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August 4, 2022

Back to School Reading Recommendations for School-aged Kids

by MK French

The heat of summer hasn't quite dissipated but it is time to start thinking about our kids heading back to the classroom. In some parts of the U.S. students have been in school for almost a week! Whether you are looking for new books for your home school curriculum, a way to keep the kids entertained during the dog days of summer, or preparing for those book reports that will soon be due here's a list of books for school-aged kids that they are sure to enjoy.

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A Reluctant Witch's Guide to Magic by Shivaun Plozza

book cover of juvenile fiction novel A Reluctant Witch's Guide to Magic by Shivaun Plozza
July 2022; Clarion Books; 978-0358541271
audio, ebook, print (288 pages); juvenile fantasy

The Wild is a city caught in a war between two witch covens, leaving the nonmagical subject to the whims of their spells. Willa's parents had been turned into clouds by accident, and since then she has lived on her own. When someone sees her deflect a spell, she's forcibly enrolled in lessons to control her unruly magic. If she can't do it within a year and choose a coven to belong to, she'll explode. As if that wasn't bad enough, a rogue witch is targeting the nonmagical. Willa must unravel the identity of the rogue witch in order to save herself and her city.

This is billed as a cross between Kiki's Delivery Service and Cressida Cowell novels. Our middle-grade-aged heroine certainly fits the age of those heroes. Willa is twelve, and the pent-up wild energy of witches born to ordinary folk is more powerful than the dancing and wiggling of the silent Silverclaw or the cursing and spitting of the Irontongue clans. Don't worry, the cursing is of the nonsense word variety. It's fun to read, as is the fact that everything in the kingdom has a form that must be filled out in triplicate, delaying everything. A wild magic child years ago hadn't chosen a coven and exploded instead, leaving behind a wasteland, but he had been certain there was another way.

The back and forth between covens mirrors the struggle that Willa has over her magic. She thinks she must cage it, just as everyone around her insists she must control herself and conform to their ideas. Gaspard is a horrible teacher, but not everyone in the castle is horrible. Willa makes friends with two children around her age and concern for their well-being as well as the place she grew up drives her forward. She is a fun and relatable character. I hope the ending means we can see her further adventures. 

Beyond the Stars by Doreen D. Berger

book cover of juvenile science fiction novel Beyond the Stars by Doreen D. Berger
May 2022; PolarisPrint; 978-1736542125
ebook, print (350 pages); juvenile science fiction

Sisters Diane and Robin continue to play pranks and are once again grounded when shy Jannel arrives on the Polaris. As the future ruler of Lasusia, she must be kept safe from the virus running rampant on the planet. The sisters promise to help Jannel however they can, but are soon in over their heads and infected with the virus. On top of that, their father's mortal enemy has them. It will take all of their sneaky know-how to escape this.

Beyond the Stars is the sequel to The Captain's Daughters (read my review), which introduces us to Diane and Robin Marsh, and it definitely helps to have read that one first. The first book gives their back story and the relationships everyone has, and this book builds on them. We have a long setup in the beginning of the book, which will help those that might not have read the first book. The girls are teenagers, with all the emotional turmoil that entails, and now their father seems to be falling in love.

As much as space travel is normal in the world of this novel, people are still people. The girls are eager to get out and explore, not content to stay indoors all the time. They're jealous of the new lady in their father's life, remain impulsive, and still wear their hearts on their sleeves. I do like that they have a healthy family relationship with their father, uncle, and aunt, and are friendly and outgoing enough to take Jannel under their wing. The challenges that the sisters face are middle-grade sized, facing up to fears, and the potential of a blended family. The impending marriage for Jannel and the planetwide virus that needs a cure and behaves oddly adds a larger element and ups the stakes for the teens. They are clever, using what they have available when caught by the enemy, but it isn't any behavior out of the ordinary for kids.

The story progresses fairly rapidly, with bad guys who threaten and stop just short of death and understanding adults who are open about their feelings and needs. They also hold the girls' needs and thoughts as important. In this way, the book models productive conversations to get what they want. Is it a little contrived? Only if you're an adult. Tweens and younger teens will likely enjoy seeing themselves in Robin and Diane and the adventures they have.

Buy Beyond the Stars at Amazon

The Timematician by Steven Bereznai

book cover of young adult superhero novel The Timematician by Steven Bereznai
August 2022; Jambor; 978-1989055069
ebook, print (192 pages); young adult superhero

Following the Genetic Wars, Doctor BetterThan is determined to use his time traveling powers to destroy the burgeoning superheroes and leave the apocalyptic world around them in ashes. Mairi Lin Monroe is also interested in tech and has a plan of her own. The two are now in competition, and sparks of all sorts fly as they vie to be the ultimate Timematician.

The Timematician is the second Generation M novel, and can be read as either a prequel or sequel following Generation Manifestation (read my review). We're first introduced to the Genetic Wars there, and the separation between dregs (regular humans) and the Supergenics (those who possess superhero power traits). The entire society is so focused on class based on DNA and has perpetuated stratification to keep the powered people in power. Caitlin worked hard to figure out how to maneuver through the world, and she does show up in this novel. If you haven't read that one, it doesn't make any impact on this one.

Doctor BetterThan opens the novel, and his tone is discordant and manic. This is offputting, so it's no surprise when he says that people never understood or liked him, or when he takes his nemesis so literally. It takes me a while to get used to his manner of speaking on the page, and I don't really like him much in the beginning. Once I get used to him, it's not quite as bad. He's certain he's smarter than everyone else, but also can't let a mystery go; this gets him caught in his own trap when his nemesis teases at bigger plots he doesn't know. He's up against someone just as smart as he is, who also wants to take over the remnants of the world; their battles feel like young children fighting over toys. Being alone loses its luster, and constantly rewinding to go back and redo situations doesn't necessarily give him an advantage.

I was surprised that I felt bad for the Timematician by the end of the story, that memory is more malleable than he thought it was. We might not know what he'll do next, but he was certainly changed by the journey to get there. He has umpteen chances at doing things over, and hopefully this time he'll get it right.

Buy The Timematician at Amazon

The Stars Between Us by Cristin Terrill

book cover of young adult space opera The Stars Between Us by Crisstin Terrill
August 2022; Wednesday Books; 978-1250783769 
audio, ebook, print (400 pages); young adult space opera

Vika Hale is a barmaid on a struggling planet with a mysterious benefactor that bankrolled her education. When Vika is named in his will, she’s whisked away to a new world as his heir's ward. It's a dream come true until the will’s heirs are targeted in a series of bombings. As much as Vika doesn't trust Sky, he can help her discover the bomber’s identity. But Sky is keeping a secret that could unravel everything.

Vika, like any teenager, wishes for more than what she has, especially since her regular life is full of struggle and hardship. Anyone would want to revel in parties and new friends, and turning her new social cachet into a marriage would mean giving her family money or sponsoring them to move to the richer planet. We learn Sky's secret long before she does, and we can see that there are larger issues at play because of the fortune at stake. The opportunity for them to get to know each other better reveals more depth to Vika, as well as letting her see more than a creepy guy staring at her a lot. We also see hints of other things going wrong, and not as expected along the way. Savvy readers can likely guess who the actual culprit is long before the final reveal, but not the why of it. That is revealed at the end of the book when it all comes down with a satisfying crash.

Both Vika and Sky are stubborn teens set on maintaining some power in lives where they feel ultimately powerless. Vika was bound by poverty and struggle, and Sky was bound by expectations he was unable to sidestep in any way other than becoming nearly invisible. It's difficult for him to make choices when under pressure, so he's caught up in the web that the billions had wrought for everyone. I do feel sorry for them and was glad to see that in their own ways, both were able to carve out a space to live where they felt comfortable with themselves and the futures they wanted to create.

Buy The Stars Between Us at Amazon

Three Kisses, One Midnight by Roshani Chokshi, Sandhya Menon, And Evelyn Skye

book cover of young adult fantasy novel Three Kisses, One Midnight
August 2022; Wednesday Books; 978-1250797230
audio, ebook, print (288 pages); young adult fantasy

A young woman died when the town of Moon Ridge was founded. Four hundred years later, the Lady of the Moon descends for one day every century to walk among the people with an aura for those willing to follow their hearts. This year at Moon Ridge High, Onny, True, and Ash seek affection, acceptance, and healing that can only come from romance—with a little help from Onny’s grandmother’s love potion. It's not as simple as it seems, and it'll take more than a spell at midnight for their wish to come true.

We open with Onny musing about magic, her grandmother telling her that words are magic and special, and that true love is always special. Her voice is so much fun to read, as are the texts she and her friends send each other. We also see the science teacher and mayor, the grumpy and sunshine tropes; if they were like this in real life, it would be ridiculous, but the silliness is fun to read. If you read many romantic stories, you know Onny’s situation better than she does and we're along for the ride until she realizes what her truth is. Ash is shy around his crush, but is a skilled artist and notices a lot. Over the course of his day, he gets to see how stepping forward and being brave can get him the opportunities he needs. For True, her insistence on all things scientific and factual in response to past heartbreak has held her back. Of course, not all boys are terrible and intimidated by her intelligence, and letting go of her self-doubt, even for a moment, helps her see that.

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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