Ten-year-old Jack Foster has never been the center of his parents’ universe. Spending much of the year at boarding school, Jack’s infrequent trips home to smog-choked Victorian London are fraught with awkwardness, boredom and his own guilty anticipation of returning to school.
So when on one visit home Jack spies Mr. Havelock, his mother’s mysterious new spiritualist, opening a door where no earthly door should be, he jumps at the chance for adventure and follows...
...into a magical world that so closely mimics our own, the line between what is mechanical, what is magical and what is alive has long been blurred. Here the air is thick with smoke, and many residents are obliged to wear goggles and nostril grills to shield them from the noxious atmosphere. Whole, flesh-and-blood children are rare and prized by Londinium’s ruler: the Lady. Now, the Lady requires a new, perfect son and she’s set her sights on Jack.
As keen as he was for adventure, Jack isn’t so sure he’s ready to be adopted, and the Lady’s previous son, Mr. Havelock (aka Sir Lorcan), isn’t happy about being replaced. This new world is not without friends though, including Beth, a wind-up doll with an attitude, and Dr. Snailwater, the scientist who created her. If Jack wants to escape back to his own world, he’ll need the help of his new friends and that of the Gearwing, a powerful, mythical creature that no one has seen in years.
Emma Trevayne paints an atmospheric and eerily entrancing landscape in Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times, her middle-grade steampunk debut. Boasting excellent world building, characteristic of the steampunk genre, gorgeous cover art and an independent protagonist with amusing supporting characters, Flights is best suited for younger middle-grade readers.
For all the narrative merit displayed in much of the story, Flights does suffer from some underdeveloped and ultimately unresolved plot devices. Among these weaker elements are the obscure motivations of the Lady in continually craving perfect, eternal sons in the first place, as well as the underdeveloped mythos of the Gearwing itself. As a standalone novel these flaws are prominent, however, in the larger context of a series (should Ms. Trevayne continue to expand Jack’s horizons) these shortcomings might be camouflaged.
It all began with a vacuum cleaner. Popular children’s author Kate DiCamillo returns with a tale of a cynical young girl and an ordinary backyard squirrel turned superhero in Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. The inciting incident occurs in the first few pages (presented in a comic book style by illustrator K.G. Campbell) when Donald Tickman presents his wife with the ultimate birthday present – a Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X. Neighbor Flora happens to be peering out the window just as the out-of-control vacuum propels into the Tickmans’ yard, sucking up a hapless squirrel. A fan of comics and survival literature (but not the sappy novels penned by her romance-writer mother), Flora turns out to be the perfect person to revive the fur-stripped mammal.
Well aware that “impossible things happened all the time,” she soon recognizes that the squirrel’s run in with the vacuum has granted him amazing powers (among them, flying and typing poetry). Upon witnessing his super strength, Flora dubs him Ulysses and becomes his de facto sidekick. Of course, every superhero has an arch nemesis, and in this case it’s Flora’s own mother who has it in for the rodent.
Campbell’s appealing pencil illustrations are essential to the enjoyment of this engaging and exciting novel. DiCamillo is a master at creating the quirky characters that are the hallmark of her work, appealing to both young and older readers. The winner of the 2004 Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux (and a Newbery Honor in 2001 for Because of Winn-Dixie), DiCamillo was inaugurated as The National Ambassador for Young People's Literature on Jan. 10. According to the Library of Congress, the National Ambassador “raises national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.” DiCamillo's platform is "Stories Connect Us” and she will be serving in the position during 2014 and 2015.
In an alternate Victorian-era England, all towns have a resident monster whose job is to scare and thrill the residents, as well as to protect them. Stoker-on-Avon has a problem: their monster is suffering from depression and a general lack of confidence. Much to the townsfolk’s dismay, Rayburn hasn’t attacked in well over a year and a half. Rob Harrell’s graphic novel Monster on the Hill chronicles the efforts of Charles Wilkie, doctor and inventor, who has been dispatched by the town fathers to “fix the monster.” Timothy, the self-proclaimed town crier/street urchin, stows away in the doctor’s trunk in order to be a part of the mission.
Rayburn, a heavy-lidded, horned, winged, rust-colored creature, boasts no special skills or talents. He doesn’t breathe fire and he can’t fly. After diagnosing his problem, Wilkie suggests a restorative road trip to visit other town monsters to pick up some “tricks of the trade.” His old school chum Noodles, better known as Tentaculor, may offer just the boost he needs. This edgy, drolly humorous graphic novel will capture the imagination of a wide range of readers, much like Jeff Smith’s popular Bone series. Harrell captures a Victorian feel while sprinkling in modern anachronisms to good comic effect, as vendors hawk Tentaculor merchandise (like trading cards and Tentacu-Pops) after a recent attack. Older children who enjoy tales of adventure and dragons will enjoy the twist on the usual trope. Harrell’s wide-eyed villagers and thoroughly detailed monsters are enormously visually appealing, as is his choice of a bright, colorful palette. Readers will eagerly await upcoming books in this ongoing, all-ages series.
Zombies and vampires have been all the rage lately, but not like this. Zombies who eat brains? Okay, sure. Vampires who suck blood? Makes sense. But vampires and zombies in tutus? Huh? Authors Kristyn Crow and Anne Marie Pace bring to life two adorably spooky characters with wonderfully supportive families.
Zombelina has a love of dance that she just can’t contain. She twirls through the house from one dance to the next. To her pleasant surprise, her mother says it’s time that she becomes a true ballerina. She takes her shopping for all of the ballet accoutrement and even signs her up for lessons. When she begins her class, it’s plain to see that Zombelina may be a little different from the other girls, but she practices hard and gains praise for her unique spin on ballet. Will the practice pay off for her big recital? Crow uses rhyming in combination with Molly Idle’s illustrations to create a story wholly unique. This book is a clear choice for any young reader with a passion for dance or who is looking for something to get them in spooky spirits.
Another book to go with the theme is Anne Marie Pace’s second installment of Vampirina Ballerina, titled Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover. In this story, Vampirina shows just what to do to create the very best sleepover. It’s not all about work, though, as the little girls come over and frolic in this uncharacteristic house filled with mummies, monsters and spiders, oh my. Not everyone enjoys the slumber party when one little girl is spooked by an unexpected mummy appearance. Will Vampirina be able to save the party she worked so hard to plan?
Other picture books to celebrate the spooky season are Bone Soup by Cambria Evans and Gibbus Moony Wants to Bite You! by Leslie Muir.
Where would you take an injured baby dragon? To the imaginary veterinary if you are lucky enough to have one in town. The Sasquatch Escape is the first book in the Imaginary Veterinary series by Suzanne Selfors. In it, two 10-year-olds, Ben and Pearl, find themselves living in what could be the most boring town in the world, Buttonville. The Button factory has long been closed down when Ben moves in with his grandfather while his parents work out some “issues.” Pearl has lived there her whole life and is well-known as a troublemaker…so much so that she has been banned from the bookstore and other children are not allowed to play with her! When Ben’s cat catches a baby dragon, Ben and Pearl take the dragon to the only animal doctor in town, Dr. Woo of Dr. Woo’s Worm Hospital, located inside the old button factory. All is not as it seems at the Worm Hospital, as the children discover when a Sasquatch is let loose on the town!
Book two in the series, The Lonely Lake Monster, continues Ben and Pearl’s adventures as apprentices at the Worm Hospital. Tasked with trimming the Sasquatch’s toenails on the first day, they quickly become distracted by an enormous lake monster and a leprechaun with a head cold. When the lonely lake monster catches Ben for a pet, it is up to Pearl to save him (ideally without being caught breaking the rules, again!)
The Imaginary Veterinary series is filled with delightful characters from both the real world and the imaginary world. Underlying themes of loyalty and resilience add to the rich plotline. Selfors alternates points of view for each book, with book one being told from Ben’s point of view, and book two being told from Pearl’s. She adds some enrichment activities to the end of each book challenging the reader to use their imaginations with some writing, art and science activities. She also adds some background to the mythical creatures described in each book. This is an excellent adventure series for children who enjoy a little bit of fantasy. The third book, The Rain Dragon Rescue, is due out in January 2014.
From the author of Every Soul a Star comes a story that’s out of this world — literally! In Pi in the Sky, Wendy Mass weaves an imaginative tale of worlds colliding, and the rollercoaster adventure that results.
Joss is a seventh son. Not just any seventh son, but the seventh son of the Supreme Overlord of the Universe. Expecting a superhero, imbued with extraordinary powers and responsibilities? Guess again. Despite what you may have heard, being that special “seventh son” does not imbue you with any great powers or great responsibilities — even if your dad is the SOU. With six older brothers, the greatest responsibility Joss has ever held is delivering pies across The Realms to the Powers That Be.
That’s right; a glorified pie delivery boy.
Mind you, these aren’t ordinary pies, but more about that later...
To date, Joss’ life has revolved around going to school (even immortals need an education), hanging out with his best friend Kal and getting those pies delivered on time. Then one day, a girl from Earth winds up in The Realms after her planet has been obliterated and Joss’ whole world is thrown out of orbit. Upgraded from delivery boy to world architect, it’s up to Joss to somehow rebuild Earth with the help of the planet’s last human, Annika.
Pi in the Sky is a spirited fantasy of friendship, adventure and the awesome sciences that shape our world. It is a balanced story that is accessible and fun to read even as it incorporates some challenging concepts. The characters are relatable and the story is alternately playful and poignant. Chapters are headed by quotes from scientists and visionaries that succinctly capture the theme of the chapter to follow. Recommended for middle grade readers and, in particular, fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
Brandon Mull kicks off the latest multi-platform series for tweens with Wild Born, the first book in the Spirit Animals series. Each title will be written by a different popular children’s author. This new fantasy adventure series joins kid favorites, The 39 Clues and Infinity Ring, and is sure to be a hit with readers who appreciate fast-paced stories combined with online interaction.
The series is set in Erdas, a fantasy world where 11-year-old children are tested to see if they possess a spirit animal. If positive, the children will share a rare connection with an animal, a bond so strong that great powers are bestowed on both. Four children from vastly different cultures and all parts of the world not only reveal a spirit animal, but each calls one of The Four Fallen Beasts. Conor, Abeke, Meilin and Rollan call forth a wolf, leopard, panda and falcon. The resurrection of these four mighty animals signals a resurgence of an evil power that needs to be stopped. These four children are destined for the ultimate mission — to save Erdas. With the assistance of a powerful-but-secretive order, the four learn to bond with their animal and gain strength, wisdom and courage. The action is non-stop entertainment, and the world of Erdas is so clearly drawn, readers will be easily transported to this fantasy land.
The online role-playing game, available here, allows children to customize their own unique heroes, choose their spirit animals and go on their own quests to help save Erdas. Each book will unlock additional levels of game play. Look for the second book in the series in January, written by New York Times bestselling author Maggie Stiefvater. Additional authors slated to add installments include Marie Lu and Garth Nix.
Loosely based on the Cthulhu mythos of legendary author H. P. Lovecraft, Charles Gilman’s new “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School” series begins with the story of Professor Gargoyle. Readers follow 12-year-old Robert Arthur’s first days in the new state-of-the-art Lovecraft Middle School. Sleek, environmentally friendly and boasting a library the size of a gymnasium, Lovecraft Middle is exactly where every student would want to be. Except Robert, that is.
Recently redistricted, Robert isn’t looking forward to being the new kid on the block at Lovecraft. It doesn’t help that the only other kid transferred from his old school is class bully, Glenn Torkells. From his first day, it’s obvious to Robert that something decidedly weird is going on. Dozens of rats leap out of the brand new lockers. His science teacher, Professor Goyle, is beyond bizarre. And apart from a mysterious girl named Karina, the closest friend he’s made at the new school is a polycephalus rat.
Even stranger events are on the horizon, though, and when gateways to another frightening dimension begin to open, Robert must ally with Glenn to unmask the true nature of Professor Goyle and save his new friends and classmates.
The series plot introduced in the first volume segues seamlessly from Professor Gargoyle’s tale to the second tale in the series, The Slither Sisters. After the mysterious disappearance – and sudden reappearance – of twins Sylvia and Sarah Price, Robert, Glenn and Karina begin to suspect that the monstrous forces of the Great Old Ones may be at work. When Sarah announces her candidacy for president of the student council, it’s up to the friends and some trusted teachers to thwart them.
Fans of creepy-yet-funny stories set in middle school, such as the Scary School and “My Teacher Is an Alien” series, will be drawn to Gilman’s “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School” and may find they eagerly await the next monstrous adventure. Each of the first two volumes provide a tantalizing glimpse into the tale to follow. Recommended for middle grade readers, this absorbing, fast-paced series with finely detailed illustrations may hold particular appeal for boys. Readers already familiar with Lovecraft lore may also chuckle at some of the references to the realm that inspired Gilman.
Three friends find an abandoned sofa at their bus stop one day that not only changes their lives, but saves the lives of everyone they know. In fact, the title What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark pretty much gives away the plot. Middle school students River, Freak and Fiona live in Hellsboro, Pennsylvania, a fictitious town full of secrets and problems. Hellsboro, so named because of its bleak, Hell-like landscape, has a ‘coal seam fire’ that has been burning under the town for years. When the trio discovers the old sofa, they begin to find unusual items hidden in its cushions, including a very rare and valuable crayon. On a hunch, these tech savvy kids put the crayon on an online auction and are amazed when a bidding war starts. However, crayon collectors aren’t the only ones interested in their findings. Can the three friends outwit a devious billionaire out to control the universe, an eccentric old inventor, an axe-wielding ghost and some bizarre flash mobs in time to save the world?
Clark’s debut novel is full of interesting and quirky characters, dialogue and situations similar to those found in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Edward Eager’s Half Magic series. While the friends try to save the world from impending doom, they also deal with issues that many young teens can relate to including peer pressure, not fitting in, dysfunctional family life and discovering who their real friends are. The story is told from River’s point of view, but all three of the main characters have unique voices and are well-drawn. While coal-seam fires are a real issue in parts of Pennsylvania, let's hope that none of them hide the secrets that River, Fiona and Freak uncover.
Famed collaborators David Almond and Dave McKean once again unite their respective authorial and illustrative talents to bring to life a haunting and subtle creation fable in Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. Harry, Sue and Little Ben live in a wonderful world, much like our own. It is filled with the most marvelous places and creations that the gods could imagine. There are forests, rivers and mountains, elephants and camels, and yet stranger creatures like the zowet and the brant. It is a safe world and a calm one and the gods who fashioned it are well pleased with everything in it. In fact, the gods are so pleased with their creations that they have stopped making anything else. Instead now they alternately nap, have tea and cake and admire all that they have made.
As a result, this is also a world of curious gaps; empty spaces and unfinished endings that interrupt the landscape. Such gaps are all too easily filled by the imagination of curious children. Little Ben is the first to imagine something out of the nothing when he brings into the world a strange new creature: the mouse. Sue and Harry swiftly follow, creating yet more peculiar creatures. Soon it seems that the children’s beautiful creations might rival the gods’...except some of them are also becoming a little, well, scary....
Gently, the story alternately examines both the children’s and the gods’ actions, hinting at the dangers of overconfident ambition and the foolishness of leaving work half-done. With undertones of myth and traditional just-so storytelling, Mouse Bird Snake Wolf will easily appeal to readers who enjoy children’s fables. The sublime illustrations offer a thoroughly modern visual foil for the storyline, thereby rendering this a likely choice for graphic novels enthusiasts as well.