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Spirit Riding Free: The Adventure Begins by Suzanne Selfors

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 272 pgs.
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Spirit Riding Free: The Adventure Begins by Suzanne Selfors is the tale of Lucky Prescott and her family’s move out west while her father works on the railroad expansion through the west. On her ride from the city to Miradero, Lucky sees a mustang riding fast and is amazed. But when the mustang is captured, Lucky is devastated, especially when she learns from her father that he’ll likely be broken and sold to someone, essentially losing his freedom.

Lucky has some trouble fitting in, especially when her aunt Cora insists that she wear a dress in the heat. She’s no longer learning to be a proper lady in the city and when she gets to school, most of the girls are wearing pants. She has a misunderstanding with Pru and Abigail, but Maricela seems to want to be her friend — too bad she’s a bit stuck up and hates horses.

My daughter loves this television show on Netflix and watches every season. This book follows much of what happens in the first season of the show, so we were not surprised by what happens. She still enjoyed reading this together at night before bed. She still wanted more pictures. This was definitely a book you’ll want to read with younger kids, not let them try to read it on their own. The language should be easy to follow, but the lack of pictures makes younger kids get bored easily, even when they are 9.

Spirit Riding Free: The Adventure Begins by Suzanne Selfors was a good book for gals who like horses and adventure, but this was definitely a book that adults will want to read with younger readers who still need pictures to pay attention. We really loved riding along with Lucky and watching her navigate a new place and find new friends.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Suzanne Selfors lives on an island near Seattle where it rains all the time, which is why she tends to write about cloudy, moss-covered, green places. She’s married, has two kids, and writes full time. Her favorite writers are Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Dickens, and most especially, Roald Dahl.

Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet by Megan Frazer Blakemore

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 144 pgs.
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Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is a third grader who loves her best friend, Maya, and loves science. When her teacher informs the class that they are going to get a class pet, she has her heart set on getting a rat. Her teacher lays out the criteria:

1. Fit in aquarium.
2. Cost less than $50.
3. Be easily portable.
4. Be able to be left alone for the weekend.

While she completes all of her research on rats at home through the internet, books, and information from her aunt Gina, her other classmates have barely begun. Her aunt works with rodents at her job, and Frankie must solve the one problem with her rat idea — how to feed them every day even when the kids are not at school to do it. My daughter struggled to read some of the larger scientific words in this book, but I loved that they included explanations for the kinds about what those words mean. I also liked that Frankie loved science and that it was incorporated into the book without being overly boring.

My daughter’s favorite part is the end of the book, even after the class pet is selected, and when Frankie realizes that she shouldn’t force Maya to vote for the rat when she wants a betta fish and when she apologizes to her friend for being not so nice. Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is a great introductory book for early readers to learn about science, experimenting, solving problems, and being good friends.

RATING: Quatrain

Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 68 pgs.
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Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun, which was Winner of The Berkshire Prize for First or Second Book chosen by D. A. Powell, opens with an earthquake. The world is shaken beneath the reader before the journey has even begun. In the Map section of the book, Chun pains a picture of each town/city in a way that leaves the reader wondering when the next explosion will happen and upend everything we know. The pent up unpredictability of life is felt in each of these poems, and not all of these poems are about China — the narrator explores Kansas City, Washington state, and Texas. In “Guangzhou,” the narrator says, “if only I knew the safe land–/the world terrifies me too, the world that is no/stranger than before.” We are all vaguely aware that the world is not entirely safe, but we must have courage to face it head on. How can we do that without a loved on to lean on or an amulet to protect us?

Photo of My Father at Eleven

Your father had decided to find you
in the year after the war. He, an officer,

remarried. You and your sisters and mother
feed on banana and church congee.

Your mother's sorrow hangs like a wisteria bud;
she leans her head in the north-facing room.

Father, I have your eyes and mouth.
I wore the same Youth Pioneer band on my neck,

its knot also bigger than my throat.
In a few years you will find the words

to speak to your father. But for now,
lost in bricks and gray asphalt,

let us hold hands and hum together.

Chun leads us into the second section, “Amulet,” where the journey traverses through a prison, a broken home, the Andes, and more. There is an urgency to run toward forgiveness even as the narrator is unable to do so. The idea that forgiveness must be given to move on is strong, but the mind can sometimes move faster than the heart and body are able to when they are harmed. “Peachwood Pendant” is one of the most beautifully haunted poems in the collection where the narrator is still unable to hold and carry the unloved or those not loved enough even if they should be loved. Ending the section with “Photo of My Mother at Twenty-Five,” brings us full circle to the broken home and the plight of a single mother, but there is beauty in her struggle, at least as seen through the narrator’s eyes — “It’s spring again./Look at those yellow flowers.//I feel so light,/slipping from your body.”

In the final two sections, “Almanac” and “Window,” we begin to explore important dates from a great flood to the first moon. These are windows into the past. Through these events we are given a window through which the narrator can journey into the future without the weight of the past bogging them down in the river. In “Chrysanthemum is Prettiest in the Ninth Moon,” the narrator says, “The window has moved./My gray-haired elders are still there,/counting chrysanthemum petals in the sun,/each petal a sad shoe.” When we get to “Off Year,” the narrator has “swept spiders off the walls” moving forward into the future.

Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun is meditative in its journey of unraveling the self and the past, winding and unwinding it to view it from different angles to achieve a peace with the past and the future. Chun’s use of language is deeply rooted in nature, but it also adept at capturing the abstract emotions of life in a way the breathes new life into family history.

RATING: Quatrain

Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 8+ hrs.
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Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos, a memoir of creativity read by the author, explores a variety of political climates through the lens of an adult. When Amos was playing piano bars in Washington, D.C., the hotbed of political machinations, at age 11 in the 1970s, she was likely not aware of the political situation as much as she is as an adult. She brings her knowledge of now when she looks back on those experiences, but what sticks with her was how a marginalized group took a chance on her young talent as a pianist to provide entertainment for the political elite. Growing up in music bars throughout the city and in hotels where lobbyists made their deals with politicians provided Amos with a window into the truth of our Republic. Young people learning about our government and its structure often have a naive view of how our country is run, and I can tell you from experience that it is devastating when you learn how deals are struck and powerful men always seem to have the upper hand even if the side they are on is clearly wrong and devastating.

I love the structure of this memoir and how Amos uses her song lyrics to discuss her inspiration, the process of creativity, and what aspects of the wider world helped fuel her muses. While some of the songs may seem only tangentially connected to the world affairs she connects with them, that’s the beauty of art. It grows beyond the original intent or words to paint a wider experience of the world around us and help us to see our part in that world.

While Amos’ creative process will not be something that everyone can ascribe to or understand, it is an intriguing journey that she’s made with her family and alone. She speaks about the death of her mother briefly, which must have been particularly devastating. But it is clear that her strength as an artist and women comes from her mother and the inspiration and direction she received from her.

Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage by Tori Amos is a memoir that I’ll remember for a very long time, and is definitely a step above compared to her first, Tori Amos: Piece by Piece. Each artist comes to their work in a different way, and while some may be excellent performers, there is a richness that comes with artists’ like Amos who create work that deeply affects their own soul, as well as those around them. Her memoir is even more relevant today that it was when it was written — before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the COVID-19 pandemic and ignorance of society about public health protections and so much more.

RATING: Quatrain

The Deep by Alma Katsu

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 432 pgs.
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The Deep by Alma Katsu is a historical fiction novel centered around the Titanic and her sister ship the Britannic and the young Anne Hebbley, a stewardess in first class on the Titanic and a nurse’s aid on the Britannic. Through all the glitz and glamor of first class with John Jacob Astor and Lady Duff-Gordon we see the dismissive attitude of others and the entitlement they all carry. However, there are some cases in which these wealthy passengers show kindness and empathy toward their fellow passengers. Katsu has a wide cast of characters in this novel, but she balances them very well against the historical details, and the suspense is palpable as the young boy serving the Astor’s dies mysteriously aboard the Titanic shortly after a seance. The narrative shifts between this past and the Hebbley’s present as a nursing aid on the Britannic. She wonders why she’s agreed to be on the sea again, after her near death on the Titanic.

“Fear was a chained dog, startling and rough and always dangerously close, stretching its leash, baring fangs.” (pg. 24)

Ms. Hebbley is a young woman who is rudderless without family support and haunting memories of a lost love. The past swirls about these characters, scooping them up into a whirlpool of sadness and regret. From the decisions they made that went awry to the regrettable loss of loved ones that they still feel guilty about, Hebbley, Mark Fletcher, and others are burdened and susceptible to the supernatural forces around them. Katsu’s research into the Titanic and Britannic shines through in her novel, and I loved that she provided new characters beyond the ones everyone knows like Astor. This made the story line even more believable and allowed the supernatural elements to weave seamlessly into the story. I loved the backstories of the characters in this cast, and I particularly loved the Gothic atmosphere Katsu created.

In The Deep by Alma Katsu’s characters are burdened by their guilt at the bargains they have made with themselves and others, with how they act toward those they love and how they have come to be where they are. From Hebbley to Fletcher, the secrets become too heavy and have no where left to go but out into the silent ear of the ocean. The ocean becomes their confessional, and there is little room for half-truths and denials — the ocean will make them all pay dearly for those.

RATING: Cinquain

The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 95 pgs.
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The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso is a collection of poems exploring loss, grief, and the lasting sting of devastation. It’s almost like the bottom has fallen out of each narrator’s life. The cover is the outline of a bee with the interior of the outline the iconic Temptation of St. Anthony, which in this context highlights the temptations found in each poem and the struggle to reconcile the inevitable, lasting pain of life.

In “The Book of Drowned Things,” our narrator believes they are a ferryman whose job is to now shuttle people to the land of the dead. Images of death and sorrow hover like ghosts throughout the collection, even as the narrator makes a simple trip to the liquor store — what is this wine they buy, is it just another step on the path toward death and end to sorrow or is it simply just a bottle of wine? One of my favorites is “stone ghost” (below) because the narrator looks the monster in the eye without flinching, seeing beauty instead. It is this childlike response that makes it so easy to believe in Odasso’s dark fairytales.

stone ghost

Ancient monster, I remember the day
I first saw your face, spread my fingers

on the glass and breathed in awe. Eyeless,

your ghost peered through text and reflection
to welcome me home: This was the sea,

my daughter. Your time has come.

Odasso also modifies her poetry into different shapes on the page, which bring to life many of these narrative scenes. I love the poems in “Katadesmos” that mirror the curses that would have been written on them in Roman times. In “You’ll Never Know,” the narrator casts the first stone — like an instigator — shedding light on the short comings of a false deity. I can only think about our modern times here and the many false leaders we’ve had, particularly the current leader of the nation who “won’t listen or warn them.” But the narrator here warns that “We are stronger than you think, we whispers, and we/ push with our backs, our hands splayed against the glass. Your edifice shudders.”

I love the universality of The Sting of It by A.J. Odasso. I loved the collection’s classical undertones, its vivid language, and its personal nature. From illnesses to what identity means, especially the harsh atmosphere that can surround someone who lives outside the societal definitions. It’s time for broadening our definitions of identity, gender, and the self, and Odasso has called us to arms — no longer should we be complacent. Life asks us to feel the sting.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

A.J. Odasso‘s poetry has appeared in a variety of publications, including Sybil’s GarageMythic DeliriumMidnight EchoNot One of UsDreams & NightmaresGoblin FruitStrange HorizonsStone TellingFarrago’s WainscotLiminalityBattersea ReviewBarking Sycamores, and New England Review of Books.  A.J.’s début collection, Lost Books (Flipped Eye Publishing), was nominated for the 2010 London New Poetry Award and was also a finalist for the 2010/2011 People’s Book Prize. Their second collection with Flipped Eye, The Dishonesty of Dreams, was released in 2014; their third-collection manuscript, Things Being What They Are, was shortlisted for the 2017 Sexton Prize.  They hold an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University, where they were a 2015-16 Teaching Fellow, and work at the University of New Mexico.  A.J. has served in the Poetry Department at Strange Horizons since July 2012.

Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 78 pgs.
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Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc is a harsh look at failed relationships and the narrator’s part in those failures, but it also takes a close look at verbal abuse (“the terror of vocabulary”) and the desire to stay with someone you “love.” In the opening poem, “Forest Fire,” there are redwoods growing inside her (beautiful, but wanting), but rather than nurture that forest, “You stand watching/me burn.” A number of these poems speak to the push and pull of desire and escape, the narrator is unsure which way to turn, unable to break away and do what is best for their mental and physical health, but also desirous of love, one that lasts through everything and props her up when she needs it. She also longs to be a dependable lover, someone her partner can rely on.

As much as these poems are about love and relationships, they also are a self-examination of how one can fail even with the best intentions to be a faithful partner or hold onto the love/desire they felt for the other person at the beginning of their relationship. Each poem has a certain rawness about it, making them highly emotional and visceral poems. But one of my favorite poems int he collection is less overt and more surprising in its use of language.

Self-Portrait With Without

With soy milk. With a latte drunk
each morning in the dark kitchen. Without
the lights on because you slept on the couch
again and I don't want to wake you. With dinner
with friends, everything fine. Without conversation
during the car ride back. With negotiations
as to who walks the dog when we get home. With you
in front of the computer when I go to bed. Without
the weight of you beside me. Without my rings
on when I sleep because my fingers swell. With them on
the next day, newly cleaned and brilliant. With
the sun prisming off the diamonds as I drive
to work. With me spinning them around as I fly, my fingers
puffy by the time I land. Without them on when I shower
away the day's grime. With my hands bare as I open the door
and let him in. With my hands on him. Without a word said.

Beautiful and Full of Monsters by Courtney LeBlanc is collection that speaks to the tug of love and desire and our rational mind, but also to the conscious and subconscious need to suppress our own inner monsters. These are the parts of ourselves that are less than pleasant company and often steer us away from what is best for us. In many ways, these monsters are our baser selves seeking out pure pleasure, even if it is fleeting. Aren’t we all just beautiful monsters at times.

Rating: Cinquain

The Outsider by Stephen King (audio)

Source: Audible purchase
Audiobook, 19+ hours
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The Outsider by Stephen King, narrated by Will Patton, is superbly narrated as always by Will Patton (he’s one of my go-to narrators for audiobooks). This king novel reads more like a crime novel in the first half after a young boy is discovered in the woods, mutilated and murdered. Terry Maitland, Flint City Little League coach and English teacher, is a pillar of the community, but he’s soon a suspect and arrested in front of the whole town. Detective Ralph Anderson, partially motivated by disgust because his son was once on Maitland’s team, now finds that some of the evidence may contradict, and a solid alibi causes serious doubts.

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end. We did fall through, but we helped each other out. We’re still helping each other.”

The second half of the novel is pure King, a build up of creepy into an underworld of darkness and strange beings that cannot be easily explained and are often ignored because they call too much of reality into question. Have you ever wondered what your doppelgänger would look like? Most of us have, but what if that doppelgänger was just evil….pure evil? You’d probably want to know before you’re arrested for their crimes. The outsider is more than just a man who looks like Maitland, and there are many dark secrets hiding in his flesh.

The Outsider by Stephen King, narrated by Will Patton, is a suspenseful horror novel, with a light horror feel for much of the novel. In the later three or four sections, the craziness ramps up and that’s when you know you’ve entered Stephen King’s world.

RATING: Quatrain

The Haunted Library: The Ghost Backstage by Dori Hillestad Butler

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Haunted Library: The Ghost Backstage by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is a solid third book in this series in which Kaz is beginning to take lessons from Beckett about different ghost skills, including how to pick up solid objects. He’s not doing very well with his lessons, but Beckett insists that he learn. When Claire provides Kaz with an opportunity to escape his grueling lessons, he jumps at the chance.

One of Claire’s classmates saw a ghost during play rehearsals for Jack and the Beanstalk. Kaz isn’t thrilled with all of the noise at Claire’s elementary school or the rush of kids everywhere, but he soon finds a way to navigate without having solids pass through him and making him feel all weird. Kaz easily eavesdrops on conversations and reports back to Claire, but he seems to forget that her classmates will find it odd that she’s talking to herself all the time.

My daughter loves guessing who the ghost might be in each of these books, whether it’s someone in Kaz’s lost family or a classmate. But one thing is for sure, Kaz is growing stronger as a ghost every book, and we can’t wait to see what new ghostly skills he picks up along the way.

The Haunted Library: The Ghost Backstage by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is a solid mystery with a fun cast of characters. As this is set in the school for the most part, we rarely seek Beckett and Kosmo, the ghost dog. We missed them, but it was good to see Kaz get inspired to take action to help a kid being made fun of by others. We’ll definitely be reading more of these.

RATING: Quatrain

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 114 pgs.
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Good Bones by Maggie Smith, called “Official Poem of 2016” by Public Radio International, is a gorgeous collection of poems about the transformations that happens in motherhood and how despite the innate need to protect our children, there is no way that mothers can protect children from everything bad in the world. The collection opens with “Weep Up,” in which a young child is crying for the world to awaken — even the birds. This is the reader’s awakening to the life of a mother — connection, a weariness, a protectiveness. In “Sky,” the narrator tries to answer a child’s curiosity about the blueness and expanse of the sky, and in so doing, the narrator envelops us and the child in a comforting embrace: “Think of sky not as blue, not as over,/but as the invisible surround, a soft suit/you wear close to the skin.”

A hawk often glides through the poems, watching the child, guiding the child, and looking out for the child and others as it walks and moves through life. One of my favorite lines is from “The Hawk,” “her notes,//rising easily to him the way an echo/homes to the voice that calls it.//” Smith is a master at describing the indescribable. “Rough Air,” for example, is like “a cat’s tongue/as if the air itself were textured,/as if we could feel its sandpaper/licking our skin.”

One of the most widely shared poem in this collection is “Good Bones”:

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Imagine how many times as parents we try to tell our children to be nice to others, to give way to others, to see the beauty in the pollution around us, to see the happiness in the darkness, and how to avoid the reality they can see with their own eyes. Are we all realtors, trying to sell them a dump to live in and provide them with false hope that they can change it? This collection is all of the emotions of parenting rolled up into one — the angst, the fear, the worry, the sadness at this is the world they are given, and our desperation to protect them from it.

From At Your Age I Wore a Darkness

several sizes too big. It hung on me
like a mother's dress. Even now,

as we speak, I am stitching
a darkness you'll need to unravel,

unraveling another you'll need
to restitch. What can I give you

that you can keep? Once you asked,
Does the sky stop? It doesn't stop,

it just stops being one thing
and starts being another.

Good Bones by Maggie Smith reminds us that while we are that protective hawk watching our children and protecting them from harm, we also can only watch them from afar as they learn to navigate the world on their own. Inevitably, they will fall … they will skin their knees, but we can provide them with the “good bones” they need to protect themselves and journey through the darkness they will eventually find in their lives.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015); and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005). Smith is also the author of three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems are widely published and anthologized, appearing in Best American Poetry, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, POETRY, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. In 2016 her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. Public Radio International called it “the official poem of 2016.” Her new book, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, a collection of essays and quotes, is forthcoming in October 2020 from One Signal/Simon & Schuster.

Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser

Source: Gift
Paperback, 144 pgs.
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Nancy Clancy: Super Sleuth by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, is the first in this chapter book series about a girl who loves Nancy Drew and wants to be a detective just like her. While Drew’s cases take her on scary adventures and the criminals are creepy, Nancy Clancy’s adventures are tamer, often involving classmates and her sister, among others.

Nancy and her best friend, Bree, are amateur detectives and when they overhear Rhonda and Wanda talking about a secret in their year and how one doesn’t want to tell Nancy and the other one does, Nancy and Bree get to sleuthing. They even go through the girls’ backyard looking for clues while Rhonda and Wand are at soccer practice. What my daughter loves about these books is kids working together to solve mysteries (I used to love mysteries, too, as a kid). What I love about this series is the harder words that she has to sound out, like “concentration,” and the sprinkling in of French words that we had a great time using repeatedly after I explained what they meant.

Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, contains more than one mystery to be solved, which keeps the excitement going. I would recommend these early chapter books for other kids who like mysteries.

RATING: Cinquain

The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Attic by Dori Hillestad Butler

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Attic by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, starts where the last book left off in which Kaz is still mourning the loss of his ghost family, but is eager to help his new friend Claire with her ghost detective agency and hopefully help himself find his own family.  In their first case, Kaz and Claire have to navigate how they will get Kaz to new places to find ghosts. At Mrs. Beezley’s house, Kaz takes a trip in a water bottle so he doesn’t float away on the way to the “scene” of the haunting. The attic they check out is dusty and the woman’s home always has all of the windows open, which poses a significant danger to Kaz.

My daughter was always eager to read this book each night, sometimes reading two chapters per night. We finished it really much faster than I expected. Kaz and Claire are fun young characters that she identified with in terms of emotion and curiosity. We were a little astounded that Claire would go out on Mrs. Beezley’s roof and climb down a tree, but I suspect most kids her age would do dangerous things if their parents are not watching.

The Haunted Library: The Ghost in the Attic by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Aurore Damant, is a fun read, with delightful illustrations. We love the idea of ghost detectives and hope that Kaz finds more of his family as the series goes along.

RATING: Cinquain