Children

Fantasy Literature for Children ages 9-12.

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City: Manmade threats for the foxes

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City by Christian McKay Heidicker

Three young fox kits, romping through their first heavy snow, come upon a gravely injured older fox in the woods. The wounded fox asks for their help, and the kits are understandably reluctant. Then the stranger fox says that he needs to tell them a story first. A scary story, but not of predators and dangers of the forest. The City and a nearby farm have equally horrifying dangers for foxes.

The Stranger’s story begins at a fox farm, where cousins O-370 and R-211 (all of the foxes at the farm have numbers and letters for names) retell the adventures of Mia and Uly, told in the first book in this series, Chris Heidicker’s Newbery Honor book Scary Stories for Young Foxes... Read More

Dionysos: The (sadly) final installment in a brilliant series

Dionysos by George O’Connor

With Dionysos, writer/illustrator George O’Connor’s OLYMPIANS series comes to an end after 12 titles and at this point, having reviewed a third of them and read more, all’s that need be said is either now you can complete your collection or, if you haven’t yet purchased any — and really, why haven’t you? —, now you can go out and get the whole thing. Because it’s simply great, start to finish. We've reviewed these previous installments: Zeus, Ares, Artemis, Hermes.

Every book i... Read More

Twice Magic: A strong follow-up to the first story

Twice Magic by Cressida Cowell

The second book in Cressida Cowell's WIZARDS OF ONCE series does everything a good sequel should: expand the world, develop the characters, and deepen the story. As we discovered in The Wizards of Once, Ancient Britain is inhabited by two distinct races: the Wizards, who live among the magical creatures of the forest, and the Warriors, who are armed with iron weapons, the only metal that can repel magic.

In the first book, we met Xar and Wish, two young people who've grown up on each side of this conflict. Xar is the rather arrogant and vainglorious youngest son of the King Wizard, Encanzo, while Wish is the more introspective and sweet-natured daughter of Queen Sychorax, leader of the Warriors. Read More

A Tale of Two Castles: Charming but not completely satisfying

A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

12-year-old Elodie is leaving her rural home and traveling to the city of Two Castles where her family expects her to be apprenticed to a weaver for ten years. But there are two things Elodie’s family doesn’t know. One is that Elodie has no intention of being apprenticed to a weaver. Instead, she wants to be a mansioner, which is basically an actor. (Her parents wouldn’t approve of this career.) The second thing that Elodie and her parents don’t know is that there are no more ten-year apprenticeships offered in the city of Two Castles. Instead, apprentices must pay to be trained. So, Elodie, who has no way to contact her parents, has landed in the big city with no job, no place to stay, and no prospects.

At first, Two Castles is overwhelming with all its fascinating new sights. As soon as she steps off the boat, Elodie meets a dragon, an ogre, and a cat that steals her m... Read More

Along the Saltwise Sea: Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for a week

Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker 

In the 2020 portal fantasy Over the Woodward Wall, by A. Deborah Baker (a pseudonym for the prolific Seanan McGuire), two children, Avery and Zib, climbed a granite wall that had inexplicably appeared in the road and were transported to a magical world, the Up-and-Under. It’s much like the land of Oz but with far sharper teeth, and Avery and Zib are anxious to find their way home to our world. They are told to follow the improbable road to the Impossible City, and there ask the Queen of Wands for help getting home.

Following the improbable road... Read More

The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer: Strickland phones it in

The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer appears to be the final book in the LEWIS BARNAVELT series of horror novels for middle graders. The series was started in 1973 by John Bellairs but most of the novels were actually written by Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ death. There’s nothing in The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer which indicates that it’s the last book but, since it’s been 13 years, I’m just assuming.

Despite all of Lewis’s heroic experiences in the past 11 novels, he is still full of anxiety and lacks self-confidence. This time, Lewis becomes superstitious, believing that bad things come in threes. Since a couple of bad things hav... Read More

The Two Princesses of Bamarre: An entertaining magical adventure

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

Addie, the 12-year-old Princess of the kingdom of Bamarre, is a sweet but cowardly girl. She comes by it honestly – her father, the king, is also a coward. Addie’s sister Meryl, however, is adventurous and courageous and she wants to save their kingdom from evil magical beasts and a plague they call the Grey Death. Addie adores and admires Meryl and she knows she’ll never be brave like her sister.

When Meryl gets sick, Addie is desperate to save her but, because her father’s efforts are timid and ineffective, eventually she realizes that her only hope is to do it herself. Armed with several fabulous magical gifts, such as a tablecloth that always presents a delicious feast when unfolded, and a pair of boots that lets her cover seven leagues in one step, Addie sets out to save her sister and her kingdom.

During her quest to find a cure, she’ll have to batt... Read More

Night of the Living Dummy: Very scary

Night of the Living Dummy by R.L. Stine

R.L. Stine’s GOOSEBUMPS is a series of stand-alone short horror novels for children. I’ve been listening to the audiobook versions with my teenage daughter who loves to read scary stories in the couple of months before Halloween.

The seventh GOOSEBUMPS novel, Night of the Living Dummy (1993), is especially terrifying, but that may be because I’m one of those people who gets a bit freaked out by circus clowns, Chucky dolls, and, in this case, ventriloquists’ dummies. I’m not sure if it’s the Uncanny Valley effect or some repressed traumatic memory from my childhood but, whatever, I don’t like them.

12-year-old twin sisters Kris and Lindy are a... Read More

Monster Blood: Choose the audiobook for this one

Monster Blood by R.L. Stine

Monster Blood (1992) is the third short children’s horror novel in R.L. Stine’s GOOSEBUMPS series. It’s a stand-alone, so no need to read the previous books.

While his parents are out of town, Evan has to go live with Aunt Katherine. She’s a scary one — a large hulking deaf woman with a deep voice who is often seen carrying her meat cleaver. Evan hates living at Aunt Katherine’s house, especially because she insists that his elderly dog stay chained up outside and there are bullies in Aunt Katherine’s neighborhood.

Things get a little better when Evan meets a girl named Andrea who likes to do the kinds of things that he likes. One day Evan and Andrea are shopping in a shabby toy store where they purchase a can of a slimy substance called Monster Blood. It provides h... Read More

Stay Out of the Basement: Creepy but annoying

Stay Out of the Basement by R.L. Stine

One of my kids loves Halloween – she starts celebrating in September – and, since she wanted to read some horror for children during October, we listened to a few of R.L. Stine’s GOOSEBUMPS books together. Each is a standalone short novel with a pretty hefty scare factor.

Stay Out of the Basement (1992) is the second novel in the series (which contains dozens of stories) and there’s no reason to read the first one first. It’s 144 pages long in print format and just over 2 ½ hours long in the scholastic audio version we listened to which is narrated by Elizabeth Morton.

Margaret and Casey’s father is a botanist who’s been fired from his university for some reason the kids don’t know. But that has not stopped his research program. Though, now that he doe... Read More

The House Where Nobody Lived: The kids learn some Hawaiian mythology

The House Where Nobody Lived by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The House Where Nobody Lived is the eleventh (and penultimate) novel in John Bellairs & Brad Strickland’s LEWIS BARNAVELT series. These are stand-alone horror mysteries for kids. I’ve been listening to Recorded Books’ audio versions with my daughter. We love George Guidall’s performance.

This story starts with a flashback to the beginning of the series when Lewis is 11 years old and it’s been just over a year since his parents died and he moved in with Uncle Jonathan. Lewis and his best friend, Rose Rita, are exploring New Zebedee, their hometown which is still new to Lewis, when they discover an odd-looking house that nobody lives in. They get scared off when th... Read More

The Whistle, the Grave, and the Ghost: Very scary but too similar to previous books

The Whistle, the Grave, and the Ghost by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

In the tenth installment in John Bellairs & Brad Strickland’s LEWIS BARNAVELT series, Lewis is camping with his fellow Scouts (who are bullying him, of course) when he finds an old whistle near a grave and puts it in his pocket. The whistle has a Latin encryption on it and, when he asks the priest at his church to help him with the translation, the priest (who Lewis isn’t particularly fond of), becomes suspicious and strangely interested in the whistle.

Lewis’s best friend Rose Rita is also interested, of course, so the two kids hit the library for some research. Their investigation takes them to the ghost stories of M.R... Read More

Dark Piper: Intense and memorable for young readers

Dark Piper by Andre Norton

A decade-long war is finally over and the people who live on the planet of Beltane are relieved. During the war, Beltane, where many scientists lived, was recruited for the war effort and served, unwillingly, as an experimental lab. After the war, most of the scientists left the planet, creating a brain drain, and the people who remained were pacifists who looked forward to starting a new way of life without interference from the Confederation.

When a disfigured veteran named Griss Lugard is brought back home to Beltane, he warns the citizens that because the Confederacy has fallen, there is no law, and they shouldn’t trust people who want to come to Beltane because they might have bad intentions. While the citizens of Beltane are eager to accept and shelter refugees fleeing war-ravaged worlds, Lugard vehemently objects, arguing that some of the refugees could be pirates looking for government and mili... Read More

The Tower at the End of the World: A weak sequel

The Tower at the End of the World by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

In The Tower at the End of the World (2001), the ninth novel in  John Bellairs & Brad Strickland’s LEWIS BARNAVELT series, Strickland once again pays tribute to the late Bellairs by returning to, and expanding the plot of the first novel in the series, The House with a Clock in its Walls.

At this point, Lewis is 13 years old and has just finished reading Sax Rohmer’s FU MANCHU series. (I love that kids ... Read More

The Beast Under the Wizard’s Bridge: Lewis learns about H.P. Lovecraft

The Beast Under the Wizard's Bridge by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The Beast Under the Wizard's Bridge (2000) is the eighth novel in the LEWIS BARNAVELT series for middle graders which was started by John Bellairs in 1973 and finished up by Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ death in 1991. I’m listening, with my daughter, to the excellent audio editions by Recorded Books which are narrated by George Guidall.

Remember that scary car chase scene, I think it was in the first book The House with a Clock in its Walls, where Lewis, Rose Rita, Uncle Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman, were saved when they crossed a bridge that the bad... Read More

The Specter from the Magician’s Museum: Might be the scariest story yet

The Specter from the Magician's Museum by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The Specter from the Magician's Museum (1998) is the seventh novel in the LEWIS BARNAVELT horror series for middle graders. The first novel, The House with a Clock in its Walls, was written by John Bellairs and published in 1973. There was a 17-year hiatus after the third book, The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, was published in 1976 while Bellairs was focused on his JOHNNY DIXON series. Bellairs died in 1991, leaving both series to be finished by author Brad Strickland. I haven’t read the JOHNNY DIXO... Read More

The Doom of the Haunted Opera: The kids encounter a necromancer

The Doom of the Haunted Opera by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The Doom of the Haunted Opera (1995), the sixth book in John Bellairs’ and Brad Strickland’s LEWIS BARNAVELT series for middle grade readers, has best friends Lewis and Rose Rita back together again after having separate adventures in the previous two novels, The Ghost in the Mirror (Rose Rita) and The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder (Lewis).

The adults are away — Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman have gone to Florida to execute the will of a friend of theirs ... Read More

The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder: Strickland respectfully continues this series

The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

Thanks to author Brad Strickland, who picked up John Bellairs’ children’s series after Bellairs’ death, the LEWIS BARNAVELT adventures continue with the fifth installment, The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder (1993). Surprisingly, I can detect no difference between the writing styles of the two authors. Strickland continues this series with the utmost respect for Bellairs’ vision and characters.

In The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder we learn what Lewis and his uncle Jonathan were doing while Lewis’s best friend Rose Rita and Mrs. Zimmerman were having their own adventure in Read More

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring: Rose Rita in the spotlight

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs

The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring (1976) is the third novel in John BellairsLEWIS BARNAVELT series for kids. Each is a stand-alone horror mystery. It’s not necessary to read them in order but it’d be ideal, if you can, to start with the first book, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, because that’s the one in which we watch Lewis, recently orphaned, come to live in the house of his uncle, a jovial man who’s a bit of a magician. In the second book, The Figure in the Shadows, you’ll meet Rose Rita, a tomboy who’s Lewis’ best fri... Read More

The Figure In The Shadows: Exciting, scary, and sweet

The Figure In The Shadows by John Bellairs

Lewis Barnavelt, 11 years old and recently orphaned, has been settling in at his uncle’s house. It's 1949, about a year since we saw him last (in The House With a Clock in Its Walls) and he has made a new friend – a tomboy named Rose Rita.

When Uncle Jonathan opens a trunk owned by his father (Lewis’s grandfather), Lewis, a lover of history, is bequeathed with his grandfather’s lucky coin. When he begins wearing the coin around his neck, weird things start happening to Lewis. He gets strange postcards in the middle of the night. He suddenly overcomes his cowardice and punches a bully. He fights with Rose Rita and becomes suspicious of her. He gets the feeling that someone is following him.

Lewis is coming undone but, thankfully, he has a few people who ... Read More

The House with a Clock in Its Walls: Lewis is an appealing hero

The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

Lewis Barnavelt is a chubby middle schooler whose parents recently died in a car accident. He has just arrived in a new town at the house (mansion, actually) of an uncle he hardly knows. Uncle Jonathan is eccentric, as is his neighbor and best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, a middle-aged widow who loves the color purple.

As Lewis begins to adjust to a new living situation, new school, and new neighborhood kids, he gradually becomes aware that there’s something weird about Uncle Jonathan and his house. It turns out that Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman aren’t just eccentric – they are magicians. Uncle Jonathan’s main skill is to create benign entertaining illusions. Mrs. Zimmerman might be more powerful, but it’s not yet clear what exactly these powers might be.

The mansion used to be inhabited by an evil magician. That guy’s now dead, but he left a clock tic... Read More

Da Vinci’s Cat: Solidly charming, but has its issues

Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock offers up a solidly charming Middle Grade portal story involving travel through time and space, the painting of the Sistine Chapel, shifting timelines, feuding Renaissance artists, and of course, a cat. With a quick pace, high stakes, and two comically mismatched young protagonists, Da Vinci’s Cat (2021) will probably satisfy most young readers, despite some issues.

In 1511 Rome, 11-year-old Federico Gonzaga is a “guest-hostage” to Pope Julius II, ensconced in the Pope’s sumptuous villa to ensure the loyalty of his aristocratic family, particularly his father, who leads the Pope’s army. It’s a lavish, pampered existence for sure, but also constraining (he’s not allowed to leave the admittedly huge complex/grounds) and more than a little lonely. That loneliness is eventually abated by a strange trio who s... Read More

Even and Odd: Fun and thought-provoking

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth Durst

Even and Odd are pre-teen sisters living in Stony Haven, Connecticut, where their parents operate a border shop carrying “supplies for the mundane world, as well as imports from the magic world — anything a magical customer might need for their visit here.” Those imports and magically-inclined customers come from the land of Firoth, where Even and Odd were born, and which is accessible via magic portals. The sisters trade off magical abilities on alternating days, leading to their nicknames, though each girl has different opinions on their access to magic: Even, more than anything in the world, wants to become an Academy of Magic-certified hero, while Odd wants to focus on her volunteer work at the local animal rescue center and pretend that she’s completely mundane (unless the opportunity arises to transform Even into a talking skunk, at which point all bets are off).

Much to everyone’s ... Read More

Race to the Sun: An exciting and educational family story

Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Nizhoni Begay wants to be a star, or at least popular. She’s hoping to make the game-winning score at her middle school basketball game but, instead, she’s humiliated when she gets distracted and gets hit in the face by the ball. The reason she was distracted was that she saw a man in the stands watching her. She could tell he was a monster. When that same man shows up at her house for dinner because he’s her dad’s new boss, Nizhoni tries to warn her father that he’s a monster but her father doesn’t believe her and seems very eager to please the monster.

When the new boss tells Nizhoni that she and her little brother Mac have powers he’s interested in, and then kidnaps their dad, it’s up to Nizhoni, Mac, and Nizhoni’s best friend Davery to rescue him.

This sets them on a quest in which they will need to find a map, solve riddles, pass tests, procure special weap... Read More

A Game of Fox & Squirrels: A moving allegory

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

11-year-old Samantha and her big sister have just arrived at their Aunt Vicky’s farm in Oregon. Samantha is not happy that the girls have been taken away from their parents and she wants to go home, even though her dad sometimes has a pretty bad temper. Aunt Vicky and her wife are clearly not prepared to take the girls in, but they do their best to make the sisters feel at home.

Aunt Vicky gives Samantha a game called The Game of Fox & Squirrels and one night, when Samantha is playing with it, the fox from the game visits her room. He’s charming and offers to give Samantha anything she wants if she can find the Golden Acorn. Samantha, who just wants to be back with her family in Los Angeles, is nervous about the challenge, but decides it’s the only way to get out of her current situation.

As Samantha attempts to complete her quest, various dangers arise ... Read More