Refugee Stories, Magical Adventures, & More | May 2018 Middle Grade Xpress Reviews

A mix of genre fiction and stirring realistic tales for middle grade readers.

Fox, Kir & M. Shelley Coats. A Friendly Town That’s Almost Always by the Ocean! 208p. Disney-Hyperion. Apr. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781368000055.

Gr 3-5 –When Davy Jones and his mother move to Topsea, Davy tries hard to adjust to life in the bizarre coastal town. The kids in school can’t seem to remember his name, and everything that is normal to them is confusing and even a little threatening to Davy. Topsea is not like anywhere else; it is a place where dogs are a myth, mermaids are real, and a sentient wall of chewing gum tries to consume unsuspecting students. Told through multigenre vignettes including newspaper articles and lunch menus, as well as episodic narrative chapters, the book is reminiscent of Louis Sachar’s “Wayside School” stories with a sinister tone that echoes Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Even the unbelievable becomes real in Topsea, where the “stories all had some kind of truth at the bottom. The other stuff was just extra fun.” The truth that emerges from these stories is an exploration of what, exactly, it means to be normal and how the idea of normalcy is completely dependent on context. VERDICT With witty wordplay and a diverse cast of characters, this first of a projected series will intrigue fans of dark humor and quirky stories.–Jen McConnel, Queen’s University, Ont.

Horwitz, Sarah Jean. The Crooked Castle. 368p. (Carmer and Grit: Bk. 2). Algonquin. Apr. 2018. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781616206642.

Gr 4-7 –Grit has once again gotten herself into a bit of a fix. The young faerie princess, traveling with her human friend of the fae, Felix Carmer III, attempts to rescue a young balloonist in distress, Bell Daisimer. Now the trio finds themselves drifting into Driftside City, the airship capital of the country. They arrive in time to see Rinka Tinka’s Roving Wonder Show, an amazement of airships and daring performers. Something more sinister is also floating in the air, however. Grit finds herself facing the members of the Unseelie kingdom, the faeries in opposition to her own kingdom. Through fire, magic, and water, the evil, jealous plans of an Unseelie princess who cares nothing for human life are revealed. The second installment of this steampunk-inspired magical series picks up shortly after the first and is even richer in detail and full of undersea and high-flying adventure and danger. Grit and Carmer are recognizable from the previous story, but they continue to grow as they make hard decisions and learn more about the world. Readers should start with the first in the series as references are made to it that are not always explained. VERDICT A choice purchase for any library with readers who enjoy a well-plotted, magical adventure.–Clare A. Dombrowski, Amesbury Public Library, MA

Mitchell, Jane. Without Refuge. 288p. appendix. glossary. Carolrhoda. Apr. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781541500501.

Gr 5 Up –Thirteen-year-old Ghalib and his Kurdish family live in modern-day war-torn northern Syria. Their daily life is punctuated by gunfire and bombs. When Ghalib has a brush with death, the family decides they must flee. Their dangerous journey takes them into and across Turkey in an effort to reach Greece. The suffering they experience and witness is severe, but they carry on with determination in search of a new life, all along knowing that their survival and well-being are far from guaranteed. Mitchell’s action-packed, riveting story pulls readers in from page one. Her vivid descriptions of the physical and emotional challenges faced by Ghalib’s family and all the refugees they encounter are heartrending but suitable for a middle grade audience. The writing aptly conveys the bombed-out landscape from which Ghalib’s family flees and the challenging conditions in the refugee camps, as well as the lush countryside and vibrant villages they pass on their journey. An appendix includes details on what may have happened to Ghalib’s family once they arrived in Greece, a glossary, a discussion guide, and, most poignantly, a tribute to some of the lost children of Syria. VERDICT An important story told in convincing fashion that should be a first purchase for upper elementary and middle school collections.–Melissa Kazan, Horace Mann School, NY

Williams, Carol Lynch. Never That Far. 176p. Shadow Mountain. Apr. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781629724096.

Gr 4-6 –When Libby’s grandfather dies, she’s lost more than her best friend; she’s lost the only person in the world who understands her. Libby’s father, distraught at the loss of his own Pappa, has taken to his bed, ignoring Libby’s grief. Right after Grampa’s funeral, Libby is woken by his spirit in the middle of the night. He tells her she has the gift of Sight and that all of her relatives who have passed on will be able to communicate with her. Then Grampa issues her a challenge: she must find a treasure that he’s hidden in the lake, and she only has a few days to do it. She sets out with the help of her two neighbors and against her skeptical father’s wishes. Libby is a likable character who is a vital part of healing her father’s enormous grief as well as her own. Though the story, set in Florida in 1967, is about death and grieving, Williams presents these themes in a sweet and positive light with a focus on family and healing. VERDICT A good read for historical assignments and short enough that it may be an attraction for reluctant readers. Recommend to fans of Bridge to Terabithia.–Terry Ann Lawler, Burton Barr Library, Phoenix

Zee, Ginger. Chasing Helicity. 208p. Disney-Hyperion. Apr. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781484780381.

Gr 4-6 –Thirteen-year-old Helicity, named for her physicist grandmother’s favorite word, has always been fascinated by weather. When she finds herself at the edge of a destructive tornado that passes through her town in western Michigan, she captures photos and video of it, not knowing that her older brother, Andy, was injured while out looking for her, thereby putting his college football scholarship in jeopardy. As Andy and the town begin to recover, Helicity’s pictures catch the attention of local meteorology professor and storm chaser, Lana. Helicity eventually convinces her parents to respect her passion and allow her to go on a summer storm-chasing adventure. Zee, the chief meteorologist for ABC News and Good Morning America, knows quite a bit about storms, and delicately balances Helicity’s desire to learn about weather and storm chasing with the family problems she is facing, including her strict father and older brother’s addiction to painkillers. While the minor characters fall flat at times, Helicity’s passion for science shines through. The unresolved conclusion sets up the next book in this planned series. VERDICT Adventure seekers and weather radar watchers will jump right into the storm chase in this exciting middle grade story with tons of STEM appeal.–Sarah Polace, Cuyahoga Public Library System, OH

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