The golden age of reading begins when youngsters develop their reading confidence around the age of seven or so, and extends into their early teens where suspension of belief is still strong and stories featuring fantasy and adventure rate robustly on the their reading radars.
It is no wonder then that junior and middle grade novels are in such high demand. These three are definitely worth adding to your list.
Trouble first flew into Georgia’s life early last year. He stole their home inadvertently absconding with her baby brother, Godfrey. Since then, he’s barely been able to stay on the good side of the behaviour books, after run-ins with Mrs Jones and her cat, Tibbles in The Missing Cat. Now, Trouble is back in all his glorious dragon-green unruliness in, Trouble and the New Kid.
If you’re looking for an incredible YA fantasy that features delicious things like spooky destroyed countries, medieval vigilantes, princesses-in-disguise, and various sharp knives — then The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows is calling to you. Practically screaming your name. You want it, just trust me on this, yes?
WHAT’S IT ABOUT:
An epic fantasy filled with adventure, intrigue, and romance from Incarnate series author Jodi Meadows. This duology is perfect for fans of Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. When Princess Wilhelmina was a child, the Indigo Kingdom invaded her homeland. Ten years later, Wil and the other noble children who escaped are ready to fight back and reclaim Wil’s throne. To do so, Wil and her best friend, Melanie, infiltrate the Indigo Kingdom palace with hopes of gathering information that will help them succeed. But Wil has a secret-one that could change everything. Although magic has been illegal for a century, she knows her ability could help her save her kingdom. But magic creates wraith, and the deadly stuff is moving closer and destroying the land. And if the vigilante Black Knife catches her using magic, she may disappear like all the others…
I will warn you that it ends with a dreadfully glorious cliffhanger! So do the smart thing and order both The Orphan Queenand the sequel, The Mirror King, simultaneously. You’ll thank me, I swear. Also it’s simply a duo! So no need to freak out waiting for a third book!
As a huge fan of YA fantasy, I’m really glad this lived up to my expectations! I wouldn’t say it’s the most original book out there, but it was well told and had unique elements. AKA = it basically had a medieval vigilante Batman. I cannot even contain my excitement over that! It felt really new and different to me.
Plus add in destroyed kingdoms, spies expeditions, and the occasional murder…what is not to love here?
The plot chuffs along on a fairly steady pace. Probably more on the slow side. Wil, the lost princess of a destroyed kingdom, is going undercover in the enemy’s castle. So while she spends the evenings jumping around with knives and disguises, the days are filled with polite small talk and pretty ballgowns. At least it’s a nice mix! Wil was seriously badass. It was endlessly amusing reading her acting the part of an air-headed Duchess and then turn around and be plotting cunningly.
Wil was a really awesome protagonist. She didn’t seem particularly different to Every Other Hidden Princess Ever. But the trope is one of my favourites, so I don’t mind! She has a slow-burn romance with the vigilante, Black Knife. Basically that was my favourite thing of ever. Plus Wil has a really epic best-friend and their relationship is goals.
Plus there is magic! Magic is illegal in this world (fun stuff always is, dangit). Wil’s power is to animate things. She says “wake up” to a wall and it’ll eat a person. (Why can’t I have this superpower??? I could make the sink do the dishes for me and life would be perfect.) I thought this was a really clever and unusual twist on magical abilities!
The world building = very very good. It actually felt like a fully complex and rounded world.
And then we have that freakishly awesomely horrible cliffhanger. AH! If you want a book that will literally have you shrieking and clawing for the sequel: this is it. The finale was so exciting and action-packed and emotional.
Obviously, I’m a fan of this story! This is also my first Jodi Meadows books and clearly I need to read her other series. I’m very invested and want to see Wil get her throne back!
I had a very severe suspicion that I would absolutely adore The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye. Now why is that? Well, it contains all the greatest things in life including (A) beginning in a bakery, (B) Russian fantasy! and (C) magician duels! What could be better?!? And thankfully the book did not disappoint at all!
WHAT’S IT ABOUT:
Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air.They are enchanters the only two in Russia and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side. And so he initiates the Crown s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the tsar s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with beautiful, whip smart, imaginative and he can t stop thinking about her.And when Pasha, Nikolai s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love . . . or be killed himself.As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear . . . the Crown s Game is not one to lose.
The story is a nice blend of fantasy and historical fiction. The author’s note says she did a ton of research and studied Russia in college and you can absolutely tell! The details are incredible and I honestly felt like the book had swallowed me whole. There are so many Russian words and descriptions of places and the culture was brilliantly woven in. I’m so so impressed! The attention to detail made it seem so very real.
“Imagine, and it shall be.
There are no limits.”
The characters were grand little bundles of magical joy! I was very impressed with the lot of them, although I confess I didn’t really emotionally connect to anyone. Probably because I am a stern melon at times. But the main trio was epic and fabulous, if not the most complex characters I’ve ever encountered.
VIKA: She’s an enchanter, a fiery red-haired totally spunky girl. VERY powerful. VERY fierce.
NIKOLAI: He’s the other enchanter, more like the quiet nerd? But he’s very intelligent, as opposed to Vika’s punch-them-in-the-face thing going on.
PASHA: He’s the Tsar’s heir, and he kinda doesn’t want to be. He sneaks out, gets grubby with the commoners and is fun and quirky and generally nice. I think he was my favourite, honestly! (FYI his real name is Pavel and not Passionfruit as I deludedly assumed at first. Ahem.)
Now for the actual “game” part of the plot! But first, full disclosure: it wasn’t the kind of “game” I thought it’d be! If you say “game” I start thinking of violent things like The Hunger Games. Ah, no. It was more like “impress the Tsar with your magic skills” not actually “blast each other’s heads off.” I expected the book to be a high-staked blazing game of glory, whereas in reality it was a slower moving and more about magical creation than murderous duels. Despite that it was still so fun! So magical! The things the magicians created were magnificent and so visual!
There is a love triangle, but I didn’t find it irritating for once. The romance is on the quieter side, with the focus being on the magic.
I’m so glad I devoured The Crown’s Game! I think the stakes could’ve been higher and the characters more complex, but apart from that it was magical and exciting and beautifully written. The world building was exquisite and the cliffhanger was pure torture. I can’t wait for the next instalment!
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee was an entirely marvellous book. YES. Pun intended. (I couldn’t resist, okay?!) It was magical and adorable and I ate it as fast as I possibly could and enjoyed every second of this incredibly written tale.
It’s basically the story of 12-year-old Ophelia who moves with her family to a gothic museum and there she finds magical (and dangerous) things. Aka — a boy locked in a room for 300+ years by an evil queen. Ergo Ophelia must rescue the boy and defeat the queen! All the while trying to get her family to believe that weird things are going on in the museum. It has a bit of a Snow Queen fairy tale feel to it, which is amazing. I love retellings!
I was also very excited going into reading this because a) I love Karen Foxlee (Aussie authors FTW!) and b) like I said, I’m a sucker for retellings, and c) the cover is just beautifully magical. Also Karen Foxlee sort of broke my heart in The Midnight Dress…so I wanted to see what her Middle Grade/Junior Fiction style was.
I announce that it is FABULOUS. I finished this book as a rather happy snowman. (Not that I’ve seen snow?? But there is snow in this book and that calls for Frozen references, okay?! Okay.)
The writing style is very simple and clear. Perfect for youngish bookworms, but still wonderful enough that I (as an adult reading it) adored it to pieces. Also the book is tiny (just over 200-pages) so I finished it in a few hours.
I also appreciated how the writing was interesting and quirky! And I loved the story and the plot! It deals with a few sad and heavy issues (such as Ophelia’s mother is dead when the book starts and she’s reeling from that) and the grief and being alone and feeling ignored and forgotten. It’s handled beautifully.
It’s definitely not a horror story…but it does have creepy parts! It reminded me slightly of Coraline? Minus the intense Tim Burton-esque freaktastic fest.
Ophelia narrates (in 3rd person) and she is basically a tiny world-saving mite who needs no hugs and can handle this. I loved her! She’s not confident, she has asthma, and her glasses are always smudgy. She constantly thinks, “What would Mum say?” which was so bittersweet considering she’s just lost her mother but is still trying to live by what she’d like. Ophelia wasn’t brave, she was curious. It’s nice having slightly unconfident characters — it gives us weakling smudgy-glasses nerds the belief we can face enchanted statues and wield swords and help magical boys someday. This book is immensely relatable.
Definitely a solidly wonderful read that I can’t recommend enough! If you like magical adventures, curious characters, swords, evil queens, and the word “marvellous” (which is such a stupendous word I might add) then Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is FOR YOU. It also might tug at your heart strings. Just warning you.
I’m utterly horrible at reading books in the right season (how do I manage to read beachy books in winter and frigid books in summer? Who can know. It just happens) but I do make an effort around Christmas to swallow a few festive reads! Although most come with a sprinkling of snow, thanks to the bulk of YA authors coming from America — but you can’t have everything.
If you’re in the mood for some Christmasy stories — LOOK NO FURTHER! I have a list for you.
YA C H R I S T M A S B O O K S
LET IT SNOW: This naturally rises to the top of YA Christmasy reads because — JOHN GREEN. He’s basically a YA superstar author, and rightly deserved. His quirky characters are always a highlight. In Let it Snow, there are 3 short stories that all tie together. Each is written by a different author. They’re a bit zany and involve a whole heap of snow and copious waffles and — of course — CHRISTMAS.
DASH AND LILY’S BOOK OF DARES: This is also co-written! By David Leviathan and Rachel Cohn, no less, and this one definitely fits the “quirky” category too. Lily and Dash haven’t even ever met. They just keep passing back and forth this book of “dares” and writing letters to each other. It’s pretty zany and involves Dash (the grinch) and Lily (the Christmas partier) which makes for a hilarious contrast.
MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME: I actually haven’t read this one yet, so I’m mildly cheating on my own list (#rebelbookworm)…but it’s still a Christmas story! By a TON of authors, no less. Including: Stephanie Perkins, Laini Taylor, and Rainbow Rowell. So basically I need this book in my life ASAP. I have on good authority that there’s a crazy mixture of stories, from contemporary squishy adorable ones to dark fantasy.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL: “Well, duh and obviously,” you say…but have you actually read this book in a while?! Because it’s worth the reread! (Plus this cover is just about my favourite thing ever, despite not having snow at Christmas in Australia…it’s just pretty.) And I always enjoy the opening sentence of “Marley was dead, to begin with.” That has to be one of the best openings in literature. (Yes, I like creepy! Don’t judge!)
THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: This is barely 100-pages, so perfect for a Christmas Eve snack. It’s so incredibly adorable. It’s about the evil Herdman family who plague the lives of the “good” children…particularly when the Herdmans invade the local church’s Christmas play. It’s hilarious! And seriously heartwarming at the end. When I was a small bookworm, I actually read this twice while curled up under the Christmas tree. Yes, TWICE. I finished it and started again directly. It’s just that good!
THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE: And of course we can’t forget the classic masterpiece that involves a fantasy world were Christmas is banned. The HORROR. (Some authors are truly cruel.) Granted this book is about more than Christmas, but it does feature a jolly Claus and presents and fighting and talking lions and Turkish Delight. Ergo it makes the perfect Christmas feast. I mean, read. (But feast…read….same thing)
Since summer in the fabulous land of Oz can be so incredibly hot, sometimes it’s excellent to just curl up in the air-conditioning and read. And if you’re fond of reading books to match the sweltering weather you’re experiencing…I CAN HELP. I’ve compiled a list of YA summery and burningly hot books.
S U M M E R R E A D S
I KILL THE MOCKINGBIRD: This is about 3 kids on the brink of high school who decide to make Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” book…wanted. With reverse psychology. GENIUS, NO? They hide it! And create a huge demand for copies! It’s really funny and endearing and it’s barely over 100-pages, so perfect for a summery snack.
MY LIFE NEXT DOOR: This is about Sam’s summer where she kinda accidentally falls in love with the next door neighbour…who has a HUGE chaotic family that are utterly endearing and hilarious to read about. It also has a surprisingly intense ending for an other wise “light, fluffy” contemporary. Seriously. Pull out the moral dilemmas and nervous finger-nail chewing.
SINCE YOU’VE BEEN GONE: This one features Emily who’s best friend, Sloane, just suddenly…vanished. But Sloane left her a list of summery things to do, so Emily is completing it. It’s like a summer “bucket list” sort of book, with crazy stuff like “Hug someone named Jamie” and “go skinny dipping”. Emily collects a bundle of odd friends and they try to complete the list to find the missing Sloane. LISTS, FOLKS. I do so love lists.
THE SCORCH TRIALS: Technically this is the sequel to The Maze Runner, which you do need to read first. So go do that. Off you pop. But then come back and read the blisteringly hot Scorch Trials because hooooly desert. It’s hot. This has action and mystery and…zombies. I’m pretty sure this book is perfect.
BLOOD RED ROAD: This is one of my favourite reads of 2015! It’s totally underrated in it’s intense awesomeness, trust me. It features Saba who’s brother is kidnapped and she must travel the dusty, dangerous universe to get him back. It’s set in a sort of apocalyptic world and it’s written in slang. Saba is AMAZING. She’s tough and gritty. This book has guns and cage fights and siblings willing to die for each other. Be still my beating heart.
STONE RIDER: How about a motorbike ride across the desert!? This, again, is an apocalyptic (possibly dystopic?) universe where they have motorbikes with feelings. It’s pitched as the YA version of Mad Max Fury Road!
INK AND BONE: While it starts off in England, the story is mainly set in…EGYPT! How awesome is that?! And why? Well, this story is about “what-if-the-Alexandria-Library-had-never-been-destroyed?” which is a grand question and makes for a magical world…where libraries can be evil and control reading. Basically, all bookworms need this.
THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS: This is an epic fantasy but set in a Middle Eastern type landscape with deserts and silks and sweltering sun. It’s basically one of my favourite fantasies of ever because it’s so diverse!
THE WRATH AND THE DAWN: And I’ll finish up with my favourite retelling of 2015. Have you ever heard of the Arabian Night stories and Shahrazad who told 1,000 stories to a Sultan so he wouldn’t kill her? WELL. This is the retelling! It features Shazi in a Persian fantasy world with magic and evil and intrigue. Plus there are so much delicious Persian food descriptions in here, I nearly ate the book.
Sometimes, it takes a little while for things to change from what they were to something different. Imagine a new seedling nudging its head up through the earth for the first time, no longer a seed, not yet a tree. This miraculous transformation of being represents the way I felt reading Martine Murray’s new mid-grade fiction, Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars. It took a little while for me to see the light emerge within this tale but when it did, it shone. I mean, who doesn’t love climbing trees? Aren’t we all a little attracted to the enigmatic silent types? And who hasn’t wanted to give it to their overbearing neighbours once and a while? These are some of the conundrums that claim Molly’s consideration, too.
Molly is an ordinary girl living a strange existence. She shares her strange life with a border collie named, Maude, an indifferent feline known as, Claudine and her Mama, who’s penchant for potions and picking herbs makes Molly cringe. She wishes for a life more run-of-the mill like her best friend, Ellen’s. Ellen’s mum puts food in packets in Ellen’s lunchbox and never picks herbs barefooted before breakfast. Ellen lives in a normal suburban brick home that in no way resembles the gypsy caravan that is Molly’s abode, at least that’s how she perceives the house she lives in.
Then there’s, Pim, the slightly left of field boy at school, whose aloofness and indifference intrigues Molly to the point of distraction. Molly is a little frightened and yet, truth be told, oddly compelled by his abstract ways but is unable to decide if he is friend or foe.
There is no time to find out because Molly and her mama are preparing for battle against ‘the world’s nastiest neighbours’, the ghastly Grimshaws from next door. In an effort to restore harmony, Molly’s mama suggests they grow a tree, a magnificent towering oak tree that will block out the beastly Grimshaws with its beauty. How does one grow an oak tree overnight, though? With the help of mama’s magic potions of course. Shockingly mama’s potion has devastating outcomes. A tree appears but is it all that it appears?
Following the loss of her mama, Molly must not only fend and feed herself and her small menagerie, often with hilarious results, but she must also come to terms with her own jagged dance of life. Through the pain of separation, the vacuum of loneliness, and the desperation of time running out, Molly discovers the beauty in the way her stars align and lets unfurl an inner power she barely knew existed.
This story is a series of beautiful realisations and discoveries as Molly climbs ever higher through her tree of life. You feel her mama’s presence fiercely in every inch of this story, which is both heartbreaking and reassuring. As Molly’s resources and resolve are tested, she finds solace in what was always her normal. Bolstered by Pim’s alliance and Ellen’s unyielding friendship, Ellen learns how it feels being part of the millions of stars that make up the world, her world and what power can issue forth from such awareness. With realisation comes heart and from within heart, courage is forged; ‘imagine if you were never scared of falling, how much higher you might climb’.
Murray uses generous doses of whimsy and magic to tell Molly’s tale of self-discovery and acceptance. The results are spellbinding. Weird but very wonderful, Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars will sweep young readers away. The line-drawn illustrations and inclusion of Molly’s notebook on herbs are the end are fetching additions to a book that grows with you and allows you to reflect on its fantasticalness long after the last page is turned. Molly certainly lit up my world.
By now, the last of those cleverly crafted Book Week costumes are washed and tucked away. Authors and illustrators all over Australia are reaching for mugs of hot lemon and honey tea to soothe raw throats, and children are undoubtedly curling up with pen and paper or else reading a brand new story, inspired by their last week of close encounters of a literary kind. It’s why we as (children’s) authors write, to be read and to in doing so open vistas, create possibilities and share adventures.
Fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk author, Sean McMullen subscribes to this notion with the same fervor he injects into his trillions of fantastical tales. Together with well-known fantasy author, Paul Collins, he has penned yet another epic fantasy series, The Warlock’s Child. I have yet to complete the adventure with Dantar and Velza but if the hackle-raising cover by Marc McBride (he is the illustrator of the Deltora Quest series) is anything to go by, then I cannot wait to jump on that ship with them!
Sean was kind enough to share his thoughts on how reading fantasy can seriously hone a child’s reading skills.
What is the most powerful tool that can be used to boost literacy in kids? In my opinion, it is persuading them to read voluntarily, and fantasy has a lot going for it when it comes to alluring, rather than forcing, students to open books.
While studying medieval literature for my PhD I discovered the origins of fantasy’s powerful combination of adventure, action and excitement, romance and magic. Around 1140 the old-style chanson de geste was being shouldered aside by the newly invented roman courtoise. The chansons were dominated by men fighting, but the romans had a good balance between male and female characters, and included romance. There were still quests and battles to maintain the excitement, but warriors generally did their great deeds for their ladies, rather than some boring king.
The roman courtoise was a sensation, and soon you were not cool if you did not read. In many tournaments, real knights dressed up and fought knights from books, and real kings and queens presided as King Arthur and Queen Guenevere. Medieval kings and queens pretending to be medieval kings and queens? It happened.
What worked for medieval readers still applies today’s schools, but accessibility is now the issue. When Paul Collins and I were planning The Warlock’s Childseries we were careful to keep it reader friendly. Instead of hundred thousand-word doorstopper, the story is spread over six less daunting books. The first five end on cliff-hangers, encouraging kids to keep reading. The perspective is shared between two teens, Dantar and his sister Velza, avoiding gender bias.
Book One, The Burning Sea, opens with a dragon attacking a ship, and in the first five thousand words we also witness a court martial for cowardice, learn that there are spies on the ship, and discover the importance of fire prevention at sea – the hard way. In short, it’s fast and exciting.
Thus readers are encouraged to begin the series and to keep reading, yet it is fantasy, which is often criticized for being escapist. Is this bad? When asked this question on a teen literacy panel my daughter – then twelve – replied, “If the real world follows you into all your reading, then you might as well not bother reading.” Fantasy can provide much needed respite from the real world, and when kids return to this world their reading skills are always sharper.
Molly’s life is set in the real world but her story has fantastical elements, particularly because her mother is an uncommon woman who has created a home without straight walls and corners; cooks chocolate-and-cashew balls and black-eyed pea autumn stews; uses an earthy magic to heal, nurture and grow; and accidentally becomes a tree. Molly hides the truth from her best friend, Ellen, but confides in Pim, a boy she thinks is tough but who also recognises wonder. “Pim was like a walk in the woods at dusk: full of darkness and brightness both at once, he was restless and unfitting, pouncing on ideas and lifting them out of the dark.”
The writing is sensory and lyrical, with awe-inspiring imagery, especially about stars. The singular characters share the book’s themes of truth and showing your true self with its primary-aged readers.
12-year-old Twig’s mother has a mystical trait akin to that of Molly’s mother. They live in an old Massachusetts farmhouse with an apple orchard. Twig’s mother bakes apples, makes lavender honey butter and understands herbal remedies.
Hoffman also uses star imagery. When Twig is not allowed to perform in a play she says, “ I just stored up my hurts, as if they were a tower made of fallen stars, invisible to most people, but brightly burning inside of me.”
Like Molly, Twig doesn’t feel she can reveal the truth about her family. The secret she hides is that her brother has wings but, unlike Molly’s nasty neighbours the Grimshaws, who want to cut down the fast-growing tree, the sisters who have moved into the cottage next-door to Twig’s become her confidantes.