Kids Adventure

THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY by Kate DiCamillo

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Answelica the Goat is a demon. At least, that’s what the monks believe. She’s certainly given them enough bites and bruises over the years. So when Answelica takes a liking to a mysterious girl who showed up at the monastery with no memories, the monks can hardly turn her away–even when they find out that she can read and write, a pastime forbidden to the common people and especially to all girls. But when the girl’s memories start to come back, she realizes that the king’s soldiers are searching for her, and she can endanger the monks no longer. Accompanied by Answelica, a prophetic monk, and a village boy who is eager to learn to read, Beatryce embarks on a journey to uncover her past and change the world.

This medieval adventure story is funny, suspenseful, and heartfelt with the classic feel of a folktale. It is a quick read, and I loved every minute of it. I highly recommend it to upper-elementary aged fantasy fans.

THE SECRET STARLING by Judith Eagle

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Clara has lived with her uncle her whole life–well, her uncle and the servants who staff their manor home. Truthfully, she sees far more of the servants than of her uncle, who would prefer to have nothing to do with her. But everything changes when her uncle goes bankrupt, abandoning her in the manor house with a bit of cash and no one to care for her. When Clara meets another orphan named Peter, the two decide to turn the manor into a suitable house for unsupervised children–a place for them to live and for their eccentric friends to come and play. But when they discover a ballet slipper that once belonged to Clara’s mother, Clara realizes she doesn’t want to just create a new routine in the same old house. She wants to uncover the truth of her mother’s past that her uncle never told her–and maybe wind up on an adventure!

This middle grade novel, originally published in England, has an old-fashioned vibe that will appeal to fans of books as varied as THE PENDERWICKS, ESCAPE FROM MR LIMONCELLO’S LIBRARY, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS BASIL E FRANKWEILER, and THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY. It is part mystery, part historical fiction, and part adventure, but mostly the story of a quirky cast of young people making their way in the world.

The Secret Starling: Eagle, Judith, Rioux, Jo: 9781536213652: Amazon.com:  Books

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


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CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


More:

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

THE TROUBLED GIRLS OF DRAGOMIR ACADEMY by Anne Ursu

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

If Marya’s brother Luka is destined to make their parents proud, then Marya is destined to disappoint them. She’s good at it—although to be fair, sometimes Luka helps her along. Marya was prepared to be the perfect sister and daughter when the sorcerer came to evaluate Luka for magic potential. She was even going to enjoy wearing the gorgeous gown that her mother bought her. It really wasn’t her fault that Luka stuffed it into the dirty chicken coop (even if it was in retaliation for her putting honey in his underwear), and it really wasn’t entirely her fault that the goat got out of its pen and charged the sorcerer (because she wouldn’t have left the pen open if she hadn’t been looking for her dress), and okay, maybe she should have known better than to shout at the sorcerer when his loud spells were frightening the goat further … but no matter what happened on that disastrous visit, Marya knows she doesn’t deserve to be sent to an Academy for Troubled Girls.

Unfortunately, the king’s council doesn’t see it that way. And so the next day, Marya must say goodbye to her dreams of becoming an apprentice to the local tapestry weaver and head out to boarding school. At Dragomir Academy, Marya hears echoes of the things she’s been hearing her whole life: girls should be quiet and orderly, helpers to the sorcerers so that they can fight the magical Dread that seems to keep spreading across the kingdom. But some things are new. For example, the teachers actually encourage the girls to read—a skill Marya had to learn in secret from her friend the weaver. And Dragomir castle seems to be filled with secrets. Like what happened to the Dragomirs’ daughter Nadia, who apparently disappeared as a teenager? And what causes the mysterious hallucinations that all the girls experience at some point—and how (and where) are they cured? It isn’t until Marya stumbles upon a secret code in the Countess Dragomir’s embroidery that she realizes these mysteries may be connected. And the truth points to a grave danger for all of the troubled girls–and everyone in the kingdom.

My new favorite Anne Ursu book! Ursu tackles systemic sexism through the lens of a medieval-based fantasy world. Laced with humor, heartfelt relationships, and well-developed secondary characters, the immersive world is one I was reluctant to leave when the book ended. The story itself is a powerful allegory for injustices in our modern world that asks young readers to consider “Who benefits?” from lies and mis- (or dis-) information. As a librarian, I swooned for Ursu’s accessible and subtly-incorporated guidance on how to evaluate historical sources (in this case, tapestries) for bias. But all of this comes within the package of an imaginative boarding-school-fantasy that is as fun as it is thought-provoking. Pick this one up for your middle grade reader or your 4th-7th grade book club!   

VOYAGE OF THE SPARROWHAWK by Natasha Farrant

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

Lotti has no intention of leaving her beautiful home for another terrible boarding school. After all, it is her home. Her parents left it to her when they died. Her aunt and uncle are only living in it to help take care of her, and because no one has heard from her French grandmother since before the Great War. But when her uncle resolves to send her back to boarding school–and worse, to have her dog put down!–Lotti knows she has to run away. And she knows just the person to help her.

Ben lost his adoptive father during the war. His brother is lost, too, presumed dead, although Ben is certain he’ll come home someday. Unfortunately, someday won’t be soon enough now that the local constable is investigating him. He absolutely refuses to go back to the orphanage. For one thing, they’d take away his dog. For another, he loves living on the houseboat, The Sparrowhawk. His father would be rolling in his grave if he knew how close they were to losing it. So when Lotti shows up insisting that they travel to France, how can Ben say no? After all, maybe he’ll find his brother there. With the constable and an irate uncle chasing in their wake, Lotti and Ben embark on The Sparrowhawk‘s first major voyage, hoping that the friendly accomplices they meet along the way will be able to help reunite them with the family they’ve lost.

This novel about courage and found-families follows in the grand tradition of middle grade stories about plucky young orphans embarking on zany adventures. The quirkiness of the narrative voice, along with the historical setting, lend the book a classic feel while the cast of compassionate characters keep the tone hopeful through even its suspenseful moments. A fun choice for upper-elementary readers!

THE CURSE OF THE PHOENIX by Aimée Carter

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Zac has always suspected that his father took a job that kept him away from home all week because he couldn’t handle the stress of Zac’s allergies and medical issues, but now Zac knows for certain. Since their mom died, it’s his twin sister, Lu, who’s been helping him with his medications and his inhalers, and after an officially vicious asthma attack, his dad finally announces that he’s sending Zac away–Zac and Lu, actually–to live with an aunt they’ve never heard of in England.

When they arrive on their family’s land, however, something immediately takes Zac and Lu’s mind off their father. Their mother’s relatives live on a vast estate called the Wildewoods where they are caretakers for the animals. Not normal animals, but dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and even a phoenix! As Zac and Lu explore the magical kingdom, they suddenly feel closer to their mother than they’ve ever been, realizing that all the stories she told them as children were actually true. Unfortunately, they also discover a terrible secret about the cause of their mother’s death and an ancient curse that could doom them–either to a life without the father they’re still missing or to an early death themselves. But Zac and Lu have always been partners in crime, and they’re determined to break the curse before it breaks them.

This family-focused, imaginative middle grade fantasy will appeal to animal lovers and mythology lovers–and anyone who likes a good adventure story! Even though it’s not based on single specific mythology, I’d put this one in the hands of Riordan fans, Fablehaven fans, and fans of brother/sister adventures.

Curse of the Phoenix: Carter, Aimée: 9781534478442: Amazon.com: Books

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

LAST GATE OF THE EMPEROR by Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen

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Yared has his whole day planned out: sail through school right until the last possible moment, then dodge the truancy robots and make his escape to crush the competition in one of the highly secretive VR battles he always dominates. But when the system forces him to log in with his real name for the first time, a shadowy group of warriors swoops in to capture him, with help of a gigantic and terrifying beast that Yared can’t believe exists. The beast and the warriors–those were things out of Uncle Moti’s stories, nothing more than legends. But when Yared returns home to find the warriors trashing his house, he realizes two things. First, Uncle Moti’s stories of the mythical kingdoms locked in an eternal battle were all real. And second, for some unfathomable reason, Yared seems to be caught up in the middle of it. If he has any hope of rescuing Uncle Moti, Yared will need to recall all of his uncle’s bizarre lessons and trust the last person he ever though he’d have to rely on: his VR rival, the Ibis.

This book kept me laughing. It’s fast-paced and imaginative with a great protagonist who is a delight to root for. I’d recommend it to middle grade readers who enjoy SFF and humor, and it will especially appeal to Black Panther fans.

Last Gate of the Emperor: Mbalia, Kwame, Makonnen, Prince Joel, Makonnen,  Prince Joel: 9781338665857: Amazon.com: Books

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 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.