The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, was published in 2003 by Doubleday.
Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, Christopher is autistic. Everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning for him. Routine, order, and predictability shelter him from the messy wider world. Then, at fifteen, Christopher’s carefully constructed world falls apart when he finds his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, impaled on a garden fork, and he is initially blamed for the killing. Christopher decides that he will track down the real killer and turns to his favorite fictional character, the impeccably logical Sherlock Holmes, for inspiration. But the investigation leads him down some unexpected paths and ultimately brings him face to face with the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. As he tries to deal with the crisis within his own family, we are drawn into the workings of Christopher’s mind.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a superbly written book that shines a light on the inner workings of an autistic mind. Despite the fact that Christopher cannot comprehend human emotion, the reader can, and so the reader experiences the emotions that Christopher struggles with—the desperation of his father, the annoyance of the police, the at-times-rude-but-at-times-caring strangers.
Haddon’s style of writing perfectly matches Christopher’s personality. We get the matter-of-fact, the confusion, and the excitement communicated through sentence structure and style. It’s rather fabulous, really.
Basically, the book is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, The mystery is well-done and realistic, Christopher’s confusion and desperation at the end of the novel are incredibly well communicated, as are the emotions of his father, and it’s hard to put this book down. My only squabble with the book is that I could have done with less swearing and I thoroughly disagreed with Christopher on many things.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Young Adult
He said, “I have spoken to your father and he says that you didn’t mean to hit the policeman.”
I didn’t say anything because this wasn’t a question.
He said, “Did you mean to hit the policeman?”
I said, “Yes.”
He squeezed his face and said, “But you didn’t mean to hurt the policeman?”
I thought about this and said, “No. I didn’t mean to hurt the policeman. I just wanted him to stop touching me.”
Alcatraz versus the Scrivener’s Bones (republished title The Scrivener’s Bones), by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2008 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians.
Alcatraz Smedry has an incredible talent…for breaking things! It generally gets him into a lot of trouble, but can he use it to save the day? In this second Alcatraz adventure, Alcatraz finds himself on a mission to meet Grandpa Smedry when he gets swept up by a flying glass dragon filled with his unusual and mouthy Smedry cohorts. Their mission? A dangerous library-filled one, of course! They are on their way to the ancient and mysterious Library of Alexandria (which some silly people think was long ago destroyed!) where they must find Grandpa Smedry, look for clues leading to Alcatraz’s potentially undead dead father, and battle the creepy, dangerous soul-sucking curators who await them.
I found Evil Librarians to be annoyingly self-indulgent, but either I was more prepared for it in Scrivener’s Bones or I didn’t notice it as much, because I enjoyed the tone much more in this book. The humor is definitely pointed at a select group of people (I think you have to enjoy a certain type of humor to really enjoy these books), but Sanderson utilizes the humor to give some important (and funny) lessons on author manipulation and other plot devices, all while selling his Alcatraz narration as someone who desperately wants everyone to know how much of a liar he is, even while telling a story he wants people to believe.
Sanderson also starts peeling back at his intricate plot in this book. Most of the book takes place in one location, the library of Alexandria, but you tend to forget that because it’s so fast-paced and interesting once the characters reach that point. There’s the overall plot being developed, as Alcatraz and Bastille wonder about and puzzle over the nature of technology and magic in general and Alcatraz’s Talent in particular. Then, there’s the “book plot” being developed, as they make their way through traps to rescue Grandpa Smedry and discover more about Alcatraz’s father along the way. Even while being funny and self-indulgent, Sanderson knows how to craft a plot.
Perhaps the one thing holding this book back from a higher rating is, well, for one, I do tend to do the gymnastics-judge thing of holding back higher scores for later books, but, for another, a few things struck me as a little odd and out-of-place that kept me from really enjoying this book.
It wasn’t so self-indulgent as before (or I didn’t notice it as much), but there were still points when Alcatraz backing away from the action to wax philosophical about bunnies and bazookas was a little annoying. However, the one thing that struck me the most at the end was Grandpa Smedry’s apparent lie that no one bothered to correct, or even appeared to think, “Why did he lie?” The only thing I can think of is that I’m misremembering details and that what I thought was a lie really wasn’t; if not, it means that Sanderson goofed up. I’m willing to guess it was my mistake, but still, that didn’t stop me from being completely and utterly thrown at the end of the book by an apparent authorial error.
I found Alcatraz versus the Scrivener’s Bones much more entertaining and much less self-indulgent than the first book. I was able to get into the tone of the book more easily and enjoy myself throughout the adventure, admiring some of the more prominent bits of foreshadowing Sanderson is throwing in (as I’ve mentioned, I’ve read this series before, up until the most recent book). Some things still threw me off a bit, but, overall, this book was an improvement over the first.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Do you really have the Talent of Breaking Things?”
I shrugged. “That’s what they tell me. What’s your Talent?”
Australia smiled. “I can wake up in the morning looking incredibly ugly!”
“Oh…how wonderful.” I still wasn’t certain how to respond to Smedry Talents. I usually couldn’t ever tell if the person telling me was excited or disappointed by the power.
Australia, it seemed, was excited by pretty much everything. She nodded perkily. “I know. It’s a fun Talent—nothing like breaking things—but I make it work for me!”
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein, was published in 2013 by Yearling (Random House).
When Kyle learns that the world’s most famous game maker has designed the town’s new library and is having an invitation-only lock-in on the first night, he is determined to be there. But the trick part isn’t getting into the library—it’s getting out. Kyle’s going to need all his smarts, because a good roll of the dice or lucky draw of the cards is not enough to win in Mr. Lemoncello’s library.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a puzzle-based adventure filled with as much fun and charm as you might expect from the title and the cover art. The puzzles are intricate and the whole idea of being “trapped in the library” is entertaining. Perhaps inspired by the book Help! I’m a Prisoner in the Library!, even.
Several times the kid protagonists solve puzzles that seem a bit beyond a normal person’s grasp and range of knowledge (especially some of the more obscure trivia that apparently all of these kids have studied up on beforehand), but the whole tone of the book is so wacky anyway that it really isn’t jarring in the least. When a book contains a giant library containing holograms and massive puzzles, built by a man with noise-making shoes, obscure-trivia-knowing-kids are the least of the strangeness.
The puzzles are very clever and I loved all the literary references scattered throughout. I liked that Grabenstein included classic literature references as well as more modern references. I liked less the characters of the kids, since the outcome of the contest was obvious from the start due to their one-dimensional personalities, and I kept expecting some sort of sinister turn for no apparent reason, but let’s face it, the appeal of this book isn’t the characterization. It’s the riddles.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is one of those puzzle-filled adventure books that are light and fun and nice to read after more “serious” works. I enjoyed it immensely, though the characterization wasn’t great and the entire thing had slightly too much of an unrealistic feel overall for me to really be absorbed in it. But, I can definitely see many kids loving it—and maybe seeking out all those literary references for themselves!
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade
“So, Kyle,” said Akimi, “you want to form an alliance?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s what people do on reality shows like Survivor. We help each other until, you know, everybody else is eliminated and we have to stab each other in the back.”
“Um, I don’t remember hearing anything about ‘eliminations.’”
Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, was published in 1989 by Houghton.
Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her best friend, Ellen Rosen, often think about the way life was before the war. But it’s now 1943, and their life in Copenhagen is filled with school, food shortages, and Nazi soldiers marching in their town. The Nazis won’t stop. The Jews of Denmark are being “relocated,” so Ellen moves in with the Johansens and pretends to be part of the family. Then Annemarie is asked to go on a dangerous mission. Somehow she must find the strength and courage to save her best friend’s life. There’s no turning back now.
Number the Stars is yet another historical fiction book that told me a story I didn’t know. I’ve always considered myself pretty cognizant of World War II, and a majority of historical fiction I’ve read and enjoyed have taken place in that time period. However, I knew nothing about the amazing story of the Danish Jews and their escape from the Nazis due to their fellow Danes smuggling them across to Sweden. Thanks to Danish efforts, 99% of the Danish Jews survived the Holocaust.
Number the Stars is an assigned reader in my fourth-grade English class. From their reactions, I know that a majority of my students love the book. They may not completely understand everything about the time period, but the story has just enough suspense and mystery for them to really enjoy it. And Lowry does a great job of ramping up the tension: first, the undercurrent of danger as the Rosens leave and Ellen hides with the Johansens. Then, the mysterious death of Great-Aunt Birte and the empty coffin. Finally, the mystery package that Annemarie must deliver to her uncle. All of it exactly conveys the hush-hush nature of the entire operation the Danes were carrying out, and conveys it in such a way that children will be able to grasp the seriousness of the situation.
The one thing holding me back from outright absorption and enjoyment of the book is that I’m really not a fan of Lowry’s writing style here. And, having read it out loud to my class, I’m even more aware of some of the awkwardness of expression that is more apparent when verbalizing the sentences. It’s a little clunky, basically, and, since I’m big on writing style, it’s just enough to mildly bother me throughout the book.
However, the story, of course, is fantastic, a tribute to the Danes and what they did for the Jews during World War II, a story that conveys the horror that took place during World War II, but also dwells on a positive story, one of bravery and hope. Number the Stars would probably be the first book I would recommend for children to learn about World War II and some of the lesser-known events that took place. I wish that I had more time to really discuss it with my fourth graders, but it’s enough that they get to read it.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
[Annemarie] turned to her father. “Papa, do you remember what you heard the boy say to the soldier? That all of Denmark would be the king’s bodyguard?”
Her father smiled. “I have never forgotten it,” he said.
“Well,” Annemarie said slowly, “now I think that all of Denmark must be bodyguard for the Jews, as well.”
“A road’s a kind of holy thing,” said Roger the Minstrel to his son, Adam. “That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.” And Adam, though only eleven, was to remember his father’s words when his beloved dog, Nick, was stolen and Roger had disappeared and he found himself traveling alone along these same great roads, searching the fairs and market towns for his father and his dog.
Adam of the Road is a delightful tale of a boy who longs to be a minstrel like his father and travel the road. After his dog, Nick, is stolen, and he loses his father while searching for Nick, Adam sets out on a journey to not only find his lost dog, but also to return to his father and to finally become a minstrel.
Adam’s journey never becomes boring, even as it becomes slightly repetitive in format. His adventures fall in “travel—city—adventure” format pretty consistently, with few variations. However, Gray does not spend too much time dwelling on things that could easily get boring; the pace is fast where it should be and slackens when necessary. The book seems long, but actually goes along quite quickly, especially once Adam, Nick, and Roger are separated and Adam is on his own.
Gray also manages to make each adventure Adam has realistic, and clearly a great deal of research went in to representing thirteenth-century England accurately. Adam is a relatable protagonist, plucky and courageous at all the right times, with hints of young boy creeping through in his boastfulness and pride. His encompassing desire to become a minstrel, regardless of other circumstances perhaps being better for him, is clearly shown in his thoughts and actions.
I couldn’t help but compare Adam of the Road to the books set in the same (or near enough) time period, Crispin and The Door in the Wall. Of the three, this book is absolutely my favorite. Adam was not nearly as annoying as Crispin, and, while The Door in the Wall was surprisingly deep in historicity, Adam of the Road was more enjoyable to read as well as being more memorable. I never once got bored or tired of reading this book.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
Adam’s gray eyes suddenly shone out as if candles had been lighted behind them. “He’s coming!” he cried. “Roger’s coming!”
Nick got up and put his paws on Adam’s knee, his tail wagging so hard that his sides shook.
“Now there was no name mentioned,” said the dame warningly.
“They don’t have to say his name,” said Adam proudly. “He’s the only minstrel worth talking about. Where are they coming from?”
Children love Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle because she’s tons of fun. Parents love her because she can cure children of any bad habit. When Mrs. Burbank is in despair because her children have become Thought-You-Saiders or Mrs. Rogers’ sanity and crockery are threatened as Sharon turns into a Heedless Breaker, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle calmly produces a magical potion that takes care of the problems. And of course, all of her medicines taste delicious! Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s helpful, hilarious magic is irresistible—and as funny as it is effective!
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic is the official sequel to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, though I’ve always read this book after Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. That’s the way my box collection ordered them, so that’s the way I’m used to reading them. One thing I noticed immediately were the illustrations—the book wasn’t quite as familiar to me because the illustrator was different (the book being a newer edition, of course). I did, however, still practically know the book by heart.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic is my favorite Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book. It does do a much better job of explaining the magical cures than did Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (of course, as this is the second book and not the fourth, of course it would. The abruptness of Hello was my fault for reading them out of order). I love Lester in “The Bad-Table-Manners Cure” and the inevitable pig faux pas made at dinner, I love the haphazard nature of “The Interrupters” and the art of flower arranging explained, and I especially love the treasure hunt in “The Waddle-I-Doers.”
I love stories about finding hidden rooms and secret drawers in old houses—hence why I loveReturn to Gone-Away so much—so the massive treasure hunt in the last chapter is one of my favorites. Perhaps that’s why this book is my favorite Piggle-Wiggle book. Sure, the incentive is kind of abrupt and hard to swallow, but the entire book is like that and by the time you get to the last chapter, you accept all that is thrown at you.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic is delightful, giving you quirky families, realistic bad habits, and not-so-realistic cures. The treasure hunt at the end of the book is a memorable moment, at least for me, and is what caused this book to become my favorite as a child (and now, too). I’ve loved the nostalgia factor these books have given me, and I’m eager to reread Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm now, which I don’t remember quite as well as the others and which never seemed as good to me growing up as the other three.
Recommended Age Range: 6+
“Look, children. See how beautiful the city looks from up here. Watch the fog rise over there.”
“Where’s the dog?” said Bard.
“What dog?” asked Darsie.
“What color are the dog’s eyes?” asked Alison.
“What on earth are you talking about?” said Mr. Burbank. “I said, ‘Watch the fog rise over there.’”
“Oh,” Bard said. “I thought you said, ‘Watch the dog’s eyes glare.’”
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, was published in 1954 by Faber and Faber.
At the dawn of the next world war, a plane crashes on an uncharted island, stranding a group of schoolboys. At first, with no adult supervision, their freedom is something to celebrate. This farm from civilization they can do anything they want. Anything. But as order collapses, as strange howls echo in the night, as terror begins its reign, the hope of adventure seems as far removed from reality as the hope of being rescued…
Despite Lord of the Flies being one of the more popular books to assign in high school, I never actually read it until now. Of course, I knew what it was about—a group of boys are abandoned on an island and end up killing each other. But knowing about something and reading it, experiencing it, are two completely different things. I also read this book right when it was announced that there’s apparently going to be a female version of Lord of the Flies developed as a film. More on that in a minute.
I can’t say that I liked Lord of the Flies. Can anyone really enjoy reading a book about young boys resorting to savagery and vicious murder, simply because of the loss of authority and civilization? But I did like the way Golding used all of the symbolism, some subtle, most overt, to point out this descent. The decaying pig head, Piggy’s glasses, the conch shell, the fire…they’re perhaps too obvious, but perhaps that’s best in a book aimed at high-schoolers, who are still learning to decipher figurative language and symbolism.
The descent of the boys into violence is really well-done, creepy in all the right places and in all the right tones (the killing of the sow is especially cloaked in terms that could easily apply to something else, which makes the whole scene even darker). And the killing of the sow is only the beginning, as the boys give in to their bloodlust to commit even more vile acts. Even Ralph, the symbol of leadership and authority in the novel, falls prey to the mob—only Piggy (the intellect) and Simon (not sure what he is supposed to symbolize, to be honest—some suggest he is the opposite of the Lord of the Flies/Beelzebub/Satan, which would make him a Christ figure) resist.
Then, of course, there’s the ending, which demonstrates, again, Golding’s point that a loss of authority and intellect leads to barbarism, a “devolution” if you will. And he’s not wrong, to an extent, though I would like to think that some people would rise to the occasion and resist—though, I suppose, Ralph, Piggy, and Simon do resist.
After reading this book, I now think a Lord of the Flies with all females would not work at all. Let’s face it—women react differently than men. Girls in a situation like what the boys faced would react differently. You can’t make a female Lord of the Flies like the book at all. It would be something completely different. And maybe that’s what the movie will be—since it was just announced, I obviously have no idea. But trying to force it into a carbon copy of the book would not work at all.
Lord of the Flies is an excellent case study of what the lack of authority and rules can bring. The subtle increase and inclination towards violence is portrayed nicely through the use of symbolism, and gets increasingly creepy and dark as the novel goes on. I can’t say I liked it, or enjoyed it, but I can see why it’s assigned reading in many (most?) schools.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Violence, some graphic descriptions, swearing.
Genre: Young Adult, Realistic
“We used his specs,” said Simon, smearing a black cheek with his forearm. “He helped that way.”
“I got the conch,” said Piggy indignantly. “You let me speak!”
“The conch doesn’t count on top of the mountain,” said Jack, “so you shut up.”
“I got the conch in my hand.”
“Put on green branches,” said Maurice. “That’s the best way to make smoke.”
The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis, was published in 2017 by Bloomsbury.
All Aventurine wants to do is explore the world outside her family’s mountain cave. But as a young dragon, her tough scales haven’t fully developed yet, and the outside is too perilous—or so her family says. Aventurine is determined to fly on her own and prove them wrong by capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when that human tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl—no sharp teeth, no fire breath, no claws. Still, she’s the fiercest creature in these mountains, and she’s found her true passion: chocolate. All she has to do is get to the human city to find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?
The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a charming story for both dragon-lovers and chocolate-lovers. I’m not a huge fan of the title, but the cover art is amazing and this book revived my interest in Burgis’s works (if you recall, I strongly disliked her Kat, Incorrigible series). Fierce girl (who is actually a dragon; hence, why she is fierce) works much better in a made-up fantasy world than in Regency England.
The plot is fairly formulaic, but Aventurine’s bumbles (and successes) as she struggles to make sense of human life rapidly endear her to the reader. Plus, there’s lots and lots of chocolate involved, which is a bonus. Perhaps some things were overdone—Aventurine wallows a little too long in self-inflicted misery, there’s one too many appearances from cruel-woman-who-sets-protagonist’s-teeth-on-edge, and it’s a little eyebrow-raising that so much drama could revolve around one little chocolate house—but the likeable protagonist, the interesting setting and the engaging plot help offset those.
I could have done without the constant reminders of Silke’s clothing, though. I really don’t understand why a girl wearing men’s clothes is supposed to be so empowering or different. I get it, in this fantasy world, women wear dresses, men wear pants, etc., so a girl wearing pants is supposed to scream forthrightness and strength and standing-up-against-the-man-ness. But all I could think about was how boring and formulaic a character Silke was, whose characterization was built on “she wears pants” and nothing else. I would much rather have a well-written female character in a dress than a boring, cliché female character in pants, but I guess the public wants the latter so that’s what authors are giving them.
The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart has some flaws, but overall it’s a charming story with an interesting protagonist, a good plot, and a well-built world. I enjoyed reading it, despite my dislike of Silke, and the book has lifted my opinion of Burgis overall. I hope she writes more books like this one, and less like Kat, Incorrigible.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Chocolate houses were nothing like I’d expected.
When the scent of chocolate, growing stronger and stronger, led me to the open doorway of yet another yellow-and-white building, I stopped just outside it in disbelief.
Two humans nearly bumped into me from behind….I gave them both a narrow-eyed, accusing glance. “This building isn’t made of chocolate!”
I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembly, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials, by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.
Deliverance Trembley lives in Salem Village, where she must take care of her sickly sister, Mem, and where she does her daily chores in fear of her cruel uncle’s angry temper. But when four young girls from the village accuse some of the local women of being witches, Deliverance finds herself caught up in the ensuing drama of the trials. And life in Salem is never the same
One of the last Dear America books (before the reboot), I Walk in Dread is a fair, historical coverage of the Salem Witch Trials, a period in history that is still fraught with controversy today. Fraustino certainly did her homework while writing this story; most of the people in the book are historical figures and Fraustino lays out what she researched and read at the end of the novel.
Many people today believe that the accusers were actually suffering from ergot poisoning (although that has been contested, as theories generally are), but, of course, Deliverance would have no idea what that was. Instead, a combination of mob hysteria, “sport,” and family feuds are the possibilities explored by Deliverance and her family as a cause for the witchcraft accusations. And, indeed, the Puritans themselves were later so embarrassed by their actions that they destroyed documents pertaining to the trials—showing that, despite their beliefs in witchcraft and the Devil, they realized that the extent to which it went was unacceptable.
Fraustino might have instilled perhaps a bit too much “modern thinking” into the story, but she does present the Trials as nothing more than a tragedy, a group of people caught up in mob hysteria and/or trying to avenge past wrongs by getting rid of people assumed to be responsible. It is, in fact, an excellent example of the way mob hysteria can work in a small town, the paranoia that ensues and the disasters that follow. Fraustino deals very fairly with the subject, which I found refreshing.
I Walk in Dread is perhaps much better to be assigned to read than a book such as The Crucible, which is a common book assigned to read in American Literature, which only perpetuates stereotypes and historical inaccuracies. Some of the Dear America books tend to drift a bit from accuracy themselves, but I’m glad to see that I Walk in Dread deals with the Trials according to the evidence as we know it, and that Fraustino did not push any particular ideological or political idea through the book (except for, maybe, the idea that modern people are more intelligent and progressive than their ancestors).
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
The four afflicted girls…were brought in to the front of the room, screeching and crying out as they laid their eyes on the prisoner. Their fear flooded the room….When it was quiet again, Mr. Hawthorne asked them to look upon Sarah Goode, and see if she were the person that hurt them. They all said yes, yes!….Sarah Goode looked shocked and confused. She denied that she had…even been near the children. At that, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam twisted and cried out that the witch was pinching and biting them….It was terrifying to witness, and I felt a hot passion against Sarah Goode. Someone behind me muttered, “The woman should hang for this.”
The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman, was published in 2016 by Candlewick.
All Nick wants is a place to shelter from the blizzard that hits after he runs away from his uncle’s. What he gets is someplace warm to live, plenty of hot food, and the company of two dogs, two cats, four goats, one pig, a flock of chickens, and a grumpy old man who won’t let him leave. Evil Wizard Books may be cozy and Smallbone Cove idyllic, but the wolf is at the door—literally. The Evil Wizard Fidelou and his pack of biker coyotes are howling at the village border, and its magical Sentries are slowly failing. For a three-hundred-year-old self-proclaimed evil wizard, Zachariah Smallbone seems strangely at a loss. It’s a good thing Nick was lying about not being able to read. Smallbone may not be willing to teach him magic, but the bookstore is. And Nick is more than willing to learn. Even if the bookstore is awfully bossy.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone is the story of two wizards, who are pretty much destined to fight each other, and the events that lead to their confrontation, prominently featuring a boy apprentice who (of course) significantly assists in the defeat of the villain. It features an interesting take on magic that I really enjoyed; elemental magic is certainly not anything new but the way Nick learns it was entertaining and were my favorite parts of the book.
The world was tightly crafted, though a little confusing at times. Sherman is a good storyteller, which helped to smooth out some of the more awkward bits of world building, though I still raised my eyebrows a few times. For example, there’s really no explanation as to why Nick already believes magic is real even before he goes to Smallbone’s—and if he doesn’t think it’s real, he’s awfully calm when things get strange. Furthermore, Nick’s cousin seems to take it in stride that there’s a magical shape-shifter who can change him into a coyote with a pelt; in fact, he doesn’t even seem surprised by the fact that he can change into a coyote at all. There’s a few other things that are rough around the edges that Sherman hand waves away, but the latter are the most prominent examples that I can think of. Let’s just say that I found the characters’ reactions to things suspect.
However, I did really enjoy the plot aspect even if I found Fidelou to be an annoying villain. I liked that the focus was mainly on Nick and learning magic, rather than on Smallbone and his confrontation with Fidelou, and even though the lead-up to the confrontation was a little abrupt, it came to a satisfying, if not wholly unexpected conclusion.
The Evil Wizard Smallbone has a few problems in worldbuilding, but overall it’s satisfying, entertaining, and interesting in a lot of its magical elements. Nick is a good protagonist; Smallbone is the quintessential grumpy old wizard but it’s a trope I love so I liked his character. The other characters were memorable as well, though I could have done without the mundane biker gang. Sherman is a solid writer, though some of her skills need a little work.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Very good indeed. You’re an inspired liar, Foxkin. You don’t embroider unnecessarily, you give just the right details, and you know when to stop.”
Nick put on his best innocent look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Fox by name, fox by nature.” Smallbone stared at him through curls of foul-smelling smoke. “You can’t fool me, you know. So you’d better not try. Now,” he went on, “it just so happens that I could use an apprentice.”