Folklore magic

The following books for middle graders and middle schoolers use elements of folklore and magic to engage readers in the protagonists’ quests. See also in this newsletter issue our interview with Margi Preus about her new book Windswept, illustrated by Armando Veve.

by Kirsty Applebaum
Intermediate    Holt    272 pp.    g
4/22    978-1-250-31735-3    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-31736-0    $10.99

Twelve-year-old Lonny is a lifeling: he has the ability to restore life to dying creatures — though this special power causes him to age every time he uses it. He’s close to adult-size now; to protect him, his watchmaker father forbids him and his little brother, Midge, from going into town, where Lonny is more likely to give in to the almost irresistible buzzing sensation that alerts him to a creature in need. The boys have lived a sheltered and isolated life in the forest, almost in suspended animation, never interacting with anyone other than their father and housebound grandad. Their late mother’s photo album and grandmother’s notebook of stories provide clues to the larger world. One fateful day, the brothers do venture into town, on what turns out to be the day of the annual Lifeling Festival. They’re shocked to hear their grandmother’s stories repeated as myth, but with important differences, skillfully delineated by Applebaum, reflecting the townsfolk’s point of view. The narrative otherwise sticks closely to Lonny’s perspective as he comes to realize some complicated and dangerous truths. A richly imagined Tuck Everlasting–esque fantasy, with an epilogue that turns the story in an unexpected but satisfying direction. SUSAN DOVE LEMPKE

The Ogress and the Orphans
by Kelly Barnhill
Intermediate, Middle School    Algonquin    400 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-64375-074-3    $19.95
e-book ed.  978-1-64375-287-7    $15.95

Stone-in-the-Glen used to be a joyful, cooperative place, but a disastrous library fire ushers in an era of divisiveness and suspicion. In parallel story lines, we learn about the dire situation of an orphanage that has lost its community support and the plight of a gentle ogress who lives on the fringes of town, an outcast. At the center of the plot is an evil mayor — charismatic, manipulative, and powerful — who considers the line between truth and lies to be “fuzzy.” Offstage are dragons who are, in this world, not only benign but uniquely enlightened. A folksy, discursive first-person narrator (whose identity is the story’s final reveal) keeps the tone lighthearted, but there are some genuinely frightening scenes, such as a standoff between an angry mob and the brave orphan who tries to defuse the situation using logic and facts. She fails. Unbowed, she marshals her resources. Can a bitter, irrational, brainwashed populace be brought to the light of reason by individual kindness, libraries, a flock of supportive crows, the gift of delicious pastries, and a “serious girl with long dark braids”? In this story, Barnhill (Newbery winner for The Girl Who Drank the Moon, rev. 9/16) answers with an energetic affirmative, making it one of the more buoyant of the fictional responses to “the Dark Days of a Certain Administration” and other ills of our time. SARAH ELLIS

The Mirrorwood
by Deva Fagan
Intermediate, Middle School    Atheneum    304 pp.    g
4/22    978-1-5344-9714-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-9716-0    $10.99

Born outside the Mirrorwood, a place full of magic surrounded by an impenetrable thorn thicket (not the only fairy-tale allusion here), protagonist Fable tries to hide her “twist”: cursed to have no face of her own, she must steal faces from others. Now pursued by blighthunters (including the determined young Vycorax), Fable flees with her talking cat, Moth, into the Mirrorwood, but Vycorax is able to get through the thorns as well. Fable convinces her that together they can end the blight (including Fable’s own twist) by defeating the demon prince at the heart of the Mirrorwood and awakening the true prince. But they learn that they will have to kill the demon prince, using the sharpest tooth of a near-mythical beast called the Withering, and it’s all a bit more than Fable has signed on for. The author excels in setting expectations and then subverting them: the Withering offers advice; the demon prince turns out to be nice; a blessing given to the true prince turns out to be a curse. Fable’s twist ties in to themes of identity and self-confidence with gratifying neatness as the novel unfolds in unexpected directions through Fable’s and Vycorax’s competing motivations and pushes through multiple complications to a highly satisfactory conclusion. ANITA L. BURKAM

Black Bird, Blue Road
by Sofiya Pasternack
Middle School    Versify/HarperCollins    320 pp.    g
9/22    978-0-358-57203-9    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-57188-9    $9.99

In the Jewish empire of Khazaria, twelve-year-old Ziva is the only one willing to go near her twin brother, Pesah, who has leprosy (with symptoms described in vivid detail, as are the amputations Ziva performs). A vision Pesah shares with Ziva prompts her to take him on a quest to Byzantium to find a cure, or fight the Angel of Death, or both. The twins encounter figures from Jewish folklore, notably a sheyd (demon) and the aforementioned angel, presented as rounded characters who discuss and debate the nature of mortality with Ziva as she struggles to accept her impending loss with much more fury than Pesah himself has. Pasternack (Anya and the Dragon) writes with a storyteller’s cadence without sacrificing liveliness, keeping emotions front and center (“She’d jab the Angel of Death in every single one of its eyeballs if that meant keeping Pesah safe”). Back matter includes a glossary and an afterword that discusses Khazaria, “for the most part…faded from memory,” and how even elements of this story beyond the obvious fantasy ones are “just my imagining. And who knows? Maybe, twelve hundred years ago, a girl and her brother really did meet a demon and resist the Angel of Death on the steppe.” Ziva and her community (anachronistically) consider her a responsible bat mitzvah now that she’s twelve, and her stubborn insistence on taking on far too much is believable and affecting. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Callers
by Kiah Thomas
Intermediate    Chronicle    232 pp.    g
4/22    978-1-7972-1078-0    $16.99

The Octavius family is notable for producing Callers — people with the ability to summon objects seemingly out of thin air. Quintus Octavius, however, has never been successful at Calling anything. This does not sit well with his mother, Elipsom’s Chief Councilor, and she makes sure he passes his Calling exam by enlisting his sister to Call for him. Cheating doesn’t help Quin’s already low confidence, but it’s at this point that he accidentally transports himself across their world to Evantra, where he will grow to understand the truth about Callers, Elipsom’s history, and his mother’s complicity in depleting Evantra’s resources for Elipsom’s gain. Set in an evocatively realized fantasy world with, in Elipsom’s case, a futuristic feel, this is a moving and complex story about the discomfort and reward of doing what is right. Thomas’s debut middle-grade novel is a clever critique of the consumerism that we might take for granted. She tackles serious topics with wit, charm, and a few flying rhinodrites along the way. SARAH BERMAN

Goblin Market
by Diane Zahler
Intermediate     Holiday    256 pp.    g
8/22    978-0-8234-5081-7    $17.99
e-book ed. 978-0-8234-5292-7    $10.99

Lizzie “sees” sounds as colors and is sensitive to direct eye contact and being touched; her older sister, Minka, looks out for her and paints the colors Lizzie describes. One day Minka comes home from the market rhapsodic over a new vendor — a handsome young man selling the most delectable fruit. Over the next few weeks, Minka grows pale for love of him, loses her hair, and falls into a coma-like sleep. The girls’ neighbor Jakob helps Lizzie learn what is wrong with Minka: upon investigation, they suspect she’s been enchanted by a zdusze, a goblin who steals away children and young women. The pastoral surroundings (and particularly Lizzie’s description of rich sound-colors) create a lush setting for the folkloric ensorcelled-by-goblins plot, with its dreamy depictions of fruit and longing and with sprinklings of ethnological details from Eastern European cultures. On her quest to save her sister, Lizzie faces down many of her “worries” (going to the market, talking to strangers, knocking on people’s doors) while also making use of her strengths (blunt honesty, unsentimental perception, bravery regarding snakes). The climax delivers some breath-quickening action, but this warmly reassuring tale, with its nontraditional protagonist, will keep readers engrossed from beginning to end. ANITA L. BURKAM

From the September 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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