the language of spells

I, like almost every other reader in the known universe, can be swayed by a pretty book cover. And when a pretty book cover also happens to have the words “language” and “spells” in the title, and a DRAGON on it, well. Shut the front door, as the saying goes. I came in to the reading experience ready to love Garret Weyr’s middle grade fantasy The Language of Spells. I cried-at-the-end ADORED it.

the language of spells by garret weyr, illustrated by katie harnett cover
Grisha is a dragon in a world that’s forgotten how to see him. Maggie is a unusual child who thinks she’s perfectly ordinary. They’re an unlikely duo—but magic, like friendship, is funny. Sometimes it chooses those who might not look so likely. And magic has chosen Grisha and Maggie to solve the darkest mystery in Vienna. Decades ago, when World War II broke out, someone decided that there were too many dragons for all of them to be free. As they investigate, Grisha and Maggie ask the question everyone’s forgotten: Where have the missing dragons gone? And is there a way to save them? At once richly magical and tragically historical, The Language of Spells is a novel full of adventure about remembering old stories, forging new ones, and the transformative power of friendship.

Benevolentia Gaudium, or Grisha for short, is the youngest dragon alive, in a world where magic and dragons have become obsolete. Maggie (Anna Marguerite, properly) is a girl of eleven with a famous poet for a father and an even more famous, though dead, painter for a mother. Both Maggie and Grisha live in Vienna, and it is there that a friendship forms, a mystery unspools, and an adventure is undertaken. The Language of Spells is necessarily about magic, but it’s also a little bit about history, a lot about friendship, a smidgen about education, and a tiny bit about heartbreak. In other words, it is marvelous.

After reading the official summary I was under the mistaken impression that this book was about invisible dragons. It took me a few pages at the beginning to realize that that was *not* the case. No, instead it’s a coming of age story for both Grisha and Maggie, with a lot of fun dragon lore and magical creatures, historical bits, anecdotes about living in a hotel, and talking cats, among other delightful elements. It is (I would think) almost impossible not to fall in love with Maggie and Grisha. They’re very different characters, yet very kind to each other, and it has been too long since I read such a lovely portrait of friendship.

Theme-wise, The Language of Spells is about finding what is special or different about yourself and celebrating it (in Grisha’s case), making friends, and finding ways to solve problems and do the right thing (in Maggie’s case). It also has several fable-like messages woven in about judging people based on their “usefulness,” the innate dignity of rational beings, remembering the past, as well as some musings on freedom and happiness. It could have been quite complicated, but the author’s skill and touches of humor kept the tone cozy and the story moving.

As any good middle grade story is, this one is true (even if it does feature magic and dragons and talking cats), and at the same time absolutely heart-wrenching at the end. It’s the perfect read for a rainy day, with a cat at your feet and a mug of hot chocolate at hand. It’s also a great pick for a chapter-or-two-at-a-time storytime or bedtime, or independent reading for the 911-year-old crowd.

I can’t close out my review without mentioning the gorgeous art! At the beginning of each chapter there are illustrations by Katie Harnett (also the artist of the gorgeous cover!) which complement the text. The overall book design is just fabulous as well – the end papers, mustard-yellow boards, and gold foil on the dust jacket all make for a delightful keepsake of a book.

The Language of Spells has a timeless feel and quality to it, and is sure to earn a permanent spot on many shelves with its gentle, quiet brilliance.

Recommended for: fans of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland books and Laura Ruby’s York, and anyone who likes cozy, imaginative books that are perfect for curling up with on wintery days.

Are you interested in other reviews of this book? Check out the TLC Book Tour! Or you can learn more via the author's websiteInstagramFacebook, or Twitter.

Fine print: I reviewed this book as part of a TLC blog tour. I did not receive any compensation for this post, and I bought my own copy of the book.

how to make friends with a ghost

In general I am not a Halloween sort of person (didn’t grow up celebrating it, never really caught the fever), but I will make exceptions for spooky + funny and/or spooky + cute. Rebecca Green’s picture book How to Make Friends with a Ghost fits firmly in the latter category – it’s an adorably illustrated guide to ghostly friendship, tailor-made for this time of year.

how to make friends with a ghost by rebecca green cover
What do you do when you meet a ghost? One: Provide the ghost with some of its favorite snacks, like mud tarts and earwax truffles. Two: Tell your ghost bedtime stories (ghosts love to be read to). Three: Make sure no one mistakes your ghost for whipped cream or a marshmallow when you aren’t looking! If you follow these few simple steps and the rest of the essential tips in How to Make Friends with a Ghost, you’ll see how a ghost friend will lovingly grow up and grow old with you.

A whimsical story about ghost care, Rebecca Green’s debut picture book is a perfect combination of offbeat humor, quirky and sweet illustrations, and the timeless theme of friendship.

Ghosts are attracted to people who are sweet, warm, and kind, according to Green’s guide to lifelong (and beyond!) friendship. While directed at the reader who might want to make a cute ghostly friend (the illustrations really do make it seem desirable!), How to Make Friends with a Ghost also contains many friendship insights even if you plan to keep your pals strictly among the living.

With themes of friendship and supernatural sweetness, and sprinkled with funny anecdotes and properly cited “tips” from fake guides, this delightful picture book is sure to be a hit with the 7-10 year old set, adults, and aspiring artists. While a friendship guide is not your typical ghost story, this one charms with notes on care and feeding, growing together, hiding places, hazards, and even a recipe (a gross one, but still)!

While the text will win over many readers, it is the whimsical, witchy illustration style that elevates this book to something special. Green’s pages are filled with colored pencil, gouache, and hand-lettered text, and the clear pencil strokes can be studied/copied with ease. The whole book brims with love and care. I especially loved the busy endpapers full of spooky ingredients (Halloween-friendly)(and the “friendly” bit really is true!).

So, if you’re in the mood for a cute, cuddly ghost story that is not scary at all, How to Make Friends with a Ghost is the book for you. It is made with love, and perfect for autumnal reading.

Recommended for: independent picture book readers, aspiring artists, and anyone who likes Halloween (minus the creepy stuff).

cucumber quest: the doughnut kingdom

Do you ever think about how your reading habits have evolved? I used to be a strictly prose-only reader, but in the past two years I’ve been reading a lot of picture books, graphic novels, and I’ve even dipped into poetry. I have several friends who are branching out into audiobooks as well (and I know that’s a growing category for publishers, so it’s not just them!). This change means that I’m trusting different sources for recommendations – but one publisher that always publishes great graphic novels is First Second. When they sent me Gigi D.G.'s middle grade graphic novel Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom, I knew it was going to be a fun read right off the bat.

cucumber quest: the doughnut kingdom by gigi d.g. book cover
What happens when an evil queen gets her hands on an ancient force of destruction?

World domination, obviously.

The seven kingdoms of Dreamside need a legendary hero. Instead, they'll have to settle for Cucumber, a nerdy magician who just wants to go to school. As destiny would have it, he and his way more heroic sister, Almond, must now seek the Dream Sword, the only weapon powerful enough to defeat Queen Cordelia’s Nightmare Knight.

Can these bunny siblings really save the world in its darkest hour?

Sure, why not?

In the Doughnut Kingdom, where this story begins, magic student Cucumber just wants to go off to school. However, his ineffectual mother Bagel and bad dad Lord Cabbage insist that he challenge the evil usurper Queen Cordelia. Never mind that he has no interest in becoming a hero! Luckily, Cucumber’s little sister Almond doesn’t listen to those who insist she can’t be a hero (what nonsense!), and decides that a quest is right in her wheelhouse. She drags Cucumber along with her straight into adventure, travel, and kingdom-saving exploits.

While the series is titled Cucumber Quest, in this volume Almond is the undisputed star. Cucumber plays her foil, worrying and asking important questions, while Almond makes decisions and keeps the action moving along. In a kingdom where almost every creature or place is named for food, you would expect the story to lean to fluff – and while it is super cute, it’s also funny, a little sassy, and there are some unexpected twists to liven things up. In other words, there’s plot to rival the art!

Speaking of art: the world of Dreamside is filled with folks who have different kinds of bunny ears, and that isn’t really explained (they don’t seem to have any other bunny attributes). The art itself is digital and soft-edged, with no lines to speak of. Most of the buildings are foodstuffs (Tiramisu Tower, for instance), and the whole book is, in a word, adorable.

As far as weaknesses go, I have two tiny, tiny nitpicks. First, the cover doesn’t do the story justice. You can’t really tell what’s going on? And the art is kind of a weird shape? But like, it’s such a tiny complaint it doesn’t really register. Second, there are a bunch of extras at the end of the book, and they’re kind of a mishmash. I think that with a little more editing/organization it would have made a lot more sense. But you’ll notice that neither of these had anything to do with the story, which is a great sign. The story is a lot of fun, and stands well on its own. It’s also available online for free as a webcomic!

In all, Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom is a charming fairy tale adventure of a graphic novel, with several more volumes available or on the way!

Recommended for: fans of the 5 Worlds and Mighty Jack graphic novel series, and any readers ages 8-12 who enjoy fun, sassy protagonists, and quests to save the world.

Fine print: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the day you begin

Friday, October 5, 2018 | | 1 comments
How are you doing, fam? Today has been rough for a bunch of reasons, but I have to keep my head up, keep on believing that I can make the world a better place.  And what better way to do that than to read a book? One of the most affirming, wonderful books I’ve read lately is Jacqueline Woodson's picture book The Day You Begin, beautifully illustrated by Rafael López.

the day you begin by jacqueline woodson, illustrated by rafael lopez cover
There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.

There are many reasons to feel different. Maybe it’s how you look or talk, or where you’re from; maybe it’s what you eat, or something just as random. It’s not easy to take those first steps into a place where nobody really knows you yet, but somehow you do it.

Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical text and Rafael López’s dazzling art reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes-and how brave it is that we go forth anyway. And that sometimes, when we reach out and begin to share our stories, others will be happy to meet us halfway.

A black girl with curly hair enters a classroom and doesn’t see anyone who looks like her. She feels left out when she realizes that everyone else’s family traveled for the summer while she was at home babysitting. A boy named Rigoberto is laughed at when he speaks in his native tongue. An Asian girl feels less-than because no one understands the delicious food her mother makes for her school lunch. These are the interwoven narratives in The Day You Begin, a picture book about recognizing your differences, finding your place in the world, and beginning to tell the stories only you can.

Ms. Woodson is the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and a National Book Award winner, and it shows. The Day You Begin is poignant, earnest, poetic, and needed. Written to and for children whole feel separate and apart because of their differences (due to race, class, language, or culture), this picture book tells children 1) that they are brave, 2) that they can share their unique stories (and the world will make a place for them when they do), 3) that they will find themselves and find friends, and 4) that there is beauty in similarity AND difference.

On the writing itself: Woodson’s similes are reflected seamlessly in López’s art. Words like a song are reflected in musical notes on the page. Getting picked last is depicted in every heart-wrenching detail. The thoughts that kids tuck away so that they will hurt less are here, on the page, and it is enough to make you cry… until you realize that every difference and moment of other-ness is being turned into an opportunity to connect, in vibrant tones. Woodson’s words and López’s mix of textures, colors, and mediums are the perfect fit for this book.

"There will be times when the world feels like a place that you’re standing all the way outside of…"

In all, The Day You Begin is an affirming, heartfelt, and brilliant picture book for everyone and all-ages, but especially for children who feel isolated and different (and who hasn’t felt that way, one day or another?).

Recommended for: all picture book collections, classrooms, storytimes, and for children ages 6-9 need the encouragement that our differences make us special, in the best ways.
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