Category Archives: middle grade

Beast and Crown by Joel Ross

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Beast & Crown by Joel Ross
HarperCollins, 2017

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.

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.

In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.

With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.

With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.

Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.

An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
Walden Pond, 2017

This middle grade story of nine self-sufficient orphans on a mysterious island can be read as a low key fantasy and/or an allegory of the unfettered joys of childhood and the looming responsibilities of maturity. It reminded me, in some respects of Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey but I found it way more appealing than Spinelli’s nonsense and think it could get some MG readers.

Every year, a boat arrives on orphan Island carrying a very young child. The young child is taken into the care of the second oldest of the 9 residents and the oldest one gets onto the boat to embark for who knows where physically, but adulthood metaphorically.

Life on the island is blissfully easy. Food is abundant, the wildlife is unharmful, it only rains at night, and even the wind throws the kids back onto land if they jump off a cliff. However, there is a strict unwritten structure and set of rules passed down from all the previous residents, which the children follow religiously (deliberate choice of word there).

Jinny was heartbroken when Deen left the island, leaving her as the Elder taking care of the new girl Ess. She isn’t very good at teaching Ess what she needs to know – reading and swimming – nor is she very good at training Ben, the next in line, on how to be an Elder. Jinny doesn’t want to follow the rules and when she breaks one of the most important ones, life on the island becomes out of joint.

Jinny rings true as a conflicted pre-adolescent and her relationship with her young charge, Ess, is delightfully imperfect; however, the other characters, who have a variety of different skin, hair and eye colors, are just sketched in.

I found some of the metaphors a trifle heavy handed – the entrance of snakes to this garden of Eden and Jinny’s long swim away from the island – but maybe this wouldn’t be the case for the intended audience.

Many questions are unanswered  who sends them to the island? What do they go back to? who set up this home? are they really orphans? – but the ending, bringing the story full circle, feels complete.

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How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana

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How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017

10-year old Sandra and her family were in a refugee camp in Burundi when it was attacked and 166 refugees were murdered, including Sandra’s six-year old sister Deborah. Over the next ten years, as Sandra’s family moved to Rwanda and then the USA, they never discussed this loss or shared their feelings on the massacre and it was only when Sandra had a breakdown in her sophomore year at college that they finally open up.

With a brief overview of how colonialism left her tribe, the Banyamulenge, stateless and “always in limbo”, Sandra matter of factly describes her early life in the Democratic Republic of Congo where “war was part of our everyday life.” In a very tense scene, her family escapes from the DRC when ethnic conflict bubbles over, only to end up in an empty field in Gatumba in Burundi where the UNHCR builds a refugee camp. Following the massacre, the family moves to Rwanda where they live in desperate poverty until getting the “golden ticket” to go to America,

But their arrival in the USA is not the happy end of the story that the family (and possibly the reader) assumed. Though the threat of ethnic slaughter is removed, the family faces hostility and indifference to their struggles. Even Sandra’s thirst for education is dampened by the lack of understanding she faces in school. Her frustration at people’s ignorance of Africa and the plight of refugees pushes her to tell her family’s story to increasingly large and high profile meetings and conferences, and her advocacy gives her life a focus.

The workmanlike, though unsophisticated, prose conveys Sandra’s despair, confusion and outrage, and then her later passion for her cause. Sandra’s feeling of being an outsider wherever she is comes across strongly, particularly when she describes being unable to relate to her classmates in her US middle and high schools where “your skin color defines you.”

There is a small collection of photographs of survivors of the massacre and their stories, as well as some joyful family scenes of graduations, weddings, and trips back to Africa. One heartbreaking fuzzy image is the only photo left of Deborah – the family’s album was lost in Gatumba.

Sandra comes to realize that Americans are not uncaring, “they just didn’t know our story.” Her quest to show that refugees, are just like them “with hobbies and dreams and talents” is continued in this memoir, which will give teen readers a timely and accessible insight into the human face of refugees.

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

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A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Amulet, 2017 (originally published in the UK in 2012)

I’ve never met a book by Ms Hardinge that I haven’t loved and, while this one is no exception, I don’t love it quite as much as some of her others. But that is not to detract from a novel that has luxuriant imagination, believably complex characters, glorious writing, and astonishingly rich world building.

A Face Like Glass is a return to the high fantasy of The Lost Prophecy and the Mosca Mye books, Fly by Night and Fly Trap. Caverna is a rampantly decadent underground society that crafts True Delicacies that “crossed the invisible line between the mind-blowing and the miraculous….wines that rewrote the subtle book of memory, cheeses that brought visions, spices that sharpened the senses, perfumes that ensnared the mind, and balms that slowed aging to a crawl.”

It has a somewhat traditional pyramid structure, with the ancient and paranoid Grand Steward not so benevolently dictating from the top, a swirling plotting aristocracy of masters of the Craft on the next level, and drudges (literally called drudges) at the bottom.

Here’s the twist, there’s been much said about how limiting language can limit expression of rebellion, but in the case of Caverna, it is facial expressions that are limited. Babies are born not knowing how to show their feelings on their faces and have to be taught. Drudges learn only a handful of compliant and contented expressions, thus limiting their ability to combine in anger and rebellion. The aristocracy have a much broader range of options, crafted for them by Facesmiths, such as Uncomprehending Fawn Before Hound and Violet Trembling in Sudden Shower, enabling them to be much more subtle and manipulative with their faces..

A newcomer arrives in this fin de siecle society who views it through new eyes. The outsider is 12 year-old Neverfell, and she has the human ability to show her feelings, and indeed finds it impossible to conceal them, much to the astonishment and sometimes revulsion of the Cavernans. She quickly becomes a pawn in the cynical plans of several people and it is only as she loses her naivete that she understands how ravaged Caverna is and what she must do to save herself and the innocents who have been unwittingly caught up in the court drama.

So why don’t I love it quite as much? Well, for me it sagged a little in the middle – the first time I’ve ever felt that in a Hardinge novel. While it isn’t as long as some of her other books, there was one point at which I thought that it was a bit of a slog, though it soon picked up. Secondly, Neverfell, our protagonist, lacks the edge and bite of other Hardinge heroines. She is like an adorable puppy, but I prefer my honey spliced with some vinegar, which I got with the leads of The Lie Tree, Cuckoo Song and the Mosca Mye books.

But, hey, this is still a Frances Hardinge novel which makes it head and shoulders above most books I’ve read this year.

Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky

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Night Witches by Kathryn Lasky
Scholastic, 2017.

This leaden World War II middle grade novel fails to bring to life an intriguing slice of history. 16 year-old Valya makes her way out of besieged Stalingrad and eventually joins up with the women aviators of the 588th Bomber Regiment – nicknamed the Night Witches by the Nazis. The flat present tense narration, laced with undigested dumps of historical information, generates little emotional connection with the characters. The action hurriedly tracks the Witches through the last four years of the war as the Russians drive the German Army out of their country, and the regiment’s constantly changing location would have been much easier to understand with a map. However, towards the end, there are two episodes – Valya’s crash-landing in enemy territory, and her rescue of her sister Tatyana from a prison camp – which, though somewhat lacking in credibility, are terrific stories that generate real tension. Irritatingly, there are no author’s notes or further sources on the Night Witches, so readers are on their own to sort out fact from fiction and to find out more about these young women fighter pilots or any of the other characters mentioned.