Tuesday, July 29, 2014

12 Fantasy Series for Kids Who Aren't Ready for Harry Potter

It can be hard for a child to wait until he or she is old enough to read the Harry Potter series (or even just to read the later books.) Still, the stories are best enjoyed when a child is old enough to appreciate the subject matter. Luckily, there are plenty of wonderful fantasy series out there which focus on many of the same themes as the Harry Potter books, but which appeal to a slightly younger audience. Twelve of them are listed below and sorted into four main categories: Witches & Wizards, Supernatural Schools, Fantastical Creatures, and Magical Adventures.

Witches & Wizards

  • The Familiars
    by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson

    (Book 1: The Familiars)
    A supposedly ordinary alley cat is mistaken for a magical creature when a young wizard-in-training chooses him as his familiar.
  • The Worst Witch
    by Jill Murphy

    (Book 1: The Worst Witch)
    Mildred Hubble does her best to get by in witch school despite her constant mistakes and disasters.
  • Heidi Heckelbeck
    by Wanda Coven

    (Book 1: Heidi Heckelbeck Has a Secret)
    Heidi Heckelbeck is a lot like other kids her age - except that she is secretly a witch!


Supernatural Schools

  • Dragon Slayers' Academy
    by Kate McMullan

    (Book 1: The New Kid at School)
    Eleven-year-old medieval peasant Wiglaf of Pinwick enters school at the Dragonslayers Academy to become a hero, as foretold by a traveling minstrel.
  • Scary School
    by Derek the Ghost

    (Book 1: Scary School)
    Though Derek becomes a ghost after he is killed in a science experiment at Scary School, he continues to keep notes on everything strange or spooky that happens there, including events surrounding the arrival of Charles Nukid.
  • Vampire School
    by Peter Bently

    (Book 1: Casketball Capers)
    At St. Orlok's kids like Lee learn all the skills required to become successful vampires.

Fantastical Creatures

Magical Adventures

Monday, July 28, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Charmed Life Books 1 & 2 by Lisa Schroeder (ARCs)

Caitlin's Charmed Life
by Lisa Schroeder.
2014. Scholastic.
ISBN: 9780545603720

Mia's Golden Bird
by Lisa Schroeder
2014. Scholastic.
ISBN: 9780545603775
In Charmed Life, a new paperback series from popular middle grade author Lisa Schroeder, four girls from different backgrounds - Caitlin, Mia, Libby, and Hannah - meet at summer camp and become best friends. At summer's end, they buy a (possibly lucky) charm bracelet as a token by which to remember each other, promising to take turns keeping it throughout the year. When it is her turn, each girl will add a charm to the bracelet which represents her personality. In Caitlin's Lucky Charm, Caitlin takes the first shift with the bracelet, hoping that its luck will help her acclimate to her new school. In Mia's Golden Bird, Mia finds herself laid up with a broken foot and left out of her usual favorite activities, but is surprised when a popular child actress hires her to take photos on her birdwatching expeditions.

The refreshing thing about this series is that the characters are more than just talking heads or stock archetypes. They are fully realized kids with cultural identities, complete backstories and unique interests. The plot of each story is strongly structured, even if the overarching charm bracelet gimmick is a bit unnecessary, and the friendship theme is  just perfect for the target age group. Especially enjoyable are the portrayals of different types of friendships between the main characters and their various classmates, acquaintances, and occasionally even adults.  Even Mia's unlikely friendship with a celebrity comes across as perfectly believable and natural, because the author takes the time to build the relationship in a way that makes sense and engages the reader.

The Charmed Life series is most appropriate for grades 4 to 6, though the books' appeal may span a wider range. The wholesome friendship-focused storylines will appeal to girls who have enjoyed the American Girl of Today books, the Baby-sitters Club series, and the Allie Finkle series. The next title of the series, Libby's Sweet Surprise, comes out tomorrow, and Hannah's Bright Star will follow in October.

I received digital ARCs of Caitlin's Lucky Charm and Mia's Golden Bird from Scholastic via NetGalley.

For more about these books, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Old School Sunday: The Happy Orpheline by Natalie Savage Carlson (1957)

The Happy Orpheline
by Natalie Savage Carlson
1957. Harper & Brothers.
ISBN: 9780440434559
In an orphanage in a French village live the orphelines, a cheerful group of little girls who prefer to live with each other and their caretakers Madame Flattot and Genevieve than to be adopted by families. Brigitte, the happiest of all the orphelines is the one for whom the book is named, as most of the story occurs in her point of view. One day, while out on a group trip, Brigitte becomes separated from the  rest of the orphelines and finds herself in the company of a self-proclaimed queen. Brigitte just wants to go home, but the woman, who insists that her husband will one day assume the French throne, wants to adopt Brigitte and employ her as a servant. 

This delightful book is a true gem. It introduces readers to two settings that are not often represented in American juvenile fiction - an orphanage and France - and it portrays a surprisingly sunny view of life as an orphan. The large group of girls living together calls to mind the Madeline series (though Madeline is not an orphan), and I think this book would be a perfect first chapter book for girls who have loved Madeline during their preschool years. (The cover image shown here- which is not the cover on my edition - suggests the same thing!) The tone and quality of this book also shares much in common with short novels by Johanna Hurwitz, Beverly Cleary, Carolyn Haywood, and Maud Hart Lovelace, and the story feels timeless rather than outdated. 

Also noteworthy are the illustrations, which are done by Garth Williams of Charlotte's Web and Little House fame. His drawings give faces to the characters which perfectly match their personalities and they also provide much of the details of the streets of Paris that provide the backdrop for Brigitte's adventure. Among the best images in the book is the scene on page 63 where Brigitte rides on the back of the Queen's bicycle, her braid and limbs scattered every which way as she hangs on for dear life, while the old woman's face remains serene and slightly unbalanced-looking.  This illustration almost tells a story unto itself.

Girls with adventurous spirits will be pleased to follow Brigitte in her struggle to return home, and they will wish hard for a happy ending for her. Because of its almost exclusively female cast, this book would also make a possible good choice for a mother/daughter book club. There are a total of five books about the orphelines, but I only own three of them right now. Coming soon are my reviews of A Brother for the Orphelines and The Orphelines in the Enchanted Castle.

I own a copy of The Happy Orpheline.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Board Book Review: My Lucky Little Dragon by Joyce Wan

My Lucky Little Dragon
by Joyce Wan

Quick Booktalk

A series of animal-themed terms of endearment describe how the adult reader feels about his or her baby.

About the Illustrations

Each page of this book is bright and bold, showing animal names in stylized text and corresponding images outlined with thick borders against enticing patterned backgrounds. The curved lines and soft colors are similar to the artistic style that might be used to decorate an infant's nursery, and the smiling faces of each animal make the book look cheerful and inviting to little eyes. My daughter was instantly interested in the book when we saw it in a library on vacation, and we sought it out at our local library when we got home!

Story Time Possibilities

This is an absolutely perfect book for baby story time. Even though it is a small board book, the simple illustrations (and some of the words, too!) can easily be seen from quite a distance. The text is repetitive and basic, and yet it manages to use a different adjective and animal name on every page, which helps build vocabulary. Caregivers can participate by making the sounds of the animals. Toddlers and older siblings might even be able to move like the animals pictured. The mirror on the final page doesn't exactly work well for sharing with groups, but thankfully, the text that accompanies it does not reference the mirror and therefore still makes sense in a read-aloud situation.

Reader’s Advisory

This book should truly please everyone - parents, babies, early childhood educators, and librarians. Joyce Wan's pictures have the kind of style that instantly catches the eye, and her writing matches the sweetness and precision of her art. I'm thrilled to see that she has written several other books in this same format, and I can't wait to find them and share them with my daughter. If you buy only one board book for your library collection this entire fiscal year, make it this one!