As my regular readers know, I’m a round one judge for the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category. Because of that, I’ve been reading LOTS of books lately! I’m not allowed to share any details about our process for choosing the finalists, but I am allowed (and encouraged) to review the books as I read, so I figured I’d share four of them with you today. I hope these bite-sized reviews will be enough to feed your fiction addiction!
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
Illustrator: Xavier Bonet
Published by Candlewick Press on March 24, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Retellings
Cover Artist: Ji-Hyuk Kim
My content rating: MG (Death of a character)
A boy on the run. A girl determined to find him.
All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.
Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, and inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
This book absolutely blew me away! Right off the bat, I was hooked by the premise: a middle grade fantasy retelling of Les Miserables set in a Thai-inspired world. I mean, how cool is that? Now, I have to say that Les Mis the musical is an absolute all-time favorite of mine and I’ve seen it a bunch of times. Someday I will actually read the tome it was based on, but … I haven’t managed to get through it yet. All that is to say, I’m incredibly familiar with the basics of the story as presented by the musical (but not with the full original material). I LOVED the parallels I discovered between my beloved musical and this book! Soontornvat did a fantastic job of capturing the essence and themes of the original story without copying the plotline exactly. The result was wonderful!
This book follows Pong, a young boy who was born in a prison. After being told by his hero that children like him are destined to find their way back to prison even after they’re released, he loses his hope for a better life. It isn’t until he escapes the prison and is shepherded by a wise and kindly monk that he begins to regain a sense of his own self-worth.
In the meantime, Nok has grown up with a life of privilege, and she has always believed in following the rules. She discovers Pong and believes that she must help her family’s reputation (and her own) by tracking down the escaped prisoner. Her sense of right and wrong is challenged throughout the book.
The story puts the spotlight on poverty and class differences through the use of magic—the lower classes can only afford the most meager of magical light orbs to use in their daily lives for both light and cooking, while the upper classes enjoy the stability and privilege of the most powerful sources of magical light and heat. The people have had enough, and they plan to march in protest of the unfair conditions (a parallel to our current world that would be great to discuss in classroom settings). Pong has to decide whether to stand for what he believes is right or run the other way to avoid being caught for the crime of escaping the prison. The fact that the story is told from both Pong’s (a poor prisoner) and Nok’s (a member of the privileged elite) perspectives gives the book incredible depth.
This book features an exciting plot and rich character development, while it also gives a nuanced representation of the struggles between the rich and the poor. I highly recommend it!
Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega
Published by Scholastic Press on April 7, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
Cover Artist: Lorena Alvarez Gómez
My content rating: MG (Slightly spooky)
Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters in this action-packed supernatural fantasy.For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business.Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd's witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely's firefly spirits before it's too late.With the family dynamics of Coco and action-packed adventure of Ghostbusters, Claribel A. Ortega delivers both a thrillingly spooky and delightfully sweet debut novel.
Ghost Squad is a great middle grade introduction into the paranormal. It definitely has all of the elements of a traditional spooky story (graveyards, spirits, witches, spells…), but those elements don’t come together in a way that feels too scary for the younger middle grade reader that this adorable cover will probably appeal to. The story features an Own Voices representation of Dominican folklore and culture, and it also puts a spotlight on strong friendships and family bonds (including found family). The story is very action-oriented, and kids who like a fast-moving plot will be entranced. The characters are super fun too (especially Lucely’s best friend’s grandma), though I wished there had been a bit more emphasis on Lucely’s personal struggles and the subplot of the possible loss of her family’s home (that’s just a personal preference though). Overall, a fun kids’ intro to spooky stories!
***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review purposes. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***
Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie
Published by Sourcebooks on September 1, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
Cover Artist: Jana Heidersdorf
My content rating: MG (Definitely spooky!)
A ghost story about a malevolent spirit, an unlucky girl, and a haunting mystery that will tie the two together.
Claire has absolutely no interest in the paranormal. She’s a scientist, which is why she can’t think of anything worse than having to help out her dad on one of his ghost-themed Chicago bus tours. She thinks she’s made it through when she sees a boy with a sad face and dark eyes at the back of the bus. There’s something off about his presence, especially because when she checks at the end of the tour…he’s gone.
Claire tries to brush it off, she must be imagining things, letting her dad’s ghost stories get the best of her. But then the scratching starts. Voices whisper to her in the dark. The number 396 appears everywhere she turns. And the boy with the dark eyes starts following her.
Claire is being haunted. The boy from the bus wants something...and Claire needs to find out what before it’s too late.
Kids that already know they like to be spooked might want to graduate from Ghost Squad to Scritch Scratch. This book has the feel of a true ghost story and is sure to raise goosebumps and keep readers wary of every bump in the night. One aspect of this book that I loved is the fact that it puts the spotlight on a disaster that happened in Chicago that almost no one knows about (including me, even though it happened so close to my hometown). I won’t say what it is because that would actually spoil part of the mystery aspect of the book, but I found it to be fascinating. Claire’s dad runs a ghost tour in Chicago, so I actually learned about several spooky occurrences in the city that I hadn’t heard of before!
Like I said, this story feels truly creepy as Claire is haunted by a little boy in numerous eerie ways. As she tries to unravel the mystery of who the ghost is and what he wants from her, she has the help of her brother and her friends. I loved the focus on these relationships—Claire has felt a bit left out because her best friend has made a new friend. Her feelings of jealousy feel authentic, and I appreciated the way this storyline unfolded. Claire’s family relationships also ring true: she loves her dad, but she’s also a bit embarrassed by his ghost tours; and her sibling rivalry with her brother is overcome by the bonds that tie them together.
A truly spine-tingling read that features some little-known history!
Midnight at the Barclay Hotel by Fleur T. Bradley
Illustrator: Xavier Bonet
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers on August 25, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal, Mysteries
My content rating: MG (Slightly Spooky)
Hunting ghosts and solving the case before checkout? All in a weekend's work.
When JJ Jacobson convinced his mom to accept a surprise invitation to an all-expenses-paid weekend getaway at the illustrious Barclay Hotel, he never imagined that he'd find himself in the midst of a murder mystery. He thought he was in for a run-of-the-mill weekend ghost hunting at the most haunted spot in town, but when he arrives at the Barclay Hotel and his mother is blamed for the hotel owner's death, he realizes his weekend is going to be anything but ordinary.
Now, with the help of his new friends, Penny and Emma, JJ has to track down a killer, clear his mother's name, and maybe even meet a ghost or two along the way.
Apparently this year’s Cybils Awards nominators are really into ghost stories, because this last book is another one!
The Barclay Hotel is well-known for being haunted, so JJ is super excited when his mom gets an exclusive invitation to spend an all-expense-paid weekend there. He talks her into going, planning to do a little ghost hunting while he’s there. Meanwhile, Penny’s grandpa is also invited to the hotel, while Emma is just excited to finally have some kids around to hang out with. They’re surprised to find, though, that this isn’t just any invite–Mr. Barclay has been murdered, and almost everyone invited is a suspect (except Penny’s grandpa, who’s a detective). The guests are expected to figure out whodunit (murder-mystery-party style). This story is a fun mystery that never takes itself too terribly seriously, and the story has some great twists that I didn’t see coming. The ghost elements aren’t incredibly scary, so it’s great for younger middle grade readers too. This was a really fun read!!