A Single Stone by Megan McKinlay

I read Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island just after I read this book. Both books are partly about keeping the traditions that are handed down, obeying the laws of your own community, and questioning those traditions and laws. But each book comes to a very different conclusion.

In Orphan Island, questioning and breaking with tradition lead to disaster, a disturbance in the natural order of things on the island. In A Single Stone, questions and rule-breaking lead to freedom from tyranny. In the real world, of course, some rules and traditions need to be questioned, but often the law is for our good, and the transgression of that law leads only to evil and heartbreak. Since I believe the latter lesson is one that rarely gets spoken these days, and since I’m a conservative at heart underneath my rebel tendencies, I have more sympathy for the story of Orphan Island than for A Single Stone.

Jena is one of the chosen seven. She’s been trained and molded for this job ever since she was born, and now she leads the other six girls who also have been chosen to tunnel into the mountains to search for the precious mica that sustains life in their isolated village. The village has maintained itself, precariously, cut off from the outside world by a ring of impenetrable mountains all around, by using mica as a fuel for the long, cold winters. Only the chosen seven young girls can fit themselves into the tight crevices and low tunnels inside the mountains to bring back the harvest of mica that allows the villagers to remain alive.

This is the way it is, and this is the way is has been from time immemorial. That’s what Jena has been taught, and she believes the Mothers who teach and train the children to become useful to the village as they grow up. But what if the Mothers are wrong? What if they’re deceiving the villagers or perhaps even deceiving themselves? Can the world be different? Is there a way through the mountains, and is there something or someone on the other side?

Again, it’s a good book, by an Australian author, but I preferred Orphan Island. Both the premises and the conclusions were more intriguing in Orphan Island than in A Single Stone. Read both for comparison’s sake.

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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.

Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Books in Search of a Nomination

Cybils nominations are now open. These are some middle grade speculative fiction books that I’ve either read or intended to read that also have NOT yet been nominated. I believe all of the following books are eligible for this year’s Cybils nominations and fit into the middle grade speculative fiction category.

Books in search of a nominator:


Henry and the Chalk Dragon by Jennifer Trafton. NOMINATED
Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley.
Blueberry Pancakes Forever by Angelica Banks.
Broken Pride (Bravelands, #1) by Erin Hunter.
Frogkisser by Garth Nix. NOMINATED
Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr.
Edgeland by Jake Halpern.
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge.
The Emperor’s Ostrich by Julie Berry.
Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis. NOMINATED
The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone by Lisa Doan.
Grandfather and the Moon by Stephanie LaPointe.
Olive and the Backstage Ghost by Michelle Shusterman. NOMINATED
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander. NOMINATED
Joplin, Wishing by Diane Stanley.
Quest to the Uncharted Lands by Jaleigh Johnson.
The Song from Somewhere Else by A.F. Harrold.
Siren Sisters by Dana Langer.
The Fearless Traveler’s Guide to Wicked Places by Pete Begler.
The Tiny Hero of Ferny Creek Library by Linda Bailey.
The Silver Gate by Kristin Bailey.
Nevermoor by Jesica Townsend.
Unicorn Power! by Mariko Tamaki.
Warrior Bronze by Michelle Paver.
Threads of Blue by Suzanne LaFleur.
The Wonderling by Mira Bartok.
The Adventurer’s Guild by Zach Clark.
The Night Garden by Polly Horvath.
Emily and the Spellstone by Michael Rubens.
The Emperor of Mars by Patrick Samphire.
The Matchstick Castle by Keir Graff.
The Dollmaker of Krakow by R.M. Romero. NOMINATED
The Star Thief by Lindsay Becker.
The Bone Snatcher by Charlotte Salter.
Beast and Crown by Joel Ross.NOMINATED
Word of Mouse by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein.
A Dash of Dragon by Heidi Lang.
Rules for Thieves by Alexandra Ott.
Black Cats and Butlers by Janine Beacham.
Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst.
Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson. NOMINATED
The Door Before by N.D. Wilson.

Nominations are open this week and next, through October 15th. Be sure your favorite children’s and young adult books of the past year get nominated. I’m on the panel for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, and I’ll be working with some other great panelists to whittle down the nominations list into a short list of finalists. But your favorite books can’t make it to the finalist list if you don’t nominate now.

Go forth and nominate!

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One or more of these books is may be nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own.

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

As I was reading A Face Like Glass, those lines from J. Alfred Prufrock kept floating through my mind, especially those first two lines: “there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” In the underground city of Caverna the inhabitants are born with blank faces. They must learn to put on faces that serve the wearer’s ends, set expressions that are learned and bought and sold, such as “World Weary, with a Hint of Sadness” or “Wry Charm” or perhaps, “Careful Disinterest.” These Faces enable the citizens of Caverna to lie and dissemble and carry on political intrigues that would make the most crooked politician dizzy with their multiple layers of trickery and subterfuge.

But the girl Neverfell is different from all of the other inhabitants of Caverna. Her guardian, Grandible the Cheesemaster, insists that she wear a mask whenever she meets with anyone else from Caverna, perhaps because Neverfell has such a hideous, ugly face? Maybe “Ugly” is the only Face she has been given? Or maybe it has something to with Neverfell’s past, a past that, before the age of seven and the endless cheese tunnels of Grandible’s massive cheese factory, she can’t remember at all?

The other piece of literature that this book reminded me of was C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. A Face Like Glass is much more layered and complicated than Lewis’s story and Hardinge’s writing style is utterly different from Lewis’s, but the underground city and the pervasive deception and manipulation of memories and the longing for an elusive otherness aboveground are all similarly key to both books. Neverfell doesn’t remember the world above Caverna, the lands on the surface of the earth, but she does long to escape the deception and darkness of the underground world. There are other similarities between the two books that I can’t talk about without spoilers, but suffice it say that I was intrigued by the parallels.

“And the worst thing about it was that you began to feel as if you had always lived on that ship, in that darkness, and to wonder whether sun and blue skies and wind and birds had not been only a dream.” The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis

And I loved the ending of A Face Like Glass. It was perfect, made so much sense, but also unexpected. I would recommend this one for older middle schoolers and high schoolers and adults. A Face Like Glass provides a lot of food for thought and enjoyment; it’s a “True Delicacy”.

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 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.

Bravelands #1: Broken Pride by Erin Hunter

Grass-eaters, meat-eaters, scavengers, predators and prey—all live together in the grassy savannah lands of Africa, more or less peacefully, following the ancient code of Bravelands. The primary rule of the Code: Kill only to survive. But things are changing in Bravelands, first among the lions where Gallantpride, headed by the male lion Gallant, is stolen by treachery and becomes Titanpride, ruled by an autocratic and cruel dictator. Then, things begin to go wrong among the baboons and among the great elephants, too.

“Windrider paused as the clamor rose around her. She swiveled her head. ‘Do you smell it, Blackwing? Do you taste it?’
‘The scent in the sky?’ He nodded once.
‘Do you know what it is?’ she asked him. ‘Something we have not tasted for our lifetimes, Blackwing, for though it is slow and constant, it happens so slowly it can’t be noticed.’
He tilted his head. ‘And now?’
‘Now it comes fast; fast enough to be dangerous. Change, Blackwing. What you smell on the Bravelands sky is—change.'”

I’ve never read any of Erin Hunter’s* Warriors series about clans of wild cats.Nor have I read her Survivors series of novels, which focus on the lives of wild dogs. She also has a third series, Seekers, about bears in the wild. I’m not really an animal person, although I have enjoyed the occasional animal book. Nevertheless, I would recommend Bravelands, at least the first book, Broken Pride, to all my friends and fellow readers who are animal lovers—and to those who love books set in Africa.

The animals in this book are somewhat anthropomorphized; they talk to one another, they plot, they plan. But the Code of Bravelands is similar to the unwritten “code” of wild animals everywhere. Predators kill only to eat. Animals, particularly male lions, fight to establish dominance. But there is no sin, no arrogant pride, no violence for the sake of violence. However, in this book, unlike on the real savannah of Africa, the animals take on some human characteristics. The title “broken pride” has a double meaning as the young lion cub, Fearless, sees his pride of lions scattered and has his own pride and self-respect also broken.

The balance of Bravelands has been disturbed, and only the combination of a lion cub, a young elephant, and a baboon can set it right. Maybe. If only they can figure out what has happened to make such horrible change come and what they can do to make things right. As I said, I haven’t read Erin Hunter’s other, very popular, books, but I thought this one was every bit as good as Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. The writing is adequate, and sometimes exceptional, as the author describes the beauty and danger of sub-Saharan Africa. (No human characters are in the book, and the place name “Africa” is never used.) And the characters and plot are memorable and engaging.

Bravelands #2: Code of Honor comes out in February, 2018 and takes up where Broken Pride leaves off. And, fair warning, I can see why Ms. Hunter’s books are known as a series, rather than individual books. The ending to Broken Pride is a cliffhanger, leaving the reader thirsty for more.

*It turns out that “Erin Hunter” is a pseudonym for six people: Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Tui T. Sutherland, Gillian Phillips, and Inbali Iserles, as well as editor Victoria Holmes. They write these books in the series that I mentioned as a group—somehow.

Thick As Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

I liked Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, but I didn’t love it. I think I liked Thick As Thieves better, but I don’t really remember too much about The Thief.

Set in the same world as the Queen’s Thief books, Thick as Thieves chronicles the journey of Kamet, the slave of the Mede nobleman, Nahuseresh. When he hears that his master has been assassinated, Kamet knows that his own life and the lives of all of Nahuseresh’s slaves are in danger. Can he flee to the kingdom of Attolia for safety, or is that destination a trap where even greater danger awaits?

Lots of palace intrigue, plots and conspiracies, plans within plans, ambition and power-seeking— all combine to make Thick as Thieves an exciting and compelling read. Wanted Kamet to escape not only from the Mede emperor but also from his own pride and ambition that kept him from trusting the very people who were obviously his friends and helpers. Kamet is a flawed protagonist; he knows his own faults. However, surviving a life of slavery has required him to deceive others and find ways to maintain his own self-respect despite mistreatment and subjugation. Feigned humility is a tool for survival as a slave; real humility and trust in the goodness of others are not wise or needed for life as a slave.

Thick as Thieves helped me to think about what it means for a person to be enslaved and thought of as a piece of property. What would such a life do to one’s sense of self, to a person’s decision-making abilities, and above all to the slave’s faith in God or other people or his own ability to live a life of freedom and integrity? What does a person who has lived a life of slavery do with freedom? It’s true that some of us don’t want freedom when it is offered to us. We prefer the “devil we know” to the possibilities that lie before us. What if we are tricked into freedom? Will we be able to deal with the choices and the loss of comfort that freedom entails?

A good book for adults and for older middle grade students. I always like a book that makes me think.

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Nine on an island, orphans all,
Any more, the sky might fall.

Nine orphan children live on an island. When the green boat brings another young child to the island, the oldest one must leave. Then, the next oldest one cares for the new little one, until it’s his or her turn to leave. That’s how it’s been for as long as anyone can remember. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Life is good on the island, almost magical. And it will continue to be good and nourishing and life-giving as long as the children follow the rules and care for one another.

I think this book is supposed to be about our world and how we live in it. We live in a world that is beautiful and full of wonder, but we’re sort of trapped on this island Earth. We don’t really know how we got here, and we don’t know where we are going when we leave. We have a set of rules, handed down by tradition or codified in books (the Bible) and stories, and we have books that give us intimations of what the world beyond this one might be like. But we don’t really know. At least from a Jewish point of view, we have the Law, and we’re not sure why we have many of the rules that are in the Law. But it’s important and life-giving to follow them anyway.

This story is also about growing up. We all have moments when we want to be like Peter Pan and never grow up, but we really have no choice. We must leave childhood and the innocence of the island and enter into adulthood. We learn the important lessons of childhood, and we take those lessons into adulthood. That grown-up life is an unknown territory, and some of us go into it with alacrity, anxious to know what’s out there in the great big world. But others enter into adulthood kicking and screaming, metaphorically speaking, longing to just stay in the simple, joyful, idealized world of childhood.

Opinions are going to be divided on this book, mostly because of the way it ends. It’s probably not a spoiler to warn you that not all of the questions you may have as you read Orphan Island will be answered by the ending of the book. In fact, you will probably be filled with multitude of questions by the end of the novel. Will there be a sequel? I almost hope not. I still remember when the writers from the TV show LOST tried to tie up the loose ends and answer all of our questions; it wasn’t pretty. I really believe that this is a book that should stand on its own with all the questions left for the reader to resolve and answer. Maybe that way some child somewhere will imagine his or her own ending, his or her own answers. That’s not such a bad thing at all. In fact, it may be the purpose of the book.

I liked it. Please come back and let me know what you think after you’ve read it.

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 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.

The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Aventurine the adventurous dragon meets a food mage and gets turned into a puny, thin-skinned human girl, but she still has the heart of a dragon. She still believes that she is the fiercest creature on the mountain or in the city of Drachenburg. At least, most of the time she believes it, until she looks down at her pitiful human body. But never mind, the food mage also introduced Aventurine to the wonderful, delicious, scrumptious flavor of chocolate, and Aventurine is willing to go anywhere and do almost anything for another taste of chocolate delightfulness.

What a romp! Chocolate and dragons and an independent girl/dragon and a testy chocolate maker and lots of political intrigue and, did I mention, chocolate? Aventurine is impetuous and somewhat foolhardy, but she does grow and mature as the story progresses. And the characters around her—Marina the chocolatier, Horst the chocolate house proprietor, Silke the marketer, and all of Aventurine’s dragon family—are well-rounded and interesting in and of themselves. Even the minor characters are fun. Aventurine’s brother, Jasper, studies philosophy. Her older and practically perfect sister, Citrine, writes epic poetry. Greta, the selfish and manipulative townswoman who tries to turn Aventurine into her own personal, unpaid maid, is hilarious.

The entire book is only 244 pages, well-edited, and well paced. Kudos to Ms. Burgis for a fun and rollicking adventure with heart, a chocolate heart, of course.

What others say

The Book Smugglers: “In the tradition of the best middle grade storytellers—such as Diana Wynne Jones, Catherynne M Valente—The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a story with multiple layers. Hot-tempered and fierce, Aventurine experiences loss, anxiety, and fear just as she has to deal with questions of power and identity and to find a new family and friendships.”

The Reader Dragon: “First off, if you ever plan on reading this book, make sure you have chocolate nearby, because you’re going to get the munchies! There is oh-so-much talk of chocolately goodness throughout the entirety of this book, that I guarantee you’ll be craving sweets in absolutely no time at all.”

Pages Unbound: “However, Aventurine’s journey is not just about embracing her spirit and the things that make her unique. It’s also about finding the strength to be vulnerable and to allow others to carry her at times.”

An interview with Stephanie Burgis about dragons and chocolate at Cracking the Cover.

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 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.

Restart by Gordon Korman

Chase’s memory just went out the window. Chase doesn’t remember falling off the roof. He doesn’t remember hitting his head. He doesn’t, in fact, remember anything. He wakes up in a hospital room and suddenly has to learn his whole life all over again . . . starting with his own name.

Even though I enjoyed the ride, I experienced enough disconnect that I just wasn’t buying. This story of a completely evil bully, thief, and tough guy turned into a completely harmless and benevolent thirteen year old kid by a fall off the roof was fun to read, but I didn’t really believe in the premise. Chase and his two sidekicks are so mean, so completely without redeeming qualities before Chase’s accident. They terrorize the entire school; practically the whole town walks in fear of Chase and his buddies. Then, magically (but it’s not magic), Chase loses his memory and becomes a different person. He doesn’t remember the old Chase and all of his nefarious and violent bullying ways, so he is free to become New-Chase, a guy who doesn’t understand why anyone would use his power and popularity as a star football player to torment and intimidate others. Not only does he not understand the impulse to violence and bullying, all of his new inclinations are peace, light, and goodwill. New-Chase defends the oppressed, listens to the elderly, and plays with little children.

The characterization is pretty one-dimensional for most of the minor characters and some of the major ones, too: the grumpy war hero, the blindly affirming mom, the pushy dad, the accommodating principal, the two jerks, old-Chase (pre-accident) himself, Kimberly the clueless girl with a crush, even Brendan the nerd. I never forgot for long that they were characters in a book. And yet, I did enjoy the story during the times that I was able to suspend disbelief.

Readers who buy into Chase’s reincarnation as a good guy will enjoy the humor and the thought experiment in reimagining a bully turned into sweetness and light by a slight concussion and subsequent amnesia. It is fun to watch Chase rediscover himself—until what he discovers is that self is not-so-great. Recommended reading for middle school bullies: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us.” (Robert Burns) Chase rediscovers himself through the eyes of others who do remember Old-Chase, and then he must decide who he is going to be in the future.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

This 2017 middle grade novel has definite Newbery award potential. It reads like a Newbery; the style, subject matter, and pacing reminded me of Katherine Paterson (Jacob Have I Loved) or Clare Vanderpool (Moon Over Manifest), both Newbery award winning authors. If Beyond the Bright Sea wins the Newbery or even a Newbery honor, it will become a best-seller. However, if it gets passed over for the major children’s book awards, I doubt if children will take it up and make it a popular classic. It’s that kind of book: if you’re required to read it as a child, you might fall in love, but most children won’t pick it up on their own.

The narrator in this story is twelve year old Crow, a foundling who floated in a skiff onto a tiny island, one of the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, and into an adoptive family. Osh, the man wo rescued her as a baby and raised her, is something of a hermit with a mysterious past. And Miss Maggie is Crow’s teacher and Osh’s neighbor, a protective maiden aunt-type. At age twelve, Crow has questions about her own past and her birth parents, questions that can only be answered with investigation and stepping out into the wider world to find her heritage.

Beyond the Bright Sea is a book about identity and belonging and the meaning and relative significance of family ties of blood and of adoption. I have a friend, adopted, and just now in her early twenties and investigating her own birth family. She would love this book, I think. In fact, many adopted children, especially those of a different racial heritage from their adoptive parents, would probably enjoy this story since Crow is a brown-skinned girl of uncertain parentage whose foster father, Osh, and teacher, Miss Maggie, are both different from her and from each other in terms of racial heritage. Crow is also different and isolated from the community on the island where she lives in other ways. The islanders, many of them, avoid her because they believe she might have inherited a contagious disease. And Osh is not the most sociable of characters, and of course, they live on a small island, isolated from the outside world of the mainland. So, one question or theme in the book is whether or not humans need community and how they can create a network of family and friendships if some tragedy or turn of events has cut them off from human contact.

Adults might “sell” this book to kids with lures of a search for buried treasure, wild storm adventures, and an orphan child’s quest to find her parents and her other family members. Then, stand back and let the thoughtful and the adventurous readers become captured by the toils of a great narrative and winsome characters. I rather hope Beyond the Bright Sea does win some awards so that more kids, and adults, will discover it.

York by Laura Ruby

York, Book One, The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby.

This middle grade alternate history and steampunk-ish fantasy had a few awkward phrases and descriptions, and I’m not at all sure that all the loose ends were gathered together by the end of the book. (Understandable, since it’s the first book in a series.) However, Ms. Ruby tells such an absorbing and delightful story that I can forgive a few minor bobbles.

“The city had many nicknames: Gotham. Metropolis. The Shining Starr. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. These nicknames were not always accurate.”

The main character, the protagonist, of this novel is the City, New York City. But it’s a New York City changed and perhaps improved by the benevolence and inventiveness of the Morningstarr twins, Teresa and Theodore, during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Morningstarrs “performed architectural and mechanical wizardry to make New York City the most dazzling city in the world . . . the gleaming metropolis of the future.” Then, they disappeared, leaving “their land and property to a trust in the city’s name” and “a parting gift: a sort of puzzle, or treasure hunt.” The Morningstarr twins were definitely imaginative and eccentric, and for the next hundred and fifty years and more after their disappearance in 1854, people searched diligently for the clues that would lead them to the fabled Marningstarr treasure. But no one found it.

Enter Tess and Theo Biedermann, also twins, but in the present day, twenty-first century. They live with their family in a Morningstarr building, one of the six buildings left in the city of those that were planned and built by the Morningstarrs. Unfortunately, for the sake of history and for the Biedermanns, there’s an evil real estate developer and millionaire, Darnell Slant, who wants to buy up all of the Morningstarr buildings and make them into over-priced cracker box apartment buildings. Can Tess, Theo, and their new friend, Jaime, solve the Morningstarr cipher/puzzle and find the treasure and stop Darnell Slant?

It sounds fairly standard: evil real estate developer, a puzzle to solve, a race against time. However, the alternate history and steampunk elements of the plot and setting keep it fresh and interesting. The pacing is good, for the most part, and I didn’t really know what to expect most of the time. There are echoes of and allusions to Newbery award winner The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and New York City history and the movie National Treasure, probably other cultural artifacts, too. Those are the ones I noticed and appreciated.

And the book includes some interesting philosophical speculation, especially in regards to life and technology and puzzle-solving. Is the process of solving a puzzle or playing a game its own reward? Or is it the winning or the treasure at the end that counts? Is any treasure worth any cost? How do you go about counting the cost when you don’t know what the treasure is? What does it mean to “be yourself” and to “believe in yourself”? Does faith in some object or journey create its own fulfillment? What is the difference between living beings and non-living artifacts of technology? Can a machine come to have life and agency? Can it respond to its environment and make decisions? How?

York was a book well worth the time spent reading its 476 pages. Fans of steampunk or New York City or puzzling and ciphers or alternate history adventure would do well to check it out.

Educator’s Guide to York from Walden Press.

Review of York 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 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.