May 27, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

16 Novels with Tween-Appeal

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Abbott, Tony. The Summer of Owen Todd. 224p. Farrar. Oct. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374305505.

Gr 5-8–It’s the summer after fifth grade, and lifelong best friends Owen and Sean are looking forward to a vacation full of baseball, go-karts, beach trips, and, now that they are getting older, a bit more independence in their Cape Cod hometown. Things don’t go as planned, however, when Sean’s single mom hires Paul to help look after Sean, who depends on insulin injections to manage his diabetes, while she goes to work at a new job in a neighboring town. Paul, a friendly older guy from church, seems nice enough, if a little strange, but before long, Sean tells Owen about some uncomfortable incidents between them. As Paul’s behavior escalates into child abuse and sexual assault, Sean continues to confide in Owen, but threatens suicide if Owen tells anyone else what is happening. The story is told from Owen’s point of view as he struggles with how to handle the situation and what might happen if he breaks his promise to keep Sean’s secret. Ultimately, witnessing Sean’s abuse firsthand spurs Owen to action, and he records the assault on his father’s cell phone before telling his parents everything. While doing so costs Owen his friendship with Sean, Paul is eventually arrested and Sean is able to get help. An author’s note at the close of the book further encourages readers to speak out if they or someone they know is being abused, and includes contact information for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network). The setting is particularly well drawn, and woven into the story are threads about family, friendship, trust, courage, and growing up. VERDICT Unsettling and at times painful, this book offers an empathetic portrayal of a difficult and important subject.–Lauren Strohecker, McKinley Elementary School, Elkins Park, PA

Burt, Jake. Greetings from Witness Protection! 368p. Feiwel & Friends. Oct. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781250107114.

Gr 5-8–What do you get when you mix a snarky city girl with a shady past and lightning reflexes with a seemingly typical suburban family she’s just met? A funny, action-packed novel about the trials of school, parental arguments, and sibling rivalry—all with a dash of high-stakes thrills and dramatic showdowns. Nicki Demere has been living in foster care ever since her father was arrested, biding her time until her father comes to bring her home. But FBI agents arrive first. They want Nicki to be part of an inaugural program that trains and places selected foster children with families under witness protection, thereby changing the nature of the families’ makeup so they are harder to track down. Spurred on by a disappointing revelation about her own family, Nicki agrees. Despite the protagonist’s tough, wisecracking exterior, she finds herself building bonds and connecting with the new people in her life: shy gamer Britt, chirpy student council member Holly, and, most of all, her new family, even sullen young Jackson. But will Nicki’s past and her many secrets threaten all she is starting to care about? Young fans of Ally Carter’s “Gallagher Girls” spy novels and the “Heist Society” art thief series will relish the action and fast-paced plot as well as the engaging and competent Nicki, whose emotional strength and quick wits carry her through much of the narrative. VERDICT Difficult topics are touched upon but swiftly resolved, making this light read a good choice for tween collections.–Evelyn Khoo Schwartz, Georgetown Day School, Washington, DC

Burt, Marissa. The 12 Dares of Christa. 304p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062416186.

Gr 5-8–Thirteen-year-old Christa’s plans for her cherished Christmas traditions are upended by her parents’ upcoming divorce. She spends the Christmas season with her actress mother, who is performing in a production that’s traveling through Europe; her father, a travel agent, remains at home in Chicago. After the initial, traumatic announcement of Christa’s parents’ separation, the story skips forward five weeks and then slows down again to detail Christa’s journey. She spends most of the trip to Florence, Paris, and London on a heavily scheduled guided tour with the other children of troupe members. The famous tourist sites they visit are depicted in glorious detail, and the other characters’ full personalities emerge as the kids develop into a close-knit group. A package from Christa’s father contains a dare, the first of the titular 12, each of which leads her to a specific landmark. Over the course of the voyage, Christa’s relationship with her mother becomes more contentious and distant, partly because of Christa’s unhappiness with her family situation. The protagonist has obsessive concerns about possible food allergies and deals with anxiety in general, but the exact cause of these issues is not fully explained. Christa’s father addresses her anxiety by urging her to be more daring, and her mother, a rather one-dimensional character, complains that Christa is a drama queen. In addition to coping with family problems, the protagonist experiences a sweet, if predictable, romance. VERDICT Burt departs from her earlier fantasy novels in this realistic fiction title that is likely to appeal to travel and theater buffs.–Judy Poyer, Odenton Regional Library, MD

Dee, Barbara. Halfway Normal. 256p. S. & S./Aladdin. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481478519.

Gr 4-7–Norah Levy is entering seventh grade after being away from school for two years, during which she spent time in and out of the hospital battling leukemia. Transitioning back to the “real world” is challenging—everyone in the seventh grade knows her as “The Girl Who.” She’s tired of being treated like she’s fragile; some students are even jealous of the attention she receives. It doesn’t help that her overprotective parents won’t allow her to participate in after-school or weekend activities with her friends. As she’s making the difficult shift from patient to student, Norah also deals with the everyday challenges of middle school: cliquey friends, crushes on boys, and skipping classes. Readers will empathize with Norah as she tries to rediscover her place amongst people who were her friends. When she is placed in eighth grade math and science (she got ahead during her private tutoring), she bonds with a boy named Griffin over books, Greek myths, and her drawing ability. Norah avoids talking about her cancer at school, so Griffin doesn’t know about her past. When keeping her secret becomes impossible, Norah has to find a way to share her story. She learns is that she has been forever changed by her life experiences—but that’s okay. VERDICT A powerful story about surviving and thriving after serious illness.–Sarah Polace, Cuyahoga Public Library System, OH

De Quidt, Jeremy. The Wrong Train. 224p. Scholastic/David Fickling Bks. Aug. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781338121254.

Gr 5-8–A collection of scary short stories told by a mysterious and creepy old man to a boy who is trapped waiting on a train platform. All of the tales slowly build in suspense, creating a creeping sense of foreboding. While the entries are frightening, they achieve their chills without excessive gore or violence, which makes this a good pick for horror-loving middle grade readers. VERDICT A goose bump–inducing volume that is sure to have readers sleeping with the lights on.–Annalise Ammer, Henrietta Public Library, NY

Echlin, Helena & Malena Watrous. Sparked. 310p. Inkshares. Oct. 2017. pap. $11.99. ISBN 9781942645641.

Gr 7-10–This prosaic tale of paranormal suspense is set in a remote area near a state park in Cascade, Oregon. It opens with artsy elder sister Ivy suddenly absent from the underwhelming trailer she shares with her unreliable mother and her sister Laurel, the primary narrator. It’s Laurel who is most alarmed at Ivy’s disappearance and unconvinced by the note found by the coffee machine about visiting a friend. Laurel’s attempts to find her sister soon turn to rescue as her dreams are haunted with a revelatory overlay of events from Ivy’s own viewpoint; these snippets of shared experience confirm kidnapping, complete with handcuffs, a trapdoor, and a menacing man in a ski mask. The cause for alarm rises when Laurel gets to know an adorable new boy in her English class. Jasper, gifted with an ability to start fires himself, reveals that he knows Ivy and has helped her to develop her emerging telekinesis. A cryptic 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian prophecy involving an apocalyptic evil to be unleashed on the world from Cascade if not for the linking of four locals with magical powers to combat it is coming to pass. Ivy is one of the “sparked,” but others must be found and convinced to save Ivy and the world—all by Halloween, less than a week away. Certain niggling, real-world incongruities—like a jukebox in a school cafeteria and the teenage characters’ minimal use of cell phones and social media—make the work feel a bit out of touch. ­VERDICT Like a somewhat forgettable episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this entertainment will transport less demanding readers with accelerating momentum even if truly felicitous prose and plotting aren’t along for the ride.–Suzanne Gordon, Lanier High School, Sugar Hill, GA

Gratz, Alan. Refugee. 352p. Scholastic. Jul. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545880831.

Gr 5-7–Gratz presents three interrelated stories about surviving. The tales center on children and their families who are driven from their homes by war, violence, and unrest. Josef must leave Nazi-controlled Germany with his mother, his sister, and his mentally broken father (just returned to them from Auschwitz). He sails across the Atlantic Ocean on the ill-fated St. Louis only to be turned away from Cuba and returned to Europe. Isabel and her family live in Cuba and escape on a makeshift raft during the exodus in the 1990s. They flee the repression and poverty of Fidel Castro’s rule. Mahmoud, a Syrian boy, and his family seek refuge from the ongoing war and violence in their home city of Aleppo. They board a dinghy in order to cross the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece. All the entries share elements of hardship, fear, and trauma and stress the power of love, family, and incredible sacrifice. Gratz, who is known for well-written and well-researched historical fiction, doesn’t disappoint. His latest is timely and moving. VERDICT This compelling novel will help young people make sense of today’s refugee crisis. Meant to be read, discussed, and shared widely. A first purchase.–Patricia Feriano, ­Montgomery County Public Schools, MD

Lehr, Dick. Trell. 320p. Candlewick. Sept. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780763692759.

Gr 6-10–In 1990s Boston, 13-year-old Trell has spent every Sunday of her life traveling by bus to visit her father in prison. Though her father dealt drugs, he did not commit the murder for which he was convicted: in the late 1980s, a young girl was accidentally killed during a gang shooting. Only investigative journalism is able to cut through the layers of political expediency and police bias that led to the wrongful conviction. In the end, justice prevails, Trell’s father is freed, and the real shooter is uncovered. Based on events involving the accidental shooting death of an African American girl, the crack-fueled gang culture of 1980s Boston, and the ensuing outrage, this book will resonate with today’s teens. Trell is an appealingly gutsy heroine whose belief in her father is strong enough to drag an attorney and a down-on-his-luck journalist into her orbit. Ultimately, this title reads more like a middle grade novel than a teen one, with the heroine far more interested in her family relationships than in her friendships. Without hand-selling, this selection might get lost on YA shelves. VERDICT Younger YA readers will enjoy this fast-paced thriller.–Kristin Anderson, Columbus Metropolitan Library System, OH


Messner, Kate. The Exact Location of Home. 224p. Bloomsbury. Oct. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781681195483.

Gr 5-7–Thirteen-year-old science and electronics enthusiast Zig hasn’t had a visit from his father in more than a year. Zig’s mother won’t explain why, so he begins looking for clues in local geocaches. Meanwhile, Zig’s mother fails to pay the rent and they move into a homeless shelter after a short stay with Zig’s aunt Becka, who lives with an abusive husband. Messner describes the mundane details of hard realities. The shelter is perfectly safe, but there are no school supplies. Zig shows up for his school’s free breakfast and finds out that his friend Ruby regularly attends. His teacher lectures the class about “the less fortunate,” as if poverty and homelessness are issues that no child she knows has to handle. The author offers realistic but hopeful resolutions to many of Zig’s problems. The geocache trail doesn’t locate Zig’s father, but it does lead to a job for his mother. Aunt Becka doesn’t leave her husband, but she knows that Zig’s mother is there for support. There is no question that life will bring problems, but it’s just as certain that friends and family can help. Vivid characters and situations, along with clear, simple writing and plotting, make this an accessible and enlightening read. VERDICT A gentle but truthful look at poverty and homelessness for fans of realistic middle grade novels, such as Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now and Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., in which Zig is a secondary character.–Lisa Goldstein, Brooklyn Public Library

Odhiambo, Eucabeth. Auma’s Long Run. 304p. Carolrhoda. Sept. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781512427844.

Gr 5 Up–In this novel set in 1980s Kenya, HIV/AIDS ravages Auma’s village and leaves her and her three siblings orphans. The girl’s speed and good grades lead to a track scholarship at a provincial high school. Auma’s life is at times overwhelmingly harsh, from her culture’s low expectations for girls to the threat of starvation to the dangers she faces from village men. She aspires to become a doctor and help cure the disease; she wants to “find out what is killing our people, and once I find out, I will work to end it.” Her grandmother, Dani, accuses Auma of being selfish because she refuses to be married at 15 and stay in the village to take care of her sister and brothers. Odhiambo grew up in Kenya and later studied HIV/AIDS education in Kenyan schools. She writes in the author’s note that the deaths that resulted from this disease left many unanswered questions at the time because information on “slim,” as HIV/AIDS was nicknamed, was not available until the mid-1990s and the local Luo culture did not encourage open discussion about the disease. Using straightforward language, Odhiambo addresses traditions of the Luo culture and details about HIV/AIDS, including how it is contracted and its effects on the body. VERDICT This moving testament to the power of determination to overcome overwhelming odds is a recommended purchase for all libraries.–Sarah Wilsman, Bainbridge Library, ­Chagrin Falls, OH

Smoot, Madeline, ed. Dragons and Witches. 160p. CBAY. Jun. 2017. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781933767611.

Gr 6-10–This collection reimagines legendary villains, placing them in new settings. While teens will easily recognize some of the characters, others present more of a challenge. In “The Pendragon Crystal,” readers will quickly pick up that Morgan is based on the half sister of Arthur Pendragon. And it’s clear from the title that “A Very Baba Yaga Halloween” centers on the witch from Slavic folklore. However, teens will need to apply their research skills to find out, for instance, that in “Technological Magic,” extraterrestrial human being Amalthea is based on Zeus’s foster mother from Greek mythology. As a whole, this volume will appeal to fans of retellings. The writing is accessible, and topics such as love, relationships, hauntings, and school are addressed in these tales, making them relatable to teens. Each story is different from the next, and the information provided about each author might pique teens’ interest. VERDICT Recommended for fans of the television movie Descendants. An additional purchase where YA retellings and short story collections are popular.–Maeve Dodds, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, NC

Smy, Pam. Thornhill. illus. by Pam Smy. 544p. Roaring Brook. Aug. 2017. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781626726543.

Gr 5-9–This illustrated debut novel brings the dead back to life. Mary’s story, told through diary entries, takes place in 1982 over a seven-month period at the Thornhill Institute for Children, an orphanage on the cusp of closing its doors forever. Mary has selective mutism and has turned to the art of doll-making. Her odd hobby and quiet persona make her a target for bullying. After many of the other orphan girls have been “re-homed,” Mary is left alone with her main tormentor and decides she has had enough and will get revenge, no matter what the cost. Flash forward 35 years to Ella, who has moved to a home near the now abandoned Thornhill Institute and whose experiences are depicted through eerie, detailed drawings. After seeing a girl in the neglected lot and hoping to make a friend, Ella sneaks in and discovers that there is much more there than meets the eye. In Mary’s old room, Ella reads the poor orphan girl’s diary. Ella writes a letter to Mary asking if they can become friends. The striking juxtaposition of Mary’s prose and the illustrations portraying Ella’s life will draw readers into this intriguing ghost story with an ending that chills to the bone. VERDICT The combination of diary entries and artwork makes this an excellent selection for middle schoolers and reluctant readers.–Stephanie Wilkes, Good Hope Middle School, West Monroe, LA

Tanner, Lian. Battlesong. 304p. (The Icebreaker Trilogy: Bk. 3). Feiwel & Friends. Aug. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781250052186.

Gr 5-8–Tanner’s trilogy concludes with a meticulously plotted, rapidly paced adventure that both stands alone and richly satisfies fans of the first two novels. The narrative picks up where Sunker’s Deep left off, with the crews of both the Oyster and the Claw on dry land searching for the captain and the legendary Singer. Enter young Gwin and her family, traveling entertainers called “Fetchers,” whose performances bring moments of pleasure to the downtrodden population while preserving traditional lore and keeping ancient secrets from the Anti-Machinists. Tanner’s unparalleled world-building seamlessly weaves Gwin’s tale into a complex narrative told from multiple perspectives. The author provides just enough backstory to keep new readers engaged and the action moving toward a thrilling ending that unites characters from all three installments. Attentive readers will be intrigued by early plot details that later on return to add significance at pivotal moments. Masterly writing brings the stark landscape to life and reveals characters’ deepest emotions. ­VERDICT A first purchase for collections that already have the other volumes in the series; expect interest in them if ordering this third entry on its own.–Marybeth Kozikowski, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY

Townsend, Jessica. Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow. 336p. Little, Brown. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316508889; pap. $10.99. ISBN 9780316513982.

Gr 5 Up–Morrigan Crow is cursed and doomed to die on her 11th birthday on Eventide night. She is blamed for every bit of bad luck and misfortune that plagues the residents of the town of Jackalfax in the Wintersea Republic. When Eventide arrives early, ushering in a new Age across the realm, Morrigan is faced with the prospect of her premature death—until a strange man named Jupiter North arrives. Together the two escape the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow and come to the Free State city of Nevermoor. Miraculously alive and possibly no longer cursed, Morrigan can make a fresh start. With Jupiter’s help, she has the chance to compete in a series of trials for a place in Nevermoor’s most revered group: the Wundrous Society. If she succeeds, she’ll also earn her place in Nevermoor and finally have a home and a caring family. Despite Jupiter’s assurances, Morrigan dreads the final Show Trial, where the remaining competitors will have to demonstrate their astounding talents—something Morrigan is quite certain she doesn’t possess. Morrigan will have to step boldly and learn to trust her new friends if she hopes to pass the trials and join the Wundrous Society. Townsend’s debut fantasy revolves around Morrigan’s struggle to find her place and discover her own worth, all while she completes magical tasks and investigates the strange world of Nevermoor. This dynamic title is filled with intricate world-building that brings the renowned figure of Jupiter North and the rest of Nevermoor to life. Set over the course of Morrigan’s year of trials, this entertaining and fast-paced story is filled with astonishing details, such as the Hotel Deucalion, where Morrigan’s room changes to suit her mood; the Wundrous Society grounds, which turn the weather up a notch; and even a giant talking “Magnificat” named Fenestra. VERDICT Readers, like Morrigan herself, will feel at home in this evocative novel where magic and confidence go hand in hand. An excellent and exciting work.–Emma Carbone, Brooklyn Public Library

Yee, F.C. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. 320p. Abrams/Amulet. Aug. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781419725487.

Gr 7 Up–Genie Lo lives in Silicon Valley, but not the nice part. All she wants is to get into the Ivy League so she can escape. But then Quentin, the weird new kid at school, tells her that he’s really the Monkey King and she is the human reincarnation of his weapon, the Ruyi Jingu Bang. In response, she punches him the face. Unfortunately for both of them, 108 demons have escaped from hell, and they need to track them down to save the world. Genie needs a crash course not only in demon fighting, but also in Chinese mythology—she has never read Journey to the West or seen one of the myriad movies. With the occasional helping hand from Guanyin and Erlang Shen, this rollicking page-turning adventure delivers action coupled with laughter. Genie’s not the first girl who has to balance school, family, and friends with averting the apocalypse, but her biting humor make her first-person narration a stand-out. A Chinese American girl who was angry and strong before being saddled with the fate of the world, Genie’s perspective on the strange turn her life has taken will have readers laughing out loud. Luckily, while the ending brings the story to a satisfying close, it does leave room for a sequel—readers will be demanding more Genie long before they turn the last page. VERDICT Hilarious and action-packed, this fantastically executed tale of the Monkey King in modern-day California introduces a great new character in Genie Lo.–Jennifer Rothschild, Arlington County Public Libraries, VA

Yeh, Kat. The Way to Bea. 352p. Little, Brown. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780316236676.

Gr 5-8–Seventh grader Beatrix Lee puts a lot of faith in haiku. Since her family and friendships are changing dramatically, Bea abandons her love of free verse poetry and takes solace in the haiku’s dependable five-seven-five rhyme scheme. After an embarrassing incident at a pool party causes a painful rift with her longtime best friend, Bea writes most of her poetry in invisible ink, a reflection of the loneliness she feels at school and at home, where her parents are happily preparing for a new baby. Bea’s love of words starts to reemerge with the encouragement of a supportive librarian who introduces her to the kids at Broadside, the school newspaper. During lunch time, Bea takes refuge in the Broadside office, where she meets Briggs, the paper’s editor, who makes her feel like a valued member of a team, and Will, who is obsessed with labyrinths. When Bea decides to show Will a labyrinth that belongs to a wealthy and mysterious local resident, she learns the identity of the person who is leaving notes for her in a secret spot near her house. As Bea works her way through the maze of new friendships and a new role in her family, she begins to see herself and her friends more clearly. Readers will connect with Bea’s first-person narrative of her winding path toward discovering her strengths. VERDICT This character-driven story is a winning combination of humor, heart, and redemption. Recommended for all libraries.–Shelley Sommer, Inly School, Scituate, MA




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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