The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail coverMeet the smallest mouse in the Buckingham Palace mews. Brought to the mews in a sewing basket when his mother died, the little mouse knows almost nothing about his origins. Even his name, Mouse Minor (if you can call that a name), was given by his classmates rather than his family. More than anything else, he wants to know where he’s come from.

His journey to answer the questions of his past begins days before Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, when he’s accidentally caught in plain (human) sight wearing his school uniform. Though it’s true that a complex mouse society is constantly engaged in keeping the human world humming, human beings themselves are never to know. This essential rule of mousedom broken, Mouse Minor sets out to make his own way in London. A ride in a horse’s ear, a brief stint with the Yeomice of the Guard, and a botched kidnapping lead him at last to Queen Victoria herself, who really might know everything, and who suggests that the answers he’s seeking might be wrapped up in the biggest mouse secret of all.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail is an entertaining mystery adventure, but its real strengths lie in Peck’s use of language and his worldbuilding. Artful turns of phrase throughout are delightful for their own sake, while repeated phrases help to give flesh to Peck’s imagined mouse society. Mouse Minor serves as an able guide to his hidden mouse world, but the language does a lot, too, to communicate the traditions and assumptions that have grown up among this particular group of mice, as well as the shape of the relationship between mice and human beings. Highly recommended for language lovers, and those who enjoy a good mouse story.

Learn a bit about the prolific author behind the story, Richard Peck, or find other reviews from School Library Journal and Waking Brain Cells.

Sample the excellent audio version, narrated by Russ Bain.

My Top Ten of 2013

One of the best parts of working on Lemon-Squash has been the excuse it provides to read. A lot. While I try to share all of the really good books I discover with you, there are a few that have stood out as particular favourites. If you know me in person, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve already insisted that you read these. For those who don’t (and those who need a refresher), here are my top ten kids’ and YA reads from 2013.*

*These are titles I discovered and loved this year, not necessarily ones that were released in 2013. That said, at least a couple have sequels released this year or due to come out in 2014 that you should watch for, too.
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Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash coverClassic fairy tales have become ubiquitous in pop culture, from TV shows and films to comic books. Published in 2009, Malinda Lo’s debut novel predicted the current popularity of fairy tale adaptations. Her re-telling of Cinderella is an exploration of loss, wonder and courage. Particularly the courage to be yourself.

Lo includes the familiar evil stepmother, boorish step-sisters and magic, but she adds darker elements which provide welcome relief from the saccharin cartoons you are likely most familiar with. Ash is a real teenage girl with complex emotions pulling her in different directions: “She wanted to kick the gravestone; she wanted to tear the earth beneath which her mother lay and pull the body out of the ground and shake it until it gave her an answer” (p 121).

Ash has lost both her parents, and her closest companion is a brooding Fairy named Sidhean who initially warns Ash away from the temptations of Fairy life, but ultimately binds her to himself with magic. Life among the Fairies is far from magical for the humans trapped there, yet compared to her life of drudgery even false glamour is appealing.  It is Sidhean, not a fairy god-mother, who provides her trip to the ball. The delightful twist is that while the Prince is enthralled with her, Ash only has eyes for the king’s Huntress.

Ash’s path to self-understanding is believable and sympathetic. Lo’s prose is beautiful and her descriptions perfectly compliment the shifting mood of her story. Anyone who has ever wished that Cinderella’s happy ending featured a Princess, not a Prince, will love this novel. It is published by Little, Brown specifically for young adults, and would especially appeal to lesbian teens. However, anyone interested in fairy tales or classic fantasy will find much to enjoy in this novel.

This interview style review from the Bitch magazine YA Book Blog features the diverse opinions of three readers. Aaron Hughes at Fantastic Reviews also provides his perspective.

Take a look at the book trailer:

Huntress by Malinda Lo

Huntress coverThis is a classic quest/good versus evil fantasy tale starring two seventeen year old girls, Kaede and Taisin. Both are students at The Academy, a school for aspiring sages. One of them is highborn and the other is not. Though they barely know each other, they are chosen to travel together to the fairy city to meet with the mysterious Fairy Queen in an effort to stop whatever evil force has thrown the world out of balance. The night before they are told about this quest, Taisin has a frightening premonition which sets up the emotional tension of the novel.

These are very familiar elements to any fan of fantasy fiction, yet Lo’s beautiful writing and skill at emotional exposition make this story rewarding and compelling. For example:

“Why are you afraid of your feelings?” she whispered. Taisin bit her lip. She looked away from Kaede; she looked down at her hands; they twisted together as if she were trying to weave a rope around her wrists.”

Lo respects both her characters and her readers by avoiding predictable outcomes and giving each character depth. I love that the cover art makes it clear that the characters in this tale are Chinese, and elements of Chinese culture are present throughout the book. Lo brings new possibilities to a genre that is all too often bogged down in restrictive tropes and endless description, and not just because the heroes are young Asian lesbians. Her characters are not stereotyped: they learn from their experiences, work through their fear, and fall in love. They save the world and it doesn’t take 600 pages. This engaging book will appeal to readers who like quest fantasies, or stories about girls discovering their strengths and having adventures.

Watch the book trailer at the Malinda Lo blog. Read a review at Bookishcomforts, or one by Brit Mandelo at Tor.com.

When I Was Eight written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

When I Was Eight coverAt eight years old, Olemaun helps with the sled dogs and her father’s hunting. Sometimes, her older sister reads her stories. But what Olemaun really wants to do is learn to read books for herself. She knows that you have to go to the outsiders’ residential school to do so, but it takes all winter to convince her father to let her go. When it’s finally warm enough to take the family’s furs into town for trading, Olemaun joyfully begins school — and discovers that not only will most of her time be spent working rather than learning, but one of the nuns has developed a personal grudge against her.

But Olemaun — now Margaret — is determined. She turns the same tenacity that got her into school to the task of getting her through it. Along the way, she takes every opportunity, from cluttered chalkboards to product labels, to practice her reading. In the process, she finds out that reading, and the stories it opens to her, give her resources to take on such challenges with confidence.

When I Was Eight is based on Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s own childhood experiences, and it does a beautiful job of making a difficult part of Canadian history accessible to very young readers. The story calls for some discussion with an adult in order to provide context, but it also makes space for positive conversations about the value of reading, and of tenacity in working for the things that are important to us.

If you’d like to share Olemaun’s story with older readers, check out Fatty Legs, which tells the story at a middle grade level, and includes photographs from Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s childhood at home and at the residential school.

See samples of Grimard’s gorgeous illustrations on the publisher’s page (just click “look inside” on the right side of the screen).

Find out what others thought at Kiss the Book and CM Magazine.

Thanks to NetGalley and Annick Press for the review copy.

The Day My Butt Went Psycho! by Andy Griffiths

The Day My Butt Went Psycho coverOriginally published in 2001 by Pan MacMillan in Australia as The Day My Bum When Psycho, this book is well-known and loved and has become a humour classic. It was recommended to me by a high school student who described it as his favourite book; I am so glad he did. Otherwise I would have completely missed out on the delights of Andy Griffiths’ writing.

In case you hadn’t guessed by the title, this book is built around toilet humour. Adults might groan, but kids will laugh out loud. The story centers on twelve year old Zack Freeman and his butt, which has been secretly detaching itself from Zack at night and running around recruiting other butts for the butt revolution. When Zack follows his butt one night, he discovers the enormity of the butt revolution and meets a crack squad of butt-hunters, Silas Sterne and his daughter Eleanor, plus Kicker, Smacker and Kisser, skilled in various schools of butt-combat. The story follows Zack through a series of smelly events in the Brown Forest, the Great Windy Desert, and eventually to the enormous buttcano and a battle against the massive butt army of The Great White Butt.

Scholastic lists the reading level as 3.9 and recommends this book for grades 2 to 5, but I think readers of all ages who thoroughly enjoy a gross-out story will enjoy it. 150 pages of butt puns and fart jokes were a little too much for me, but I did enjoy the book. I have not yet read the sequels, Zombie Butts from Uranus and Butt Wars: the Final Conflict (originally Bumageddon: the Final Pongflict in Australia).

Check out the Andy Griffiths website on Scholastic, or read a short review from Awesome Bookclub. The review from The Bookbag includes excerpts and recommendations for similar reading.

Tommysaurus Rex by Doug TenNapel

Tommysaurus Rex coverWhat if you discovered your very own pet dinosaur?

When Ely’s dog, Tommy, is accidentally killed in a car accident on his morning walk, Ely is overcome with grief. To help him deal with his loss, his parents send Ely to spend time at his grandpa’s over summer vacation. One day he sees a plastic T-Rex model and thinks, common sense aside, how cool it would be to have a pet T-Rex. He is soon in for a big surprise when he wanders into a cave — and meets a real T-Rex! But this is no ordinary dinosaur: he follows Ely around like a dog, and can do tricks like a dog, too. As they spend more time together, the bond between them grows stronger. Ely decides to name the dinosaur Tommy, and people flock to see the T-Rex. They even hold a show to raise money to help fund his care.

But not all are in support of Ely and his dinosaur. Randy, a local bully, can’t stand to let Ely get all the glory as the popular kid. No one can anticipate what happens next when he tries to take things into his own hands.

TenNapel’s graphic novels share an overarching sense of darkness, both in storyline and illustrations, but there are also strong themes of hope and family love. The number of kids and parents who have sought out his works at my library got me hooked, and I am glad of it. Tommysaurus Rex is anything but a light read: within a mere 137 pages, TenNapel addresses love, loss and bullying. I teared up more than once, but found the story’s resolution heartwarming.

Curious to find out more?

Take a look at other reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Review.

You can also read more about Tommysaurus Rex at Great Books for Kids and Teen, where you’ll also find links to TenNapel’s blog and website.