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Best Middle-Grade Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2015

A wholeheartedly weird and wonderful tale of friendship, acceptance, and robots

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HILO

THE BOY WHO CRASHED TO EARTH

From the Hilo series , Vol. 1

Hailing from a big family of overachievers, D.J. feels largely unexceptional until he meets a strange boy who falls from the sky and helps him realize his potential.

D.J. isn't good at anything. He has two brothers and two sisters who have miles of accomplishments among them, and the only thing he considers himself adept at was a friendship with neighbor Gina…but she moved away three years ago. One day, D.J. meets a peculiar, sunny, towheaded boy who has apparently landed on Earth wearing nothing but silver underpants and recalling nothing of his previous life. D.J. immediately befriends him, and the duo becomes a threesome when Gina moves back to town. Over time, the boy's memory starts to return. He recalls his name, Hilo, and how he came to Earth—and that there are dangerous robots that could annihilate the entire planet. Although D.J. may not have a list of skills he can tick off on his fingers, he learns something more important: not only is he loyal, he is brave. Winick has concocted a universally appealing tale with bright, expressive illustrations that gently reminds readers that in this era of overscheduling and insistence on perfection, sometimes just being true to yourself is important enough. D.J. and his family are Asian-American, Gina and hers are African-American, and Caucasian-looking extraterrestrial Hilo nicely rounds out the graphic novel’s diversity.

A wholeheartedly weird and wonderful tale of friendship, acceptance, and robots . (Graphic science fiction. 7-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-38617-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

Creatively fresh and feminist, with laughs on every single page.

HARRIET THE INVINCIBLE

From the Hamster Princess series , Vol. 1

This new series from Dragonbreath’s Vernon puts a wild spin on “Sleeping Beauty.”

A droll opening introduces Harriet Hamsterbone (“who, as her name indicated, was a hamster”), an adventurous princess chafing against deportment, the requirements of her role, and other limitations imposed by her parents. When they reveal the source of their overprotectiveness (the “Sleeping Beauty” curse, with a hamster wheel on her 12th birthday substituting for the spinning wheel), Harriet takes a seemingly counterintuitive stance: since the curse requires her to be alive on her fateful birthday, until then she must be invincible. She gallivants around as an unstoppable hero before returning home for her birthday—to discover that her mother has prepared for the curse by picking a wretched, male-chauvinist prince to kiss and wake her once the curse sets in. Before it can, the evil fairy shows up to gloat, and a hilarious sequence leads to the backfiring of the curse, leaving Harriet the castle’s only hamster still awake. Now she must find a prince willing to kiss every last sleeping creature in the castle. Vernon deploys the same winning elements found in her Dragonbreath books, a mix of boldly drawn, two-tone cartoons, occasional speech bubbles, and a boisterously humorous text. Harriet is her own hamster, but she takes her place proudly alongside both Danny Dragonbreath and Babymouse.

Creatively fresh and feminist, with laughs on every single page. (Graphic/fantasy hybrid. 8-12)

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8037-3983-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: April 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2015

Funny, warm, and highly imaginative.

THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM

Sophie, whose overprotective parents run a bookshop but have a risky, secret side business collecting and selling people’s dreams, suddenly faces, on her 12th birthday, all the dangers of the dream trade.

As the cover art suggests, this fantasy tale is cinematic and madcap. Because her parents want to keep their daughter as inconspicuous as possible, Sophie’s only friend has long been Monster—a cuddly animal rescued from a nightmare and possessed of soft fur, tentacles, and a penchant for cupcakes and self-improvement. Monster has to keep an even lower profile than Sophie, but an unexpected visitor exposes both of them to possible harm from an entity called the Night Watchmen. Also, Sophie’s marginal involvement with certain classmates now endangers them as well. Sophie’s parents discuss the situation behind closed doors: “ ‘But what if the Watchmen—’ Mom cut herself off, then said loudly and clearly, ‘Sophie and Monster, if you are up there listening at the door, I will revoke all book privileges so fast, you will have whiplash.’ ” With similar humor throughout, the book lets readers know that, however dire the situation, Sophie will be all right—but will Monster? Readers will not want to stop reading this quirky, fast-paced adventure until reaching its satisfactory, heartwarming conclusion. The text happily borrows familiar genre elements but wraps them in an entirely fresh package.

Funny, warm, and highly imaginative. (Fantasy. 8-12)

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-544-46497-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Clarion

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

Wonderfully entertaining.

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THE IMAGINARY

What happens to the imaginary friends we make when we are so little we can’t remember them later on?

Amanda’s friend Rudger simply appears one day in Amanda’s wardrobe and becomes her constant companion—and hers alone. He finds that sharing in Amanda’s rich and adventurous imagination has its rewards but some significant dangers and challenges. There’s the creepy Mr. Bunting, an ancient man in Hawaiian-print shirt and shorts who, it turns out, stays alive by devouring children’s imaginary friends. There’s the possibility of being forgotten, when age or injury—or death?—causes the bond to weaken. When Amanda is hit by a car, Rudger is able to take refuge in a library, the one place apart from children’s company where sufficient imagination dwells to keep imaginary companions from fading. Rudger’s attempts to connect with a boy too young to enjoy his unexpected appearance and to one of Amanda’s less versatile friends are ill-starred. A harrowing hospital scene is satisfyingly gruesome though not disastrous. Harrold offers an appealingly childcentric world with hefty doses of scare and malevolence to explore the possibilities of imaginary beings with feelings of their own. Gravett’s several double-page, full-color illustrations, along with lively margin drawings, sweetly blend the real with the imaginary, giving Amanda and Rudger appealing personality—and deliver chills in the form of Mr. Bunting and his own dreadfully spooky imaginary companion.

Wonderfully entertaining. (Fantasy. 9-13)

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8027-3811-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Jan. 10, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2015

A powerfully conceived and executed story that adds a wholly original element to the fantasy genre.

THE BOOK OF STORMS

From the Book of Storms series , Vol. 1

Confident storytelling lays a solid foundation for Book 1 of this original middle-grade fantasy trilogy.

Eleven-year-old Danny wakes up one morning after a tumultuous thunderstorm to find his parents gone and the giant sycamore in his backyard destroyed by lightning. Poking around the remains of the tree, he discovers a stick that, when held, allows him to communicate with all of the natural world—plants, animals, insects; even rivers and storms. When his parents—storm-obsessed ever since the storm-related death of their first child, a sister Danny never knew—do not return by the following morning, he sets off to find them. As Danny searches for his parents, Sammael is searching for Danny, as the stick, a taro, is powerful magic that he wants for himself. Sammael is an otherworldly entity who is part sandman—planting dreams into people as they sleep—and part devil, making deals in exchange for souls (souls that, in wonderful narrative cohesion, transmute to grains of sand after death). Complex and morally nuanced, Hatfield’s story harkens back to European and ancient Greek mythology in its anthropomorphizing of dreams and fears (Death, a silver-haired woman with red eyes, plays a key role) and its portrayal of nature as character rather than setting.

A powerfully conceived and executed story that adds a wholly original element to the fantasy genre. (Fantasy. 10-13)

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9998-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Oct. 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2014

Girl power at its best. A sure winner! (Graphic novel. 3-12)

LITTLE ROBOT

Possibilities abound for a small, brown-skinned girl with time, a tool belt, and a penchant for urban adventure.

From the imaginative creator of Zita the Spacegirl comes this techy take on a warm friendship born in a junkyard. The short, round-faced protagonist escapes from a window of her trailer home clad only in a white nightshirt and heads for a neighbor’s swingset, then to the junkyard—her daily routine, apparently. Unfettered and unsupervised by adults (or other humans), the protagonist dons her tool belt and soon discovers a little broken blue robot that has lost its way. Never at a loss for how to fix any machine, she tinkers with the robot, and suddenly, she has a running buddy. Together, they explore frogs, cats, sunsets, and more. But when the factory misses Little Robot and sends a large, scary-looking yellow robot to retrieve it, the main character needs more than a wrench to save her new friend and friendship. This delightful, nearly wordless graphic novel portrays a kid with gumption enough to take on big business and smarts enough to advise the factory’s fix-it robot on repairs even though she just might be too young for kindergarten. Despite having little material means and few human connections, this kid creates life in the inanimate and fosters community where none could exist before.

Girl power at its best. A sure winner! (Graphic novel. 3-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62672-080-0

Page Count: 144

Publisher: First Second

Review Posted Online: June 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

A magnificently magical must-read for all fairy-tale fans

BABA YAGA'S ASSISTANT

After her long-distant father remarries, a young woman leaves home to be the assistant to the famous witch Baba Yaga in this clever reinvention.

After her mother’s death, Masha resides with her father, who keeps his distance from her both physically and emotionally. She is raised by her loving grandmother, who tells her all about her experiences with the cunning old crone Baba Yaga and the schemes she used to trick the aged witch. In a swift turn of events, her grandmother dies, and Masha's father remarries. Her new stepmother is aloof and has her own young daughter, Dani, a horrid, hand-biting brat. In a moment of desperation, Masha decides to follow in her grandmother's footsteps and answers an advertisement to be Baba Yaga's assistant. Once installed in the chicken-legged hut, she learns of the three purposefully tricky tests she must complete. McCoola's offering is a well-nuanced delight, satisfyingly blending fairy tale, legend, and thrills. As a perfect complement, Carroll's evocative art enthralls, capturing both the emotion and the magic of McCoola's yarn and breathing new life into an old folk tale. Though structured like a fairy tale, this clever and well-appointed graphic novel is refreshingly modern and obviously enjoys playing with conventions.

A magnificently magical must-read for all fairy-tale fans . (Graphic fantasy. 9-14)

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-7636-6961-4

Page Count: 136

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: June 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

Leaps the tottering stack of similar “sidekick” novels in a single bound.

SCHOOL FOR SIDEKICKS

Disquieting revelations await a fledgling teenager at superhero school.

After Evan horns in on a super beat down between A-list archnemeses Capt. Commanding and Spartanicus shortly after his 13th birthday and against all odds survives, he wakes up enrolled in Hero High with—a dream come true—a set of variously useful new powers ranging from superhealing to supersnarky banter. Outfitted with a stylish costume and the moniker Meerkat, he delightedly joins a set of new roommates for classes like “Combat with Dinnerware” and “Bantering Basics.” But the dream takes on a nightmarish cast when his intern assignment hooks him up with Foxman, once a respected hero but now a depressed recovering alcoholic. Moreover, he learns that the whole Masks vs. Hoods thing isn’t an ongoing battle between heroes and villains at all but a secret government project with unusually vicious internal policy conflicts. Nor is there any clear distinction between good guys and bad. Still, Evan keeps his idealism intact and ultimately lands on his feet even as he works his way through thorny family and loyalty issues. Readers will savor his triumph as well as the melodramatic plot and the cast’s rib-tickling array of “metahumans,” including the unfortunately named Hotflash, HeartBurn, the dangerous Fromagier (Evan: “Sweet barking cheese, Foxman!”), and the shape- and gender-shifting Blur.

Leaps the tottering stack of similar “sidekick” novels in a single bound. (Superhero fantasy. 11-13)

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-250-03926-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

A spectacular debut.

THE BLACKTHORN KEY

From the Blackthorn Key series , Vol. 1

It is 1665 London, and the streets are filled with orphans, thieves, madmen, and a few young apprentices as eager to have fun as to learn their trades.

Fourteen-year-old Christopher is luckier than most. The apothecary Master Benedict Blackthorn is both intelligent and kind, forgiving both Christopher’s mistakes as well as his ill-planned pranks. But when the Cult of the Archangel kills his master, Christopher is determined to complete his master’s work and bring the killers to justice. However, all he has for help are his friend, baker’s son Tom, and a hastily scribbled coded message from his master. This stunning and smart mystery is made even better by well-researched historical detail, intriguing characters, and genuinely funny moments. Whether accidentally shooting the shop’s taxidermed bear with his homemade gun powder or outsmarting a ruthless cult of killers, Christopher makes a terrific protagonist, but it’s his love for his friends and master as well as his fearless intellectual curiosity that make him a true hero. An epigraph sagely, if unnecessarily, warns against employing the many 17th-century remedies. While many readers will love the story, it is unlikely they will try a recipe for saltpeter that involves marinating pigeon droppings in urine—but they will revel in reciting it at dinnertime. An author’s note discusses standardized spelling and the Gregorian vs. Julian calendars.

A spectacular debut. (Historical mystery. 8-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4814-4651-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Aladdin

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

Original art and visually engrossing worlds will have readers visiting this book over and over again

PABLO & JANE AND THE HOT AIR CONTRAPTION

A duo’s blasé afternoon deviates into an unexpected journey crossing dimension and time.

Jane, a red-haired, adventure-seeking girl, and her cautious friend Pablo, an anxious boy with oval-rimmed glasses, have exhausted their array of entertainment options: they’ve played board games, flicked through comic books, dismembered toys. Their boredom produces a trek to the old house on the hill, where they meet Dr. Jules, a talking rat and the architect of a hot air–powered time contraption. A cunning cat, Felinibus, steals pieces from the contraption and tricks the trio into the Monster Dimension. Sabotaged and with a dinner curfew looming, they set out to find the missing pieces. Domingo successfully shifts from comic panels to labyrinthine double-page spreads, from a fast-paced adventure to a focused quest. In pursuit of Felinibus and the stolen pieces, Jane, Pablo, and Dr. Jules dodge danger time and time again as they drift over Lopsided London through Macabre Marrakech, Bone-Chilling Bayou, and other such locales to Immortal India. Filled with alliteration and challenging vocabulary, the story blends adventure, a familiar Where’s Waldo concept, myth, and expedition for a new, clever search-and-find.

Original art and visually engrossing worlds will have readers visiting this book over and over again . (Graphic adventure. 5-7)

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-909263-36-9

Page Count: 57

Publisher: Flying Eye Books

Review Posted Online: July 27, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

A quiet story of perseverance and hope, exquisitely written with words and images that demand savoring.

A NEARER MOON

The interconnected tale of two girls, one human and the other a water sprite, determined to save their beloved sisters.

On Perigee, the night of the nearest moon, a sudden log jam creates a dam along the river. Luna’s community lives on the edges of the expanding swamp, building houses on ever higher stilts and believing that the evil spirit who caused the dam lurks under the water. All who taste the water sicken, dying in exactly three weeks. When water splashes into Luna’s sister’s mouth, Willow contracts the wasting sickness, and Luna breaks every one of her mother’s rules to save Willow. In alternating chapters, Perdita’s story is told: the adventurous sprite missed the window of time when the doors to a new world opened for the sprites to leave the world that humans have polluted. She fumes in misery beneath the dam. Her twin, Pelagia, had fashioned two lockets, one for each of them, to keep them close. The charmed locket, initially lost by Perdita, holds the key to both Perdita’s reunion and Luna’s saving her sister and her community. This lyrical story has a once-upon-a-time quality and, like the best of fairy tales, an evil to be overcome, a magic charm, and a lesson to be gleaned. Crowder’s language is sumptuous, written with an elegiac quality that suits the wistful longings of her protagonists.

A quiet story of perseverance and hope, exquisitely written with words and images that demand savoring. (Fantasy. 9-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4814-4148-3

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

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