March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Brand New Middle Grade Debuts | SLJ Spotlight

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Is middle grade the new YA? After years of stellar young adult titles being squarely in the spotlight, it seems as if the tide is turning in favor of YA’s younger sibling, the middle grade novel. One indicator is the number of new middle grade authors making their debuts this season—along with some well-known names trying their hands at middle grade fiction for the first time. From quirky mysteries and intricate steampunk adventures to environmental allegory and multi-layered fantasy, this crop of fresh new voices on the middle grade scene should find a place on library shelves and in the hands of eager young readers.

redstarBrown, Peter. The Wild Robot. illus. by Peter Brown. 288p. Little, Brown. Apr. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780316381994; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780316382014.The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

Gr 3-5 –The crate containing ROZZUM unit 7134 wasn’t meant to be shipwrecked on an island. Roz is baffled by the wildness of the environment, but her robot brain is programmed to learn and master tasks. She camouflages herself as clumps of seaweed, meadow flowers, and fallen logs to quietly observe and learn from the flora and fauna. Scared of the unknown, the animals initially think she’s a monster and run in terror. But Roz rescues a goose egg and reaches out to the animal community for help. Roz and the animals fall into a happy routine, but that bliss is broken by environmental and technological threats to the island. Set in the not-so-distant future, this thoughtful story unfolds slowly, matching Roz’s pace as she observes and integrates into island life. The environmental and technological dangers introduced halfway through are impactful; they threaten the tightly knit community so carefully cultivated by Roz and the animals. The character development focuses on Roz and her adopted son, Brightbill. The supporting characters, while less fleshed out, are compelling. Short chapters and read-aloud-worthy third-person narration pair beautifully with Brown’s grayscale illustrations. Grounded in striking, eye-catching compositions, his artwork combines geometric shapes and organic forms and textures, providing context and building atmosphere. The open ending leaves readers bereft for Roz and her beloved island, though it is sure to spark discussions about environmental impact and responsibility. VERDICT This strong debut middle grade novel by the acclaimed picture book author/illustrator is a first purchase for most middle grade collections.–Amy Seto Forrester, Denver Public Library

Knight, Mary. Saving Wonder. 288p. Scholastic. Mar. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545828932; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9780545828956.KNIGHT, Mary. Saving Wonder

Gr 5-7 –The coal industry has taken a lot from 12-year-old Curley. Both parents and his brother were killed in coal-related accidents. Now a new coal company wants to mine his Kentucky mountain home, and the company owner’s son, JD, wants to date his best friend/secret crush, Jules. But Curley’s determined to fight for what he loves and has the resources to prevail. Grandfather Pawpaw raised Curley with an appreciation for the power of words, and with help from Jules and even JD, words become Curley’s tools to save his home. The streamlined plot moves quickly toward two climactic scenes on the mountain: one will bring tears, the other, cheers. Descriptions of the setting’s fragile beauty are so subtly interwoven with dialogue and action, they’re not only powerful visual images but ever-present reminders of what’s at stake in Curley’s fight. With the exception of JD’s father, drawn as a one-dimensional personification of Big Coal—materialistic as well as a neglectful husband and father—all the characters are fully developed and endearing, their dialogue direct and sincere. Adults are loving but don’t always have all the answers; kids show their emotions with straightforward honesty. Curley and Pawpaw’s word-a-week ritual crystallizes their relationship for the readers and gives Curley the confidence to take on an adversary that seems more powerful than he is. VERDICT A remarkable debut novel from an author to watch.–Marybeth Kozikowski, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY

Leonard, M.G. Beetle Boy. illus. by Júlia Sardà. 288p. Scholastic/Chicken House. Mar. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545853460; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9780545853552.LEONARD, M.G. Beetle Boy

Gr 5-8 –An engaging story aimed at upper middle grade readers who enjoy mysteries but who might not be ready for more mature young adult plotlines. When Dr. Bartholomew Cuttle, a renowned entomologist at the National History Museum in London, suddenly disappears from his research vault without a trace, no one is more surprised than his son, Darkus. The boy can’t believe his father would just vanish and leave him alone in the world. During his first week at Uncle Max’s flat (his father’s brother, also a researcher, who returns from Egypt to care for Darkus), a rhinoceros beetle appears out of nowhere. And it’s no ordinary beetle. Atypically large, it seems to have the uncanny ability to understand what Darkus says. Feeling an immediate connection to his father, Darkus adopts the beetle, names him Baxter, and vows to find his father. Along with his new friends Virginia and Bertolt, Darkus discovers even more interesting beetles in the next-door neighbor’s flat inhabited by warring cousins Pickering and Humphrey. When another famous researcher, Lucretia Cutter, discovers the beetles and wants to buy all of them (think Cruella de Vil), the sharp-minded threesome ponder the connection to Darkus’s father and develop a plan to save the beetles and find Dr. Cuttle. The story moves quickly, and the characters are both wacky and entertaining. VERDICT Educators looking for fiction that connects to and supports science curricula may find a new favorite in this.–Anne Jung-Mathews, Plymouth State University, NH

redstarMaschari, Jennifer. The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price. 304p. ebook available. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Feb. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062380104. The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari

Gr 4-6 –Charlie Price loves math. It’s something he can count on, especially when he desperately needs to be able to count on something. Charlie’s mother died, and his best friend disappeared the same year. Just as he’s starting to put his life back together, the impossible happens. His sister Imogen finds a mysterious door under her bed and discovers a parallel world where their mother is alive. Initially Charlie is as elated as his sister about the opportunity to reconnect with his mother, but his logical mind quickly deduces that something is amiss in the parallel world. Each experience that he and Imogen have with their mother erases their memories of doing the same thing with her when she was alive. Realizing that the parallel mother is only a creature imitating her and feeding on memories, Charlie solicits the help of a friend to rescue Imogen before all of her memories are stolen. This book straddles multiple genres; the world that Charlie and his grieving family inhabit is heartbreakingly realistic, full of pain and anger as the family tries to reconstruct their lives. The parallel world is reminiscent of the “other” world in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, initially enticing and refreshingly absent of real-world problems but ultimately dangerous. Because Charlie can move between the two worlds, readers spend equal time in them, and it broadens the appeal of the book. Maschari’s writing, particularly in the realistic sections, will make readers pause. Beautifully crafted sentences read almost as if they were poetry. Maschari also excels at character development; Charlie’s anger, pain, and love make him an entirely believable character, and the evolution of the “mother” in the parallel world is frightening. Tough issues are tackled, and sensitive readers may want to read and process the book with a grown-up. Happily, adults will enjoy the story as much as middle graders. VERDICT Fans of both fantasy and realistic fiction will appreciate this painful but ultimately triumphant, multilayered novel.–Juliet Morefield, Multnomah County Library, OR

Surrisi, C.M. The Maypop Kidnapping. 304p. ebook available. Carolrhoda. Mar. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781467757898.SURRISI, C.M. The Maypop Kidnapping

Gr 5-8 –This funny and engaging debut is set in contemporary Maine, as eighth grader Quinnie is just about to begin school with her class of two when her teacher goes missing. Quinnie pleads with her mother—Maiden Rock’s mayor, sheriff, and only real estate agent—to search for her missing teacher, but to no avail. After days of waiting, the tiny town finally realizes that something strange is happening in Maiden Rock. Armed with a new friend and her desperate desire to find her teacher, Quinnie takes matters into her own hands. Who is the kidnapper? “Maniac psycho-killer lover” Owen Loney? Left-at-the-altar John Derby? And just what are those two nuns up to, anyway? Surrisi has created a tale that captures readers’ attention within the first few pages and keeps up the pace through the last chapter. The characters are relatable, refreshingly human, and very funny. Quinnie acts just like a 13-year-old girl would; she is an adult, a child, wise, and very foolish all at the same time. Surrisi’s law background lends valuable perspective and information to the mystery but is never heavy-handed. Information is always provided through Quinnie and with the right level of comprehension for a girl her age. Perfect for middle schoolers and upper elementary–aged readers, this title hits just the right note of suspense without being too scary. A minor flaw is an abundance of pop culture references, which will date the book far too quickly. Here’s hoping the next installment of this planned series keeps Quinnie on her toes. VERDICT A general purchase for most libraries, and a first purchase where mysteries are in high demand.–Taylor Worley, Springfield Public Library, OR

Teele, Elinor. The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin. illus. by Ben Whitehouse. 352p. ebook available. Walden Pond. Apr. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062345103.TEELE, Elinor. The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin

Gr 4-6 –Since the death of their parents, John and Page Coggin live with their Great-Aunt Beauregard, who is obsessed with the family business: coffin-making. After many grueling hours at this trade, John develops some sharp coffin-making skills but is thwarted in his true ambition of engineering fantastical machines. His great-aunt finally pushes things too far by suggesting that young Page can help prepare the corpses for burial and insisting that John sign a mysterious contract pledging himself to the family business for life. The siblings make a daring escape with the help of an accident-prone circus acrobat, and so the adventures begin. Teele has populated her fictional world with whimsical characters who would easily be at home in a Roald Dahl book: prickly circus performers, a sweet but overtaxed baker, friendly railcar hoppers, and an ardent archaeologist—to name a few. Even those with the crustiest exterior have hearts of gold, except, of course, the bad guys, who are truly horrible in the grand tradition of melodrama. John and Page have a realistic and compelling sibling relationship—they annoy each other but care for each other deeply—but most of the other characters are too archetypical to be relatable. The combination of many characters and plot twists may leave some young readers confused, but those who can embrace the madcap without worrying about the details will find some measure of magic in this title. VERDICT A charming fantasy/adventure to add to larger middle grade collections.–Gesse Stark-Smith, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR

These reviews were originally published in the School Library Journal January 2016 issue.

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.



  1. Great reads to add to my list. Thank you!