Category: Middle School


Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson

Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson (InfoSoup)

Tabitha has been given an envelope and sternly told that her parents have to be the ones to open it. But when she gets home, she finds her parents packing up and getting ready to leave on a lengthy vacation. They are also planning to leave Tabitha in the local orphanage. Once the envelope is open though, their plans change since Tabitha and her parents have been invited to the home of a wealthy countess for the weekend. Once there, Tabitha discovers that she is one of six children who have been invited to the estate and that the countess is searching for the child who is her grandchild. But all is not what it seems and Tabitha also finds out that she is in the middle of a great mystery. With the help of her pet mouse, it is up to Tabitha to solve the mystery and stay alive while doing it!

Lawson offers up a gorgeous mystery here with all sorts of treats along the way. Readers who enjoy a good British whodunit will find so much to love here. There is a great mansion to explore, complete with hidden passages. There are ghosts all around, haunting everyone in the house. There are odd servants, a prickly butler, and a mad countess. Throughout the mystery makes sense and the pleasure of figuring out the mystery is heightened thanks to the twists and turns along the way.

Tabitha is a great protagonist. She is a true friend, one who stands by her mouse. As she gets to know the other children, the sorrow of her own upbringing is heightened and her loneliness which could have been used as a shield is beautifully displayed and then slowly cracked until she is fully engaged with the others. The mystery is the heart of the book but so is the growth of the confidence of Tabitha as she works to solve the mystery and grows a lot in the process.

A strong British mystery, this book is dark and lovely. A great way to spend some summer afternoons. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff

Trent can’t manage to move on from last year when a tragic accident ended with another boy dead. Trent lost not only all of his friends because of it but also finds himself unable to play the sports he loved, like baseball. At the same time, Trent is unable to control his anger, even if he puts his most disturbing thoughts down on paper in drawings. It helps a bit, but he continues to have problems getting angry at everything and everyone. It all just proves that he is entirely the messed up kid that everyone things he is already. Fallon enters Trent’s live as they head to middle school. She is a girl who loves baseball movies, has a similar sense of humor, and has clearly also survived a tragedy which left her with a scarred face. Fallon becomes Trent’s closest friend, but one burst of anger may end that too, taking away the only good thing he has left.

Graff does such a beautiful job in this middle grade novel. She creates in Trent a truly complex character, one that readers will need time to understand. Trent is at his heart a boy dealing with death and loss and his own role in it, including showing a lot of self-hatred. So in that way, he is an entirely understandable character, one that is sympathetic. Then there is the angry Trent, who loses control, says horrible things, and lashes out. That part of his personality is hard to like, making him at times a character who is far from heroic. At the same time, this is the same person, likable one moment and the next impossible to like at all.

Graff captures the loss of control that comes with flashing red anger, the words that flow out of control, and the way that it feels in the body. Readers will completely understand those zings of anger and the shame that follows if you lash out. Graff also shows a path forward from being isolated and angry, a way to find people to help you even if you have lashed out at them earlier. It is a powerful story of redemption, of learning to return to who you really are, and of self forgiveness.

Beautifully written, this book is an amazing look at powerful emotions and the equal power of watering plants, breathing deeply and playing baseball. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Philomel Books.

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest

Released May 26, 2015.

This is the first YA novel by Priest, a well-known fantasy author for adults, and it’s a treat. May and Libby have been friends for years, the best of friends after meeting in fifth grade on a playground. The two of them wrote comics together about Princess X, a katana-wielding heroine. But then one day, Libby was gone, dead after a car crash from a bridge. Three years later, May has returned to their hometown and notices an image of a princess holding a katana on a sticker, a sticker that is brand new. May tracks down the image to a web comic where she realizes there are real similarities to the story that she and Libby had created. How can that be? And how strange is it that some of the stories seem to have messages only May could understand hidden inside of them?

There is a real joy in finding a book that does digital life so very well. The online elements of the story and the web comic are clear and make perfect sense. The hacking and dark net also work well in the way they are portrayed where there is information to be found but often it’s not legal to access it. That aspect alone, so often mismanaged in novels, is worth this read. But add to that a determined friend who quickly believes that her dead friend is still alive, an online and real life quest for information, horrible bad guys, and the exploration of Seattle both above and underground. It’s a book that is a searing fast read thanks to its pacing and the need to find out the truth.

The online comics are shared as comic inserts in the book, and were not completed in the galley that I have. The first couple of comics were available and add to the drama of the book. The mix of words and images works very well here with Priest using it both to move the story forward and to show the drama and appeal of the comic itself.

Smartly written with great characters and an amazing quest for the truth, this book is satisfying, surprising and impressive. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

Stewart and Ashley don’t fit together like the kids on TV, their blended family is not entirely happy. Stewart is 13-years-old and went to a school for academically-gifted students until he and his father moved in with Ashley and her mother. Stewart doesn’t fit into his new public high school easily. Ashley on the other hand is the most popular girl at the high school. She loves her social status, makes sure everyone knows that she is on top, and loves to put together cute outfits and rework her clothes. Stewart lost his mother two years ago and isn’t ready to have a new mother while Ashley’s father announced he was gay and now lives in the little house in the backyard. Ashley hasn’t forgiven him at all and worries what will happen if news of his being gay gets out at school. Now these two very different teens have to figure out how to live together and how to survive one another at school too.

Nielsen takes two very different teen characters and tells their story of living together in both of their voices. Stewart is a great character, very bright and quite awkward, but also willing to try new things and put himself out there because his mother would have wanted him to. He quickly moves from potential stereotype into a unique character with quirks and interests all his own. While he may not make friends easily, he has a distinct charm about him, a gentleness and a sensibility that is lovely to see in a teen male character. Ashley takes more time to embrace the changes happening in her family and more time for the reader to see who she really is. The juxtaposition of the differences of the two of them plus this delay in understanding her more fully offer the book exactly the tension it needs to move forward and be compelling to read.

Ashley is a difficult character to enjoy. She is hugely self-centered and focused on social climbing more than being herself. Nielsen doesn’t shrink away from making a prickly teen girl a central character, something that is just as welcome as a gentle boy in middle school literature. The two of them together have a dynamic relationship, filled with moments where they collide but also gorgeous moments where you can see them grow together as siblings. The end of the book is immensely satisfying, particularly because it shows Ashley as a deeply thoughtful girl who has a creative flair in fashion and solutions and Stewart as a brave hero.

This is a very successful novel for middle school readers who will see themselves in either Ashley or Stewart. The book explores deep subjects but keeps a light tone, making it a great read.

Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

cuckoo song

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Triss wakes up feeling very strange, surrounded by her worried parents and a doctor. As she starts to feel better, she struggles to recognize even family members and her own home. Everything seems strange, even herself. At night, Triss finds herself ravenously hungry and eating windfall rotting apples off of the ground outside. Her younger sister Pen is terrified of her and her parents are worried. Cutting their vacation short, the family returns home but Triss doesn’t get any better. She does start to investigate other strange things happening at their home. There’s a desk drawer filled with letters from her dead brother that seem to be written after his death. There’s Pen making calls on the phone that leave no trace with the operator. Triss follows Pen to a strange movie theater where she discovers a man called The Architect who has made a dark deal with Pen with promises to save her family. Triss has to piece together her own role in what is happening to her family and see what she can do to save them all.

Hardinge writes with such strength and beauty. Her prose is lush and exquisite even in her descriptions. She manages to tell readers about the setting with details that expose the horrors happening right below the surface, the result is unsettling, eerie and gorgeous. Here is how she describes The Grimmer, a waterway that Triss was rescued from at the beginning of the book:

With every step the Grimmer grew closer and clearer, black as perdition and narrow as a half-closed eye…Over its waters the willows drooped their long hair, bucking in the gusts as if with sobs. Against the dark surface she could make out the white waterlily buds, like small hands reaching up from beneath the surface.

Readers know immediately that they are in a horror book, one that nods towards gothic but also stands firmly in faerie land too. At the heart of the book is Triss, a sickly girl with a younger sister who despises her. She focuses mostly on her own hunger, her own desires, but as things reveal themselves so does Triss’ real character and she grows into a gutsy and selfless heroine. The transformation is less about Triss changing and more about revealing what was already within her but hidden. It’s a book of slow reveals, layers being removed, truth being exposed. And it is vicious, dangerous and treacherous to the extreme. In other words, it’s a dazzling dark read.

Wild, terrible and hauntingly beautiful, this children’s fantasy novel is a delight thanks to its dark heart and strikingly unique heroine. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.

lumberjanes

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and illustrated by Brooke Allen

The Lumberjane scout camp is for “hardcore lady types” who celebrate “Friendship to the max!” Five friends are spending their summer together here and they are in for unexpected adventures as they earn their badges. When they head out to get their nighttime badge, they encounter the first of the supernatural monsters, a pack of three-eyed wolves. Luckily the friends, Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley, are also elite fighters so they manage to defeat the wolves. Back at camp, their counselor marches them to the office for discipline, but the head of the camp seems more intrigued than surprised by their find. As the summer progresses, the girls face hipster yetis, polite boy campers with a dark side, stone statues that come to life, and plenty of traps. Summer camp has never been this full of wild creatures and epic battles, all done by a group of amazing girls.

I first heard about how wonderful this comic book was when it was not yet a graphic novel, and I am so thrilled that the first four comics have been turned into this novel that is perfect for libraries. I had high expectations for this comic and was still dazzled by it and rather twitchy to get my hands on the next one. The characters are phenomenally well done, each girl having her own distinct personality and style. Add in the delight of finding a budding lesbian love story and it’s pure magic. I love kick-ass heroines, and this series has FIVE to fall for.

The art is well done too with its own vibe. It has the friendly feel of a Telgemeier combined with more edge that make the battle scenes really work. There is plenty of action and humor to make the book race along. I love the addition of extra art at the end done in a variety of styles. It invites fans of the characters to draw them and create their own stories about these great girls.

This is a graphic novel to devour in one sitting and immediately turn to the beginning and start again. Pure girl-power perfection. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from library copy.

blackbird fly

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

Apple just doesn’t fit in. Her Filipino mother cooks food that no American kids eat. Plus she is so strict that Apple isn’t allowed to take any music classes at school because it might impact her other more important grades. Apple though desperately wants to learn to play the guitar. When they left the Philippines, she took just one picture and a tape of the Beatles that had belonged to her dead father. Apples does have friends, but once they discover that she is on the Dog Log, a list of the ugliest girls at school, they stop hanging around with her. Apple decides to start saving up for a guitar and as she does that she starts to make new friends, other kids that have been singled out as odd or different. But one misstep with a teacher’s wallet marks Apple as a thief and that is all it takes for her former friends to really turn against her. Apple has to figure out how being different can actually be a very good thing.

This tween novel has a strong mix of a multicultural main character combined with middle school popularity and racism. Kelly does not flinch away from the blatant racism that teenagers can engage in as well as the casual hate that they throw at each other, particularly kids who are different from them. Kelly’s writing has a friendly, straight-forward tone even as she deals with the drama of both middle school and a parent who is over protective. Using music as a language that bridges new friendships and new understandings works particularly well and serves as a backbone for the entire novel.

Apple is a character with lots going on in her life. She faces racism on a daily basis at school and in turn takes it out on her mother, turning her back on much of their Filipino culture. She is embarrassed by her mother and angry at her lack of support for Apple’s musical dreams. As Apple puts together a misguided plan to run away, readers will hope that she finds a way to live in the life that she already has, particularly because they will see how special she is long before Apple can realize it herself.

A great tween read, this book offer complexity and diversity in a story about individuality and friendship. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Greenwillow Books.

fork tongue charmers

The Luck Uglies: Fork-Tongue Charmers by Paul Durham

This second book in the Luck Uglies series continues the rollicking story of Rye and her family and friends. With a new lawman in town, Rye and her family have been targeted as outlaws. It doesn’t help that Harmless, the High Chieftain of the Luck Uglies, is her father. When her mother’s shop is burned to the ground, they take refuge in the inn that belongs to one of Rye’s best friends family where lawlessness is already embraced. But that safety is breached as the soldiers march upon it and Rye and her family are sent across the sea to the safety of the Isle of Pest. It is where Rye’s mother and father first met and where her mother’s father still lives. But Pest will not be the safe haven that they are looking for as they are pursued there as well, putting the entire island in danger. It is up to Rye to figure out what exactly is going on and who the new lawman actually is.

Durham has written another great read for middle graders. He has a knack for creating stories that are fast-paced and wildly exciting. At the same time, his feel for world building is impeccable. Here he creates a new island world for readers to explore even as he continues the story of Drowning and its people. The new island has its own quirks and Durham builds it with such skill that they all make sense and feel natural.

Rye grows even further as a heroine in this second book. Her pluck, courage and grit show on every page. She is clearly the daughter of her parents, who people who don’t back down or ever cower, though they face enemies in different ways and styles. Rye’s relationships with people continue to be the heart of the story from her dear best friends to her budding relationship with her grandfather. It is these moments that add depth to the book.

A great second book in a marvelous series, I can’t wait to see what happens next and neither will young readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HarperCollins.

red butterfly

Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen

Kara was abandoned as an infant and taken in by an American woman living in China. Her Mama never leaves the apartment they share and Kara doesn’t attend school. Kara does get to leave the apartment each day to run errands on her bicycle, her favorite time of day. In China where the one-child limit is in effect, parents leave infants who have physical challenges like Kara who was born with one hand with only two small fingers on it. Mama longs to return to the United States, but she can’t without abandoning Kara, who has no identification papers and has not been formally adopted. When Mama’s American daughter comes to visit, Kara finds their entire lives turned upside down and their secret exposed. Will Kara be able to bring their family back together again?

Told in lovely rich verse, this novel is elegantly written and conceived. It shows the results of the one-child policy in China and the children who were abandoned because of it. Yet it is far from a condemnation of China or the United States. It is a portrait in contrasts and complexity, showing that there is good and bad in both systems. It is also the story of one very strong young girl who has already lost one family and is determined not to lose another.

Kara is the voice of the book with the poems told from her point of view. She is unique in many ways, including being able to speak English better than she Chinese due to her upbringing. Kara’s disability is handled in a matter-of-fact way for the reader. While she is profoundly ashamed of it, her hand and disability do not label her at all in the novel. Kara’s situation is complicated by the politics of adoption and identity. In her journey to a resolution of where she will live, there are episodes in an orphanage and then later in a home in the United States. These are all deftly and clearly drawn, showing both the universal nature of family and love but also the differences in cultures.

Radiant verse and a very strong young protagonist make this verse novel a treat to read. The unusual subject matter of an older orphan from China makes it a unique read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books.

listen slowly

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Born in California, Mai has grown up as a beach girl in Laguna.  So she has big plans this summer to spend time at the beach and time with a boy she’s interested in. But her plans have to change when her parents force her to accompany her Vietnamese grandmother back to Vietnam to see if rumors of her grandfather still being alive after the War are true. Mai hates Vietnam immediately, while the food is good and there’s so much of it, it’s also hot, smelly and filled with mosquitoes who love to bite Mai more than anyone else. Mai hides the fact that she can understand the language even if she won’t try to speak it at all. Now she is stuck alone with her grandmother in a tiny village filled with her extended family, dial up Internet access, and a grumpy cousin who seems to only care for her pet frog. Yet as time passes, Mai discovers the beauty of Vietnam, of slowing down and of taking care of family.

Lai has created another wonderful read, this one almost a love letter to Vietnam. She takes readers into the country side and village life, showing first the oppressive heat and lack of modern conveniences, but then revealing in a beautifully natural way that there is much to value perhaps because the days are filled with extra time to be together. The changes in Mai happen organically as she slowly acclimates to her new surroundings and the new society. Nothing is rushed here, even the storytelling is gently done though never dull.

Mai makes a great lens to see Vietnam through, both outsider and relative. Her struggles with the language are cleverly portrayed along with some details about pronunciation in Vietnamese. When she begins to try speaking, the words move to broken English on the page, indicating her troubles speaking the language. At other times, it is Vietnamese on the page. Mai’s growing friendship with her cousin also happens at its own pace and with its own blend of English and Vietnamese.

Rich in details and completely immersive, this novel will inspire travel dreams in those who read it, perhaps to discover their own family roots. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HarperCollins.

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