Tag Archives: cybils

The Doughnut Fix by Jessie Janowitz


The Doughnut Fix by Jessie Janowitz
Sourcebooks, 2018.

This fourth book from the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist is a little like a doughnut itself – delicious but not very nutritious or substantial. However, just because it’s not likely to win an award doesn’t mean it won’t bring delight to many kids, and may even get them to start a business or bake a chocolate lava cake.

When 12 year-old Tris’s dad loses his job, the family move from New York City to a ”broken-down, grape-colored house with windows popping out in all the wrong places” in Petersville in upstate New York. Tris and his sister, 10yo, Jeanine are adamantly against this move: they have friends and activities in the city that Petersville just doesn’t offer. Then to make matters worse, they move in the middle of November but won’t start school till January, so their Dad says they each have to come up with a project to fill the time. Gifted and Talented Jeanine decides to do a field study of the land around their house, but Tris is at a loss until he comes across a sign at the local store saying “Yes, we do have chocolate cream doughnuts!” but they no longer serve them. So his project becomes bringing back chocolate cream doughnuts to the town.

In many ways this is a fantasy novel dressed up as a realistic one, though it’s not the sort of fantasy with dragons and fairies but more the sort where you wish life could be just like that. The town is peopled with (all white) whimsical characters: Winnie, the doughnut witch, Dr Charney who dedicates his life to small-town medicine and is also an artist, Riley who takes over his family’s dairy farm and makes artisanal cheese. Even Tris’s new friend Josh, son of the town librarian, is a little too good to be true.

The author tries to root Tris’s project in the real world, by getting him a copy of Starting Your Own Business for Dummies and having him work through the stages of creating a business plan and a budget, finding and negotiating with suppliers, making a presentation to his investors – all of which is really grounded. However, we never get to see the actual figures so we have no idea of how much Tris is making with his doughnuts, nor it is clear how viable it really is for him to get up at 4.30am to make 40 doughnuts on a regular basis.

For me the heart of the novel is the relationship between Tris and Jeanine (there is a younger sister, 4yo Zoe who I find to be a cutesy middle grade novel version of a real 4 yo). As the start of the novel, Tris feels like he’s second fiddle to Jeanine with her math star power and Gifted and Talented status. But after their move, and with his project, Tris realizes that what he has brought to his project and the community of Petersville has equal if different value, though it takes Jeanine to point that out to him.

This is a charming read with Tris’s narration perfectly pitched as a smart (if not math smart) middle grader. He is warm and funny, and very honest, recognizing that not all his impulses and behaviors are what a model 12 year-old should have. As he settles into Petersville, he drops his best friend from the city, believing that they have nothing left in common (though he never tests that). He will occasionally break the 4th wall to directly address the reader, and that feels natural.

Not much of this is particularly original – the theme of a kid discovering his or her way in a new place was pretty central to all our shortlisted books – but I loved the voice and was delighted to be transported to this alternate reality for a few hours.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang


Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Scholastic, 2018.

Week three of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction shortlist. Front Desk was my personal number two and was well-liked by some but not all of the other judges.

It’s 1993 and 10-year old Mia Tang and her parents moved from China to the US two years ago. It has not been what they expected: “My parents had told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburger till we were red in the face.” Now they are managing the Calivista Motel in Orange County for the despotic Mr Yao and, apart from the occasional shared burger, none of their dreams have been fulfilled.

Mia takes on managing the front desk, learning from her mistakes as she goes along. She and her parents work hard but the abusive owner allows them barely enough to scrape by on. As one of the few Chinese kids at her new school, Mia has to face bullies and uncomprehending teachers. Even her mother is unsupportive, telling her she should focus on math as she can be a native at that but not at the English writing that Mia loves.

Mia is a go-getting optimist with a kind heart and a strong sense of justice. As her confidence grows and her natural abilities flourish, she starts to writes letters to help set things right – whether for African American Hank, one of the motel’s “weeklies”, for some of the Chinese immigrants that her parents secretly shelter at the motel, or to counter a racist policy adopted by local motels and stores.

Drawing on the author’s own childhood experiences, this novel looks at the important topics of poverty, racism, and the oppression and exploitation that prevents people from breaking out of the cycles they’re stuck in, but does so with a light hand and integrated into a charming and empowering story. Though the ending trails off a little into fantasy, middle grade readers will feel that Mia is rewarded for all that she has endured and for all that she has done to make her community a better place.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty


The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Random House, 2018

Week two of the Middle Grade Fiction shortlist reviews is a novel which was the runner-up in our judging panel (just behind the stupendous The Parker Inheritance). Though it was not my personal runner-up, I enjoyed it very much and I believe it has a great deal to offer to middle graders who feel that their differences isolate them.

12yo Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning four years ago and since then has been a math genius as she has acquired savant syndrome (apparently a real, though very rare, thing). She also has OCD and her brain is often taken over by numbers. She has been homeschooled by her Nana (her mother and father are both dead) and has graduated from high school online and is ready for college classes, but now Nana thinks she should develop some other skills and has decided she should go to a real middle school in a grade appropriate to her age.

Reluctantly Lucy goes along with this and decides she wants to be “normal” and ordinary so she hides her math skills, but she can’t hide her compulsive behaviors and quickly becomes the target for the mean kids’ laughter. But Lucy does make friends, with Windy and Levi, and they form a group for their class community project, which benefits from Lucy’s gift.

Perceiving yourself to be “different” is a common enough theme is middle grade and YA fiction, and, indeed, is common in real life, which Ms McAnulty acknowledges when Windy pushes back at Lucy – asking her if she thinks she’s the only person who’s ever felt different at their school. Of course, in one respect, Lucy is very different, but in many others she’s just a regular kid and the author does a great job of showing these different facets through Lucy’s narration. She wants to have friends and she wants to be treated the same as the other kids, with respect and dignity. She does not try to make anyone feel bad about their math skills, in fact she offers to help Levi as well as suggesting some forums he could try if he would find it weird to be tutored by her. Her friend Windy acknowledges that Lucy is an accepting person, she doesn’t try to change anyone but tries to understand them.

The secondary characters are well developed. Windy, in particular, is a lively girl, enthused about doing good in the macro sense, but a little bit oblivious when it comes to actually making a real difference. Levi is a bit more of a sketch: he’s a brown skinned boy with two moms who likes photography, but he’s more grounded than Windy. The community project ingeniously meshes together the skills of all three kids and could inspire readers to see a way to making a difference themselves.

I did, however, find the lead mean girl, Maddie, a bit of an obvious caricature. She had been friends with Windy up to 5th grade but had then moved on to become more of an alpha. She makes fun of Lucy but I felt the author was a little too obvious in showing that this was only because she feels bad about herself as her mother is overly critical (but, hey, it’s always the mother’s fault, right?)

As Lucy’s year at middle school passes, she understands and appreciates why her Nana sent her there, so when she has an opportunity to move to a high performing school which would allow her to develop her math skills more, she is torn and the reader will be too.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson


The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Levine, 2018.

So I have spent the weeks since the beginning of the year reading and judging middle grade fiction for the Cybils awards. It was very satisfying: I read some terrific novels and had some interesting discussions. In the end, our choice came down to two novels and I’m thrilled that my top choice, The Parker Inheritance, won out. That’s today’s review and over the next few weeks I’ll post about the other books. In case you’re interested, here is the link to the full list of Cybil award winners.

12-year-old Candice is spending a “horrible summer” in Lambert, South Carolina as her home in Atlanta is being remodeled prior to being sold after her parents separate. She and her mother are staying in the home of her beloved grandmother, who died two years ago, and while clearing out the attic, Candice finds a letter addressed to her grandmother that offers the opportunity of finding $40 million by solving “a puzzle mystery that will take you deep into the city’s past.”

As Candice and her new friend Brandon (both brown-skinned like the majority of characters in the book) try and work out the clues that will lead them to the treasure, they uncover the Jim Crow past of Lambert, particularly an incident involving a tennis match and the African American Washington family.

With twin themes of “Just because you don’t see the path doesn’t mean it’s not there” and “We hear what we want to hear. We see what we want to see,” Inheritance covers a lot of ground about prejudice both past and present. So here’s a list of the topics the novel explores: sexism, gender roles and labelling, homophobia, racism, segregation, police violence against Black people, Jim Crow, passing, miscegenation. There may well be more but those are the ones that immediately came to my mind. These are all woven organically into a terrifically absorbing mystery as Candice and Brandon try to crack the puzzle which is really well worked through, and the elements that the kids take on can also be solved by the reader (albeit a very smart one).

The characters are vividly created – not just our main two protagonists but all the support ones, and the author gives them all some complexity and nuance. Though there are some out and out villains, those on the side of good, adults and kids alike, are not perfect but recognize their slips. The South Caroline setting, both past and present, is powerfully evoked and the Jim Crow era is strikingly brought to life through both Candice and Brandon’s research and the chapters set then that are interspersed throughout the book.

This book is the real deal and a thoroughly deserving winner. It covers so many important issues without making them “issues,” and fully integrates them into an engaging and thought provoking novel.

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes


bayou magicBayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown, 2015.

This is my last review from the Cybil shortlist for Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. Though it wasn’t one of my top contenders, it’s an enjoyable and well-written fantasy set in the Bayou Bon Temps on the Gulf Coast. And it has African mermaids

Nearly ten-year old Maddy Lavalier Johnson is the last of her family to leave New Orleans for a bayou summer with her grandmere. Unlike her prissy older sisters, she loves running through the bayou, getting dirty, and becoming friends with Bear, a neighborhood boy. As they airboat around the swamp, her grandmother’s mystical tales of her ancestors start to come to life, and when tragedy strikes, Maddy is able to realize her dream of being a hero.

There’s an excitingly rich stew of ideas in here: Nature vs. the city, what being a friend means, environmentalism, African culture, and family lineage. But because it’s a short book, I think some of the ideas get a bit short-changed. The plot makes some jarring leaps, and it feels a bit over-stuffed sometimes, with the characters talking in shorthand.

And there’s a equally enticing stew of characters. Maddy at age ten is characterized by “Change. Energy. Luck.” and Bear at eleven is “Patient. Sensitive.” These two, along with wise Grandmere make an appeal central trio, and there’s a whole bunch of support characters that feel authentic without getting into Southern Whimsy. Maddy and a majority of the characters are African American, and the evocation of the community as well as its physical and spiritual roots make this a truly diverse book.

The writing is sensitively done – it feels crafted without being over-written; and the foreshadowing of the environmental tragedy is really well done. There’s an occasional slip into didacticism, particularly when Grandmere is demonstrating an oil spill, but it is useful information and will appeal to environmentally conscious kids.

The first third of the book worked really well for me, but after that it gets a bit too hurried and crammed. Nonetheless, this unusual blend of magical realism and real life tragedy should have a wide audience.

Moon Rising by Tui T. Sutherland


moon risingMoon Rising by Tui T. Sutherland
Wings of Fire Bk. 6
Scholastic, 2014.

Why am I reading the 6th book in a series without having read the previous 5? And why am I reading a book with dragons to boot? Because the Cybil round one judges deemed this worked well as a standalone and was good enough to be a finalist. I sort of agree that this can standalone, but I felt I’d have got a lot more out of it if I had the background and context. There was a lot of dragonlore that I just didn’t know about, and while it mostly did not inhibit my understanding of the novel and became clearer in the end, I did find it a little confusing.

This upper elementary/young middle grade fantasy is set at a new school for dragons designed to encourage and allow the six different tribes of dragons of Pyhrria to get to know each other better; the intention is to quell the dragons’ suspicions of each other and to stop the tribes fighting.

Moonwatcher, one of the despised and feared Nightwings, is in the first intake of students, and she has the unusual ability of being able to read minds, and also has visions. Instructed by her mother to hide these skills for her own protection, Moon timidly starts to get to know other dragons, mostly those in her ‘winglet’ – a group of 6 dragons one from each tribe. However, she overhears a plot to kill some dragons, and also hears the voice of a 2000-year old ‘animus’ dragon who is trapped. Using her skills and with her new friends, Moon tries to solve the mystery and save the school.

The plot is really well-constructed and paced, it all moves along at a good lick throughout. The intersection of the start of the new school (and the reasons for it) with the central mystery, and the side story of the ancient dragon is all very satisfying. Though the writing rarely moves above workmanlike, it serves the plot and makes the book accessible for younger readers.

The world of the dragons is richly layered, as you might expect from a 6th entry in a series. There was a very helpful key at the beginning with the different dragon tribes, and I referred back to that quite a lot. The different tribes have different personalities, though I did find all but the main characters pretty interchangeable.

However, the three core characters, Moon and her two new buddies Kinkajou and Qibli, are an attractive group who pull on their different strengths to help each other. Moon is a bit whiny to start with, but I’m sure many readers will be able to relate to her fear of a new social situation and will pull for her when she starts to establish herself there. It is, however, pretty easy to forget that they’re dragons as they have very human traits.

Assuming the other books are as engaging as this one, I’d certainly be happy to recommend the whole series to a young fantasy lover.

The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson


dungeoneersThe Dungeoneers by John David Anderson
Walden Pond Press, 2015

I always feel a bit sorry for the book I read after I’ve read a really great one, and The Dungeoneers, another Cybil-shortlisted speculative novel, did not do so well in comparison to Cuckoo Song. It’s a solid three-star sort of book, I liked it, but didn’t love it, and I think kids will enjoy it. The book is inspired by the role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, and uses much of the same terminology (I only know this because somebody pointed it out on Goodreads), which is either clever of the author or rather lazy – take your pick.

After admitting to pickpocketing, 12 year-old Colm Candorly is offered the opportunity to become a “rogue” with Thwodin’s Legion. Encouraged by his new mentor, Finn Argos, and along with his assigned adventuring party – swaggering barbarian Lena, nervy mageling Quinn, and drippy druid, Serene, – Colm successfully gets through the initial trial and is accepted to become a dungeoneer.

The party then undergoes intensive training at the Legion’s castle as they prepare to adventure through underground caves, tunnels, and dungeons in the hope of finding treasure, and avoiding life-threatening goblins, orcs, and traps. However, all is not well in the castle, and it is up to Colm and his friends to get to the bottom of it.

Similar to Harry Potter before him, Colm is new to this secret world and we learn all about the lore and legends through him. There is a long running joke about the many rules, which turn out to be different for each role: When faced with danger, rogue rule “Get behind the big guy”; everyone else’s rule: “Get behind the rogue”. Even though this is self-proclaimedly not a school, it is a world that will be very familiar to fans of Hogwarts – with lessons, teachers, bullies, and special skills.

The four central characters are well-developed and distinct, if a little caricatured, and make an interesting team. I like the slight twist that a girl is the barbarian (the muscle of the party), not the boy, and that there are women Masters as well as men. I appreciate that the author introduces diversity in skin color, with Serene and one of the Masters, though it goes no further than that.

The writing is light-footed and funny – Finn has a very entertaining riff on the euphemisms for rogues dying including “tripped his trigger”, “picked the wrong pocket”, and “unlocked his own door”. Everyone else? “They just die, plain and simple. But we rogues are much too clever for that.”

Towards the end, some intriguing questions are raised about the ethics of what they’re doing – why is it ok to steal from orcs and goblins? why is it ok to just hoard gold and not do anything with it? – but any exploration of these thoughts are left to a sequel.

Overall, though, I felt this was a bit of a trudge: Much of the book felt slow and not very exciting, which just doesn’t work for what’s meant to be an adventure book. The trials perked it up a bit, but they were less complex than I was hoping, and the end section does really rip along. But it felt like it should have been a 300-350 page book not a 400+ page one, so it will work better for readers with patience rather than those who want non-stop action.

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge


cuckoo songCuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Abrams, 2015.

This was another of my favorites on the Cybils shortlist. I thought it was by far the most ‘literary’ of all the books on our shortlist, but this was counterbalanced by, what I felt, was its limited middle grade appeal. I LOVED Ms. Hardinge’s Mosca Mye books (Fly by Night and Fly Trap) but have never had much luck getting kids to read them; Cuckoo Song is a very different kettle of fish, but I still feel it has more appeal to adults than its intended audience.

Nonetheless, it is an extraordinarily imaginative, creepily atmospheric, and beautifully written fantasy novel. Set in surburban England, five years after the end of the First World War, 13 year-old Triss wakes up feeling something isn’t quite right. She’s been sickly for a long time, but this is different: “Mommy [an irritating Americanism – really publisher?], help me, please help me, everything’s strange and nothing’s right, and my mind feels as if it’s made up of pieces and some of them are missing….”

So far, so odd but nothing out of the ordinary. And then Triss’s doll speaks to her, and she develops an unstoppably voracious hunger. Triss and her younger sister Pen team up to get to the bottom of what’s going on, and themes of alienation, difference, and identity bubble up, meshing perfectly with the characters and the setting.

The plot is so inventive and well-laid out with twists and about-faces that just feel right when they happen, though I couldn’t have conceived of them happening. As the threads merge towards a resolution that feels satisfying and grows organically, without contrivance, from the characters and plot, much is revealed and the reader’s sympathies will move with it.

Hardinge writes like an absolute dream. Her language, similes and metaphors are entirely appropriate for the period and the characters, but are all startlingly original, and add rich illumination to the text. Here are just a few of my favorites (I think they’re snippet-y enough enough not to qualify as spoilers, but apologies if they are):

  • Triss’s parents being angry on her behalf “felt like being coddled inside a horse-chestnut shell, protected by its inward downy softness, while all the spikes pointed outwards.” (p. 9)
  • Running a temperature was “the easy lie, the much-stamped passport to forgiveness.” (p. 72)
  • “Her parents had herded Triss’s woolly memories into the neat pens of their stories.” (p. 81)
  • “This was jazz that had wiped its feet and put on its best manners to meet somebody’s mother.” (p. 178)
  • (This other jazz) “had not wiped its feet; it had crunched right into the room with gravel on its shoes.” (p. 182)
  • “Mr. Grace hesitated only briefly, as if choosing a card at whist.” (p. 362)

There is much (much!) more to Cuckoo Song than I’ve written about here, so all I can do is suggest you read it for yourself and then we can talk about it some more.

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon


castle hangnailCastle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
Dial, 2015

This was actually my top-ranked book of our seven shortlisted Books in the Cybils Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, but it didn’t have quite the same traction with some of the other judges as it did for me.

In this smart, funny, and heartwarmingly charming and adorable fantasy, 12 year-old Molly claims to be a Wicked Witch and the new Master of Castle Hangnail. Though the castle’s minions are initially skeptical, they hope she will complete the Board of Magic’s Tasks and save the castle from being decommissioned.

There are some really funny twists on fantasy and horror tropes as the world is set up, which, while not necessarily wholly original (the author tips her hat to Eva Ibbotson in the acknowledgements), feel fresh, sharp, and appropriate to the intended reader. A lot of the humor is derived from the bathos of what should be and what is: A Master should “be storming around the battlements, defying the gods, screaming dark curses, raining lightning down on the village,” whereas Molly is appreciating poached eggs and interested in meeting the chickens. And her new outfit makes her look not quite like a queen of the night but more like “a princess of moderately late in the afternoon.”

Hangnail Castle is a terrific setting. It doesn’t have jagged mountains or a blasted heath, but is in a pleasant rural community, close to a friendly village with a post office and a antiques shop. This mixing of modern day quotidian problems into a fantasy olde worlde setting is exemplified by the plumbing problems they have, which recognize, as so many books do not, that a person needs to use a toilet on a regular basis.

Molly, “a plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair” is a peach: Wicked but not wicked, curious, open, and full of heart. She manages to defy expectations, yet still achieve her goals in her own way; and though she has many doubts, she is grittily resilient and imaginative.

The Castle Hangnail characters.

The Castle Hangnail characters.

The team of minions are wonderfully drawn, with each one having a unique voice and their own role to play in the story. Majordomo was “born a minion, raised a minion, had died a minion several times, and then brought back to life with lightning rods, still a minion,” and his intense devotion to duty and subsequent doubts about Molly is a standout. And there are also two minotaurs who are the cook and the handyman, a talking suit of armor, a burlap doll who does the laundry and tailoring, his neurotic goldfish, and steamy (literally) spirit Serenissima who has her “associate minion degree and was considering graduate minion studies”

The plot is well-structured and zips along, allowing the author room for plenty of fun but having enough tension to keep the reader engaged, as Molly first has to complete her Tasks, and then, having secured the castle and won the support of the minions and the villagers, take on an Evil Sorceress Eudaimonia. This last section has a slightly darker tone as Molly recognizes how she has been bullied, and gets a scary peek into the Kingdom of Shadows.

I would happily press Castle Hangnail into the hands of any 3rd – 6th grader who enjoys stories with fantasy, humor, or strong characters. Or maybe any 3rd – 6th grader. Or younger! Or older!

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross


fog diverThe Fog Diver by Joel Ross
Harper, 2015.

The winners of the Cybils were announced yesterday and the winner of the award for the category that I was judging, Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, is…The Fog Diver by Joel Ross. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing all the other titles on the shortlist, except Mars Evacuees, as I’ve already written about that.

This fun, action-packed middle grade steam-punky dystopia is set in a future where a Fog toxic only to humans covers the Earth. The few remaining people live above the Fog in the rigidly economically stratified Rooftop, and impoverished salvage crews take their rickety airships out, sending down ‘tether boys’ through the Fog to scavenge from now empty houses. One such crew, Hazel, Chess, Bea and Swedish, are desperate to find something valuable as their guardian has fallen ill with fogsickness.

The crew is a created family, scooped up from the slums and the streets by Mrs. E. 13 year-old Chess, the narrator, has a mysterious affinity with the Fog; dark-skinned Hazel is the captain and she has the other kids’ trust and confidence as she always has a plan; Swedish is the muscle with a heart of gold; and gearhead Bea is “Our kid sister, with short red hair, big green eyes, and smears of grease on her face.” The support characters are a little slight – Kodoc is an evil villain, Vidious wears a cape and calls everyone ‘poppet’ (though that made me smile) – but work well enough to serve the plot.

There is some terrific wordplay as the crew harks back to the old times: “May the horse be with you,” a constellation called Oprah, bees that can spell, and a running gag about the word ‘garbo’. I like that these are perfectly pitched for the intended reader – clever and gettable.

Some serious issues are threaded into the drama: The origins of the Fog are connected with human exploitation of the Earth, and there are no safety nets (physical or metaphorical) for the have-nots of Rooftop. But Ross blends these into the story and the action without any didacticism and with a light touch.

Although initially there is some fairly clumsy information dumping to get the world and the characters established, even this is woven in with action scenes. And once the well-structured and well-paced plot really takes off, with all the pieces clicking gratifyingly into each other, it is a giddy ride to the satisfying conclusion, with plenty of untied threads left ready for the sequel due out in May.