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

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler, by John Hendrix, was published in 2018 by Amulet.

Rating: 5/5                                          

Combining stunning, full-colored illustrations interwoven with text, The Faithful Spy depicts the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, and his role in the numerous assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler during World War II. It’s not an intensive biography; Hendrix is much more concerned with explaining Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and motivations. Using numerous exact quotations from Bonhoeffer’s writings and some poetic license, Hendrix spins a gripping tale of a madman’s attempts to rule the Western world, and the desperate people who tried to stop him.

This is a book about Bonhoeffer, but it is also a book about Hitler and Germany, because in order to explain why and how Bonhoeffer got involved with the Abwehr, the German spy agency who became dedicated to getting rid of Hitler, Hendrix also had to describe the state of Germany at the time and how Hitler rose to power. There’s so much information packed in a short amount of time, but it all flows naturally, and of course the art makes everything stand out that much more. And the best part is that everything is explained simply enough that the audience of the book (it’s a middle-grade/young adult book) would be able to completely understand, even if they didn’t know much about World War I or World War II.

Another great thing about the book is the reverence and attention-to-detail that Hendrix gives to Bonhoeffer’s faith, and to Christianity in general. Hendrix acknowledges Hitler’s manipulation of Christianity (and also truthfully states that Hitler hated Christianity because of its doctrine of love and charity), but by setting that manipulation side-by-side with Bonhoeffer’s pure faith, the reader is more able to readily see what true Christianity is (rather than the twisted version that people in power so often give).

I learned so much more about Bonhoeffer, and about Hitler and Germany, than I ever thought I would from this book. The Faithful Spy is visually appealing and comprehensive in subject; Hendrix also lists an extensive bibliography and notes at the end, which is rare to see in a book for children. I picked this up on a whim, and am so pleased that I did—truly a delight from cover-to-cover.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Nonfiction

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart, was published in 2019.

Rating: 3/5                                          

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise has beautiful cover art and an interesting premise: a girl and her dad, after the deaths of her mother and her two sisters, drive around the US in a school bus attempting to escape the memories of the past until the destruction of a hometown park makes the girl determined to remember, rather than forget.

The novel is an interesting look at grief and the way it manifests itself after tragedy, and how people struggle to deal with it even years afterwards. Coyote has learned to keep smiling, even when she doesn’t feel like it, because she knows her dad can’t handle anything else. Yet that means she has been incapable of expressing her own grief the way that’s best for her, and it means that her dad has merely bottled his in and hid it under name changes and avoiding the subject. And, because it’s a story about a family’s grief, it’s also a story about family and friendship, as the companions that Coyote and Rodeo pick up help teach them what it means to love and to remember. There’s maybe one too many modern messages thrown in, like Gemeinhart couldn’t resist a “Take that!” which makes some moments seem really out of place in terms of narrative, and read more like glaring authorial insertions.

It’s a powerful, deep book for a middle grade audience. Honestly, the only thing that really jarred me time and time again was the writing style. Gemeinhart has Coyote wax philosophical many times, as well as tell pretty much everything she learns. By the end of the book, I had to skim over a lot of stuff because I was so sick of Coyote preaching about everything she had learned. For the audience of the book, maybe that was needed so that the heaviness of the book didn’t overtake the author’s message. Yet the lack of subtlety meant that I started gritting my teeth halfway through.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, 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 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

P. S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

P. S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia, was published in 2013 by HarperCollins. It is the sequel to One Crazy Summer.

Rating: 4/5

Williams-Garcia states in the afterword to P. S. Be Eleven that she really wanted the 70s vibe to shine through in this book, and boy, does it. I haven’t read many books set in that decade, but this one seems much more devoted to getting the feel of it down than many others do. It tackles popular slang and vocabulary, Jackson 5 and other music, Vietnam, drugs, and lots of other things, including a discussion about women’s roles in society (back in the time when they couldn’t even have their own credit cards).

I don’t think I still really understand Cecile’s characterization, though at least here I think her personality and thoughts are portrayed better than in the first book (or perhaps I understand them more). Her letters, at first, seemed a little too mysterious, but then once I got what her voice was supposed to be, I was able to enjoy them as a glimpse into Cecile’s character. I also thought her advice for Delphine to be a kid and not worry too much about things she couldn’t control was really good, and I loved the way Delphine reacted to them. Williams-Garcia is great at character development and in making the main character likeable and relatable, but still have struggles that the reader might be able to see beyond (like, rather than get irritated that Delphine is doing X, the reader instead thinks, “Oh, Delphine is having this struggle and she needs to do this thing.”).

I’m enjoying these books and their glimpse into 70s life. I like how Williams-Garcia shows all sorts of different mindsets with her characters: Cecile, very much a “power to the people” person; Big Ma, with her fear of standing out from the crowd and making scenes (probably heavily influenced by growing up in Alabama pre-Civil Rights); and Pa, who’s not like Cecile and not like Big Ma, but in the middle somewhere. It’s incredibly balanced and I appreciate that, plus it gives lots of insights and a more collective view of what people thought and experienced.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Realistic

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, by Jonathan Auxier, was published in 2011 by Amulet.

Rating: 3/5

My favorite part of Peter Nimble was the extremely clever and cheeky narration. Forget Peter, forget Peg, forget Sir Tode…the narrator was the real star of the show. From sly hints about big plot reveals to calm descriptions of otherwise strange and fantastic concepts, the narrator became a character in his own right. He revealed just enough to get the reader to say, “Oh, you sly dog,” but not enough that everything felt spoiled.

Other than that, the book as a whole was okay. The plot had an interesting concept and I enjoyed the world and characters. Auxier has the sort of humor that I like to see, since it elevates mediocre to better-than-average, which is precisely the case here. My one complaint was how much of the plot hinged on adults being incompetent and dumber than children, but at least Auxier kind of explains that in a decent way. But it’s clear he had a blast writing this book, and a lot of the side characters have very memorable voices, like Frederick the dogfish, and some of the detail and description were light and humorous as well.

I can’t say this book blew me away, but I appreciated the narrator, Auxier’s voice apart from that, and most of the characters. Though Peter was the hero, I felt the true stars of the show were the side characters. I can definitely see this book delighting younger readers—it’s non-stop fun with some cool magical concepts and a plucky young hero and his odd sidekick. What’s not to like about that?

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Parsifal’s Page by Gerald Morris

Parsifal’s Page, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2001 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf.

Rating: 4/5                                          

These books are so enjoyable. I feel like I enjoy each one more and more. And in Parsifal’s Page, Morris does a great deal more with character development than he usually does as both Parsifal and Piers (but mostly Piers) learn and grow throughout the story, until they’re both completely changed from the beginning.

I’ve read a few stories about the Holy Grail, but I didn’t recognize anything from this one. Once again, Morris’s author’s note is revealing and informative, but I wasn’t sure whether the king in the castle with the bleeding thigh was in Chretien de Troie’s story, or if Morris made it up. The Holy Grail book I read before didn’t have that (at least, not that I remember), but I assume that Morris, who seems to know his King Arthur, is following correctly (or adding enough mystical flair so that it fits with the King Arthur legends).

I love how Morris keeps bringing back his beloved original character, Terence, and Gawain, and he does it in such a way so it doesn’t ever seem as if he’s falling back to what works. Terence is mysterious, almost too mysterious in this one, but Gawain is as delightful as ever, and Parsifal is downright funny. Some of the mysteries and questions raised in the beginning are almost too obvious, so the reveal seems too long in coming, but the adventure as a whole is great fun, and as knowledgeable and respectful towards the Arthur legends as Morris has always been.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani, was published in 2018 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5

In 1947, India, free from British control, divided into two separate countries: Pakistan and India. Hindus and Sikhs fled the new Pakistan to India, while Muslims went from India to Pakistan. Violence followed. This was the era of Mahatma Gandhi, who later inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the US. The Night Diary is the story of a Hindu family who must leave their home in the newly formed Pakistan and travel across the border to India.

Nisha is the narrator of the story, and it’s told in a very similar fashion to a Dear America novel: journal entries. Nisha writes to her deceased mother the events leading up to the family leaving, the Hindu/Muslim religious tension, and their journey as refugees. Along the way, Nisha questions people’s beliefs and wonders how people who had always been friendly could turn against their neighbors because of this event (the division of the old India into Pakistan and India).

The story is very clearly detailed and told well. It was interesting to me that we get a lot of information of Muslim living (told through Nisha’s eyes), but we actually get very little of the religion Nisha and her family practice, Hinduism, beyond mentions of various Hindu gods. Lots of emphasis is placed on “looks”—Nisha mentions quite a few times how people either “look” or “don’t look” Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim based on what they wear. I don’t think that’s the best marker for identifying religion (in fact, I think it’s really problematic), but I suppose it gets some of the point across to the child readers.

I probably would have rated this book a little higher if it wasn’t for the clunky characterization of Nisha at the end of the novel. At one point towards the end, Nisha gets in trouble for talking to someone, and suddenly she turns into an angsty, self-deprecating girl who vows to never speak again. To me, this did not match her characterization up until that point, and it seemed completely out of the blue and over-the-top. I mean, maybe it was supposed to be a reflection of how traumatizing the journey was for her and this was how it was being displayed, but still, it seemed like Hiranandani pushed a little too far and it didn’t end up quite lining up with the characterization established in the first half of the book.

The Night Diary does a good job of explaining the historical events and atmosphere of 1947 India, and while Nisha seems a little too much like an authorial mouthpiece and not a fully-realized character at times, the story itself is interesting, tense, and heartwarming at the right times. The characterization was clunky and some of the ways Nisha discussed religion was eyebrow-raising, but other than that, this was a delightful novel.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Realistic