Book Review: WITCHLINGS, by Claribel A. Ortega

For this reader, a fantastical world is more alluring when it allows me to suspend disbelief as elements of our real world are woven seamlessly with the fantastical and magical circumstances presented in the story.  Claribel A. Ortega’s Witchlings offers readers exactly that, elevating the experience to new heights by creating the magical canon of The Twelve Towns, the major setting in Witchlings, based on the Spanish language and mythical beings that will be familiar to Latinx readers.  

What readers will experience when immersing themselves in the world of Witchlings

A Sense of Belonging

Wouldn’t it be magnificent if there was a club, a hobby, a group, for every one of us?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know with absolute certainty that you belong somewhere? But reality is hard, and hits kids especially hard, when our interests or personalities don’t align with any of the established school, community or social groups available.  Author Claribel Ortega, places this slice of reality into the lives of her main characters within the first few pages of this book. On the most important evening of a witchling’s life,  the night where they are sorted into covens, Seven, Valley and Thorn, are coven-less.  They are categorized as Spares, and let’s be honest, being an understudy, an extra, in the real world or a spare in the town of Ravenskill, is no one’s ultimate dream. Through the main characters, readers will explore two different paths– accepting fate as it is dealt or believing that regardless of how it’s always been in a community or society, one can create a safe space  and find others, though odd as the choices may seem at first, to welcome into that space.

The Fallout of Avoiding Confrontations 

Inventing the intentions of others is a default young and old turn to, rather than braving a confrontation that could clarify for all concerned the impact that words and actions have had.  Seven believes she has been the victim of bullying because of her interactions with Valley and the outcomes she’s suffered. She doesn’t allow herself to consider Valley’s perspective; maybe Valley doesn’t pick up on social cues, maybe her way of engaging with peers isn’t what Seven has experienced before; considerations that might have created an opportunity for Seven to share how Valley’s actions have made her feel and also allow Valley to disclose her intent, explain, maybe even apologize.  When Seven invokes the Impossible Task as a way to avoid her fate as a Spare, she commits not only herself but Valley who she hates, and Thorn who she barely knows, to become a team and endanger their lives. Readers will feel just as squeamish as Seven does at the prospect of depending on her tormentor to complete the Impossible Task and be part of a coven. Readers will also witness what we misconstrue when we default to inventing others and their intentions.  Isn’t this at the root of so many middle school real-life dramas?

Latinx Representation 

Latinx readers will feel like Claribel Ortega’s fantasy world was built with them as the intended dwellers- with spells like zarpazo,volcán and machete, to name just a few, and Cucos, the night monster that will come and get you in Latin American countries if you don’t fall asleep when your told,  as one of the monstruos the witchlings have to battle.  Readers who are not Latinx won’t feel unwelcomed, many magical book worlds use Latin as the language of their incantations, and with the amount of cognates shared between Spanish and English, they might understand exactly what the volcán, veloz, and other spells do!  

The representation of strong Latinx female main characters amplifies Latinx voices and their right to occupy space, be the heroes, and also offer readers from other cultural and racial backgrounds the opportunity to center their attention on kids they share the world with.  As readers get to know Seven and her family, they will also develop kinship and empathy for what they have in common.  

Learning to Lead by Being Led

Seven is a natural leader and believes she is entitled to take control and make decisions for the group, without conferring with her team.  She definitely does not want to give any leadership opportunities to her nemesis, Valley. As their plans to complete The Impossible Task fail, Seven begins to reflect on how Thorn and Valley’s knowledge and abilities could have created successes instead of failures. Maturity plays a big role in how Seven is able to cede control to the girls and be led by them, and also in how Valley and Thorn patiently wait for Seven to trust them and in how they communicate their frustrations without hurting each other’s feelings.  A great model for young readers to follow as they begin to see these leadership dynamics develop within their friendship circles. 

Tell Someone

At any age, being the confidant of a victim of abuse entails holding that person’s story and trust protectively.  For kids, learning that a classmate, a friend, or a family member is suffering abuse puts them at the crossroads Seven finds herself in when she witnesses Valley’s father being physically and emotionally abusive towards her.  Seven wants to help Valley, to keep her safe, but she also does not want to betray Valley’s trust.  Ortega skillfully navigates Seven’s decision making process, her telling a trusted adult about Valley’s situation, and Valley’s response to Seven’s decision to not honor her wish for secrecy.  Kids often trust their friends with this type of personal suffering before they trust adults, reading about characters their age doing what’s best is an important step towards knowing what to do.

The Thrill of a Whodunit Adventure

Once The Impossible Task is invoked the girls only have 3 weeks to accomplish it.  When a witchling becomes a Spare they are doomed to a life of servitude and the loss of magic. When a witchling invokes The Impossible Task, which doesn’t happen often, the consequence of failing is harsh.  For Seven, Valley and Thorn, the outlook is grim, if they fail they will be turned into toads, forever.  Ortega’s Spares mirror the creation and treatment of marginalized communities in the real world, giving readers an opportunity to explore this issue as they begin to empathize with the girls and root for their successful completion of what, by its very name seems impossible. 

As the Witchlings spend time researching in the library, around town, and putting plans into action they learn that each has an ability needed to the success of their task, and success is possible but only if they learn to trust each other and work as a team that values the individual while working for their collective goal.  As they analyze what they observe and research, as they go over their encounters with monstruos and their failed plans, they begin to notice things that do not fit with what they’ve learned of the history of their town, their town’s leadership, and the behaviors of Cucos and Nightbeasts.   Claribel Ortega leaves readers a trail of breadcrumbs that isn’t obvious, yet adds up as the story progresses and reaches its climax.  Readers will enjoy putting these clues together and coming up with their own list of suspects and motives, add the additional exhilarating element of a countdown, and readers will be staying up past their bedtime! 

I hope that we have many more installments of Seven, Valley and Thorn’s stories in The Twelve Towns, and I am sure young readers will be hoping for the same as they fly through the pages of Claribel Ortega’s Witchlings
Your readers will probably want to find out which coven they belong to! Take the Black Moon Ceremony Quiz to find out! 

Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX.  After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.

Book Review: BY THE LIGHT OF THE FIREFLIES, by Jenni L. Walsh

As a literacy educator who has a particular affection for 3rd-5th grades, one thing I’m always looking for is good historical fiction. Finding the time in an elementary school day to teach both Social Studies and Literacy adequately can be difficult at times, so any opportunity to integrate the two is something I’m looking out for. Using good, engaging historical fiction texts is one way I’ve found to integrate the two, and one of my latest reads is a perfect example.

The American Revolutionary War is one of those major historical events that can be difficult to find texts for that are appealing for kids, as well as at a level that upper elementary students can read independently.  However, author Jenni L. Walsh written a new engaging book, By The Light of the Fireflies, about a little known Revolutionary War heroine, that will be great for middle grade readers. 

Sybil Ludington is a young girl who lives in a world where society (and her mother) expect little more of her than to become a farmer’s wife. Luckily for Sybil, she also lives in a world where her father, a solider against the British, needs assistance from his smart, adventurous daughter.  This story of how she learns to decode messages, becomes a spy, and goes a run similar to Paul Revere’s (but maybe even better) is full of suspense and excitement. Sybil definitely becomes a character the reader is rooting for, and General George Washington, who makes an  appearance in the story, would agree. Walsh does a good job of engaging the reader while also helping them to understand the context of the time period of the American Revolution.

As mentioned in the author’s note at the end of the book, Sybil Ludington was a real person, although much of this story Walsh has written is fictionalized. However, there is enough truth in the story that I can see students becoming intrigued enough with Sybil that they will want to learn more about her, and even about the American Revolution, which makes By the Light of the Fireflies a historical fiction win-win in my book!

By The Light of the Fireflies by Jenni Walsh will be published on November 2, 2021. I would like to thank the author for providing me with an ARC of her book.

Deana Metzke, in addition to being a wife and mother of two, spent many years as a Literacy Coach, and is now an Elementary Teacher Instructional Leader for Literacy and Social Studies for her school district. In addition to occasionally sharing her thoughts here at MG Book Village, you can read more of her thoughts about kid lit and trying to raise children who are readers at or follow her on Twitter @DMetzke. She is also a member of #bookexcursion.

Book Review: MALCOLM AND ME, by Robin Farmer

Wow, Roberta is a 13 year old who is going through a lot during her last year of middle school! During her 8th grade year, she has a love/hate relationship with a number of important people in her life, including both her parents, her teacher Sister Elizabeth, and even with God himself.

At her Catholic school, although the number of Black students is growing, she is still a part of the minority, so when she questions some things about history out loud to Sister Elizabeth, she clashes with her teacher in a way that has Roberta wondering how’s she going to make it through the rest of the school year.  Then she also has to deal with the rift growing between her parents and her own relationship with each of them. Luckily, Roberta is finishing reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and is able to find parallels between Malcolm’s growth and her own. Plus, she always has the power of the pen to help her make sense of her thoughts and feelings. Readers who love to write poetry or in a journal or diary will be able to identify with Roberta as she uses her writing to help find her voice and to help her guide her decisions. She grows a lot as an individual throughout 8th grade, and comes to realize that although everything does not go exactly the way she wants, she can figure out how to adjust and still find happiness.

Personally, I feel like there are not a lot of historical fiction MG books that take place post-civil rights movement with Black characters front and center.  So the setting alone, including a small peek into Watergate, I think will help to fill in a gap in history for young readers. There are great descriptions of Roberta’s afro and her outfits that help to transport you back to the ’70s. And although there were times that Roberta’s behavior was frustrating to me, an adult, I can totally see how middle/high school students would identify with her and her choices. So for young readers who are also writers (this story is based on some experiences Farmer actually had), who are struggling to fit in, who are into Black History, or who are struggling with parental relationships at home, this may be the book for them.

Malcolm and Me by Robin Farmer was released in November of 2020, so it can be found wherever books are sold. Thank you to the publisher for giving MG Book Village a copy for review.

Deana Metzke, in addition to being a wife and mother of two, spent many years as a Literacy Coach, and is now an Elementary Teacher Instructional Leader for Literacy and Social Studies for her school district. In addition to occasionally sharing her thoughts here at MG Book Village, you can read more of her thoughts about kid lit and trying to raise children who are readers at or follow her on Twitter @DMetzke. She is also a member of #bookexcursion.


I could spend this whole review listing all the people to whom I would recommend Girls Garage: How to Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build the World You Want to See written by Emily Pilloton and illustrated by Kate Bingaman-Burt, because there are so many who would love this book. Pilloton is the founder of Girls Garage, which is a brick-and-mortar building in California where she helps girls “come together to do audacious, brave things as young builders.”  Since we cannot all be in California, Pilloton has gifted us with this book that is not only inspirational, but is also gives concrete steps for any girl who aspires to design and/or build. This informational book is arranged in a specific order to help the reader learn a few different things.

First there’s the “Safety and Gear” section, which is naturally where any girl will want to start reading. Then the bulk of the book, sections titled “Toolbox” and “Essential Skills” explore just about everything you need to know about the variety of materials one could use to build, including the different types of lumber (who knew there were three different types of manufactured wood?), and how to do many basic building skills, like painting a wall. The last section, called “Building Projects” is exactly that, a list of different projects, with all materials and step-by-step directions included. The best part? Sprinkled throughout the whole book are mini stories told about and by women who have been on this builder journey, that the reader can make connections to or be inspired by. 

Although one could, Girls Garage is not the type of book I imagine most girls will read from cover to cover, and I don’t think its meant to be that way.  However, the way that it is written, with Pilloton’s personal stories and advice throughout, I could see how one might read it cover to cover. Personally, I cannot say enough that I feel like this is an awesome reference guide that needs to be on many girls’ bookshelves, not just for when they want to put that frame on the wall, but for when they may need some inspiration to follow their dreams. As Pilloton says, “Our goal shouldn’t be to live without fear, but to acknowledge that fear is unavoidable and to act bravely in spite of those fears. Bravery is something you can practice, something you can choose.”

This book was released in June 2020, and I would like to thank the publisher for sharing an ARC for me to review!

Deana Metzke, in addition to being a wife and mother of two, spent many years as a Literacy Coach, and is now an Elementary Teacher Instructional Leader for Literacy and Social Studies for her school district. In addition to occasionally sharing her thoughts here at MG Book Village, you can read more of her thoughts about kid lit and trying to raise children who are readers at or follow her on Twitter @DMetzke. She is also a member of #bookexcursion.

Review: JUST LIKE JACKIE by Lindsey Stoddard

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You can call her Robinson, you can call her Rob (or even Robbie), but do NOT call her Robin. Alex learns the hard way that Robinson is fed up with him teasing her about her name, and the fact she doesn’t look like her African-American grandfather who raises her. When her short fuse leads to blows a second time, Robinson is sent to her counselor to help her deal with her anger issues, but a family tree project results in Robinson and Alex being put in the same counselling group for students that have challenges completing their tree. Robinson has no one on her tree except Grandpa. She doesn’t know her mom’s name, or how she died, and Grandpa won’t discuss it with her. Grandpa’s memory is getting tired, though, and he often has trouble remembering how to perform simple tasks. Robinson is determined to be his right hand so he can rest his brain, just like Harold is his left hand at his car repair shop. She helps him fix cars. She talks to customers so they won’t hear his words get mixed up. She turns on the signals in the truck so he knows which direction to turn. Robinson is afraid if she doesn’t take care of Grandpa, and get the information she wants about her mom very soon, that he may forget it altogether. As it becomes harder and harder to keep Grandpa’s memory issues a secret, Robinson learns that families are not just made up of the people to whom you’re related.

I can tell you already that this will be on my list of favorite MG reads for 2018. I love books that touch my heart, and watching Robinson try so hard to protect and care for Grandpa as his memory deteriorates from Alzheimer’s is heartbreakingly beautiful. There are too few MG books that focus on intergenerational relationships, like the special bond between a grandparent and grandchild, and this book does that so well. There are a number of supportive and encouraging adults who try to guide Robinson, and although she resists their help, their presence in the story is welcome. Her best friend, Derek, is a delightful, devoted young man, and Robinson’s instinct to protect him at all costs makes me wish everyone could know that kind of friendship. Despite the inevitable outcome of things to come for Robinson and Grandpa, the book ends on a hopeful note for Robinson, and I loved the powerful community there to support her.

This is a wonderful debut novel that I hope will find its way into all middle grade classroom and libraries this year, and I look forward to reading Lindsey’s next MG release, Right as Rain, in early 2019.



Kathie is a children’s public librarian in Manitoba, Canada, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is a member of the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Awards (MYRCA) Committee, and co-moderator at MG Book Village. She is passionate about sharing her love for middle grade literature. You can follow her on Instagram (@the_neverending_stack) and Twitter (@kmcmac74).