Juvenile

DEAD WEDNESDAY by Jerry Spinelli

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Perfect Day.

Worm murmurs it on the bus–not loudly; he’s shy, after all–but soon it’s picked up by the rest of the eighth graders as their mantra and their cheer. It’s the second Wednesday in June, “Dead Wed” in Worm’s small Pennsylvania town, a day that school administrators designed to scare the eighth graders out of future reckless behavior but that every eighth grader knows as the day they can get away with anything. In homeroom, they will each receive a black shirt and a card with the name and picture of a teenager who died in PA last year as a result of preventable car accidents or dangerous stunts–and from that moment, every eighth grader will be “dead.” No teacher can acknowledge their presence, not even to stop them from walking out of school if they feel like it. Perfect Day.

But Worm’s perfect day veers off course almost immediately when the dead girl from his card, Rebecca Finch, starts showing up in real life. He’s the only one who seems to be able to see her or speak to her, although she’s 100% real and tangible. Becca doesn’t know how she ended up back on Earth, but she’s positive it has something to do with Worm. She’s here to save him–because let’s face it, Worm hasn’t really been living. As Mean Monica once announced, he needs to get a life. As Becca drags Worm on an impulsive jaunt around his hometown, Worm starts to realize that there is more than one way to “be bold” and that maybe Becca needs some saving of her own.

This novel is exquisite. It exists somewhere between middle grade and YA, between fantasy and realistic fiction, but the book is full of betweens. Becca is caught between life and death, Worm between middle school and high school, childhood and adulthood, responsibility to his parents and individuality, a desire to be noticed and a desire to fade into the background. The narrative is masterfully woven, sending readers on an undulating emotional journey that builds to its climax so subtly that it is both unexpected and grounded. There is humor, realistically cringe-worthy teen interactions, and true heartache (warning to parents: this may upset you more than it will your kids), and Worm’s personal journey is authentic and meaningful. This book is a must-read for middle schoolers and an excellent pick for M.S. book clubs.

Dead Wednesday: Spinelli, Jerry: 9780593306673: Amazon.com: Books

THE MOST PERFECT THING IN THE UNIVERSE by Tricia Springstubb

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Loah is a homebody. She loves her old house–especially the turret–and even takes the time to repair and care for it. After all, someone had to, and her mother is far too busy traveling to the Arctic Tundra, searching for rare birds and combating climate change. But Loah’s comfortable home is threatened when a building inspector arrives at her door, demanding to know why her mother hasn’t made the required repairs to bring the property up to code. Worse, the people who care for Loah when her mother is away have a medical emergency that takes them away from home, leaving Loah entirely on her own. When she meets a girl with a troubled home life of her own, Loah finally finds the courage to venture out of her shell. Maybe she doesn’t need to travel to the far reaches of the earth to save the world–or at least one person in it. And the longer her mother’s absence stretches, the more Loah suspects that the fierce, world-traveling, environmental heroine might need saving, too.

A sweet, quirky coming-of-age story about a girl realizing that who she is has always been enough. I loved the concept of “everyday adventures” that runs through this story, the contrast between the Arctic explorer mother and self-professed homebody daughter. The characters are all a bit odd (in a delightful way) and though the story moves at a leisurely pace, I was sufficiently invested in them that I read the book in a single sitting. I’d recommend it to middle grade readers (it felt young–4th-6th grade, maybe even 3rd) who enjoy realistic fiction with a bit of a quirky tone (like you’d find in THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY or the Lemony Snicket books).

The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe: Springstubb, Tricia: 9780823447572:  Amazon.com: Books

KINGDOM OF SECRETS by Christyne Morrell

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Until she met Abi, Prismena was a rule-follower. Mostly. Sure, she collected junk to make her little inventions, and that was technically illegal, but it wasn’t hurting anybody! She certainly wasn’t involved in a rebellion against King Michael, the self-proclaimed savior of her kingdom.

But when resourceful street urchin Abi blackmails Prismena to smuggle a package onto her father’s hot air balloon, leading to her father’s arrest, Prismena suddenly has to choose between abandoning her father in prison or joining the rebellious orphans her father expressly forbade her from associating with. Though she tries to tell herself that it isn’t her fight and isn’t her problem, as her involvement with the rebels deepens, Prismena starts to realize that the safety of the children and the fate of two kingdoms might come to rest squarely on her shoulders.

A delightful middle grade debut featuring young engineers! Prismena and Abi have distinct and wonderful voices that make you cheer for them throughout their struggles (at one point I literally cheered aloud when Prismena did something particularly awesome). The social commentary is light-handed and thoroughly integrated into the plot, and as in all good MG fiction, the children are the moral compass and the agents of change. The world felt grounded in our own, while the hot air balloons added a whimsical quality to this magic-free fantasy. Highly recommend to middle grade readers, teachers, and book clubs!

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Kingdom of Secrets by Christyne Morrell: 9780593304785 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan

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There’s a reason Lark is about to break into the Royal Museum. It’s not that she wants to be a thief. But if she doesn’t steal something big–something more than the coin she gets picking pockets–then the governess of the boarding house will force her to work in one of the aether factories. She’ll slowly fade away, becoming as insubstantial as a ghost, just like the other orphans.

Just like her mother.

But Lark’s museum heist is thwarted by the young prince of the realm, who she catches doing some magic with aether and an ancient sword that once belonged to the Nightingale, the mythical superhero who’s been dead for centuries. To the prince’s frustration, the sword chooses Lark as the next incarnation of the Nightingale, and he must include her in his plans to save the kingdom. But saving the kingdom proves more difficult than either Lark or the prince imagined, and Lark will be forced to choose: will she keep trying to scrape by or pick up where her mother left off and fight to change her unjust society?

Lark’s spirited, snarky voice pulls a consistent thread of humor through this layered narrative that tackles social issues like wealth inequality and unionized labor. An almost Victorian historical vibe grounds the secondary world fantasy while a cast of racially diverse characters ensures that kids will see themselves reflected in the story. The blend of fun and probing thematic content make this an ideal pick for middle grade book clubs!

SUGAR AND SPITE by Gail D. Villanueva

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Magic is part of Jolina’s heritage. Ever since she and her parents moved from the big city of Manila to the much smaller Philippine Island where her lolo lives, he has been teaching her how to brew his famous potions As part of their lessons, Lolo warns Jolina never to use magic improperly, never to use magic against a person’s will, and especially to be very careful with love potions.

But Jolina knows someone who is desperately in need of a love potion. Or at least a “be nicer” potion. Claudine has been bullying her ever since Jolina moved to the island. Just because Claudine is rich, she thinks she’s so much better than everyone else. So after Claudine embarrasses her in Sunday School (again), Jolina sneaks into her lolo’s workshop and makes a love potion.

It works perfectly! Not only does Claudine stop being mean, but she wants to be Jolina’s BFF! But Jolina begins to regret her plan when she realizes that Claudine is actually a great BFF–a BFF Jolina desperately wants to keep. And if Claudine ever finds out about the love potion, their fake friendship will be over for good.

There’s a lot to love in this MG magical realism. Villanueva gives readers an accessible window into the complexity of ethics and the limits of one’s own point of view. Both Jolina and Claudine have flaws and blindspots, and in the end, they will both need to forgive in order for their friendship to survive. The novel also explores the effects of class divisions and racism/”light skin” bias on self-esteem. A sweet and thought-provoking read for fans of magical realism and realistic fiction.

ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE by Tanya Guerrero

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Alba’s mother has finally given up on her. Why it was now–not the first time she got detention, or the time she cut off all her hair–Alba doesn’t know. Maybe her father insisted. He gave up on Alba a long time ago, and her mother wouldn’t dare contradict him.

But whatever the reason, Alba’s mother puts her on a plane to Barcelona, to live with the grandmother she barely knows in a country where she doesn’t even speak the language. She expects to hate it, but when she arrives, she discovers that her grandmother is compassionate and loving–a complete difference from her cold and distant mother. And when she meets her mom’s former best friend, a baker, Alba discovers two things: first, baking bread is a great way to soothe her anxiety; and second, her mom might have been a completely different person before her dad came along. As Alba settles into her new life in Barcelona, she finally begins to come to terms with her father’s abuse and to rebuild the broken relationship with her mother.

Spousal abuse is a heavy, heartbreaking, and (unfortunately) necessary topic for children’s collections–for the many children who have witnessed such abuses and every child who needs to build empathy for people with those experiences. For her middle grade readers, Guerrero softens the potentially disturbing subject matter by removing Alba–and soon her mother–from the environment where the abuse occurred, limiting the scenes of abuse to memories and devoting the entire action of the plot to healing, rebuilding relationships, and forging a new life in a safe community. Highly recommend for older middle grade readers who enjoy character-driven realistic fiction in rich settings and don’t mind some heavier themes.

THE STOLEN PRINCE OF CLOUDBURST by Jaclyn Moriarty

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It is easy to overlook a middle child, especially when she’s as overwhelming ordinary as Esther. But being overlooked can have its benefits. Eavesdropping, for example, is much easier when people don’t know you’re there. And though it’s probably just an oversight, there is technically no rule against eavesdropping at her magical boarding school.

When her year gets off to a rocky start, Esther’s eavesdropping leads her to some startling discoveries, and she soon realizes she’ll need to hone more of her espionage skills. Because Esther is the only one who knows that the Spellbinder has been compromised, that the new teacher is more sinister than she appears, and that their entire school–maybe their entire world–is in terrible danger from the Shadow Mages.

And though she has no idea how, she suspects that the whole crisis connects back to her cousin the adventurer and the poor little prince who was stolen away by the sea.

This latest installment in the Kingdoms & Empires world will not disappoint, either as a standalone novel or a companion to …BRONTE METTLESTONE and/or THE WHISPERING WARS. Esther’s deliciously quirky voice and indomitable personality are an excellent hook at the start and later, an accessible lens through which to view the complex social issues Moriarty explores throughout the novel. Fun, original, accessible–highly recommend!

THE MANY MYSTERIES OF THE FINKEL FAMILY by Sarah Kapit

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Lara started FIASCCO (that’s Finkel Investigation Agency Solving Consequential Crimes Only) because she wanted something that was her thing. Everyone else in the family is good at something–or more than one thing in the case of her infuriatingly perfect cousin Aviva–and Lara just wants something that’s hers and hers alone. Why can’t her younger sister Caroline understand that?

But Caroline doesn’t understand. Why won’t Lara let her help with FIASCCO–especially considering that when they’re at school and Caroline desperately wants to be left alone, Lara won’t stop hovering? It’s Caroline’s first year of middle school–and her first year of attending school without an aide. She doesn’t need one; with her tablet, she can communicate just fine. She knows Lara is trying to help–and that since her sister has autism too she can predict some of the challenges Caroline might face–but how is she supposed to make friends when Lara keeps scaring them off?

When a blossoming friendship drags Caroline far out of her comfort zone, however, she might need her sister’s help after all. And when Lara’s detecting leads her to discover their dad has been fired, she realizes that some crimes are too “consequential” to be solved alone.

Though the premise may snag some mystery readers, at its heart, this novel is contemporary realistic fiction; rather than solving suspenseful mysteries, the girls “detecting” leads them to learn more about each other–and themselves. THE MANY MYSTERIES… is sweet, funny, and impactful, with family and friendship predicaments that will be immediately accessible to any 4-6th grade reader.

Both protagonists have autism, and the book features other neurodiverse characters, as well. All of the characters have realistic and well-developed personalities, giving readers in the Autistic community a chance to see their experiences reflected and normalized–and giving neurotypical readers the chance to “get to know” a diverse group of kids with autism and see a story unfold through their perspectives.

An excellent read and a must-buy for your MG fiction collection!

THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AIDAN S. (AS TOLD TO HIS BROTHER) by David Levithan

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When they first discovered that Aidan was missing, they thought he was playing hide and seek.

By the end of the first day, they were in a panic.

By the end of the week, they were looking for a body.

So the last thing Lucas expected when he went up to the attic was to find his big brother lying on the floor in front of the old dresser–alive, disheveled, and muttering about visiting another world.

Aidan’s story is so absurd that no one believes him. His parents are frustrated that he won’t tell them where he really was. The town is furious that their search efforts were wasted on a liar and a runaway. His classmates mock him, calling him Unicorn Boy. Only Lucas seems to wonder if Aidan might be telling the truth–and if knowing might be less important than believing.

THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AIDAN… sits near the intersection of thriller, mystery, and magical realism, but it might find most of its readership among fans of contemporary fiction. Though the suspense brought by questions of “what really happened” and “what is true” drives the plot, thriller fans might be disappointed by the slow-boil plot–and mystery fans by the lack of clues and investigation. But contemporary fiction readers will relish the deep exploration of themes of acceptance, trust, bullying and community. By drawing these themes out of a fantastical event (Aidan’s story of visiting another world), Levithan gives readers an opportunity to connect these themes into their own lives without pigeonholing any specific real-life scenario. (Though one of the most beautiful moments in the book is the casual, matter-of-fact introduction of Aidan’s boyfriend near the end; that way, the world of the story is thoroughly inclusive–Aidan never judged or bullied for his sexuality–but the parallel between the need to accept Aidan’s truth (about the fantasy world) and the need to accept people in general for their true selves (e.g., sexual identity) is difficult to miss.) It’s a highly literary and masterful way of exploring these complex themes. A great book for book clubs and classrooms (but possibly not for your mystery/thriller fan).

THE HEDGEHOG OF OZ by Cory Leonardo

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Marcel the hedgehog has spent six months living in the Emerald City Movie Theater. He passes the time by nibbling popcorn off the floor, chatting with the two hens in the balcony, and of course watching the Wizard of Oz matinee every afternoon. But really he’s waiting for Dorothy. His Dorothy, who adopted him from the animal shelter, who he lost one afternoon at the park, and who he is sure will come find him someday. But instead of Dorothy, it’s an animal control officer who comes for Marcel. And when he’s released into the wild, he finds himself in Mousekinland and further from Dorothy and home than he’s ever been before. With the help of a reckless mouseling, a grumpy elderly squirrel, a terrified baby raccoon, and a cocoon named Toto, Marcel begins the journey back to the Emerald City Theater where he’s sure his Dorothy must be waiting.

THE HEDGEHOG OF OZ begins with slapstick humor but develops into a heartwarming–and occasionally heartbreaking–tale. In a twist on the classic, Marcel learns to trust his own ingenuity, compassion, and courage as he leads his new friends through the wilderness. And in the end, he realizes he must stop waiting for Dorothy to come to him and find his own way home. It will resonate most with readers who are familiar with the Wizard of Oz story, either from the movie or the books. (Honestly, though Marcel focuses on the movie, the extended denouement of this novel where each character finds their way back home reminded me more of the book.)

A note: I would have said this book skewed young until I got to the ending…. I don’t want to spoil, but if you’re going to recommend or read aloud to a young reader, read chapter 25 in advance so that you know whether it may upset your young reader and/or so that you can prepare for the conversations that will need to surround the reading of that particular chapter. Think CHARLOTTE’S WEB. Again, this is just a heads up if you’re reading it aloud to your kindergartener or handing it to your precocious second grader. If you’re recommending it to your typical MG reader, I don’t think it’s an issue. All of the content is developmentally appropriate and similar to content in other MG books.