Kids Fantasy

THE CURSE OF THE PHOENIX by Aimée Carter

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

The Roberts-Darling family is changing. It changed once before, in the best possible way, when Lily’s mother married Wendy’s father and the two stepsisters became best friends. It grew again when Michael was born. But this change feels different. George Darling and his daughter Wendy will be moving to New York and Lily, her mother, and Michael will be staying behind in Tulsa, close to their Muscogee Creek heritage. This time, the family isn’t growing; it’s growing apart. And as the differences of opinions of the parents trickle down to the children, the stepsisters aren’t sure they’ll ever be best friends again.

But Lily and Wendy aren’t the only people who have been listening to their parents’ whispered fights after bedtime. A boy has been hovering outside their window, along with a tiny fairy. When Peter and Belle finally make their presence known, Wendy is captivated by the magical flying boy, but Lily senses something sinister. For one thing, Peter calls Lily an Injun, and though she doesn’t know exactly what that means, she’s certain that it’s rude. For another thing, when Peter flies out the window, Wendy follows–bringing Michael with her. It isn’t like Wendy to be so thoughtless. There’s something more than flying magic in that fairy dust. Lily chases after her siblings, finding her way to the magical Neverland where Peter has imprisoned generations of children, never letting them return home. Lost on the island and desperate to reunite, both Lily and Wendy will have to find the courage to brave the dangers of Neverland and the humility and forgiveness to become a family again.

There is so much to love in this beautiful story of family and redemption. Smith not only acknowledges the morally troubling aspects of Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy but also gives a voice and agency not only to her Muscogee Creek protagonist but to the other Native people on the island. In fact, all of Smith’s characters are complex and well-rounded–a much needed revision of Barrie’s original. And yet, SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA is truly a revision, not a rejection. The omniscient narration nods to the style of Barrie’s work while being accessible and smooth enough for modern young readers. While Peter Pan’s flaws are brought to the forefront, this is a story of redemption, not a horror story. If you (like me) loved the fantasy of Neverland as a child but grew shocked by racism once you began to recognize it–or if you were injured by the hurtful stereotypes in Peter Pan and need your own redemptive experience with the story–SISTERS OF NEVERSEA is a wonderful book to share with your children or your middle grade students or book club.

Sisters of the Neversea: Smith, Cynthia L: 9780062869975: Amazon.com: Books

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

Posted on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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!)

ARTIE AND THE WOLF MOON by Olivia Stephens

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

Artie is excited to work on her photography project, and the night of the full moon seems like the perfect time to get some great nature shots. She’s sure her mom is being overprotective by insisting she stay inside after dark, so she doesn’t hesitate to sneak out with her dad’s old camera. But once outside, she is shocked when the first creature she sees is an enormous wolf–and even more shocked when the wolf turns into her mother

Artie’s mom tells her that she comes from a family of werewolves and that Artie might be a werewolf herself. But it isn’t until a group of bullies have her cornered in the woods that Artie’s wolf nature reveals itself. Artie’s mother whisks her away to the secluded community where she grew up to learn more about her heritage, but Artie can’t seem to master the art of transformation. Meanwhile, a coven of vampires has been stirring up trouble. Artie’s mother has tried to shield her from the vampires–and the uncertainty of what happened to Artie’s father–but if Artie is ever going to grow into her power, she’ll need to learn from the past and take some risks to uncover the truth.

Expressive artwork brings to life a story of a young woman finding her place in her community. Though a high stakes fantasy plot forms the central conflict, the core of the novel is the bonds of parents and children and familial love in general. Artie and her family are Black, which will contribute much-needed diversity to graphic novel and middle grade fantasy collections. I recommend this one to middle schoolers!

Amazon.com: Artie and the Wolf Moon: 9781541542488: Stephens, Olivia,  Stephens, Olivia: Books

THE MONSTER MISSIONS by Laura Martin

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

Berkley’s dad isn’t thrilled that his daughter chose to be a scavenger. Everyone on a ship has to have a job–even twelve year olds–but diving to the wreckage of human civilization that has been deep underwater since her grandfather’s youth is the most dangerous job she could have picked. But Berkley is a great diver and her inventions help her scavenge the most scrap metal and other treasures they can use on the ship. That is until one of her inventions awaken a sea monster.

Sea monsters aren’t supposed to exist, but the serpentine creature that attacks the divers and then goes for the ship couldn’t really have any other name than “monster.” Thinking fast, Berkley and her friend Garth manage to trap the monster in chains, but the captain isn’t proud of them for saving the ship. In fact, he immediately transfers them to the crew of a research submarine, not even letting them tell their parents goodbye. As far as he’s concerned, the most important thing is to keep the crew from finding out about the monster in the first place. On a sub tasked with researching monsters like the one Berkley and Garth defeated, the two newcomers are immediately welcomed to the team. But Berkley can’t shake the feeling that the monster she fought might find a way out of its chains. And when it does, she knows it will be coming for her.

This novel is mostly an action-packed, futuristic fantasy adventure with an ominous undercurrent of climate change warnings. The monsters and humorous banter keep the story largely escapist, but deeper themes of family, friendship, courage, and environmental responsibility keep it grounded as well. I’d recommend this one to fans of both middle grade sci-fi and fantasy.

The Monster Missions: Martin, Laura: 9780062894380: Amazon.com: Books

A GLASSHOUSE OF STARS by Shirley Marr

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

You are a stranger here. You don’t know anyone in this New Land. You don’t even speak their language. The uncle who was supposed to welcome you to your New Home died unexpectedly, so it is just you and your parents in the huge, empty house. You should play with the children at school, but you can’t understand them. Even the food is strange. The only thing that brings you comfort is the greenhouse in the corner of the garden because it contains not only your uncle’s beloved orange trees but also the sun and moon–a surprising burst of magic in this otherwise dull world.

But when a tragedy shakes the foundation of your family, making you want more than ever to hide in a magical garden, you know you will have to leave the safety of the glasshouse and find a way to survive, to keep going.

You are Meixing Lim, and your life is about to change forever.

A heartbreaking, beautiful story about a young immigrant finding her way in an unfamiliar world. Marr’s clever choice to use second person narration gives readers a unique experience, letting you feel as disoriented as Meixing from the first sentence when you are unsure who “you” are. This novel is a powerful emotional journey, and it would be a great pick for middle grade book clubs.

A Glasshouse of Stars

DEAD WEDNESDAY by Jerry Spinelli

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

KINGDOM OF SECRETS by Christyne Morrell

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

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!

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

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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

Posted on Updated on

I am a Bookshop.org affiliate. If you make a purchase by clicking through the links in this post, I will receive a commission, and Bookshop.org will donate a matching commission to independent booksellers. For more information, see my “About” page.

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.