by Chelsea Walker Flagg
Plot: The author is a master in the art of cliff-hanger chapter endings. Every peril confronting Tinsey is so imaginative, it's impossible to guess the outcome.
Prose/Style: Tinsey's narrative employs the classic voice of a feisty underdog, and for a plot concerning a panoply of mythical creatures (elves, trolls, dragons, and the like), the tone of this chapter book is refreshingly untwee. The action scenes are vivid and suspenseful.
Originality: This genre of child-appropriate fantasy is a popular one, but rarely are the underlying issues explored so sensitively and entertainingly. All of the fantastical elements are delivered in a matter-of-fact manner, in such a way that children's imaginations are easily engaged. The upshot is that Tinsey learns, gradually, to embrace "the other." The book is full of laudable lessons but steers clear of preachiness.
Character Development: Tinsey grows in both confidence and empathy. Readers in the target age group will enjoy relating to her anxiety and, in turn, her ever-improving competence. This stirring adventure is told from the perspective of a just-turned eleven-year-old who's suffering from a classic case of Little Sister Syndrome. Chipmunk-sized Tinsey Clover has a grievance and a voice, and both are compelling.
by Melanie Hooyenga
Plot:This book is tightly plotted and well paced. A few of the protagonist's issues still feel unresolved by the ending, but overall, the book comes together very well.
Prose/Style:This is a well-written book, both technically and aesthetically. Characters sound "real" and both plot arcs and language flow smoothly.
Originality:The reformed bully trope is not new to the genre, but the places Brianna goes and the paces she is put through do lend this book an authentic feel with its own unique voice.
Character Development:Characters are developed thoroughly in this book. Character arcs, particularly among the main cast, are paced as meticulously as the plot. The characters are all believable, both in terms of their situations and actions.
by Joy H. Selak
Plot: Selak's novel is a feel-good story that will keep readers of all ages wanting to know what happens next.
Prose/Style: The text of the novel flows together nicely; however, there are minimal grammatical mistakes that a light proofread would have caught.
Originality: What sets Selak's novel from the rest is the superb storytelling skill. Selak creates an original novel by keeping readers enticed to know how the story unfolds and by continually provoking emotions from the reader.
Character Development: Selak does a very good job of creating likeable characters. Readers will find themselves falling in love with the characters of CeeGee and Mr. Tindale, in particular.
by Heather Lee Shaw
Plot: Thirteen-year-old Pace's escapist adventures come to life in this richly crafted and fast-paced novel. Though its appeal may lean more toward adults than YA or middle-grade readers, they will thoroughly enjoy the journey through Pace's escapades on the magic carpet of Shaw's writing.
Prose: Dexterous prose and a vividly imaginative style characterize Shaw's writing. Marvelous sensory details and sublimely surreal imagery make the reading experience an enchanting one.
Originality: Shaw's novel is utterly original from its beginning in a bright South American market to Pace's emergence at the end from his jungle camp. The sparkling cast of characters and captivating story twists recall some of the greats of surrealistic fiction while still feeling wholly unique.
Character Development: Pace's adventure is more the focus of this story than his development, but he makes for a fine narrator and his friends a wonderful cast of characters to carry him along on the journey. His age is difficult to decipher early in the book, as he behaves at times like a young child and others like a teen; this discrepancy initially muddies his characterization but evens out as the story takes flight.
Blurb: Vividly imaginative and enchantingly conceived, "Smallfish Clover" is a magic carpet ride into a captivating new Wonderland. Shaw's nimble writing turns young Pace's adventure into a lucid dream.
by Kendra Merritt
Plot: With a wonderfully crafted blend of swords and sorcery and characters based on Robin Hood, Merritt tops this story off with the lead character readers need nowadays; a strong, independent, powerful female mage who also happens to be in a wheelchair. Readers will be constantly turning the pages to see what happens next to this fun group of characters through the twists and turns they won’t see coming.
Prose/Style: Told from the point of view of the main character, Merry, Merritt brings readers along on Merry’s journey, feeling each emotion along with her, as well as what she witnesses her friends go through. Their travels through multiple lands are clearly described, pulling the reader seamlessly into her world.
Originality: Although there are several alternate versions of Robin Hood out there, Merritt’s story stands out with not only the mages and multiple realities they must work with, but the main character being Merry (based partially on Maid Marian), and her navigation through and view of the world being from her combination of being in a wheelchair and a powerful mage. This powerful combination puts this book much further ahead in originality.
Character Development: Readers will really enjoy following along with Merry, a young woman in a wheelchair in a time where those who couldn’t walk would be bed-ridden; she never lets her legs keep her from being as powerful as she is meant to be. The characters alongside her along the way are equally lovable, yet well written as individuals, while even the antagonists are given humanizing backstories that will pull some sympathy from readers.
by Peter Adam Salomon
Plot: This book explores a very interesting plot in which genius, but bullied, teens bring on the fated Apocalypse. In the unique premise, only two humans remain on Earth, and they experience death time and again in order to try to remember who they are and what happened to Earth.
Prose/Style: The author uses chilling prose that is both fast-paced and riveting. It moves the reader through this complex science fiction tale. Mistakes are few and far between, though the novel would benefit from a light copyedit.
Originality: The work is very original, not only because of the plot points and twists listed above, but also because of the creative ending. Just when the reader thinks it’s all over, there is hope for the characters and audience alike.
Character Development: The six teens who try to end the world are well-drawn, but the two survivors aren’t fully fleshed out until they learn the truth about who they are and why they exist, a mysterious and terrifying truth.
by L.G. Reed
Plot: The premise behind this touching middle grade story--a girl who turns into a dog in order to better connect with her PTSD-suffering father--is certainly compelling, with definite appeal to young readers. However, Reed's storyline would benefit from additional development leading up to her character's transformation.
Prose/Style: Reed writes in a basic (at times overly so) and humorous prose style that clearly conveys the unusual circumstances. Sydney's lively, frank narrative voice will appeal most strongly to younger middle grade readers who have ever wondered what their parents would do if they disappeared.
Originality: A child heroine seeking peace and solace for her troubled family is not a new concept, especially in middle grade and YA fiction, but the path that Sydney follows in order to arrive at a resolution (and the book's focus on a parent's PTSD) is fresh and unexpected.
Character Development: Sydney is a strong, well-rounded character with relatable emotional struggles, while others--notably, Fred--are equally endearing. Family members are realistically flawed and provide the story of a girl-turned-dog, with gravity.
by Christopher Pickert
Plot: This polished novel is lovingly crafted. Even though there is little action, the dynamics among the siblings and friends is warmly entertaining. Readers will remain invested in the characters' struggles and small triumphs as they navigate the awkwardness of adolescence and the perils of the adult world.
Prose/Style: Pickert’s prose style is smooth and multidimensional. Well-crafted and purposeful dialogue offers readers true insight into characters' irreverent personalities.
Originality: While Pickert’s coming-of-age story is familiar, readers will find the point of view refreshing. The author crafts the relatable scenarios with authority, grace, and sensitivity.
Character Development: Pickert's young characters are charismatic, while also displaying authentic vulnerability. The mentors in the story are wise and thoughtful, and provide nuanced perspectives that can be appreciated by both teen and adult readers.
by A. M. Robin
Plot: The book flows at a nice pace, providing a satisfying, adventurous saga that will keep readers hooked. Though the ending feels slightly abrupt, the story is otherwise engaging.
Prose/Style: The author provides beautifully written, often creative descriptions, particularly of villages in the book’s fantasy setting.
Originality: The world building is well done. Consistent with expectations in the genre, the book’s magical realm is depicted nicely. The author aptly provides unique fantastical elements to bolster the details of the world.
Character Development: Readers will enjoy reading about Mira, the eleven-year-old protagonist as she grapples change, hardship and high-stake adventures.
A well-written and engaging saga for a middle-grade audience.
by Emily Mah
Plot: The plot of Mah’s novel is very well-wrought. At its most basic, it is a suspenseful chase scenario in which the angel Corban, the vampire-infected Liana, and their confederates attempt to evade the demon-possessed Melanie and her vampire cohort. But the complications the author introduces into the narrative allow her to elaborate a vividly imagined alternate reality of supernatural beings and their power struggles that intersect with and influence mortal reality.
Prose/Style: Mah’s prose is clear and well-suited to her characters thoughts and speech as well as to the novel’s action. It is especially good at capturing the conflicted emotions of Corban, whose introspective moments are focused on his personal uncertainties and frailties.
Originality: Depictions of a world of supernatural reality functioning behind or intersecting with mundane everyday reality are common in contemporary dark fantasy. Mah gives her treatment of this approach an original twist, blending making biblical fallen angels part of the pantheon of vampires, werewolves, demons, and other more familiar beings of supernatural fiction.
Character Development: Mah’s well-developed characters are the solid foundation for the story she tells. Both Corban and Liana are sympathetically human in their fallibility and uncertainty about their natures. This same fallibility, expressed in the supporting characters, is what makes them susceptible to the betrayals and role reversals that add refreshingly unpredictable complications to the plot.
by Mary Zisk
Plot: The "coming-of-age" theme and junior high setting of this tale will be familiar to middle grade readers. With its briskly paced plot and strong voice, the story will hold readers' attention well until the last page.
Prose/Style: Although sometimes the narrator uses words or phrases which don't fit the 1965 setting, by and large the writing here is crisp and vivid. The narrator's often sarcastic tone will appeal to middle grade readers.
Originality: This coming-of-age story is enhanced by its mid-60s setting. Readers will have no trouble identifying with both Rosella and Bill and the challenges they face. Character Development: The story allows room for readers to follow an intriguing spectrum of character growth, from the narrator to her family and friends. Middle grade readers will easily identify with the protagonist and her friends.
Blurb: It's 1965 and seventh-grader Rosella "Remmy" Rinaldi--Remmy is short for Rembrandt--wants to be a world-famous artist. But working on her art means disobeying her dad, competing with an annoying male rival, and possibly losing her best friend in this lively coming-of-age story.
by Jean-Philippe Janssens
Plot: “System Programmer: The Maiden and the Madman” is a fairly standard fantasy novel with adventurous quests and an evil that must be defeated, but adding Joshua as a spirit from the 21st century gives it a unique edge.
Prose/Style: Jean-Philippe Janssens presents a fun, easy-to-read style filled with lots of dialogue quips.
Originality: Janssens takes the standard fantasy plot and tweaks it by having the summoned soul be a boy from the 21st century, lending a relatable and contemporary feel to the storyline.
Character Development: The characters in Jean-Philippe Janssens' fantasy novel are quite unique. The main character, Joshua is a reincarnated soul summoned by Catherine, a summoner from a less technologically advanced world.
by C.M. Aitken
Plot: With its graphic battle scenes, its well-wrought physical setting and its vivid storytelling style, Aitkin's series debut--the novel ends with an obvious cliffhanger--is a brisk and engaging future-world romp.
Prose/Style: Though occasionally too florid for its own good, the writing overall is fluid, rhythmic and natural, perfectly-pitched for teen readers. One caveat: an over-reliance on spell-check has resulted in distracting instances of homonyms; a light copy edit and proofreading pass would alleviate this issue.
Originality: Teenagers selected to become a "Protector" class; a plucky young girl exceeding her expectations; a future Earth overwhelmed by world-altering disaster; fierce monsters roaming the land beyond the walls... there are all familiar fantasy-genre tropes, but rendered here with gusto.
Character Development: One indication of the author's skill at stretching beyond stereotype is that when a secondary character dies--and many do--there's a moment of, "Why him?" The story arc for core characters Sky and sidekick Summer, from immature neophytes to battle-scarred survivors, is unforced and riveting.
by C.C. Bolick
Plot: This book is very much X-Men for teens meets Twilight, as there are supernatural powers, a budding romance and strong family ties included in the foundational elements of the plot. The first half of the book is very entertaining, as things aren’t at all what they seem.
Prose/Style: Though there is not a unique style, the YA writing style is satisfactory and the plot and characters are what compels this book. We do, however, get the occasional line that says volumes about the characters’ lives in few words.
Originality: The father-daughter storyline was enjoyable and some of the powers the team has are unique, like the heroine’s nuclear abilities.
Character Development: The first-person narrator really resonates as describing a typical teenage girl facing very atypical problems. Her love interest is very well fleshed out, even though his flesh is deadly to the touch.
by Grant Overstake
Plot: With muted riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in the background, Overstake's story of seventh-grader TJ Crowley of Wichita shaking off his racist upbringing to begrudgingly bond with his black neighbors is both authentic and deft.
Prose: The novel's young narrators come across as real kids, squabbling one day and back to being best friends the next. They’re realistically brought to life by the author's crisp, age-appropriate prose--though peppering the pages with almost 100 uses of the non-word "n*****" can come across as almost as exploitative.
Originality: Novels about kids from clashing cultures and classes thrown together are common-enough YA tropes, but Overstake's lesson about the destructiveness of stubborn bigotry manages to be both fresh and illuminating.
Character Development: Through the emotional growth of adolescent TJ and his evolving connection to his schoolmates, his racist mother and her KKK-affiliated boyfriend are central to the story. Each of the supporting characters is gifted with a distinctive personality.
by Heather Dixon Wallwork
Plot: A great adventure with a little romance for readers who appreciate music. Based loosely on “The Nutcracker” and “The Pied Piper,” readers who enjoy fairy tales will find this book a good option to pick up around the holidays. The plot moves at a fast pace and quickly draws the reader into the adventure. The author has done a good job of helping the reader navigate the enchanted land and given the reader a satisfying ending.
Prose/Style: Lots of imagery adds to the charm and takes the reader into the world with the main character. The writing is simple for younger readers, yet can be enjoyed by adults as well. Because the story reads like a fairy tale, readers will feel like they are part of the unique world that has been created.
Originality: The author has taken two known fairy tales as inspiration and created a charming story. With many references to music, music lovers will find this one to enjoy. Readers who are not familiar with one or more of the stories will still find this story enjoyable and may be led to read these original, cherished tales.
Character Development: The main character is sweet and often bewildered, with a sidekick who is funny and trying to help and stay out of trouble. The villain needs to be a bit more developed, as readers want him to be a more convincing menace.
Blurb: A whimsical tale for the holidays to be enjoyed by all ages.