Category Archives: middle grade

Horizon by Scott Westerfeld

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Horizon by Scott Westerfeld
Scholastic, 2017

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

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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

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Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuiser Hill
Candlewick, September 2017.

12 year-old Rose Brautigan is a musical prodigy, has skipped several grades at school, and is cruising through college level math. Her twin brother, Thomas, on the other hand is just a regular kid. But over the course of one summer, their interests come together as they grow a giant pumpkin.

Rose herself starts off as an insufferable prig – she makes little allowance for others’ passions or foibles, and is very self-centered. The author neatly shows how the events of the summer are an awakening for her and she softens in her attitudes. Other characters are somewhat more two-dimensional. The denizens of Rose’s Minnesota neighborhood are remarkably varied – I hesitate to say it but it did feel a bit like the author had a diversity checklist she was working through (Japanese – check, Latinx – check, gay couple – check). However, Ms Hill does a nice job of showing how the pumpkin project brings the community together.

I found it very odd that Rose is eighteen inches taller than her twin brother and no explanation is ever given for this. Is it a medical condition? Is it something that can happen with fraternal twins? It’s not clear, and I’m not sure of the purpose of it either. It does emphasize their difference for sure, but then so does Rose playing cello while Thomas mucks about in the garden.

Overall, I found this a fairly pleasant read but it is very long at 448 pages for an upper elementary/lower middle school novel. And there is A LOT going on and it doesn’t always mesh together very well. The author clearly has some fascinating ideas and interests and has done her research thoroughly, but doesn’t quite manage to shape it all into a smooth flowing novel. Rose and Thomas are sad to learn that they should cull all but one of their pumpkins so all the growing energy can be focused on that biggest one – I rather feel that’s a metaphor for this novel.

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson

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bandits-taleA Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson
Knopf, 2016.

Taking stylistic and plot arc cues from the picaresque novels of the 18th and 19th century (what? You don’t know what those are? Neither did I until I read the author’s note), this charming tale manages to squeeze in social commentary as well as a heartwarming tale of an early American immigrant.

11 year-old Rocco Zaccaro is brought to America in 1887 by a padrone who has promised to send money back to Rocco’s impoverished family in Southern Italy. But the padrone makes money by sending boys out to be street musicians – then takes the money they earn while keeping them on the border of starvation.

Rocco has got a bit more gumption than many of the boys and, while getting himself into scrapes, many illicit, along the way, ultimately ends up as a boy his father would be proud of.

Though Hopkinson has a great time with Rocco’s romp through the seedy side of late 19th century Manhattan, she also has a serious purpose as well. Through weaving in real life people, she looks at the press exposure of child exploitation by Max Fischel and photographer Jacob Riis, as well as the first inkling of animal rights through “meddlers” Mike and Mary Hallahan. These characters are completely embedded in the story and the author does a great job of not making their roles and issues stand out.

Ideal for any middle schooler who has enjoyed Oliver!

Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

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projekt-1065Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2016.

Set in World War II Berlin, this exciting, fast-paced adventure story mixes spy story thrills into a well-researched historical setting.

Michael O’Shaunessey is the 13 year-old son of the Irish ambassador to Germany, and the family uses Ireland’s neutral status as a front for spying for the Allies. Michael is at a Hitler Youth school, and under this cover rescues a British airman. Once he has graduated to the SRD (the Hitler Youth equivalent of the Gestapo), he becomes involved in a plot with global stakes.

The reader will be as appalled as Michael by what the Hitler Youth are allowed to get away with and, indeed, what they were used for in the latter days of the war. In the useful Author’s Note, Gratz rightly recommends Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth (Scholastic, 2005) for further reading.

Michael himself is not a particularly original character – he is smart, capable with his fists, and an upright and moral boy. He has a handily photographic memory, but has a flaw too – he is deathly afraid of heights (and you’ll never guess what he has to do to overcome the villain!). Much more interesting is his friend Fritz, something of a metaphor for Hitler and other such bullies, who starts as the weakling butt of the Hitler Youth jokes, but rises quickly to become a feared and fanatical leader.

The writing is straightforward and unadorned, and the action races along to a rousingly cinematic, if not entirely credible, climax, but along the way there is some interesting ambiguity. The book is well pitched for middle grade readers who enjoyed the WWII action of Margi Preus’s fictional Shadow on the Mountain (Abrams, 2012)  and Philip Hoose’s nonfiction The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (FSG, 2015)..

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Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes

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garveys-choiceGarvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes
WordSong, 2016

Middle schooler Garvey feels like a misfit in his family. Though his mother supports and encourages his reading – he loves sci-fi – his father is perpetually trying to get him to play sports and his athletic sister affectionately calls him “chocolate chunk.” He is teased at school for his weight too, but then he is encouraged by a new friend, Manny, who suffers from albinism, to ignore the taunts, and when Garvey discovers Chorus he finds his place in the world.

This brief and poignant verse novel manages to dimensionalize fully a boy’s life in its simple stanzas. The sparse text doesn’t waste a word and an author’s note explains the use of the Japanese tanka form – 5 line verses with a 5 7 5 7 7 syllable scheme.

The novel is written from Garvey’s perspective allowing the reader to feel his hurt and confusion at his father’s expectations, gradually turning to pride and confidence in his achievements. Garvey has used food as a comfort and to fill the hole created by his father’s disappointment but now, as he and his father bond over the music of Luther Vandross, he finds he’s eating less.

The lovely, understated cover reflects the quiet warmth of Garvey’s metamorphosis. Readers will find they can read about Garvey’s choice in less than an hour, but his voice will stay with them for much longer.

 

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Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

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saving-montgomery-soleSaving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

I really enjoyed Ms Tamaki’s This One Summer, and Saving Montgomery Sole has something of the spiky observation of that graphic novel, but doesn’t quite reach its heights.

Montgomery Sole is an odd duck in an decidedly homogenous Southern California town. She believes in mystical powers and, along with gay best friend Thomas and hippy Naoki, she has formed her school’s Mystery Club. Monty spends a lot of time on the Internet delving into such mysteries as spontaneous combustion and remote viewing, and that’s how she comes to acquire the Eye of Know for only $5.99. She comes to believe that the Eye gives her the power to hurt people who are threatening her, and she’s not sure how she feels about that.

Into this mix comes the Reverend White, a hardline Christian who believes in the sanctity of marriage. This is a threat to Monty as she has two Moms. When the Rev White’s son Kenneth turns up at school, Monty believes she has to act.

I didn’t find the whole business with the Eye to be particularly credible, whether it has powers or not, and while it does point to a teen’s urge to find something outside themselves to believe in, it just seemed a bit silly.

More satisfying is the White plotline, in which Monty feels she has to singlehandedly take on the reactionary newcomer after a crucifix appears on her, and others’, lockers. Her perception of her town’s conformity to socially conservative values is an assumption that she never considers will be challenged, and by tarring the son with the same brush as his father, she shows herself to be as blinkered as some of her classmates.

I liked the other two members of the Mystery Club: Thomas’s stoic attitude to the endless knee jerk homophobia of his classmates provides a sharp contrast to Monty’s bull in a china shop approach, and Naoki’s gentle quirkiness provides yet another contrast. Monty’s family feels robustly real as well – her two Moms and her sister, Tesla, form a tight loving around Monty as she thrashes around, and the Moms’ backstory gives authenticity to Monty’s panic.

This has had some pretty good reviews, but I didn’t find it a particularly satisfying read. Though pitched as a YA novel, it reads much more like a middle grade one; and while Monty is 16, she feels much more like a girl on the brink of adolescence than one heading into adulthood. I bought it for my high school library, but I suspect it will work much better for sophisticated middle graders.