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!
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel by Sheela Chari
Series: The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel #1
Published by Walker Books US on October 6, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Science Fiction
Cover Artist: Yuta Onoda
My content rating: MG (Some violence)
Based on the Peabody Award-winning podcast, this tech-filled adventure series pits intrepid Mars Patel and his outcast friends against a brilliant, enigmatic billionaire as they race to figure out why kids are disappearing from their school.
Mars Patel's friend Aurora has disappeared! His teachers are clueless. His mom is stressed out about her jobs. But Mars refuses to give up--after all, his own dad disappeared when Mars was a toddler, before he and Ma moved to Puget Sound from India. Luckily, Mars has a group of loyal friends eager to help--smart Toothpick, strong and stylish JP, and maybe-telepathic Caddie. The clues seem to point toward eccentric tech genius (and Mars's hero) Oliver Pruitt, whose popular podcast now seems to be commenting on their quest! But when the friends investigate Pruitt's mysterious, elite school, nothing is as it seems--and anyone could be deceiving them. Slick science, corporate conspiracies, and an endearingly nerdy protagonist make this a fresh, exciting sci-fi adventure.
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is a diverse high-tech MG sci-fi mystery. Mars Patel has always idolized Oliver Pruitt, who runs an elite school and has a cryptic podcast that Mars would never miss. But when Mars’s friends start to go missing, he thinks that Oliver just might have something to do with it. I love the representation in this novel—main characters are Indian, white, and Black, and one is non-binary. Middle grade readers will love the fact that Mars and his friends are seemingly normal, but they all have certain abilities or talents that get amplified as the book goes on. It really gives a sense that maybe anyone could be a sort of superhero. The mystery pulls you along and keeps you wondering what’s really happening with Mars’s friends, and the ending gives a satisfying showdown (but kids who want a storyline to be at least partially wrapped up in one book will have to wait).
This is based on a podcast, and I’m curious to listen to it now—if anyone’s heard it, let me know what you think in the comments.
The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books on July 28, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Paranormal
Cover Artist: Fiona Hsieh
My content rating: MG
From acclaimed author and Costa winner Hilary McKay comes The Time of Green Magic: a beautiful, spell-binding novel about a new families, a magical old house and a mysterious cat . . .
When Tom and Polly marry, blending their single parent families together, their children find it hard to relinquish their old lives. Max realizes his birth dad will never come home now, while Abi suddenly finds herself a middle child, expected to share far too much – especially with grubby little Louis. The family start over together, stretching their finances to the limit and renting an eerie, ivy-covered house, big enough for all of them.
But when the children are alone there, strange things start to happen. Worried, Louis summons comfort from outdoors, and a startling guest arrives – is it a cat, or an owl, or something else? Abi reads alone, tumbling deep into books. Max loses his best friend and falls in love.
Meanwhile, Louis' secret visitor is becoming much too real. And when Max and Abi too start to see the great spotted cat-thing that arrives in the night, it becomes a problem the three of them must find a way to solve – together. But where has the creature come from, and how will he get back?
Hauntingly lyrical and eerie, A Time of Green Magic paints a portrait of a blended family learning to love each other in a new house touched by something mystical. The story follows Abi, Max, and Louis, who are all just trying to figure out where they fit after the boys’ dad and Abi’s mom get married. When they move to a new house, strange things start happening—Abi’s always got her head in a book, and the house seems to brings those books to life right around her. Meanwhile little Louis finds a strange creature in his room that keeps him company, but grows ever wilder and more intimidating, and Max is dealing with a first crush that he definitely doesn’t know how to handle. The kids eventually have to come together to solve the mystery of the house’s magic and find a way to keep it in check before it goes too far. This is a quiet book, best for patient MG readers who don’t need everything spelled out for them right away and don’t need every loose end tied up with a bow at the end. But the writing is utterly gorgeous, and what kid wouldn’t love the idea of a magical house that brings books to life?
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
Published by Random House Books for Young Readers on January 28, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Contemporary Fantasy
Cover Artist: Jedit
My content rating: MG (Deals with illness; Some violence)
Some stories refuse to stay bottled up...
When Lily and her family move in with her sick grandmother, a magical tiger straight out of her halmoni's Korean folktales arrives, prompting Lily to unravel a secret family history. Long, long ago, Halmoni stole something from the tigers. Now, the tigers want it back. And when one of those tigers offers Lily a deal--return what Halmoni stole in exchange for Halmoni's health--Lily is tempted to accept. But deals with tigers are never what they seem! With the help of her sister and her new friend Ricky, Lily must find her voice... and the courage to face a tiger.
I don’t even know what to say about this book. Sometimes you read a book that’s so special that you can’t even describe why you loved it so much. After finishing it, I put it down in awe and immediately wanted to buy myself a copy (I ended up adding it to my Christmas list). Keller’s writing is utterly gorgeous, yet very accessible to middle grade readers. The story explores Korean folklore, family relationships, friendships, LGBTQ relationships, and more. I found myself drawn into Lily’s journey of self-discovery and her quest to save her grandmother, who is slowly losing herself, body and mind, to cancer. The mythological tiger is woven wonderfully into the real-world setting of the story, and I found myself ever-eager to learn what Lily’s next encounter with the tiger would bring. The ending is beautiful and bittersweet, and I was left with a sense of loss when I turned the last page. Highly recommend this book!
The Lost Wonderland Diaries by J. Scott Savage
Illustrator: Kevin Keele
Published by Shadow Mountain on September 8, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
My content rating: MG (Some violence)
Something monstrous wants to exit Wonderland and enter the real world.
Lewis Carroll, author of the classic book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, secretly recorded the true story of his actual travels to Wonderland in four journals which have been lost to the world . . . until now.
Celia and Tyrus discover the legendary Lost Diaries of Wonderland and fall into a portal that pulls them into the same fantasy world as the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter. However, Wonderland has vastly changed. Some of the characters that Tyrus remembers from the book have been transformed into angry monsters.
Helped by the Cheshire Cat and a new character, Sylvan, a young rabbit, Celia and Tyrus desperately work to solve puzzles and riddles, looking for a way out of Wonderland. But the danger increases when the Queen of Hearts begins hunting them, believing the two young visitors hold the key to opening multiple portals to multiple worlds, and she will stop at nothing to capture them.
Will the crazed creatures of Wonderland escape into the real world? Can Celia and Tyrus stop them and save both worlds? Or will they be trapped in Wonderland forever?
Wonderland fans will love this new foray into the magical land. When Celia and Tyrus find Lewis Carroll’s missing diaries, they’re transported to Wonderland and must decide if they want to stick around to save it or head back to the safety of home. They encounter some of the same characters that Alice did on her journey (the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and more), but if anything, Wonderland seems even a bit madder than it did when Alice was there. Since Celia is dyslexic, being transported to a world from a storybook basically represents her worst nightmare, but in Wonderland she learns to trust in her strengths. By the time, she returns home, she’s gained newfound confidence and has conquered her self-consciousness about using the tools that help her in everyday life. Since Tyrus is a bookworm, the two make an unlikely pair at first, but they eventually realize that they don’t have to be completely alike to be friends. And to save Wonderland both of their strengths will be necessary. This is a fun twist on the original Wonderland!