The Serpent’s Secret is the first book in the series Kiranamala and the Kingdom Beyond. Aru Shah and the End of Time is the first book in the Pandava series. I received an audio book for one of these novels and about a week later the other I’d reserved at my local library became available. I thought it might be helpful to compare them as they both feature similar, but different, diverse characters and stories.

The Serpent's Secret (Kiranamala and the Kingdom Beyond, Book 1) by Sayantani DasGupta

Although these books are both for ages eight to twelve, The Serpent’s Secret is more appropriate for the younger end of this range. The age and maturity of the protagonist depicts this difference, but equally, this book has fewer characters, a less complicated plot, less terrifying adversaries and less overall danger.

The story begins as our protagonist, Kiran, arrives home to find her parents missing. She’s mulling over a mysterious note from them when a huge, slobbery, monster crashes into her kitchen. It is a rakkhosh, she realizes, from the bedtime folk tales her parents have always told her (Apparently, these folk tales are actually true!). She is immediately saved by two princes on winged horses. Although the monster seems intent on eating the three of them, it is also chanting rhyming threats that are more funny than scary. Our princes are reluctant to kill the monster, and render him unconscious, instead. A quest to find Kiran’s parents ensues into a kingdom in a different dimension...

DasGupta's world building is vivid and imaginative, and peopled with elements from Bengali folk tales. Banter between the princes, Kiran and other characters is often hilarious and always engaging. There are battles and fighting, but rakkhosh rhymes and their copious snot and drool create more slapstick comedy than fear for the reader. The monsters feel harmless rather than menacing. The author also works STEM content into the story, like ideas about dark matter, time, dimensions, etc. Albert Einstein even makes an appearance!  An author’s note relates many of the scenes and characters to part of Bengali Folktales she heard as a child. It is her hope that her ideas might encourage young patrons to read more. I’m looking forward to book two!

Juvenile Fiction 
Hardcover pr1306363
Audio CD pr1306364

Aru Shah and the End of Time  (Pandava, Book 1) by Roshani Chokshi

In Aru Shah and the End of Time, by contrast, there is a lot more at stake. Aru inadvertently releases a malevolent spirit from a lamp when she intentionally disobeys her mother – for a dare. When said spirit is free, everyone around Aru freezes. Her mother is frozen in place, the frenemies who dared her, everyone on the street...  She learns that she and Minnie, another tween girl, are Pandava - two reincarnations of five hero brothers born again and again to save the world...

Weighty themes of trust, self-hood and honour define much of the action. The gods of Hindu Mythology are all characters in this story, as well as the mythical creatures they ride. They are extremely interesting and their backstories and interactions enhance the story immensely; but, it is tougher sledding than the world in The Serpent’s Secret. Also, Aru and Minnie are tasked – alone – with completing quests, and eventually confronting the evil spirit before time stops completely and everyone in the world dies.

Rakkhosh demons are among the adversaries confronting Aru and Minnie, but they aren’t funny and they are very scary. Rick Riordon was involved in publishing this book. Readers who enjoy his many series should enjoy this one.

Juvenile Fiction
Hardcover pr1232233 
Large Print pr2078571

Hip & Hop in the House: A Free-flowing Tortoise and the Hare Collection by Matt Killeen

Hip the tortoise and Hop the hare both love to write rhymes and then say them to music (the story explains this as rapping). The text in Hip’s speech bubbles are red. The text in Hop’s speech bubbles are green. The author explains that when you see red words you should read slowly and green words should be read quickly. Hip raps so slowly that people lose interest. Hop raps so quickly that no one can follow her. The plot thickens from there, into two stories and one shorter “bonus mini-comic.” The rhymes and comic panels make the pages fly by, in this 80 page book. Children listening to this book with an adult, after some repetitions could transition into reading a few of the rhyming speech bubbles, which would be really fun for the adult and fledgling reader. The two stories are roughly the length of a picture book and quite funny as well. I think this book might engage some young listeners who are otherwise reluctant readers.

Picture Book Hardcover pr2103269

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

To imitate this book’s brilliant execution of in medias res, we meet our protagonist, Sarah, moments after a car crash, as her mother dies from a gunshot wound to the head. Sarah hears dogs barking and races away, eluding capture through a death defying gymnastic vault and flip onto a roof, out of sight. (Sarah hears a voice in her head, “commit to the move…”) As she lies motionless, and silent, invisible from below, and soldiers and dogs pass back and forth, she sees a man on another roof… 

The next day, Sarah climbs aboard the ferry her mother intended to take. She is safe. She has escaped. Then she sees the man from the roof, surrounded by soldiers – Nazis – asking for his papers. Sarah leaves her safety and, pretending that this man is her father, saves him. As these two characters learn and reveal more about each other, the reader gradually learns too. He is a British spy and Sarah – despite her blonde hair and blue eyes - is a Jewish German.

The voice in Sarah’s head creates fantastic tension and often offers enlightening flashbacks. It is a really effective narrative tactic.  All of Sarah’s talents and training become critical to the plan she forms with the spy.

 The relentless tension and pacing of this plot combines with deft character development, supported by fascinating facts from Nazi Germany. An author’s note (read by Matt Killeen himself, in the audio version) reveals that many of the most unlikely plot points are based in fact. Jewish children and other ordinary citizens played courageous and key roles in fighting Nazis in World War II. Both author and book make clear that democracies are fragile constructs and we, the ordinary citizens, are not powerless to defend but have a responsibility to support.

Young Adult Fiction Hardcover pr1305017
Audio CD pr2635152

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