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Best Indie Middle-Grade & YA Books of 2019

An unusual focus on food only improves this intriguing coming-of-age story.


As unrest grows in a food-strapped space colony, a young woman slated for leadership must make a heart-wrenching decision in this YA sci-fi/romance novel.

When colonists arrived on their new planet, Dion, 60 years ago, they expected to find a fully habitable environment. All but a few terraforming pods sent ahead were destroyed, however, making survival tenuous. The colony adopted a drastic solution: the Aegis (people with suitable genes) receive a modification to become food incubators, eating heartily six times a day so that many more nutrients than they eat can be uncomfortably extracted from them in pill form. The other colonists consume only these pills, never tasting actual food. They, however, live full life spans, while all the Aegis but the king lose 60 years each. To retain strong leadership, every five years, a strong, fit colonist is chosen to sacrifice his or her organs to keep the king alive. Princess Vela, 17, of Thai descent, doesn’t always follow rules but still might be chosen over her sister as their father’s successor. First, though, she’s charged with administering this year’s Fittest Trials—agonizing in any circumstances but even harder with Vela’s childhood crush competing. Not only that, a saboteur threatens the colony. Vela must use her head and heart to make the right choices on behalf of her people. Dunn (Seize Today, 2017, etc.) has an inspired idea in focusing Dion’s society around issues of food and eating, so primal yet seldom featured in sci-fi. The Aegis’ lavish, varied meals sound so absolutely mouthwatering that readers may wish for a cookbook tie-in: “hummus and falafel and anchovy salad with olives and onions. Squid ink paella and cod fish omelet….Ceviche and fried plantains.” The power of this fundamental social divide is captivating, and it’s easy to see how it could lead to unrest, with have-nots growing, cooking, and serving meals they can’t even taste. Vela’s emotions are rendered in the melodramatic bodily overreactions common to YA fiction, and it’s easy to guess the villain, but Dunn’s entertaining storytelling compensates.

An unusual focus on food only improves this intriguing coming-of-age story.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63375-241-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Entangled Teen

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

An engrossing SF/fantasy that breathes new life into old tropes.


From the YaraStar Trilogy series , Vol. 1

A debut YA novel sees a teen girl fight for acceptance in a world of ingrained prejudice.

The planet Mira is home to two races—the sun-dwelling Photaks and the light-averse Skotads. Sixteen-year-old Yara is a Photak, but unlike the rest of her tribe, she has no birth markings. She was found as a baby in the Greens, a shadowy realm where no Photak can remain long without falling to Light Blindness. Yara can live in the light so she cannot be a Skotad. Yet she can never be a true Photak either. Taken reluctantly into the tribe, she has remained an outsider to be shunned, feared, and despised. Her adoptive parents love her, as do the younger children, but apart from them, only Kristos, the Chief’s son, truly accepts her. Yara is training to be a warrior with Kristos. Driven by the need to prove herself, she has become second to none in both the Photak fighting techniques and her own secretly developed style that is “notoriously difficult to predict” (“The offbeat moves came with their own rhythm, and from an outsider’s perspective, it looked like a dangerous, deadly dance”). On the Day of the Calling, Yara is chosen from all of the graduating trainees to defend the tribe in a ritual combat known as the inner fight. It’s her proudest moment, yet even in victory she faces disaster. For, unbeknown to Yara, her secret style mirrors that of the Skotads. Suddenly all of the tribe’s doubts come flooding back. With even Kristos now having second thoughts about her, Yara flees into the Greens—and meets a Skotad hunter who makes her question everything she’s been taught to believe. Frontin writes in the third person, mostly from Yara’s point of view, and quickly constructs an effortless blend of SF scenario, social allegory, and YA coming-of-age adventure. The prose is simple but effective, and the dialogue functional (although some of the monologues are a bit strained). But it is through characterization that the story soars. The plot spirals upward through broadly predictable yet still personal and distinctive patterns on the back of its character moments. As the first installment of a trilogy, the book lacks closure. Nevertheless, Frontin establishes Yara as a protagonist to follow and herself as an author to watch.

An engrossing SF/fantasy that breathes new life into old tropes.

Pub Date: June 29, 2018

ISBN: 978-976-8255-76-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Mark Made Group

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

A smashing debut that’s both intimate and epic.


In this YA debut, a high schooler befriends the class loner and a World War II veteran.

Edwin Green is a junior at J.P. Hornby High School in Hornby, Alabama. His ex-girlfriend Sadie Evans became a celebrity after improbable events, revealed later in the novel, that happened on April 13, 2014, which Edwin calls “Black Saturday.” In the year since then, he’s been making YouTube videos in the hope of becoming famous himself and winning her back. Then, one day in history class, Edwin’s sad life is graced by Parker Haddaway, a gruff girl whom the teacher makes his partner in a class project. They must ask someone who lived through World War II a series of questions—and luckily, Parker knows just the man to interview: 90-year-old Garland Lenox, who lives at the Morningview Arbor rest home. They ask the cantankerous Air Force veteran about the first time he heard the name Adolf Hitler, and he says, “Doesn’t ring a bell.” He’s teasing them, of course, but the next time the teens visit, Garland has a serious proposal: He offers Edwin $25,000 to help him secretly go to France and reunite with his long-lost love, Madeleine Moreau. The notion is preposterous—but Edwin thinks that if they can complete the mission, he’ll finally become world-famous. Gibbs adds an unconventional sweetness, reminiscent of Jerry Spinelli’s 2000 novel Stargirl, to a tale of a trip to Saint-Lô, which the Allies bombed during WWII. Along the way, the author crafts lines that effectively illuminate both his snarky characters and modern society. Edwin, for example, narrates, “for at least half the famous people out there fame just fell on their heads like bird shit.” Garland, amid irreverent one-liners, provides a wealth of firsthand experience about the Second World War and midcentury America (“I joined the Air Force to get out of the damn woods and see the world”). Parker loves 1990s rap music, and Gibbs sprinkles lyrics throughout the story like confetti. As her fate intertwines with Garland’s and Edwin’s, the meaning of the book’s title comes into flower. In the end, Gibbs avoids easy, saccharine plot turns in favor of ones that strengthen his characters.

A smashing debut that’s both intimate and epic.

Pub Date: May 20, 2019


Page Count: 250

Publisher: Borne Back Books

Review Posted Online: April 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

A highly recommended work that’s thoughtful, funny, wise, and tender.


Two chronically ill teens navigate the joys and pitfalls of a relationship in this YA contemporary romance.

Of all the places where 16-year-old Isabel Garfinkel could meet a cute boy, the Ambulatory Medical Unit at Linefield and West Memorial Hospital in the Queens borough of New York City, wouldn’t seem the most likely. It’s her second time in the “drip room,” as it’s called, where she gets monthly infusions to treat the rheumatoid arthritis that she’s had for 11 years. This time, though, she can’t help staring at a new patient there—a boy her age named Sasha Sverdlov-Deckler. She likes his quirky, appealing looks and wry sense of humor, and they bond over the fact that they’re both Jewish. Sasha has a rare genetic disorder called Gaucher disease, which isn’t fatal, in his case, but causes severe anemia, weak bones, and other problems. Although Isabel has several close and well-meaning friends, she doesn’t have anyone who really understands what it’s like “to deal with the everyday slog of being sick.” She and Sasha hit it off, but she’s emotionally guarded and dislikes risks, and as a result, she doesn’t date. Sasha is patient and sweet, and their romance grows; amid a few arguments and setbacks, they forge a bond that gets them through their problems. As the advice columnist for her high school paper, Isabel asks questions and gathers others’ responses; by the end of the novel, she’s comfortable with not having all the answers. Moskowitz (Salt, 2018, etc.) does a splendid job of showing what the world looks like to the chronically but invisibly ill. For example, Isabel is often tired and aching, and she fears the judgment of others; she notes that even her physician father would question her getting a cab to go 15 blocks, a walkable distance for many, including people who are old or pregnant and “people with arthritis who are just better than me.” Overall, the excellent character development lends depth and sweetness to the romance. Isabel’s relationship with Sasha helps her fight self-doubt and stand up for herself with laudable vigor, yet the novel never feels didactic.

A highly recommended work that’s thoughtful, funny, wise, and tender.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64063-732-0

Page Count: 300

Publisher: Entangled: Teen

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

A delightful, compelling fantasy adventure sure to win fans.


In this middle-grade novel, three children journey in a magical boat to help reunite humans with the elemental world.

It’s a sad day for the white Temple family when it has to leave Honey Creek Farm for the city. Before leaving, Julie, 11, and her almost two years younger brother, Leo, make several surprising discoveries, including a little bottle with an exquisitely made tiny ship inside, complete with a swan figurehead. They also meet a little man called Curly Beard, who explains how they can sail in the magical boat. But it’s not a toy; a crucial plan is afoot to save Earth from ecological disaster by reuniting humans with elementals like Curly Beard, “little folk…such as elves, fairies, wights, imps,” and more. (It’s unclear what these Old World beings are doing in what’s apparently North America.) Joining their mission is a new neighbor, Annabel, a pretty black girl around Leo’s age who walks with crutches. Healing the planet begins with aiding the Queen of the Waters, but first, the children must free Curly Beard, who’s been captured. Their path will be filled with danger and difficulty—but the kids have guides, resources, courage, and good hearts to help them. Many writers have tried to conjure up that true feeling of magic in their fantasy adventures, but Müller (Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, 2018, etc.) is one of the few who succeed. Lush, appealing descriptions stand out, as in an area packed with hundreds of captivating temptations that the children must resist: rooms full of sweet songbirds; “every imaginable toy”; intriguing weapons; jugglers and acrobats; and much more. Like C.S. Lewis, Müller offers effective characterizations (some may object to Annabel’s being described as “lame,” but her point of view is represented) and an exciting plot that’s ballasted by moral seriousness. The quest’s puzzles and challenges are original and involving, and the ending is genuinely moving. It also suggests further escapades to come—let’s hope so.

A delightful, compelling fantasy adventure sure to win fans.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-936367-44-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

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