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!
Kiki's Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers on July 7, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Translator: Emily Balistrieri
Cover Artist: Yuta Onoda
My content rating: MG
Nostalgic fans of the Miyazaki film and newcomers alike--soar into the modern classic about a young witch and her clever cat that started it all!
Half-witch Kiki never runs from a challenge. So when her thirteenth birthday arrives, she's eager to follow a witch's tradition: choose a new town to call home for one year.
Brimming with confidence, Kiki flies to the seaside village of Koriko and expects that her powers will easily bring happiness to the townspeople. But gaining the trust of the locals is trickier than she expected. With her faithful, wise-cracking black cat, Jiji, by her side, Kiki forges new friendships and builds her inner strength, ultimately realizing that magic can be found in even the most ordinary places.
Blending fantasy with the charm of everyday life, this enchanting new translation will inspire both new readers and dedicated fans.
If some of you are confused, this is actually a new translation of a modern classic (first published in 1985), so now new middle grade readers can discover Kiki!
Kiki is a half-witch and her only truly developed power is her ability to fly—but that doesn’t stop her from going on a quest to become a town witch. When she gets to her new home, she needs to determine how she can help, and she soon comes up with the plan to become a delivery service. Kiki’s Delivery Service ends up leading to many adventures and Kiki learns how to make the very best of the magic that she has. This book is super cute, and I could definitely see it working well as an anime—each little adventure builds on the last until we get to a finale where Kiki saves her town’s beloved holiday. The stakes are a little lower than what we typically see in today’s middle grade fiction, but I was surprised how much I still enjoyed reading about Kiki’s exploits. The story is simple and sweet and highlights the joys and confusions of growing up. Overall, a wonderful read!
Embassy of the Dead by Will Mabbitt
Illustrator: Taryn Knight
Series: Embassy of the Dead #1
Published by Walker Books US on September 8, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
My content rating: MG (Ghosts and some violence, but not too terribly spooky)
Jake Green is dead. Or he might as well be when he mistakenly accepts a package from the Embassy of the Dead in this hilarious adventure of the afterlife, the first in a series.
When Jake Green opens a mysterious box containing a severed finger, he accidentally summons a grim reaper intent on dragging him to the Eternal Void (yes, it's as fatal as it sounds). Now Jake is running for his life. Luckily, he has a knack for talking to ghosts, which just might help him survive long enough to reach the Embassy of the Dead and plead his case. With the help of a prankster poltergeist and a dead undertaker, Jake dodges fearsome undead creatures, discovers his own ghostly abilities, and gets excused from the school field trip due to a terrible (and made-up) bout of diarrhea. But the Embassy has its own problems, and Jake must be very careful where he places his trust--in both the living and the dead. With a plot that zips and a colorful cast of characters, this delightful new series delivers laughs and shivers in equal measure.
I have to agree with the blurb for this book—it truly is equal parts supernatural chills and humor. Jake finds himself in a bit of trouble when a ghost mistakes him for an agent of the Embassy of the Dead. He’s given a mysterious package that turns out to be an ancient magical artifact (a finger!) that has the potential to destroy the world. And the Embassy is after him because of it—they don’t care that he broke the rules entirely by mistake. He ends up on a quirky quest to “unbreak” those rules (after the fact—the underworld lawyer he consults insists it’s possible) and return the finger before they have a chance to send him to the Eternal Void. The whole thing ends up being a madcap ghostly adventure, complete with goofy sidekicks. I listened to the audiobook and enjoyed the whole story immensely, right down to the twists and turns at the end! Kids who like supernatural stories that make them laugh will surely be drawn to this one.
The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas
Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on July 21, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
Cover Artist: Andrea Galecio
My content rating: MG (Some violence; family member in the military)
In this magical middle-grade debut novel from Adrianna Cuevas, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez, a Cuban American boy must use his secret ability to communicate with animals to save the inhabitants of his town when they are threatened by a tule vieja, a witch that transforms into animals.
All Nestor Lopez wants is to live in one place for more than a few months and have dinner with his dad.
When he and his mother move to a new town to live with his grandmother after his dad’s latest deployment, Nestor plans to lay low. He definitely doesn’t want to anyone find out his deepest secret: that he can talk to animals.
But when the animals in his new town start disappearing, Nestor's grandmother becomes the prime suspect after she is spotted in the woods where they were last seen. As Nestor investigates the source of the disappearances, he learns that they are being seized by a tule vieja―a witch who can absorb an animal’s powers by biting it during a solar eclipse. And the next eclipse is just around the corner…
Now it’s up to Nestor’s extraordinary ability and his new friends to catch the tule vieja―and save a place he might just call home.
Nestor Lopez takes place in a completely realistic contemporary setting, which makes it that much for fun for kids to imagine that something paranormal could happen right in their backyard. Nestor can talk to animals (which is already an incredibly appealing set-up—what kid doesn’t imagine themselves talking to animals?), but something sinister is out there taking them. Worse, some people suspect Nestor’s own grandmother has something to do with it. If he wants to save the animals in his town and prove his grandmother’s innocence, he needs to figure out who (or what) is responsible for the disappearances. Of course, the answer is something even more out there than his own ability to communicate with wildlife—and far more dangerous.
One of my favorite aspects of this book was the fact that Nestor’s dad is active duty military. Nestor has to deal with the fear that something could happen to his father while also facing monsters at home with his grandmother. The very real fears that Nestor has for his father and the constant moving will resonate with military kids. I also loved the Cuban folklore of the tule vieja, the Cuban foods that were featured, and the bits of Spanish language sprinkled throughout the book. Overall, a fun adventure story that puts a spotlight on folklore that many kids have probably never heard of, which is always a win in my book!
Middle School Bites by Steven Banks
Illustrator: Mark Fearing
Series: Middle School Bites #1
Published by Holiday House on February 4, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
My content rating: MG
Tom is desperate to fit in at school, but he's hungry and howling, not to mention half dead. Blame it on the vampire - and the werewolf - and the zombie.
Thanks to a series of unfortunate bites, eleven-year-old Tom is a triple threat: he's a Vam-Wolf-Zom. And just in time for the first day of middle school. So much for his Invisible Tom Plan. He never thought to make a What If I Turn Into A Vampire Werewolf Zombie Plan. Maybe it's time for a Run Away and Live Somewhere Else Plan?
With the help of his irrepressible best friend, Zeke, Tom tries to accept his future. Zeke thinks being a Vam-Wolf-Zom sounds EXCELLENT! (Zeke thinks everything sounds EXCELLENT!) At least he'll be able to stand up to the sixth-grade bully. The question is will the rest of Hamilton Middle School accept the Vam-Wolf-Zom, too?
This is one of those middle grade reads that almost never takes itself seriously—which only adds to the fun! One day while Tom is visiting his grandmother, he ends up getting bitten by a vampire and then bitten by a werewolf and finally a zombie—all without realizing it! Yep, he’s bitten by the vampire in bat form while sleeping, he thinks the werewolf is a dog, and he assumes the zombie is just a fake carnie prop when he “scrapes” his hand on its tooth. So, he doesn’t realize what’s going on the next day when he’s suddenly a little too hairy, sensitive to the sun and goes from super strong to sluggish at the drop of a hat.
By the time Tom finally figures out what’s happening, he’s already made a mess of a bunch of things. But really, that’s what middle school is all about, right? Honestly, the whole story is just an unapologetically goofy metaphor for middle school in general and some of the wonders of puberty—didn’t we all feel like misfit monsters at some point or another during that time? I love the way that the story ends up too—it all unfolds in some quirky and unexpected ways! A purely entertaining reading experience!
Into the Tall, Tall Grass by Loriel Ryon
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books on April 7, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Magical Realism
Cover Artist: Victo Ngai
My content rating: MG (Deals with death of a loved one and learning that someone close to you is LGBTQ; parent in the military)
A girl journeys across her family’s land to save her grandmother’s life.
Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her grandmother, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her grandmother, who will she have left?
When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that her grandmother needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right?
Into the Tall, Tall Grass is magical realism at its best. Yolanda struggles with so many real-life issues: the death of her abuelo and her abuela’s serious illness, the loss of a friendship, sibling rivalry, budding romance, her military father’s absence, and so much more. Add to that a touch of magic—all of Yolanda’s family members except for her have magical gifts—and you have a recipe for a story filled with wonder. This is definitely a quiet tale—the plot revolves around Yolanda’s desire to save her Wela by bringing her out to the lone remaining pecan tree past the strange tall, tall grass on their property, and there are certainly some obstacles along the way, but the true story is Yolanda learning about her family’s mysterious past and coming to terms with the emotional ramifications of her broken relationships. The secrets of the past (both Yolanda’s recent past and her abuela’s past) unravel slowly throughout the book, which keeps you turning the pages. And the bittersweet emotional payoff in the end is utterly wonderful!