by Jordan Brooks Hill
Plot: In this futuristic YA novel set in historic 1895 New York City, bionic Crimsonfall Reapers Genie Gearhart, her brother Hans, and Alice Walker are tasked with hunting monsters, such as the Abominations called Mistlings, undoing curses, and otherwise protecting the citizenry from everything from supernatural nuisances to life-threatening evil. Their job, however, is complicated by the requirement that Genie conform at all times to Miss Haversham’s Primer for Proper Young Ladies, 1895 edition, creating such conundrums as, how do you effect a proper introduction to a street gang?
Prose/Style: The book is full of wonderfully detailed visual images presented in straightforward sentences that make the story easily accessible. Jordan Brooks Hill presents the parameters of her created world in well-integrated and easily assimilated passages as the story progresses, enticing the reader to come along on the adventure. We learn about Skycracks and the Scourge, Curseweavers, Clankers, Faraday cages, and Sprocket’s goo.
Originality: An unusual premise, inventive machines (The Pneumatic Omni-Directional Ventilator, for example), and a wide array of other-worldly ghastly and ghostly beings and doings make this a wonderfully entertaining story that will appeal to adult as well as junior high and high school readers.
Character Development/Execution: Genie and Hans are twenty-somethings just learning their jobs in this world fraught with danger. Alice Walker is a rich socialite and airship captain who is truly a delight with her not-at-all-proper take on nineteenth century New York. Many other characters, human and not, inhabit the story, each a distinct personality that Hill describes succinctly and convincingly.
by Linda Duddridge
Plot: CJ, a victim of child sex abuse at the hands of his movie star father and his father’s friend, is a tormented teenager trying to make sense of what happened to him and to figure out how to move forward in his relationship with his girlfriend Meg. But Dad’s still in his life, and his younger sister Miranda’s, because he provides the money, and no one ever talks about what happened with Dad, or Ivan, or that twelve-year-old girl, or his sister. It is, CJ believes, nobody’s business. This is a difficult novel that tackles a difficult subject and Duddridge does not pull her punches. She writes about child sexual abuse and the grooming of children to be the victims of their abusers with clarity and obvious expertise, perhaps fueled by her work in Justice and Law Enforcement. Her sympathy for CJ is palpable, yet she never detracts from his agency or his responsibility to find a way forward.
Prose/Style: The vocabulary and syntax make this a very easy to read novel, accessible to early elementary school age children. Because of the extremely explicit content, parents and school librarians will have to decide whether it is appropriate for their kids.
Originality: CJ has a lot to deal with—rage against his father, ambivalence toward a fragile mother who blames him instead of protecting him, confusion about his own sexuality, guilt over what he did and what was done to him. It is a rare YA novel that takes so much on in such a straightforward way.
Character Development/Execution: The struggle to attain a healthy maturity is challenging for every teen, but CJ has a particularly difficult history to overcome. Duddridge explicates his journey with compassion and honesty.
by Julie Mathison
Plot: Thirteen-year-old Vasilisa Petrovna Nikolayeva does not believe in fairy tales. Yet. This is a remarkable novel with folktales interwoven seamlessly with the tribulations of a junior high school age girl finding a place in a not always accommodating world. In addition, it is rich in history, relating much information about early twentieth-century Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution with which American readers are not likely to be familiar. And, as appropriate in any hero’s quest, there are mysteries to solve, questions to be answered and tasks to be accomplished, all in a universe where the real and fantastical merge effortlessly.
Prose/Style: Here is to be found finely-crafted prose of a grace and precision not often found in young adult novels. The vocabulary and syntax are perfectly suited to middle school/junior high school reader, and the names of the characters are wonderfully inventive and authentic.
Originality: The combination of Russian folk tales, fantasy (including a few witches and an ogre), history, and a coming-of-age story is unique. Julie Mathison has written a story that has meaning on many levels and is therefore a compelling read.
Character Development/Execution: Mathison’s depiction of the young teenagers here indicates careful observation and deep sympathy with the personal and social challenges girls face in early adolescence. Babka is portrayed as a wise and sympathetic older woman without relying on the typical trappings of a “fairy godmother.”
Blurb: A stellar YA novel full of adventure, history, fantasy and a careful observation and deep sympathy with the personal and social challenges girls face in early adolescence.
by Steven Petersen
Plot: With a creative plot based on Norse mythology, the storyline here is simply captivating. From the fall of Odin and Thor to Thyra's ultimate achievement, the reader will be hard-pressed to put this one down until the final conclusion.
Prose/Style: This book was a true pleasure to read. The author is clearly gifted, with a great command of language and an astute understanding of dialogue and action. The story appears to be effortless, which is a sign of a great writer/storyteller.
Originality: While the basic premise here is built upon Nordic legend, the author is able to make the story distinctly his own. The creativity is notable, but is also in keeping with the tone and real aura of the original myth.
Character Development/Execution: Thyra comes alive off the page and is a likable and spirited heroine who readers will be sure to love.
Blurb: Petersen breathes new life into Norse mythology, and the result is an enthralling story with a spunky heroine that will captivate readers.
by Arin Lee Kambitsis
Plot: Floyd Piccolo, 14, is indeed unfortunate, and he’s anxious about starting high school, with good reason. On a trip to London he was the first person in a few hundred years to contract bubonic plague; his fast-food burgers tended to be season with bits of glass, and on his first day at his new school, the entire boys’ restroom collapsed when he flushed. Scientifically-inclined classmate Piers Pitstick posits hypotheses and conducts experiments intended to figure out – and stop --what’s going on with Floyd, all to no avail until they finally settles on the very unscientific premise that Floyd has been cursed by the Brazilian saint Babalú-Ayé, whose feast day is Floyd’s birthday, which is tomorrow….
Prose/Style: Kambitsis has an overly active sense of humor that he transforms into an understated narrative of hilarious happenings and observations. The vocabulary and sentence structure are synced to a YA audience’s comfort level, so youngsters will enjoy the story without having to stop and parse the meaning of the text.
Originality: This YA novel is a gem; it is a well-written, funny, highly inventive narrative with natural-sounding dialogue – all without the slightest hint of condescension or any noticeable didactic intent. Kids and adults alike will be engrossed in the story and gales of laughter will echo down middle-school hallways.
Character Development/Execution: Floyd has an identical twin brother, Lloyd, a raft of other sibs, parents who seem to take his multitude of misfortunes in stride, a good friend and a girl whose boyfriend he would like to be —all of whom are distinct, sympathetic, likable characters one would welcome as next-door neighbors. The other characters may be a little extreme in their thinking, or a little oblivious, but all are portrayed as unique individuals, and most are harmless.
by Lauren R. Griffin
Plot: These middle schoolers’ favorite teacher has been kidnapped by GRIMM and they must solve a series of mysteries (beginning with an anagram) to save Professor E.B. from being turned into a cyborg. The premise is that the reader becomes, along with the students, an S.D. (spy detective) Agent who can help solve the puzzles. The author has developed a somewhat detailed backstory, which she present in segments throughout the book, to help the reader engage with the characters and the tasks at hand.
Prose/Style: The book is set in a font that resembles manual printing and the text is therefore not easy to read. On the other hand, colorful sketches abound, and it would not be helpful to be able to read the text setting out the puzzles quickly. Definitions and explanations are often set off from the rest of the text in illustrations, breaking up the density of material. However, there are punctuation errors and spelling errors that are distracting. All in all, this is an extremely clever and interesting project for kids, but the vocabulary would be challenging for 8- to 9-year-olds, who might need adult assistance.
Originality: Griffin does an excellent job of breaking the material down into understandable segments and of giving not only definitions and facts that will help kids solve the mysteries, but also detailed problem-solving strategies, perhaps the most valuable element of the book. Griffin take kids through the steps of applying the appropriate strategies to the puzzles they encounter, which become more complex as the story advances.
Character Development/Execution: The characters in the story are charmingly described both in words and with illustrations, but the tone is a bit didactic. The author has focused on diversity within the cast as well.
Blurb: Entertaining and instructive, this book will appeal to middle schoolers and may even intrigue adults.
by Lance Lee
Plot: This is a charming and exquisitely written reimagining of the Orpheus myth with more than one important incongruity. In this version, the Orpheus character, John, has somehow lost his wife and he and his 10-year-old son, Sam, struggle to cope as their lives trudge on. Living on an isolated farm in Maine, the two have fallen into a dull, if somewhat idiosyncratic, daily routine that holds their lives together, until one day the postman delivers a book that changes their lives in ways they could never have foretold as the boundaries between reality and imagination, between waking and dreaming, dissolve completely.
Prose/Style: The language of this imaginative novel is wonderfully rich, and sentences flow with uncommon grace.
Originality: This is an adventure story full of utterly impossible events and utterly possible psychological truths interwoven so expertly that the reader is happy to suspend disbelief and go along on the journey. This reimagining of the Orpheus myth, illustrated with excellent woodcuts by Ellen Raquel LeBow, examines questions of life, death, and survivorship in the gentlest possible way.
Character Development/Execution: At its heart, this novel is about change, about what it takes to rekindle desire and a will to live after a death that could easily envelop those who most loved the person. Told from Sam’s point of view, the story examines the changes he must endure and instigate in order to achieve the growth that will save him and his father from fading to gray in their grief.
by Gregory Urbach
Plot: The author offers up a captivating plot that creates a palpable sense of urgency from the very beginning of the story and carries through the events that follow. The plotline unfolds at an optimal pace, allowing the reader to learn more about the strange world the characters inhabit while furthering along the story at the same time.
Prose/Style: Beautifully written, this work was clearly crafted by a talented and imaginative writer. The prose feels effortless and, paradoxically, is so strong that it allows the reader to focus on the plot rather than the author's craft.
Originality: The author creates an entirely new world that is rich in detail, consistent throughout the work, and is full of unique and interesting characters and creatures.
Character Development/Execution: The main characters here are memorable, relatable, and distinct. Their dialogue clues readers in on their personalities and motivations, providing insight into who these people truly are.
by Mark Wakely
Plot: George Wells lives with his dad and younger brother Kenny, who is on the autism spectrum, as their mother died unexpectedly when George was 10. George is obsessed with 1960s version of The Time Machine and fascinated by the idea of time travel. More even than he wants to see his mother again, he wants to find a friend like Filby, the steadfast companion the time traveler in the move. The story follows George and his friends though their senior year—pranks, rites of passage, growing pains, and loss including the deaths of classmates, that characterize that year.
Prose/Style: George’s is an authentic voice and Wakely has an ear clearly attuned to teenage speech. The story flows from page to page describing ordinary, and some not-so-ordinary events, in a low-key style that carries the reader along effortlessly.
Originality: The straightforward way in which Wakely describes George’s life gives a sense of verisimilitude to the struggles he faces. He understands that he will eventually be responsible for his brother, who will surely need his protection, and he is trying to make sense of the past, including the death of his mother, and to construct a viable future.
Character Development/Execution: Well-delineated individualistic characters whose interactions are described in realistic, believable detail. The reader is enveloped in their world without quite knowing how that happened.
Blurb: A compelling, down-to-earth exploration of the challenges and fun of being a senior in high school, of being a son, a brother, and a friend.
by J.L. Frankel
Plot: Anyone whose butt can talk is bound to have some awkward moments, and ten-year-old George Smith is no exception. In this fun romp of a rumpy tale, George’s unexciting life changes radically when one day his butt asks him to change the TV channel. Unfortunately, his talking butt seems to everyone else just to be farting, with the normal odiferous accompaniment.
Prose/Style: The sentence structure and vocabulary make this a fun read for the middle school crowd, people about the same age as George, but they are perhaps not as interested in butts as four- to six-year-olds, so this story, with its simply line illustrations, would probably work well as a book adults would read to preschool or early elementary school kids.
Originality: The concept of the story is unusual, and it is exploited to its full range of possibilities, putting George and his talking butt in myriad ridiculous – and sometimes irritating, such as when George, out in the woods with no nearby bathroom, wipes his butt with poison ivy leaves – situations.
Character Development/Execution: George has a little brother, younger twin sisters and parents who are way more patient with their son’s errant butt than seems normal. But everyone, including Butt, stays true to character.
Blurb: J.L. Frankel has taken young children’s fascination with butts on a joyride that the four- to eight-year-old cohort will undoubtedly find endlessly hilarious.
by G.K. Johnson
Plot: The author offers a retelling of religious stories in a creative and refreshing way. There are occasional inconsistencies that could be addressed, but otherwise the plot is sure to engage readers.
Prose/Style: The talented writer does a particularly good job of integrating potentially unfamiliar concepts such as Shabbat, shofar, and mikvah into the story in a way that is easily understood and doesn't interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Originality: While the framework of this story is based on the retelling of familiar Christian stories, the author's reimagining of these tales and the story line of Yeshua and Shim'on is inventive and engaging.
Character Development/Execution: Both Yeshua and Shim'on are highly developed, and despite the long ago setting, these young men feel relatable to a modern audience in many ways.
by J Mercer
Plot: This novel grips the reader from the first page when abnormal (short for “above normal”) Grace James, a dendrite with telepathic powers, and her brother Justin start at their new school in her parents’ hometown of Shady Woods, where classmates and teachers include vampires, werewolves, sirens and miscellaneous other paranormal characters, and where her task is to learn to control and mask her special powers. Grace, who was raised in Chicago among “normals,” hates it all—the town, the people who stay here in order to keep the normals safe and oblivious, the cliquey classmates who may or may really be her new friends. One of J. Mercer’s talents is putting a typical teenager into a fantastic setting and making readers believe in it.
Prose/Style: The novel very well-written, with interesting complex sentences, suitable for an older YA or an adult audience. Much of the background and description of time and place are embedded in the dialogue, which is distinctive to each of the main characters. The story is told from Grace’s point of view, and her thoughts provide more of the context for the tale.
Originality: Much of the tension – and interest – in the first part of the book is related to Grace’s learning about and adapting to her new situation. In this regard, J. Mercer has created a rich environment full of unexpected observations. About halfway through, Grace learns that she is not here temporarily—she can never return home. When Shady Woods starts burning down, Grace has an external, pressing challenge to meet with the help of her friends.
Character Development/Execution: Grace is portrayed as a strong, self-confident and sympathetic young woman from the start; it’s hard to remember that she is not actually human. She is obstinate and not easily influenced by anyone, starting with her parents, with whom she has the normal scope of disagreements. Mercer describes how Grace gradually adapts to her new circumstances with a real understanding of the psychological challenges a teen would have to cope with in those situations.
by Andrew Luria
Plot: Twelve-year-old Charlie Marley and his friend, school newspaper reporter Emma Mayfield, hop through time and space on “an adventure that would change their lives…and the history of the world.” Sent to a possibly haunted janitor’s closet to collect dirty erasers, Charlie and Emma encounter Midnight McLean, a washed-up pro baseball player turned inventor whose time machine, aka Flogtrac, is going to take him back to the 1994 World Series for a redo. Intergalactic time travel, however, is not an exact science, at least not Midnight’s version of it, and they end up at Wrigley Field during the 1932 World Series instead. Along the way, the time travelers are instrumental in making sure major events in sports history involving John Elway, Jackie Robinson, and Michael Jordan, to name just a few, turned out the way they should. As readers might imagine in a science fiction/fantasy story, oddities and tricks of fate and time abound.
Prose/Style: Middle-school-age-appropriate structure and vocabulary and fast-paced action make this a easy read for fourth to sixth graders, who will enjoy the descriptions of completely unempathetic adults. Kids will appreciate the depictions of Mrs. Cooper the Pooper Scooper, Coach Stinkysox, Mr. Tubby, and Dr. Dilbert Dinglehop.
Originality: This book showcases a unique premise with an unexpected plot twist near the end.
Character Development/Execution: Myriad unlikely characters inhabit this universe, but Charlie and Emma remain our consistent touchstones.
Blurb: Andrew Luria, a real-life news and sports anchor, takes Charlie and Emma on a lively jaunt through space and time, and sports milestones, in this wonderfully-illustrated page-turner.
by Geraldine Burrows
Plot: In her second Chloe Crandall adventure, Burrows has combined her interests in YA fiction and historical fiction to create an engaging novel that not only takes readers back to pioneer days of the Old West but also depicts the behind-the-camera facts about a TV reality show. Rising high school junior Chloe has won a spot on the American West Channel’s reality TV series Bridal Train. She and nine other young women will reenact the experience of traveling by wagon train (i.e., walking) 500 miles along the Santa Fe Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Bent’s Old Fort in Colorado. The story is full of mysteries, both those that are part of these women’s actual westward journey and those that are revealed in the historical accounting of the journey as experienced by the pioneer women of two hundred years ago.
Prose/Style: Chloe’s narration has a wonderful snarky tone, as only the voice of a sixteen-year-old can have. Vocabulary and syntax are appropriate for junior high school, exactly the right audience for this book, though older kids and adults will enjoy it too for its meticulous research and rousing storytelling.
Originality: Burrows has a real knack for making history come alive and seem relevant in the contemporary world.
Character Development/Execution: Chloe is a thoroughly three-dimensional character who is resourceful, intelligent, driven by the motivations that concern most teens, and funny. The other women, especially Millie, have distinct personalities, and the true personalities of other characters such as the hunk Toby are revealed in tantalizingly slow-motion as the story progresses.
Blurb: In her second YA Chloe Crandall adventure, Burrows has a real knack for making history come alive and seem relevant in the contemporary world.
by Peter Aronson
Plot: Peter Aronson is a former journalist who started writing for kids when he noticed his own children were reading mostly fantasy dystopian novels. Mandalay Hawk’s Dilemma, the first in a planned series, is also a futuristic fantasy, but the three teen protagonists aren’t going to settle for a dystopia; they’re going to try to prevent one. It’s 2030 and 13-year-old Mandalay Hawk’s first act of civil disobedience nearly gets her locked up in juvie, but then she and her dad move to New York City where Mandalay finds other like-minded kids, and they’re off as KRAAP: Kids Revolt Against Adult Power heads to D.C. to confront ineffectual leaders in person about the Big Heat, the exponential increase in temperatures that scientists had not predicted, and to present a plan of action to mitigate the damage.
Prose/Style: The novel is well-written in language easily accessible to middle grade readers. Aronson is skilled at keeping the action interesting while still introducing enough of the science to explain the protagonists’ concerns and actions.
Originality: Aronson has written a novel intended to evoke hope and action—to tell kids they do have agency even though the world’s problems seem overwhelming, even to adults.
Character Development/Execution: Aronson has crafted relatable teen characters whose relationships, insecurities, school challenges, and growth are as important as the message he wishes to convey. Mandalay was a hungry foster child before her new dad adopted her, Gute is a mixed-race boy whose mother abandoned the family years ago, and Jasmin was born in Morocco; her mother brought her to America when she was two after her father died. Mandalay, under a stricture from the judge to behave or have her probation revoked, learns to channel her justified anger into effective political action.
Blurb: Mandalay Hawk’s Dilemma is a futuristic fantasy, but one in which the three teen protagonists aren’t going to figure out how to live in a dystopia; they’re going to try to prevent one.
by Kamla K Kapur
Plot: In this YA novel, which India-born American author, poet, and playwright Kamla K. Kapur describes as a metaphysical fantasy, Malini receives a magical book for her thirteenth birthday. Eager to escape her boring life in the village of Himali in the foothills of the Himalayas, her bickering parents, and her possibly mad grandmother locked in the basement, Malini opens The Book of Potentiality and her adventure begins.
Prose/Style: Kapur’s descriptions of Malini’s interior life are perceptive and convincing. The prose is accessible to middle school readers without ever being condescending, and its melodious flow will keep readers of all ages turning pages well into the night.
Originality: Cleverly conceived and skillfully executed, Malini in Whirlwood is a YA fantasy that does not rely on the usual tropes of the genre. Here the magic exists not just for effect but to illuminate for Malini her own hopes and capabilities. In a world of shapeshifters where the laws of logic and physics do not apply, Malini, with the help of the Rainbow Serpent and other magic beings, must discover her own path to maturity. While most coming-of-age fantasies rely on exterior events to move the story forward, this novel shows that the journey is truly one that must take place within the protagonist’s mind and heart.
Character Development/Execution: The story is first and foremost about Malini, whom we know at the beginning as a bold but thoroughly disgruntled child and at the end as a young woman of compassion and purpose.