Kevin Delecki

Living in a car isn’t really so bad. Not when Daddy makes a nice place to sleep in the back of the Suburban, and the bathrooms and showers in the RV park aren’t too far away. In Janet Fox’s Carry Me Home, things are tough for 12-year-old Lulu and her little sister, Serena, but not too tough, because they always have Daddy, and Daddy knows things will get better. And it seems like they really will—until Lulu wakes up one morning and Daddy isn’t there. 

After a few days go by and Daddy doesn’t come back, Lulu knows that she and Serena are on their own. Lulu is determined to keep them together, so she makes sure they get to school on time, visits the food pantry and the library and does just enough to keep well-intentioned teachers, librarians and after-school care providers from asking too many hard questions. But with no more money coming in and a cold Montana winter approaching, Lulu is running out of options.

Carry Me Home unspools in short chapters that alternate between the present and the past. Readers see Lulu and Serena’s lives when their mother was still alive and in the immediate aftermath of her death, giving them an understanding of how Lulu’s family came to be in this impossible situation and why she feels that the weight of her little family rests solely on her young shoulders. Fox gently depicts the way Lulu manages their basic needs while balancing the difficulties (and joys) of navigating a new school and finding her way in the world. 

With accessible prose, brisk pacing and well-developed characters, Fox’s empathetic novel encourages readers to understand how people experiencing homelessness are individuals with stories and, like everyone, deserve compassion and support.

In Janet Fox’s Carry Me Home, things are tough for 12-year-old Lulu and her little sister, Serena, but not too tough, because they always have Daddy, and Daddy knows things will get better.

In two middle grade fantasy novels, each set against a mythology-inspired backdrop, girls battle monsters that are bent on destroying everything they love. These books are perfect for readers who dream of worlds far beyond what we can see with our own eyes.

In Josephine Against the Sea, Barbadian author Shakirah Bourne introduces 10-year-old Josephine Cadogan. Josephine lives in the small town of Fairy Vale with her father, Vincent, who works as a fisherman. Still reeling from the loss of her mother five years ago, Josephine spends her time playing with her best friend, Ahkai, who has autism, dreaming of glory on the cricket pitch and running off any of her father’s potential new “friends.” She’s successful, too, until her father meets Mariss.

Mariss is beautiful, elegant and charming, and everyone instantly loves her—even Ahkai, who is normally pretty shy. Josephine doesn’t initially suspect anything unusual about Mariss, despite how many unexplainable events seem to surround her. A deep cut on Mariss’ hand vanishes without the trace of a scar. One night, Josephine is mysteriously unable to wake Vincent until Mariss does it with a single word. And Ahkai’s cuddly cat, who is only ever aggressive toward a tuna can, tries to attack Mariss every time he sees her. But when a cricket ball headed straight for Josephine’s bat stops in midair and changes direction during a match Mariss is watching, Josephine can’t ignore the signs. She and Ahkai must unravel the truth about who Mariss really is and what she wants with Vincent and Fairy Vale before it’s too late.

Josephine is a grounded and realistic heroine. She’s still grieving her mother’s death and is blindingly possessive of her father’s love. She’s also incredibly stubborn and willing to go to extreme lengths to have her way. In a hilarious scene, Josephine uses a well-aimed cricket ball and a bucket of fish entrails to let Vincent’s latest “friend” know exactly what he smells like when he comes home from a long day of fishing. But her loyalty to her father, her friends and her town is touching and the driving force behind this emotional story. Debut author Bourne skillfully draws on Barbadian folklore to create a suspenseful adventure that will keep readers guessing until the very end.

Josephine’s story is firmly planted on Earth, but Kiki Kallira’s is out of this world. The 11-year-old heroine of British author Sangu Mandanna’s first middle grade novel Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom crashes into a world of her own creation, where she discovers that her actions could either save or destroy everyone in it.

Kiki’s anxiety is getting worse, and her fixation on worst-case scenarios is becoming overwhelming. Sketching is the only thing that helps her clear her mind. She’s deep into a series of drawings based on the defeat of Mahishasura, a demon from a book of Indian folklore her mom gave her. In the story, Mahishasura becomes so powerful that no man or god can kill him. He conquers the beautiful kingdom of Mysore but then is defeated and banished by a goddess.

As Kiki keeps drawing, strange things begin happening in her London home, and one night, she awakens to her desk on fire and a demon standing in her room. When she chases after it, Kiki meets Ashwini, the heroine of her drawings, who tells her that her art has created a world that allowed Mahishasura to escape. Ashwini pushes Kiki through her sketchbook and into the kingdom of Mysore, where only Kiki has the power to stop Mahishasura. Kiki must fight against forces inside her mind as well as in Mysore to rescue the kingdom and return home.

Kiki, like Josephine, struggles with the relatable disconnect between who she truly believes herself to be and who she thinks she needs to be in order to win her battles. Mandanna, who has written several science fiction novels for teens, excels at depicting how Kiki navigates feelings of fear, anxiety, mistrust and, eventually, self-awareness. Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is a breathtaking rush through Kiki’s growing understanding of herself and the worlds, both real and fantastical, around her. Any kingdom that springs from the mind of an 11-year-old is sure to contain twists and surprises, and Kiki’s does not disappoint.  

In two middle grade fantasy novels, each set against a mythology-inspired backdrop, girls battle monsters that are bent on destroying everything they love.

Everyone knows the story of Peter Pan, right? Adventurous lost boys, mischievous fairies, murderous pirates and a bloodthirsty crocodile—but how did all these iconic characters come to Neverland in the first place? To answer this question, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Sisters of the Neversea explores the island of Neverland and looks closely at the events that shaped Peter Pan himself.

Lily and Wendy have no idea that someone is watching them argue during what might be their last night as stepsisters. With Wendy and her dad moving to New York for the summer and Lily and her mom staying behind in Oklahoma, this might really be the end of their family. But everything changes in an instant when a mysterious boy named Peter, a wayward shadow and a persnickety fairy named Belle come in through their bedroom window.

After being whisked away to Neverland, Wendy and her little brother, Michael, find themselves among the Lost, a group of young boys who seem to be rapidly forgetting who they are and where they came from. Summoning all her bravery, Lily follows in pursuit, planning to rescue Wendy and Michael and somehow return home. Once Lily arrives in Neverland, she joins with a group of Native American kids whom Peter has taken from tribes across America, including Leech Lake Ojibwe, Black Seneca, Cherokee Nation and Navajo.

Leitich Smith, who, like Lily, is Muscogee Creek, fills Sisters of the Neversea with many of the hallmarks that readers expect from a Peter Pan story, including pirates, fairies, crocodiles and merfolk. But she also confronts and rectifies many of the harmful tropes and stereotypes of J.M. Barrie’s original story as well as those perpetuated by Disney’s animated film. Both Belle and Wendy admonish Peter when he uses an offensive word to refer to Native people, and they challenge his demeaning behavior toward girls, women and Native Americans.

Ultimately, the novel offers redemption not just for Peter but for many of Neverland’s other characters as well. With expertly shifting perspectives, an oft-broken fourth wall and subtle but firm remedies to elements of the story best left in the past, Sisters of the Neversea is a welcome new addition to the legend of Peter Pan.

Everyone knows the story of Peter Pan, right? Adventurous lost boys, mischievous fairies, murderous pirates and a bloodthirsty crocodile—but how did all these iconic characters come to Neverland in the first place? To answer this question, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Sisters of the Neversea explores the island of Neverland and looks closely at the events that shaped Peter Pan himself.

Math. Science. Geography. These still make sense to Cora. They’re subjects with right and wrong answers, things that can be explained through reason and logic—unlike what happened to her sister, Mabel. In Newbery Honor author Jasmine Warga’s The Shape of Thunder, 12-year-old Cora and her former best friend, Quinn, are dealing with the repercussions of the day Quinn’s older brother brought a gun to school and killed four people, including himself and Mabel. Can Cora and Quinn heal their friendship after something like that? Or, better yet, can they actually change the past?

It’s been a year since the tragedy. Cora spends most of her time participating in Junior Quiz Bowl, meeting with her therapist and pushing her father to learn more about their family’s Lebanese heritage. Quinn spends most of her time alone. No one wants to talk to her, and her parents barely speak anymore, except to fight. When Quinn sends Cora a mysterious box on her birthday, it contains a glimmer of potential—to make things right, to rewrite what happened.

Alternating between Cora’s and Quinn’s perspectives, The Shape of Thunder provides a heartbreaking yet hope-filled look into two lives that have been forever altered by an act that neither of them committed. As they are drawn back together by their curiosity about and eventual belief in the possibility of time travel, Warga offers glimpses of the deep friendship Cora and Quinn used to share. Grief, anger, blame, fear and confusion swirl inside them both, and Warga excels at depicting how each girl experiences their emotions differently. Cora can’t eat pizza anymore because it reminds her of all the times she and Mabel ate it together, while formerly obedient Quinn takes a forbidden shortcut through the woods to get home from school each day because following the rules no longer seems important.

Moving and beautifully written, The Shape of Thunder is an important book that will push readers to consider what they would do in an impossible situation, and how far they would be willing to go to change it.

In Newbery Honor author Jasmine Warga’s The Shape of Thunder, 12-year-old Cora and her former best friend, Quinn, are dealing with the repercussions of the day Quinn’s older brother brought a gun to school and killed four people, including himself and Mabel. Can Cora and Quinn heal their friendship after something like that? Or, better yet, can they actually change the past?

“It’s not about winning; it’s about having fun.” That’s what parents and coaches always say—but it’s not always what they mean. In Rivals, Tommy Greenwald’s second novel set in the fictional town of Walthorne (after 2018’s Game Changer), having fun is immaterial when it comes to a high-pressure middle school basketball season between the Walthorne North Cougars and the Walthorne South Panthers. Everyone wants to win, and they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Students from both wealthy Walthorne North and working-class Walthrone South have a lot riding on this basketball season. Cougar Austin Chambers wants to live up to his dad’s basketball legacy, but no amount of practice with his private coach is going to make him grow eight inches overnight. Panther Carter Haswell knows he’s talented enough to be an exceptional player, maybe even to win a college athletic scholarship, but skill and ability don’t always equate to passion for the game itself. And Alfie Jenks isn’t a basketball player at all. The self-professed “least-coordinated person ever born” dreams of becoming a sports reporter, but she soon learns that investigating the world of middle school athletics means uncovering truths that could shake her community to its core.

Along with appealing first-person narratives from Austin, Carter and Alfie, Rivals also incorporates epistolary elements including text messages, blog and message board posts and transcripts of radio interviews. As the drama of the season propels the plot forward, Greenwald explores the racial, gender and socioeconomic divides in Walthorne in ways that feel wholly organic to the story. He digs deeply and critically into the no-holds-barred, win-at-all-costs environments experienced by many middle and high school athletes. 

Rivals features plenty of thrilling basketball and all the turmoil of a fierce rivalry, but what lingers is its indictment of a harmful culture created by adults—parents, coaches and school administrators—that shapes youth sports and, ultimately, young people themselves. 

In Rivals, Tommy Greenwald’s second novel set in the fictional town of Walthorne (after 2018’s Game Changer), having fun is immaterial when it comes to a high-pressure middle school basketball season between the Walthorne North Cougars and the Walthorne South Panthers. Everyone wants to win, and they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.

A powerful mage is removed from a bleak orphanage to serve a usurper queen in Julia Ember’s Ruinsong, a queer re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera. Instead of using her magical voice to honor her goddess by healing broken bodies, Cadence must use her abilities in ways she never could have imagined—singing to cause pain, fear and supplication among the nobles despised by the queen.

Because she fears for her life, Cadence submits to Queen Elene’s increasingly horrifying demands—until she is unexpectedly reunited with Remi, a friend from childhood and the daughter of a noble family brought low by the queen’s regime. As her feelings for Remi grow, Cadence must confront the consequences of using her magic to do the queen’s bidding.

Ruinsong is a compelling and delicately balanced tale of music and magic with dark undercurrents of destructive power and rebellion. Ember’s lush world building sketches and suggests rather than submerging readers in dense passages of background information. The narrative hints at larger class and power struggles while depicting a society in which rigid notions of gender and sexuality are slowly fading. The literal magic of song swirls through the story as the slow-burn attraction between Cadence and Remi begins haltingly then builds to a roaring crescendo. Ruinsong will delight readers who prefer their fantasy novels with sharp and sometimes concealed edges.

A powerful mage is removed from a bleak orphanage to serve a usurper queen who forces her to use her abilities in ways she never could have imagined in Julia Ember’s Ruinsong, a queer re-imagining of The Phantom of the Opera.

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