Granted by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2018
Magic is draining out of the world, leaving very little for the fairies to be use to grant wishes. When rookie wish granter Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is finally sent on her first mission, to get a purple bike for a girl called Kesarah, it should be fairly straightforward. Instead Ophelia gets into one pickle after another before realizing that sometimes rules have to be broken.
Anderson, better known for his sharp and nimbly written realistic novels Ms Bixby’s Last Day and Posted, has created a fanciful world: a quirky mixture of whimsical wishlore and portentous digressions about the loss of wonder juxtaposed with the officialdom of the fairy world and the quotidian lives of the fairies (Ophelia is a fan of the mocha lattes in the new café on the 147th floor of Grant Tower). However, this scene setting slows down the pace, particularly in the first third of the book.
Ophelia is headstrong, impulsive, and initially rather a know it all, but as her adventures pile up she recognizes that she can’t do everything on her own or in her own way. She teams up with a stray mutt with a heart of gold, who is used to being called “Stupid Dog” but she calls him Sam. The warm-hearted core of the novel rests with this affectionate partnership as they both learn the value of friendship and helping each other.
While this didn’t have quite the same grip of Mr Anderson’s school novels or the same acute appeal to a specific age group, it is pleasantly imaginative and folksy. Ideal for readers of fairybooks who want to peek behind the curtain.
The Midnight Gang by David Walliams; illustrated by Tony Ross
Harper Collins, 2018 (originally published in the UK in 2016)
A wacky novel celebrating the imagination, creativity, and kindness of children, set in an oddly anachronistic English hospital. When Tom gets hit on the head by a cricket ball at his boarding school, he is whisked to the children’s ward in London’s Lord Funt Hospital. There he discovers the Midnight Gang, fellow child patients who escape from their beds at night to make a dream come true for one of their numbers with the aid of the porter.
A lot of this is very sweet, gently funny, and anarchic in a Roald Dahl sort of way and Tony Ross’s whimsical and exuberant illustrations compound the comparison. However, the novel is old-fashioned though not in a good way, feeling reminiscent of a children’s story from the 1950’s complete with all the oblivious racism and classism of that time. The only person of color is the “dinner lady” Tootsie with her “huge Afro hairstyle” , who speaks “as if she were singing a song.” Dilly, one of the hospital cleaners, is a lazy caricatures of English working class incompetence, complete with cigarette permanently dangling from her mouth.
Other adults including the matron and the headmaster of Tom’s school who are straight out of the Dahl-playbook of cruel child haters. The Midnight Gang themselves are swiftly delineated: Amber is bossy, Robin is a smart alec, George is fat. Only the very sick Sally, left out of the gang as she is too weak to join in, and Tom himself who is a lonely and bullied child, show any semblance of being characters.
Mr Walliams is very popular in the UK as both a comedian and children’s author and he has had several books published in the US, including The Demon Dentist (2016). However, this book feels like a misfire to me and I wouldn’t recommend it to even the most Anglophile kid.
The Crims by Kate Davies
A mildly entertaining British novel about a family of absurdly incompetent criminals whose style reminded me of both David Baddiel’s The Parent Agency and Julian Clary’s The Bolds.
12 year old Imogen ran away to a fancy boarding school after the matriarch of the Crims was killed in a heist. However, when the rest of the family is jailed for the theft of a valuable lunch box, she feels obliged to return to help them out.
Davies does a competent job of delineating the numerous Crims by providing them with a defining trait: fearsome-looking Uncle Knuckles is really a gentle flower-loving man, Freddie is astonishingly absent-minded, Imogen’s father is an accountant who loves numbers and book-keeping, and so on. Imogen had developed an ambition to be a future world leader while at school, but now discovers that her love for her family and her suppressed criminal plotting genius outweighs that.
The silly situations, word play, and broad characters are somewhat reminiscent of Lemony Snicket, though the quips about grisly murders fall rather flat.
Judging by the open ending, the intention is to have a sequel in which the Crims take on the frighteningly competent Kruk family.
My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
Candlewick, July 2018.
Drawing from her own experience as an Argentinian in Alabama during the watershed years when schools were integrated, the author has created a wonderful, lively, and warm-hearted story about 6th grader Lu Olivera, set in fictitious Red Grove, Alabama in 1970. In the first year that her school has included black students, Lu sits in the middle row of her classroom between the black kids and the white kids. Middle rowers don’t exactly belong to either group: “our moms and dads believe in equal rights and all that good stuff” which makes them “ weirdos” to some people.
Lu is torn between her previous unknowing comfortable old life when she was friends with white Abigail and Phyllis, and the scary new ground of being friends with black Belinda. She’s becoming politically aware as the election for the governor plays out between moderate Albert Brewer and racist George Wallace. Lu’s older sister, Marina, works for the Brewer campaign as well as being involved with the anti-Vietnam war campaign. On the personal front, Lu finds out that she is a really good runner which upsets the status quo at school and causes some conflict with her conservative parents. She is also attracted to white Sam, whose parents have been big supporters of integration and civil rights.
As more of the white kids move over to private white-only East Lake Academy, Lu finds she is no longer content with sitting in the middle – she has to take a stand. And she has to persuade her parents to let her go to track camp in the summer so she can join the track team with Belinda in 7th grade.
The author does a terrific job of showing Lu’s personal and political growth over the course of a few months, while keeping her voice entirely appropriate for a smart, curious, and slightly naive 12-year-old.
There is a lot going on in the novel, but the author skillfully weaves all the storylines together to give a whole picture of a young girl growing up at a challenging time in a challenging place and finding her own conscience. A great read for middle graders interested in social justice.
Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.
Beast & Crown by Joel Ross
I really enjoyed the two-book Fog Diver series, and was on the panel that awarded the Cybil to The Fog Diver. So I was excited to get Mr Ross’s lively new middle grade fantasy in which he continues to use alternative worlds to look at life for those who are on the bottom rung, or not even part of society. While it is not quite as thrillingly imaginative or as smart as his previous novels, it is still very readable and is bound to please middle grade fantasy fans.
13 year-old Ji is a boot boy for an aristocratic family and is friends with Sally, a stable girl and Roz, a young lady without means who is tolerated by the family. The three are planning to escape to the city to rescue Sally’s brother Chibo. Fate seems to be on their side when they are taken to the city as part of the young master’s entourage where he is to be trained to take part in a competition that will decide who is heir to the throne.
The ruler of the world is the Summer Queen who uses magic to suppress the ogres, goblins, and other non humans who threaten the humans. However, Ji and friends find that these so-called monsters are a lot more civilized than the humans.
The characters are as well-crafted as those of the Fog Diver and have a similar range of skin tones. Just like the previous book, they are appealing but perhaps a little one dimensional: Ji is cunning and wants to be self-centered but is too moral; Sally is brave and wants to be a knight; Roz is a “lady” and is full of book-smarts. There is a lot of fun to be had with Nin the ogre who conflates words to produce pleasing new ones.
The created world is straightforward and has less depth than The Fog Diver, and is a curious appropriation of Asian and Latinx cultures for no apparent reason. Pet peeve – to show that this is not our world, there are two moons which is straight out of the Secrets of Droon playbook.
The plot feels a little derivative – I noticed a resemblance to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, though without the edge and sharpness. Nonetheless it moves along at a good clip with some interesting twists. There are some curious diversions which seem like they are going to lead to something but then don’t, making the book rather longer than it needs be, though maybe setting something up for the next book.It was clear fairly early on that this would be a series (or maybe just a duology) but a resolution is reached and I don’t really feel the need to read more.
Horizon by Scott Westerfeld
Prolific author Westerfeld opens up a new multi-author seven part upper elementary/middle grade scifi series. On a flight between New York and Tokyo, the plane crashes leaving only eight survivors – all kids. But nothing makes sense: the other passengers have all just disappeared and instead of being in the Arctic, they are in a tropical jungle, inhabited by unfamiliar and malevolent creatures.
This book is in many ways a set-up for the series and linked online game, so the characters are distinguished by the skills that they bring to the group and, for some of them, a little background family information is broadly sketched in. Dark-skinned Molly is a natural leader and the others look to her for direction. Blonde Anna has trouble filtering what she says, but sometimes the others need her honesty. Biracial Yoshi is the most analytical and creative thinker, making intellectual leaps that the others haven’t. Dark-skinned Javi, white Caleb, young Japanese sisters Kira and Akiko, and young white Oliver make up the octet.
The plot moves along quickly, with plenty of action and intrigue. There’s age appropriate thrills and scares as they encounter the strange flora and fauna and there’s some humor to be had in the names the kids give to them including “pukeberries” and the “dreadful duck of doom.”
By the end of the book, the kids have answered the where part of the mystery, and that leaves the why, who, and how for subsequent books. With Jennifer A. Nielsen up for book 2, this is clearly a series that Scholastic are investing in and Westerfeld gives it a solid start.
Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017
Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.
On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.
The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.
The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.
Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy