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2014 Whitney Awards: Middle Grade Finalists

By Shelah Miner

I feel fortunate to be the one writing about the Middle Grade Whitney finalists, because there’s not a bad book in the bunch– all five were delightful and interesting in their own (quite varied) ways. Here’s the recap:

Marion Jensen’s Almost Super is the kind of book that epitomizes a middle grade novel for me. The story centers on Rafter and Benny Bailey, of the famous Bailey superhero family, who will get their superpowers at 4pm on the first February 29th after their twelfth birthdays. They’ve spent their entire lives dreaming of this moment, and they’re totally underwhelmed when those superpowers do arrive (the ability to light polyester on fire doesn’t often come in handy in hand to hand combat). The boys worry that their family is going to go down against the cross-town rivals, the Johnsons, especially since it appears that Juanita, their nemesis, has all the powers. But the three kids come together to heal rifts and ferret out the real bad guys behind the scenes. This book is witty and entertaining and has a great message, and although it’s a perfect stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Rafter, Benny and Juanita.

I usually don’t have many good things to say about the second book in a dystopian action trilogy, but Peggy Eddleman’s Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats is an exception to my (highly prejudiced) rule. In this book, the bomb’s breath that threatens White Rock is descending, and Hope, Brock, and Aaren leave their home in Kansas to travel to the Rocky Mountains in an effort to find an antidote to the poison that will soon overtake them. The book has plenty of action and adventure, but my favorite part of the story was Hope’s relationship with her birth family, whom she discovered along the way. I think it’s common for authors to develop characters in their first novels, but I loved seeing Hope’s character change in important ways in The Forbidden Flats.

The first book in Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy, The False Prince, was one of those books that was so good I think I bored all of my friends by talking about and demanding that they read it too. The character development was lovely, the descriptions of the setting were right on target, and the plot twist at the end of the story had me thinking Nielsen was a genius. I think that in some way that set my expectations too high for the other books in the trilogy. While The Shadow Throne brings the trilogy to an ultimately satisfying conclusion, I found myself unable to recapture the thrill I felt while reading the first book in the series.

This year the Whitney finalists included two books by Kimberley Griffiths Little, The Time of the Fireflies and Forbidden (in the YA category), and both books are gems. The Time of the Fireflies is the story of Larissa Renaud, who lives above her family’s antique shop on a Louisiana bayou. Larissa isn’t scared by much in the shop, except for the doll whose eyes seem to follow her. Then the phones in a wall of disconnected phones start ringing, delivering messages for Larissa, who realizes that she must travel to the past to secure her family’s future. The book is beautifully written with scenes spanning several centuries, and the themes of family love and bullying resonate with her intended audience. The story is also delightfully creepy, and may keep readers’ lights on for a few nights after they finish the book.

 My top pick of the category is undoubtedly Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. The seven students at Saint Etheldreda’s School for Girls are enjoying their Sunday dinner when suddenly their headmistress and her brother drop dead at the dinner table. The girls see this fortuitous event as their ticket to freedom, and decide to bury the bodies in the vegetable garden rather than inform the authorities, who will surely return them to their parents. However, keeping their headmistress’s demise a secret and fending off a murderer becomes more work than they had bargained for. While the book takes place in the Victorian Era, these girls (Pocked Louisa, Stout Alice, Dull Martha, Smooth Kitty, Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane and Dour Elinor) have spirit to spare. They recognize that the death of Mrs. Plackett might lead to the most freedom they would have in their lives. This is a darkly tongue-in-cheek book that gets all of the details right, and also has a lot more heart than I expected it would when I started reading. I enjoyed it more and more as the story wore on, and was happy to see a satisfying conclusion, with lots of girl power.

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

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