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.
Infinite Sky by C. J. Flood
This book begins with the death of a boy but the identity of the dead person is not revealed. We are then taken back to the beginning of summer, three months after Iris’ mother has left their family and just as the travelers come to stay in the field near Iris’ home. She lives with her father and Sam, her brother, who continues to struggle with his mother leaving. Iris starts watching the travelers in the field and becomes friends with Trick, a boy who is easy to talk to and easy to listen to. Tensions start to rise as a theft is discovered and the travelers are blamed for it. The long, hot British summer inexorably leads towards the death of one of the boys, but who is it? Is it Trick or Sam?
Flood’s writing is beautiful and detailed. The setting she creates of the British countryside in summer is one that is so finely drawn that you can see it in its entirety. In fact, you can hear it, feel it, smell it too, so clear and strong are her descriptions. The book’s structure of starting with the tragedy that defines the story adds a great amount of tension. Because the boy who dies is not revealed until towards the end of the book, that mystery is a focus. Yet at times one is also lost in the summer itself, its heat and the freedom it provides.
Flood has also created a complicated group of characters in this book. All of the characters have complicated family lives, whether it is a mother who left or an abusive father. Yet these characters are not defined by those others, they are profoundly affected by it, but are characters with far more depth than just an issue. This is a book that explores being an outsider, falling in love, expressing emotions, and most of all being true to yourself and doing what you know is right.
A perfect read for a hot summer day, this is a compelling mix of romance, mystery and tragedy. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Girl in Reverse by Barbara Stuber
Lily can just barely remember her “Gone Mom” as she calls her birth mother. She was adopted by her family when she was three years old. All she knows is that her mother gave her up for adoption and then disappeared and has never been heard from since then. With the Korean War brewing, Lily is the target of many “commie” jokes because of her Asian heritage. Her parents don’t take the targeting seriously, encouraging her to ignore it. When her little brother finds a box from Lily’s Gone Mom hidden in their attic, Lily suddenly has clues to follow about her mother. She heads back to the orphanage that she was adopted from and finds one of the nuns who cared for her while she was there. The nun has one last item from Lily’s mother that she has kept safe for years, which she gives to Lily, a fragile glass slipper. As Lily and her brother begin to piece together Lily’s past, her present continues to interfere with the racial jokes getting more overt and a boy at school showing real interest in Lily as something more than a friend. Lily must balance finding out about her past with her dreams for the future and learning to live with parents who lied to her about what had happened.
Stuber very successfully combines historical fiction with diversity in this novel. Set in the 1950s, Lily struggles with how to react as racism becomes the norm during her school day. Lily finds support with a janitor at the school while she is serving detention for leaving school grounds after being bullied. He is a warm and wonderful African-American character who can speak and put words to what Lily is going through.
The characters in the book are all robustly written and fully explored. Even Lily’s dysfunctional parents have depth to them, reasons for their deceit, and the ability to learn and change. Stuber’s prose is lovely, walking us through emotions and moments in a beautiful way. Here is how she describes Lily’s mother on Page 208:
My father may wear the pants in the family, but Mother wears the perfume – her mood reigns, soaks everything, rules the day, the night, and everything in between. But at this moment I cannot sniff her mood.
Beautifully written with complex characters, this middle school book takes us into history on a personal level. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Margaret K. McElderry Books.