Summary: Helga Sharp, an 11-year-old inventor, accidentally makes contact with Erasmus Lope, who’s been trapped on an island where “mad scientists” are exiled away from the mainland. When Helga is found unconscious on the island, she’s housed with a brother and sister who work as island guards, but who have a few secrets of their own. With the help of the sister’s robot butler, Helga gets to work trying to free Erasmus. The secrets of both Helga and the island characters are gradually revealed, as Helga carries out her mission and ultimately finds a new home on the island. 160 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: A fast-paced graphic novel with lots of fun characters and plenty of adventure. The end is somewhat open-ended, and readers will no doubt hope for a sequel to learn about what’s next for the plucky Helga.
Cons: There was a lot of world-building and plot to cram into 160 pages.
Summary: Sisters Abby (14), Emma (12), and Ollie (9) have been sent to Camp Unplugged for two weeks by parents who are frustrated by the girls’ constant fighting. The story opens with the three on a disciplinary hike with camp counselor Dana. When Dana leaves them briefly to scout the area, Abby decides to turn around and head back to camp. Soon the girls are lost and have to survive a series of life-threatening events, including Emma’s near-drowning, Abby’s bear attack, and Ollie’s ankle injury that makes walking nearly impossible. The story alternates among the three girls’ perspectives and switches between the past and present to gradually show the reader the difficulties a move to a new home has caused them and the ensuing cruel prank war that has driven them apart. Forced to work together to survive, the girls begin to realize that their differences are petty compared to the love they have for each other. Includes an author’s note about her own wilderness survival story that inspired this book. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Part survival adventure, part family story, this is a book that’s sure to appeal to a wide audience. Heidi Lang does a masterful job of weaving together the different points of view and slowly revealing how events and insecurities in the past have led the girls to their current dire situation.
Cons: I had to occasionally suspend my disbelief a bit, particularly in the miraculous rescue of Mr. Snuffles.
Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Summary: Ben Ripley has always dreamed of being a spy, but he’s still pretty shocked when he suddenly gets recruited to a school that’s secretly training young CIA operatives. The school is similar to a regular middle school in some ways: bad food, boring classes, and pompous administrators, but the attempted assassinations and hidden bombs put a new spin on things. It appears that someone has brought Ben to the school for their own nefarious purposes but trying to figure out who that is and why proves to be both challenging and dangerous. Fortunately, Ben is aided by Erica, the smartest (and coolest) girl in the school. The enemy is foiled at last, but a letter at the end promises a sequel, and fans of the non-graphic Spy School series know that Ben’s adventures are just beginning. 296 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: There are already legions of Spy School fans, and the graphic novel will undoubtedly recruit many more. I haven’t read the original, so I don’t know how this compares, but there’s plenty of action and humor which is always a winning combination for upper elementary and middle school.
Cons: The artwork lacked much background detail and was a bit flat.
Summary: “Escape (verb) – To avoid a threatening evil”: that’s the definition given on the title page. Each spread has another verb–cling, defy, swim–with a story of refugees escaping danger. Yusra and Dara Mardini cling to their boat as they escape from Syra; Yusra goes on to swim for the Refugee Olympic Team in 2016. Chinese diplomat Dr. Feng Shan Ho defies orders and issues over 4,000 visas to Jews escaping Germany during World War II. Chan Hak-chi and Li Kit-hing swim for six hours through shark-infested waters in a typhoon to make it from mainland China to Hong Kong. Each story is accompanied by a somewhat abstract illustration showing the escape. Includes Articles 13 and 14 from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a link for more information. 40 pages; grades 2 and up.
Pros: Each story is brief and compelling, making it a gripping read-aloud for older elementary or middle school kids. The brief text, abstract illustrations, and even slightly mysterious authors (identical twins known simply as Ming & Wah) add an air of suspense that is perfect for the topic.
Cons: I definitely wanted to know where I could find out more information about every one of the stories.
Summary: A whitewater rafting trip turns into a survival nightmare for five middle school students when a dam breaks and they barely escape the floodwaters. With their adult leaders gone, the group breaks into two factions, starting a war over who will lead until they are rescued. When this conflict results in tragedy, the kids realize they have to put aside their differences if they are going to survive. Facing wild animals, injuries, and a dwindling food supply, they learn each others’ secrets and vow that their friendship will last if and when they are rescued. Includes tips for surviving in the wilderness. 193 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: The short chapters, non-stop action, and cliffhanger chapter endings will keep even the most reluctant readers engaged. Narrator Daniel’s secret about his father’s mental illness adds an interesting dimension to his character.
Cons: Due to the short length of the book and the focus on the action, the characters weren’t all that well-developed, particularly Tony, who had a pivotal role in the story.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Nora and her dad are going for a hike on her birthday. It’s the first time they’ve gone hiking since her mother was killed by a gunman exactly a year ago when the family was celebrating Nora’s birthday at a restaurant. Her father was also injured, but the greater trauma to both of them was psychological. Nora’s ready to return to school, but her dad’s afraid to let her out of his sight. The two of them argue about it as they start their hike; seconds later, there’s a rumbling sound, and a flash flood sweeps into the canyon, washing her father away. Nora’s left on her own to survive two nights in the desert, battling snakes, scorpions, heat, thirst, and her own demons. Determined to find and rescue her dad, Nora draws on inner resources and discovers she is stronger than she’s believed for the past year. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Warning: once you pick up this novel in verse, it’s hard to put down. It’s equal parts survival tale and a story of healing from a horrific trauma, told in flashbacks as Nora grapples with nightmares and other reminders of her mother’s murder. Although it may not sound so from this description, this is a book appropriate for upper elementary kids, who will undoubtedly find it as difficult to put down as I did.
Cons: If you’re seeking a little light reading, you should probably look elsewhere.
Summary: “Dad always said if things get desperate, it’s okay to drink the water in the toilet bowl.” When we meet John and his younger brother Stew, they are indeed scooping water out of a toilet; things have obviously gotten desperate. Their father is away on a business trip, and the power grid over much of the U.S. has been out for weeks. Dad is a bit of a survivalist, but unfortunately his reputation was well-known. When some unsavory neighbors learned the boys were on their own, their food and water supplies were stolen one night. Now they’re stocking up on toilet water to make a 96-mile hike through the Nevada desert to the one place they know of that might save them. Another pair of siblings, Cleverly and Will, who are also trying to stay alive, find them in the bathroom. Stew convinces a reluctant John to let them come along, and the four of them start out. For reasons that are not clear until well past the halfway point of the book, they have to make the trip in three days, and even John and Stew’s survivalist training may not be enough to get all four of them safely to their destination. 272 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: Holy cow! Once I got about a third of the way through, nothing would do but to read all the way to the end. Unlike many survival stories, the situations felt fairly realistic, as did the knowledge the kids had. The characters were interesting and reasonably well-developed, and the pace did not let up from page one until the very end.
Cons: I had a very unproductive Saturday morning, thanks to this book.
Published by Greenwillow Books (Released September 1)
Summary: Vega and her orca family live in the waters near land, taking care of each other and hunting for the salmon that sustains them. Vega is learning to be a wayfinder, taught by her mother and grandmother in the matriarchal orca society. When an earthquake and tsunami separate the family, Vega must keep herself and her younger brother Deneb safe. They wind up in a much deeper part of the ocean, where they discover sights and creatures they have never seen before. A harrowing journey back to their home reunites them with a couple of family members and gives them hope that they may find the rest of their kin some day. Includes maps; facts about orcas; the real orcas who inspired the story; and additional information about salmon, the various habitats in the story, earthquakes and tsunamis, and how to help the orcas (not seen by me in the advanced review copy I got). 336 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: Another fascinating animal adventure by the author of A Wolf Called Wander, probably my top book club book in 2019. Readers will learn a lot about the orcas and their ocean environment, as well as the threat humans pose to them. I was sorry not to get to see Lindsay Moore’s illustrations (who is oddly not credited on the cover), which I’m sure are beautiful based on her work in Sea Bear.
Cons: I found myself struggling a bit to get through this book, although it is beautifully written and has plenty of action. I hope I’ll get to try it out on kids soon to see if they enjoy it as much as Wander.
Summary: Princess Shuri, sister of T’Challa the Black Panther, is gifted in all things technological and wants to use her talents to help Wakanda. She feels that her mother and brother don’t appreciate her and treat her like a child. So when she discovers that the powerful heart-shaped herb is dying, then has a vision of an evil invading Wakanda, she feels compelled to act. When her family doesn’t take her warnings seriously, Shuri takes matters into her own hands, escaping with her friend and protector K’Marah to travel to Kenya and London in search of assistance. Their return to Wakanda coincides with the invasion, and Shuri is able to use some of her innovative technology to stop it and to show her family what she is capable of. 272 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: My experience with another middle grade Black Panther novel makes me pretty confident that this will be an easy sell. It’s an action-packed ride with a strong, smart girl protagonist, and characters that may be familiar to readers from the movie or comic books.
Cons: The queen seemed unnecessarily obnoxious to her daughter, not appreciating Shuri’s considerable gifts, and focusing too much on her clothes and social skills.
Summary: 13-year-old Hannah’s only babysat once before, so she’s a little nervous about looking after her neighbors Zoe and Oscar while their mom goes on an errand to mainland Washington. During her absence, there’s a major earthquake, and Hannah must figure out how to survive and take care of her two charges. Their island neighborhood is cut off from help, and the broadcasts they get from their emergency radio make them think their parents might be hurt or worse. For four days, Hannah has to cope with major injuries, diminishing food and water, a gas leak, a bear, and her own asthma as she tries to keep everyone alive and wait for help. Hannah has sometimes felt overshadowed by her more outgoing best friend, but in an emergency, she discovers reserves of strength and resourcefulness that she never knew she had. Includes an author’s note with more information about earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. 304 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Anyone who enjoys a gripping survival story will find this hard to put down. The situations and the kids’ responses to them are believable, and readers will pick up a few survival tips of their own.
Cons: The title and cover didn’t really draw me in.