The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky

Six kid geniuses from around the world science their way home from space. 

The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie SlivenskyThe Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky. Harper, 2017.
Meet Miranda Regent, girl genius from Ohio.  At least her little sister thinks she’s smart enough to earn a place on the Mars Mission in this nearish-future science fiction.  Society is just recovering from a decade-long world war over asteroid mineral rights.  Now, it’s been decided to start rebuilding international relations with a Mars mission staffed by people young enough not to remember the war – twelve-year-olds.  They are being selected through international competitions, and will train for eight years before the big space flight.

Miranda’s dream of a place on the team comes true – but instead of her best friend and rival Sasha, from Russia, also being on the team, snotty Anna from Austria is chosen instead.  The team also has representatives from Peru, Pakistan, Japan, and Kenya, all meeting to train on a base in Antarctica.

On the way there, Miranda and some of the other kids are attacked.  There are lots of vague warnings and narrowly-escaped bombs.  Who could be behind them?  Plus, Miranda was of course used to being the smartest – but among the very brightest the world has to offer, she’s feeling slow, worried that she was chosen just for being American and not for her brains.  Will she ever make friends on the team, or will her homemade robot pal Ruby be her only friend?

Things come to a head when what was supposed to be a dry, practice launch winds up with the kids in space in an unfinished shuttle.  With communications cut off, it will be up to the kids – and Ruby – to science their way home again.

The book is filled with lots of real science, plus plenty of intrigue and politics both international and interpersonal.  It’s sure to please everyone from middle grade to adult.

Mars is the place to be these days!  See my recent review of the (also excellent) Last Day on Mars for a list of more middle grade fiction set on and around Mars.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

This book is nominated for the Cybils.  I was going to read it anyway, because of being the sequel to The JumbiesAlso, the awesome cover.  Also, Tracey Baptiste was willing to pose with my sock-in-progress at Kidlitcon 2015.

Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey BaptisteRise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste. Algonquin, 2017.
Now that everyone on her island knows that Corinne is part jumbie, life has settled into a new normal, which is that no one wants to buy the oranges she’s selling, even if they are the best.  At least she and her friends were able to defeat her evil aunt Severine – or were they?  When multiple children go missing near water, Corinne and her friends Dru, Bouki and Malik wonder if Severine could have escaped.  But the only being who might be able to help them is Mama D’Leau, a powerful and reliably tricksy water spirit.  Her help doesn’t come free – and soon the four children and four of Mama D’Leau’s mermaids (beautiful and brown-skinned, of course) are swimming to West Africa to find a treasure Mama D’Leau mislaid a few hundred years earlier.

I enjoyed The Jumbies and its exploration of the folklore of Trinidad.  But this one took that and mixed it in with some comparisons with the traditional religion of West Africa, the legacy of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade on both sides of the ocean, and the ties that bind family and friends together even in the face of major disagreements for a story that added whole new layers of depth, all within a fast-paced adventure. I was hooked.  I bet the kids in your life will be, too.

This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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Felix Yz

Felix Yz by Lisa BunkerFelix Yz by Lisa Bunker. Viking, 2017.
Thirteen-year-old Felix was just a toddler sitting on his scientist father’s lap when an experiment exploded.  His father died, while Felix’s consciousness was fused with that of an alien, whom they call Zyx.  Having an alien in his body makes Felix look severely retarded – his body moves uncontrollably and he often can’t make his words come out coherently.  This makes him an easy target for bullying.  Inside, though, his thoughts are buzzing.  He has deep conversations with Zyx on the nature of life.  He loves to draw comics and has a serious crush on a super cute boy at school, Hector, who is African-American.

Felix lives with his mother, who has dated both men and women since his father died, but is currently dating a man who is very interested in chess.  Zyx, it turns out, is also very interested in the beautiful patterns of a chess game.  Felix’s sister, Beatrix, is a classical musician, while his grandparent, Grandy, spends three days a week as a male named Vern, three as a female named Vera, and one day a week locked in zer room meditating and contemplating existence.  I especially appreciated that while Grandy dresses and speaks differently depending on the day, all version of zer personality enjoy knitting.

Things cannot continue as they have been, though.  Zyx being fused with Felix means that Felix isn’t growing as he should.  Doctors and Zyx are convinced that unless they try to separate them, Felix will soon die.  The procedure they have planned, though, has a very low chance of success, and Felix is understandably nervous and counting down the days.

I am very torn about this book.  On the plus side, I sincerely liked Felix as a character.  My son’s middle school literature class has in the past let kids choose from a variety of books with main characters with disabilities, and Felix – well, I guess he really does have a disability with Zyx, though his mind underneath is just fine. That could really help kids think about what might be under the surface of other people with disabilities they meet.  Grandy was a very interesting character, but seemed over-the-top, even to the trans friend I talked to about it.  (though granted, she didn’t read the book herself.)  I ended up feeling frustrated with romance, which built very, very slowly to one kiss on the cheek and then fizzled out.  Really?  In 2017, we can’t have a same-sex romance for middle schoolers that ends with them at least comfortable holding hands?  I know at that age, relationship may not often last long at all, but I don’t think it would have played out this way in a hetero relationship.  The book also had lots and lots of contemplation on the beauty of threeness and life slowing down the plot, such that it felt like it would take a very patient and character-oriented kid reader to make it through the book.  I could be wrong – this might appeal to the same people who made Wonder so popular.  In short, an intriguing book that I’m just not quite sure of the audience for.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse and #NotYourPrincess

Here are two books celebrating the Native American/Aboriginal experience – one that finally made its way to the top of my reading list, and one new book that the teen librarian kindly purchased for me after I told her how excited Debbie at American Indians in Children’s Literature was about it.  (Here’s her review of In the Footsteps of Crazy Horsetoo.)

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph MarshallIn the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III. Amulet Books, 2015.
Jimmy is a Lakota boy, growing up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, where the author lives in real life.  He’s teased by both Lakota and white kids because of the light hair and blue eyes he inherited from his White father – he doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.  Hearing about this, his Grandpa Nyles tells him about Crazy Horse, who was also lighter than his peers.  They go on a road trip visiting many of the sites important in Crazy Horse’s life.  At each one, Grandpa Nyles tells Jimmy stories of Crazy Horse at the appropriate period of his life, from boyhood to becoming a battle leader and finally betrayed.

It is rare and important to have books from a modern-day Native perspective, especially one that covers both living on a reservation and not matching the stereotypes.  It’s told in short sentences that feel poetic rather than simplistic.  They resonate deeply and echo the oral storytelling tradition.  That could make it work very well as a classroom read-aloud.  The whole thing is quite short for a middle grade novel, and with lots of bloody battle scenes in Grandpa Nyles’s stories (even though he makes it clear that atrocities are atrocious no matter who commits them,) this is one that I could see giving to my own son or any other reader who likes action and is intimidated by longer books.  But really, there are so few books with this perspective that this needs to be widely read and discussed.

#NotYourPrincess ed. by Charleyboy and Leatherdale#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. Annick Press, 2017.
Many, many Native American and Aboriginal women from the U.S. and Canada, from teen to older adult, contributed to this beautiful book.  Original art – painting, drawing, photography – is paired with poetry and reflections.  There is a reflection on the myth behind the name “Winona” in sequential art.  There are portraits and captures of Twitter and Instagram movements in support of Native women.  There are memories of the residential schools and of dropping out of modern public schools, and then finding a way to thrive despite abuse and prejudice.  It is being sold as a teen book, though it is equally relevant to adults.  This is a powerful and beautiful reflection of the women who created it.

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Last Day on Mars

It’s time to pay a visit to Mars with this exciting Cybils-nominated science fiction title.

Last Day on Mars by Kevin EmersonLast Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson. Harper Collins Children’s, 2017.
As the story opens, a beautiful blue alien scientist sets up an observatory on Mars, with some fond thoughts about humans, and then is murdered.

Much later, former residents of Earth have established a colony on Mars as a stepping stone to leaving the solar system.  The sun is expanding to the point where life on Earth is no longer possible, and very soon now, it will take over Mars as well.

Our guide to this is Liam, a twelve-year-old who was raised on Mars.  (His parents have told him he has ancestors from four different continents on Earth, but he doesn’t see why this is such a big deal as he considers himself Martian.) Departure is scheduled for just days away, and he and his friends Phoebe and Shawn are having a hard time seeing the need to cooperate with school in the meantime.  Their parents are all scientists working on critical terra-forming for the eventual home planet, racing against time as the sun gets larger and the need to leave grows ever more urgent.

Liam’s teen-aged sister Mina is set to board the big colony ship a day or so ahead of Liam.  She gives him – just temporarily until they’re together again and she can give it to her boyfriend – a radio signal necklace that pairs with one that she has.  This turns out to be critically important as the stakes get higher, with lava tunnels exploding just for a start.  There are daring chase scenes, dastardly villains, quite startling plot twists, and a friendly robot butler.  I’m not going to say too much more here – just go read the book.  You’re welcome.

There have been so many great middle books about Mars!  Here are a few I’ve enjoyed:

Standard disclaimer: This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the committee.

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Journey across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst

I was so excited when an author from my Top 10 Fantasy Authors I’ve Never Read list popped up on the Cybils nominations this year!  Sarah Beth Durst writes mostly YA – I understand this is her first middle grade novel.

Journey Across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth DurstJourney across the Hidden Islands by Sarah Beth Durst. Clarion Books, 2017.
In a fantasy kingdom with a mix of mostly Asian cultures live twelve-year-old twin princesses Ji-lin and Seika.  Seika, the eldest, will be empress of the Hidden Islands when their father passes.  Following tradition, Ji-lin, the younger, has been trained by the winged lions who are their partners to be her sister’s guardian.  Her personal partner in this is the young and very enthusiastic winged lion Alejan (whose name I kept wanting to pronounce as a nickname for Alejandro, certainly not what the author intended!) After a full year apart for this training, Ji-lin and Seika are finally allowed to see each other again – only to be sent on the great journey across the Hidden Islands to visit the dragon who maintains the barrier that keeps the islands hidden from the outside world and protected from koji, the giant monsters that plague the rest of the world.

As they travel, they learn that earthquakes have been increasing in number and severity, and there are more and more trouble with the koji that the barrier is supposed to keep out.  When they rescue Kirro, a boy from the empire the Hidden Islands escape from centuries ago, they know that the barrier must be failing indeed.  But as they compare stories, they have to wonder whose stories are true, and how much safety is worth.

This is an exciting adventure with three great lead characters.  I appreciated a culture that felt very traditional but still didn’t balk at having girls inherit both the major roles in the kingdom.  And for all the battles with monsters, there are some deep questions underlying the story.  My only hesitation here was with the mix of cultures – do they combine to form their own unique culture, or would someone coming from an Asian perspective experience this as just a random mishmash?  I don’t have that perspective, so I can’t say for sure.  I did enjoy reading fantasy with Asian-inspired protagonists, and I enjoyed Ji-Lin, Seika and Alejan and their adventures for their own sake as well.  Give this to any kid in search of a good fantasy adventure!

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflect my own opinion, not that of the committee.

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Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley

It’s all Cybils all the time for me right now – except for this book, which I read just as the Cybils nomination period was opening in the expectation that it would be nominated, because Circus Mirandus had been so very popular (link to a review at Views from the Tesseract, as it looks like I never reviewed it.)  Every year I start doing this, and every year, like this, I read some that end up not getting nominated, like this one.  I’m still glad to have read it.

Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley. Dial Books, 2017.
Blue Montgomery (a boy, unlike Blue Sargent) comes from a family where pretty much everyone has either a curse or gift.  Blue’s father has the gift of always winning, which has led to an exciting career in car racing.  Blue, though, always loses.  Not just loses, but loses spectacularly – like a deer running out of the forest and knocking him down if he might be close to winning a race with another kid.

Now, though, Blue’s dad is dropping him off at the home of a grandmother he’s never met, at a house in rural Georgia near the Okefenokee Swamp.  There’s a legend that anyone in the family could have a chance for a new destiny if they’re able to find the alligator they’ve named Munch in the swamp under a blood red moon, and the old house is soon crowded with extended family members hoping for a chance.

Tumble Wilson’s family has decided, much to her chagrin, to leave their shiny red camper and settle in an old house that just happens to be down the road from Blue’s grandmother.  Tumble sees herself as a hero in training, always carrying her emergency backpack filled with supplies recommended by her hero, Maximal Star. But slowly, she comes to realize that every rescue attempt she’s ever made has ended in her needing to be rescued herself.

We the readers know that the magic is real, even though Tumble doesn’t believe it when Blue tells her, because their stories are interwoven with short reflections from the point of view of the alligator, a being with quite a different perspective.  This is a nice balance of magical and the realistic – the scenes of the swamp at night are vivid and magical, but Blue and Tumble both learning to be friends and to accept their limitations are just as important to the story. Both of them develop their relationships with their families as well as their friendship. And while destinies may be changed through magic, it’s realistic enough not to fix things like a father who doesn’t know what to do with a son so very different from himself.  With plenty of humor to balance the heartache, this is a book to appeal to a broad range of kids.

Read more excellent fantasy set in the swamp with Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes and The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp by Kathi Appelt.

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Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh

Here’s a super-creepy book by We Need Diverse Books founder Ellen Oh for those who want to hang on to that Halloween feeling. Or maybe just like reading stories of haunted houses.

Spirit Hunters by Ellen OhSpirit Hunters by Ellen Oh. HarperCollins, 2017.
Harper is unhappy.  She doesn’t like that her family has moved to a D.C. suburb from New York City, where she could get good bagels and had a therapist who was helping her try to recover some memories she’s missing. She hates that she has missing memories.  She hates that her older sister, Kelly, blames her for everything unpleasant in their life. She hates the old house they’ve moved into, way too hot in her bedroom and unpleasantly cold in her little brother Michael’s, even though the air conditioning isn’t working.

I might have expected not to like Harper, what with her journaling lists of things that she hates alternating with regular chapters.  But it’s clear from the beginning that Harper is right to be concerned about her new house – starting when Michael’s new but invisible friend Billy knocks Michael’s ice pop out of his hands because there isn’t one for Billy.  And as Harper starts to remember more of her own past, it’s clear that things have been going wrong about her for a long, long time.

Harper is also not one to just sit around complaining.  She makes friends with a neighbor girl, Dayo, whose mother shares her delicious baking and Jamaican cooking with Harper.  Even though Dayo can’t see any ghosts, she’s heard that Harper’s house is haunted and encourages Harper to find out what exactly is going wrong as things escalate to the point that Harper winds up in the hospital with stitches, not for the first time.  Harper will need to reconnect with the Korean grandmother her own mother cut off contact with five years earlier, and find the courage to fight against increasingly violent ghosts in the face of her immediate family’s doubt.

The ghosts here were creepy enough that I started thinking I maybe shouldn’t be reading this at bedtime (I am a wimp with this sort of thing), and the plot took some pleasantly unexpected turns.  At the same time, Harper goes through a lot of personal growth, learning to make a real friend and reconnecting with her family.  There are also some short but moving scenes of characters dealing with prejudice.  This could be a good one for fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series – it is a notch scarier than A Properly Unhaunted Place.  I loved it anyway.

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Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth

Back to Cybils-nominated books with a whimsical adventure with an alien, from the author of the updated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang books.

Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell BoyceSputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Harper Collins Children’s 2017.
Prez Mellows lives his life by lists, both the lists of advice given to him by his grandfather and lists he’s made to help his increasingly forgetful grandfather remember things. The chapter headings of the book are taken from a list of things he wants to tell his grandfather about – something that looks like a shopping list, but isn’t.

But Prez isn’t with his grandfather now.  He’s in Temporary Care, living with a crazy family with three kids of their own on a farm called Stradmoddie outside of Dumfries, Scotland.  He doesn’t know what’s happened to his grandfather or why it seemed such a big deal that he was perhaps doing more taking care of his grandfather than the other way around, and as a reaction to this, hasn’t been talking.  (I went through a period of not talking during middle school myself, so I could relate.)

At dinner one night on the farm, Prez hears the doorbell ring – there isn’t a doorbell, and no one else hears it, so Prez answers.  There is an alien who introduces himself as Sputnik Mellows.  Sputnik looks like a dog (their favorite kind) to other people, while to Prez, he appears to be a boy about his own age wearing goggles and a kilt.  He’s there to work with Prez to come up with reasons that Earth isn’t mythical and irrelevant, to explain to an intergalactic board why Earth shouldn’t be demolished.

Meanwhile, Sputnik tries to be helpful to Prez in ways that only make sense to his alien way of thinking.  Early in Prez’s stay, for example, his youngest foster sister has a birthday.  Prez needs a gift, but there’s no time to go to the store and he hasn’t any money in any case.  He digs an old toy light saber out of his backpack to give to her, and Sputnik offers to repair it.  But instead of just fixing the telescoping plastic part, Sputnik turns it into a real functioning light saber, with hilarious and disastrous results among the unsupervised six-year-olds in the back yard.  Efforts to find and rescue Prez’s grandfather are similarly madcap, if slightly more poignant.

I loved the whimsy and the depth in this book.  So many recent books for kids seem to be exploring the Beauty of Sorrow by showing kids deal with the grief of losing a sibling or a parent.  I have very little patience for this.  Here, the issue is a much more realistic dealing with the grief of a grandparent with memory loss, and I didn’t feel that the loss itself was glorified.  Instead, we’re exploring what things are worth trying to hold on to and remember, including a sense of humor.  It’s also challenging to find books written from a foster child’s point of view – the only other contemporary middle grade spec fic title I could think of is Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, while Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin includes a foster kid as a major character.  Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is hilarious and deep, and highly recommended for kids and adults.

This book has been nominated for a Cybils award.  These opinions are my own, and do not reflect that of the committee.

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Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis.

Quick break for another pre-Cybils review, a charming Regency fantasy-romance, with strong underpinnings.

Snowspelled by Stephanie BurgisSnowspelled. The Harwood Spellbook 1 by Stephanie Burgis. Five Fathoms Press, 2017.

Cassandra Harwood used to be Angland’s only female magicians, and one of its best altogether.  Since trying an overly ambitious spell, she’s been unable to use any magic at all.  She broke off her engagement and has been living with her brother Jonathan and his wife, Amy.  At Amy’s insistence, Cassandra accepts an invitation to a posh winter house party where her ex, Wrexham, will be present.  Will she be able to convince him that leaving him was really in his best interests?

This being a romance-type novel, it isn’t really shocking that the ultimate answer to that question is “no,” though Cassandra’s slow realization of this is quite enjoyable.  Delightfully unexpected, though, is Cassandra’s magic-free solving of a threat from an elf lord, one who clearly isn’t a fan of the treaty that stopped the wars between elves and humans.  I’d love to read more in this world (hooray, more is coming!), with its intriguing political system – women are in charge of politics, with the ruling body called the Boudiccate – you should absolutely read more about the real-life Queen Boudica if you’re not familiar with her!  Men, meanwhile, are considered too emotional to be trusted with government but run the official magic of the kingdom through the Great Library.  It’s fascinating to read about a world with rigidly codified gender roles so different than what we’re used to.

Even though Cassandra, as pictured on the lovely cover, has the pale skin one would expect from a novel set in even an alternate Regency world, inside, the world is much more colorful.  Wrexham, the handsome love interest, is Maratha-Anglish, while sister-in-law Amy (a talented politician) is described as dark skinned and curly haired.  The secondary couple is lesbian, with Cassandra working to help solved some of the barriers to their relationship.

All of this is packed into a novella –  which is probably why the ending felt a little facile.  But with such great characters and world-building, I didn’t really care.  This is written for adults, but there’s nothing in the content that would make it inappropriate for advanced younger readers. All in all, I greatly enjoyed this and look forward to reading more of the Harwood Spellbook.

More Stephanie Burgis books I’ve enjoyed:

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