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Best Middle-Grade Realism of 2014

The elaborate bait and switch of this fast-paced, funny caper novel will surprise its readers as much as the victims....

THE GREAT GREENE HEIST

From the Jackson Greene series , Vol. 1

Trying to go straight, troublemaker Jackson Greene succumbs to the lure of the con when it appears Maplewood Middle School’s student-council election is being rigged against his friend Gaby de la Cruz.

Although Gaby’s been angry at Jackson for more than four months, the two could be more than just friends. And her twin brother, Charlie, Jackson’s best friend, is worried about her electoral chances. So Jackson breaks rule No. 3 of the Greene Code of Conduct: “Never con for love. Or even like.” During the week before the election, a delightful and diverse cast of middle school students with a wide range of backgrounds and interests concocts a series of elaborate schemes to make sure the Scantron-counted ballots will produce honest results. While all this is going on, Gaby is busily campaigning and rethinking her love life. References to previous escapades are so common readers may think this is a sequel, and the cast of characters is dizzying. But the results are worth it. Allusions to Star Trek abound. There is a helpful appended explanation of the cons and their shorthand references as well as the Greene Code. 

The elaborate bait and switch of this fast-paced, funny caper novel will surprise its readers as much as the victims. They’ll want to reread immediately so they can admire the setup. (Fiction. 10-15)

Pub Date: May 27, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-545-52552-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Levine/Scholastic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

Beautiful storytelling as only Curtis can do it.

THE MADMAN OF PINEY WOODS

From the Buxton Chronicles series , Vol. 2

Forty years after Elijah Freeman’s exploits in Elijah of Buxton (2007), 13-year-olds Benji Alston and Red Stockard become friends as Curtis revisits Buxton, Ontario, in a fine companion novel.

Benji and Red don’t meet for 200 pages, their separate lives in 1901 related in alternating first-person narratives. Benji, an African-Canadian boy in Buxton, and Red, a white boy of Irish descent living in nearby Chatham, have fairly ordinary and free lives. Benji dreams of becoming the best newspaperman in North America; Red mostly wants to survive his crazy Grandmother O’Toole. Echoes of history underlie the tale: Benji lives in a community settled by former slaves; Red is the grandson of a woman haunted by the Irish Potato Famine and the horrors of coffin ships on the St. Lawrence River. Both boys know the legend of a mysterious creature in the woods, called the Madman of Piney Woods by Benji, the South Woods Lion Man by Red. And, indeed, this “madman” and his woods ultimately tie the whole story together in a poignant and life-affirming manner. Humor and tragedy are often intertwined, and readers will find themselves sobbing and chuckling, sometimes in the same scene. Though this story stands alone, it will be even more satisfying for those who have read Elijah of Buxton.

Beautiful storytelling as only Curtis can do it. (author’s note) (Historical fiction. 9-13)

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-545-15664-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: June 10, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2014

No book can sum up all of the Holocaust, but this graphic novel seems to contain every possible human emotion. Remarkably,...

HIDDEN

A CHILD'S STORY OF THE HOLOCAUST

The most moving scenes of this graphic novel have no words at all.

Lizano draws people the same way that small children do: a giant oval for the head and two dots for the eyes. But his people always have complicated expressions on their faces. They never show just one emotion. They’re angry and perplexed or cheerful and bemused. (Colorist Salsedo supplies a sad, muted palette that complements the mood perfectly.) When the Nazis force the Jews to wear yellow stars, Dounia’s mother looks frightened and furious and bewildered. Her father looks surprisingly happy. He says, “This morning, I was at a big meeting. Some people suggested that we become a family of sheriffs.” He says it very calmly, and Dounia doesn’t realize for a long time afterward that he was telling a comforting lie. This should be a sad story, but the family lives through the darkest moments of the war with determination and grace and even humor. Dounia doesn’t let her emotions fully register until years later, when she’s telling the story to her granddaughter. On the last pages of the book, in a few quiet, powerful panels, her face shows grief and guilt and fear and resignation.

No book can sum up all of the Holocaust, but this graphic novel seems to contain every possible human emotion. Remarkably, most of the time, it does it with an oval and two dots. (Graphic historical fiction. 6-13)

Pub Date: April 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59643-873-6

Page Count: 80

Publisher: First Second

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

More than a thoughtful ode to found family, this slim, sweet novel challenges readers to look anew at the ones they have.

OUTSIDE IN

“What if you could just invent your family, your home, your life?”

There are times 13-year-old Lynn wishes she could do just that—like right now. Her feckless, New Age–y mom has just ended her relationship with solid, dependable Clive, lost her job and, worst of all, totally forgotten to get Lynn’s passport, so Lynn can’t go to Choirfest in Portland. Marooned without her BFFs, the Vancouver teen finds an unexpected friend in Blossom, a mysterious girl who saves her with the Heimlich at a bus stop. She leads Lynn down something of a rabbit hole to her home—a cozy, makeshift shelter in a park—where she lives with a dog, her two brothers and a man called Fossick, who is not her father legally or biologically but who is thoroughly devoted. Ellis tackles big themes—loyalty, legality, responsibility, family—with a sure, steady hand, allowing Lynn and readers to see the contrast between her situation and Blossom’s and to consider the many threads of relationship that make a family. Both girls’ homes and security are tenuous, though in very different ways, and both are effectively powerless. As Lynn falls in love with the magical, quasi-legal underworld that Blossom inhabits, layers of betrayal threaten it, and everyone shares culpability.

More than a thoughtful ode to found family, this slim, sweet novel challenges readers to look anew at the ones they have. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: May 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-55498-367-4

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Groundwood

Review Posted Online: March 17, 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

Poet Alexander deftly reveals the power of the format to pack an emotional punch.

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THE CROSSOVER

Basketball-playing twins find challenges to their relationship on and off the court as they cope with changes in their lives.

Josh Bell and his twin, Jordan, aka JB, are stars of their school basketball team. They are also successful students, since their educator mother will stand for nothing else. As the two middle schoolers move to a successful season, readers can see their differences despite the sibling connection. After all, Josh has dreadlocks and is quiet on court, and JB is bald and a trash talker. Their love of the sport comes from their father, who had also excelled in the game, though his championship was achieved overseas. Now, however, he does not have a job and seems to have health problems the parents do not fully divulge to the boys. The twins experience their first major rift when JB is attracted to a new girl in their school, and Josh finds himself without his brother. This novel in verse is rich in character and relationships. Most interesting is the family dynamic that informs so much of the narrative, which always reveals, never tells. While Josh relates the story, readers get a full picture of major and minor players. The basketball action provides energy and rhythm for a moving story.

Poet Alexander deftly reveals the power of the format to pack an emotional punch. (Verse fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: March 18, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-544-10771-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: HMH Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2014

This emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking book will have readers pulling for Mitsi and Dash.

DASH

From the Dogs of World War II series , Vol. 2

Eleven-year-old Mitsi Kashino and her family are forced to move to a Japanese internment camp following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese-Americans are forced to leave their homes, their jobs, and all but what they can carry. Unfortunately for Mitsi, this also means leaving her beloved dog, Dash, behind. Thankfully, a good-hearted neighbor agrees to take Dash in. The neighbor writes letters to Mitsi, composing them from Dash’s point of view, and these keep Mitsi connected with the world beyond the fence. Overcrowded living quarters, long lines and minimal resources stretch the patience of the internees and threaten the bonds of the Kashino family. However, even amid their incarceration, there are spots of hope. Mitsi and her family find new friendships, rediscover old traditions and reinvent their lives. Through it all, Mitsi holds tight to her dream of the end of the war and her reunion with Dash. Larson makes this terrible event in American history personal with the story of one girl and her beloved pet. Spot-on dialogue, careful cultural details and the inclusion of specific historical characters such as artist Eddie Sato make this an educational read as well as a heartwarming one. An author’s note adds further authenticity.

This emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking book will have readers pulling for Mitsi and Dash. (Historical fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-545-41635-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 28, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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

LITTLE MAN

A tale of finding a place to belong with a specific setting but universal appeal.

Albert Quashie is tired of being little. Shorter than his tall brothers were at his age, Albert is insecure and nervous about starting middle school, especially since his best friend has moved away from their small Caribbean island to Brooklyn. On the first day of school, Albert’s fears are realized when he is mocked for his height; worse, he finds that though he’s always been good at math, now that he’s skipped a year he’s lost his edge. Albert’s parents seek to lift him from his funk by allowing him to help his father’s band, and at its performance, Albert sees stilt walkers. He’s inspired by the bravery and beauty of their art and discovers the leader is also his school bus driver. Albert is soon invited to join a group of high school stilt walkers, and while at first he feels awkward and nervous, he eventually discovers a place he can belong. Third-person narration makes the pain of Albert’s insecurity and loneliness so real readers are sure to sympathize with his plight. The island setting is painted in such vivid detail that the nuances of both culture and climate shine through, exploring the uniqueness of Albert’s island home while also highlighting the universality of human experience.

Exceptional. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-931414-49-4

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Mikaya Press

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

There is no fluff here, just sophisticated, emotionally honest storytelling. (Fiction. 8-12)

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RAIN REIGN

A story about honorable living in the autistic-narrator genre that sets the bar high.

Rose has a diagnosis of Asperger’s, and her world of comforting homonyms, rules and prime numbers is repeatedly challenged by social interactions of which she has no innate understanding. Newbery Honor author Martin crafts a skillful tale that engages readers’ sympathy for everyone portrayed in the story, even Rose’s garage-mechanic, hard-drinking single father. He has given Rose a stray dog he found after an evening of drinking at the local bar, and Rose names her Rain. Through touching and funny scenes at school—where Rose has an aide but is in a regular classroom—and discomfiting scenes at home, readers come to understand how Rose’s close relationship to Rain anchors her. But Rain goes missing during a storm, and when, with the help of her sympathetic uncle, Rose finds her dog weeks later, she is told that Rain was microchipped and actually belongs to someone else. Since following rules is vital to Rose, she must find Rain’s original owners and give her dog back. Martin has penned a riveting, seamless narrative in which each word sings and each scene counts.

There is no fluff here, just sophisticated, emotionally honest storytelling. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-312-64300-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

A soulful story that captures the magic of possibility, even in difficult times. (author’s note, illustrator’s note,...

THE RED PENCIL

A 12-year-old Sudanese girl struggles for survival after a janjaweed attack on her town forces her family to seek safety in an overcrowded refugee camp.

Amira Bright has a dream: to leave her South Darfur farm and attend Gad Primary School, where girls are accepted. Muma, her mother, is a traditionalist about girls’ roles, while Dando, her father, and Old Anwar, a lifelong neighbor, are more supportive. Dando and Amira even have a favorite game called “What Else is Possible?” But when militia attackers suddenly upend her life, Amira is overcome with silent heartache. Relief comes when an aid worker at Kalma refugee camp offers her a yellow pad and a red pencil, eventually restoring her free expression. Telling her story in first-person verse, Pinkney uses deft strokes to create engaging characters through the poetry of their observations and the poignancy of their circumstances. This tale of displacement in a complex, war-torn country is both accessible and fluent, striking just the right tone for middle-grade readers. Evans’ elemental drawings illuminate the spirit and yearnings of Amira, the earnest protagonist. 

A soulful story that captures the magic of possibility, even in difficult times. (author’s note, illustrator’s note, glossary) (Verse fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-316-24780-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

More than an issue novel, Sovern’s debut will be a boon to kids coping with a parent’s illness or the unpredictability of...

THE MEANING OF MAGGIE

Based on the author’s family’s story, this novel mixes in equal thirds tears, wit and reassurance amid debilitating illness.

The day her father “won’t stop beeping,” future president Maggie Mayfield begins a memoir of 1988, the year her “cool dude” dad’s multiple sclerosis takes a turn for the worse. Her dad’s MS is as much a presence as his love of Neil Young records; a scene of her mother brushing his teeth is as casual as a kiss on the cheek. Its progression hits hard—suddenly, her dad is unemployed and her mother is exhausted, while her older sisters mess with makeup and boys. Maggie vows to fix her father, but her hardest lesson may be that she can’t; the collision of her bookishness against her dad’s unknowable prognosis is bound to elicit tears (aka “brain sweat”). Tough family bonds ground the story, even under stress, and Maggie’s quirky everyday observations and sibling squabbles relieve tension. Maggie writes of a book that “[b]y the time you reach the end of the chapter, you realize you’ve highlighted every single word because every single word was really important.” Smart, sensitive, sad and funny, Maggie’s memoir reads the same way.

More than an issue novel, Sovern’s debut will be a boon to kids coping with a parent’s illness or the unpredictability of growing up. (Historical fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4521-1021-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Chronicle

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 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

Lucy’s perfectly feisty narration, the emotionally resonant situations and the importance of the topic all elevate this...

PACK OF DORKS

Debut author Vrabel takes three knotty, seemingly disparate problems—bullying, the plight of wolves and coping with disability—and with tact and grace knits them into an engrossing whole of despair and redemption.

Popular fourth-grader Lucy and her best friend, Becky, kiss Tom and Henry behind the shed during recess as their class looks on, Lucy’s brief, reluctant peck paling against Becky’s smoldering “suction cup” smooch. When Lucy gets home, her mother’s in labor; Molly is born later that day with Down syndrome. Back at school on Tuesday, everything has changed. Now disingenuous Becky is with Tom, and Lucy’s being shunned by most of the class. Only then does she begin to understand life as an outsider and take a closer look at other bullying victims, each nicely depicted, both negative and positive characteristics colorfully drawn. Assigned to do a project about wolves with fellow victim Sam, Lucy gradually becomes friends with him, and they discover fascinating truths about wolf packs that give them insight into the behavior of their classmates. Simultaneously, Lucy and her parents slowly, believably come to grips with Molly’s uncertain future. Useful tips for dealing with bullying are neatly incorporated into the tale but with a refreshing lack of didacticism.

Lucy’s perfectly feisty narration, the emotionally resonant situations and the importance of the topic all elevate this effort well above the pack. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62914-623-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Sky Pony Press

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

Fifty years later, 1960s words and images still sound and resound in this triumphant middle volume of the author’s Sixties...

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REVOLUTION

From the Sixties Trilogy series , Vol. 2

Freedom Summer in 1964 Mississippi brings both peaceful protest and violence into the lives of two young people.

Twelve-year-old Sunny, who’s white, cannot accept her new stepmother and stepsiblings. Raymond, “a colored boy,” is impatient for integration to open the town’s pool, movie theater and baseball field. When trained volunteers for the Council of Federated Organizations—an amalgam of civil rights groups—flood the town to register black voters and establish schools, their work is met with suspicion and bigotry by whites and fear and welcome by blacks. In this companion to Countdown (2010) (with returning character Jo Ellen as one of the volunteers), Wiles once again blends a coming-of-age story with pulsating documentary history. Excerpts from contemporary newspapers, leaflets and brochures brutally expose Ku Klux Klan hatred and detail Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee instructions on how to react to arrest while on a picket line. Song lyrics from the Beatles, Motown and spirituals provide a cultural context. Copious photographs and subnarratives encapsulate a very wide range of contemporary people and events. But it is Sunny and, more briefly, Raymond who anchor the story as their separate and unequal lives cross paths again and again and culminate in a horrific drive-by shooting. A stepmother to embrace and equal rights are the prizes—even as the conflict in Vietnam escalates.

Fifty years later, 1960s words and images still sound and resound in this triumphant middle volume of the author’s Sixties Trilogy. (author’s note, bibliography) (Historical fiction. 11-15)

Pub Date: May 27, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-545-10607-8

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2014

THE BLOSSOMING UNIVERSE OF VIOLET DIAMOND

Violet’s a bright, engaging biracial preteen, resigned to a “predictable summer of boring nothing” in small-town Washington; happily, for her and for readers, she couldn’t be more wrong.

Violet, 11, appreciates her loving family—busy neonatologist mom; sister, Daisy, 17; mom’s lively, ex-hippie parents—she’s just tired of explaining she belongs. She wouldn’t have to if her dad, an African-American doctor, hadn’t died in a car accident before her birth. In mostly white Moon Lake, Violet’s a rarity; her one black friend attends a different school. Adopting a kitten is fun, but lightening her hair? Big mistake. (It was supposed to look “sun-kissed,” like Daisy’s—not orange.) Although Roxanne, her dad’s mother, a famous artist, has refused contact (she has her reasons), Violet engineers a meeting at a Seattle gallery, persuading her mom to take her. Rebuffed at first, Violet persists until Roxanne invites her for a visit, and what was frozen begins to thaw. Both families are stable, intelligent and well-intentioned, but forgiveness and trust require contact; healing can’t happen at a distance. Violet’s no tragic mulatto—she’d survive estrangement, but in reconnecting with her dad’s family and cultural roots, she’ll thrive, fulfill her vast potential and, in doing so, enrich both families’ lives across the racial divide. Infused with humor, hope and cleareyed compassion—a fresh take on an old paradigm. (Fiction. 8-12)

 

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-399-25714-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

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