November 17, 2017

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Daring Middle Grade Debuts | SLJ Spotlight

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Middle grade literature is exploding with strong new talent. In the June issue alone, six debut authors offer a diverse array of stories. There’s serious fare, such as Eric Bell’s well-developed portrait of sibling rivalry and coming-of-age in Alan Cole Is Not a Coward and Emily Blejwas’s poignant and provocative Once You Know This, as well as the uproarious, as found in Alexandra Ott’s cheeky Rules for Thieves, Corabel Shofner’s quirky Almost Paradise, and Gareth Wronski’s fast-moving and highly imaginative Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy.

Bell, Eric. Alan Cole Is Not a Coward. 272p. HarperCollins/Katherine ­Tegen Bks. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062567024.

Gr 4-6 –All Alan Cole has ever wanted is to blend in. He takes care not to let his cafeteria tablemates, Zack and Madison, become his friends. Alan stays quiet at the dinner table so as not to upset his irascible father, and tries to avoid his brother, Nathan, who relentlessly bullies him. One day Nathan forces Alan to play a round of Cole vs. Cole, in which each brother must attempt to accomplish as many of Nathan’s proposed seven assignments as possible within a week. The tasks are tSpough and include learning how to swim, retrieving a slip of paper from inside a broken vending machine, and receiving a first kiss. If Alan loses, Nathan will reveal his biggest secret to the whole school: Alan is gay and has a crush on one of his male classmates. With its well-developed characters, juxtaposition of supportive adult educators and aggressive parents, and message of hope, this novel feels like a contemporary version of Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now. Many of the book’s most memorable scenes involve its lovable supporting characters, including Zack, a sweet kid who brings new meaning to the phrase free spirit, and Madison, who is named after three U.S. presidents and feels that his name comes with a responsibility to speak as eloquently as possible at all times. VERDICT A strong debut; recommend to tweens who enjoy realistic fiction, particularly readers looking for ­stories about LGBTQ kids.–Shira ­Pilarski, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, Washington, DC

Blejwas, Emily. Once You Know This. 240p. Delacorte. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781524700973.

Gr 5-8 –Eleven-year-old Brittany’s tense home life has turned her into an observant planner. An absent father, an abusive stepfather, and a live-in grandmother with Alzheimer’s are just the start. Brittany’s little brother has pneumonia, and she and her family do not have enough to eat. Despite the problems swirling around her world, Brittany works on developing her “Plan B.” A bright star in her school life is her encouraging teacher, Mr. McInnis, who invites students to imagine their future. Told in the first person, the story is packed with emotion, and readers will root for Brittany. Blejwas doesn’t shy away from addressing difficult issues, including domestic violence and suicide. VERDICT A poignant and emotionally driven debut novel for readers mature enough to handle the serious subject matter. Likely to spark discussion.–Helen Foster James, University of California at San Diego

Ott, Alexandra. Rules for Thieves. 320p. S. & S./Aladdin. Jun. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481472746.

Gr 4-6 –Alli Rosco escapes from her orphanage, but during her first day of freedom, she is hit by a curse. The cure is expensive, so she teams up with a boy named Beck to try to pass the trial to join the Thieves Guild and earn the money she needs. As Beck teaches Alli the rules of being a thief, she will have to decide what she is willing to do and what conflicts with her own set of values. This debut novel introduces readers to a fantastic world of orphans, thieves, magic, and adventure. Characters are well developed and balanced, though some of the secondary players are a little flat. While the world is well imagined, the background details are scarce. The plot is fast-paced and addresses ethical dilemmas. There are enough remaining loose ends to spawn a sequel, though this title can stand alone. ­VERDICT This compelling debut fantasy novel with complex themes, lots of action, and a good cast of characters will appeal to fantasy readers across the spectrum.–­Elizabeth Nicolai, Anchorage ­Public Library, AK

Shofner, Corabel. Almost Paradise. 304p. Farrar. Jul. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374303785.

Gr 4-6 –Twelve-year-old Ruby Clyde’s father was shot and killed before she was born, and she has no use for her mother’s boyfriend Catfish. When Catfish commits armed robbery and gets himself and Ruby Clyde’s mother arrested, the heroine is on her own. She sets off, with only her newly acquired pig, Bunny, for company. Ruby is determined to find Paradise Ranch, a peach orchard in Texas, where her mother’s estranged twin, a nun, lives. Sister Eleanor Rose has her own secrets. Plucky and wise beyond her years, Ruby relies on hope and common sense in equal measure, and her voice is the star of Shofner’s debut novel. Although her mother has failed her, she has loving adults in her life who are willing to protect her, and readers will be glad to see her get her happy but hard-won ending. VERDICT A quirky and ultimately uplifting tale, perfect for fans of Kate DiCamillo and Joan Bauer.–­Laurie Slagenwhite Walters, Brighton District Library, Brighton, MI

Wronski, Gareth. Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy. 320p. S. & S./Aladdin. Jun. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481471770.

Gr 4-6 –Holly Farb has been kidnapped by alien space pirates who believe her to be the princess of the galaxy. They also abducted her science teacher Mr. Mendez and Chester, the boy Holly feels is the single most annoying human being in her class. Holly is now on a mission to find the missing princess of the galaxy, escape the alien space pirates, and return to Earth in time to take her test on Friday. Along the way, however, she learns that there is more to Chester than she thought and that Mr. Mendez has been teaching at the Star Academy on a distant planet. The story is told by the snarky Automatic Silicone Transistor Robot OS-78, who sees himself as the greatest robotic storyteller since the untimely and regrettable implosion of Storybot 7000. In this absorbing sci-fi debut, Wronski takes readers on an intergalactic romp filled with humor and adventure. VERDICT A highly entertaining novel that will appeal to a wide range of readers.–Wayne R. Cherry Jr., St. Pius X High School, Houston

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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