Books
Books for Kids
Fantasy
Book Reviewed: Adams, Richard. (1972). Watership Down. New York: Scribner.

Summary: A group of rabbits lives peacefully in Sandleford Warren, led by Chief Rabbit and Owsla. One of the rabbits, Fiver, has the gift of prophecy and foretells the doom of their fine warren. Few rabbits believe him. Fortunately, some do and they escape with Fiver, searching for a new home. As luck would have it, Fiver turns out to be right, as a human land developer destroys Sandleford Warren. Soon Fiver is joined by rabbits such as Hazel and Blackberry as they battle other rabbits, predators such as the “homba” or fox, and other trials as they travel as a group for a new and better home. Will they reach the promised land as Fiver suggests? Or will their odyssey end in disaster and death of all? There’s only one way to find out….

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a classic fantasy book which has stood the test of time. The book was originally published in 1972 but it refuses to leave the bookshelves at libraries everywhere. Both adults and kids have enjoyed reading this book. The novel is rather large—around 500 pages—and this will stop many middle schoolers from even beginning the book, but set a copy on the kitchen table or near their desk and see if they expresses any interest. You never know what may happen…

Why middle school kids should read this book: At its simplest, Watership Down is the story of a rabbit society and culture, and what happens when one of their warrens is destroyed and they must search out a new home. At its most complex, Watership Down is a symbolic and metaphorical story which is just as much about humans as it is about rabbits. Either way, kids will almost certainly enjoy the story threads. After all, what kid doesn’t like stories about rabbits? And this is definitely a book for big kids, not for those who are still in the elementary school.

Discussion points with kids:

  • The rabbits have their own beliefs and religion. Find three examples of their beliefs and religion.
  • If Fiver were a human, what would we call him? What kind of a job would he have?
  • Retell the story of Watership Down to someone. Don’t leave out any important details.
  • Are there any similarities between you and the rabbits in this story? How there any differences?
  • What makes Hazel such a good leader of the rabbits? Find three examples where Hazel shows leadership abilities.
  • This story is about a journey. What other books have you read that involved a journey? Why is a story involving a journey so important?

Overall evaluation of this book: A substantial addition to the cannon of fantasy lore. It is intended more for older middle school kids or for younger kids who have good or exceptional reading skills. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Alexander, William. (2012). Goblin Secrets. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Summary: Rownie is an orphan of Zombay who has lost his older brother, Rowan. As he searches for his lost brother, Rownie is captured by the evil witch, Graba, who snatches orphans with her talon-like hands. Rownie eventually escapes from Graba, who moves about on chicken-like mechanical legs, and joins a troup of theater performing goblins. The problem, however, is that goblins are considered to be the low-lives of Zombay and pretending to be someone you are not, which is what actors do, is forbidden in the city. But the goblins are resourceful and manage to skirt the laws. In addition, the goblins are also searching for Rownie’s brother, Rowan, in the hopes he can talk to the river and prevent the oncoming disastrous flood. Will the goblins and Rownie find Rowan in time or will Graba move her house once again and find Rownie and put an end of his quest?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is an award winning book but it seems to develop a love or hate relationship with the readers. The plot line and characters are original and elements of steampunk resound throughout the pages but the story can appear chaotic and inquisitive readers will want to know more about the interesting aspects of life in Zombay. But the author moves quickly and not everything is thoroughly explained. Many readers, however, will be delighted in the sheer originality of the setting and characters.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This novel is a hybrid of fantasy and science fiction. Kids will recognize traditional elements of fantasy—such as an evil witch patterned after Baba Yaga of Russian folklore—and they will also recognize traditional elements of science fiction, such as machine-like body parts and cyborgs moving about the city. For kids who enjoy both fantasy and science fiction, this book will be a home run. If kids hate fantasy and science fiction, reading this novel won’t help change their mind.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What parts of this story contain traditional items found in fantasy stories? List at least three.
  • What parts of this story contain traditional items found in science fiction stories? List at least three.
  • Compare the witch Graba with another witch from a book you have read. How is she the same? How is she different?
  • What do you think is the purpose of the goblins in the story?
  • Acting and pretending to be somebody you are not is banned in Zombay. Do you know anyone in your life who pretends to be somebody they are not? Why do you think this happens?

Overall evaluation of this book: A more challenging fantasy book than most. This is not a good choice for kids who have poor reading and comprehension skills but a great pick for strong readers and lovers of fantasy and science fiction. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Bardugo, Leigh. (2012). Shadow and Bone. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Summary: Alina Starkov is an orphan of the border wars with the Shadow Fold. She eventually finds herself in the army for the crumbling nation of Ravka. Her regiment, along with her best friend, Mal, is on patrol when their regiment is attacked. Desperate to save what remains of her regiment and friend, Alina is unexpectedly able to summon incredible powers and they are saved. However, her display of magic has attracted the attention of the Darkling, the most important magician in the kingdom. Alina is removed from her friend and summoned to the capital. Will Alina be able to harness her incredible powers and save the kingdom? What does the Darkling want and to what extent is he willing to go to achieve it? Will Alina ever see her friend, Mal again?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a well-done fantasy which is probably better suited for older middle school kids or for younger kids who have high levels of reading skills. The fantasy has attracted a loyal following who have praised Shadow and Bone for breaking with the conventional fantasy story line. There is also a love story within the book but nothing is too revealing.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This appears to be a traditional fantasy story but it is done better than most. In addition to a simmering love story, and even though their paths appear to veer away from one another once Alina is whisked away to the capital, there is also a story of regular friendship between Alina and Mal. The mystery of the Shadow Fold adds an intriguing layer to the mix because of its uniqueness and enigmatic existence.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Read the “Questions for the Author” at the end of the book. Did anything surprise you about what the author said?
  • Think about the Darkling. Do any events or descriptions of the Darkling foreshadow his motivations? What are they? If you don’t know what foreshadow means, look it up.
  • What is the Shadow Fold? What other books have you read that have had something similar to the Shadow Fold?
  • Look at the map in the beginning of the book. Does this map have anything different than other maps found in fantasy books? If so, what is different?
  • How does the main character, Alina Starkov, change from the beginning of the book to the end of the book?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a cut above most fantasy books for middle school kids. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Bell, Hilari. (2006). The Prophecy. New York: HarperCollins.

Summary: Prince Perryndon has big dreams of being an important scholar at the local university. Unlike most kids his age, he has no dreams of becoming a warrior or fighter. Unfortunately, his father, the king, doesn’t share Perryndon’s ambitions—he wants his son to be a good old-fashioned warrior, like all the other forty-four family members who went before him have done. As luck has it, Perryndon discovered an ancient manuscript which—of course—has a prophecy. The prophecy, when fulfilled, rids the land of the nuisance of the black dragon which has been terrorizing the kingdom for years. Perryndon goes on a quest to find the ingredients necessary to complete the quest and finds that the whole quest thing is not what it appears, as seen from behind the safety of his father’s castle walls. The unicorn is afraid of its own shadow, the bard is in prison, and the special sword appears to be a rusty piece of junk. Perryndon doesn’t, however, have much time to contemplate things as his father’s most trusted advisor is a traitor to the kingdom and has other plans for the lineage of the king—which don’t include Perryndon and his father staying alive for much longer.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a fast book to read—it’s under 200 pages, and written better than many other fantasy books. It’s a take-off on the non-traditional Prince who wants to study like an academic rather than bludgeon his enemies with his sword and shield. If kids don’t like to read fantasy books, don’t recommend this one to them.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Hilari Bell is a very good writer and the chances are decent kids will enjoy this book—provided they have a sense of humor, enjoy reading about non-traditional heroes, and savor fantasy in general. Younger readers may enjoy this book a bit more than older readers—but I know lots of adults who still love this story.

Discussion points with kids:

  • The main character wants to study and be an academic. He doesn’t want to be a fighter. How is he similar to other fantasy heroes you have read about? How is he different?
  • What can you conclude about heroes from this story? What kind of hero is Prince Perryndon?
  • Prophecies are fairly common in fantasy stories. Why are prophecies so prevalent in fantasy stories? What purpose do they serve?
  • How would this story have been different if Perryndon had wanted to be a warrior? What do you think the story line would have been?
  • Prince Perryndon wants to become an academic and study at the university. His father, the king, wants him to work hard on swords and fighting and become a warrior. What happens when your mom or dad want you to become something you have no desire in becoming? What should you do? How do you resolve this problem?

Overall evaluation of this book: A delightful and engaging read. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Black, Holly and Cassandra Clare. (2014). The Iron Trial. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Summary: Callum Hunt is twelve years old and doesn’t want to pass the Iron Trial and be admitted to the mysterious magisterium. His father has warned him about the manipulations of the mages in the magisterium and Cal is quite content to follow his father’s advice. And then disaster strikes. Cal passes his Iron Trial and over the strenuous objections of his father, must report to the magisterium and receive special training from Master Rufus, the most important mage in the magisterium. Once inside the underground mountain, Callum is connected with two other young mages-in-training, Tamara and Aaron. Over time, they begin to develop a lasting friendship. But as Callum practices moving piles of sand from one location to another, he begins to doubt lots of things—the death of his mother, the reasons why his father dislikes the magisterium, and the secret intentions of the mage, Rufus. Will he discover his true powers in time to figure everything out?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book, and others in the series, is often criticized as a Harry Potter rip-off, because it includes a school for kids with magical abilities, an evil power determined to take control of everything, and a wise older magician. The lead character, a young boy, is even a reluctant magician. Kinda weird, how it looks like Harry Potter, don’t you think?

Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids may enjoy reading this book to see how it differs from the famous Harry Potter books and how it remains true to form. The book is a fairly quick read and kids who normally don’t like to read difficult or long books may be attracted to this one. Younger middle school kids are candidates to be drawn into this story line, the first in a series by two prominent young adult writers.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How is this story the same as the Harry Potter series? How is it different? Come up with two similarities and two differences.
  • Why do you think the authors gave Callum a limp? What is the purpose of having a maimed main character?
  • Make a map of the magisterium and label the important locations. Try to make it as close to scale as possible.
  • Suppose Callum had desperately wanted to pass the Iron Trials and attend the magisterium. How would the story have changed?
  • If you haven’t read the second book in the series, predict what happens in the second book. What is the story?

Overall evaluation of this book: A middle-of-the-road fantasy novel, which is either loved or hated by fans of the Harry Potter series. Not bad, but not great. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Brooks, Terry. (1977). The Sword of Shannara. New York: Dell Rey Books.

Summary: Shea Ohmsford lives peacefully in his little village of Shady Vale. One day a tall wizard named Allanon arrives to warn Shea of the danger facing him from the Warlock Lord. Apparently Shea is the last in the line of heirs to Shannara and the only one who can wield the Sword of Shannara and defeat the Warlock Lord. Shea flees Shady Vale just in time, as one of the Warlock Lord’s Skull Bearer’s has arrived to slay him. But wait! The Skull Bearer is in hot pursuit and Shea must keep moving further and further away from Shady Vale! Will Shea find the Sword of Shannara in time? What role does Flick play in the adventure? And who is the mysterious Allanon? The answers await you in The Sword of Shannara.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a fantasy book geared to middle school kids. The writing isn’t fantastic and the plot can be faulted as being not terribly original, but the action keeps coming and the dangers grow darker as the plot line develops in The Sword of Shannara. Unfortunately, there aren’t any strong female characters in this story, other than those cast in traditional roles—such as the princess. Consequently, this is not a great book to help daughters learn to be more independent and resilient—unless she is able to do it through the male characters. Think of The Sword of Shannara as a comic book which has been translated into print and you won’t be too far off the mark. Brooks has written lots of additional fantasy books about Shannara.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Many of the conventions of fantasy can be found in this book—the reluctant hero, a long journey, a mysterious but helpful wizard, good friends, strange creatures, danger at every turn, and an imposing evil character.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Find as many conventional parts of fantasy as you can in this book. Make a list. (Hint: One of the conventional parts of fantasy is a reluctant hero. Who is the reluctant hero in this story?)
  • Does this story take place in the future or in the past? Or neither? Find an example from the book to support your claim.
  • Allanon is a powerful, but good, wizard in this story. Think of three other powerful, but good, wizards in books you have read. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Imagine you are Shea. What would you think and do if someone appeared at your house saying you were somebody really important?
  • Write the beginning of your own fantasy story. Include a good wizard, an evil enemy, and a hero. Have something unusual happen.

Overall evaluation of this book: A decent fantasy book for middle school kids. There are better ones available, but there are also lots of stories which are worse. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Colfer, Chris. (2012). The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Alex and Conner are twins who live with their hard working mother in a small house. Their father is dead and the twins miss him terribly. On their twelfth birthday, their grandmother brings them a book of fairy tales. It is the same book of fairy tales from which their father used to read to them all the time. One thing leads to another and the twins find themselves falling into the book where the characters and lands are real, as are the dangers and enemies. Soon they find themselves on a quest to gather items so they can return to their own land. Can they defeat the evil queen? Are Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood real? And what about Prince Charming? It’s a race to the finish or the twins will never be able to return home.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is standard fantasy-world-meets-fairy-tale-world-meets-human-world kind of stuff. But the author, in this plot-driven story, writes better than many other authors. The author puts his own twist on many of the stereotypical fairy tales, which is rather refreshing. There is an evil witch, but anything she does is only mentioned, not actually shown. There is no swearing or overt violence, so you don’t have to worry about that. Younger middle school kids will be more attracted to this book, which is the first in a series.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a quirky book about many of the fairy tale characters which kids have grown up over the years. In this story they spring to live and the twins must negotiate and navigate through each of the kingdoms in their quest to gather the necessary items to bring them safely home. The characters are interesting and not always what we expect them to be, which adds to the compelling storyline.

Discussion points with kids:

  • There is a picture of a map in the beginning of the book. What is the purpose of including a map? Why do many fantasy books have maps?
  • Think about the fairy tale characters you know who are not included in the story. Speculate as to why the author did not include them in the story.
  • Draw a map of your city, neighborhood, or state, and break it up into kingdoms included in The Land of Stories. Where would each kingdom fit the best in your neighborhood?
  • Alex and Connor move from kingdom to kingdom. What is the purpose of having them move from kingdom to kingdom? Why doesn’t the author keep them in one kingdom?
  • Pick your favorite character from the book. Write a two to four page story about what might happen if the character showed up in your neighborhood.

Overall evaluation of this book: A sold pick for younger middle school kids. Not so great for older middle school kids who will tend to see it as “childish”. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Funke, Cornelia. (2002). Thief Lord. New York: Chicken House.

Summary: Prosper is a twelve-year-old boy who has a five-year-old brother named Bo. Their mother is dead and they find themselves living with their horrible aunt and her equally horrible husband in Hamburg, Germany. Prosper and Bo flee Hamburg once they learn their aunt intends to adopt Bo but not Prosper. Unwilling to be separated, they end up in Venice, Italy, a place their mother loved. They meet a group of street urchins led by a confident boy named Scopio, who is also known as the Thief Lord. To keep the urchins clothed and fed, the Thief Lord steals from the wealthy residents of Venice. The group lives in an abandoned movie theater. One day, the owner of a pawn shop asks the Thief Lord to steal something for an unknown, mysterious client. The Thief Lord agrees and then the real fun begins. What is so important about a small piece missing from a carousel that causes such a ruckus? And who is the strange man of many disguises who is pursuing them? Have they gotten them into a situation which will end badly for the urchins led by the Thief Lord and also for Prosper and Bo?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a classic fantasy book with the twist of taking place in Venice, with all the canals and dark passages that go along with an older city. There aren’t any reasons why kids—even those younger than middle school-age—should read the book so don’t worry about kids stumbling on inappropriate words or scenes. Adults who have read this book have also enjoyed the experience. Be warned however, that some older middle school kids may think the book is too “babyish.”

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a very well done fantasy set in an exotic place few middle school kids rarely read or know about. The themes of family and friends run strong in this novel. Much of the comedy is provided by the kind-hearted but somewhat bumbling private detective named Victor.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How is Thief Lord similar to fairy tales you know? How is it different?
  • Victor is an interesting character. What is his role in the story and why did the author include him in the story? Find three examples from the book to support your claim.
  • How believable is it that someone like the Thief Lord would exist in a large city?
  • How would this story be different if the setting were a large American city like New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, or Pittsburg? What would be the same? What would be different?
  • Who is the main character in this story? Defend you answer with several examples from the book

Overall evaluation of this book: A great fantasy book, especially for younger middle school kids. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Hunter, Erin. (2003). Warriors: Into the Wild. New York: HarperCollins.

Summary: Rusty is an ordinary housecat who dreams of bigger things. One day he leaves the house and wanders into the woods to discover what is around him. He stumbles upon a group of feral cats and soon joins their group, which happens to be called Thunderclan. Rusty commences training to be a warrior. Unexpectedly, he finds another cat, Yellowfang, a healer, who has left the Shadowclan. Rusty, who is renamed Firepaw by the clan, soon learns that the four clans—Thunderclan, Shadowclan, Windclan, and Riverclan, have been in conflict with one another for a long period of time. Lately, the Shadowclan, led by the expansionist Brokenstar, has threatened the hunting grounds of the Thunderclan. Will the Thunderclan be able to prevail against the aggressive Shadowclan? And where are the cats from Windclan and Riverclan? Is Firepaw the cat who will save the Thunderclan from annihilation?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are innumerable books in this series and librarians (media specialists) all across America have trouble keeping these books on the shelves because they are frequently checked out by younger middle school kids. These books, which are all about the world of cats and their loyalties, in-fighting, and traitorous spies, are easy to read and seem to have found their way into the hearts and minds of both boys and girls. These are not magical cats and this is not just a fantasy story. It is a story told from the point of view of cats who happen to live in the wild.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Many middle school kids love cats and this book is a fastball right down the middle of the plate for these cat fanatics. The pace of the storyline is relatively fast and many of the problems found in the human world are also found in the cat world. For example, as it turns out, cats have problems with other clans, poor leadership, aggressive leadership, political intrigue, and even wars with other clans of cats. For those who like battle scenes, there are numerous fights between individual cats and clan to clan fighting.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Compare the clan world in Warriors with the world you live in. How is the world of cats similar to your human world and how is it different?
  • Firepaw dreams of becoming something bigger or knowing the larger world. What are Firepaw’s dreams and hopes and aspirations? Use examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Imagine you are a dog or cat living in your neighborhood. Draw a map of the neighborhood, as a dog or cat might see the world. Hint: Look at the maps in the beginning of Warriors to help you come up with ideas.
  • What is the prophecy of the Thunderclan? How does it affect Firepaw?
  • Write a two page dialogue between two animals. You can use pets in your house or pets your friends have.

Overall evaluation of this book: A book which is actually better than it appears at first glance. Who could imagine that a story about cats would captivate the attention of thousands of middle school kids? Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Juster, Norton. (1964). The Phantom Tollbooth. New York: Random House.

Summary: Milo is a boy who is bored. One day he assembles a tollbooth which has mysteriously arrived at his house in a large box. He pays the toll and drives the small car which came with the box, past the tollbooth and then everything changes. What follows is a hilarious and wonderful series of adventures involving a watchdog named Tock who actually ticks, strange creatures named Lethargarians who live in the land of the doldrums, two princesses named Rhyme and Reason who do exactly what their names suggest, a symphony which brings color into the world, how jumping to conclusions can really place you on the Island of Conclusions, and lots of strange creatures who can only think or express themselves either mathematically or linguistically. In the end, the kingdoms are saved, the princesses returned to the castles, and Milo finds the world is not such a boring place after all.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Because the publication date on this book originally was 1964, many middle schoolers may initially scoff at your suggestion they give it a try. But remain persistent and leave the book near the head of their bed or next to their desk in school and eventually they may take your hint and begin reading.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The book is full of linguistic and mathematical fun. Plays on words abound in the book and this is one of those books which is delightful to read, even for an adult. Middle school kids who enjoy verbal games, puns, and those who are quick-witted will especially enjoy this book. After all, how can you not like a talking Dodecahedron who suggests the common phrase of “the more you want, the less you get,” is a simple subtraction problem? Or how can you not be fascinated with the Doctor of Dissonance who spends his time capturing obnoxious and irritating sounds?

Discussion points with kids:

  • What are some of the clever puns and plays on words in the book? Find three.
  • How does the author use literal language to create figurative creatures?
  • What would life be like if everything you said is literally what happened?
  • How is this book about math?
  • Think about the common phrases that kids, adults, and teachers use today. How can you weave these into a story like the one written by Norton Juster?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a classic. If you want kids to have a well-developed, quirky, sense of humor, this book will help you achieve that goal. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: LeGuin, Ursula K. (1968). Wizard of Earthsea. Berkley, CA: Parnassus Press.

Summary: Ged is a young magician who has much to learn about the powers of words and their ability to create and destroy. He becomes an apprentice to a powerful magician after the magician reveals Ged’s true name. Ged is reckless as a young magician and one day unleashes a dark shadow upon the world. Ultimately, he must face the shadow and return the shadow to its home. Along the way he must battle a dragon and discover his true self as he matures from a boy into a man. Of course, he has companions who come to his aid—another young magician named Vetch and his sister, Murre.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Many have compared LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy—A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book—to J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series, and C.S. Lewis’ seven book set Chronicles of Narnia. This is very high praise for LeGuin. This book may very well belong in the upper echelon of fantasy series, but I wouldn’t worry too much about where the series ultimately ranks. The story stands on its own and is very good, even though it was written long before your middle school child was born.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is what is known as a “coming-of-age” story. In “coming-of-ages” stories, the main character must struggle through pre-adolescence and adolescence and emerge a wiser and more thoughtful man or woman. This is what precisely happens to Ged, in a setting where words are power and the ability to command and control words means everything. Additionally, this “coming-of-age” story just happens to exist in a fantasy setting of islands and water.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Compare this book to The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. How are they different? How are they the same?
  • Explain why words have power and the importance of being precise with your words. Give two examples form the book.
  • How would this story have been different if it had taken place in a land-locked world, with no oceans?
  • Explain what the shadow is that Ged has unleashed on the world. How does Ged ultimately defeat the shadow?
  • What is this story really about? Give examples from the book to make your case.

Overall evaluation of this book: One of the great giants in fantasy books for kids. Also a story which makes you think. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Levine, Gail. (1997). Ella Enchanted. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Summary: Ella is a young girl who has a problem. She was placed under at spell at birth by a dimwitted fairy and how has to comply with every request and order someone makes of her. You can imagine how difficult this makes life for Ella. Naturally, Ella’s secret becomes known and that is when the real problems begin. Her father sends her off to school with her step-sisters but her step-sisters quickly become more of a hindrance than a help. In fact, they turn out to be leaning toward the evil side of the equation. Ella does have a bright spot, however. She starts a friendship with the prince, but, of course, this doesn’t go over well with her stepsisters. Before everything is finally settled, Ella has adventures with ogres, elves, and giants.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Anne Hathaway played the role of Ella in the film version of the book and subsequently became really famous. The plot is funny and you’ll recognize elements of “Cinderella” in the storyline. Younger middle school kids may be drawn more to this book than older middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a funny book and will be a fairly fast read for kids. Much of the storyline will be familiar to them but there are just enough twists and turns in the plot to keep them hooked. It’s a classic case of good eventually triumphing over evil and there’s no blood and gore to keep kids up at night.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Imagine you are Ella and must obey every order, request, and demand people place upon you. What would life be like?
  • How is this story like Cinderella? How is this story different from Cinderella?
  • This story does have some stock characters in it. Look up “stock characters” and then find three characters in the story that fit the definition of “stock characters.”
  • Who is the closest person to a fairy godmother in your life? What makes this person similar to a fairy godmother to you?

Overall evaluation of this book: A great book which doesn’t try to do anything but tell a scintillating story. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lewis, C.S. (1950). The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Summary: Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter are siblings sent to live with an old Professor to avoid being hurt by the bombings in London during World War II. While exploring the house, they unexpectedly discover a wardrobe which leads to the fantastic land of Narnia. Once in Narnia, they each discover they have a unique talent to aid them in their quest to rid the land of the evil White Witch, who has cursed the land and made Narnia into a never-ending winter. With the help of a magnificent Lion named Aslan, the children race against time to foil the plans of the white witch. But wait! Will one of the children change sides and help the white witch? And will the army of the creatures of Narnia be able to rise up and defeat the malevolent witch? Only time will tell.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a very famous story—the first in a series—which has subsequently been made into a movie. The author, C.S. Lewis, was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings—Yes, that Lord of the Rings—so you can impress your kids with your knowledge of famous early 20th century English authors. The book is clean of sex and foul language and the creatures are quite enchanting. The book is considered to be an allegory of Christian values and has been much bantered about in higher intellectual circles as to what the message was that C.S. Lewis delivered. That said, the book is probably better suited to kids in lower middle school grades.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Aside from the allegorical overtones—kids may not notice them unless you point them out—the story is solid and the characters both charming and terrifying—depending on whether they stand with the forces of good or evil. You may have read this book when you were growing up and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t continue the tradition with the next generation. It’s a quick read, so if the kids don’t like to read or have difficulty with their reading skills, don’t be afraid to offer this story up as an option.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is an allegory? (Look it up if you don’t know.) Find three examples in the book of where C.S. Lewis employs the use of allegory.
  • Edmund seems unsure of whether he should believe the white witch or not. What is C.S. Lewis trying to say by having Edmund wanting to believe the lies of the white witch?
  • In what ways is this book a traditional fantasy story? Hint: Compare this book to other fantasy stories you have read. What is common with them? What is not common?
  • Pretend you are one of the four characters. Write an additional chapter from your character’s point of view.

Overall evaluation of this book: A worthwhile book to read. The somewhat archaic language may be off-putting to some kids. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lu, Marie. (2011.) Legend. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Day is a hero of the Colonies and June is a hero of the Republic. The two 15 year-olds are equally matched in intelligence, strength, balance, and fighting abilities. Unfortunately, a series of events involving the death of June’s old brother has brought them directly into contact with one another. This is a problem because the Colonies and Republic are fighting one another. While June races to find Day and avenge her brother’s murder, she discovers that Day is a likeable boy who might be actually innocent of murdering her brother. But will she be able to learn the truth in time to make a difference? And what is the truth about the plague which is ravaging the citizens? Could the authorities of the Republic be operating under a different plan than the one told to the unsuspecting citizens? Will Day and June learn to bury their hatred of the other and work together to figure out the mysteries before them? Or will their personal allegiances blind them to the truth about what is really happening?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a somewhat popular novel about the dystopian future, which is fairly clean of language and gore issues. There are fight scenes and brief moments of romance, but nothing develops other than a few kisses.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The story is told by two narrators—Day and June, who take turns relating events as they happened. This adds an interesting bend to the story as often the same events are told by the differing perspectives of the narrator. As such, this is a great book for teaching point of view or simply enjoying the story told by the two main characters.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Tell the entire story from Day’s perspective. Then tell the entire story from June’s perspective.
  • What do you like about having two narrators tell the same story, but from their unique point of view? What did you not like?
  • What other books that you have read does this story remind you of? Why?
  • Pick any event that happened this week and write it from two different points of view.
  • List the things the Republic believes in and then list the things the Colonies believe in. How are they similar? How are they different?

Overall evaluation of this book: A very good fantasy/science fiction/dystopian story. Boys and girls will like this book equally well. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Nielsen, Jennifer A. (2012). The False Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Summary: Sage is a fifteen-year-old orphan who lives in the streets and steals what he can to survive. One day he is captured by a nobleman named Conner, who has also snared several other boys. They are told that to stay alive, they must act like the presumed dead prince, and one of them must be installed on the throne as a puppet prince. War is threatening the lands and Conner’s plan must succeed or the destruction of the kingdom may well be at hand. Can Sage keep his wits and manage to stay alive? Can he pretend to be the prince? And how can he look his fellow prisoners in the eye, knowing that most of them will not survive?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is the first book in a series which is growing in popularity with middle school kids. The standard plot line of “let’s-appoint-a-fake-prince-on-the-throne” has been upgraded with political intrigue and it will be difficult for the reader to determine where the next surprise will originate. There are a few scenes involving young individuals being killed but the actual details are left mostly to the imagination. This is not an “everything-is-roses” type of book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The main character, Sage, has spunk and he constantly smarts off to the adults and other kids around him. This makes him an eminently likeable character. There is an underlying theme of the potential for war to break out in the kingdom and this possibility will raise the stakes for the reader and for Sage.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Did you know how the book was going to end? If you didn’t know how the book was going to end, what did the author do to prevent you from predicting the ending?
  • Are there any clues in the book as to the type of man the nobleman Conner was going to turn out to be? What are those clues?
  • Did you believe it when Sage revealed his true identity? Why or why not?
  • There is no magic in this fantasy book. Did the book need magic or was it fine just the way it was? Explain your answer.
  • Is this book similar to any other books you have read? How is it the same? How is it different?

Overall evaluation of this book: The twists and turns will keep the reader guessing. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Priest, Cherie. (2015). I am Princess X. New York: Arthur A Levine Books.

Summary: May is a 17 year-old girl whose best friend, Libby, died three years ago in a car accident. Suddenly May begins seeing signs that Libby may not be dead. At first, May finds stickers about Princess X, a character she and Libby made up. Then the signs are everywhere, in pictures, images, and graphics, that someone is keeping the character of Princess X alive and well. Because Libby was the only other individual who knew about Princess X, May is convinced Libby is alive. But where is Libby and why can’t she find her? Who is the mysterious Jackdaw? Is Princess X coming to life in ways May can’t contemplate? And what is the role of the Needle Man in the story? Is he a threat?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a middle school girl book which will probably not be ready by lots of boys. The general theme of the book—female empowerment—will be a pleasure to those who wade through the pages. There is no foul language in the book and little gore or gruesome scenes. The overall tone is dark and moody, however. Some of the story will be told through graphics and cartoon-like pictures, which appear on a regular basis.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The graphics in the book will appeal to many middle school kids. Essentially, what happens is that the graphics break up the words on the page and make the overall experience a better one for the readers. The graphics are simple, and not unlike those which appear in a pure, 100% graphic novel. As such, the combination of graphics and written words provide fertile grounds for a classroom discussion on how authors communicate their thoughts and ideas to the readers.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How do the graphics help or hinder the story? Did you like them? Why or why not?
  • May meets a computer whiz named Trick. What kind of a friendship do they have? Why do you think the author made their friendship this way? Give at least two examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Look at a drawing of Princess X. Why did the author make her look this way?
  • Get a piece of paper and make an eight frame graphic story about anything you want. Don’t forget to make the balloons above the characters’ heads and fill them with words so we know who is talking in each frame.

Overall evaluation of this book: A surprisingly good book, blending the forms of fiction writing and graphic artistry. This is a great book for encouraging your daughters to be empowered and hot helpless pawns in the game of life. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Pullman, Philip. (1995). The Golden Compass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Summary: Lyra is an eleven-year-old orphaned girl who spends time with her best friend, Roger, who works in the kitchens, running across the rooftops, throwing plum stones at unsuspecting people walking on the streets below, making owl sounds while classes are in session, and generally being a rambunctious pre-adolescent in the streets of Oxford. Events begin to churn when she accidently overhears an important conversation, her friend Roger disappears, and her uncle is imprisoned. As a result of these events, she finds herself working with a gigantic white bear which has lost his armor and a balloonist. She also undertakes a journey—while also running into both good and bad witches and a group of evil individuals known as “Gobbers” who are led by the malevolent, but sweet-talking Mrs. Coulter. What makes the story even more interesting is that each individual in the story has an animal as a familiar, which is a manifestation or representation of the inner soul. Eventually, Lyra uncovers the mystery of why children are vanishing and what the “Gobbers” are doing with the body and the “soul.” Oh, and did I forget to mention there is a group of individuals known as the supreme Calvinist Church who have a role to play as well?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This novel has been maligned by controversy since it was first printed. Some individuals feel there is an anti-religious element to the book and don’t allow their child to read the book, which is the first in a trilogy. The book has won numerous awards but that hasn’t stopped the critics. The odds are very low your child will find this book to be anti-religious, because there are many books available which talk of dystopian societies run by adults who wield institutions as weapons. This is how they are most likely to view the book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: It’s a great story line and has the novelty of adding an armored bear. In addition, each character in the story has a familiar, which is a representation of their inner soul. The storyline sometimes can be a bit complex, so younger readers who struggle in their reading skills may not enjoy this book. Many of the conventions found in this novel can be found in many fantasy stories—treachery, an unyielding ruling class, subterfuge, fantastic creatures, zany individuals, a journey, true loyalty and friendship.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What does each person’s daemon say about their inner soul? What is the author trying to say in creating a daemon in animal form which is unique to each individual?
  • What is the story line of the bear who has lost his armor? What does the bear represent? Find three examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Mrs. Coulter is not a very nice person, even though she sometimes acts friendly. Imagine Mrs. Coulter as being completely evil, without even the ability to act friendly and cooperative. How would the story have changed?
  • There is a journey in this story. What is Lyra’s journey? Is her journey a physical journey or a psychological journey or both? Explain why.
  • What does the supreme Calvinist Church represent in this story? Find three examples to support your statement.
  • What is “dust?” Can you think of an analogy for “dust?”

Overall evaluation of this book: A well-written book—especially for the thinking middle school child. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Riordan, Rick. (2005). The Lightning Thief. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.

Summary: Percy is the twelve-year-old narrator of this story. But he’s much more than that. He’s also a demi-god, half-human and half-immortal. As it turns out, his father is Poseidon, the ruler of the sea. The only problem is that someone has stolen his lightning bolt. Zeus, naturally, wants it back. Zeus thinks Percy has something to do with it. Sound interesting? It’s even better because Percy has no idea any of this is happening or that he is even a demi-god. Instead, he believes he is an orphan who has bounced from school to school, irritating teachers and other students. Things only start to seem really strange for him when his pre-algebra teacher tries to kill him. Of course, he discovers new friends along the way at summer camp for the half-bloods—a satyr and demigod daughter of Athena, but they find themselves in lots of trouble when the Oracle sends them on a mission to the Underworld of Hades. There’s more, but I don’t want to spoil the rest of the storyline for you.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: If you believe kids should be exposed to and understand Greek Mythology then might want to give this book to them as a birthday present or class assignment. The author puts a twist on the pantheon of Greek gods but the main personalities and themes are still present. Younger middle school kids may get into this book a bit better and faster than older middle school kids. If middle school kids hate reading fantasy, think about not giving them this book to read, even though it has the lure of the Greek gods and they may learn something about them.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The story line of a down-and-out boy discovering he really is of noble heritage is one of the oldest plot lines in civilization but it keeps working again and again. The author does it well and there is excitement and adventure in this story. The plot line hums along quickly and seems to resonate with boys and girls so don’t be shy about giving this novel to girls.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Do you fantasize about learning one day that you are somebody famous or have a special and unique talent? Why do you think about this? What purpose does it serve?
  • The setting to this story is in the modern world and yet the characters are drawn from ancient Greece. How has the author merged them together? Give two specific examples from the book.
  • Percy picks up several new friends along the way who journey with him to Hades. Why did the author give him several friends to journey with him? What is their purpose to the storyline? Would the story have been better if Percy had undertaken the quest by himself?
  • Think of an ancient tale or myth from another land or culture. Write a short story using this ancient tale or myth. Use your own neighborhood as the setting.

Overall evaluation of this book: Solid, inventive, and clever with some traditional story lines. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Rowling, J.K. (1997). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Harry Potter is about to have his eleventh birthday. He is not expecting any party, because his aunt and uncle never have birthday parties for Harry. And why is that? They don’t like the fact that, after the unexpected death of Harry’s parents, Harry has been thrust upon them. They do their best to make life miserable for Harry, as does their worthless son, Dudley. Things change when Hagrid arrives to personally invite Harry to join Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry accepts the invitation and the rest, as they say, is history. He meets Hermione Granger and Ron Weasly at Hogwarts and the three quickly become best friends. Harry also meets the mean Malfoy, another young apprentice wizard and the difficult Professor Snape. Together the trio of adventurers plunge into the mysteries surrounding Hogwarts and the real killer behind the deaths of Harry’s parents.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Sometimes it seems as though every child on the surface of the planet has read this book or watched the movie. It’s become part of culture for many kids. That said, there was a reason behind its stunning success—the book is well-written, even though many of the plot lines have been written about by other authors for years and years. The humor and storyline are well done. The book is ultimately about good vs. evil and the self-discovery that goes along with growing up.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Don’t be dissuaded by the fact that every child in the neighborhood has read this book. It’s pure fantasy at its finest and the first book in the series—there are seven altogether—is a quick read. (J.K. Rowling doesn’t get lengthy with the pen until after this book’s rousing success.) You don’t want kids in your house or classroom to be the only ones who haven’t read one of the greatest commercial successes in adolescent fiction ever, do you?

Discussion points with kids:

  • Hagrid is an interesting character. What does he bring to the story? Imagine the story without Hagrid. Would the storyline been different?
  • Hermione is smarter and knows more information than Harry. Yet, she is not the main character. Why isn’t she the main character? Or is there an advantage in having a main character who isn’t the smartest one in the class? What is the advantage, if there is one?
  • Predict what would have happened if Harry’s aunt and uncle had been loving, caring adults. How would the storyline have changed?
  • Are there any modern-day Hogwarts? Where? What makes them Hogwarts-like?
  • Why did this book become so popular? What does this book have that other books don’t?

Overall evaluation of this book: A staple of library bookshelves everywhere. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Schow, Betsy. (2015). Spelled. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks.

Summary: In this loose reconstruction of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothea is a witty, vain, sarcastic, pretty princess of Emerald who can’t leave the castle until Prince Charming arrives to slay a dragon in her honor. Unfortunately, she has no idea who this Prince Charming is or when he is scheduled to arrive. To make matters worse, she has caused disaster to occur by accidently cursing on a star, throwing the Kingdom into chaos, sending her parents to Kansas, turning the Prince Kato into a chimera, and transporting her to the far corner of the Kingdom. If this weren’t bad enough, unless Dorothea can deal with the evil witch, the end of the Kingdom is near. Will Dorothea find her Prince and reverse the curse?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This novel is filled with lots of wit, humor, and tongue-in-cheek humor. It is also laced with humor some kids and parents won’t appreciate seeing in a book targeting upper middle school and high school kids. For example, phrases like, “Get off me, you pixing cow!” are all over this book. The author will take a phrase which normally includes a swear word, and replace it with a word which is phonologically similar, but which also softens the colloquial phrases. As such, those who are looking for “cleaner” books to read, should avoid this one.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Most kids know the storyline of The Wizard of Oz and the basic premise found in most fairy tales. This will be a decided advantage to those who read this book, as the author constantly plays off themes known to the reader and adds her own comical twists. This is the major reason why kids like this book—that and the implied swearing—as the author plays on the fairy tale themes and turns them around to delight and astonish them. Each chapter also begins with a hilarious and witty quote from a mythical book, such as “Alice’s Fairy Tale Guide to Wildflowers and Mushrooms,” or “Definitive Fairy-Tale Survival Guide, Volume I.”

Discussion points with kids:

  • Create three of your own quotes to begin one of the chapters. Include the name of the fictitious book from which you are quoting.
  • Draw a map of the world, according to the locations mentioned in the book. Make sure to identify important places and landmarks.
  • Find three examples of humor in this book and explain to someone why they are funny.
  • Predict what will happen to the main characters in 10 years. What will they be doing? Where will they be living?

Overall evaluation of this book: A rollicking good romp, especially for kids with quirky senses of humor. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Shulman, Polly. (2010). The Grim Legacy. New York: Puffin Books.

Summary: Elizabeth has a father who ignores her and a demanding stepmother. Not only that but she doesn’t fit in with her classmates at her new school. Things begin to brighten when one of her teachers recommends her for a job at the New York Circulating Material Repository. One there, Elizabeth begins to love her job and eventually finds herself working in the basement with the Grimm collection, an assortment of magical artifacts straight from the fairy tales. The problem, however, is that things keep disappearing from the Grimm collection and even some of the pages, who work with the collection, vanish. It is up to Elizabeth to try to solve the mysteries and return the objects to the collection so they can be properly catalogued. Along the way she must deal with the mirror from Snow White, the fabled seven-league boots, flying carpets, and a mermaid’s comb. Fortunately, she has help from the other pages working with the collection. Or do some of the pages have secret motives and desires? Read the book to find out.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is classic fantasy—magical articles, loyalty, betrayal, and hidden rooms which shouldn’t exist. The whole idea of properly cataloguing these magical items is ludicrous—which is what the pages do—but it works. There aren’t any compromising situations or foul language in this novel. It’s very clean.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids don’t enjoy fantasy stories, then pass on this novel. If they do enjoy fantasy stories and are somewhat versed in the fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm, then they will really like this novel.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Who are the Brothers Grimm? Did they really exist? Do some research if you don’t know the answer.
  • Compare the filing system used in the New York Circulating Material Repository with that of your local library or media center. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Explain the role of magic in this story. What can magic do but also what can magic not do? Use four specific examples from the book.
  • Create a different ending for this book. How would you re-write the ending?
  • See if you can identify the major parts of the story line and verbally summarize this entire story in just five minutes.

Overall evaluation of this book: A good fantasy book, especially for younger middle school kids. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Stephens, John. (2011). The Emerald Atlas. New York: Random House.

Summary: Three orphans—Kate, Michael, and Emma—have spent the last ten years living in one orphanage after another. Little do they know, but they are being protected against a terrible evil, whose forces are led by the Countess. As luck would have it, they end up being transported to the world of the Countess and then their problems really start. Will they be able to save the children? Can they fend off the minions of the Countess? Who has been protecting them all these years? And what is the enchanted atlas?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book has been popular with the younger middle school age crowd. I don’t know that I’d recommend it for older middle school kids. While the novel is a fantasy book, the plot line is unique, so it is unlikely middle school kids will say, “This book is just like _______ (fill in the blank).” The plot is slightly more complicated than what you will find in other books targeting the upper elementary and lower middle school grade age.

Why middle school kids should read this book: How can you not like a story about three orphans trying to prevent the world from destruction at the hands of the evil Countess? What is there not to like? While the plot line may seem, at first glance, to be similar to other books middle school kids have read, the reality is that they probably haven’t read much like The Emerald Atlas.

Discussion points with kids: 

  • What is the role of the Secretary in this book?
  • What is the role of Dr. Pym in this book? What other character from other books does he remind you of?
  • What is the role of Gabriel in this book? What other character from other books does he remind you of?
  • What is the unique skill of each of the children? If you can’t remember, use the book to find out.
  • Some fantasy books have printed maps of the land in the front of the book. Why doesn’t this book have a printed map of the world in which the orphans find themselves?
  • Create a two-page brochure of the magical world in this story. Your audience for the brochure is tourists who may want to visit the world. What would they need to know?

Overall evaluation of this book: Riveting for younger middle school kids. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Stiefvater, Maggie. (2011). The Scorpio Races. New York: Scholastic.

Summary: Puck Connolly is a young girl who lives on the island of Thisby. She lives with her two brothers and they scratch out a living doing almost anything they can to make money to survive. Puck’s parents are dead, killed by the capaill uisce, or water horses, who periodically rise from the waters surrounding the island and kill any who are in their way. Every year, the inhabitants on the island hold a race, in which islanders ride the capaill uisce for the pleasures of the tourists and the possibility of someone winning the grand prize. A local boy, Sean Kendrick, has won the race four out of the last six years. To save their family farm from seizure by the frugal landlord, Benjamin Malvern, Maggie joins the race, the only girl to ever enter the famous race. Will Maggie win the race or will she be torn to pieces by the teeth of the wild water horses?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a very unique book and has received lots of critical acclaim. Some of the references and scenes contain descriptions of torn flesh and water horses seeking their prey. As a result, this can be a frightening book for younger middle school kids to read. Thus, it may be a better fit for older middle school kids. The love story is treated lightly, so there isn’t anything for adults to worry about on that topic.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The uniqueness of this book cannot be overstated. Kids who read fantasy stories like ice cream will almost certainly love this book mostly because of the dangerous water horses’ ability to live in both water and land. (They can be anywhere at any given time.) Horse lovers may also be drawn in by the story because regular horses and the capaill uisce figure prominently in the plot.

Discussion points with kids:

  • The story line for this book is loosely drawn from Celtic myths. Do some research. What parts of the Celtic myth did Stiefvater retain in the novel and which parts did she change?
  • Would you enjoy living on an island surrounded by capaill uisce? Why or why not?
  • Draw a map of the island and label important houses and geographic features, including the area where the horse race occurs. Don’t make the map up. Look in the book to figure out where things are located.
  • Think about two other fantasy stories you have read. How is this book similar? How is this book different?
  • Write a 3-5 page story about capaill uisce living somewhere close to where you live. Make sure a river or lake is in your story because that is where the capaill uisce will live.

Overall evaluation of this book: A unique fantasy story that is as good as the critics say. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Stroud, Jonathan. (2009). Heroes of the Valley. New York: Hyperion Books.

Summary: Halli Sveinsson is a common shepherd who dreams of being a mighty warrior and hero of the valley. The only problem is that he is known more for his practical jokes than his prowess with the sword. In addition, he is short, squat, and ugly. These are hardly the traits necessary for hero worship and not the type of physical characteristics necessary for gathering oohing and ogling from your crowd of admiring followers. As events unfold, Halli makes circumstances for his village worse and finds himself on an old-fashioned hero quest. His misadventures—and that is what they are—tend to be funny and witty, which is the real treasure in the book. Even though Halli is hardly the stuff of legends, he ventures forth on a hero’s quest to avenge his murdered uncle. In the end we discover whether Halli’s boyhood hero, the mighty Svein, is all that he is purported to be and whether or not Halli has what it takes to lead his village to victory in the medieval setting. And will he get the girl? Check out the book to find out.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is mostly traditional fantasy lore, with the twist being the hero comes from the least likely source—a shepherd. In addition, a sense of confusion exists as to whether or not the heroes we worship really are as important as we make them out to be. (Hint: The answer is “no.”) But the hero quest is solid and the short and ugly would-be-hero is a delight to follow around.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids love fantasy the odds are very high they are really going to like this book. Stroud has an engaging style of writing and it’s hard not to like the ridiculous situations in which the young hero, Halli, finds himself. The internal workings and asides of Halli’s mind as he journeys on his hero’s quest are priceless.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is a hero’s quest? What is Halli’s quest in this story?
  • What makes Halli such a likeable character? Give three specific examples from the book.
  • What did Halli learn about the ancient hero his House believes in? Did the events which made Svein a hero really happen?
  • What makes a hero a hero? What makes a hero a hero in our modern days?
  • Maps are often found in fantasy books and the author, Jonathan Stroud, includes a “Map of the Valley” in the beginning of the book. Why? What purpose do maps serve? Why don’t all books have maps in them?

Overall evaluation of this book: A funny, engaging, fantasy about an unlikely hero. A tad slow at first, but it speeds up quickly. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Stroud, Jonathan. (2003). The Amulet of Samarkand. New York: Miramax Books.

Summary: Nathanial is an angry twelve-year-old boy who has dreams of doing something great with his life. To help him steal the Amulet of Samarkand, he summons a djinni—or genie—named Bartimaeus. This is when the real fun begins. Bartimaeus is no ordinary djinni. He is lippy, surly, argumentative, and quarrelsome. However, Bartimaeus is bound by the rules to follow the directions of his summoner. Of course, Bartimaeus spends a considerable amount of his time searching for loopholes in his orders but eventually decides he must comply with his master. He steals the Amulet for Nathanial, even though he realizes the young wizard is way over his head on this one.(After all, you don’t mess with Simon Lovelace, who is an evil and powerful magician.) As the story develops, Bartimaeus encounters some of the friends and enemies he has worked with and against over the years as a working djinni. One in particular, Farquarl, another djinni, especially irritates Bartimaeus—even more so since Farquarl is under the control of Simon Lovelace. Events quickly spin out of control and a plot to undermine the government is discovered. Can Nathanial and his obstinate and sarcastic djinni save the day?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The book is standard fantasy fare for middle school kids, except that it is well-written and has a more engaging comedic sidekick, the djinni Bartimaeus. The book is filled with sarcasm—mostly provided by Bartimaeus. If kids don’t get sarcasm or like it, I’d pick a different book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids like reading fantasy and enjoy a quick wit and they thrive on a steady dose of sarcasm, they are going to adore this book. The real treat in this novel is Bartimaeus, who talks to the reader in asides, which are presented as footnotes scattered throughout the pages. The asides are clever and very funny and tell us what the djinni is really thinking.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does the author use the asides, or footnotes, to tell the story from Bartimaeus’ point of view? Do you think this method works to make the story better or does it distract from the story? Why or why not?
  • What if the entire story were told from Bartimaeus’ point of view? Would the book be better or worse? Why or why not?
  • What special problems does Nathanial have in summoning the djinni? How does he control the genie and are there any moments in which Nathanial loses control of his genie and yet—Bartimaeus decides to stay and help? Where in the story line do these occur?
  • Nathanial’s father is very hard on his son. How could Nathanial’s father better help his son grow into an independent magician?
  • Is Bartimaeus good or evil? Does he have to be one or the other? Why?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is one of the best fantasy books written in the past several decades. It will appeal to both middle school kids and adults. Don’t be shy, give it a try. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Tolkien, J.R.R. (1937). The Hobbit. New York: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd.

Summary: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who is minding his own business—wasting time in his hobbit hole, eating whenever the mood strikes him, and warming his feet by the fire. Then Gandalf the Grey wizard stops to visit Bilbo. Along with Gandalf are 13 dwarves who are determined to wrest control of their home in the Lonely Mountains from the giant dragon, Smog, who is hoarding their gold and treasure. What follows next is prelude to the mammoth hit trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf convinces Bilbo to join the adventure. Before the story is concluded, Bilbo experiences evil elves, nasty spiders, a horrible creature named Gollum, and one mean-tempered dragon. But it’s all in good fun and the dragon is slain, the gold and mountain returned to the dwarves, and Bilbo left to return to the safe confines of his hobbit hole. Oh, did I forget to say he now has a ring—that’s right—the ring that sets off a war of mythic proportions in The Lord of the Rings?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book was written a long time ago. In fact, it may be the oldest fantasy book kids ever read. But it has all the hallmarks of a good fantasy without inappropriate language and sexually revealing scenes. It has the traditional plot line of good vs. evil and unlikely heroes, so there are no surprises there.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is the story of an unlikely hero—how more unlikely of a hero can you find than a short, pudgy hobbit?—and kids love rooting for the underdog. Of course, if kids find fantasy in general to be distasteful, they certainly won’t enjoy this book. But most kids will like the story line. Your biggest problem will be having them tell you, “But I saw the movie.” This is why I never recommend that middle school kids first watch the movie and then read the book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Compare this book to other fantasy books you have read. What are some of the common elements in all fantasy books? Try to come up with five commonalities.
  • This story involves a physical and psychological journey. Re-tell the story out loud about the physical journey. Then re-tell the story involving Bilbo’s psychological journey. [Note: Bilbo is not the same person at the end of the story as he was in the beginning of the story.]
  • Write a chapter written from the perspective of Smaug, the dragon. How would Smaug have viewed the events which unfolded?
  • Gollum is an interesting character. What, if anything, is the author trying to say through Gollum? Is there any kind of a moral we are to learn through Gollum’s character?

Overall evaluation of this book: One of the most well-known and loved fantasy stories of all time. You may be surprised to learn there are better fantasy books for middle school kids. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Velde, Vivian Vande, (2002). Heir Apparent. New York: Harcourt, Inc.

Summary: Giannine is an almost 14-year-old girl who is given the gift of being able to play a virtual simulation in a special reality arcade. As events progress, trouble starts and she finds herself immersed in the game for real and the only way she can successfully get out of the game is to complete the game and win. If she doesn’t ultimately beat the game, she is—well—dead. Giannine doesn’t play the game very well at first, and her character keeps dying because of her strategic blunders, but eventually she gets better and better at playing the game. Treachery and deceit are everywhere, of course, as are some unique and memorable creatures and characters. Will she be able to figure out how to beat the game and survive before the game ultimately kills her? Read the book to find out.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is pretty standard fantasy fare with two exceptions—one, it’s funny and two, the story line has some unique twists. The book is relatively tame on instances of vulgarity or scenes hinting of romance. The main protagonist is a girl, something the authors of middle grades fiction are inserting into more and more of their books.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a great book for high fantasy lovers who have tired of the same old formula, which is—peasant rises to knighthood, triumphs against impossible odds, kills the evil magician/king/knight/queen/bishop…well, you get the picture.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does the author embed the video game concept into the story line? Do you accept the premise—that the main character has to beat the video game set in the time of kings and queens and castles and knights—in order to survive in modern life?
  • The main character dishes out a pretty good plate of sarcasm. Find several places in the story where sarcasm is effectively used.
  • How would you have ended the book?
  • The author repeated part of the story each time the main character was killed in the video game and then brought back to life. Did this bother you? Why or why not?
  • What would you have done the very first time Giannine found herself in the video game? Would you have fared any better? Why?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a funny, memorable book, even though you child will probably have never heard of it. Four Stars ★★★★

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