Book List

Best Middle-Grade Books of 2014 for Readers Who Like Quirky

Layered, beautiful, smart and achingly funny. In a word, brilliant.

HE LAUGHED WITH HIS OTHER MOUTHS

From the Pals in Peril series , Vol. 6

The thrills continue as Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, goes into the deepest regions of space in search of his long-lost father.

Jasper is joined by Katie Mulligan and Lily Gefelty for another absurd adventure through time and space. This time, Jasper’s teleporter takes them deep within the Horsehead Nebula, the area of space that contains the secret of Jasper’s origins. Mysterious extraterrestrials travel the globe, abducting random civilians to ask them one question: “Where is Jasper Dash?” Meanwhile, in the footnotes, young Busby Spence reads classic Jasper Dash adventure novels and longs for the return of his own father, fighting in the Pacific theater during World War II. Anderson’s creative mixture of otherworldly adventure and heartfelt emotion is flawless. Nostalgic, hopeful and most importantly playful, the author has crafted a work that expresses all the pleasures of being young and getting lost in the realms of a great book. The novel doesn’t transcend the wacky sci-fi of old that inspired it but rather embraces it and dissects it, celebrating it and exploring why so many people fell in love with these silly worlds and gee-whiz heroes in the first place. Above all, this is a testament to the art of reading, a book that reminds you why you love reading in the first place.

Layered, beautiful, smart and achingly funny. In a word, brilliant. (Science fiction. 12-16)

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4424-5110-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: June 25, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

Part Great Escape, part Hatchet, part Charlotte’s Web, all wonderful.

AUDREY (COW)

Move aside Wilbur and Babe. There’s a new farmyard hero in town, and she has no desire to end up hamburger.

Audrey isn’t like the other cows. They might accept their lot as “food cows,” but she has other ideas. After her mother is taken away to a slaughterhouse, the feisty Charolais concocts an elaborate escape for herself using the expertise and help of her barnyard friends. However, the escape itself proves to be only half the battle, and Audrey’s experiences in the wild forest with its unpredictable denizens put both brains and moxie to the test. In a multiple-perspective, documentary-like format, each animal tells its part of the story with terrific humor and personality. From pompous Charlton the rooster, who considers his role in the story a moment of deus ex machina (“as the Romans would call it”), to a parliament of consensus-minded sheep to a thoroughly prejudiced squirrel, the many voices make the book an ideal read-aloud for a classroom and ideal fodder for readers’ theater. Bar-el is also unafraid to engage in truly lovely descriptive writing (one cow’s grief over losing her son is said to be akin to “a mist like we’d get on gray, foggy mornings that made the farm seem as if it were fading away along its edges”).

Part Great Escape, part Hatchet, part Charlotte’s Web, all wonderful. (Animal fantasy. 8-12)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-77049-602-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Tundra

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

A highly entertaining and culturally authentic romp.

LOWRIDERS IN SPACE

From the Lowriders in Space series , Vol. 1

Camper’s lighthearted, full-color graphic novel highlights lowrider culture.

There is much that makes it stand out: Its theme is unique for this age group; Lupe Impala, the female protagonist, is a mechanic; and peppered throughout this crazy adventure are nifty factoids and colorful Chicano/Mexican-American slang. Lupe and her friends Elirio Malaria, the mosquito detailing artist (“Don’t be scared eses! Only lady mosquitos bite vatos for food!”), and El Chavo Blackjack, a bucket-dwelling octopus who’s an eight-armed, car-washing powerhouse, dream of one day owning their own garage. Spotting a poster for a car competition, they know the Golden Steering Wheel Award and a carload of cash are as good as theirs—if they can find a car. A field trip yields a junk pile on blocks—an Impala, natch—that “only” needs major, reconstructive body work, paint, an engine….Some serendipitous rocket parts launch the trio and their newly souped-up lowrider on a wild ride through space: “I don’t think we’re in the barrio anymore!” observes El Chavo Flapjack cheerily. Raúl the Third’s crosshatched, ballpoint-pen–and-Sharpie artwork is highly detailed and dynamic, its black, blue and red lines on buff-colored paper depicting a street corner aguas frescas pushcart and the lowrider’s hydraulic suspension system with equal verve. A glossary of Spanish, slang and astronomical terms is appended, as is a note about lowriders for readers not in the know.

A highly entertaining and culturally authentic romp. (Graphic adventure. 9-14)

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4521-2155-0

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Chronicle

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2014

Jennings does not skip a beat as he builds realistic relationships and problem-solving around an outrageously funny premise.

ODD, WEIRD & LITTLE

At last: a humorous, useful and pedantry-free book about bullying!

Woodrow and his classmates are surprised at the old-fashioned clothing and the tiny, delicate appearance of Toulouse, a newly arrived student from Canada. Is this Woodrow’s opportunity to pass his own victim status to someone else? Woodrow openly admits his acknowledged dorkiness, as in his fondness for “duck tape,” his hesitant speech patterns and that time he got chopsticks stuck in his throat pretending to be a badger. His first-person account of befriending someone even weirder than himself divulges such truths as school-playground hierarchies, adults’ proficiency or lack thereof at handling bullying behaviors, and “kid rules” that enable bullies. Woodrow risks regaining his place as top victim as he decides to befriend and protect Toulouse, who has drawn unwanted attention to himself with such anomalies as his bowler hats and his furry vomit. While enjoying every minute of Woodrow’s slow discovery that Toulouse is actually an owl—and the even more amazing fact that no one else reaches that conclusion—readers also learn about the psychology behind bullying and about self-empowerment. The rhythm of the prose is perfect for independent readers and for reading aloud; clever art, music and literature references add to the fun.

Jennings does not skip a beat as he builds realistic relationships and problem-solving around an outrageously funny premise. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-60684-374-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Egmont USA

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2013

A challenging and entirely unique Dutch import.

NINE OPEN ARMS

At the end of an isolated road outside a small village in Holland in 1937, Fing and her eccentric family find themselves in a strange house that gives up its secrets reluctantly and with far-reaching consequences.

Young Fing is stalwart, compassionate and truth-seeking, but she is not an omniscient narrator, for she learns the intricate, tangled stories as they are doled out piecemeal by her grandmother Oma Mei, who is hiding as many secrets as the house. The work’s three-part construction weaves the events surrounding Fing’s family with an earlier cast of characters from the 1860s. Each part has a distinct tone and sensibility. In the first and third parts, Fing and her sisters rise to the challenges of life with their ever optimistic father, their somewhat inept older brothers, and the mad and mysterious Hatsi. All the while, they grow increasingly uncomfortable with the puzzles posed by the house and Oma Mei’s sometimes-contradictory tales. The middle part, Charley and Nienevee’s story, is narrated by Oma and has a darker and more sinister quality. Lindelauf lures readers into the intrigue and mystery of it all and then demands their intense concentration. Every element of the tale has a purpose, and in the end, the multiple layers of past and present separate and come together in surprising, often discomfiting twists and turns.

A challenging and entirely unique Dutch import. (translator’s note, character list, slang word list, map, contents) (Fiction. 11-14)

Pub Date: June 24, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59270-146-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Enchanted Lion Books

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

Another romp with nary a dull nor serious moment; welcome back, girls.

HOOVES OF FIRE

From the Minnie & Moo series

In an extremely belated second chapter-book–length outing, Cazet’s bovine best buds kick up their heels in Red Tractor Farm’s “First Annual Hoot, Holler, and Moo Talent Festival.”

From the outset, it’s a struggle to keep the audience and the scheduled performers in line—both groups being a mix of domesticated or thoroughly undomesticated sheep, chickens, wolves and weasels (plus Irene the rhino and a few four-legged vacationers from “Africa World”). Unsurprisingly, a steady string of minor disasters keeps things fizzing. A chorus of overexcited chickens lets loose a barrage of eggs (“Geeze Louize, girls!…Couldn’t you use precautions?”); an impromptu port-a-potty race breaks out during intermission; the crowd enjoys much amateur poetry (“Getting milked / I find quite pleasin’. / I think it’s the way / They does the squeezin’ ”), and the money box repeatedly disappears. Despite all this, the two redoubtable ruminants carry the day to a weary but triumphant close. As in Minnie & Moo and the Seven Wonders of the World (2003), Cazet rolls out a tale equally rich in urbane innuendo and slapstick hilarity, cast in well-spaced lines of fluent prose and illuminated with lots of comical monochromatic ink-and-wash views that feature expressively posed animals in casual human dress or, in aptly named Elvis the rooster’s case, a “white luminescent jumpsuit.”

Another romp with nary a dull nor serious moment; welcome back, girls. (Animal fantasy. 9-11)

Pub Date: June 23, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-939547-08-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Creston

Review Posted Online: March 12, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2014

Dark, funny and pawzzz-i-tively brilliant.

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THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA

From the Joey Pigza series , Vol. 5

Joey takes on his toughest set of challenges yet in this heart-rending, triumphant series finale.

Challenge one: His manic depressive mom has hidden his meds. Challenge two: She’s abruptly checked herself into the hospital, leaving him in charge of a cluttered, roach-infested house and his baby brother, Carter Junior. Challenge three: His no-account dad (still with a Frankenstein face from the previous episode’s botched plastic surgery) is lurking about the neighborhood looking for a chance to snatch Carter Junior and run. Moreover, Joey’s brave efforts to stay “pawzzz-i-tive,” to be “the mature Joey, the think-before-you-speak Joey, the better-than-Dad Joey, the hold-the-fort-for-Mom Joey, the keep-the-baby-safe Joey” are both aided and complicated by the return of Olivia—as he puts it, “the meanest cute blind girl I have ever loved.” Tucking enough real and metaphorical keys into Joey’s adrenalized narrative to create a motif, Gantos also trots out other significant figures from his protagonist’s past on the way to a fragile, hard-won but nonetheless real reunion. The conclusion invites readers to stop by: “There is always an extra slice waiting for you at the House-of-Pigza”—with delectable toppings aplenty.

Dark, funny and pawzzz-i-tively brilliant. (Fiction. 10-13)

Pub Date: Sept. 2, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-30083-8

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

“Ham and eggs!”—you don’t want to miss this! (Graphic/fiction hybrid. 5-7)

LET'S GET CRACKING!

From the Kung Pow Chicken series , Vol. 1

Can Kung Pow Chicken and Egg Drop beat the bad guys and be home in time for dinner?

Second-grade chicken Gordon Blue and his still partially egg-bound little brother Benedict are mild-mannered chicks until they fall into a vat of toxic sludge in their uncle Quack’s lab. Suddenly, Gordon has birdy sense that tingles when danger is near. He can flap superfast, and his clucks are louder than any chicken’s (“His bok [is] worse than his bite”). He promises to use his powers only for good (and to keep his room tidy). Since he’s never met a bad guy, he has to do normal chicken things…until everyone starts losing their feathers at the Fowl Fall Festival in Fowladelphia. Could it be Granny Goosebumps’ yucky glowing cookies? She’s making money wing over fist selling itchy sweaters to all the naked chickens. Soon Kung Pow Chicken is “locked in a battle of knits” with the nefarious Granny and her knitting needles. When she escapes, can Kung Pow Chicken overcome his self-doubt and save the City of Featherly Love? First of four to be released over the course of the next year and part of Scholastic’s Branches line of heavily illustrated easy chapter books, Marko’s debut is a perfectly puntastic page-turner. Hybrids of comics and traditional pictures, the goofy all-color illustrations propel the fast-moving, high-interest story.

“Ham and eggs!”—you don’t want to miss this! (Graphic/fiction hybrid. 5-7)

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-545-61062-9

Page Count: 80

Publisher: Branches/Scholastic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2013

Stylish and inventive and an excellent examination of point of view.

BIRDCATDOG

From the Three Story Books series

A serene suburban tableau cleverly describes the separate, exciting adventures of a bird, a cat and a dog, each the hero of its own story.

In one of these stories, a lemon-yellow bird seeks freedom from its cage and finds itself encountering fierce raptors and a curious cat. In a neighboring backyard, an orange cat craves adventure outside of its fence, meeting a wily feral opponent. Nearby, a tough-looking gray dog strives to guard its doghouse from intruders and maintain peace. Readers, be advised, don't let the seemingly simple, wordless nature of this offering fool you: This innovative charmer can be read four different ways. There is the bird's story, soaring across the top panels in bright, cheerful azure tones, which can be read alone. Similarly, there are the cat's escapades, creeping across the middle panels against a richly verdant palette, and the dog's tale, in ochre, earth tones, marching across the bottom. Each animal's adventure could be read individually, or all three could be read traditionally, left to right and then top to bottom, following each of the nine panels that occupy most of the pages. Multiple readings are not only expected, they are required.

Stylish and inventive and an excellent examination of point of view. (Graphic adventure. 4-8)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4677-4522-2

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Graphic Universe

Review Posted Online: Sept. 14, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2014

A brilliant, eerily engrossing evocation of war as it brushes up against youth—a harsh slice of the world during a mean...

THE DAY MY FATHER BECAME A BUSH

Welcome to the world of ethnic warfare, from the dinner table to the battle lines, full of haunted landscapes and social relationships—and you are a young girl.

The story involves a girl, the narrator, who is forced to flee her village as civil war ravages her unnamed country, one of those endlessly grinding tank wars, fueled by animosities stretching back 600 years but as fresh as today’s daisies in the combatants’ noses. Her father, a pastry chef, has joined his neighbors: “He had to go and help defend one side against the other even though he had friends who were on the other side.” The language is smart, innocent and full of surprising—but age-fitting—turns of phrase. The girl is sent to live with her estranged mother, across the border. On her way there, much on foot, often through dark forest, she meets a cast of characters who mirror all the bickering that’s tearing the country apart. The text makes all her emotions palpable (“My stomach was full of homesickness. There was no room for anything else”), fear above all, but it never overwhelms her, instead releasing sudden survival instincts that get her through.

A brilliant, eerily engrossing evocation of war as it brushes up against youth—a harsh slice of the world during a mean piece of history. (Fiction. 9 & up)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-877579-48-6

Page Count: 104

Publisher: Gecko Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

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