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Maya and the Rising Dark - Rena Barron
One girl’s journey to find her father leads to a hidden world…and the gods that created it.
An Evil Shadow Lord vs. a 12-year-old and her two BFFs? No problem!
If you or a reader you know is looking for a book they will love as much as Percy Jackson and the Olympians, this book is for you! Dive into a fantasy that draws on the rich West African history and mythology. Maya is used to her father leaving for weeks at a time — it’s part of his job, after all. When Papa is home, he loves to tell stories about the magical creatures and perilous villains he met while he was away. Maya used to believe all of Papa’s stories, but that was before she turned 12, and 12-year-olds absolutely do NOT believe in fairytales. When Papa is called away just hours after he returns from one of his trips, Maya knows something isn’t right. Worried her Papa might be in danger, Maya follows him through the streets of South Side Chicago, only to watch him disappear behind a giant shadow just beyond the train tracks. It turns out, Papa has been hiding something from Maya – something BIG.
"You don’t know enough to know what you don’t know..."
Papa is one of the ancient gods that created the universe.
Suddenly, Maya is terrified that all of Papa’s stories weren’t stories at all. Not only is he a god, but Papa’s been kidnapped by the Shadow Lord, an evil god who is determined to destroy everyone Papa loves. Despite the other gods, known as the “Council,” telling Maya go home and stay out of harm’s way while they find Papa, Maya refuses to sit back and do nothing while Papa could be in trouble, especially not when she’s pretty sure she’s been seeing the Shadow Lord in her dreams for weeks. With the help of her two best friends, Maya finds a way to enter the Shadow World and save Papa before the monsters find him.
Perfect for fans of Percy Jackson and Aru Shah, Maya and the Rising Dark stars a fierce and strong young girl who is smart enough to know she can’t enter this fight alone. I loved the way Maya rejected the usual hero’s complex, not only accepting her friends’ help but ASKING for it. Every kid should be so lucky to have friends who believe in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself.
Of all the reasons I loved this book, the support of Maya’s friends was my favorite.
Maya begins this book believing she must save her father on her own, but through the relentless kindness and encouragement of her best friends, Maya realizes that friendship doesn’t mean charging into danger by yourself, it means respecting each person’s unique strengths and working as a team. I loved learning this lesson along with Maya, and boy, did I leave this book feeling more than a little grateful for the wonderful friends in my life.
IF YOU LIKED: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson or The Sons of Apollo, you will love this story!
Physical Combat & Dangerous Situations: Maya encounters monsters, a Shadow-Lord, and more than a few of the evil god’s goons. As a result, there are scenes in this book that might be frightening to more sensitive readers.
9+ due to some violence and kidnapping
From the Desk of Zoe Washington
Zoe’s father, Marcus, has been in prison for as long as she can remember.
So, when Zoe receives a letter from Marcus on her twelfth birthday, she’s shocked to discover he’s been writing to her for years, and in his letters, he seems…nice. But that can’t be right – how can someone convicted of murder be nice?
As Zoe gets to know her father (against her mother’s will at that), she realizes that the world might not be so fair at all – her father pleaded “not guilty” to a crime his lawyer never even tried to prove he didn’t commit!
"I wish we lived in a fairer world where only guilty people went to prison…but it’s best to focus on the here and now."
Janae Marks boldly takes on racism, social justice, and a failing judicial system. Zoe is well aware of the rude looks she and her white step-dad get when they go out together and that sales clerks usually follow her mom around while they shop. Despite the tension between Zoe and her mother and her father’s wrongful conviction, Janae Marks does not write without hope. Yes, Zoe is dealing with multiple injustices, but she also loves baking with her family, inventing new dessert recipes, and hanging out with her best friend, Trevor (now that they’re not fighting anymore).
From the Desk of Zoe Washington is a story about forgiveness, justice, and relentless hope.
Questions for your readers:
**Why do you think Zoe’s mom never let her read the letters from Marcus?
**Do you think it’s possible for an innocent person to be put in jail? If yes, how can we stop this from happening?
**Zoe’s greatest dream is to be the next best kid baker – what is your greatest dream?
IF YOU LIKED: Blended, Some Places More Than Others, and Ghost, you will love this!
Incarceration of a loved one: Zoe’s mother does not speak about Zoe’s birth father, Marcus, and forbids Zoe from doing so either. This can be a difficult subject if your reader knows someone who is in prison, especially as Zoe attempts to learn whether her father was wrongfully accused while trying not to get her hopes up.
11+ due to the discussion of separation from one's parents, racial injustice, and wrongful imprisonment.
A Wish in the Dark - Christina Soontornvat
Les Miserablés re-told through the eyes of a young boy.
Pong was born in the prison.
His mother died in childbirth, so he lives in Namwon Prison with the other orphans. After all, if their parents were criminals, their children surely would be as well. At least, that’s what the Governor, the man who saved the land from darkness after the Great Fire by using his magic – glowing lights contained by glass orbs – to light the entire land. Pong doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows he has to escape the prison. So, he does.
"Trees drop their fruit straight down…The law is a light that shines down on the worthy and punishes the wicked."
Years after his escape and on the run, Pong fears he really does belong in prison.
Overcome by guilt after leaving the prison, Pong’s relentless pursuit of doing to the right thing and making up for his wrongs…Pong is a young Jean Valjean, if I’ve ever seen one. Moreover, his kindness and loyalty to fellow orphan, Simkit, is proof that even when we don’t have our parents, we can still have a family.
"You can’t run away from the darkness…it’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light."
Then, there’s the girl obsessed with serving justice (cough, cough, Inspector Javert).
I loved watching Nok’s character unfold. Her mentality seemed to shift from that of a soldier who does what she’s told without question, to a warrior who fights for the oppressed and for what is right, regardless of whether the current laws reflect this. She is headstrong without being heartless, courageous without being foolish. In another life, perhaps she could have joined the police force.
At the end of the day, Pong and Nok learn that they are each fighting for a better future – one where the poor are not punished simply for being poor.
A Wish in the Dark is a story about the light in all of us.
Christina Soontornvat’s take on the classic story is exciting and fresh, but it also offers the feeling of familiarity and comfort that so any of us found in Hugo’s Les Miserablés.
I highly recommend!
IF YOU LIKED: City of Embers , The Golden Compass, or Malamander, you will love this!
Loss of a loved one: Pong, his friend, Simkit, and several of the characters we meet in the book have lost parents, mentors, and friends. These deaths are handled with delicacy and honesty through their grief as well as their healing.
Bullying: In the prison, Pong, Simkit, and the smaller children are bullied by the older children. This is a great place to ask your reader why the guards didn’t help when they saw this happening. Why would a grownup ignore this?
Questions to consider
***Why would the guards ignore the bullying in the prison?
***Do you agree with what the governor told Pong? Light only shines on the worthy. Why/why not?
***Nok grew up feeling distant from her mother – how do you think this changed the way she thought about herself? What is she trying to prove with her actions?
***Do you think there are times when breaking the law is the right choice? Like stealing food for a starving child or a blanket for someone without a home?
Can you think of an example?
Coo - Kaela Noel
You will never look at pigeons the same way again.
"On a stormy night, Coo was abandoned by her mother, but this isn’t a sad story…"
If Coo’s mother hadn’t left her on the sidewalk, Coo never would have met the Flock! In saving Coo, the Flock made a choice no pigeon has ever made before — they trusted a human. Then, they raised her. Being just a newborn when she met the pigeons, Coo has never known anything but life on the Roof and her little newspaper bed in the Dovecote. While caring for a “giant” is hard work, the Flock is well aware of the fact that Coo’s size has (repeatedly) protected the Flock from bloodthirsty hawks and the threat of starvation, but that doesn’t change the facts.
"The Flock comes first. Always."
To Coo’s adoptive pigeon family, the life of one pigeon is not what matters, but the survival of the Flock. Coo has never understood the pigeon’s apathy when it comes to the sick and injured pigeons, but she knows there must be a reason for the distance they keep. When Burr, the pigeon who found Coo, is injured, Coo is the only one in the Flock who is willing to take the risks involved in saving him. It’s because of Burr’s injury that Coo ends up living with a human known as “the healer,” who has knitted a strange sling for Burr’s wing and speaks in nothing but babbling nonsense — doesn’t she know how to speak Pigeon? And what is that thing she sleeps on? Where is her nest?
You have never seen the human world through eyes like Coo’s.
Coo is baffled by the strange habits of humans, but as she learns to communicate with Tully and Nikolas, and Aggie, she realizes that life in the Dovecote was…hard. She doesn’t want to go back, but she can’t just sit back and let her Flock be poisoned by the large men she saw lurking near the Roof. As Coo sees the injustice her Flock faces — the destruction of their home and the poisonous seed covering their nest — she is angry and confused by the way humans can’t just stop other humans from doing bad things.
In Coo, young readers find an ally; old readers find inspiration.
You simply can’t read Coo’s story without feeling something spark inside of you — passion, empathy, love. Coo’s perspective of the human world is both humorous and convicting, and it’s a welcome reminder that we are entirely capable of changing the world we live in. Even if it’s just for one person (or pigeon) — EVERYONE matters!
Questions for your readers:
**Do you think animals have rights? Are those rights the same or different than the rights humans have?
**Why do you think Coo was so kind to Roo-Hoo?
IF YOU LIKED:
Hoot, Because of Winn Dixie, and Hotel for Dogs, you will love this story!
CONTENT WARNINGS & RECOMMENDED AGE:
9+ due to some dangerous situations on rooftops and abandonment by a loved one
Show Me a Sign - Ann Clare LeZotte
Show Me a Sign is more than a story — it’s a legacy.
On Martha’s Vineyard, no one cares if you are Hearing or Deaf. You’re just…you.
Mary has always loved the island – she loves running through the woods and making up dangerously fun stories about fairies and pirates and wood spirits. She loves learning about the customs of the indigenous community from her friend, Nancy, and tagging along with Thomas, a freedman and former slave, as he works the grounds her Papa tends.
When Andrew, a scientist from the Mainland, comes to the village, everyone is skeptical; outsiders are usually not welcomed unless they have family on the island. Why is he asking questions about how the village became this way? How could bottling up water and dirt in little vials possibly be helpful? The islanders aren’t Deaf because of dirt – it’s just the way they were born. The way this man treats Mary’s Papa (and all the other Deaf islanders) like he’s lesser than and like he can’t think for himself makes Mary wonder what his true motives are. How far is this scientist willing to go in the name of “research?”
Mary’s voice guides readers through her silent world in a way that will change the way they think about the Deaf Community. You will both laugh and grieve with Mary in this book, and, at times, you’ll be afraid for her.
Show Me a Sign is based on a phenomenon that duped scientists for decades -- A place where families could have both Hearing and Deaf children born to the same parents and where everyone could communicate using Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), regardless of whether they needed to or not, was simply unheard of at the time. Weren’t the Deaf all dumb and incapable of building normal lives? The detail into which Mary’s story delves is truly heartbreaking. To see a child treated like an animal and beaten for using the only language she’s ever communicated with is awful, but it’s also an image that reminded me of the injustice that still exists in our world. We may not believe the ridiculous idea that being Deaf is the same as being dumb, but we have yet to master the art of loving the people around us no matter how different they are from what we deem “normal.”
To say that this story is worth reading is an understatement. If I could give a copy to every middle-grade teacher out there, I would! Whether you’re 9 or 59, you will reap the benefits of Mary’s journey. So, what are you waiting for?
Questions for your reader:
**Have you ever met someone in the Deaf Community? What was it like communicating with them?
**Why do you think Andrew was so cruel toward Mary? Was it just because she was Deaf, or was it something else?
**Have you noticed that some people are not treated with the same kindness and respect as others? How does this make you feel? What could you do to change this?
IF YOU LIKED: El Deafo, The War that Saved my Life, and Wonder, you will love this story!
Physical and Emotional Abuse: While the Deaf Community is accepted on the island, Mary encounters people who believe the Deaf are less than human, and as such, they are treated like animals. There are a few mentions of Mary being hit by an adult, as well as several instances in which the adults speak poorly about Mary, her family, and her community.
9+ due to topics such as death, abuse, and some strong language
That's What Friends Do
This is hands-down the best book about middle school friendship, puberty, and alllllllll the awkwardness that comes with them.
“That’s What Friends Do” perfectly captures what it feels like to be trapped in a situation you don’t understand and don’t know how to escape. It’s about the “little things” that build and build and build until one day, someone’s world is changed forever. Parents and kids need to read this story.
Samantha Goldstein is a girl who doesn’t understand why everything is changing. Not why her best friend, David, or the new guy, Luke, or ANY guys in her life are starting to find excuses to touch her, not why the girls at school are mad at her (for NO reason), and not why her parents are fighting but pretending like they’re not — but she doesn’t like it. She doesn’t know if it’s something that she’s misunderstanding or if it’s wrong, but either way, she doesn’t know how to find the words to tell her parents.
This book goes so deep into the middle-grade mind and will teach readers how to find boundaries, mend friendships, and ask for help when they need it. A MUST READ.
IF YOU LIKED: You Go First, Inside Hudson Pickle, Sweet Pea
David thinks to get Sammie to like him, he has to “make a move” – this includes planning to kiss her, hold her hand, and touch her leg, all without asking how she feels. Sammie struggles with knowing whether she’s making these things happen, or if these are things that are “normal.” This story gives every opportunity to talk about CONSENT and what it means to give and receive it.
Anyone who is currently in middle school or who interact with anyone who is. The relationships between Sammie, Luke, and David are relatable and realistic and fully acknowledge the fact that middle school is hard. Barnhart’s writing is honest, but gentle.
Pipp Park Raises Her Game
Pippa Park Raises Her Game is a modern retelling of Great Expectations – a story about friendship and self-discovery.
THIS is the year Pippa Park is finally going to be popular – new school, new Pippa.
At Lakeview Private, no one knows about her family’s laundromat or the way her parents look every time Pippa asks for something they know they can’t afford. No one knows about the dorky, totally NOT cool things Pippa’s done in her life. All they know is she is REALLY good at basketball, and that’s the way Pippa likes it.
Pippa is overwhelmed by the pressure she feels from her friends and family.
Erin Yun beautifully describes the pressure that comes with being a middle-schooler in 2020, and rather than diminish that pressure, she validates it. This is such an important story for that reason. Too often the qualms of middle-schoolers are put into a box of petty drama and exaggeration that will pass with time. They’ll get over it, we say, and we never truly acknowledge how jarring it is for a 12-year old girl to have every part of her identity poked and prodded by classmates from whom she so desperately desires acceptance. Pippa will make you laugh, and she’ll make you cry, but most importantly, she will make you realize just how tough kids have to be in our world.
What are young readers saying about this book?
“THIS IS AN AMAZING BOOK! One of the best books I’ve read…It’s funny, dramatic, relatable, and everything good. 5/5 Stars.”
Questions for your readers:
**Why do you think Pippa was so embarrassed by her parents’ careers? What’s the big deal about them running a laundromat?
**Why do you think Pippa waited so long to speak up about the bullying she went through? Would you have said something earlier? Who would you tell?
IF YOU LIKED: From the Desk of Zoe Washington, More to the Story, andFront Desk, you will love this!
Cyberbullying: Pippa is bullied by a few of her classmates through social media/texts. This is a great conversation starter about cyberbullying with your kiddos.
9+ due to scenes depicting cyberbullying
Malamander - Thomas Taylor
Welcome to Eerie-on-Sea! In this fast-paced, two kids find themselves on the tail of a serious sea monster! When Violet Parma crashes through Herbert Lemon’s window in the Grand Nautilus Hotel she asks him to help her find her lost parents. As Herbert and Violet get closer to uncovering the mystery of her parents’ disappearance, they discover the Parmas may have been hunting the same monster…just before they vanished.
Questions to ask your kiddos:
***What do you think happened to Herbert Lemon’s parents? What about Violet’s parents?
***Do you think growing up with no parents changes the way you think about/act toward other people? How do you think it changed Herbert and Violet?
***If YOU found the Malamander’s egg and could have any wish in the whole world, what would you wish for and why?
IF YOU LIKED: Lemony Snicket!
Loss of a loved one, parents being in danger, suspense
All the Colors of Magic - Valija Zinck
Life is rough for Penelope.
Her hair’s been gray for ages, her mum works far too much, and her luck is completely and perpetually bad. Even so, Penelope wouldn’t trade her simple (and a little clumsy) life for anything – she has absolutely everything she needs.
UNTIL Penelope learns her father is a powerful wizard, as his daughter, she can also do magic, and her father ran away when she was young. Upon learning this, she decides she must find her father and comes up with a plan to get to him. But what if there’s more to her father’s story than her mother let on? What is Penelope running into?
Penelope’s story is seeping with whimsical spells, fierce determination, and conjures delight from every single reader who is lucky enough to pick it up.
I loved that I could tell that the story was translated from another language. At times, sentences danced off the page and into my imagination. Zinck is a master storyteller and Penelope’s dazzling personality will have you wishing you could jump into the book and become her best friend.
Questions for your reader:
**Were you surprised by how quickly Penelope forgave her mother for keeping her father’s powers a secret for all these years? Why/why not?
**Why do you think Penelope didn’t tell her friends about her powers?
**This story has such a happy ending, and we LOVE that, but what if it didn’t? What would the end of this book look like if Penelope’s plan went exactly as she’d expected? If her father really had left his family all those years ago?
Overall, All the Colors of Magic is a light, fun, and magical read.
IF YOU LIKED: Harry Potter and Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast and Tangled.
Endangerment of a loved one and some life-threatening situations (very low-intensity compared to Harry Potter and other magic-based series)
8+ This is a great book for readers who are not ready to commit to a long series or who are still building confidence in their reading skills!
Keeper of the Lost Cities
In 24 hours, Sophie Foster’s life turned upside-down. Her parents aren’t really her parents. The massive headaches she’s had since she was a kid are actually telepathic powers, and she’s not a human. She’s an elf.
Don’t let the bedtime stories fool you, though. Elves are not little creatures baking cookies in trees – they’re the ruling figures in a world where sickness and death are almost unheard of and magic is more like science than, well, science.
But Sophie isn’t great at being an elf…middle school was hard as a human with no friends, but it’s even worse at a supernatural school where PE involves throwing glowing balls with your mind, and alchemy throws every rule of science she thought she knew out the window. There’s also the fact that someone has planted memories in Sophie’s mind. Memories with information people would kill for.
Questions to ask your readers:
**Is it okay to keep secrets when knowing the truth could hurt someone?
**Do we get to decide what’s “right” for someone else? Why/why not?
**Why do you think the Elves care so little for humans? Is it their immortality, or something else…
IF YOU LIKED:
Harry Potter, Malamander, and the Amulet Series
Kidnapping, separation from family, some fight scenes
7+ due to some fighting and family separation
The Mortification of Fovea Munson - Mary Ann Heider
Fovea Monson has had ENOUGH. Enough of the kids at school calling her “Igor” because her used-to-be-surgeon-parents left their hospital jobs to start their own research laboratory. Sure, they still do surgery…on cadavers! Try telling a class of middle schoolers that your parents operate on dead people. It doesn’t go well. Especially when you’ve a.) lost your best friend (for NO reason), b.) lost your spot at your favorite summer camp, and c.) have to spend the whole summer working in your parents’ lab.
As if she didn’t have enough problems, when Fovea ventures into the “back room” of the lab, she finds 3 TALKING HEADS! Not just any talking heads, but three bickering musicians who will absolutely not leave Fovea alone until she’s helped them complete their mission. Whatever that means…
IF YOU LIKED:
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Night Gardener, or ANY other funny story
There are a few descriptions of bullying via name-calling and exclusion. This is a great way to ask your kiddos if they’ve experienced or seen bullying like this in their schools and brainstorm what they could do to make the victim feel valued and welcome at school.
Cattywampus - Ash Van Otterloo
The Silver Arrow - Lev Grossman