Hannah Lamb

Marya Lupu’s parents are sure that a great destiny awaits her brother, Luka. They’re convinced that he’ll become a powerful, prestigious sorcerer. He’ll grow up to battle and maybe even defeat the mysterious force known as the Dread, which has threatened the kingdom of Illyria for centuries. And of course, the entire family’s fortunes will rise with Luka’s inevitable success.

Compared to Luka, Marya has never felt valued by her parents. Nothing she does pleases them, and her destiny appears cloudy at best. When Marya makes a crucial mistake on the day that the Council for the Magical Protection of Illyria comes to test Luka and determine whether he has the ability to wield magic and become a sorcerer, she puts all of their futures in jeopardy. The very next day, a letter arrives inviting Marya to attend Dragomir Academy, “a school dedicated to the reform of troubled girls,” and it seems Marya has even less control over her future than she thought possible.

As Marya bonds with her classmates—girls just like her, who have been told their entire lives that their only purpose is to serve the men whose magic supposedly keeps Illyria safe—they begin to realize that the threat posed by the Dread is not what they’ve been led to believe, and it may be up to them to expose the truth.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is a story of secrets and sisterhood, and a powerful depiction of how people who have been marginalized can find collective power and fight back against systems that have worked to silence them. Readers who enjoyed author Anne Ursu’s acclaimed middle grade novels The Lost Girl, Breadcrumbs and The Real Boy will find much to love here. Marya is a strong-willed and inspiring heroine, and Ursu places her in an expertly constructed fantasy setting. Witty and wise, this is a satisfying and feminist fantasy that will leave readers begging for a sequel.

In this wise and witty fantasy novel, the fate of a kingdom may rest in the hands of a group of “troubled girls” at a mysterious magical school.

Author-illustrator Phoebe Wahl’s fourth picture book, Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest, has a charming woodsy setting that readers will find enchanting.

Four vignettes follow Little Witch Hazel, a minuscule witch who wears a pointy red hat and lives in Mosswood Forest. With a determined spirit, Hazel tends to her fellow inhabitants of the forest in any way that she can, be that inspecting the source of a mysterious wailing tree stump, caring for an abandoned bird egg or taking some well-deserved time to unwind with her friends on a hot summer day.

Each story unfolds in a different season and opens with a title page depicting Hazel dressed for the weather and surrounded by the season’s flora—daffodils in spring, acorns in the fall and so on. Hazel’s can-do attitude and willingness to pitch in make her an appealing heroine. Using earthy shades of brown, green, red and blue, Wahl expertly captures Mosswood Forest and populates it with all sorts of quirky creatures whose interactions make a wonderful backdrop for Hazel’s adventures.

These sweet stories are an ode to the calm and peaceful magic of nature. Little Witch Hazel will make you feel as if you have journeyed deep into Mosswood Forest alongside Hazel and her friends. It will also make you long to seek out your own forest, to be immersed in nature and to discover (or rediscover) your own kinship to it, so that you too can enjoy what Hazel finds there: serenity, connection and fulfillment.

Author-illustrator Phoebe Wahl’s fourth picture book, Little Witch Hazel: A Year in the Forest, has a charming woodsy setting that readers will find enchanting.

Willodeen has a straightforward philosophy when it comes to her love of animals: “the scarier, the smellier, the uglier, the better.” The 11-year-old especially loves the screechers that everyone else in her village of Perchance despises because of their appearance (hideous, with sharp teeth and claws), smell (“as ferocious as an outhouse in August”) and behavior (noisy and irritable). Still, Willodeen is convinced that screechers play an irreplaceable part in the village ecosystem and that they are just as important as any other creature, even the precious hummingbears, whose annual migration makes tourists flock to Perchance.

But this year, something is wrong. Not a single hummingbear has returned to the village, and Perchance is experiencing natural disasters as well, including fires, mudslides and drought. What could have upset the balance of nature and caused these strange occurrences? Willodeen, her new friend Connor and a magically handcrafted, wholly original new creature may be the only ones who can restore order to Perchance. Along the way, they might even prove to the villagers once and for all that every creature matters.

Willodeen is an endearing fable that illuminates the importance of recognizing that all living things serve a purpose in our beautifully complex world and are worthy of care and dignity. Author Katherine Applegate excels in writing animal stories, such as her Newbery Medal-winning The One and Only Ivan, that remind us of the essential role nature plays in our lives. In Willodeen, she gracefully demonstrates how this connection brings with it a responsibility to care for the environment—even its less glamorous parts—and why we should treat this responsibility as a gift.

Willodeen is an endearing fable that illuminates the importance of recognizing that all living things serve a purpose in our beautifully complex world and are worthy of care and dignity.

Una and Julien live very different lives. Una is the wealthy magister’s daughter, while Julien is the son of a poor botanical forager. But these two children have something in common: They each possess the rare supernatural gift of a heightened sense, Una for scent and Julien for sound. Their gifts shape how they interact with the world around them and add a layer of wonder to ordinary, everyday life. But when Julien’s father is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and Una becomes embroiled in Julien’s fight to free him, both children begin to realize that their gifts may be useful in ways they never could have imagined. In fact, they might even hold the power to save lives.   

The Other Side of Luck, Ginger Johnson’s second middle grade novel, is a captivating feast for the senses. Johnson describes sights, smells and sounds in exquisite detail. Julien hears “the singing of sprouts and seedlings stretching and swelling, the hymn of flowers unfurling, the fusion of trees and grasses as they harmonized in their upward reach,” and Una perceives the scent of her father’s unexpected laughter as “spicy, aromatic and somewhat peppery.” 

Despite these sensory delights, Johnson’s story deals with weighty themes of grief, loneliness and identity while exploring complex family dynamics. When Una was 7, her mother died. Afterward, her distant father practically vanished from her life, first because of his grief and then because he remarries a woman who seems to have no interest in a maternal relationship with Una. Una now longs to connect with her mother’s family, whom she has never known. Julien, on the other hand, is close with his loving father, but he misses the mother who died giving birth to him and struggles to keep a brave face in light of his father’s worsening illness. Yet through loss and sadness, neither Una nor Julien loses sight of the beauty in their life, and their gifts become a lifeline to hope. 

Immersive and sensitive, The Other Side of Luck will be enjoyed by middle grade fantasy readers in search of a story full of magic and heart.

Una and Julien live very different lives. Una is the wealthy magister’s daughter, while Julien is the son of a poor botanical forager. But these two children have something in common.

Nothing has been the same for Hazel or her family since Mum drowned in a kayaking accident. Hazel sees danger everywhere and never leaves the house without her blue “Safety Pack.” Her little sister, Peach, knows and feels much more than she lets on. And Hazel’s surviving parent, Mama, doesn’t laugh or smile as much anymore. Worst of all, Mama has spent the past two years moving them all from one state to another, even though Hazel desperately wants to go home to California. 

When they land in Rose Harbor, Maine, for the summer, Mama reconnects with an old friend from her childhood whose daughter, Lemon, is intent on befriending Hazel (whether Hazel wants to be friends or not). Suddenly it seems that Mama might have entirely different plans for their family than Hazel realized. 

Author Ashley Herring Blake’s first middle grade novel, Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, received a Stonewall Honor in 2019. Her third, Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea, is a masterful depiction of what it’s like to experience a deep loss as a child and the sometimes unexpected ways that grief can manifest in young people. Blake doesn’t hesitate to vividly describe the pain that Hazel feels but also fills the girl’s story with plenty of light and comfort, whether it’s the beauty of the sea or a growing connection with someone who understands how she feels. Blake often includes LGBTQ+ characters in both her middle grade and YA novels, and she incorporates a character’s nonbinary identity with the perfect balance of straightforwardness and sensitivity.

Blake’s gorgeous prose will stir deep emotions within readers, and her descriptions of the seaside setting are full of lovely sensory details. It’s heartwarming to watch Hazel heal with help from the sea, reawakening to her dream of becoming a marine biologist. This story of a girl navigating the choppy waters of grief toward a brighter shore is heart-rending but full of hope.

Nothing has been the same for Hazel or her family since Mum drowned in a kayaking accident. Hazel sees danger everywhere and never leaves the house without her blue “Safety Pack.” Her little sister, Peach, knows and feels much more than she lets on. And Hazel’s surviving parent, Mama, doesn’t laugh or smile as much […]

Nicole Lesperance blends crystalline prose, an atmospheric setting and memorable characters to create a story that dances and shines as brightly as the northern lights in her debut YA novel, The Wide Starlight.

Eli has always known her life should have been different. She should have grown up in the frozen landscape of Svalbard, a group of islands north of Norway, where she was born. She would speak Norwegian and her mother’s family would call her by her full name, Eline. Instead, she lives with her American father on Cape Cod, where everyone calls her Eli and she has lost all familiarity with the language she once called her own. The biggest difference, however, and the loss Eli feels most acutely, is her mother’s absence. Ever since the night she carried 6-year-old Eli out onto a frozen fjord, whistled at the multicolored aurora in the sky and flew away, Eli has felt a gaping hole where her mother should be. 

So when her mother suddenly reappears, Eli is overwhelmed and unsure how she should act or feel. Then weird, inexplicable occurrences begin to happen all around town that may be linked to her mother’s return, and before Eli can begin to piece together what’s going on, her mother vanishes again. Desperate for answers, Eli journeys to Svalbard, but more than family secrets may be waiting for her under the ice.

Lesperance’s story has a breathtakingly frosty atmosphere that’s anchored by her descriptions of the icy world of Eli’s childhood, which is both enchanting and unforgivingly harsh. The author just as vividly evokes the ostensibly mundane contemporary setting of Cape Cod, immersing readers in a seaside landscape dotted with scrubby pine forests. When Eli travels to Norway, readers will practically feel the bitter sting of the frigid air, hear the crunch of packed snow underfoot and see the brilliant gleam of sunlight reflecting off the ice. 

Both locations are perfect choices for a story imbued with magic and wonder. Yet for all its trappings of snow-swept fantasy, what lies at the glowing core of The Wide Starlight is the deep and sacred bond between mother and daughter, as Lesperance explores the lengths to which that bond can stretch and still remain intact. 

Nicole Lesperance blends crystalline prose, an atmospheric setting and memorable characters to create a story that dances and shines as brightly as the northern lights in her debut YA novel, The Wide Starlight.

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