Dessa is our Middle Grade and Young Adult guest book reviewer!
Dessa Kuritz recently finished seventh grade. Her favorite genre is adventurous fantasy. She also enjoys science fiction and the occasional mystery. She especially enjoys books with complex characters, a twisting plot, and descriptive language that makes a world more compelling. Dessaloves reading, taekwondo, running, playing her violin, a big dog named Sammi, and of course, Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore.
First, there’s Marion, whose mother calls her “the grave little mountain”. With her father dead, her mother collapsing from grief, and her older sister longing for freedom, she is the one holding her family together. Marion’s only just arrived on Sawkill Island, and she doesn’t even have time for dreams.
Then comes Zoey, hair the orange color of fire and temper just as hot. Her father is Sawkill’s police chief, but she’s afraid he’s hiding something important. She just hasn’t figured out what that something is.
Last but certainly not least is Val Mortimer. Born into a family of survivors, women who deal with the Devil to save their lives, Val’s will has never been her own. Sawkill Island legend tells of the Collector. To most people, he’s the bogeyman. To Val, he’s her master.
Zoey is suspicious of Val. Sawkill girls go missing, and Val is best friends with each one. Marion, new to the island, doesn’t see a monster. She sees a golden-haired goddess who could never do anything wrong. That changes when her own sister is the next missing girl. The woods of Sawkill hide evil, and Zoey, Marion, and Val are the only ones who even have a chance to stop it. Sawkill Girls is an intense story that hinges on the dynamic tensions of friendship, love, and courage. Unfortunately, this book also has its own tensions that can be difficult for a reader to reconcile. While the beginning gave a strong image and sense of the island and was crowded with impending emotion, it was slow. And when the plot did pick up, it became almost too rushed. The story was anchored by the three main characters. They touched me, because they aren’t perfect. They struggle to cope with their problems, they get into girl fights, and they are suspicious of one another. But they are beautiful because when they need to put aside all their differences and fight side by side, they do. The writing describing the girls and the story was sharp and clear, but at points was almost too detailed, leaving little room for the reader’s interpretation and interrupting engagement with the flow of events. Sawkill Girls is a dense yet frantic story of the struggles and triumphs of three very different girls. It packs a powerful message to any woman or girl wrestling with sexism, confidence, and emotional turbulence - that we are strong, and though sometimes we need another hand to help lift our burdens, we can triumph. I definitely recommend this book to young adult readers rather than middle grade, not just because of the density of the story but also because of the frequent profanity and brief romantic scenes. Adults, especially women, will enjoy this story, and might take away deeper messages than kids will.
What if moonlight was magic? What if paper birds could fly? What if sorrow could become hope? Enthralling and well-crafted, The Girl Who Drank The Moon is about the impossible becoming possible, a girl’s struggle to find out who she is, and the wonder of magic. Magic. It fills Xan’s body. Xan, the “witch in the woods,” is extremely kind. She lives with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon who thinks he is Simply Enormous. None of them know what to think about the Protectorate, where each year, a baby is sacrificed to the “evil witch” that supposedly poisons the woods around their town. The citizens of the Protectorate live simple lives, nourished by The Bog and covered by a cloud of sorrow, which is made heavier each year by the Day of Sacrifice. Each year, Xan makes the journey from her home in the woods to the Protectorate, rescuing the abandoned babies and bringing them to loving families on the other side of the woods. She feeds these children with starlight on the journey, but one year, she mistakenly feeds one child moonlight. The child becomes suffused with magic, and so Xan decides to raise her, naming her Luna. Of course, there are consequences. Magic becomes both a blessing and a curse. A man from the Protectorate is determined to kill the witch to save his child at the same time that Luna’s magic is beginning to emerge. Kelly Barnhill’s story of witches, children, and ordinary people becoming extraordinary quickly becomes a puzzle, with pieces clicking into place faster and faster as the story progresses. The Girl Who Drank The Moon is written for a slightly younger audience, but is also engaging for middle grade readers and has a depth of imagination and suggests questions that might make it intriguing to young adult audiences. Stories within the story could also make it a fun read for younger readers and parents to share.
The man who created this clue had an IQ of 230. Mine’s 220 at best, so it’s going to take me a little while to figure this thing out.” Meet Charlotte “Charlie” Thorne. She’s only 12, but she’s already almost as smart as Einstein. That’s fantastic, because the CIA needs her to solve Einstein’s greatest puzzle - the hint leading to his last equation, known as Pandora. Pandora could solve humanity’s energy problems or it could fall into the hands of the bad guys and be used to pretty much blow up the world. Charlie has to use her smarts to outwit the criminals on her tail in a race to find and solve Einstein’s last clue as to the whereabouts of Pandora. Stuart Gibbs is back with another fast-paced comedic mystery, filled with exciting chase scenes and intriguing snapshots of history, some real and some fictionalized. Charlie Thorne, snarky and brilliant, will draw in younger readers, while complex connections and a clever plot will keep a middle grade audience engaged.
Fast-paced, relentlessly unexpected, and delightfully scary, Starters will leave you craving the sequel. Sixteen-year-old Callie lives with her seven-year-old brother Tyler and her friend Michael in an abandoned building. After the Spore Wars killed her parents a year ago, only Starters, kids and teens younger than 20, and Enders, anyone above age 60, are left. In this new world, Starters will do anything to survive while the Enders bask indifferently in their wealth. In desperate need for money, Callie finds Prime Destinations, where teenagers rent their bodies to the over-privileged Enders who can afford to experience being young again. When Callie submits herself to the company, a chip is placed in her head to connect her to her renter. She falls asleep, expecting to wake up when her rental is over, but the chip malfunctions, and Callie wakes up in the life of the Ender who was using her body. As she begins to uncover dangerous secrets about the people surrounding her, she finds herself wondering if the money she will earn for renting out her body is worth risking the life she will go back to - if she survives. There is almost no spot in Starters where the urgency and uncertainty of the next page will allow you to put this book down. Seriously, please leave a comment if you find an easy stopping point past chapter 3! The plot twists in this book are complicated enough to keep you interested but not so confusing that they interrupt engagement with the story and characters. The main characters are interesting, but the haunting and detailed story is what propels you through the book, from the alluring cover art right through to the cliffhanger ending. This novel is a wonderful pick for middle grade and young adult readers who enjoy fiction that speculates about just how much humans are capable of destructively warping our society and ourselves. The mix of witty banter, glancing blows from social and moral issues, and snowballing plot make it a potential pick for adults as well.
Alpha Tyler Jones - the top-ranked graduating cadet at the Aurora Academy, trained to do whatever missions the people (human or otherwise) of the Milky Way need.
Legionnaire Scarlett Jones - a saucy diplomat who happens to be Tyler’s twin sister.
Legionnaire Cat Brannock - the best pilot in the academy who’s only scared of her own emotions.
Legionnaires Zila Madran, Kal Gilwraeth, and Finian de Karran de Seel - the misfits of Aurora Academy who somehow landed in Tyler’s squad.
Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley - the rescued mystery girl who has been asleep for 200 years.
Meet squad 312. After Tyler rescues Aurora, the girl who was thought to be dead two centuries ago, what begins as an ordinary supply mission turns dark. The squad discovers that Aurora has escaped quarantine and snuck aboard their ship. She has powers that she is unable to control and soon she has the squad fleeing from aliens and stealing relics of a species said to have gone extinct long before the oldest known species still around began recording history. The squad begins to discover what and who they can trust as a galactic war that began a million years ago rekindles. Fans of Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s Unearthed will enjoy the bold, sassy heroines of Aurora Rising. The story itself has some mature elements more suitable for young adult than middle grade readers. The characters are diverse (in both personality and species), and so relatable to a wide audience. Adults might also enjoy Aurora Rising. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different member of squad 312, helping you get to know each one a little better. I highly recommend this story to YA readers who enjoy science fiction set in a future where humanity is not alone in the galaxy and must adjust to fundamentally different cultures, customs, and concerns.
This is a story for readers who wish the characters in their books were real. Matilda “Tilly” Pages has a vivid imagination and a voracious appetite for books. That’s expected - her grandparents own Pages & Co, the bookstore she lives above in modern-day London. Tilly’s mother disappeared years ago, and she has no idea who her father is. All she has left of her mother is a necklace with a bee pendant. When Tilly starts seeing characters from her favorite stories in Pages & Co, she thinks she must be imagining things. But her grandparents tell her otherwise. As Tilly begins befriending characters from her books and venturing into their stories, she learns that there is more to book wandering than fun and games. She must learn the dangers of her books and navigate the ability to become part of them. Tilly and her grandparents are relatable characters, with curious and kind personalities. Readers who enjoyed Story Thieves will enjoy The Bookwanders, as might readers looking for a lighter version of Inkheart. The Bookwanderers illuminates the power and the beauty of imagination, and offers readers a literal sense of what it means to immerse yourself in the world of books. I recommend this book to slightly younger readers from ages 9 to 14 who like fun fiction stories, mystery, and an exciting plot.
My first thought when I finished this book was “What? No!” Fortunately, it is only the first book in the Titans series. In this book, readers get introduced to the titans Astrea and Zephyr, whose society has quarantined Earth and disdains humans. But the Titans’ planet, Titus, has problems too - quarrels with Olympians, detention, and secret prisons. Both humans and titans are forced to put aside their disputes when their worlds are brought together by alien invaders. Titans captures with humor the fine line between assumptions and reality. I highly recommend this story for readers in grades 4-10 with a soft spot for mythology and excitement. --Dessa
"Families, I reckon, are overrated.” It’s not a surprise that Magpie, an orphan thief in the streets of France, thinks this. What she doesn’t reckon is that she’ll wind up being a part of one. When Magpie is told to steal a box from the Montgolfiers, she thinks it will just put some more coins in her pocket and feed her for another day or two. Instead, she fails to get the box and is forced to go back to the house, only to save their child from near-death and become the Montgolfiers’ maid. In this whirlwind story, an ordinary family goes to the king’s court, an orphan becomes an inventor, and anyone can fly. Perhaps best for younger readers but also enjoyable for middle school readers looking for a fun read with interesting characters in a historical setting. -Dessa
When the spaceship Laika is breached and the dogs Champion, Lopside, Bug, and Daisy are left alone without their humans, they must decide which is more important - their mission or their family. Or is it possible for them to save both? The four dogs you meet in this book have been handpicked and trained specifically for space travel. They are the bravest and smartest dogs on Earth (or off). They have been prepared for any and every situation that could happen. That is, as long as their humans were still on board. But when that changes, the pack must find ways to survive with minimal supplies and a collapsing ship. Voyage of the Dogs is a heartwarming story of love and survival against all odds. I recommend this tale for readers ages 9 to 13, and for science-fiction readers and dog-lovers who enjoy personification and suspense.
- Dessa, grade 7
Walter Mortinson is just becoming a teenager. But his room is already stuffed with remarkable inventions and his heart is just as crowded with conflicting emotions. Deeply touching, Quinn Sosna-Spear’s story manages to harmonize love, despair, humor, and human sympathy. You will read about Cordelia Primpet, who you’ll learn to like as she skirts death. You will read about Horace Odwald Flasterborn, the renowned, self-centered inventor. And you will read about the Mortinson family, their triumphs and their tragedies, and their concealed past. The Remarkable Inventions of Walter Mortinson will take you to places you’ve never been, but the characters will make it feel like home. I liked the way the story ended, open to possibilities but not as a cliffhanger. I recommend this book for grades 4 and up, and for anyone who likes relatable characters and is not uncomfortable with some bittersweet mixed with whimsy.
- Dessa, grade 7
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will bring your thoughts about anything else to a complete pause. It is powerful, shocking, and brilliant. Written in the early 1800’s by a nineteen year old woman, it is a story of the limits of human ambition, and how humanity is about more than just being human. Victor Frankenstein is the scientist who creates a monster and gives it life, and then is haunted by his own creation. While his appearance is horrific, the creature begins as innocent and kind, but is not accepted by anyone and slowly begins to magnify and reflect the cruelty inflicted on him. This is what ultimately makes his actions as monstrous as his appearance. Both the scientist and his creation turn blind to almost all of the people around them, focused only on revenge on each other. The ending has a gravity to it that will weigh on your thoughts and feelings. Despite the thought-provoking moral weight of the story, Frankenstein is above all exciting, suspenseful, and frightfully compelling. 200 years and countless retellings have done nothing to dull the original tale.
- Dessa, grade 7
A gripping tale of adventure and courage filled with plot twists, deceptions, and history mysteries. The heroine of the story, Drest, lives an isolated life with her family on a Scottish headland in a Medieval setting, with castles and knights. She has grown up with the stories of her father and her brothers, a great war-band. But when they are captured, she is the only one who can save them. As she sets off on her journey, she meets new people who tell her stories inconsistent with the ones her father told her. She must decide whether her warrior father and brothers are heroes or villains, and must also decide her own way of life and fighting. A wonderful pick for any middle-grade reader who enjoys adventure, plot twists, heroines, and intricate legends.
-Dessa, grade 7
Colored lies, soldier princesses, and kidnapping kings. This book was thrilling and heart-wrenching. A beautiful cover invites you. Complex characters keep you in. I found myself picturing the flow of events as scenes in my head. A great pick for tweens.
“We go now to that dark and terrible origin place where all spells meet their end. (Oh, and make sure to take your gummy vitamins every morning.)” The first in a series, The Serpent’s Secret is a fantastical adventure based on bits and pieces of multiple Hindu tales. Told from the perspective of a 12 year old Indian girl, this story is about her as she realizes what her true identity is, and the journey she takes to prove herself and unite her family once more. It is equal parts humor, danger, and inter-dimensional confusion. Think Rick Riordan with a Hindu twist. I would recommend this book to any fourth-eighth grade who enjoys plot twists, fun, and fantasy.
-Dessa, grade 7
This book was an intricately woven tale of mystery, belief, and long lost stories. A sixteen year old girl grows up in a town where people’s lives are shown on their skin as tattoos. Her faith and perspective are upended as she learns that large parts of her life are based on lies. A stunning story of “blanks” (the un-tattooed), stolen identities, and government tricks falls into place throughout the book. The plot and characters will keep you thinking and feeling. A great pick for young adults who enjoy realistic fiction.
---Dessa, Grade 7
From my seventh grade perspective, this book was engaging, interesting, and fun to read. It explores multiple aspects of Ancient Rome, from Cleopatra’s life all the way to what “fast food” at that time would be like. It is a good way to learn, if you are okay with losing a few details to dry humor. To summarize, I found it to be an engaging book even though some historical detail and subtlety is traded for a laugh and an easier read.
“Her rage holds a delight, a hunger....” Alluring, dangerous, and exciting. Told from the perspective of two main character, each with fierce passions. Each grows into who they are meant to be over the course of the story. The perspective alternates between two girls in their early twenties. As the plot develops, threads connecting these two young women of different times start to make themselves apparent. A wonderful selection for young adult readers who enjoy fantasy, plot twists, and powerful feminine characters.
Dessa, Grade 7
From my seventh grade perspective, I found this to be fun to read and uniquely engaging. It involves plot twists, confusion, trials of family bonds, and brilliant women inventors. I found myself trying to figure out the plot as I was reading, and felt pulled into the story with vigor and enthusiasm. This book is the first in a series. A fun and engaging mystery.
Cloudships, sky pirates, resourceful orphans (some with gills), and daring rescues. A fun, easy, and whimsical read. It also has an attractive cover and beautiful black-and-white illustrations throughout. A good choice for anyone with a taste for fantastical adventure.
From my seventh grade perspective, this book was engaging and revealing. The story alternates between the perspectives of a young US Marine and a teenage Okinawan civilian. This gives the reader a window into both of their lives and two very different views of World War II. It is a book that makes you think and feel. A good piece of historical fiction suitable for young adults.
“The Familiar popped like a bubble above our heads. But we held tight to our knapsacks and kept on walking.” Heart-wrenchingly realistic, this piece of writing will make you think and feel about what we value and how we look at one another. Harbor Me is the gripping story of six sixth-graders, all deemed “special,” because of their academic challenges. All of them have faced hardships in their lives. But when they are forced into a room together, their stories unite them, and help them find strength in each other and themselves. A wonderful pick for any middle grade reader who enjoys realistic fiction, heart-warming experiences, and intriguing thoughts.
- Dessa, grade 7