Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle & Emily Jenkins

One of my coworkers really enjoyed the Upside-Down Magic series and recommended, as a former teacher who worked with students with unique learning needs, I would appreciate it as well, and she was right!

Synopsis

It’s never easy when your magic goes wonky. For Nory, this means that instead of being able to turn into a dragon or a kitten, she turns into both of them at the same time — a dritten. For Elliott, the simple act of conjuring fire from his fingertips turns into a fully frozen failure. For Andres, wonky magic means he’s always floating in the air, bouncing off the walls, or sitting on the ceiling. For Bax, a bad moment of magic will turn him into a… actually, he’d rather not talk about that.

Nory, Elliott, Andres, and Bax are just four of the students in Dunwiddle Magic School’s Upside-Down Magic class. In their classroom, lessons are unconventional, students are unpredictable, and magic has a tendency to turn wonky at the worst possible moments. Because it’s always amazing, the trouble a little wonky magic can cause…

A brief social commentary before my review

When looking at the kid’s literature available to me as a child, it is safe to say that the characters were not diverse, not in their skin color, gender identity, or abilities. They were pretty much all white, slightly above average, blond, white girls. And when I was a kid, I didn’t take any notice because, as my German grandmother put it, had I been alive in 1939 like her, I would have been the poster child for the Aryan race. Blond hair, blue grey eyes, ethnically German, slightly above average height and intelligence. It is something that I find I now hate about myself, especially ass I find myself listening to speeches from of the members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I constantly want to apologize for continuing to fuel the problem, I write characters like me, the characters that they have been rally against, because they’re just like me.

I never realized the lack of diverse books because I could relate to pretty much every main character I came across. Shortly after returning home after BookCon last year, I asked my fiance, who’s heritage is primarily Chinese and English, if he ever came across human characters he identified with as a child. His answer? His favorite books were Redwall and Watership Down. The only characters he identified with were animals, because they only had emotional descriptions and those he could relate to. He understood their feelings and with race out of the picture, he felt like he could understand their motivations because they were all inherently different than the mainstream characters, simply by being animals.

And it is because of these reasons and so many others, the Upside-Down Magic should be required reading for all elementary school students.

Review

As someone who has worked in special education and with children of multiple ethnicities, I immediately read deeper into Upside-Down Magic than most people. Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins are mad brilliant. They took a girl’s worries about being different and forced her to accept them instead of following the typical narrative of self-discovery and being mainstreamed and everyone liking her, they were much more realistic with how they handled the politics of education and the fact that all students’ needs are different, whether it be in learning math or magic. They also incorporated the fact that most minority and special needs student are often taught by a white, female teacher that the students have difficulty relating to. And while the teacher may have people in her life that have unique needs, rarely did/does the teacher.

​I recommend Upside-Down Magic to children at the store that feel like they don’t really fit in or who really like magic stories, but I also recommend it to each and every teacher that walks through the bookstore doors because, whether the authors intended or not, they have written a brilliant piece of social commentary on our education system in the United States and how imperative it is to teach every child in a manner that best fits their unique needs and style.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $5.99 • 9780545800464 • 208 pages • originally published September 2015, this edition published August 2016 by Scholastic Inc. • average Goodreads rating 4.1 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Sarah Mlynowski’s Website

Upside-Down Magic on Goodreads

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Upside-Down Magic

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Because Harry Potter is such a generation-defining series, we’ve decided to each write our own blog post about it. See Sarah’s review by clicking here.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know anything about the world of Harry Potter. I think I was eight years old when I read the first book and it did not take me long to be completely hooked. By the time I was in third grade, I was completely obsessed; birthdays and Christmases soon included all Harry Potter themed presents. I amassed a collection of not only the books, but Legos, figurines, posters, a cloak, hand-made robes for the Yule Ball, and countless other trinkets. Summers meant midnight releases for the books and movies, waiting for a Hogwarts letter, (that never came, which still breaks my heart and I’m 24 now) and Halloween was for dressing up as my favorite characters. Recent years have meant visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, saving money for a Harry Potter themed trip to London, and meeting people who throw an epic Harry Potter Weekend Party every year. I have yet to abandon my Harry Potter obsession as car rides still always include listening to the audiobooks. Harry Potter was a magical part of my entire childhood and adolescence and I cannot imagine a world without it. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Synopsis

Harry Potter has never played a sport while flying on a broomstick. He’s never worn a cloak of invisibility, befriended a giant, or helped hatch a dragon. All Harry knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to a wonderful place he never dreamed existed. There he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic around every corner, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… if Harry can survive the encounter.

Series Review

Where to start with this series that has defined my childhood? Well, my favorite of the series has always been (and always will be) the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The reason for that is easy: it’s where you first meet Remus Lupin and Sirius Black, two of my all-time favorite characters. For the first time, Harry meets his father’s best friends and we learn about the time of the Marauders. (I’m one of those people who wants a prequel series based on the lives of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs). I love all of the books though and will never be able to objectively review them because my emotional attachment is too strong. While I concede that Harry was rather angsty (especially in Order of the Phoenix) I maintain that he had every right to be – what other 15 year old has experienced everything he did? He’s allowed to be a moody teenager. I could certainly relate to his feelings of isolation and depression when I was that age as well.

I first met Harry and company shortly after my parents got divorced. It meant a huge change in my home life, but I made sure that I had at least one constant companion at both houses (besides my wonderful sister) and that was a Harry Potter book. Harry, and his super awesome best friends Ron and Hermione, kept me company for years and never made me feel like I was alone. I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up with Harry Potter, even though that meant waiting several years between releases of the last 4 books. I loved going to the midnight release parties for the last three books and spending the next few days completely absorbed in the wizarding world and spending my time at Hogwarts. I will never forget the days that I spent reading the last three Harry Potter books for the first time and facing all of the obstacles Harry, Ron, and Hermione went through with them. It takes quite a bit to make me cry over books, but J.K. Rowling certainly did that at certain points. (The next section will contain spoilers).

I very clearly remember telling my mother and sister on the way to the bookstore for the midnight release of Order of the Phoenix that if Sirius Black died I would be devastated. Cut to three days later and I’m balling my eyes out because Harry had lost yet another loved one. And I definitely did not see the deaths of Fred Weasley and Remus Lupin coming. I probably should have considering that it’s always the most beloved characters who tend to meet their maker by the end of a book series. Thank goodness Hermione survived because she was definitely the brains of the entire operation. Harry and Ron know that they never would have survived if they had not tried to save Hermione from a troll on Halloween when they were eleven years old and forged a lifelong friendship.

So, not much of a review but more of an excuse for me to expound upon the reasons I love the Harry Potter series and always will. And lastly, my definitive (and not at all scientific) ranking of most to least favorite:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (3)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (7) & Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (4) – tied
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (5)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (6)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2)

And seriously, if you have never read Harry Potter, it’s time. It is so worth it. Thank you J.K. Rowling for creating this magical world where Hogwarts will always be there to welcome me.

Series Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780590353427 • 312 pages • originally published 1997, this edition published 1999 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 4.45 out of 5 • read in Fall 2000

J. K. Rowling’s Website

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter (3)

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Millennials, my generation, are defined in some small part by their relationship with Harry Potter. Almost all of us have a story about when we were first introduced the the boy wizard who changed our reading lives. I was 10 years old, in 5th grade, and it was shortly before Thanksgiving when my friend Brendan brought a book and a letter into school. He had found this book and had liked it so much, he wrote a letter to the author, and SHE WROTE BACK. He shared the letter with the class, and asked if the book could be our next classroom read aloud. Needless to say, Mrs. Kluck agreed, and when we left for Thanksgiving break, I made my mom hunt down a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for me. The rest, as they say, is history.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Synopsis

Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley – a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry – and anyone who reads about him – will find unforgettable. For it’s there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… if Harry can survive the encounter.

Series Review

This is a difficult review to write as I grew up with the Harry Potter books and characters. I was 10 years old when I was introduced to 10-year-olds Harry, Hermione, and Ron. When I was 10, my life was challenging – my parents were getting divorced and I just wanted an escape and the wizarding world presented itself to me at the perfect time. I would spend hours reading and rereading the books in my bedroom, trying not to think about the challenges of my young life. Because of this association, the tales of Harry Potter and his friends’ adventures will always hold a special place in my heart, but it was only for Harry’s friends that I finished the series.

As I grew up, I wanted Harry and his friends to grow up with me. I camped out at midnight for books 5 through 7, I dressed up as Hermione for more Halloweens than I care to admit, but the moment I was waiting for never really came. Harry never convincingly grew up with me. We were both supposed to be 17 when the final book was released – I had just graduated from high school and was excited to see Harry finish school and get excited for life after the final battle with Voldemort. However, while I was ecstatic for the next chapter in my life, Harry doesn’t have goals, he doesn’t have any direction in his life. Now granted, his primary focus was survival so that pushed some other dreams and ambitions out of focus, but I would have latched on to them – I would have latched on to my hopes of the future, for a world without Voldemort.

At 10, Harry and I had so much in common. At 13, this was still the case, but at some point, during the fifteenth year of my life/the fifth book, our paths completely diverged. I quickly grew to loathe Harry and his whiny, moody tendencies. While Harry “grows,” he doesn’t ever mature and that made it exceedingly difficult to remain engaged with the stories for any length of time after I finished reading them initially. By the time the seventh movie (split into two) came out, I was so disenchanted with Harry and his misanthropic tendencies that I didn’t even want to see it in theaters. I wanted to see an older Harry, a Harry that I could relate to, instead of a character that was stuck in middle school, stuck at thirteen so that he would be more accessible for later generations. In a way, this makes sense, no other generation will be waiting for years between books – years in which they grow up and expect Harry to grow up as well. Is it fair to tell my 10-year-old step-brother he must wait until he’s 17 to finish the series? No. But I feel like it pulled my fellow millennials away from Harry. It led some of us to abandon him in the dark basement of our minds because he didn’t keep up. Like Peter Pan, he didn’t grow up.

Hermione, on the other hand, was always the brains of the operation, the logically minded one keeping Harry and Ron on track and explaining the ways of the world, and girls, to them, as they remained stuck in their world of perpetual early adolescence. Hermione and her books and knowledge and love of school helped me express my own love of intelligence and learning. Hermione ensured that the stories of Harry Potter would be relatable for boys and girls. And that is, to me, the real magic of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. He brought so many kids into the magical world of reading and books and that, regardless of the quality of the books being read, is always a good thing. Reading the adventures of Harry will always be a rite of passage. If I ever have kids of my own, I will read them the stories of Harry Potter as my mother and teacher did for me. And I will be incredibly offended if they dislike them, but will be equally offended if they obsess over them blindly and refuse to read anything else as I had done.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780590353427 • 312 pages • originally published 1997, this edition published 1999 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 4.45 out of 5 • read in January 2000

J. K. Rowling’s Website

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter (2)

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

This book was recommended to me by a customer at the bookstore – and when I realized the illustrations were done by one of my favorite graphic novel artists, Skottie Young, I was sold.

Synopsis

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: thummthumm. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.” … “Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”

Review

The elementary school teacher in me loves this book – it would make the absolute perfect read-aloud for any class from 2nd to 4th grade. The artist in me loves this book for Skottie Young’s illustrations. The reader in me? Well, I’m getting kind of tired of Neil Gaiman. My coworker would probably faux-smack me for saying it, but alas, I think it’s true.

This book is, by all accounts, hilarious. Young children will find it absolutely hysterical. But I didn’t laugh. Not once. I’m not sure why, I felt like I was in the right mood/mindset to do so, but for some reason, I just didn’t giggle, not once. Fortunately, the Milk is the story a dad recounts for his two children as an explanation of why it took him so long to pick up milk for their breakfast cereal one morning. It’s full of adventure, time traveling dinosaurs, pirates, a talking volcano, ponies, all sorts of mischief and mayhem.

But for some reason, I didn’t enjoy the adventure. Maybe that’s a commentary on the book, maybe that’s a commentary on me, I honestly don’t know. So if you love a book that is adventurous and exciting, if you are between the ages of 8 and 12, then please, take a look at Fortunately, the Milk, I bet you’ll enjoy it more than me.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $5.99 • 9780062224088 • 101 pages • originally published September 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Harper Collins Publishers • average Goodreads rating 4.04 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Neil Gaiman’s Website for Young Readers

Fortunately, the Milk on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Fortunately, the Milk

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades, Mythology

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Just after I finished listening to the audiobook of The Lightning Thief, a good 8 years after my friend Iram told me I just had to read it, I found out it is part of this upcoming school year’s Reading Olympics lists! I now can recommend officially 1 out of 45 titles for the elementary schoolers!

Synopsis

Percy Jackson is about to be kicked out of school… again. And that’s the least of his troubles. Lately, mythological monsters and the gods of Mount Olympus seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Percy’s Greek mythology textbook and into his life. And worse, he’s angered a few of them. Zeus’s master lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect.

Now Percy and his friends have just ten days to find and return Zeus’s stolen property and bring peace to a warring Mount Olympus. But to succeed on his quest, Percy will have to do more than catch the true thief: he must come to terms with the father who abandoned him; solve the riddle of the Oracle, which warns him of betrayal by a friend; and unravel a treachery more powerful than the gods themselves.

Review

The Lightning Thief has been a bestselling book at the bookstore since I started working there in the summer of 2015 and it has been a perpetual favorite with 6th graders since I student taught 6th grade in 2013, and I’m certain this was the case even before I was aware of it. Since it was first published in the mid-2000’s, Rick Riordan has started 4 other series, finished 2 of them, and has had three of the five series adapted into graphic novels. Clearly, there’s widespread appeal, to the point where I was really starting to feel like I was missing out on something.

When I started writing my novel, which I lovingly call my Viking Story, it was around the same time Riordan announced his second newest trilogy, Magnus Chase, a series based on Norse Mythology and the first with a decided young adult slant. I was convinced it would be my first of his books, but one day, when browsing the audiobook section at the library, I decided to pick up The Lightning Thief. Usually I’m wary when the entirety of the 12 year old population loves something (hello One Direction…), but thankfully, I was not disappointed!

Percy is a “half-blood,” his father is a god of Olympus proportions, but he doesn’t know which one. Being such, puts him in a special position when it comes to quests, adventures, and fulfilling a heroic destiny. Basically, he’s fated to be a tragic Greek hero, not exactly the future most 12 year olds dream of. But he has the help of friends and allies, and the adventure is not one to be missed!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $7.99 • 9780786838653 • 377 pages • originally published June 2005, this edition published March 2006 by Hyperion Kids • average Goodreads rating 4.22 out of 5 • read in April 2017

Rick Riordan’s Website

The Lightning Thief on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Lightning Thief

Lightning Thief