MG at Heart Book Club’s June Pick

The Middle Grade at Heart book club’s pick for June is . . .

THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER, by Diane Magras

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One dark night, Drest’s sheltered life on a remote Scottish headland is shattered when invading knights capture her family, but leave Drest behind. Her father, the Mad Wolf of the North, and her beloved brothers are a fearsome war-band, but now Drest is the only one who can save them. So she starts off on a wild rescue attempt, taking a wounded invader along as a hostage.

Hunted by a bandit with a dark link to her family’s past, aided by a witch whom she rescues from the stake, Drest travels through unwelcoming villages, desolate forests, and haunted towns. Every time she faces a challenge, her five brothers speak to her in her mind about courage and her role in the war-band. But on her journey, Drest learns that the war-band is legendary for terrorizing the land. If she frees them, they’ll not hesitate to hurt the gentle knight who’s become her friend.

Drest thought that all she wanted was her family back; now she has to wonder what their freedom would really mean. Is she her father’s daughter or is it time to become her own legend? 

“[I]t’s clear we’re in the hands of a master storyteller. ‘The Mad Wolf’s Daughter’ feels like an instant classic.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Empathetic, bold, and entirely herself at a time when women were dismissed as weak, Drest shines in this fast-paced adventure.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Drest is a wonderfully fierce and feisty heroine, able and quick of wit, and she is joined by other sympathetic and complex characters. . . . The plot is packed with twists and turns, and the ending leaves enough to suggest a sequel.”—Booklist

“Drest is a likable and headstrong character, and the composite of various regions in Scotland will appeal to tweens who appreciate atmospheric woodsy settings. Readers will learn, along with Drest, about feudal village life, contemporaneous attitudes toward gender, and the relationship between truth and legend. . . . Drest’s embrace of unlikely friendships and a new code of honor are well done. A solid quest story for tweens with an interest in the Picts and medieval Scotland.”—School Library Journal

“Action-packed at every turn.”—Kirkus Reviews

The Newsletter will go out June 25.

The #MGBookclub Twitter Chat will take place July 3 at 8 pm EST.

Book Review: THE PRINCE AND THE DRESSMAKER by Jen Wang

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In 2014, Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant introduced Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress to the picture book scene, a story about a boy who liked to wear a dress. Progressive parents and schools snapped this up, and many children learned that a boy who wanted to wear a dress was no big deal, just part of who he was.

Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker is for an upper middle grade crowd, but is also a welcome addition to its own scene of books. In certain school plays for this book’s readership (including one that I saw last year), boys in dresses provide comic relief, teaching boys and girls that mockery is the expected response. I’m glad that this beautiful, engaging, and fun graphic novel will stand up against those responses.

No reader is going to laugh at Prince Sebastian. Handsome, sensitive, and kind as a boy, and glamorous and outgoing in his alter ego Lady Crystallia, Prince Sebastian redefines what it means to be a fairy tale prince.

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a fairy tale—but an edgy one with modern elements laced through its 19th century Paris. It begins with the announcement of a ball where all eligible young ladies will be introduced to Crown Prince Sebastian of Belgium, who is celebrating his 16th birthday. One particularly rebellious eligible young lady, however, comes clothed in an unusual gown—“Make me look like the devil’s wench,” she tells Frances the dressmaker, who was assigned to her at the last minute. We see the prince in shadows watching her attentively.

He’s not in love with her, though; rather, it’s her dress. And soon Frances, who both designed and sewed it, is working for the prince as his private seamstress, hired to make him dresses. It’s the job of a lifetime for her: to create costumes for a client with bold and adventurous tastes. And for him, it’s a relief: to share his secret love of wearing dresses with someone who will care about making them and him look the best they can possibly be, and who loves high fashion as much as he does.

Prince Sebastian is a prince who wears dresses. Not all the time, but when he wants to feel like himself, and feel strong. Secretly going out in Frances’s elaborate gowns as Lady Crystallia is an antidote to the parade of eligible young ladies whom his father the King of Belgium forces him to meet. And at first, this is glorious for Frances, who can let her imagination rule her designs for an appreciative client. But Frances soon realizes that while her dresses will receive great acclaim, she never will while they—and she—are the prince’s secret.

Ultimately, this is a story of being true to who you know you are. Prince Sebastian—refreshingly—never wavers in that. And neither does Frances, who risks her close friendship with the prince when she refuses to stay in the shadows any longer.

Throughout this book, the King and Queen remind Prince Sebastian of his role, while encouraging him to be himself (not quite understanding who he really is). That made me think of well-meaning parents who tell their children to be themselves, though within a certain role, that of traditional boy or traditional girl. I hope that this book—and especially its imaginative and satisfying ending—helps young readers understand that being themselves can encompass far more than their identity within gender roles, and is more important than any role could be.

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All things medieval fascinate children’s author Diane Magras: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of medieval Scotland, where her stories are set. Her middle grade fantasy adventure The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (March 6, 2018, KD Books/Penguin Younger Readers) is her debut novel.

My Audience

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Art: Antonio Javier Caparo

Most authors have some sense of who their audience will be when they write a novel, and I certainly did with The Mad Wolf’s Daughter: I wrote it for me, for my son, and for middle graders who wanted a fast-paced adventure to make them almost miss the bus in the morning.

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is the book of my heart. It stars Drest, a scrappy 12-year-old girl who takes swordplay, cliff-climbing, and swimming through dangerous seas as her daily exercise. When her warm and loving family—a notoriously brutal father and five vicious brothers—are captured by enemy knights and shipped off to a castle to meet their doom, she goes after them, hauling along a young injured knight as guide and hostage. On her journey, she follows her family’s war-band codes of honor, but also develops her own codes. Oh, and she rescues pretty much everyone she runs across.

Let’s start with why I wrote this book for me.

When I was a kid, I devoured fantasy adventures: The Dark is Rising, The Sword of Shannara, The Hobbit. I loved movies that took place in ancient times: costume dramas with swords. Those stories—of quests and adventures, with witty sidekicks or wise mages—were the backdrop to my quiet life in a rural town.

I needed adventure, but I also could have used a girl leading it all—just once, please. And could she also not be the oh-so-obvious hero, but perhaps someone on the other side of the good/evil divide? I always asked myself: What if these books I loved were told from the villain’s perspective? Who would be the villain then?

So this book is, in one sense, an answer to my middle grade self: a bold medieval adventure, a historically accurate costume drama, with a somewhat villainous girl leading the show, and yes, she has quite the sword.

I also wrote this for my son. He’s eleven now, but was nine when I first began this novel. He’s always devoured books, as much as I ever did. He and I agree that there should not be “boy books” and “girl books” but just books, and that it’s important for boys to read stories with girls as protagonists. Lucky for him, there are quite a few great middle grade novels out these days that feature strong girls.

But the fast-paced classic adventures still lacked the girl who was just as strong as any boy as a matter of course. And a girl not interested in the kinds of things that many girls in such books care about. He’d read about princesses, as well as tales of awkward bookish girls, sporty girls, and nerdy girls. I wanted to share with him a new kind of girl: one whose gender was simply part of her without defining her. All within a wild adventure novel (Drest’s story is one reason that we struggle with bedtimes in our house; what kind of author parent would I be if I told him that it was time to stop reading my novel and go to bed?)

Which brings me to my third audience: middle grade readers keen on a good adventure novel. But also a question: How many of those readers—boys as well as girls—have felt alone? How many of them feel they don’t fit in? How many have spent great chunks of their lives being cautious about being themselves?

For those middle grade readers especially, I wrote a girl who was utterly unafraid to be what she wanted to be. I want those readers to think of how Drest—if she could—would step out of these pages, sling her arm around their shoulders, and offer to walk with them on their ways. How her eyes would narrow and her hand slip to the grip of her sword if she ever heard them insulted. I hope those readers look at Drest, enjoy her journey and her struggles, but also remember this: You’re important. You matter. Everyone does.  Even if you’re different. Especially if you’re different. (Twelve-year-old me needed to hear that.)

“Shuttle your courage back and forth with someone you trust” is the first of the war-band’s codes. I hope that all my readers take that to heart, and, if they need someone to trust, that this book will serve that role for them.

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Photo: Michael Magras

Diane Magras grew up on Mount Desert Island in Maine surrounded by woods, cliffs, and the sea. She works for the Maine Humanities Council, volunteers at her son’s school library, and is addicted to tea, toast, castles, legends, and most things medieval. Diane lives with her husband and son and thinks often of Scotland, where her books take place. The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is her debut novel. You can find her at www.dianemagras.com and on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Goodreads.

MG at Heart Book Club’s 2018 Book Picks

February: SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS by Jack Cheng

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Amazon   Indiebound

 

March: THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141ST STREET by Karina Yan Glaser

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Amazon   Indiebound

 

April: THE PARKER INHERITANCE by Varian Johnson

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Amazon   Indiebound

 

May: EVERY SHINY THING by Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen

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Amazon   Indiebound

 

June: THE MAD WOLF’S DAUGHTER by Diane Magras

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Amazon   Indiebound

 

July: JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS by Melissa Sarno

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Amazon   Indiebound

 

August: WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW by Cindy Baldwin

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Amazon     Indiebound

 

September: THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT by Mae Respicio

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Amazon     Indiebound

 

October: THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC by Amanda Rawson Hill

(cover not yet revealed)

Amazon     Indiebound

 

November: THE HOTEL BETWEEN by Sean Easley

(cover not yet revealed)

(not yet available for pre-order)

Book Review: THE WITCH BOY by Molly Knox Ostertag

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Aster has a problem. He’s 13, the age at which he should know the animal into which he will shapeshift, a crucial part of growing up as a boy in his magical family. But Aster feels no connection to any animal, and doubts he will ever learn to shift. He’s far more interested in the potions and spells that his sister and female cousins are learning as they mature into full witches. But he’s always being chased away as he tries to eavesdrop on their lessons.

“This lesson isn’t for you,” his aunt tells him in the first pages of Molly Knox Ostertag’s graphic novel The Witch Boy. “These girls are learning secrets.”

Secrets of more than one kind abound in this book. Sensitive Aster isn’t the only family member who has known he’s a witch deep down inside: He’s heard the cautionary story of Mikasi, his matriarchal grandmother’s twin brother, who sought to become a witch and became a monster instead.

Teased by both his male and female cousins, Aster wanders away from his forest home to a nearby suburban neighborhood where he can practice mild magic without being observed. There he meets Charlie, a girl who broke her leg confronting her world’s gender roles when she challenged a group of boys to a daredevil bicycle move—and did it first.

Charlie quickly becomes not just Aster’s friend but his rock, giving him a safe place to talk about his feelings—and even to practice his burgeoning witch’s magic on her broken leg.

Tensions rise back in the forest as Aster’s shapeshifting cousins start disappearing—and when one returns in a horrible monstrous form, Aster is approached by the mysterious creature that had lured them all away. The creature says that it’s the only thing that can teach Aster how to shift, and if Aster agrees to learn, he’ll become more powerful than any other shifter. Aster has a choice: to take the creature’s help and become the shapeshifter his parents and whole family want him to be, or to use his witch’s abilities to try to rescue the other boys.

Ostertag neatly shifts story conventions as her sweet and sensitive male protagonist confronts gender stereotypes and restrictions. The story also hints at more than just a dichotomy of genders, late in the book introducing a character who is both a witch and shapeshifter. The illustrations are vivid and colorful, depicting the bright calm of Charlie’s world, the mystery and menace of Aster’s, and the nightmare landscape of the creature’s.

The Witch Boy is a powerful warning of the dangers—and hurt—that results when gender roles and expectations fail to recognize who people truly are. Highly recommended.

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All things medieval fascinate children’s author Diane Magras: castles, abbeys, swords, manuscripts, and the daily life of medieval people, especially those who weren’t royalty. Diane lives in Maine with her husband and son and thinks often of medieval Scotland, where her stories are set. Her middle grade fantasy adventure The Mad Wolf’s Daughter (March 6, 2018, KD Books/Penguin Younger Readers) is her debut novel.