J Fiction

BERA THE ONE-HEADED TROLL by Eric Orchard

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Bera was  perfectly happy living alone on her island, farming pumpkins for the king. She never intended to have an adventure. But when she sees the human baby in the clutches of the malevolent mermaids, she just has to step in and rescue it. And when she discovers that the baby is being hunted by an evil witch who intends to turn it into a monster, she feels compelled to venture off of her Island in search of a hero who can return the baby to its village. But her search for a hero quickly becomes a quest more exciting and dangerous than she ever dreamed.

 This graphic novel will delight readers with its unlikely heroine on an unexpected adventure.   There are moments of humor, suspense, and action in a fairly straightforward plot. This book will likely appeal most to readers in  grades 3-5.

INSPECTOR FLYTRAP by Tom Angleberger and Cece Bell

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Inspector Flytrap is a BIG DEAL detective. He only takes big deal cases. Missing pickle paper weight? Not a big deal. A caper at the art gallery?   Now that sounds more like it! With his trusty skateboard and his assistant goat, there’s no case too big for this plant!   So why don’t his clients seem grateful?…

 This very quick, very silly read features short chapters, comical illustrations, and a ridiculous plot that will most likely appeal to readers in grades 2 and 3.  It may grab some reluctant readers. It is unlikely, however, to appeal as much to older readers  or the established Origami Yoda fan base.   Although nominally a mystery, it is really just  humor.   If you’re looking for a humorous noir-style mystery series for younger readers, I would recommend the Chet Gecko  series–noting that the reading level on Chet Gecko is slightly higher.

NETTIE AND NELLIE CROOK: ORPHAN TRAIN SISTERS by E.F. Abbott

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Twins Nettie and Nellie spent a lot of time together, just the two of them.  Their father was often away for long periods of time to find work, their older brother worked all day, and sometimes their mother would disappear for weeks–especially after their baby sister died.  But one day a man arrives to take the children away, saying that they are not being cared for properly.  At six years old, Nettie and Nellie find themselves in an orphanage, even though their parents are still alive.  Not long afterward they are put on a train and sent West with a group of other children in search of “forever homes.”  But some homes are not as wonderful as they are cracked up to be.

Based on the true story of the Crook sisters, Abbott’s book gives readers a glimpse into what it might be like to be placed in foster care or adopted in the early twentieth century.  Neither the characterization nor the settings are particularly vivid; the book is plot driven.  But the subject matter is interesting, and may especially appeal to readers now that Simone Biles’ Olympic wins are raising awareness of what foster care and adoption are like today.  I would recommend this book to third and fourth grade readers who are interested in history.

TRUE (…SORT OF) by Katherine Hannigan

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Delly has always been told how bad she is.  She has accepted it as part of her identity and let herself get worse and worse.  But when the principal suggests she might have to go to a different school if she can’t stop fighting, Delly does her best to stay out of trouble.  To distract herself, Delly begins following the weird new girl, Ferris–the girl who doesn’t talk.  They begin an unconventional friendship that forces Delly to make some difficult decisions about what is right and what is wrong.

It took me a long time to get into this book, in part due to the voice, which I wasn’t crazy about.  There was also a lot going on in this book, and the message of the early section was pretty heavy handed.  But it picked up by the end and finished with a valuable message of what it means to be a good friend and how to recognize signs of parental abuse.  It’s not at the top of my recommendation list, but middle grade readers who like realistic fiction may enjoy it.

BECAUSE OF ANYA by Margaret Peterson Haddix 

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When Anya  finds out she has a disease that will cause all of her hair to fall out,  she is terrified that the kids in her class will notice. But the first day that she wears a wig, Keeley and her friends do notice and are left to wonder what is wrong.  Does Anya have cancer?  Is she going to die?  As Anya and her parents struggle to come to terms with her disease, Keeley tries to figure out how she can be a good friend to Anya when she doesn’t know exactly what Anya needs.

This short novel tackles some difficult topics in a light way.  Keeley learns to stand up for herself and be supportive, while Anya learns to accept herself and accept support from others.  While the conflicts are simple and quickly resolved, the book may give young readers tools for talking about illness with their peers as characters model good communication and supportive friendship behaviors.  The novel will appeal most to middle grade readers who enjoy realistic fiction.

THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE by Neil Gaiman

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The dwarves discovered the sleeping sickness by accident. They had traveled to the other side of the mountain to get a gift for the queen on her wedding day. But what they found in the neighboring kingdom was nothing but fear of the plague of sleep that was traveling faster and faster across the land. There were rumours of a princess sleep in a castle and an evil enchantress, and the dwarves know that the only person who could possibly travel through the land of sleep, besides magic creatures like themselves, is the queen who slept for a hundred years before she was awakened with a kiss. Eager to postpone her wedding day, the queen travel with the dwarves to the neighboring kingdom to search for the princess and a cure for the sleep.

This novella is a quick but engrossing read.  As usual, Gaiman has created a vivid world rooted in the darker side of traditional folklore.  I enjoyed this short novel immensely and would highly recommend it to adult, teen, and middle grade readers who enjoy dark fairytales.

MAGNUS CHASE AND THE SWORD OF SUMMER by Rick Riordan

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Magnus has been homeless for the past two years–ever since he saw his mother murdered by the wolves with the glowing blue eyes. He has been avoiding the police (because who would believe his story?) and avoiding his Uncle Randolph because those were his mother’s last words to him. But when his Uncle Frederick and cousin Annabeth show up in Boston looking for him and hinting that he might be in danger, Magnus decides to break into Randolph house and look for some answers–or at least some free food. Unfortunately, Randolph catches him in the act and whisks him away to Longfellow Bridge muttering something about Norse gods, his mother’s death, and his life being in danger. At first Magnus thinks that his uncle is crazy, but after he is able to summon a magical sword from the depths of the river and is subsequently killed by a Norse fire god, he is convinced otherwise. Magnus winds up in the Norse afterlife at Hotel Valhalla with a bunch of other heroic dead kids who are waiting for the end of the world.  But the end may be closer than everyone thinks, and Magnus finds himself on a whirlwind quest with a Valkyrie, an elf, and a dwarf to face the wolf that had his mother killed and stop the apocalypse.

Enjoyable, but no Percy Jackson.  Magnus has plenty of exciting adventures, but his brief time at Hotel Valhalla is not enough to establish meaningful ties with the other residents, who are all underdeveloped. It is no match for Camp Half-Blood with its internal rivalries, friendships, shifting alliances, and everything else that made the demigod summer camp experience so relatable–and an experience the reader could wistfully daydream about having.  I enjoyed the book and will definitely read the sequels, but if you want to really get hooked on Rick Riordan (or get another reader hooked on Rick Riordan) definitely start with The Lightning Thief. 

DOLL BONES by Holly Black

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It’s not that Zach doesn’t care what other kids think of him. He does his best to hide his secret imaginative life from his friends on the basketball team. But it’s worth the risk of getting caught in order to keep playing the game with Poppy and Alice. When Zach is being William the Blade, it is like his whole identity changes; he becomes a pirate. And the creepy bone China doll they pretend is their queen really seems to have deadly powers. When Zach’s dad throws away all of his action figures, Zach feels like his world is falling apart. He can’t get up the courage to tell Poppy and Alice why he can’t play anymore. But the bone China doll isn’t about to let Zach go so easily. A ghost appears to Poppy in a dream and suddenly Zach and his friends find themselves on a real adventure every bit as dangerous and magical as any of their games.

This creepy adventure story combines the family and friendship tensions of growing up with an intriguing ghost story. I wouldn’t call it scary, but it definitely has a chilling tone at times. The main thrust of the book, however, is the evolving character relationships and Zach’s coming of age. I would recommend this book to middle grade readers who enjoy fantasy adventures set in the real world.

CHASING SECRETS by Gennifer Choldenko

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At the turn of the twentieth century, San Francisco is a bustling hub of industry with ships coming into port from all over the world.  When rumors begin to circulate that a ship has brought the bubonic plague, the educated members of society and doctors, such as Lizzie’s father, do their best to reassure people that there is no plague danger.  But Aunt Hortense is still reluctant to the let Lizzie go with her father on his medical calls, which she considers to be unbecoming for a young woman even without the danger of plague.  Lizzie still manages to get herself tangled up in the plague controversy, however, when the nervous citizens erect a quarantine around Chinatown.  The family’s cook, Jing is trapped in the quarantine, and Lizzie discovers that Jing has been hiding a secret at home:  his son, Noah.  As Lizzie tries to find a way to get Jing out of the quarantine, she begins to uncover more secrets and isn’t sure she likes what she finds.

This well-written historical fiction novel is difficult to put down.  Every aspect of it is engaging–from Lizzie’s struggles with friendships at school to her controversial dreams of being a doctor to the secrets surrounding the plague scare and the racism it fueled.  I highly recommend it to middle grade readers who enjoy historical fiction!

If you liked Chasing Secrets, you might like some of these titles.

 

 

THE LOUDNESS by Nick Courage

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Hank has always felt like a bit of an outsider.  For one thing, the bionic heart that keeps his body running means that he can’t touch another person without giving them an electric shock.  And he actually really likes Mr. Mooney, the elderly librarian who supervises the “school” where all the kids hang out during the day.  Hank’s mom has been working hard as mayor to get the Green Zone a city charter so that they can reestablish a real school, as well as many of the services and conveniences people once had before natural disasters and other troubles destroyed the country.  They may even be able to incorporate the struggling Gray Zone outside the city and help the Other Siders to a better life.  But Hank’s first trip to the Other Side opens his eyes to an amazing new world of music, art and community that he isn’t sure needs saving.  And when the hostile Federales threaten to destroy life in both the Zone and the Other Side, Hank is determined to do whatever it takes to save them both.    

There is a lot going on in this post-apocalyptic coming-of-age novel. The first half of the book focuses largely on Hank’s growth and relationships before shifting to more of a dystopian adventure story.  For this reason it may not grab all dystopia readers, who may be expecting instant action.  But for those middle grade readers who enjoy character-driven adventures, it is definitely worth a read!