Finally, right? Here is my little contribution to the holiday season’s gift guides: a few of these over the next couple of weeks, as I try to match my Reader’s Advisory skills with my love of gifty books and book-adjacent goodies.
If you haven’t played with Paul Farrell’s Build a Castle, you have been missing out, but no worries: just in time for the holidays, he’s released Build a Skyscraper, the next in his series of graphic-designed cards that let you and your kiddos create the skyscraper of your dreams. The box contains 64 cards with slots cut to let you build and expand your building in any way you like. Add glass, decorative elements and flourishes, and build up or out. It’s all up to your little one! Perfect for stocking stuffers, this is great for hours of play and you can build a new skyscraper each time. An 8-page booklet contains some inspiration and descriptions of skyscraper elements. Get out the minifigs and let them move into a new neighborhood!
Elevator Up card game, (2020), $9.99
Created by a 17-year-old, Elevator Up is – in the words of creator Harrison Brooks – “kid-created, kid-designed, kid-marketed, kid-shipped, and kid-loved card game”. It’s pretty easy to pick up, fast-paced, and way too much fun to play. The goal is to be the first player to get rid of all your cards as your elevator rides through a building. You can use cards to get your opponents stuck, sent back down to the lobby, or have the doors closed on them. There are a lot of laughs to be had – my Kiddo loves closing the door on his older brothers – and the chance for friendly trash talk is high. Support indie game makers and kid creators, give this one a look. For more information, check out the game website at PlayElevatorUp.com.
This book is just amazing, perfect for the reader always looking for new worlds and new adventures. Taken from the “found” journals of the late theoretical physicist Dawn Gable, the book is an armchair adventure: writing, drawings, research, and keepsakes from Dr. Gable’s nightly journeys into fantastic worlds: Asgard, Camelot, The Lost City of Kôr, and a city of machines, Meganopolis, are only a handful of the worlds explored here. Fantasy artwork brings readers from the fantasy of Camelot, with knights and shields, to the steampunk mechanical world of Meganopolis; dragons fly around Wyvern Alley, with fantastic beasts sketched on journal pages to delight and entice, and the ancient ruins of Atlantis wait for readers in its underwater kingdom, with squid and nautiluses. Perfect for your fantasy fans and anyone who loves the “Ology” series by Dugald Steer. Books like this are a gateway to more reading, so have some Tales of Asgard and Thor on hand, Gulliver’s Travels, or Tales of King Arthur handy.
(This review and ISBN are the paperback version. The hardcover was released in October 2019.)
Taking place in a time and world where gods were earthbound monsters who killed themselves in battle, Deeplight is set on an island named for one of these gods, Lady’s Crave, where the inhabitants scavenge the waters for pieces of the gods, referred to as “godware”, imbued with small but noticeable power. Hark, a 14-year old orphan, and his best friend, Jelt, are petty crooks who get involved in schemes of varying illegality. Hark is caught and sold to a godware “expert’, Dr. Vyne, as an indentured servant; she puts him to work in a home for the aging priests, to find out what he can about the gods and where key pieces and archives remain. Meanwhile, Jelt hasn’t let go of his hold on Hark, and convinces him to go on one more expedition, where Hark discovers a pulsing piece of godware that has healing powers. But nothing comes without a cost, and healing Jelt sets events into motion that will have huge repercussions.
I love Frances Hardinge’s work. She creates wonderfully creepy stories; Deeplight adds a level of eldritch horror with a dash of steampunk and takes the conversation to a new level, throwing in themes of idolatry, greed, and the part fear plays in holding onto belief. Each character is fully realized, with backstory and motivation; whether or not they’re likable is entirely up to you – but you will never forget them. I’ll be gushing about this book for a long time. Frances Hardinge is the author you give your Mary Downing Hahn fans when they’re ready for more. Give this to your horror fans, your steampunk fans, and slide it in front of any HP Lovecraft fans you may have come across.
Can you believe the buzz on this book? Could this finally be the book that gets the kids in my library asking me for steampunk recommendations?
Cogheart has been the topic of almost every book roundup email I’ve been getting over the last few weeks, and it sounds like there’s a bunch of good reasons. Originally published in the UK in 2016, the book has been winning a slew of awards, including the Awesome Book Award (2018) and Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month (2016). This is one instance where I’m crowing about the book but haven’t read it yet, but as a steampunk fan, I’m excited. Here’s a peek at the plot, straight from author Peter Bunzl’s website:
“Lily’s life is in mortal peril. Her father is missing and now silver-eyed men stalk her through the shadows. What could they want from her?
With her friends – Robert, the clockmaker’s son, and Malkin, her mechanical fox – Lily is plunged into a murky and menacing world. Too soon Lily realizes that those she holds dear may be the very ones to break her heart…
Murder, mayhem and mystery meet in this gripping Victorian steampunk adventure story, featuring two friends, murder and mayhem, airships and automata, and an over-opinionated mechanical fox!”
So we have automatons, airships, clockwork, and Victorian England. The gears of my steampunk heart are chugging with joy! I’ve also done a bit of digging and discovered that Cogheart is the first in a trilogy, so, yay!! Author Peter Bunzl and Jolly Fish have made this a book club gold pick by coming up with free, downloadable activities and discussion prompts, and Cogheart Puppets. Check them out, print them out, and get kids talking.
And just maybe, my kids won’t wonder what the heck is fascinator is anymore, or why I wear one.
Want a shot at winning your own copy of Cogheart? Check out this Rafflecopter giveaway!
Peter Bunzl grew up in London and lives there with his partner Michael. He is a BAFTA-award-winning animator, as well as a writer and filmmaker. To learn more, visit his website, peterbunzl.com.
Praise for COGHEART:
“With great style and panache, the novel deftly winds through the intricacies of friendship and moral choice while maintaining a fun edge.” —Publishers Weekly
“An exciting, fast-paced adventure.” —Booklist
“Introduces dastardly villains, friendly mechanicals, and thrilling airship action. . . . with hair-raising and cinematic charm.” —Kirkus Reviews
Download activities and see the book trailer at jollyfishpress.com/cogheart!
Recommended for readers 10-14
Seraphin is a young boy who loses his brilliant scientist mother, Claire Dulac, on her aether-seeking expedition. He’s being raised by his genius engineer father, Archibald, when the summons comes from the Bavarian king: he’s building a ship and he wants it powered by aether. Seraphin and his father narrowly duck a kidnapping attempt at the train station, arriving in Bavaria to discover a king who secludes himself from his people, consumed by his obsession, and betrayal within the castle walls.
This first volume of Castle in the Stars spends time setting up the story and developing characters. It’s nice to see both parental figures involved, with a female character every bit as intelligent and accomplished as the male character. The art has a touch of manga inspiration, particularly with the character, Hans, who’s drawn to communicate his mischievous side. There’s a Jules Verne feel to the story; intrigue mixes with the race to explore the unknown, and with Seraphin’s heartfelt belief that his mother is still alive, we have a bit of mystery thrown in.
Beautifully illustrated, and a fun book for steampunk and aviation fans. Castle in the Stars was first published in French in 2016.
Recommended for ages 8-12
In an alternate universe, a young orphan named Blue is a girl, disguised as a newboy. With seemingly constant war going on, girls are expected to help the struggling economy by baking cookies, but Blue has no interest in that. She loves She lives with her guardians, the father figure of whom happens to be the town Mayor, and she loves working as a newsie for The Bugle, the one newspaper that tells the truth in an environment of “fake news” (flashing light for extra relevancy alert, folks). It’s not always easy to keep her secret, but Blue lives in fear of being found out and losing everything she loves: her family, her job, her lifestyle. When she meets a strange kid named Crow, she brings him into the fold; Crow has secrets of his own, which Blue can respect. When government officials appear on the scene, in search of missing military technology, there are more questions than answers, and Blue’s determined to stick by her friend, no matter what his secrets may be.
Inspired by manga, Newsprints tells a relevant story on so many levels: we have truth in the media, gender identity, and the power of friendship. Blue is a girl who doesn’t wants to do what she wants to do, not what society is telling her that her gender should be doing. She enjoys the freedom afforded to newsies, and embraces the dangers that come with a life on the streets. She gets the Crow has secrets he wants to keep, motivated only by a desire to help a kindred spirit survive and be safe.
My biggest issue with Newsprint was what I saw as disjointed storytelling, but that is entirely my issue. I’m not a regular manga reader, and Newsprints seems to follow manga-type storytelling, which isn’t always linear. The kids in my library love this book – my two copies have been out since I put them out on the shelves – and the emerging themes in the story make this a strong selection for booktalking.
Scholastic has a 34-page excerpt available for free, if you want to take a look and decide whether Newsprints is for you. Ru Xu has a Tumblr with an author calendar and links to her webcomic, Saint for Rent, which updates three times weekly.
Recommended for ages 13+
My first entry in this year’s Diversity Reading Challenge is Tara Sim’s Timekeeper, a steampunk story taking place in an alternate Victorian London, where clock towers control time. A damaged clock affects the populace, and if a clock is badly damaged or loses a vital part of its machinery, the town “stops”: no one dies, but no one can leave; the citizens are stuck in a time loop. That’s what happened to 17 year-old clock mechanic Danny Hart’s father three years before, and Danny’s become a mechanic in the hopes that he can free his father one day. On an assignment to a clock in the London borough of Enfield, Danny meets Colton, who throws a figurative wrench in all of Danny’s plans. Colton is a clock spirit – the essence of time for the Colton Tower clock – and the two boys fall in love. Danny knows this can’t end well, but he risks everything to be with Colton, who will find a way to keep Danny coming back to Enfield.
Some of the people of London are against the clock towers. They want time freed, uncontrolled, and stage protests that get heated. Clock towers are attacked, and Danny is blamed. He has to find a way to clear his name, keep Colton safe, and keep his father’s town safe so he can bring him home alive.
Timekeeper is the first in a planned trilogy by debut author Tara Sim. The story is very detailed – budding clock aficionados, and readers interested in the science of time (horologists – thanks, Google!) will fall in love with the lyrical way Sim discusses the delicate parts of the clocks and the idea of a spirit manifestation of each clock tower. The romance between Danny and Colton is sweet and gentle, and Danny’s feelings for men is more or less accepted, with some minor snark from the novel’s bully.
Shadowhunters fans will love this one. Get your steampunk on and put this with your Gail Carriger books, your Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld, and your old school Jules Verne and HG Wells collections.
Recommended for ages 13+
In a post-cataclysm Mercury City, Colorado, a group of alchemists, called Chemists, are the ruling body, controlling the populace through draconian laws, torture, and distribution of a daily potion that helps citizens survive after a plague ravaged society a century before. Physical contact between males and females comes with a price; a price her best friend, Whit, learns after trying to help Grey home in time for curfew. After Whit’s brutal punishment, Grey takes a risk she’s been thinking about for too long – she gives him her ration of potion. She knows she and her family are different – her father and grandfather don’t take it, and she suspects she doesn’t need it, either. This provides the Chemists with the chance they’ve been waiting for: the chance to get hold of Grey and attack her family. She seeks refuge at her grandfather’s repair shop, where her only chance at escape is to enter the world of the curio cabinet in the back of the shop: there, she finds herself in a world of living porcelain and clockwork figures, swept up in a class struggle of their own, and a mysterious figure known as the Mad Tock. Could he be the mysterious person she was told to seek out?
Curio is a curious mix of post-apocalyptic and steampunk genres. Grey is a standard YA post-apocalyptic heroine, spunky and strong-willed, ready to take on the system. She’s got a special secret to be revealed and a family history that she only knows the surface of. The world inside the curio cabinet is a steampunk society, with “tocks” – clockwork figures that make up the working class – and “porcies”, the beautiful upper class. It’s a skin-deep society; the fragile porcies are terrified of cracks or breaks, because they’ll be banished to “Lower”, with the rest of the lower class and broken, to eke out an existence. We spend a lot of time in Curio, but a lot of it is laborious. There is a lot of concentration on the porcies’ fascination with Grey and where she could be from, and the villain of the story is enticing but not as fully realized as he could be. The Mad Tock storyline could also benefit from more emphasis on his story earlier on, and less on his gadgetry.
There’s some strong world-building on both sides of the curio cabinet, but the overall storytelling lags. The one plot that doesn’t lag at all is the love story, and that happens so quickly that it is difficult to believe (but that could just be my personal taste).
Curio is an interesting mashup of two genres I never pictured working well together, but they do. There’s potential for a series here, and indeed, there is a prequel, Mark of Blood and Alchemy, available as a free download for Kindle and Nook.
Oona Finds an Egg (The Oodlethunks, #1), by Adele Griffin/Illustrated by Mike Wu, (Jan. 2016, Scholastic), $12.99, ISBN: 9780545732796
Recommended for ages 7-10
Oona is a Stone Age girl whose father stays home and bakes kind of weird health food, like newt fingers; her mom works at an advertising agency where they’re trying to sell consumers on the wheel; and her little brother, Bonk, is just annoying. She really, really wants a pet, so when she finds an egg while she’s out wandering, she’s so excited! Her parents let her keep it until it hatches – they’re worried that she may be eaten by what’s in the egg! – but Oona is convinced that Something Cute is in that egg just waiting for Oona to love it. She cares for the egg until one day, it disappears – and Bonk is acting awfully guilty.
Oona finds an egg is a new intermediate series for readers growing out of easier chapter books like Scholastic’s Branch series, and ready to tackle a little more. Oona is a good protagonist: she loves her family, she doesn’t always get along with her little brother, and she shows,The Oodlethunks are a pretty modern stone-age family (apologies to The Flintstones), with a working mom and stay at home dad; kids will recognize the family structure and relate, either having friends with working moms, or having working moms/stay at home dads of their own.
It’s a fun new series that kids will enjoy, with prehistoric animals that kids may not have heard of before – Ms. Griffin provides an explanation on a few of them at the end of the book – and fills the gap between more challenging fiction and easy readers. There are illustrations and text, and plenty of opportunities for a good book discussion.
Recommended for ages 9-12
Grubb, the foundling chimney sweep-turned-apprentice to magician/genius Alistair Grim is back, and he’s got the whole Odditorium gang with him! The relationship between Grim and Grubb is more fully realized, but still shrouded in mystery as they try to unravel what happened to Grubb’s mother, and why she’d have abandoned her baby boy. Alistair Grim is still on the run after the events of the first book, Alistair Grim’s Odditorium, which left the general public convinced that Grim is a madman bent on destruction. The Odditorium inhabitants know that Prince Nightshade is the real villain, and Grim has a plan to bring him down. All he needs is the legendary sword, Excalibur. No big deal, right?
Alistair Grim’s Odd Aquaticum picks up right where the Odditorium leaves off: we’ve got enchanted armor, magical eggs, the legend of King Arthur’s Avalon, fairies, banshees, and enchanted samurai. It’s fantasy with a steampunk bent wrapped up with Arthurian legend and prophecy. Fantasy lovers will devour this book as quickly as they did the first, and the story leaves off with a promise that we’ll see Grubb and friends again.
The character development continues in this second installment, really concentrating on the relationship between Grim and Grubb, but extended characters enjoy some more depth, too; particularly, Cleona the Banshee and Nigel Stout. My review copy didn’t have illustrations, but if they’re anything like the first book’s, they will add to the breathtaking scope of the book. Just look at the cover – I want to see more of that!
I’ve already ordered my library’s copy of Alistair Grim’s Odd Aquaticum. Don’t make your kids wait for yours! In the meantime, check out Gregory Funaro’s author page for updates about the Odditorium and latest author news. (Psst… hey, Disney, time to give the Odditorium its own webpage.)