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.
by El Holly
Plot: Shakespeare buff Evelyn Gray Acker (aka Eevee) is 17 and has just been dumped when she makes the shocking discovery that she is fae. After a scavenger hunt of clues left by her parents, soon Eeve and her new companions she meets along the way are embroiled in the internal politics of a struggle taking place in a realm totally separate from their “normal” lives.
Prose/Style: The text has a natural, easy-to-comprehend flow, while the social media posts will undoubtedly be more easily accessible to the intended audience of this unique YA coming-of-age story than they are to an adult.
Originality: Holly is great at creating a milieu of teendom, especially in having much of the communication among characters transpire as social media posts, but the author may not be quite-up-to-date on how they are currently using it, which dates the story a bit.
Character Development/Execution: It can be hard to talk about character development when the main character and narrator is actually changing species, but the key here is that Eevee is depicted so accurately as a contemporary teenager that the transformation to fae seems completely plausible.
by Anthea Sharp
Plot: Fantasy crashes into reality when high-school sophomore Jennet Carter delves into the amazingly immersive video game invented by her father and discovers the virtual fairyland full of weird creatures, inventive weapons and magical events in which she is gaming is actually her real life where she must fight the Dark Queen of the Faeries in order to remain alive and save humanity. Enter Tam Lin, a reticent, poor boy with massive family problems whom she must convince to see past her family’s wealth and help her. And there follows a complex, fast-action tale that the reader will not be able to put down as Jennet and Tam learn to trust, and eventually to care for, each other in the face of overwhelming danger. This is the first in Anthea Sharp’s 8-book YA Feyland series.
Prose/Style: The vocabulary and syntax are easy to construe and don’t for a moment impede the action of the story. The dialogue is reasonably fluent and realistic, especially the interactions between Jennet and Tam. The story could be easily read by upper elementary school students.
Originality: Sharp, a lifelong gamer herself, is expert at describing the action characteristics of a video game. Not only Jennet, but the reader too, will feel they are embedded in the game in some way more profound that just playing it. The real crux of the story is perhaps best explained by this once-alive-now-virtual (maybe) character.
Character Development/Execution: Jennet and Tam are not full-realized, complex, human characters and that is one of the reasons this novel works so well. They could be characters in a video game as easily as they could be humans playing the game itself.
by L.E. DeLano
Plot: L.E. DeLano’s third YA novel describes in cringing detail the trials and tribulations of high school, a challenge for all girls, but especially so for Blue Mancini, whose brother Jack was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of classmate Maya Rodriguez’s father. Now’s Jack’s in a detention center and Maya, after a year’s absence, is coming back to school. Maya has vengeance on her mind, and everyone is curious to see what will happen.
Prose/Style: DeLano has an excellent ear for teens’ idiomatic speech and is able to convey its tone without making it sound like a parody. The vocabulary and syntax are perfectly attuned to junior high school age skills and so this is an easy read for its intended audience.
Originality: This is a fast-paced novel focused more on feelings and the social world of teens than on physical action. While the basic premise of the plot is unlikely, DeLano creates a consistent world around that premise, making the novel a credible version of reality. She also includes a boyfriend with secrets to add some suspense.
Character Development/Execution: Blue comes to understand how her life differs from Maya’s in that they come from very different backgrounds. Blue is a child of privilege, where good lawyers can extricate people from difficult situations, while Maya is a scholarship student at the private academy they both attend. Blue begins to question her acceptance of white privilege and Maya comes to see that not everything she sees as bigoted is intended that way.
by Ann Searle Horowitz
Plot: Twelve-year-old twins Lucy and Ricky are competitive swimmers, and Rick’s goal is to become the youngest-ever member of the Junior Olympics swim team. But his plans are side-tracked when his new goggles turn a perfectly ordinary swim into a deep dive to the lost city of Atlantis via a portal created by a recent earthquake. The War of Generations is raging below sea level and if Rick and Lucy cannot help to win it, not only Atlantis but the world above the sea will fall to the Atlanteans. Trident is an action-packed fantasy adventure full of magic and mayhem where the world of ancient mythology is expertly interwoven with the lives of contemporary almost-teens. Rick, as it turns out is a descendent of Poseidon’s eldest son, and Neptune appears in modern garb. It is a heroes’ quest with two strong protagonists, one male and one female, who are undaunted by the tasks they face.
Prose/Style: Horowitz is a master storyteller, giving the reader enough information to make the tale believable without padding the text with unnecessary detail. Crisp writing, middle school age appropriate sentence structure, and events tumbling one over the next at a breakneck pace make this a novel youngsters will not want to put down.
Originality: Mythology and magic, gods and tweens, an ancient prophecy and a youthful quest intermingle convincingly in this engaging tale. A high-school All-American swimmer herself, Horowitz creates an absolutely credible milieu for her young athletes, and as the mother of multiples she is more than familiar with the unique relationship shared by even fraternal twins. She puts ancient gods and modern teens in the same universe and makes their interactions utterly convincing.
Character Development/Execution: Rick and Lucy are absolutely true-to-life preteens and twins, arguing often but unreservedly devoted to each other. The adults seem to be predictably clueless, but the underwater gods have the ancients’ understanding of history and destiny.
by Bryan (B.L.) Smith
Plot: Set in a time and place loosely based on Bronze Age Crete, The Last Golden Light is the story of cousins Samara and Idas, whose lives are governed by the gods, traditions, signs, and omens. They are destined to become dull palace administrators in a corrupt government, but 13-year-old Samara is bold, courageous, a warrior—she yearns for excitement and adventure, which come in the form of terrifying earth rumblings that people believe portend disaster and the end of the golden age. When volcanic eruption on a nearby island throws everything into chaos, food is rationed, and people start disappearing, Samara learns that she has a special destiny to be fulfilled in this time of darkness.
Prose/Style: Smith is adept at taking his readers into the world he has created and making them feel at home there.
Originality: Smith has written an engaging novel with a strong young woman as its focus. Samara is believable, sympathetic, and likable. While this is not exactly historical fiction, his use of ancient Crete as the setting is interesting and the world he imagines is not so far removed from what it might have been like.
Character Development/Execution: Samara grows into her destiny very quickly and assumes a leadership role with mercifully little of the self-doubt and few of the false starts that authors so often attribute to female protagonists.
by Bryan (B.L.) Smith
Plot: This quirky, charming YA novel opens with three twelve-year-old self-styled private detectives looking for Charles the Fifth’s codpiece, which has been stolen from their local Perceval Town Museum—what could be better? Samantha, Bert, and Kennedy established the Albatross Investigative Agency over the summer and stepped in to take on the missing codpiece case because so far no one has wanted to hire them to investigate graffiti, embezzlement, nasty rumors, or anything else. The kids take statements from everyone and in the best Poirot style reveal the name of the thief, which, given the clues, many readers will also have figured out. And of course, one case leads to another.
Prose/Style: The writing is crisp and often includes understated humor that middle schoolers will appreciate. This is prose that does its job without drawing attention to itself.
Originality: The characters are original, engaging, and most importantly, interesting, a feature that characters in other YA novels often lack. The plot of each case is carefully constructed so that the reader learns everything needed to solve it without the clues being obvious. Serious Business on Albatross Lane is a wonderful addition to the genre that cleverly references its predecessors in both the YA and adult canon of mystery stories.
Character Development/Execution: The characters are wonderfully idiosyncratic and Smith deftly reveals a little more about each as the story progresses.
Blurb: Wonderfully inventive, challenging mysteries and a cast of three slightly odd but eminently likable twelve-year-old’s will bring even the most reluctant middle school reader to the library to check out Serious Business on Albatross Lane.
by Alison Baird
Plot: Siblings Carrie, Tim, and Jessie take a risk and share their secret with their new friend Kevin— like the Brontë children, they have created an elaborate imaginary world, Shindaria, peopled with genii, talking animals, and every kind of magic. To their astonishment, Kevin unwittingly provides the key that turns the imaginary world into reality—a reality more thrilling, and also far more perilous, than they could have dreamed.
Prose/Style: From the very first paragraph, Alison Baird captivates her reader with humor, imagination, and magic. Beautifully imagined, and so gorgeously written that the most impossible fantasy landscapes rise clearly in the mind's eye of the reader, the most complex battle scenes are described in clear, lucid, and thrillingly exciting prose, and the compulsion to keep reading to find out what happens next is well-nigh irresistible.
Originality: At last, a writer has appeared to answer the prayers of those who wished that C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager, E. Nesbit and the other greats who plunked ordinary children in wildly fantastical magical adventures had just written a few more books. Baird must have dipped her pen in stardust, for the adventures of Kevin, Carrie, Tim, and Jessie will keep readers riveted from the first page to the last.
Character Development/Execution: Kevin, Carrie, Tim and Jessie are in the best tradition of children in magical adventures—they have an inborn nobility of character that carries them through every danger they meet, yet they are entirely human and terrifically likable. A great fantasy kingdom has arisen; if you are wise, you, too, will visit the land of Shindaria.
by Susan McCauley
Plot: McCauley puts forth a fascinating premise that will captivate readers. There's a perfect balance of the unknown and familiar throughout that educates and intrigues, while the mystery behind it all keeps the reader guessing.
Prose/Style: This author is a talented writer and a natural storyteller. The prose is perfect for the book's intended audience but isn't watered down in any way. In the author's capable hands, the story flows effortlessly.
Originality: This is a creative and highly original new work, with a distinctive story line and relatable characters.
Character Development/Execution: The author does a terrific job with characterization and growth. Alex, in particular, is a livable, breathable pre-teen that many readers will relate to despite the unfamiliar mystical world he inhabits.
by T.C. Crawford
Plot: Any novel that within the first ten pages has a teenage orphan boy accidentally killing a classmate, getting slimed, and waking up in a forest surrounded by eight-foot-tall wolflike creatures is bound to be a hit. This epic fantasy is indeed that. David Bishop finds himself in a land called Hurea with a 2,500-plus-year history, and discovers that his arrival has been foretold by prophecy. He is the chosen warrior who will use the powers of the Orb to save the world as the ancient war between good and evil enters its final battle.
Prose/Style: The author writes in an easy, flowing style, with descriptions of the myriad characters in the novel – Erin, Orin, Elbert , Tyrius, Rex, Octavian, and Ryan, to name just a few – lively enough to keep the reader’s attention in the midst of this high-action tale.
Originality: A lot of the appeal of T.C. Crawford’s debut novel, the first in a series, lies in the extremely detailed envisioning of the alternative universe of Hurea. Crawford’s description of this land is a Tolkienesque imaginative tour de force, with secret portals, elves, dwarfs, elders, demons, mystics, kings and magical powers waiting to be discovered and controlled. The cliff hanger ending is a little frustrating but it does leave the reader eager for the next installment of this fantasy series.
Character Development/Execution: David Bishop is wonderfully portrayed as a somewhat bewildered teen thrown into a completely unexpected world. Throughout the novel, he strives to make sense of his situation and to figure out what is required of him to achieve the critically important task he has been given to save the world from the Mystic of Destruction. It is a journey of adventure and self-discovery during which Erin is a worthy ally rather than a damsel in distress.
by Gail Gurland
Plot: The storyline here is distinctive and strong. There's a perfect blend of mystery peppered with sibling rivalry, wrapped up in teenage angst. This will also appeal to an adult crossover audience.
Prose/Style: The author is a talented writer who is able to craft a fascinating story with realistic characters. The first-person narrative is effective and helps the story flow effortlessly.
Originality: This is a highly original work with distinctive characters and a unique premise.
Character Development/Execution: The characterization here is extremely strong, particularly for brothers Robbie and Henry individually and collectively as their relationship grows.
Blurb: Mysterious and fun, this story will undoubtedly captivate readers and keep them hooked until the final secret is revealed.
by Vanessa Caraveo
Plot: The plot manages to be so true to life and yet it remains an original story, unique to Diego and his situation in life. The story explores real-world events and common problems adolescents face on their path to adulthood, yet the main character’s experiences as not only a Hispanic individual, but a deaf young man in modern America, shape the plot in a unique way and add exceptional value and meaning to its many messages.
Prose/Style: The prose is beautifully written—the balance between showing and telling is excellent and the language is appropriate for a YA audience. The story showcases consistent and effective pacing and voice, though after a while, the narration may leave readers wishing they could see more scenes actively play out in the moment rather than relying solely on the main character’s memories of those events.
Originality: Valiance is an effective blend between writing about a marginalized population and modern YA storytelling. Rather than falling into the ample tropes for the genre, the story reads almost like a biography of a real person’s life and the struggles which many teenagers face, in addition to those unique to those with disabilities. All of these elements combine to produce a unique and engaging read with timeless and meaningful messages.
Character Development/Execution: Diego, his family, his friends, and his complicated love interest, Seema, all play important roles in developing the realistic conflicts and coming-of-age developments throughout the story. This diverse cast of individuals play important roles in developing Diego’s character throughout the story and serve to bring the novel to life. Each character is realistic and complex, and each one serves an essential purpose.
Blurb: A breathtaking and evocative representation of young adult life and the lives of a deeply underrepresented population.
by Mike Maroney
Plot: This is an inspiring, intriguing, and sweet story. The author is able to talk of more serious topics, like a mob running a town, but keeps the themes age-appropriate. The story also encourages children to be brave and shows how even young people can help make their world a better place, like when Natasha and Max help with Grandfather’s mayoral campaign.
Prose/Style: This story is easy to read and the plot flows smoothly. The author balances out more serious scenes with some light humor. The author successfully relays how English would have been spoken by Russians and this adds a cultural element to the story without taking away from the dialogue’s content.
Originality: This is a creative story about how a girl, her pet “polar bear”, her friends, and grandfather can make a town a better place.
Character Development/Execution: Natasha is a brave girl who displays some feelings that seem above her years and an understanding of adult situations. While she starts out as a scared little girl, her time and experiences at her father’s home help her to grow into a brave and happy young woman.
by Murray Richter
Plot: Kevin and his best friends Preech and Rudy have built a raft to help Kev catch the biggest catfish in Texas, but their ambitious plans are derailed by an escaped prisoner whom Rudy helped put in jail and serious trouble at home between Kevin’s parents This is a rollicking, often light-hearted, adventure story with an underlying emphasis on the things that really matter – friendship, loyalty, and family. Upper elementary students will have a hard time putting his book down and junior high schoolers will find its fast pace and sometimes outlandish events keep them engrossed.
Prose/Style: Murray Richter’s writing is fresh and polished and even when he is describing what his characters are thinking, he manages keeps the action going. Banter among the boys is sharp and often funny, never veering over the line to meanness, and humor frequently enhances the action.
Originality: Richter’s characters are just weird enough to be engaging without being scary or implausible. Kev, Preech and Rudy are wonderfully inventive and resourceful. Uncle Oliver (aka The Oracle), a vet, is a mentor to the boys, devising unusual and challenging activities to keep them thinking and active.
Character Development/Execution: This story includes some of the same characters as Richter’s 2014 YA novel Lucky Rocks and treats the events in that book as common history in this one. The life lessons that indicate growth are a direct and logical outcome of the character’s experience and therefore neither heavy-handed nor pedantic.
Blurb: Fishing for Luck is a fast-paced, engaging YA novel full of action, humor and a few life lessons. The characters are a little weird, very resourceful and eminently likable.
by Kelly Vincent
Plot: This plot delves into serious bullying and other grave social issues that can impact teens, and it accurately portrays the extraordinary importance of social media in kids’ lives.
Prose/Style: Vincent writes convincing teenage dialogue with all of the meanness and profanity that can surface at that age. Vincent’s style is spare and to the point, giving just enough detail for to engage the reader’s interest and imagination.
Originality: Vincent’s second YA novel, Always the New Girl, started out as a series of short stories, each of which is well thought out and fully developed. Vincent has woven them together masterfully.
Character Development/Execution: With parents who can be described as negligent at best, Sarah is out of necessity a fiercely independent young woman trying to find her way in the world with very little adult support, but she is able to make good choices for herself and forge a future that should turn out well. Vincent depicts Sarah as an utterly believable character whom one cannot help but respect.
Blurb: Always the New Girl is a carefully considered and executed coming-of-age story about a resourceful young woman who matures from a somewhat rebellious high school junior into a successful senior on her way to college, all with very little help from the adults in her life, but a lot of help from her friends.
by Jerry Harwood
Plot: Simon attends Flame Rock Middle School where absolutely everyone is going to grow up to be a wizard. The question is, what kind of wizard? Simon has freckles, a feature that bodes ill for his power as a wizard and puts him at the bottom of the social ladder in middle school. But as he comes into his full wizarding powers, Simon discovers that he can conjure a dragon – powerful dark magic indeed – and that his perception of himself trumps what anyone else thinks of him. Freckles: The Dark Wizard is a well-crafted allegory about growing up during what is perhaps one of the most difficult periods of many a kid’s life.
Prose/Style: The prose is completely appropriate for a middle school reader, with just enough challenging vocabulary to make it interesting without slowing down the action.
Originality: Harwood is a middle school teacher and the father of six; his understanding of upper elementary school age kids, what will engage their attention, and their sense of humor is spot-on. This fantasy has all the right elements for this age group—wizards, magic, pre-teen social challenges, and adventure. A particularly refreshing element of this story is that it starts in a fantasy world, rather than taking the reader through a litany of events to get there.
Character Development/Execution: Simon is a completely believable middle schooler (aside from his wizarding powers, of course), portrayed with sympathy but without sentimentality. Simon discovers the power that will make him master of his own life, but the challenge is to learn to control it. The sensitive descriptions of Simon’s efforts to negotiate the complexities of middle school social life, find his strengths, and figure out girls show Harwood’s deep familiarity with and commitment to this age group.
Blurb: Jerry Harwood’s third YA novel (he also writes joke books) is a tour de force of magic, mayhem and self-discovery for protagonist Simon, who turns out to have a lot more going for him than anyone thought.