by Eric P. Kelly
When Joseph’s family home is destroyed by enemies, he and his family must flee to Krakow. But why are evil men after them, and who is really behind it? And what is the family secret that is for the king of Poland’s ears alone?
I was pleasantly surprised by this story. It presents an accurate historical account of Poland while maintaining a strong spirit of adventure, mixed with the noble and heroic history of the Krakow trumpeter and the broken note. While I enjoyed reading it, I did have two complaints: 1) the narration occasionally sounds stilted and old-fashioned, and 2) there are multiple places where the narration pauses to explain too much (for instance, about how at that time everyone in Poland was very superstitious) instead of simply showing us and letting us figure it out for ourselves.
by Jacqueline West
When her family moves into the big stone house, Olive can tell it’s creepy. But she doesn’t expect to meet three talking cats or find a pair of spectacles that allow her to climb into and out of the paintings. The truth of the previous owners is even stranger—and more awful—than she guesses.
I LOVED this book. I don’t usually go for dark and creepy (think Coraline), but I’d heard good things, and I’m so glad I gave it a shot. The writing was wonderful (descriptions and metaphors that were unexpected but spot on), the characters were real and relatable, and the action kept me turning the pages. Maybe don’t read it in a dark house alone, but definitely read it.
by Adam Gidwitz and David Bowles
In another fun adventure of the Unicorn Rescue Society, Elliot and Uchenna travel across the country with Professor Fauna to rescue a chupacabras—essentially a vampire coyote. They make friends, see old enemies, and learn about these fascinating and terrifying creatures and the borderlands they live on.
I enjoyed this book, although I liked The Creature of the Pines better. The characters are fun, as always, and the creatures are great. The book explores different sides of the issues surrounding border walls (defense, splitting families, animal habitats, etc.) without pushing an agenda. The use of Spanish phrases gave even more of a Tex-Mex flavor, with only the harder ones getting an English translation.
by Gail Carson Levine
Writing Magic is a collection of writing advice geared specifically for young writers, covering everything from voice to characters to dialogue to point of view, using examples from her own books and others to illustrate her point. Carson Levine is thorough, addressing nearly every aspect of storytelling, while keeping chapters short, easy, and accessible. Each chapter ends with writing exercises to practice the concept just discussed.
As a lover of kids’ books and of writing books, I really enjoyed this. Her tone is friendly, engaging, and helpful, and the exercises were intriguing (especially the one at the end, but I won’t spoil it). This is a wonderful book for any child or teen who loves to write (the recommended age is 8+, and I agree with that)–I wish I had had it when I was starting out.
by Victoria Aveyard
This is a story of “haves” and “have-nots,” where the “haves” have superpowers and the “have-nots” get trampled underfoot. A “have-not” girl gets unexpectedly thrown in among the “haves,” for surprising reasons and with dire consequences. It’s like X-Men meets Gladiator meets British history’s War of the Roses, where everyone did whatever they could to get the crown.
This book had me hooked from page one—the voice was engaging, the world was intriguing, and the stakes kept rising. If I could have read it straight through in one sitting, I would have, but instead it rattled around in my head whenever I wasn’t reading. It was almost a relief to finish it and have closure for the story, but it was also a relief knowing that there are three more in the series to read—when I have a full day to devote to reading.
by Patricia C. Wrede
This is a coming of age story of a girl on the frontier in an alternate America where magic is a part of daily life and woolly mammoths and steam dragons threaten the settlements. Eff Rothmer must sort out her relationships with magic, her family, the frontier, and herself, while confronting greater threats to the west and the nation.
I love this book. In fairness, this was my second time reading it, so I already knew I loved it. I read it years ago, before the second and third in the series came out, and I’ve been wanting for a while to read the other two, and I finally got around to rereading this one so that I could go ahead and read the others. Wrede is just brilliant–how she reinvents America while keeping it recognizable, devises interweaving magic systems, and creates characters that you fall in love with.
From a writer’s perspective, I learned from this book to ask the question, “What is the story the character is telling herself?” What is the internal monologue, the mantra, whether uplifting or negative? Eff definitely tells herself a story throughout the book, and it defines who she is, and her twin brother tells himself a very different story. We all, as humans, tell ourselves stories that define who we are–whether we say we’re not good enough, or whether we tell ourselves that we’re strong and we’ve got this, or whatever the story may be–and they help shape who we become. I’m going to be paying more attention to those stories within my own characters, and I’m also going to be careful about the stories I tell myself, to keep them positive.
by Gail Carson Levine
This collection of false apology poems (where the poem comes from someone who is not sorry at all) covers a range of topics from sibling fights to fairy tales to nursery rhymes and beyond.
I didn’t know what to expect when I discovered this book at my library, but I thought it was a lot of fun. The form of the false apology poem is simple—not intimidating for someone who thinks they don’t like poetry or who has never been introduced to it. I laughed at several of the poems, and the whole book is very lighthearted, though each poem is confessing to something rather terrible. I don’t think it’s on a level with some of Levine’s other work, but it’s worth reading if you like her style (or if you like people saying harsh things in an apologetic way).
by Sarah J. Maas
This book is a mash-up retelling of Beauty and the Beast and the legend of Tam Lin, intended for a YA audience, with a good deal of faerie mixed in.
I disliked this book so much I couldn’t even finish it–I made it about three-quarters of the way through. I almost stopped twice before that, but those are two of my favorite legends, and I really wanted to see what she did with them, so I pushed through.
My three major issues: too much sex (definitely not suitable for a younger audience); one of my least favorite characters was getting way too much “screen time”; and I didn’t like her writing style (which was what nearly made me quit the first couple of times). That said, she has a rabid fan base that eagerly awaits each upcoming book, and many of them adore the character I hate. To each his/her own.
by Hugh Lofting
This is one volume of the classic story of Dr. Dolittle, the English naturalist who can talk to animals. He and his young protegee Tommy Stubbins go on an epic adventure, meeting many interesting people and creatures along the way.
I found this book light, funny, and an easy read, but at times it was a little too silly. There were some references that were a bit dated and less politically correct than modern readers might be comfortable with. But for younger middle-graders who like animals and silly adventures, this is a worthwhile read. (And it’s really nothing like the Eddie Murphy movie that I remember from my own childhood.)
by Gail Carson Levine
Fairest is Levine’s retelling of the story of Snow White, set in the world of Ella Enchanted. I was hooked from the start—I loved seeing the occasional cameo appearance by characters from Ella Enchanted, and the narrative voice was wonderful. The characters were fully formed, the setting was beautifully described, and the plot felt fresh and impossible to put down. Within the story, Levine explores what beauty really means and what it’s worth, as well as the power of music and of being yourself. For anyone who loves a good fairy tale, or who enjoyed Ella Enchanted, this book is a must read.