Welcome to the inaugural SLJ Reviews Sneak Peek, a monthly web-exclusive feature that will showcase reviews for highly anticipated books in advance of our upcoming print issue. The following middle grade, YA, nonfiction, and professional reading titles have been selected by SLJ reviews editors for their appeal, potential popularity, and overall quality. We hope you enjoy this early access to the full reviews of the season’s must-read picks. Check back on the first week of October for more noteworthy books for children and teens, and subscribe to SLJ today to get all of our reviews every month!
BERRY, Julie. The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. 368p. Roaring Brook. 2014. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781596439566; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781596439573.
Gr 6 Up– In this Victorian boarding school murder mystery, seven young women find themselves gloriously free from adult supervision when their judgmental, penny-pinching headmistress and her good-for-nothing brother die suddenly during dinner. Rather than alert the authorities and risk having the school shut down and all the students sent home, the girls decide to keep things under wraps and proceed as if the late headmistress and her brother were still alive. But first they’ll have to bury the bodies in the garden without attracting the notice of busybody neighbors, potential suitors, a suspicious housekeeper, and a host of charmingly annoying villagers with a penchant for showing up at the worst possible moment. While juggling mounting debts and increasingly precarious fabrications in order to keep up their charade, the students also try to discover who poisoned the deceased—and why. Berry’s prose is reminiscent of the dark comedy and melodrama of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” mysteries. Each girl at Saint Etheldreda’s School is defined largely by an adjective that precedes her name: Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane, Dull Martha, Stout Alice, Smooth Kitty, Pocked Louise, and Dour Elinor. The nicknames are illustrative of the insidious ways in which women and girls were pigeonholed and denigrated in the patriarchal society of 19th–century Great Britain, and over the course of the story, the characters prove that their supposed weaknesses are often the sources of great strength and ingenuity. That said, the device is used throughout the entirety of the book and will wear thin with some readers. The pacing slows midway, though kids will want to read on—if only to find out if the sisterhood winds up behind bars for all of their shenanigans. Overall, this is a well-researched, clever, and deliciously dark comedy with an emphasis on female empowerment. School Library Journal
Bosch, Pseudonymous. Bad Magic. illus. by Gilbert Ford. 400p. ebook available. Little, Brown. 2014. Tr $17.00. ISBN 9780316320382.
Gr 4-6 –Bosch is back with a novel that’s part mystery, part adventure. This series opener features sixth grader Clay, the younger brother of the hero from Bosch’s popular “Secret” books (Little, Brown). After an incident with some graffiti, Clay finds himself spending his summer at Earth Ranch, a camp for delinquent youth on a remote volcanic island. While at camp, Clay encounters a motley crew of eccentric kids; a llama that understands Spanish; a mysterious library; and, perhaps, even a bit of magic. Bosch employs, to great effect, his signature irreverence and hilarity packed into parenthetical asides and footnotes. The end result is a wacky, suspenseful mashup of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a summer camp tale that is a delight to read. Bad Magic is a clever and playful novel. An excellent addition to middle grade fiction collections.
RUNDELL, Katherine. Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms. 256p. S. & S. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781442490611; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781442490635. LC 2013021053.
Gr 4-6- –Twelve-year-old Wilhelmina Silver—aka Will, Wildcat, Madman, Cartwheel—has what she considers to be an idyllic life. Since her mother’s death when she was five, she has been “raised” on a remote farm in Zimbabwe by her father, the farm foreman. She has been free to explore and run like the wind; ride bareback on her horse, Shumba; and has a pet monkey to keep her company. She is at home in the bush and sleeps in trees, if necessary, and routinely steals fruit and sets fires with her best friend Simon and the rest of the farm boys. She’s a good reader and keen observer, but her formal education has been sketchy at best. The things she knows to be true are not easily quantified or necessarily valued. When her father dies, she is left in the care of Captain Browne, the kindly farm owner, and his scheming and manipulative new wife. When it is announced that the farm is to be sold and Will is to be sent to a private school in England, the girl’s golden world is shattered. Leaving behind all that she has known and loves and adjusting to a cold, inhospitable climate is just part of her challenge. She has always been a quick study and a fierce competitor and there is no place for her to shine in the snooty, highly regimented school. Driven by desperation and the girls’ cruelty, Will runs away and has to work out for herself what is real, valuable, and true. Rundell’s vivid and compelling prose brings both worlds to life on a visceral level and propels her characters forward. Readers will be engaged by Will’s voice (and her colorful linguistic twists), ache for her through her sorrow and loss, and celebrate her newly sparked confidence and resolve. Warning: there will be cartwheels! School Library Journal
Stroud, Jonathan. The Whispering Skull. 448p. (Lockwood & Co.: Bk. 2). Disney-Hyperion. 2014. lib. ed. $17.99. ISBN 9781423164920; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781484711460.
Gr 5-8 –In this spine-chilling sequel to The Screaming Staircase (Hyperion, 2013), Stroud again demonstrates his ease in the world of the macabre and truly frightening. Lucy works for Lockwood & Co., one of many agencies dealing with The Problem. Fifty years ago, for no apparent reason, the dead rose and began to walk among the living. Agencies employ psychic children to help dispatch the dead permanently. In this second installment, the group (Lucy, leader Anthony Lockwood, and bumbling researcher George) finds themselves drawn deeper into the mystery of The Problem. A supposedly simple job dispatching an unruly cemetery ghost leads to the discovery of black markets, obsessive cults, mysterious collectors, and a bone mirror that drives anyone who looks into it completely mad. As in the first novel, the descriptions of the different types of spirits are nightmarishly frightening (one episode with rat-ghosts is especially gruesome.) Lucy’s growing abilities to communicate with the dead, especially the nasty spirit attached to a skull in Lockwood’s home, add an additional layer of menace to an already creepy tale; Lockwood’s secrets add intrigue and suspicion. The plot gallops along at a breakneck pace, giving little respite from the horrors within. For fans of scary fare, this page-turner is a dream (or nightmare) come true.
Van Leeuwen, Jean. The Missing Pieces of Me. 240p. Amazon/Two Lions. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781477847299; pap. ISBN 9781477816189.
Gr 4-6 –This is the poignant story of sensitive Weezie, who is growing up in an 1980’s Oklahoman trailer park with an overworked and unloving Mama. The fifth-grader is nearly convinced that she is a completely bad person, thanks to her mother’s uncompromising expectations and lack of affection, combined with her own penchant for lying to protect herself from the other kids’ curiosity about her life. Van Leeuwen beautifully balances dialogue with action and the internal narrative of her hero to create a forward-moving tale that will carry readers along, feeling alternately sad and proud for Weezie all the way. All of the secondary characters are simple, defined by one or two primary characteristics, but feel full-bodied thanks to the variation in their voices and thoughtful details, such as the teacher who “ran her fingers through her hair, making it stand out like a dark cloud around her head… when she was thinking.” Unlike many protagonists of this age group, Weezie is on the innocent and naive side, and nothing shockingly bad or jarringly uncomfortable happens. Ultimately, this quiet book reveals the capacity for good within the characters—despite the hard and unyielding heart of Weezie’s mother—and leaves readers with a sense of empathy and understanding about the importance of self-confidence. Recommended for readers who can handle getting emotionally involved with their protagonists, such as fans of Karen Hesse.
Gr 9 & Up
Carey, Anna. Blackbird. 256p. HarperCollins/ HarperTeen. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062299734; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780062299758.
Gr 9 Up –Fast-paced second-person narration places readers squarely in the head of an amnesiac teen girl who only knows that she has a blackbird tattoo on her wrist and that someone is trying to kill her. Quickly adopting the nickname Sunny, the main character soon finds herself framed for theft. Not trusting the police, she manages to find sanctuary among a group of wealthy Los Angeles teens. Romantic tension builds between the protagonist and Ben, her rescuer. Sunny soon discovers abilities she didn’t know she had: being able to dodge assassin’s bullets and also excelling in close hand-to-hand combat when cornered by pursuers. Tantalizing flashes of memories, along with clues from her assailants, reveal that Sunny is a family-less teen runaway who depended on a handsome friend to survive the rigors of being hunted by the jaded elite. Plenty of plot twists will leave readers guessing as to who is trustworthy. Inspired by Richard Connell’s classic short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” the novel draws to a satisfying close but leaves plenty of room for a sequel.
Condie, Ally. Atlantia. 320p. Dutton. Oct. 2014. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780525426448; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780698135604.
Gr 9 Up –A fast-paced fantasy adventure tale in a richly drawn dystopian future. Despite her lifelong dream of living Above, recently orphaned Rio has promised her twin sister, Bay, that she’ll stay in their underwater city of Atlantia when they come of age. In one shocking moment, however, Bay is headed Above, and Rio is left alone, separated from the last person who knew the secret of her hidden siren voice and loved her anyway. As Rio tries to find her own way to get Above, she also discovers pieces of Atlantia’s hidden past and its uncertain future. Ultimately, the protagonist will have to rethink everything she’s been taught and make courageous decisions on her own in order to reunite with her sister and save the world she loves. Complex characters, including Rio’s antihero aunt, and a realistically slow and subtle first romance make this a book teens will relate to, even non-genre fans. A slowly unfolding backstory perfectly complements all the action. Despite a bit of a didactic lean in the final chapters, this is a title that’s sure to be immensely popular with teens, especially those who enjoyed Condie’s “Matched” trilogy (Dutton).
Ellis, Kat. Blackfin Sky. 304p. Running Pr. Teen. 2014. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9780762454013; ebk. $9.95. ISBN 9780762455546. LC 2014933663.
Gr 9 Up –Sixteen-year old Skylar Rousseau is late to class, which is no surprise. The real surprise comes when she’s told by her shocked friends and family that she’s been dead for more than three months. Skylar is adamant that this is all a practical joke and that she remembers the past 97 days just fine—then she begins having dreams of lying with her own dead body in a coffin. Ellis creates a tone that is playful yet eerie, drawing readers into the oddities of the town of Blackfin one bit at a time. It becomes evident that Sky’s life has always been peppered with the occult, from the way her home (enigmatically called Blood House) seems to speak to her in code, or how she sees faces in the wooden panels of her wall. As she tries to solve the mystery of her own disappearance, the protagonist starts unraveling a dark past that threatens to change life in Blackfin forever. The town residents are a colorful bunch, and Ellis deftly captures teenage dynamics and mannerisms while maintaining each character’s trademark eccentricity. The work ends with an explosive resolution, alongside plenty of questions and tales to be explored. Readers are left satisfied yet hopeful for a continuation of Sky’s journey. This page-turner is sure to keep teens who love spooky sleuth novels up well into the night. School Library Journal
Murgia, Jennifer. Forest of Whispers. 328p. ebook available. glossary. Spencer Hill. 2014. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781937053567.
Gr 8 Up –Sixteen-year-old Rune has been raised since birth by Matilde, the crone who lives in the cottage just beyond the Hedge that separates the village from the foreboding Schwarzwald. Until now, the Black Forest has protected Rune from the terrible events of the past. But those long-ago secrets—whispers of magic, witchcraft, and murder—soon replace the safety and comfort of the forest with menace and evil. The teen begins to hear her dead mother, rumored to be a powerful witch, speaking to her. And those murmurs are urging Rune to wreak havoc on the village and the people who burned her mother at the stake. Laurentz is the son of the Electrorate. A chance meeting with the protagonist reveals dark secrets in his own family. Certain he has been bewitched, Laurentz is no longer sure whom to trust. Murgia’s dual narration makes this historical fantasy a compelling read. The plot-driven text quickly moves the story forward, and the vivid descriptions of 17th-century southwestern Germany pull readers in. Lead and supporting characters are a bit flat and two-dimensional, but the pacing and narrative are absorbing. A solid novel for fans of historical fantasy that are looking for a fast-paced, action-filled tale.
PERKINS, Stephanie, ed. My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories. 336p. LSt. Martin’s Griffin. Oct. 2014. Tr. $18.99. ISBN 9781250059307; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466863897.
Gr 7 Up–Twelve of the best-loved and best-known young adult authors–Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan, and Matt de la Peña among them–have contributed stories to this appealing collection. Most have a Christmas setting, but Hanukkah, the winter solstice, and New Year’s Eve are also represented. Most are realistic, but Holly Black, Kelly Link, Jenny Han, and Laini Taylor have contributed tales steeped in fantasy or the supernatural. What all 12 selections have in common is teen romance at its most fragile and meaningful. Never mind the winter holidays; booktalk this title all year round.–Virginia Walter, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
Smelcer, John. Edge of Nowhere. 154p. Leapfrog. 2014. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781935248576.
Gr 7 Up –Sixteen-year-old Seth Evanoff mourns his mother’s unexpected death. For comfort, he eats more than his share of junk food and escapes from life through a portal of video games on his tablet. Seth works with his father on a commercial salmon fishing boat in the Prince William Sound, and during a storm, he and his loyal dog, Tucker, are tossed into the drink. So begins the coming-of-age journey of Seth and Tucker as they toil and swim among a chain of remote islands toward home. Seth uses wisdom from his Native Alaskan culture and common sense to survive a summer season of challenges. Smelcer’s prose is lyrical, straightforward, and brilliant. This is an example of authentic Native Alaskan storytelling at its best. Readers are drawn immediately into this realistic modern-day vision-quest scenario and easily identify and empathize with the characters. The excitement and fast pace of the action are reminiscent of Jack London stories. This novel would make a versatile addition to any secondary English or multicultural curriculum. Not to be missed.
Spears, Kat. Sway. 320p. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2014. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781250051431; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781466852198.
Gr 9 Up –Jesse Alderman, aka Sway, can get you what you want, no matter what. Drugs, popularity, money, anything, but it comes at a cost. After his mom chased some prescription drugs with vodka and ended up dead on the bathroom floor, Jesse doesn’t care about much, as long as he gets paid and people live up to their end of the bargain. But that all ends when school bully Ken Foster asks him to convince Bridget Smalley, an all-around wonderful person, to go out with Ken on a date. Jesse thinks this is just another business transaction until he meets Bridget and finds himself falling in love with her. Now, he’s opening up to all kinds of people, including Bridget’s younger brother, Pete, who feels alone and damaged because of his cerebral palsy, and Mr. Dunkelman, a man who lives at the nursing home where her grandmother lives. However, the more he feels for Bridget, the more he attempts to pull away from her and anyone who might care about him. And, now that the protagonist has made Ken appear like a nice guy in Bridget’s eyes, she starts to pull away from Jesse, as well. From the first page, readers won’t ever want to leave Jesse behind. At first glance, this novel seems like a typical Cyrano de Bergerac–type story, but it is much deeper than that, touching on topics such as parent abandonment, disabilities, bullying, and love. The main character’s transformation and personality are well developed and believable, and readers will root for him along the way, even though he makes it difficult. References to drugs, alcohol, and suicide make it better suited for older teens. A engaging story that will stay with readers long past the final page.
Bryant, Jen. The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. illus. by Melissa Sweet. 42p. bibliog. chron. further reading. Eerdmans. 2014. Tr $17.50. ISBN 9780802853851.
Gr 2-5 –Those who have relied upon a thesaurus (meaning treasure house in Greek), either in print or through the tool menu of word processing software, will gain a greater appreciation for the reference tool in this beautifully designed picture book biography of its creator, Peter Roget. Bryant describes bibliophile Roget, taking him from a timid, studious child who was always compiling lists to an accomplished doctor who by 1805 had compiled the beginnings of the first thesaurus. Busy and exuberant, Sweet’s charming watercolor illustrations, layered over collages of vintage images and fonts, capture Roget’s passion for classification while also providing readers new opportunities for discovery (Latin translations of animal names, mathematical terms, and a plethora of synonyms). Expertly researched and well written, Bryant’s narrative not only details the creation of the thesaurus; it also conveys a sense of Roget the man: his shy nature, his keen intelligence, and his passion for knowledge. There truly was a particular blend of artistry and intellect that went into Roget’s book, as evidenced from a reproduced page from the original thesaurus. The book contains extensive back matter, including an incredibly detailed time line that goes into the man’s other inventions (the slide rule, the pocket chess set) and an author and illustrator’s note, as well as Roget quotations that are sure to inspire if not a love of language then at least a search for the perfect turn of phrase. An excellent illustrated biography.
BIRD, Betsy, Julie Danielson, & Peter D. Sieruta. Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. 288p. bibliog. illus. index. notes. Candlewick. 2014. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9780763651503; ebk. ISBN 9780763667719. LC 2013946618.
Three popular kidlit bloggers take readers on a wild ride through children’s literature that is as entertaining as it is educational. Like the tone of their respective blogs, the writing style is breezy and conversational. Fans and students of children’s literature will learn a lot, be entertained, and come away with interesting trivia and anecdotes. For instance, readers will learn the secret identities of some famous authors who wrote under pseudonyms before they became well known. But what really stands out is hinted at in the subtitle, “acts of mischief in children’s literature.” The authors do a fine job of debunking the notion that children’s literature is all “fuzzy bunnies” and “pots of honey.” As explored throughout the text, great works of children’s literature provide a way of coping with childhood issues by offering a world that is just as complicated and tough as the one adults live in. The authors’ knowledge shines through and with its extensive source notes and a thorough index, this title is not to be missed. A perfect choice for children’s literature courses.