And I’m trying it again! This year I’m starting with this year’s brand new category: middle grades.
Two warnings and an acknowledgment before we start. First, be prepared for spoilers, since I can’t talk about books without talking about story and theme. Second, these are only my own thoughts as a private and opinionated reader. I encourage everyone to share their thoughts, whether in agreement with mine or not. And my acknowledgment that in many cases (though only one of the books in this category, interestingly), books were provided in PDF format by the publishers, for review by Whitney Academy members — a courtesy for which I’m most grateful.
And now, on to the books!
Case File 13: Zombie Kid, by J. Scott Savage. Published by Harper.
Halloween is the favorite holiday of Carter, Nick, and Angelo, 3 sixth-grade boys who take turns coming up with the scariest monster costumes they can find. What happens, though, when one of them starts to become a zombie — for real? That’s the challenge Nick and his friends have to face after he goes to Louisiana with his family for the funeral of his great-aunt Lenore.
This is a lighthearted adventure book, written to appeal primarily to preteen boys. Fun illustrations, asides to the reader at the beginning and end, and chatty chapter titles (e.g., “Seriously, Don’t You Wish Your Great-Aunt Was Like Lenore?”) add to the atmosphere. The general tone is perhaps best summed up by the boys’ reaction when they realize that Nick is turning into a zombie: “For a second none of the boys said a word. Then they all shouted the same thing at exactly the same time. ‘Awesome!’” (p. 103).
However, being a zombie brings problems, as the boys quickly learn. Their courage and ingenuity are tested as they have to battle supernatural opponents to get Nicked turned back into a normal kid — while foiling the Zombie King’s plan to take over the world.
One of the things that sets most middle grades sf&f apart from the stuff written from older readers is an approach to worldbuilding that focuses more on the effect they create when they are invoked within a story than on internal consistency or rigorous thinking-through of basic assumptions and their implications. And that’s not a problem for a story like this one, even though the supernatural elements mostly serve purposes of comedy rather than consistency. The book features a slight thematic element, too, as the boys get their revenge on the traditional school bully, then realize that they’ve acted like bullies themselves. Mostly, though, it’s just a fun story that doesn’t try to be anything more than that.
Freakling, by Lana Krumwiede. Published by Candlewick Press.
12-year-old Taemon lives in the city of Deliverance, where instead of using their hands, everyone uses their psi — a form of telekinesis — for everything from eating to sports. But Taemon has an unusual gift: he can send his psi inside things to investigate them. Then his psi goes away after he uses it to rescue himself from his older brother Yens, and he winds up being sent to the Powerless Colony, while Yens is celebrated as the True Son who sets the rules of psi for the New Cycle on behalf of the Heart of the Earth. But when the priests of Deliverance use knowledge from a forbidden library to plan war with their psiless neighbors, Taemon must return to the city to rescue them all.
One of the main attractions of this book is its worldbuilding. Krumwiede does an excellent job of showing us an interestingly different society — founded by the “prophet” Nathan 200 years before when he and his friends had fled the Republik that wanted to use their gifts to wage war. Now their society is dominated by priests who have become corrupt and by a set of rules that prevent those with psi from using it in unauthorized ways — supposedly including harm to others.
Unfortunately, the worldbuilding also represents one of the book’s major shortcomings. It’s impossible to imagine that the society Krumwiede describes could last for any length of time. For example, Krumwiede postulates a society where it’s forbidden to cut open dead bodies, so that Taemon has no idea that lungs exist. Such ignorance is necessary, because with that kind of knowledge, people with psi could easily harm others. (This is one reason why Taemon’s gift of exploring the inside of things using psi is forbidden.) But it’s impossible to conceive that any society which raises animals for food could be ignorant of lungs — or that any group of exiles could so thoroughly turn their back on their previous knowledge as to forget that lungs exist. The worldbuilding isn’t well thought through. That’s a problem in a case like this where one of the major themes is the society’s continued viability. Taemon’s ultimate choice (as the genuine True Son) to end psi for everyone seems both inevitable, given the problems with it that have arisen during the course of the book, and something of a copout: pulling the plug instead of figuring out how a society such as this could have actually worked.
I find the ending dissatisfying in other ways as well. On a thematic level, it’s hard to know why Taemon was selected as the True Son, or why it is that the Heart of the Earth should accept his choices. This reflects what seems to me a certain arbitrariness throughout the story: events happen the way they do in order to further the plot, rather than arising organically from an imagined reality.
None of which prevents this from being a good, exciting read with an intriguing setting that raises interesting ethical questions from a middle grades perspective. I just wish more thought had been put into the story’s underlying coherence on the levels of plot, theme, and world-creation.
Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale. Published by Bloomsbury.
I’ll start by warning that it’s impossible to talk about this book without giving spoilers for its prequel, Princess Academy, a Newbery Honor Book. Indeed, of all the books I’ve encountered so far that are sequels in this year’s Whitney nominees, this is the first where I felt I had to read the previous book in order to understand what was going on. Not a negative (or positive) comment: just an observation.
The book starts with Miri and other girls from the Princess Academy on Mount Eskel coming to the capital for the winter, at Britta’s invitation, officially for her wedding but also, in Miri’s case, so she can continue her education. Unfortunately, the capital holds personal challenges that strain Miri’s loyalties, and intrigue that place her and all her friends in danger.
Princess Academy: Palace of Stone continues the theme of social change from the previous book, except that in this case, the challenge isn’t getting a fair price from merchants through collective action, but rather transformation of pretty near an absolute monarchy to a constitutional representative government. It’s impressively done, with the larger conflict fully integrated with the story of Miri’s education and personal growth in the capital. In all these contexts, Miri’s crucial discovery is that where it might seem that she has to choose one valuable thing or another, in actual fact it’s possible to have both: get an education and still return to Mount Eskel, retain your identity while expanding your perspective, achieve justice for the poor while avoiding bloody revolution, save the prisoner and the painting.
It’s an optimistic message, which surely is part of what qualifies this as a middle grades book, despite Miri’s age in this book (16?) and the large focus given to her love interest Peder (who also has come to the capitol to learn how to work stone) and his rival-scholar (and revolutionary) Timon. In the end, I feel like Hales earns her thematic message, even if the resolution of the political situation is a little too quick and tidy.
Miri’s voice is a delight. The letters she writes for her sister Marda at home — planning to send them all when winter ends and the pass opens — make a good vehicle to observe Miri’s self-reflection. Linder-speech — a kind of telepathic ability developed by the miners on Mount Eskel to communicate through the stone they quarry — plays a role in the story as well.
I highly recommend the Princess Academy books.
The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen. Published by Scholastic.
This book reminded me a lot of The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, a Newbery Honor book I read recently. Like The Thief, it features a young scamp who is not what he seems. Like the main character in The Thief, Sage is press-ganged into a mission of deception with the future of a kingdom hanging in the balance — along with a set of other teenage boys who become both his rivals and (in some cases) almost friends. And like The Thief, The False Prince ends with an unexpected reversal of fortunes that has us as readers cheering for characters we’ve come to like, and feeling like the villains have gotten what they deserve. Both books also feature a theme of belated familial reconciliation, though it’s more prominent in The Thief.
There are also differences of course. Nielsen’s worldbuilding seems a little more generic. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of magic or supernatural presence in this book, as there is in The Thief. I also felt there were times when the attitudes, diction, knowledge base, and reactions of the orphans (not just Sage) hit a false note — though I recall having similar issues in The Thief as well.
I also admit to a certain stylistic irritation at words used in ways that aren’t precisely correct. Like Sage’s reaction to seeing a death of a fellow teen: “I’d gone numb. Literally. I felt nothing.” Well, no. If Sage had plunged into ice-cold water and then been rescued, he might have been literally numb, but this use of “numb” is precisely not literal but figurative. Or the use of “vigil” as a synonym for guard, and the description of the 20 members of the council that chooses the next king as “regents.” (When you’re talking about a kingdom, a regent is someone with the authority of the king in the king’s incapacity or absence.) All minor stuff which a good editor should have caught, but it made it harder for me to get into the book. (My irritation went away once I was caught up in the story.)
All of which are mostly minor quibbles. In general, I would say this is a good book for those who like middle grades/YA fantasy — one I enjoyed and would definitely recommend. I look forward to reading the sequel, The Runaway King (now available).
The Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero, by Matt Peterson. Published by Bonneville (CFI).
This is the tale of what happens with a group of deacons on a camping trip, told from the point of view of Andrew, the newest member of the quorum — featuring a lot of laughs, some spiritual moments and praying, excitement, and a dramatic rescue.
The book works hard at reflecting a 12-year-old perspective, but doesn’t always get the voice right (in my opinion) and often assumes a larger knowledge base about the world around us than 12-year-olds typically possess. In short, while attempting the voice of a 12-year-old, to a great extent it’s a 12-year-old’s experiences seen retrospectively through adult eyes.
I also feel the need to point out that the title doesn’t really fit the story. Andrew isn’t really a misfit hero — not any more than any other 12-year-old — and this isn’t a sequence of tales about that character’s adventures. A much more accurate title would be something like The Camping Trip. But I suppose that wouldn’t have sold so many copies.
So, in summary: the plotting is good. The message is good. Overall, the story is enjoyable. There are probably items here that would amuse 12-year-old readers, but I suspect adults will mostly enjoy this book more (and find it funnier) than middle schoolers. A good effort — and it’s good to see someone exploring dimensions of Mormon experience in this genre — though not Whitney worthy, in my view.
General Comments and Observations
- Of these five books, only The Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero was published by an LDS Publisher. This was also the only book with a Mormon focus, and the only one that doesn’t qualify as speculative fiction/sf&f (though as pointed out, in the case of The False Prince that’s because of a generic fantasy-type setting rather than any specifically fantastic elements).
- Although three of the books are written by women, only one — Princess Academy: Palace of Stone — has a female protagonist.
- Three of the books have a 12-year-old protagonist. Sage of The False Prince is almost 15 when the story starts, and Miri is about 16 according to my calculations.
- The False Prince and The Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero are written in first person. The others are in third person.
- All of the books feature an external challenge that provides much of the focus for the story. In contrast, only Princess Academy: Palace of Stone has a major focus on internal growth and change.
- Potential romantic relationships range from nonexistent (in Case File 13: Zombie Kid, girls feature only as archrivals) to sources of embarrassed speculation (The Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero), hinted at for the future (Freakling), substantial plot element (The False Prince), to major theme of the story (Princess Academy: Palace of Stone). Only in the last of these, however, do we have the elements of an actual relationships happening on-stage.
- The line between YA and middle grades is one I have a hard time grasping. Three of the books — Case File 13: Zombie Kid, Freakling, and The Epic Tales of a Misfit Hero — seem clearly middle grades, for various reasons. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are also the three stories with 12-year-old protagonists. In the case of the other two, I’m really not sure why they’re in this category rather than YA.
Each of these books was an enjoyable reading experience overall. Mostly for reasons that should already be clear, my top choice is Princess Academy: Palace of Stone — partly because there simply seems to be more to it than to most of the others, and partly because the writing is simply so clean. After that comes The False Prince. The other three, while they have their own strengths, aren’t quite up to the same level in my opinion.
Which may suggest that I simply prefer stories that are more like YA to middle grades. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, though. Thematic importance doesn’t have to vanish when you get to middle grades literature, as a variety of classics of the genre have shown. Likewise, while there’s an inevitable simplification in world-complexity that comes with middle grades writing, this doesn’t prevent writers from thinking through their foundational premises.