Category Archives: Middle Grade

The New You by Kathleen Leverich

Welcome to Saturday Shorts, in which we review shorter works such as short stories, novellas, middle-grade books, and graphic novels.

In The New You, Abigail is a young girl who just moved to the big city. She’s got a new step-mother as well and as she adjusts, she realizes she has lost who she used to be and wants to find herself a new identity

the-new-youTitle: The New You
Author: Kathleen Leverich
Series: stand alone
Publish Date: June 1, 2000 Scholastic
Genre: MG Magical Realism
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description: Abigail and self-esteem have not gone hand in hand ever since she transferred to a new school. And the harder she tries to fit in, the more things seem to come out awkward and wrong. But when she makes friends with three savvy older women, gets a fabulously flattering haircut — and ultimately what she earnestly believes is a completely new identity, suddenly things begin to look up. Is it all wishful thinking or a glimpse into the future?

Possible spoilers beyond this point.



Kat Mandu says…

In The New You, Abigail is a young girl who just moved to the big city. She’s got a new step-mother as well and as she adjusts, she realizes she has lost who she used to be and wants to find herself a new identity.

This is an okay coming-of-age story. It’s very young so I put it at lower middle-grade on my mental shelf. The New You was one of the books that I found while going through some of my old books; I couldn’t remember much about it besides that it had a future-meets-present feel, so I reread it. Boy, I wonder if I liked it more back then because my feelings toward it have definitely changed if so.

Abigail has managed to lose her friends, her hometown, and everything else she once was. Now that she’s in a new school and new city, she doesn’t quite know where she fits in. She wants to make friends but doesn’t know how because she doesn’t know if they’ll like her. So she stumbles on a makeover place called The New You in a phone book and decides to go there (a twelve year old wandering around in a NYC type area at dark? *shudder*).

What she finds is three women who treat her kindly and take her in, giving her a makeover. After a few hours of feeling comfortable around them, she starts to become ill, and goes home. She wakes a few days later and discovers she was sick. But when she starts to tell her family about the experiences she had, they tell her they never happened. In fact, she starts to investigate but finds out that the building she went to doesn’t even exist, let alone the people she met.

Yet Abigail remains hopeful and is much more comfortable in her own skin. She makes friends and realizes that these friends and these experiences are more like deja vu, and that her “dream” was just a projection of the future.

badge2v4If you’re looking for something simple and young, this book is for you. It just wasn’t for me. I missed the action that a lot more YA offers these days. Since this is an older book, it’s a lot more innocent. Which, there’s nothing wrong with, but I like my magical-realism a bit grittier.

Simon Thorn Series by Aimee Carter

Welcome to Saturday Shorts, in which we review shorter works such as short stories, novellas, middle-grade books, and graphic novels. Today we have a dual review for the first two books in the Simon Thorn series by Aimee Carter. In this thrilling, middle-grade series featuring animal shapeshifters, Simon Thorn is a twelve-year-old boy who’s about to discover his true heritage – and the dangers that come with it.

I received an ARC or review copy of one of these books from the author/publisher. All opinions are my own.

st-wolfs-denTitleSimon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den
AuthorAimee Carter
SeriesSimon Thorn, Book 01
Publish Date: February 2, 2016, Bloomsbury
Genre: MG Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionTwelve-year-old Simon Thorn’s life has never been normal-especially since he’s been keeping a big secret: he can talk to animals.

But when his mom is suddenly kidnapped by a herd of New York City rats, Simon finds out that he, his mom, and his uncle are all Animalgams-someone born with the ability to change into an animal at will-and suddenly talking to animals doesn’t seem so crazy after all.

In search of his mom, Simon discovers that Animalgams belong to an ancient world made up of Five Animal Kingdoms (Mammals, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, and Underwater) which are now under attack…and Simon just may be the only one who can save them all.

Imaginative and vivid with themes of bravery, loyalty, and finding one’s true self, this exciting, five-book adventure series is perfect for fans of the Spirit Animals and The School of Good and Evil series.

st-vipers-pitTitleSimon Thorn and the Viper’s Pit
AuthorAimee Carter
SeriesSimon Thorn, Book 02
Publish Date: February 7, 2017, Bloomsbury
Genre: MG Fantasy
Source: Provided by the publisher

Publisher’s DescriptionThe excitement continues for the secret race of animal shape-shifters with a hero “worthy of a young Harry Potter” (Booklist Online).

Simon Thorn’s life is almost unrecognizable from a few months ago. Along with a surprise twin brother and an uncle he never knew, Simon has also found his first real friends to hang out, train, and study with at the secret Animalgam Academy. The only piece missing is his mother, held captive by his evil grandfather, Orion, who’s bent on taking over the five kingdoms.

To rescue his mother, Simon sets off cross-country with his friends to the reptile kingdom, battling rogue Animalgams and their own doubts and torn loyalties along the way. But if he’s going to stop Orion, Simon will need to keep him from gathering together the fragments of a terrible weapon, or the lives of everyone Simon loves will be at risk.

With action and adventure, this story is perfect for fans of Rick Riordan and Brandon Mull.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.

Kat_Mandu_100Kat Mandu says…

Simon’s young and living in New York City. His best friend is a mouse named Felix because Simon actually doesn’t have any friends. The one he did have has abandoned him for the “cooler crowd” due to an incident in which Simon was caught talking to a few animals. Now he’s the “freaky” kid that no one wants to be around. However, that all changes the day he’s warned by a bald eagle that his life is in danger, his mother makes an unexpected return home, and suddenly, he and his uncle get chased by vicious rats. As Simon realizes there may be more to his ability to talk to animals, he’s pulled into the world of the Animalgams.

In the Animalgam world, there are five kingdoms: mammals, birds, insects, underwater, and reptiles. There’s even a secret academy in Central Park Zoo where he meets an uncle he never knew he had, and more, a twin brother! Finally, Simon is meeting kids close to his age that have known they could turn into animals their whole lives. But the more Simon learns about this world, the more he doesn’t like, especially when he discovers he’s a pawn in a chess game between the mammal Alpha, his mother, his grandfather, and the rest of the kingdom leaders.

In the first book, Simon is dealing with learning about the world he’s never known about and the people who will eventually become his family; not to mention fighting in a war between the five kingdoms. In the second book, the stakes are higher. Simon is trying to figure out his place in the Animalgam world, avoid getting picked off by the warring bird kingdom (which is led by his manipulative grandfather) and the old Alpha of the mammal kingdom, and save his mom from Orion.

For me, these books had most of the usual MG expectations. Good story, albeit having a lot of “convenient” rescues; kids who seem to think they can get away unscathed in sticky situations, no matter who’s trying to protect them; and the absence of any real parenting skills that force the character to adapt and evolve in his own way. It has funny one-liners, lots of “aww” moments, and lots of child-like humor that’s often cute.

However, after having a chat with co-blogger and friend Ivana, I realized that this particular series is missing something huge that all children’s’ books have. Where’s the moral of the story here? I’ve read both books by now and I’m either missing the lesson the lead character learns or it’s just not there. Sure, there’s a great plot. But what is the reader learning?

Frankly, Simon bugs me. I’m not fond of his character. I’m drawn more to Ariana and Jam, two of his friends. Simon is undeniably one of the biggest brats I’ve ever read in MG. I get that he’s twelve. I really do. But he’s unnecessarily defiant and bullheaded. He’s also extremely hypocritical, chastising one of the girls – Winter, who also becomes his friend – for the same things he does, lying and not knowing what side she’s on. He’s not exactly choosing a side when he runs away from the people that want to protect him every chance he gets.

I don’t have any children of my own (yet). But I’m certain if I did, I’d have a hard time allowing my son or daughter to read this series. The reasoning behind Simon’s actions just isn’t enough to excuse his continual lack of respect for the people who care for him. He’s just too defiant for me to like him, and I don’t think he’s a good role model for kids.

badge3v4That being said, I enjoyed the story. It has its ups and down and it’s certainly entertaining! Like I said, I’m very fond of Jam, who’s a dolphin; and Ariana, who’s a Black Widow spy (pretty sure that’s a shout out to Marvel as well). They provide some cool getaways and fun dialogue.

Both these books get three stars from me!

Other recommendations…

Recommended for fans of Brandon Mull and any Animorphs books (multiple authors)!

I received an ARC or review copy of one of these from the author/publisher. All opinions are my own.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

2016-standout-award-badge-smallIn the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort is on the rise and though the world may be aware that he’s back in power, that doesn’t mean they’re ready for him. People are disappearing, being magically controlled, or dying. Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore must learn the history behind Voldemort’s immortality to figure out how to destroy him once and for all . . .

half-blood-princeTitleHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
AuthorJ.K. Rowling
SeriesHarry Potter Book 06
Publish Date: July 16, 2005
Genre: Children’s/YA Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionThe war against Voldemort is not going well: even Muggle governments are noticing. Ron scans the obituary pages of The Daily Prophet looking for familiar names. Dumbledore is absent from Hogwarts for long stretches of time, and the Order of the Phoenix has already suffered losses. And yet . . .

As in all wars, life goes on. Sixth-year students learn to Apparate, and lose a few eyebrows in the process. The Weasley twins expand their business. Teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love. Classes are never straightforward, though Harry receives some extraordinary help from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince.

So it’s the home front that takes center stage in the multilayered sixth installment of the story of Harry Potter. Harry struggles to uncover the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, the past owner of a potions textbook he now possesses that is filled with ingenious, potentially deadly, spells. But Harry’s life is suddenly changed forever when someone close to him is heinously murdered right before his eyes.

With Dumbledore’s guidance, he seeks out the full, complex story of the boy who became Lord Voldemort, and thereby attempts to find what may be his only vulnerability.

Possible spoilers beyond this point. If you haven’t yet read this series, STOP READING THIS REVIEW RIGHT NOW!

Kat_Mandu_100Kat Mandu says…

This is my second favorite book in the series. I’m pretty sure that J.K. Rowling was trying to sample out some humor before everything gets super dark and she starts killing everyone off; which is why you have the whole situation between Hermione and Ron and Lavender, plus the silliness of Ron’s determination on the Quidditch pitch, and the luck-inducing potion that Harry takes. All of those scenes were both my favorites in the book and in the movie.

Despite all these comical references, that doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have its dark twists. Harry himself figures out that he can’t trust the people he looks up to and Dumbledore, the greatest wizard the magical world has ever known, is . . .

*spoiler alert (I’m saying this just in case, but if you haven’t read this series, what on earth have you been doing your whole life???)*




. . . murdered at the end.

As usual, here are some of my favorites:

Favorite character – Harry wins this one for me; he’s figured himself out at this point (well, almost) and although he can certainly have a temper, he’s a lot easier to bear in this book. I like that he seems smarter and more intuitive, more aware of people’s feelings more than Ron (small favors), and that even when he makes a really bad mistake, he’s willing to make up for it. He’s a lot braver than I could ever be.

Favorite scene – Well, the funny ones make it for me here. I really love the scene where Ron is under the love spell (especially when you see it in the movie). I loved learning about Voldemort’s history as well. I find it incredibly strange that Voldemort tries so hard to deny that he isn’t pure-blood.

Favorite creatures – House elves! Even though Kreature isn’t very…well, pleasant, he and Dobby get to team up and sneak on Draco. They get to do a lot more in the next one but I won’t let on too much now since we haven’t gotten there yet.

Luna_Lovebooks_100Luna Lovebooks says…

Possible spoilers ahead – although, if you aren’t familiar with this series yet, I must ask if you have been living under a rock! 😉




This particular Harry Potter novel is incredibly dark! I love that the series keeps getting darker, but there is always the underlying tone of friendship, love and heroism. I also think it is really clever of Rowling to paint Professor Snape the way she did. Readers feel utterly betrayed, just like Harry, but also hold out hope that Snape is still playing the game. I, personally, believe Dumbledore was ten steps ahead of everyone and knew how this was going to play out. Of course that didn’t stop me from once again crying my eyes out at his death.

Invested_Ivana_100Invested Ivana says…

Half-Blood Prince has always felt, to me, like the bleakest of all seven Harry Potter books, meaning that this is the point in the whole story where I feel the most hopeless, as the reader. Harry is made Captain of the Quiddich team, but Snape gives him detention often enough to keep him from the game. Ron and Hermione are fighting and the romantic tension is stressful. Slughorn is smarmy. The book Harry is obsessed with is a product of his most hated teacher. The conflict between Harry and Dumbledore over Snape continues the series-wide theme of not sharing enough information (which is much more frustrating to me as an adult now than when I first read the books). Even Harry’s adventures with Dumbledore to explore Voldemort’s origins are informative, but their usefulness is somewhat ambiguous to Harry.

The feelings I associate with this book are sad, depressed, and a mourning for the childhood that Rowling still managed to capture in the previous books. This kind of uncomfortable tension is appropriate for the penultimate book in a series, actually. It’s expertly done. The book ends at what seems like the lowest part of the series, leaving the reader ready for the resolution of the final book.

Agent_Annie_100Agent Annie says…

I really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. My favorite part was Harry using Snape’s old text book and then discovering it belonged to his least favorite teacher. Knowing what I do about the ending and Snape’s role in Harry’s life, I am particularly pleased with JK Rowling’s ability to heighten the hatred between the two characters.

When the books first came out and #6 ended with such a cliff hanger and the death of Dumbledore, a former English professor and I discussed this story choice. The comment he made that stuck with me, was that the nature of Harry as a protagonist was that he was an orphan thus necessitating the death of all adults, particularly males, who he became close to. I think about that a lot since I read many young adult/middle reader books. Many times the kids either have disinterested, distracted or simply no parents at all. It’s obvious to me that Rowling has done her research in the nature of families and storytelling, which is why this book series is timeless and rates high scores.

Our reviews in this series…

The Road to Hel by Eric Tanafon

2016-standout-award-badge-smallIn this action-packed MG book, Sean discovers he and his twin sister are actually chosen by the Norse gods to help fulfill a prophecy – right as Ragnarok begins to lurk around every corner.

FTC Notice: This book was provided free in exchange for an honest review. This is no way impacts my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Road to HelTitleThe Road to Hel
Author:  Eric Tanafon
Series: Sean’s Saga Book 01
Publish Date:  February 24, 2016
Genre: MG Fantasy
Source: From where you got the book

Publisher’s Description: Sean here. When wolf-riding trolls attack our house, my sister Fiona and I find out the hard way that we’re destined to be heroes. That goes for our friends Arturo and Parvati, too. Next thing we know, we’re all enrolled in the last hero school on Midgard (that’s hero speak for ‘Earth’). In fact, we’re the entire final freshman class.

It’s not all bad. We get to go to school on an enchanted island. The girls get to ride flying horses, Arturo gets to go berserk, and I get to learn more about sword fighting than I ever wanted to know. We also get our own personal bard who sings our praises in deathless…well, verse that you wish would die, but it won’t.

You’d think we’d also get to save the world. But as it turns out, there are about a million prophecies guaranteeing that Ragnarok is right around the corner and the world is literally toast, so all we get to do is die (heroically, of course).

In the meantime, our mom winds up in Hel while trying to rescue our dad from, believe it or not, an even worse place. And for some reason even Odin won’t explain, we’re the only ones who can bring them back.

Well, that takes care of summer vacation. I can’t wait for the school year to start.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.

Kat_Mandu_100Kat Mandu says…

At fourteen, Sean is a video game master with a wicked sense of humor. Though his comical voice doesn’t disappear, his version of real life does. After a pack of monsters attack him and his sister at home, he’s whisked away by Norse warriors and teachers who reveal he’s got a Norse patron and a very shiny destiny – that is if he manages to survive the quest.

Now he’s gotta rescue his mom from Hel and his father from the frost giants. He’s not alone – his sister is a Valkyrie, his best friend is a berserker, and his other friend Parvati is also a Valkyrie. Together, they’re trained to sword fight and use magic. They’ve got to go up against frost giants, wargs, and a traitor in their midst in the process, not to mention be the first ones to escape from Hel and all her minions.

Along the way, Sean discovers he’s got more up his sleeve than just badly timed jokes. His inner dialogue often has him being a little afraid, even when he’s needed to step up – which he does, but not without some fear. For me, that was very real. You can’t always be brave after all, especially when you’re facing a destiny in which no one ever thinks you’ll make it out alive.

This is a cute middle-grade story I really enjoyed. The flow was nice, the writing was excellent, and the plot just hit the spot for me. I loved the jokes and the interaction between the families and friends. The bad guys aren’t always bad and the good guys aren’t always good. The history was well researched, too, giving a nice twist while maintaining the Norse lore.

The only thing I really had an issue with was the lack of real surprise Sean and the others had when they found out they were backed by Norse gods and had real prophecies written about them and their lives were basically about to change forever. There wasn’t much of a freak out – in fact, Sean was just like “Oh, I got this because I’ve read Percy Jackson and I play a video game based on Norse mythology” – which was cool and all, but this is kind of a monumental point in his life and yeah, even though he was surprised and shocked for two minutes before training started, I still kind of figured there would be some personal debate about his destiny later. All the characters took it in stride. That was the only thing that really struck me as odd.

badge5v4But either way, I loved it. Five shiny stars.

Other reviews…

If you like this book…

If you like MG heroes with destinies and awesome fight scenes, check out Percy Jackson and Magnus Chase & The Gods of Asgard, not to mention The Blackwell Pages by K.L. Armstrong and M. A. Marr.

FTC Notice: This book was provided free in exchange for an honest review. This is no way impacts my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

King of Average by Gary Schwartz

FTC Notice: This book was provided free in exchange for an honest review. This is no way impacts my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

king-of-averageTitleThe King of Average
AuthorGary Schwartz
Series: stand-alone (so far)
Publish Date: October 7, 2015
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Source: Received at BEA 2016

Publisher’s DescriptionJames isn’t the world’s greatest kid, but he’s not the worst, either: he’s average! When he decides to become the most average kid who ever lived, James is transported to another world where he meets Mayor Culpa, a well-dressed talking Scapegoat who recruits him to become the new King of Average.

He’s joined on his quest by a professional Optimist and his grouchy companion, an equally professional Pessimist. Together, they set out on a journey of self-discovery that leads them all the way from the Sea of Doubt to Mount Impossible, the highest peak in the Unattainable Mountains. When James stumbles into a Shangri-la called Epiphany, he uncovers the secret of who he really is.

Follow James on his hilarious, adventure-packed journey to find self-worth in this heartfelt middle grade novel by debut author Gary Schwartz.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.

Agent_Annie_100Agent Annie says…

The King of Average by Gary Schwartz is OK. The idea of the story is clever and the author writes some interesting turns of phrase, but I felt the work to “get the pun” overwhelmed the flow of the story. I also thought that one of the final chapters, “A-Ha,” was a bit unbelievable. James had to wrestle with his own demons of self-doubt and worthlessness in a yurt hut and that seemed too adult in nature for an 8-12 year reader to understand or be comfortable with.

I loaned this book to a friend of mine who asked her 10 year old to read it. He reported that it seemed really scary after just the first couple chapters. I hadn’t really thought about the first part where James experiences a mother who hates him and a father who’s abandoned him and how that might be difficult for a kid who hasn’t been introduced to these concepts to be able to process them within this story’s framework.

badge2v4The language of the book is too light and playful for the themes that are explored: abandonment, self-doubt, being lost, etc. I feel that the discordance between the themes and the language are what turned me off the book. I’m very interested in hearing another kid’s opinion of the book, so we may have a mystery reviewer at some point in the future, but for now I give this book 2 stars.

FTC Notice: This book was provided free in exchange for an honest review. This is no way impacts my opinion of the book or the content of my review.