Review: A Little Princess

A Little Princes, Francis Hodgson BurnettSara has led a life many children can only dream of, surrounded by every comfort and a papa who adores her. She is not eager to attend the English boarding school in which her father has enrolled her, but knows that she should face any adversity like a brave soldier.

When her father dies in India, Sara is left penniless. She must be a servant in the school she once attended, despised by her former classmates, with only her imagination for company.

No matter how unbearable her life becomes, Sara is determined to meet her trials with head held high. “If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside.”

Simply lovely

I’ve seen the 1995 film adaptation of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic about a million times — I’m not sure how I made it this far without reading the novel.

Much like her other novels, including The Secret Garden, Burnett’s A Little Princess is philosophy masquerading as children’s literature. In this case it’s about being who you know you are inside, even when the outside doesn’t match.

Normally I hate a Mary Sue. Sara is so good and sweet that she should be unbelievable as a character. Maybe it’s because she’s got a bit of a temper, or because her life takes such a terrible turn that my sympathy outweighs my annoyance.

I love that her principal forms of escape are books and storytelling. She uses her imagination to help herself and her friends forget, for a time, how hard their lives are.

Like a lot of books from the 1900s, A Little Princess does sometimes feel a bit paternalistic. The characters are black and white (either fully good or fully bad), and the entire premise is a bit far-fetched.

Yet there are some good lessons about facing adversity and blooming where you’re planted. Hodgson clearly believes in the power of storytelling and fantasy to lift us from pain and sorrow, and remind us that there is still magic in the world.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. July’s challenge was all about fantasy and fairytales.)

Review: Akata Witch

Akata Witch, Nnedi OkoraforFor 12 year-old Sunny, every day is a challenge. She was born in America, but her parents have brought her home to Aba, Nigeria. As an American she’s already the class freak; combined with her albinism, she’s mocked as a witch and has few friends.

Things start to change when she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha. Her new friends inform her that she is a Leopard Person, born with innate magical abilities. Her albinism is an indicator of these abilities, and lets her slip between shadows and worlds as if invisible.

But Sunny cannot stay invisible for long. The four children form the youngest coven of Leopard People in history; it is their mission to track down Black Hat Otokoto, who has kidnapped and maimed dozens of children.

The coven is young, and new to magic. Can they defeat Otokoto in time, or will his dark spells bring about the end of the world?

A solid start

Akata Witch has been on my TBR list for so long that I’d forgotten what it was supposed to be about. I’m glad I finally got my hands on it.

The world building is good, if a bit overwhelming. Not only did I have to wrap my head around the Leopard People and their world, I also had to remember that the book is set in Nigeria. Both cultures involve different words and names and mythologies than I’m used to; I was probably 100 pages in before things really gelled.

I loved that the Leopard People value learning above all else, and that the things that make them strange in the normal world are the things that give them power in the magical lands.

Sunny is a wonderful character, brave and insecure and curious and stronger than she knows. The other members of the coven, and even many of the adults, blur together a bit, but Akata Witch is the first in a series — author Nnedi Okorafor should have plenty of space to flesh them out in future books.

For me, the mystery of Black Hat Otokoto was less interesting than following the kids’ education and adventures. But that doesn’t bother me; those characters are more three-dimensional and flawed and funny than a guy who’s Definitely Bad News.

I do have a couple small quibbles, though.

First, I don’t understand why the prologue is written in first person, while the rest of the book is in third person. The change put extra distance between me and the main character, delaying my eventual enjoyment of the story.

Also, the kids feel mature for their ages. Aside from two “I’m totally being a pre-teen/teenager right now” moments, I think the kids’ behavior was the littlest bit unbelievable. They also seemed to accept their “destinies” with few questions…it just rang kind of false.

That said, I still enjoyed Akata Witch. It’s great middle-grade fiction, teaches some important lessons, and overall is a fun adventure for readers of any age.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community.)

Review: The Carpet People

The Carpet People, Terry PratchettNo one knows what existed before the Carpet — one day there was nothing, and the next it simply was. Many tribes inhabit the Carpet, from Varnisholme in the north to the Hearthlands in the south; they don’t always get along.

But they’re about to have to. Fray is wreaking havoc across the carpet, flattening villages and ruining lives. And in Fray’s wake come the mouls, monstrous creatures determined to overthrow the Carpet People.

When their village is destroyed by Fray, brothers Glurk and Snibril — along with the philosopher Pismire — must lead the villagers to safety. Their journey is long and dangerous, but they just might be able to save the day…with a little help.

In the beginning

Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld series (Hogfather is my favorite so far), but The Carpet People is where it all started.

When Pratchett was 17, part of his duties as an employee of the local newspaper included contributing to the weekly Children’s Circle section. It was here that the Carpet People (an early version, anyway) appeared starting in October 1965.

By 1971 there were enough Carpet People stories to make a book, which sold marginally well. After Pratchett became famous for the Discworld series, he revised his first novel into the version it is today.

So much fun

The Carpet People is less than 300 pages long, but it’s got so much packed in. Great themes abound, plus there’s one race whose members know the future (and one who knows much more). The plot is fun and there are plenty of characters to love and hate.

The characters do actually live deep within the fibers of a carpet, and it was fun deciphering Pratchett’s clever references — all the varnish used by the Carpet People comes from the faraway region of achairleg, and Fray itself originates above the world of the Carpet.

This book is not the same one Pratchett would have written as a more experienced author, but I’m glad he didn’t adjust it too much. The Carpet People is perfect for fantasy and Pratchett, and makes a lovely addition to any reader’s list.

(I read this book as part of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.)

Review: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick“Sooner or later, the lightning comes to us all.” Thus begins Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, a novel following two children wishing for happier lives.

At first their stories seem disconnected; Rose lives in New Jersey in 1927, Ben 50 years later in Minnesota. But when both children decide to head to New York a timeline swings into motion, swiftly carrying the two towards each other.

Wonderstruck is a powerful weaving of two separate lives — one told with words, the other with pictures — into a single shared story.

A unique storytelling experience

The thing that attracted me most to Wonderstruck is its reliance on imagery. Rose’s deafness makes words impossible, so her story is told through black and white sketches by author Brian Selznick.

The images are detailed and beautiful, telling a complex story in a much simpler fashion than I expected. Selznick transitions smoothly between past and present, words and pictures; bringing Ben and Rose’s stories ever closer to each other.

So much to learn

From hidden books to paper boats, bookstores to museums, secrets and adventures in new places, the theme of discovery is ever-present — even in the novel’s title.

Ben and Rose each leave home looking for something more, something better, something true. What they discover is not what they expect, and is in fact just the beginning of a whole new story.

Wonderstruck has a solid plot and good characters, and showcases some artwork and a different way of storytelling. Highly recommended for middle school age and up!

Review: The Castle Behind Thorns

The Castle Behind Thorns, Merrie HaskellCastle Boisblanc — the Sundered Castle — has been abandoned for decades. Ripped nearly apart by an earthquake and surrounded by tall, vicious brambles, the castle is desolate and uninhabited. Until now.

The last thing Sand remembers before waking up inside the destroyed castle is a fight with his father and a wish to a long-dead saint. With no way to call for help and no way to escape on his own, Sand does the only thing he can: plants a garden and repairs the castle’s forge to mend or create the items he needs to survive.

Sand is not a master smith, but the items he repairs somehow end up better than new: a stuffed hawk reanimates, a jagged hole in the courtyard disappears. And then there’s Perotte, the lost heir to the throne, whose bones once resided in the underground crypt.

This is the work of magic — but does it come from the castle’s guardian saints, or from within Sand and Perotte themselves?

Fabulous Middle Grade fiction

The Castle Behind Thorns is the second book by Merrie Haskell that I’ve read. Both it and The Princess Curse do a wonderful job of taking traditional fairy tale elements and recombining them in new ways.

Sand and Perotte are grown-up for their age — a product of medieval life — but Haskell includes plenty of sulking and spats to convince anyone that we’re truly reading about young teenagers.

The book treats its subject matter with a maturity that belies its Middle Grade classification. The writing is complex, foregoing talking down to its young reader audience in favor of exploring “themes of memory and story, forgiveness and strength, and the true gifts of craft and imagination.”

Merrie Haskell is a writer whose works I wish were written sooner — they’re the kind of stories I longed for and would have inhaled as a kid, just as I do now. Her characters (especially her female ones) are strong, funny, smart, and the kind of role models I think all children and young teenagers should have.

Read The Castle Behind Thorns (and The Princess Curse) to your kids, nieces and nephews, students, friends’ kids, and to yourself. They’re beautifully written, fun, and deeply engaging no matter your age.