Mez’s Magic (The Lost Rainforest, book 1) by Eliot Schrefer

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Summary:  Young panther Mez knows she is different from the rest of her family.  Unable to sleep during the day, she eventually sneaks out of her cave, triggering a series of events that lead to her family’s discovery of her as a daywalker.  This revelation makes her too dangerous to stay with the family, and she is cast out.  She is rescued by Auriel, a huge boa constrictor, who tells her that her birth during an eclipse has given her unusual powers.  Auriel is traveling through the magical rainforest of Caldera, collecting other eclipse-born animals who have been giving the task of defeating the evil Ant Queen, who is about to emerge from a long period of dormancy.  The animals gather at the stone ziggurat, where billions of ants are preparing for their Queen’s arrival.  Danger and betrayal await them as they try to discover their magical powers and save Caldera.  The enemy is temporarily defeated at the end of the story, but danger still lurks.  The animals go their separate ways, agreeing to gather information and reunite in a year’s time.  Includes a lengthy Q & A with the author about his adventures in the rainforest.  357 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Packed with adventure and interesting, funny characters, this book will appeal to fans of animal fantasy like Warriors and Guardians of Ga’hoole.  This is the first book in a planned series in which each installment is from the point of view of a different eclipse-born animal.

Cons:  There were a lot of characters to keep track of, including some unusual animal species that I wasn’t familiar with.

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The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Aster lives in a magical community where boys are expected to become shapeshifters, and girls, witches.  He is fascinated with witchcraft and has no interest or ability in shapeshifting, much to his family’s chagrin.  Spying on the witches’ classes, he learns as much as he can, practicing spells on Charlie, a non-magical girl who lives nearby.  When a monster begins stealing kids from Aster’s community, he realizes he is the only one who can help rescue them.  Assisted by Charlie, he makes a daring journey, and is able to reveal to his community the monster’s true–and surprising–identity.  This revelation uncovers some family secrets about some who have also not always conformed to the gender roles of magic, and gives Aster the permission to be himself and explore the magical powers he possesses. 224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This highly engaging graphic novel creates a magical world that will draw readers in immediately, and conveys messages about gender roles and being yourself that will resonate with kids.

Cons:  The messages about gender were a little heavy-handed.

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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.