The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stefvater
Established author of teen fiction Maggie Stiefvater has written a book that departs from her formulaic paranormal romance novels. She has taken an obscure Celtic myth about carnivorous horses from the sea, spun it into a story about both humankind’s love/fear conflict with nature and its endless struggle for and against power, and made it contemporary by smoothly pairing these timeless themes with a more modern one—girl empowerment.
The two main characters have both lost their parents—not unusual on an island that is besieged by wild carnivorous water horses—and both must win the Scorpio races in order to get what they feel they cannot live without. Sean has won the races before and must win this time to gain both his freedom from a heartless employer and ownership of the water horse he loves. Puck has never run a race, no girl has, and she has only a regular horse to race against the much faster water horses, but winning is her only chance to keep her house and her dignity. They admire each other; they become true friends, and romance blossoms.
The resolution of this conflict is masterful and every reader must take a solemn vow to never divulge the ending to anyone who has not read it, or skip ahead to read the ending. It is a book for teen readers of both genders, appropriate for younger readers, and fun for adults.
This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel
Kenneth Oppel takes Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and looks into his adolescence for clues to the man he became. In Oppel’s telling, young Victor lives in a centuries-old fortress in Geneva with his parents, his identical twin brother, Konrad, and his beautiful cousin Elizabeth. Konrad is easy for everyone to love; Victor has a more complicated personality—competitive, brooding and rebellious. Konrad falls ill and a series of nineteenth century doctors try to cure him. In this time period, medicine and science are on a cusp, turning from alchemy and magic into sound logic and method. It is not at all clear that even the most modern doctor will cure Konrad and Victor wants to turn to the older ways and be the one to bring his brother back to health.
To do this he lies to his parents, seeks out forbidden contacts, and put himself Konrad, and Elizabeth in serious danger. Herein lies the action of the story—the perilous ventures, the near escapes, the blood and gore. But Victor is not completely in this for his love for his brother. He wants glory; he wants to be more powerful than his parents and the doctors. And most of all, he wants Elizabeth to love him and not his brother. Action does abound in this story, but the torque of psychological angst never lags behind.
Kenneth Oppel is a master craftsman of the young teen novel. He knows how to give the young reader’s mind exactly what it wants and then dole out a whole lot more: to be swept up in the thrill of adventure, to recognize oneself often, and then to be challenged to do something particularly delicious—to think deeply…
While much of Oppel’s earlier books appeal to upper elementary and middle school readers of both genders, this novel will appeal to readers of both genders from middle school on into high school. Like all of his work, this book will also be loved just as much by adults as by their kids.
The Fox Inheritance, by Mary E. Pearson
This is the sequel to The Adoration of Jenna Fox as reviewed earlier. It follows the two friends who were in the same car crash that killed Jenna Fox. While Jenna’s parents had been able to salvage enough of her to bioengineer her back into life, Locke and Kara had only their minds preserved for 270 years. Now they have been brought to life by an evil genius who wants to use them as floor models for a business that offers a new life to those about to die.
While Adoration reads like a psychological or medical thriller, Fox is much more of an action page-turner. Kara and Locke must escape their creator into a world void of anybody they know and vastly changed. A cross-country chase ensues with spy technology and real goons on their trail. They seek Jenna, who is still alive, and resolution to the question of who they are now.
Both books are both thought-provoking and exciting to read. Girls from middle school on up will like both books and boys will certainly like the second one, so it’s worth a chance to start them with the first one.
Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Schmidt’s latest novel for middle school readers, eighth-grader Doug Swieteck has many cards stacked against him. He’s got a mean older brother and a liability for a father. He’s just moved to a new school. He can’t read. He gets in fights. The principal is after him. The coach hates him. He doesn’t have a decent coat or a warm pair of shoes. His mother is sad and long-suffering.
Yet the satisfaction in this story comes not from the bad guys getting their due. Instead, the satisfaction is much deeper and broader—it comes from the reassurance that the inner self is always and truly free. In Doug’s story, this deliverance is aided by the kindness of strangers and by the gift of fine art. In author Gary Schmidt’s capable hands, its light shines right out of the pages of the book, making every day look like a fresh new spring day.
The fine art in this story is a book of John James Audubon’s Birds of America that Doug finds in the local library. Each chapter in Okay for Now is faced with a different plate from this book, and in each chapter, Doug uses that plate to further understand his world—this bird was falling and there wasn’t a single thing in the world that cared at all (the Arctic Tern) and that’s what the picture was about: meeting, even though you might be headed in different directions (The Forked-Tailed Petrel). A librarian—one of the kind strangers in this book—sees Doug’s interest in this book and encourages him to make his own drawings of the plates. The librarian’s critical analysis of these plates and the part they play in Doug’s story make a good reading experience into a sublime one.
I highly recommend this wonderful book for middle school kids of both genders and for adults who like a good story.
Matched, by Ally Condie
Dystopias typically exist in a future world where some kind of organizational force tries to control a population whose flaws nearly destroyed life in a previous time. That organization and that control, however, tend to painfully crimp the human spirit. In Matched, the first book in a trilogy, the Officials attempt to control every aspect of an individual’s life: what they eat, what they wear, who they marry, where they live, where they work. By doing this, they intend to eliminate disease, strife, and unhappiness.
But, of course, it doesn’t work. The individual’s desire for freedom is stronger than the desire for bland happiness, as it turns out, and as we all know too much power in the hands of the few tends to corrupt. In Matched, a seventeen-year-old girl has been officially “matched” with her intended husband, but there seems to be a catch–a second intended has somehow slipped into the picture which conspires to cause her to question the life the Officials have arranged for her. Once that question arises, the desire to make her own choices and pay her own dues can no longer be corraled.
For a dystopic novel, this story has an unusual sweetness. There is a lot of kindness and genuine caring among the characters. The depiction of two young people falling in love is very tender; the conniving of the Officials almost takes a background role. I think middle school girls who like books about relationships will want to read this book and the theme of independence and making your own choices is strongly appealing to young teens. It is not a challenging read by any means and may appeal even to reluctant girl readers.
Guys Read: Funny Business by Jon Scieszka
I’m the opposite of who this book was intended for…and I loved it. If fifth-grade boy was the center of the target, Forty-year old mom wasn’t even on the dartboard. But these stories are so funny, so poignant, and so well written, it seems a shame to let eleven year-old boys have all the fun. I found myself laughing out loud in a public coffee shop multiple times.
My daughter’s fifth grade class recently participated in National Novel Writers Month. In celebration of reaching their word-count goals, the class read excerpts of their 3,000 word novels to the parents. With child after child, I was amazed by their creativity and humor. While reading Guys Read: Funny Business, I was struck by the similarities. These stories managed to perfectly capture that same voice of a child, while layering on the exceptional writing and story arc that comes with years of practice and more than a smidge of envy-inducing talent.
There is a line in one of the stories that goes something like this, “If you think you are going to be a writer when you grow up, don’t you think you should take notes?’ The young boy replied, “I have a great memory.” Well, whether these authors have great memories or just made up new ones to help boys enjoy reading, the result is laugh-out-loud good. I highly recommend this book for kids who enjoyed Artemis Fowl, The Great Brain, and I Am A Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President. You can learn more about this book, and find other great recommendations for boys at http://www.guysread.com.
Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai
A family of five escapes from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the dark of night. They throw themselves aboard a truck along with numbers of other desperate people, just minutes ahead of the patrolling Taliban. They are on their way to America. Only something unbearably horrible has happened: the youngest, six-year-old Mariam, did not make it aboard the truck–and there is no going back to get her.
Many stories start with an event that drives the rest of the story with its cry for resolution. This event, in the first pages of Shooting Kabul, grips the rest of the story with a barely containable wail for resolution. Yet Sensai manages to pace the everpresent anguish with the reality of any immigrant family adjusting to life in America in a very realistic and non-maudlin way.
The narrator of this story is Mariam’s 11 year-old brother Fadi. Fadi let go of Mariam’s hand as they were jumping in the truck and thus bears a heightened burden of guilt. His struggle to deal with his guilt as he tries to fit into his new life makes up the bulk of the story. The resolution is satisfying, evolving out of his strengths rather than his vulnerabilities..
This is a perfect book for middle school readers who like to read about people caught up in real, historically significant events, who are driven to understand more about their wider world. The tragedy that Fadi experiences will grab their interest and their empathy.