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Best Indie Middle-Grade and Young Adult of 2018

A fantasy with tremendous heart and a magisterial execution.


This debut YA novel transports three teenage heroes to a magical realm that may vanish before they can save it from a despotic ruler.

Thirteen-year-old Ben Young has awoken in a forest beneath a red sky. He heads for a clearing, where he meets a girl collecting glowing flowers. She says she’s protecting them against something called the Fading. Ben next encounters a pair of faeries who lure him into a net that dangles him over a boiling swamp. Luckily, two elves save him from the faeries with arrows. Accompanying the elves is Marcus Cooper, a 13-year-old boy, who explains that the Fading is causing the spread of white nothingness on this world, Meridia. But Ben’s watch—a gift from his father that has stopped at midnight—might be the key to halting the Fading. Meanwhile, at the Blue Glass Palace, 13-year-old Queen Regent Avery Hopewell, like Ben, remembers little of how she comes and goes from Meridia. Fate has placed her in the path of Ben and Marcus but also in the way of the evil Sovereign, who plans to dominate all. Can the three teens reach the Creator’s Citadel and preserve the multifaceted beauty of Meridia? In this novel, Massey evokes the charm and psychedelic whimsy of classic fantasies like The Last Unicorn and films like Labyrinth. The heroes may pop in and out of Meridia via dreams, but their waking lives are just as dramatic as battling dark armies. Avery, for example, lives in a group home and still occasionally wets the bed yet has the intellect to be a catch for any foster family. As the teens tackle fantasy evil, they gain the confidence to address bullies and other real-world problems. The author’s dialogue, a buffet of snark and riddles, consistently augments the imaginative story. The dragonwoofs, a trio of underwhelming winged dogs who accompany the group, prompt Tamerlane the elf to ask, “How will these creatures learn to use their abilities if you keep sheltering them?” In this striking tale, Massey encourages parents to let children make mistakes as they explore their talents and identities.

A fantasy with tremendous heart and a magisterial execution.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-980944-39-3

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

A dark idea for a YA story, executed deftly and with feeling.


In Questell’s debut YA novel, a teenage girl has her first kiss and becomes trapped by a traveling carnival’s magical spell.

While her mother is conducting research in Guatemala, young Emma has been sent to Claremore, Oklahoma, to live with her father. She’s lost and lonely, and during a night out at Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic, she kisses a boy for the first time. But as soon as their lips touch, she knows that she’s made a mistake—not least of all because the boy then pushes her from the top of a Ferris wheel. As a result, Emma takes on his curse, becoming a sort of marionette—alive but without a heartbeat. Now she must travel with the carnival until she can lure someone into taking her place, as the boy did. Emma’s only solace is the apprentice carpenter, Benjamin, who, in his own way, is also a prisoner to the carnival. It soon becomes apparent that the carnival carries a charm as well as a curse—specifically, no one can die within the carnival grounds. Ben’s mother, it turns out, brought him there to be safe. But although he loves his mom and his circus family, he also longs to live his own life, and so he’s saving up money to run away. In just a few weeks, he’ll be free—but after he meets Emma, romance blossoms. As Questell tells her story of Emma’s incarceration in Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic, she captures much of the numb wonder and tumbling uncertainty of teenage existence. As a metaphor for first love, the carnival serves quite brilliantly, and the scenario will resonate with YA and new-adult readers. The switching between Emma’s and Ben’s increasingly interwoven stories also ensures that neither the young woman’s nor the young man’s point of view is especially favored. Overall, the author has crafted a compelling book with clear prose and depth of characterization. The carnival is a living, breathing conglomerate of real people with evolving stories that belie clichéd notions of good and bad. As Emma and Ben draw closer together, momentum builds and the pages fly by.

A dark idea for a YA story, executed deftly and with feeling.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63375-900-8

Page Count: 300

Publisher: Entangled Teen

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

A tale spins its answer to an age-old question into an inclusive, hilarious, and thought-provoking yarn.


A teenager will inherit an RV park if he figures out the meaning of life in this YA novel.

In her will, Raymond Saintbury’s grandmother says he has one month to discover life’s meaning or she’ll give her RV park to his mother and uncle. A dazzling opening sequence describes the domino effect of Grandma’s death—all the ways she didn’t die before she actually did—and ends with her cryogenically frozen brain on display in the middle of her creation, Sunny Days RV Park. Dalen Anders, the celebrity self-help guru she hired to help Ray with his quest, offers him neither magic bullets nor magic beans. Ray’s transformation from a video game addict to an RV park owner and operator will take old-fashioned hard work: flipping burgers, cleaning out the pool, and scrubbing bathroom floors. Meanwhile, Ray’s mother and sister, who resent their treatment in the will, are hoping he fails. But Ray soon realizes that he is not the only person in the park with problems. Salminder, who runs the burger truck where Ray works, is battling cancer. Ray has been trying to win over Salminder’s daughter, Tina, for ages, but now he sees that helping her cope with her father’s illness is more important than trying to impress her with his gaming skills. Stewart (The Boy Who Swallows Flies, 2018, etc.) presents readers with a dynamite coming-of-age story. Backwoods without calling anyone backward, the author’s offbeat humor keeps the heavy subjects of death and poverty from becoming maudlin or bleak, as when Grandma’s body has to camp out in Ray’s trailer for a few days before the undertaker can get to her neck of the woods. Booby-trapped with guns, grizzly bears, and homemade fireworks, the cartoonish park setting skillfully gives wheels to a larger, more intriguing philosophical question. Salminder, a devout Sikh, asks Ray, “If it doesn’t matter who you are, how rich you are, where you are or what you’re doing, then why can’t you find your meaning of life here in this very RV park?”

A tale spins its answer to an age-old question into an inclusive, hilarious, and thought-provoking yarn.

Pub Date: May 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-989133-00-2

Page Count: 275

Publisher: The Publishing House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

Whip-smart plotting makes this adventure an ideal romp.


In this middle-grade fantasy debut, the removal of pennies from a water fountain unleashes magical forces both good and evil.

Matthew Patterson’s 13th birthday isn’t going too well. Football tryouts are a disaster when school bully Dan Valdner trips him. Worse, the kindhearted Kelsey Robins can only look on while the coach boots Matthew from the field. Later, his parents take him and his best friend, Johnny Barnes, to the family’s favorite restaurant, The Inn of the Eleventh Ray. In the restaurant’s courtyard is a stone fountain featuring sculptures of odd creatures with “long arms, pointy fingers, and long, curling tails.” Matthew impulsively grabs three pennies from the fountain, little realizing that the act is noticed high above, and far below, the restaurant. In caves deep within the Earth, Bolterkein, ruler of the Wish Stealers, dispatches his agents—Glut, Sluth, and Tanger—to help steal the energy from the wishes that Matthew has placed in jeopardy. Meanwhile, on “the brightest star in the sky,” Empress Hopreme of the Wish Defenders responds with her own team: Nova, Dodd, and Byno. Their mission is to aid Matthew in returning the coins to the fountain within 24 hours or Bolterkein will be one step closer to escaping his subterranean prison. For their collaboration, Holm and Foster deliver a bouncy adventure with some exceptionally daring twists. First among them is that the wishes made with Matthew’s pennies are coming undone. WNBA all-star Judy Hughes loses her skills on the court, and the elderly Clay Williams finds that his wife, Edith, is once again gravely ill. That the third coin belonged to the protagonist’s parents—which sets Matthew himself unraveling—further jolts this creative story. Trim, capable prose transports readers, as when “Clouds slowly drifted by the pinkish-purple sunset....The planet’s surface was covered with large islands surrounded by turquoise-blue water.” After time spent at a water park and in a car chase, the narrative ties several threads together in a remarkable bow, highlighting the role of hard work in life.

Whip-smart plotting makes this adventure an ideal romp.

Pub Date: March 30, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-578-20056-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Holmade Publishing

Review Posted Online: June 7, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

A fine teaching tool that offers advice for getting through a golf game—and through life.


In this debut middle-grade fantasy novella, a young girl plays through an adventurous golf course that teaches her as much about herself as it does about the sport.

When 9-year-old Skyler accidentally falls into a puddle in her backyard, it transports her to an engaging fantasy world called “the Puddle Club.” The first beings that she encounters are an eager golf ball named Ralphie and an astute gopher named Par. The latter explains that the only way for Skyler to return home is to complete the local golf course, and he equips her with the necessary equipment and wisdom to do so. But despite Par’s advice to go ahead and start playing, Skyler feels the need to first stop by Practiceopolis. She’s excited by the energy in this busy “paradise golf park,” but after the workers there pressure her into buying top-notch golf equipment and practicing an absurd amount of time, she decides to go ahead and start the course. She and Ralphie make their way from hole to hole, facing obstacles such as distracting “Yip” trolls, the sandy Pit of Doom that has a mind of its own, and the dreaded Gustina, “the wind goddess of golf.” Skyler makes plenty of mistakes along the way but also learns valuable lessons, the most important of which is this: “When you’re in the game and things start to look impossible…you gotta jump right in and play through.” McGruther and Russell’s book is, in equal parts, entertaining, educational, and inspiring. They describe the scenery of the Puddle Club with delightful detail and creative wit, and the clear plot gives readers a constant sense of direction despite all of its thrilling diversions. The book is also full of vital insights for new golfers, including three simple questions to ask oneself before every hole. Many of its lessons reach far beyond the realm of golf, however, highlighting the importance of purposeful focus, the dangers of perfectionism, and the joy that can come from seeking improvement.

A fine teaching tool that offers advice for getting through a golf game—and through life.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-692-95969-5

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Hosel & Ferrule Books

Review Posted Online: Jan. 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2018

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