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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.

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 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.

Huh? Moments in Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

These are actual quotations from finished copies of books (not ARC’s) that I’ve read recently. In some cases the book was good, but the editors need to step it up:

Officer, who is arresting a man who has been carving on another family’s grave monument: “Looks like defamation of personal property to me.”
Desecration? Defacement? Vandalizing? Can you defame a rock?

**************

“He leaned over and for one endless moment, [she] thought he might kiss her. . . She leaned toward him and pressed her forehead against his, felt his warmth soak into her skin, let wisps of his cool hair brush against her cheeks. . . . They pulled apart slowly, as if they were fighting the tide.”
I am trying to imagine this scene. Forehead to forehead. Slow motion parting. I can’t.

**************

“The commotion even attracted the local seagulls. About fifty flocked to the site. Their loud high-pitched squawking and a barrage of bird poop bombs added to the growing chaos. . . . Onlookers at the aquarium’s shark pool were now jumping up and down, wiping the stinky gray-green seagull poop from their heads, and covering their eyes.”
One of these actions is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong. I’m not about to be covering my eyes with the same hands that have been wiping off poop, while also jumping up and down?

**************

One character tells another, “You’re knees are backward.”
Really? You are Prince Knees-Are-Backward.

No, I’m not going to tell you what the books were. Each one is from a different middle grade speculative fiction book published in the past year.

Two YA


Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I read these two recently acclaimed young adult speculative fiction novels over the Christmas break, and I liked one very much, despite its faults, while I hated the other, despite the interesting premise and better-than-adequate writing.

First, I read Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Cringe. The protagonist, Glory, spends almost the entire book grousing about how self-centered her best (and only) friend, Ellie, is. However, it’s Glory herself who comes across as self-absorbed and practically narcissistic. Everything that everyone else in the book does or says is all about Glory and how it affects Glory and what Glory wants. Yes, she’s the narrator of the story, but still I never felt for a moment that Glory had any insight into how someone else in the book might be feeling or what someone else might be thinking. Nor did I feel that she wanted to have that kind of insight. Even the one unselfish thing that Glory does toward the end of the book is sort of mixed-up and full of thoughts about how Glory feels about her own unselfish act. The fantasy part of the book, in which Glory and her friend Ellie see flashes of what has happened and what will happen to people they meet, adds to the story as it reveals the possibilities that lie in the future, but the initial impetus for their ability to see the past and the future is rather ridiculous. They drink a shriveled up, powdered bat. Really. And then they can see brief glimpses of other people’s timelines. I thought through about half of the book that someone was going to realize that both Glory and Ellie were simply bat-crazy and horribly, mind-numbingly egocentric.

Belzhar was a much more satisfying read, even though the language and dialog in the book were not as well-written as Glory O’Brien. The difference was that I somehow cared about what happened to Jam (short for Jamaica), the narrator of Belzhar, whereas I just wanted Glory to hurry up and grow up and get over her navel-gazing. Belzhar tells the story of Jam and her classmates who are in a Special Topics for English class at a special school for teens who are having trouble coping with life and regular school. The teens can’t be mentally ill or drug-addicted, but they are all borderline, dealing with issues in their recent past that have made them unable to cope for one reason or another. Jam is at The Wooden Barn because she recently lost her boyfriend, Reeve, and the grief is killing her. When she realizes that the journal that she writes in for English class can transport her to a magical place, Belzhar, where she can reunite with Reeve, Jam is both thrilled and scared. Is she going crazy? Are her interludes with Reeve real, and how can she make sure they will last forever?

Even though I saw the plot twist coming, and even though the pacing of the novel was uneven, and even though the dialog was sometimes clunky, and even though I wanted to excise the minor homosexual subplot, I enjoyed reading Belzhar. I was intrigued to find out what had happened to Jam and her friends to bring them to their school/retreat, The Wooden Barn, and I was even more curious to see how they would succeed or fail in coping with the issues that they brought with them. Unlike Glory, Jam actually retains, or regains, the ability to care about other people, even while coping with her own difficulties. Jam, like all of us, is a flawed character, and we come to see just how broken she is by the end of the book, but I could identify with her in a way that I couldn’t with Glory O’Brien.

So, read Glory O’Brien ‘s History of the Future for flashy writing and empty, self-centered characters.
Or read Belzhar for engaging stories and characters described in slightly more pedestrian writing style and execution.

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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.

Zombies!

“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.

Semicolon Speculative Fiction Awards 2014

In reading for the Cybils, I could not resist awarding my own special prizes:

The Jabberwocky Meets Rocky Horror on the Farm Weirdness Award:
Fat & Bones and Other Stories by Larissa Theule. Illustrations by Adam S. Doyle.

Best Speculative Fiction with a British Flair:
The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett.

The Extremely Annoying Unfinished Novel Award:
Shipwreck Island by S.A. Bodeen.

The Harry Potter Readalike Fan Fiction Prize:
Iron Trial (Magisterium) by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare.

Best Mouse Story:
The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman.

Best Squirrel Story:
Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins.

Best Superhero Fiction:
Almost Super by Marion Jensen.

Caldecott Artist’s Award for Best Speculative Fiction Picture Book:
Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth.

Best Ghost Story:
Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud.

Heisman Trophy for Beowulf Meets Football:
Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson.

Best Comedic Speculative Fiction:
The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy.

Best Time Travel:
Seven Stories Up by Laurel Snyder.

Best Moon-Based Science Fiction/Murder Mystery:
Space Case by Stuart Gibbs.

Agatha Christie Award for Mystery in an Isolated Inn:
Greenglass House by Kate Milford.

Best Space Aliens:
Ambassador by William Alexander.

The Princess Zelda Cloud City Video Game Fiction Award:
Sky Raiders by Brandon Mull.

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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Oh, the Thinks You Can Think, or Strange Creatures of the Imagination in Speculative Fiction

Your assignment: Draw a world that contains many or all of these creatures as imagined by you. You get extra points if you can name the 2014 speculative fiction Cybils nominees that feature each one of these weird and fantastical creatures. You get even more credit for naming a qualifying imaginary being from 2014 middle grade speculative fiction that I neglected to add to the list.


Albino Ackaway.
Albino witch.
Alien Tremist.
Ashari haldani.
Augmented actualizers.
Aviars (bird people).
Ax-wielding Feuerkumpel.
Bad-tempered great grey hippokamp.
Black-eyed terragogg.
Bog Noblins (semi-aquatic lowland Nobificus).
Bombinating beast.
Carnag the Monster Semblance.
Dreaded toothy cows.
Drill sergeant fairy.
Egyptian demigod.
Extraterrestrial from Bosco in the constellation Draco.
Fangs of Dang.
Flesh-eating valravens.
Furry raccoon-shaped Dome Meks.
General Cockroach.
Giant carnivorous weeds.
Gigantic redback vole petling.
Hoppernots.
Icewing dragons.
Incorrigible howling wolf children.
Jabberwock.
Jupiter pirates.
Kampii (fishy mermaid people).
Little green or gray spacemen.
Luck Uglies.
Mangleborn.
Manglespawn.
Masked Venetian magicians.
Medieval pilgrim squirrels.
Mudwing dragons.
Neptunian blorkbeast.
Nightgaunts.
Nightmare scorpipede.
Nightwing dragons.
Ninja librarians.
Phantom fox familiar.
Pink gargoyle dudes.
Platypus police squad.
Plug-Ugly, the disappearing cat.
Rainwing dragons.
Reptilian Exorians.
Rhinebra.
Sandwing dragons.
Seawigs.
Seawing dragons.
Self-assembled artificial intelligence SmartBots.
Serpentii (snake people).
Seven-headed hydra.
Shark whisperer.
Skander-winged puck.
Skirrits.
Skywing dragons.
Soul jumpers.
Sparkers.
Spirit duppies.
Spying blue butterflies.
Sunflower skeleton eraser.
Vain vitrina.
Xanite kasiri.
Zombie hamster.

I wish I could draw.

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My Zombie Hamster by Havelock McCreely

When Matt gets a hamster for Christmas instead of the Runesword that he asked for, he’s not a happy camper. Then when Snuffles the Hamster dies, Matt really feels “horrible about the poor thing.” But when Matt realizes that Snuffles has turned into a Zombie Hamster (Anti-Snuffles), things start to get complicated, maybe even dangerous. Anti-Snuffles escapes and begins infecting the pets in the entire neighborhood with zombie-ness. Meanwhile, Matt’s friend Charlie (girl) is acting kind of strange. And the Zombie Police are on the watch for any new zombies, dead or undead.

This 200 page zombie apocalypse novel is pretty silly, but I can see that it might appeal to younger elementary readers, second, third, and fourth graders, who want to get in on the zombie craze. I did manage to get through the book myself, and it provoked a smile in places. Give it to your favorite zombie fanatic.

Another book that belongs in this category of elementary and undead is The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass. This similarly short (131 pages) and easy to read story has the distinguishing feature of a cast of characters who are all African American, including the protagonist, Bakari Katari Johnson. I’ll admit to skimming this one (I’m not a big zombie fan), but again for zombie readers who want something short and sweet, The Zero Degree Zombie Zone might just hit the spot. Read more about Zero Degree at Charlotte’s Library.

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.

Nuts to You by Lynne Rae Perkins

I didn’t care for Lynne Rae Perkins’ Newbery Award winning book, Criss Cross. As I remember it, the book was partly written in verse, and I don’t care for verse novels. It also was confusing, about teenagers, and I just didn’t “get it.”

Nuts to You is not Criss Cross. It’s not even similar to Criss Cross. 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.

It’s a squirrel story. The squirrels talk to each other–in squirrel. One of them speaks English and tells the story to the author who writes it down for us. The moral of the story is, “Save the trees,” for the sake of the squirrels and for humans, too. All of that–the talking squirrels, the environmental message, the author inside the story—should be enough to annoy me, but instead I found the entire story a delight.

First the talking squirrels. I did wonder how the narrator squirrel managed to learn and speak English. But I was willing to suspend disbelief because the squirrels are well, squirrelly, and funny and fun to be with. They have a whole squirrel culture complete with a love for storytelling and for games, a tendency toward conservatism and staying put in one place, and a capacity for bravery and perseverance that is inspiring.

The environmental message is not so heavy-handed that it made me cringe or even disagree. Humans are not the villains of the story. In fact, the squirrels seem to understand that for some reason some of the trees must be cut down, and they just do their best to roll with the punches and get on with their lives when bad things happen to their habitat. THere’s a message of “let’s just all try to live together and share the planet” that was refreshing and welcome in contrast to other books that preach about how human beings are despoiling the planet. I always feel as if I ought to find a hole and curl up and hibernate forever after I read those other sorts of environmental sermon stories.

The author is not too intrusive either. I liked her interaction with the elderly, storytelling squirrel at the beginning and end of the book. And I loved the story in the middle. Nuts to You is a keeper, for sure.

“Nuts to you, my friend. Nuts to us all.”

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.

Shouldn’t You Be In School? (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket

Reading Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler, isn’t about the characters or the plot. The characters are quirky and memorable. The plots are convoluted and confusing. But really the experience of reading a Lemony Snicket book is all about the language. Snicket plays with words like a cat plays with a hummingbird. Dangerously. (You can tell I’m under the influence, but I’m not nearly as skillful as Mr. Handler.)

Anyway, this third book in the All the Wrong Questions series is full of linguistic gymnastics and examples of literary celebration. Here are a few:

“The sun was having a tantrum so fierce that all the shade had been scared away, and the sidewalks of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, the town in which I had been spending my time, were no place for a decent person to walk.”

“I took a bite of the bread and something in the jam made me feel sparks on my tongue. It was a lunch of adventure. I felt my mouth grinning around the spoon.”

“Solving a mystery is like naming a dog. If enough people call it one thing, that’s the name that tends to stick.”

“I put it in my shirt for safe-keeping, and passed the rest of the time trying to remember everything that happens to a little bunny who appeared in books I didn’t like. He disobeys his mother and eats vegetables out of some man’s garden. He loses his jacket and shoes. He drinks chamomile tea. He gets his clothes cleaned by a hedgehog. He gathers onions. He helps his sister Flopsy. Before I knew it, it was dark.”

“It’s like the difference between what happens in a book and what happens in the world. The world is swirling with so many mysteries and secrets that nobody will ever track down all of them. But with a book you can stay up very late, reading and rereading until all the secrets are clear to you. The questions of the world are hidden forever, but the answers in a book are hiding in plain sight.”

“A skeleton key is like a skeleton. It doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it.”

“I limped into Hungry’s like a broken parade.”

“In a way it was the statue that had started the fuss, as I’d learned while investigating my last big case. But the fuss had long ago grown bigger than the statue had ever been, the way an answer to a simple, clear question can turn out to be complicated and mysterious.”

I really enjoy Mr. Snicket’s metaphors and similes and bunny rabbit trails and philosophical musings, but if you don’t or if you don’t have a high tolerance for confusing and unresolved, you’ll want to skip these books. Lots of things are introduced in this book and in the two previous books that are still unexplained by the end of this third book. In this book alone there’s a honeydew melon robbery (why?), a furious, hungry, raging, disappearing dream-monster (how?), and a mysterious basement full of fish tanks (huh?). I didn’t understand any of those parts of this story at all but I just kept reading, lost in the journey.

Lemony Snicket, who is the narrator as well as the author of these stories, says in his introduction that there were “four wrong questions, more or less” that he asked and was wrong to ask. So, the fourth book should have all the right questions or the wrong answers or something. But I’m not holding my breath, a phrase which here means that I’m just going along for the ride.

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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.