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!
Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
Published by Rick Riordan Presents on January 14, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Cover Artist: Dale Ray Deforest
My content rating: MG (Some violence)
Lately, seventh grader Nizhoni Begay has been able to detect monsters, like that man in the fancy suit who was in the bleachers at her basketball game. Turns out he's Mr. Charles, her dad's new boss at the oil and gas company, and he's alarmingly interested in Nizhoni and her brother, Mac, their Navajo heritage, and the legend of the Hero Twins. Nizhoni knows he's a threat, but her father won't believe her.
When Dad disappears the next day, leaving behind a message that says "Run!", the siblings and Nizhoni's best friend, Davery, are thrust into a rescue mission that can only be accomplished with the help of Diné Holy People, all disguised as quirky characters. Their aid will come at a price: the kids must pass a series of trials in which it seems like nature itself is out to kill them. If Nizhoni, Mac, and Davery can reach the House of the Sun, they will be outfitted with what they need to defeat the ancient monsters Mr. Charles has unleashed. But it will take more than weapons for Nizhoni to become the hero she was destined to be . . .
Timeless themes such as the importance of family and respect for the land resonate in this funny, fast-paced, and exciting quest adventure set in the American Southwest.
This book is like every other Rick Riordan Presents book, and I mean that in the best of ways: almost every RRP book I’ve read is fun, action-packed, and culturally rich. The MC is usually a child of a god or mythological figure and learns of their awesome supernatural powers as the book progresses. You can say it’s a formula, but there’s a reason that my youngest has read every single Rick Riordan book ever written and many of the books from his imprint (he’s still getting to them all)—it’s a formula that kids love!
This book focuses on Navajo folklore, once again shedding light on a culture that many kids (unfortunately) haven’t had much access to. I have to say, that I was surprised how very little I knew of Native American lore—you’d think that since their stories are so close to home, they’d be widely known, but it just goes to show how certain voices are ignored. The main character, Nizhoni, has waited her whole life to find the one thing she’s good at so she can stand out—but she never counted on discovering that she’s a monster hunter. She ends up on a quest to hunt down her dad’s boss(!) before he releases all the other monsters on the world, but she needs the help of ancient Navajo heroes (including her used-to-be-stuffed frog) to do it. Along the way, Nizhoni learns secrets of her family’s past and finds that her life goal of gaining middle school fame isn’t as important as making a real difference.
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake
Illustrator: Jon Klassen
Series: Skunk and Badger #1
Published by Algonquin Young Readers on September 15, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
My content rating: MG (Some very mild violence and bullying)
Wallace and Gromit meets Winnie-the-Pooh in a fresh take on a classic odd-couple friendship, from Newbery Honor author Amy Timberlake with full-color and black-and-white illustrations throughout by Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.
No one wants a skunk.
They are unwelcome on front stoops. They should not linger in Important Rock Rooms. Skunks should never, ever be allowed to move in. But Skunk is Badger’s new roommate, and there is nothing Badger can do about it.
When Skunk plows into Badger’s life, everything Badger knows is upended. Tails are flipped. The wrong animal is sprayed. And why-oh-why are there so many chickens?
Newbery Honor author Amy Timberlake spins the first tale in a series about two opposites who need to be friends. New York Times bestselling author/illustrator and Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen completes the book with his signature lushly textured art. This beautifully bound edition contains both full-color plates and numerous black-and-white illustrations.
Skunk and Badger is a book you’ll want to read, reread, and read out loud . . . again and again.
This book has a very classical vibe, so I can definitely see why the publishers compare it to Winnie-the-Pooh. The story is simple, and the themes timeless, but there are also some obvious references to modern culture as well (xenophobia or fear of the “other” is a major theme). Badger is very settled in his routine. He has his important rock work to do (I loved how he always refers to his work with rocks as very important, but you’re never quite sure what it is that he’s doing with those rocks besides cataloging them). When Skunk shows up at his front door, Badger just wants to get rid of him. The last thing he needs is a disruption. Plus, skunks have a reputation as troublemakers who will just stink up the place. Of course, Badger learns to love his new friend but not without some frustrations and lessons along the way. In the end, Badger realizes that his way isn’t always the best way, and it certainly isn’t the only way. The illustrations are lovely (and, again, timeless) and the story engaging. This is a wonderful book for young readers!
The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliott
Illustrator: Geneva B
Series: Dragons in a Bag #2
Published by Random House Books for Young Readers on October 22, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
My content rating: MG (Some very mild violence)
Stealing a baby dragon was easy! Hiding it is a little more complicated, in this sequel to reviewer favorite Dragons in a Bag.
Jaxon had just one job--to return three baby dragons to the realm of magic. But when he got there, only two dragons were left in the bag. His best friend's sister, Kavita, is a dragon thief!
Kavita only wanted what was best for the baby dragon. But now every time she feeds it, the dragon grows and grows! How can she possibly keep it secret? Even worse, stealing it has upset the balance between the worlds. The gates to the other realm have shut tight! Jaxon needs all the help he can get to find Kavita, outsmart a trickster named Blue, and return the baby dragon to its true home.
This is a sequel to Dragons in a Bag, which I haven’t reviewed, so I’ll give you a quick synopsis of that one first: When Jaxon’s mom has to go to court to keep them from being evicted, she leaves him a grouchy old woman he’s never met called Ma. Jaxon eventually learns that the reason Ma is grumpy is because she’s a bit preoccupied by the fact that someone has sent her some baby dragons—she needs to get them home before they wreak havoc on the non-magical world. Jaxon ends up going with her to try to return the dragons, but lots of things go wrong along the way, including the discovery that Jaxon’s best friends little sister has stolen one of the dragons!
That’s where book two picks up. Kavita never meant to be a dragon thief, but when she realizes that the baby dragons have imprinted on her, she just can’t bring herself to let them all go. She soon realizes that this was a mistake and just wants to return them, but she needs her Aunty’s help. Meanwhile Ma has fallen ill, and Jaxon determines that he needs to return the dragon to its rightful home on his own in order to save her.
These books have wonderful themes of family that many kids will relate to–with blood family (Kavita and her brother, Jaxon and his estranged grandfather who wishes he had been more a part of his daughter’s life and wants to make up for it with Jaxon) and found family (Aunty, who raised Kavita’s father and Ma, who raised Jaxon’s mother). It’s also nice to see an urban setting explored. The story in this second book is cute and a villain is introduced as the kids learn that people have different perspectives on whether or not magic should be introduced to the real world—and some people will stop at nothing to make sure that they get what they want. Overall, a fun read!
The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown
Published by Scholastic Press on November 5, 2019
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
Narrator: Imani Parks
Length: 4 hours and 52 minutes
Cover Artist: Maeve Norton
My content rating: MG (Very spooky; themes of death)
"Do you know what it feels like to be forgotten?"
On a cold winter night, Iris and her best friend, Daniel, sneak into a clearing in the woods to play in the freshly fallen snow. There, Iris carefully makes a perfect snow angel - only to find the crumbling gravestone of a young girl, Avery Moore, right beneath her.
Immediately, strange things start to happen to Iris: She begins having vivid nightmares. She wakes up to find her bedroom window wide open, letting in the snow. She thinks she sees the shadow of a girl lurking in the woods. And she feels the pull of the abandoned grave, calling her back to the clearing...
Obsessed with figuring out what's going on, Iris and Daniel start to research the area for a school project. They discover that Avery's grave is actually part of a neglected and forgotten Black cemetery, dating back to a time when White and Black people were kept separate in life - and in death. As Iris and Daniel learn more about their town's past, they become determined to restore Avery's grave and finally have proper respect paid to Avery and the others buried there.
But they have awakened a jealous and demanding ghost, one that's not satisfied with their plans for getting recognition. One that is searching for a best friend forever - no matter what the cost.
The Forgotten Girl is both a spooky original ghost story and a timely and important storyline about reclaiming an abandoned segregated cemetery.
The Forgotten Girl is a truly spooky middle grade read that focuses on segregation and how that period of our history led to many people of that generation being essentially forgotten. It centers around Iris and her best friend Daniel, who stumble across an abandoned graveyard when they sneak out one night to play in the snow. After that encounter, Iris finds herself haunted by the ghost of a young girl. At first Iris believes she might just be dreaming the encounters, but it becomes apparent that the ghost is real—and that she may have very dangerous intentions.
Like I said, this book is actually pretty scary. It reads like a true ghost story (and might be a bit intense for some middle grade readers). But I love how Brown weaves a forgotten history into the tale and ties it into Iris’s life, where she herself is feeling overlooked and suspects that race might be a major factor in that. I also love the themes of friendship and rising above adversity, and the backdrop of a paranormal tale adds a level of suspense to a tale that could otherwise feel didactic. This is an engrossing tale!
NARRATION: I listened to the audiobook version of this one and was quite impressed by the atmospheric narration performed by Imani Parks.