Sarah Prineas is a fantasy author living in Iowa. Her current series is The Magic Thief for children.
Thanks to He Who Shall Not Be Named, there has been plenty of room lately on library and bookstore shelves for fantasy novels aimed at young readers, and for SF as well. Often in the SF/F community such books are referred to as “YA” or “Young Adult,” but in the children’s literature world we break that category down a bit more. There are picture books, of course, and then “chapter books,” which are for more independent readers around ages 6 to 8. After that we have novels, beginning with “Middle Grade” or MG for readers from 8 or 9 to 12. Then come “upper MG” for readers aged 10+, and then YA which, depending on content, can range from 12+ to 14+ and even 16+. There’s lots of overlap, plenty of kid readers who read up or down, and there are lots of adult readers who groove on YA and even MG.
Anyway, there are lots of MG and upper MG books out there that might not get the same degree of attention in the blogosphere as the hot YA books do, mainly because their readership isn’t generally online in the same way that actual teens are. Yet these books are worthy of our attention. I’ve picked out a few recent and forthcoming books, ones that I’d say read “up” better than most; that is, MG fantasy or science fiction books that kids love and that adult or YA readers might find a really good read, too.
The Boy at the End of the World by Greg van Eekhout (Bloomsbury, June 2011). This science fiction novel takes the YA postapocalyptic trend and brings it to the upper MG reader, but it’s not Hunger Games-lite by any means. It’s the story of Fisher, who is “born” into a world under siege—the “ark” in which his body was stored is under attack. Fisher escapes into a landscape littered with the ruins of our civilization. He’s been programmed as a “fisher,” so he’s got some rudimentary skills; he’s joined by a semi-functional robot named Click and a baby pygmy mammoth named Protein. From there the novel is a survival-road-trip-buddy story with some cool eye-kicks and lots of humor. And it’s a novel that asks serious questions about what it means to be human and about the choices we’re making as a species.
The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier (Knopf, Feb 2011). Neumeier also publishes adult fantasy (her Griffin Mage trilogy is the best I’ve seen from her publisher Orbit), and this book is listed as YA, but I found it to be totally appropriate for the upper MG reader as well. It’s the story of a boy who wants to fly and a girl who wants to be a wizard and their fight against an enemy who would destroy their floating-island home. It’s also about grief and recovery, and about finding your way in the world even if it means breaking some rules. Neumeier’s prose is beautiful and riveting and her gorgeous descriptions expand the scope of the reader’s imagination. If you like this one, try Neumeier’s worthy first book, The City in the Lake (Knopf, 2009).
The Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner (Delacorte, Sept 2010). A secondary world fantasy set in a city where children are literally leashed to their parent for their “safety.” One girl, Goldie, chafes against her restricted life and escapes into the Museum which, like the TARDIS, is a lot bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. Her sidekicks are the boy Toadspit and a dog who can appear as a small fluffy tame thing or a monstrous wolf-like creature. Goldie uses her budding thief skills to save the city—at least until the sequel. The novel is brimming with imaginative details and compelling secondary characters, and it’s a good, fun read for kids or MG-appreciating adults. Look for the sequel, City of Lies, in Sept 2011.
Seven Sorcerers by Caro King (Aladdin, May 2011). This book sparkles with inventiveness and fun. The plucky girl hero, Nin, discovers that her brother has vanished and that nobody remembers him, nobody except Nin herself. To get him back, she has to reluctantly ally with a bogeyman, Skerridge, and a strange boy named Jonas, and go into the “Drift,” a magical land that is beset by a creeping plague that is destroying everything magical. Some of the ideas in the book—the ‘pearls of memory,’ the Gabriel hounds, etc—are beautifully realized. The characterization is terrific; the bogeyman Skerridge is a particular highlight. It’s a satisfying, fun read.
Scumble, by Ingrid Law (Dial, August 2010). Law’s first novel, Savvy, got all the attention because it was a Newbery honor book in 2008, but I found its companion book, Scumble, to be a more rewarding read. A boy named Ledger Kale has just discovered his “savvy,” which isn’t simply a magical power; it’s more complicated than that, and it presents Ledge with huge challenges. In order to “scumble,” or learn to control, his savvy, Ledge is sent off to stay with a bunch of his crazy relatives at their remote ranch. One of the great delights of the book is all the secondary characters. It’s a huge cast, but every single one of them is wonderfully distinctive, from old Grandpa Bomba, cousin Rocket, and young Samson (who needs a savvy book of his own, I think). In some ways this is a sprawling book with lots of characters and plot lines running all over the place, but the author ties everything up at the end. It’s a wondrous read.
Briefly, some more good MG and upper MG reads:
- The Invisible Order: Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley (Egmont, Sept 2010) and its sequel, The Invisible Order: The Fire King (Sept 2011)
- Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little Brown BYR, May 2010). (Yes, I know this is billed as YA, but I wanted to include it here because at its heart it’s a MG adventure story).
- Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer (Dial, June 2010). A delightful, magical MG set in the same world as the more adult Sorcery and Cecelia books that Stevermer co-authored with Patricia Wrede.
Forthcoming MG and upper MG books to look for:
- The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet (HarperCollins, January 2012). This beautifully written book is about a brave and good-hearted girl hero and the magical peril she encounters when her family moves to Paris.
- Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond Press, Sept 2011). A story with the crystalline clarity of a snowflake; it’s about friendship and the power of the imagination. Hazel and Jack are best friends until Jack disappears into the forest with a woman made of ice. The lines between reality and imagination are blurred in this fantasy based on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.”