The Pathfinders Society: the curse of the crystal cavern

The Curse of the Crystal Cavern opens with a guide to the five pathfinders; Kyle, the new kid in town, Beth, Harry, Victoria, and Nate. Kyle is white, and the others are a diverse group including two boys with brown skin and Victoria, who is Black. A recap of the first book (The Mystery of the Moon Tower) explains that the five followed clues and, with some mysterious help from the past, discovered a treasure—but that was only the beginning of their adventure…

The main narrative starts with a flashback to the original Pathfinders Society, then cuts to our new group of Pathfinders traveling into a dark cave. As they journey through the cave system, they encounter riddles, tasks, and perils from mysterious underground gases to crumbling rocks. With the help of the strange device they discovered in the last book and the various talents of each member, they make it out of the underground tunnels just in time for a little research at the town historical society, a jump back in time to see the dissolution of the original Pathfinders, and more hints about the villainous developers. The friends make a second foray into the tunnels, knowing that time is running out for Camp Pathfinder, and encounter even more dangers and mysteries, finally making it back home safely… or have they?

Like the first book, this story ends on a cliffhanger, introducing more plot points and mysteries than it resolves. The developer’s villainous plans for using the mysterious powers of Windrose are expanded on slightly and there is a little more information about the original society’s plans and problems, but the main emphasis is on the current-day friends working together to solve the various puzzles and escape the traps they encounter.

The large cast makes it challenging for readers to differentiate the protagonists beyond their one-dimensional characterization. Harry is a jokester, Victoria is a math whiz, Beth knows local history, etc. All but Nate, who is represented as stocky and Latino, have the same streamlined, skinny body type, and their faces show minimal ranges of emotion. The most artistic detail is put into the underground scenes and the non-stop action as the kids run, climb, jump, and swim through the dangerous caverns. As soon as they solve one glowing, golden-plated set of puzzles, they tumble through the dark to another challenge. Classical images and Latin are sprinkled throughout, from the frequently repeated motto of “Plus Ultra” (More Beyond) to images of Hercules, pillars, labyrinths, and more.

The creators seem to have given up on the historical background woven into the first book in favor of action, riddles, and occasional jumps back through time to add to the mystery. While often stereotypical of middle grade adventures with a representative cast (that nevertheless focuses on the white boy), an evil developer, and trite lessons about friendship and cooperation, this is nevertheless an attractive story for readers who want a fast-moving story with lots of clues to solve and not too much plot to get in the way of the momentum.


The Pathfinders Society, vol. 2: The Curse of the Crystal Cavern
By Francesco Sedita, Prescott Seraydarian
Art by Steve Hamaker
Viking Children’s Books, 2021
ISBN: 9780425291900

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Sea Sirens

Trot, a Vietnamese American surfer girl, and Cap’n Bill, her cranky one-eyed cat, catch too big a wave and wipe out, sucked down into a magical underwater kingdom where an ancient deep-sea battle rages. The beautiful Sea Siren mermaids are under attack from the Serpent King and his slithery minions–and Trot and her feline become dangerously entangled in this war of tails and fins.

(Publisher Description)


Sea Sirens
By Amy Chu
Art By Janet Lee
ISBN: 9780451480163
Viking, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)


Our Review

Sea Sirens: A Trot & Bill Adventure

The Mystery of the Moon Tower

The story begins with Kyle and his mom returning to her home town of Windrose Valley. She has signed Kyle up for Camp Pathfinders, hoping he will make some friends instead of just drawing all the time. Kyle is a pretty easy-going kid and makes friends with two boys, Harry, a would-be magician and Nate, an inventor whose inventions aren’t always as useful as he hopes. Both quickly clue him into the social hierarchy of Camp Pathfinders, especially that they have no chance with cheerleader Victoria, even if she and local historian Beth are assigned to their table. Victoria turns out to have a photographic memory and be a math whiz, both of which she tries to keep secret.

They start out together on a scavenger hunt, but it quickly turns into a treasure hunt as they each bring skills and work together to solve the mystery of the moon tower and discover the hidden treasure that will, hopefully, save Pathfinder Camp. Through flashbacks, Beth’s knowledge, and even a little time travel, they learn about the history of the Pathfinders Society and the founder of the camp, Henry Merriweather. He was both an explorer and an inventory, and mysteriously disappeared at a huge party in the 1930s. With Victoria’s photographic memory and math skills, Kyle’s art, Beth’s local knowledge, Harry’s eye for detail, and Nate’s inventive smarts, the five kids explore the past and present, solve clues, and hope to survive long enough to find the treasure.

The art is easy to follow and engaging, showing the kids in sharp outline and clearly recognizable throughout although their surroundings change from mysterious fog, to sepia-toned times of the past, to drenching rain. They all have the same large eyes and pin-point pupils, and all but Nate are thin. The kids are all dressed differently, with varying hair styles and skin colors, but their uniform body types give them a general feeling of sameness.

Although the kids spend quite a bit of time tromping through the woods and scenery of the valley, readers don’t get a really good idea of what this area looks like. The art in the mansion and Moon Tower is more exact, showing numerous hidden doors, mysterious keys, and strange inventions. In the images from the past, gray and sepia tones give an old-fashioned feel to the events, with Merriweather and the other people shown sporting sideburns, beards, and mustaches and dressed in stylish clothes.

The story ends in a dramatic cliffhanger, but with the multiple loose ends and haphazard plotting, it’s hardly needed. Readers will either give up or be determined to wait for the next book to try and figure out exactly what’s going on. Back matter from the authors gives more information about real-life traveler, designer, and polyglot Henry Mercer.

This is an interesting story and kids who enjoy mysteries, codes, and treasure hunts will be intrigued. It does have several drawbacks, not least being the somewhat confused storyline and multiplicity of plot points, as well as the lack of character development. The plot of a wealthy (white) explorer who leaves behind a treasure and the hints at an evil developer are rather hackneyed and there is no acknowledgment or mention of the negative effects of dilettante explorers like Merriweather.

While this is not a must-purchase item, libraries with fans of Kabuishi’s Amulet series,  Selznick’s work, and readers who enjoy low-stakes mysteries and treasure hunts will find this a useful addition to the collection and young readers are very likely to eagerly await more information and details in the sequel.

The Mystery of the Moon Tower
By Francesco Sedita & Prescott Seraydarian
Art by Steve Hamaker
ISBN: 9780425291863
Penguin Viking, 2020

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Traits: Black,

Edison Beaker, Creature Seeker: The Lost City

In his first adventure, Edison Beaker discovered the fantastical and frightening realm of Underwhere, where his uncle and, long ago, his father, battle night creatures. With his little sister Tess (Tesla), her hamster Scuttlebutt, and a lost creature named Knox, he successfully closed the Night Door, preventing the monsters from overrunning the upper world. But the adventure isn’t over yet…

This time the story starts with Knox, still searching for where she belongs, overhearing a conversation with the evil Baron Umbra that tells her Edison Beaker is in danger! Back in Edison’s world, his uncle says he’s not ready to return Underwhere and his father is gone, even if he thinks he has clues to his whereabouts. When Edison’s grandmother has an “episode,” she leaves him a clue to strange things going on in the Underwhere. Then, after being attacked by Baron Umbra, Edison knows he has more work to do. Along with Knox and Tess, he returns to Underwhere. They meet an underling named Smudge, who might be a friend or a spy, and learn that they must all work together to complete their quest and keep Baron Umbra from taking over the lost city of Pharos.

Cammuso’s distinctive cartoons show old fashioned Disney-style cartoon characters with big noses, large eyes, and lumpy hair. This galley was in black and white, but the finished book will be in color. Edison and Tesla have red hair, Edison has skinny, stick-like legs and arms, while Knox has pink skin and white hair. The monsters they face, ranging from one-eyed black globs to dragons, will give readers a little thrill without being too frightening. Knox’s mistrustful nature is shown in her squinting eyes and aggressive posture, while Edison just wants everyone to be okay. Tess is as cute and pudgy as her hamster, and as trusting as Knox is suspicious.

Cammuso uses familiar tropes: the “chosen one,” the aggressive “alien” warrior, and an evil overlord with minions, but flips them around to make a story that’s both exciting and unique. Edison and his friends and family must all work together to save Pharos, and it’s the most unlikely of creatures who makes the final sacrifice to save the day. Sometimes Knox’s suspicions are justified, and she has to make difficult decisions about who her family is, despite appearances.

Kids who aren’t ready for the more intense elements of popular fantasy series like Kibuishi’s Amulet or Smith’s Bone will love this lighter series. It’s got monsters, quests, mysteries, and magic, but nothing too frightening. The stakes are clearly high, but readers can be comfortably assured that the main characters won’t be permanently hurt or killed. The themes of responsibility, courage, and resisting prejudice based on appearances will make this a popular choice with educators and caregivers as well.

Edison Beaker, Creature Seeker: The Lost City
By Frank Cammuso
ISBN: 9780425291955
Viking, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 years

Sea Sirens: A Trot & Bill Adventure

As an underwater Wizard of Oz, writer Amy Chu and illustrator Janet K. Lee’s new graphic novel, Sea Sirens, adds a modern twist to a classic tale. Inspired by L. Frank Baum’s The Sea Fairies, as well as Vietnamese folktales, the co-creators take readers on a fantastical adventure that unfolds within the ocean’s depths.

The story begins ordinarily enough as Trot, a headstrong Vietnamese-American girl enjoys a day of surfing with her one-eyed cat, Cap’n Bill, as her grandfather looks on. After her grandfather becomes confused and wanders off, Trot’s mother decides it is best for the trio to stay home while she is away at work. This does not stop Trot for long, as she soon sneaks back to the seaside with her cantankerous cat in tow. After a huge wave plunges them deep into the ocean, the two enter a magical world filled with kings and queens, extravagant feasts, dangerous wars and a colorful cast of characters led by sirens and their serpentine foes. Trot and Cap’n Bill soon become entangled in this wondrous kingdom, however the big question remains: will they ever be able to find their way back home?

Key in bringing this vivid oceanic world to life are the illustrations, which fill the pages with vibrant hues of blue, red, and orange. Fine lines, including a unique approach to shading faces, provide a breathtaking display that is both lively and engaging. Lee’s line work also provides contrast to the softness of the large swathes of watercolor, enhancing the visual aspects of this sensorial tale.

The only issue I have with the illustrations is a lack of character continuity from frame to frame, which becomes distracting at times. For example, Trot’s age and overall appearance are hard to grasp because of the inconsistencies in her face shape, physical features, and hair. On the other hand, Lee clearly excels at depicting animals and landscapes, which captivated me from page to detailed page.

Overall, I rate this book highly. It tackles tough issues like dealing with Alzheimer’s and growing up in a single-parent home. It also is refreshing to see a Vietnamese-American girl as the protagonist backed up by an ethnically diverse cast of characters. The cultural richness of the book also shines, with the inclusion of the Vietnamese language and flashbacks to grandfather’s life in Vietnam. In addition, the book is just plain fun, emphasizing the importance of family, friendship, and communication. With an open ending, I look forward to more adventures to come.

This book would work well as a read aloud for younger children or as an independent read for the middle grades.

Sea Sirens A Trot & Bill Adventure
By Amy Chu
Art by Janet Lee
ISBN: 9780451480163
Viking, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

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Character Traits: Vietnamese