Daughter of the Mountains by Louise Rankin

Daughter of the Mountains, by Louise Rankin, was published in 1948 by Viking.

Rating: 2/5

Daughter of the Mountains lost the Newbery Medal to King of the Wind, and now that I’ve typed that out, I realize just how similar the books are in terms of style. Perhaps a sign of the times. Daughter of the Mountains is about Momo, who, after her dog is stolen from her, sets out to find him again, a journey which takes her across the mountains of Tibet down into India. As far as accuracy of representation goes, I honestly have no idea (though at the beginning Rankin seems to describe them as ignorant and superstitious, by the end that image has completely vanished for a more favorable one), but Rankin at least seemed to know what she was talking about in describing dress, manner, and customs of the people. Momo constantly prays to Tara, a Buddhist goddess/bodhisittva (there’s also a Hindu goddess of the same name), and there is even, perhaps, a mention of the arrival of Christianity into India, though I could be mistaken.

The reason I rated the book so low is because by the end, I was more than a little tired of the extravagant, flowery way Rankin wrote, to the point where even her characters spoke embellishingly, even the eight-to-ten-year-old girl who is the main character. In addition, Momo’s journey is almost too perfect—though there are several points where she is in some danger, and many where she is lost, everything always ends up aligning perfectly for her, down to the British military leader/governor (or something) who stumbles upon her crying and for some reason decides to address the poor little mountain girl and buy her a train ticket. And the fulsome acceptance and praise heaped upon her at the end by the British couple was far, far too much. In fact, if I must criticize Rankin for her description of India at the time, it’s the complete lack of tension and antagonism that existed in that time, right before British rule ended in India. A children’s book, yes, but a very, very romanticized one.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

The Lioness and Her Knight by Gerald Morris

The Lioness and Her Knight, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight.

Rating: 3/5

The Lioness and Her Knight is, I think, the longest of Morris’s books so far, retelling Chretien de Troyes’ The Knight of the Lion. It is, perhaps, too long, with the characters spending too much time in one place, but it is stuffed full of events. The protagonist is Lynet and Gaheris’s (from The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf) daughter, Luneta, who sets out on her own adventure with the fool Rhience and her cousin Ywain. The title has a double meaning: there is a literal lioness with a knight, but Luneta is also a figurative lioness.

The protagonist being the child of the main character in another book earlier in the series does raise the question of “Just how old are these characters, and is that realistic to the time period?” but I’m sure Morris didn’t intend for us to think so deeply on that subject. Instead, he uses old characters as a beacon of familiarity, anchoring the book in his established world even as he introduces new characters.

Like I said, the plot is long, and entirely too long is spent on Luneta in Laudine’s castle. There’s also some rather odd side adventures that happen that are important to the plot, but add to the length of the book, slowing the pace. There is, however, fabulous character development on all sides, with the exception of Rhience, who remains enigmatic and the source of dry wit throughout the book.

The length of the book is slightly made up by the fantastic ending, which legitimately made me laugh out loud at several points (a rarity even with humorous books). While Morris has similar humor throughout the books, making things more predictable with each entry, he is at the top of his game in the last 30 or so pages.

The Lioness and Her Knight was too long, though I can’t really say what could have been cut or trimmed since a lot of what happened functioned as important to the plot or to the development of the characters. I struggled with the pacing and the length of time spent in certain places, though by the end of the book things started picking up more. Still a consistently good entry, but not my favorite.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Anastasia by Carolyn Meyer

Anastasia, the Last Grand Duchess, by Carolyn Meyer, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 2/5

Most people are likely aware of Anastasia and the Romanov family from the animated movie Anastasia (not a Disney film, as many people think, but 20th Century Fox [which, ironically, is now owned by Disney]), which runs with the legend that Anastasia somehow survived the execution of the Romanovs (with significant changes, of course) and eventually came back to Moscow to face the zombie/undead/spirit Rasputin.

It’s a much more exciting movie than this book is.

I mean, Meyer is much, much more historically accurate than the film. No undead Rasputin (in fact, Meyer doesn’t even go into the strangeness of his death at all, probably since the fact (or legend) that he was poisoned, shot a few times, and then dropped into a river probably wouldn’t go over well for a children’s book), no lost child Anastasia at the train station, no survival of firing squad. But the problem is that though she’s more historically accurate, there’s barely any context for anything that happens in the book. The historical note mentions that Anastasia and the Romanovs pretty much lived in a bubble, and Meyer demonstrates that excellently well—too well, actually, because Anastasia seems oblivious to why anything is happening—but seems to forget that an important part of telling a character’s story is also making sure readers understand history.

About the only thing Meyer describes decently well is Father Grigori/Rasputin. Other than that, even with being familiar with that time period in Russia, I struggled to connect the dots between offhand comments of discontent, Nicholas II’s takeover of the military, his abdication, the Provisional Government, and the Bolshevik revolution.

I think perhaps what caused some of the issues was that this book covers a four-year-period, which means that there are huge jumps in time and lots of short entries where Anastasia just talks about gardening or something like that. Those interspersed with more historical entries just makes everything confused and hard to follow. Anastasia barely gives a cursory look at the history, politics, and views that led to the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin, so in that respect it really doesn’t do a particularly good job. It’s slightly better if you think of it as Meyer simply telling the story from a sheltered royal’s point of view, who wouldn’t know much of anything going on, but I think that’s missing the point of historical fiction.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee, by Alan Gratz, was published in 2017 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Refugee tells the story of three children in three different time periods who are forced to leave their home and become, as the title states, refugees. Each chapter switches between the three and often situations and words are linked together to help with the flow. There’s also several surprising connections between the three despite there being a 70-year time range covered.

The children are Josef, a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 on the ship St. Louis; Isabel, a Cuban fleeing Castro’s Cuba in 1994; and Mahmoud, a Syrian fleeing the civil war in 2015. Each are based on true stories, and Gratz has an extensive historical note in the back detailing what was real and what was fictional in each child’s story.

Though I’m not a fan of switching viewpoints every chapter, once I got used to it in this book, I thought it was a good way to tell the story. It helped that Gratz linked the viewpoints together by having the characters think similar things, or have similar situations appear to link the end of one section to the beginning of the next. Though I got a bit aggravated by the cliffhanger endings eventually, Gratz does a great job of keeping the book suspenseful. Though Isabel’s and Mahmoud’s stories were fairly predictable, Josef’s, at least, had a surprising twist at the end that makes his story, at least, far more stark and grim than the other two. And for the most part, Gratz limits preachiness, though at times he delivers his point a little too forcefully.

I’m not sure if younger children will truly understand what Gratz is trying to do with this book (especially since they’re less likely to read all the notes at the end that also detail how to help refugees today), but older children certainly will, and the multiple viewpoints, male and female protagonists, and suspense will appeal to every reader.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Realistic

The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight by Gerald Morris

The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Ballad of Sir Dinadan.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Gerald Morris delivers once again (but what else is new?) with a retelling of Chrétien de Troyes’ Le chevalier de la charrette, a.k.a. The Knight of the Cart, adding some new characters, including the protagonist, Sarah, and bringing back some old favorites, most notably Lancelot (who figures prominently in de Troyes’ work and does so here as well), Gawain, and Terence, and Piers (from Parsifal’s Page) shows up as well.

Morris does a great job of making Lancelot, who was not the hero of previous books and functioned more as a foil or even an anti-hero at times, really shine here. He gives Lancelot just enough remorse and guilt to make him sympathetic, then reminds the reader that Lancelot is a fabulous knight, which combined allows the reader to see him much more of a Gawain-type figure than the sort of brooding, nuisance character he’s been in the past. What’s even better is that Morris nods to all the previous books by having Lancelot at first go by “Jean,” so that readers of previous books immediately recognize who this mysterious “Jean” is and get to revel in that knowledge before the reveal to the characters that Jean is Lancelot.

However, Lancelot is really just a side character to the spunky, determined Sarah, who’s out for revenge for the killing of her mother and her father-figure, Mordecai. Morris throws in a whole heap of an anti-Semitic side plot. He gives a rather detailed explanation in the author’s note as to why, perhaps because the books have been rather lighthearted until now. This book is, undoubtedly, the heaviest of his works simply due to Sarah’s backstory and the complex themes of revenge and remorse that are entangled up with that. I think I enjoyed Lynette, the heroine of The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, better, but Sarah goes through a much more arduous journey than Lynette and thus learns a whole lot more. This is perhaps one of Morris’s most moral/theme-centric book (perhaps because it is the heaviest?), though it still has the trademark humor and fun of the series.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Anti-Semitism

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys, was published in 2019 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5                                          

I love Ruta Sepetys’s work; Salt to the Sea was one of my favorite reads a few years ago. However, I really struggled with The Fountains of Silence. Honestly, I thought about stopping it halfway through, that’s how uninvested I was in the story and characters. And it wasn’t that the history behind it wasn’t riveting—the only thing I knew about the Spanish Civil War is from Picasso (Guernica), so learning about it, especially the stolen babies, was fascinating and so, so sad.

Here’s what I didn’t like: the short, short chapters that continually jumped to different characters’ point of view. It was extremely frustrating to have all of these different characters think, do, or say things for a short while, only to switch to another character who thinks, does, or says something else for a short while. The chapters end abruptly, but do nothing to help the reader understand what’s happening. Sepetys also hints—and hints and hints and hints—at things, but the short chapters mean that hints are only ever given—the readers are not given enough time, space, or information, to figure out anything for themselves; instead, we have to wait nearly 200 pages before one of the characters finally reveals something. No clever ways to hide plot twists here—just brevity and point of view switches.

I also found the book a little bit too sappy. It’s sweet and cute that Dan waited 18 years, but how realistic is it that he would really wait that long for a girl he knew for two months?? The whole thing just screamed “bad YA romance.” It felt cheap and disappointing that an author I’ve always associated with nuanced, deep novels relied on cheap writing tricks and a really cliché romance in this otherwise deeply rich historical novel.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, was published in 2015 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Echo tells the story of three children across a ten-year period: Friedrich, in the time of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany; Mike, in the Great Depression of the 1930s in Pennsylvania; and Ivy, in the time after Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 2033 in California. All three children are tied together by a love for music and by a mysterious harmonica that holds the spirits of three lost princesses searching for a soul to save.

Okay, so that last part is a little strange and mystical, but the whole thing together makes for a beautiful story. I’m not sure whose story I loved more, but I think Mike’s story, with his longing for a family and for someone to love him, is the most heartwrenching. Ryan touches on a lot of things besides music: Hitler, Nazis, Jews, foster homes, the segregation of Mexican children in schools in California, the attitude towards the Japanese…there’s a lot packed into the book, and though it is quite long, the story flies by quickly.

The last part of the book takes place years after all three children’s stories stop, and tells how they are united through music. Because each children’s story ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, the epilogue also backtracks and details what happens afterwards—though that, I think, was my least favorite part because it made everything anticlimactic and the ending felt rushed as a result.

Despite its small flaws, Echo is a beautiful story about music and the connections it can cause between people with separate lives. It won a 2016 Newbery Honor, losing to Last Stop on Market Street, and it boggles my mind as to why (nothing against the latter book—just in my mind, there’s a clear winner, and it’s not the picture book).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, slight Fantasy

Marie Antoinette by Kathryn Lasky

Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaille, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2000 by Scholastic.

Rating: 3/5                                          

Kathryn Lasky has the difficult job of creating the young adult journal of Marie Antoinette, one of the most infamous queens in history, on her way to the throne of France, starting from the beginning in Austria, with stirrings of interest from the French, all the way to her arrival and entrenchment at Versailles. One of the most interesting things about this Royal Diaries series is that a lot of the times authors have to think of the question, “How do I make controversial or unlikeable rulers likeable to a young audience?”

Lasky does an admirable job with this book, though of course every one of these books needs to be taken with the grain of salt that we have no idea what the “voice” of these characters, and in this case, the young Marie Antoinette, was like. Despite that, Lasky details the Austrian’s court obsession with getting then-Antonia married to the Dauphin of France. Antonia’s voice is authentic, sounding exactly like a young girl would who’s getting married to someone she doesn’t know, who hates some of the formalities being thrust upon her, and who doesn’t really want to leave her family behind. Absent from all of her preparations is actual education, one of the factors cited in the historical notes as the reason why Marie Antoinette and her husband were so terrible at ruling. Instead, Antonia plays cards, rides horses, and complains about elaborate hairstyles, but never learns much about economics, politics, or the like. This continues even when she gets to Versailles, where time is taking up with detailing the ridiculous customs of the French elite, as well as Marie Antoinette’s feud with the King’s mistress. Lasky even briefly throws in a mention of Marie’s desire to live on a farm, foreshadowing, though not mentioned in the book at all, the hamlet she builds in the gardens of Versailles (which I’ve seen, and wow, it really puts into perspective Marie Antoinette’s views and her extravagance).

Also well described is the whole court scene of both Austria and France, and the ridiculousness of the French elite comes across clearly. Marie Antoinette is horrified by the lack of privacy at Versailles, and the splendor and decadence and underlying decay is shown very well. Done less well is, in general, the whole idea of Marie Antoinette as a spend-thrift, reveling in pretty things and clothes. She doesn’t really do much of that in the book, and Lasky spends most of her time just describing the political scene.

Marie Antoinette is an interesting book, and though it’s a bit long and doesn’t really establish very well the real character of the Queen as we know it in history, I think Lasky did an admirable job of communicating may other things, like royal life in France with its elaborate etiquette and extravagant styles, and the feelings a young girl might have from being transported from one country to another.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan by Gerald Morris

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2003 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to Parsifal’s Page.

Rating: 4/5                                          

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan combines two Arthurian legends into one: Culloch, of “How Culhwch Won Olwen” and the story of Tristram and Iseult, uniting them with the character of Dinadan, a minor character in the latter story who is transformed into the main character here. He’s a different sort of character than the others in the books before him. The others were squires, but Dinadan is a knight, though you easily forget that because he doesn’t really consider himself a knight, but more of a minstrel.

Morris has a lot of fun with these legends, accentuating the foolish nature of Culloch’s tasks and the love between Tristram and Iseult. Morris, I think, doesn’t much like Malory, or perhaps he’s more willing to show how silly some of the legends can be, as this entire book revolves around Dinadan and more serious knights sighing and shaking their heads at the antics of Culloch and at the ridiculous Tristram.

There’s also some fun with the other side characters brought in from the legends, such as sir Palomides, the Moorish knight, and Lady Brangienne, Dinadan’s if-I-wanted-to-marry-I-would-marry-you partner. Morris is consistently funny and entertaining with each book, and none of them have gotten old in terms of formula. This series is a lot of fun and I’m learning a lot about Arthurian legend!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel by Natasha Lowe

The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel, by Natasha Lowe, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5

This book was so cute! Combining magic, school, and a 1900’s setting (technically 1897 I suppose), The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel was a delight to read from beginning to end. It combined a girl’s school with 1900s’ education and expectations with magic and a dash of modern thought. This book is apparently a companion to two other books, though it’s not at all necessary to read those. I didn’t, and I had no problems following along.

Lowe manages to make a smart protagonist who’s naturally good at magic still stumble and fumble her way through the novel, though most of the flaws in Mabel’s character mostly comes from her own ideas and thoughts about herself rather than her actions. She is, perhaps, just slightly too successful, but Lowe hits the balance of smart and showing it, but not so smart that everything is easy and the book is boring. Mabel’s biggest gift is in her potential, and Lowe does a great job of showing that potential even when Mabel accidentally turns her mean governess into a cat.

There are, perhaps, a few too many overtly modern sentiments present. Mabel, as the smart, rules-breaking protagonist, pushes the envelope in terms of convention and female expectations, and it’s just a bit too obvious of a thing to happen for it to be really enjoyable unless you like that sort of thing. I’m 100% over the “let’s all wear pants in the era of skirts!” female protagonists, and there’s one too many scenes in the book focused on it, though at least Lowe makes it relevant to her story and setting.

The big rescue scene is the other part of the book that fell a little flat for me. There’s just so much mechanical description to it that I got bored, and everything was pretty pat-and-dry. It felt pretty emotionless rather than tense and exciting. Then again, I’m sure the intended audience would probably really enjoy it. It just wasn’t what I like out of big rescue scenes. Even so, I did really enjoy The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel, and I’ll likely pick up the companion books to read at some point.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy