Four Middle Grade Titles About Quests, Treks, and Magical Journeys

These four stellar titles feature odd couples and ragtag groups embarking on fantastic adventures of redemption and discovery.

These four stellar titles feature odd couples and ragtag groups embarking on ­fantastic adventures of redemption and discovery. Orphan Melanie Gates joins an automaton named Traveler under the guise of a witch apprenticeship, but nothing is as it seems in Zack Loran Clark’s The Lock-Eater. Razi finds a shipwrecked boy and is pulled into a rollicking treasure hunt in Nizrana Farook’s The Boy Who Met a Whale, while brothers Lal and Dilip must help a new, enchanting furry friend make good on an old promise in Joan Haig’s Tiger Skin Rug. Lastly, Maddy is an orphan who finds the magic and belonging she’s yearned for with a group of misfits, but she finds danger too, in Lori R. Snyder’s The Circus at the End of the Sea.

Clark, Zack Loran. The Lock-Eater. 368p. Dial. Jan. 2022. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781984816887.
Gr 5 Up –“The Adventurer’s Guild” co-author has created a new fantastical world where The Empire reigns watchfully supreme over their nation’s witches and wizards, and is in the midst of a magical battle with the outlying (older) elemental magic of the Ley Coven, who threaten it at its self-imposed borders. The tale opens in Merrytrails Orphanage, where readers meet an unbelievably noxious and temperamental cat named Abraxas, and a diverse band of f­oundlings ­under the supervision of a benevolent mistress, Mrs. Harbargain. One orphan, ­Melanie Gate, has the special power of unlocking or confounding any lock she encounters. One night a strangely sentient automaton, a “gearling” known simply as Traveler, visits the orphanage to recruit a foundling as a witch’s apprentice, setting Melanie on her transformative adventure. Clark has woven a compelling story as intricate and sparkling as the magical spells he describes, and manages to combine high fantasy with a heart-wrenching passageway through adolescence, queer awakening, and existential mysteries with ease. The cast of characters is deeply knowable, and its ­worldbuilding aches for more adventures in this setting. Readers will cheer and weep with Melanie and Traveler as they discover who they are in the face of doubt, illusion, and betrayal. Clark has crafted one of those special books that only comes around every so often, a delicately balanced fantasy and coming-of-age novel that will resonate with adults and children alike. VERDICT A must-purchase for a middle school library, this philosophical fantasy is an absolute revelation for an adolescent child yearning for adventure and knowing oneself.– Rachel Joiner, Advent Episcopal Sch., ­Bessemer, AL

Farook, Nizrana. The Boy Who Met a Whale. 256p. Peachtree. Feb. 2022. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781682633731.
Gr 3-5 –When Razi slips down to the beach early one morning to watch the hatchling sea turtles scurry to the safety of the sea, he finds a boat drifting near shore. In the boat, he discovers a boy, unconscious, parched, and covered with salt. Just as Razi pulls Zheng to safety and places him in the shade of the coconut trees, he encounters two nefarious-looking men searching for the boy, whom Razi quickly misdirects. When the beguiling Zheng regains consciousness, he quickly charms Razi into the adventure of his life. The two 12-year-old boys, along with Razi’s twin sister, Shifa, set off to recover buried treasure ahead of the pair of villainous crew members from Zheng’s storm-sunk ship. The story unfolds like a luminous fairy tale, enhanced by the ebullient Zheng, whose stories the twins find almost too outlandish to believe. Farook invokes the beauty of her native Sri Lanka with sparkling descriptions of island and sea. The intrepid trio manage to outwit their enemies with some quick thinking and a few assists from sea creatures, including the titular whale. Along the way, the three find more than the jeweled Dagger of Serendib; they find themselves. Each youngster ends up a wiser, better person: orphan Zheng finds a family, Razi rediscovers his love of the sea, and Shifa learns to trust. Like the sea turtles Razi loves, each child experiences growth on the sea, but also a pull back to the island. VERDICT This lyrical ­story, reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories will be appreciated by all lovers of adventurous fairy tales. –Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor S. D., Lancaster, PA

Haig, Joan. Tiger Skin Rug: A Magical Journey. 200p. Europa. Nov. 2021. Tr $17. ISBN 9781609457204.
Gr 3-7 –After brothers Lal and Dilip Patel move from India to Scotland with their parents and Naniji, they quickly begin to miss home desperately. Everything in Scotland is strange—especially the tiger skin rug in their new drawing room that seems almost to move when the light hits it just right. So when Dilip discovers the tiger can move, the two jump at the chance to help him keep a long-kept promise and hopefully find their own way home again. Readers are sure to devour this magical, mysterious adventure of a debut, equal parts gentle and exhilarating. Lal and Dilip’s longing for the familiarity of home resonates, as do the lessons they learn along the way. VERDICT A natural recommendation for fans of emotionally resonant adventure books, and authors such as Kate DiCamillo, Sara Pennypacker, and Katherine Applegate. –Kaitlin Frick, Darien Lib., CT

Snider, Brandon T. Rube Goldberg and His Amazing Machines. illus. by Ed Steckley. 240p. Amulet. Nov. 2021. Tr $13.99. ISBN 9781419750045.
Gr 4-6 –In a new series based on a fictionalized version of the infamous inventor, Rube Goldberg loves to create contraptions. With his dad working out of town all the time, his mom deceased, and his grandmother dropping off the occasional casserole, Rube is able to spend his days and nights working on projects. After a summer of isolated machine building, Rube starts sixth grade at Beechwood ­Middle School. When the principal of Beechwood announces the school’s Con-Con, or Contraption Convention, Rube withdraws even more from his old friends Boob (yes, Boob McNutt) and Pearl Williams. Rube’s new and unlikely friend, Zach, drives a wedge further between Rube, Boob, and Pearl, as Rube elects to spend time working on inventions with Zach to prepare for ­Con-Con. Suspicions mount, strange things happen, and friends say all the wrong things as the competition draws nearer. With the exception of the curse of a haunted doll found in the woods, a few supernatural disturbances at the school, and an international criminal disguised as the new science teacher, Rube’s induction into the middle school experience will be highly relatable to kids making this transition. Lively cartoon illustrations convey the spirit of the characters, while italicized passages convey Rube’s thoughts. Rube and Boob are cued as white, and Pearl is Black. VERDICT With middle school ­humor and entertaining ­images, Rube learns to ­navigate strange and difficult situations in this first installment of the “Rube ­Goldberg” series.–Lindsay Persohn, Univ. of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee

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