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All Middle Grade Coverage

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Gennifer Choldenko’s The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman is a moving story about an 11-year-old abandoned by his single mom and left to care for his 3-year-old sister, Boo, inspired by Choldenko’s own childhood experiences of having undependable parents and a caring older brother who acted as a surrogate parent. Fans of the Newbery Honor author’s Tales from Alcatraz series won’t be disappointed. Hank is an engaging narrator, and his desperate plight, as well as the caring community of characters he encounters, are reminiscent of Kate DiCamilo’s Beverly, Right Here.

After about a week alone in their apartment, facing eviction with no money, food, or electricity, Hank, who has no idea who his father is, realizes that his mother isn’t coming back anytime soon. Hank loves his mom, but he knows  that sometimes she “will drive to Mexico in the middle of the night or invite strange people to our apartment or not come home at all.”

A dreamer, but also smart and responsible, Hank wonders how he and Boo will survive, musing that at least the kids in From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler had money for tickets to the museum they found themselves living in. Instead, he lands on the doorstep of Lou Ann Adler, a friend of his late, beloved grandmother. This hard-nosed, 60-ish daycare provider welcomes Boo with open arms, but peers sharply at preteen Hank, announcing, “I’m not wild about teenagers.”

Hank does an excellent job coping with the endless uncertainties in his life, which are expertly channeled via Choldenko’s succinctly effective prose. Despite Hank’s grim situation, this is an upbeat, hopeful book that shows how supportive communities can rise up out of seemingly nowhere. Hank befriends Lou Ann’s kindhearted neighbor Ray Delgado, as well as Ray’s large, extended family. He attends a new school, where he finds an inspiring basketball coach as well as a lively, diverse group of friends. His relationship with Boo, who equally adores him, forms the heart of this novel: “Without Boo I feel like a shoe in a sock drawer,” Hank explains. Their journey features diligent social workers and a dangerous and dramatic appearance by Hank and Boo’s mother that forces Hank to make a gut-wrenching choice.

Readers will immediately be drawn into the world of The Tenth Mistake of Hank Hooperman, whose endearing and memorable characters will inspire repeated readings. This book tackles a tricky subject with grace, showing readers that even seemingly hopeless situations can offer happy endings.

Hank Hooperman does an excellent job coping with the endless uncertainties in his life, which are expertly channeled via Gennifer Choldenko’s succinctly effective prose.

Sophia Henry Winslow and her neighbor Sophie Gershowitz are best friends with a lot in common. They both go by “Sophie,” love the color mauve, aren’t big fans of quesadillas and loathe gossip.

And both Sophies, as readers learn in Lois Lowry’s lovely and moving Tree. Table. Book., embody the saying that “age is just a number.” Although Sophie W. is 11 years old, and Sophie G. is 88 years old, they are undoubtedly kindred spirits who “have a true and lasting friendship, a friendship of the heart.”

When young Sophie’s parents explain to her that the elder Sophie has been having problems with her short-term memory—so much so that her son Aaron is considering moving her from their New Hampshire town to an assisted-living facility near him in Ohio—she is devastated. 

But also determined: She’s going to help Sophie G. prepare for cognitive testing so they won’t be separated. After all, “Sophie Gershowitz has taught me many things . . . I am still learning from her. And I think that learning from each other is one of the most important parts of friendship.” 

In order to prepare her friend for acing the most important exam ever, Sophie W. knows just the thing to use as a guide: the Merck Manual medical reference, provided by her friend and classmate Ralphie, whose dad is a doctor. Their precocious 7-year-old neighbor Oliver also joins the endeavor, cheering on the Sophies as they work through a series of exercises.

Lowry, winner of two Newbery Medals for The Giver and Number the Stars, does an excellent job building tension as Aaron’s impending visit—and the prospect of the Sophies’ lives changing forever—looms ever larger. When the test prep unlocks memories of Sophie G.’s childhood in Poland during World War II, Lowry conveys with sensitivity and realism Sophie W.’s sorrow upon realizing that things she’s only learned about in school have had a painful, lifelong impact on her beloved friend. 

Tree. Table. Book. is yet another story from a cherished author that will captivate readers as they reflect on the vagaries of history and the beauty of friendship, which are so poignantly conveyed in this timeless tale.

Lois Lowry’s Tree. Table. Book. will captivate readers as they reflect on the vagaries of history and the beauty of friendship, which are so poignantly conveyed in this timeless tale.
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In 1940, Safiyyah lives in the Grand Mosque of Paris with her parents, grandmother Setti, toddler sister and several other families. Smart, curious and spunky, she loves exploring the city—especially the map room of the nearby library, as she dreams of becoming a world explorer. Her carefree ways quickly change, however, as Nazi soldiers approach and invade, plunging her orderly world into the chaos of World War II. Setti warns Safiyyah, “There will come a day when you have the choice to use what you’ve been given in one way or another. . . . There is no use in a million maps unless they lead you to light.”

Hiba Noor Khan’s debut novel, Safiyyah’s War, is a beautifully written, well-plotted work of historical fiction based on the heroic efforts of Mosque activists who forged identity documents for Jews, hid them in the mosque and led an estimated 500 to 1700 through the catacombs to safety. Khan does a particularly good job at making Safiyyah not only an eyewitness but also a bold heroine who dives into action, risking her life for others. 

As Paris becomes increasingly dangerous, Khan introduces a diverse, multigenerational cast that enriches the soul of this novel. There’s Setti, who longs for her native Algeria, which she was forced to leave as a teenager; Safiyyah’s father, who tends to Mosque business and taught Safiyyah to always help others; Monsieur Cassin, an elderly, well-known botanist who shows Safiyyah the wonders of an adventurous life; Timothée, a refugee shepherd boy from northern France; and Hana, a Jewish classmate whose parents have been captured by the Nazis and who comes to live with Safiyyah’s family. 

Khan builds an intricate drama around these characters, ramping up the tension with each chapter as Safiyyah carefully observes what is going on outside in the city as well as within the confines of the Mosque. Adept at investigating, Safiyyah soon finds herself helping the resistance out in unimaginable ways, especially during the novel’s thrilling climax. 

Safiyyah’s War brings WWII Paris clearly into focus as it shows how people of all ages—from different cultures and religions—can band together in the face of evil. Khan is a writer to watch, and Safiyyah is a heroine worth remembering.

Hiba Noor Khan’s debut novel, Safiyyah’s War, is a beautifully written, well-plotted work of historical fiction based on the heroic efforts of activists at the Grand Mosque of Paris who led Jews to safety.
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In some ways, Grant Snider’s Poetry Comics is exactly what you’d expect—a series of short narratives that combine lyrical words with cartoons. But in almost every other way, this collection manages to surprise readers at each turn of the page.

Poetry Comics is loosely structured around seasons of the year, beginning in spring with tadpoles and leafing trees, and wrapping up in winter with snowfall and the boredom of being stuck indoors. But not all the topics of Snider’s poems—which are mostly in free verse but include some rhyming verses—are seasonal in nature. Many are introspective, touching on personal growth and the creative process in ways that will resonate with readers of various ages: “Maybe a moment is a taste— / a pickle’s sour crunch. / If only there were a way / to put it on paper / I could capture a moment / in all its wild power.” A recurring exploration of “How to Write a Poem” addresses frustration and revision before reaching a joyful conclusion.

Most of the poems include one or two figures leaping acrobatically through panels, often interacting with birds, insects, plants, trees and other elements of the natural world. The pen-and-ink illustrations, colored and edited digitally, span a gorgeous range of pastel and more saturated hues (on display to particularly great effect in “Poem for Painting My Room”). At times, the artwork is more conceptual, as in “Best Friends,” which visualizes a friendship via shapes in two different colors, or “Shape Story,” whose creative panel structure might prompt readers to think not only about what makes a poem but about how comics are constructed.

That may be the greatest value of Snider’s creativity-infused collection: Young readers and aspiring creatives who might be daunted by the prospect of writing a traditional poem or drawing a full graphic novel will find in these pages dozens of new models for, as Snider puts it, helping “say things / I never knew were in me.”

Grant Snider’s Poetry Comics are often introspective, touching on personal growth and the creative process in ways that will resonate with readers of various ages.
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Anzu is used to classmates making fun of her name, food and culture. In a new town, she’s prepared for the teasing to continue. When she asks for spirits to help her disappear during the Obon festival, Anzu doesn’t expect the spirit guardian of Yomi, the Shinto underworld, to steal a necklace gifted to Anzu by her grandmother. When the canine guardian disappears back to Yomi, Anzu chases after him and accidentally falls into the spirit realm.

Most of the souls in Yomi mean Anzu no harm, but Queen Izanami wants to add Anzu to her collection of spectral children. For Anzu to return home, she must escape Izanami’s magic and flee through the damaged Marsh Gate back to her own world. But Anzu realizes it isn’t enough to save herself. If she’s careful and brave, Anzu can save every child Izanami has stolen and help repair the gate before Obon is over and she is lost forever.

Pilu of the Woods author Mai K. Nguyen explores the strength that culture and ancestry provide in Anzu and the Realm of Darkness. Muted purples and blacks with occasional pops of brighter pigments from colorist Diana Tsai Santos help set the mood of the whimsical yet spooky spirit realm.

There are many characters to love, from the too-cute Nurikabe spirit that helps Anzu escape, to Anzu’s magically gifted grandmother, but Anzu still shines brightest. Despite her best attempts to hide herself—introducing herself as “Anne,” a nickname given by cruel classmates who thought her given name too strange—Anzu’s strength comes from embracing who she is. Anzu and the Realm of Darkness reminds readers that girls like Anzu need not shrink themselves: They deserve to use their voice, love what they love, and take up space.

Nguyen blends Japanese folklore with Shinto and Buddhist stories to create the spirits Anzu meets in her interdimensional adventure. For children who want to learn more, a mythological guide to the kami and yokai that make appearances in the story can be found in the backmatter. 

Fans of Hayao Miyakazi’s beloved film Spirited Away or supernatural graphic novels like Remy Lai’s Ghost Book will find Anzu and the Realm of Darkness a worthy addition to their shelves.

Anzu and the Realm of Darkness reminds readers that girls like Anzu need not shrink themselves: They deserve to use their voice, love what they love, and take up space.

Allie Millington’s warmly emotional, wryly funny Olivetti is an engaging debut novel about the power of stories. This treasure of a tale offers hope for healing after incredibly hard times. 

It’s been a few years since what 12-year-old Ernest Brindle calls “the Everything That Happened,” which drastically changed his family life. His dad, Felix, disappears into his work; Ernest’s three siblings focus more on hobbies than togetherness; and Ernest memorizes words from his beloved Oxford English Dictionary to soothe his anxiety. He escapes to the roof of Valley View Apartments, where his family used to gather for stargazing, when he’s feeling misunderstood or lonely.

Ernest’s mom, Beatrice, has tried to bring the family closer again, to no avail. Through it all, a dark green typewriter named Olivetti (like the brand) has been silently watching, wishing he could help. “Humans take their mouths for granted,” he thinks. “I would do anything for the chance to say anything.” But it’s typewriter code “to never let what has been typed into us back out.” 

When Beatrice suddenly sells Olivetti to the Heartland Pawn Shop and disappears, Olivetti is as stunned and worried as the rest of the Brindle family. And when Ernest goes to the shop and confesses via typing that he thinks Beatrice fled because of him, Olivetti casts aside the typewriter code and offers his assistance. He’s not the only one: Quinn, the pawnshop owner’s confident daughter, informs Ernest that she’ll help track down his mom, too.

Boy and typewriter take turns narrating the trio’s suspenseful and stressful mission, and Millington uses flashbacks to fill in the contours of the Brindle family’s life and Olivetti’s unusual existence. The author winningly blends magic and realism, poignancy and mystery, as her characters close in on what’s happened to Beatrice, bonding through adversity along the way. Her lovely notion of a typewriter as a repository of secrets and dreams is finely rendered, and she imbues Olivetti’s heavy steel case and clackity keys with compassion and determination. This heartfelt tale movingly explores the beauty and importance of communication—whatever form it may come in—while encouraging readers to welcome the singular joy of finding kindred spirits in unexpected places.

Allie Millington winningly blends magic and realism, poignancy and mystery in Olivetti, a heartfelt tale that movingly explores the importance of communication.
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“Who invented love, anyway?” Elio Solis wonders as he starts to see ultraviolet colors whenever his classmate, Camelia, is around. Eighth grade has been full of changes, both inside, where his emotions run wild, and outside, where it seems like all his guy friends talk about is girls. “The hormones were poppin’ / I mean, everyone was down bad!”

The adults in his life are giving Elio mixed messages about how to be a man: His dad tells him that the Solis way is to be macho and “suck it up,” while his mom is trying to teach him feminist values. Then betrayal strikes, and suddenly the only color Elio can see is red.

Award-winning author Aida Salazar’s previous middle grade novel-in-verse about puberty, The Moon Within, featured a Latina girl. In a letter to the reader, Salazar reveals that Ultraviolet came about because her tween son and his friend asked her to write a similar story that reflected their experiences with “puberty, first crushes, gender and rites of passages” as cisgender Latino boys. And she delivers.

Salazar’s verse is captivating, with the imagery of the text heightening when Elio’s emotions rise. Maintaining a conversational tone sprinkled with mentions of farts and boogers to entertain, she also loads in similes like “A collision of feelings / blisters me / like molten lava” to illustrate the dual nature of being an awkward but thoughtful young person. Goofy pop-culture references, such as a video game called “Mindcrack” (referencing Minecraft), and an alpha male-type social media influencer who is never named, are easily recognizable. 

Commenting on topics that range from patriarchy to colonialism, the internet to peer pressure, and first loves to heartbreaks, Salazar delivers a fully intersectional look at what it means to try to embody masculinity without toxicity. She filled a gap she saw in middle grade literature, and countless readers will see themselves in the pages, regardless of race or gender, but especially Latino boys. 

Commenting on topics that range from patriarchy to colonialism, the internet to peer pressure, and first loves to heartbreaks, Aida Salazar delivers a fully intersectional look at what it means to try to embody masculinity without toxicity.
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Louder Than Hunger is the middle grade debut of John Schu, a 2011 Library Journal Mover and Shaker who has long served as a trusted celebrator of great books for young readers. Readers are assured this novel-in-verse is something special by the foreword by Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo, which insists, “Reading Jake’s story will change you.”

Eighth-grader Jake has an eating disorder. But at the book’s opening, all readers know is the year (1996) and a few of Jake’s favorite things, which include Home Alone, Broadway musicals, and spending time with his grandma. Soon, though, it becomes clear that Jake is struggling, after he writes about The Voice, which tells Jake to exercise more and eat less. The Voice makes Jake think he is “repulsive” and is “louder than the hunger in my stomach.” Before long, Jake isn’t able to hide what’s happening under his baggy overalls and sweatshirts, and he is admitted to Whispering Pines, an adolescent inpatient facility with a department devoted to eating disorders.

Jake is resistant to treatment at first, refusing to participate and even leaving at one point only to find he has to return. Learning his beloved grandma has cancer makes everything that much harder, but after lots of time, support and persistent efforts from caregivers including art therapist Pedro (whose colorful socks grab Jake’s attention) and psychiatrist Dr. Parker, Jake starts to find his way out of the hole in which The Voice has trapped him. Jake’s story, while realistic, is never graphic, and even younger readers will be able to appreciate this important perspective on experiences that are not often discussed. Discovering that Jake’s story is very much also Schu’s personal story adds another dimension to a story that is a vital addition to any bookshelf.

Even younger readers will be able to appreciate Louder Than Hunger’s important perspective on experiences that are not often discussed. John Schu’s middle grade debut has a place as a vital addition to any bookshelf.
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After your very first novel receives a Newbery Honor and you go on to win two Newbery Medals; after you become a two-time finalist for the National Book Award; after several of your books are adapted for the big screen (not to mention a stage musical and an opera); after you’re named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature; and after your work becomes so commercially successful that you sell more than 40 million copies of your books—after you achieve all of that, what mountains are left for you to climb?

If you’re Kate DiCamillo, the author of such widely adored classics of 21st-century children’s literature as Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux and Flora & Ulysses, you write another excellent novel: Ferris. While many of DiCamillo’s earlier books feature young protagonists who must deal with the loss of a parent or caregiver through distance, divorce or death, Ferris is a story about a child “who has been loved from the minute that she arrived in the world.”

As we chat over Zoom, Ramona the dog snoozing in a chair next to her desk, DiCamillo reveals Ferris’ deeply personal roots. “My father passed away in November of 2019, and my best friend that I grew up with had her first grandchild on December 31 of 2019.” That date was also her father’s birthday. “I was estranged from my father,” she shares, characterizing their relationship as “very difficult.” As DiCamillo looked at photos of the new baby surrounded by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, she wondered, “What happens if you write a story about a kid that is just so certain and safe” in her family’s love? “Is there a story in that?”

It turns out, there is.

Ferris follows its titular protagonist, Emma Phineas “Ferris” Wilkey, during the eventful summer before she enters fifth grade. She finds herself on the receiving end of an unfortunate new hairstyle from her Aunt Shirley, whose husband has moved out of their house and into Ferris’ family’s basement. Ferris’ father is convinced that raccoons have infested their attic. Her younger sister, the scene-stealing Pinky, has decided that she wants to be featured on a “wanted” poster and has attempted to achieve her goal through petty theft, an incident involving biting and a hilariously unsuccessful stickup at the local bank. Ferris’ best friend, Billy Jackson, keeps playing François Couperin’s “Mysterious Barricades” over and over on every piano he can find. And Ferris’ beloved grandmother, Charisse, has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure but seems more concerned with uncovering what a ghost might want—a ghost she insists has been appearing in her bedroom doorway.

It’s great that we’re meeting, but even if we never met, I would be there with you, because it’s not a story until it’s you and me, together.

That may sound like a lot for one novel to juggle, but DiCamillo balances it all with the ease of an expert orchestra conductor. She does it so well that some readers may be surprised to learn that DiCamillo describes the experience of creating a novel as an act of “writing behind my own back” and “always starting not knowing where I’m going to end up.”

Where Ferris ends up is a climactic dinner sequence straight out of a screwball comedy, in which every single one of the novel’s many narrative threads coalesces. Although it will have readers gasping with laughter, the seeds of the scene lie in more turbulent soil for DiCamillo. When she was growing up, the family table “was often a place of terror” because of her father. As she worked on the scene, DiCamillo says that she thought about the concept of “repetition compulsion, how you keep on doing something until it turns out differently.” Eventually, DiCamillo says that she realized, “Well, here we go, this is the same place I end up every time I write a story: everybody around the table, happy, safe and eating. It surprises me every time.”

DiCamillo hopes that, through her work as an author, she’s able to create spaces that feel this way for readers. “So much of good storytelling is leaving space for the reader.” When she meets children at book events, she tells them, “It’s great that we’re meeting, but even if we never met, I would be there with you, because it’s not a story until it’s you and me, together. That’s what makes it a story, is both of us being there.”

Perhaps this is why DiCamillo becomes visibly emotional when she discusses what it’s like to write against a backdrop of rising censorship and book bans in schools and libraries across the country. “If there is any hope for us,” she says, “it is in being able to see and feel for each other, and books are a vehicle for doing that. Stories help us see each other and help us see ourselves.” She even confesses that she can’t talk about this subject “without weeping, because I know from personal experience and I’ve seen it with other kids: The right book at the right time will save somebody’s life.”

It’s a transformative power that every reader has experienced, but a power that Ferris is only just beginning to understand. Throughout the novel, Ferris reflects on the words that her “vocabulary-obsessed” fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mielk, taught her. (“All of life hinges on knowing the right word to use at the right time,” Mrs. Mielk claims.) As a child, DiCamillo found it incredibly difficult to learn to read and only succeeded thanks to her mother’s tireless efforts. “I knew that’s what I needed, were those words,” she explains. “What Ferris has—those words, that family, that table to sit around—that’s the way I want the reader to feel too. It’s like, you are invited here, to this place. Now look, you have all those words. You have this table. You have this family. You emerge feeling loved.”

Ferris’ grandmother, Charisse, often tells Ferris that “every good story is a love story.” With Ferris, DiCamillo has created a truly great story, and it’s brimming with love.

Photo of Kate DiCamillo by Dina Kantor.

Love is more abundant than ever before in Ferris, the acclaimed children’s author’s dazzling and hilarious new novel.

Despite her love for logic and science, 12-year-old Sahara Rashad longs for a trip from her home in Queens, New York, to Merlin’s Crossing, a wizard-themed amusement park.

Alas, as Nedda Lewers’ magical coming-of-age adventure Daughters of the Lamp opens, Sahara realizes her dad didn’t find her “Ten Reasons the Rashad Family Should Go to Merlin’s Crossing” list as compelling as the fact that her uncle Omar’s getting married next week, so they’re leaving for a two week visit with her mother’s family in Cairo. Sahara’s frustration at Merlin-deprivation is rapidly overshadowed by nervousness about staying with people she’s never met, in a place she’s never been. All of this is amplified by long-held guilt over her mom’s death while giving birth to her.

In Cairo, when there’s a bizarre break-in at the family store, and a necklace Sahara’s mother left her goes missing, Sahara and her cousin Naima start a mission to find the necklace and reveal the true nature of Omar’s snooty fiancée, Magda. This quest transforms into one to protect their family from ancient evil, in an exciting turn of events that draws poignant connections between present and past—among Sahara, her mother and their ancestors in 10th-century Baghdad.

Daughters of the Lamp is an engaging and entertaining series debut that takes readers on a thrilling journey through magical family history and mystery, while sensitively exploring the nature of identity and thoughtfully examining the ways in which the age-old struggle between good and evil can affect and inspire us all.

Daughters of the Lamp takes readers on a thrilling journey through magical family history and mystery, while sensitively exploring the nature of identity and the age-old struggle between good and evil.
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To say Michael Rosario is anxious about Y2K would be an understatement. It’s August, 1999, and the 12-year-old boy is convinced that incalculable issues will arise when all internal program systems reset to the year 00. He’s stockpiling stolen canned goods under his bed so that he can provide for his single mom when society crumbles at the start of the new millennium. 

The only thing that can distract Michael from his anxieties is his crush on his 15-year-old babysitter, Gibby—that is, until Michael and Gibby find a mysterious boy named Ridge outside their apartment complex. Ridge claims to be the world’s first time-traveler and proves it with a futuristic book detailing the next 20 years. While Ridge marvels at 1999 culture and tries to convince Gibby to take him to the mall, Michael starts concocting a plan to steal Ridge’s book so he can find out what will happen with Y2K.

The First State of Being by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Erin Entrada Kelly is an exciting tale about friendship that blends historical and science fiction. Short chapters build tension as Michael’s morality is tested and Ridge wonders if he will be able to get back to the future at all.

The third person prose is imbued with personality, for example when describing Gibby’s brother, Beejee: “Michael still couldn’t figure out how the world’s most perfect creature could be related to a rotten potato like Beejee, but these were the mysteries of the universe.” Kelly shines in the details, such as how given coordinates accurately lead to the exact, real-life neighborhood in Delaware found in a map at the beginning. Occasional glimpses of the year 2199 are given in the form of textbook entries, interviews between scientists, and transcripts of conversations from the lab housing the Spacial Teleportation Module that Ridge uses. Foreshadowing for the plot twists is expertly woven in and leads to well-laid surprises.

This short but suspenseful novel is Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me meets Tae Keller’s Jennifer Chan is Not Alone. Though it takes place at the turn of the millennium, modern readers will be able to identify with Michael’s anxieties over the future of the world, and find his journey compelling. 

Though The First State of Being takes place at the turn of the millennium, readers will be able to identify with Michael’s anxieties over the future of the world.

Some of Ben Guterson’s most treasured childhood memories center around two now-defunct grand old department stores in downtown Seattle: Frederick & Nelson and The Bon Marché. They “were absolutely places of magic for me,” the author reminisces in a call from his home in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

“At Christmastime, I would go to the second floor and take the escalator down to the first floor. . . . [A]ll the decorations, the trees, the glitter, the tinsel, the displays, the lights, the color, everything slowly revealed itself to me and I’d think I was descending into the heart of winter wonderland,” he says. “I fell in love with department stores because of that.”

Guterson’s appreciation of those bygone commerce centers and cultural touchstones is on marvelously magical display in The World-Famous Nine, his inventive, exciting middle grade mystery-adventure novel set in the storied Number Nine Plaza department store (aka “The Nine”).

The Nine is a blend of cleverly cultivated experiences and artfully arranged merchandise all under one roof. Unlike other department stores, that roof is 19 stories in the air and has an enormous Ferris wheel on top of it. The luxurious floors below contain a monorail, a display with a real iceberg and real penguins, an art gallery, rotating restaurants and more.

On the very first page of The World-Famous Nine, 11-year-old Zander Olinga rides an escalator down to the store’s main floor and into an astonishing new chapter of his life. What’s meant to be a fun five-week visit with his glamorous grandmother Zina Winebee, who owns The Nine, while his professor parents go on a research trip, soon turns into something much more thrilling and dangerous. Zander must undertake an urgent quest to unravel long-held family secrets by solving peculiar puzzles and tracking down a lost object that will protect The Nine and everyone in it from a terrible fate.

Read our review of ‘The World-Famous Nine.’

That’s a tall order for a kid, to say the least, but Zander’s new friend Natasha Novikov is confident the two of them can figure things out. He’s afraid of heights but great at solving puzzles, and she knows the store inside and out. Besides, one of Zander’s hobbies is creating mandalas, which are vital to their mission, if the ten-foot-tall sandstone boulder with “carved elaborate circular patterns” that has pride of place in The Nine is any indication. (Hint: it is.)

Guterson’s own affinity for mandalas—he draws them daily—not only inspired key elements of the complex mystery in The World-Famous Nine but also the artwork that appears within. Kristina Kister’s wonderful illustrations immerse readers in the dazzling world and unique denizens of The Nine, and Guterson’s impressively detailed mandalas grace the book’s pages as well. “I highly recommend it,” Guterson says about drawing mandalas. “It’s a really cool, creative and relaxing thing to do. I don’t want to sound too new-agey here, but . . . to engage in a creative act that’s not verbal or word-oriented in any way, I have found that to be extremely helpful.”

While the mandalas will be new to Guterson’s fans, The World-Famous Nine’s plethora of puzzles and wordplay will feel happily familiar to readers who delighted in the code-cracking, riddle-solving aspects of his previous books: the Winterhouse trilogy (Winterhouse, the first in the series and Guterson’s debut, was an Edgar Award and Agatha Award finalist) and The Einsteins of Vista Point.

Although the author now has multiple mysteries under his writerly belt, he still finds it challenging to strike just the right balance: “You don’t want to make the mystery or the solving of clues so easy that kids can spot it right away and then get frustrated with your hero, like, ‘Why is that main character so dumb when I figured it out already?’” But, he says, “You also don’t want to make it so hard that, when it’s revealed, someone says, ‘No one ever really could’ve figured that out!’”

“I think when you’re that age and you discover a book or an author that you love, it can just completely solidify a love of reading.”

Guterson has found that his true satisfaction and joy is writing for middle grade readers. In fact, he’s got even more books on the way: The World-Famous Nine is the first in a series, with its sequel, The Hidden Workshop of Javier Preston forthcoming. After all, he says, “I think when you’re that age and you discover a book or an author that you love, it can just completely solidify a love of reading. I find it really exciting to think that maybe my books . . . could do for a kid what the books I love did for me when I was that age.”

Photo of Ben Guterson by Harvey Photography.

The author incorporates magic and mandalas in The World-Famous Nine.
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What happens to a family after a dangerous, life-changing and historic journey? That’s the focus of Veera Hiranandani’s wonderful Amil and the After, which follows 12-year-old Amil and his family, who, during the Partition of India in 1948, have just migrated to Bombay from what would become Pakistan. It’s a worthy companion novel to Hiranandani’s Newbery Honoree The Night Diary, which tells the story of that journey through the perspective of Amil’s twin sister, Nisha.

Amil and Nisha’s Hindu father tells them, “Everything is broken. Pakistan and the new India are like two eggs sitting on a ledge, having no idea what they’re going to grow up to be.” Similarly, his children are also in a precarious state before transformation. While Nisha flourishes on schoolwork and writing, Amil is dyslexic and loves to draw. Amil begins making a series of drawings about their new life as a way of honoring their Muslim mother, who died in childbirth. 

“I thought we were over the bad stuff here in Bombay,” Amil confesses. “We’re safe and getting back to a normal life, I guess, but I’m still sad a lot of the time.” Everyone is trying to find their way, from their father to their homesick grandmother and Kazi, their beloved Muslim cook. Nisha is slowly emerging from selective mutism, and both Amil and Nisha help each other through occasional panic attacks stemming from their harrowing escape. Hiranandani depicts the twins’ relationship exceptionally well, deeply developing her characters as they bounce their thoughts and fears off of each other. 

This is an excellent work of historical fiction, seamlessly and sensitively integrating the personal and the political. A particularly empathetic young man, Amil wonders why he and his family managed to survive their migration while others perished or ended up in refugee camps instead of a comfortable apartment. After befriending Vishal, who is homeless and without family, Amil wonders why his new friend is “a boy exactly like he was, just unlucky instead of lucky.” 

With Amil and the After, Veera Hiranandani masterfully presents a powerful, unvarnished examination of difficult subject matter while paving the way forward with hope and love. 

With Amil and the After, Veera Hiranandani presents a powerful, unvarnished examination of difficult subject matter while paving the way forward with hope and love.

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