The Chronicles of the Black Tulip: The Vanishing Island, Book 1, by Barry Wolverton, 338 pp, RL 4

In 2012 I reviewed Neversink, a superb, Watership Down-esque tale of animals living in the Arctic Circle by Barry Wolverton. I've been waiting three years to see what he does next and The Vanishing Island, the first book in the Chronicles of the Black Tulip series is every bit as exciting as Neversink and inventively set in the alternate past of 1599!

As The Vanishing Island begins, we meet twelve-year-old Bren Owen, resident of Map. The town of Map is the "dirtiest, noisiest, smelliest city in all of Britannia," which is an alternate version of England. Being the home of McNally's Map Emporium, naturally, Map is also a vital port in the age of exploration, which is dominated by the the Netherlands and their Dutch Bicycle & Tulip Company. As the son of a map draftsman, a dull job with no room for advancement, Bren is desperate to leave Map for a life at sea and makes his third attempt at stowing away as the book begins. When his plans go awry, Bren finds himself indentured to the powerful Rand McNally (a slightly anachronistic joke on the part of the author) and working in his vomitorium. It's there that Bren's journey begins.

While everything about this book, from the title to the cover art to the character of Bren, makes it clear from the start that a sea voyage will be a large part of the novel, it takes over 100 pages for him to set sail. The time on land is spent world building and layering in ancient myths, fables and historical facts that include Kublai Khan and Marco Polo to the mystery that Bren will encounter once he is at sea. Finally on board the Albatross, the mysterious Captain Bowman, Bren's seeming benefactor, begins to reveal his true intentions and Bren, after fulfilling his duties, wants only to return home. Instead, he ends up finding the mysterious Vanishing Island and the treasure that the Captain was after and setting the stage for what promises to be a VERY exciting second book in the series.

Source: Review Copy


Baba Yaga's Assistant by Marika McCoola, illustrated by Emily Carroll, 136 pp, RL 4

Baba Yaga's Assistant is the superlative new graphic novel written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carroll, who brought us the eerily wonderful graphic Through the Woods. I am a HUGE fan of fairy tales (my secret dream is to get a PhD in fairy tales and write a killer dissertation...) and always excited to see a story that features one of the lesser known (to Americans) characters like Baba Yaga in a story. Most recently, Baba Yaga has appeared in Gregory Maguire's epic Russian fairy tale mash-up, The Egg and the Spoon. Baba Yaga also turns out in Michael Buckley's brilliant Sisters Grimm series and she appears in one of the wonderful Tashi chapter books that are a must read.

Baba Yaga, for those of you who don't know her, is a witch from Slavic folklore. She lives in the forest in a house that walks on chicken legs and she flies around in a giant mortar and pestle. She is older than anyone knows, has iron teeth, and her favorite thing to eat is children. In fact, the fence around her house is decorated with the skulls of children she turned into a meal. Baba Yaga is known to set impossible tasks for her captives, Vasilisa (known as "the Beautiful" and "the Brave" in various tales) being the best known. McCoola brings Baba Yaga into the modern world in Baba Yaga's Assistant, where Masha is the main character. Masha lost her mother when she was very young and, more recently, the beloved grandmother Irina, who raised her and read her fairy tales at bedtime. As Carroll portrays her, Masha is a tween or young teen, not frumpy, but not traditionally beautiful either. She has the short brown bob that seems to be the standard for feisty young heroines and she is solidly built. She is also in pain and grieving, even more so as her father is introducing her to his fiance and her daughter for the first time.

McCoola weaves in flashbacks of Grandmother Irina reading to Masha, passages that include panels of illustrations that look like they were lifted from a book of Russian fairy tales, borders and all, with the present day drama of the soon-to-be-stepmother and her ferocious daughter, Dani. When Masha sees a help wanted ad that reads, "Must have skills in hauling, obeying orders, cooking and cleaning. Magical talent a bonnus. Must be good with heights. Enter Baba Yaga's house to apply," she decides it's time to find her own family, since her father has found his and it doesn't seem to include her. Masha heads into the woods and, thanks to all the stories her Irina read her, is able to enter Baba Yaga's house and even complete the tasks set before her. Masha's real challenge comes when Baba Yaga returns to her home on chicken legs with a cage full of bad children and orders Masha to cook them, instructing her, "Roasted, broiled or baked. Anything but poached. I do hate it when they're rubbery."  Masha is surprised to find Dani in the cage with two other children, although not really. Baba Yaga is fondest of children who behave badly and it is in this that Masha figures out how to save the children.

 Masha also finds that she does indeed have magical talent, passed on to her by Grandma Irina, and this helps her out as well. Baba Yaga herself never feels downright evil (as she appears in other versions of her story) in Baba Yaga's Assistant she is more calculatedly evil from a distance as Masha comes into her own, as an assistant and as a person. In fact, I was occasionally reminded of the excellent graphic novel that came out earlier this year and also features a young lady looking to be assistant to an evil villain, Nimona. What I appreciate most about Baba Yaga's Assistant is McCoola's skill at writing a complex family dynamic that feels familiar to fans of fairy tales (mother dies, evil stepmother and step-siblings arrive) but is also modern. In a few pages, McCoola develops Masha's father, a scientist who studies plants and soil, in a way that feels complete and understandable. In his grief, he has buried himself in his work and left Masha to be loved and comforted by someone better equipped to do those things, her grandmother. Out of his loneliness comes his relationship with Jenny and her daughter and the chance to move forward. While McCoola never makes it seem like Masha is holding her father back from his healing and happiness, she does make Masha's choice at the end of the book wholly believable and positive - a step forward toward finding a new family for Masha as well. McCoola and Carroll also make me yearn VERY MUCH to know more about Masha's story and find out where she and Baba Yaga are headed to as this magnificent story comes to a close...

 Source: Review Copy

Baba Yaga Picture Books Worth Reading!

The Egg and the Spoon

Sisters Grimm


 Baba Yaga & Her House!



Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova is the first work of narrative non-fiction for Laurel Snyder, author of several picture books and middle grade novels. Illustrated by Julie Morstad, the cover of Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova drew me in instantly, even though I never made it past rudimentary ballet classes as a very young child and the most I know about this Russian dancer is how to make the dessert named after her. But Morstad's cover made me want to know more. Snyder's mellifluous text kept me reading.

Born in Tsarist Russia, Anna's life changes when her mother takes her in a sleigh through the snow to see the ballet. Snyder writes, "A sleeping beauty opens her eyes. . . and so does Anna. Her feet wake up! Her skin prickles. There is a song, suddenly, inside her.

"Shirt, shirt, laundry," becomes Anna's internal song as she helps her mother, a poor laundry woman, and dances to her song. When she is eight, Anna auditions for the Imperial Ballet School, knowing that, if accepted, it will mean leaving her mother to train at their boarding school. Anna is turned away and told to come back when she is bigger. When she is ten, she is accepted and the hard work begins. Anna's legs are too thin and her feet are all wrong, but she persists with passion. Snyder writes, "Anna was born for this." The author's notes reveal that Pavlova constructed her own ballet shoes to accommodate her unusual feet, becoming the model for toe shoes that dancers wear today.

What makes Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova more than the story of an dancer who worked very hard and overcame physical and economic challenges to give life to her art is charitable work Pavlova did, performing all over the world. Anna brought the music to kings and queens as well as the sick and the poor, believing that ballet was for everyone.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova is a beautiful introduction to the life of an artist that is sure to inspire readers to learn more about her work on and off the stage. A bibliography and author's notes will encourage and enable this.

Source: Review Copy


The Elephantom by Ross Collins

Ross Collins is a prolific illustrator (and author) of picture books, chapter books and novels for kids. His newest picture book, The Elephantom, is a huge hit in the U.K. and it's been adapted into a play by the Royal National Theater that's also a huge hit! After reading The Elephantom, I can see why.

The narrator of The Elephantom, a very cute little girl - Collins has a way with how he draws kids that is quite adorable - begins the story by telling reader she has an elephantom who showed up one Tuesday after dinner and, "to be honest, he's starting to bug me." A phantom elephant in your house might seem like fun, unless he's the kind of elephantom who rides a scooter up the stairs at night and eats all the peanut butter, forcing your mom to make spinach sandwiches. Even worse, on Friday's the elephantom has his friends over.

When the smell of the elephantom dung gets to be too much, the narrator turns to grandma for help. After all, "she has lots of ghost pets," including a ghost fish who floats outside of his bowl. Grandma hands her a card for Specrtral & Son "Purveyors of Oddities." It takes "four hours and thirty-seven minutes" but the shop is quite a sight - I wish I had that illustration to share.

But you do get to see the charming Mr. Spectral and the inside of his shop. He has just the solution for evicting elephantoms! The ending of The Elephantom is perfect, with a great little twist. Collin's illustrations are a balance of other worldly floatiness and detailed bundles of color. There is always something fun to seek out, especially when Grandma is on the scene. The Elephantom is a very, very fun book and I hope that the play version makes it to America sometime soon!

Source: Review Copy


Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Leo: A Ghost Story is Mac Barnett's fourteenth picture book (two of which have won the Caldecott Honor Medal) in six years. That might seem like a lot for an author/illustrator, but not necessarily for a picture book author. While I tend to prefer picture books where the author is also the illustrator, Barnett's books are favorites of mine and I love seeing his unique story telling style brought to life on the page by a stellar roster of illustrators. Leo: A Ghost Story is Barnett's first book with the fabulous new(ish) illustrator  Christian Robinson and they are perfectly paired here.

Leo: A Ghost Story begins in an empty house with the words, "This is Leo. Most people cannot see him." The page turn reads,

"But you can. Leo is a ghost." I love how the text immediately includes the reader in the story in an exciting, almost conspiratorial sort of way while also assuring, with the illustration, that Leo is a friendly ghost. To further reassure readers, we learn that Leo lived for many years in an empty house, reading books and drawing pictures in the dust. When a family finally moves in, Leo excitedly plays host, bringing them mint tea and honey toast. The family does not offer Leo a similarly warm welcome. After hiding in the bathtub, they call in a "a scientist, a clergyman, and a psychic" to deal with the ghost. Seeing that he is not wanted, Leo decides to end his years as a house ghost and become a roaming ghost.

Already exciting, Leo: A Ghost Story gets even more so when Leo meets Jane as he wanders the city. Creating Camelot with sidewalk chalk, Jane invites Leo to play Knights of the Round Table and a fast friendship begins. Leo is knighted and introduced to Jane's imaginary friends, in a scene that is sweetly funny. Another charming passage comes when it's time for bed and Jane sets Leo up with a blanket and pillow, telling him in confidence that he is her "best imaginary friend." When a "sneak thief" enters the story, Leo makes a wise and brave choice that reveals his true identity, which could lead to more roaming. But Jane is as generous and accepting as she is imaginative and the story ends with mint tea and honey toast at midnight. And, although it is a different house that Leo finds himself in and no longer alone, the final page of Leo: A Ghost Story mirrors with an interior that is seemingly empty.

Christian Robinson's illustrations have a vintage, two dimensional feel that, with the cool blue color palette, keeps the story from being too knowing or sentimental while at the same time a little bit spooky and mysterious. The words and pictures together tell an enchanting tale that will linger in the memories of all who read (or hear) it.

Picture Books by Mac Barnett:

Source: Review Copy


A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen, 317 pp, RL 4

Jennifer Nielsen is the author of the widely praised Ascendance Trilogy, set in a kingdom on the verge of civil war. Neilsen is also the author of the Mark of the Thief trilogy set in Ancient Rome that combines history, fantasy and fast paced action. Nielsen's newest book, A Night Divided, is a stand-alone work of historical fiction set in a time and place that is rarely visited in children's literature - East Berlin during the cold war. Narrated by Gerta Lowe, A Night Divided is rich with quotes from historical and literary figures from Goethe and Bertolt Brecht to John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev. Nielsen ends A Night Divided, chillingly, with the German proverb, "History repeats itself."

Gerta Lowe is eight when her life changes dramatically. On the morning of August 13, 1961, she wakes to find that a "prison had been built around us as we slept," leaving her family divided by what becomes the Berlin Wall. Gerta's father, Aldous, and her brother Dominic are seeking work in the west when the wall goes up leaving Gerta, her oldest brother Fritz and their fearful mother behind. Four years later, Gerta, now twelve, thinks she sees Dominic on an observation platform behind the wall in West Berlin and her life changes again. Nielsen sets the scene and building the tension in East Berlin with descriptions of a drab, grey police state where a banana is a luxurious, contraband birthday gift and black market Beatles records must be listened to on the lowest volume the record player has. Before the wall went up, Aldous Lowe was already a person of interest to the Stasi for his involvement in worker uprisings years earlier. In his absence, the Stasi question Gerta's mother and Fritz, looking for signs of collaboration and opposition to the Communist government. Gerta's mother insists that following the rules and being good citizens will keep them happy and safe but, as Fritz nears his eighteenth birthday (when he will have to join the military) and close friends of his attempt to escape, he realizes just how impossible and short his life will be if he stays in East Berlin. As Gerta observes the struggles of her friends and family, she puts together the pieces of the messages and signals her father and Dominic covertly send to her - a silly dance to a childhood song, a drawing of a building, a hidden air raid shelter - and becomes determined to find a way out of East Berlin.

Nielsen's presentation of the brutality of the police state is effective without being descriptively violent. Gerta has frightening encounters with the Grenzers - the border police - one of whom was once a friend of Fritz's. She watches as her neighbors become suspicious and eventually inform on her family and Herr Krause, a neighbor who prints his radical ideas (IF I CANNOT SPEAK WHAT I THINK, THEN IT'S A CRIME JUST TO BE ME!) and is arrested, despite government promises of a free press. Realizing that her father wants her to tunnel her way to the west, Gerta and Fritz use the excuse of planting a summer garden as a cover for their dangerous underground work. Even with this reasonable activity, they draw attention to themselves and suspense builds as the tunnel lengthens - and weakens. How Gerta, who is a determined, inventive fighter, and Fritz succeed, and who helps and hinders them, make A Night Divided an exciting book that is hard to put down. The quotes Nielsen begins each chapter with are a wonderful way of slowing the pace for a moment and encouraging readers to take time to reflect on the realities of life in this impossible city that only just gained freedom in 1989.

For readers who are looking for more stories set during wartime told from unique, female perspectives, Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys begins in 1941 when fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas and her mother and brother are arrested by the Soviet Secret Police and deported, along with thousands of others, to Siberia. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Weyn is a masterwork of storytelling and features two teenage girls trained as pilots in England during the height of WWII. Finally, told from a male perspective, Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin is the incredible story of a boy's adulation then disenchantment with the brutal authoritarian dictatorship of Stalin.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Weyn

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Source: Review Copy