A collection of (some of) the best children’s books of 2014 – Middle Grade and Young Adult

Last week, I picked my favourite picture books from Publisher Weekly’s catalogue of children’s book reviews. You can download a free copy of it here, and read my picks here.

children's starred reviews

This week, it’s time to step it up a notch, age-wise.

I’m pretty excited about getting my hands on all these titles, even the Young Adult ones, an age group that doesn’t usually elicit feelings of eager anticipation. But the ones that made it to my YA list look incredible.

Magic! Monsters! Cults! Fairy tales with a sci-fi twist!  Fairy tales with a feminist poetry twist! Poetry as a protest tool! A scientist who discovers the cure for ageing! A bunch of Victorian schoolgirls who end up as accidental schemers when their headmistress is poisoned and they try to cover up the death! This list has it all.

MIDDLE GRADE


Chapter Books

Dory Fantasmagory

Agdory fantasmagoryes: 6-8

To combat her older siblings’ refusal to play with her because she’s a “baby,” six-year-old Dory conjures up Mary, a monster friend who appreciates her incessant questions, like “Why do we have armpits?” and “What is the opposite of sandwich?” Dory’s pestering leads her siblings to tell her that 507-year-old Mrs. Gobble Gracker, “who robs baby girls,” is looking for her. This sets Dory’s imagination spinning, leading to the appearance of the vampiric Mrs. Gobble Gracker and the gnomelike Mr. Nuggy, who introduces himself as her fairy godmother. Reality and fantasy combine hilariously in a story that, at heart, is about a girl who wants little more than to spend time with her brother and sister.

Operation Bunny

operation bunnyAges: 7-10

Emily Vole makes headline news in the first weeks of her life, when she is found in an abandoned hatbox in Stansted Airport. Then, only a few years later, her neighbour Mrs String dies leaving Emily a mysterious inheritance: an old shop, a small bunch of golden keys and a cat called Fidget. It’s the beginning of an adventure of a lifetime as the old Fairy Detective Agency comes back to life. It is up to Emily to reopen the shop, and recall the fairies to duty. Together they must embark on their first mystery and do battle with their great fairy-snatching enemy, Harpella.

Sleuth on Skates

sleuth on skatesAges: 7-11

11-year-old Sophie “Sesame” Seade, lives at Cambridge University, roller skates everywhere, and has been waiting all her life for a mystery to solve. Finally, one arrives in the form of missing university student Jenna Jenkins, a gossip columnist and ballerina. Sesame, with help from her two best friends, tries to find out who’s behind this disappearance, despite interference from her parents (her mother is the head of Christ’s College, her father the chaplain). Sesame has a “taste for sophisticated terminology,” as she puts it, which makes some hilarious moments as it becomes clear that she doesn’t always fully understand what she’s saying (“Papa chéri, fire of my loins, can I go out for a walk?” she asks her father memorably, getting an appropriately horrified reaction).

Action and Adventure 

The 26-Story Treehouse

the 26-storey treehouseAges: 8-12

It isn’t just best buddies Andy and Terry’s treehouse that’s grown: this book is about 100 pages longer than its predecessor, extra space that lets Griffiths and Denton devote six pages to the 78 flavors of ice cream at the treehouse’s
ice-cream parlor, more than 20 pages to a pirate-themed nursery rhyme, and dozens more to the stories-within-the story that Andy, Terry, their friend Jill, and the dread pirate Captain Woodenhead recount. Whether it’s Jill and her menagerie of animals stacked precariously on a tiny iceberg or a giant, smelly fish head orbiting the Earth (it’s an important plot point), Denton’s furiously scrawled line drawings milk the silly, gross-out gags for everything they’re worth.

Frostborn

frostbornAges: 8-12

Meet Karn. He is destined to take over the family farm in Norrøngard. His only problem? He’d rather be playing the board game Thrones and Bones. Enter Thianna. Half human, half frost giantess. She’s too tall to blend in with other humans but too short to be taken seriously as a giant. When family intrigues force Karn and Thianna to flee into the wilderness, they have to keep their sense of humor and their wits about them. But survival can be challenging in this Norse-flavoured adventure when you’re being chased by a 1,500-year-old dragon, Helltoppr the undead warrior and his undead minions, an evil uncle, wyverns, and an assortment of trolls and giants.

The Glass Sentence

the glas sentenceAges: 10+

Boston, 1891. Sophia Tims comes from a family of explorers and cartologers who, for generations, have been traveling and mapping the New World—a world changed by the Great Disruption of 1799, when all the continents were flung into different time periods.  Eight years ago, her parents left her with her uncle Shadrack, the foremost cartologer in Boston, and went on an urgent mission. They never returned. Life with her brilliant, absent-minded, adored uncle has taught Sophia to take care of herself. Then Shadrack is kidnapped. And Sophia, who has rarely been outside of Boston, is the only one who can search for him. Together with Theo, a refugee from the West, she travels over rough terrain and uncharted ocean, encounters pirates and traders, and relies on a combination of Shadrack’s maps, common sense, and her own slantwise powers of observation. But even as Sophia and Theo try to save Shadrack’s life, they are in danger of losing their own.

The Map to Everywhere

the map to everywhereAges: 8-12

To Master Thief Fin, an orphan from the murky pirate world of the Khaznot Quay, the Map is the key to finding his mother. To suburban schoolgirl Marrill, it’s her only way home after getting stranded on the Pirate Stream, the magical waterway that connects every world in creation. With the help of a bumbling wizard and his crew, they must scour the many worlds of the Pirate Stream to gather the pieces of the Map to Everywhere–but they aren’t the only ones looking. A sinister figure is hot on their tail, and if they can’t beat his ghostly ship to find the Map, it could mean the destruction of everything they hold dear!

Nuts to You

nuts to youAges: 8-12

A crisis occurs when gray squirrel Jed is swept up by a hawk. Jed’s friends Chai and TsTs (it’s “the ‘Emma’ of squirrel names,”) rush to find where he’s (safely) landed, but they’re soon distracted by impending danger humans trimming trees around “buzzpaths” (power lines) pose a threat to their habitat. Somehow, TsTs, Chai, and Jed (who eventually meets up with his pals after having a few adventures of his own) must persuade their friends and neighbors to relocate somewhere safer, not an easy task given the nature of  squirrels (“Getting squirrels to listen to reason is like getting a tree to drop its nuts at your front door,” admits one). The twisting-turning narrative provides plenty of fun; as do Perkins’s laugh-aloud illustrations and equally witty footnotes.

the scandalous sisterhoodThe Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

Ages: 10-14

There’s a murderer on the loose—but that doesn’t stop the girls of St. Etheldreda’s from attempting to hide the death of their headmistress in this rollicking farce. The students of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home—unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong. The book is a smart, hilarious Victorian romp, full of outrageous plot twists, mistaken identities, and mysterious happenings.

Sky Raiders

sky raidersAges: 8-12

A sixth-grader is stranded in a strange world where magic is real and dreams have power. After Cole and his friends are lured into a haunted house on Halloween, they are viciously kidnapped by slavers and transported to the mysterious “in-between place” known as the Outskirts. Cole is soon separated from the other kidnapped children and sentenced to work with a band of misfits who salvage treasures from bizarre flying castles. As Cole tries to find a way to escape and rescue his friends, he makes new allies and is drawn into a desperate gamble to defeat a rampaging construct made of rogue magic. Armed with amazing treasures and thrown into battle against terrifying odds, Cole must learn to become a hero.

A Dash of Magic 

The Fourteenth Goldfish

the fourteenth goldfishAges: 8-12

Middle school doesn’t start smoothly for 11-year-old Ellie, whose best friend finds her passion (volleyball) and new teammates to eat lunch with, while Ellie flounders, uninterested in sports or her parents’ avocation, theater. A startling addition to the household helps Ellie get her groove back when Grandpa Melvin, a scientist, moves in after engineering a cure for aging (the regenerative properties of jellyfish are involved) and transforming himself into a teenage boy. Though Melvin dresses and acts like the crotchety old man he was, he and Ellie bond over spirited discussions about Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, the possibilities of science, and the moral questions scientific advances can raise. This is topnotch middle-grade fiction with a meaty dilemma, humor, and an ending that leaves room for the possibility of a sequel.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

ophelia and the marvelous boyAges: 8-12

Unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn’t believe in anything that can’t be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia’s help. As Ophelia embarks on an incredible journey to rescue the boy everything that she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy’s own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world.

A Snicker of Magic

a snicker of magicAges: 8-12

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart. But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

The Witch’s Boy

the witch's boyAges: 9+

After Ned’s twin brother, Tam, drowns, his mother, the village’s Sister Witch, binds Tam’s soul to Ned, who grows up as an awkward, stuttering boy ostracized by the rest of his village. In the meantime, in another kingdom across the forest that borders Ned’s village lives Áine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King. She is haunted by her mother’s last words to her: “The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his.” But when Áine and Ned’s paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to make their way through the treacherous woods and stop the war about to boil over? Classic fairy tale elements–speaking stones, a friendly wolf, and a spoiled young king–are woven into a richly detailed narrative that explores good and evil, love and hate, magic, and the power of friendship.

For Comics Fans

Hansel and Gretel

hansel and gretelAges: 7-10

Master storyteller Neil Gaiman plumbs the dark depths of Hansel and Gretel, imagining the pair’s mother scheming to abandon them (“Two dead are better than four dead,” she tells their father. “That is mathematics, and it is logic”) and reveling in the witch’s cruelty. “Today, when the oven is hot enough, we will roast your brother,” she announces to Gretel. “But do not be sad. I will give you his bones to chew, little one.” Italian illustrator Mattotti contributes elegant b&w ink spreads that alternate with spreads of text. His artistry flows from the movement of his brush and the play of light and shadow. The witch’s house, tiled with baroque decorations and topped with a graceful tower, is unexpectedly beautiful; light pours through the barley sugar windows. The absence of color is a foil for Gaiman’s panoply of words: “gloves and hats of travelers, and coins of cold and of silver, a string of pearls, chains of gold and chains of silver.” Gaiman makes the story’s horrors feel very real and very human, and Mattotti’s artwork is genuinely chilling.

YOUNG ADULT


Realism and Romance

Starbird Murphy and the World Outside

starbird murphyAges: 12+

Sixteen-year-old Starbird has grown up on a farm commune, living among the Free Family, a peaceful, free-loving community whose absentee founder, a man named EARTH, “translates” messages from the Cosmic Imagination for his devoted flock. Each member receives a “Calling,” and although Starbird doesn’t initially think much of hers—waiting tables at the Free Family Cafe in Seattle—after a perceived romantic betrayal, she leaves behind everything she’s known for the Outside World. Many unfamiliar experiences await her, including attending public high school, handling money, and finding romance with an “Outsider,” even as complicated questions arise about EARTH and the Free Family, challenging its future and testing Starbird’s faith.

The Stepsister’s Tale

the stepsister's taleAges: 14+

A provocative inversion of the tale of Cinderella. Halsey Hall—the once magnificent home of Lady Margaret Mountjoy and daughters Jane, 15, and Maude, 13—has been falling apart since the girls’ father squandered the family’s money and drank himself to death. With their mother in denial, Jane and Maude have been handling numerous household responsibilities like chopping firewood and tending to animals, making them tan and strong, but not proper ladies to present to society. When Lady Margaret suddenly remarries and presents her daughters with an entitled and haughty new sister, 13-year-old Isabella, conflict is inevitable. Barrett cleverly upends traditional notions of happily ever after—rather than Cinderella’s usual trajectory of rising from the ashes to marry a prince, for Jane, Maude, and their family, salvation comes through hard work, realizing the futility of clinging to a long-dead illusion of nobility, and embracing a “lowered” station in life that truly allows them to live.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

the vigilante poetsAge: 12+

A group of friends rage against the reality-TV machine that has descended on their prestigious Minnesota arts high school. Narration comes from junior Ethan Andrezejczak, decently talented visual artist whose devotion to a hamster named Baconnaise, chaotically loving relationship with his triplet younger sisters, and appreciation for literary forms and devices add depth and humor to a story that’s already full of meaty material as it explores the creation and corruption of art. As Ethan and his quick-witted friends use poetry to campaign against For Art’s Sake (and some breaking and entering to investigate whether the show is on the up and up), readers are treated to a sharply funny account of how people can fall short (and come through), and how art can make a difference.

Fantasy and the Supernatural

A Creature of Moonlight

a creature of moonlightAges: 12+

The daughter of a runaway princess and a dragon comes of age. Neither a retelling nor a subversion of a familiar myth, this profound and original story feels like a long-lost classic fairy-tale. As the only heir to the throne, Marni should have been surrounded by wealth and privilege, not living in exile-but now the time has come when she must choose between claiming her birthright as princess of a realm whose king wants her dead, and life with the father she has never known: a wild dragon who is sending his magical woods to capture her.

Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales

monstrous affectionsAges: 14+

An engrossing, morally complex anthology of 15 stories centered on the seemingly antagonistic concepts of monsters and love. Throughout, troubled protagonists meet genuine monsters—some traditional, like vampires, others much less so. Almost invariably, it’s understood that other people in the protagonists’ lives are far worse than the monsters. In Paolo Bacigalupi’s poetic “Moriabe’s Children,” a teenager fleeing her abusive stepfather finds sisterhood with the kraken that haunt the nearby sea. In Holly Black’s bloody but funny “Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind),” a girl stows away on her uncle’s spaceship, fights off pirates, and partners with a purported alien killing machine. M.T. Anderson’s wistful and beautifully realized tale of WWII on the home front, “Quick Hill,” concerns a young man’s sacrifice for his community’s safety, and Kathleen Jennings’s graphic short, “A Small Wild Magic,” is a delightful variation on the story of the boy who receives three magical wishes.

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim

the story of owenAges: 11+

The book features an Earth nearly identical to our own, with one key difference: dragons, whose attraction to carbon emissions—whether from campfires or cars—makes them a persistent threat. Everything from pop music to industry, literature, and the historical record has been influenced. The Sahara desert has its roots in a botched dragon slaying after Rome conquered Carthage; centuries later, the logo for the Detroit Red Wings symbolizes the loss of an entire state: “the wheel, for the car that had brought Michigan up, and the wing, for the dragons that had brought it down.” After 16-year-old Siobhan McQuaid agrees to become the bard for dragon-slayer-in-training Owen Thorskard, who has moved with his famous dragon-slaying family to her small Ontario town, she winds up at the center of a grassroots effort to understand an odd spike in dragon numbers. Siobhan’s narration sings thanks to her dry wit, intelligence, and ability to see the inherent musicality of life, while also commenting on the unreliability of history (and storytelling) and the power of a community to rally to save itself.

Sci-Fi and Dystopia

Cress

cressAges: 12+

This third of four books in the Lunar Chronicles has no shortage of humor, action, or romance, and the author still delivers the clever fairy-tale twists her readers expect. Cress, a self- proclaimed “damsel in distress,” has been imprisoned in an orbiting satellite for more than seven years, and has never been allowed to cut her hair, which has grown to Rapunzel-like lengths. Though Cress—an expert hacker—is supposed to be tracking down the fugitive Linh Cinder for Lunar Queen Levana, Cress has been secretly aiding her. When Cinder and her crew try to rescue Cress, the plan goes awry, leaving Cinder’s group scattered and fighting for survival. Meyer continues to show off her storytelling prowess, keeping readers
engaged in a wide cast of characters while unfolding a layered plot that involves warring governments and a fast-spreading plague.

Non-Fiction Investigations

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty

poisoned applesAges: 13+

In a potent collection of verse, the book melds fairy-tale imagery with lacerating commentary about the demands that society makes on women and girls. The results are excoriating and nearly impossible to forget. “Once upon a time there was a girl who/had a good hair week!” opens a magazine-style twist on Red Riding Hood. “Seven cute looks/she could do at home, and their names were/ Waves, Bun, Bangs, Braid, Sleek, and/ Party-Ready Ponytail.” Other poems examine eating disorders, consent, and body image, but while Heppermann illuminates many bitter truths, she also celebrates women’s ability to surmount the societal, systemic forces seeking to box them in. “If I was a good girl,/ if I could satisfy their cravings…I might have stayed at the table,” reads “Gingerbread.” “Wouldn’t you run, too,/ from such voracious love?”

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