September 6 – Celebrating Read a New Book Month on Middle Grade Monday

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About the Holiday

For young readers there may be nothing more exciting than discovering a new series to fall in love with. Add in magic, danger, laugh-out-loud humor, and unique characters kids can really care about and the potion is complete. Today’s book is just such a wonder – enchanting for reading on one’s own or for exciting family story times.

Review by Jakki Licare

The Hatmakers

By Tamzin Merchant | Illustrated by Paola Escobar

Synopsis

 

On a stormy night, Cordelia Hatmaker is woken up to learn that the family boat, the Jolly Bonnet, has sunk and none of the crew – not even her hearty father, Captain Prospero Hatmaker– has survived. Knowing her father has survived worse at sea, Cordelia doesn’t believe her father is really gone and is determined to find him. Despite the family’s tragedy, the Hatmakers must present the Concentration Hat to King George to help him focus on signing France’s peace treaty. When they arrive at the palace, they find King George standing on the throne baaing like a sheep. A doctor dismisses the Concentration Hat and declares the king unwell. King George is sent away to the seaside to recover. Cordelia asks the Princess if she’d spare a ship to search for her father, but Lord Witloof, the royal family’s advisor, claims they can’t spare any ships since France threatens to go to war. The Princess commissions the Hatmakers to Make a Peace Hat and it must be ready in three days for her meeting with the King of France.

After learning that the Jolly Bonnet’s cabin boy has been found alive, Cordelia sneaks out to meet him. He hands her her father’s telescope before passing out. Rolled up inside the telescope, Cordelia finds a piece of paper that has had its ink washed away.

Cordelia’s family is summoned to the Guildhall, a place where all the Makers used to Make and create outfits together. All the Makers have had their Peace Clothes stolen except for the Watchmakers. The Makers accuse each other of stealing, even Cordelia’s best friend, Goose Bootmaker, accuses her of stealing their Peace Boots since he found Cordelia’s handkerchief in his family’s workshop.

Cordelia is determined to clear her name. She stakes out the Watchmaker’s house and discovers her neighborhood’s friendly newspaper boy sneaking in. She catches up with him and he confesses that he has been blackmailed by a mysterious man. The newspaper boy hides Cordelia when the mysterious man arrives. Cordelia notices that the blackmailer has WW embellishments on his shoes. The mysterious man takes the Peace Watch from the newspaper boy and then locks him in a trunk. After the blackmailer leaves, Cordelia frees the newspaper boy and they sneak out together.

When Cordelia gets home, she finds her whole family being arrested. Cordelia reunites and makes up with Goose and together with her family’s cook and the newspaper boy, they Make a Peace Hat. But when Cordelia presents the Peace Hat to the Princess, Lord Witloof accuses Cordelia of making an attempt to assassinate the Princess. That’s when Cordelia notices Lord Witloof’s shoes also have WW on them. Cordelia convinces the Princess that Lord Witloof is a traitor, but Lord Witloof puts a Hideous Crown on the Princess’s head which stops the Princess in her tracks. 

Cordelia is able to escape and the newspaper boy makes Cordelia exchange clothes with him. When he gives Cordelia his hat, all of “his” long hair comes spilling out of it. The newspaper girl then pretends to be Cordelia and allows herself to get captured by the police while Cordelia hides.

Cordelia, Goose, and some other friends sneak into the Peace talks. Lord Witloof puts Rage Clothes on the Princess, and she starts insulting the King of France. After a struggle, Cordelia pulls off all the Rage Clothes from the Princess and the Princess apologizes to the French King. He accepts and they both decide to sign the peace treaty. Lord Witloof tries to fire a cannon at the King of France because he wants to start a war so he can sell cannons, but Cordelia knocks him overboard.

The Princess declares all the Makers who were imprisoned free and King George, who Lord Witloof had imprisoned, is set free as well. Cordelia realizes that the King is wearing dangerous magical shoes that make him act crazy and she pulls them off. The King is relieved to be back to normal and throws a party for the Makers at the Guildhall. After receiving a medal, Cordelia announces that she thinks The Makers should all work together. That night Cordelia discovers her father drew her a map in magical ink that can only be seen in starlight. Her father may still be alive after all….

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Image copyright Paola Escobar, 2021, text copyright Tamzin Merchant, 2021. Courtesy of W. W. Norton.

Review

 

Tamzin Merchant’s fantastical London showcases her whimsical and elegant storytelling style. Steeped in adventure, humor, and friendship The Hatmakers is a magical read for all lovers of fantasy. This story follows some real historical events, including King George III and his issues with France, but also weaves in fantastical plot points, such as King George III “going mad” from wearing addleskin snake boots. 

Merchant’s characters really pop off the page with their variety of personalities. Cordelia’s tenacity and feistiness carry through the narration and bring home the fact that she will follow her heart no matter what. Even though her family hates the Bootmaker family, Cordelia never allows their prejudice to ruin her friendship with Goose Bootmaker. And even when no one believes her father is alive, Cordelia never stops searching for him. Merchant’s side characters are just as delightful as her main character from anxious-but-loyal Goose Bootmaker to charismatic Sir Gushforth to stalwart Great Aunt Petronella. Each character adds to the tension of the story while sprinkling humor along their way. 

The magic system is woven through the plot and setting so seamlessly that, like Cordelia, you’ll be begging to go into the Hatmaker workshop too. The Hatmakers Make each hat magical by adding special ingredients. To Make the Peace Hat they use lullwool felt, pax pearl shells, cordial blossoms, and sage ribbons. They then stitch on a rune symbol for peace. But another important aspect of the magic is that it must be balanced. If there is one magical item that is too powerful, it can overwhelm someone and harm them. Cordelia learns this lesson when she Makes a hat for Sir Hugo Gushforth to help him with his stage fright and embellishes his hat with a tail of an upstart crow and a Loquacious Lily. The unbalanced hat causes the actor to jump into scenes he doesn’t belong in and shout monologues to unsuspecting pedestrians.

Middle grade readers will love traipsing around Merchant’s whimsical London from the secret palace passages to the abandoned guildhall filled with its dusty mannequins and stone Maker with a crumbling hat. The Hatmakers workshop alone is a world onto itself with ticklish floorboards, invisible cabinets, and grouchy, toe-tripping hearthrug. The workshop is filled with fascinating ingredients like Dwam Threads, Moonwing Feathers, and Sooth Crystals. And let’s not forget the alchemy parlor where great-aunt Petronella reigns over multicolored fires, crystal lights, and telescopes propped out the windows. I can definitely sympathize with Cordelia who can’t wait for her lessons to end so she can spend the rest of her day in the workshop.        

Parental Considerations: This story contains mild violence. Cordelia also recounts the death of her mother. Additionally, child homelessness is touched upon in this book.

The Hatmakers is a fast-paced, playful read that will make a great addition to your fantasy collection.  If your kids enjoy Jessica Towsend’s Nevermoor and Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic then The Hatmakers is a must read. 

To Learn more about The Hatmakers and its sequel The Mapmakers click here.

Ages 9 – 12

Norton Young Readers, 2021 | ISBN 978-1324016038

You can connect with Tamzin Merchant on Twitter.

You can connect with Paola Escobar on Instagram and Twitter.

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You can find The Hatmakers at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

June 5 – Middle Grade Monday

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Review by Jakki Licare

400 Minutes of Danger

By Jack Heath

 

The second book in this thrilling series takes readers around the world and to the edge of their seat with ten life-or-death situations, ten brave kids, and ten linked stories that prove anyone can be a hero even if they only have 40 minutes to escape!

Synopsis

This synopsis contains spoilers

Glacier

Nika is climbing a wall of ice in Northern Pakistan when she notices her shoes and gloves are wet. As she examines closer, she realizes the glacier has thawed on the inside and the water is trickling out. She’s climbing an ice shell which at any moment will crack! Not only is her life in danger, but the entire village where she has been staying will be swept away too. When the only car in town drives by, Nika quickly devises a plan. But at what cost?

Terminal Velocity

On a field trip to a national park, Charith notices a camouflaged gunman sneaking around. After alerting his class, they rush onto the bus, but as they exit the park a bomb is detonated in front of them. The bus driver is blinded and Charith takes over driving the treacherous winding roads with no brakes. As if that isn’t bad enough the camouflaged gunman chases them down the mountain and starts shooting at them. Charith uses the emergency flare gun to shoot the gunman who loses control and careens off the mountain.

Mosquito

When Sally enrolled in a science program for extra credit, she had no idea she’d be helping Dr. Volchek  capture the Vampirius Colossi, a.k.a. giant mosquito. After hiking through a jungle and dodging driver ants, they’ve just found some larvae when a “baby” Vampirius Colossi attacks  Dr.Volchek. Swinging a broken branch at it, Sally discovers that the pollen on the branch repels the mosquito. Sally is dragging Dr. Volchek to safety when a mosquito the size of a car chases her. Sally makes a daring escape and with the help from a surprising source, she and Dr. Volchek make their way out of the jungle.

Enclosure

As Brad and his best friend creep through the zoo on a mission to prank a volunteer with water balloons, they notice that a thief has broken into an enclosure. But before they can decide what to do, Brad is spotted by a guard and races off. To hide from the guard he dangles from a viewing platform, but accidentally slips into a lion’s enclosure. The lion pounces at him, but his teeth sink into a surprise instead and he backs off. Brad uses the diversion to climb the fence, but a lioness is closing in when a surprising person comes to his aid.

Iron-Willed

In this story set in the future, Iresha is tasked with diving for iron samples from shipwrecks, but when she reaches the seabed, she discovers that the shipwreck isn’t where it should be. With a limited air supply and a strange hum all around, Iresha finds the wreck and collects her samples. While crossing a deep ravine an earthquake hits, the ship snaps in half, and Iresha must escape. Suddenly the chasm erupts in lava. Iresha swims upward with lava close behind and rocks pummel her from all sides. At last, she breaches the surface onto a newly made island of basalt, an iron rich rock.

The Island

List oversees a secret organization and Kelsey accepts a mission to spy on him. Pretending to be the daughter of one of List’s employees, she convinces List to take her into his secret dome. infiltrates his secret dome. The dome turns out to be an enclosed habitat with two of every animal. List even has a dinosaur, which Kelsey knows he stole from a cruise ship which was transporting genetically modified embryos. Kelsey steals List’s phone and realizes that he’s started a countdown to explode an underwater volcano that will destroy earth’s atmosphere. With List on her heels, Kelsey races into the dinosaur’s enclosure to hide and calls SPII headquarters to warn them. The dinosaur attacks her, but Kelsey knocks it out using karate. SPII is powerless to help, leaving it up to Kelsey to find List’s radio detonator. Through clever negotiations with List, Kelsey discovers where the detonator is and aborts the explosive.

Kids are also pitted against a sinking ship, a compactor, a robot, and a snake in more heart-racing stories.

Review

These fast-paced short stories are the perfect read for reluctant readers. The high stakes and life-and-death situations make this book an easy page turner. These short stories are not overwhelming and will leave the reader satisfied.

Each story takes place within a forty-minute time frame and running along the margins of each story is a timer, marking how much time is left. The countdown really amps up the stakes and makes you want to read on as the protagonists must fight for their lives while the time dwindles. In “Sinking,” Nancy has just located her trapped dog in her cabin when the ship rolls to its side, flooding her escape; only fifteen minutes and fifteen seconds left. Nancy squeezes her dog through the opening of her porthole; ten minutes left. Another bomb explodes on the ship and Nancy’s room begins to flood faster; nine minutes and five seconds left. Her porthole is jammed shut from the last explosion, preventing her escape; seven minutes and forty seconds left. She takes one final gasp of air and holds her breath; six minutes and fifty seconds left. Intense, right? The “margin timer” adds an extra layer of tension, pulling us in and making us cheer on the heroes/heroines as their time ticks down. 

My favorite part of 400 Minutes of Danger is that each hero/heroine is an everyday teen. These heroes and heroines must rely on their quick thinking, luck, and ingenuity to get out of extremely dangerous situations. I like how Jack Heath does not have protagonists rely on cool technology to get them out of trouble, just their wits. In “Nightmare,” Harry uses his knowledge that snakes become lethargic in colder temperatures. So when a deadly snake starts advancing on him and his parents, he switches the air conditioner on with his remote, and the snake becomes distracted and eventually goes to sleep. I also like how there are an equal number of male and female protagonists throughout the book. 

While each story can be read on its own and feel satisfyingly complete, Heath takes 400 Minutes of Danger a step further and connects all of these isolated stories in the final short story. As the reader goes along through the book, they can start to pick out clues and pieces of information that link the stories together. In “The Island,” Heath then weaves all the stories together so that each of Heath’s dropped clues come together like a beautiful puzzle, taking his ending to a whole new level.

Parental Considerations: Some of the stories contain violence and have a villain with murderous intentions.

400 Minutes of Danger is a fast-paced, suspenseful book that’s perfect for adrenaline lovers. If your kids enjoy the I Survived Series then 400 Minutes of Danger will make a great addition to your shelf. For more thrills and chills, check out the first book in the series, 300 Minutes of Danger.

Thanks to Sterling Children’s Books for sharing a copy of 400 Minutes of Danger for review consideration. All opinions on the book are my own.

Ages 10 and up

Sterling Children’s Books 2016 | ISBN 978-1454938392

You can learn more about Jack Heath and his other books for children and adults on his website.

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You can find 400 Minutes of Danger at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

June 7 – Celebrating Our First Middle Grade Monday

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About the Holiday

I’m thrilled to welcome back Jakki Licare, who took time away from the blog to help her boys with virtual schooling. Jakki and I are also excited to tell you that on the first Monday of every month, Celebrate Picture Books will become Celebrate Middle Grade Books, with Jakki’s reviews of fantastic books for older kids. What does she have up first? A book that has it all – dragons, suspense, magic, and a new team of smart, brave, kind, and funny friends for readers to take adventures with. 

Thanks to Sterling Children’s Books for sharing a copy of Dragon Mountain for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Review by Jakki Licare

Dragon Mountain 

By Katie and Kevin Tsang 

 

Synopsis

This synopsis contains spoilers

Billy Chang is dreading summer because his parents have shipped him off from his home in San Francisco to attend a summer camp in China so he can brush up on his Mandarin and “‘learn more about his Chinese heritage.'” But when he is paired with Dylan O’Donnell, Charlotte Bell, and Liu Ling-Fei for a scavenger hunt things start to look up. Determined to win, the kids take a shortcut – which they instantly regret when a tiger chases them. Unable to get away, the kids link hands and face off against the tiger together in front of a mountain. Incredibly, the tiger backs away and vanishes into thin air.

When they return back to camp, Ling-Fei realizes that she’s lost the necklace her grandmother gave her. The next morning the kids go back to search for Ling-Fei’s missing necklace. As they search the area, Billy realizes that they’ve lost something else – Ling-Fei! One by one the kids go missing, until Billy is all alone. Billy is convinced that something is pulling them into the mountain and he marches in to find his friends.

Deep within the mountain, he finds his friends trapped by a group of dragons. The dragons are glad that the children came because they’ve been waiting for the prophesized four to open it. The dragons explain that the mountain contains a special portal that connects the human and dragon realms together. These dragons are the portal guardians. An evil dragon, known as the Dragon of Death, tried to come through the portal thousands of years ago to maximize its powers by bonding with a human. The guardians fought to keep the Dragon of Death out, but they were unable to defeat the Dragon of Death so they sent her through a time portal. As they sent her back, she cast a spell that sealed the guardians in the mountain until they met their human matches. 

One of the dragons has the ability to see into the future, and she has seen the Dragon of Death coming back and enslaving the human realm. The kids want to protect their world and agree to bond with the dragons. The kids bond with their dragons by naming them. Once they’re bonded, the dragons are stronger in ability as well as size. Three of the dragons have magical pearls that will give the kids super powers: Charlotte receives super strength, Ling-Fei can sense nature, and Dylan has the power of persuasion. Billy’s dragon doesn’t have a pearl, but they know the fourth pearl is close. Billy realizes he has seen it at the summer camp. 

The kids head back to camp and break into the owner’s office that night. Billy finds the pearl on top of a bookshelf. When he grabs it, he loses his balance and does a perfect backwards flip. Billy now has agility superpowers. Now that they have the pearls and are bonded, the children are ready for the dragon realm. But the dragons find the entrance is still barred to them by the curse. The kids have to go through on their own to open the entrance for the dragons. The tiger that chased them earlier is waiting for them and is the keeper of the curse. The tiger attacks them with electric bolts and Billy distracts it. Using her powers, Ling-Fei learns that they must destroy the tiger’s heart. Charlotte uses her super strength and rips the tiger’s heart out.  

Now they can enter the Dragon Realm with their dragons, but they find that the entire dragon Realm is poisoned. The dragons then have to fight off the the Dragon of Death’s helpers, Noxwings, and soon the dragons are captured. With the help of Billy’s dragon, though, the kids are able to get away. The kids travel through the dragon realm on their own and have many adventures in which they must use their powers and wit to help them survive this dangerous land.

They finally reach the Nowxing’s camp and find hundreds of cages filled with captured dragons. The Noxwings are opening a portal to bring back the Dragon of Death by draining the dragons of their energy. The kids learn that if they destroy the floating flames that surround the portal, the cages will open and the portal will close. The kids work together and destroy the flames, but Billy is attacked. He’s about to be killed when his dragon swoops in and saves him.

They’re winning the battle and the portal is almost closed when the summer camp’s owner appears out of the forest. He grabs Dylan and heads toward the portal. He created the whole summer camp just to find the children he needed to open the dragon realm. The owner is determined to bring back the Dragon of Death. He jumps through, pulling Dylan with him. The kids are determined to get their friend back and all the freed dragons swear to help them. The kids and their dragons will travel through time to save Dylan and defeat the Dragon of Death.

Review

 

This fast-paced book will be sure to keep your middle grader’s attention. The writing is very immersive and you’re soon off on one adventure after another. Perfect for 8-12 year olds who love dragons and are looking for fun characters that you can’t help rooting for. Katie and Kevin Tsang’s dragons were inspired by both Chinese and European folklore and they even blended two of the dragons to create hybrids of both cultures. They also drew inspiration from the Chinese symbols of the Eight Great Treasures to create the eight pearls in Dragon Mountain which give the kids their superpowers. 

My favorite part of this book was how the characters work through their problems together. All of the characters are incredibly different and often their personalities clash, but they’re able to talk through their troubles together. After the children are separated from their dragons in the Dragon Realm, Charlotte is angry with Billy for running away. The group falls apart as they can’t agree on what to do. But after talking it through they’re able to come up with the beginnings of a plan that they can all agree with. This is one example of how the Tsangs do an amazing job of focusing on the intricacies of team work and thread it through the plot of the story. 

Billy Chang, the main character, is a surfing champ who is also good at keeping his head in stressful situations. Dylan O’Donnell is friendly, funny, and very cautious. Charlotte Bell is competitive, motivated, and smart. And Liu Ling-Fei is sweet, quiet, and generous. When the dragons are introduced, we learn that each child is destined to bond with a dragon. My kids and I loved guessing who was going to be matched with who. Some of the bonds were surprising.

My seven year old especially loved the dragons in this book. They start off as menacing and scary but, just like Billy and his friends, we soon learn to trust them. Each dragon’s personality is as unique as those of the kids, and they each carry their own powers that we learn about along the way.  I’m looking forward to the second book so we can spend more time with the dragons!

There are two distinct story worlds. The first part of the story takes place in a Chinese mountain. We get a very brief introduction to the summer camp before we are swept into the mountain. The other half of the book is spent in the dragon realm which is full of floating islands and has three moons and a mysterious red dome. The dragon realm’s barren world accurately reflects the danger the kids are in and increases the reader’s anxiety. As the kids try to maneuver through this foreign terrain, they come across many new and unexpected dangers. My son’s favorite part is when the kids have to bargain with a rock troll.

Dragon Mountain is a fast-paced, immersive adventure book that’s perfect for dragon lovers of all ages especially fans of How to Train Your Dragon and will make a great addition to class libraries as well personal libraries.

Parental Considerations: This book does contain fantasy fighting.

Ages 8 – 12

Grade Level 3 – 7 | AR Level: 4.8

Sterling Children’s Books 2020 | ISBN 978-1454935964

You can learn more about Katie & Kevin Tsang, their Dragon Realm series, and their Sam Wu Is Not Afraid series on their website.

Adventure into the Dragon Realm with this book trailer!

celebrate-picture-books-middle-grade-review-dragon-mountain-cover

You can find Dragon Mountain at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review