The Cybils Fantasy and Science Fiction (Middle Grade) finalist list deserves the award "Most likely to give me mental whiplash" and I'm not even half-way through. So far I've read an almost slapstick middle school fantasy/comedy, a dark horror story, and now a gentle elementary school tale that read almost as a graphic novel to me. Ursula Vernon's Dragonbreath -- Attack of the Ninja Frogs mixes the illustrations seamlessly in with the text, both adding to the amusingly offbeat story of the young reptiles dealing with family, school, and oh yes, attacking ninja frogs.
The characters are all reptiles, although Danny is a dragon, so things around him tend to swing towards the magical. Danny's friend Wendell (an iguana) is used to this, although foreign exchange student Suki (salamander) finds it harder to accept. I like the playing with layers of fantasy -- talking anthropomorphous reptiles are normal, but DRAGONS? Buses to Japan? In the second half of the story, even Suki has embraced the crazy as they use their wits, charm, and friendly geckos to defeat the ninja frogs.
Two things kept dragging at me, though. Danny's constant awareness and good-natured contempt for nerds seemed a petty meanness that he didn't really need. And his misogyny seemed more stereotypical than real, which just made for a lot of rather lame jokes about girl cooties and thought processes. Maybe we're just really lucky, but the kids I know in elementary school don't think the different genders come from different planets. Even when they enforce strict male/female playing rules (and most of them don't), when a common topic arises they just discuss it. So Danny struggling to find something, anything to say to Suki just seemed silly ("Do you like unicorns?") and Wendell's crush seemed strange for the age group. I like that my boys don't casually discriminate, and I don't particularly want books to encourage them to do so.
Both boys had no qualms about it. If they can accept reptile children, then reptile children with strange behavior patterns aren't a bigger leap. And they laughed and giggled throughout the story; the sixth (oops, now seventh) grader wants to chase down the rest of the Dragonbreath books, and the fourth grader approves of his initiative.