Book List

Best Middle-Grade Books of 2013 to Get Pulses Pounding

Fantasy that evokes the classics of yore and stands proudly among them.

THE TWISTROSE KEY

Skillfully blending facets of classic high fantasy, this debut novel will captivate readers with its rich plot and detailed worldbuilding.

Sylveros is populated by the formerly beloved pets of Earth children. After an animal’s death on Earth, it passes over to a life of apparent harmony in the winter beauty of the Sylver Valley. While a winter setting inevitably invites Narnia comparisons, this layered plot holds its own. The peace in Sylver has been disturbed, and chief chronicler Teodor does not know why. Nightmares are threatening the protected border. In times like these, a Twistrose—a human child—is called from Earth to give aid. Lin Rosenquist, mourning her tamed pet vole, Rufus, who died some five weeks earlier, finds herself magically transported to Sylver and is met by Rufus himself, now as big as she is. Teodor tells Lin she is the Twistrose and charges her with finding Isvan Winterfyrst, a “glacial-kin” child who has mysteriously disappeared and whose presence is imperative to continue the magic that keeps Sylver safe. Lin’s only clue is an ancient, nonsensical ballad. Deeply drawn characters with heart combine with meticulous details to convincingly bring readers into the fantasy world, while a revelatory ending makes this a satisfying read that may be enjoyed even more the second time around. 

Fantasy that evokes the classics of yore and stands proudly among them. (Fantasy. 9-13)

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8037-3895-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

A rollicking, ripping tall tale with ecological subtext.

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THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP

When rogue feral hogs and a greedy developer threaten to wipe out Sugar Man Swamp, two raccoons know it’s time to rouse the legendary Sugar Man.

Mythic Sugar Man has reigned over Sugar Man Swamp for a “gazillion yesterdays.” Raccoons Bingo and J’miah descend from a line of Official Scouts Sugar Man designated to watch over the swamp and alert him in an emergency. Twelve-year-old Chap has also grown up along the swamp, where his mother operates Paradise Pies Café. Like his recently deceased grandfather, Chap cherishes the swamp. When the swamp’s sleazy owner, Sunny Boy Beaucoup, threatens to evict them to convert the swamp into Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, Chap takes his grandfather’s place to preserve what he loves. When Bingo and J’miah discover feral hogs descending on the swamp to pulverize the native sugarcane, they risk Sugar Man’s wrath and wake him. Set in the east Texas bayou, like The Underneath (2008) and Keeper (2010), this playful tale teems with bayou flora, fauna and folklore. In a honeyed dialect, the omnipresent narrator directly engages readers, ricocheting between the hilarious human and critter dramas to a riotous finale.

A rollicking, ripping tall tale with ecological subtext. (art not seen) (Fantasy. 10-14)

Pub Date: July 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4424-2105-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Spooky, melancholy, elegiac and ultimately hopeful; a small gem.

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DOLL BONES

A middle-grade fantasy dons the cloak of a creepy ghost tale to deliver bittersweet meditations on the nature of friendship, the price of growing up and the power of storytelling.

The lifelong friendship of Zach, Poppy and Alice revolves around their joint creation, an epic role-playing saga of pirates and perils, queens and quests. But now they are 12, and their interests are changing along with their bodies; when Zach’s father trashes his action figures and commands him to “grow up,” Zach abruptly quits the game. Poppy begs him to join her and Alice on one last adventure: a road trip to bring peace to the ghost possessing her antique porcelain doll. As they travel by bus and boat (with a fateful stop at the public library), the ghost seems to take charge of their journey—and the distinctions between fantasy and reality, between play and obligation, begin to dissolve....Veteran Black packs both heft and depth into a deceptively simple (and convincingly uncanny) narrative. From Zach’s bitter relationship with his father to Anna’s chafing at her overprotective grandmother to Poppy’s resignation with her ramshackle relations, Black skillfully sketches their varied backgrounds and unique contributions to their relationship. A few rich metaphors—rivers, pottery, breath—are woven throughout the story, as every encounter redraws the blurry lines between childishness and maturity, truth and lies, secrecy and honesty, magic and madness.

Spooky, melancholy, elegiac and ultimately hopeful; a small gem. (Fantasy. 10-14)

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4169-6398-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: McElderry

Review Posted Online: Feb. 27, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

Unsurprisingly, Jinx displays hints of developing powers beyond the ordinary. Astonishingly, he and his world still seem...

JINX

Making unusually entertaining use of well-worn elements, this series opener plops a dense but promising young wizard-in-training between a pair of obnoxious rival mages.

Left by his stepparents to die in the dangerous Urwald, Jinx is rescued by Simon Magus, a “possibly evil” forest-dwelling wizard whose obsession with magical research is matched only by a truly profound lack of people skills. Several years later, having learned a little magic but also injured by one of Simon’s spells, Jinx stomps off in a rage to seek help. But hardly has he fallen in with a couple of ensorcelled fellow travelers, than all three fall into the clutches of the genial but rightly feared Bonemaster. Along with setting this adventuresome outing in a sentient forest populated by trolls, werewolves and giddy witches who bound about in butter churns, the pseudonymous Blackwood spins out lively dialogue threaded with comical rudeness and teasing. Trotting out a supporting cast whose inner characters are often at thought-provoking odds with their outer seeming, she also puts her central three through a string of suspenseful, scary situations before delivering a properly balanced closing set of resolutions, revelations and road signs to future episodes.

Unsurprisingly, Jinx displays hints of developing powers beyond the ordinary. Astonishingly, he and his world still seem fresh, for all that they echo familiar tropes. (Fantasy. 10-12)

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-212990-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 10, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

This one is special.

THE WATER CASTLE

Weaving legacy and myth into science and magic, old into new and enemies into friends, Blakemore creates an exquisite mystery.

Crystal Springs, Maine, “isn’t on the map,” but it’s still where Price, Ephraim and Brynn’s mother brings their family when their father has a stroke. The “looming stone house” with hidden floors and impossible rooms, owned by their family (the Appledores) for over a century, was once a resort that claimed its spring water had healing properties—possibly a fountain of youth. Ephraim struggles to fit in at Crystal Springs’ peculiarly overachieving school; his classmate Mallory steels herself against her mother’s recent departure and her teacher’s assignment to study Matthew Henson (“He just assumed she would want to do him, because Henson was black too”). While Mallory, Ephraim and another sixth-grader named Will unravel the castle’s secrets (each for different reasons, all serious) and confront age-old hostility among their families, a 1908 storyline unfolds: Young Nora Darling (Mallory’s relative) assists old Orlando Appledore in feverish scientific research. Peary and Henson’s Arctic expedition features in both timelines; science, history and literature references glow; Nikola Tesla visits Nora and Orlando. With keen intelligence and bits of humor, the prose slips calmly between narrative perspectives, trusting readers to pick up a revelation that Ephraim and Mallory don’t see—and it’s a doozy.

This one is special. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8027-2839-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: Oct. 31, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2012

Like Conor, readers will emerge from this adventure a little bit better equipped for heroism than before

TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD

Fantasist Booraem (Small Persons with Wings, 2011, etc.) turns her attention from art to another great human endeavor: death.

Timorous 12-year-old Conor O’Neill is scared of spiders, doesn’t want to play hockey and is dubious about leaving Southie to attend Boston Latin. When a banshee shows up, ready to keen for an imminent family Death, he is sent directly over the edge into terror. Who’s to die? His parents? His beloved, Irish-to-the-core grandfather, Grump? His “soul-sucking demon warrior” of a little sister, Glennie? Conor himself? Cripes. Rookie banshee Ashling needs her Death; it’s the only way she can move on from the Underworld and into a new life. Hoping to find a loophole, Conor, Glennie and an ailing Grump venture with her into the Underworld to talk to the Lady and undergo the test of the Birds in order to gain power over life and death. Booraem applies a light touch to her heavy subject. Iron Age–era Ashling eagerly, if inaccurately, adopts 21st-century slang and catches up with old Trivial Pursuit cards; the various denizens of the Underworld—a gleeful olio of afterlife mythologies—squabble like those who’ve been cooped up together too long. But she doesn’t avoid staring death in the face, saddling her likably unlikely hero with an agonizing decision that, though framed in fantasy, is all too gut-punchingly real.

Like Conor, readers will emerge from this adventure a little bit better equipped for heroism than before . (Fantasy. 10-14)

Pub Date: Aug. 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8037-3704-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

Original, touching and oh-so-funny tale starring an endearingly implausible superhero and a not-so-cynical girl.

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FLORA & ULYSSES

THE ILLUMINATED ADVENTURES

When a cynical comic-book fanatic discovers her own superhero, life becomes wonderfully supercharged.

Despite the contract her mother made her sign to “turn her face away from the idiotic high jinks of comics,” 10-year-old Flora avidly follows her favorite superhero’s adventures. Flora’s mother writes romance novels and seems more in love with her books than with her lonely ex-husband or equally lonely daughter. When a neighbor accidentally vacuums a squirrel into a Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner, Flora resuscitates him into a “changed squirrel,” able to lift the 2000X with a single paw. Immediately assuming he’s a superhero, Flora names the squirrel “Ulysses” and believes together they will “[shed] light into the darkest corners of the universe.” Able to understand Flora, type, compose poetry and fly, the transformed Ulysses indeed exhibits superpowers, but he confronts his “arch-nemesis" when Flora’s mother tries to terminate him, triggering a chain of events where Ulysses becomes a real superhero. The very witty text and droll, comic-book–style black-and-white illustrations perfectly relay the all-too-hilarious adventures of Flora, Ulysses and a cast of eccentric characters who learn to believe in the impossible and have “capacious” hearts.

Original, touching and oh-so-funny tale starring an endearingly implausible superhero and a not-so-cynical girl. (Fantasy. 8-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-7636-6040-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2013

In Stoker-on-Avon, the townsfolk have been feeling a bit dismayed; their monster, a horned, winged creature named Rayburn,...

MONSTER ON THE HILL

In an alternative 19th-century England, monsters both thrill and protect their towns.

In Stoker-on-Avon, the townsfolk have been feeling a bit dismayed; their monster, a horned, winged creature named Rayburn, hasn’t attacked in nearly seven years, and his lack of ambition serves as a constant embarrassment to his village. A disgraced doctor is asked to help “fix” the melancholic monster, and once he accepts, he discovers that a precocious street urchin has stowed along for the ride. The pair and the bummed-out beast set out to visit one of Rayburn’s old creature friends, a savage-looking beast with a heart of gold popularly known as Tentaculor, but affectionately to his friends as Noodles. This leaves Stoker-on-Avon vulnerable and without a monster. Rayburn’s absence is intuited by an abominable being known as the Murk, a mixture of mud, hair, and pure, unrefined evil. Faced with the imminent destruction of his town, Rayburn must overcome his dolorous disposition and rediscover his true terrifying powers. More at-home than anomalous, Harrell’s world is easily accessible, a place where monsters seamlessly blend into 19th-century England. Touching deftly upon well-trod themes and with a deliciously cinematic sense of both framing and pacing, this indie charmer is both quirky and novel; expect it to appeal to fans of Jeff Smith’s Bone series.

Just plain monstrous fun. (Graphic fantasy. 9-12)

Pub Date: July 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-60309-075-9

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Top Shelf Productions

Review Posted Online: May 29, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2013

Jinks opens her projected trilogy in high style, offering a period melodrama replete with colorful characters, narrow...

HOW TO CATCH A BOGLE

From the How to Catch a Bogle series , Vol. 1

Child-eating bogles infest Victorian London, providing work aplenty for “Go-Devil Man” Alfred Bunce and his intrepid young apprentice, Birdie.

Singing morbid verses from popular ballads in her angelic voice to draw the shadowy creatures out of their chimneys, sewers or other lairs so that Alfred can stab them with his special lance, Birdie thinks she has “the best job in the world” despite the risk—she could be snatched and eaten if the timing is even a little off. Alas, the idyll doesn’t survive a double set of complications. First, unctuous would-be warlock Roswell Morton, out to capture one of the monsters for his own evil uses, kidnaps her and plants her in an insane asylum to force Alfred’s cooperation. Second are the unwanted but, as it turns out, saving attentions of Miss Edith Eames, a self-described “folklorist.” Her naïveté about London’s nastier stews conceals both a quick wit and a fixed determination to see Birdie cleaned up and educated in the social graces. The tale is set in a range of locales, most of them noxious and well-stocked with rousingly scary hobgoblins as well as a cast of colorful Londoners with Dickensian names like Sally Pickles and Ned Roach. It dashes along smartly to a suspenseful climactic kerfuffle as it endears its 10-year-old protagonist, whose temper is matched only by her courage in the clutch, to readers.

Jinks opens her projected trilogy in high style, offering a period melodrama replete with colorful characters, narrow squeaks and explosions of ectoplasmic goo. (glossary of slang and monster types) (Historical fantasy. 10-13)

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-544-08708-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: April 10, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

THE WATCHER IN THE SHADOWS

The magic is darker in this intense sequel to The Inquisitor’s Apprentice (2011).

In a richly imagined alternate version of New York City at the turn of the 20th century, Sacha continues his on-the-job training in the police department’s Inquisitor division amid murder, abduction and terrifying encounters with evil beings both real and magical. J.P. Morgaunt mercilessly wields his magical power over newspapers, transportation, manufacturing and just about everything else, including  a soul-stealing machine with which he has loosed Sacha’s doppelganger, a dybbuk that is constantly growing stronger. An impending strike at the Pentacle Shirtwaist Factory is the catalyst for Morgaunt’s machinations, which encompass the workers’ union, the crime syndicate Magic, Inc., martial arts and Kabbalists. When Sacha’s family is drawn into this morass, he must make impossible choices between guarding their safety and working with Inspector Wolf, Lily and Peyton, all of whom have become dear to him. Moriarity again manages to capture the great distance between rich and poor, the struggle of immigrants to cope with bigotry and poverty, and the rapidly growing and changing world of the real New York City, while staying true to Sacha’s mystical city. Rich language, colorful syntax, vivid description and a brilliant cast of characters beckon readers right into both the adventure and the heartfelt emotional landscape. Exciting, action-packed and absolutely marvelous. (Fantasy. 10 & up)  

 

Pub Date: May 28, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-46632-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

This leisurely, lyrical, romantic and realistic version is one to savor and to read aloud, and again, and again.

EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON

Reimagined for the 21st century, a familiar folk tale becomes a haunting love story and a reminder that first love may not last a lifetime.

The traditional Scandinavian tale relates the attraction between a great white bear and a young girl, her betrayal, and her subsequent journey to find him and free him from his enchantment. In Morris’ telling, the ending is modern. The story begins in reality. She’s the eldest child of immigrants seeking asylum and struggling in a new country. Even those readers who don’t know the fairy-tale background will know that fantasy is coming from the very beginning, when a polar bear performs a feat of magic on a gritty city street. But while the girl loved the bear, the woman, grown and given a name—Berneen—has more complex emotions. Modern references appear occasionally throughout the text, but this is folklore world, with a splendid variety of landscapes. Watercolor paintings between chapters show fields and forests in several seasons, a southwestern desert and the icy wastes of the frozen north. There are spreads showing the girl, the bear and the castle as well, and tiny vignettes throughout indicate breaks in the action. 

This leisurely, lyrical, romantic and realistic version is one to savor and to read aloud, and again, and again. (Fantasy. 11-15)

Pub Date: March 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-84780-294-1

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Frances Lincoln

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

Brava! This witty, inventively poetic, fairy-tale–like adventure shimmers with love, magic and music.

ROOFTOPPERS

“Never ignore a possible.” Sophie takes her beloved guardian’s words to heart and never gives up on finding her long-lost mother.

One-year-old Sophie is found floating in a cello case in the English Channel by Charles Maxim, a fellow passenger on the freshly sunk Queen Mary: “He noticed that it was a girl, with hair the color of lightning, and the smile of a shy person.” He decides to keep her. The bookish pair lives a harmonious, gloriously unorthodox life together—she prefers trousers to skirts, knows the collective noun for toads and uses atlases as plates. The National Childcare Agency does not approve, so when a clue in Sophie’s cello case links her mother to Paris, Charles and Sophie decide to skip town after her 12th birthday. Once ensconced in her Parisian attic hideaway, Sophie gets a skylight visit from a teenage “rooftopper” named Matteo, who eats pigeons and never, ever descends to street level. Sophie—anxious to help Charles find her mother—secretly joins the boy atop Paris night after night, listening for her cello-playing. Vivid descriptions of fierce kids in survival mode and death-defying rooftop scrambles are breathlessly exciting, as is the bubbling suspense of Sophie’s impassioned search for the possible.

Brava! This witty, inventively poetic, fairy-tale–like adventure shimmers with love, magic and music. (Adventure. 9-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4424-9058-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

HOKEY POKEY

If childhood were a place….

In the adultless land of Hokey Pokey, a dry, sandy environment reminiscent of the Southwest, children arrive when they’ve outgrown diapers and receive a ticklish tattoo of an eye on their abdomens. At midday they line up for a serving of hokey pokey, an ice treat in any flavor imaginable. The rest of their day is spent playing, watching a giant television with nonstop cartoons or riding bicycles, which are horselike creatures that roll in herds and can buck their owners off at will. In this inventive, modern fable, Jack awakens with a bad feeling that’s realized when his legendary Scramjet bike is stolen by Jubilee, a girl no less, and his tattoo has started to fade. As he searches for his bike and the reason why “[t]he world is rushing at him, confusing him, alarming him,” he recalls The Story about The Kid who grew up and hinted at tomorrow, an unrecognizable place to children. With nods to J.M. Barrie, Dr. Seuss and Philip Pullman, Newbery Medalist Spinelli crafts stunning turns of phrase as Jack “unfunks” and tries to “dehappen” the day’s events. While reluctantly accepting his growing up, Jack brings Hokey Pokey’s bully to justice, suddenly finds Jubilee an interesting companion and prepares his Amigos for his imminent departure. A masterful, bittersweet recognition of coming-of-age. (Fiction. 10-13, adult)

 

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-375-83198-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

Georgie's story will capture readers' imaginations with the very first sentences and then hold them hostage until the final...

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ONE CAME HOME

In 1871, in the small town of Placid, Wis., a sister goes missing and a great adventure begins.

Disconsolate over the end of a promising courtship, Agatha Burkhardt runs off without so much as a goodbye to her younger sister, Georgie. When the sheriff attempts to locate and retrieve Agatha, he brings home not the vibrant sister that Georgie adores, but an unidentifiable body wearing Agatha’s ball gown. Alone in her belief that the body is not her sister’s, Georgie sneaks away in the dead of night, determined to retrace Agatha’s steps in order to solve the mystery of her disappearance and, she hopes, to bring her home. To Georgie's surprise, she’s joined on the journey by her sister’s former flame. And what a journey it is, fraught with mountain lions, counterfeiters and marriage proposals. The truly memorable characters and setting—particularly descriptions of the incredible phenomenon of passenger-pigeon nesting and migration—and the gradual unraveling of the mystery of Agatha’s disappearance make this one hard to put down. The icing on the cake, though, is Georgie’s narration, which is fresh, laugh-out-loud funny and an absolute delight to read.

Georgie's story will capture readers' imaginations with the very first sentences and then hold them hostage until the final page is turned. (Historical fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-375-86925-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

Navigating this stunning novel requires thought and concentration, but it’s well worth the effort.

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NAVIGATING EARLY

Returning to themes she explored so affectingly in Moon Over Manifest (2011), Newbery Medalist Vanderpool delivers another winning picaresque about memories, personal journeys, interconnectedness—and the power of stories.

Thirteen-year-old Jack enters boarding school in Maine after his mother’s death at the end of World War II. He quickly befriends Early Auden, a savant whose extraordinary facility with numbers allows him to “read” a story about “Pi” from the infinite series of digits that follow 3.14. Jack accompanies Early in one of the school crew team’s rowing boats on what Jack believes is his friend’s fruitless quest to find a great bear allegedly roaming the wilderness—and Early’s brother, a legendary figure reportedly killed in battle. En route, Early spins out Pi’s evolving saga, and the boys encounter memorable individuals and adventures that uncannily parallel those in the stories. Vanderpool ties all these details, characters, and Jack’s growing maturity and self-awareness together masterfully and poignantly, though humor and excitement leaven the weighty issues the author and Jack frequently pose. Some exploits may strain credulity; Jack’s self-awareness often seems beyond his years, and there are coincidences that may seem too convenient. It’s all of a piece with Vanderpool’s craftsmanship. Her tapestry is woven and finished off seamlessly. The ending is very moving, and there’s a lovely, last-page surprise that Jack doesn’t know but that readers will have been tipped off about.

Navigating this stunning novel requires thought and concentration, but it’s well worth the effort. (author’s note, with questions and answers, list of resources) (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-385-74209-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Oct. 31, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2012

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