J Fiction

CALICO GIRL by Jerdine Nolen

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Callie knows that one day she will be free like her father, who was granted his freedom by Mistress Catherine, his half-sister.  But slavery’s cruel reality has never felt more real than when her brother is sold to an unknown plantation in Alabama only a few months into the war.  Callie can hardly bear to think that she will never see him again, even though she knows it is likely.  It’s a good thing Master is leaving to fight for the Confederacy, or else Callie might not be able to hold her tongue.  Just a few weeks after Master’s departure, unbelievable news reaches the plantation.  Since Virginia has seceded from the Union, Fort Monroe has been accepting runaway slaves as “contraband of war” and refusing to return them to their masters.  The slaves in the fort are free.  The children can even go to school!  Embracing the possibility of freedom, Callie and her family head to Ft. Monroe to begin a new life as “contraband.”

Although I was raised in Virginia, I never learned about Ft. Monroe and the thousands of Virginian slaves who found their freedom there.  Callie’s story presents a fascinating history as well as a thought-provoking reflection on what it means to be a slave, “contraband,” or free.  Although I wasn’t fond of the omniscient narration style, I would highly recommend this book to middle grade historical fiction readers.

HELLO, UNIVERSE by Erin Entrada Kelly

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Virgil has a problem.  He knows that he and Valencia are destined to be friends. (They have the same initials! It is fate!)  But Valencia doesn’t know he exists, and unlike the brave Filipino heroes in his grandmother’s stories, Virgil is a shy and quiet and too scared to introduce himself.  Fortunately, he knows just who to take his problem to: Kaori.

Valencia has a problem, too.  She has been haunted by nightmares that she doesn’t understand.  Not to mention being tormented by the local bully, Chet the Bull, who mocks her for being deaf.  When she discovers an advertisement for Kaori, the child psychic, she decides to take the risk and make an appointment.  But her appointment is interrupted when Kaori realizes that one of her other clients has vanished, and Valencia joins in the search.

This story of the intertwined lives of four children has just enough intrigue and suspense to keep the reader going.  I wasn’t personally fond of the switching point of views and mixture of first and third person narration, but the story itself is engaging.  I’d recommend it to middle grade readers who enjoy realistic fiction.

THE GAUNTLET by Karuna Riazi

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Farah sometimes hates having to spend all her time with her little brother, Ahmad.  She knows that his ADD makes it difficult for him sometimes and that she should be nice.  But on her birthday?  When her two best friends from her old town have come to the new house to spend time with her?  Thinking she has finally shaken him off, Farah, Essie, and Alex slip upstairs to open Farah’s present from her Aunt Zohra.  But Ahmad has gotten there first, tearing off the paper and discovering what seems to be a game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand.  Farah has a bad feeling about it.  It seems to have a heartbeat.  And when they open it up, the game grows before their eyes into a miniature maze-like tower, almost like a whole city.  Before they can stop him, An excited Ahmad leaps into the game and vanishes.  It turns out The Gauntlet was not meant to be Farah’s birthday present.  The Gauntlet is the harrowing, sentient game that stole Aunt Zohra’s best friend decades ago–a game that Aunt Zohra has kept ever since to keep other children from becoming ensnared.  But now it is too late, and Ahmad’s only hope is for Farah, Essie, and Alex to enter the game world as well, to win each of the Architect’s challenges, and to make it out alive.

A neat read, this book is a sort of Middle Eastern Jumanji.  The game world is richly imagined, and the challenges the children face remind me of The Mysterious Benedict Society.  Young readers who enjoy fantasy that is rooted in the real world and/or books with riddles and puzzles should check it out.

A BOY CALLED BAT by Elana K. Arnold 

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Bat got his name because his initials are B. A. T. But it stuck because of the way Bat flaps his arms when he gets excited or overwhelmed. And because of his extra sensitive hearing, which sometimes requires him to wear earmuffs.  It’s okay with him because a bat is an animal, and Bat loves animals.  When he grows up, he is going to be a vet like his mom.  When his mom brings home a newborn skunk kit, Bat is ecstatic.  It will be a perfect pet! There are only two problems.  First, Bat still has to spend Every Other Fridays at his dad’s house, which is bad both because it breaks up his normal routine and takes time away from the kit.  And second, his mom says they have to turn the kit over to a skunk rescue in a month.  Bat can’t change Every Other Fridays, but he embarks on a mission to change his mom’s mind about the skunk rescue.  Step One: contact international skunk expert Dr. Jerry Dragoo.   

A sweet story about a boy’s love for his pet and struggle to find a place in his community.  This novel will be best for readers who have graduated from transitional to full-fledged chapter books (typically grades 3-4). 


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When Princess Anna of Trallonia hears her older sister Morven scream, she isn’t sure whether it is a big deal or not.  After all, screaming is one of Morven’s favorite pastimes.  It turns out to be sort of a big deal.  Anna’s step-step-father, the Evil Duke Rikard, has turned Morven’s latest suitor into a frog.  After swearing an oath to change him back, Anna learns that the task may be more complicated than she thought, as it will require a magic lip balm with ingredients such as the blood of a retired druid and freshly plucked cockatrice feathers.  More troubling is the news that Duke Rikard plans to have her killed.  So Anna and Ardent, the royal dog, set off on their quest for the magic lip balm, collecting a gaggle of transformed creatures along the way.

Hilarious, quirky, yet grounded by relevant social commentary, this fairytale is delightful from beginning to end.  I highly recommend it to teen and tween fantasy readers!  

MIDNIGHT WITH OUT A MOON by Linda Williams Jackson 

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Rose is out picking cotton when she hears the news that Levi was shot and killed for registering to vote. She is grief stricken and can’t understand why her grandmother seems to think Levi deserved to die for trying to vote.  There are a lot of things Rose doesn’t understand about Ma Pearl.  Like why she lets Queen lie in bed all day while Rose and Fred Lee work in the field.  Is it really just because Queen’s skin is lighter than Rose’s?  When Rose’s Aunt Belle comes to visit from St. Louis and tells Rose about her work with the NAACP, Rose is torn between worry for her aunt and the others who are “stirring things up” and her dream of leaving Mississippi and starting a new life up North. But when a boy from Chicago is lynched in her town for whistling at a white woman, Rose must figure out for herself where she stands and how she can change her world.

This novel does not shy away from the brutal reality of Emmett Till’s murder. Rose’s authentic point of view invites readers to share in the fear, anger, and grief of living through that summer in Jim Crow Mississippi.  But the courage and sense of self-worth that Rose develops on the wake of the tragedy is inspiring.  I highly recommend this novel to middle grade and teen historical fiction fans who are mature enough to process the violence of the subject matter or who are reading with adult guidance.  


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When Valor’s twin sister was arrested and thrown into the infamous juvenile ice prison, didn’t care that she had stolen a priceless heirloom and destroyed a strategic alluance with another country.  Sasha was her sister, and Valor would break her out.  But first she had to get herself thrown in.  A purposely failed attempt to assassinate Prince Anatol earns her a life sentence.  But the prison is more terrible and difficult to break out of than Valor imagined.  And she soon realizes that Sasha is innocent and Prince Anatol is up to something.  Starting to regret that she didn’t kill him when she had the chance, Valor dodges the prince’s watchful eye as she attempts to plan a daring escape for herself and a growing gaggle of friends–despite the fact that no one has ever escaped before. 

This novel has hints of Disney’s Frozen in the icy environment and fierce sisterly love, but features unique characters and a noteworthy lack of magic.  Middle grade fantasy fans will enjoy this promising new series opener.