March 8, 2018

Macky's Middle Grade Round-Up | The Unicorn Quest, The Serpent's Secret, The Jumbies + Rise of the Jumbies

The middle grade book genre keeps swinging! This February, I had the magnificent opportunity to read yet another gaggle of middle grade books that are now in the running for my best of 2018 list! These are totally out and about so you should grab ‘em if you're anything like me...

Alexa (ye auld book blog runner) calls tales like these “portal stories”: in which our main character is thrust into a totally new world via a portal. In this case, we have sisters Sophie and Claire Martinson, whose family ends up inheriting their estranged and eccentric relative’s mansion that just so happens to have a fireplace-slash-chimney that leads to the land of Arden, where unicorns once roamed. 

The beating heart of this story is the love between our sisters, mostly from Claire’s POV. It’s a story of how, as the younger, artsy, introverted and less adventurous one, she has to do everything in her power to fight her default instincts, so she can get to her big sister before anything really terrible happens. 

The shining (and dare I say, crowning) feature of this tale is how it manages to capture the best of eighties storytelling (yeah, I think that’s a genre), evoking feels that one might get from classics like The Neverending Story, Labyrinth and other such “human children transported into a magical world” tales. As a child of the eighties, I appreciate this so much, and to find authors like Kamilla Benko, who has managed to capture that kind of timeless storytelling is just a treat. (Also, she signed my ARC at BEA 2017 with a shiny gold unicorn stamp, so… that’s triple the magic for me.)

The Unicorn Quest by Kamilla Benko | Series: The Unicorn Quest #1 | Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's | Publication Date: February 6, 2018 | Source: ARC picked up at BEA 2017 (Thanks!)

Strong female character? Check. Rich cultural lore, both contemporary and mythical? Check. Well-paced, action-packed, elegantly plotted middle grade story telling? Check. Sayantani DasGupta has written a book that will make you want to read the entire series and hope it gets the five book Percy Jackson treatment. Whether the author spins Karinmala’s whole story across six books or three, there was enough material in her first book to span an epic trilogy at the very least. 

Here we have twelve year old Karinmala, who all her life has had to deal with normal things for a girl her age: school, doting parents and their idiosyncracies, specifically their insistence in her being a princess, and of course, finding herself in the context of having an Indian immigrant family in New Jersey. Then suddenly, all of that gets thrown out on its ear when monsters attack her house, take her parents and try to kill her leaving her no choice but to trust some princes from another world (as her dear mother advised her to) and get their help to make everything right again. 

I love stories with time limits and a prophecy that vaguely paves the road ahead for the heroes because the plot becomes pretty simple from the moment things fly off the handle: get it done. At the core and under the hood this is a rescue mission kind of story, but it’s dressed up and decked out in such a way that you literally get a to see the universe (well, the happenin’ spots anyways if you’re secret princess and child of some pretty mysterious figures). Every character is rich and the tone of this story… just perfect. It's just the right kind of funny and absurd that takes itself as seriously as it needs to be for a fun middle grade adventure. Cannot wait for book two!

The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta | Series: Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1 | Publisher: Scholastic | Publication Date: February 27, 2018 | Source: ARC received from the publisher (Thanks!)

Alexa got Rise of the Jumbies in the mail and, with such a beautiful cover and an intriguing plot, I just had to go grab the first book too. Gotta say, that was a good move in that this sprawling tale about a little island girl and her forays into the supernatural world of the Jumbies is a modern fairytale masterpiece. 

Jumbies are found in Caribbean lore and the way Tracy Baptiste has used these folktales to weave a compelling story about how a young girl finds the courage to be a hero in spite of the sacrifices it would take to do the thankless job of saving the day is just brilliant. 

Book one untraveled the future for Corrine, our heroine, as she discovers her connection to the terrible Jumbies that live on her island. She proves herself strong, brave and compassionate as she faces off against these scary jungle spirits and, with the help of some new friends, does her best to save the day. Book two picks up in the aftermath of the crazy feats Corrine has had to achieve and broadens her world asthe Jumbies of the sea become embroiled as a result of the events of book one. 

I would say Corrine is one of those rare heroes of old that aren’t edgy or cool or even overly gifted and suddenly powerful, but are just the type, time and time again, make the hard decision to do the right thing no matter the consequences to themselves. (PSA: That last book had me shedding tears on the subway.)

An added bonus? The allusions to real world events like the era of slavery, specifically in the Caribbean, adds a chilling sobriety to the experience of reading this tale. It kind of almost breaks the fourth wall (if books have fourth walls) for me in that Corrine lives in a world where these events have happened and thus, it adds a richness to the experience on a deeper visceral level. Sure there are no more legal slavers now, but they were real, and they left a mark on the land. This story isn’t about that, but I think it’s interesting that for all the creepy crawly monsters in the foreground, the scary world Corrine has to navigate through has a history of monsters that are human and not Jumbie. 

I’d recommend this book as good reading for school settings. Read between the lines and discover that you don’t have to look in the jungle to find monsters.  The courage it takes to face them, whether they wear human or Jumbie faces isn’t any less daunting, the stakes not any less than extreme and the sacrifice no greater. This, in the end, makes Corrine the baddest girl on the island. She’s no Jumbie slayer… but she’s a big damn hero to me.

The Jumbies / Rise of the Jumbies by Tracy Baptiste | Series: The Jumbies #1-2 | Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers | Publication Dates: April 28, 2015 / September 19, 2017 | Source: #1 borrowed from the library / #2 from the publisher (Thank you!)


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