Road Trip Gone Wrong: A Book Review of EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines

EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines
James Preller
Illustrated by Kevin Keele
Scholastic
February 7, 2023
Ages 8 to 12

Stopping at the EXIT 13 Motel was the worst decision the McGinns could have made. Lost in the fog, the McGinns decide to stop when the shadowy motel appears out of nowhere when they needed it most. Dealing with suspicious hotel staff, the mysterious wolf that appears and disappears just as quickly, and the haunting voice that keeps talking to Ash, the youngest McGinn, was not what they were looking for on a road trip. Ash and his sister, Willow, must solve the mystery of the motel for their family, or else they may never have the chance to check out.

Told in the third-person to gain the perspective of all characters involved, the book mainly focuses on Ash and Willow as they search for answers. Written primarily in prose, black and white comic panels are used to expose new secrets the children find out about EXIT 13 and provide an in-depth view of the emotions on the characters’ faces. Although Willow and Ash don’t get along at the beginning of the book, as they face each secret and obstacle of the motel and its creepy forest, their concern for one another and familial bond grows stronger. Humor, lighthearted moments, and a new friend balance out the sense of doom that the children and readers feel is coming. Left on a giant cliffhanger, young readers who enjoy thrilling mysteries will want to continue to explore the secrets of EXIT 13 with Ash and Willow as they try to leave.

Dreamers: A review of Of Walden Pond: Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Tudor, and the Pond Between

Of Walden Pond: Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Tudor, and the Pond Between
Lesa Cline-Ransome
Illustrated by Ashley Benham-Yazdani
Holiday House
November 15, 2022
Age 6-9

Set in the majestic winter wilderness of Concord, Massachusetts, two men with different dreams set them in motion at Walden Pond. Henry David Thoreau, “oddball, tax dodger, nature lover, dreamer,” builds a cabin and lives off the land to experience nature and write of its beauty (pg. 6). Frederic Tudor, “bankrupt, disgrace, good for nothing, dreamer,” comes to Walden as an entrepreneur to harvest the winter ice and make his fortune (pg. 7).

Lisa Cline-Ransome crafts a snapshot of their intersecting time on the pond and how it influenced their unique legacies. Mimicking the seasonal organization of Thoreau’s Walden, she follows them through a year that sees their arrival at the pond and follows their experiences, writing and harvesting and transporting ice to the other side of the world. Her study in contrasts follows the naturalist as he observes the seemingly unnatural process of sending ice to one of the hottest places on the planet. Pencil and watercolor illustrations beautifully capture the tranquility of the rural setting and the simplicity of Thoreau’s existence juxtaposed against the industrious activities of Tudor and his team. A mostly cool color palette in the Walden scenes sits in contrast to the warm, dusty scenes in Calcutta, before circling back to a last frosty winter scene on the pond. Spare text and minimal punctuation sketch a rough timeline that is enhanced by both the detailed illustrations and very specific Author’s Note full of biographical information on the men from before and after their 1846 encounter.

A poetic look at a lovely setting that inspired the legacies of two extraordinary 19th century dreamers.

An Everglades-inspired Fantasy Adventure: A Review of Into the Glades

Into the Glades
Laura Sebastian
Delacorte Press
October 25th, 2022
Ages 8 to 12

The Glades—a peaceful but magical swamp-like area filled with magical creatures—has been the home to best friends, Cecilia and Larkin, since they were young. But with the unexpected death of Cecilia’s father, Oziris, the leader of the village, the Glades has turned maliciously towards the townspeople like never before. Wrapped in anger and grief but determined to resurrect Oziris and break the curse on the Glades, Cecilia and Larkin, along with their two younger brothers, embark upon a journey through the Glades to find a powerful witch. But the potential price of such dark magic may be too much for the children to handle, along with the grief and fury threatening to consume them.

As the girls and their brothers’ journey through the Glades, Sebastian weaves in how each handles their grief, from simmering anger to calm acceptance. Tested throughout their journey, Cecilia and Larkin are challenged by their emotions, magical ability, and fear of losing each other. In the end, they have to accept each other for their bonds of friendship to endure. Sebastian uses the journey though the Glade as a metaphor for moving through the stages of grief. Details of Oziris’s death introduce a darker tone, but Sebastian balances it with subtle humor and lightheartedness from the brothers. She firmly places them as emotional support for Cecilia and Larkin while away from the rest of their grieving family members. The characters and location of the story are inspired by the author’s childhood, making it a personal story that still allows readers to immerse themselves in her experience. Into the Glades is a fantasy adventure encouraging social-emotional learning by bringing to life real issues surrounding loss and grief along with accepting change and enjoying each moment, providing a silver lining to even the darkest events.

Spooky Season Titles For All: Halloween 2022 Recommendations

Whether sweet and silly or downright terrifying, ghosts and ghouls of all ages enjoy a good spooky story. And publishers did not disappoint this Halloween season, covering the gambit from gentle introductions to Halloween traditions to dark and twisty tales of the occult. So pick your favorite candy, pour yourself a mug of cider, and settle in for a read at your preferred level of spooky.

BOARD BOOKS: For the youngest ghosties!

The Monsters on the Broom
By Annemarie Riley Guertin
Illustrated by Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn
Simon & Schuster/Little Simon
July 2022
0-3

A group of young monsters delight in a midnight flight in this bouncy Halloween celebration to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus.” A rich and moody color scheme perfectly captures the feel of a crisp fall evening. Cheerful little monsters tour their town by broom, on die cut pages that build as they explore, leading up to a group ride and wishes for a “Happy Halloween!”

Halloween is a Treat!
By Sabrina Moyle
Illustrator Eunice Moyle
Abrams/Appleseed
July 2022
0-3

More sweet than spooky, this detail packed little book includes all the most fun Halloween traditions—costumes, candy, jack-o’-lanterns, and more! A gentle rhyme weaves together the various holiday amusements for little cats (and kids) to enjoy. Busy pages full of neon orange highlights may even include some Halloween costume inspiration.


PICTURE BOOKS: Choose your favorite—sweet or spooky?

Happy Owl-Oween!
By Laura Gehl
Illustrated by Lydia Nichols
Abrams/Appleseed
July 2022
3-5

Owlet friends partake in all the Halloween traditions their neighborhood has to offer. Simple text, a sweet rhyme, and vibrant geometric illustrations combine to gently introduce the less-than-scary side of the holiday, helping owls of all ages to get into the spirit. Gehl includes an author’s note explaining the origins of many Halloween traditions, but it’s a bit sophisticated for all but the most precocious kindergarteners.

If Your Babysitter is a Bruja
By Ana Siqueira
Illustrated by Irena Freitas
Simon & Schuster
August 2022
3-6

A new babysitter might spell big trouble for a mischievous girl with an oversized imagination. Imagining her parents left her with a witch turns an ordinary evening into a magical Halloween adventure of broomsticks, bubbling caldrons, and ghostly castles. Spanish words and phrases are incorporated throughout, yet easily interpreted in context. Vibrant and exaggerated illustrations and inventive text combine for a unique and whimsical addition to Halloween book collections.

The Most Haunted House in America
By Jarrett Dapier
Illustrated by Lee Gatlin
Abrams
August 2022
4-8

Invited by the First Lady to play at the White House Halloween celebration, the Skeleton Drummers answer the call, entertaining both the living and the long-dead with their spooky tunes. Even when they are scared silly themselves, the show must go on, and the band plays ‘til dawn. Sepia tones mute the illustrations, adding age and mood to the images, and enhancing the drama of the event. Smiling skeletons and rhyming text tempers what could be a scarier picture book tale. An author’s note includes some of the most popular ghost stories told about the White House as well as the author’s experience playing the drums for White House Halloween party dressed as a skeleton.


Middle Grade: Just the right amount of scare factor!

Crimson Twill: Witch in the City
By Kallie George
Illustrated by Birgitta Sif
Candlewick
July 2022
7-9

Who says witches need to be spooky? Perhaps all they have to be is themselves. A trip to the big city department store—Broomingdale’s—is Crimson’s change to find just what she needs. Maybe a cat or a new hat, if she can find one that suits her. What she finds instead are friends that like her just the way she is—unique. Reminiscent of The Worst Witch in tone and language, with lovely black and white illustrations, this sweet chapter book is full of charm and charms.

Bunnicula: The Graphic Novel
By James Howe and Andrew Donkin
Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin
Based on the 1979 novel by Deborah and James Howe
Simon and Shuster/Atheneum
August 2022
8-12

Harold the dog and Chester the cat must contend with a new pet in the Monroe family home, a peculiar bunny who just might be a vampire. Chester, with Harold as trusty sidekick, investigates just what’s making all the vegetables in the house white and juiceless. And just how their new roommate might be responsible. A graphic adaptation of the original story, the varied layout and muted color scheme uphold the melodramatic nature of the novel, while keeping just the right amount of humor to keep things light.

August of the Zombie (Zombie Problems Book 3)
By K.G. Campbell
Knopf
January 2022
8-12

August DuPont has an unusual, and undead, problem—he attracts zombies. And what started as one sidekick has turned into a horde. In the final installment of this trilogy, he must finally find the Zombie Stone to lay his followers and some family secrets to rest. Moody, yet humorous, illustrations provide levity and show the zombies to be more ridiculous than ravenous. Quirky and clever, a delightful middle grade introduction to supernatural stories.

Wildseed Witch
By Marti Dumas
Abrams/Amulet
May 2022
10-14

One fit of temper and Hasani goes from a summer of fun and family (drama) to a premier finishing school for witches to hone her newfound abilities. But being the newcomer isn’t easy, especially when everyone else grew up in a magical family, and you’re starting from scratch. Dumas has created an alternative New Orleans, with all the charm and spirit of the original, and an additional spark of magic. Perfect for Harry Potter fans who will cheer for this determined and charismatic heroine of color. A tribute to learning your own balance between fitting in and standing out, and how to most gracefully be yourself.


Young Adult: From a hint of magic to downright scary!

Fraternity
By Andy Mientus
Abrams/Amulet
September 2022
13+

Scandal sends Zooey Orson from his New York high school to an all-boys boarding school full of secrets, secret societies, and not-so-secret biases. He is taken in by the Vicious Circle, a group of gay students that become his found family in their fight against very human and supernatural secrets, and an occult text that could destroy them all. Set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, this story of brotherhood and belonging combines episodes of LGBTQ history with paranormal thrills.

The Monarchs
By Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige
Harper Collins/Clarion
January 2022
14+

The most popular sorority on campus hides many secrets—the rules of sisterhood, details of the death of their past president, and that they are actually a powerful coven of witches. New president Scarlett and new student Vivi balance schoolwork, love interests, and battling the ancient forces of evil in this sequel to The Ravens. An atmospheric college setting and emotionally charged relationships between the sisters add substance to this fast-paced and action-packed duology closer.

Spells for Lost Things
By Jenna Evans Welch
Simon and Schuster
September 2022
12+

Willow’s mom dragged her to Salem to sort out a family inheritance. Mason is in Salem with a foster care placement. And they both want to be nearly anywhere else. Drawn together by the mystery of Willow’s family history, they are kept together by a growing connection. YA romance with a dash of witchcraft combine for a charming story of finding family and finding yourself. Welch weaves in the thread of wanderlust that ties all her novels together, with Willow and Mason exploring all the lore and kitsch Salem, Massachusetts have to offer as they learn about life, family ties, and each other.

Roundhouse Kick Retelling: A Review of Little Red Riding Hood and the Dragon

Little Red Riding Hood and the Dragon
Ying Chang Compestine
Illustrated by Joy Ang
Abrams Books for Young Readers
November 1st, 2022
Ages 4 to 8

Little Red Riding Hood and the Dragon depicts a refreshing Chinese twist on the age-old folk tale of Little Red Riding Hood, as told by the wolf from the original. But this Little Red knows kung fu and carries a sword, which is why her mother feels safe sending her to grandmother, or Nainai’s house, when she’s sick. Making her way to Nainai’s house, Little Red is tricked by a dragon and uses her quick wit and traditional Chinese instruments to save Nainai and herself, making her the hero of her own story.

Although Little Red Riding Hood knows how to defend herself, she doesn’t use much force when trying to escape the dragon’s belly, just cleverness. This provides deeper character depth than the original tale. More in line with the original tale, many other characters in this picture book aren’t focused on besides Little Red Riding Hood. As the big bad wolf is looked at as an antagonist in other folktales, his perspective as narrator is a unique element that refocuses the story now on a Chinese dragon as the antagonist. The digital art and vivid colors in Ang’s illustrations lend a modern sensibility to the ancient setting and traditional tale, and add a further twist to the retelling. Detailed backmatter contains Compestine’s author note on her inspiration for this twisted tale, her motivation to include certain Chinese elements, and a deeper look into Chinese culture and heritage. Young readers will enjoy this “real” version of the story, and grown up readers will get a chuckle out of the wolf’s audience in the final spread. Messages of empowerment, problem-solving, and not waiting for a huntsman savior are the real beauty of this twisted tale.

The Circle of Life: A Review of This Is the Sun

This Is the Sun

This Is the Sun
Elizabeth Everett
Illustrated by Evelline Andrya
Science Naturally
October 2022
Ages 4-7

A vibrant geometric sun shines its rays on the undulating earth below. Thus begins this brilliant and bouncy circle of life story told as a cumulative tale to the rhythm of “The House That Jack Built.” Moving from the sun, to the tree, to the flower, and so on Everett walks readers though the tale with simple text, easily digestible by preschool story times or early independent readers. Lush, full-color, digital collage illustrations complement the spare text. With text to the left of the spread and full-page illustrations to the right, Andrya layers in each new element of the story and introduces a seek-and-find component. Can you find the bug, on the leaf, on the tree? The text and art are both reminiscent of Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar. This familiar format, combined with the cadence of a well-known nursery rhyme, lends the nonfiction text to story time in a way most NF does not. Adding to its utility, the book will be available in both English and Spanish, with teacher resources available on the publisher’s website after publication.

This deceptively simple story elegantly introduces the complex topic of our interdependent ecosystem and helps young readers see their place in it.

Just the Start of Spooky Season: A Review of The Whispering Dark

The Whispering Dark
Kelly Andrew
Scholastic Press
October 18, 2022
Ages 14 and up

Being Deaf, Delaney Meyers-Petrov has always been seen as fragile, but when she gets accepted into the mysterious Godbole School, with its history of teaching students how to roam between worlds, she jumps on the chance to prove herself. Meeting Colton Price again at the school was not part of the plan. Colton Price’s life has orbited around one person ever since he woke up from death at her feet – Delaney’s. Forced together on campus, but forbidden from interacting, Colton struggles to keep away from her. They form an uneasy alliance to discover why students are dying gruesome deaths and brace themselves for an age-old enemy that has risen from the shadows of the school’s dark history.

Described by the publisher as a romantic fantasy, it reads more as a mystery thriller, with its strange murders and supernatural entities, with only subtle themes of romance. Andrew skillfully builds tension that makes readers need to find out the cause of the deaths and the secrets of the school to be appeased. The story could have been more effectively told in the first-person, by the alternating narrators, to provide in-depth understanding of each character. Its third-person narration waters down the emotion and hinders evolving character arcs. Delaney sees herself as fragile in the beginning and doesn’t tell friends or professors that she’s Deaf, which hurts her relationships and grades. Even in the end, she doesn’t tell people around her. Elements like the frequently changing narrators and elaborate language are disorienting and add to the mystery. The puzzling secrets of the school that only Colton seems to know but are hidden outside the grasp of the reader until the rushed resolution are an additional element of suspense. This perplexing story will make young adult/new adult readers ponder what they would come back to life as after a deathly experience: a better version of themselves or something possessed by evil.

More Than “Goode” Enough: A Review of The Glass Witch

The Glass Witch cover art

The Glass Witch
Lindsay Puckett
Scholastic Press
October 18, 2022
Age 8-12

Adelaide Goode is the youngest in a family of cursed and complicated witches, doomed to feel she is not magic enough, thin enough, or “Goode enough.” About to be left with her grandma for the summer, Addie clings to her mother in a snap decision that unleashes the curse, turns her bones to glass, and makes her the target of a witch-hunting spirit. Only by accepting herself and connecting with her family’s magic, or kindred, can she save herself, her family, and her town from shattering.

Challenged by low self-esteem and fear of abandonment, Addie uses tween snark and extraordinary baking skills as a shield against her fears. Puckett weaves heavy themes of body image, bullying, and family tension with more whimsical notes of a Halloween Pageant, delicious food imagery, and brave rescue rabbits to keep the tone light and the pace lively. And the addition of a fearless and monster-obsessed new friend, Fatima, makes for the perfect foil for Addie and her ideal companion in a magical crisis. Secondary adult characters begin in a less-defined manner but shine in a conclusion that sees Addie find her self-worth while learning about her family and her place in it.

Friendship, family, and magic combine in this lighthearted story of self-discovery and acceptance.

Paving the Way For Future Generations: A Review of Bessie the Motorcycle Queen

Bessie the Motorcycle Queen
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Illustrated by Charlot Kristensen
Scholastic Inc. / Orchard Books
September 20, 2022
Ages 6 to 8

Through rhyming verse, Bessie the Motorcycle Queen tells the story of little-known adventurer, Bessie Stringfield. A Black motorcyclist, she was known for her spontaneous, cross-country motorcycle rides, flair for the dramatic, and ability to cruise easily past her white, male competitors. Fighting against conditions in the Jim Crow-era South, Bessie was often forced to sleep under the stars when motels rejected her, was chased by Klan members, and cheated out of her race winnings. The impulsive, determined, and highly skilled Bessie gives author Charles Smith, Jr. plenty of tales for an action-packed ride. His verse maintains a quick pace and fun tone, despite some heavy content, even if some lines are a bit clunky. The sherbet-flavored color palette, laid over the modern digital paintings, immediately places the story in the 1920s. Elements like her wheat penny, which she flipped to decide her next location, add to the period details and her legend. The rough, lineless illustrations feel cartoon-like and energetic, with Bessie and her motorcycle significantly more detailed than everything else, keeping the reader’s eyes always on her. The backmatter includes an author’s note explaining his discovery of Bessie’s story, and the inspiration he found in her bravery, as well as a bibliography with books and online articles for additional reading on Bessie.

With races, car chases, and daring motorcycle stunts, this tall tale of an overlooked historical figure shines a spotlight on her bravery and spirit in a story of empowerment.

A Review of Bibbidi Bobbidy Academy: Rory and the Magical Mix-Ups

Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy: Rory and the Magical Mix-Ups
Kallie George
Illustrated by Lorena Alvarez Gómez
Disney Hyperion
October 11,2022
Ages 5-8

Living as a non-magical being her whole life, Rory Spellington enrolls in Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy so she can achieve her dream of becoming a fairy godmother. Her excitement about finally attending the Academy fades when all of her spells turn into disasters. Only with the help of her new friend, Mai, and her experience living in the non-magical world does Rory learn that having magic doesn’t make all wishes come true; listening and being there for someone is the best way to grant any wish.

This imaginative and magical tale starts by providing a map of Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy so readers can visually follow along on Rory’s adventures. Including a map of the academy encourages readers creativity as they delve into the story and adds to the adventure. Bright, vivid colors and attention to detail in the illustrations make each chapter a magical tale on its own*. Although the academy name and characters within the story have references to Disney movies, familiarity isn’t necessary to follow along. To adjust to the age-appropriate reading level, George spells out complex words, using word play to complement Rory’s magical spell-casting challenges, and normalizes learning differences for the reader. George’s tone follows Rory’s time at the academy from excited and animated in the beginning, then slowly dwindles to discouraged as Rory’s spells end in disaster, and back to festive as Rory completes her first magical assignment with flying colors, helping a child with his first wish. With an overtmoral, the author makes it clear to young readers that nobody can be a perfect fairy or non-magical person, but if you are motivated to fulfill your dream, then try your hardest, even when there might be magical disasters.

* Review based on ARC