I really enjoyed being a round-two judge for the Cybils Awards. The process for picking a winner was WAY harder than I expected it to be, but it was also great to have in-depth discussions about each of the finalists. I was surprised how many of the books I absolutely loved!
This year, I said I’d be willing to be either a round-one or round-two judge, and I was chosen for round one for the MG Speculative Fiction category. That means I’ll be reading TONS of MG Spec Fic this fall, a prospect that is both daunting and exciting! The round-one judges decide the finalists, and I’m eager to see how the whole process works.
More on that later. For now, I realized I never actually featured last year’s finalists here on the blog after I read them, and that seemed like a travesty since I adored many of these books. I need to at least give everyone a quick run-down of my thoughts about these books. So, without further ado…
THE WINNERTristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
Series: Tristan Strong #1
Also in this series: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky
Published by Rick Riordan Presents on October 15, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Cover Artist: Eric Wilkerson
Seventh-grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan chases after it — is that a doll? — and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American gods John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?
This book seems like a really good place to start since we chose it as the winner, right? I already wrote a long and glowing review of this book on the blog, so I’ll keep it short and simple here. Basically, I love the way that African American folklore is woven into this story, and I also think it handles difficult topics like slavery and guilt over a friend’s death in accessible ways.
I fought hard for this one when it came to decision time because I thought the overall messages are so very important and so many wonderful stories are incorporated, which will hopefully encourage kids to want to learn more about them. (A couple of judges were concerned with the 400+ page length for this age group—a very valid concern, but in the end we decided that the positives definitely outweighed that one negative.) This book was at or near the top of all of the judges’ lists, so I’m incredibly happy that it won!
For the rest of the books, I’m just going to present them in the order they’re shown on the finalists banner…
The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz
Published by Algonquin Young Readers on October 1, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Cover Artist: Michelle Lamoreaux
The new face of big evil is a little . . . small.
Dastardly deeds aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind when one hears the name “Clementine,” but as the sole heir of the infamous Dark Lord Elithor, twelve-year-old Clementine Morcerous has been groomed since birth to be the best (worst?) Evil Overlord she can be. But everything changes the day the Dark Lord Elithor is cursed by a mysterious rival.
Now, Clementine must not only search for a way to break the curse, but also take on the full responsibilities of the Dark Lord. As Clementine forms her first friendships, discovers more about her own magic than she ever dared to explore, and is called upon to break her father’s code of good and evil, she starts to question the very life she’s been fighting for. What if the Dark Lord Clementine doesn’t want to be dark after all?
This book is a super cute read, where the “villain” turns out to be not so villainous after all. Clementine struggles to prove herself as a Dark Lord, mostly because she isn’t actually particularly evil. The story is told mostly from Clementine’s perspective, but there are some other interesting POV’s sprinkled throughout to mix things up a bit. Kids who love fantasy and magic will surely enjoy Clementine’s journey to self-acceptance and to figuring out who she is apart from her Dark Lord father.
Cog by Greg Van Eekhout
Illustrator: Beatrice Blue
Published by HarperCollins on October 1, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Science Fiction
Five robots. One unforgettable journey. Their programming will never be the same.
Cog looks like a normal twelve-year-old boy. But his name is short for “cognitive development,” and he was built to learn.
But after an accident leaves him damaged, Cog wakes up in an unknown lab—and Gina, the scientist who created and cared for him, is nowhere to be found. Surrounded by scientists who want to study him and remove his brain, Cog recruits four robot accomplices for a mission to find her.
Cog, ADA, Proto, Trashbot, and Car’s journey will likely involve much cognitive development in the form of mistakes, but Cog is willing to risk everything to find his way back to Gina.
This book is wonderful because of its incredibly unique middle-grade voice. The MC is a robot boy, and his perspective on the world is humorous and sometimes incredibly insightful. The story focused on friendship and the concept of free will (in a way that middle graders will relate to). It would be perfect for the slightly younger MG crowd since it’s a little lighter fare than some others on our finalist list (and also shorter), but that didn’t prevent it from having some impactful messages. I found this to be a delightful read!
A Sprinkle of Spirits by Anna Meriano
Series: Love Sugar Magic #2
Also in this series: , A Dash of Trouble
Published by Walden Pond Press on February 5, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Magical Realism
Cover Artist: Mirelle Ortega
Leonora Logroño has finally been introduced to her family’s bakery bruja magic—but that doesn’t mean everything is all sugar and spice. Her special power hasn’t shown up yet, her family still won’t let her perform her own spells, and they now act rude every time Caroline comes by to help Leo with her magic training.
She knows that the family magic should be kept secret, but Caroline is her best friend, and she’s been feeling lonely ever since her mom passed away. Why should Leo have to choose between being a good bruja and a good friend?
In the midst of her confusion, Leo wakes up one morning to a startling sight: her dead grandmother, standing in her room, looking as alive as she ever was. Both Leo and her abuela realize this might mean trouble—especially once they discover that Abuela isn’t the only person in town who has been pulled back to life from the other side.
Spirits are popping up all over town, causing all sorts of trouble! Is this Leo’s fault? And can she reverse the spell before it’s too late?
This series is perfect for kids who love fantasy grounded in reality since it’s magical realism—set in the “real” world where most people don’t know about magic at all. The story is rich with Latinx culture, which is a huge positive! I loved the messages about friendship in this second book in the series. It showed that friends and family obligations don’t have to preclude each other and that working together is always better than trying to go it alone. Family bonds are a huge part of the story, and we learn even more about Leo’s family in this book. There was one part of the plot that had to do with a lie that an adult has Leo tell her friend that I had a few issues with, but that might have been a personal hang-up. Overall, I think kids will really enjoy this story!
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
Series: Sal and Gabi #1
Published by Rick Riordan Presents on March 5, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Science Fiction
Cover Artist: Andrea Galecio
How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany's locker?
When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn't under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal's office for the third time in three days, and it's still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany's locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared.
Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he's capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken--including his dead mother--and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There's only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk.
A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in this mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.
This is a very character-centric book, and the characters are wonderful! It’s hard not to fall in love with Sal, an exceptionally emotionally precocious child, despite the fact that he’s still trying to recover from the loss of his mother when he was a young child. He’s also a practiced magician, and his magic adds a playful element to the book. Then there’s Gabi, who’s precocious in an entirely different way–she could win any debate with her logical mind and incredible intelligence. The book explores themes of love and loss and deep friendship. My only complaint is that it’s a bit light on plot, especially for a middle grade–I kept waiting for Sal and Gabi to … break the universe or something. The title is deceiving because nothing bad ever really happens because of Sal’s gift with multi-verses and he doesn’t do all that much with his gift until the very end of the book (which was excellent and emotionally compelling). Still, there were lots of positives: great messages, tons of Cuban-American culture, a diabetic main character who helped us see what living with that condition is like.
This was high on the list as a contender for the top spot!
We're Not from Here by Geoff Rodkey
Published by Crown Books for Young Readers on March 5, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Science Fiction
Cover Artist: Andrew Bannecker
Imagine being forced to move to a new planet where YOU are the alien! From the creator of the Tapper Twins,
New York Times
bestselling author Geoff Rodkey delivers a topical, sci-fi middle-grade novel that proves friendship and laughter can transcend even a galaxy of differences.
The first time I heard about Planet Choom, we'd been on Mars for almost a year. But life on the Mars station was grim, and since Earth was no longer an option (we may have blown it up), it was time to find a new home.
That's how we ended up on Choom with the Zhuri. They're very smart. They also look like giant mosquitos. But that's not why it's so hard to live here. There's a lot that the Zhuri don't like: singing (just ask my sister, Ila), comedy (one joke got me sent to the principal's office), or any kind of emotion. The biggest problem, though? The Zhuri don't like us. And if humankind is going to survive, it's up to my family to change their minds. No pressure.
I really loved this exploration of refugees and immigration. Based on the cover, I thought this was just going to be a lighthearted book, but it was much more serious than I expected it to be. I found myself constantly analyzing the parallels with modern-day refugees. Of course, middle-grade readers won’t be doing that, but these themes could be discussed in a classroom situation. Even with these significant themes, though, the book is told in a humorous manner that kids will enjoy. Things were wrapped up a little suddenly (and easily?), but middle-graders probably won’t be bothered by that aspect as much as some adult readers might.
Homerooms and Hall Passes by Tom O'Donnell
Series: Homerooms and Hall Passes #1
on October 8, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Cover Artist: Stephen Gilpin
In the mystical realm of Bríandalör, every day the brave and the bold delve into hidden temples or forgotten dungeons, battling vile monsters and evil wizards to loot their treasure hoards for sweet, sweet magic items.
But in their free time, our heroes—Thromdurr the mighty barbarian, Devis the shifty thief, Vela the noble paladin, Sorrowshade the Gloom Elf assassin, and Albiorix the (good!) wizard—need to relax and unwind.
That’s why they meet up once a week to play Homerooms & Hall Passes: a role-playing game where they assume the characters of average American eighth graders.
But when the five young adventurers are magically transported into their H&H game by an ancient curse, they must band together to survive their toughest challenge yet: middle school.
Who knew that battling ogres would be easier than passing algebra or navigating the cafeteria social scene? They must use what they’ve learned from playing Homerooms & Hall Passes to figure out how to save their game world (which might actually be real...).
Dungeons & Dragons meets Jumanji in this new, laugh-out-loud adventure series from the author of the beloved Hamstersaurus Rex series.
This book is absolutely hilarious! If we were judging by sheer entertainment alone, I’m guessing that this would have won for me hands-down because I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much while reading! The whole concept of role-playing-game characters coming to the “real” world (which they thought of as a pretend world from their RPG) is incredibly unique. It’s also a fabulous example of a multi-POV book done right, and I fell in love with every one of the characters. Seeing the mundane world of an average middle-grade school through an outsider’s perspective was so much fun, and I loved the way the characters’ game affected the middle school environment. Honestly, I can’t rave about this book enough!
This book was also a top contender—we had such a hard time deciding in the end!
So, that wraps up my thoughts on the 2019 MG Speculative Fiction Cybils Finalists. Judging for the awards was a fantastic experience, and I’m excited to be a part of the process once again.