Category: Middle School

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld, illustrated by Alex Puvilland (9781596439368, Amazon)

Addison lives inside the protected border of the Spill Zone, where an event changed the city of Poughkeepsie. No one is allowed into the spill zone, but Addison has found a way to support herself and her younger sister by taking photographs of the strange things happening inside the city. A certain energy keeps the dead floating in the are with glowing eyes, creates strange wolf-like lightning creatures, makes designs out of objects and flattens others into the ground. Addison has only a couple of rules that keep her alive, like not getting off of her motorcycle and never entering the hospital where her parents died. Soon though, a strange woman who has been collecting Addison’s photographs offers her a huge payout for Addison to take on a dangerous mission and break all of her own safety rules.

Westerfeld excels at creating parallel worlds for readers to explore. This graphic novel is no exception, inviting readers to ride fast alongside Addison into a confusing and neon-bright world with rules all its own. Westerfeld combines horror elements and science fiction in this graphic novel, a combination that is vastly appealing and allows Westerfeld to twist and change the world, filling it with surprises that either delight or dismay. Perhaps the best of these is the doll that Addison’s younger sister has that comes alive thanks to energy in the Spill Zone, a secret that Addison isn’t aware of.

The art of the graphic novel is crucial to bringing Westerfeld’s twisted world to life. The play of normalcy against the dangers and horrors of the Spill Zone makes both of them darker and even stranger. The elements of the Spill Zone splash across the page in a blaze of color and oddities. One both wants to return to that area and also avoid it, thanks to the depiction on the pages.

A very successful first book in a new graphic novel series, this one will be popular with Westerfeld fans and fans of horror and sci fi. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy received from First Second.

 

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (9781101994856, Amazon)

The author of Wolf Hollow returns with her second novel for young people.  This is a novel of the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts where Crow has lived all of her life. She lives on a solitary island with Osh, the man who found her afloat in a little boat when she was a newborn baby.  The others on the islands won’t associate with Crow, since they all assume that she came from a nearby island that was a leper hospital. Miss Maggie is the exception, she cares fiercely for Crow and makes sure that she learns what she needs to despite not being able to attend school. As Crow starts to piece together her own history, she exposes those she loves to new dangers that are far worse than the storms of nature they weather together.

Wolk once again has created a novel that brings a place to life. Here she has chosen the Elizabeth Islands and the islands themselves feature prominently in the story both in terms of their isolation but also in their beauty. The islands serve as shelter, home, a source of fuel and food, and a community as well. The island with the hospital for lepers insures that Crow is even more isolated than the rest of the community due to the questions of her past. It’s a brilliant setting, one of the best that I have ever read where each page is a reflection of the sea and the islands.

Crow is a dazzlingly great heroine. She is strong and independent, determined to figure things out even as those around her give up. She pieces together clues from the mystery of her past, a mystery that permeates the entire novel even after it is solved. Crow is anxious to learn of her history and throughout the novel explores questions of identity and family of love and betrayal. It’s a novel that swirls and eddies, displaying beauty and dangers in turn.

This is a beautifully written and deep novel for middle grade readers who will long to visit Crow’s island themselves. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton Books for Young Readers.

 

The Stone Heart by Faith Erin Hicks

The Stone Heart by Faith Erin Hicks

The Stone Heart by Faith Erin Hicks (9781626721593, Amazon)

The second book in The Nameless City, this book continues the story of Kaidu and Rat as the political situation grows even tenser in the city. The Dao nation is exploring new paths to solidify peace, but factions within are seeing their personal plans for power evaporating. Soon violence becomes the solution within the Dao factions and someone new is in power. Meanwhile, Kaidu and Rat are discovering that the monks that raised Rat may have the key to the power that the original founders of the City used to create it. But that power could be used as a weapon by the Dao nation, so there is danger in even trying to find it.

Hicks has taken on an incredible challenge in this graphic novel series. The story is complicated and fascinating. Hicks creates real danger and drama in the tale, never taking it too far but allowing the political pieces to push the story forward. Kaidu and Rat are marvelous characters, their friendship growing stronger. They offer a critical humorous interlude amongst the politics even as they play an important role in the heart of the story.

As this is a graphic novel, the art is just as important as the writing. Hicks has created a truly diverse city filled with various races and religions. She fills the pages with small details, allowing readers to feel the press of the city, the danger it poses and the security it offers.

This second novel hints at the adventures to come. Readers will look forward to the third and final book even more after finishing this one. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy received from First Second.

Braced by Alyson Gerber

Braced by Alyson Gerber

Braced by Alyson Gerber (9780545902144, Amazon)

Rachel is looking forward to a great year. She has two best friends and it’s looking like she may not just make the soccer team but may be playing forward. She even has a crush on a boy, Tate, in her class. Just as her plans start to take off though, she is hit with news about her scoliosis which has been being monitored for years. Rachel must wear a brace to correct the curve of her spine. She has to wear it 23 hours a day, every day. The brace changes how she can kick the soccer ball, how she breathes, how she runs and how she eats. Worse though, it changes how everyone sees her, including her best friends and Tate. What had been going to be the best year ever has become the worst year ever.

Gerber, who wore a brace herself for scoliosis, has created a piercingly clear look at life-changing events like wearing a brace. She takes the time to really look at the brace itself, the impact that it has on an athlete, and the changes it makes in self-perception. I haven’t read a book since Deenie by Judy Blume that tackles this subject and it was high time for a new take on it.

As the adults in Rachel’s life push her to quickly accept the brace, Rachel pushes back and insists on continuing to play soccer. Rachel appears to be coping well, but she is bottling so much up inside her. She is a great character, demonstrating with honesty and strength the importance of voicing aloud to those you love what you are experiencing and feeling. Once Rachel begins to do that, others can support her and help her through. It’s a lesson in vulnerability leading to better understanding that is gracefully presented.

Strong, human and timely, scoliosis impacts ten percent of teens. Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost

When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost

When My Sister Started Kissing by Helen Frost (9780374303037, Amazon)

Sisters Claire and Abi have been going to their family’s lake house since they were born. After their mother died, her things were kept just the way she had left them at the lake house: her chair at the window, books on the shelves and a painting on the easel. Now everything is different. Their father has married Pam and their mother’s things have been moved from the house. Pam is pregnant and the baby should come during their time at the lake. Claire discovers that Abi is changing too. Abi is interested in boys and starts to sneak off to meet them, involving Claire in her lies. Claire finds herself alone on the lake often, trying to figure out what all of this change means for her family.

Frost is a master of the verse novel, and this book is a great example of her skill and heart. She plays with formats for her poetry, using different types of poems and different structures for the various voices. The book is told not only by Claire and Abi but by the lake itself, and those poems are my favorites. They have embedded sentences using the bolded letters either at the beginning or ends of the poetic lines. It turns reading them into a puzzle that leads to discovery, rather like Claire’s summer.

The two sisters are dynamic characters. Abi’s interest in boys is seen as natural and normal, and so is her pushing the boundaries. Organic progression is made in Claire’s relationship with Pam, positivity slowly moving in to replace the wariness. Claire is a girl who is brave and wonderfully written. She has fears but overcomes them and never stops trying.

A beautiful verse novel that captures summer days on a lake and a family becoming stronger. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Aminas Voice by Hena Khan

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (9781481492065, Amazon)

Amina doesn’t like the spotlight. Her best friend Soojin knows that Amina can really sing, but Amina just won’t even try for the solo for the upcoming concert. Amina’s life is changing now that they are in middle school. Soojin has started being friendly with Emily even though Emily had helped bully them in elementary school. Amina just isn’t ready to forgive Emily so quickly. Meanwhile, Amina’s uncle comes to visit from Pakistan, bringing new ideas about what it means to be Muslim. He causes Amina to start to question whether she should even be singing or playing music at all. Amina feels pressured to change but in multiple directions at once.

Khan has created a book for middle schoolers that takes a quieter look at diversity, family and being true to oneself. It is a book that looks closely at what it means to be a Muslim girl in America and how to follow the values of your culture even as you are pressured to be more American. It is a book that looks at the power of voice, of music and of community to overcome hardship and to share emotions. It is a book that has a gorgeous warmth to it, a joy of family, friendship and diversity.

Amina is a very special protagonist. Rather than being the center of attention, she doesn’t seek it at all. Still, she is lonely or ignored. She has friends and is grappling with the normal changes that come during middle school. On top of that, she is also asking deeper questions about faith, culture and living in America that will ring true for all young readers. Amina’s quietness and thoughtfulness allow those questions to shine.

Filled with important questions for our modern world, this middle-grade novel sings with a voice all its own. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Salaam Reads.

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (9780062414151, Amazon)

Four middle schoolers start their summer vacation and steadily their lives begin to come together. There is Virgil, a quiet boy who lives in a family of loud, boisterous people. Except for his grandmother who understands him and tells him stories from her village in the Philippines. Valencia is a girl who is deaf and wears hearing aids to help her lip read. She used to have close friends but enjoys spending her days outside in the local woods where she takes care of a stray dog. Kaori believes that she has psychic powers and is helping Virgil gain the courage to speak with a girl he wants to be friends with. Finally, there is Chet who bullies Virgil and Valencia. He starts problems one day in the woods and Virgil finds himself in real danger. But can Kaori and Valencia figure out what has happened before it’s too late?

Kelly’s novel is rich and riveting. She writes about children who are lonely and interesting. The book speaks to children who don’t fit in, who are bullied, and who are unique in some way. It’s about staying true to yourself and not trying to be someone else. Important subjects weave throughout as well, including deafness and diversity. These enrich the novel even further, making it a book that grapples with important topics and yet stays entirely accessible and filled with plenty of action.

The characters are what make this book sing. Each of them is more than what could have been a stereotype. From the mystical Kaori to shy Virgil to Valencia and her hearing aids, each child has a full personality and plenty to offer the reader. Each is grappling with loneliness and unable to move forward though they know they need to. There is a beautiful theme of folktales and myth throughout the novel with the grandmother’s stories forming a basis for the coincidences and fate that brings our young heroes together.

An intelligent adventure of a book that is about friendships that seem impossible but happen anyway. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins Publishers.