Books for Kids
Science Fiction
Book Reviewed: Bradbury, Ray. (1953). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Random House.

Summary: Guy Montag is a fireman. He loves his job and the social status that comes with it. However, in his world, instead of putting out fires, firemen make fires by burning books which have been hoarded illegally by citizens. Eventually, Guy starts to question the wisdom of his lifestyle and burning books after talking with his next to neighbor, Clarisse, who loves books and disdains the technology and television and mindlessness which many citizens are lulled to sleep with. Clarisse is remarkably different from his wife, who spends all day watching television. One day Clarisse disappears. Guy responds by collecting and hiding books. Eventually he is called to start a fire—at his own house. Once there, he learns he has been betrayed by his wife. He flees and ends up living with a group of deviant radicals who memorize books so that what is written in books will never be destroyed.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This has been a classic science fiction novel for many years and deservedly so. The odds are decent some kids may end up reading this book in high school but why should your child wait so long?

Why middle school kids should read this book: There is much which is up for discussion after reading this book. What is particularly frightening about Fahrenheit 451 is that we hear many of today’s middle school kids say, “I watched the movie. I don’t need to read the book.” This is exactly the type of mindless approach to thinking and learning that Bradbury abhorred and warned us about in Fahrenheit 451.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is the role of government in the private lives of citizens? Should the government have the right to tell individuals what they can and can’t have in their homes?
  • What is the danger of constantly reading and listening to “small talk” and paying attention to details which are of no consequence? For example—who the “stars” are dating, what their home looks like, and who is the best popular singer and band.
  • Compare the benefits of watching a movie versus reading a book.
  • How close are we today of becoming the society Ray Bradbury warned us about in 1953? List three examples to support your claim.
  • If you had a choice, which group would you join—the book-burning fireman or the outlaws living on the fringe of society memorizing books? Why?

Overall evaluation of this book: A superstar book for middle school kids which teaches them about the perils of censorship and conformity. Who cares if it was written in 1953? Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Bradbury, Ray. (1996). The October Country. New York: Ballantine Books.

Summary: This is a famous collection of short stories that Ray Bradbury wrote between the years 1943 and 1955. It includes a fantastical and phantasmagorical collection of characters and creatures and situations including a dwarf who enters a mirror maze to see himself as he wishes himself to be, the odd burial procedures in an ancient cemetery, a poker chip which doubles as a monocle, a man whose shadow happens to be a skeleton, mysterious unidentified objects which float in jars for the townsfolk’s speculations, things which shouldn’t be raised from the dead, what two old men think and talk about under the sweltering sun, a scalpel wielding baby, crowds of people who strangely appear whenever there is an accident and death, a scythe which cuts down more than wheat, an uncle who takes to the skies as a kite, a wind which literally is a killer, the bizarre death of the upstairs tenant, and a homecoming like one you’ve never witnessed before.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This story has been around for a long time and kids may resist reading the book simply because of its age, which is a common reason for a middle school child to turn down a book. (Sometimes kids think a book which hasn’t been written in the last two years to be not worth reading at all.) But this is one of the older books they may want to take a gander at. There is no swearing or overt gore, but some of the stories are really weird and creepy.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Ray Bradbury is a master of simile and metaphor and he writes with poetic flair. His writing is very unique and distinct. If kids love to write and enjoy playing with language, they should give Bradbury a try. He is one of the authors which fall under the category of “oldies but goodies.”

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does Bradbury use similes and metaphors effectively in his stories? Find an example from each short story.
  • Try to think of a modern-day author who uses similes and metaphors. How are the modern-day author’s writings similar and how are they different than Bradbury’s?
  • Ray Bradbury wrote these short stories over 60 years ago. Do the themes and topics still apply today? Can you relate to the stories Bradbury writes about? Or have his stories passed their time?
  • Write a short story similar to those in this book. Write it so that it could be inserted into this collection of short stories.

Overall evaluation of this book: Most collections of short stories read by middle school kids today aren’t written nearly as well as Ray Bradbury’s. Pull this book from the trash heap of history and let kids be enchanted with the possibilities of “what if….” Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Card, Orson Scott. (1991). Ender’s Game. New York: Tor Book.

Summary: Earth has been invaded by hostile aliens several times and they have nearly succeeded in liquidating the human race. The leaders of Earth are desperate to find a general who can lead humanity to victory over the alien invaders. To that end, they have begun a secret program to create a genetically superior warrior-general. Andrew “Ender” Wiggins is one of the results of the program and he is taught and tested through “games” to show his superior leadership and battle skills. Ender, however, worries about the aliens from space and when their next attack will occur. Ender also worries about his sister Valentine, whom he is very fond of. In addition, he is worried he will turn out to be a cruel and mean as his sadistic brother Peter. Will Ender be the savior for all humanity? Or will he fail as so many before him have?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a famous science fiction book for middle school kids, written by a titan in the writing community, Orson Scott Card. At first glance, this story appears to be just another “war” book. However, closer examination reveals a troubled young warrior who is lonely and unsure whether or not he will be able to be the savior of the planet some people wish him to be.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a science fiction book which also has emotional depth to it. Enders’ brother and sister figure prominently in the book, as does his relationship with each one of them. The practice battle games are very well done and are enjoyable, even though they are told from Ender’s point of view. This book is also about the importance of teamwork—so don’t expect Ender to save the world by himself.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Explain the sibling relationship which exists between Ender, his brother, Peter, and his sister, Valentine. What commonalities do they share? What differences do they share?
  • Think like an alien. Why would you want to kill the people living on earth? Now think like a human. What are the chances an alien race will be friendly or hostile?
  • Is it realistic and believable that a single individual can save the world? Why or why not?
  • Earth is looking for a hero to lead them into battle against the alien race. Think of other situations where a group of people waits, or has waited, for someone to lead them to greatness. What is the danger in waiting for a hero to appear and lead everyone to greatness? What are the benefits?
  • What are the pros and cons of genetically engineering babies which will grow up with certain traits and skills?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is one of the better science fiction books available to middle school kids. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Cass, Kiera. (2012). The Selection. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Summary: Welcome to the land of Illea, where a rigid caste system prevents many individuals from improving their station in life. America, a lowly level five, is prodded into applying for the Selection by her mother, who hopes to end the family’s financial difficulties if America can win the contest and marry the Prince Maxon. (This is how social mobility occurs in Illea). As fate dictates, America wins the chance to represent her territory and enters the process as one of the 35 contestants. What follows is jealousy and intrigue as the reluctant America—who claims to not be beautiful nor want to marry the Prince because she already loves another—gradually works her way to the top of the list as her opponents are dropped from the Selection process. Will the reluctant Illea win the Prince’s heart or will she reject the trappings of the royal life and marry her lower caste love? Or will the rebels consistent attacks on the capital eventually cause the collapse of the royal family?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book has often been compared to as a hybrid of The Hunger Games meets the television show, The Bachelor. Many readers have a love-hate relationship with the book. The book is hated because it appears to have a somewhat superficial story line, what with the trappings of the Cinderella analogy, the make-up and dressing gowns of The Hunger Games, and the possibility of marrying the Prince who has everything going for him. The book is loved because it is well written and can be enjoyed as a pure story which integrates the fairy tale aspect with common archetypes of how dystopian societies function.

Why middle school kids should read this book: It’s a recognizable story line which involves the time-honored rags-to-riches rise of an individual who somehow manages to rise above their designated station in life. Because this storyline heavily involves fashion and girls swooning to be chosen as the lucky one to marry the Prince, and a reluctant girl who constantly downplays her physical and intellectual attributes, middle school girls will be more likely to pick this book to read than boys. Think of this book as being very Disney-like and you won’t be too far off the mark.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What are common story lines in this book that you have found in other books you have read?
  • Do you find the format for selecting the next female to marry the Prince as believable? Why or why not is it believable?
  • What is the purpose of the rebels in the story? Why did the author include them in the story line?
  • Explain why the Prince is attracted to America.
  • Explain why America doesn’t believe she will win the competition.
  • Where does something like The Selection occur in America today?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a somewhat shallow book which middle school kids, especially girls, will still enjoy. Think of it as People magazine for middle school kids. Even though this book has been compared with Hunger Games, the overall quality of the two books is not in the same league. As an intellectual accomplishment, Hunger Games is infinitely better. Still, lots of middle school kids like this book. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Colfer, Eoin. (2001). Artemis Fowl. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.

Summary: Artemis Fowl is a young Irish lad who also happens to be one of the greatest criminal masterminds of all time. His father has disappeared and the family fortune is slowly disappearing. So how does Artemis seek to reverse the family fortunes? By stealing, of course. In a stroke of luck, Artemis gets hold of a copy of “The Book” which tells him everything he needs to know about the creatures of the Lower Elements. He concocts a scheme to kidnap one of them with the purpose of ransom them back for a big pile of gold. Unfortunately, he kidnaps Holly Short, a fairy who also happens to be one of the most important LEP reconnaissance fairy officers belonging to the police force. Thus begins a mad chase and pursuit. Who will win in the end? Will Artemis be successful in outwitting the technologically advanced fairies of the Lower Elements? Or will the creatures of the Lower Elements successfully blow up Artemis and his Butler with a bio-bomb?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The story is very funny and has the humor level of a middle school child—which is why middle school kids tend to really like this book. The fart jokes are numerous but the author manages to pull it off without offending the reader. (If kids are easily offended they should not read this book.) Boys may like this book better than girls.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is one of the few fantasy books in which the evil character wins the day. But don’t despair—it’s hard not to like young Artemis Fowl and his capable Butler. This isn’t a classic story of good vs. evil, but more an adventure story set in a fantasy and science fiction world filled with technology-using centaurs and fairies. The chances are good kids will end up rooting for Artemis Fowl.

Discussion points with kids:

  • This is one of the few fantasy books written in which technology plays a primary role in the story line. Did you like the addition of technology into a fantasy story? Why or why not?
  • How would this story have been different if Artemis had been a solid, good, upstanding citizen?
  • Is the world of the Lower Elements and the Lower Elements Police believable? Why or why not? Give three examples.
  • Holly is not your typical kidnapped victim. What makes her an interesting kidnapped victim? Give three examples from the book.

Overall evaluation of this book: One of the better high-interest fantasy and science fiction stories in the twenty-first century. Just don’t expect Shakespeare. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Colfer, Eoin. (2012). The Last Guardian. New York: Hyperion Books.

Summary: Once again the world is threatened by the evil pixie Koboi and once again only Artemis Fowl and his friends can avert the impending disaster. With the aid of the flatulence spewing dwarf, Mitch Diggums, the I-can-take-anything bodyguard named Butler, the fairy cop Holly Short, and a unicorn who can fix just about any kind of technical and electronic problem, the story careens ahead full speed. The problems they must overcome are farcical at times, the methods used ridiculous, and the results astounding, but somehow Eoin Colfer manages to keep it all together as the friends race to save the world as we don’t know it.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is pretty standard fantasy and science fiction stuff for middle school kids except that Eoin Colfer does it better than most other authors out there. The humor and off-beat conversations and adventures are a big hit with middle school kids, especially those on the lower grade levels of the spectrum.

Why middle school kids should read this book: It’s funny and written with wit and aplomb. If kids have enjoyed other books by Eoin Colfer—this is the eighth in the series—they will certainly like this one.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does the author use humor to make the book more enjoyable? What are some of the funny scenes that you liked?
  • This is the eighth book Eoin Colfer has written about Artemis Fowl. Was this book as good as the first book? Why or why not?
  • What problems does the author have because he has written lots of books about the same topic? What does he have to do to keep the story interesting?
  • What parts of the story line could happen in real life. Why or why not?
  • If you were Eoin Colfer, how would you write the ending of the book?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a fantasy and science fiction book filled with humor which will be to most kids’ liking. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Collins, Suzanne. (2008). The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Katniss is a sixteen year-old girl from the mining district, one of twelve districts surrounding the capital of Panem. Each of the twelve districts support the capital city. Once a year two representatives from each district must compete in the “Hunger Games,” a winner-take-all contest to the death. Katniss is this year’s representative to the “Hunger Games” from her district, having saved the life of her sister by voluntary switching places with her. But in doing so, she leaves behind the one boy, Gale, with which she feels an affiliation. Katniss immediately goes into training for the games, led by Haymitch, a drunken past-winner of the “Hunger Games.” After some pomp and circumstances, Katniss is finally ready for the games. She follows Haymitch’s advice and ignores the pile of weapons and supplies near the start line and heads for the woods. What follows next is an intriguing game of cat and mouse, with deadly consequences for the mice when they are caught. In the end, Katniss survives the games, but only with the help of her district partner, Peeta, a baker’s son.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are some violent scenes in the book and undercurrents of a simmering love affair, though the love story is fairly tame. The protagonist is a girl, but that doesn’t seem to matter as both boys and girls really like this book. The story line has been told many times before in other novels, but Suzanne Collins adds some new twists and writes better than many other authors who have come before her.

Why middle school kids should read this book: It is a compelling story with high fashion, corrupted power, a twisted society, and a coming-of-age story somehow fitting together. It certainly helps that the main character, Katniss, is likeable. I know of very few middle school kids who have not enjoyed this book. Consequently, the odds are high kids who have not read this story, will really enjoy the book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Imagine you lived in the capital city and were an important government official. Are there other ways to get the cooperation of the twelve districts without manipulating the districts and running something like the “Hunger Games?”
  • What if the main character had been a boy? How would the story have changed? How would it have remained the same?
  • How does the author incorporate a game show format into the book? Does it work?
  • What if our government was arranged like that found in The Hunger Games—a strong, dictatorial central government controlling poorer outlying territories? What would life be like? How would your perspective be different if you lived in the outer territory? What if you lived in the central capitol?
  • Could something like The Hunger Games happen now? Why or why not?

Overall evaluation of this book: A solid page-turner. Exciting and intoxicating. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Condle, Ally. (2011). Matched. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Cassia lives in a city where government officials make decisions as to which boy and girl should be matched, or put together for marriage. Cassia is matched with Xander, one of the most desirable boys in the city. Cassie is thrilled with the match and couldn’t be happier until a computer portscreen indicates she is really matched with a renegade boy named Ky. An official tries to reassure Cassie that someone has tampered with the electronic files and that Xander is her perfect match. Events occur which make Cassie suspect that Ky is her true match and she finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. She learns they have much in common and she begins to doubt the wisdom of the government officials. She also begins to wonder why the officials don’t want any people retaining ancient artifacts from the past, including books and poems, except in a museum. All other artifacts are destroyed. As the story progresses, Cassie discovers that the motivations and true desire of her parents are not what they have seemed to be. She is surprised to discover her parents have also been hiding secrets. Cassie turns against the government, especially after she discovers they are systematically killing older people, including her grandfather. Eventually her mutinous family is sent to a life of hard work in the farm fields surrounding the city, where Cassie begins to think about how she can lead a life free of interference from governmental officials.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The book has a love story simmering throughout the entire novel, which of course, is why so many girls will like this book. There are no overt references to sex or foul language. If you want kids to be reading literature which reinforces a libertine streak, this is one to stock in their library. The general theme is one of individual resistance to the tyranny of governmental officials trying to create a perfect society—at least perfect as they view it. The book also regularly quotes poetry from Dylan Thomas, which adds to the appeal of the book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This novel strikes at the heart of something which eventually affects almost every living adolescent and young adult on the planet—true love. As adults we know the search for true love is neither a logical or rational decision. In fact, many times it is completely irrational, even when we know we should be doing a little bit more thinking when the emotions tug at the heart. In reality, many times true love has consequences, some of which are positive and some of which are negative. This age-old conundrum will enthrall readers, especially those who have a sense of high romance.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How would you feel if someone else decided who you were going to be matched with and have to marry?
  • Do other societies and cultures exist in which someone decides which girl and boy get matched together? What are the benefits? The negatives?
  • How will you know when you have found your “true love?”
  • What are the ethical dilemmas of caring for the elderly? Should the elderly be kept alive at any cost? Who decides when it is no longer feasible to keep someone alive? Is there ever a point at which it is no longer feasible to keep someone alive? What is the role of the government in these situations?
  • How does the poetry of Dylan Thomas fit with the story? What specific lines of his poetry used in the book did you find particularly effective?

Overall evaluation of this book: Matched is well-written and will appeal to a wide variety of kids. A cut above the rest. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Dashner, James. (2010). The Maze Runner. New York: Delacorte Press.

Summary: Thomas doesn’t know where he is or how he got there or even who he is. All he knows is that he has just arrived in a place known as the Glade, an open field surrounded by massive walls which close at night and then reopen in the morning. Within the Glade live other kids about his own age. None of the kids know why they are in the Glade. All they know is that supplies arrive on a regular basis from a mysterious elevator, which also delivers new residents to the Glade. Every day the group sends runners into the maze, trying to determine if there is a way out of the convoluted walls covered with vines. Every day the runners return with the same bad news—they can’t find a way out. To make matters worse, the maze is inhabited by terrible monsters known as Grievers. To encounter a Griever in the maze is certain death for the runners. In a stunning new development, the elevator delivers a girl to the Glade, something which has never happened before. Thomas feels as though he knows the girl but doesn’t know why he feels this way. Later, Thomas discovers both he and the girl are telepathic and indeed have met before. Thomas eventually earns the trust of the group and becomes a runner. During one of his runs into the maze, he discovers how the Grievers enter and leave the maze. This revelation is muted when deliveries of the supplies come to an end and the maze walls don’t close at night, leaving the entire group susceptible to attacks from the Grievers. In a bold move, Thomas the other kids decide to take matters into their own hands and attack the Grievers, hoping to meet the creators of the maze. The final confrontation is unexpected and a special twist at the end of the book leaves the readers wanting to know more—which can be solved by reading the second book in the series, The Scorch Trials.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are some inferences to swearing but nothing of a persistent nature. If you think reading science fiction books is nonsense for kids, then you aren’t going to be happy with this selection—although the premise of the book—that the children are part of a larger experiment run by an unknown group of scientists, is plausible and intriguing. In some ways, The Maze Runner reminds me of Lord of the Flies by William Golding, minus the experimentation edge, because of the emphasis of a society devoid of adult leadership.

Why middle school kids should read this book: It’s a fascinating “what if” book and there are several characters your child may find they identify with. It’s especially interesting to hear the story told from the point of view of the subjects in the experiment. If kids enjoy reading stories in which the mystery is revealed slowly, they will enjoy this book.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What are the ethical obligations of those who are performing experiments with humans?
  • Can you think of an example where kids are used in experiments? Do the kids have to give their permission to be involved in these experiments? Or can the adults do whatever they want?
  • In the book, how do the kids band together and form a cohesive group? Where do they disagree with one another and argue?
  • Outside of the book, in real life, when things go badly, do kids band together or do they bicker and argue with one another? Which approach is more effective?

Overall evaluation of this book: A well-done and somewhat unique science fiction mystery which lends itself well to future adventures. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: DuPrau, Jeanne. (2003). The City of Ember. New York: Yearling.

Summary: Doom Harrow and Lina Mayfleet are twelve-year-olds and living in the underground city of Ember which has no natural light. They have recently been given their life assignments—Doom is to be a pipeworker and Lina is to be a messenger. As they carry out their new assignments, they discover an old piece of paper with instructions for how to leave the City of Ember. Of course, nobody listens to their claims, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to figure out what the mysterious instructions mean. As the adults in charge manipulate the masses and keep reassuring people that things are just fine, the reality is that blackouts are becoming more common and the food is running out. Doom and Lina race against time to determine the instructions of the original Builders. Can they save the city before it is too late?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This has been a popular book over time, especially with younger middle school kids. There are more books in the series so if middle school kids like this book, you can encourage them to continue on with the story of the people of Ember.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Doom and Lina are believable characters and kids will be able to identify with them. In addition, the plot revolves around a failing underground city so there is a time element involved in Doom and Lina being able to solve the problem. The ending is somewhat unexpected, which means kids will probably not be able to predict where the storyline is heading. This is a good choice if kids are not completely sold on fantasy or science fiction stories but they still like a good adventure tale.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What was the original intention of the Builders? Find three places in the story that indicate the original intention of the Builders.
  • The society in the City of Ember is highly stratified. Everyone has a certain job and they perform only that job. Would this approach work today in your neighborhood or city? Why or why not?
  • Rewrite the final chapter of the book. How would you end the story?
  • The people of the City of Ember did not do a very good job of keeping the original documents and plans of the Builders. Can you think of any pieces of paper or documents which we—in the modern times—have preserved and saved for future generations? Why is it important to save these original papers and documents?

Overall evaluation of this book: A fast read, especially targeted for the younger middle school child. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Farmer, Nancy. (2002). The House of the Scorpion. New York: Simon Pulse.

Summary: Matt is a young boy who is cloned and grown in a cow. He lives in the land of Opium, which is located between America and Aztlan, or what used to be Mexico. He is an exact genetic match with El Patron, who is 140 years old, and who continues to survive by growing clones and harvesting their organs for his use. Usually the brains of these clones are removed at birth, but El Patron, because Matt is an exact duplicate of himself, has ordered that Matt be allowed to keep his brain. Life for Matt alternates between splendor and comfort and squalor and prison. He eventually escapes but things don’t get any easier for him. He is captured and forced to work in a plankton factory. Will Matt be able to escape the clutches of El Patron? Why is Matt so reviled by other adults, who regard him as a body without a soul?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book has been critically acclaimed and received almost every award possible. Adults have also found this novel to be well worth their time. The main topic of this book is that of cloning and you may need to have a discussion with your middle school kids after they have finished reading the book. Some kids may be upset at the mere thought of rich individuals extending their life through the cloning of humans for organs and body parts.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a science fiction book in a setting which will be somewhat unique to most kids but will also appear as relatively normal to others. (Very few science fiction stories use Mexico as the setting for the storyline.) The very concept or idea of raising a young boy for the purposes of killing him and harvesting his organs to help keep a wealthy man alive is bound to keep middle school kids interested in the plot.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Is it possible to clone humans or animals? Do some research to find out.
  • What are the advantages of cloning humans or animals? What are the disadvantages?
  • How does the main character, Matt, change from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. Find three examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Matt receives help from various characters throughout the book. Why do these people help Matt?
  • Find a scene in the book you like that includes either El Patron or Tam Lin, the bodyguard. Then write a 3-5 page story told from either El Patron or Tam Lin’s viewpoint.

Overall evaluation of this book: An excellent book about the morality of cloning and how the wealthy may use cloning to extend their lives.  Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Haddix, Margaret Peterson. (2008). Found: The Missing: Book 1. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Summary: Jonah and his friend Chip begin receiving mysterious notes, the second of which says, “Beware! They are coming back to get you.” Quickly, aided by Jonah’s sister, Katherine, they are plunged into a mystery which deepens at every step of the way. They meet an FBI man named James Reardon who attempts to stop their investigation in its tracks by claiming their adoptions were normal in every sense of the word. In actuality, Jonah and Chip’s adoptions were anything but normal. They discover they are merely several of a group of babies who mysteriously arrived on a plane at an airport with no explanation as to how they got there or who sent them. What follows is a race through time involving strangers posing as maintenance staff, dark shadows which run away from their homes, and kids from another place and time.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are no swearing or sexual innuendoes in the book. It’s pretty clean. The book is a derivation of the ancient problem of time travel and time warp but it’s not over the top and if kids tend to like adventure stories but not science fiction stories, they may be pleasantly surprised by this one. However, if kids detest all science fiction stories, don’t give them this one to read.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Margaret Peterson Haddix is famous and well-known for writing fairly short novels but this one is a bit longer than her standard fare. However the font is large and the spacings between lines generous so if kids are complaining about books being “too fat,” you can assure them that this one is a fast read and the pages will fly by. The story line is well-written and the pace is definitely up-tempo.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What if time travel were really possible. What would be the risks? The rewards?
  • What are the issues adopted children may face that other children don’t have to worry about?
  • Does the government always tell the truth? Are there any occasions in which circumstances dictate government officials may tell a “white lie?”
  • How loyal should friends be to one another? Is there any point in which friends should not be loyal to one another?

Overall evaluation of this book: A welcome addition to the science fiction and adventure genre. This is part of a very famous series for kids. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: L’Engle, Madeline. (1962). A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Bantam Doubleday Books.

Summary: Meg is a young girl who has trouble getting along with her classmates and fitting into the school scene. Not only that, but her father has disappeared and her younger brother, Charles Wallace Murry, is considered “slow” by others in town. Everything changes when she encounters three witches named Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. They take her on an amazing journey to save the universe from the shadowy IT that moves from planet to planet destroying everything on the surface. Ultimately, the story is about the time-honored archetype of good vs. evil. Will Meg be able to rescue her father? Will she survive the giant brain that forces all around it to surrender their free will? And who will prevail in the end? Good or evil? These are questions best answered by reading the book.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is considered to be a classic read for middle school kids. In fact, it’s probably one of the most famous older fantasy books written for young adolescents and the pages and ideas contained therein spawned many authors who took the themes L’Engle wrote about in this storyline and placed them into their own. Even though there are witches in the book, don’t be alarmed, they are witches for the forces of good. The book is full of symbolism and metaphor, and if your child struggles with abstractions, they may not like this book. Don’t be surprised if your child is the only kid in class reading this book. It’s not commonly read by kids today and often will not be their first choice—but almost anything written over twenty years ago is not their first choice.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The storyline is well done and the battle between good and evil is a common theme for middle school readers. There is no gore and profanity, something which is difficult to find absent in modern day fantasy books. Kids may have some difficulty understanding the symbolism used in the book. A few minutes of discussion should clear up their confusion.

Discussion points with kids:

  • This book is about good vs. evil. Why is this a common theme found in fantasy books? What are common themes found in fantasy books?
  • This novel has lots of symbolism. Find three examples of symbolism in the novel. (If you don’t know what symbolism is, look it up.)
  • Write a short story using symbolism.
  • Imagine the storyline if evil had prevailed. What would have been the likely outcome?
  • How are each of the three witches—Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which—different from one another? How are they similar
  • Why did the author select Meg as the heroine? Why didn’t the author select someone who was well-liked and considered talented by the other kids?

Overall evaluation of this book: A great classic which won’t go away. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lowry, Lois. (1993). The Giver. New York: Bantam Books.

Summary: Jonas is a 12 year-old boy who lives in a perfect utopian society. Everything seems to be going great—there’s no war, no hunger, no pain, and no fear. In the community, everyone has a role to which they have been assigned. The lives of the community members are dictated to their particular role, in order for everyone to work together well and to also create the perfect society. In other words, there’s a lot of sameness and lack of individuality among the people living in the community. When his time comes, Jonas is assigned by the Elders to work with an old man who is known as The Giver, whose job is to be the keeper of memories for the people. As Jonas receives his training from The Giver, he is troubled by what he learns and begins to doubt the wisdom of having a perfect society in which independent thought and knowledge of the past is banned. Eventually, Jonas begins to undermine and defy the very society which placed him into the hands of The Giver.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Some individuals don’t like this book because of some sexual passages, violent scenes, and references to suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. It is sometimes mentioned as a book which schools should ban. If one of your goals is to shield middle school kids from books which contain these things, you may be better off finding another book for them to read. On the other hand, many people have loved this book and it is often used by classroom teachers throughout the United States when they are teaching about dystopian societies. Older middle school kids should read this book, not younger middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The general theme of this book—that societies which prescribe roles for its citizens and consequently restrict their freedom, resulting in the eventual disintegration and collapse of society because of their oppressive policies—is as relevant now as it was when this book was first published in 1993. If you want kids to learn the value of individual and collective freedom, this is one book which will help them sort it out.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is a utopian world? What is a dystopian world? Do these exist in the world today?
  • People who live in the community in this book are heavily regulated. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a government regulating its citizens? Would you like someone telling you what to do all the time?
  • What would you be willing to give up, in order to be safe and protected? Can you think of any examples occurring right now where you are unable to do things because they may be unsafe or cause harm?
  • In the book, the Elders determine what happens in the community. In your life, do you believe it when adults tell you to do things “for your own good?” What are the pros and cons of leaving all decisions up to the adults? When should you start making your own decisions?
  • In today’s modern world, are there any countries and/or leaders that operate somewhat like what is described in The Giver? Why do you think this happens? What do they have in common?

Overall evaluation of this book: A regular in the middle school classroom—and there are good reasons for that. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Meyer, Marissa. (2012). Cinder: The Lunar Chronicles. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Lihn Cinder has lots of problems—at least seven. First, she is a lowly cyborg, which means she is part human and part machine. People in New Beijing look down upon cyborgs and consider them lesser beings. Second, she has a horrible stepmother, who treats her cruelly. Third, she has a nasty stepsister who can’t think of anything nice to say to Cinder. Fourth, she must give away all of her earnings as a mechanic, fixing androids and machines, to her stepmother. Fifth, there is an alien species from the planet Luna, led by an evil queen, waiting to crush the population of Earth. Sixth, there is a plague sweeping the land, killing more of the already beleaguered population. And seventh, her best friend isn’t even human. All of this has the potential to change when charming Prince Kai visits Cinder’s shop to have one of his androids repaired. In amongst the turmoil, can love really exist between the dashing prince and lowly cyborg?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Fairy tales and twisting them and churning them into post-modern epics are becoming all the rage and Cinder is one of the leaders of the pack. And yes—this is a play on the old fashioned Cinderella fairy tale. This book is well done, though some critics are not fond of the fractured fairy tale trend.

Why middle school kids should read this book: You begin with a fairy tale almost everyone has heard about and then add your own special recipe of an aggressive alien race, cyborgs with personalities, and what do you get? You get Cinder. This book is being voraciously read by middle school kids and the series is still going strong. So if you like the first, there is even more for you to read.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Compare this story with the original Cinderella fairy tale. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • Find three passages which talk about Cinder’s thoughts on being human. What does she say on this topic?
  • List ten words which describe Cinder. Look at your list, would you want Cinder as your friend? Tell us why.
  • If you owned a cyborg, how would you treat it? Would you prefer your cyborg to have a personality or to merely carry out your orders? Explain why.

Overall evaluation of this book: The plot line is absurd but kids who read it don’t care. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Pearson, Mary E. (2008). The Adoration of Jenna Fox. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Summary: Jenna is a seventeen-year-old girl who is just coming out of a long coma after a horrible auto accident. Her parents have just moved from Boston to California and want Jenna to rest and take it easy and to stay in the house. Her grandmother acts coldly to her. Jenna doesn’t understand why she can’t remember much of her past and yet she can recall lots of inane information, like lines from Walden Pond. Why can’t Jenna remember anything of her past? What did her father do to her after the accident? Is Jenna anywhere close to being a normal teenager?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Kids who like robots and mechanical devices and science fiction will gobble this book up. There are similar books on the market but this is one of the better ones, along with Cinder. After kids have finished the book there’s lots of room for discussion about ethics and genetics and human engineering, so feel free to start a conversation with the phrase, “Was it right for Jenna’s father to…”

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is science fiction with feeling. Much of the storyline is about Jenna’s inner psychological journey as she grapples with the facts of her situation as they are revealed to her. A tantalizing line of thought for some kids will be implanted memories and whether they would want some of their memories to belong to someone else, or whether they would want to have only their own memories.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Tell the story to somebody. Try to remember as many of the key points and events.
  • Would you want memories that didn’t belong to you? Why or why not?
  • Write a 2-4 page narrative told from the parent’s point of view. Write about why they decided to save their daughter through human engineering or reconstruction.
  • What is the purpose of the videos in the story? Why is Jenna given videos to watch?
  • Find three critical moments for Jenna as she begins to figure out what really happened. Don’t make something up. Find the passages in the book.

Overall evaluation of this book: A decent book about human reengineering. 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: Roth, Veronica. (2011). Divergent. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books

Summary: Tris is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in a dystopian world. People in her world belong to one of five societies—Abnegations who value selflessness, Candors who value honesty, Dauntless who value bravery, Amity who value peacefulness, and Erudites who value intelligence. During her official time to choose a society, Tris selects Dauntless, much to the shock of people around her. Once in the Dauntless training camp, the storyline is off and running. The initiation process into the ranks of the Dauntless is brutal and vicious. Over time, Tris learns that something is wrong with her and the overall way civilization is structured. The plot thickens when one of the factions tries to take over the rest of the factions. Of course, Tris is caught in the middle of the tempest and must come to turns with her own issues, as she learns she is one of the Divergent, a rare and dangerous type of individual who is usually put to death quickly by the leaders of the civilization.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are brutal fight scenes in the book and a simmering love story beneath the primary plot line—which of course, is partly what makes the book so appealing to both boys and girls. Primarily, however, the book is about an adolescent coming-of-age set in a world where independent thinking and action are not desired.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids love to read novels about dystopian worlds, they are going to like this book. This is also one of the rare books which can appeal to both kids and adults so don’t be bashful about reading it along with your child or the class.

Discussion points with kids:

  • If you lived in the world Veronica Roth created, which faction would you belong to—Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, or Erudite? Why?
  • What are the pros and cons of each of the five factions—Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite?
  • Are there any types of people our modern society is afraid of and keep in the shadows? Why do you think this happens?
  • What would happen if the Abnegation, Amity, or Candor factions decided to take over the world? Would they be successful? How would they accomplish their goal?
  • Are you like Tris, in that you are different from all the other kids? Are these differences helpful or harmful to you?

Overall evaluation of this book: A worthwhile addition to the archive of dystopian societies. From a literary point of view, it’s not as good as the hype. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Shusterman, Neal. (1997). The Dark Side of Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Summary: Jason Miller is a boy who lives in Billington, a dull and boring town. However, something isn’t right in Billington. Jason can both feel and notice the difference. Why is the janitor acting so strangely? And what about those strange allergy shots? Has his mother gone insane by claiming his family are aliens living in Billington and that there are more aliens living in the peaceful community? And when does the invasion of Earth begin? And can Jason prevent that from happening?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Shusterman has a good reputation as an author for middle school kids. Media Centers across America typically have lots of Shusterman’s books on their shelves or available as an e-book. Most of his books tend to fall into the science fiction and mystery category and this one is no exception. The book is clean of swearing and scenes of violence. Middle school kids of all ages will enjoy reading this book, so don’t worry about whether it is age-appropriate for your kids. It is.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a rip-roaring mystery and science fiction story. The stakes are large—what could be more important than the survival of the human race?—and the setting is believable. Kids who like both mystery and science fiction books will most likely also enjoy this one. And who doesn’t like to think about the possibility that aliens are living amongst us?

Discussion points with kids:

  • Does this story line remind you of any other books or movies you have read or watched? How are they similar? How are they different?
  • Imagine you are an alien trapped on the planet Earth. What problems would you face?
  • Give three examples of how the author foreshadows the revelation that Jason is an alien. (If you don’t know what foreshadowing is, look it up.)
  • Write a three-to-five page short story about aliens living in your city or town. You can choose to write yourself into the story as an alien or as a human.
  • Tell the story line (or plot) to someone. Try not to forget any of the important details.

Overall evaluation of this book: A solid mystery and science fiction book most middle school kids will like. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Smith, Alexander Gordon. (2009). Lockdown: Escape from Furnace. New York: Square Fish.

Summary: Alex Sawyer is a fourteen-year-old boy who finds himself in a bad situation when a group of strange men discover him breaking into a house with one of his friends. Matters become worse when one of the strange men shoots his burglar companion. Alex is framed for murder and because society is tired of the lawlessness of teenagers, is sent away for life imprisonment without parole. His new home, Furnace Penitentiary, is securely located a mile beneath the surface of the planet and escape is impossible. Alex is further horrified by the violent nature of his new home—some of the inmates are cruel and the guards beat prisoners without warning. The warden appears to have no compassion and skinless dogs occasionally rip apart inmates. In addition, inmates are taken from their cell in the middle of their night and surgically altered into gruesome hulks of evil beings. Alex dreams of escape because he knows it is only a matter of time before they come for him in the dark hours after midnight. But will he be able to find a way out of Furnace Penitentiary before it is too late?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is the type of book boys especially will love to read. What’s not to love? Boy gets set-up by the adults. Boy gets sent to strange prison in unreal setting. Boy sees brutality and wickedness among the guards. Boy thinks about escape. Boy finds a way to escape. But will he be able to escape the cruelty of the adults? This is a plot designed for middle school boys.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids who are reluctant readers may be drawn to this book because of the constant boy vs. adult monsters theme which runs throughout this book. There is plenty of action and fantastical creatures but the gore is kept to a minimum—for a book like this anyway. The background story of the adults creating Furnace Penitentiary because they are weary of the rise in adolescent crime is somewhat plausible.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Are prison sentences effective in reducing crime among kids? Explain your answer using several examples from the book.
  • Alex knows something bad will happen to him if he continues stealing and yet he continues breaking the law. Why can’t he stop? Use examples from the story to defend your answer.
  • Think of a book you have read which is similar to Lockdown: Escape from Furnace. How are they similar? How are they different?
  • What do you think is happening to the inmates who are being taken in the middle of the night? What clues does the author give which supports your answer?

Overall evaluation of this book: A decent book about the horrible things adults can do to kids caught committing crimes. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Wells, Robison. (2011). Variant. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Benson is a seventeen-year-old orphan who applies and is accepted into Maxfield Academy. He goes go the Academy, figuring it will be a better place to live than spending yet another year in foster homes. But Maxfield Academy is anything but what he expected. There are no adults present and video surveillance is everywhere. The students have broken into three distinct gangs and there are only four rules at the academy. Breaking the rules means that students disappear and never return. What is the secret of Maxfield Academy? Will Benson be able to escape? And why don’t the majority of students seem to be interested in joining Benson is plotting to escape?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a standard science fiction and adventure book which some critics have likened to a cross between Lord of the Flies and Ender’s Game. The book is packaged as the beginning of a series so be prepared to purchase the remaining books in the series, especially if your middle school kids like the story line. The action is fast and much of what happens is what you might expect when the adults have left teenagers to fend for themselves. There is some physical fighting in the book—not entirely unexpected because of the presence of the three gangs—and, of course, tension exists between the differing gangs.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Boys will tend to like the book more than girls—the main characters are mostly boys—and kids who don’t enjoy reading may be drawn into the action and the premise of a mysterious school void of adult contact. The story does not have a lot of difficult vocabulary words. The book may not have the staying power of Hunger Games but it will appeal to a select cut of middle school kids. The beginning of the book is particularly interesting.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is the explanation as to why some students are eager to escape while others appear to be content with how things are running in the school? Find several specific clues in the book.
  • Speculate as to why the author wrote the story with Benson not having any awareness of where his parents are. How would the story be different if Benson knew his parents and lived with them?
  • Predict what will happen in the second book. Find several examples of evidence from the first book to support your prediction.
  • If kids are left without adults to supervise them, will the kids always form gangs? Why or why not?

Overall evaluation of this book: A decent dystopian science fiction book that is a fairly easy read. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Westerfield, Scott. (2005). Uglies. New York: Simon Pulse.

Summary: Tally Youngblood is a young girl who is approaching her sixteenth birthday in a futuristic setting where our (current) modern-day civilization, known as the “Rusties” has passed. In the new society, the age of sixteen is important because then Tally will be able to receive an operation which will render her beautiful. Prior to the operation, all people are known as “Uglies.” As can be expected, the “Uglies” want to be “Pretties,” which is what people are called who have had the operation, and the “Pretties” look down upon the “Uglies” with disdain. Tally has a female friend, Shay, who defies the authorities and runs away to find a settlement called “The Smoke,” which is a gathering place for individuals who don’t want the government telling them what to do. Tally is sent by the “Special Circumstances” department to be a spy and find “The Smoke” settlement and to reveal the location to the government. Upon finding the settlement of nonconformists, Tally meets the rebel leader, David, and things don’t seem as clear as they once did. Will Tally betray the rebel leader and reveal the location of the dissidents? You’re going to have to read the book to find out.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are undercurrents of a love affair between David and Tally but it’s nothing explicit. Kids have liked this book since it first came out because it plays into their fantasy—that one day they will be beautiful and everyone will love them because of their beauty. Real life doesn’t work that way, however, and neither does the equation in the book. It’s a good reminder that “beauty is only skin deep” and that what’s more important is what is on the inside.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The action is fairly intense sometimes because the kids zoom around on hoverboards—think floating skateboards here—and have the equipment to jump from high places and parasail safely to the ground. (What middle school kid wouldn’t want a floating skateboard and the ability to jump off a 300 foot cliff and glide to the ground?) Besides the action, the novel depicts a dystopian society run amok with rules, regulations, and the need by government officials to tightly monitor society. (Think about it. What kid also doesn’t also dream and fantasize about rebelling against the rigid authority of the adults?

Discussion points with middle school kids:

  • This book explores the concept of beauty being only skin deep. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?
  • What are the people living in “The Smoke” rebelling against? Find three examples from the book to support your claim.
  • Which character do you identify the most with? Explain your selection.
  • What other books have you read which are similar to this book? Why are they similar?
  • This book is about utopia—or the attempt to create one. If you don’t know what a utopia is—look it up. Then give three examples from the book about how society is trying to create utopia.

Overall evaluation of this book: A bit on the long side but kids don’t seem to mind. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Yancy, Rick. (2013). The 5th Wave. New York: Penguin Random House LLC.

Summary: Cassie Sullivan is one of the few survivors of the war with the aliens. There have been four different attacks by the aliens, each one responsible for weeding down the number of humans left on Earth? And the 5th wave? How and when will that happen? Cassie isn’t sure, but she isn’t going to stay in one place long enough to find out. So she runs. A nearly deadly encounter on a highway results in her meeting Evan Walker, a mysterious sharpshooter who might be human or who might be alien. And why are the remaining human children being loaded onto trucks and shipped to a military encampment? What is the real purpose behind their new training? And is Cassie falling in love with Evan Walker?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Readers seem to have a love-hate relationship with this book. They either find it to be one of the dumbest science fiction books they have read or one of the best sci-fi books they have laid their hands on. In the end, the book is well-written and the vast majority of middle school kids, who like this type of story, will find it enjoyable. Why quibble over arguments as to whether aliens really would be so stupid or slow as to keep trying to kill the humans in five different ways?

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a very good science fiction novel, even though it also is partly an adventure, horror, and romance story. The romance part of the equation isn’t as strong as that found in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, but some kids will like this theme. Girls who enjoy science fiction, in particular, should be steered toward this book. The female character is strong, though she has the usual angst about how horrible things are going.

Discussion points with middle school kids:

  • Why does the author have the aliens needing five waves to kill off the humans? What purpose does it serve?
  • List three different events which foreshadowed the revelation of what actually happened during the 5th wave? If you don’t know about foreshadowing, do some research and find out.
  • What other book does The Fifth Wave remind you of? List at least two reasons with examples to back up your claim.
  • Write a 3-5 page story from the aliens’ perspective or point of view. Pick any scene from the book.
  • The author often has the narrator, Cassie, think to herself. (The words she is thinking are in italics.) What advantages do you have, as a reader, knowing what Cassie is thinking? Are there any disadvantages? If so, what are they?

Overall evaluation of this book: A good thriller for middle school kids, especially if they can overlook some of the plot implausibilities. Four Stars ★★★★

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