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  • Finalist

    Ray Vs the Meaning of Life

    by Michael F. Stewart

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: This ably plotted and entertaining novel flies along at a breakneck pace, with the author throwing the most outrageous forms of adversity at Ray at every turn.

    Prose: Stewart’s prose careens and rollercoasters on each page. The writing is thoroughly enjoyable.

    Originality: Ray’s adventures are fun, wacky, and vaguely reminiscent of the Scott Pilgrim novels and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Nonetheless, this story is wholly original. Young readers will be delighted.

    Character Development: Ray is a fully formed and fun character. Readers will definitely get to know him and appreciate the way he changes over the course of the book.

    Blurb: Stewart’s fast-paced, darkly hilarious novel will cause readers to chuckle, tear up, hug their moms, and cross their fingers for a sequel (or graphic novel adaptation) sometime in the foreseeable future.

  • Semi Finalist

    Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill

    by Lee Wind

    Rating: 9.75

    Plot: Wind's engaging, utterly enjoyable tale of teen self-discovery is riveting both for its well-structured, historically-based plot and its emotional honesty. Snappily paced and filled with insightful details, the story turns heteronormative culture on its head as Wyatt, the thoroughly likable protagonist, takes on a battle for historical truth that leaves his small-town neighbors clutching their pearls.

    Prose: Wind’s polished prose is filled with laugh-out-loud moments, often thanks to the author’s ability to zero in on the perfect descriptive detail. But it is the dialogue that shines brightest, capturing both the insult-laden banter of teens and the awkward sincerity of the adults struggling to manage them.

    Originality: In taking on this slice of Civil War-era history, Wind brings historical material into contemporary relevance in a unique and original way. The use of social media posts and transcriptions provides even more freshness and present-day appeal to the story.

    Character Development: Wind provides an accurate portrayal of the coping mechanisms, unwieldy emotions, and ultimately the inner triumph of a teen struggling to make the world ready for him to come out of the closet. A resonant and admirably crafted work.

  • Semi Finalist

    Plot: Heaney demonstrates a strong grasp on storytelling for children in a tender tale that explores weighty issues of life, death, and the meaning of existence, as animal characters question how they can best fulfill their individual purposes.

    Prose: Heaney’s eloquent writing expertly blends anthropomorphic details into descriptions and dialogue, causing readers to alternately forget and distinctly remember that the leading cast of this novel is comprised of furry and feathered friends.

    Originality: Heaney’s middle grade novel is a unique contemporary story that pays tribute to classic works of children's literature through its poignant and sophisticated approach to dealing with questions about death, purpose, and grief.

    Character Development: Heaney’s characters are quirky, sympathetic, and wise. With humor and grace, the author gently advocates for building meaningful relationships with our creature companions, our human companions, and the natural world around us.

  • Semi Finalist

    Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia

    by Delaney Green

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: This vividly written piece of historical fiction is steeped in setting and driven by adventure and romance. Supernatural elements are woven throughout, but never stifle the more immediate and pervasive threats faced by colonial Americans.

    Originality: Green delivers a distinctive blend of history, romance, and the supernatural, ultimately offering a memorable, wholly realized work of YA fiction with potential crossover appeal.

    Prose: Exposition and dialogue are balanced nicely; descriptions are natural, evocative, and succinct. 

    Character Development: Green creates a range of enigmatic primary and secondary characters, including the gender nonconforming lead. Secondary characters, both friend and foe, historical and fantastical, provide texture to the narrative. Others embody the deterministic optimism of the American spirit.

    Blurb: A top-notch historical fantasy that brings Colonial America to life in magical detail.

  • Semi Finalist

    Caroline and Mordecai the Gand

    by Jeff Gunhus

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Engaging and thought-provoking, this well-structured novel offers a perspective that will stick with readers after the final page is turned.

    Prose: Well-written throughout, the prose is smooth and focused; Gunhus is a natural storyteller with experience.

    Originality: Using metaphors, the author has created an original way of thinking about life and loss.

    Character Development: The characters here are smart, understanding, and very likable. Readers will care about Caroline and want her to succeed.

  • Quarter Finalist

    In Two Worlds

    by Ido Kedar

    Rating: 10.00

    Plot: The plot is well crafted, showcasing Anthony's growth and fight to assert himself as an intelligent and capable human being. The author details both the internal and external struggles of Anthony and his family and the treatment of children and young adults who exhibit signs of being on the Autism spectrum. 

    Prose: Kedar's writing style is fairly simple and minimalistic. Still, the writing ably conveys the emotional inner life and turmoil of the book's lively main character.

    Originality: Kedar's novel is fascinating, and a much-needed addition to the genre that adds diversity and explores different abilities. 

    Character Development: The characters in Kedar's novel are compelling and haunting, providing the reader with an in-depth personal view into the mind of a person diagnosed with severe nonverbal autism.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Top Choice

    by Sophie McAloon

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot: Captivating from start to finish, McAloon's novel draws the reader into an exquisitely rendered world. As the story builds toward its climax, the violence increases and the stakes grow ever higher. Readers will find this nearly impossible to put down.

    Prose: Tightly written and highly polished, McAloon's prose shows very fine craftsmanship; her characters' flirtatious dialogue casts a spell with its pitch-perfect blend of humor and intimacy. The author is at her best, however, when her descriptive prose lingers on the beautiful.

    Originality: It takes real talent to make a YA dystopian tale feel original these days, but McAloon pulls it off and sticks the landing. And, she challenges the reader with real questions about gender, power, and violence.

    Character Development: McAloon's characters quickly reveal themselves as deeply believable young adults struggling to reconcile authentic inner conflicts. Alice is relatable in her dawning awareness, and her growth unfolds with masterful precision.

    Blurb: Captivating and nearly impossible to put down, McAloon's twisted but beautiful world comes alive on the page.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Stranded on Thin Ice

    by Sharon CassanoLochman

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: This is a well-plotted adventure with plenty of tension, which will guarantee reader interest without seeming contrived.

    Prose: CassanoLochman’s prose is slick and polished and flows naturally. The voice is age-appropriate and manages to effortlessly convey a host of emotions from elation to despair.

    Originality: What sets CassanoLochman’s book apart from the pack is its originality in terms of setting and subject matter.

    Character Development: The main protagonists are utterly likable, well developed, and engaging.

    Blurb: A great coming-of-age adventure.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Jake, Lucid Dreamer

    by David J. Naiman

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Naiman’s richly developed novel follows likeable protagonist Jake as he battles his real-life and dream-world  demons, and undergoes significant character growth as a result. Time travels differently in Jake’s magical-realistic, very vivid dream world, while the numerous flashbacks ground the storyline.

    Prose: Naiman convincingly writes from the perspective of a child processing his grief and trauma, with authentic dialogue and fresh, funny prose.

    Originality: This relatable novel offers familiar middle grade elements--the impact of bullying, social status, younger siblings--while integrating emotional and psychological complexity through the protagonist's imaginative dreamlife. 

    Character Development: The author crafts memorable characters that experience ample personal growth and degrees of self-realization over the course of the novel. Readers are clearly and immediately introduced to a small cast of key players who serve as guides to Jake’s waking adventures and have their own counterparts in his lucid dreamscapes.

    Blurb: Naiman’s poignant coming-of-age novel offers a sensitive and honest examination of a child's spiritual and emotional battles.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Prison of Lies (Leftover Girl Book 3)

    by C.C. Bolick

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: This novel is expertly plotted. The story moves along at a good pace and will engage readers.

    Prose: The prose here is inconsistent—some passages are very strong, while others fail to live up to the same high standard.

    Originality: An original take on a traditional story. While some elements will be familiar to readers, the writing is fresh enough to elevate the plot—in part, because of the strong characters.

    Character Development: This novel features very well rendered characters. They are the best part of this book. Jes Delaney is a sympathetic protagonist.

  • Critter Sitter Chronicles

    by Valerie Ondrejko

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: A delightful story of two BFFs who start a business helping neighbors walk and/or care for their pets, this book is both heartfelt and comedic. Small moments of implausibility don’t detract from even and engaging storytelling.

    Prose: The author strikes a warm, inviting tone that effectively captures the voices of the middle grade characters. In some contexts, phrasings and descriptions have an artificial ring

    Originality: Though language choices can show a lack of originality and nuance, Ondrejko writes with an effervescent voice. The characters and plot are distinct, and the friends' escapades are refreshingly different.

    Character Development: Characters—both human and animal—are charming and distinct. Ondrejko shows care and affection in her character development; readers may feel as if they know the protagonists as they do their best to juggle their new-found responsibilities.

  • Paradise Rising

    by P. G. Shriver

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: This novel is absorbing and well plotted. The author grabs readers early on and then slowly reveals just enough information to keep them hooked and turning pages.

    Prose: While the storyline here is very strong, the writing is less so. The prose suffers from issues relating to word choice, sentence structure, character consistency, and excessive description.

    Originality:  With a unique and captivating premise, this work takes readers on an unexpected journey with memorable characters. Readers of all ages will be drawn to Cheater and will want to accompany her on her quest.

    Character Development: Cheater and Jaz are distinct and original, although it takes some time to get to know them and learn their histories. Readers will be drawn in by these damaged adolescents who seek answers in a cold, indifferent world.

    Blurb: An intriguing plot with memorable characters, this work will captivate readers of all ages from beginning to end.

  • Midnight Over Moores

    by A M H Johnson

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: Johnson delivers an evenly plotted coming-of-age story with an immersive setting, chilling supernatural elements, and a pervasive sense of foreboding. The story's moments of levity allow nightmarish passages greater impact.

    Prose: Johnson capably establishes the novel’s rural setting through clear, vivid descriptions, while distinctive dialect provides further authenticity.  Repetition and the occasional overuse of sentence constructions can detract from the otherwise sound storytelling.

    Originality: While the novel is rooted in conventions of the paranormal YA genre, Johnson has a clear command of narrative and ultimately delivers a spunky and spooky outing.

    Character Development: Readers will eagerly follow Johnson’s likeable protagonist as she unwittingly becomes embroiled in a decades old mystery; well-conceived side characters and allies enhance the story as Jenna discovers that she can communicate with a world beyond her own.

  • Money Jane

    by T.K. Riggins

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: Riggins presents to readers a clever, fast-paced story that intertwines a mystery surrounding the theft of Lenia’s trident with Team Liberati’s second attempt at the Quest Series, introduced to readers in the first book, How to Set the World on Fire. Unfortunately, the conclusion of this novel leaves far too many questions unanswered for readers to be satisfied.

    Prose: Riggins maintains strong pacing throughout the story, by utilizing efficient sentence structure and paying close attention to the flow of passages and reveal of information at appropriate moments.

    Originality: Money Jane offers elements that mimic modern lifestyles, such as the Sage Mirrors, which introduce a refreshing vibe to a story with otherwise archaic characteristics.

    Character Development: Even minor characters feel authentic in this book, but what is truly memorable is the bond between Kase and his talented buddies, Lenia and Talen. This close-knit group naturally balances their individual strengths and weaknesses into a highly plausible, dynamic friendship.

    Blurb: A thoroughly entertaining YA fantasy adventure. 

  • The Book of Sam

    by Rob Shapiro

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: The plot of Shapiro’s novel will be familiar to genre fans, but the author does give it many lively and adventurous twists. Although the story ends somewhat abruptly, Shapiro has clearly laid the groundwork for a follow-up adventure.

    Prose: Sam speaks to the reader in a voice that is believable, effective, and age appropriate.

    Originality: Shapiro’s fantasy world puts a colorful and inventive gloss on traditional imaginary worlds.

    Character Development: The characters in Shapiro’s novel are pleasingly quirky and well-rounded. Even the otherworldly characters they interact with have depth.

  • Plot: Herder belts it out of the literary ballpark with this solid novel, covering all the standard YA bases: an insecure teen narrator, sexist jocks, small-town sports rivalries, unrequited young love, a barrier-breaking girl, and the devastation of suicide.

    Prose: The author's prose captures the interactions of his characters with admirable fidelity to the tone of teens; though the novel is pitched to young readers, the writing is mature enough for adults, enlivened by frequent wit.

    Originality: Herder offers up an original tale of gender-barrier busting on the baseball field and adolescent high school cliques off the field.

    Character Development: George and Ruth—competing as starting pitchers—are well-rounded, multi-dimensional central characters. The large cast of teammates, schoolmates, and townspeople are equally well-developed.

    Blurb: Set in the world of small-town high school baseball, this is pitch-perfect storytelling.