Walden Pond Press
2017 National Book Award long list
Nine kids, each a year apart in age from roughly 3 to 12, live alone on an island. Each year a green boat emerges from the mist to bring a new inhabitant and take away the oldest into the unknown. For time unknown, the children have accepted that this is the way of things and gone when their time came. The book opens with Jinny’s best friend Deen hopping in the boat even as she begs him to stay on the island with her. What’s the worst that could happen if they broke the mysterious rules none of them understand but everyone follows anyway? Deen sails away, leaving Jinny as the oldest, the Elder, leader of the other kids and caregiver to the newest islander, Ess. Wracked by feelings of inadequacy in raising Ess and fear of what awaits her off the island, Jinny breaks tradition and challenges the sky to fall on her, as their island’s nursery rhyme claims will happen if the rules aren’t followed. The island slowly starts to change, but it’s unclear if Jinny’s defiance is the cause and whether sending her away will solve their problems or make them worse.
The whole beautiful story is an obvious allegory for growing up, complete with a first period scene. Adolescence is the green boat that eventually comes for us all, to take us away from our wild childhoods and into the unknown. There’s no resolution to why the children are on the island or what happens to them when they leave, which could drive some readers crazy. The ambiguity has only forced me to keep thinking about it more, even days after I finished the book.
Starting from chapter 18, the first chapter in the book, it’s clear that Jules is a young woman with a particular set of skills. We quickly find out that, like Liam Neeson, one of those skills is kicking people’s asses. But what else is Jules capable of? Impersonation? Theft? Fraud? Murder? Her intense friendship with wealthy college drop-out Imogene takes Jules on an International journey to the playgrounds of the rich – New York, London, Mexico, the Caribbean, San Francisco, Martha’s Vineyard – to cover her tracks and claim what chance handed her a shot at – a life among the rich and careless. Similarly to her last YA novel We Were Liars, with Genuine Fraud E. Lockhart plays with time and tests your assumptions about young adult books are and can be.
Reviewed from advanced readers edition; art not seen
Human-animal hybrids called “groundlings” are second-class citizens in this Dickensian tale of a one-eared, humanoid fox named 13, growing up in misery and forced slavery at Miss Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures. With only a scrap of blanket and a key to hint at his past, 13 dreams of finding his roots, if only he could escape the orphanage. Escape he does and he takes off to the big city where his escapades with a gang of jolly groundling thieves alerts him to a plot to steal all the music from the world, a plot that takes him through an underground world and leads him right back to Miss Carbunkle and her henchmen in the orphanage. The Wonderling offers plenty of substance for talking about classism, bigotry, and resistance of power. The world is well constructed and the Victorian steampunk atmosphere charms. While not everything is resolved happily in the end, the final chapters are peppered with eye-roll-worthy platitudes.
Animal fantasy read-alike
Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy
Elon Musk and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
You may know Elon Musk as the boundary-pushing leader of tech companies SpaceX and Tesla, but how did he get there? The young reader’s edition of Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk takes middle grade readers from his childhood in South Africa to his immigration to Canada and later the U.S. to his success as an Internet millionaire to his quest to save humanity through technology. In a world where adults are increasingly concerned about children’s ability to take risks and tolerate failure, there’s no better role model than Musk. His companies and his personal life have swung from the brink of ruin and nearly miraculous accomplishment, but even in the lowest points, he remained undeterred from his lofty goals. The advances his teams of engineers make for inspiring STEM-related reading. Beware the first chapter, which focuses on a dinner the author had with Musk, an episode that may have held some interest in the adult version of the book but that makes a dull opening for kids. Please push through – or even just skip – the first chapter and be rewarded with a story that is sure to inspire.
The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid
Colin Meloy, illustrations by Carson Ellis
Balzer + Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins
Reviewed from Advanced Reader’s Edition; all art not seen
When his divorcee mother decides to chase her dreams, Charlie is sent to Marseille in southern France to live with his father who serves as the American consul general there. Largely left to his own devices and bored of the high society parties his father drags him to, Charlie takes up with a group of young pickpockets known as the Whiz Mob. These aren’t any pickpockets though; they are highly trained career criminals working under the guidance of someone they call the Headmaster. Charlie is fascinated with the mob’s jargon (there’s a glossary in the back matter), their sketchy cafe hideout, and impeccable costumes that let them pull off elaborate grifts. Despite his lack of training, they take Charlie under their wing, but when Charlie’s best friend in the mob goes AWOL, it sets off events that leave Charlie choosing between his family and his friends. The story is set in the 1960’s but has a timeless feel. Challenging vocabulary and the Lemony-Snicket-esque narrator’s asides, seemingly addressed to adults, left me questioning what audience this book is meant for (publisher suggests grades 3-7). Nonetheless, more sophisticated middle-grade readers may be sucked in by the suspense, humor, and novelty of a gang of international children of mystery and will appreciate the mid-book plot twist, if they make it that far.
Child criminal read alikes
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
Loot by Jude Watson
Some Kind of Happiness
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
When Finley’s parents need some time alone to work things out – i.e., decide if they are getting a divorce – they send her to Hart House, meticulously kept and ruled over by her paternal grandparents and host to aunts, uncles, and cousins constantly dropping in. The catch is Finley has never met her dad’s side of the family, from whom he has been estranged since he was young for reasons unknown to Finley. Finley hides a secret of her own; she suffers from some sort of mental illness, most likely anxiety and depression though it is never diagnosed in the course of the book. The only thing that keeps her afloat is a notebook in which she writes lists and stories about the Everwood, an imaginary place that becomes much more real when Finley steps into the woods behind Hart House. She and some of her cousins start to assume roles – queen, knight, squires – from Finley’s stories, but there’s another family in those woods. The Bailey boys become the Harts’ playmates, the pirates to their royalty, but they are soon forbidden by the Hart grandparents from seeing each other due to some mysterious family feud. Finley’s mental condition worsens – the family sends her to a therapist – as she rebels against her grandparents while also growing quite close to them. Secrets continue to swirl around an arson, an illness, a divorce, a midnight party, and it all comes to a head on a rainy night in the woods. Can the Hart family and their reputation survive a summer in the Everwood?
I liked the book and it was particularly remarkable for its treatment of Finley’s mental illness. This isn’t a problem novel. Her mental illness is not the plot. It’s a complication to her relationship with her family and herself. Her depression and anxiety is not cured or even truly managed in the end, but in the final chapter she acknowledges it to her therapist and family, mercifully avoiding preachiness or an overly dramatic or didactic ending.
Claire Legrand wrote one of my favorite children’s horror books, and this was nothing like it, which is great! While I would love for her to recreate the creeps from her first novel, it’s nice to read a favorite author who stretches their talent to a variety of genres.
Family drama read-alikes
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds
Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
When Deja starts 5th grade at a new school near her destitute family’s one-room apartment in Brooklyn, her guard is up so firmly that it seems no one can reach her. Then some friendly classmates and a string of school assignments that hint at a great tragedy – September 11 – start to break down her defenses. As she digs for more information on 9/11, the reach of the effects of the tragedy, now 15 years in the past, become ever more apparent. It all culminates in the realization that her father was working at the World Trade Center on that day. Addressing issues of homelessness, racism, acceptance, and friendship, this book should be a home run for middle grade fiction, but the delivery falls flat. Unlike her bold handling of Hurricane Katrina in Ninth Ward, Rhodes approaches September 11 with a timidity that shows a lack of trust in her middle-grade audience. Confusing phrasing, unrealistic dialogue, and Deja’s inexplicable cluelessness about 9/11 prevent deep investment in the story. If you can make it to the final pages, Deja’s father’s description of escaping the burning tower is a welcome reward. Otherwise this book seems to be written for adults who are afraid to approach the topic of 9/11 with children, making it potentially useful for teachers but a disappointingly lackluster read.
More books about 9/11 and the World Trade Center
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein (I once unintentionally talked to 1st graders about 9/11 using this book)
Fireboat by Maira Kalman
The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon