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.
Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick
Yes, this is a page-turning thriller centered on a fourteen-year-old boy and a really, really bad guy who threatens him and his sister and has quite likely taken the life of both his parents. And on a Colt Single Action Army, 1873 model revolver. The setting: a lone cabin across a frozen lake from a hard scrabble mining town in the bitter cold of the artic north.
But it is also a story about the gifts parents give their children to help them survive when they are on their own. In this case, Sig’s parents gave him very different gifts: his father gave him knowledge of the real world so that Sig could be able to survive whatever harshness he might encounter; his mother gave him a concern for the health of his own inner spirit so that his soul could survive the same. As it turns out, Sig will draw on both of his parents’ gifts to create a third option when his choice becomes to take a life or lose his own.
As such, this novel reads ninety percent thriller and ten percent fable. In fact, by the end, I was somewhat reminded of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Written, of course, for young adults of today. Though this story features a male protagonist and a revolver, I think both genders would enjoy it from middle school on up. However, the bad guy is convincingly bad–his violence explicit and his sexual predation implied–which makes it more appropriate for the older, better-read teens.
The Great Wide Sea by M. H. Herlong
A grieving father who has just lost his wife sells everything, buys a sailboat, and leaves with his three sons to sail the Caribbean for a year. Readers would expect that this might be a journey that gives them back their life as a family unit. And it is, but it is much more than that. The oldest son, Ben, is fifteen–old enough to feel some responsibility for his younger brothers, old enough to be thinking of his life as separate from that with his family, and of the age to question the character of his own father. So the journey does become a test for each family member’s strength as well as the bonds with each other. But the other journey, the journey of Ben’s perception of his father from failure to fallible is an equally perilous journey.
There are similarities between this book and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Paulsen captures the fear and desparation of a young boy alone in the wilderness with nothing to help him survive but a good knife. Herlong’s story doesn’t deliver as much of the urgency of surviving the ferocity of nature, but it delivers much more in the interior workings of a teen-age boy and the ferocity of coming of age.
Kids who like to sail from age nine on up should enjoy this book. While there is plenty of suspense, this is not an action packed story. It is more of a tale that rings true. I am no sailor and well past nine-years-old and I loved it.
The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan is the author of the immensely popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. The Red Pyramid is the first book in his new series, The Kane Chronicles. Whereas Percy Jackson had the Greek gods to contend with, the siblings Carter and Sadie Kane have dealings with the ancient Egyptian gods. Both series are action and imagery packed. Both have protagonists who are super-cool mid-aged kids with parents who are absent and need their help. Riordan’s second series should be every bit as popular as his first, although kids who began with the first book in the Percy Jackson series may have gotten too old by now for the new series.
While there are plenty of scary monsters, tragic deaths (with options for reconstitution), and ongoing life-threatening near-misses, the self-confidence and cheery wit of the two siblings who tear through this novel make it more fun than frightening. Since Riordan strikes such a chord with middle-school readers, and since there is so much Egyptian history and lore in this book, it would make a great whole-class read for sixth graders, who, in California at least, study Egyptian history. It would also be a good book to give to a reluctant reader of either gender from ages of about nine up through thirteen.
Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer
It is 1797 in London and a young girl has just been put out on the street. All of her family has died of the pestilence and she has nothing but the clothes on her back. Oh, wait! Soon she is robbed of even those by a gang of orphans in need of new clothes. The girl who has her new clothes looks back at her and says, “Well, come on then. And quit your sniveling.” The girl, who narrates this story, writes, “I snuffles and gets up.”
She weeps, she trembles, she mourns, but she keeps getting up throughout this highly entertaining story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can become a ship’s boy, avoid being hung for thievery, and get enough to eat. I usually demand more than pure entertainment from the books I read–I want to be able to see the world in a new way or learn something thrilling–and I usually don’t like series books, but I finished this book with a single thought: I wanted the next book in the series.
The character of Mary who becomes Jacky leaps from the pages. The endless series of riotous adventurous never seem contrived. All resolutions feel perfectly apt. Danger never dissipates, but evil always gets its satisfyingly just desserts.
Bloody Jack will be enjoyed by kids who liked The Unfortunate Series of Events in their younger years, middle school and younger experienced readers who will not be confused by the occasional “guttersnipe” dialect of the narrator (“prolly” for probably; me mum and me pop, etc), high school readers who need a break from fantasy, teen-age angst, and vampire genres, and adults who just like to have fun reading. Attitudes towards the innate differences between the genders are of course amply explored and the romance is tender and true and not excessively graphic. I recommend not trying to find out if the author is male or female until you have read at least one book in the series.
Over and Under by Todd Tucker
Paradise is being a fourteen-year-old boy and having a true friend to share complete freedom with–the forest is unspoiled and filled with wildlife and unexlored caves; the town is small and suitable for unsupervised explorations, and the bedroom windows are easy to climb out of at night. Though the summer of 1979 has more fodder for adventure than usual–a divisive labor strike, a deadly bombing, and a murderous drunk–it all serves as backdrop for the real story: the value and the power of a solid childhood friendship.
This authentic-feeling story is not represented as young adult fiction though it is written entirely from the perspective of one of the fourteen-year-old boys, essentially because it is about nostalgia–ah, the irretrievable days of youthful freedom! However, middle school boys and younger high school boys who like the outdoors and the freedom to roam and explore will enjoy this book. The adventure and excitement never ebb, and all the characters are richly drawn. The description of one of the boys in a drain pipe with a copper head snake by itself makes the book worth reading. It’s a great book for parents who like to read and enjoy the books their kids also read.