The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky

“Six kids from around the world have been chosen for the first-ever mission to Mars.”

Miranda Regent is the genius thirteen year old from the United States who is one of the six astronauts in training for the international mission to Mars, a peace-keeping mission that will unite the world in a cause that transcends national interests and the recently concluded AEM war. But someone is out to sabotage the mission and the six kids who have been chosen for it. Can Miranda figure out who is behind the threatening emails and the attacks on her and her fellow astronauts before they succeed?

NASA fans and aspiring astronauts, aeronautical engineers and space scientists will geek out on this science fiction/mystery/adventure story. Since I live with a NASA engineer, I think I know what will appeal, even though my own “science gene” has never been in evidence. Miranda and her fellow teen astronauts are an engaging crew, and the tension and adventure really ramp up about halfway through the book when something big goes wrong with the whole program and the kids are left to save themselves and the space program and to preserve world peace all at the same time.

The fact that the kids in this novel are all geniuses may make them a little less relatable, but it also shows that kids are kids no matter how intelligent and talented. Miranda worries about her grades in astrophysics and calculus, but she also wonders a lot about how she can make friends with the other cadets and how they can become a team before the Mars mission blasts off. She thinks about how she looks, and even a little about the guys on the team and whether or not they are attractive and attracted. Not too much mushy stuff, lots of science, and a good solid plot make this book a must-read for sci-fi fans.

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This book may be nominated for a Cybils Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Memories and Time Loops

The Memory Thief by Bryce Moore.

Benji and Kelly are fraternal twins whose parents are always arguing and on the edge of divorce. When Benji meets an old man who tells him that it is possible, although perhaps not wise, to steal people’s memories, and even give them to other people, Benji is determined to make his parents reconcile by removing their memories of why they hate each other. Memory theft, and memory sharing, and memory replacement all turn out to be more complicated and dangerous than Benji could have imagined, and when an evil Memory Thief turns up in Benji’s hometown and starts stealing people’s memories and making them into soulless, empty near-zombies, Benji has to bring his parents back together, learn to use his new memory manipulation skills for good, and stop the evil Genevieve.

Both the narration, by Benji, and the dialog, were awkward at times, with the narrator and the speakers using words and phrases that were too formal or too “writerly” for normal, everyday speech. Either this awkwardness got better as the story progressed, or I began to be able to ignore it. This story is also quite dark. Benji’s parents are very angry and bitter, and for a brief spell, Benji takes all of their angry memories into his own mind, causing him to be enraged and somewhat violent with those around him. At another point in the story Benji experiences a memory theft-induced despair that makes him sit in a stupor and tell himself that life is not worth living. In the end, Benji is not able to fix his family, but he does come to a resolution that might turn things around for them. And Benji himself is quite a hero throughout the story. This novel would give readers a lot to think about or talk about while providing a satisfying and absorbing time travel-ish adventure.

The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone.
Instead of being stuck in Groundhog Day, Haleigh Adams gets to repeat the last day of summer over and over with the ehelp of some magical paints and after she wishes for a “mulligan” on that last evening. At first, she thinks that reliving that last day of summer is great, especially since her friend Kevin’s G-mags had a stroke at the end of that very day. But when Haleigh wakes up every morning, it’s August 26th all over agin, and G-mags is fine, at least until nighttime.

But Haleigh finds that living the same day over and over, even if it does short circuit the bad things that are starting to go wrong, even if it does “save G-mags’ life, also stops the good things from coming to fruition. Haleigh’s mom may never be able to have a baby sister or brother to add to Haleigh’s family. Haleigh herself may never find out whether friendships can last after summer vacation. And even G-mags doesn’t really want time to stop. So how can Haleigh make time start moving again?

This one is written on a little bit simpler level than The Memory Thief or Time Traveling With a Hamster, and it’s not quite as dark as either of those books. However, the death of a loved friend or family member is a theme as well as Haleigh’s struggles over whether or not to deceive people in pursuit of a time re-start and her questions about how to sustain a friendship through time. It’s a good third to fifth grade read.

Time Traveling With a Hamster by Ross Welford.

“The word Geordie refers both to a native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and to the speech of the inhabitants of that city. There are several theories about the exact origins of the term Geordie, but all agree it derives from the local pet name for George. It is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to the speech of the whole of the North East of England. Strictly speaking, however, Geordie should only refer to the speech of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surrounding urban area of Tyneside.” ~British Library

Al Chaudhury, the protagonist and time traveller in this British import, keeps talking about his grandfather Byron’s “Geordie” accent and “Geordie” dialect. I had never heard this term before, and I thought since Al himself was British , but of Indian descent, that it had to do with Anglo-Indian speech or accents. But it turns out that Geordie-speak just refers to the speech of people form a very specific locality, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. So I learned something.

Al’s story, my favorite of the three books featured in this post, is again about memory and time travel. On his twelfth birthday, Al receives two gifts: a hamster and a letter from his deceased dad. The letter informs Al that it might be possible for him to use his dad’s time machine to go back in time and prevent his father’s death. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for Al to even get to the place where his dad’s time machine is waiting, not to mention the difficulty of manipulating past events to change the future.

Al must do a lot of things that are wrong—breaking and entering, stealing, lying, arson–to make things “right” in the past and save his dad’s life. He, of course, tells himself that he is doing wrong in order to accomplish a greater good. This end-justifies-the-means is a theme in all of these books. Is it OK to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate other people’s minds and memories in order to achieve a greater good or save someone’s life or make things right after you have messed them up with your original magical manipulations? I would say that all three stories come to much the same conclusion: no, it’s not okay. But Time Traveling With a Hamster is the most ambiguous of the three since Al is actually able to change the past and make things better for himself and his family. And that ability to change the past and the future makes this quote from Grandpa Byron, found near the beginning of the story, rather poignant:

“Life, Al, is such a wonderful gift that we should open our minds to every possible moment and cherish the memory of those moments. Because people change. Places change. Everything changes, but our memories do not. Accept life the way it is, Al. That’s the way to be happy.”

But Al doesn’t accept his father’s death, and in the end, he manages to make everyone happy. Sort of. Time Traveling With a Hamster is strong, well-plotted time travel novel, with an ethnic Indian/British (Punjabi) setting that gives the novel a distinctive flavor. This novel for middle grade readers unfortunately includes some profanity and one unnecessary reference to a teenage character’s virginity or lack thereof.

Red Moon Rising by K.A. Holt

There was a brief time when I was young that I went through a reading binge of Indian captive narratives. These stories, both fictional and nonfiction, were quite popular back in the day. Nonfiction narrative memoirs of people, usually girls, who were captured by Indians and later escaped or were rescued, were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular. And fiction novels for children, sometimes based on the earlier nonfiction memoirs, were popular in the mid-twentieth century. These kinds of stories came to be regarded with suspicion and even disdain, since the descriptions of Native Americans and Native American culture are all from a European American point of view. The Native Americans in these stories are alien, strange, and often cruel and ignorant.

All that to say, K.A. Holt’s Red Moon Rising reads like an Indian captivity novel, but the “Indians” are the Cheese, natives of a moon that Rae Darling and her frontier farming family have colonized. The Cheese are foreign, cruel, and ugly in the eyes of the colonists. Rae and her family are tradition-bound, conservative, and blind to the possibility of peace and understanding between themselves and the Cheese. The Cheese capture Rae and adopt her into their “tribe”, and Rae must decide whether to remain loyal to the colonists or to became a part of the Cheese, whose culture is in many ways freer and more indigenous and friendly to the Red Moon than Rae’s colonist culture.

It’s interesting to think that perhaps Ms. Holt wanted to write an Indian captivity novel and deal with all the issues of cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding inherent in that plot, but instead of doing the onerous research that writing about a particular Native American culture and place would involve, she was able to simply make up a people and a culture, the Cheese, and impose on them whatever characteristics and morals were most convenient for her narrative. Did she do a good job of world-building and of showing the difficulties and advantages of crossing from one culture to another? For the most part, yes, although Rae certainly has an easier time accepting some things, like forced training in fighting and war, and a harder time accepting others, like native Cheese boots, than I would think she might.

Despite the criticisms of these Indian, or Native American, captivity narratives and novels, I think that stories like these can serve as a bridge to help children (and adults) understand and see the virtues as well as the drawbacks in other cultures. And a science fiction/fantasy story like Red Moon Rising can be even more helpful in giving readers a way to “see both sides” and reserve judgment, since elements of the story can easily be generalized and applied to many different cultural encounters and confrontations.

Despite the sometimes heavy-handed emphasis on female empowerment and religious stereotypes, Red Moon Rising is a good adventure story with some thought-provoking themes. By the way, warning, the book is quite heavy on the violence, blood, and gore, too, so more sensitive readers beware. And, for the sake of comparison, here are some of those captivity narratives and novels that I enjoyed as a young teen and a few that have been published since then:

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline B. Cooney.
Valiant Captive by Erick Berry.
Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare.
The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter.
Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker by Carolyn Meyer.
White Captives by Evelyn Sibley Lampman.
Wait For Me, Watch For Me, Eula Bee by Patricia Beatty.
Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Beaded Moccasins: the Story of Mary Campbell by Linda Durrant.
I Am Regina by Sally Keenh.
Trouble’s Daughter: the Story of Susanna Hutchinson, Indian Captive by Katherine Kirkpatrick.
Standing in the Light: the Captive Diary of Catherine Carey Logan by Mary Pope Osborne.

If you’re interested in reading more about this sort of story, its origins and uses, here are a couple of articles I found interesting:

Gimme Shelter by Janet at Dear Author, about romance captivity novels and memoirs.
Dark Places: the Tradition of Captivity Narratives by Gina Showalter in the NYT.

Edge of Extinction: The Ark Plan by Laura Martin

One hundred and fifty years ago the first dinosaurs were cloned. Who knew that a pandemic disease came into our world with the dinosaurs, bringing the human race to edge of extinction. Now dinosaurs rule the world once again, and humans can only live underground in bunkers with strict laws to force them to work together to ensure their survival. Their leader, who calls himself The Noah, is a benevolent but strict dictator, and no one goes above ground where the dinosaurs hunt unless he has a death wish.

Nevertheless, when she was only seven years old, Sky Mundy’s father did go above ground. In fact, he fled the underground compound and left Sky with no note, no inheritance, and no communication for the past five years. Well, he did leave behind a broken compass for Sky to treasure and an illegal diary for her to write and draw in, but nothing else. Then, Sky finds a cryptic message from her father, and she decides to go up into the “topside” to find him and to carry his message to the middle of Lake Michigan. Will she even survive her first night with man-eating dinosaurs and other unknown dangers awaiting her?

The kids in this novel study Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in their English class, comparing Crichton’s fictional dinosaur story to their “real” world of dinosaur takeover. I though that was a nice touch. And then when they (Sky and a friend) out and go topside, the action is non-stop, without much time for philosophy or deep thinking. The most pressing question or theme in the book is about “whom can Sky trust” and “will she survive”. Sky is another middle grade character with father issues, and she thinks and talks a lot about why her father left her and where he could possibly be and whether or not he’s dead.

Sky is a feisty, self-reliant female, and her two male friends, Shawn and Todd, are good, well-developed characters in their own right. Although Sky is the narrator, Shawn and Todd play a big role in the story’s development, and the book should appeal to both boys and girls who like adventure stories set in a post-apocalyptic future. Science fiction with overgrown dinosaurs. A daddy hunt through prehistoric dangers. Noah’s Ark meets Jurassic Park.

The only thing I didn’t like about this story was the ending, which wasn’t. The ending is abrupt and unfinished; in other words, it’s a set-up for the sequel. Bummer. At least, I checked the author’s website, and there’s only one more book planned to follow-up this one. So I’m assuming that the loose ends of the story will be tied up in a dinosaur bow in book two, Edge of Extinction: Code Name Flood, due out at the end of May, 2017.

Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

Vanguard One Middle School has a new student: Fuzzy, a state-of-the-art, highly intelligent robot with speech recognition language processing, facial recognition software, and fuzzy logic. Fuzzy is nearly human, but not quite. And Vanguard One Middle School is nearly under the complete control of other, more specifically tasked robots, in particular Vice-Principal Barbara who practically runs the entire school from her secret control center in Room 43.

Max, short for Maxine, is tired of Vice-Prinicpal Barbara and her constantly issued discipline tags (which are sent automatically and immediately to parents), but Max is also fascinated by the new student, Fuzzy, and the possibilities inherent in a robot student who re-programs himself in response to new data. While Vice-Principal Barbara is doing everything she can to execute the Constant UpGrade program (#CUG) and achieve the goal of a perfect school—ever higher test scores, ever fewer discipline problems, ever cheaper and more efficient to run—Max and Fuzzy are getting to know one another and become friends, as much as a human being can become friends with a fuzzy logic robot.

What a great story! While it lampoons the current educational culture of constant testing and computer idolization, the book also shows readers the possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge robotic technology. It just might be coming any day now to a school or workplace near you. Many years ago, Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey asked the question, “with artificially intelligent computers (or robots), will we continue to control the technology, or will the technology take over and control us?” This story is a variation on that theme, with humor, for middle grade readers. It’s not deep or prophetic or philosophical, but it does introduce the thought that technology may be both a blessing and a curse.

And it’s just a fun story. Enjoy the story. Then, if you want, spend some time thinking about the questions: What separates humans from artificially intelligent computers or robots? Could robots have feelings? Could they make you have an emotional response? Have you ever felt sorry for or angry with Siri? What happens if a computer is programmed to override its own programming?

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber

I am reading this book because Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended it to someone on her podcast. The premise is interesting: Peter is going to the planet Oasis as a missionary to the people who inhabit the planet. He is sent by a corporation called USIC to take the gospel to the Oasans.

I’m about halfway through the book. Maybe all of the following issues are resolved and explained in the second half, but right now I have some burning questions about our protagonist missionary and his mission. Some things just do not compute.

1. Peter’s mission. How does Peter even know that the Oasans need the gospel? Are they sinful creatures, in rebellion against the Creator? Do they need forgiveness and redemption? Maybe they already know God and walk in perfect fellowship with Him. Maybe not.

2. Which brings me to the second problem, Peter’s ignorance. Our missionary, Peter, is remarkably naive and unquestioning. He knows nothing or almost nothing about the people/creatures he is planning to evangelize. He knows next to nothing about the planet Oasis. He doesn’t even know what the initials OSIC stand for. When he does ask a few tentative questions, he is stonewalled. And still he allows this corporation that he knows nothing about to send him millions of miles away to a planet he knows nothing about to minister to a people he knows nothing about.

3. Problem #3: Peter’s and Bea’s marriage, which is supposed to be the central theme of the novel. They are said and shown to be very close, in a very loving and inter-dependent marriage. Yet, not only does Peter leave Bea to go to a planet far, far, away for an indeterminate length of time, but when he has the opportunity to email her, to answer her plea for details about his mission, to reassure her that he is there and that he still cares for her, Peter can’t manage to write much more than a few sentences at a time, every two or three weeks. This ostensibly strong marriage falls apart in short order. Maybe the point is to remind us of our bodies, that we are embodied creatures, very dependent on physical intimacy to maintain emotional and spiritual intimacy?

4. There’s a mystery about the Oasans and their relationship to OSIC and their relationship to Jesus. I get that there’s a mystery. And that part will probably get resolved. But what in the world is going on with OSIC supplying these non-human creatures with pharmaceuticals? They haven’t examined these “Oasans” and don’t even know how they look on the outside, much less their body chemistry and physiology, but they’re giving them antibiotics, analgesics, and other medicines that have been tested on humans but never on Oasans? Wouldn’t that be unethical and highly dangerous—or else maybe ineffective? And no one is questioning the ethics or the efficacy of this “drug drop”?

5. The people who work for OSIC come across as very amateurish and untrained. Oh, they have engineering degrees or mining expertise, but they don’t seem to know much about Oasis or the overall mission of OSIC or anything besides their own narrow job skills. And that mission, whatever it may be, looks as if it’s thrown together by a bunch of amateur NASA wannabes. No astronaut or cross-cultural missions training for Peter, no details or background education for any of the other OSIC workers. The Oasans want drugs? OK, give them whatever we have left over. The Oasans want to hear more about Jesus? OK, hire a missionary. There’s this flower that grows here and is good for food? OK, let’s eat it. It rains a lot on this planet? OK, drink up.

I just finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir before I started this book, and no doubt the previous book colored my reading of another space travel science fiction book, The Book of Strange New Things. Peter the Missionary and his cohorts just are so very amateur and unprepared compared to the protagonist in The Martian. Mark Watney, the astronaut who is stranded alone on Mars, knows how to fix almost anything, and he has been trained to the nth degree. By comparison, Peter the Missionary looks like a child wandering in the dark. Maybe The Book of Strange New Things is meant to make Christians look like credulous fools, except that Peter comes across as really intelligent, but also gullible and unquestioning. I won’t really know until I finish the book.

So, have any of you read either The Martian or The Book of Strange New Things? What did you think? Are you frustrated, as I am, at Peter’s lack of curiosity and his credulous nature? And on the other book, does anyone believe that even a NASA-trained engineer could survive what Mark Watney survives in The Martian? I wouldn’t have have made it five minutes–even if I had all the NASA training that Mark Watney had.

Short Takes on Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta
Mr. Scaletta’s previous books, Mudville and Mamba Point, were both good solid middle grade reads, and The Winter of the Robots continues on in that groove. If your child is into robots or robot wars or science-y adventure tales, then The Winter of the Robots is a just the ticket. I got lost in some of the science of how to build and operate a robot, and I had to believe pretty hard to swallow some of the events that take place in the novel (kids build a self-propelled robot out of an old car?), but I bet most kids could believe it without even stretching.

Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey. I like the idea of secret society of “lybrarians” who are given the task of making the world, past and present, safe for the written word and the free expression of ideas. And I liked the opening two paragraphs a lot:

“Twelve-year-old Dorothea Barnes was thoroughly un-chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she’d never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister.
Don’t even begin to entertain consoling thoughts of long flaxen curls or shiny tresses black as ravens’ wings. Dorrie’s plain brown hair could only be considered marvelous in its ability to twist itself into hopeless tangles. She was neither particularly tall or small, thick or thin, pale or dark. She had parents who loved her, friends enough, and never wanted for a meal. So, why, you may wonder, tell a story about a girl like this at all?”

However, the story sort of meanders along and doesn’t get much better than that opening gambit.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This Harry Potter-ish novel about a boy who is sent to magic school to learn to control his magical abilities is well written and intriguing, but the ending is horrendous. After another episode in which a different character lies about being abused by a teacher, our hero ends up concealing a secret so horrible that he cannot tell anyone about it, believing that his very soul is evil, and that no one will help him or believe him or love him if he tells. That’s creepy and disturbing.

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell. This Norwegian fantasy is written by a Norwegian author, but I don’t see any translator credit. So I suppose it was written in English. Nevertheless, there’s a culture gap as far as I’m concerned. Lindelin Rosenquist (lovely name) is the Twistrose (rosa torquata), sent to the land of Sylver to save the Petlings and Wilders there from imminent danger. However, she and her own special petling, Rufocanus, a redback vole, spend a lot of time wandering about and getting into fixes, then taking turns rescuing one another. They talk about having a plan, but the plan is rather muddled, and various characters show up and disappear randomly. I think I missed something in the non-translation, but maybe other readers will be able to think more Scandinavian than I do.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones. Aileen and her Aunt Beck, the most powerful Wise Woman on the island of Skarr, are sent on a journey to rescue a prince. The characters in this novel do nothing but argue and undermine one another while they travel on a mission that none of them really believes in. The arguing isn’t even witty or funny. It’s a posthumous novel, completed by Ursula Jones (Diana Wynne Jones’ sister). I think the idea had potential, but someone dropped the ball.

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These books were also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Middle Grade Speculative Fiction: What’s In, What’s Out

What’s IN

North, Norse mythology, Northerness

“I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky. I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described, except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote.” ~C.S. Lewis

Thrones and Bones: Frostborn by Lou Anders.
Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen.
Odin’s Ravens by K.L. Armstrong and M.A. Marr.
The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell.
Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson. (Beowulf)
Winterfrost by Michelle Houts.
West of the Moon by Margi Preus.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. (Based on The Snow Queen)

Library setting:

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” ~Jorge Luis Borges

Shouldn’t You Be In School? (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket.
The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler.
The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jen Swann Downey.
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood.
House of Secrets: Battle of the Beasts by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini.

Trains/steampunk/alternate history North America setting:

“To some, ‘steampunk’ is a catchall term, a concept in search of a visual identity. To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance. ~Jake von Slatt
“The restlessness and the longing, like the longing that is in the whistle of a faraway train. Except that the longing isn’t really in the whistle—-it is in you.” ~Meindert DeJong

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson.
The League of Seven by Alan Gratz.
Dreamwood by Heather Mackey.
The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove.
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel.

Father-quest (Protagonist goes in search of his/her long lost father):

Darth Vader: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke Skywalker: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Darth Vader: No. I am your father. ~Star Wars

Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen.
The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel.
Dreamwood by Heather Mackey.
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier.
I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin.
The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles.
The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove.
The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett.
Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos.
The Last Wild by Piers Torday.
League of Seven by Alan Gratz.
He Laughed with His Other Mouths (A Pals in Peril Tale) by M.T. Anderson.
Oliver and the Seawigs by Philllip Reeve.

Superheroes (inside-out):

“No matter how many times you manage to save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again.” ~Craig T. Nelson, The Incredibles.

Dangerous by Shannon Hale.
Minion By John David Anderson.
Almost Super by Marion Jensen.
The Flying Burgowski by Gretchen K.Wing.

Ghost Stories:

Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide. ~William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett.
The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage.
The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter.
Lockwood & Co., Book 2 The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud.
Grave Images by Jenny Goebel.
The Secret at Haney Field: A Baseball Mystery by R. M. Clark.
Plus a couple of others that feature a ghost, but it would be a spoiler to tell which ones.

Fierce Female Fighters (FFF!)

Oh, when she’s angry, she is keen and shrewd!
She was a vixen when she went to school.
And though she be but little, she is fierce. ~William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Horizon by Jenn Reese.
The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy.
The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson.
Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly.
Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson.
The League of Seven by Alan Gratz.
Hook’s Revenge by Heidi Schulz.

Robots and automatons (particularly robotic servants):

“In the twenty-first century, the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilizations.” ~Nikola Tesla

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel.
The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta.
Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor by John Scieszcka.
Horizon by Jenn Reese.
Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth.
The League of Seven by Alan Gratz.
How to Survive Middle School & Monster Bots by Ron Bates.
The Lost Planet by Rachel Searles.

Into the Woods: Plant Attack!

I have no fear,
Nor no one should;
The woods are just trees,
The trees are just wood. ~Red Riding Hood, Into the Woods

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier.
Dreamwood by Heather Mackey.
The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell.
The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell.
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood.
Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson.
Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy.
The Thickety: A Path Begins by J.A. White.
In Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins, the trees actually get attacked instead of the other way around.


“I’m obsessed with zombies. I like watching zombie movies and I read zombie books.” ~Kevin Bacon

My Zombie Hamster by Havelock McCreely.
Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass.
The Zombie Chasers #6: Zombies of the Caribbean by John Kloepfer.
Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson.

Under the Sea: Shark Attack!

“I don’t like the idea of being eaten by a shark. I like to swim in the ocean, and I think much more about sharks than anyone should.” ~David Duchovny, star of X-Files.

The Shark Whisperer by Ellen Prager.
Horizon by Jenn Reese.
Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly.
Oliver and the Seawigs by Philllip Reeve.
The 26-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths.

Magic School (Hogwarts, we love you! Bring on the tests!)

“Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”
~J.K. Rowling

The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani.
The Iron Trial by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.
The Shark Whisperer by Ellen Prager.
Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe.
Quantum League: Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby.
Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson.
The Ability: Mindscape by M.M. Vaughan.
Death’s Academy by Michael Bast.
School of Charm by Lisa Ann Scott.

Moral Ambiguity (What is Evil? What is Good?)

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” ~Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani.
Blue Sea Burning (The Chronicles of Egg) by Geoff Rodkey.
Minion By John David Anderson.
Almost Super by Marion Jensen.
Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood.
Quantum League: Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby.
Loot by Jude Watson.
Sparkers by Eleanor Glewwe.
The Iron Trial by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.
Dark Lord: School’s Out by Jamie Thomson.

Popular historical characters: King Tutankhamen, Thomas Edison (villain), Nikola Tesla (hero or crazy).

What’s Out:
Vampires. I read about some blood-sucking valravens, but nary a vampire.
Fairies. There was a weird demonic looking fairy in one book and a drill sergeant fairy in another, but traditional Victorian fairies seem to be mostly passé.
Dragons. I read about a couple of dragons, but that was all.

What popular themes and motifs did I miss? What middle grade speculative fiction books of 2014 that fit into one of the above categories did I forget?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
These books are also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

12 Favorite Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Books of 2014

This list is both difficult and easy. I read over 100 Middle Grade speculative fiction novels because of my role as a Cybils judge, so I have quite a few books to choose from. However choosing only the twelve best isn’t easy. These are my personal favorites and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other Cybils judges.

1. The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson. This fourth book in the Wingfeather series is a saga, and it is a commitment, 519 pages worth of commitment. Obviously, I recommend starting at the beginning of the series with Book 1, At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, which makes it even more of a commitment. However, dare I say that it’s worth it? Definitely influenced by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, this series is nevertheless no Tolkien imitation and no Lewis copycat. The entire series would be excellent for read aloud time.
2. The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman. When Mary Mouse, art thief, and Caro McKay, model orphan, meet, they immediately form a bond that transcends their inability to communicate completely. And when Caro helps Mary escape from the dreaded predator, Gallico the cat, then Mary knows that she must return the favor by helping Caro, even though Caro doesn’t understand the danger she faces.
3. The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Two Irish orphan children become entangled in an English family, the Windsors, and the curse that binds them to a crumbling house built around a spooky, twisted snare of a tree that captures the Windsors and their new Irish servants and threatens to carry them to their doom.
4. Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins. Talking squirrels threatened by environmental disaster. If you liked last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt or even last year’s Newbery Award winner, Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures by Kate di Camillo, then Nuts to You should be just up your alley.
5. The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell. A lovely parable about forgiveness and friendship and compromise and negotiation built upon the framework of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.
6. The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel. The Boundless, a luxury train in a steampunk alternate history world, has everything: 1st class accommodations, a library, dining cars, observation deck, a cinema, a billiard room, stores, second class passenger cars, freight cars, third class for the penny-pinching or poverty stricken traveler, and even a circus!
7. Almost Super by Marion Jensen. All of the Baileys receive their very own superpower on February 29th at 4:23 in the afternoon in the first leap year after their twelfth birthday. So now it’s time for Rafter Bailey, age thirteen, and his brother, Benny, age twelve to get their powers. It should be the best day of their young lives, but superpowers are unpredictable and Rafter and Benny are in for a big surprise.
8. The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Chritopher Healy. The new League of Princes book, third in the series, does indeed have pirates, fearless female fighters, and grammar lessons, and all sorts of other hilarious shenanigans. Luxuriate in laughter.
9. The Children of the King When war refugees Cecily and May find two mysterious boys hiding in the nearby ruins of Snow Castle, they beg Uncle Peregrine to tell them the history of the castle. And he does, even though “its story is as hard as winter” and “cruel” and “scary” and “long” and “unfit for childish ears.”
10. Space Case by Stuart Gibbs. A classic murder mystery set on the moon and wrapped inside a bunch of details about life in space, space stations, and the possibilities of what might happen if and when humans begin to colonize the moon.
11. Lockwood & Co.: the Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. The Lockwood & Co series of ghost fantasies aren’t for everyone. They’re probably too occult-related for some readers, even though the the protagonists—Lockwood, Lucy, and George—are the good guys as they fight against The Problem of evil ghostly manifestations that have become a common peril in this alternate history future.
12. Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson. I would recommend this one to anyone who’s interested in trains, dystopia, futuristic sci-fi, or spunky female protagonists.

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Ambassador by William Alexander

“Gabe has some alien problems.”

National Book Award-winning author William Alexander is writing in a completely different genre from his fantasy novel and award winner, Goblin Secrets, a book I didn’t care for all that much. Ambassador is science fiction, close encounters of the third kind, and I did enjoy it.

Gabriel Sandro Fuentes is an eleven year old middle child, with an older sister and twin toddler brother and sister. Gabe is what my mom would fondly call “a lover, not a fighter.” He’s plenty courageous, but he’s learned in his eleven years to be a peacemaker. His mother calls him “the most sensible member of this whole family” and “the only one who knows how to keep your head down.”

When The Envoy asks Gabe to become Earth’s Ambassdor to the Galaxy and to avert an impending crisis in the universe using his skills in diplomacy and playground negotiation, Gabe feels it is his duty to take up the challenge. But while Gabe is dealing with a destructive alien force headed for Earth and an assassination attempt, his family on Earth is in danger of being deported from the U.S. because of their undocumented status. How can Gabe save Earth and be there for his family?

Ambassador is lots of fun. It doesn’t tie all the loose ends up neatly at the end of the book. Readers will want to know more about what happens to Gabe’s family as well as the motivations and intentions of the enigmatic Outlast Omegan. Maybe there’s a sequel planned.

Nevertheless, it’s not an unsatisfying ending. Gabe is an engaging character, and he does do what he needs to do in a well-planned and plucky way. Whovians and Trekkies and fans of classic sci-fi in general will enjoy the ride.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.