Claribel A. Ortega is the author of Ghost Squad and Witchlings, a middle-grade fantasy novel about three young witches who must complete an impossible task to keep their magic--and avoid being turned into toads. The second book in the series, The Golden Frog Games, will be released next year. We loved Witchlings's whimsy, strong sense of place, and characters, so we were thrilled to interview Claribel A. Ortega for this month's feature!
Rapunzel Reads: The world of Witchlings blends magic with technology in a way that feels vivid and utterly believable, full of quirky details and beautiful imagery. How did you go about creating this setting? Do you have a favorite part about it?
Claribel A Ortega: When I started the world building process for Witchlings I knew I wanted it to feel like a place that was not that far removed from our own world. The use of technology was deliberate in that sense. It’s such a huge part of our everyday life that I didn’t feel it would be grounded in our world without it. I also saw it as an opportunity to create fun names and interesting gadgets, although it was a challenge sometimes. The more tiny details you can put into your world building the more fleshed out and immersive it can feel and that was really my goal with Witchlings. My favorite part about it is probably how it takes so many of the real life places I love and gives it a magic twist. The Twelve Towns themselves are inspired by
Author photo credit: Clarinet Orchestra
Check out our new young adult review (on our For Older Readers page) on Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, a luminous, breathtaking fantasy novel that we absolutely loved!
The Arcanum Training Institute is the school for young Marvellers--magic-users from around the world whose power is encompassed in one of the five Paragons, or orders of magic. For centuries, Conjurers have been excluded from the Marveller world, their magic criticized and alienated. But now, Arcanum has opened its doors to Conjurers--and eleven-year-old Ella Durand will be the first to attend.
Ella has long dreamed of attending Arcanum, and the school itself is all she's ever imagined--full of moving towers, odd enchantments, and delicious food. Even though not everyone is thrilled about Ella's presence at Arcanum, she slowly begins to find her place. But the school--and the Marveller world--has its own secrets, and when a dangerous criminal escapes from a Conjurer prison, it's up to Ella to clear both her name, and that of all Conjurers.
The Marvellers is a layered, lovely fantasy novel full of strong characters and evocative worldbuilding. I particularly loved Ella and her two friends, Brigit and Jason, a trio who I'm thrilled to spend more time with later in the series! The whole book both embodies and puts a new twist on the classic magic school trope; even with the Marveller world's prejudice towards Conjurers, Arcanum feels like a place anyone could be part of. At the same time, the school has its own mysteries and hard-kept secrets, and its many layers cement it as a spectacular setting--one that is open and welcoming, but remains deeply and believably flawed. I highly recommend The Marvellers to readers ages nine and up, particularly those who enjoy magic schools, clever plots, and engrossing worldbuilding.
By Ella and Lina
We love books in verse! Beautiful, lyrical, and absorbing, these are often some of our favorite stories, and the ones we remember most vividly years after we read them for the first time.
Here are seven of our favorite books in verse!
Xiomara. 1. One who is ready for war. 2. The name her mother gives her when she bursts into the world fighting so hard she has the whole barrio praying for her to survive labor. She'll swear she thought it was a saint's name. Always take her daughter to the church she lives for, tell her constantly to listen, be good, build her a cloister of accusations and arguments and punishments. Her daughter will question the church, question the men who run it, question her mother's stinging authority. And she will never be enough. Instead, she will become a fifteen-year-old girl catcalled for her curves, known for her fists and ferocity, hiding her vulnerability, hiding her exhaustion, because no one, no one else is ever going to protect her from a world that thinks it owns her.
X. What Xiomara's secret more-than-friend from bio class calls her, warming her every time he says it, a sweet secret warmth laced with the fear of what will happen when Mami finds out and this relationship, dream, hidden grasp for freedom shatters into a million painful shards.
The Poet X. A dream. An impossibility. An escape. A girl scribbling frustrations and fears and fragments of ideas of who she really is and who she wants to be on the pages of a battered notebook when her mother isn't looking. A girl on a stage, speaking the words she hides at school, chokes down at home. A girl taking up space and speaking her truth--and loved for it.
I absolutely adored The Poet X, a spare, piercing, perfectly balanced exploration of family, friendship, growing up and learning to live your truth when the whole world seems intent on holding you down. I'm constantly amazed by the depth that can be attained in free verse through so few words; Acevedo, a decorated slam poet, does so with ease. The characters are multilayered and deftly complex, and the family dynamics are especially well-executed, a tangle of anger and bitterness and silence made both heartwrenching and authentic by the threads of painful, complicated love embedded within it. Xiomara's voice is authentic and vibrant, and it's a true joy to watch her learn to love herself and take up the space she so wholeheartedly deserves as the story progresses. I would highly recommend The Poet X to readers ages thirteen and up, especially for discussion or book clubs.
Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris is the sequel to Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, and the second installment in the Theodosia series.
[Look out--there are spoilers for the first book!]
After saving England from the sinister actions of the Serpents of Chaos, trouble has died down for Theodosia Throckmorton, daughter of the head curator of a London archaeology museum. Clearly, though, some peaceful time to catalog artifacts and remove some nasty lingering curses is too much to hope for, because after uncovering an artifact she is fairly certain is the legendary Staff of Osiris--imbued with the power to raise the dead--in the museum's basement, a small platoon of mummies appear in the foyer. The police are convinced her father stole them, but Theodosia believes they were summoned by the Staff of Osiris--and that the Serpents of Chaos are well aware of the mummies' unusual behavior.
Determined to clear her family name, outwit the Serpents of Chaos, and avoid her grandmother's latest succession of prospective governesses, Theodosia sets out to solve this latest mystery before the Serpents of Chaos succeed in their latest plan--and use the Staff of Osiris for something far more sinister than moving the dead.
Once more, Theodosia Throckmorton does not disappoint. Somewhat like a fantasy version of Flavia de Luce, she manages to be witty, sharp, and indisputably an eleven-year-old in the best possible way, making this series constantly surprising, unexpected, and brilliantly clever. Combining fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, and ancient Egyptian archaeology, Theodosia has a bit of everything, and it's all pulled off brilliantly well. I highly recommend Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris and the Theodosia series to readers ages ten and up who enjoy mysteries and fantasy novels.
At the Black Moon Ceremony each year, every twelve-year-old Witchling in the Twelve Towns is chosen for a Coven. Seven Salazar has dreamed her entire life of being placed in Hyacinth House alongside her best friend, Poppy, where they would race toads together and learn new magic and never again have to deal with her relentless bully, Valley Pepperhorn. Only all Seven's plans don't work out, because at the Black Moon Ceremony, she isn't chosen for Hyacinth House--or any other coven. Seven, Valley, and a Witchling named Thorn are left as Spares, covenless and magicless, the worst possible fate.
Determined not to lose her future so easily, Seven invokes the Impossible Task. If she and her fellow Spares succeed and fell a monstrous Nightbeast, they'll keep their magic and be sealed as a proper coven. If not? They'll be turned into toads.
Seven is less than thrilled to be forced to work with Valley, but she doesn't have much of a choice if she wants to complete the Impossible Task. Especially since as she, Valley, and Thorn learn more about the Nightbeast and try to track it down, they discover that another witch is hiding it. And maybe some even more dangerous secrets, too...
Witchlings is a light, funny, and fast-paced fantasy novel that could appeal to fans of the quirkiness and strong characters of The Last Fallen Star, Strangeworlds Travel Agency, and Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch. Ortega's characters are spot-on, full of personality and layered relationships that make them feel both developed and extremely real. Seven, Thorn, and Valley stick out in particular--the ways they connect and bounce off each other make them fun to read about and utterly relatable. I also love the world of Witchlings, which is full of interesting and unique details that together create a setting that seems to extend well past the boundaries of the story. I recommend Witchlings to readers ages nine and up, particularly those who enjoy quest fantasy with a fresh twist.
By Ella and Lina
It can be hard not to judge a book by its cover...and maybe that's not always a bad thing! Some of our favorite books are paired with equally fantastic cover art which perfectly encapsulates the world, feeling, and characters of the story.
Here are five of our favorite books that live up to their stunning covers!
Every magical school needs a good beastkeeper--and Inglenook School of Magic is no exception. Twelve-year-old Autumn Malog's family has cared for Inglenook's beasts for generations, and she's grown up looking after dragons protecting their well-cared-for gardens and striking up a friendship with the boggart, one of Inglenook's most mysterious and temperamental creatures. But ever since her twin brother, Winter, went missing last year, everything has been different. Everyone else believes he's dead, devoured long ago by the ferocious Hollow Dragon, but Autumn has never been convinced. She's certain he's alive somewhere, and she's spent every moment since trying to figure out what really happened to him. And she's sure she saw him in one of Inglenook's mirrors...
Autumn doesn't have any real clues, though--not until Cai Morrigan, the Inglenook student prophecized to defeat the Hollow Dragon, agrees to help her find Winter. But nothing is as it seems, and as Autumn and Cai follow a trail of clues leading from the Hollow Dragon's forest to within the walls of Inglenook School, they must also uncover its far deeper secrets before it is too late--for Winter, and for all of them.
The School Between Winter and Fairyland is a fast-paced fantasy novel that puts a new twist on the classic tale of the Chosen One. The worldbuilding is excellent, full of small details--like the gardening dragons--that make the setting unique and interesting. I particularly liked the different creatures that Autumn's family cares for, which are all drawn from various mythology but with a new spin on their characteristics and personalities. The characters are also excellent, particularly Cai--I've read a lot of stories with Chosen Ones, but Fawcett's twist on this trope is different in the best possible way! I recommend The School Between Winter and Fairyland to readers ages nine and up, particularly those who enjoy books about magic schools.
Check out our new young adult review (on our For Older Readers page) on Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, a stunning, exquisitely written novel which is one of our all-time favorites!
Zoe Washington is sure her twelfth birthday will be her favorite so far. After all, she's gotten a party at a local bakery, and since Zoe loves baking--she dreams of being a contestant on Kids Bake Challenge!--it's just about the best thing she could have hoped for. But then she gets a letter from her birth dad, Marcus, in the mail.
Marcus has been in prison for years. Zoe has never heard from him before, let alone met him. But he sounds nice. Caring. And he says he didn't even commit the crime he's in prison for.
Zoe doesn't think such a thing is possible, and she doesn't have anyone she can really ask, not when her mom would be furious if she knew she was writing to Marcus. So she tries to focus instead on a bakery internship, avoiding her ex-best friend...and hiding her letters to Marcus from her mom. Because she can't stop writing to him, not when she might be able to figure out if Marcus is really innocent.
And if he is--can she help clear his name?
From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a thoughtful and realistic story. The plotline of incarceration feels nuanced and developed, not shying away from it but also never leaving solid middle-grade territory or feeling preachy. Zoe is much more than the protagonists in some middle-grade novels, created solely to illustrate a theme or issue; she has her own preferences, interests, and personality, and feels as though she has a whole life outside of the pages of this book, which I really appreciated. I recommend From the Desk of Zoe Washington to readers ages ten and up looking for an realistic, well-written, and compelling story.
The Last Fallen Moon is the sequel to The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim, and the second book in the Gifted Clans trilogy.
[Look out--there are spoilers for book 1!]
Riley Oh just saved the world--it seems like she should have a chance to celebrate. But since in the process nearly everyone she knows lost their memories of her and the Gom clan no longer has their healing gift...well, let's just say that not everyone is thrilled about what Riley has done.
Determined to fix at least one of her mistakes, Riley enters the Spiritrealm, or the world of the dead, to recruit a new patron for the Gom clan and restore their healing powers. Only the Spiritrealm is in the midst of its own problems, and with the help of a mysterious, white-haired boy named Dahl, Riley has to figure out what's really going on and stop a particularly nefarious plot before the Spiritrealm and Mortalrealm are endangered.
I loved The Last Fallen Star, so I was thrilled to read the sequel. I loved it! With the same hilarious characters, fast pace, and intricate plot as book one, The Last Fallen Moon lived up to my expectations and introduced me to a whole new side to Riley's world that was constantly funny, interesting, and unique. I particularly liked getting to know both old and new characters better during this story, especially Hattie and Dahl. I highly recommend The Last Fallen Moon to readers ages nine and up looking for a strong, exciting series full of mythology and magic.
For Julie, fairy tales have never been anything but real--as real as the twisting mess of vines known as the Wild that she hides under her bed. Her mom Rapunzel and a bunch of other fairy-tale heroes and villains escaped from the Wild centuries ago, back when it was grown to its full size, and ever since it's been confined to odd corners of Julie and Rapunzel's house. Sure, it's a nuisance--Julie would rather get out of bed in the morning without discovering the Wild had transformed her shoes or backpack while she was asleep--but as long as it stays there, whatever Rapunzel and all the other fairy-tale characters seem to be worried about can't happen.
That is, until a wish releases the Wild again. It swallows Julie's Massachusetts hometown in a mass of dangerous, magical trees--and steals her mom and grandmother into its depths. And Julie plunges into the Wild to save them.
But the Wild is a darker and more dangerous place than Julie ever could have imagined, where familiar people are caught in endless tales and nothing stays in its apparent shape for long. Julie must navigate stories that try to ensnare her, outwit witches, griffins, and giants, and uncover the truth about her mother's past to save her family and her home--and maybe find her own happily ever after. The Wild is determined to stop her, though, trying to force Julie into different stories and break her resolve, and she has to ask herself: what if the price of success is the one thing she's always wanted more than anything?
I've loved some of Sarah Beth Durst's other books (including The Stone Girl's Story and Spark), and so when I came across Into the Wild, I was hoping it would be just as good. It was. Durst weaves together fairy tales and the modern day into a fully believable story brimming with determination, love, and imagination. All the characters are interesting and well-executed, particularly the fairy-tale characters. I highly recommend Into the Wild to readers ages nine and up.
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- Lina and Ella
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Book Reviews By & For Kids
Everyone knows that Rapunzel spent her early years locked up in a tower. We’d like to think she had plenty of books to while away the time, and that she’d appreciate our own favorites.
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