Kids Mystery

JENNIFER CHAN IS NOT ALONE by Tae Keller

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

Mallory doesn’t believe her friends’ stories about the new girl. I mean, there’s no way she could have karate-chopped a kid into a full body cast. And if her mom were really a murderer, would they have been allowed to move into her nice, quiet neighborhood? But when Mal’s mom makes her go across the street to introduce herself, she learns that Jennifer Chan might not be the karate-expert daughter of a murderer, but she is definitely weird. Jennifer Chan believes in aliens, and Mallory knows two things: 1) middle school is going to eat her alive, and 2) if Mallory is Jennifer’s friend, she’ll be going down with her.

Then, a few months into the school year, Jennifer Chan disappears, and Mallory is the only one who seems willing to consider the possibility that Jennifer found the aliens she was so desperately searching for. She doesn’t dare bring up the possibility to her popular friends, and the science nerds that might be able to help her aren’t even willing to talk to her. Not after what she did. But Mal isn’t going to give up. She needs to prove that the aliens took Jennifer.

Because if it wasn’t aliens, then Jennifer Chan’s disappearance is all Mallory’s fault.

Through a cast of nuanced characters and a protagonist who won’t give up hope for finding her friend–or the goodness inside herself–Keller tackles the complexity of the middle school social hierarchy and the bullying that can leave the targets frightened and isolated and the bullies themselves empty and hurting. By taking the perspective of one of the bullies, Keller truly explores the why behind middle school social cliques and the power dynamics of bullying without being didactic or moralistic, and by making the bullies’ target honest, forthright, and outspoken, she ensures that her perspective gets heard. Readers will likely be able to identify with both Mallory and Jennifer at different moments in their lives–and the added perspectives of targets like Kath and Ingrid and bullies like Pete and Rachel add even more depth and nuance to the narrative. I could not put this emotional and ultimately hopeful story down, and I highly recommend it to readers of middle grade contemporary fiction and to all upper-elementary and middle school book clubs!

PREMEDITATED MYRTLE by Elizabeth C. Bunce

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Myrtle Hardcastle is not at all surprised to see the constable at the manor across the road. After all, she was the one who phoned the police after noting that the science-minded spinster next door, Miss Wodehouse, and her cat had not undertaken their usual morning routine (a future detective must be Observant of such things if she hopes to uncover Crimes-in-Progress). Alas, Myrtle was too late to help Miss Wodehouse, who was dead in her bathtub when the police arrived, but she is determined to solve the murder–for it is a murder no matter what the police might say to the contrary. No obstacle will stop the intrepid young detective–not the inexplicable vanishing of Miss Wodehouse’s life’s work, not the weary attempts of her prosecutor father to reign in his unconventional daughter, and certainly not the fact that the only witness to the supposed murder is a runaway cat.

Funny, quirky, and thrilling in exactly the right balance, the Myrtle Hardcastle mysteries will delight middle grade fans of Enola Holmes, Flavia de Luce, and even more modern girl detectives. A deserved Edgar Award-winner, PREMEDITATED MYRTLE is an excellent mystery with an even more excellent protagonist and the promise of thrilling series to come.

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* 


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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.

SECOND SLEEP by Diane Stanley

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

When Max’s mother first disappears, his father assures him that she’s fine. The voicemail she left was kind of cryptic–helping a friend with a health thing?–but she said not to expect her to be in touch for a few days, so they shouldn’t be alarmed. Until they find her cell phone hidden in her bedroom.

In an attempt to keep the kids from worrying, Max’s grandma takes him and his sister up to a cabin by the lake where his mother spent her childhood summers. But the first night after Max goes to bed, something not exactly worrying but certainly confusing happens. He and his sister both wake up in a dream world–the lake, but somehow brighter and more exciting–where all the children who have ever visited the lake that particular week in August are playing together in what one girl calls the “collective now,” a reality where it is 1983 and 1995, and 2021 all at the same time. Once he’s gotten over his shock and begins making deep friendships with the other children, Max realizes that the dream world might be the answer to his problem. If he can find his mom in this reality, maybe he’ll figure out a way to find her in real life, too.

I’m kind of madly in love with this book. In some ways, it’s a quiet read, focused on heart-warming relationships. But the suspense of the missing mother and the mystery of the magical dreams add enough urgency to make it difficult to stop turning pages. And although the fantasy/sci-fi element runs into the usual unresolvable issues that crop up whenever someone travels back in time and befriends a parent, the mechanics of the time travel wasn’t really a concern for me–it’s not what the book is really about. I’d recommend this one to any middle grade reader who enjoys magical realism. It could also be a peaceful family read aloud at bedtime for upper elementary age kids.

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!)

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

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

Shenice “Lightning” Lockwood is making history. She’s the captain of the only all-Black softball team in her Georgia youth league, and they’re on their way to the championships. She knows she’s following in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, who was very nearly one of the first Black players in Major League Baseball before an event that no one will talk about derailed his career.

But when her parents take her to visit her granduncle Jack in his assisted living home, Shenice gets the first clue as to what happened in her great-grandfather’s past. He was accused of stealing a Joe DiMaggio baseball glove, and according to Uncle Jack, he was framed. Her parents claim that Uncle Jack is just senile, but Shenice can’t help wondering if what her uncle said was true. Is it possible that a white man framed her great-grandfather, destroying his career and the family legacy? As the softball championships draw closer, Shenice can’t concentrate on her game. She needs to find out the truth–before a past full of lies and injustices prevents her from leading her own team into their trail-blazing future.

Family, friendships, and a quest for justice burn bright in this gripping middle grade novel. The humor and Shenice’s loving community keep the story fun and uplifting even as Shenice’s quest for racial justice forces her to confront the darkness and pain of racism in the past and the present. This novel has something for mystery lovers, realistic fiction lovers, and sports fans–plus plenty of thought-provoking thematic material–making it an ideal choice for classrooms and book clubs. I highly recommend this book to all middle grade and younger YA readers (grades 4-8).

Fast Pitch by Nic Stone: 9781984893017 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

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 MYSTERY OF BLACK HOLLOW LANE by Julia Nobel

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People think it must be great growing up as the daughter of a famous child-rearing expert.  But sometimes Emmy wishes she had a normal mom–or at least that her mom spent less time on her work and more time paying attention to the things Emmy is interested in.  When her mom announces that she has accepted a job on a reality TV program and that Emmy will have to go to boarding school on the other side of the ocean, it seems like proof that her mom’s work is more important than she is.  It makes her feel a little bit less guilty about the secret she’s been keeping from her mom: the mysterious note and the box of “relics” from her long-absent father.  “Keep them safe,” the note commanded.  Emmy never knew her father, has no idea what these “relics” are, and doesn’t know who wrote the note or what kind of danger the mysterious writer anticipated.  But when she arrives at her new elite English boarding school, she begins to uncover more pieces of the mystery of who her father was, and in the middle of the web of secrets is a danger much more real and terrifying than Emmy could have imagined.

This intriguing start to a mystery series is a great middle-grade page turner.  The plot draws on common enough tropes–missing father, secret society, “heroic trio uncovering secrets at a boarding school” with a pleasant Harry Potter vibe–but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in likable characters and an engaging mystery to puzzle out.  I look forward to the sequel!