“Breaking Sky”

This adrenaline-fueled debut by Cori McCarthy may be this year’s Hunger Games or Divergent. Futuristic America is in trouble, but a group of “elite teen fighter pilots” are here to save the day. Add in great character development, a massive military secret, a dash of angsty romance, and a possible film deal with Sony Pictures, and we’ve got ourselves a summer hit!

I like that this dials back the violence of The Hunger Games and the romance of the Divergent series, without losing any gritty detail or fast-paced action. I like that the main character is another strong female (Chase Harcourt, call sign “Nyx”) protagonist with some very real flaws. Chase is not always easy to like; she can be aggressive, snarky, and not much of a team player. But I think that’s what helps keep the book grounded somewhat. Yes, it’s quite a far-fetched premise, but most YA fantasy books tend to be that way. Chase’s character and the strong supporting characters really set this apart from the vast pool of futuristic/dystopian teen lit at the moment. No official word on a sequel yet, but if that does happen and if the movie rights go forward, I think this is a title we may be hearing of a lot. And that would be fine by me!

Disability in Kidlit

School Library Journal posted a nice article with an interview with one of the editors of this site last week for Autism Awareness Day and I’ve been meaning to share. I subscribe to Disability in Kidlit’s posts and have found them to be an invaluable resource for thinking about many issues related to disability and diversity.

The site’s mission states: “Disability in Kidlit is dedicated to discussing the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult literature. We publish articles, reviews, interviews, and discussions, examining this topic from various angles–but always from the disabled perspective.”

From the homepage you can find their latest posts, including think-pieces, book reviews, and author interviews. I also recommend checking out their content page for a breakout list of entries.

Books like “El Deafo”, “Wonder”, and “Out of My Mind” have attained national popularity in recent years, reflecting a more open-minded view of diversity in middle-grade and YA literature, which is really exciting! As a professional (and someone without a disability) I find this site to be a great supplement to books like the ones I mentioned as a way for me to think through some larger issues and understand what makes for a “successful” portrayal of life with a disability.

“My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!)”

I finished this charming middle grade debut by Alison DeCamp in about two sittings and didn’t stop smiling the whole time I read it. 11-year-old Stan is a refreshing, winsome protagonist on the hunt for his formerly-dearly-departed but now, as it turns out, just-long-lost father in 1800s Michigan. DeCamp has written her folksy story in the style of a scrapbook filled with 19th and 20th century photos (on top of which are Stan’s own doodles; think a less scribbled “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” set on the Western Frontier) and the effect is funny and clever and delightfully over the top. It’s always nice to see a solid preteen outing on the YA shelves, and I think this will have a wide appeal for boys and girls, history buffs and comedians. There are some lovely, poignant moments as Stan struggles to grow up, fit in, and find his “manliness” surrounded by a group of colorful lumberjacks. Just an all-around great outing. I can’t wait to see what we read from DeCamp next!

“Grasshopper Jungle”

This is one of those books that seems to defy a compact and tidy review. So please, bear with me while I try to convey the weirdness and brilliance that is Smith’s latest outing. For sure, Smith is a brilliant storyteller. I feel absolutely confident that his writing can stand on its own next to great modern writers like Vonnegut. Other editors and authors are hailing this work of his a “masterpiece” and I’m inclined to agree. (It also won the Michael Printz award this winter.) He paints a vivid picture of 21st century America at the same time that he chronicles one hormonally-challenged adolescent facing the end of the world surrounded by 6-ft-tall mutant grasshoppers. I know, I know, but it works.

This book of his also reminded me of Libba Bray’s “Going Bovine” and Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” because of its grand scope and quirky, dry humor. Older students who read “Holes” may also enjoy the way the protagonist weaves his own daily struggles into the ever expanding “spiderweb” of his family history. As with so many great YA reads, this is part end-of-the-world story and part coming-of-age. But it is so, so much more. For starters, it’s hilarious. Protagonist Austin Szerba is a mouthy, smart, funny, irreverent 16-year-old living in middle of nowhere Iowa. He thinks about sex a lot. A lot. He and his best friend have just accidentally unleashed an unstoppable army of bugs on the world. It’s over-the-top and absurd. But it’s poignant and heartwarming, too. There are some great moments of love, friendship, and compassion throughout. Austin is at once cocky and confused, and his very authentic voice never falters.

I recommend this book to older high school students and young adults (15+) for its frank discussions of sexuality, drug use, and language. Adult audiences who enjoy sarcastic wit and a fantastic sucker-punch ending will also enjoy.

“The Truth About Twinkie Pie”

Here’s a brand-new middle grade outing to give to future readers of Sarah Addison Allen. Gigi has a strong, southern voice and is facing all the drama and questions that come with being a 12-year-old girl. There seems to be a fad of books dealing with food (especially sweets) for youth and adult readers alike. This book didn’t feel as shallow as many of those outings (“Snicker of Magic” – I’m looking at you) but rather took on some real issues in Gigi’s life. The supporting characters are mostly strong, and I liked that friendship dramas and crushes seemed to take a backseat to the driving issue of finding one’s true self. There are a few mature themes (a boozy and world-weary mother at one point) that might keep this best suited to 5th and up. Otherwise, a strong choice for the middle grade crowd.