The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady by Gerald Morris

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady, by Gerald Morris, was published in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Squire’s Tale.

Rating: 4/5

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady is basically a retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the established characters from The Squire’s Tale making appearances (or starring, in the case of Terence). It’s easy to tell, as an adult, how much Morris loves Arthurian legend and especially Gawain. I’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight before, so reading this book was fun because I was able to piece what I remembered of that book with what was happening in this one.

There are more books in this series, but this book really seems like a last hurrah for Terence and Gawain—especially Terence, who accomplishes a lot in this book and ends up in a pretty triumphant place at the end. Though occasionally Terence seems more like an observer, there are plenty of times, especially towards the end, where he is able to step up and shine—and even outshine Gawain.

Morris’s humor is what really steps the book up. There’s an ever-present dry wit running throughout that makes the whole book fun to read. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, perhaps, but the humor keeps the book enjoyable and the characters interesting.

Though not, perhaps, a series I would return to, I enjoyed my foray into Morris’s loving retellings of Arthurian legend. I may continue on with the series, I may not—but I know if I do, I’m bound to have a pretty good time.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, was published in 2018 by Little, Brown, and Company. It is the sequel to Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crowe.

Rating: 4/5        

Wundersmith continues the story of Morrigan Crow as she heads to Nevermoor Hogwarts, the Wundrous Society, and deals with the revelation that she is a Wundersmith, a word synonymous with “evil” in Nevermoor society. Along the way, she learns a little bit about her magic and a lot about friendship and loyalty as people start mysteriously disappearing.

Wundersmith improves on Nevermoor by smoothing out its cartoony, extreme villains (and by “smoothing out,” I mean “got rid of entirely”) and by establishing more of the world. The shining star is, of course, the tone of the whole book, which is witty and charming and enjoyable to read. The plot also gives Morrigan much more to do and learn than in the first book, and expands her circle of friends as well.

One major complaint I have is that I still have no clear idea about what Wunder really is, or how it differs from other people’s knacks and magic. So far, all I know about Wunder is that it’s magical golden threads that float around Morrigan and do…something. Create things? It’s not particularly clear. So all I know is that Morrigan is supposed to be powerful and unique and cool, but I’m not sure why or how.

That being said, I still really enjoyed the book. It’s a fun, lighthearted fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, has a good plot, good characters, and an interesting world. I’ll be looking out for the next (last?) book in the series.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

A Dash of Trouble, by Anna Meriano, was published in 2018 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve picked up a few baking magic books before and liked them well enough to try another one, this one with a Mexican cultural background. A Dash of Trouble has Leo discover that her mother and sisters are witches (“brujas”) and that the bakery her family owns is used for baking up magic spells, like bread that can help you communicate with the dead or cookies that can fly.

I’m not overly fond of middle grade protagonists who think they have all the answers, but Meriano does a really good job of balancing Leo’s determination to do magic and her desire for success with her failures. I liked that Leo wasn’t perfect, that all the spells she did were just slightly off enough to reflect her inexperience, and that ultimately the book wasn’t about Leo being a Fabulous Witch, but about her relationship with her sisters, her mother, and her magic.

As far as the writing goes, everything was pretty basic and the plot was straightforward and simple. I’m not a fan of poetic or flowery language, but I’ve read so many books lately that have some form of descriptive language that this book felt a bit dry and bare-bones in lots of places. It made for a pretty quick read, though, and I didn’t notice any obvious signs of telling rather than showing, though there was lots of melodrama.

I’m not sure if I enjoyed A Dash of Trouble enough to pick up any more in the series, but I did find it pleasantly well-crafted and balanced. There also wasn’t any obvious agenda that the author was trying to push, so that’s a plus. You never can tell with MG these days.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Realistic

The Squire's Tale by Gerald Morris

The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin.

Rating: 4/5

I’ve never really enjoyed books about Arthurian legend—I think the only exception was a trilogy I read when I was younger that I still remember today—but The Squire’s Tale was surprisingly enjoyable. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, or even really witty, but there is an amusing side to it that I really enjoyed. Perhaps that why I enjoyed it—Morris didn’t try to take himself or the legends too seriously, but related them in a way that was both fun and respectful to the origin.

He also managed to weave together some of the more ridiculous things that happen in Arthurian tales, and medieval literature in general, into something that was actually believable, fairies and enchanters aside. The plot is fairly basic, but so much is crammed into it that the reader tends to forget that. Plus, there is a sort of overarching character arc in both Gawain and Terence that weaves all their adventure together.

One criticism is that Morris didn’t do a really good job of explaining the villain, and when that character is revealed, everything happens very quickly so it’s a little bit anticlimactic. However, there are four or five books in this series, and when a book is as short as this one, some things fall through the cracks to be (hopefully) caught up by the next book.

The Squire’s Tale made me actually enjoy medieval literature, so that’s a huge point in its favor, and overall the book is charming, fun, and decently plotted. The character interaction, especially between Gawain and Terence, is great, and Terence is a good protagonist, though perhaps a little too much of a passive observer in the beginning (though it makes for good development to have him become more and more active throughout the book). I’d read the next books in the series, that’s for sure.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crowe

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, was published in 2017 by Little, Brown, and Company.

Rating: 4/5        

To my pleasant surprise, I found The Trials of Morrigan Crow to be a fun, witty fantasy with lots of charm and a decent plot. I’ve been so picky about the books I’ve been reading lately that I never can tell anymore what I’ll like or not—thankfully, I liked this.

That’s not to say I didn’t find flaws in it. There were plenty: the unclear nature of the magic of the world, and especially of Morrigan’s, the heavy-handed, distracting villainy of the police officer, whose every appearance ruined the atmosphere, and several worldbuilding elements, like why in the world Christmas is still called “Christmas” in a fantasy world devoid of religion.

However, annoying police officer and bratty bully girls aside, I really enjoyed the characters, and the book has that slight touch of wacky fun that I really like to see in fantasies if it’s done right. Jupiter North is great, and the cast of side characters are varied and interesting. The villain is all right—at least that character is not as distracting and jarring as the police officer, who is apparently there just to be some sort of strawman and say the word “filthy” a lot—though his plans for Morrigan are predictable, and overall the plot as a whole was twisty and tricky and surprising in good ways.

I hope my interest for this series doesn’t wane as it did for similar fantasies, like The Bronze Key. However, Townsend seems to have a knack for cleverness, which is always interesting to me, so I hope she continues that in the next books. 

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, was published in 2010 by HarperCollins.

Rating: 3/5        

One Crazy Summer is an interesting novel. It’s set in Oakland in 1968 and the Black Panthers play a central role as Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern go to one of their summer camps and experience a completely different life than what they’re used to. I liked that there was a bit of a role-reversal in that it is their mother they are visiting. Usually in books where children visit an estranged parent, the parent is the father. It was interesting to have it be the mother this time, though I suppose Williams-Garcia did that not for the role-reversal, but for some sort of statement about women, strength, and independence.

I enjoyed the voices of the characters, especially Delphine, and all of the sisters’ interactions were very well done. I liked that Williams-Garcia sort of showed both sides of the Black Panthers and multiple views of their actions—she didn’t glorify them, but strove to portray them as realistically as possible for a children’s book. It was still a bit weird for me because I’ve really only heard negative things about the violence they caused, but this book did teach me about their summer camps and all the ways they helped to improve the lives of the children in the neighborhoods.

The part that was the hardest to swallow wasn’t any of the Black Panther stuff; it was the actions of Cecile, the mother. Early on, Delphine remembers something that Big Ma told her, which is that Cecile left because she wanted to name Fern something else (“Afua,” we learn later) and wasn’t allowed—or something. Cecile kind of confirms this by refusing to call Fern “Fern” and instead calling her “Little Girl” (and later, by accident, Afua). She then tells Delphine that “she’d have to be grown before [Cecile] could explain why she left [because of a name].” Okay, but…did she leave because of the name or not? Was Garcia-Williams trying to imply there was more to the story, or was this supposed to be some sort of statement about Cecile?

Anyway, while I liked the voice and the characters, and I learned a bit about the setting, overall the entire novel just felt like I was missing something–which I probably was, to be honest. I simply felt as if I didn’t “get it,” like I was supposed to feel like Cecile was this amazing person when all I could think was that she seemed a bit self-centered (at first—she gets a little better, but I still don’t understand why you would leave your family because of a name). I might read at least the sequel to this book to see if we learn more about Cecile, since I did really like the characters. It was just some of the circumstances I couldn’t relate to, I suppose.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, was published in 2017 by Dial. It is the sequel to The War That Saved My Life.

Rating: 3/5        

I didn’t get quite as swept up in The War I Finally Won as I did in The War That Saved My Life. While this book continues the healing process that Ada started in the latter book, I simply didn’t find it as immediately gripping. Bradley leaves nothing to subtlety and every emotional hurdle that Ada overcomes is plainly spoken so that the reader understands exactly what has happened. This isn’t a bad thing for a children’s book, I guess, but it leaves a lot to be desired for any older reader.

I suppose that’s my biggest complaint about this book: there’s far too much tell and not enough show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an interesting book, and Ada’s slowly defrosting heart and widening understanding of relationships, love, and family is heartwarming (no pun intended). Yet the delivery is too pat for me to be enthralled with the process.

However, if you left The War That Saved My Life wanting more Lady Thornton, Margaret, Jonathan, and, of course, Ada, Jamie, and Susan, then this book does do a whole lot in furthering each character’s relationship with each other. There’s dual mother-daughter relationships, with Lady Thornton and Margaret, and Susan and Ada, and then there’s Ada dealing with Lady Thornton in her life, who is an authority but not her mother. There’s the inclusion of a German girl, Ruth, who brings a whole new dynamic to the family dynamic. Of course, the book mostly focuses on Ada and Susan, but Ada learns a whole lot about relationships and getting along with other people, as well as the many facets of love.

The War I Finally Won is a good sequel to The War That Saved My Life, with lots of discussion about love, mothers, enemies, and courage. I had problems with the delivery of the ideas and the overall lack of showing what’s happening rather than merely telling, but overall the book showed lots of promise and had strong, relevant themes.  

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here:

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Pictures of Hollis Woods, by Patricia Reilly Giff, was published in 2002 by Random House.

Rating: 4/5        

I think there’s something to say about the state of children’s/middle grade literature recently when you go into a book expecting something much worse to happen than what actually happens. I suppose I could blame it on myself, but I’ve read far too many books (and seen too many shows) where absolute awfulness happens, sometimes only for the sake of drama. So when I was about halfway through Pictures of Hollis Woods, which has Hollis narrating in the present with flashbacks to the past, I was convinced that something terrible had happened, something heartbreakingly sad and crafted to pile on the tears and the angst. That’s what the majority of the books I read in high school and college did, after all.

However, while what happened was sad, it wasn’t dramatically, unrealistically, angstily so. In fact, I found Pictures of Hollis Woods to be quite a tender reflection of family and the things that bring them together. Giff conveys so well all the doubts, hopes, and dreams a girl stuck in foster care might have, and Hollis’s interactions with people, her desperate wish for a family, and her determination to make something work no matter what are so well crafted and described. For once, someone wrote a young girl who, while feisty, wasn’t bratty, whose hopes and dreams made her actions more believable, and who was able to graciously accept when she was wrong and make changes accordingly.

Besides the ultimate theme of family, we also have the delightful interaction between Hollis and Josie, which also communicates family, but also brings up a whole host of other things, like caring for the sick and respecting the wishes of those older than you (it’s not revealed how old Josie is, but she’s retired and quite clearly has some form of Alzheimer’s). To be honest, I felt this book dealt with Alzheimer’s in a much better way, and was written much more lyrically and beautifully than Newberry-winner Merci Suárez Changes Gears.

Pictures of Hollis Woods was sad, but not devastatingly so. It was deliciously free of drama and had a wonderful theme of family. I also thought how great it was that Giff revealed the love the Old Man had for Steven despite their arguments. The presence of a critical father in a novel, which also shows the love that exists between him and his family, is a great picture of what families, realistically, are–flawed.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs

The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 2/5        

The Runaway Princess reminded me a lot of E. D. Baker’s books. It’s a non-serious fantasy about a rebellious princess (*shudder*) who, knowing better than all the adults around her (of course), sets off to complete the quest her father put in place for eligible suitors, thereby “winning her own hand” a la Merida from Brave.

It’s a good thing I recognized this as non-serious, fun fantasy early on, otherwise I would’ve spent the whole book wondering how the logistics of everything worked out. There’s no sense of scale, politics, or even world mechanics, and everything that happens just seems a little too unbelievable to be convincing that it would actually happen. It really starts to delve into melodramatic territory with the “angry parents” side plot.

I can see why a lot of people like this book. Meg is a rebellious, unconventional princess (a very popular trope) who goes against the status quo, befriends the lower class, and somehow knows a ton about the workings of society outside the castle despite never going out much. She’s oh-so understanding and friendly and remarkably capable despite, again, lack of knowledge and training. She knows better than anyone else what the correct way of things should be. Unluckily for me, I absolutely hate that type of character, especially combined with the overused rebellious princess trope.

For non-serious fantasy directed at a middle-grade audience, I suppose it’s a fine book. Again, many people would probably applaud the protagonist (especially considering the audience and everyone’s constant wish for strong female leads [or, at least, what they think a strong female lead should be]). Yet I found the whole book unbelievable, Meg annoying, and the jokes not funny. Coombs took one step too far and turned her non-serious novel into camp.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy


Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis, was published in 2007 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5

The setting of Elijah of Buxton is the Buxton Mission of Raleigh, Canada, founded in 1849 by Reverend William King as a refuge for escaped slaves. Elijah, the protagonist, is the first child of the settlement born into freedom. What Curtis does so well in this book is to show the stark contrast between Elijah and the other people he encounters who were slaves. We have Mr. Leroy, working to gain enough money to buy his wife and children. We have the Preacher, a fast-talking swindler with a few hidden depths. We have the runaway slaves Elijah finds later in the novel, who mention how different Elijah seems to them—in fact, he becomes a symbol of hope for those slaves.

Speaking of Mr. Leroy, he and Elijah share some of the best “page time” of the book, starting with Mr. Leroy lecturing (to put it nicely) Elijah on the use of a racial slur that slipped out of Elijah’s mouth (“You thinks just ‘cause that word come out from twixt your black lips it mean anything different?”), teaching a valuable lesson about language, the way it can be used to dehumanize others, and how an important step in freedom is also freeing oneself from the use of words that were only used to malign. Then there’s the adventure Mr. Leroy and Elijah go on towards the end of the book, culminating in Elijah running into some runaway slaves, realizing how much different it is for blacks (slave or not) in Chicago than his life in Buxton. Curtis does a fantastic job of showing the stark contrast between slave and free.

The antagonist of the story is the Preacher, though there’s a good argument to make that the main antagonist is slavery itself. Anyway, my curiosity was piqued by the Preacher, a conman who immediately ditches his conning when his target reveals his racism (or, at the very least, his insulting pandering), but then steals his friend’s money and runs away to Chicago, where he proceeds to gamble it away. What happens to him is dreadful, and Curtis makes it clear that no matter the Preacher’s sins, he didn’t deserve what he got.

Elijah of Buxton is a fantastic book, showing stark contrasts between slave and free, black and white, that existed in the 1850s. The only reason I didn’t rate it a 5 is because of the pacing—the beginning is far too long, and the ending is far too rushed. The summary also didn’t help with my perception of the pacing, either, promising me a far longer adventure than what was actually delivered. I also didn’t feel as if the Preacher’s motivations were developed very well. However, Curtis manages that fine line between brutal and child-friendly in portraying slavery, though it’s probably not suited for kids below 10. 

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence, slavery, racial slurs

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2p7ZtlU