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  • One Boy's War

    by Nancy McDonald

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: In a sequel to Boy from Berlin, McDonald delivers a fun, action-filled middle grade story with enough historical verisimilitude to meaningfully drive the narrative.

    Prose: McDonald displays a strong sense for her target audience, effectively balancing dialogue, exposition, and action. Her central character, while faced with often nonstop conflict, is also afforded moments of introspection.

    Originality: An adventure story with truly high stakes, this second in a series will capture readers while inviting further interest in historical circumstances.

    Character/Execution: Young readers are unlikely to have encountered a hero like Käfer Avigdor. McDonald soundly develops the protagonist's historical setting, while providing him with a sense of agency and vulnerability.

  • Chasing the Sun

    by Melanie Hooyenga

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Hooyenga's cathartic teen romance centers around two outsiders who readers will embrace individually while eagerly awaiting their coming together during a solar eclipse.

    Prose: Effective dialogue and honest introspection drive this quiet story of a burgeoning relationship.

    Originality: Hooyenga's grasp of teen voices is decidedly authentic and the novel uniquely focuses on the small moments of attraction.

    Character/Execution: Hooyenga effectively builds romantic tension between the protagonists, while their individual struggles are sensitively conveyed. Side characters are particularly endearing and layered, and allow for the central relationship to gain sharper focus and significance.

  • Crime Busters, Inc.: The Alligator Alibi

    by Kimberly Houser

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Houser delivers a fun, rousing, action-filled story with abundant appeal to reluctant readers and animal lovers alike.

    Prose: Houser's prose is clean and clear, with abundant humor and fetching dialogue.

    Originality: The story of animal detectives investigating a case of kidnapped pets is inventive and immensely appealing to the target audience.

    Character/Execution: The feline protagonists are amiable, tough, and quirky detectives, while the cast of usual suspects, are anything but usual. Houser's own affection for animals--from furry to scaled--comes through the gentle, endearing writing and spot-on characterizations.

  • Kaleidoscopic

    by H. O. Tanager

    Rating: 8.25


    Plot: Sharply written and enchantingly inventive in many of its particulars, Tanager’s memorable epic quest fantasy finds exciting new variations on familiar beats, though the plotting itself often is familiar, episodic, and predictable. Savvy genre readers will intuit immediately that heroine Aise will quickly get dispatched from her village onto a quest, and that she will discover that she possesses powers that she doesn’t yet know about, powers that will reveal themselves in moments of danger. The quest itself is somewhat vague, involving seeking out “artifacts” and wise women, and the dangers Aise and her companions encounter, both incidental and plot-driven, turn up at regular intervals. But the worldbuilding, friendships, magic, and creatures are enthralling, the climactic revelations about the villains and Aise’s companions are surprising, and the pacing is ideally balanced between relationships, wonder, mystery, and storytelling momentum.

    Prose/Style: Tanager’s prose is superb. It’s inventive, plummy, playful, and dead-serious, like all the best fantasy. Touches of poetry bring this singular world to life without fuss, quick eruptions from the first-person narrator emphasize what matters most in a scene, and the action is always crisp and clear. Scenes of Aise and her companions traveling and facing dangers are enlivened by fanciful but concrete description and the kind of inviting, character-revealing dialogue that invites readers to linger over the page, savoring their time with these personas. The prose is so strong that it almost makes up for the familiarity of the plot’s set up and storybeats.

    Originality: The hydra hamsters, golem mice, milk leeches, banshee kittens, and emphasis on seeds, flowers, and butterflies distinguish this fantastic world from many others. Tanager insists upon making fantasy truly fantastic, much to the novel’s credit. Still, the storytelling is strikingly indebted to famous fantasy predecessors, such as Avatar: The Last Air Bender and The Lord of the Rings. The quest’s culmination feels more distinct than its beginning, but it is the characters, creatures, magic, and scenecraft that resonate here, rather than the dated plot.

    Character Development: Tanager's engaging cast reveal themselves through dialogue and action –and all of Aise's companions (and the villain!) harbor enticing secrets. Tanager excels at chatty camaraderie (her crew loves to crack each other up with puns) and telling, character-revealing details. Aise is slower than the reader will be at grasping the significance of what is going on or the mysteries of her own power, though, which occasionally proves frustrating.

  • The Last Fairy Door: Fairies of Titania Book 1

    by N. A. Davenport

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: While older readers may find the plot here predictable, the fast-paced storyline melds magic and adventure to craft a heartwarming, satisfying fantasy.

    Prose/Style: Polished and engaging, the writing perfectly captures the feel and voice of its ten-year-old protagonist, and effortlessly shares an entertaining story.

    Originality: This middle grade fantasy possesses charm, emotion, and a distinct moral decision with high stakes for its heroine, as she journeys through a magical realm filled with turmoil.

    Character Development: Amy’s desire to save her sick father might fuel this tale’s initial quest, but her empathy for other people lets her shine as a worthwhile, sympathetic heroine with whom readers can relate.

  • Reckoner

    by Douglas Rappaport

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: Rappaport crafts a tapestry of voices in this often moving, if at times wandering YA/New Adult novel about a protagonist struggling to find wholeness.

    Prose: The voices of the various narrators--many of whom are in recovery or battling addiction--are solidly rendered and distinct. Small details and pivotal moments alike serve to create a slice-of-life story that also deals with fundamental issues of identity and redemption.

    Originality: Rappaport's mosaic approach is unique, while the novel also offers an unusual blending of psychological rumination and plot-driven circumstances.

    Character/Execution: Miles Rockefeller is a sympathetic, troubled character who evolves from challenged and splintered, to broken, to hopeful. Rappaport is ultimately successful in connecting the individual characters.

  • Better Than A Bully: Carrot Top's Surprise

    by Tina Levine

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: Levine's plot is charming, entertaining, and quickly paced. It will likely grab the attention of many young readers as they follow the students of Wilson Day through their week. The various relationship dynamics that develop feel real and grounded.

    Prose/Style: Levine's well-wrought prose is delightful and appropriate for the young age of the protagonists, but never skews too juvenile or unbelievably naive. While the first-person narration is a strong choice, it is somewhat disappointing that the story is filtered through the eyes of Tara, rather than Annie herself.

    Originality: Levine's dazzling prose and compelling characters make for a charming middle-grade novel.

    Character Development: Tara is a grounded protagonist and her journey as she navigates her guilt over bullying is admirable and likely relatable to many young readers. Annie is a sympathetic character whose optimism in the face of tragedy is sweet and moving.

  • In Sight of the Mountain

    by Jamie McGillen

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: This inviting, American West-set historical novel follows the divergent path taken by 19-year-old Anna Gallagher. Though the work is at times lacking in tension, McGillen writes with knowledge and authority of the late 19th-century era, allowing readers to become immersed in the narrative about liberation, romance, and adventure.

    Prose: McGillen’s writing is polished, unfussy, and engaging. The author's affection for and familiarity with the Pacific Northwest and its striking landscapes is apparent throughout the vivid descriptions.

    Originality: The historical setting provides an original backdrop for Anna's coming-of-age. Nineteenth-century society and its prejudices are well conceived and provide refreshing verisimilitude.

    Character/Execution: Though a degree of moral complexity, Anna is a kind, resourceful, and formidable heroine. The novel is populated by a broad array of side characters that serve to enrich the historical moment, while Anna's love interest is a clear catch.

  • Boy Between Worlds: The Cabinet of Curiosities

    by Cynthia C. Huijgens

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: This endearing adventure dazzles young readers with family intrigue, coveted ancient artifacts, stirring action, and a far-flung destination.

    Prose: Huijgens authentically captures the voice of a 12-year-old outsider learning of his unusual family legacy. The storytelling is engaging and smooth, with a successful balance between exposition, dialogue, and character introspection.

    Originality: While the author relies on certain conventions of middle grade adventure stories—notably, that of long concealed family secrets come to light—the story has crackling energy and brushes of originality, particularly in the machinations lying behind the story’s central mysteries.

    Character/Execution: Max is an immediately relatable character whose fantastical circumstances are offset by conventional pre-teen concerns. Eccentric adult characters are nicely played and provide additional depth and intrigue to the adventure.

  • A Young Person's Field Guide to Finding Lost Shipwrecks

    by Laurie Anne Zaleski

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea: Zaleski, a marine geologist, offers a riveting, photo-filled account of her time aboard an archaeological research vessel in search of an ancient shipwreck.

    Prose: Zaleski’s narrative blends science, history, technology, and archaeology, with candid, day-to-day descriptions of life aboard a research vessel. Middle grade readers will delight in both the mundane aspects of the journey and the moments of excitement and anticipation.

    Originality: The journey Zaleski chronicles aboard the Hercules is wholly unique, and sure to engage young readers. In terms of content, tone, and presentation, this work is perfect for fans of the Scientists in the Field series of children’s nonfiction titles.

    Character/Execution: The author is keenly aware of her readership and capably holds their interest through detailed descriptions of life at sea on a research vessel.

  • Degrade

    by Mark Lingane

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: In Degrade, the reader is caught up in a politically complex, bleak futuristic world where danger seems to lurk around every corner. Understanding the nuances of this world may initially challenge younger readers, but the ride becomes much smoother and more intriguing as the narrative progresses and characters are made more tangible. 

    Prose/Style: The prose in Lingane’s often claustrophobic novel is tightly woven, highly descriptive, and evocative. 

    Originality: The storytelling in Degrade evokes a number of familiar tropes—a scorched dystopian world, an orphaned young protagonist, warring factions forced to compete for limited resources—but the author excels at crafting a vivid sense of atmosphere with characters (both human and creaturely), esoteric enough to linger in the minds of readers.

    Character Development: Arid is a scrappy, yet vulnerable young hero, who relies on his hard-earned instincts to survive. Lingane offers a generally distinctive cast of main and secondary characters, forged by their environments and respective roles. 

  • Between Wild and Ruin

    by Jennifer G. Edelson

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: This first installment in Jennifer G. Edelson's Wild and Ruin series offers brisk, crisp, entertaining scenes of romance, and builds to a surprising, satisfying twist. The story moves slowly, though, and covers less ground than readers would expect in a novel that spans 400 pages. The finale, here, establishes an exciting premise for the series involving Pecos myth, the land of the dead, Watchers and True of Hearts, and an exciting cross-cultural romance. The journey to that exciting premise, though, is often slack and discursive, with the novel's suspense and supernatural elements overshadowed by the protagonist's being pursued by three viable romantic possibilities.

    Prose/Style: Line to line, Between Wild and Ruin is crisp, brisk, and appealing. Edelson pairs superb descriptions of nature and her characters with sharp, memorable dialogue. The exchanges between protagonist Ruby and her aunt Lydia have a pleasurable warmth and verve; Ruby's many scenes of flirtation with her three romantic candidates, meanwhile, are tense and tender, though they might stand out more individually if there were fewer of them.

    Originality: The story of a beautiful young woman courted by multiple young men with cosupernatural connections to ancient folklore is not new, of course. At times, especially before its last 100 pages, Between Wild and Ruin feels overly indebted to other supernatural romances, especially as characters like Leo and Angel make little impression beyond their looks and interest in Ruby. The Native American folklore that the story draws from, though, is fascinating, and the narrative becomes much fresher in the book's last quarter, when the (legitimately shocking!) truth of Leo's identity is revealed and Ruby dives fully into the story's fantastical elements.

    Character Development: The protagonist, Ruby, is "Attractive… Smart… Mouthy", as one of her paramours puts it. She's also not especially compelling over the course of the novel, as the plot finds her not driven by any particular motivation or desire. Instead, she juggles three men who pursue her for her beauty, while her friends complain that she acts "like being gorgeous is a curse." Ruby makes some interesting choices as the narrative goes on, once she discovers the truth about Leo, but readers will not know her heart until after spending hundreds of pages with her.

  • How the Deer Moon Hungers

    by Susan Wingate

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: Susan Wingate's How the Deer Moon Hungers examines, with admirable complexity and humanity, the process of grief, healing, and forgiveness following a tragic accident – and the tragedies that follow it. Teen MacKenzie finds herself institutionalized after her sister is killed by a drunk driver, and MacKenzie is caught with a friend's marijuana. Wingate cleverly structures this harrowing story to reflect the seven stages of grief, and the process of forgiveness, and her urgent, ambitious prose lays bare for readers MacKenzie's heart. That humanity and ambition, though, works against the narrative momentum when Wingate switches perspectives to MacKenzie's parents, to the drunk driver who killed MacKenzie's sister, or to the corrections officer who preys on young women. The book's first half, centered on the accident, also circles away from MacKenzie to show readers scenes of deputies questioning townspeople about the crash, examining in great detail the circumstances of a tragedy when readers will mostly be interested in its impact. One of the book's themes is the mind's difficulty in piecing together precisely what has happened in traumatic events, so these scenes have thematic justification, but they offer little suspense or insight, as they venture far from the heart of the story.

    Prose/Style: Wingate writes crackling dialogue and is adept at immersing readers in her protagonists' flow of thought. Scenes of MacKenzie's pain, rage, and confusion pulse with power. The prose, though, too often bucks from the author's control, especially in moments of poetic description. There's no doubt that the author is a talented wordsmith, but readers will too often find themselves laboring to make sense of typos and imprecise prose.

    Originality: Wingate's scenario and treatment of it both stand as unique. Her dedication to the emotional lives of all her characters imbues the material with a rare humanity.

    Character Development: MacKenzie proves a rich, fascinating protagonist, especially as she fights to hold on to her core of self as she's brutalized or locked in solitary confinement. Her willingness to forgive and to recover the full truth of the day of the tragedy are both moving, engaging traits. The occasional chapters from other characters' perspectives also reveal fresh depths and surprises, even as the story of MacKenzie proves more compelling than those asides.

  • Believe

    by Julie Mathison

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: This accomplished, often insightful novel examines, with tenderness and empathy, the life of an unpopular middle school girl in the early 1980s. Facing bullies, loneliness, and the (somewhat mysterious) absence of her mother, Melanie finds herself suddenly close friends with a new girl, Sabrina, who encourages Melanie to stand up for herself and to audition for the school play. The scenes of Melanie flowering or facing grief over her mother's (apparent) decision to leave are rendered with skill and power, and the kids' playground rudeness and eventual softening is persuasive. Readers likely will have worked out the twists well before the novel reveals them, but Mathison seems more invested in their emotional underpinning than in creating surprise. Revelations are handled with sensitivity and heart, but the narrative’s sleight of hand also reduces the process of healing from grief to something of a magic trick.

    Prose/Style: Mathison writes clear, crisp, compelling prose that deftly guides readers to what matters in a scene and omits what doesn't. The dialogue is memorable and convincing, and Melanie's interior monologue is touching. The narrative twists, though, demand that the novel skim over details that readers otherwise would expect to be given, such as why Melanie's mother is gone, or how Sabrina fits in at school. These omissions stand out, drawing attention to the twists to come.

    Originality: YA stories of young people handling grief and becoming confident are familiar, as are novels and films in which a character turns out to be someone or something unexpected. Still, the story imbues these elements with fresh heart, humor, and vigor. The scenes of Melanie finding her way to befriend more popular girls are especially strong, filled with wisdom. The title, "Believe," suggests a much more generic novel than what Mathison has crafted.

    Character Development: The character of Melanie stands out as an inspired, convincing creation, a young person learning to become comfortable in her own skin. The trick of the plot demands that Sabrina not be as interesting, and also that Melanie never notice this fact. Melanie's parents also feel thin on the page, mostly to protect the integrity of the truth. Melanie's peers, though, are well drawn - even the bullies.

  • Plot: A winning set-up—a quirky 11-year-old who sets out to prove the existence of Bigfoot—will prove to be immediately enticing to readers. Fun, smoothly paced, and engaging, the novel’s predictable elements are unlikely to interfere with reader enjoyment.

    Prose/Style: The prose is perfectly inviting for younger readers. Rivera’s narrative voice is clear, heartfelt, and authentic.

    Originality: “Frederick Moody” follows typical tropes of the middle grade mystery genre, but the entertaining circumstances, charismatic leads, and vivid mountain town setting allow the novel to quietly shine.

    Character Development: Frederick and Cindy make the roles of bona fide investigators look easy - their complicated relationship is well developed, and the third person narration is a comfortable fit for telling this middle-grade mystery.


    by Eva Dietrich

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Though Dietrich's novel is somewhat inconsistent in its pacing, the story introduces a well-drawn magic system and a heartfelt adventure to an uncommon fantasy realm.

    Prose/Style: The world of Mesopo comes alive spectacularly in Dietrich’s rich, lyrical, and inviting prose.

    Originality: Mesopo is stunning in its originality. A world evoking the love of words, Mesopo is unforgettable and colorful – a vibrant and highly visual setting that will live on in memory.  Dietrich's characters sing and the love of words flows through the ink on each page. 

    Character Development: Although Ankido often comes across as younger than his years, the characters are generally all distinct and finely developed. Written in third-person POV, the reader is able to fully experience the characters within Dietrich's novel.