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!
Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Series: Paola Santiago #1
Published by Rick Riordan Presents on August 4, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Cover Artist: Vanessa Morales
My content rating: MG (Some violence; death)
Space-obsessed 12-year-old Paola Santiago and her two best friends, Emma and Dante, know the rule: Stay away from the river. It's all they've heard since a schoolmate of theirs drowned a year ago. Pao is embarrassed to admit that she has been told to stay away for even longer than that, because her mother is constantly warning her about La Llorona, the wailing ghost woman who wanders the banks of the Gila at night, looking for young people to drag into its murky depths.
Hating her mother's humiliating superstitions and knowing that she and her friends would never venture into the water, Pao organizes a meet-up to test out her new telescope near the Gila, since it's the best stargazing spot. But when Emma never arrives and Pao sees a shadowy figure in the reeds, it seems like maybe her mom was right. . . .
Pao has always relied on hard science to make sense of the world, but to find her friend she will have to enter the world of her nightmares, which includes unnatural mist, mind-bending monsters, and relentless spirits controlled by a terrifying force that defies both logic and legend.
This is my favorite Rick Riordan Presents book I’ve read so far this year (and if you’ve been around my blog, you know that’s saying something because I tend to love them all). Paola has always been more than a little skeptical (and slightly embarrassed) of her mom’s belief in the paranormal. Paola is a scientist and she doesn’t put any stock in those types of fairy tales, including the story of La Llorona, the woman who drowned her own children and prowls the river in grief (and drowning other unsuspecting children because, why not?). Paola’s complex feelings about her mom (and society’s perceptions of people who believe in certain cultural mythologies) take center stage in a lot of this book.
I think my favorite part of this book was the way the tale of La Llorona was woven in—it’s very subtle at first. (In fact, I was starting to wonder if and when it would tie in at all.) But then, it all comes together, and you realize why it all makes sense! The villains in this story also come in various shades of gray. It isn’t even 100% clear who is a villain for a lot of the story. And once you find out, you could almost feel sorry for them. Almost. I did think one character changed sides a little too abruptly, but I’m doubting most middle grade readers will be too disturbed by that.
With rich cultural roots, complex characters, and a whole slew of paranormal shenanigans, this book is a sure winner!
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Published by Scholastic Press on March 3, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Cover Artist: Paola Escobar
My content rating: MG (Parent leaves)
Maximiliano Córdoba loves stories, especially the legend Buelo tells him about a mythical gatekeeper who can guide brave travelers on a journey into tomorrow.
If Max could see tomorrow, he would know if he'd make Santa Maria's celebrated fútbol team and whether he'd ever meet his mother, who disappeared when he was a baby. He longs to know more about her, but Papá won't talk. So when Max uncovers a buried family secret--involving an underground network of guardians who lead people fleeing a neighboring country to safety--he decides to seek answers on his own.
With a treasured compass, a mysterious stone rubbing, and Buelo's legend as his only guides, he sets out on a perilous quest to discover if he is true of heart and what the future holds.
This story puts the spotlight on immigration and people who are fleeing dangerous circumstances for a chance at a better life. I loved the central messages of acceptance, doing what’s right even when it’s hard, and putting yourself on the line for another person. The only reason this one didn’t end up being an absolute favorite is because I felt like the plot didn’t move fast enough for a middle grade novel and it was almost not a fantasy at all, even though it seems like it’s going to be one. The Hidden Ones and the Guardians sound mysterious and fantastical, but they’re just people. Really the only thing that makes this spec fic at all is that it is set in an imaginary country. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it leads the reader to be somewhat confused as they read because you’re led to expect fantastical elements that never appear. Still kids will relate to Max’s desire to have more freedom and many will relate to his desire to make it onto the fútbol team. Also, the ending of this book was utterly bittersweet, which I loved.
The Copycat by Wendy McLeod MacKnight
Published by Greenwillow Books on March 10, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Contemporary Fantasy
Cover Artist: Erwin Madrid
My content rating: MG
Ali has always acted like a copycat to make friends, but when she unexpectedly inherits the ability to change her appearance at will, fitting in seems impossible! Luckily, with the help of her family, new friends, and a touch of magic, Ali might just survive middle school after all.
Ali and her parents have moved at least once a year for as long as Ali can remember. She’s attended six different schools, lived in dozens of apartments, and never really felt at home anywhere. But Ali’s parents say living in Saint John, New Brunswick, will be different. They’ve moved in with Ali’s great-grandmother—a spunky 99-year-old with a quirky old house that has room for all of them. Ali wants to believe this will be their last move, but everything seems too perfect to be true.
To Ali’s surprise, things are different this time, but not in the way she hoped. She’s finally inherited the Sloane family powers—the ability to change her appearance into any living thing. Ali is a Copycat. Literally. And being the new kid at school is hard enough without worrying about losing control of your powers and turning into your teacher. Luckily, Ali’s new friends are eager to help her use her newfound power. But as Ali soon learns, being a Copycat is no substitute for being yourself.
Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s The Copycat is an imaginative and surprising middle-school story about friendship, family, and self-confidence that is perfect for fans of John David Anderson’s Posted and Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree.
This book was a true surprise for me—I had no idea how much I was going to love it when I started listening! Ali has spent her whole life moving from place to place, and she’s finally found a place to possibly settle down: with her great-grandmother in her father’s childhood town. Ali’s father and great-grandmother are both Copycats—they can change into other people or even into animals—but Ali doesn’t have the gift herself.
I loved that Ali’s relationship with her family was incredibly complex. On the one hand, she loves her parents deeply, but she also feels resentful that they’ve never been able to provide her with a stable living situation, especially her somewhat capricious father who prefers to live as a dog half the time and can’t hold down a job. As the book progresses we learn of some secrets in Ali’s dad’s past that have contributed to his issues. I thought that the book was a wonderful portrayal of imperfect family relationships—Ali’s frustrations are balanced beautifully with her obvious love and affection for her eccentric dad.
So many kids will relate to Ali’s desire to fit in and her struggle to figure out how much of herself she should give up to do so. Ali joins clubs she’s not particularly interested in to make friends (and ignores an activity she would actually like), struggles to voice her own opinions, and ends up compromising two friendships because the two girls don’t get along and she doesn’t want to hurt either’s feelings (but ends up doing so in the process). All of this seemed incredibly realistic to me for this age group (my daughter could have been Ali at that age, honestly, and she struggled with many of these same issues). The advice to “be yourself” sounds good and all, but what if you’re not sure who you really are and who you want to be?
Basically, I loved this book, and I highly recommend it for middle-grade readers or anyone who remembers what it was like to try to find yourself at that age.
Shuri: A Black Panther Novel by Nic Stone
Series: Shuri: A Black Panther Novel #1
Published by Scholastic Press on May 5, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade
Cover Artist: Eric Wilkerson
My content rating: MG (Some violence)
From New York Times bestselling author Nic Stone comes an all-new upper middle grade series based on one of the Marvel Universe's break-out characters— Shuri, from Black Panther!
An original, upper-middle-grade series starring the break-out character from the Black Panther comics and films: T'Challa's younger sister, Shuri! Crafted by New York Times bestselling author Nic Stone. Shuri is a skilled martial artist, a genius, and a master of science and technology. But, she's also a teenager. And a princess. This story follows Shuri as she sets out on a quest to save her homeland of Wakanda.
For centuries, the Chieftain of Wakanda (the Black Panther) has gained his powers through the juices of the Heart-Shaped Herb. Much like Vibranium, the Heart-Shaped Herb is essential to the survival and prosperity of Wakanda. But something is wrong. The plants are dying. No matter what the people of Wakanda do, they can't save them. And their supply is running short. It's up to Shuri to travel from Wakanda in order to discover what is killing the Herb, and how she can save it, in the first volume of this all-new, original adventure.
Shuri is absolutely perfect for fans of Black Panther! It’s written in a very cinematic style, with plenty of action, humor and witty dialogue. It definitely feels like upper middle-grade (or younger YA) (I think Shuri is a teenager?), but I think it could appeal to all ages. It also includes a substantial appearance by Storm, if you’re a Marvel fan. The book features T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri, who decides that she must take Wakanda’s future into her own hands when the special herb that gives the Black Panther his powers starts to die out. Wiping our the herb could be the first step toward destroying Wakanda, and Shuri doesn’t think anyone else is taking the threat seriously enough. So she sneaks away with her best friend to find a way to save the herb. Themes of friendship and family are woven into the story, and my favorite aspect of the book was her friendship with K’Marah. Shuri struggles to understand if the relationship is real or if it’s just been manufactured because of their positions in Wakanda—she learns what real friendship means along the way.
If you’re a Marvel fan, this extra glimpse into Shuri and the politics of Wakanda will surely satisfy!