Tag Archives: natural disaster

The Disaster Days by Rebecca Behrens


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.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power


Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital review copy.


Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta


those who wish me deadThose Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta
Little, Brown, 2014.

Like All Involved, this is an Alex Award winning book – one that was written for adults but will also appeal to teens. I was absolutely gripped by it from the opening sentence, through a couple of excellent didn’t-see-that-coming-at-all twists, to the gratifying and credible conclusion.

14 year-old Jace Wilson witnesses a murder and is placed in a wilderness program to protect him from the perpetrators. Jace, along with 6 other boys, is led into the wilds of Montana by survival specialist Ethan Serbin, but even there he isn’t safe from the sinister and scary Blackwell brothers.

The mountainous backwoods setting, from blizzarding snows to rampaging wildfires, is a huge part of the foreboding atmosphere of this novel. The monumental and uncaring power of Big Nature, contrasts with the will of the people scrambling to survive against it and each other.

Jace is a bit of a blank, though his growing confidence in his survival skills is a nice touch. However, the lead really belongs to Ethan, the tough, indefatigable trainer, who won’t stop even when he has apparently run out of options. The Blackwell brothers seem a little bit too omniscient and indestructible, but their repartee is both menacing and entertaining.

I romped through Dead in a day on the beach, and it’s perfect for that kind of lightweight, don’t need to read anything too deeply into it, mode; but at the same time the quality of the writing, plotting, and characterization put it a cut above, and make it more than just a guilty pleasure.

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.

Drowned City written and illustrated by Don Brown


drowned cityDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans written and illustrated by Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and this powerful Sibert Honor graphic novel looks at the tragic effects and the aftermath of the hurricane on the city and its residents.

The text is short, not simplistic but more in the manner of someone who is so angry they can just get out the basic facts through clenched teeth. Actual quotations (sourced in the notes at the back) are used to bring to life the horror and chaos that ensued once the levees broke and the lack of planning brought death and devastation. There is no beating about the bush: the good guys are recognized, and the incompetent and negligent from the President on down are called out.drowned city interior

Moody and haunting spreads in minor key colors with the occasional splash of vivid orange or red, show the population that is left behind after 80% of the residents evacuated, and their fight to survive. Bodies floating in the water, people struggling to safety, and the nightmare scenes at the Superdome and Conference Center, all serve to bring a human dimension to this racially charged tragedy. With Mayor Nagin missing in action and FEMA completely out of its depth, the immediate horror lasted for nearly a week before transportation out of the city was available.

drowned city interior 2Figures are drawn with just a few evocative lines sketching in their faces: The resignation and weariness, as well as the pragmatism and resilience of the largely African American left behind population, and the vacuous incompetence of the white officials.

I realize that the words I’m using – devastation, incompetence, tragedy – are by now pretty much cliches trotted out in relation to Katrina, and part of the power of this book is that the author avoids using them, and gives us the meaning behind them in his spare prose and illustrations.

Drowned City takes no time to read, but will stay with the reader for days. An absolute must for libraries serving upper elementary and middle grade kids.

The Arctic Code by Matthew J. Kirby


arctic codeThe Arctic Code by Matthew J. Kirby
Dark Gravity Sequence*; Bk. 1
Balzer + Bray, 2015.

I’ve been a big fan of MJK since The Clockwork Three (Scholastic, 2010), so I was excited to read this venture into series fiction. And while it’s no Icefall (Scholastic, 2011), it will have great appeal for tweens who enjoy fast-paced speculative action.

In this scifi adventure, a new Ice Age has hit the Earth. 12 year-old Eleanor Perry sets off to find her mother, who has gone missing in the Arctic while working for the (possibly villainous) Global Energy Trust.

Eleanor is a tough, resourceful and determined girl and gathers around her a likable team of characters: In Alaska, she meets up with Luke Fournier, a Han Solo-type, in a nicely constructed Wild West style scene. Later, at GET’s research station in the Arctic, she joins forces with Finn and Julian (who add some diversity with their “deep-brown” skins), whose scientist father is also lost with Dr. Perry. However, the villain comes as no surprise and is pretty boilerplate.

The writing is straightforward and unadorned, but should work well for upper elementary readers. The science behind the Freeze and later plot twists is succinctly and clearly explained, if a trifle clunkily inserted

The plot chugs along at a good pace, though there are a couple of leaps of credibility – could three kids really walk 32 miles in a polar storm without any equipment? And how does GET keep its nefarious doings under wraps in the world of the Internet? The climax also feel a little rushed, with explanations and action rapidly piling up.

Nonetheless, this is a solid recommendation for kids who’ve enjoyed The Jupiter Pirates series, and the sequels are nicely set up for Eleanor and co. to travel around the world to save the planet.

*I’m not quite sure why the series is called this, as it appears to be about Dark Energy. Maybe they’re the same thing?

Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins


nuts to youNuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins
Greenwillow, 2014.
Cybil Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

It’s always tricky, judging elementary and middle grade books against each other as we do in this Cybils category. After being immersed in a complex, nuanced fantasy intended for 12-14 year olds, reading something pitched at the 8-10 year old set can feel very lightweight. I think this was probably the case for me with Nuts to You, which had few of the layers of, say, The Castle Behind Thorns, and my opinion of it suffered consequently. However, in re-visiting it several weeks later, I found it to be a sprightly and very enjoyable read.

Jed the squirrel is snatched up by a hawk, and manages to escape – but lands up some distance from his home. Two friends, TsTs and Chai set off in search of him and, though they find each other, they now face a new danger – one that is robbing the woodland animals of their homes.

The great strength of the book is its language. It turns out that squirrels are great storytellers and listeners, and the novel is told from their perspective, with a voice that is as chipper and bouncy as you would expect. It also uses their vernacular: powerlines, for example, are called buzzpaths and a church steeple is a “great beak that sometimes sings but never opens.” There is a human authorial voice too, that directly addresses the reader, both in the text and in footnotes. Sometimes it just comments: “What would you do, if it were you?”; and sometimes it explains expressions – a bit like Lemony Snicket without the snark: “Maybe you’ve heard the expression “between a rock and a hard place.” Now you know what it means. The “hard place,” in this situation, was the bobcat.”

The adventure is perfectly pitched for an elementary grade reader: The squirrels get into some tight situations, but these are resolved quickly, without too much threat. I didn’t find the environmental message too didactic either– it was pretty low key in the sense that the humans were just clearing trees away from the powerlines, they weren’t cutting down the whole wood. And there is some Learning for the reader too, but it is fairly low key and subtle: “Live for the moment, … But bury a lot of nuts.”

A few grumbles: I thought the book rather dribbled to an end, rather than finishing decisively; and though the author’s illustrations are sweet, some of them are confusing or too small to be helpful. Finally, I don’t think it’s a great idea to encourage kids to feed wild animals and Nuts to You definitely suggests it is.

Overall, I thought this was a light and breezy tale of squirrel heroism, infused with an understated environmental message, that will be greatly enjoyed by fans of animal books.

Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner


hold tightHold Tight, Don’t Let Go: A Novel of Haiti by Laura Rose Wagner
Abrams, 2015

This moving middle grade novel starts with the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010. 15 year-old narrator, Magdalie, and her cousin Nadine survive, but their mother and their home do not.

The novel covers the aftermath of this tragedy, checking in with Magdalie over the next two years and I appreciated that there is no suggestion of everything getting back to normal quickly. With little option but to live in a makeshift tent in a camp, the girls are thrown into a completely different life: they can’t go to school as they can’t pay for it, food is scarce, and camp life is crushing. And then Nadine is able to move to Miami as her father lives there, sending Magdalie further into a spiral of hopelessness.

Over many months, Magdalie’s anger, despair and depression at her downturn in circumstances build. It takes a visit to her mother’s hometown, an isolated rural community, to bring back the vitality, resilience and hopefulness she has lost, mirroring Haiti’s gradual healing and recovery. The novel concludes with a rosy-tinted epilogue, for the young women and their country, set in 2020

The author, who lived in Haiti between 2009 and 2012, manages to convey the camaraderie of the camps, as well as of urban and rural family life, without ever glamorizing them, and shows how the well-meaning aid organizations came to be perceived as laughably superficial, patronizing and inadequate. In a powerful historical note, she describes the background to the poverty and strife that combined to make the earthquake all the more destructive and the structural damage much more long lasting.

This debut novel is a challenging and eye-opening story for readers interested in perspectives from other countries.