Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon

My 11-year-old daughter pounced on Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible (first in a new series by Ursula Vernon, creator of Dragonbreath; Dial, 2015) as soon as I brought it home from the library, then insisted I read it, too (as if I hadn't been planning on reading it first). Obviously, it has lots of kid appeal--it's got a hamster princess, for goodness' sake (her name is Harriet). But that's not all: Like the Dragonbreath series, Hamster Princess is heavily illustrated (here in black and white with shades of purple; there is no pink inside, I promise), and the text alternates occasionally with speech bubbles to move the story forward.  Also like Dragonbreath, it's really funny, in an occasionally ridiculous way. And while there are lots of fairy tale retellings (this one is Sleeping Beauty), Harriet the Invincible still manages to surprise.

Harriet is your typical not-princessy princess: she wants to slay a dragon, her parents refuse. I love Harriet's argument: "But I'm a princess! If I do it, it's got to be something princesses do! Who makes these rules!?" (It reminds me of Roseanne, the sitcom mom, telling daughter Darlene that a ball and glove are a girl's things, as long as a girl is using them.) When Harriet finds out that she has been cursed by the evil Ratshade to prick herself on a hamster wheel on her twelfth birthday, she realizes that she's invincible til then, and rides off on Mumfrey, her battle quail (Qwerk?) to do some cliff-diving, dragon-slaying, and jousting on the professional circuit. She'll worry about the curse later.

Harriet does eventually defeat Ratshade and lift the curse that falls on the inhabitants of the castle, although she has to recruit a prince (and a hydra) to help her with the kissing part. Prince Wilbur is a good foil for Harriet, and their next adventure, Of Mice and Magic (very loosely based on the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses), is forthcoming in March 2016. Recommended for elementary-aged kids, and anyone who likes the idea of a hamster princess.

Backyard Witch: Sadie's Story

If you discovered a witch living in your playhouse, you might expect her to do more magic, and less-bird-watching, than she does in Backyard Witch: Sadie's Story, the first book in a series about three nine-year-old friends (and the witch in Sadie's playhouse) by Christine Heppermann and Ron Koertge (illustrated by Deborah Marcero; (Greenwillow, 2015). As it happens, I like birdwatching, so this didn't bother me at all--it was a bonus! But if you're here for the magic, it's strictly minor hexes--just enough to help Sadie cope when her two best friends, Maya and Jess, go on vacation together, leaving Sadie behind. The witch's friends are missing, too--Ethel turned into a bird and flew away; Onyx (the cat) chased after. Sadie helps Ms. M look for them, and together--by means more or less magical--they save the playhouse from being sold at a yard sale.

Back to the birds. The real magic, Sadie's Story suggests, is in the natural world, or rather in really noticing it for the first time: "At that moment, Sadie did have a magical power, though she didn't know what to call it. All she knew was that the park had transformed. Or she had" (55). Being alone can do that to a person, even if you don't happen to have a witch in your playhouse.

Back matter includes Ms. M's birding tips and a bibliography of bird books that lists two of my favorites: Annette LeBlanc Cate's Look Up! Birdwatching in Your Own Backyard (Candlewick, 2013) and Stokes Beginner's Guide to Birds: Eastern (or Western) Region, which is the one we used when we were first getting started. Recommended for younger middle grade readers, 7-10 years old.

Drawing, Paul Kidby, and The Diary of a Mad Brownie

The Summer 2015 issue of Drawing magazine, featuring an interview with British artist and illustrator Paul Kidby, arrived at my house on the same day as the Kidby-illustrated middle grade fantasy novel The Enchanted Files: Diary of a Mad Brownie by Bruce Coville (Random House). Kidby is best known for his illustrations and book covers for the late Terry Pratchett, and their working relationship (along with Kidby's working methods) is the subject of the interview. There's a great origin story: apparently Kidby waited in a signing line for three hours to share his drawings with Pratchett, who called him two weeks later to say that they came the closest to how Pratchett himself pictured the characters in his head. And a bittersweet ending: The Shepherd's Crown (HarperCollins in the US, Doubleday Childrens in the UK), whose cover art (in the UK, at least) shows teenage witch Tiffany Aching surrounded by the Nac Mac Feegle--and a cloud of bees, publishes today.

As for the Mad Brownie, his name is Angus, and he's the first in a series of books about creatures of myth and legend (next up: the Runaway Griffin, May 2016) by Bruce Coville. As far as such creatures go, brownies--who secretly neaten and spruce up human homes--would seem to be the sort you'd want to have around (I would, anyway). But Angus brings the McGonagall family curse with him from Scotland when he travels through the Enchanted Realm to America, where the youngest McGonagall female of age, 11-year-old Alex Carhart, and her family now live. And she's a slob (that's not the curse). Together they must break the curse etc. It's fast-paced and funny (Angus is introduced to what he refers to as the intermagoogle), and I like that the whole family, including the cat, gets involved in the story.

The Enchanted Files books are told in diary format, "with supporting documents" ranging from encyclopedia entries to letters, text messages, and notes--so there's lots of variety in the reading, supported by the interior art and page design. Angus even draws a floor plan of the Carhart's house, with helpful labels ("Dining Room: Large table. Seems to be used more for homework and art projects than for eating on"). That said, the audio of Diary of a Mad Brownie, presented with a full cast, is also well-reviewed--so you can't go wrong either way. Recommended for readers (and listeners) who like both middle grade family and school stories, as well as light fantasy.


Caldecott, Newbery, and Batchelder Hopefuls

First, my Caldecott hopefuls:

This year, two of my favorite books might win either the Caldecott or the Newbery--or both! They are El Deafo by Cece Bell (Harry N. Abrams) and Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel). We discussed El Deafo briefly at yesterday's Mock Caldecott, but not everyone had a chance to read the whole thing, and they were mostly unconvinced that it met the Caldecott criteria. We all agreed that there needs to be an award for graphic novels, but until then, I hope the award committees find a way to recognize this one.

I'm not sure why no one is talking about Once Upon an Alphabet, though. Oliver Jeffers lives and works in Brooklyn (of course), so he should be eligible, and it's a terrific book. I don't have a lot of favorites for the Newbery this year--I might have read more Printz books, actually!--but I did like The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy (Delacorte) lots and haven't heard many people mention it. Maybe it will be this year's The Year of Billy Miller.

Finally, the Batchelder award for children's books in translation. Following my Batchelder year, I've continued to seek out translated books, although I'm sure there are many I've missed! My favorite? Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak, illustrated by Philip Hopman and translated by Laura Watkinson (Eerdmans).

Good luck to all the books!