The Ember Stone (The Last Firehawk book 1) by Katarina Charman, illustrated by Jeremy Norton

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Although Tag is small, he is determined to become one of the Owls of Valor, practicing fighting with a dagger and shield until he is exhausted.  When he and his friend Skyla the squirrel rescue a mysterious egg, they inadvertently get the chance to prove their courage.  The egg hatches with a fiery bang, and produces a baby firehawk, an animal thought to be extinct.  Firehawks were once the guardians of the Ember Stone, which protected the animals from the evil magic of Thorn, a vulture who controls the dark magic of the forest.  Tag, Skyla, and the firebird are sent by Grey, leader of the Owls of Valor, to try to find the missing stone.  They recover a piece of it, but their journey to find other pieces will continue in the next book.  89 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  Readers too young for animal fantasy series like Warriors will enjoy this latest entry in the Scholastic Branches imprint.  It’s a surprisingly interesting, somewhat complex tale, told in 89 illustrated pages, and written at a level appropriate for primary-level reader.

Cons:  A dagger and shield seem like inefficient weapons for an animal with talons, a beak, and wings.

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Graveyard Shakes by Laura Terry

Published by Scholastic Graphix

Summary:  Katia and Victoria are two sisters struggling to fit in at their snooty new boarding school.  Little Ghost is a playful young ghost who is scared of other ghosts.  Modie is a boy who should have died in an accident, but whose father, Nikola, has found a way of keeping him alive by taking the life of a child every thirteen years.  The characters’ lives in this graphic novel all converge in the graveyard, where Katia and Victoria find refuge from school.  Nikola has his eye on Katia for his latest victim.  Modie no longer wants to be part of his father’s evil schemes, and is ready to be allowed to die in peace.  It’s up to Victoria and Little Ghost to rescue Katia, and bring about a hauntingly happy ending.  208 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Beautiful artwork conveys the darkness of a ghost story that also contains plenty of light, happy moments.  Katia, Victoria, Little Ghost, and Modie all learn the lesson of being true to yourself, and find some unusual forms of happiness and friendship in the end.  Fun Halloween reading.

Cons:  Pardon the expression, but the storyline and characters weren’t as fleshed out as they could have been.

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The Shadow Cipher (York: Book 1) by Laura Ruby

Published by Walden Pond Press

Summary:  In an alternate New York City, three seventh graders rush to solve a century-old puzzle that they hope will save their home.  When the unique building they live in is bought by an uncaring billionaire, twins Theo and Tess and their friend Jaime decide to try to solve the Cipher.  Created by the Morningstarr twins in the nineteenth century, the Cipher has baffled people for years, including the twins’ grandfather, now suffering from dementia.  When the kids discover a letter sent to their grandfather that appears to be from one of the Morningstarrs, they think they have stumbled upon a new version of the Cipher that may lead to its solution and the treasure that awaits the solver.  Rushing from one adventure to the next, the reader learns about some of the steampunk-inspired inventions of the Morningstarrs that are part of daily life in this version of NYC.  Although the kids discover important clues, the case of the Cipher is still not cracked by the end, and a cliffhanger will leave readers anxiously awaiting book 2.  496 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  Fans of Rick Riordan will eagerly consume this tale featuring three gifted, quirky protagonists, an intriguing mystery, and plenty of adventure.

Cons:  The kids seemed to solve the extremely difficult puzzles with remarkable ease…although at least some of that may be part of the mystery.

Henry and the Chalk Dragon by Jennifer Trafton, illustrated by Benjamin Schipper

Published by Rabbit Room Press

Summary:  When Henry draws an amazing dragon on the chalkboard in his room, he’s almost sure he sees it move.  Before he goes to bed, he tells his mom he’ll erase the dragon in the morning, and that’s enough to cause the creature to flee.  When Henry wakes up the next morning, there’s a gaping hole in his door, and the dragon is nowhere to be seen.  It eventually winds up at school with Henry and his friends, Oscar and Jade.  The dragon has the ability to morph into different forms, and eventually Henry realizes they are all different pictures he has drawn come to life.  Eventually, the dragon causes complete chaos throughout the school, and it’s up to Henry, Oscar, and Jade to use their unique creative gifts (art, science, and music, respectively) to tame it, and to get the school back to normal…or maybe a slightly improved version of normal.  240 pages; grades 3-5.

Pros:  A fantastic adventure all brought to life by the kids’ imaginations.  This would make a good read-aloud in an elementary classroom.

Cons:  The message–you have to be brave to be an artist–at times overwhelmed the action of the story.

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting by Joe Ballarini, illustrated by Vivienne To

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  Kelly is desperate to earn money to be able to go to the summer camp of her dreams, so she reluctantly agrees to a babysitting job.  The parents warn her that Jacob is prone to nightmares and afraid of the dark.  Sure enough, when bedtime comes, he’s convinced that monsters are lurking.  The only problem is, he’s right.  When one of them abducts Jacob, Kelly is introduced to the world of the babysitters, a group of mostly girls trained in the art and science of protecting kids from monsters.  As her night goes on, she finds herself in increasingly horrifying situations, but also discovers a strength and power she never suspected she had.  Readers brave enough to make it to the last page will be anxiously awaiting the sequel.  352 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This blend of scariness, humor, and kid (particularly girl) empowerment will be a big draw to fans of Rick Riordan and R. L. Stine.  This is sure to be a popular read in the coming school year.

Cons:  May be too scary for some.

Maggie and the Flying Horse (Magic Animal Rescue book 1) by E. D. Baker

Published by Bloomsbury USA

Summary:  Maggie is a kind-hearted girl who lives in the Enchanted Forest with her father, stepmother, and many step-siblings.  Her father has to be away a lot for his job as a woodcutter, leaving Maggie at the mercy of her wicked stepmother.  Maggie’s greatest joy is finding magical animals in the forest.  When she accidentally injures the wing of a tiny horse-fly, she decides to go in search of the legendary Bob the Stableman, whom her grandmother has told her lives outside the castle and cares for magical creatures.  Defying her stepmother’s orders, she sets off to find Bob.  Along the way, she encounters a griffin, some goblins, and a nasty troll.  She makes it to Bob’s, though, and gets help for the horse as well as for herself.  Stay tuned for more adventures in book #2, Maggie and the Wish Fish.  128 pages, grades 1-3.

Pros:  Don’t be fooled by the page count–the font is large and there are lots of pictures.  Fans of Rainbow Magic and other fairy tales will be eager to read about Maggie and her magical animal friends, and the reading level is manageable for those just moving into chapter books.

Cons:  Maggie occasionally comes across as a bit of a goody-two-shoes.

Fish Girl by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner, pictures by David Wiesner

Published by Clarion Books

Summary:  Neptune welcomes you to Ocean Wonders, a three-story building that houses a giant aquarium.  Along with the octopus, shark, and fish, there lives a mermaid whom you just might catch a glimpse of if you are patient.  After hours, Neptune tells the fish girl the story of how he rescued her when fishermen and sharks killed off all the other mermaids.  Now he protects her, and in return she hides among the sea flora and fauna, revealing just enough of herself to lure humans into Ocean Wonders.  One day, though, she makes a connection with a girl her own age, who names the fish girl Mira.  The two become friends, and Mira’s world begins to change.  She learns that Neptune is really just an ex-fisherman, who creates his “magic” world with machines.  One night she manages to leave the tank, and learns that her tail becomes legs on dry land of water.  Mira sees her chance to escape, but will she be able to leave behind the aquarium world she has known all her life?  192 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Triple Caldecott medalist David Wiesner creates a fairy-tale world reminiscent of his book Flotsam.  Middle school readers will relate to Mira’s struggle to figure out who she is and where her place in the world is.

Cons:  The relationship between Neptune and Mira borders on creepy.