13 Hi-Lo Titles, Including Speculative Fiction, Horror, Sports, and Graphic Novels

These 13 recent and upcoming books combine relevant contemporary stories with simple vocabulary and streamlined sentences and dialogue. 

Hi-lo books are high-interest titles written at lower reading levels for striving readers. It’s a growing area of publishing yet many librarians struggle to meet the need. Here are 13 recent or upcoming books that combine relevant contemporary stories with simple vocabulary and streamlined sentences and dialogue. These titles, which include speculative fiction, horror, sports, and graphic novels, along with stories exploring important topics like race and gender, will appeal across schools and communities.


Barber, Angel. Dandelion Travels. 200p. Enslow/West 44 Bks. Oct. 2022. Tr $25.80. ISBN 9781978596122; pap. $16.95. ISBN 9781978596139.
Gr 9 Up–In this novel in verse, high schooler Eric is carrying a lot. At home he feels like he has a “black cord/ wrapped around my throat.” He skips school one day and catches his dad, a preacher, cheating on his mom. Gay, he has no patience for slurs and now has a reputation as an “angry black man.” Eric has friends, Xavier and Andrea, but he exchanged a kiss at a party with Xavier, who is now dating Andrea, so it’s awkward. When Andrea heads out to her rich uncle’s beach house in ­California for the summer, Eric decides to defy his parents and go along. There, he has a “saltwater baptism” while swimming in the ocean and meets a cute boy at a party, leading to an intense, but doomed, fling. Through it all, he has a painful reckoning with Xavier and Andrea, goes home and receives the apology from his father that he’s always wanted, and makes peace with his parents’ divorce. The story, written at a second to third grade reading level, covers a lot, and much more is left between the lines. Romance is not described beyond light kissing. VERDICT An exploration of teen drama that will appeal to a wide range of high school readers.

Bentley, Dorothy. Escape from the Wildfire. 136p. Lorimer. Jan. 2023. Tr $27.99. ISBN 9781459417038; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781459417021.
Gr 5-8–After a prologue where ninth grader Jack barely escapes from his burning home and a brief chapter set three weeks later, readers settle into a steady tick-tock beginning almost four months before a devastating wildfire in small-town Lytton, British Columbia. Jack lives with his schoolteacher mom and a dad who is often traveling for his job coordinating wildfire response. Big sister Quinn is away training as a tree planter. Only a day after Mom leaves for an extended family visit in faraway Victoria, with Jack remaining home alone with support from neighbor Glenda, a growing wildfire rips into Lytton, beginning to consume Jack’s house even while he’s playing video games with a friend in the basement. The remainder of the story details their time in an emergency shelter and a tentative return to normal. The events surrounding the actual fire and escape take up only a fraction of the story and details are scant. Written at a fourth grade reading level, the book includes a list of discussion questions as well as recommended resources for further study in subjects such as climate and biodiversity. At times didactic and often bogged down with unimportant details, reading will be slow going for reluctant readers. VERDICT A secondary selection where climate fiction is popular.

Carter, Brooke. Star Eaters. 80p. (Orca Anchor). Orca. Feb. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459834675.
Gr 6-10–Destin is on a routine run as a Raider, searching the galaxy for stars so he can drain their energy for his employer, the hated corporation IRIS. He’s not supposed to visit the planets that are destroyed by the collapse of their suns, but this time he breaks protocol, pausing to take in the trees and grass and blue water. Back on board his starship, Destin saps the sun and stores its energy for transport. He realizes he’s picked up a stowaway, Calla, a girl about his age. Calla begs him to return the energy to her sun before it fades out and leaves her home cold, dark, and, ultimately, dead. This is bad news for Destin, who fears being caught by Captain Juno and returned to “the hub,” a hellish prison for orphans he escaped only by training as a Raider. After evading hot pursuit by fellow Raiders and a disorienting trip through a wormhole in space-time, Destin commits to restoring Calla’s sun and returning to her planet. Though from different worlds, both characters appear ­human. Calla is ­described as having golden freckles and curly white hair. The book is written at a first to second grade reading level. VERDICT Light speculative fiction with a vague hint of ­romance, this is a ­secondary selection.

Chan, Marty. Final Cut. 96p. (Orca Anchor). Orca. Aug. 2022. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459834187.
Gr 6-8–It’s Mason’s last day at his middle school before his family moves to Toronto. He’s finishing up shooting a scene for a gory horror film he’s producing with best friend Maya when they’re mocked and tormented by “monster queen” Denise and her boyfriend, Cole, the “beast jerk king.” Mason catches them on camera making some remarks that are embarrassing when taken out of context. Mason edits the footage to place Denise and Cole’s faces on dogs’ behinds and releases the video on social media. The rest of the story involves Mason on the following day trying to outrun them and their friends, who are trying to catch Mason and threaten to shave him bald. After he intervenes and rescues Denise from a threatened sexual assault outside a bar, she softens on the revenge plan. Eventually, Mason uses a stage knife and tube of fake blood to disrupt a final attack at a skate park. The story, written at a first to second grade reading level, is thin and at times preposterous but the viral video and social media panic will no doubt resonate with middle school readers. The chase scene has enough twists and near-misses to maintain engagement. VERDICT A secondary purchase for middle school libraries.

Di Lorenzo, Melinda Anne. ­Counting Scars. 128p. (Orca Soundings). Orca. Aug. 2022. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459833555.
Gr 9 Up–Sixteen-year-old Adele arrives for a two-week stretch at Camp Happy, a detention facility for teens, intending to follow the rules. With her mom in rehab, she doesn’t want her distant father to be disappointed in her and decline to supervise her probation after release. But she quickly finds herself caught between the attentions of two boys who live in the cabins at the other side of the camp. Dreamy, mysterious Fergus shows up at odd moments to help her, and maybe stalk her, while more talkative Andy warns her in stark terms that Fergus is bad news. After a secret bonfire is discovered by camp staff and Fergus arrives to whisk her away and avoid punishment, they grow closer, filling in some details about their backgrounds and sharing a toe-curling kiss. Later, Adele is attacked and finds herself a prisoner, along with Fergus, with Andy threatening to burn them both alive. Some coarse language and characters’ gritty lives won’t appeal to every reader. But the story is propulsive, with cliffhangers and burning resentments among secondary characters. The book is written at a second grade reading level. VERDICT Hand to reluctant high school readers looking for a good crime story.

Jones, Kevin Heron. Not Talking About You. 128p. Lorimer. Jan. 2023. Tr $27.99. ISBN 9781459417083; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781459417076.
Gr 6-8–Eighth grader Khalil is new in his suburban school, his family having recently moved from Toronto. He’s also one of the only kids of color in his community, his family having roots in St. Vincent. He’s an all-around athlete, but at first, he’s lost when new friend Cameron draws him into his circle of basketball-obsessed boys. Khalil proves a quick study, though, and lands a spot as a starter on the school’s team. Spending more time with Cameron’s crew, he begins to experience coded and explicit racial prejudice from his white teammates, against Navdeep, who is South Asian, and Arnold Chen, who is Chinese. Khalil struggles to think the best of Cameron, but when he catches him using an extremely offensive epithet in an IM session on a school computer, he’s forced into crisis. Some passages are dense with basketball descriptions, making the book more suitable for fans of the game. Several scenes portray racist language, which could upset some readers, but it’s presented in the context of illustrating casual discrimination and veiled hostility. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT A compelling read for basketball fans with a powerful message about the persistence of racial bigotry. Recommended for libraries serving middle schoolers.

Koehler, Susan. Innocent Blood. 112p. (Sinkhole). Lerner/Darby Creek. Jan. 2023. Tr $29.32. ISBN 9781728475493; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781728477961.
Gr 7 Up–Ever since Rosa’s dad disappeared, life has been tough for her and her mom. Classmates at Foggy Creek High School are speculating why he might have taken off, and Mom has to take a second job. A month after the disappearance, on the night of the full moon, sleepless Rosa is looking out her bedroom window when she hears a mysterious voice calling, “Innocent blood.” Soon after, at a party ­following a football ­victory, star quarterback and possible love interest Kyle mysteriously disappears into the fog at the edge of an abandoned oil field. A search party discovers not only a ­sinkhole, but also Rosa’s dad’s truck hidden in a thicket, confirming Rosa’s belief that he had not abandoned his family. Rosa finds some consolation talking with odd but sympathetic history teacher Mr. White. He fills her in on the legend of Bucky LeBlanc, a 19th-century local who was murdered and had his oil-rich land taken from him by an ancestor of Kyle, then later appears to her in a dream as Bucky’s ghost bent on revenge. The book is written at a fourth grade reading level. VERDICT Part of a new series centered on the mysterious Texas sinkhole, this is fun, light horror for fans of supernatural stories.

Mara, Wil. The Secret of Locker 24. 120p. (Twisted). Enslow/West 44 Bks. Aug. 2022. Tr $25.80. ISBN 9781978596214; pap. $16.35. ISBN 9781978596221.
Gr 6-8–Locker 24 at Haddenport Middle School has not been opened in anybody’s recent memory. Even adults, especially the principal, won’t talk about it. But now eighth grader Emily keeps finding the locker mysteriously hanging open, seeming to invite her to look inside. After discovering a notebook filled with marvelous drawings, Em does some internet sleuthing for the name on the notebook. Along with a conversation with her mom, who went to school with the student, she learns the girl was badly bullied and never made art again. In fact, it turns out she died in faraway Kansas on the very day that Em first found the locker open. A ticket found in the locker leads Emily to a movie screening where she encounters artsy friend Hailey, who has been behaving strangely, failing to turn in her humorous drawings for yearbook. Em arrives just in time to disrupt a nasty bullying incident directed at Hailey. Part of the “Twisted” series of supernatural tales, this book, written at a second to third grade reading level, goes easy on the paranormal, focusing instead on the spreading mystery and the details and emotions of middle school life. VERDICT Recommended for middle school collections, especially where hi-lo titles are in demand.


Nicholson, Lorna Schultz. Denial. 176p. Lorimer. Aug. 2022. Tr $27.99. ISBN 9781459416741; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781459416710.
Gr 10 Up–From a dramatic, italicized opening passage involving a lot of blood (“First things first. I need to clean up and destroy evidence.”), readers are dropped into what seems a conventional high school narrative. Senior Nova Foley is dating Leo, a popular classmate and star swimmer. They’re a sort of power couple. Both are looking forward to college, less affluent Nova staying in Toronto and living at home, Leo blithely heading off to Michigan and competitive swimming without her. After they celebrate her birthday with a first sexual experience, Leo begins to grow distant. Though he says he’s consumed with swimming, he seems to be spending more time with swim teammate Jada. Gradually, Nova pitches from manageable depression into a mental health crisis, binge eating, completely withdrawing socially, and lashing out at Jada. The novel closes with a return to the opening scene and a wild plot twist that complicates Nova’s ambition to pursue a path to medical school. Sex between the teens is a frequent topic, though it’s never described in graphic detail. Despite some common tropes and occasionally breezy storytelling, the novel, written at a third grade reading level, confronts significant contemporary issues in a narrative that never flags. VERDICT Recommended for high school libraries.

Pryor, Shawn. A Dangerous Duo. illus. by Francesca Ficorilli. 40p. (The Gamer). Capstone/Stone Arch. Jul. 2022. Tr $24.65. ISBN 9781666348286; pap. $5.95. ISBN 9781666348293.
Gr 3-5–The Gamer is 13-year-old Tyler Morant, who uses a device to activate powers and weapons for his battles against wicked digital monsters. Early in the book his nemesis, Cynthia Cyber, is defeated and replaced by malicious Mutiny Doom. As Tyler is playing in Crescent City ­Arcade, living versions of monsters from the games go on the attack against children. Tyler activates his powers and goes into combat first against the monsters, then confronting Mutiny Doom himself, eventually, with an assist from Cynthia. Text is sparse, typically with no more than four paragraphs to a page and fewer than 20 words per paragraph. Many pages feature onomatopoeic exclamations in enormous fonts, such as “KRASHHHH!” when The Gamer’s energy field is destroyed by rocket fists. Illustrations are plentiful, but have a clumsy, computer-generated feel, are often oddly framed, and do little to complement or advance the story. The volume, written at a first to third grade reading level, concludes with a glossary of words highlighted throughout the text, such as atom, lair, and portal, as well as a list of discussion questions and writing prompts. VERDICT With little character development or plot, poor illustrations, and simplistic writing, this one is unsuitable for most libraries. Not recommended.

Sazaklis, John. Rise of the Snot-Bots. illus. by Shane Clester. 40p. (Snot-Bots). Capstone/Stone Arch. Dec. 2022. Tr $23.99. ISBN 9781666348897; pap. $7.35. ISBN 9781666348842.
Gr 3-5–In an overview of the backstory, readers learn that a radiation leak from a nuclear plant adjoining a junk yard has caused mutations to scrap metal, forming crude, rude robots bent on fouling the town. Just as the mayor is presenting the key to Electropolis to members of the Clean Team, Sludge and his band of Snot-Bots arrive in their Vomit Comet to drop a gush of greasy oil on ­everybody assembled. Glint and Gleam from the Clean Team use their power washers with bleach and hot water to beat back the threat. The key is stolen by the ­Snot-Bots, but later replaced with a new one as the villains are hosed down with soapy water. The volume concludes with a glossary, including words highlighted in the text such as detergent and putrid, and a brief list of discussion questions and writing prompts. Simple illustrations are abundant throughout and well-integrated with the design. There is very little plot to speak of. Characters and their powers are not developed within the story, which is written at a first to third grade reading level. VERDICT Rife with typical fart and burp humor but offering little else, this one is best passed over.

Tanaka, C.A. Baby Drag Queen. 144p. (Orca Soundings). Orca. Apr. 2023. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781459835320.
Gr 9 Up–Transgender male teen Ichiro is living with his Japanese mom in Vancouver. Since Dad, a successful professional photographer, is now remarried and living in China, Mom is working constantly at restaurant jobs trying to make ends meet. Ichiro starts picking up shifts washing dishes as well, but his plan is to save enough to put a down payment on a camper van and move with Mom to Aunt Edna’s land on Vancouver Island. Ichiro, already curious about feminine clothes and makeup but hiding it from his mom, decides to enter a drag contest to earn the cash he needs. With tutorials on YouTube and coaching from a drag crew he meets through working in the club’s kitchen, Ichiro crushes a performance of Miley Cyrus’s version of “Jolene” and comes in second, making enough prize money to move on with the camper project and look forward to going to university in ­Victoria, where Lexie, with whom he has been building a chaste romance, will also be going. Many characters express some blend of Asian identity, several of them also queer and/or bisexual. The book is written at a second to third grade reading level. VERDICT With contemporary themes, relatable characters, and plenty of high school drama, this title is recommended for high school libraries.

Wouters, Teresa. Creeboy. 128p. Lorimer. Aug. 2022. Tr $27.99. ISBN 9781459416819; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781459416789.
Gr 9 Up–Sixteen-year-old Josh lives at home with his mom, fierce sister Jade, and younger siblings. He prefers to be called Creeboy, the name he uses with the Warriors, an Indigenous gang headed by his incarcerated father and now run by his older brother, Darion, who goes by Razor. All of them are committed to their traditions, performing in dance competitions at powwows. Mom implores Josh to stay away from the Warriors, having already lost her husband and oldest child to gang life, but he refuses. After their house is burned to the ground in an apparent attack by the rival Rebels gang, she forces him out, leading him to move into the Warriors’ house, a scene of constant fighting, smoking, and blaring music. One night, after Creeboy and Razor are ambushed by Rebels, Razor is shot. The story closes with a glimmer of hope as the family takes part in a sweat lodge ceremony with a spiritual elder. Wouters, identified in an author biography as Métis, includes much Cree vocabulary, though words are adequately explained in context. The book is written at a third grade reading level. VERDICT While it may require some handselling, the resentment and redemption narrative is strong and the action consistent. Recommended.

Bob Hassett, Luther Jackson M.S., Falls Church, VA

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