MG/YA Book Reviews by a MG/YA Writer
Table of Contents
Welcome to the October edition of Bookcase Bizarro!
In author news this month, I’m researching the idea of launching my first book, SHADOW APPRENTICE, on Wattpad for a limited time before publishing it as a digital and paperback book.
Why would I do this, you may ask?
Well, I’m a debut writer with virtually no audience. I’ll be lucky to reach even half of my intended audience with this blog (teachers, librarians. caregivers and other KIDLIT afficianadoes). The other half of my audience – tweens and teens – increasingly live and read online. To reach them, I need to go where they hang out. I’m willing to bet that a goodly number of them hang out on Wattpad.
I quite like the idea of designing a launch campaign around a web serial. Wattpad may not only be a way to reach MG readers directly but build a MG audience, and for a debut writer, building audience is everything. I plan to explore payment options like Wattpad’s paid stories and Buy Me a Coffee (not Patreon, because I write too slowly to sustain subscriptions), but I’ll be taking the story down before its release in book form (Spring 2024).
Speaking of the MG and YA market, librarian Karen Jensen shines a spotlight on 13-15 year old readers, an audience that’s apparently starved for books. Her article is well worth a read.
It’s Halloween, so it’s time for my yearly re-read of John Bellairs’ The House With a Clock in Its Walls, which is still a classic in my eyes.
Aren’t those vintage Edward Gorey covers smokin’? (I’m still mad at the publishers for updating the covers. Edward Gorey is one of the most iconic artist of all time. I’m sorry, but nothing else compares.)
This month, we experience living inside a creepy-happy, gated utopia and fight antebellum ghosts in the deep south with twin sisters, one who is a Black civil rights organizer and one who was raised as the heiress to a former plantation.
So take a break from your pumpkins and join us as we carve our way into this month’s picks!
A quick note to new readers: books that are available from the Toronto Public Library will be marked #TPL, because books don’t have to be new or owned in order to be loved.
Middle Grade Novel
The Town with No Mirrors, by Christina Collins. (Sourcebooks, 2023)
Zailey (short for Azalea) is a budding artist living in a town where drawing faces (or anything else related to a person’s physical appearance) is illegal. In Gladder Hill, mirrors are not permitted, windows have been replaced by shutters and the town’s water treatment plant makes the water cloudy so that no reflections show in it. Any words or expressions related to visual appearance are also outlawed. The authorities say that’s why everyone’s gladder in Gladder Hill, but Zailey’s not so sure.
She starts to draw faces from memory in a secret sketchbook. Nobody can ever know about it, not her classmates or her art teacher and especially not her grandma, who won’t even talk to Zailey about her mother, or the time they all lived together in the outside world. What is that world like? Does her mother still live there? Zailey knows these ‘superficial thoughts’ are forbidden, but she can’t help asking questions and drawing people’s faces, even though she knows it could get both her and Grandma evicted from the community.
When Zailey discovers a strange image she’s never seen before in Grandma’s desk, she knows she has to find out the answers to her questions. Is the outside world really as dangerous as everyone in Gladder Hill says? How could it be, if her mother chose to stay there?
When Zailey finds herself in the other side of the gated community, she’s determined to find out but is she really prepared to enter a world where appearance is everything, let alone catch a glimpse of herself for the very first time?
The utopia-turned-dystopia trope has been well-milked, but Collins puts a new spin on it. If Zailey is an inquisitive, lively character, her Grandma is almost frantic in her efforts to control her, and Collins captures the tense family dynamic well without extinguishing all signs of love. The text is straightforward and direct enough to appeal to readers who struggle with longer words, and the plot is primarily action-focused. Readers who prefer strongly atmospheric novels with poetic descriptions won’t find that here.
The real surprise twist in this story is the unusual way the adults who rule Gladder Hill deal with their transgressor children, especially Zailey, who risks speaking the truth to power. Collins deftly explores the ways in which hurt and fear can sometimes combine to create a climate of extremism.
While I did not find the ending to be entirely convincing, I doubt whether it will matter to most MG readers. Trigger warning: there is a painful accident in the book but the details are not too graphic, and it’s a necessary plot point that drives the story – and Zailey – forward.
A not-too-scary twist on a utopia gone wrong that will appeal to MG readers, who like to question social expectations and sleep well at night. For those who do like to be scared, I highly recommend The Keeper, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. In fact, I may need to listen to the audiobook version of The Keeper again. It’s that good. (#TPL)
The Doug and Sheila Browne Book Review
Each month, I pick an upper MG or YA book to review in honour of my parents, Doug and Sheila Browne, who always made sure that I had challenging books to reach for on my shelf. Thanks, Mom and Dad! This month’s DSB pick is:
Mirror Girls, by Kelly McWilliams. (Little Brown, 2022)
Twin sisters Magnolia Heathwood and Charlie Yates were separated at birth after their parents were lynched for crossing the color line. Dark-skinned Charlie was raised in Harlem, New York City by her grandmother, a refugee from the Jim Crow south. Magnolia’s skin is light enough to pass as white. She’s adopted by the twin’s other grandmother, making her the heiress to a former plantation with a brutal past.
The sisters meet when Charlie’s grandmother becomes critically ill and asks Charlie to take her back to Eureka, Georgia to die. Eureka is a shock for Charlie, who’s been a civil rights organizer in Harlem and learning about the existence of her white-passing twin is the biggest shock of all. Magnolia, whose been groomed to take over the Heathwood plantation, is just as shocked to learn that she is actually Black. She’s always ignored the plantation’s slave-holding past, although she can see the rotting slave cabins from her bedroom window. Worse, she’s actually participated in discriminatory acts, even signing a petition to remove and relocate the dead bodies of Black citizens to a nearby swamp. This includes her and Charlie’s Grandmother Yates, as well as their own dead mother.
These acts deepen a curse that was set in motion by the twins’ separation, and the effects on Magnolia in particular are devastating. She can no longer see her reflection in mirrors and the angry ghosts of former plantation slaves prevent her from eating or drinking. Ghosts in fact, haunt every inch of Eureka, especially the Heathwood Plantation and Freedom House, Grandmother Yates’ former home. The ghostly residents of Freedom House terrify Charlie, who longs to flee back to New York, but she can’t let the earthly remains of Grandmother Yates or other Black community members be relegated to a swamp.
When the ghost of Charlie and Magnolia’s mother appears at Freedom House and charges them with the task of breaking the curse, they are forced to cross the color line again. Can Charlie ever forgive her light-skinned sister for her past racist beliefs and actions? Will Magnolia be brave enough to live the truth of who she is in a town that could kill her for passing? Finally, will Eureka’s aggrieved ghosts ever let them go?
This many-layered ghost story is one of the most intriguing I’ve read this year. McWilliams is an exceptional wordsmith who never lets her love of poetry bog down her story. Her use of imagery is wonderfully sharp and distinct precisely because she knows when, how and where to hold back. The character-driven plot mostly works but as is often the case with fiction told in alternating voices, one of the character’s story is more compelling than the other’s. How the sisters wrestle with their own demons in order to connect with each other is however, a real strength.
The rich life of the Black community, both past and present, is wonderfully – and horrifically – portrayed,. Seeing Jim Crow racism materialize at a genteel garden party is just as chilling as the violence that later erupts on Eureka’s streets. McWilliams doesn’t shy away from portraying the fraught world of civil rights organizing, with all it’s complicated choices and consequences. In the Jim Crow south, the price of freedom is living in constant mortal fear, stoked by the ongoing and organized terrorism of KKK night riders.
Eureka’s ghosts are convincing and evocative, and McWilliams uses them to explore the theme of being haunted by the past in direct and more symbolic ways. Love interests exist, but no men sweep in to rescue the sisters. McWilliams wisely lets the sisters struggle with how to rescue themselves.
Highly recommended, especially for lovers of atmospheric, ghostly, historical mysteries. YA and up. (#TPL)
Thanks for being a Bookcase Bizarro reader! I’ll be back next month with more author news, and more MG and YA book reviews. See you then!