Books for Kids
Book Reviewed: Billingsley, Franny. (2011). Chime. New York: Penguin Group.

Summary: Briony is a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in a rural English village on the edge of a swamp at the turn of the century. Her stepmother is dead and she is left to care for her mentally disabled sister, Rose. Unfortunately, Briony believes she is a witch and often takes walks into the swamp to clear her head and talk to the Old Ones who inhabit the swamp. Briony can’t share her secret with anyone, because in her village they kill witches and she knows what fate will befall her should anyone discover she is a witch. But is Briony a witch? And can she stop the engineer from draining the swamp, thus preventing the wrath of the Old Ones. And who is this dashing young man, Eldric? Is romance in the air? Events really begin to boil when Rose develops a cough brought on by the Boggy Mun, who is upset the swamp is being drained. Can Briony save her sister from the Boggy Mun?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The writing style of this author, Billingsley, seems to bring out a love/hate relationship in young readers. Billingsley tends to write with a melancholy tone which can be unattractive to some middle school kids. Others love Billingsley’s writing style. The storyline does contain some brutal scenes although the details are usually not given. Kids with weaker reading skills should be steered toward another book because the plot line can be confusing at times. This book might be more appropriate for older middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a traditional fantasy story mixed with a bit of mystery. Kids who love dark brooding stories involving magical beings will quickly fall in love with this book. Kids who also enjoy reading about stories set in in a pre-Industrial Revolution setting (think Colonial-like here) will also be attracted to this book. There are some frightening scenes in the book—amplified by the author’s melancholy writing style—so if kids are prone to nightmares, think twice before suggesting this book to them.

Discussion points with kids:

  • List all the characters who live in the swamp. What is Briony’s relationships with each type of character?
  • Why is this book titled Chime? Find two reasons from the book to support your claim.
  • What is the role of Elderic in this story? Find three examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Find two sentences or paragraphs you really like from this book. How do the words or paragraphs in the sentences make it attractive to you?
  • If the author wrote a sequel to Chime, predict what the story line might be.

Overall evaluation of this book: A dark and brooding fantasy story which makes the reader think. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Brewer, Heather. (2007). Eighth Grade Bites. New York: Penguin Group.

Summary: Thirteen-year-old Vladimir Tod is not a big fan of school because of the constant teasing and normal awkwardness which goes along with that age. However, Vladimir has problems that other kids don’t. For one, Vladimir is the son of a vampire father and human mother, making Vlad a—well—vampire. Another problem he has is that his parents are dead and he needs to have a regular dose of blood to stay alive. Fortunately, he lives with his mother’s best friend who happens to be a nurse. She brings home bags of blood from her workplace so Todd has something to eat and snack on. Of course, Vlad must also keep his enlarged fangs under wraps so none of his classmates suspect who he really is. Oh, and did I tell you he is being hunted by a vampire killer?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This really isn’t a heavy-duty horror book. I mean, how serious can you be about a normal eighth grader who incidentally happens to be a vampire? Consequently, there isn’t much gore or splatter contained in the pages of the book. This novel has found a steady following from middle school kids and is the first book in a series which follows Vlad all the way to grade twelve (one book for each year). Kids who normally don’t like reading have been drawn into the series and this is a good book to recommend or give to reluctant readers.

Why middle school kids should read this book: How can middle school kids resist a book about a vampire attending their school? How cool would it be to have a vampire sitting across from you in math class or at the same table in art? Pretty cool.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Write a short story or play about a monster or mythical being attending your school and trying to blend in.
  • In what way is Vladimir a typical eighth grade kid? Find three examples from the story which describe something most kids would do.
  • What other stories and books have you read in which a kid with a unique power or characteristic or trait, suddenly loses their parents? How are the stories similar? How are they different?
  • Predict what will happen in the next book in the series. If you were the author, how would you continue the story?

Overall evaluation of this book: A decent book which can’t be taken too seriously. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Coakley, Lena. (2011). Witchlanders. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Ryder is a boy nearing adulthood whot has grown up in the Witchlands, an area which separates the witches who live in the mountains from the villagers who live below in the valley. Ryder’s father is from the village but his mother is a witch who claims to throw bones which foretell what the future has in store. One day his mother makes a startling prophecy which eventually draws the attention of the witches who gather to discuss the prophecy. His mother’s prophecy is eventually deemed a fake, but strange creatures attack the town, killing several of the inhabitants. Believing the creatures to be the work of the Baen, an ancient enemy whom the witches defeated many years ago, Ryder sets off to find the Baen and kill it. What he discovers is a surprise—another boy, very much like himself, who claims to have nothing to do with the magic which roused the creatures into their destructive rampage. The boys argue and battle one another and discover that together they have a power which can be a game changer—if only they can learn to cooperate and work with one another—which, of course, they find nearly impossible, at first, to do. Their adventures continue, separately and together, as they slowly begin to unravel the mysteries of the Baen and the coven. Who is telling the truth and who is lying? Can the witches really throw the bones and interpret what they mean? Or is it a pack of lies to keep the villagers dependent upon the witches?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a typical high fantasy book involving magic and witches. The author is a better writer than most, so the odds are high that if kids like reading about spirits and witches and magic, they will like this book. The story is told primarily through the perspective and eyes of two boys—Ryder and Falpian, which adds to the lure because of the contrast between how the boys view the same event. There are religious overtones in this book, some of which question the veracity of religion and whether or not the rituals and routines made by religions happen because the god(s) require them or whether they are invented by the religious leaders (witches in this case) to mollify and pacify the crowd. But don’t panic, this is actually a very common theme in many fantasy stories.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The author does a nice job of setting up the story line in the novel by using compare and contrast techniques. For example, are the Baen really any different from Ryder? How is the role of religion compared and contrasted? What is the difference between family and duty and in the end, which should carry the compelling argument? This is a thinking person’s fantasy book. If kids struggle in their reading skills and tend to read things literally, this will be an awful selection for them. But if kids are fairly deft readers and enjoy psychological conundrums, they will most likely enjoy the story.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is the role of religion in a society? Find three examples from the book which supports what you say.
  • How do the rules get made in a society? Find three examples from the book to support your argument.
  • There are two narrators in this story. How does this help the story line? How does it hurt the story line?
  • How does the setting of the story help or hurt the story line?
  • Which character is the most intriguing to you? Why?
  • Is it really possible for enemies to become friends in such a short period of time? What happens in the story which makes it more likely for them to become friends so quickly?

Overall evaluation of this book: A worthy addition to the fantasy canon of literature. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Delaney, Joseph. (2004). The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books

Summary: Thomas Ward is the seventh son of the seventh son and that qualifies him to be the latest apprentice for the Spook, a strange and reclusive man who makes his living banishing supernatural creatures which plague the good citizens of the county. As part of his apprenticeship, Thomas Ward must learn how to stop boggarts, recognize witches by their pointy shoes, and bind and confine evil witches so they won’t hurt anyone else. The story really takes off when Thomas, by mistake, releases the horrible witch Mother Malkin. From then on, he must play a pivotal role in trying to recapture her. A side story develops about a solitary girl named Alice, who wears pointy shoes, but Thomas isn’t convinced she really is a witch.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a very scary book, filled with figurative language of a very melancholy nature. The book is well-written—it’s far better than the poorly done movie—which is why Joseph Delaney is such a popular writer for kids. There are no sexual references or abusive language found in the book. However, be warned, this book does take-off on the superstitions surrounding witches and things that go bump in the night. Some of the descriptions are written more vividly than what kids may be used to reading.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is the first in a lengthy series of books about the adventures of the apprentice Thomas Ward. The font is large and the illustrations throughout the book are simple but gorgeous in a haunting sort of way. The books are written lyrically and kids will have a chill go down their spine when they read these books. For a good story steeped in superstition and rural lore, lovable and dislikable characters—kids will root for young Thomas Ward and his battle against the evil witch, Mother Malkin—it will be hard for them to find a more harrowing tale. If kids love tales about the supernatural, they are going to absolutely adore these books. If kids are prone to nightmares, find them something else to read.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What types of superstitions about ghosts and witches and things that go bump in the night are found in the book?
  • Do we have any superstitions about ghosts and witches and things that go bump in the night today? What are they?
  • Talk about the words the author uses in the book, especially those involving figurative language, such as similes, metaphors, and alliteration. Why makes them so effective? (If you don’t know what figurative language is, look it up.)
  • Why is the rural and gloomy setting of the book appropriate for the story?
  • One of the subplots is that Thomas must figure out if Alice is a witch and if she deserves to be confined forever. Are all witches bad?

Overall evaluation of this book: A book which is head-over-heels better than most other books found in the horror and supernatural section of your middle school library. A great book which will resonate both with reluctant readers and students who love to read. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Gaiman, Neil. (2008). The Graveyard Book. New York: HarperCollins.

Summary: Bod is a young man who has been living in a graveyard ever since he wandered into it as an 18-month-old infant. His family is dead, killed by a murderous man named Jack, who continues to hunt for Bod. In the graveyard, Bod has made many friends—most of whom happen to be long-dead spirits, ghosts, witches and an assortment of other departed souls. Assisted by a mysterious half-dead and half-alive guardian named Silas—think vampire here—Bod lives in perfect contentment until he reaches the treacherous and adventurous time of the teenager. Now Bod ventures out beyond the boundaries of the graveyard he has known his entire life and encounters problems he never knew existed—many of which emanate from his contact with savage ghouls. And, of course, the killer Jack continues searching for the one who got away—Bod. But never fear, for Bod has the graveyard on his side. The characters of the graveyard are helpful to Bod and give him all sorts of useful advice and assist him when they can. As Gaiman writes, tongue in cheek, “It takes a graveyard to raise a child.”

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Gaiman has a loyal following of fans, many of which are long-time devotees of his materials intended for the adult comic and book marketplace. The plot line and the way Gaiman writes can be a tougher slog than the average book for middle school kids, so you might want to think twice about recommending this to kids if they have difficulty in their reading skills. Even advanced readers may have difficulty understanding what is going on in this story. Though most of the action takes place in the graveyard, the book isn’t particularly scary until Bod encounters the ghouls. And then it is really scary. There isn’t a lot of gore, but if kids have nightmares, you will not want to give them this book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The plot line is original and the characters are sometimes funny and charming. This is a more sophisticated fantasy/horror book than what most kids read. It may be useful for them to read a book like this which is well done without all the gore so prevalent in most mediocre middle school horror stories.

Discussion points with kids:

  • The author says, “It takes a graveyard to raise a child.” What does he mean? What is this a play on?
  • What is your favorite character Bod encounters in the graveyard? What makes this character memorable?
  • Silas is different from all the other characters Bod meets in the graveyard. What is Silas and why do you think that?
  • Did the author make you believe Jack was a credible murderer? Why or why not?
  • Some people believe this story has elements of the gothic in it. Find three examples of gothic in the novel. (If you don’t know what gothic means, make sure you look it up.)

Overall evaluation of this book: A book perhaps more highly thought of by literary adults than middle school kids. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Gaiman, Neil. (2002). Coraline. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Summary: Coraline—not Caroline as many adults call her—is a young girl who lives in a large house with her parents, two aging actresses, and an odd man who claims to be training mice for a circus. As Coraline explores the house and grounds, she discovers a secret door which leads to a warped mirror image of her own house—including her “other” parents who look the same except for their big, shiny eyes and paper-white skin. Oh, and did I mention they were creepy? As events unfold, Coraline’s “other” mother steals Coraline’s real parents and Coraline is forced to search for her real parents behind the secret door. Using only her guile and courage, and the seeming help of an odd sarcastic cat, Coraline races to find her parents and also solve the mystery of what happened to the children whose ghosts inhabit the house of the “other” parents.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a short book written by a master storyteller. It is also one of the scariest books middle school kids will ever read. Even adults who have read this book have been unexpectedly surprised and thrilled and frightened by what they have read in the pages. This is not a book filled with splattered gore or mayhem and murder which is often found in books written to attract middle school kids in the horror category, but a novel filled with precise language and unforgettable characters. Kids who are easily frightened and have nightmares should not read this book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a book which is slowly turning into a classic in the canon of children and young adult literature. It has been compared many times with Alice in Wonderland and The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, albeit with a darker twist. The horror in this book comes from the use of language and vocabulary to create macabre images of a surreal setting and characters fitting of Gaiman’s imagination.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Explain how the “other” parents are different from Coraline’s real parents. How are they similar? How are they different?
  • What is the purpose of the cat in the story? How does the cat help the story line?
  • Find three scary sentences in the book. What words or phrases in the sentences give you a scary feeling?
  • What other stories does Coraline remind you of? Why?
  • Retell this story to someone. Tell it as a storyteller would.

Overall evaluation of this book: This is slowly turning into a young adult classic. Kids who like horror stories will love this one. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Garcia, Kami and Margaret Strohl. (2009). Beautiful Creatures. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Summary: Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes are two kids from the small Southern town of Gatlin who find themselves irresistibly attracted to one another. Ethan is the local boy and Lena is the new girl in town who has the boys drooling over her good looks. Sounds like a good old fashioned love story? Yes? But there are several problems—Lena is a bit strange and comes from a reclusive family who rarely ventures out and mingles with the good citizens of Gatlin. Oh, and did I forget to mention she hails from a family of magicians and is about to find out, on her sixteenth birthday, whether or not she is destined toward the dark or toward the light forces? And that her sister is a psycho member of the dark forces and her mother wants her to join forces with the dark? These are problems well beyond the normal dilemmas fifteen-year-olds find themselves in and as can be imagined, the complications magnify themselves quickly. The story includes real ghosts, objects that appear and disappear at the snap of a finger, a fractured family, a bizarre librarian who must remain neutral in the battle between the forces of dark and light, and an attraction between two kids which plunges them deeply into a conflagration that stretches a hundred years into the past.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This story involves lots of magic and the magic sometimes can be very adult-like and seem very real. There is no sex but there are lots of references to kissing and feelings of attraction between the two main characters. In this sense, it is somewhat like what is found in the Twilight series, which is probably a good book for comparison. There are several scenes involving circles of magicians chanting so if you are categorically opposed to your child reading this type of book, you should look for another selection. There is crude language—not of a sexual nature—which appears from time to time in the book. There are some very scary scenes so be warned if kids are easily affected by what they read and have consequential nightmares. This book is better suited for older middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The story line in this narrative is very well done and if kids like “edgy” fantasy and horror books with a simmering love affair, they will most likely enjoy this book. Even with a love story intertwined with the plot, boys and girls alike will enjoy this book as it has something for everyone. The horror and the magic seem to be very real, as is the ghostly apparition which appears one night while the main characters are digging in the graveyard. The fantasy and horror components are integrated into the modern school and community setting, which make for a believable and compelling story line.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Compare the relationship between Lena and Ethan with other boy and girl relationships you have read about. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Think about what usually happens when someone new moves into your neighborhood or city or school. Are they treated differently than other people? How?
  • This story is about a long battle between the forces of dark and light. Find three images from the story for dark and three images from the story for light. (If you don’t know what imagery is, look it up.)
  • How does the author connect the past with the present?
  • Look up the word “gothic” and explain how this story does or does not have elements of the gothic in it.
  • Write your own gothic story involving someone or something from your own neighborhood. Combine something commonly found in your neighborhood with something unusual and not commonly found in your neighborhood when you write your story.
  • The name of this book is Beautiful Creatures. What are the “beautiful creatures” and speculate as to why the authors decided on this title?

Overall evaluation of this book: If kids like fantasy and horror intertwined within a love story, it will be hard to find a better book for them. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Hahn, Mary Downing. (1986). Wait ‘Till Helen Comes. New York: Clarion Books.

Summary: Molly and Michael are brothers and sisters. Their mother has just re-married. Suddenly Molly and Michael have a new step-father and a new younger step-sister, Heather. The new family members don’t get along, especially Molly, Michael, and Heather. To make matters worse, the new family has moved into an old house, complete with a creepy graveyard. The graveyard, it turns out, has something besides grass and trees which lurk amongst the gravestones. A ghost inhabits the graveyard and it is not a nice ghost. Heather is gradually lured into the clutches of the ghost who claims to be her friend. Eventually, the ghost does Heather’s bidding and trashes the house, but only damages items which belong to Molly and Michael and their mother. Then things escalate quickly. The climax of the book is both thrilling and tense. Kids won’t be able to stop reading after you reach page 122.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a classic horror story and it is a good one which means that if kids have nightmares or if they are bothered by really scary ghost stories, you may want to consider an alternate selection. The story eventually ends well and there is a good moral to the story but the journey to get there is fraught with peril and a malicious ghost.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This story will cause a shiver to race down the spine of kids but there is a nice moral to the story at the end of the book, which brings resolution to the feuding children and also for the restless spirit of the young ghost. Both the kids and the spirit of the deceased girl eventually realize they are not responsible for horrible incidents which resulted in the deaths of family members. So there is a silver lining. The book is a quick read and kids will devour it in a matter of two to four hours.

Discussion points with kids:

  • When tragedy strikes a family, are the children responsible?
  • What can be done to help a young kid realize they are not responsible for tragic events?
  • How does the setting help the author create a compelling ghost story?
  • Imagine if the dead really did wander the earth as spirits, eternally searching for resolution to problems which plagued them in life. What would life be like for the living?
  • What special problems do blended families have? How can they get past these problems and find solutions which work for all?

Overall evaluation of this book: A great ghost story, without blood and gore, set in an eerie atmosphere suitable for the wandering of restless spirits. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lubar, David. (2003). In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and other Warped and Creepy Tales. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

Summary: This is a book filled with short stories, most of which are told within five to ten pages. Subsequent to the publication of this book, Lubar has written several more—all compilations of quixotic short stories.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The stories are strange and bizarre and contain many of the traditional elements of horror and fantasy and fairy tales—evil creatures, innocent children, and helpful fantastical beings. Some of the stories are written in a light-hearted humorous vein but others contain plots and characters which are dark and malevolent.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids don’t like to read books with improbable characters and events, they may not like this book. On the other hand, if kids have a wacky sense of humor and enjoy reading fantasy and science fiction and Ray Bradbury Stephen King type stories, they are going to love this book. If kids have nightmares you might want to think about not giving them this book to read.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does the author keep the plot moving so quickly in these stories? Does the author have to sacrifice character development to make these stories so short?
  • How are the short stories like cartoons? How are they different?
  • What normal, everyday events can you change and write about? What creative twist can you create? Now write the story.

Overall evaluation of this book: Books filled with short stories are tough sells with middle school kids—well, really all audiences—but this one hits the mark. All of Lubar’s short story books are similar in theme to what is found here. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Maberry, Jonathan. (2010). Rot and Ruin. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Summary: Benny Imura is a fifteen-year-old orphan whose parents were killed by zombies when the dead came to life. His last memory of his parents is that of his zombie father dragging his human mother away after his mom has handed him to his older brother, Tom, telling them to run away. Tom does run away and Benny resents Tom ever since, for abandoning his mother. Years later, Benny must select a job or be forced to half-rations in the barricaded and fenced-in community he lives. He decides to become a zombie hunter like Tom, who is adored and revered by everyone in the community. What is beyond the fences of the town? Are there worse things than zombies out there? And who is Nix? Could romance be in the wind?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a frightening book to read so middle school kids who have nightmares should not be reading this novel, which is the first in a series. (You know the adage, if the first book sells, write a series…) There is violence and blood in this book—it is about zombies, after all—so expect there to be slicing and dicing. Zombies are all the rage right now and kids’ lust for zombie literature shows no sign of cooling off. However, this novel is a bad choice for kids who don’t’ like reading about zombies, vampires, werewolves, and the like.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids who like horror and the supernatural will thrive on this book because it contains both an interesting world and a good story about the relationship between two brothers. It is also a coming-of-age story. Because the setting is the land of Rot and Ruin, the coming-of-age storyline is especially attractive to horror and supernatural fanatics.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Where in the United States does this story take place?
  • Why are kids and adults attracted to zombie books? What is different about them than other books?
  • Imagine if your brother or sister or good friend, left your mother or father to die. Under what conditions, if any, is this acceptable?
  • Pretend you are a zombie. Write a 3-5 page story from the point of view of a zombie in the land of Rot and Ruin.

Overall evaluation of this book: For a zombie book, this is pretty good. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Meyer, Stephanie. (2005). Twilight. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Summary: Bella is a seventeen-year-old girl who has just moved in with her father, who lives in the Olympic Peninsula. In her new school, Bella is fascinated by a group of five individuals who sit together in the cafeteria, but who never seem to eat anything. She especially becomes enthralled with Edward, one of the five who belong to a family headed up by an individual by Carlisle. Edward reciprocates the interest toward Bella and soon the two find themselves falling in love. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, except that in this case, Edward is a—well, vampire. In addition, the other members of the Carlisle household are also vampires and soon they find themselves protecting Bella against a rogue band of vampires who are intent on killing Bella. But wait! There’s more! There are also werewolves in the area and one of them has taken a liking toward Bella. Where will all this lead? Read the book to find out.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This story line has found a ready audience in both kids and adults. Meyer is one of the few authors who seems to be as well-liked by adults as she is by her adolescent throng. If you don’t want middle school kids reading about werewolves and vampires, this is a bad selection to recommend to them. The book is also heavy with romance—there aren’t any explicit scenes you wouldn’t want your kids to read about—but Bella is one love-starved girl who frames nearly everything through her search for true love. It is fair to say this book is part-romance and part-horror.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The storyline is robust and girls especially have found Stephanie Meyer to be a popular author. Women have told me that Meyer “gets it” as far as describing the feelings which accompany a young girl’s heart as she finds what she believes to the “the one.” If your girls love romances, then they will probably do well with this book. If the kids are middle school boys, there is enough action to carry them through the romance—especially if they haven’t decided whether or not they like girls.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Bella has to make a choice between a werewolf or a vampire for a boyfriend. How does she know which one is the “right one?” Find three specific examples from the book to support your claim.
  • The setting for the book is the rainy and forested Olympic Peninsula. How does the setting help drive the plot of the novel?
  • What are the pros and cons of being a vampire? What are the pros and cons of being a werewolf? Taking everything not consideration, would you really want to be a vampire or a werewolf?
  • How does the author use imagery to advance the simmering love story between Bella and Edward? Find three examples.
  • This storyline includes vampires and werewolves. If the storyline did not include vampires and werewolves, what could the storyline be about? Are there any groups or families in your neighborhood who don’t get along with one another, like the vampires and werewolves?

Overall evaluation of this book: A reasonably good story based on the silly notion that a vampire over a hundred years old will fall in love with a seventeen-year-old klutz. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Riggs, Ransom. (2011). Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Philadelphia, PA: Quick Books.

Summary: Jacob is a sixteen-year-old child born into a wealthy family. He adores his grandfather who tells him wild tales of his youth and upbringing in an orphanage on a mysterious island off the coast of Wales. His grandfather shows him a few pictures of kids from the island and they seem incredible to Jacob. One night his grandfather is killed by a strange creature. Jacob catches a glimpse of the creature but doesn’t yet realize what he has seen. Events eventually bring him to the same island his grandfather lived as a young boy and Jacob immediately begins to search for the orphanage and Miss Peregrine, the one in charge of the building. After a brief search, he finds the orphanage in ruins but the children who once lived there and Miss Peregrine are all dead and long gone. Or are they?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The storyline isn’t particularly novel—it’s a basic science fiction time travel and fantasy story. What catches the attention of most kids who read this book are the pictures of strange-looking individuals with seemingly odd powers or bizarre features. Some of the pictures are gross, others beguiling, while others are fascinating. If this book did not have the pictures, it would not have made the New York Times Bestseller list.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The pictures are the reason kids will read this book. The pictures make the storyline more interesting and provide a visual reference as to references the author is making. Other than that, it’s not a unique book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How do the pictures aid the story line? Give three reasons and use examples from the book.
  • How would this story have been different if the pictures had not been included? Speculate as to how popular the book would have been without the pictures.
  • How does the setting of the story help the plot of the book? Give examples from the book to support your case.
  • What is the role of Dr. Golan in this story? Is he a believable character?
  • Why did the author choose a cairn as the method of traveling to and from the past?

Overall evaluation of this book: An unusual book which is intriguing mostly because of the pictures. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Ryan, Carrie. (2009). The Forest of Hands and Teeth. London: Gollancz.

Summary: Mary has a problem. She lives in a village which is surrounded by the unconsecrated—think zombies here—and nobody knows where they came from or how to get rid of them. To make matters worse, her mother is killed by the unconsecrated and the large fence which protects the villagers from the dead also keep her trapped outside. Mary joins the Sisterhood, a mysterious order of women who are keepers of the secrets as to how the unconsecrated came to be many years ago. Eventually the defenses of the village fail and the unconsecrated pour through holes in the fence. Mary escapes the slaughter and follows a path in the forest protected by another fence and still more wire. Her adventures continue as she moves through the forest, always aware of the unconsecrated surrounding her, ready to rip her flesh apart. What will she find at the end of the trail?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is one nasty, scary story. It is heavily plot driven and kids may find the main character a bit weak and weepy, but the setting and writing is well done. There is gore in the book because—after all—it is about what happens during the zombie apocalypse. Don’t let kids read this book if they have nightmares. There is an underlying love story in the book, but the details are mostly on the psychological level, not the physical.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids dig horror books and stories on managing the zombie population, they are going to like this book. This one is better written than most and has some unique features that other zombie and horror books don’t have. A better fit for the older middle school child.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is different about this zombie book than other books you have read and movies you have watched about zombies? How is it the same?
  • What is the purpose of the Sisterhood and why do the villagers put up with them?
  • Pretend you are a writer and given the job of writing a story about zombies. How can you make your story fresh and exciting, rather than merely repeating what other authors have already done?
  • Does the ending of this book make you want to read the second book? Why or why not? How would you conclude the book?

Overall evaluation of this book: While some may roll their eyes upon learning about another book chronicling the growth of the zombie empire, Carrie Ryan has created a believable world and done it better than most authors. Four Stars because it may be too frightening for some middle schoolers. ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Shan, Darren. (2000). Cirque Du Freak: A Living Nightmare. New York: Hachette Book Group.

Summary: Darren Shan’s life takes a terrifying turn when he attends a local freak show with his best friend, Steve. At the show, they meet fantastic characters, including an exceptionally tall man, a vampire, a werewolf, a spider, and the snake boy. Darren becomes fascinated by the spider and conspires to steal the spider from the vampire, so he can have the spider perform tricks in his bedroom. Unfortunately, the vampire learns of the theft and things, as they say, go badly for Darren after that. Will Darren be able to escape from the clutches of the vampire? Does Steve really want to become a vampire? Are the freaks real? Don’t watch the movie. Read the book to find out.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book has been extremely popular with younger middle school readers for a long time. It has also found a niche with kids who normally don’t like reading. This is the first book in a lengthy series of books because if middle school authors have discovered anything, it’s that if kids love the first book, they are likely to continue reading book after book in a series if the author can write them fast enough. There are a few violent scenes and some scary incidents, so kids who have nightmares should not be reading this book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The plot line moves along very quickly and Shan doesn’t waste much time with elaborate descriptions of the setting or characters. Consequently, this is mainly a plot driven story, the type that younger middle schoolers and kids who don’t normally like reading, tend to gobble up. Kids who loved reading the Goosebumps series during their elementary school days will thrive on this series.

Discussion points with kids: 

  • Tell the story line (or plot) of this book to another individual. Try to remember as many important details as you can.
  • What other stories have you read that also have spiders in them? How are they used in this book compared to the other books you have read?
  • Steve wants to become a vampire. Find three examples in the book of why he wants this to happen.
  • Construct a new brochure for the opening act of the Freak Show. What words would you place on the brochure and what pictures would be on it?
  • Evaluate Mr. Crepsley. Is he a “bad” vampire or a “good” vampire? Find evidence from the book to back up your claim.

Overall evaluation of this book: A fast-paced action horror book which has captured the hearts of many kids over the years. More suitable for younger middle school kids or for kids who think reading is “boring”.  Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Speare, Elizabeth George. (1958). The Witch of Blackbird Pond. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Summary: Kit Tyler lives on a large home on the island of Barbados. Her grandfather dies and Kit is forced to sell the house and sail for Connecticut in 1687 to meet a part of her family she has never met before. When she arrives in Connecticut, Kit is shocked at the intolerance and rigidity of the Puritans. Likewise, the Puritans are stunned at Kit’s manner of dress, speech, and behavior. Needless to say, Kit doesn’t fit in. Fortunately, Kit finds contentment in a large meadow and a friend in an elderly woman whom the Puritans have dubbed the Witch of Blackbird Pond. Is the elderly woman really a witch? Can Kit escape the witch-crazy Puritains? Or will she find herself swinging at the end of a long rope on the gallows?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book isn’t nearly as popular as it once was but the story line and message are just as relevant, if not more relevant, today. While there have been recent additions to the historical fiction canon of Colonial life in the early Americas, The Witch of Blackbird Pond continues to be one of the finest written, even though its original publication date is over 55 years ago. The issue of politics and religion and intolerance continue to plague the world today. Middle school kids may need to talk about this book after they are done.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The story line of politics, religion, and intolerance, is part of this nation’s history. It is important for middle school kids to understand where society has been and where we are going. Unfortunately, current events around the world have made the main theme of this book as relevant as ever. This is ripe for a conversation about religious intolerance around the world, both in the history books and what is occurring around the globe today.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why do the Puritans think Hannah is a witch? Give examples from the book.
  • As described in the book, explain the tension that existed between the loyalists to the King of England and the supporters of the Connecticut Charter. How did this tension set the stage for the American Revolutionary War which was to occur 90 years later? You may have to do some research to answer this question.
  • Where in the world today are people being intolerant of other people and claiming religious beliefs as justified reasons for their intolerance? Is this any different than what happened in The Witch of Blackbird Pond? Why or why not?
  • Recall the story line of this book and tell it to one of your friends or members of the family.

Overall evaluation of this book: This remains one of the better historical novels middle school kids can read. Unfortunately, most people have never heard of it.  Five Stars ★★★★★

Print Friendly, PDF & Email