The Balter of Ashton Harper (Book Review)

The Balter of Ashton Harper (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re wondering where all the regency books for kids are at

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Balter of Ashton Harper

By Millie Florence

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A message of courage for kids who are too scared to reach for their dreams

What an incredible accomplishment for a teen author! This sweet story explores what it means to have hope when hope feels unrealistic and risky. The plot did not take the turns I expected, and what started as historical middle-grade took a turn into fantasyland.

Ashton Harper loves to dance. He secretly harbors hopes of attending a prestigious school of dance. But there’s no way he’ll get in, so why try? Why care?

Ashton and his two sisters DO get a shot at auditioning for the school…will they take it? The story follows Ashton as he figures out what he really wants from life, what’s truly important, and how to let go of his fears and insecurities.

This book is perfect for young readers who love the Regency era but want to read middle-grade (not adult romance, which tends to dominate).

Here’s where I interviewed Millie on Library Binding. She is a pure drop of sunshine!

4.3
A Boy Called Christmas (Book Review)

A Boy Called Christmas (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a Santa-centric book to your kids.

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

A Boy Called Christmas

By Matt Haig

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How did Santa Claus get to be Santa Claus? Here’s a cute origin story for ya.

This was pure fun. It’s an origin story for Santa Claus, as imagined by Matt Haig, author of The Midnight Library. There’s nothing about Jesus or the reality of Christmas—just the North Pole characters associated with the secular winter holidays. Despite lacking any faith element, it’s a cute, heartwarming story that reinforces the value of life, looking on the bright side, and finding joy in giving to others.

My kids know that Santa isn’t real. Every year, we read Gail Gibbons’s book “Santa Who?” because it discusses all of the different traditions and legends that have contributed to who Santa has become, starting with Jesus Christ, then moving to Saint Nicholas, and then beyond. We treat Santa as a character more than anything—like the Grinch or Scrooge. We visit Santa at the annual Christmas tree lighting. We lay out cookies and milk. I don’t want to deprive them of any childhood magic. But I’m not going to lie and tell them he’s real when he’s not. So, this book provided some Santa fun, and I felt that it helps to reinforce him as a fictional character vs. a reality.

We listened to the audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry, and it was adorable. He reads like Jim Dale, doing all the voices.

Content warnings: Nicholas is mistreated and betrayed, but there is nothing troublingly graphic here. I also want to emphasize that this book is secular and unconnected to any other Santa myths that I know of. There is no mention of religion of any kind, not even St. Nicholas.

I haven’t seen the movie—have you?

3.9
The Carver and the Queen (Book Review)

The Carver and the Queen (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
cozy fairy tales in cold settings are your cup of tea

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Carver and the Queen

By Emma C. Fox (Check out my interview with Emma.)

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Deep in the Russian mountains, two peasants discover a magical realm. But will this power bring good fortune or bad?

This book hit the spot. I loved it, and I thought it was even better than The Arrow and the Crown. The dual protagonists were lovable. The villains were mysterious and not made of cardboard. I also loved the supporting cast.

This book is based on a fairy tale that I’m not familiar with, so, for me, it read like a story set in a fairy tale world. It didn’t feel strange or contrived in any way, which sometimes happens with a retelling when you aren’t familiar with the source. You don’t NEED to know the source story to enjoy this one.

This is a sweet romance, too! Perfect for teens who want clean, mature romance. No spice, just heart.

I’m very much looking forward to Emma C. Fox’s next book!

Content warnings: None


4.6
Goblabet (Book Review

Goblabet (Book Review

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed the movie Labyrinth, and you can’t resist a puzzle to solve

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Goblabet: An Alphabetical Murder Mystery

By Ken Priebe

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Can your kids crack the case of who killed the Goblin King?

What a fun concept! The Goblin king has been poisoned, and 26 suspects are called to defend their innocence. Three are guilty of murder, but which three? The answer is encoded into the book.

One goblin for each letter of the alphabet. One short poem per goblin. One simple code to crack. This is a fun, interactive book for kids.

My 8-year-old had fun decrypting the code and solving the case. But I think he had more fun pouring over the illustrations of each goblin, which are so expressive and flawlessly executed, even though they’re presented as “courtroom sketches” and, as such, are done in rough, sketchy form. They’re so funny and original.

The code is easy to crack, so that will appeal to younger kids, but the poetry is advanced, which will appeal to older kids. It would be fun to use this book as part of a poetry exploration for our homeschool—using the author’s concept to write original short-form poetry with a mystery embedded.

4.5
The Queen’s Gambit (Book Review)

The Queen’s Gambit (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Queen’s Gambit (Book 1 of Imirillia)

By Beth Brower

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Don’t confuse this with Walter Tevis’s chess novel. It’s completely different.

I adored The Q, so I’m making Beth Brower’s books a priority. This one is far less complex (and much shorter) than The Q, but it’s still a worthy read, especially if you love character-driven royal dramas with lots of politics.

The bountiful land of Aemogen is a self-contained country that has little to do with the surrounding nations. When Imirillia, a battle-hardened nation to the north, declares war on the soft Aemogen people, the queen, Eleanor, must figure out how to ready her peaceful farmers for war against a foe that is more numerous and skilled than they can ever hope to be. It’s like The Shire vs. Mordor.

She finds unexpected help when Wil Traveler, a wandering soldier, arrives at court. Asking him to train her troops is a gamble, but she takes the risk.

This book moved slowly, without too much high action. This first installment in the series is more about establishing character dynamics, which, I’m sure set the stage for the second and third books. The characters are good—flawed and riddled with issues. There is also a lot of worldbuilding to clue us in on the traditions and ethos of the two warring nations. I think this is important to know going in.

There’s also a slow-burn romance that is not cheesy. Executing a romantic subplot without cheese on top is no small feat, but I love the way Beth Brower approaches it. You can hand this to any teenager without fear. It’s clean as a whistle without feeling sanitized.

This book doesn’t provide a ton of closure at the end. It doesn’t completely satisfy as a standalone book. The external plot wraps up, but the internal plot is just getting started, so you do feel compelled to read the next book. That’s also important to know going in.

I’m notorious for reading the first book in a series and never continuing. But, I might just keep going with this YA medieval adventure!

4.5
The Master of Tides (Book Review)

The Master of Tides (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a hidden gem by an author with a Christian worldview

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Master of Tides

By Jamin Still

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An unlikely crew of young people must save the land from an evil sorcerer

The setting for this story is really refreshing. I haven’t read anything with quite this mix. Here, in the first book in the series, we start in a seaside industrial town. Then, we’re on the road with a circus. Then, we’re in a dark, fantastical wood. Then the open sea. It’s not typical medieval times in Hibaria.

I enjoyed Cora as a heroine, but I think I liked Will more. He was much spunkier, and Victoria was a tortured soul. But Cora makes sense as the protagonist because she has the most growing to do.

I know that authors sometimes fear dumping too much worldbuilding on the reader, but, because Hibaria has such a unique mythos, I kept forgetting certain aspects that popped up later, such as the role of the constellations and Augrind’s backstory.

Even though this is the first book in the series, and it ends with setup for the next book, there was good closure here. No cliffhangers, just a few twists.

I think that kids around 12 and up would enjoy this, and the morals are sterling.

3.8
The Book of Three (Book Review)

The Book of Three (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a kid-friendly quest-story that feels like Lord of the Rings

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Book of Three

By Lloyd Alexander

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An unskilled young boy is forced into a quest where he must face menacing, magical foes

My 7- and 8-year-old boys REALLY enjoyed this. This is the first book in a fantasy series in the tradition of LOTR (the parallels are unmistakable). So, it would be a fun series for kids who aren’t quite ready for Lord of the Rings yet—or, on the other side of the coin, kids who have read LOTR (bless them) and want something that feels similar.

This book is a rescue/quest. Taran, our preteen hero, has just one job: keep the magical pig in her pen. But, when an evil warrior and his minions ride into the vicinity, the pig runs for her life, and Taran runs after her.

The story starts quickly and there’s swift pacing throughout. By chapter two, we see Taran plunge into the forbidden woods after the pig. From there, he meets many friends and foes. He’s tested and transformed. It’s got everything you want in a medieval adventure.

The reason why I gave it four instead of five stars is because the climax was a bit soft, and the ending abrupt. This is the first book in a series, so, hey, there’s more! But as a book in its own right, the ending was a bit wah-wah.

Content warnings: There are the normal swordfights and battles that you’d expect in a book like this. The description of the Horned King (pictured on the cover) may be a little much for sensitive kids. There is one quick mention of the bad guys making human sacrifices (gross). And one of the female foes has a particularly wicked interaction with our main characters…but it’s easily self-censored if you’ve got littler kids listening.

4
The Puppets of Spelhorst (Book Review)

The Puppets of Spelhorst (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Puppets of Spelhorst

By Kate DiCamillo

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A collection of puppets go on a gentle adventure

By now, I know what to expect from Kate DiCamillo when it comes to a book like this. The Puppets of Spelhorst felt a lot like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. It’s about a collection of puppets, and things happen to them, and they are changed. Very similar to Edward Tulane, who is a toy that things happen to, and he is changed.

It’s got big-time Velveteen Rabbit vibes, let’s just say that.

This book is charming, and like DiCamillo’s other books, the scope is intimate, but the themes are big. Although the puppets are inanimate, they have an inner life in which they think and communicate with one another (but they can’t move around or speak aloud like in Toy Story).

The big theme revolves around stories and their power. What is a puppet made for if not to tell a story? But the puppets don’t know who they are or what their story is.

All of the puppets start out by defining themselves in terms of what they have (a crown, sharp teeth, real feathers, etc.). But each puppet has a desire for something more (to have a real experience of some kind), and this desire is achieved in a small way by the end of the book. Of course, this led me to ask myself to what degree are we all puppetlike creatures who exist to play a part in a much larger story that we can’t control?

This book uses repetition like the Mercy Watson / Deckawoo Drive books do, and I can see why this might distract or exasperate some readers, but, for me, it slows me down and makes it crystal clear what the author wants me to pay attention to.

I read this book to myself in about an hour. I’m wondering if my boys will enjoy it, too, or if it’ll fly over their heads and leave them wondering what it was all about.

Content warnings: None

4
Tress of the Emerald Sea (Book Review)

Tress of the Emerald Sea (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re a fan of swashbuckling underdogs and strong narrative voice

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Tress of the Emerald Sea

By Brandon Sanderson

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A cup-loving small-island girl is forced out of her comfort zone to rescue her true love in a fantasy world where pirates roam the spore seas

Brandon Sanderson wrote this book for his wife, Emily, and he wrote it in secret, without telling a soul except her. He wanted to write something that would entertain and delight her. In his Postscript, he said he wanted to write something free from business constraints and fan expectations. His goal? A fairy-tale-adjacent story that appeals to adults. Something with a similar feel to The Princess Bride and Good Omens.

The result? Pure FUN. As I was reading, I could feel how much fun he was having. The book feels light and effortless, even though it ventures into grave danger and looks into the face of evil. Like Bride, it’s making fun of itself slightly. Like Bride, it doesn’t feel dark. In fact, it’s downright optimistic.

If modern writers can draw any conclusions from Sanderson’s experiment, it seems to me that writing free of business and fan pressures is a great place to start. Sometimes, when I’m reading a book, I can sense the social and political stress that the author was feeling—make sure you check these boxes…definitely can’t say X, Y or Z…just go ahead and sanitize the book of any real meaning, but fill it with messages that have been approved by the culture at large. Kay?

Those books confuse me. But books like this ring clear as a bell. And I absolutely adored Hoid’s narrative voice, and, can I just say, Sanderson is a genius to include a world-hopping character like this in all his books. Talk about giving your fans something to discuss forever and ever amen.

Content warnings: There are the usual things you’d expect with a swashbuckling rescue story, such as death, fights, and such. But there is nothing overly graphic. Very few curses (if any) and no sex.

4.9
The Ordinary Princess (Book Review)

The Ordinary Princess (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you enjoy fractured fairy tales (but gentle ones)

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Ordinary Princess

By M. M. Kaye (author and illustrator)

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

What would happen to a fairy tale princess if she were simply ordinary?

This book came with my homeschool curriculum. I didn’t think my 7- and 8-year-old boys would be interested, so I swapped this one with The Secret Garden, which they loved. That didn’t stop me from reading this tiny book for myself, though.

My copy came with a preface by the author, and I’m glad I didn’t skip it. She says that after going on a fairy-tale-reading-spree, she realized that most of the princesses fit a certain model—beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, and graceful. This is only to be expected in fairy tales, right? But, the author, like so many before and after her, wondered how the story might change if the princess in question were ordinary. She said that she sat under a tree and wrote the whole thing by hand in one sitting.

This book isn’t exactly a retelling of any single tale (that I can think of). It nods mightily to Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, but it’s not a spinoff. It stars Amy, the seventh and youngest daughter of a noble kingdom, and she’s cursed with ordinariness.

Because she’s nothing special to look at, the king and queen can’t marry her off. Amy becomes so weary of the endless string of suitors who arrive, take one look at her, and then awkwardly contrive early departures. So, she must figure something out—and that something is her future.

The curse turns into a blessing. Amy learns the virtues of independent thought, hard work, and healthy physical exertion out of doors, all of which (come to think of it) line up neatly with The Secret Garden.

This book is short and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to fairy tales, mildly mocking them. It reminds me of About the Sleeping Beauty by P. L. Travers. It’s long been fashionable to recast these timeless tales to suit modern tastes, pointing out how sexist and violent the originals are, and aren’t we much better in this day and age? But, we’re not better, and it does no good to scoff at folklore, myth, and fairy tales. But it’s okay to look at them and wonder why. Wonder how and if. What else are they for if not that?

4
Snowglobe (Book Review)

Snowglobe (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
Squid Game + The Hunger Games sounds like a thrill-filled funtime

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Snowglobe

By Soyoung Park
Translated by Joungmin Lee Comfort

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Another YA dystopia—is it worthy?

I think that, like most YA dystopias, you’ll either love this or hate it.

Years from now, the world is frozen, and everyone works in power plants to provide the population with the electricity required to sustain life. Everyone works for the power plants, except residents of Snowglobe, a ritzy community sheltered from sub-zero temps by a dome. How can you become one of the chosen few who get to live there? By agreeing to act on TV. Your life is recorded and made into a TV show for the world to see.

If you worked day in and day out at a power plant (riding a bicycle to produce energy) and you got the chance to become a Snowglobe actor, would you take it?

That’s basically what happens to Chobahm, our teenage girl protagonist. But the catch? She’s asked to take the place of a megastar who died. She looks nearly identical to an actress named Goh Haeri, who has achieved Taylor Swift-level fame in Snowglobe. If Chobahm agrees, then her family will receive extra compensation, and she may even get a shot at attaining her lifelong dream of getting accepted to Snowglobe’s famed film school to become a director.

It’s a Faustian bargain with all the teenage trappings that make this book appealing to its target audience. It checks all the boxes for what I hoped to see—mystery, twists, and action.

I did feel like the book could’ve been tighter. I really enjoyed it, but the first and second half were a bit disjointed, with characters from the first half who faded into the background to make way for new characters who took the stage in the second half. I listened on audio, which was a lifesaver for name pronunciation, but I confess that I did have a hard time keeping the characters straight.

Overall, this was a solid YA read, and it was interesting to read this genre set in what I assume is a futuristic South Korea, but I’m not sure I’ll come back for book 2.

Content Warnings (with spoilers): Here are some things that you may want to know before handing this to your teen (or reading it yourself). There is discussion of cloning and its moral implications. There are scenes of violence, but nothing gory or over the top. One character is revealed to be in a same-sex relationship with another character, but this isn’t central to the plot and (I think) becomes more central in the sequel. There are some whiffs of romance for the protagonist, Chobahm, but nothing graphic and no sex scenes.

4
The Black Cauldron (Book Review)

The Black Cauldron (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a high fantasy rescue story filled with dramatic dilemmas

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Black Cauldron

By Lloyd Alexander

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Everyone’s favorite assistant pig-keeper is off on another adventure, but this one will test him to the core.

Dilemmas. That’s why this book is so good. The characters are faced with one impossible choice after another until the very last chapter. My boys and I really enjoyed this second installment in the Prydain Chronicles.

The evil Arwan is gaining power. To stop him, Gwydion gathers a crew of loyal Prydainians to sneak into his fortress and steal the black cauldron—the wicked pot he uses to create undead warriors for his army. Naturally, everything goes wrong, and Taran must learn what it means to make hard choices—all by himself.

This book was better than the first one, and I think it’s worth reading the first book in order to experience this sequel more richly.

This is HIGH fantasy in the same vein as Tolkien. It’s hard to miss the parallels between LOTR and these books. But, these books are much shorter and accessible to a younger audience. My 7- and 8-year-olds wouldn’t be able to read them solo, but they can understand them perfectly well when I read aloud (and clarify some of the high-brow vocab). The books are written in a lofty, grand tone.

Again, this book was great because of the series of difficult choices that the characters faced. I felt like the plot was tight and economical. Overall, YES.

Content warnings: Nothing overly concerning. Several characters die, and one must sacrifice him/herself in one scenario.

4.9
Once a Queen (Book Review)

Once a Queen (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you, as a kid, hoped with all your heart that doors to other worlds actually existed.

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Once a Queen

By Sarah Arthur

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Secret Garden meets Narnia

After hearing Sarah MacKenzie from Read-Aloud Revival (I love her) interview the author, I was ready and rearin’ to love this book, and maybe my expectations were too high. I liked it but did not love it. Now, I do love the premise: There are portals to other worlds. They exist, just like in fairy tales. All we have to do is find them. That’s a common childhood fantasy, right? But the execution felt a tad off for me.

The protagonist is young Eva, an American who travels with her mom to visit her Grandmother in England for the first time ever. Soon, she realizes that her regal Grandmother was once a queen in fairyland.

Positives: Complex female relationships—whoooo-wheeee. Women. We can be weird. We don’t always treat each other right, and this book is packed with strong females who all seem to have fraught relationships with one another. This didn’t detract from the book at all and was one of the highlights for me.

Negatives: The writing wasn’t as immersive as I’d hoped. The pacing of the plot did drag a bit for me. I found myself wondering more than once, “Where is this going?” Eva was always finding clues and making little discoveries, but they all seemed a tad disjointed. I couldn’t see how the story was building to any sort of climax. The chapter-ending Ternival tales (fictional excerpts from a book of fairy tales) were a little hard to follow. It was a lot of new information to keep track of.

Thank you to NetGalley and WaterBrook for an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Content warnings: I wouldn’t hesitate to let any teenager read this. There’s nothing graphically scary or violent, and there is a sweet romance but it’s very much a side note until the end, and even then, there’s just a hint.

3.5