(Queen’s Thief series #1) First in the series, this multiple award winning young adult fantasy novel has an interesting premise and a tongue in cheek quality that tickled my funny bone. Gen is a thief who has actually been stolen himself from prison and embarks with his captors on a quest. They need him to steal a treasure from another land and he has no choice but to comply, although this plucky hero makes it abundantly clear that he has no intention of complying easily and has some tricks up his own sleeve–there is more to Gen than meets the eye, so keep an eye out for clues and double meanings. Along the way of the journey, stories are told which set the scene of this fantasy world that will continue in sequels, the next being The Queen of Attolia, which many reviewers have said is far better than this first instalment. There are three more after that: The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and Thick as Thieves.
To be honest, the beginning of the book felt as slow and plodding as the journey of the quest itself (and perhaps that is the point), but the pace picked up in the middle when the big theft gets underway. There are some good twists and turns and though I’m not a big fantasy fan, it is definitely one of those ‘cross-over’ young adult novels that appeals to adults as well as to teens.
Every spring the CBC has a Children’s Book Panel that recommends books for children’s summer reading. I pay attention to these suggestions because they are usually very good ones. Here are a few that were highlights for me on this year’s list. The first two are for young children, the second two are for Young Adults.
It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee (Age 5 – 8)
Very funny rhyming picture book with an enterprising dog as the main character. The family underestimates the abilities of this impressive pup who works hard at all kinds of projects. Continually dismissed, “It’s only Stanley,” the Wimbledon family in the end is ‘over the moon’ about Stanley’s final and greatest achievement. A very funny picture book about a beagle who keeps waking up his family with his noisy midnight exploits.
The Mosquito Brothers by Griffin Ondaatje (Age 7 – 9)
In this quirky coming-of-age story, the main characters are a family of mosquitos…all 400 of them! Dinnn always seems to be lonely and left behind. He makes the best of it and adapts as best he can to his situation, bravely facing the many challenges that a mosquito faces in a lifetime. Who knew? Filled with fun facts and humorous fancy, this young child’s chapter book would be a great read aloud since adults will love it too. Heartwarming themes about overcoming fear, being true to yourself, and finding your own unique wings are sure to please. And you may think twice next time you swat!
We are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen
(Age 12 and up)
Susin Nielsen got her start feeding the cast and crew on the popular television series Degrassi. They hated her food, but they saw a spark in her writing. Neilsen went on to be a successful and prolific Canadian TV series writer. Nielsen knows her genre. This young adult novel is pitch perfect, funny, and endearing. It handles tough issues like grief and loss, blended families, bullying, and LGBTQ in a sensitive and constructive way. “Thirteen-year-old Stewart is academically brilliant but socially clueless. Fourteen-year-old Ashley is the undisputed “It” girl in her class, but her grades stink. Their worlds are about to collide when Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mom. Stewart is trying to be 89.9 percent happy about it, but Ashley is 110 percent horrified. She already has to hide the real reason her dad moved out; “Spewart” could further threaten her position at the top of the social ladder.
The Dogs by Allan Stratton (Age 12 and up)
This is one I haven’t read yet, but I suspect it will be a dark psychological thriller that will be one of those Young Adult cross-over types that keeps adults turning pages as well as kids. I think it deserves its own post after I’ve read it.
Winner of the Carnegie Medal, in the UK this book is titled ‘A Gathering Light’. Publishers in UK always give books a different cover (which I love to compare with the US cover) and sometimes, as in this case, even a different title. Same book in every other regard.
‘A Northern Light’ is based on a true story from the Adirondack Mountains where a body of a young woman was pulled from the waters of Big Moose Lake in 1906. The boat she’d been in with her male companion was capsized so it appeared to be an accident, but the other body was never found. The mystery of that night ended up being one of the most sensational murder trials in New York’s history.
Donnelly’s fictional account features Mattie, a young girl working at the tourist hotel on the shores of Big Moose Lake. She is given a package of letters by a young woman guest who is obviously distraught. The instructions are to burn the letters, but Mattie never gets a chance until the body of the woman is recovered from the lake. What do those letters contain? Should she be true to the woman’s instructions now or are there clues in the letters that might explain what happened?
There is much more in the story than the murder mystery on the lake. Mattie is growing up in hard times on the farm and is torn between her desire to go to college and her sense of responsibility to stay home and help the family, or even have one of her own. Though not as epic, I found the book similar to The Invention of Wings in style and tone. It’s an engaging and well written novel that was a pleasure to read.
Though classified as a Young Adult novel, Donnelly handles many very adult topics deftly and creatively and is a book that anyone would enjoy. It’s definitely one of those YA cross-over gems. I do love finding those!
Jennifer Donnelly Website
In this young adult novel, a teenager thinks that she has done something so bad, that the only person who could possible understand, is a convicted murderer on death row. The book takes the form of letters sent to this prisoner, telling him her secrets and slowing revealing the story. It did hook me in at the start, but went on too long and fell rather flat for me in the end. The extreme guilt for the ‘crimes’ committed by herself and her mother, were not as believable as I had hoped. The novel lacked depth and redemption.
The book does illustrate how hard it is for teens to confide in anyone at all. And the author does capture well the type of angst a teen can feel when things are difficult at home or at school. Even friends can easily let you down and it is easy to feel very alone in the world. Pitcher’s other book ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’ is an award winner, so perhaps I should have picked that one up instead of this newest one.
Gary D. Schmidt is an award winning young adult author who teaches at Calvin College, my alma mater. His books are deep, well crafted and multi-layered, yet very readable, full of humour, and witty. His specialty is coming-of-age stories. In a speech, he once shared his fascination with those transitional moments when a youngster leaves childhood and heads toward adulthood. Schmidt’s books appeal to people of all ages, in fact, I sometimes wonder if adults and judges like his books better than the middle school tweens his books are pitched at. Adults reading these books will remember how hard adolescence is and appreciate Schmidt’s humour and pathos around the difficulties of this age. Someone once said, “The only thing harder than going through adolescence is watching someone you love go through it.”
Middle school boys are notoriously difficult to hook into reading. When I was working as a high school librarian, I was always looking for those gems which were compelling and readable, yet well written. Books like Hunger Games and Harry Potter are the ones which would draw reluctant readers in, while Schmidt’s books would usually only be read by those who were already avid readers.
Gary D. Schmidt Website
‘The Wednesday Wars’ is a slightly exaggerated comic tale of middle school woes. It features Holling Hoodhood a 7th grade student who must spend his Wednesday afternoons with his teacher Mrs. Baker because the rest of the class is receiving religious instruction. Holling feels he is being punished because the teacher, on those afternoons, makes him read Shakespeare. The story is set during the Vietnam War which adds a sober element to the story and places everyday muddles into perspective. Holling tries not to get into trouble, but this seems impossible when he has things like bullies and angry rats to deal with, and they’re making him wear yellow tights in the school play!
In a companion book to the ‘Wednesday Wars’ Doug Swieteck calls his new home “The Dump” and he endures a move to a small town where he knows no one and everyone else knows everyone. It’s 1968 when the Apollo space missions were happening and the Vietnam war was going on. He suffers from a number of abuses and is barely surviving complete despair. But when Doug makes a discovery at the local Public Library, things start to turn around. Someone kind takes an interest in him and he discovers that being passionate about something can make all the difference in the world. In ‘Okay for Now’ Schmidt gets a firm grasp on a heartbreaking topic and manages to coax out some hope and redemption. But in a realistic way, since we can all relate to a time when the answer to “How are you?” can only really be “Okay for now” and that’s okay. The earthy and gritty beginning to the story hooked me in immediately, but halfway through it became a bit unbelievable. Even though the ending was not ‘happily ever after’ for everyone in the story, I did find it got tied up a bit too neatly and too sweetly. I did love the way he wove the Audubon pictures of birds into the story.
‘Trouble’ grapples with the idea of how to live in a world with trouble. There are some very Calvinist themes in this book. The story begins with a tragedy that sparks racial tension between two communities. One night Henry’s older brother Franklin is accidentally hit by a pickup truck driven by his Cambodian classmate Chay Chouan. Henry’s father alway said, “If you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.” But what now? It is a study in contrast and is all about grace. Forgiveness and grace make things ok again, at least for now. Henry feels helpless in the situation but decides to act. After rescuing a Black Dog from drowning, he attempts to climb Mt. Katahdin, something he and Franklin were planning to do together. It becomes for him, not only an adventurous challenge, but a journey of redemption and self-discovery.