dark…and brilliant

I tend to avoid reading horror, but I do love a good tale.

where the woods end cover.jpgWhere the Woods End by Charlotte Salter

Dial, 2018. Hardcover, 304 pages

Middle-grade Horror, Ages 8-13

Nothing to fear but everything here…

Twelve-year-old Kestrel lives in a seemingly endless forest crawling with dangerous beasts. But the most dangerous beasts of all are the Grabbers—nightmarish monsters that stalk one person throughout their life, building their bodies bit by bit until they resemble their victim’s greatest fear.

A talented huntress, Kestrel has been tasked with killing other people’s grabbers, an undertaking made only slightly more bearable by her companion—a hilariously bloodthirsty weasel named Pippit. But as Kestrel hones her skills and searches for a way out of the forest—and away from the judgmental villagers who despise her—her own grabber creeps ever closer.

Dark, twisty, and tinged with humor, this fantasy is not for the faint of heart. —jacket copy

After reading the jacket copy, I thought this book was going to be more quaint than it was. If I’d noticed whether the author was American or not (she’s not), I would’ve been better prepared. Young Readers Writers from other countries tend to be less afraid of frightening their audience.

The “tinge of humor” is less about fart jokes and more for those who appreciate the macabre; which I very much do. The novel also favors those who appreciate gross-out humor: it is definitely gory and gross.

The “dangerous beasts” are deadly serious. The Grabbers build their bodies from found objects, to include carrion. They are relentless and their goal is to kill their victim. When Kestrel kills, she sling-shots, stabs, uses her limbs if she needs to; it’s undeniably physical. Salter is so successful with her descriptions, I could hear bones break and crunch. Pippit is bloodthirsty—and adorable; like when Smeagol tries to reject Gollum in LOTR. If you have a weak stomach a weasel with a human digit in his mouth is the least of your worries.

Where the Woods End offers a lesson in fearmongering—and fear itself.

That Kestrel has to keep her skills sharp is not a fantasy hero’s demonstration that they are capable of handling what is to come; what is to come has already arrived. And Kestrel’s need to survive in order to get out of the forest is crucial—that tension in the novel is as relentless as the grabbers. The forest is a true source of terror, with marvelous little places of dark invention that Kestrel explores in order to divine an exit. The villagers are grotesque and would send anyone packing, but it is Kestrel’s mother who gives the Grabber a run for its money. She is evil. She is no Disney Princess evil step-mother, but something much, much more. She and that dog of hers are vicious. She realizes for the reader and Kestrel the truest definition of a monster.

And then there is Grandmos. Grandmos is Kestrel’s late paternal grandmother, the best huntress in the forest, who trained Kestrel to fight monsters. She, of all the adults in the novel, is the most complicated. She is a source of affection, guilt, and terror for Kestrel. Her tactics are familiar to any adults who’ve read/seen assassin’s backstories. Salter doesn’t try to condone what she’s done, but neither does Kestrel survive without that training. Salter just holds the reader, and Kestrel, on the edge of uncertainty of what to do about Grandmos—which generates fear/anxiety.

What compels you and keeps the gore and violence and creeps from all being too much in Where the Woods End is Kestrel. She isn’t infallible, but she is determined, resourceful, and angry. And Kestrel maintains her youth—she’s on the cusp of change; her relationship with Finn hints at familiar middle-school angst—but she needs to be allowed her hope, resilience, and her ability to look away from difficult things…at least, until that inevitable confrontation with her own Grabber. You hold your breath every time she’s knocked down in hopes she’ll get up and resist. This breath-holding is to prepare you for that end scene when you’re lung capacity may be tested.

The pacing also helps with the nausea and dread in the novel. Salter doesn’t linger too long, keeping the eye and the mind shifting as it collects its own bits and pieces of the forest and its villagers. There isn’t a lot of time to process certain losses (which will frustrate character-driven readers). The race against time joins the anxiety for escape, and they collide with a marvelous revelation. If I laughed when I reached Chapter 17, it was in delight, because my eyes were also wide with horror and revulsion.

The horror was properly difficult as the kinds of violence and abuse Kestrel is surviving is hard to stomach; the fairy tale world helped. As I told a friend, Where the Woods End is one of the darkest middle grades I’ve read in a long while. And I found it entertaining, and thought-provoking. I love Kestrel and Pippit. And Salter has the kind of imagination and craftsmanship I admire in a storyteller.

Recommended for readers of adventure, of horror: think Priestly, Black, Hahn, or Auxier. For readers of fairy tales, particularly those written by authors outside of the American sensibility.


*a note & a SPOILER?



the way Salter writes Kestrel’s father’s ending had to have been difficult, and she does such a fantastic job with it.


“Gillis Girls Don’t Believe in Maybe.”

Maybe a Mermaid comes out in March, and middle-grade readers of contemporary fiction will enjoy this one. It’ll be a good spring break and summer read.

maybe a mermaid coverMaybe a Mermaid by Josephine Cameron

FSG, March 2019.

Middle-grade Fiction, 288pp.

ARC thanks to FSG and Netgalley

Eleven-year-old Anthoni Gillis grew up hearing her mother Carrie’s memories of Thunder Lake and the Showboat Resort. It was a magical place that Anthoni was eager to experience herself. The Showboat Resort is not magical in that it promises fairies or mermaids, or even X-Men-level mutants; it was a place where True Blue Friends were found and made.

As a sales rep and team leader for Beauty and the Bee products, Anthoni’s Mom moves them around frequently and it has been difficult for Anthoni to make friends, let alone a friend who will remember her after she’s gone. A summer vacation at the Showboat Resort sounds like just the thing both Anthoni and her mom could use. Besides the promise of a True Blue Friend, a vacation at the Showboat resort means their business goals have been met. They can relax from the hustle.

“Mom never waited for magic to come to her. She made her own.”

Maybe a vacation will offer Carrie a reprieve from having to turn every new person she meets & old friend she has into a client or, even more necessary, a colleague. And maybe a vacation at Thunder Lake will offer Anthoni an opportunity to see her mom in a different way: someone who is less about ‘sticking to the plan’ than previously believed. Only ‘sticking to the plan’ is a good and necessary thing in Anthoni’s mind. Stability and comfort is found in writing and implementing business plans. (I totally have a friend or three like this). Anthoni has her own plan for how to achieve her goal of a True Blue Friend.

Needless to say, Anthoni’s business plan is not fail-proof.  That list of what she’s looking for in a friend and how she is going to go about making a friend are going to meet interference. That beautiful book cover image should have a girl in a sparkling bathing suit, and there should be absolutely no mermaids—because Anthoni is not about Mermaids, or even Maybes.

“Gillis Girls Don’t Believe in Maybe.”

The Gillis Girls have a lot of declarations between them that read like motivational posters. The statements integrated into Anthoni’s narrative and narration add an unexpected form of whimsy, especially when they are maybe revealed as much a form of fantasy as any other tale told in Maybe a Mermaid. The owner of The Showboat Resort, Charlotte Boulay, would say that people will believe what they need to believe—and it’s all in the sale’s pitch. She would also, quite bitterly, suggest that there is no such thing as a True Blue Friend.

The problem is, that while Anthoni could’ve used a friend before vacation, she could really use one now that things with her mom and their life come under serious strain. Anthoni can’t afford much more uncertainty, and she takes a page from her observations of her mother: she will make her own magic. In order to be True Blue Friends with Maddy Quinn, she’ll need more than a common obsession with X-Men comic books. She’ll need to discover the secret of the Boulay Mermaid and hope she’s as real as Maddy believes her to be.

The Boulay Mermaid was part of the vaudeville world of the early 20th century. The Showboat has countless photographs of acts on its walls from back when the resort hosted performances. The Boulay’s were actors and creators in vaudeville. Cameron does quick, light work bringing this bit of history to the fore. And, of course, it will provide common ground between the eccentric Charlotte Boulay and an earnest Anthoni Gillis. They both traveled with their working parents; both of their parents selling one-of-a-kind opportunities—one for beauty products, the other entertainment. Charlotte understood Anthoni’s loneliness.

Cameron writes plenty of quirky traits for her characters, but Charlotte is by far the oddest. She’s startling, but Charlotte proves carefree enough, risky enough to relieve the tension built into all the other characters. She is the vaudeville act that offsets the “real world” anxieties. Every character of any significance in Maybe a Mermaid is in some kind of conflict. They could all do with the idea of possibility; that there is a possibility of something more, of something else; that magic does exist. A mermaid would affirm something for Maddy, just as a friend would affirm something for Anthoni.

That Charlotte Boulay is also very human is an important realization for Anthoni to make. There’s the person we are, and the one we want to be seen as. There is the Anthoni who cannot swim and should be with the small children learning to blow-bubbles in the water, and there is the one wearing a sparkling swimsuit splashing around with the big kids, able and unafraid to swim in the lake. There is the Anthoni who can genuinely appreciate a vampiric mermaid comic, but cannot believe a mermaid actually exists in the lake—but who will say she does to get the friend she wants (the friends she believes she needs). It’s harmless until it isn’t.

Anthoni will risk a true friendship, risk another’s dignity, and risk her own life, to prove herself worthy and gain a friend. Wow, that sentence makes this middle grade novel seem darker than it is. Cameron delivers light and warmth in DJ’s efforts at camouflage despite his clumsiness and his arm in a cast; Julie’s colorful and energetic presence; Maddy’s wall art and water ski skills among other textured characterizations that add an earnestness that’s heart-warming and sweetly heart-aching.

Maybe a Mermaid will get to the bottom of how much grit and magic is required to ease the harder edges of real life and what is true blue in any relationship. And Anthoni will find herself with maybe more than a single friend to remember her.

That Cameron will write an unlikely friendship into a middle grade novel is hardly rare, what is noteworthy is how she goes about it. The clumsy, sweet, and intensely loyal DJ and Chapter 35 are anticipated, regardless at how heartwarming the effect. But that Epilogue is the clincher, that smile of delight that is the wink to the wave farewell.

That this is Cameron’s debut novel is a delight, because it is a seriously strong first offering. She’ll be one to watch.


Recommended for readers of contemporary fiction; of friendship stories; of Kate DiCamillo, Erin Kelly Estrada, Barbara O’Connor. Its a good addition to stories involving single parents as well as frequent changes in address.

And yes, Gilmore Girls might have come to mind with this one.



The Little Barbarian

This book is an argument for reading/publishing books from other countries. You’ll be sad to have missed out on this one.

the little barbarian coverThe Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi

Originally published in Brazil in 2015 as Bárbaro

Eerdmans Books, 2018.  Hardcover Picture book, 48 pages.

“Once upon a time, there was a little barbarian who was about to embark on a very dangerous journey. The brave adventurer knew there would be many perils ahead, including one-eyed giants and venomous snakes, manticores and sea serpents.”

“Luckily, the barbarian can always rely on a trusty steed…” –jacket copy

Originally published in Brazil in 2015 as Bárbaro, Renato Moriconi’s wordless picture book is a treasure. It is easily one of the most amusing pictures books of 2018. And it just has to be experienced to be believed.

the little barbarian interior 2
illustration from The Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi
the little barbarian interior
illustration from The Little Barbarian by eanato Moriconi

As you turn each page, the little barbarian faces one peril after the other–monsters of mythic proportion–his “trusty steed” carrying him forward without fail. The unchanging expression and posture of the barbarian is hysterical, and when it does change…

There’s a gorgeous twist. Think how delightfully twisty Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back and Where is My Hat is. And like Klassen’s Hat books, Moriconi will find a strong foothold with adult audiences–but for different reasons than with Klassen’s. The Little Barbarian is a return to childhood–or yesterday, with our own. I loved it.











It took me the third reading to catch the up and down, up and down, motion as the pages alternated up and then down like ———-. And there is another gesture toward coherence: on the cover.



…and the days that followed

the day war came coverThe Day War Came  by Nicola Davies [Wales] Illus. Rebecca Cobb [London]

[Published in association with Help Refugees]

Candlewick Press, 2018.  Hardcover Picture book, 32 pages

It was normal day for the young girl who sits at breakfast with her family before going to school to sit in a classroom with her peers to learn about normal things. About things that explode, destroy (volcanos), transform (frogs), migrate, sing, and nest (birds) in a natural way in a natural setting.

“Then, just after lunch, war came.”

the day war came interior 1
interior illustration from The Day the War Came by Nicola Davies & Rebecca Cobb
the day war came interior 2
interior pages from The Day the War Came by Nicola Davies & Rebecca Cobb
the day war came interior 3
interior pages from The Day the War Came by Nicola Davies & Rebecca Cobb

What follows is a devastation you’ll have to experience in the book. I’m curious how long it takes you to notice that she is traveling alone. What happens for you when you register how small those “shoes [that] lay empty in the sand” are.

She can’t seem to run far enough to escape war. War had followed her to the refugee camps, “It was underneath my skin, behind my eyes, and in my dreams.” So she travels into a nearby town to try to find a place war hadn’t reached. And while the city looks pristine, bountiful and intact, it becomes apparent war is far-reaching.

the day war came interior 4
interior pages from The Day the War Came by Nicola Davies & Rebecca Cobb

She comes to a school, but “war had gotten here, too,” because she is told there is no room for her, no chair for her to sit on. War continues to take from her, denying her places she is sure she’ll find healing.

And then something happens that will not surprise you.

I’m not sure how to read the optimism here, but I appreciate the hope it inspires and the model it provides. And I like the chair, the offering of a seat, as a simple of acceptance and an extension of resource. I like it because it reminds me of that hospitable act of offering a place at the table.

You’ll notice that the chairs on the front endpapers and first page are empty, and on the back page and endpapers they are filled.

Rebecca Cobb offers a childlike hand to illustrate a poem an adult wrote in the picture book The Day War Came. Like the poem that tells the story from a child’s point of view, the illustrations are sophisticated enough to be taken seriously. Hers is not a dismiss-able kind of childlike charm—only accessible and to remind you: Here is a child.

A child who wonders if she has a chair waiting in the places she is supposed to be safe.


one bad-ass grandma

I pulled this from the library shelf because I thought this might be a cute book a particular friend of mine might enjoy. Now I’m going to have to find the other two Little Kunoichi the Ninja Girl adventures.

bachan ninja grandma coverBa-Chan The Ninja Grandma: An adventure with Little Kunoichi the Ninja Girl

By Sanae Ishida. Little Bigfoot, 2018. Hardcover Picture book, 32pp. Ages 4-8.

Summer vacation is nearly over and Little Kunoichi and her pet, Bunny, are BORED! Little Kunoichi has a list of expensive ideas to keep her entertained. Her parents have a better idea, and ship her, her brother, and Bunny off to grandma’s for the rest of the summer.

bachan ninja grandma interior 2
interior pages of Ba-Chan The Ninja Grandma by Sanae Ishida

Ba-chan “lives on a nearby island she build HERSELF.” And it is pretty bad-ass. For one, it turns into a turtle submarine. Ba-chan feeds and takes them to her workshop and after a remote control swallowing incident, they end up in a theme park Ba-chan decided to build underwater.


bachan ninja grandma interior
interior pages of Ba-Chan The Ninja Grandma by Sanae Ishida

The departure to The Treasure Trove includes more opportunities to admire the interesting and often humorous details, but it also doubles as a departure from a typical “vacation at grandma’s” narrative. Ishida offers the reader a maze, replete with conversation on how desires can distract us. There is a coaster that goes in circles called “Rat Race,” a Barter Town, etc. We soon learn that Ba-chan created the amusement park to explore questions like: “What’s really valuable?” She finds, “Money is like an amusement park—full of ups and downs and mysterious whirl-arounds.”

A poem returns us to other valuable ways to use our time. She is a seriously awesome grandma. I’m a huge fan of their practice of napping-jutsu (where they dream of things they enjoy.)

The closing page confirms our suspicions of what the narrative and its characters value: “curiosity, resourcefulness, kindness, love, imagination!” I am all about that.

If you’ve known me long, you know I’m not a huge fan of lengthy digressions, especially when they venture into “lessons,” but I found myself amused with Ishida’s book. It may be that I am interested in her unusual approach to the conversation of time and money—of consumerism and what is worth the while and investing in. I’m not sure anyone could successfully accuse her approach of being didactic. The narrative’s “lesson” is written into a Shigin poem, and later, incorporated into a dance under the stars.

bachan ninja grandma interior 3
interior pages of Ba-Chan The Ninja Grandma by Sanae Ishida

I may have been charmed by those quiet insertions of humor, the ninja Frida Kahlo painting, and the playfulness and imagination Ishida offers in her illustrations. I like how the narrative demonstrates what curiosity and creativity can do. I would’ve had this one for my (now grown) Natalya, because of the portrayal of a hard-working, creative genius Ba-chan. Ishida captures the method and madness behind creative work/ers in a fun and energizing way.

Ba-Chan The Ninja Grandma is a fun addition to a library;  lovers of Japanese culture will have to check it out for sure. Ishida offers pronunciation immediate to a word in parentheticals, and offers a page of trivia at the end of the book. I can see this in households of creatives, artist and scientist alike (which, notably, the book questions the differentiation between the two).


a finely-crafted song

After the cover illustration captured my attention I noticed David Almonds name on it. I hugged the book to me before I cracked the cover open.  You should know that David Almond is a magician, and so is Levi Pinfold. If you’ve a love for Shaun Tan’s work, you’ll buy this one.

the dam coverThe Dam by David Almond [UK]. Illustrated by Levi Pinfold [Australia]

Candlewick, 2018. Hardcover Picture book, 32 pages. Ages 4-10.

David Almond tells a story told to him and it’s based on true events. The dam in the book is the dam that created Kielder Water in Northumberland, England. The folk musicians, the man and his daughter are not only characters in a tradition of handing along stories from one generation to another, but they are folk legends Mike and Katheryn Tickell, the people in the story Almond was told.

The story unfolds as a father wakes his daughter and takes her and her fiddle into a valley. They remember together the people they saw sing, and play instruments, and dance in this now abandoned place, boarded up and waiting for the water to cover it.

They enter every house and while Kathryn plays, he sings and dances, “They filled the houses with music.” All of nature would hear it, and remember. “Behind the dam, within the water, the music stays, will never be gone.” They hear it still, moving in and around and within them.

The Dam is really just a picture book you have to experience. Almond’s text is a poem, a song that guides you through a memory that engages the senses and deepens feeling. There is a sadness, and a hope; a joy of remembering what’s past, a grief, and a comfort in knowing it can’t leave you.

the dam interior 2The compositions are guided by an equally sure hand. The sepia tones are appropriate for the early rising and fog, but also for the past. The wisps of ghosts look ancient (not favoring the detail of a particular history). But the figures of the man and girl are realistic, as are the renderings of folk remembered. Light of day brings color, which happens to coincide with the enlivening of the abandoned homes with music. The day closes with darker tones and the rise of the water.

And then a new day that relays the sensation of the present, the field now with pink flowers, and a day less still and weaving new memories amidst the old.

the dam interior 3I was drawn in from the very start and upon review I notice the images on her bedroom wall. I think how she rests there, and he pauses before disrupting her. Then comes a page with small panels of images. I want to find someone to read the facing page to me so I can hear the words as I study the images. You’ll want to hold onto them, but it may be difficult when you turn the page. The double-page spread captures an expanse of the nearly finished dam that will stop your heart—in awe and horror.

I was also struck by the page of text facing Pinfold’s illustrations of the rising water:

This was sealed.

The water rose.

This disappeared

This was drowned.


The lake is beautiful.

“This was drowned./The lake is beautiful,” and it is. It’s “satin” and “fertile”—but such observations only come after the author tells us, “the music stays,/will never be gone.”

The Dam acknowledges the devastation and a transcendence, of barriers created and those that cannot contain such a thing as music and dreaming. Listed among the things of nature that heard Kathryn’s music, there at the end: “the ghosts heard.”

the dam interior 4There is a timelessness to the words and pictures that reflect the wisdom the story imparts. The emotions they evoke feel ancient. The Dam feels like a finely-crafted folk song; firmly rooted in a place, it still manages to resonate all the way over here.

A story for musicians, historians, and artists.


The Dam made me think of Heima (2007) where Icelandic band Sigur Rós tours their country playing at various venues (one site they visit is a dam); but it is about a music inspired by a country and its people/history.




Ka Kîweh Nikamôstamâtinân

ka coverKa Kîweh Nikamôstamâtinân/We Sang You Home

by Richard Van Camp, Dogrib (Tlicho) Dene from Canada

Illustrations by Julie Flett, Cree-Metis from Canada

Translator: Mary Cardinal Collins

Bilingual: Plains Cree/English

Orca Books, 2018.

Paperback Picture book, 26pp.

“A lovely picture book that will resonate with parents and show young readers the profound, positive impact they have on their parents’ lives.” School Library Journal (SLJ)

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Ka Kîweh Nikamôstamâtinân/We Sang You Home
by Richard Van Camp & Julie Flett

While the format and subject is familiar to the 0-3 age group, I would resist any thought that We Sang You Home is one to sing only over infants. As the above quote from SLJ observes, We Sang You Home communicates “the profound, positive impact” a child has on their parents. It speaks of an interconnectedness and of legacy; a history, present, a future. All the intimate moments, precious and small in each illustration against an enormous backdrop of time and aspiration and relationship. A child will want to hear this song more than a few times as they grow.


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Ka Kîweh Nikamôstamâtinân/We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp & Julie Flett

The timeless illustrations are rich accompaniments to the resonance of the words. The opening image and the close are perfect bookends (the family, the white rabbits, the moon), a wish and its granting. There is a completeness, a wholeness, and We Sang You Home provides an opportunity to snuggle in around it and let that reality sink in.

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Ka Kîweh Nikamôstamâtinân/We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp & Julie Flett

We Sang You Home is precious. I will be adding it to my repertoire of baby shower gifts, especially for music loving friends. We Sang You Home is a painless way to support indigenous creators and add dimension to a child’s library. I read the small paperback version, but it is also available in board book.*

Recommended for all the libraries; for those especially looking for lullabies, diversity, for gifts few else will be aware enough to be giving.


*I understand the value of a board book, but I believe the board books are not bilingual, and it is good for a child to see another language, even if neither of you can speak it.