Category Archives: middle grade

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.

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.