Category Archives: middle grade

Tin by Pádraig Kenny

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Tin by Pádraig Kenny
Chicken House, 2019

The cover and title rather misleadingly suggest a quest akin to the Wizard of Oz, and I found it puzzling that the author has his breath taken away by it given that it seems unconnected to the story. Having said that, it is a very attractive cover and may well pull in some readers looking for warmly human speculative fiction.

Set between the wars in an alternate steampunk England, this novel brings charm and exciting adventure to a story about home and family. 

Living with a incompetent and unlicensed engineer and an oddball group of “mechanical” children, 12 year-old Christopher had always thought he was a “proper” boy, but an accident reveals that he too is constructed of metal and he is a rare and illegal machine with a transferred soul. 

When Christopher is kidnapped by a government agency, the misfit mechanicals, Jack, Round Rob, Gripper, Manda, and their human friend, aspiring engineer Estelle, set off in pursuit. Along the way, they go to Ironhaven, the town where discarded and broken mechanicals go, to seek the help of the country’s most gifted engineer. Switching narrative point of view between Christopher and Jack, the reader can follow both strands of the story leading to a revealing climax in an old prison. 

This world of magically created, and all-white, mechanicals lacks some logic. Christopher is haunted by vivid sensory memories of his home and mother, but these turn out to be false memory “patches.” Jack and the others, particularly Rob, though lacking souls have definite personalities, can make decisions, feel despair and joy, love and friendship, and I found myself wondering how they differ from real children or even “ensouled” ones like Christopher. 

The switches of narration, especially at the end, get confusing and there are a lot of pseudo-scientific terms thrown around which are incomprehensible and irrelevant. I also found the end battle to be rather overdone given the more sophisticated storytelling that led up to it.

But that said, I liked this more than my review above might suggest. The characterization, problematic or not, is well done and the team of mechanicals and their human companions are delightful and sympathetic. The author has a fine imagination and the world he has built here could certainly sustain some more stories. And while I started by grumbling about the misleading Wizard of Oz cover, the mechanicals do find out that there’s no place like home.

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The Disaster Days by Rebecca Behrens

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The Disaster Days by Rebecca Behrens
Sourcebooks, October 2019.

13 year old novice babysitter Hannah is looking after her neighbor’s children in their isolated island home when an enormous earthquake hits. Cut off from Seattle, the nearest city and with no power, no internet, no phones and no adults, Hannah has to work out how to keep 3rd grader Oscar, 5th grader Zoe, (and Jupiter their guinea pig) safe until help reaches them. 

Hannah is credibly clueless but she is grittily determined to keep her charges safe. Her narration is authentically straightforward as she initially makes some poor decisions, leading to injuries to both children, and she herself is struggling with asthma as she left her inhaler at home.

Without Google or an adult, the kids are initially helpless, struggling with shelter, food, and other basics of survival. But by pooling their knowledge and resources and by using encyclopedias and old manuals they make the best of what they have. Hannah even manages to ward off a brush with a bear.  The novel is set over the three days in which they’re stranded, but towards the end I felt the author added plot excitement by having them walk to find help. In real life, they would probably have been safer staying where they were and waiting for help to find them, particularly given the various injuries they were suffering.

Though set in the Pacific Northwest this tense tale of post-earthquake survival is equally relevant to other areas where natural disasters are a constant threat, and may encourage middle grade readers to think and find out about their family and school disaster plans.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Color of the Sun by David Almond

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The Color of the Sun by David Almond
Candlewick, 2019.

In Little Felling in the North-East of England, the body of a teen boy, Jimmy Killen, is found. Davie sees the body and then sets out towards the top of the hill outside the village looking for the suspected murderer, a teen boy from the Craigs, a rival family to the Killens.

As he wanders on this hot summer’s day, he encounters and converses with several people, including an old priest, two young girls, the Craigs, a dog, an old man who lost his leg in a mining accident and a gardener as well as his recently deceased father.

Set in an unspecified post-war era, the spare lyrical prose and dream-like mood hint at a larger journey towards manhood as artistic, imaginative Davie absorbs and reflects on the tales, both real and apocryphal, that he is told along the way.

I really loved the author’s 2015 The Tightrope Walkers and this has some of the same virtues, but feels much slighter and less grounded. Here, Almond creates a wonderfully atmospheric picture of that stage in life when childhood is left behind but adulthood has not yet been reached and of an England that no longer exists if it ever did. But I feel the setting and meandering pace will likely limit its appeal to American teen readers, as well as the Geordie dialect and customs.

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi

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My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi
Dutton, 2019.

My second novel review about a space-obsessed middle grade girl set in the 1980’s! 

Zoboi’s (Pride, 2018) middle-grade debut is set in Summer 1984 when 12 year-old Ebony-Grace Norfleet has been sent from Huntsville Alabama by her mother to stay in Harlem with the father she hardly knows. It’s never made very clear why Ebony-Grace is sent, but there are hints that her grandfather is in some sort of trouble.

Encouraged by her Grandaddy, a pioneering black engineer for NASA, Ebony-Grace spends most of her time in her “imagination location,” living out Space stories inspired by Star Wars, Star Trek, and superheroes. In these stories, he is the heroic Captain Fleet, she is Space Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and they have intergalactic adventures in the Mothership Uhura.

But this “crazy” behavior has isolated her in her hometown and now threatens to do the same here, even with her friend Bianca who had been a willing game participant three years ago. Bianca is now a rapper and breakdancer with the ice cream-themed 9 Flavas girl crew and when Ebony-Grace tries to behave like a “regular and normal” kid and fit in with them, they dismiss her as a “plain ol’ ice cream sandwich! Chocolate on the outside, vanilla on the inside.” The alien environment of Harlem with its graffiti, loud music, crowds of fast-talking people, breakdancing, and double Dutch pushes her further back into her comfort fantasy zone. Ebony-Grace presents as neurodiverse, though this is never made explicit, and her social struggles feel overwhelming and unresolvable, though the ending suggests that she may be on the road to change. 

Though I found the plot confusing and muddled and the resolution to be problematic, the author does effectively evoke the spirit of mid-80’s Harlem with many musical, cultural, and news references. Readers who enjoyed Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2010) may appreciate the period feel of this book too.

Review based on an ARC.

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

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Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Wendy Lamb Books, 2019.

It’s 1986 and 12 year-old autistic and nonverbal Nova Vezina and her older sister, Bridget, have been in 11 foster homes in 7 years. But now Bridget has disappeared and Nova has been placed with kind and thoughtful Francine and Billy. Nova has to start at yet another school and undergo yet another round of testing which will inevitably conclude “Cannot read. Does not speak. Severely mentally retarded.” Bridget has always protected Nova from this hateful label, saying she’s smarter than people think and that she’s a “thinker not a talker” and the author does a wonderful job of showing the truth of this. Alternating chapters from a third person POV and letters that Nova writes to Bridget (just “scribbles” to everyone else) take the reader inside Nova’s head, giving an empathetic account of her rich thought processes as well as their external manifestations as she settles into her new home and classroom.

Bridget, and hence Nova, is deeply interested in space exploration, and Nova, clutching her NASA Bear and listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, counts down the days to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger with the First Teacher in Space. But she’s also waiting for Bridget to keep her promise to be there for the launch though the reader may begin to suspect that there’s more to her absence than Nova understands. It’s only when Challenger explodes that the pieces fall into place for Nova.

A couple of concerns. As middle grade readers may not be aware of the Challenger disaster, it may come as a significant shock to them and tip what is already a very sad story into one that carries too much weight. Setting it in 1986 means that there was less understanding of Nova’s condition and less options to help her communicate; Things have changed (as the author explains in a note) but readers may not be aware of this and though both Bridget and her new foster family resist the term “retard” it is still used by responsible adults, even if they are signaled as lacking understanding.

I feel that there’s really could be two novels here: one about Nova and Bridget and one about the doomed Space Shuttle, and though the author does a decent job of making it one novel it does feel a little overstuffed. Nonetheless, the author’s personal experience and her professional experience working with autistic kids brings authenticity to this poignant slim volume. 

Review based on an ARC.

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

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The Line Tender by Kate Allen
Dutton, 2019.

When red-haired Lucy Everhart was seven, her shark scientist mother died suddenly; now thirteen, Lucy is surrounded by a home-made family including her police diver Dad, fisherman Sookie, next door nonagenarian Mr Patterson, and her best friend/tentative crush naturalist geek Fred (all main characters default white). When a second tragedy hits Lucy, she finds solace in immersing herself in her mother’s final project of tagging great white sharks in Cape Cod. 

This is a quiet, emotionally resonant novel about dealing with grief and finding purpose: Lucy is the “line tender” who “uses all the resources to stay connected to the other end of the line” and so keeps her off-beat family together. The author does a fine job of sympathetically drawing and giving dimension to all the main characters and even the secondary ones feel authentic. She also has a wonderful feel for the community in the small fishing port Rockport, Massachusetts. 

There is plenty of shark information shared by the characters and discovered by Lucy and Fred for their summer project field guide: Fred writes the notes and Lucy provides the drawings. There are pencil drawings of sharks prefacing each chapter, though the species are not identified. As well as Lucy’s mother, there is also a brown-skinned woman biologist who acts as a role model for both Lucy and the reader. 

Through Lucy’s narration, the reader can feel her grief and, though the novel is long and slow-paced, the emotional journeys of all the characters feel authentic and are never dull. May appeal to readers who enjoyed Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate books.

Review based on an ARC.

The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones

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The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones
Candlewick, September 2019

On a solo trip to the wintry and isolated Ghost Lake, 16 year-old straight arrow Nate discovers that his family’s cabin has been taken over by escaped convicts. Resourceful and competent Nate initially tries to hide out but is later forced to confront these dangerous men. Eight months earlier, Nate’s best friend Dodge, a prankster and rule-breaker, drowned in Ghost Lake, and now his spirit both haunts Nate and pushes him to face the natural and man-made threats.

The desolation of the snowbound wilderness and the storm that comes in which prevents Nate leaving are never truly as atmospheric as I feel they should be. The description of Nate’s survival skills, taught to him by his father, are not particularly compelling either.

In his bones, Nate is a straightforward rule-following teen, the product of his loving, kind but safety-conscious and wilderness savvy parents: he knows what is the right thing to do and is intrinsically impelled to do it. On the other hand, he is ambiguous about Dodge, who in life was always pushing him to try new and dangerous things, ones not necessarily approved by his parents. Dodge’s death, while on a foolhardy family boat delivery trip which also killed his dad and younger brother, obsesses Nate as he fears he could have prevented it.

The two escaped convicts are broadly sketched psychopathic bad guys and the identity of their guide is a minor though not wholly unexpected twist. All characters appear to be white but I’m not sure if there’s a hint or two that Nate’s Dad is indigenous – Kirkus doesn’t mention it so maybe not. 

I have been a fan of Mr Wynne-Jones’s earlier sophisticated, elegantly written, texturally complex books, The Emperor of Any Place and The Ruinous Sweep, so I was somewhat taken aback by the prosaic and straightforward nature of this book. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a reasonably decent adventure novel, but it just seems so much less than his previous novels. 

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.