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 M. Lynn and Melissa A. Craven
Plot: This story is an incredible work of fantasy. The exciting plot will leave the reader guessing and eager for more. The fantasy world that Lynn and Craven have created is detailed and well thought out, with humorous and complex characters.
Prose/Style: The writing is clear and detailed, and the authors clearly craft the settings and action here. The dialogue is witty and interesting.
Originality: While this story does follow some elements and tropes that are familiar to fantasy readers (i.e., fae, magic, and changelings) it manages to be a breath of fresh air in the genre. It is exciting and the plot is not predictable; it is complex without growing past the YA audience.
Character Development/Execution: The characters are layered and display depth. but there is room for them to continue to mature as they become adults. The characters also provide representation and inclusion for YA readers of varied sexual orientations.
Blurb: This story is an incredible addition to the fantasy genre. It is filled with exciting fight scenes and sweet romance, all with an undercurrent of the value of loyalty and honesty.
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 Nickoli Bhola
Plot: In this absolutely charming and beautifully illustrated children’s story written in verse, toddler Zachary falls asleep and encounters a slew of “scary” jungle animals, including a pythoctopus and a rhinoceboar, until finally he triumphs by becoming a dinosaur himself…just before he wakes up. The story itself is followed by eight pages for coloring and creativity.
Prose/Style: A long verse with an ABCB rhyming scheme, this story flows off the tongue and will be delightful to read aloud.
Originality: This is an excellent children’s story in the tradition of Maurice Sendak, with equally scary monsters.
Character Development/Execution: Zachary evolves from a little boy into a dinosaur and back again, so character development is creative in the extreme.
Blurb: Jungle Dream is an absolutely charming and beautifully illustrated children’s story in verse a la Maurice Sendak.
by Mary Lou Ochoa
Plot: Simple, childlike crayon illustrations grace this charming story about a big fluffy cat who comes to visit and ends up staying, but only on its own terms.
Prose/Style: Easy-to-understand prose makes this the perfect read-aloud for the preschool age group.
Originality: The clever ending to this story brings us full circle and offers an opportunity for children to add more “chapters” to the story.
Character Development/Execution: A loving, welcoming family and an independent-thinking cat are the main characters in this repetitive story that makes a point.
Blurb: This circular story about a big fluffy cat who is "just visiting" and a welcoming family is a wonderful read-aloud for preschoolers.
by Penelope Higgins
Plot: Charming illustrations by Jennifer Keen grace this tale told in well-crafted rhyming couplets about an enormous Jiger and his wife, the Tiraffe. They are looking forward to having a baby and wondering who it will resemble, Jiger with his long neck and stripes, or Tiraffe, with her hooves and spots. The surprise ending will delight the preschool age set.
Prose/Style: This story rolls off the tongue and will be one that youngsters will want to have read to them over and over.
Originality: The story is wonderful, though the ending couplets are perhaps a little heavy-handed.
Character Development/Execution: Jiger and Tiraffe prove to be loving, accepting parents, whoever their babies turn out to be.
Blurb: Bright, well-executed illustrations help tell this story of love and acceptance. The tale is told in rhyming couplets that make it an excellent read-aloud for preschoolers.
by Adam MacDaniels
Plot: This novel, which starts with a vivid description of Gaia ripping out her own bloody internal organs in an effort to stop her soul’s pain, is in its sometimes unrelenting horror akin to The Divine Comedy. Into this chaos, the shi-kai Amiria has come to find herself a husband and the boy Teverock, a human who has been adopted by a dragon-human father with the Sight, will complement her adventures well.
Prose/Style: The writing is stellar—not a superfluous word to be found, even though fairly sophisticated concepts are integrated into the story. The action moves at breakneck speed though the reader is never left trying to figure what happened—or why.
Originality: This work seems to be intended as a religious allegory and it is in some ways similar to the Chronicles of Narnia in the anthropomorphism of animals and the ongoing battle between good and evil. But it is far, far darker and not in a way that will be easily explained or put aside, because of the skill with which MacDaniel activates elements of the collective unconscious.
Character Development/Execution: There are many types of strange characters here—wizards, dragon and humans with paranormal powers, and completely mythic beings who represent concepts more than living entities. The characters that resemble humans are absolutely consistent in their actions and their voices, part of what makes reading this novel such an entertaining endeavor. A world and a sequence of events that might have been hopelessly confusing are clear and engaging.
Blurb: A superbly written allegory that taps into the collective unconscious to create a compelling story that adult readers will not be able to put down or soon forget.
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.
by Rebecca Matthews Vorkapich
Plot: The author offers a delightfully captivating tale that will engage young readers as Hannah and her brothers do whatever is necessary to stay together. The action unfolds at a steady, even pace, which allows the reader to get to know and identify with all the major characters.
Prose/Style: The author does an effective job creating an age-appropriate story using language ideally suited for the book's intended audience.
Originality: This is a creative and original story, with distinct and memorable characters.
Character Development/Execution: The author does a fine job with characterization, particularly with Hannah and Aunt Olga, who will make readers with loving, kind aunts particularly grateful.
by Angela Mack
Plot: Izzy is in torment as she keeps vigil beside her boyfriend’s hospital bed. Josh and his brother Ryan are badly injured, and no one knows if they will ever wake up. What follows is an Insightful depiction of teens finding their way through and past the difficult emotions sparked by physical and emotional trauma and of the impulse of victims of domestic abuse to blame themselves.
Prose: This fast-paced page turner is told from two points of view, Izzy’s and Josh’s. Both perspectives are equally convincing and gracefully crafted.
Originality: Angela Mack takes a difficult subject that could easily become mawkish and treats it, and her characters, with respect and sensitivity. Her device of telling the story from two points of view is very effective in showing how teenagers might respond to extreme circumstances and to each other under those circumstances.
Character/Execution: Sixteen-year-olds Izzy and Josh are both shocked out of their typically self-centered worlds and forced to contend with horrible abuse, death, and the needs of a Josh’s nine-year-old brother. Both characters mature, but in a two steps forward, one step backwards trajectory that seems eminently true-to-life.
by Dale C. Jellison
Plot: Jake Graham, a twelve-year-old deaf student at Winthrop Junior High School in New Hampshire, is grieving his beloved Grampie. After a school year full of bullying, Jake’s parents send him to Camp Pawtuckaway where he is befriended by Paddy, a youngster who has suffered his own tragic loss. When an accident occurs and Jake gets lost in the Maine woods with a nonfunctioning hearing aid, he tries to put his sparse outdoor skills to use and discovers that Grampie’s memory lives on in unexpected ways.
Prose/Style: The prose is easily to read and flows well, though the dialogue between Jake and Paddy is more tuned to explaining to others how they are interacting that to reflecting how kids might speak to each other.
Originality: This YA novel is a deep dive into the emotions of a twelve-year-old, more focused on describing Jake’s feelings as his life goes on without his grandfather than it is on action. The rather slow pace of the book makes it possible for young readers to absorb and understand Jake’s situation and perhaps to find parallels with their own.
Character Development/Execution: In this coming-of-age-story, Jake, unable to hear, discovers the depths of his own strength and abilities as he survives seven days alone, or alone with a wolf companion, in the wilderness where he has only his newly-acquired outdoor skills, his courage, and a couple of guardian animals to rely on.
by Rick Duffy
Plot: Duffy's story tells the exciting tale of two boys who are searching to find their paths in life and end up on an epic adventure of self-discovery and saving the world.
Prose/Style: The language here is easy to understand and age-appropriate. It is easy to follow the story and the pace moves quickly.
Originality: This story is very original, and features a creative spin on magic. A further explanation of some of the worldbuilding elements would be helpful.
Character Development/Execution: Par and Enio demonstrate great growth throughout this coming-of-age tale. By the end, readers can see their maturity while still holding on to a small bit of childlike joy.
Blurb: An incredible coming-of-age tale about friendship and making your own way.
by Richard Trotta Sr.
Plot: Nicky Wright is a 12-year-old fifth grader who isn’t very good at anything and whose father is far more absent than present in his life. That changes when a school assignment results in Nicky going to work with his dad, a firefighter and Nicky is introduced to the intricacies of the firehouse and the dangers of his dad’s job when he goes into a burning building to rescue a baby and almost dies. Trotta is a retired NYFD firefighter who spent months on the rescue and recovery effort after 9/11.
Prose/Style: The prose is more for adults than for kids and reflects the author’s interests and concerns with a purely grown-up insight into the life of a preteen. But kids who are interested in fires, firefighting, and the training necessary to do the job will find here a wealth of authentic experience and information. The text is accessible to middle schoolers in terms of reading level.
Originality: Nicky’s Fire is as much about firefighting as it is about Nicky and his dad forging a relationship. Trotta talks about the job from an expert’s point of view and offers the reader an inside look at the detailed workings of the firehouse and the techniques and strategies involved in fighting an urban fire. Trotta’s passion for the art and craft of firefighting is obvious throughout the book.
Character Development/Execution: Nicky is a typical 12-year-old with all of the insecurities of that difficult age and the added challenge of having a father who has to work all the time. The day at the fire station gives Nicky a chance to connect with his father (and vice versa). It’s the “don’t tell your mother” moments that let the reader know Steve and Nicky’s reticence with each other is on the mend.