Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon, 372 pp, RL 4

Castle Hangnail is the special treat that we get from Ursula Vernon that comes between the ending of her fantastic  Dragonbreath series and the start of her eagerly anticipated new series, Hamster Princess, featuring Harriet, a an extraordinary princess who excels at checkers and fractions, despite the curse that a wicked fairy god mouse cast, leaving her looking toward a Sleeping Beauty-like curse that will plunge her into a deep sleep when she turns twelve, but also leaves her invincible (and unable to die) until then. Princess Harriet makes the most of this, fighting Ogre-cats and cliff-diving with her faithful friend Mumfrey, a quail. While Hamster Princess promises to continue Vernon's awesome combination of graphic novel panels and traditional chapter book, Castle Hangnail offers a bigger bite for readers sink their teeth into.

Castle Hangnail reminds me very much of the novels of one of my favorite authors, sorely underrepresented here, Eva Ibottson. Ibottson, who began her career decades before J.K. Rowling, was a master of writing spooky fantasy novels rich with witches, wizards, ghosts and other creatures and made special by equal dollops of humor and humanity. In this post-Harry Potter world, finding fantasy for young readers that is not dark or violent is a challenge. I created the label Good Fantasy - Harmless Bad Guys to address this, and Ibbotson and Vernon are definitely the leaders in this category. Castle Hangnail introduces us to Molly, an usurping witch who is wicked, but not evil, and just wants to be the twelve-year-old resident Wicked Witch of Castle Hangnail. The minions of the castle, characters you will immediately adore, are in a difficult situation. The Board of Magic is on the verge of "de-magicking" and selling Castle Hangnail since it has been without a master for so long. It seems that magic is, "a lot like water, and if there isn't a fit Master in charge it'll puddle up everywhere, the basement will flood, and weird things will start laying eggs." This is a prime example of Vernon's special talent - she can be creative, funny and a little creepy all in one sentence.
When Molly arrives at the door of the castle with her letter letter of introduction (stolen from mean girl and classmate Eudaimonia) the minions of Castle Hangnail accept this "plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair," hesitantly. While she does have serious black boots with purple shoelaces and metal caps on the toes that look like "they could kick a hole in a stone wall and have fun doing it," Molly just doesn't seem like the right person for the job. Molly has to prove herself as a witch AND win over the minions of the castle - a truly amazing cast of characters. There is the Igor-ish guardian, renamed Majordomo by Molly, and Edward, the ghost in knight's armor. Then there is Cook, a minotaur who has an ex-husband that results in her hatred - and banning - of the letter Q. Pins, a gifted tailor, is a doll made of burlap with pins stuck in his head who is NOT a voodoo doll. He shares his small living quarters with a talking goldfish who is "intensely neurotic and convinced that she is always sickening for something." He takes "tender care of the fish" and knits her a "very small waterproof scarf." Finally, there is Serenissima, child of a djinn - a spirit of immortal fire - and a shopkeeper who unknowingly had a distant ancestor who was a mermaid. This combination of fire and water resulted in steam, and Serenissima spent her time in a teakettle when she wasn't steam-cleaning the castle.

I don't think that Castle Hangnail is intended to be a series, but another visit to the castle and its kooky-creepy inhabitants would definitely be a welcome


Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Katie Kath, 216 pp. RL 4

I absolutely LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones with perfect illustrations by Katie Kath! First, it is an epistolary novel, one of my favorite kinds of books. Next, in Sophie Brown, Jones has created an ethnic character who speaks matter-of-factly about being discriminated against because of the color of her skin. I am always thrilled to find culturally diverse characters in books and I especially appreciate it when an author can write about race in a way that is present, sensitive and comprehensible for young readers. Finally, with her unusual chickens, Jones has created a truly fantastic cast of characters that gives Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer a quintessential touch of magic (along with a ghost or two) that makes it truly memorable, as you can see in the image below.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer begins with Sophie's letter to Redwood Farm Supply in Gravenstein, CA, requesting a catalog with more information about their unusual chickens. Sophie, her mother and father, have moved from Los Angeles to this rural town north of San Francisco after her father inherits his Uncle Jim's farm. Sophie's dad is unemployed, her mother is a freelance writer, money is tight and is seems that Uncle Jim was a hoarder. However, Sophie has all summer to sort through his piles and piles of stuff. Dad is white, but brown-skinned Sophie and her mother are occasionally taken for migrant workers in this small farming town. All these details, and more, unfold as Sophie, lonely and a little sad at the loss of her beloved abuela, Mariposa Garcia González, writes letters to her, Great-Uncle Jim and Redwood Farm, all delivered by Gregory, the friendly, knowing mailman. While Abuelita and Great-Uncle Jim don't write back, after Sophie discovers a small, angry white chicken she names Henrietta, she does get a few mysterious, typo-ridden missives from Agnes of Redwood Farm.

Kath's illustrations for Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer are absolutely perfect - playfully humorous and and detailed when needed, like for the Beginning Poultry Course that Agnes instructs Sophie to find in the file cabinet in the crowded barn. This portion of the novel actually includes real lessons on how to care for chickens and is quite interesting. However, Sophie quickly learns that Great-Uncle Jim's chickens from Redwood Farm are unusual in more than just appearance when she spots Henrietta, who lays glass eggs and has a way with latches and locks, levitates her empty water jar. As more curious chickens arrive and a neighbor begins snooping around, Sophie comes to understand why Agnes instructed her not to tell anyone about the unusual chicken.

Although told all in letters, Jones creates a complete world and a rich story for Sophie and her chickens. There is a friendly librarian, a friendly feed store employee and a neighbor with chickens of his own. After realizing the magical qualities of her unusual chickens, Sophie discovers that Ms. Griegson, the neighbor who has been trying to poach them, has an unusual chicken of her own - one that can turn into from a Rhode Island Red to a red-tailed hawk at will. Worried for the well being and safety of her unusual chickens, Sophie goes to some desperate lengths, although the tension and danger never gets too intense and the presence of caring adults, ghosts or otherwise, is felt throughout the story. Jones, who worked as a children's librarian and bookseller and has her own flock of chickens, does a wonderful job of including real books that feature chickens - like Pinkwater's The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Prairie Evers by Ellen Airgood, along with facts about chickens and a great recipe for migas, a Mexcian breakfast dish with tortillas, eggs, salsa and more that is THE BEST! I can't wait to see what Kelly Jones cooks (or clucks?) up next!

Source: Review Copy