Horizon (Book 1) by Scott Westerfeld

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Four kids from a robotics team are traveling to a competition in  Japan.  Disaster strikes, and the plane crashes, most of the passengers ripped through the ceiling before impact.  There are eight survivors:  the robotics team, plus four other kids.  Before crashing, each of the survivors experienced a jolt that felt like a mind probe.  Although the plane was flying over the Arctic Circle, it has landed in the middle of a tropical jungle.  Before long, the teens discover dangerous birds and vines, as well as a mysterious device that allows them to adjust gravity.  There is one adventure after another as they struggle to stay alive in the jungle and try to figure out where they are.  Could it be another planet?  The cliff-hanging ending assures a sequel, most likely more than one.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Strong, intelligent characters and a fast-moving, action-driven plot will make this a popular choice for many readers.

Cons:  Given the premise, I didn’t find this to have the page-turning excitement as I was expecting.

One Trick Pony by Nathan Hale

Published by Amulet Books

Summary:  Nathan Hale takes a break from his Hazardous Tales graphic novels (relax, he has a new one coming out in November) to create a futuristic science fiction story.  Much of Earth has been destroyed, and a small band of humans is trying to preserve what’s left of its culture and history.  They live in a caravan that has to constantly move to avoid the alien Pipers that travel in bubbles and devour any technology they can find.  At the beginning of the story, Strata, Auger, and Inby discover a cave filled with robots, including a robotic horse.  Activating the robots attracts the Pipers, and the three kids barely escape on the horse.  Their adventures have just begun as they struggle to return home, pursued by the aliens.  Meanwhile, the caravan has gotten wind of the new Piper activity.  There is a push to move on, but the parents of the three missing children don’t want to leave without them.  There are encounters with other groups of humans living in more primitive societies, and a final showdown when the aliens capture Strata and her horse.  The action comes to a quick finish, indicating that this is most likely a stand-alone story rather than the first of a series.  128 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Hale’s fans won’t be disappointed with this exciting adventure told with his trademark illustrations.  There is enough action to keep a 13-year-old engaged, yet it is mild enough to be appropriate for an 8-year-old.

Cons:  The defeat of the aliens seemed way too easy, and the ending was a little too pat.

Once Was a Time by Leila Sales

Published by Chronicle Books 

Summary:  10-year-old Charlotte lives in England in 1940.  She and her best friend Kitty love to hear Charlotte’s father talk about the work he does researching time travel.  As World War II intensifies, his work becomes more and more secretive, until one night Charlotte and Kitty are kidnapped by Nazis and taken to her father’s lab.  The Nazis threaten to shoot the two girls if her father doesn’t tell them the secrets of time travel.  At the last second, much to her amazement, Charlotte sees a time-travel portal like her father has described to her many times before.  She runs through it, and finds herself in 2013 Wisconsin.  Knowing she can never travel back to her original time, she does the best she can to make a new life for herself, but she never forgets about Kitty.  Just when she has given up all hope of ever finding her, she opens a library book and finds a postcard from an adult Kitty, which just might be the clue she needs to reconnect.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An enchanting mix of friendship story, historical fiction, and science fiction.

Cons:  Be prepared to suspend some disbelief for the time travel portions of the story..

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick

Published by The Blue Sky Press 

Summary: Charlie Cobb is enjoying an unusual display of the northern lights with the other townspeople of Harmony, New Hampshire, when a massive solar flare knocks out the power. Not even batteries work, so all vehicles and cell phones are gone.  The town has to come together to try to survive the cold and dark.  In the midst of the chaos, Charlie realizes his mom is almost out of her diabetes medication, and if he can’t find more, she may not survive.  Determined to save her, he sets off on a cross-country skiing trip to find a city that may have the prescription they need.  As the people of New Hampshire move into survival mode, their true colors start to be revealed, and a show-down between good and evil seems inevitable.  The final page describes solar flares in history and their potential for damage in the future. 192 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Charlie is a likable and resourceful character.  The suspense builds from the first few pages, with almost every chapter ending in a cliff-hanger.  Even reluctant readers will find this hard to put down.

Cons:  The villain, living on a well-armed compound complete with camouflage-clad sons and their subservient wives, seemed a bit out there.  Even for New Hampshire.

Under Their Skin by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Published by Simon and Schuster 

Summary: Nick and Eryn are surprised and dismayed to learn one morning that their mother is getting married to Michael, her boyfriend of two years. To add to the upheaval, their mother tells them they’re moving into a new house.  Then she drops the real bombshell—unbeknownst to the twins, Michael has two children, Jackson and Ava.  Nick and Eryn have never met these two, or even heard of their existence.  They’re further mystified when they learn that each set of twins will spend alternate weeks at the house, so that they will never see each other.  Mom and Michael plan to elope, so there will be no meeting at the wedding.  Nick and Eryn are determined to learn the truth about their mysterious stepsiblings, little realizing that the truth will change everything they thought they knew about themselves, their families, and the world.  311 pages; ages 10-14.

Pros:  Fans of Haddix’s other science fiction books won’t be disappointed as she sets up a mysterious situation that unravels into more and more bizarre and unsettling revelations.  As in past stories, two ordinary kids are inadvertently thrust into a situation in which they basically have to save the world.  A cliffhanger ending all but guarantees at least one sequel.

Cons:  The adults in the story all seem somewhat stiff, with forced conversational skills.  You’ll have to read about half the book to figure out why.

HiLo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

Published by Random House

Summary: At the beginning of this graphic novel, D.J. hears a loud boom and sees a huge flash of light. Rushing to investigate, he discovers a boy wearing silver underpants who remembers nothing about himself.  He’s pretty cheerful about his situation, though, and quickly acclimates by absorbing all of D.J.’s vocabulary when they touch hands. As the story unfolds, the boy, who eventually remembers his name is HiLo, turns out to have fallen to earth from another planet and has a powerful enemy chasing him. Subplots involve D.J. feeling like an underachiever in a family of superstars and his reunion with his old friend Gina who has moved back to town after a three-year absence. D.J., HiLo, and Gina manage to save the planet…for now. Grades 3-6.

Pros: A funny, action-packed first entry in a new series. The cliffhanger ending promises more installments to come. A good choice for reluctant readers.

Cons: A few too many suspenseful situations were resolved with the appearance of a new superpower HiLo didn’t know he had.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers 

Summary: Fifth-grader Tamaya and her seventh-grade neighbor Marshall always walk home from school together. One day Marshall, fearing he is about to be beat up by classroom bully Chad, tells Tamaya he knows a shortcut through the woods. Chad finds them anyway, and when he attacks Marshall, Tamaya scoops up some mud and throws it in Chad’s face. Unbeknownst to any of them, it’s “fuzzy mud” crawling with ergonyms created by an eccentric inventor looking to create a biofuel to replace gasoline for cars. The microscopic creatures multiply, slowly eating away the flesh on Tamaya’s hand and Chad’s face, and before long, an epidemic threatens their town. Sachar inserts Senate testimony on the disaster to give a larger perspective on the issue. Grades 4-8.

Pros: Michael Crichton for kids.  A real page-turning adventure, with several different layers, including questions about overpopulation, dangerous science, and doing the right thing. Readers will enjoy the fast-paced story and also find plenty to discuss.

Cons: While I love a happy ending, the denouement felt a little too quick and easy. On the plus side, I  got to use the word “denouement”.

Masterminds by Gordon Korman

Published by Balzer + Bray

Summary:  (323 pages)  The kids of Serenity, New Mexico know they are lucky to live there.  There’s no crime, subjects like meditation and contentment are taught at school, and everyone in town has their own swimming pool.  But one day Eli and his best friend Randy ride their bikes to the outskirts of town.  Eli, who’s never left town, becomes violently ill, and is immediately picked up by Serenity security guards.  Two days later, Randy is sent away, barely being allowed to say good bye to Eli.  Gradually, Eli and four of his classmates uncover a horrifying conspiracy carried out by all the adults in town, including their own parents.  Told in alternating voices by the five kids, Mastermind ends with a cliffhanger that promises at least one sequel.

Pros:  The kids go from “ignorance is bliss” to “trust no one” in 322 action-packed, plot-twisting pages.  The alternating points of view approach works well, as each character is flawed but immensely likeable.   There’s no one moment of revelation; instead, the kids individually and together uncover one clue at a time to put together the whole awful truth.

Cons:  Eli learns to drive on a stick shift truck with the whole town pursuing him?  You’ll have to suspend your disbelief once in a while to get through some of the narrow escapes.