Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
This graphic novel is haunted by authors like Neil Gaiman and the Brother Grimm. The tales here are gruesome in the best possible way, frightening and oozy and delightful. Our Neighbor’s House is a strange tale of a family that disappears one by one into the frigid snow following a man in a wide-brimmed hat until there is only one girl left. A Lady’s Hands Are Cold tells of a women married into a loveless marriage who begins to hear voices calling from the walls and floors of the house. His Face All Red is a story of murder and the undead. My Friend Janna tells of what happens when fakery of the occult becomes real and dangerous. The Nesting Place will have your skin crawling, or perhaps it’s what lurks behind your skin. Each story is a gem, strange and beautiful and entirely horrific.
Carroll does both the stories and the art here and they are married together so closely that they could not be extricated. Though they are all clearly done by one person, the art changes from one to the next, definitively showing that you are entering a different place with different people. There are old stories with coaches, horses and corsets as well as more modern tales too.
Yet though they are clearly different, you start each one with that unease in your stomach that Carroll seems to be able to generate through her use of colors and the way that her characters gaze from the page. Something is wrong in each of the stories and you can’t finish until you figure out exactly what it is. The effect is haunting, haunted and wildly exhilarating.
A true delight of a read, this graphic novel for teens is completely disturbing and filled with horror. In other words, it’s perfection for horror fans. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from McElderry Books.
Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick
Zane lives in New Hampshire with his mother and is sent to visit his newly discovered great grandmother in New Orleans. Unfortunately, he is there when Katrina hits. Headed out of the city with his grandmother’s pastor in their church van, Zane is safe until his little dog, Bandit jumps out of the open window because some larger dogs in another vehicle are barking at him. Zane goes after him, walking for miles until he catches him. Realizing he’s closer to his grandmother’s house than the vehicle, he heads back there. Then the storm comes. Zane is in a house that is leaking, the flood waters start to rise, and he climbs with Bandit up into the attic. From there he is rescued by an older musician wearing a wild looking hat and a young girl. As chaos descends on the city, Zane finds that all of the rules change but that it is human kindness that makes all the difference.
Philbrick has crafted a very well-written book about Katrina. He melds the details of the storm and its aftermath in New Orleans into the narrative, allowing it to form the backbone of the story. At the same time, this is Zane’s specific story, one of luck and bravery. The flooded city becomes the foundation of the tale, those happy to take advantage of the situation appear and the support of police is nearly nonexistent.
Philbrick’s story is very readable, the storm offering a structure to the book that readers will feel approaching in an inevitable and inescapable way. The beginning of the book is rife with dread and fear, knowing what is going to happen. That fear never lets up even after the storm has passed. Zane is a strong and resourceful character, one who is forced to trust others and their generosity. Race plays an important role in the book, from Zane’s mixed race to his two African-American companions after the flood.
This is definitely a story of Katrina, but it is even more a survival story of a boy and his dog. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Blue Sky Press.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
The four Fletcher boys could not be more different from one another. There is the serious ten-year-old Eli who is starting a private school separate from his brothers for the first time and who just may have made a horrible decision changing schools. There is Sam, aged twelve, who loves sports and is popular at school but who will find himself stretching into new interests this year. There is Jax, also aged ten, who has a huge homework assignment that will have him talking to their new grumpy neighbor for help but only after he calms down from a number of things. Finally, there is Frog who is just starting kindergarten along with his imaginary friend and who may have a new imaginary friend named Ladybug. It all adds up to a wonderful read with lots of humor and one amazing family.
Filled with laughter, an angry neighbor, elaborate Halloween parties, soccer, hockey and plenty of pets, this book is sure to please middle grade readers. Add in the diverse backgrounds of the four boys in the family and their two dads and you have a book that celebrates diversity without taking itself too seriously. It’s the ideal mix of completely readable book with its diversity simply part of the story not the main point.
All of the boys as well as the two fathers are unique individuals with their own personal responses to crises and situations. Each chapter begins with a note from one character to another, usually funny and always showing their personality. Perhaps the best part of the book is that this family dynamic is clearly one of love but also filled with normal chaos and the daily strain of work, school, neighbors and friends. It reads like a modern classic.
I hope we get to read more of their misadventures in future books, because this is one family that I want to see much more of! Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
The first book in a trilogy, this fantasy is dark and marvelously filled with monsters. Rye has grown up in the worst part of Village Drowning. Her mother owns a shop in the market section of town where Rye helps out. Together with her two best friends, Rye begins to piece together the story of her family and her father. It all has to do with the monstrous Bog Noblins, creatures that are considered extinct but that Rye is convinced have returned to the village. The problem is that the only people who can defend the village against the monsters are the illegal Luck Uglies, a troupe of villains who had been driven from the village and are considered just as evil as the monsters. But all is not what it seems in Village Drowning as Rye is soon to discover.
Durham has crafted a fabulous fantasy for middle-grade readers. The book is filled with moments of real fear and true danger, making it ideal for that age. It also has plenty of humor along the way, usually involving Rye’s friends and family, allowing a lightness in the novel that is very appealing in such a dark novel. Durham has created a world in this book that is unique and fascinating but also pays homage to more traditional tales. This book slips neatly into European tales of monsters and goblins, yet still manages to be telling its own story.
Rye is a wonderful heroine. She is bright and inquisitive and immensely brave particularly when someone she loves is in danger. At the same time she is fully human, frightened at times, holding on tight to her own viewpoint, and learning to trust too. She is certainly not without flaws, but she is immensely likeable and exactly the person you want when the Bog Noblins return.
Dark, dangerous and delightful, this book is a strong new fantasy series for middle-grade readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Curiosity by Gary Blackwood
The author of The Shakespeare Stealer returns with another historical novel for children. In 1835 Philadelphia, twelve-year-old Rufus has lived a sheltered life, kept inside by the curve of his spine and his small stature. Then his father is thrown into debtor’s prison and his life changes dramatically. Taken into a home for orphans, Rufus is rescued by his skill at chess and taken to live with Maelzel, a sinister man who owns a collection of automatons as well as The Turk, a chess-playing machine. Rufus is forced to hide inside the cabinet below The Turk and play chess against ticket-paying customers. He is promised a small salary with which he hopes to help his father get out of prison. But Rufus’ life is not just playing chess. He must remain hidden at all times to avoid the secret of The Turk being discovered. He can’t ever go out, making this a twisted version of his earlier sheltered life. Now he struggles to get enough to eat, to not be beaten and to find a way to not meet the dark same end as a previous Turk controller.
Blackstone’s historical fiction is rich and detailed. He offers just the right amount of information so that young readers will understand the difference in society and the way of life, but not so much to slow down the story. And what a story this is! The Turk hoax is revealed in all of its twisted, waxy glory through the eyes of a disabled young boy whose entire world has been turned upside down. Yet Rufus is always looking on the bright side, scheming himself to try to survive as best he can and yet also having a child-like wonder at things too.
Blackstone brings early 19th century America to life on the page. He populates his story with real people like Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum, adding to the already strong sense of reality in his tale. At the end of the book, the author does speak about the liberties he took with these historical figures, including making the sinister Maelzel much more evil than he seemed to be in real life.
Strong writing, a compelling story and a shining hero all make this work of historical fiction a dark delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.
The Thickety by J. A. White
Kara saw her mother killed for being a witch when she was just six years old. Ever since then, she and her sickly little brother have been treated horribly by the village they live near. Her father played a role in accusing her mother of witchcraft, and now he cannot function well at all, spending his days writing the same thing over and over again in a notebook. So Kara at age 12 takes care of her brother and tries to keep their small farm functioning and her family fed. The entire village lives in fear of the Thickety, a deep woods nearby. So when a strange crow leads Kara deep into the woods right to the heart of the Thickety, she almost doesn’t follow. There she discovers a book of spells that seems to promise great power, a book that will mark Kara as a witch in everyone’s eyes. What is a witch’s daughter to do?
White creates a book that is just as dark and tangled as the Thickety itself. Her writing is a treat to read, focused on creating characters that are complicated in their motivations in a world that is lush and vivid. She doesn’t shirk away from truly frightening scenes in the book, including the opening scene of the mother’s death and Kara being accused as a small child of witchcraft. That scene alone warns you of the horrors to come, horrors that are scary in a deep, dark way but ones that are also appropriate for the middle grade readers.
Kara is a strong heroine. She is an outsider from a young age, shunned by her peers, beloved by her younger brother. Even the adults in the community have abandoned their family, leaving them to fend for themselves. Speaking of the community, it is another strength in this novel, a tight-knit and fanatical community on an isolated island that shuns magic. White manages to stay away from any sort of Salem-type setting while still maintaining clear links to that puritanical rage.
Well written with a strong protagonist and impressive world building, this dark fantasy is ideal for middle grade readers. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Grandmaster by David Klass
Daniel is a freshman in the chess club of an elite private school. He knows he’s one of the poorest kids attending the school, one of the least popular, and also one of the worst chess players. So he’s surprised with two popular and wealthy seniors approach him to invite Daniel and his father to a father son chess tournament in New York City. He’s even more shocked to find out that his own accountant father who doesn’t seem to be good at anything in particular, used to to be a chess grandmaster thirty years ago. Daniel convinces his father to participate and quickly realizes that his father has a profound gift for chess. But as the tournament continues, the stress gets more difficult to deal with and Daniel realizes that his father quitting chess may have been a matter of life and death.
Klass, who was a competitive chess champion himself, writes a book about chess that never lags with too much chess information and is filled with real drama. Klass wisely mixes drama on the board with drama in real life, showing the complexity of competition on a variety of scales. I also appreciate that Klass slowly broke down the shell of the wealthy fathers and sons, showing them for whom they truly were. Happily, he did not end up with stereotypes in any way, rather he showed them all as individuals with various flaws.
Daniel is a great character. He doesn’t realize his own potential and is actually beyond humble. He has a great sense of humor as well, something that works well as he deals with his father. And what a paternal character that is! His father is an amazing mix of wounded chess veteran, incredible brain, and distant man. But that changes, grows, reverts and organically continues throughout the book.
A riveting book about chess, competition and father son relationships, get this book into the hands of chess playing middle schoolers, but even more it may inspire some kids to give the game a try. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang, art by Sonny Liew
Released July 15, 2014.
The Green Turtle first appeared in comics in the 1940s, the Golden Age of Comics, for a short run. He was the first Asian-American super hero. Now he has been given a back story by acclaimed graphic novelist, Gene Luen Yang. Hank was the son of a Chinese immigrants. His father was a grocer, who also carried within him a turtle spirit unbeknownst to his wife and son. His mother was a cleaner of rich people’s homes. Hank was a normal kid who grew into a normal young adult, until his mother though being a super hero would be the best career path for Hank. She sewed him a costume, tried to get him special powers through a variety of techniques, and then had him train in fighting with someone. But it took Hank awhile to find his super hero mojo, perhaps it was finding a man who rules China Town with an iron and greedy fist or perhaps it was vengeance. Whichever it was, Hank grew to become the Green Turtle.
This is one graphic novel that does not take itself too seriously, making for great reading. Fans of comic books will love the irreverent humor here that plays up the stereotypical origin stories of most super heroes. That is matched with a clear respect for immigrants, the difficult choices they have to make, and the desperate need at times for a hero to save them. It makes for a book that dances the line between drama and humor skillfully and to great effect.
Liew’s art has a freshness that both hearkens back to old comics but also forges ahead with a modern vibe. The colors are used carefully, often more muted and subtle and then popping into bright colors when important events happen. It’s very cleverly done.
An amazing and complex superhero arrives in this graphic novel that both pays homage and reinvents the first Asian-American super hero. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital copy received from NetGalley and First Second.
The Feral Child by Che Golden
Maddy’s parents died recently, so she is sent to Ireland to live with her grandparents. She misses London and her friends dreadfully and doesn’t like her cousins or the town of Blarney. Though she has been told not to enter the grounds of the castle in town, she does anyway one evening because she is so angry and just doesn’t care. She stays longer than she means to when her grandparent’s dog George runs off. It is then that she meets a strange boy. That same boy returns to her house later, tapping at the window and asking Maddy to join him, but she refuses to go to the window at all, because she has realized that he is not what he seems to be. When the boy goes to her neighbor and steals their little boy from out of his bedroom window, Maddy sees it all. But with a changeling in the little boy’s place, no one even knows he is actually missing. It is up to Maddy, her cousins, and George the dog to save him, because no one else can. They must enter the faerie realm to do so and face incredible dangers on their quest.
Golden manages to not actually modernize the faeries and their world, which is quite refreshing. Instead what you have in this middle-grade novel is a modern girl thrust into the strange and timeless world of the faeries. She takes the most menacing and amazing parts of folklore and brings them fully to life, creating a dazzling array of faeries and beasts as the children travel. The dangers are brutally displayed and there are times when death is so close, readers will be amazing that the characters survive.
Maddy is not a particularly likeable character at first in the novel, nor are her cousins. Maddy is the main protagonist and undergoes a believable transformation into heroine as the novel goes on. The same can be said for one of her cousins who comes out of her shell and into her own. The other cousin, the bully, has too easy a transformation and it happens a bit to early in the book as well. But that is a quibble in an impressive faerie tale.
Faeries, Ireland and an amazing quest all come together to create a book that is frightening, riveting and a rip-roaring read. Appropriate for ages 10-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Quercus.
Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague
When Margaret’s father is sentenced to death, she can’t believe it since she is certain he is innocent. But this is what happens when someone tries to stand up to the company that owns the entire town. It’s also the company that owns Judge Biggs. The only way that Margaret can see to save her father is to change Judge Biggs’ mind. According to Grandpa Josh, her best friend’s grandfather, Judge Biggs used to be a good person until his father was accused of murder and hung himself. The only person who can change the course of time is Margaret who has to use her family’s forbidden power of time travel. But history resists change and Margaret only has a few days before history rejects her to make the necessary changes to save her father.
De los Santos and Teague have written a book that takes on time travel in a very refreshing way. The idea that history actively resists change and that there is a physical toll on the time travelers makes for frustrating time travel. Yet it feels right and also creates tension in the story at just the right moment. The authors also explore company towns and how workers tried to stand up to unfair business practices. Here there is plenty of action in that fight, including murder and gunfire as well as quiet desperation.
Margaret is a winning character, one who travels in time very reluctantly but is given little choice when she is the sole person who has a chance of saving her father. The story dives into complexity, never making things easy or simple. One aspect of this is the way that redemption is viewed. Characters are seen as changeable, able to be rescued from what happened to them even in their elder years. This book is about getting chances to make the right choice in the end, forgiveness for poor choices earlier, and friendships that stand through time and betrayal.
A rich and vibrant look at time travel, this fantasy will also appeal to history buffs. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.