Posted in Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Dark middle grade fantasy: Room of Shadows

Room of Shadows, by Ronald Kidd, (Aug. 2017, Albert Whitman), $16.99, ISBN: 9780807568057

Recommended for readers 10-13

David finds himself with a lot of anger lately. I mean, it’s justified: his dad abandoned his mom, and they’ve been forced to move into this creepy old house. When a school bully messes with him on a bad day, David beats him up, earning some in-house grounding from his mom. That’s where he discovers the room: a secret room with an old desk and a carving of a Raven, signed, “EP”. The weird dreams start shortly after. When the incidents start at school, all involving people who David’s tangled with, everyone starts looking at him differently, including his mom and the police. How can David prove he isn’t The Raven – the person responsible for the incidents, who leaves a signed note each time? And how can he keep himself safe from The Raven, who’s fixated on him?

With a background in Edgar Allan Poe’s history, I dove eagerly into Room of Shadows. The author takes Poe into very dark territory here, for reasons that become clear as the story progresses. It’s an interesting concept, but one I had a hard time with. I didn’t really get to know David or his best friend, Libby; I felt like their character development took more of a backseat, allowing the Poe storyline to drive the plot. I did like the nod to some of Poe’s greatest hits in the story, including The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, and The Pit and the Pendulum; it’s always great to discover Poe in new fiction. This one wasn’t my book, but middle grade horror fans who are ready for something weightier than Goosebumps and Haunted Mansion may sit down with this one.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Meet two new middle grade heroines with big imaginations

Ruby Starr, by Deborah Lytton, (Aug. 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492645771

Recommended for readers 8-12

Ruby Starr loves getting lost in a good book. She even has a lunchtime book group with her BFFs at school: The Unicorns! Things change when Charlotte, the new girl in school, shows up and starts making big changes: she scoffs at reading and wants to make The Unicorns a drama club, and she’s spending more and more time with Ruby’s best friend, Siri. Ruby needs to dig deep into her imagination to help bring things back to normal again.

Part Secret Life of Walter Mitty, part Dork Diaries, Ruby Starr is a lovable new protagonist for middle grade readers. She daydreams scenarios to help her cope with the everyday frustrations – or imagine exciting outcomes for upcoming events – and zones out while she’s doing it, making for some giggleworthy moments throughout the story. The imagination sequences are illustrated, letting readers in on the joke. The stress of friendship – and losing it – will resonate with middle graders, as will the fear of being the outsider in the group; Ruby handles these challenges with humor and style, even reaching out to her frenemy and offering a helping hand. I loved seeing a nice librarian-student relationship, too; maybe the author can give us a Ruby Starr/Unicorns reading list to promote to our kids!

Ruby Starr is a fun entry into the humorous journal fiction sub-genre. Give this to your Dork Diaries, My Dumb Diary, and Frazzled (by Booki Vivat) readers. Ask them to draw an imaginary scenario for themselves! There’s a reader’s guide on Deborah Lytton’s author webpage, along with an author Q&A and link to her blog.

The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen, by Catherine Lloyd Burns, (Aug. 2017, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 9780374300418

Recommended for ages 8-12

Cricket Cohen has a big imagination. Sometimes, it gets away from her – especially when she wants to impress someone, or just make a boring autobiography school assignment a little more exciting. After all, it’s fun when she and her grandmother pretend, right? Well… wrong, at least according to her schoolmates, who are tired of her making up stories, and her teacher, who wants her to redo her autobiography assignment with the truth this time. When her parents leave her alone with her grandmother, Dodo, while they go summer house-hunting in the Hamptons, Dodo convinces Cricket that they’re going to run away and have an adventure; Cricket’s all too happy to go. But Dodo starts becoming confused, and Cricket finds herself having to bail herself AND Dodo out of hot water when she’s the only one who knows what’s fact and what’s fantasy.

The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen is much more than a novel about a kid who likes to embellish the truth. It’s a story about grandparents and grandchildren, and it’s a story about what happens when children find themselves with the responsibility of caring for an adult: something that today’s kids sometimes find themselves managing.

Cricket finds herself disappearing into her imagination to deal with her boring classmates who prefer talking about clothes, shoes, and crushes to geology and stuffed animal brain surgery, but you can also argue that it’s an attention-seeking response to her parents, who are consumed with their nonprofit fundraising for the city’s public schools. They live above their means, and her mother – a control freak and perfectionist – treats her own mother like an inconvenience. Artsy free spirit Dodo pushes back against her daughter’s rules and regulations, and Cricket embraces her kindred spirit; but Cricket, previously unaware of her grandmother’s health struggles, finds herself in the position of being responsible for herself and her grandmother when her grandmother’s failing memory causes a problem in a department store.

The New York setting is fun – it’s got a touch of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to it. The story handles big issues like family relationships, aging grandparents, and embellishing the truth with a shot of fun and adventure. At the same time, the Dodo is the one character that remains truly likable throughout the story. Cricket and her family may be living above their means, but they are still an upper middle class family, living on New York’s Upper West Side and renting summer homes in the Hamptons. Her parents border on neglectful, putting the welfare of New York City’s public school children ahead of their own daughter’s. Cricket’s actions are understandable in the bigger picture, and she becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.

Have The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen available, along with Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart, and There Will Be Bears, by Ryan Gebhart, for readers who may be coping with an aging grandparent. Booktalk it with Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Kay Thompson’s Eloise, Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg, and Nadja Spiegelman’s Lost in NYC graphic novel for a fun New York reading theme.

Posted in Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

A spooky Book Birthday to Spirit Hunters!

Spirit Hunters, by Ellen Oh, (July 2017, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062430083

Recommended for readers 9-13

Harper Raine is not happy about her parents’ decision to move them from New York to Washington, D.C. She can’t stand the creepy house they’ve moved into, especially when she hears the rumors about it being haunted. When her younger brother, Michael, starts talking about an imaginary friend and undergoes a radical personality change, Harper knows she has to act, even if no one else believes her. The thing is, some of Michael’s behaviors ring familiar bells for Harper, but she can’t put her finger on why. She’s missing chunks of memory from a previous accident – can things be connected?

Ellen Oh’s the founder of the We Need Diverse Books movement, and Spirit Hunters gives readers a wonderfully spooky story, rich in diversity. Harper and her siblings are half Korean; as the story progresses, subplots reveal themselves and provide a fascinating look at Korean culture, and the conflicts that can arise between generations. Harper’s new friend, Dayo, and a helpful spirit named Mrs. Devereux are African-American; Mrs. Devereux in particular provides a chance for discussion on race relations, and how racism doesn’t necessarily end with one’s life. Told in the third person, we also hear Harper’s voice through her “stupid DC journals”; journal entries suggested by her therapist, to help bridge her memory gaps, that show up between chapters. The characters are brilliant, with strong backstories, and two mystery subplots emerge that come together, with the main story, to give readers an unputdownable story that will dare them to turn the lights off at night.

I can’t say enough good things about Spirit Hunters, and neither can other reviewers: the book has starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist.

 

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

One for Sorrow mixes ghost stories with historical fiction

One for Sorrow, by Mary Downing Hahn, (July 2017, Clarion Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9780544818095

Recommended for ages 10-14

Annie is the new girl at her school. Desperate to make new friends, she’s thwarted when the school pariah, Ellie, latches onto her on the first day. Annie quickly discovers that there’s a reason the other girls don’t like Ellie: she’s a liar, a tattletale, and a thief who bullies her way into Annie’s life. When Ellie is out sick for a few days, Annie manages to befriend the other girls at school and becomes one of Ellie’s tormentors. When the 1918 flu epidemic reaches Annie’s town, it claims Ellie as one of its victims, but Ellie’s spirit won’t rest. She returns as a vengeful ghost, punishing all the girls who bullied her through Annie, thus ensuring that Annie will be as hated as Ellie was in her lifetime.

Mary Downing Hahn is one of the reigning queens of middle grade horror. I still can’t look at a doll in the same way after reading Took (2015), and she’s the first author I go to when my library kids ask me for a good, scary story. One for Sorrow, inspired by the 19th century nursery rhyme, seamlessly blends elements of an intense ghost story with historical fiction. Hahn addresses World War I and anti-German sentiment and the 1918 flu epidemic in a small American town while drawing on her own mother’s childhood for inspiration, having her characters visit various homes with funereal wreaths on the door in order to eat their fill of sweets and pastries put out for the wakes. Ellie’s vicious haunting will keep readers turning pages late into the night, feeling Annie’s helpless frustration as Ellie systematically destroys her reputation and her life.

 

Mary Downing Hahn has won many awards for her writing. You can find out more about her (like the fact that she’s a former children’s librarian!), her books, and her awards, through her publisher’s website.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Can our favorite Book Scavengers figure out The Unbreakable Code?

The Unbreakable Code (Book Scavenger #2), by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, (April 2017, Henry Holt & Co. BYR), $16.99, ISBN: 9781627791168

Recommended for readers 8-12

The sequel to Book Scavenger (2015) continues the adventures of friends, code breakers, and bookworms Emily and James. Emily’s parents have put a hold on their state-hopping, giving Emily a feeling of permanence she missed terribly. She and James find themselves in the middle of another mystery when they notice their teacher, Mr. Quisling, acting strangely; they follow a trail of encrypted messages in Book Scavenger-laid Mark Twain books. The messages are an attempt to break a legendary, historic puzzle known as the Unbreakable Code, which leads to either a treasure or a curse. As mysterious and suspicious fires pop up around them, Emily and James are worried that Mr. Quisling is the arsonist – unless they can figure out who his mysterious Book Scavenger messenger is.

The Unbreakable Code is loaded with the adventure, mystery, and code-breaking fun that made the first book so enjoyable. There are mysteries within mysteries, and a real sense of urgency as the tweens try to get to the bottom of the arsonist on their trail. There’s a very good subplot about the history of Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush that shines a light on a part of history that doesn’t get as much discussion as it should. Ms. Chambliss also presents a very different Mr. Griswold, changed by the events in Book Scavenger. He’s withdrawn, hesitant, apprehensive; his buoyant style is toned down, and he surrounds himself with his assistant, Jack, and the company of dogs to guard him. Emily and James’ secondary mission is to nudge Mr. Griswold back to his former self.

A fun follow-up and a fun accompaniment to coding and spy programs. Introduce kids to coding with Book Scavenger and Gene Luen Yang’s Secret Coders! Kids can play their own game of Book Scavenger at the Book Scavenger website and sign up for the newsletter.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Arthur Yorinks’ Making Scents: A New Family Structure

Making Scents, by Arthur Yorinks/Illustrated by Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline, (June 2017, :01 First Second), $15.99, ISBN: 9781596434523

Recommended for readers 8-12

Mickey is a boy who’s been raised a little differently. His parents raised bloodhounds before he was born, and raised Mickey just like his “brothers and sisters”. Mickey doesn’t see anything different with his upbringing, even if other kids treat him like he’s weird. He wants to make his parents proud of him, so he’s working on developing his sense of smell, constantly sniffing and honing his senses. A tragedy strikes, and Mickey’s sent to live with his elderly aunt and uncle, who don’t like kids or dogs – but maybe Mickey can show them that he and his sniffer are more helpful than they realize.

This one was a wacky read. Making Scents reads like realistic fiction – it deals with grief and loss, extended families, and nontraditional families – but it does work on your suspension of disbelief. The opening scene, with baby Mickey being left in the woods for the dogs to find as a test/publicity gimmick sets the tone for the story: two dog-crazy grownups find themselves with a baby that they have no idea how to raise, but they do the best with what they’ve got. They love their human son as much as they do their canine sons and daughters, but I have to wonder what kind of parent-child relationship you can have if you see your child as equal to a pet that you “master”.

Regardless, Making Scents progresses to become a touching story of intergenerational relationships and family. Mickey, his mother’s older sister, and her husband have to create their own new family structure when an accident leaves Mickey orphaned. Once again, Mickey is thrust into a family that doesn’t know what to do with him, but this time around, he doesn’t have anyone or anything to take a social cue from; his aunt and uncle, like his parents, do their best with what they have and stumble along until Mickey’s abilities help reveal a potential health crisis.

Unexpected and sensitive, Making Scents is good for graphic novel collections that provide different perspectives.

Posted in Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

What’s hiding under The Suffering Tree?

The Suffering Tree, by Elle Cosimano, (June 2017, Disney-Hyperion), $17.99, ISBN: 9781484726594

Recommended for ages 14+

After her father’s death and her family’s eviction, Tori Burns, her mother, and younger brother, Kyle, move from Washington DC to Chaptico, Maryland; a small town with a lot of history. She’s received an inheritance of a house and land from a man named the patriarch of the Slaughter family, one of the oldest families in the area – she’s never met him, never heard of him – and his family are none too happy with it. Tori is miserable in the new house and with the Slaughter family, who seize every opportunity to be spiteful to Tori and her mother. Tori learns more about the Slaughter family’s dark history – and the history of the mythical Chaptico witch – when Nathaniel Bishop claws his way out of a grave under the oak tree in her backyard. It’s no zombie movie: Bishop was an abused, indentured servant for the Slaughter family in the 18th century, and he’s been brought back for a purpose that hasn’t yet revealed itself. Tori shelters him in the shed on her property as she struggles to make sense of the weird dreams she’s having. As she and Nathaniel unravel their histories, Tori uncovers the Slaughters’ secrets, finding herself a part of the mystery.

The Suffering Tree is a paranormal mystery that hinges on self-harm. There’s blood magic throughout the book, and the entire plot is set into motion once Tori – who self-harms – spills her own blood on the property. With references to rape, abuse, racism, and slavery, this is a novel that tackles some very big issues. Tori emerges as a strong character who struggles with cutting as a way to deal with the pain of her father’s loss and more recent stresses as the novel unfolds. Her mother isn’t a strong character at all, preferring to handle her daughter’s psychological issues by asking her if she’s okay and suggesting therapy throughout the book.

Teens are going to love this one. There’s suspense and the pace is intense. Booktalk with historical YA mysteries, like the Jackaby series from William Ritter; Stefan Petrucha’s Ripper, and Stephanie Morrill’s The Lost Girl of Astor Street.