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Dactyl Hill Squad

Review

Dactyl Hill Squad

Daniel José Older is a multifaceted master of his craft, and in the kickoff for his new middle grade series Dactyl Hill Squad, every single one of those facets shines. In his adult and young adult novels, Older excels at weaving stories that balance unapologetic wisdom with an absolute ton of fun, and those talents translate perfectly into this big-hearted, fiercely fun adventure.

In DACTYL HILL SQUAD, it's 1863 and the streets of New York simmer with the tensions of the Civil War in the South...and thump with the steps and shrieks of dinosaurs. Magdalys Roca has made friends with a number of the other children in the Colored Orphans Asylum, but she doesn't let herself get too close --- she's learned the hard way that everyone leaves, eventually. Either they're taken away without a warning or a trace, like her big sisters Julissa and Celia, or they age out of the Asylum at 17 and never come back. Or, they leave like Magdalys's brother Montez did --- just a few weeks before the start of the story, Montez left to fight in the Union Army, even though he's only a few weeks older than Magdalys. Magdalys misses her family, she hates the way she and the other black and brown people in the city are treated, and she feels a strange ache for her home in Cuba that she was taken from before she could call it her own. The underlying tensions don't stay buried long --- what begins as a fun field trip turns to terror when the Draft Riots break out, and a cruel magistrate Richard Riker kidnaps a number of the orphans. Magdalys and her friends come to realize that the cruelty of men like Riker goes deeper than they ever knew, and their only option is to fight back.

Magdalys and her friends escape to Brooklyn and discover a strong and independent community. They make new allegiances, meet cool and kind new dinosaurs and plot to save their friends. But how can they fight back against such insurmountable, systemic odds?

Well, Magdalys has a secret. One she's only begun to admit to herself. And if she practices it right, that secret might develop into a power that can give her and her friends the edge they need --- as long as they organize and work together.

"I can't pick a favorite part of this book. It’s a revolution, a revelation, a restoration, to center this story in history on a group of hardworking black and brown children filled with heart. At the exact same time, it’s an absolute ton of fun."

I can't pick a favorite part of this book. It’s a revolution, a revelation, a restoration, to center this story in history on a group of hardworking black and brown children filled with heart. At the exact same time, it’s an absolute ton of fun. There’s raucous adventure and fighting --- including flying on dactylback! There’s intrigue and fast-paced storytelling. There’s the magic of found family, and building your community stronger. There’s the power of organizing to fight for your friends and for justice. There’s a young Cuban girl, discovering her abilities, proud of her name and her identity, learning what she can do and what she’s willing to do for what is right.

And then, as much as I adore Magdalys, I also love each and every character with all my heart. Older gives them each a spark. The kind and genuine Two Step, who loves to dance. The smart and savvy Amaya. The very helpful Mapper. Redd, a pirate who tracks down colonizers' ships and frees slaves. They're all scared, they're all very well-rounded humans, they're all brave in their own ways. The thing is, though it's filled with action and adventure, creativity and literal dinosaurs, the story of the children from the Colored Orphans Asylum being abducted and sold into slavery is a true one. And it's far from the only story of its kind. Here, Older tells that story, but ensures that the heroes are the ones who get to tell it, and the heroes are the anti-establishment black and brown resistance.

This is one of those rare books I genuinely feel almost any child will love (and plenty of grown-ups, too!). It's filled with humor and heart, action and resistance and all kinds of heroes. I love the plot, I love the characters, I love the dinosaurs!  Oh, and if you're concerned the dinos might feel incongruous with the era, don't worry. Older nails the balance of historical fantasy, and the brachys and dactyls roaming New York fit right into the story.

Don't miss DACTYL HILL SQUAD. It makes me so happy that I will be able to give this book to the children in my life, and I already cannot wait for book 2!

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on September 27, 2018

Dactyl Hill Squad
by Daniel José Older