Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Published by Heartdrum

Sisters of the Neversea: Smith, Cynthia L: 9780062869975: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  The story of Peter Pan gets an update featuring stepsisters Lily, who is Muscogee Creek, and Wendy, a white girl originally from England.  Lily’s mother is married to Wendy’s father, and they share a half-brother, 4-year-old Michael.  Mr. Darling has taken a new job in New York, while Lily’s mother plans to stay in Tulsa, and divorce is threatening to tear the family apart.  On the eve of Wendy’s departure, Peter Pan appears with a fairy named Belle, whisking Wendy and Michael away to Neverland.  Lily follows, and winds up connecting with a group of Native kids who live in hiding to escape Peter and his Lost Boys.  There are mermaids, more fairies (and lots of fairy dust), pirates (led by Pirate Queen Smee), and wild animals that Peter and his band are quickly hunting to extinction.  Wendy and Lily have to put aside their differences to figure out how to rescue everyone, and even Peter winds up a somewhat reformed character as the book winds up with a happily-ever-after ending.  Includes an author’s note that discusses the questions she had about the original story that led her to create this one.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The story manages to explore serious themes like colonialism, bullying, and the environment without losing any of the fairy tale fun.  The truth about the “bad” characters from the original story, the Indians and the pirates, turns out to be far more interesting and shows how storytelling can be misleading and result in harmful prejudices. 

Cons:  I’ve never read the original book and it’s been years since I saw the Disney movie, so I felt I wasn’t always appreciating all the details of the story.

Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young

Published by Heartdrum

Healer of the Water Monster: Young, Brian: 9780062990402: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Nathan thinks he’s in for a boring summer vacation staying with his Nali (grandmother) on the Navajo reservation.  Before long, though, he’s discovered his ability to see Holy Beings, creatures from Navajo lore that only children can see before going through puberty.  One of these creatures, Pond, is a water monster who has been poisoned by radiation.  Nathan is tasked with traveling to a different world to bring back medicine for his new friend, which will in turn save the reservation from a long drought.  Meanwhile, back in the human realm, his uncle Jet is battling his own demons since coming back from military service in Afghanistan.  Nali is trying to convince Jet to partake in a ceremony to begin his own healing, but Jet’s drinking and a demon that only Nathan can see make Jet resistant.  Both Nathan and his uncle are eventually able to successfully make their journeys, and although neither one turns out quite as anticipated, it’s clear that, in both cases, healing has begun.  Includes a Navajo glossary and an author’s note.  368 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Another compelling tale from Native imprint Heartdrum.  Nathan, who loves video games, doesn’t like sports much, and has his share of family and friend problems, is a kid many readers will relate to, and cheer for as he becomes the hero of his story.  It’s great to have another middle grade book with a contemporary Native setting, and fans of Rick Riordan’s books will enjoy the mix of realism and folklore.

Cons:  I was kind of bummed about the outcome of Pond’s story.

Long Distance by Whitney Gardner

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Long Distance: Gardner, Whitney, Gardner, Whitney: 9781534455665:  Amazon.com: Books
Long Distance: Gardner, Whitney, Gardner, Whitney: 9781534455658:  Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  When one of Vega’s dads gets a new job, the whole family packs up and moves from Portland to Seattle.  Vega’s so unhappy about leaving her best friend behind that her parents decide to send her to Camp Very Best Friend, where even the most introspective kids are guaranteed to find friends.  Camp turns out to be a pretty strange place, from the odd bus ride there to the weirdly peppy counselors, but Vega does actually find herself making some friends.  Good thing, too, because when she and some of the others start to make some disturbing discoveries about camp, they need to band together to figure out how to escape and make it safely home again.  Although the lessons are unexpected, Vega learns plenty about friendship during her unusual summer, and winds up with a lot more friends than she started with.  320 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  From the graphic novelist who brought you Fake Blood comes this fun summer read that celebrates friendship in all different forms. There’s some good suspense as the kids try to figure out what’s going on at camp, and a happy ending for all life forms. 

Cons:  Your kids may never want to go to summer camp again.

The Anti-Book by Raphael Simon

Published by Dial Books

The Anti-Book: Simon, Raphael: 9780525552413: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Mickey’s pretty miserable with his life since his parents divorced and each found a new partner, and his sister’s dating a bully who makes Mickey’s life miserable.  So when he sees an ad inside a pack of his favorite bubble gum for an “anti-book” he decides he has nothing to lose by ordering it.  The book comes with some pretty simple instructions: “To erase it, write it.”  Mickey starts writing the things he wants to erase: his parents, his sister, her boyfriend, just about everything about school…he wears down a pencil filling the Anti-Book.  When he wakes up the next morning, though, he discovers he has, in fact, erased his world.  Can he bring it all back?  Trying to erase what he wrote creates further havoc, and Mickey has to travel through his new alternate world with some unusual companions to figure out how he can save everyone…including himself.  320 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  This book reminded me a little of The Phantom Tollbooth, with a character traveling into a new world to learn some important lessons about himself.  The world building is fun and clever, and Mickey makes some discoveries that will resonate with a lot of kids his age.  A conversation with his sister in the final few pages about his uncertainty about his sexuality will undoubtedly resonate with some readers as well.

Cons:  I’m not a big fan of The Phantom Tollbooth, so while I can appreciate this book it’s not going to become a personal favorite .

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Published by Balzer + Bray

Amari and the Night Brothers (Supernatural Investigations, 1): Alston, B.  B.: 9780062975164: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Amari’s had a tough year after her beloved older brother has gone missing and she’s had to put up with constant bullying from being the only poor Black girl at her elite private school.  So when she receives a mysterious invitation to a summer camp at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she thinks she may have found a way to solve her school problems and, more importantly, find her brother.  Things take an unexpected turn when Amari learns she possesses a powerful magic that’s looked upon with suspicion by almost everyone at the Bureau.  Fortunately, she finds a few friends and allies who help her to channel her powers and help her uncover what’s happened to her brother.  Some unexpected twists toward the end leave things hanging enough for readers to be breathlessly anticipating book 2.  408 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Harry Potter and Rick Riordan fans will love this new series opener about another unlikely outsider who discovers her stronger-than-average magical powers at a school specializing in the supernatural.  

Cons:  Fantasy’s always kind of a slog for me, so I’m probably not be the best person to promote this book. Judging from the starred reviews in professional journals and on Amazon, though, I would say this series is a hit with fans of the genre.

Little Claws (Animal Rescue Agency, book 1) by Eliot Schrefer, illustrated by Daniel Duncan

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

Case File: Little Claws by Eliot Schrefer

Summary:  When a polar bear cub gets stranded on an ice floe, his anguished mother contacts the Animal Rescue Agency: the unlikely duo of Esquire Fox and her rooster partner Mr. Pepper.  The two head up to the Arctic, where they are pursued by a villainous man in a white hat and barely survive a series of narrow escapes.  With the help of various polar animals, they manage to outwit this man, rescuing the cub and reuniting him with his mother.  Back home in Colorado, Esquire posts the man’s picture on the wall of villains, surrounded by question marks that seem to indicate there will be other villains…and other books in the series.  Includes information about climate change and its threat to polar bears and a recipe for the mushroom jerky Esquire eats to curb her appetite for chickens.  176 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Like Eliot Schrefer’s books for older readers, this one mixes humor, adventure, and information about animals and the threats humans pose to them.  With plenty of illustrations, animal characters, and bantering dialog, this is sure to be a popular series with elementary readers.

Cons:  Obviously, it’s for a different audience, but I missed the awesome world building of Schrefer’s The Lost Rainforest series.

Five (okay, six) more favorite chapter books

I struggled to get this list down to five–the random magic number I have chosen for each of these lists. I couldn’t bear to remove any of them, though, so here are the six.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

The Blackbird Girls: Blankman, Anne: 9781984837356: Amazon.com: Books

There’s a lot to this book, and it’s probably not for every reader, but those who love historical fiction and strong girl characters will take Valentina and Oksana to heart as they form an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Chernobyl.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Only Black Girls in Town: Colbert, Brandy: 9780316456388: Amazon.com:  Books

Another outstanding friendship story featuring Alberta and Edie who are navigating mean girls, seventh grade, and a mystery that reveals the racism in their town’s history that has persisted to the present day.

96 Miles by J. L. Esplin

Published by Starscape

96 Miles: Esplin, J. L.: 9781250192288: Amazon.com: Books

I do not typically use the expression “holy cow” in a book review, but I did indeed do that when reviewing this gripping survival story that I read practically in one sitting.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung

Published by Levine Querido

The Boys in the Back Row: Jung, Mike: 9781646140114: Amazon.com: Books

This book struck just the right balance between funny middle school story and touching friendship story and made me realize how rare it is to find a middle-grade novel that celebrates boys’ friendships. As the cherry on top, it’s a love letter to marching band geeks like myself.

The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Mystwick School of Musicraft: Khoury, Jessica: 9781328625632: Amazon.com:  Books

I always feel a bit guilty that I don’t review more fantasy books; I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre. Once in awhile, though, I find a great one. I spent a few pleasant weeks this spring listening to Amelia Jones’s adventures at Mystwick on Audible and doing jigsaw puzzles. Despite 2020’s reputation, it has not been without its happy moments.

Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Published by Holiday House

Brother's Keeper: Lee, Julie: 9780823444946: Amazon.com: Books

I would not have predicted that a survival story featuring a brother and sister escaping from 1950 North Korea would have made it on to my list of favorite 2020 books, but look, here it is.

Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

Published by Random House Graphic

Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Amazon.com: Books
Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  When Effie is dropped off at her Aunt Selimene’s home in the middle of the night, neither one is happy about it.  But Effie has nowhere else to go, and Aunt Selimene is her only living relative.  Selimene’s partner Carlota makes Effie feel welcome, and within a few days everyone is feeling better about the situation.  Selimene and Carlota claim to be herbalists and acupuncturists, but Effie soon discovers they are actually witches.  Before long, her own magical powers emerge, although she has difficulty controlling them.  When celebrity singer Tily Shoo shows up needing the witches’ help, her #1 fan Effie gets in on the case as well.  It’s Effie who makes a key discovery that will help Tily Shoo reverse the curse that has been placed on her.  Things wrap up with a happy ending, but there’s a preview of book 2 at the end, and the author’s biography says she’s working on a trilogy.  240 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  A fun graphic novel for anyone who likes school and family stories with a touch of magic thrown in.  There’s a lot of action and many characters, but the pace is good and the characters are well-distinguished in the illustrations, making it easy to follow what’s going on.

Cons:  There’s not much told about Effie’s previous life or what happened to her mother.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman, illustrated by Tracy Nishimura Bishop

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The Silver Arrow - Kindle edition by Grossman, Lev. Children Kindle eBooks  @ Amazon.com.

Summary:  Kate’s life is basically satisfactory, but she sometimes feels like she’d like something more.  When her mysterious Uncle Herbert appears on the morning of her eleventh birthday with a full-size steam engine named The Silver Arrow, she begins to understand that what has been missing is adventure and a sense of purpose.  She and her younger brother Tom are sent on a journey around the world, picking up animals and transporting them to their natural habitats.  As they get to know the animals and learn about the trouble they’re in, Kate and Tom realize their job to protect their new friends will extend long beyond their train trip.  The journey proves difficult, and the two kids almost give up on it before it’s over, but in the end their persistence pays off.  They’re happy to get home safely, but Uncle Herbert assures them their adventures have just begun…potentially paving the way for a sequel.  272 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  This illustrated story hits the sweet spot for third and fourth graders, who will love the two kids, their adventures, and all the animals–and the train, which can communicate and becomes an important character as well.  The environmental message is nicely embedded into the story and could lead to some interesting discussions. This would make a great read-aloud or book club selection.

Cons:  Tracy Nishimura Bishop’s illustrations add a lot to the story, but she’s not credited on either the cover or the back flap.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese

Published by Henry Holt & Co.

A Game of Fox & Squirrels: Reese, Jenn: 9781250243010: Amazon.com ...

Summary:  Samantha and her older sister Caitlin have recently been moved from their parents’ home to live with their Aunt Vicky and her wife Hannah.  Although the reason is unclear at first, it has to do with Caitlin’s broken arm.  Caitlin seems happy to be there, but Sam misses her parents and her best friend and wants to go home.  When Aunt Vicky gives Sam her favorite card game, A Game of Fox & Squirrels, the characters begin to come to life for her.  Ashander the fox is charming and handsome, and promises her he’ll get her home if she can successfully complete a series of challenges before the next full moon.  Maple, Birch, and Cedar are three squirrels who help and encourage her.  Sam is eager to do what Ashander asks, but as the challenges continue, his rules start to change, and he begins to show a more frightening side.  Before long, Sam is in over her head, and isn’t sure where she belongs.  Aunt Vicky and Hannah are kind, and between bouts of homesickness, she starts to recall more troubling aspects of her life at home.  Ashander still holds out the promise of home, but is Sam willing to pay the price he is demanding?  224 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This seems to be the year for books that examine child abuse, and this one does it in a way that blends fantasy with reality.  Sam starts to see her father’s traits in Ashander, with just the right amount of tension bordering on horror.  I hope this will be considered for some awards.

Cons:  There’s a lot of inferencing required to understand what has happened to Sam and Caitlin; that along with the blurry line between reality and fantasy may be confusing for some readers.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.