Author: Neil Shusterman
Downsiders, vol. 1
My rating: 4 of 5
In the wake of her parents’ separation and her mother’s latest whimsy (a long-term trip to Africa), Lindsey finds herself shunted off to New York to live with her distracted father and her odious step-brother Todd. Meanwhile, deep beneath that same city, Talon finds himself challenging the precepts and perspectives of his own culture–a people who live beneath the city with their own noble way of life, isolated from the Upsiders whom they view as stupid. And when these two teenagers’ worlds collide, the result is staggering . . . possibly even devastating to both worlds.
Shusterman is one of my favorite authors, as is pretty obvious just from this blog. His books have such a different way of viewing things; they’ve very unique. Downsiders is true to his norm in that it’s quite different from anything I’ve ever read, but it’s also pretty different from any of Shusterman’s other writing. While there are aspects that are similar, I’m not sure I could have picked him out as the author if I hadn’t known. The pacing, while great for this story, is slower than in a lot of his books, and there just isn’t quite as much spark . . . I don’t know how else to put it. Also, the flavor is almost–I want to say Dickensian, but that’s not quite right–it’s as close as I can get to describing it, in any case. Still, while all that sounds kind of negative, I did actually enjoy this book. The concept of a complete, isolated culture living in the abandoned tunnels and forgotten structures beneath New York City is fascinating, and the actual development of this culture in the book was well written. The characters were also believable, and the choices and changes they went through during the course of the story felt true, honest–and important to us as readers because of that. The ending, largely due to those decisions being honest choices not fairy-tale ones, is both beautiful and bittersweet; the story is better for its being so. I wouldn’t recommend Downsiders for everyone, but if you’ve got the patience to dig into it, this book is a rewarding read.
Author: Andrew Clements
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Normally, Jack Rankin is something of a model kid–polite, hard-working, good grades. Life isn’t exactly normal right now, though. The entire middle school has been dumped in the ancient high-school building for the year until their new building is ready to use . . . the high-school building where Jack’s dad works as the janitor. Not a big deal, except let’s be honest, when the other kids find out, it’s totally a big deal. Let the teasing begin. And wondering why his dad so desperately wants to ruin his life, Jack begins to get angry. That’s when he comes up with the perfect revenge.
Although I’ve been vaguely aware of Andrew Clements’ writings for some time, this is the first time I’ve actually read one of his books, and I must say, I’m impressed. This middle-grade/coming-of-age story is warm, humorous, accessible, and engaging. Moreover, it delves deep into the complexities of the parent-child relationship at a challenging age and stage of life, opening some interesting discussions on the topic from both the child’s and the parent’s point of view. I love, love, love that the story actually carries Jack through the transformation of perspective from seeing his dad as someone who provides for him and tells him what to do to seeing his dad as an actual whole person with his own problems and stories and personality. It’s something I’ve experienced personally, but I’ve never seen a book actually develop this phenomenon before. I think this is what truly raises the bar in this book, transforming it from an amusing middle-grade story to a beautiful, moving coming-of-age story. I also really enjoyed how much individual personality each of the characters had and the way in which that personality affected the flow of the plot. In short, The Janitor’s Boy was an impressive surprise for me, and I would highly recommend this book.
Author: Kimberly Willis Holt
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Nothing much ever happens in the sleepy Texas town of Antler. Or so Toby Wilson thinks until the summer of 1971 blows into town like an ill wind, bringing challenges and change aplenty. His best friend Cal’s brother is in Vietnam fighting, and Cal can’t seem to bring himself to even write him back. Toby’s mom went to Nashville for a country music competition, and now Toby isn’t sure she’s ever coming home. And then Zachary Beaver rolls into town in a trailer with red letters proclaiming him the fattest boy in the world. That sure brings some excitement to the town as folks line up to pay their two dollars and gawk (Toby and Cal included). But then Zachary’s guardian leaves town . . . without Zachary, and as they begin to spend more time with him, Toby gradually discovers there’s more to Zachary than a stuck-up, overly hygienic, overweight kid.
Why does this book not get more love?! I’d never even heard of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town until I happened to stumble across it in the middle of a book sale, where I picked it up on whim. It’s fabulous. The tone is simple and captures small-town thirteen-year-old boy remarkably well. There are a lot of coming-of-age elements as Toby and his friends deal with loss, loneliness, love, family, and learning to understand those who are different from themselves. And all of this is expressed in a simple yet moving way that I really enjoyed reading. I valued the flaws that were present even in the most likable of the characters, the humanity of them, and the way these flaws influenced their choices. It was also interesting to read something Vietnam War era that wasn’t focused on big cities, university campuses, and peace protests; you get a much better picture here of how the war affected everyday life for the majority of the country, I think, and just a better picture of what life was like at that time. I would certainly recommend When Zachary Beaver Came to Town both for middle-grade readers (the intended audience) and for older readers as well. It’s excellent.
Author: Adam Gidwitz
Illustrator: Hatem Aly
My rating: 5 of 5
The year is 1242, and one dark evening a disconnected group of travelers find themselves together in a small French countryside inn, trading stories to pass the time. Surprisingly, the one evening it seems that all their stories are part of a larger story, a story of three children with seemingly miraculous powers and their faithful dog who is revered as a saint by local peasants. And the tale doesn’t end with the miracles these children have performed, for the very king of France has now declared war against these children. Perhaps, through their interwoven tales, the travelers can puzzle out why such a thing would be.
I was deeply impressed by Gidwitz’s work on The Inquisitor’s Tale. The story is obviously well researched, emulating a storytelling style similar to that of Chaucer’s tales (but in prose), which adds an air of authenticity. It also makes the development of the plot quite interesting, although the pace is slower than that of many tales because of the style. The story draws heavily on both historical research and on the saints tales and folklore of the day, creating a tale that is equal parts historical fiction and fantasy. It’s quite appealing. Also appealing are the characters and the manner in which they develop over the course of the book, particularly after the four of them begin traveling together. Oddly enough, the author does at times choose to use terms which wouldn’t have been common (or even known at all) in 1242–like “allergic” for instance; however, this practice does serve to keep the writing more colloquial, which fits the setting. One of the most powerful and poignant aspects of this story is the way in which it addresses the issues of ignorance and hatred of the alien that were present in that particular place and time, discussing these issues in a way that makes the reader sorely aware of the similarity there is to the discord present in our own day. A painful reminder that we could save so much heartache if we could just learn from history. I also appreciated the way in which complex and difficult theological ideas were incorporated into the story and the way in which the plot tended, ultimately, towards hope and encouraging the reader to be the change we want to see in the world. Demographically, The Inquisitor’s Tale is intended for an upper middle-grade audience, but I think it is an incredible story for anyone that age or older.
Author: Neal Shusterman
Arc of a Scythe, vol. 1
My rating: 5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
In a world where all the needs of humanity are met, where even death is reversible, Scythes stand apart as essentially the only remaining source of true death. Established as a sacred trust to ensure that the booming and aging population does not completely overrun the earth and exhaust its resources, Scythes kill–or “glean” as they call it–although not nearly enough to mimic the effects of normal death in the past. One such Scythe, Faraday, has chosen to take on not one but two apprentices, in opposition to the traditions of the Scythedom. But the other Scythes turn his decision against him, deciding that only one of his apprentices will survive the apprenticeship, killing the other apprentice. Scythe apprentices Citra and Rowan will not readily bend to this edict, however, regardless of the pressure put upon them–particularly considering the feelings they have for one another.
I know all the premises of Scythe sound really weird and dark and complicated–and they are. A huge chunk of this book is set up and world building and background, which is completely necessary to understand the story as it develops. But Neal Shusterman is such an incredible author that the background doesn’t feel like an info dump at all; rather it’s interwoven as a part of the story such that you don’t even realize you’re being fed these huge chunks of backstory. As for the premise, strange as it is, it works remarkably well and allows the author to focus in on several interesting philosophical and psychological points. In this world, humanity really wants for nothing. Death–however much focus may be put on it due to the Scythes’ part in the story–is incredibly unlikely for any given individual within the next century or so. Even apparent age can be turned back so that a centenarian can appear (and feel) twenty again. In this state, Shusterman draws attention to the stagnation that occurs when people don’t have anything to struggle for, any clock to race against. On the other side of society, he brings in some interesting observations regarding the sort of people who would be chosen to be Scythes–and the effect that such a horrendous job would have on those people. Add to all the interesting world building some absolutely stellar characters and an intense, rather horrifying plot, and you’ve got an incredible book. I would highly recommend Scythe, although I would also caution a certain level of reader maturity due to the violent focus of the story at times. I’m definitely looking forward to the next volume in this set!
As an aside, is the cover of the book not just fabulous?!
Author: Sarah Prineas/Illustrator: Antonio Javier Caparo
Magic Thief, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In a city that runs on magic–magic that is inexplicably running out–young Conn survives by picking locks and picking pockets. But one hungry evening, he unwittingly picks the pocket of the wizard Nevery, stealing the wizard’s locus magicalicus which ought, by all rights and expectations, have killed Conn instantly. Surprised at the boy’s survival, Nevery decides to take him on, first as a servant and then as an apprentice. Because Conn may have a greater talent for magic than has been seen in the city for quite some time . . . and he may just be able to find out what’s been happening to the city’s magic.
I first read The Magic Thief at the recommendation of Anastasia @Read & Survive (thanks for the suggestion!), and I must say that the story more than lived up to my expectations. The world building is excellent, immersing the reader in a magically-powered Dickensian world without being unnecessarily descriptive or wordy about it. The author does the same thing with the characters–they are full of character and life, and she does a fabulous job of showing this to us through their words and actions rather than telling us about them at length. Also, I really love the way Prineas plays with phrases, turning them outside-in or changing them just a bit to make them attention catching and unique; it adds to the impression that this is set in a different world quite effectively. As an additional plus, there’s a lot of interesting plot that is gripping and fun even for an adult but that is also completely age-appropriate for the book’s primary intended middle-grade audience. I love it! I would definitely recommend The Magic Thief both to most children and to adults who like fantasies and/or children’s books.
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 5 of 5
Finding her place and her own rhythm seems nearly impossible for twelve-year-old Sunny. She’s just moved to Nigeria–her parents’ native home–from the United States where she was born. She has Nigerian features but albino skin . . . which means she can’t play ball with the other kids outside during the day like she wants. Plus, her father never can seem to approve of her. Then there’s that terrifying vision she recently had in a candle flame. . . . But when Sunny becomes friends with Orlu (after all her so-called friends at school desert her) and subsequently also becomes friends with his friend Chichi, life begins to take shape for her. It begins to expand in unexpected, wonderful, dangerous ways into a world of magic where Sunny can become her true self.
I was unfamiliar with Okorafor’s work when I randomly heard that Diana Wynne Jones had praised her writing–certainly sufficient incentive for me to try reading her books, and I’m glad I did. Akata Witch is a wonderful journey into unknown places both without and within. The writing itself is superb from the descriptions to the characters to the brilliant fusion of Nigerian culture and magic. There are elements of this book that remind me almost of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone–mostly in the sense that a young person goes from knowing nothing of magic to being immersed in the world of magic and all its wonders. That whole experience is presented here, and it’s glorious, especially since Sunny’s world is so richly imagined and so unique from anything I’ve ever read before . . . while still being reminiscent of Rowling’s world in all the best ways. I really enjoyed the rich cultural experience that Okorafor presents here; she could totally have written a slice-of-life coming-of-age story in this setting and it would have been wonderful. Adding this whole huge magical, epic fantasy element to the tale is just overkill, not that I’m complaining. The one thing I found . . . not bad so much as just unnerving, was the teachers’ attitude towards their students being put in dangerous situations. They seem almost to not care whether they survive or not, which is just really different from the mindset of anyone in a role mentoring and leading children that I’ve experienced. I think because of that, I would recommend Akata Witch as more of a YA/Adult book, even though the main character is twelve and the content is otherwise fine for middle-grade readers.