In a beautiful, profound novel told backward, National Book Award winner Robin Benway explores the process of navigating sorrow and learning to love again.
In a beautiful, profound novel told backward, National Book Award winner Robin Benway explores the process of navigating sorrow and learning to love again.
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Young sleuths searching for great mystery novels know exactly what they’re looking for: engaging characters, a suspenseful story, a satisfying resolution and a touch of heart. They'll find all that and more in these two middle grade books.

Duet

If the animal menagerie of Deborah and James Howe's classic Bunnicula series had included a goldfinch, the result might have been something like Duet. Like Bunnicula and its sequels, Duet features an animal narrator. Mirabelle is a young goldfinch who helps her favorite people find answers to perplexing questions.

Mr. Starek has retired from teaching piano lessons, but he makes an exception for Michael, a sixth grader whose musical talent is matched only by his stubbornness. Mirabelle has kept Mr. Starek company from the trees outside his windows since the recent death of his sister, Halina, and now the little yellow bird delights in singing along while Michael practices a series of pieces composed by Frédéric Chopin, including the technically challenging and exquisitely beautiful Ballade in F Minor. 

As Mirabelle searches for a way to join Michael at an upcoming competition, Michael and Mr. Starek are joined by Emily, a former protege of Mr. Starek's. Emily used to teach Michael piano, but now she's studying music history at the conservatory. Together, the trio search Halina's house for a rare, hidden piano known as a Pleyel, one of two types of pianos on which Chopin composed. However, Halina was a hoarder, which Broach depicts with empathy and understanding, and the house contains more secrets than anyone suspects.

Masterpiece Adventures author Elise Broach fills Duet with evocative details of Mirabelle's avian life, including adventures with her brothers, the welcoming of new siblings to her family's nest and a harrowing description of a thunderstorm. Broach also incorporates a number of intriguing and memorable stories about Chopin and his artistic friends. Her writing is peppered with fun vocabulary (appurtenances, daguerreotype), and Duet includes an author's note that explains how the conclusion of the novel's mystery connects to fascinating real-life events.

At one point, Emily acknowledges her limitations as a pianist, providing a refreshing and mature balance to the other musicians' focus on perfect performances as their primary goal. Music, Duet suggests, can be enjoyed by everyone—including goldfinches. Find a recording of Chopin's ballades and let Broach sweep you away on wings of word and song.

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene appreciates his routine more than your average sixth grader. Every day after school, until his mom gets off work, he plays laser tag and knocks down pins at his mother's best friend's bowling alley. His routine does not include finding an envelope with his name on it that contains two riddles bearing the numbers one and four. And it especially does not include being joined at his solo lunch table by the outgoing Skye, who's holding riddles number two and three. 

Chester thinks the clues must have been left by his absent father, whom Chester has long been convinced is a spy. What if the riddles are Chester's dad's way of communicating that he's in trouble and needs Chester's help? As Chester and Skye decode the puzzles, which seem intentionally designed to require them to work together, they form a friendship. When they overhear a group of bowlers plotting a heist, they begin to wonder whether stopping the crime could be the key to rescuing Chester's dad. But could Chester's reliance on careful observation be leading him astray?

Readers who pay close attention to detail will be rewarded not just with the solutions to the riddles, which involve puns, number games and creative thinking, but also the answers to the novel's larger mysteries, such as why Chester and Skye have been brought together in the first place. The revelation of the riddles' true purpose takes Chester Keene Cracks the Code in a direction that's as fitting as it is initially unexpected. Maybe what Chester longs for most is actually closer to him than he realizes.

Diversity is a part of Chester's world in quiet ways: Both Chester and Skye are biracial, and Skye encourages Chester to “break free of traditional gender roles” and embrace his inner warrior princess. Chester's town's various small businesses, including the bowling alley, evoke a small-town, working-class setting. His solitary habits and reliance on down-to-the-minute schedules also suggest a neurodivergence that acclaimed author Kekla Magoon leaves unspecified.  

Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a heartwarming puzzle mystery whose narrator has multiple codes to crack: the code of the riddle messages, the code of friendship, the code of handling a bully and the code of family. 

Join young detectives on quests for answers that may be hiding in plain sight.

Eily and her father live by the sea, not far from the mysterious island of Lisnashee, home to the fairy folk known as the Good People. Eily's father ventures annually to the island to gather fog, which has magical properties. It's a dangerous job, but the village folk rely on the fog water for charms, cures and protection, particularly from the Good People. But this year, Papa accidentally makes the trip to Lisnashee without his charm meant to ward off fairy spells, leaving Eily with her own job to do.

Marianne McShane's text in The Fog Catcher's Daughter feels like it's been passed down through generations, a folk legend whispered in hushed tones to little ones leaning forward to listen. Her tale is filled with rich sensory descriptions. When she writes that “a cold wind shivered across the sand,” you'll tremble right along with Eily. Young readers are sure to wonder, as I did, whether The Fog Catcher's Daughter is based on a true story. An author's note gives a glimpse into the Irish folklore that underpins the tale, as well as the real-life Moroccan practice of fog catching that inspired McShane to create it.

Illustrator Alan Marks' watercolor art is so ethereal and captivating, you'll want to hang it on the wall. Windswept grasses and tumbling waves create a landscape that seems both fantastical and utterly real. Fog creeps around corners, rises from the ground and blows across the water, becoming a character every bit as significant as Eily herself. At times, Marks depicts the Good People as mere wisps of mist and other times as distinct, ghostly figures, perfectly capturing their ambiguous, tempestuous nature. A soft, warm-toned hearth scene as well as the lush greens of spreads depicting Eily's family's fields offer a reassuring and welcoming contrast to the wild blues and grays of Lisnashee. You'll especially want to linger on a wondrous two-page spread of the village apothecary shop and its shelves packed with plants, shells, stones and bottles. 

Though it contains slightly spooky themes, The Fog Catcher's Daughter doesn't haunt so much as enchant.

This original tale feels like it's been passed down through generations, a folk legend whispered in hushed tones to little ones leaning forward to listen.

Leo's older sister, Nina, died 365 days ago. National Book Award winner Robin Benway's A Year to the Day opens on the one-year anniversary of Nina's death, and each chapter takes the reader one step further back in time.

From the moment Leo regains consciousness after the car crash, she struggles with grief—not only for the loss of her sister also but for the memories of the night that she can't quite grasp. Leo's first year without Nina is marked by changes, as the accident impacts her friendships, her family and her relationship with Nina's boyfriend, East. Leo must find a way to live without her sister, and she slowly learns to navigate her sorrow—and to love again, despite it.

The unconventional narrative structure in A Year to the Day reflects the connection between memory and mourning: The story that unfolds for the reader is comprised of confusing, intertwining moments, just like the memories Leo longs to recover. The novel's structure also conveys the tension and mystery of grief. While the fact of Nina's death is established in the book's very first sentence, the novel unveils the details of its circumstances and the year that follows slowly, and every chapter contains a new revelation. 

Benway's unflinching, close third-person narration fluctuates between wistfully poetic and painfully direct as Leo comes to terms with her true thoughts and feelings. Benway expertly captures how Leo is shaped by the people in her life during big moments, like funerals and anniversaries, but she also poignantly portrays smaller moments. Songs transport Leo back in time, the scent of Nina's shampoo makes Leo's heart shatter anew, and looking through the photos on Nina's old phone with their mom leaves Leo breathless.

A Year to the Day is simultaneously gut-wrenching and heartening, as grief and love so often are. Its unusual structure effectively relates a timeless story in a new and engaging way as Benway offers beautiful, profound reflections on loss, healing and forgiveness. Ultimately, Leo's story is a lesson in self-compassion and hope, reminding readers that moving forward doesn't mean forgetting the past, and although love can be painful, it's worth holding on to.

In a beautiful, profound novel told backward, National Book Award winner Robin Benway explores the process of navigating sorrow and learning to love again.

In her fourth novel, Katzenjammer, author Francesca Zappia crafts a surreal and frightening world that parallels the innate horrors of high school. This story of subversion and slight-of-hand trickery is difficult to discuss—or forget.

Cat and her classmates live at School. They don't know why. No one can remember when School's doors and windows went away. Cat has lost her face, her eyes and even her real name. The class president is a life-size porcelain doll; Cat's best friend, Jeffrey, has a cardboard box for a head. Some students wander the constricting halls, alone and unmoored, while a few others rule over private domains in School's underbelly. 

The tenuous equilibrium between School and its students is broken when the class president is found brutalized in the courtyard. More broken bodies follow, and the students' fear grows. Someone—or something—is killing them, and they can feel the clock beginning to tick. As Cat desperately searches her memories for answers, she circles around truths that are too unbearable to look at directly. But to find the way out of School, Cat must face the thing waiting in the shadows of her mind.

Katzenjammer is a postmodern nightmare, a David Lynchian spiral of terror. Absurdist body horror mingles with slasher-film suspense, and the consistent suspension of reality gives the novel a disorienting, dreamlike quality. Yet Katzenjammer‘s potency is undeniable. Cat's memories are frequently as disturbing as her new reality. “We all take from each other. We take and take and take,” Cat says of her peers. It's a cynical view of adolescence, but it will strike true for many teens. Zappia makes no effort to shroud her novel's darkness. Visceral, bloody and cruel, it almost dares the reader to look away.

Katzenjammer is not a book for every reader, and Zappia includes a series of content warnings on the book's copyright page: “School bullying and violence, mention of eating disorders, and scenes of gore, blood, and death.” Although she's not the first YA author to depict school violence and its aftermath, she writes brutality with a frankness that's virtually unmatched. Teens so often go ignored by their parents, their teachers and people in positions of power. What Katzenjammer ultimately offers its teen readers is the feeling, finally, of being heard.

Francesca Zappia crafts a surreal and frightening world that directly parallels the innate horrors of high school in this disorienting, dreamlike novel.

Sometimes when tragedy strikes, a family draws closer, weaving itself into a tightly intertwined bulwark against heartache. Other times, however, tragedy can drive family members apart as they try to avoid feeling—let alone expressing—their grief.

The titular 11-year-old protagonist of Zoraida Córdova's heartfelt and imaginative Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter would never have predicted the latter outcome for her family. As far back as Valentina can remember, the Salazars have been dedicated monster rescuers, scooping up magical beings that stumble into this dimension and sending them back to the realm of Finisterra before monster hunters can find and perhaps kill them.

However, in the eight months since their father died on a mission gone horribly awry, the Salazars have been trying to live a more ordinary life. Their mother moved the family to upstate New York, took a job in the city and retired their tricked-out camper van, the Scourge, to the garage. Everyone has adjusted pretty well to the changes, but Valentina can't stop wishing she could repair her family's close bonds and get them all back to doing what they were born to do.

A viral video provides the opportunity Valentina needs: A boy discovers an unusual-looking egg and believes it to be a dragon egg. Millions of viewers are watching online as the egg seems ready to hatch at any moment, but Valentina knows it's a recipe for disaster. After all, her father often liked to say that “people liked the idea of magical beasts, but if they knew the truth? They wouldn't be able to handle it.” Valentina convinces her siblings to climb back into the Scourge and race to the egg before any TV reporters or monster hunters get there—and before something terrible happens.

Córdova sends her characters on a delightfully detailed wild ride of a road trip. As they visit foreboding and fantastical locales, Valentina and her siblings encounter monsters of all stripes, from sinuous, threatening beasts to creatures so cute and fluffy you'll wish they were real. Monsters appear in the most unexpected places, as do humans scarier than any mythical creature.

Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter swirls fantasy, adventure, comedy, action, coming-of-age and even a few hints of romance into a magical, memorable elixir of a story. Córdova makes a powerful case for friendship, imagination and hope as she reminds readers that “not everything that looks like a monster is monstrous.”

This heartfelt elixir of a story combines fantasy, adventure, comedy, action and coming-of-age for an unforgettable wild ride.

We are in the midst of a golden age of gentle YA romantic comedies. There's no shortage of reading material for anyone who loves swooning over winsome leads who just can't seem to get it right until the excruciating final pages, or curling up with novels tailor-made for Netflix adaptations sure to launch the next wave of teen actors. From Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before to Alice Oseman's Heartstopper, YA shelves are awash with feel-good rom-com vibes. Lucy Keating's Ride With Me is a winning addition to this canon. It's a perfect bubblegum pop of a read—light and sweet, but with plenty to chew on.  

Charlie Owens is anxious to escape her sleepy hometown of Chester Falls, Massachusetts, nestled deep in the Berkshires. The area's charm has faded, and visions of a more exciting future in art, architecture and design fill her head. “I've lived here for seventeen years,” Charlie says. “I don't want to get stuck here.” 

For now, though, when Charlie's not fretting about her family's historic farmhouse and her parents' love lives, both of which are increasingly in disrepair, she's driving for Backseat, a local ride-sharing app created by teens, for teens. Charlie drives as often as she can, saving her earnings for an epic road trip she hopes will help her discover where she's meant to be. Charlie has a vision and the single-minded determination to achieve it. That is, until she rear-ends a parked car belonging to Andre Minasian, a cute but standoffish classmate. 

Keating could teach a master class in concocting a natural meet cute and keeping the sparks flying between her characters. Charlie begrudgingly agrees to become Andre's personal driver; in exchange, Andre agrees not to report the fender bender to Backseat. To Charlie's annoyance and intrigue, Andre is as enchanted by their hometown as she is jaded, and the more time they spend together, the more she begins to let her guard down. The tug of war between the two teens is paced within an inch of perfection.

Ride With Me also makes room for real depth amid all this delicious froth. Keating cleverly foregrounds questions of home via Charlie's rundown house as well as through the small town she's so desperate to leave. Can you change your home? Should you? Or is it better to cut and run and find a new home somewhere else? Watching Charlie and Andre grapple with these questions even as they fall for each other is pure pleasure. Ride With Me is well worth the trip.

Lucy Keating’s Ride With Me is a winning addition to the YA rom-com canon. It’s a perfect bubblegum pop of a read—light and sweet, but with plenty to chew on.

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