For the first few years of the Whitney Awards, all of the books written for young people were lumped into the same category. In 2010, the category was split into Young Adult General, and Young Adult Speculative, and last year, further split into the Middle Grade category, which generally targets readers from about 9-12 years of age. This year’s five finalists are all enjoyable, quick reads, and I had to defend several of them from my nine-year-old son.
1) The Inventor’s Secret by Chad Morris
The year is 2074 and it’s time for Abby and Derick Cragbridge to start their time at Cragbridge Hall, the boarding school that only takes the best, brightest and most distinguished middle schoolers on the planet. The problem is that Abby, at least, hasn’t done much to distinguish herself. She happens to be the granddaughter of the school’s founder, a world-famous inventor, and therefore feels a great impulse to prove herself worthy of being at the school. She’s able to do this when her parents and grandfather turn up missing. Her parents are being held aboard the Titanic, and unless Abby and Derick can figure out how to go back in time and reach them, their whole world might come crashing down on them.
The Inventor’s Secret, published by Shadow Mountain, is the first book in the Cragbridge Hall series. The second book, The Avatar Battle, was recently released. The books are action-packed, and Morris seems to rely on constant motion and on really cool inventions and technological advances to keep the plot moving in The Inventor’s Secret. The book seems to rely much more on external conflict than internal conflict, but many young readers may be so entranced by all the bells and whistles of time travel and technology that they might not care.
2) Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff
In Wicked, Gregory Maguire turns the Wicked Witch of the West into a sympathetic character, and in the upcoming movie Maleficent, I expect that Angelina Jolie will do the same thing for Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis. In Liesl Shurtliff’s debut novel, Rump, she turns the tables so readers sympathize with Rumpelstiltskin instead of the evil miller’s daughter who forces him to turn straw into gold.
This novel is delightful. When I’m reading 40 books in a couple of months, I often find myself trudging through them. But Rump was one that I would have read quickly regardless. The story is adorable and Rump shows a lot of growth over the course of the novel. There was plenty of action in the story, but it was Rump’s ability to grow as a character that kept me entertained and satisfied as I read.
3) Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman
World War III has come and gone, and the world is forever changed. The chemical warfare used has changed the properties of metal, and the residents of the town of White Rock have to be careful to avoid the pockets of Bomb’s Breath that kill anyone who breathes air infused with it. Twelve-year-old Hope is a failure at inventing things (a skill prized among the residents of White Rock), but she can do something no one else even dares try– she can use the extra density bomb’s breath to break her falls as she jumps from the sky. This skill comes to the aid of the entire town when they are ambushed by bandits, and Hope and two friends travel to a nearby town to get help.
This books has a nice balance between internal and external conflict. Hope’s character is well-developed, but there’s also plenty of action. I felt like I wanted a more complicated narrative, but I later learned that the book is the first of a series. It doesn’t necessarily feel like the first book of a series, and the conclusion is satisfying in and of itself. Eddleman read from her book at my kids’ school a few weeks ago, and both of my elementary-age kids couldn’t wait to get their hands on this one. My son kept asking me how I liked it. It’s one I think he would like too, even though the protagonist is a girl.
4) Wednesdays in the Tower (Castle Glower #2) by Jessica Day George
Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle was a YA finalist two years ago, and I adored it. The story takes place in an enchanted castle, and Princess Celie and her siblings live in a home that is constantly changing, adapting, and possibly even working toward its own purposes. In Wednesdays in the Tower, Celie becomes the guardian of a gryphon egg, and the eventual hatching of that gryphon causes all kinds of changes to take place in the castle, which seems intent on confronting its history.
While the first novel seemed satisfying in and of itself, Wednesdays in the Tower suffers from the “second in a trilogy” syndrome. It lacks the character (and castle) development that was so delightful in the first story, and it leaves off in the middle of the action, not coming to a satisfying conclusion for readers of this particular book. The writing is still great and Celie is just as engaging in this story as in the last, but the book seemed geared toward readers who want to read the third book as well as the second.
5) The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy #2) by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Last year, Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince won best middle grade novel and best novel in youth fiction in the Whitney Awards. It was my favorite book of the forty. Sage/Jaron was such a scrappy, interesting character, and there was a twist at the end of the story that shocked and delighted me as a reader.
The Runaway King begins where The False Prince leaves off, with Jaron burying his parents and taking over as king of Carthya. He’s made so many enemies (not to mention all of the enemies his father had who have now transferred their hatred to Jaron) that he soon recognizes that his experience as king will be untenable unless he fixes a few things. The problem is that he can’t fix these things and serve as king. So he has a friend impersonate him (seems to be a recurring theme), and runs away to join the pirates, hoping to challenge (and prevail against) the pirate king.
The Runaway King is just as well written, and Jaron is just as cunning as he was in The False Prince. Furthermore, the book doesn’t have middle book syndrome. Nielsen manages to give us a decent backstory on from the first novel without weighing down this narrative, and although the book is part of a trilogy, it has its own satisfying conclusion. What it lacks is the plot twist that made The False Prince so great. I think it’s a solid story, but lacks the sparkle of its predecessor.