Tag Archives: Death — Juvenile fiction.

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, Delacorte Books for Young Readers (October 11, 2016). ISBN: 9781101939758. Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS.


Anyone unfamiliar with the sub-genre of magical realism will understand what it typifies after reading this book. When readers first meet Emmaline, her history is a bit cloudy, to herself and the reader. In fact, it won’t be until very close to the end before that’s sorted out. No matter, for a lot takes place on the journey. She has what she calls the stillwaters (we know it as tuberculosis). She’s one of numerous children in varying stages of the disease in a former mansion away from populated areas because of the illness, but also because it’s during World War II and the Germans have been bombing England mercilessly.

Emmaline is closest to Anna, the sickest child there. The older girl may be gravely ill, but can still give love and nurture to Em. Even so, when Em begins seeing winged horses in the mirrors, she can’t bring herself to tell Anna, at least at first. When she sneaks into an abandoned garden, a place strictly off limits, she discovers one of the winged horses with a broken wing has entered our world. Em soon learns that the horse, named Foxfire, is being hunted by a black winged horse from beyond the mirrors and she must do everything she can to protect the injured animal.

Doing so involves risking her own fragile health, disobedience and struggling to decide who she can trust. Managing those challenges makes for an absorbing, albeit somewhat dark read. Despite the darkness, many younger teens will find this book almost impossible to put down. The blend of mystery, magic and suspense will draw them in and keep them reading.


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Filed under Fantasy, Grade 4-6, Grade 7-9

Skin Deep

Skin Deep by E.M. Crane, Delacorte Books for Young Readers (March 11, 2008). ISBN: 9780385734790. Reviewed by John R. Clark.


Andrea Anderson flies under the radar at school and at home. She knows she doesn’t fit with any of the cliques at school, and at home the only time Mom pays attention to her is during commercial breaks in her evening TV shows. She reads a lot to escape, but has little else to look forward to. Her only real friend, Victor moved away a couple years before. One thing she does have going for her is a budding insight, coupled with intelligence.

Everything changes when her mother tells her about mysterious Ms. Menapace who lives in a house on a nearby hill. She’s in the hospital needs someone to care for her dog. Despite initial misgivings, Andrea makes the trek to the home, imagining it in disrepair and believing the owner is a frail old lady.

Entering the fenced in garden to reach the back door is the first step in an amazing journey for her. Spring hasn’t fully hit yet, but the stones and sculptures are striking enough to start her imagining what things will look like when all the plants awaken. Then she meets Zena, the huge but gentle Saint Bernard, owned by Honora (Ms. Menapace). They connect almost immediately and once they venture into the woods, a place that’s like a second home to Andrea, that connection is cemented.

Reading on is like watching elegant dominoes fall in slow motion. Zena and Honora, who’s a lot younger than Andrea imagined, exert their combination of wisdom and magic to pull her out of the protective shell she’s built around her. Once it begins to crack, readers follow her coming of age, one that includes understanding of others, particularly her mother, new friends both young and old and a growing level of self confidence. It’s a beautiful journey to experience.

I haven’t seen such eloquent prose in a YA book for some time. The sample below is just one of many in the story: “I no longer feel awkward and second-rate with Honora. I’ve realized that I’m one color in her painting of the world. And while any artist may have her favorite colors, a good artist never discredits those subtle, shy hues that contribute to the landscape.”

While it’s been out for a while, this is a great book to offer teens and advanced tweens who like intelligent stories with great prose. I wish the author had written more.

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Filed under Fiction, Grade 10-12, Grade 7-9