Shape Shifters and Dragons for Middle Grade Readers

Cindy and Lynn: Sometimes with science fiction or fantasy, you just have to accept the concept and go with the flow of a fun or intriguing story that may be more out-of-this-world than you might even expect from these genres. We each recently read one of these.

Lynn: Trouble in the Stars by Sarah PrineasSarah Prineas’ new book, Trouble in the Stars (Penguin/Philomel, 2021) avoids the pitfalls that often beset middle grade SF by not dwelling on the mechanics of the world building. Instead she simply establishes the setting as a multi-world universe with interstellar travel as a given. But a major premise of the book, that the young protagonist is a shape-shifter created in a laboratory, is something readers need to accept as possible. That isn’t hard to do since the fast-paced plot ramps up right from the start. Readers are introduced to Trouble, floating in space as a sort of amorphous cloud of goo, realizes something dangerous is searching for him. In short order he squeezes into a space station, transforms into the form of an adorable puppy, and stows away on a battered ship heading out into space. When the puppy is discovered and “spaced,” Trouble shape shifts into a 10-year old human boy, wins a 3-week reprieve till the next destination, and is set to work as a cabin boy. The Hindsight has a wonderfully engaging alien crew and it is clear that they are not being completely open about what their mission actually is. Just as Trouble starts to win over the crew, they spot the StarLeague ship that is tracking them!

 This terrific story is a character driven tale of family, identity, and finding a home. The characters are all well drawn, intriguing. and decidedly distinct individuals. Trouble himself is instantly appealing and relatable— quite a feat for a clump of goo 😉 There’s plenty of humor as Prineas manages a conventional trope of “alien-figuring-out-human-behavior” in a way that young readers will greatly enjoy. The plot has plenty of suspense and just enough danger to keep reader’s interest high. This would make an ideal read aloud for a classroom, Chapters end with just enough suspense to make listeners beg for more and the story is packed with themes that would make great discussion topics. I’m hoping there will be more adventures for Trouble and the Hindsight

Cindy: Despite the opening pitch, my offering is less fantasy, really, and more a blend of historical fiction, adventure, survival, and environmental tale with the threatened species being…dragons! A Discovery of Dragons (Scholastic, July, 1, 2021) is a debut novel by science teacher, Lindsay Galvin. Young Discovery of Dragons by Lindsay GalvinSimon Covington is an assistant to Charles Darwin on the USS Beagle, playing fiddle and labeling specimens on the scientist’s famous voyage to the Gallapagos Islands. When he is lost at sea after helping to rescue Darwin, he winds up on an unexplored island with an active volcano. He soon learns that the volcano is not the only thing breathing fire on the island. With the help of his fiddle (from which Simon hears advice and sarcasm) and a lizard he names Farthing, Simon manages rescue and returns to London. There he continues to help Darwin with his specimens but also to deal with his own—a set of eggs he rescued and that are now starting to hatch! Simon’s character is based on a real boy of the same name who aided Darwin on this voyage and details of Darwin’s life and work are woven into the story, but it remains an adventure focused on what may be the last dragon eggs in the world. Might Darwin have found dragons in addition to finches and tortoises if he’d looked in the right place? We may never know. I was willing to let the story unfold as a possibility. Young fans of dragon stories and young naturalists are going to enjoy this science-based adventure. Maybe it’s not fantasy at all….if the dragons are/were real? Hmmmmm….

Curse of Specter Queen: Book 1 of a New Fun Series

Curse of the Specter Queen by Jenny MokeCindy: We haven’t even told you anything about this novel yet, but by the time we do, you’ll be delighted to know that Curse of the Specter Queen (Disney/Hyperion, June 8, 2021) by Jenny Elder Moke is the start of a new series, because your younger teens are going to want to continue to adventure with this crew. Samantha Knox is the quiet star of the cast that includes her wealthy estranged best friend, Joana and her brother Bennett, Sam’s childhood crush. When a mysterious ancient diary arrives in the mail at the antique book shop where Sam works, it sets in motion a reuniting of these friends as they  begin a high stakes version of the puzzle-solving ciphering they did as kids for Jo and Bennett’s father. Sam always took that play seriously but now she may be in over her head. The mystery, set in the 1920s during Prohibition takes them to Ireland, where Jo is more interested in the pubs than the monastery in the country where they are to stay. Her sarcastic banter and love of fashion provides some lighter moments to counter the dangerous and frightening situations the teens face while trying to find an ancient relic to stop a world-threatening curse. This will make a great read-alike series for fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series.

Lynn:  This book was such a treat! Reading it was a welcome escape from the ongoing stresses of our current situation. Curse of the Specter Queen is packed with just the sorts of elements I relish most in a book: a smart book-loving but self-effacing and insecure heroine who finds her strengths, an ancient curse, a twisty plot full of mysterious clues, a great setting, and lots of red herrings! Who could want more? Besides the compelling plot, I thoroughly enjoyed the depictions of the long-time friends whose had friendship had foundered on misunderstandings and that of the bickering siblings. I can’t resist a book with ciphers and codes and this one delivered!

I appreciate the many books being published today that take on world-crushing issues and portray situations that have been historically oppressive. Those are badly needed. But we also need books that entertain, that lift us beyond difficult and challenging times. We need treats in our lives just as much as we need the meat. Curse of the Specter Queen is just such a treat for so many readers. Huzzah for Samantha Knox and her adventures to come.

 

City Spies – A Summer Blockbuster Film – I mean BOOK for Kids

Lynn: I love a good summer blockbuster whether it is a book or a movie and I know a lot of kids are right there with me on that notion. James Ponti’s new and totally entertaining book City Spies (S&S/Aladdin, 2020) will happily divert kids looking for a bit of a break from the summer heat.

This crazy romp is a series starter that should create fans of every reader. The initial premise – that MI6 has recruited a secret group of teen spies, all terrific talents—requires a leap of faith but once that jump is made the reader is off to the races. The story begins as a new member, an American girl just sentenced to juvenile detention for a well-intentioned hack into the foster care system, is added to the team. A fair amount of time is spent setting the stage and introducing the characters but a well-paced plot with increasing suspense keeps the story moving nicely. Settings include Scotland and Paris and both the Eiffel Tower and the Catacombs are part of the fun. Like most summer blockbusters, the action is non-stop and nail-biting.

Ponti gives readers an engaging diverse group of young teen characters, snappy dialog, and a dose of humor plus the addition of STEM topics that make this terrific fun. There is a definite cinematic feel to this one that I really enjoyed and readers like me will be eager to read the next installment.