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 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 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: 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 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 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 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.
by Richard C. Christensen
Plot: Sixteen-year-old twins Peter and Andie Bridges are human emissaries to the supernatural figures on earth – ghosts, monsters zombies and the like – in this imaginative, quirky YA novel. Fortunately Peter and Andie have a toolbox of supernatural skills that they are still learning to use to their advantage, telepathy and magic among them, as they struggle to protect a baby from the Friends of Bram Stoker, a group that has murder on its mind. The adventure/fantasy aspects of Vampyrian Gateway notwithstanding, the real pull of this novel is in the relationship between Peter and Andie and their approach to the challenges with which they are presented.
Prose/Style: Wonderfully fresh, inventive prose and the colorful banter between the siblings makes this a sit-down-and-don’t-get-up read. Christensen has a profound understanding of teenage language and manages to make it work for adults too.
Originality: Christensen has created a complexly-imagined world full of the unexpected and presented it from a teenager’s point of view, with all of a young adult’s hubris, fearlessness and attitude intact, while at the same time making Peter and Andie infinitely sympathetic characters we are glad to get to know. Christensen is adept at creating an internally cohesive, fascinating world in which his protagonists can discover their own strengths and limits.
Character Development/Execution: Amidst all the banter, put-downs, and niggly criticisms, Peter and Andie show immense respect and, yes, love for each other.
Blurb: This imaginative, quirky YA novel exploits Christensen’s sensitivity to teenage language and realities to present a can’t-put-it-down read so entertaining that teens and adults will be clamoring for Book 2 of his Attached World series.
by A.J. Massey
Plot: The sequel to A.J. Massey’s Where Dragonwoofs Sleep and the Fading Creeps, this novel takes rising high school freshmen Ben, Avery and Marcus back to the dream world of Meridia where translucent elves, celadons, dragonwoofs, goblins, pirates and the Sovereign’s generals, each group with its own features and characteristics, populate the landscape. There the kids confront the Ghastly Three in an attempt to prevent them from destroying Meridia in this coming-of-age adventure/heroes’ journey tale.
Prose/Style: More complex sentences than most YA novels make this an engrossing read for everyone from junior high schoolers to adults. The text flows smoothly with varied pacing and a vocabulary. The dialogue sounds natural, yet is grammatically correct without an overabundance of the teenage slang that would date the story.
Originality: Massey’s attention to detail and the full rendering of the various characters and types of beings in the story are evident throughout the novel and make this world plausible. The author has also expertly woven together the narrative of events in the fantasy world of Meridia with events in the main characters’ “real” everyday lives as junior high school students in a way that allows the reader to credit both.
Character Development/Execution: The number of different types of beings in this novel is definitely one of its attractions. Massey delineates each type in detail, and each acts and speaks consistently. The three human protagonists accomplish their mission during this, their last summer before high school and as a result face the expected and unexpected changes coming to their lives with confidence they had not imagined they would ever have.
Blurb: A compelling, original and spectacularly well-written fantasy coming-of-age/adventure story that will entice YA and adult readers into the dream world of Meridia and the all-too-real world of junior high school.
by Gloria Barnett
Plot: In the first of a three-book adventure series for middle grade readers, eleven-year-old Lucy is moving away from everything she has ever known. The Caribbean is a long way from London, but she soon finds friends Jack and Solomon, who introduce her to the beach and the ocean’s wondrous creatures, including a beached turtle that has swallowed a plastic bag. As Lucy finds out, plastic poses a serious threat to the ocean environment and mitigating that danger leads her find the courage to learn new skills and brave the ocean deep, which, of course, just might be full of sea monsters.
Prose/Style: The author moves the story along quickly in keeping with Lucy’s sharp mind and somewhat extraordinary ability to adapt to her new situation. Each character has a refreshingly distinctive, consistent voice and point of view. The reading level is suitable for the upper elementary grades, but might be a little challenging for eight-year-olds.
Originality: Gloria Barnett (aka the WeirdFish Lady) uses Lucy’s move to the Caribbean as a vehicle for introducing readers to sea life and the human practices that threaten the ocean, which, as a scientist, are her passion. She has handled the device well and by focusing so emphatically on her cast of interesting characters turns what could have been a boring and didactic story into a compelling read.
Character Development/Execution: Lucy is a particularly self-aware and perceptive pre-teen in some ways more mature than her somewhat impulsive mom, but it is clear this forced maturity takes a toll. Lucy, with the help of her friends more than her mom, learns the skills she needs to feel comfortable in her new home (including learning to swim and scuba dive) and, as she overcomes her fears, even finds a way to contribute to cleaning up the environment.
by Dan McKeon
Plot: In this dystopian YA novel, a seventeen-year-old girl has been trained from birth by the agency as an assassin, and, twenty-four identities later, Wendy Lockhart is really good at killing. Wendy is intelligent, bold, a risk-taker, and utterly ruthless. The only person she seems truly to care about is six-year-old Corey, her brother in her current foster family, who has cerebral palsy. It is when Wendy accidentally risks Corey’s life, and then assassinates a purported drunk driver that she realizes just how corrupt the agency is and decides to try to leave, driving the action of the story forward.
Prose/Style: The rich visual detail in this debut novel speaks to Dan McKeon’s experience as a screenwriter, but the dialogue is sometimes awkward and there could be more distinction in the voices of the different characters.
Originality: The premise of a female teenage assassin makes this an original from the start. That she kills the likes of embezzlers and pedophiles without a second thought puts her in a singular category. McKeon develops her backstory to a sufficient degree to make this all plausible, if somewhat distasteful. The “outside the lines” premise and the detail with which McKeon develops the events that have led to Wendy’s current situation make this a highly engaging read that will interest adults as well as younger readers.
Character Development/Execution: Wendy is brutal, independent, resourceful and determined to survive her upbringing and the world into which she has been thrust. Her decision to try to leave the agency after questioning an assignment leads to her reinventing herself as the person she wants to be, rather than the one she has been programmed to become by the demented directors of the agency.
by Tricia D. Wagner
Plot: In this coming-of-age tale, thirteen-year-old Swift, hoping to claim a few more years of childhood, is off on a sea adventure along the Welsh coast in search of lost treasure in order to escape his overly-ambitious father who wants him to begin studying. Using a map he found secreted in his most beloved book—the Star of Atlantis—as a guide, his knowledge of ancient runes, pirates and sharks, and his considerable information about Celtic mythology, Swift pursues a dream of freedom based solely on what he feels in his heart. He knows he was born to the sea and treasure chasing, not medicine.
Prose/Style: This book hits exactly the right reading level for its most likely audience. The author is skilled at writing tight, engaging prose using syntax and vocabulary that the junior high school student will find just challenging enough to be interesting and yet accessible enough to make this novella a page-turner.
Originality: Wagner has seamlessly woven into this adventure story a sensitive recounting of Swift’s need for autonomy in relation to a seemingly overbearing father and three accomplished older brothers. Justus agrees to teach Swift to sail the Regulus in an attempt to have the “Justus Talk” about his future, but Swift used that instruction to take off alone in the dinghy Star Strider to find the pirates’ gold. Wagner clearly has sailing expertise and her technical descriptions add credibility to the story.
Character Development/Execution: Swift’s father, Justus, wants him to get serious and begin studying for the career in medicine he has chosen for his youngest son, but Swift, nicknamed “the Lad,” is just not ready to make that kind of commitment to a future he doesn’t know if he wants or if he is capable of handling. Justus is perceptive and has thought at length about why medicine would be a good life for Swift. How Swift and Justus reconcile their opposing views of Swift’s future forms the crux of the story.
Blurb: A sensitive and action-filled coming-of-age story has thirteen-year-old Swift proving to his father and himself that he is capable of far more than either of them believed. The stellar prose of this novella puts it in a category of its own among YA novels.
by T.C. Crawford
Plot: The conclusion of this two-book fantasy epic adventure series takes David Bishop and his friends in search of the mysterious Crystal Caverns in their quest to save the world from total annihilation by a demon army led by General Krauss. T.C. Crawford continues the device he created in the first book of having the fantasy action appear to occur when David is dreaming, but his incredibly detailed descriptions of this fantastic world make it easy for the reader to believe it is as real as David’s waking life.
Prose/Style: The prose flows well and is written at a level easy for middle schoolers to comprehend without seeming stilted or condescending, keeping the narrative moving forward at breakneck speed.
Originality: Crawford’s description of the land of Hurea is a Tolkienesque imaginative tour de force and is full of wonderfully envisioned elves, demons, undead, anthropomorphic wolves, dwarves and other supernatural figures, as well as humans.
Character Development/Execution: David Bishop is portrayed as a very relatable, realistic character, and his feelings of inadequacy as he enacts his prophesied fate make him all the more believable and sympathetic. Other characters are distinctive and consistent, helping the reader to follow the story and stay engaged until the end, when the fate of the world will hang on the result of one thrilling battle.