resolution by the cliffhanger ending. Still, Sharp interweaves welcome allusions to “Snow-White and Red-Rose” and adapts other fairy elements creatively; the world of the Darkwood and its denizens is distinctly drawn in this fantastical series starter. Ages 13–up. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Legacy

Adrienne Young. Wednesday, $18.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-82372-4

In this sumptuously rendered historical novel, Young (Fable) deftly explores concepts of family, loyalty, and growing into one’s destiny. Sent away following her parents’ death to be raised as a lady, Bryn Roth dreams of the day that she’ll return to her infamous family. But uncertainty descends when her 18th birthday brings a letter recalling her to Bastian—unsure of her welcome and her place, she’s quickly consumed by the betrayals and machinations that make up the brutal merchant family’s infamous reputation. Her uncle Henrik rules the family with an iron fist, and Bryn soon learns that she’s part of his plans to enter society’s upper echelons by way of the merchant’s guild, whether she likes it or not. While undeniably drawn to the family’s silversmith, Ezra, Bryn must prioritize between survival, her place in the family, and her heart. Minimalist world-building in a quasi-Victorian setting foregrounds the novel’s focus on the way the complicated, cued-white family’s structure subsumes individual needs, while Bryn’s arc of self-discovery unfolds with an appealing yearning. Ages 12–up. Agent: Barbara Poelle, Irene Goodman Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Idol Gossip

Alexandra Leigh Young. Walker US, $18.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5362-1364-5

In Young’s proficient debut, a reserved Chinese American 17-year-old navigates the tension between her reserve and her aspirations of becoming a singer. After being scouted at a karaoke bar, introverted but vocally talented Alice Choy is invited to an open audition for mega-label Top10. Despite initial hesitations, the encouragement of her K-pop-loving younger sister helps to persuade her, as does the possibility of restarting vocal lessons if she’s chosen—something she has forfeited since her family’s relocation to Seoul. When her talent lands her an all-expenses-paid spot at Star Academy, where trainees live and work, she’s placed into girl group A-List—which is set to debut in only five months—and thrown into dance rehearsals, exercise regimes, vocal lessons, and Korean classes. Young aptly conveys Alice’s difficulties as the group’s youngest member, navigating life away from her family and deciphering the implicit rules of the K-pop world. Interspersed with Alice’s narration, posts from The Fix, a blog devoted to “exposing the real side of idols in hopes that no one else is ever consumed by the K-pop machine,” purports to interrogate the role of fans and gossip sites. Though Alice’s initial success despite being unable to dance, act, or speak Korean requires a large suspension of disbelief, readers interested in the inner workings of idol groups will enjoy this entertaining inside look. Ages 12–up. Agent: Patricia Nelson, Marsal Lyon Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Dark and Starless Forest

Sarah Hollowell. Clarion, $17.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-358-42441-3

Flower magic and eerie disappearances mask the characters’ struggles with sadistic child abuse and secrets in Hollowell’s unevenly paced horror debut. Alchemist Derry, 16, and her eight foster siblings were all abandoned to controlling guardian Frank because of the magic each can do. But their austere life of constant surveillance, training, and overprotection in Frank’s Indiana lake house fragments after Derry, who is fat and white, and Jane, who is neurodiverse and Black, witness something unspeakable in the forbidden, shadow-haunted forest—and Jane vanishes. Haunted by Jane’s pleading voice, Derry forms a tenuous alliance with a shadowy girl in the woods who teaches her to unleash her power. But when more of her siblings disappear, Derry must help liberate them all from a terrible fate. Despite an intersectionally inclusive cast and solid prose, the plot bogs down in overexplained conflict and brutal, abrupt escalations into torture, gaslighting, and violence. Seasoned revenge horror readers, however, may enjoy this macabre showdown. Ages 12–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Pony

R.J. Palacio. Knopf, $17.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-553-50811-6

When he’s struck by lightning in front of an oak tree—an event that doesn’t connect much with the rest of the story—Silas Bird, the introspective 12-year-old at the center of this meandering 1860 Ohio-set adventure, has the tree’s image permanently imprinted on his back. Silas lives with his inventive but reclusive father, a Scottish bootmaker and photographic scientist, as well as a protective teenage ghost named Mittenwool, until three men on horseback arrive at the family’s remote cabin to seize Silas’s father. When the kidnappers’ white-faced Arabian pony appears a few hours later, Silas is sure his father sent it, and rides off to find him, with Mittenwool reluctantly in tow. In the time-warped Woods, he meets a U.S. marshal tracking three outlaws; Silas, certain that they are the same people who took his father, joins him, en route narrating stories of his family’s history and encountering ghosts whom only he can see. Though Silas’s “I have made my peace with everything” perspective belies his age, Palacio’s cued-white characters are simultaneously crusty and charming in their altruistic bravado, and the blend of rambling western, scientific, and paranormal elements mixed with lingering questions about Silas’s father’s past will appeal to many as the trio underscores how even unlikely friendships can make for strong bonds. Images made from daguerreotypes serve as chapter heads. Ages 10–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Obie Is Man Enough

Schuyler Bailar. Crown, $16.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-37946-2

In Bailar’s earnest debut, set near Boston, 13-year-old Obie Chang, who is Korean and white, has been out as a trans boy for about a year. His family and favorite teacher are supportive, but he’s been kicked off the swim team by his transphobic coach, his best friend is growing distant, and another childhood friend bullies him mercilessly. Obie wonders if he’s “man enough” to succeed both in the pool and out, but with the help of new teammates, his therapist, and his first crush, Charlie, who has brown skin, gradually learns to believe in himself. Obie’s journey can be difficult to read—he is misgendered and deadnamed as well as physically and verbally assaulted—but he’s also allowed moments of quiet as he examines both gender constructs and his connection to Korean history and culture. This self-reflection, combined with his burgeoning self-confidence, make for a thoughtful, eventually triumphant story that demonstrates the importance of a solid support system and the ways in which transphobia, homophobia, and toxic masculinity are often intertwined. Includes an author’s note, mental health resources, and a glossary of gender-related terms. Ages 10–up. Agent: Marietta Zacker, Gallt & Zacker. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Born Behind Bars

Padma Venkatraman. Penguin/Paulsen, $17.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-11247-2

Nine-year-old Kabir Khan has known nothing but the Chennai prison where he was born. But when a new warden arrives, he’s forced to leave it—and the mother he believes innocent of the crime for which she was imprisoned. With the help of a Kurava teen named Rani and her talking parrot, Kabir narrowly escapes a man who plans to sell him into slavery. Focused on proving his Hindu mother innocent and finding his father—a Muslim man who went to work in Dubai to finance his mother’s defense—Kabir and Rani travel to Bengaluru, encountering danger, disappointment, and hope along the way. As the two navigate a water shortage and the journey, Rani teaches Kabir about the caste system and how to make it on the streets, while Kabir shares his own knowledge through singing and storytelling. Twining themes of perseverance, friendship, and prejudice (“Funny to think rich people... build fancy cages to live in. Probably because they’re afraid of poor people like us”), Venkatraman (The Bridge Home) renders the gripping circumstances surrounding Kabir and Rani’s journey with a keen attention to character and plot, making for an immersive reading experience. Ages 10–up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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My Homework Ate My Dog!

Derek Taylor Kent. Whimsical World, $16.99 (184p) ISBN 978-1-949213-10-2

When Rudy Berkman’s family moves to Danville for a fresh start, they soon realize the picturesque town is not as perfect as it seems in this middle grade horror novel. Rudy, who is implied Black, now attends Danville Reformatory School, where the adults are monsters in disguise and the children seem brainwashed to conform. When a terrifying homework assignment come to life and devours his beloved beagle, Rudy’s had enough. But after Brett Looger, Rudy’s former bully, implied white, is also forced to move to Danville, the two boys unexpectedly bond in the face of danger and attempt to unravel the age-old mysteries of their scary small town. As Rudy experiences terrifying visions and his worst nightmares playing out in real time, his adventures offer a fast-paced romp through horror tropes old and new. Rudy’s extreme self-awareness and voice can feel more mature than his age, and some worldbuilding could be clarified. Still, Kent constructs an inventive magic system and doesn’t hold back gory details, which will draw younger readers who thrill at being grossed out and taken along for a chilling ride. Ages 8–12. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds (Amira & Hamza #1)

Samira Ahmed. Little, Brown, $16.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-316-54046-9

A budding astronomer and self-proclaimed “nerd,” 12-year-old Amira, this novel’s Muslim, Indian American narrator, can’t wait to witness an upcoming lunar extravaganza. In Chicago, the Islamic Society of Ancient Astronomy is celebrating the coincidence of a supermoon, blood moon, and blue moon (a “celestial trifecta of awesomeness”) with an exhibition attended by Amira, her irksome younger brother Hamza, and their parents. When Hamza wanders off, he becomes entranced by the Box of the Moon—an ancient analogue computer made of unidentified alloys. A sibling tussle over the artifact restarts it, unleashing staggering consequences. As the adults drop into an enchanted sleep, a broken piece of the moon heads directly for Earth, and an army of jinn spirits the siblings away, Amira and Hamza discover that it falls to them to save the world from a great battle between the realms. Ahmed (Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know) centers her fast-paced middle grade debut on a deeply engaging heroine, foil to her more reckless and charming brother. The siblings’ relationship—characterized by equal amounts of affection and bickering—lends authenticity and humor to the folklore-inspired narrative. Ages 8–12. Agent: Joanna Volpe, New Leaf Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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