YOUR SINCERELY, GIRAFFE by Megumi Iwasa

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A bored giraffe asks a bored pelican to deliver a letter for him to the first animal he meets on the other side of the horizon. The first animal that Pelican meets is a mail seal who takes the letter to a penguin who is studying abroad on Whale Island. Thus an unusual friendship begins. Since Giraffe has never seen a penguin, he tries to imagine what Penguin might look like based on Penguin’s descriptions of himself. And eventually, the two friends will meet to see if their expectations were correct.

 A simple yet thought provoking story with both humor and heart.   This book is a quick read, but an enjoyable one. It will appeal most to elementary-aged readers.

A PROPERLY UNHAUNTED PLACE by William Alexander

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Rosa Diaz doesn’t know why her mother, the best Appeasment Specialist any haunted library had ever seen, would want to move to a town with no ghosts.  Well, she does know why, but she doesn’t like it.  They shouldn’t be trying to escape the memory of her father’s death.  They should be honoring him.  And living in an unhaunted town is just creepy.  But as Rosa explores her new town, she realizes that it isn’t the unhauntedness unsettling her.  Ingot is definitely haunted, but in a strange way, and for some reason, none of the inhabitants seem to see or remember the hauntings.  With the help of Jasper, a Renaissance Faire squire, Rosa sets out to discover what is haunting Ingot and why.

An enjoyable mystery with two engaging young heroes, this story has both humor and intrigue to keep even a reluctant reader engrossed–plus enough depth of character and theme to make it enjoyable for the perceptive reader as well.  I’d recommend it to middle grade fans of mystery, fantasy, and non-scary ghost stories.

GRIT by Gillian French

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Rhiannon’s disappearance is still leaving its mark this summer.  There’s an air of suspicion, especially around Darcy.  It makes sense.  Everyone’s always suspicious of the town “slut,” whatever that means.  And Darcy does have a secret–one she’s keeping for someone else.  But when someone nominates both Darcy and her cousin Nell for Bay Festival Princess, Darcy can’t help but wonder who is out to get her.  Is it a joke meant to humiliate her?  Does someone know Darcy’s secret?  Or does it all come back to Rhiannon and the town’s darkest secret of all?

I thoroughly loved the voice of this novel.  Darcy is an authentic, flawed character who really gripped me from the opening pages.  And the suspenseful plot made it difficult to put down.  I highly recommend this book to teen fans of realistic fiction and suspense.

If you liked E.  Lockhart’s We Were Liarsdefinitely check this one out.

THE SANDCASTLE EMPIRE by Kayla Olson

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Eden’s world didn’t completely fall apart on Zero Day when she and all of the other kids at her private school were rounded up by the Wolves and sent to prison camp.  The final blow came when they gave her a vial of her father’s blood and teeth.   That was the moment that every whisper of of her old life vanished.  She was alone.  But when Eden and three strangers take the opportunity to flee their island prison, Eden knows exactly where she is going.  She will follow the course set out in her father’s old notebook and find Sanctuary Island–the place free from the tyranny  of the Wolves.  As long as he completed his life’s work before he was murdered, they will find safety there.  Unfortunately, “safe” is not the right word to describe the island they discover, and the unknown threats the travelers must survive may be just as treacherous as the prison they left behind.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by this new dystopia.  It took me a little while to get into it and then lost me again by the end.  Alternating chapters tell large chunks of backstory and the protagonist’s feelings, which I found off-putting.  But for readers who aren’t as turned off by explication as I am, the actual real-time plot had plenty of action and mystery which will likely hook many sci-fi fans.  It may appeal to Maze Runner readers.

CHARM AND STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn

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Andrew has felt dead inside for a long time.  He couldn’t explain exactly why he smashed that kid in the face with a tennis racket when he was nine, and he can’t explain why he would rather be alone in the forest than talking to the new girl at his boarding school.  But something about Jordan draws him out in a way that his other classmates have not.  He finds himself at a party with Jordan and his former roommate, Lex, on the night of the full moon.  Which is a bad idea because he is certain that tonight will be the night that he changes.  He has known it would happen, ever since that summer in New Hampshire when his older brother, Keith, told him that the wolf lived inside all of them.  As he waits for the change, memories of Keith and their sister, Siobhan, intertwine with Jordan and Lex’s attempts to break through his shell.

This book is intense.  Suspenseful, horrifying, and beautifully written.  Did I mention intense?  Kuehn weaves hints of fantasy through the novel, enough to make a reader hope that maybe it is a fantasy.  Maybe the wolf is real.  All the while, the fantasy echoes heighten the horror of the real story and help the reader find herself in the mindset of a traumatized child.  If you like dark realistic fiction, this book is excellent.  But be forewarned:  intense.

THE FEARLESS TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO WICKED PLACES by Pete Begler

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Nell Perkins’ world has never been perfectly normal.  After all, “normal” people don’t tend to see those around them with animal heads lurking beneath their outer facade of humanity.  Everyone seems to think Nell is crazy, except her mother, Rose.  Rose treats Nell and her brothers like the most important and special people in the world and helps Nell keep a grip on reality.  But when her mother is swallowed up by a giant skull shaped cloud and taken prisoner by the Dark Daughters, Nell knows for sure that she is not crazy.  This is reality.  And since she seems to be the only one who can see it, it will be up to her, her brothers, and the eccentric old man down the street to travel through the Dreamlands and rescue Rose from a world of nightmares.

This novel was enjoyable, but heavy on explication and light on character development.  The subject matter of this book is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s work, but lacks the grounding in traditional folklore that makes the latter so compelling.  I would recommend it to middle grade fantasy readers who like their stories a little dark, but aren’t too worried about thematic depth.

MWD by Brian David Johnson and Jan Egleson

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Liz left high school and went straight to Iraq.  Her town was a dead end, her mother in prison, her grandmother as selfish as ever, and the military was an escape.  There was good and bad, but through it all, she had Ender, a Military Working Dog that she trained and worked alongside.  When a bomb abruptly ends her tour of duty, however, she finds herself back in her miserable hometown where even the few friends she used to have can no longer relate to her, no matter how hard they try.  But when she has a run-in with an aggressive stray dog, Liz finds a new sense of purpose.  She knows that Brutus could learn to be a great companion if only he were given a chance and the right kind of training.  Unfortunately, he is on doggy death row.  Desperate to save Brutus, Liz takes a job at the animal shelter and begins building her relationship with him–and with the people in her life.

A powerful story of a young woman whose connection to animals helps her rebuild her life after the trauma of war.  The characters and relationships are complex and the subject matter heavy.  Some of the more complicated action sequences were difficult to follow without any accompanying text due to the chaotic, dark and occasionally unclear black and white illustrations.  But the story overall still came across powerfully in the text and artwork.  I highly recommend it to mature teen fans of graphic novels and realistic fiction.