No One Needed to Know by D.G. Driver

Sixth grade, with its changing social dynamics is hard. It’s especially hard for Heidi whose 16 year old brother Donald is autistic and is bullied by the other kids at his high school. When Heidi’s friends learn about Donald, she also becomes a target of ridicule. This loosely autobiographical story follows Heidi as she comes to understand her brother while learning to navigate the social mine field of sixth grade.

No One Needed to Know is geared toward third to sixth graders. It tells a more nuanced story than is normally written for that age group, making it less appropriate for precocious readers and a good choice for below level middle school students. Adults who remember reading books by Katherine Patterson and Paula Danziger will recognize the honesty with which it is written.

When I started this book I felt it was dated. The casual abuse of people with disabilities is no longer acceptable as it once was. Halfway through I changed my mind. All young people deal with bullying, whether or not it is directed at them. No One Needed to Know beautifully tells a story of how one girl learns to balance a complex situation at home with a complex situation at school. It shows how we well-meaning adults can make things harder when we are trying to help. There is a full cast of complex human beings and so the author can side with all the kids, even the mean ones. They are all trying to find their way. In the end some of them do.

This book can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on its image.

Blade of the Sea: Book 1 by Jesse Nethermind

Trish longs for something more adventurous than hunting chickens in her small village. So when a mysterious stranger arrives with a harrowing tale, she jumps at the chance to help. Learning that things aren’t always what they seem, Trish embarks on an adventure to keep the dangerous Blade of the Sea out of the hands of the power hungry Carmine and his group of bandits, Roger, Mac and Chiese. But can a lowly villager be a hero as great as the legendary Steve?

This book will appeal to Minecrafters and punsters of all ages but is geared toward seven to eleven year olds. It’s filled with Minecraft references that might seem strange to readers not familiar with the game. It’s universal appeal makes it a great choice for older children and teens who read at an elementary level while still being appropriate for reading aloud to young children.

My entire Minecraft experience consists of building a house on a hill with a garden. I found survival mode too scary. But that little bit was enough for me to understand most of the references in the book. I’m sure some went over my head but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.  This book was a lot of fun and while it stood nicely on its own, your young readers will likely want the rest of the series. With a main character who exemplifies bravery, ingenuity and perseverance, without ever being even a tiny bit preachy, parents will be happy to oblige their kids and buy it.

For the entire Blade of the Sea series:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

Apprentice Cat by Virginia Ripple

When Toby is paired with Lorn Ribaldy to begin their apprenticeship and lifelong magical partnership, they aren’t told it is a conditional acceptance to the elite magic academy. Some believe only cats of aristocratic backgrounds belong in the school. And then there’s the fact of Lorn’s uncle, found plotting against the Counsel, his cat partner murdered by his hand and in complete mental breakdown. Toby and Lorn seek to prove the innocence of Lorn’s uncle and learn to trust each other, all while keeping up with their school work.

This book is listed for kids 9 to 18 but I would recommend it for middle school kids as it may be thematically complex for younger readers and a bit predictable for older readers. It will appeal to kids who enjoy modern fantasy novels.  There is a strong focus on values from a specifically Christian viewpoint with subsequent books encouraging truth seeking over blind following.

The first chapter of the book is more of a prologue, the kind often found in popular genre fiction. Not expecting that, I found it confusing. Also, I hate cats. I put the book down with no intention of picking it up again. But my brain kept reminding me of the quality of the writing so I gave it another go. Apprentice Cat is not only well written, it is an excellent story. The author balances the adventure of the main story line well with Toby and Lorn’s struggle to find their place in a new school.

For parents of precocious readers: Just as the Harry Potter series got darker in book four, the second book in this series may not be appropriate for younger readers. Fortunately, the first book stands on its own and parents can “discover” the rest of the series when their child is older.

Follow the continuing adventures of Toby and Lorn:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

The Treacherous Secret (Fairendale Book 1) by L.R. Patton

Theo and his sister Hazel come from a family poor in material things but rich in generosity. Prince Virgil is their closest friend. He loves them because they never treat him different for being a prince. But Theo has a secret, he is a boy who can do magic. In a land where girls are gifted with magic and practice it openly, a boy with magic is dangerous because he can challenge the throne. The king and his eldest son are supposed to be the only males born with the gift. When Theo makes a mistake and Prince Virgil learns his secret, the prince is torn between fear of losing what is his and love for his friend.

The Fairendale series is written for 8 to 12 year olds. The writing style is a little old fashioned and may turn off young people accustomed to the fast paced, dialog heavy books common to modern children’s literature. However, kids who enjoy the fantasy genre or classic novels will appreciate a book that doesn’t speak down to them. The complex story with interweaving storylines will also appeal to parents and maybe even teens.

While most new fairy tales are either derivative of stories we already know or have an ironic tone and modern sensibility, Fairendale feels like a place L.R. Patton discovered while wandering in the enchanted forest where such stories live. And as all fairy tales did before the time of Disney, it shows that life is complex and things can go wrong even when you try to do what is right. And don’t we all need to know we too can get through even when it seems like everything is against us?

Readers will be eager to learn what happens next so be prepared to get the rest of the series upon completion of The Secret.

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

Yaakov the Pirate Hunter by Nathaniel Wyckoff

In this near future adventure Yaakov Peretz, his family and their collection of robot helpers travel to the island of Djerba to keep the world’s oldest Torah scroll from being stolen by pirates. If this sounds like the plot for Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’re not far off. However, set in the year 2025, the book appeals to scientists and inventors as much as is does to historians.

Yaakov the Pirate Hunter is one of those rare books that is written at a middle school level but appropriate to younger children, making it an excellent choice for kids who read above their grade level. Its focus on Jewish history and customs may be interesting to a child preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah to help develop a greater sense of Jewish identity in the modern world. With an exciting story line, it is accessible to a broad audience and parents of any faith will appreciate the focus on values.

The nerd in me loved this book. The author gave us a glimpse of the future of graphene technology, the history and culture of the Jewish people, and robots. While the writing may be a little dry in places for reluctant readers, many will quickly become immersed in the story and wonder when they will be able to own the same devices as the Peretz family.

Follow the continuing adventures of Yaakov Peretz and his family:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time by Marti Dumas

Jaden Toussaint spent 10 glorious minutes on his father’s cell phone and now he wants more. JT starts a campaign to get more screen time, with his kindergarten teacher an unknowing accomplice in his scheme. Using a combination of scientific analysis, ingenuity and ninja dancing, will Jaden Toussaint be able to achieve his goal?

Marketers may find this book problematic because it’s above the level of most entry novels, but the protagonist is in kindergarten, making it difficult to define a target audience. Families who love reading will ignore the marketers’ dilemma and enjoy a well told story. The lively text makes it fun to read aloud, but be certain everyone can see the illustrations by Marie Muravski. It is possible to miss the tone and meaning without them. This book may best be enjoyed by precocious readers with an advanced sense of humor who share Jaden Toussaint’s outrage at the lack of homework in kindergarten.

I loved this book and read it out loud to my family. My teenagers rolled their eyes. How could they take a book seriously when the main character wanted homework? No one wants homework. My kids clearly don’t remember creating their own homework assignments at that age. But even they admitted that despite the unbelievable premise, the book was lots of fun. The only concern is that the pictures don’t always line up properly with the text in the Kindle version so it is best to get a hard copy if you can.

You may also enjoy these continuing adventures of Jaden Toussaint:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

PI Penguin and the Case of the Missing Bottle by Bec J Smith

In this book P.I. Penguin helps his dolphin friend find his missing bottle. They ask questions and follow leads until the lost bottle is found. Along the way we meet many denizens of the deep, drawn in brilliant colors with a child-like aesthetic. While PI Penguin is able to help his friends, he has spent the past five months unable to find his missing parents, adding a sorrowful note at the end of an otherwise uplifting story.

This read aloud book is rhythmic with different rhyming words on each page. While many books can seem pedantic with iambic tetrameter couplets, P.I. Penguin sprinkles the rhymes generously throughout each page, making it fun to read and providing emergent readers more opportunities to connect sounds with letters. There is a glossary of tricky words to help children grow their vocabulary along with their reading brains.

The book is gorgeously illustrated by Adit Galih, with pictures simple enough to be traced/copied by young readers but rich enough to bring the author’s vision to life. The writing is quick paced and engaging, lending itself well to using different voices for the characters. While the story line is sweet and contains a positive message, some parents may be concerned about certain aspects. Unlike some books for young children, this does not gloss over the realities of wildlife and P.I. speaks first to a shark and then to creatures the shark wanted to eat. Some people might be concerned about the unresolved missing parent sub-plot. Assuming that this is resolved over the course of the series, the best way to address this may be to buy all four books. I think the investment is worth it.

Final note: P.I.Penguin is written in a dyslexia friendly font, making it accessible to struggling readers.  I first learned about such fonts five years ago and have seen a few. This is by far the most elegant and could bring such fonts into the main stream. If you are interested in more books designed to meet the needs of readers with language disabilities you may want to check out the publisher at Aulexic.

You may be interested in the rest of the P.I. Penguin series:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.
Okay, for some reason these images aren’t showing up. But you can still get to the books from the funny little squares.

The Witch With The Glitch by Adam Maxwell

The third book in the Lost Bookshop series, The Witch With The Glitch finds Ivy, Nina and Oswald in a fairy tale. Their adventure includes a witch in a candy house whose spells are going awry, an angry mob carrying pillows and feather dusters, and a less than competent Van Helsing. An errant spell turns our young adventurers into a ghost, vampire and werewolf. Can they find the kidnapped Izzy and bring her to the witch before midnight so they can be returned to their true selves?

The Lost Bookshop series is written for early independent readers. The main characters have more agency than is common in books at this level, making it a good choice for older kids who are slow readers. Serious issues are presented in a lighthearted way which may concern some adult readers who want books to present lessons the kids can use in their lives, but this is unlikely to be a concern for the kids who are the target market. The main lesson in The Witch with the Glitch is imaginative play is fun.

The Witch with the Glitch is loads of fun and keeps the reader wanting more. The fast-paced, short chapters make it an excellent choice for reading aloud at bedtime. The mini cliffhangers at the end of each chapter will encourage children to finish the book under the covers with a flashlight after lights out.

You might also enjoy the rest of the Lost Bookshop series:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

Lost Tomorrow by Donovan Scherer

Before she knew about Darksmith Manor and the tradition of monster making to which she was born, Sunshine Saliente was a girl with a Bunny. In this Alice in Wonderland-esque tale Sunshine and Bunny, her stuffed rabbit, find themselves in the post-apocalyptic World of Tomorrow. The city has a 1950s futurist aesthetic that seems alien to Sunshine, who grew up in a house built into a tree and has never heard of movies. With the people long gone, the robots, programmed to serve the residents, are desperate to bring happiness to the only person to stumble into their city in years.

Lost Tomorrow is written for nine to twelve year-olds but may be enjoyed by younger kids whether they are advanced readers or as a read aloud. The book has more potential danger than most books for this age group with just a touch of gross, making it exciting without being scary. While the Deus ex machina solution to Sunshine’s escape may seem a bit clunky to older readers, it suits its target audience. Sunshine’s cheerful cross between flower child and mad scientist is sure to delight readers of all ages.

Lost Tomorrow uses high level vocabulary and complex sentence structure making it a perfect book for advanced readers looking for challenging books written for their age group. Filled with whimsical pen and ink drawings by the author, it is not so dense in appearance as to be inaccessible to reluctant readers. A strong copy editor would have made a few passages more readable and brought the book to the next level of professionalism but it is otherwise a well told and engaging story. I wish the Fear and Sunshine books existed when my own daughter was still in elementary school and I heartily recommend them all for families looking for something they can enjoy together.

You may also enjoy these other books in the Fear and Sunshine series:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

Independently Published Middle Grades Books: Coming soon to a blog near you

It’s been a long time since I blogged a book. Heck, it’s been a long time since I read new kid lit. I miss it. So when my friend Donovan told me there is a shortage of bloggers focusing on self-published middle grades fiction, I almost jumped at the chance to fill that void. We were in public; jumping would have drawn questioning looks.

While I promise you honesty, you’re not going to see any negative reviews on this blog. My mission is to introduce you to books that should be a part of your collection, whether that is a bookshelf in your home or you oversee the children’s section of a public library. None of us benefit when I highlight a new author trying to make a name for themselves just to tarnish that name. If I can’t recommend a book, I’ll feature something else.

I can generally tell when what is good and what I like don’t perfectly overlap and will do my best to account for different personal tastes. That being said, I avoid books that are best when read in a high pitched sing-songy voice where the parents save the day and there’s a nice little moral at the end. I’m not against parents. I am a parent. I totally respect Sally Jackson and Fancy Nancy’s parents. They know that we adults exist to give our kiddos the tools they need to make their own way in the world. Books that inspire our kids to explore their passions and expand their horizons are an important part of that toolbox.

I’m super excited about this journey and hope you’ll follow along. If you like what I’m doing and know any children’s librarians, please point them toward this blog. If you are a librarian, leave a comment and let me know. I’ll turn pink with joy.