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November 17, 2019

5 Books to Entertain Young Readers

by MK French

People seem to think that children need watered down stories and can't handle hearing about potentially serious topics. Children are often far more aware of these issues than adults think and can face their own struggles and triumphs even without an adult present. In these stories, the fantastic elements of the story don't detract from those themes that children often have to deal with: bullying, fear, self-confidence and discovering who they are under pressure.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. Free books were provided for an honest review.

The Frights of Fiji by Sunayna Prasad

The Frights of Fiji
February 2019; 978-1797744247
ebook, print (149 pages); fantasy
Alyssa McCarthy went to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousin after her parents died in a car accident. After her aunt's death, her uncle became increasingly strict and no-nonsense. Magic is real, however, and Master Beau is determined to take over Europe. His power is tied to Alyssa, and he kidnaps her in an effort to break that tie and get even stronger.

This is a book targeted toward middle-grade readers, as the heroine is a teenager suddenly thrust into a world of magic and told that her parents' deaths weren't an accident. Magic is suddenly revealed to her, tormenting her in the midst of her normalcy, until she's kidnapped. There is a blend of magic and the mundane, which is good to see. Alyssa goes through a lot once she's brought to Fiji, including Master Beau realizing that just having her there isn't enough to absorb her power, but that he has to sever all of her ties to friends and family.

I'm not fond of the child in danger trope, and I didn't enjoy a lot of the characterizations of the adults. My ten-year-old daughter, on the other hand, loved this book. She adored Alyssa and was rooting for her all throughout her struggles. Various magical creatures were vividly described, as well as some familiar modern amenities given a magical twist. The last third to a quarter of the book really had her on the edge of her seat, and she was overjoyed to hear that this is the first book in a series of them. She's really looking forward to finding out what Alyssa's other magical missions are, and can't wait to see what happens next.

Buy The Frights of Fiji at Amazon
(The ebook is free!)

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces
July 2019; Puffin Books; 978-0525515043
audio, ebook, print (256 pages); mystery
Sixth-grader Ollie is a voracious reader and falls into stories after a significant loss. She finds the story of Beth, a young woman who had a pair of brothers in love with her, and a deal made with "the smiling man," a figure that would fulfill wishes for a price. This becomes less of a story when she finds the graves of these people on a school trip to a farm. Her broken digital watch soon says RUN, and the bus driver gives creepy but accurate advice. Ollie and two of her classmates actually heed that advice, and their hair raising journey has just begun.

A new novel by the author of The Bear and The Nightingale? (read my review) Sign me up! This features a tweener as the main character, but don't think that means this book is only for middle-grade readers. Yes, this is targeted for middle-grade readers, but that doesn't mean that adults won't find the story spooky as well. There are also very serious themes of grief and depression, love and loss, friendship and growth.

I appreciate the short and punctuated descriptions of things in the beginning, and how we slowly see what Ollie's grief is all about. The creepy and odd also begins slowly, so that it isn't until the school trip that we see the creepiness come to light. Ollie's prior nature walks with her mother are revealed as the story progresses, as well as Coco's former rock-climbing skill despite the very pink and sparkly personality she had shown in the beginning of the book. She cries easily, which other sixth graders make fun of and even Ollie had disdained, but Ollie soon realizes it's because Coco is so in tune with her emotions and feels everything, and Ollie currently feels almost nothing. Brian becomes more than the dumb jock as well, with knowledge of fantasy novels and mythology as well as kindness and preparedness from his Boy Scout training.

These are very nuanced characters being pushed to their limits, with the creepiness less in terms of blood and gore and more in Halloween style scarecrows that are everpresent, ghosts of long-dead people still lurking in the woods, and a "smiling man" only too eager to make deals in return for souls. This is a wonderfully atmospheric book, and actually good for all ages.

Buy Small Spaces at Amazon

A Tale of Witchwood Park by S. W. Devlin

A Tale of Witchwood Park
August 2014; 978-1499348484
ebook, print (98 pages); adventure
It's an ordinary Tuesday for shy girl Kendra, bully Jimmy and the ostracized Daniel to be sitting at the edge of the park outside of school waiting to be picked up. The extraordinary part of it is the troll that comes up to them. She is the True Queen of Witchwood, and there a prophecy that the troll tells them about the Queen, the knight and the something else that has to save the land from the False Queen and her Army of the Faceless.

This is a book targeted for younger to middle-grade readers. It's very short and seems to be scant on a lot of detail, with rapidly shifting points of view within the same chapter. (If it's meant to be some kind of third-person omniscient, this isn't it.) Many things are simply told outright, rather than the kids having to figure them out along the way. Even for children, it's better to show them in action rather than have a handful of creatures explain everything in paragraphs of info-dumping. That being said, there is some fantastic world-building here, and I wish we got a chance to see more of their locations and homes and learned as much about them in detail that we did for our three kids in the opening chapter. Fights occur rapidly, and there's not a lot of detail about the places within this kingdom.

There's still the outline of a great fantasy story here, with a shy girl learning to be more of her true self, a bully that sees he doesn't have to be mean in order to earn recognition, and a boy that doesn't have to fade into the background to make friends. It's great to see outcast kids of all kinds rise up and find a purpose, and become heroes of their own stories.

Buy A Tale of Witchwood Park at Amazon

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Circus Mirandus
August 2016; Puffin Books; 978-0147515544
audio, ebook, print (304 pages); family life
Micah always believed in the stories his dying grandfather Ephraim had told him about the Circus Mirandus. It was full of magic and amazing acts, and his great aunt Gertrudis believes it's all nonsense to distract Micah from what is real. Ephraim wrote to the Man Who Bends Light, who still owes him a miracle, and Micah is determined to find the circus with his friend Jenny Mendoza to get that miracle for his grandfather.

We have the thread of Ephraim as a boy encountering the circus, then Micah in the present worrying over his grandfather's failing health. This is distracting him from his school project, and Jenny is eager to do research and rely on book knowledge. The pair of them see the talking parrot that is the Man Who Bends Light's messenger, and Jenny needs to invent various stories to make it a less magical event than it seems. She's almost too practical and scientific-minded for an eleven-year-old, but that makes her the perfect foil for Micah's unwavering belief in magic and the stories that Ephraim had told him. He sees his grandfather's gifts are amazing, as well as those at the circus, but Micah doesn't see that he has some talents of his own. As a result, he puts all of his hopes into the circus. The Man Who Bends Light is careful to promise only a miracle within his power, and the last section of the book deals with the consequences of that promise in a very realistic way. There are limits and costs to magic, and it doesn't solve every problem.

Gertrudis is unnecessarily cruel to Micah, and it's uncomfortable to read. She separates him from her brother when he clearly wants to visit with Ephraim, calls the things he believes in all sorts of names, and when they have a huge argument, essentially throws him out. At no point did she take the words back or soften the blow, and watched as he packed a bag, food and sleeping bag to stay in the treehouse in the yard. I know kids in fantasy stories need to have someone to push against to move them into action, I can't forgive this kind of behavior. There's an explanation for why she is so vehemently opposed to magic and the circus, but that's still no call for her to behave in that way.

I really enjoyed the ending to the novel, and that there is hope for the future after all. Because of that hope, there could possibly be more novels in this world, which I would really enjoy reading.

Buy Circus Mirandus at Amazon

Ronaldo: The Vixen Pederson Workshop by Maxine Sylvester

Ronaldo The Vixen Pederson Workshop
November 2019; ebook; holiday
Ronaldo is excited to see Vixen Pederson again when he flies to the North Pole. Other students are going on the trip, including the perpetually late Cupid. Here, they're going to be learning from the best how to fly and compete in trials as part of the leadership workshop. Ronaldo hopes he can win, but how can he if his team isn't composed of all the best fliers?

This is the fourth book starring Ronaldo the flying reindeer. The second was Ronaldo: The Phantom Carrot Snatcher (read my review) and the third was Ronaldo: Rudi's Birthday Extravaganza (read my review). Following the events of the prior books, Ronaldo is a top flier in his academy, which is what allowed him to be eligible for this particular workshop. Rudi is back as well, and the two friends are back at their usual antics related to food and learning how to be the best fliers they can be. Along the way, they learn more about Cupid and their hero Vixen and learn what it truly takes to be part of a team.

Kids will understand how Cupid feels if they're faced with having difficulty seeing, then getting glasses for the first time. They'll certainly understand the temptation of overeating sweets and treats without a parent telling them no, and getting the chance to meet their heroes. It's a cute continuation of the series and will help kids see that there's more to life than just what you see on the surface. Compassion and understanding will always bring the best out of everyone, and it's a wonderful lesson to learn.

Buy Ronaldo: The Vixen Pederson Workshop at Amazon
(Free ebook November 18 & 19)

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband and three young children. 

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  1. Thank you for your lovely review it really is much appreciated.
    I am glad that you enjoyed my work.


  2. It's such a fun and cute series, and great for young children to read. :)