Book review: Dactyl Hill Squad, by Daniel José Older

Older, Daniel José. Dactyl Hill Squad. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018. $16.99. ISBN 9781338268812. 256 pgs. Ages 8-14. P7Q8

What do you do when you are on your way to the theater with a few fellow orphans, riding in a triceratops wagon, and a riot breaks out? You fight back of course! Thus begins the story of Magdalys, a 12 year old girl from Cuba, orphaned and living in New York City during the Civil War. In this story, dinosaurs and humans coexist, and both the North and the South use the dinosaurs for transportation, to deliver mail, and to fight. Magadalys discovers she can communicate with the dinosaurs, and becomes involved with the war effort. During the Draft Riots, the Colored Orphan Asylum is burned down, and all the orphans who were not on the field trip have been captured by Richard Riker, an evil, white city magistrate. With no home to return to, Magdalys and crew flee to Brooklyn and settle in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood where black and brown New Yorkers have set up an independent community. Knowing they must help their mates, they form the Dactyl Hill Squad. A plan is set to rescue the orphans left behind, and with the help of Magadalys’ dinosaur connection the adventure begins! With historical facts woven throughout the story, this fantasy novel is fun and informational at the same time. By the end of the story the orphans have been safely rescued from Riker and the Kidnapping Club, but a new journey is on the horizon. Magdalys’ brother, Montez, has been injured after joining the Union Army and the Dactyl Hill Squad is heading south to find him.

Verdict: This story has it all! A lively adventure with a brown heroine, set during the U.S. Civil War where dinosaurs still exist! What a great book to read to a middle age classroom to ignite their interests on so many relevant topics. I highly recommend this book for the classroom, for the library, and to have at home.

February 2019 review by Denyse Marsh.

Book review: The House with Chicken Legs, by Sophie Anderson

Anderson, Sophie. The House with Chicken Legs. Scholastic, 2018. $16.99. 262p. ISBN 978-1-338-20996-9. Ages 9-12. P8Q8

Orphaned Marinka, 12, loves her grandmother, a Yaga who guides the dead into their afterlife, but she wants friends her own age. Doing this is difficult because her grandmother restricts her from going far from the house, and the house keeps going from place to place—on its chicken legs. Anderson has taken the Eastern European folklore of Baba Yaga to create a gentle, loving woman who tries to protect her granddaughter. Marinka’s adventures begin when she breaks Yaga’s rules, leaving the perimeter of the house and trying to make friends in village near the latest house settlement. Her discovery that she is one of the people who came back from the afterlife lead her danger, loss, and the development of relationships as she decides to follow the path that her grandmother chose for her.

Verdict: A beautiful rendition of an old folktale takes the characters throughout different places in the world and shows an acceptance of death. Marinka’s attempt to befriend some of the girls in the village also demonstrates the difficulty of trust and the ability to move on from cruelty. A lovely book to be shared.

February 2019 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, retold by Elizabeth Goodnight, illustrated by Toko Hosoya

Goodnight, Elizabeth. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, retold by Elizabeth Goodnight. Illustrated by Toko Hosoya. (10 Minute Classics series). Flowerpot Press, 2017. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4867-1199-4. 32 pages. Ages 4-8. P7/Q9

A classical story, The Secret Garden, is retold for young children in this beautiful version illustrated bu Toko Hosoya. The story of a young girl named Mary who goes to live with her uncle and finds the house holds many surprises is a true classic. Putting it into a version that even young readers can enjoy is a brilliant idea and Elizabeth Goodnight does a masterful job of giving a complete and concise version.

Verdict: This book would be a wonderful addition to any elementary school library. It presents an opportunity to engage young readers and get them interested in a classical piece of literature. I also think it would be enjoyed by readers who have already read the original novel as it gives a new take and wonderful illustrations accompany it.

November 2018 review by Michelle Cottrell.

Book review: The Orphan Band of Springdale, by Anne Nesbet

Nesbet, Anne. The Orphan Band of Springdale. Candlewick Press, 2018. $18.99. ISBN 9780763688042. 435 Pages. Ages 9-14. P7 Q8

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an orphan back in 1941? With the Second World War looming and tough times in New York, Gusta’s mother is not able to keep her. Gusta is put on a bus by her German born, labor activist, fugitive father and sent to her grandmother who runs an orphanage in Maine. Gusta brings along a suitcase and a much-loved French horn. When she arrives at the orphanage, she meets Josie, the first and oldest orphan in the house. Gusta and Josie become friends and have adventures. Their grandmother values things that receive a gold ribbon, so Gusta and Josie decide to start a band so they can enter a contest and win a gold ribbon. This historical fiction is an easy read, full of adventure, family, secrets, bravery and standing up for others. Nesbet wrote this story based the stories her mother told about her life growing up. To make the fiction as true as possible, she spent some time at the Sanford-Springvale historical Society in Maine and read through old issues of the local paper. This book is true to life in the 1940’s.

Verdict: I recommend this book for public libraries. Readers will learn what life was like in the 1940’s along with teaching one to be brave, to include others, to stand up for themselves and the importance of kindness and family.

April 2018 review by Tami Harris.

Book review: Orphan Island, by Laurel Snyder

Snyder, Laurel.  Orphan Island.  Walden Pond Press, 2017.  ISBN 978-0-06-244341-0. $16.99.  269 pages.  Ages 10+.  Q7P6

An island where nine orphans, ranging roughly in ages from 4 to 13, raise themselves.  At 13ish the oldest has to leave the island.  Jinny is the oldest, therefore has the responsibility to raise/teach the newest orphan, Ess, but due to her empathic nature, struggles to put Ess through any ordeal which makes Ess uncomfortable.  Luckily, others on the island help her by taking over some of the responsibilities.  It appears everything will work out until Jinny decides she is not going to leave the island like she is supposed to when she turns 13.  The author does a great job capturing the insecurities and strength of the youngest and the emotional inner turmoil of the oldest with the onset of puberty and the knowledge she’ll have to leave the island.  I also like the unknown almost science fiction reason they are on the island, an experiment perhaps?  What I don’t like about the book is you never find out why these select children were put on the island, and how the island “works”.  The island “masters” seem to know all that is going on and change the island experience accordingly.  Although the book is filled with a beautiful setting and much soul searching, the book is flawed by the unknown.

Verdict:  The thought process I’ve spent on the “unknown” is similar to the exercise in futility of contemplating the meaning of life.  I don’t necessarily want to do that with my reading material.  Perhaps a bit philosophical for the target audience?

March 2018 review by Terri Lippert.

Book review: Thornhill, by Pam Smy

Smy, Pam. Thornhill. Roaring Brook, 2017. $19.99. 539p. ISBN  978-1-626-72654-3. Ages 13+. P9Q10

Darkness, both in narrative and illustrations, highlight the tragic story of Ella Clarke, a lonely girl in a new town who slowly learns about the misery of another teenage girl living in an orphanage across from her house 35 years earlier. As the girl looks out the window at the deserted building and onto its untended surrounding land, she is drawn to investigate Thornhill and discovers the reason for the fire that destroyed the facility just days before the last few girls were to be moved to foster homes. The story is one of cruel bullying, horrific neglect by adult caretakers, and the loss of hope leading to the end of lives. Each brief chapter from the orphan girl’s diary is prefaced by magnificent two-page spreads that extend the plot and characters.

Verdict: Smy’s debut novel is an engrossing tale of harrowing persecution leading to revenge, an unforgettable and chilling revelation of abuse and desperation. An excellent choice for Neil Gaiman fans of Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

December 2017 review by Nel Ward

Book review: Making Scents, by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline

Yorinks, Arthur. Making Scents. Il. By Braden Lamb & Shelli Paroline. First Second, 2017. $15.99. 100p. ISBN Ages 7-10. P8Q8

Mickey thinks of himself as part dog because his parents, breeders of bloodhounds, tend to treat him like one of the litter, even insisting that he learn to track. The boy has an idyllic life until his parents suddenly die. His ensuing life with an older aunt and uncle who have been estranged from the boy and his parents is a disturbing shift with the loss of his entire family. The aunt and uncle hate dogs and force Mickey to behave like a boy instead of a dog. Illustrations are yellow, teal, and pink.

Verdict: The themes of grief and acceptance have value for all ages, and the lack of technology gives the graphic novel a timeless quality.

Summer 2017 review by Nel Ward.