The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson (2013)

rithChalk monsters, drawings that come alive, and a protagonist who failed to be “chosen” make this a unique foray into steampunk fantasy.

Recommended grade level: 6 and up

Pages:  378 (for ISBN 9780765320322)

Genre(s) and keywords: fantasy

Tone/Style: steampunk, mysterious

Pace: leisurely to moderate

Topics: monsters, magic, magic schools, alternate reality

Themes: missed opportunities, dreams, talent, disappointment

Summary: More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Chosen by the Master in a mysterious inception ceremony, Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings—merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students learn the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery, one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.

Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson brings his unique brand of epic storytelling to the teen audience with an engrossing tale of danger and suspense—the first of a series. With his trademark skills in worldbuilding, Sanderson has created a magic system that is so inventive and detailed that readers who appreciate games of strategy and tactics just may want to bring Rithmatics to life in our world. (Source)

Who will like this book?: Fantasy fans looking for something different will appreciate this unique world and its cliche-busting characters.  The premise is full of possibilities that should spark the imaginations of creative readers. This would also be a good choice for mystery readers, as long as they don’t mind fantasy mixed in.

Who won’t like this book?: The Rithmatist isn’t action-heavy, and some readers may find it slow. The unique world-building requires readers with strong imaginations who don’t mind reading a bit out of their comfort zones, since the book deviates from fantasy conventions in many ways.

Other comments: This is marketed as YA and is often shelved in YA collections, but it would not be out of place in a middle grade collection for strong readers.  The only mature content is some violence.

Sequel(s): The Aztlanian (tentatively scheduled for 2017)

Readalikes: Brandon Sanderson has a reputation for putting out consistently high-quality speculative fiction at lightning speed.  His YA series Steelheart and middle grade series Alcatraz both have middle school appeal.  The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove is another imaginative alternate reality fantasy, this one centered not on drawings but on maps. Steampunk fans may enjoy Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and The League of Seven by Alan Gratz. The manga Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa also has a similar feel to this.

-Kylie Peters

Image credit:

The Reader by Traci Chee (2016)

Beautiful language and a complex story woven of many threads mark this book designed for book lovers.

Recommended grade level: 8 and up

Pages:   442 (for ISBN 9780399176777)

Genre(s) and keywords: fantasy, diverse

Tone/Style: lyrical

Pace: leisurely

Topics: books, pirates, past trauma, fugitives, magic

Themes: reading, friendship

Summary: A stunning debut set in a world where reading is unheard-of, perfect for fans of Inkheart and Shadow and Bone.

Sefia knows what it means to survive. After her father is brutally murdered, she flees into the wilderness with her aunt Nin, who teaches her to hunt, track, and steal. But when Nin is kidnapped, leaving Sefia completely alone, none of her survival skills can help her discover where Nin’s been taken, or if she’s even alive. The only clue to both her aunt’s disappearance and her father’s murder is the odd rectangular object her father left behind, an object she comes to realize is a book—a marvelous item unheard of in her otherwise illiterate society. With the help of this book, and the aid of a mysterious stranger with dark secrets of his own, Sefia sets out to rescue her aunt and find out what really happened the day her father was killed—and punish the people responsible.

With overlapping stories of swashbuckling pirates and merciless assassins, The Reader is a brilliantly told adventure from an extraordinary new talent. (Source)

Who will like this book?: Librarians! And other adults who love books. Among young readers, give it to those who like to let a book seep into their bones. It’s leisurely-paced, but that leaves room for the rich world and lyrical writing. 

Who won’t like this book?: Those who like a quick and/or straightforward story, fans of action and suspense, and reluctant and struggling readers.

Other comments: This doesn’t contain mature content, but both the plot and language are complex enough that I feel they’re a better fit for the average reading level of 8th graders and up.

Sequel(s): The Speaker (expected 2017)

Readalikes:  Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older has a similar feel and art infused with magic, though its modern urban setting is quite different from The Reader‘s. Other lyrical, atmospheric fantasy includes The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill and The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman. The publishers recommend it for fans of Inkheart and Shadow and Bone, but I haven’t read either of those so I can’t comment on that.

-Kylie Peters

Projekt 1065: A Novel of World War II by Alan Gratz (2016)

Another winner from Alan Gratz: action, intrigue, and real live history.

Recommended grade level: 5-8

Pages:   320 (for ISBN 9780545880169)

Genre(s) and keywords: historical fiction, action/thriller, international (Germany)

Tone/Style: tense

Pace: fast

Topics: World War II, spies, Irish people, phobias

Themes: deception, sacrifice, reasons for evil, Do the ends justify the means?

Summary: World War II is raging. Michael O’Shaunessey, the son of the Irish ambassador to Nazi Germany, lives in war-torn Berlin with his parents. Like the other boys at his school, Michael is a member of the Hitler Youth. But Michael has a secret:

He and his parents are spies.

Michael and his family help downed Allied airmen to safety and send the Allies coded messages with the locations of Nazi factories, but when one of the boys in Michael’s Hitler Youth group shows him the secret plans to Projekt 1065, a prototype Nazi jet plane that could change the course of the war, Michael knows he has to steal the blueprints. To get close to the boy and the blueprints Michael has to go deeper and deeper into the madness of the Hitler Youth, and to do that, he may just have to sacrifice everything—and everyone—he loves. (Source)

Who will like this book?: I would give this to most readers. It has action, historical events, solid character development, and is fairly short. It shows the horrors of WWII but isn’t especially gruesome in its details.  It also features an admirable and relatable protagonist.

Who won’t like this book?: Naturally, I wouldn’t give it to readers who aren’t interested in history or spy stories. World War II is a difficult subject for some readers.

Other comments: I haven’t tried it yet, but this would make a great booktalk for students who need to do a project or report. It has both appeal and plenty of educational material. I’m a big fan of Gratz (though I wish he’d stop putting 4-digit numbers I can never remember in his titles).

Sequel(s): n/a

Readalikes: Alan Gratz has a winning formula mixing social studies issues with action. Try Prisoner B-3087 and Code of HonorCode Talker by Joseph Bruchac also involves WWII espionage carried out by people of a nationality not given much credit for their part in the war. Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus features a young spy in a Nazi-occupied country. The main character of The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a saboteur in Germany, similar to Michael. For nonfiction, try The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip M. HooseWe Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler by Russel Freedman, and
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (which Gratz credits in his afterword).

-Kylie Peters

Heartless by Marissa Meyer (2016)

heartlessA dark, imaginative, and romantic Alice in Wonderland prequel.

Recommended grade level: 7 and up

Pages:   453 (for ISBN 9781250044655)

Genre(s) and keywords: romance, fantasy, retellings

Tone/Style: dark, romantic

Pace: leisurely to moderate

Topics: Alice in Wonderland, magic, baking, royalty, nobility, unwanted marriages, Victorian, illicit romance, fairy tales (Alice in Wonderland isn’t quite a fairy tale, but it appeals to the same crowd so I’m sticking the tag in here.)

Themes: romantic love, societal roles, duty, falls from grace

Summary: Long before she was the terror of Wonderland — the infamous Queen of Hearts — she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the yet-unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend and supply the Kingdom of Hearts with delectable pastries and confections. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next Queen.

At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the king’s marriage proposal, she meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship.

Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans. (Source)

Who will like this book?: Romantics and drama lovers with a morbid side will eat this up.  Give it to fans of dark fairy tale retellings and illicit, tumultuous romances.

Who won’t like this book?: Those who dislike romance should stay far, far away, even if they do like fairy tales.  Cynics and pragmatists might have some problems with it, as well as those looking for something light and fluffy. It would be a hard sell for most boys.

Other comments: This have some violence and some heavy petting.  It may have also implied sex, but I wasn’t quite sure; readers probably won’t see it unless they’re looking for it.

Sequel(s): n/a

Readalikes: Fans who have not yet read of Meyer’s previous Lunar Chronicles series should enjoy that as well. Other dark retellings: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Queen of Hearts by Colleen Oakes, and  Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige  (recommended for grades 8 and up). East by Edith Pattou and Robin McKinley‘s fairy tale retellings are not as dark but could be good for those avoiding mature content. Those interested in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can try Splintered by A.G. Howard (recommended for grades 8 and up), The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor, and, well, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (naturally).

-Kylie Peters

Image credit:

Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea by Sungju Lee (2017)

every falling starThis tense, heartbreaking true story about a boy’s struggle to survive on the streets of North Korea offers a rare glimpse into a country shrouded in mystery.

Recommended grade level: 6 and up

Pages:   336 (for ISBN 9781419721328)

Genre(s) and keywords: nonfiction, memoir, survival, diverse, dystopian, current events, Kylie’s favorites

Tone/Style: grim, determined

Pace: moderate to fast

Topics: North Korea, gangs, orphans, poverty

Themes: loyalty, trust, injustice, family, friendship

Summary: Every Falling Star, the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience, is the intense memoir of a North Korean boy named Sungju who is forced at age twelve to live on the streets and fend for himself. To survive, Sungju creates a gang and lives by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Sungju richly re-creates his scabrous story, depicting what it was like for a boy alone to create a new family with his gang, his “brothers”; to be hungry and to fear arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. This riveting memoir allows young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist.  (Source)

Who will like this book?: This will appeal to a wide range of readers. Though Sungju’s world is unfamiliar, his struggles and worries are easy to empathize with. Lingering mysteries pull the story along at a brisk pace. Sungju says North Korea is a real-life dystopian nation, and the book does have a dystopian feel. The fact that it’s true makes it all the more horrifying.

Who won’t like this book?: A lot of this book’s power lies in the fact that it is true and continues to happen to this day. Readers who want to escape into a story or who prefer upbeat tales should look elsewhere.

Other comments: I talked about this at my May 2017 Summer Reading booktalks, and there was a lot of interest. A few students knew a little bit about North Korea, but most didn’t know much. I hope this book gains the wide readership it deserves. Please pass it along.

Sequel(s): n/a

Readalikes: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai is another excellent memoir of a teen displaced from a home country in turmoil. For fictional contemporary accounts of young people whose lives are torn apart by politics and war, I recommend A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai, The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, and Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins.

-Kylie Peters

Image credit:



Dr. Hayden was amazing: warm and enthusiastic. I felt like we were friends the moment we spoke. I told her I was a young adult librarian in the Chicago area, which is something she also was at the beginning of her career. She pointed to me (see photo) and said “She’s a young adult librarian!” to her staff members like I’d just told her I was a rock star.

I got to tell a bunch of publishers to publish more books aimed at middle school readers, met a few authors, tried some new maker technology, went to some useful sessions, and did a whole bunch of networking. I always come back from conferences feeling energized and inspired. There’s just something about being in a big building full of people with funky hair and cardigans who love books and information as much as I do. By the way, if you’re in the library field and need a boost of confidence, watch Hillary Clinton’s inspiring speech from the closing session about the importance of libraries here.

If you haven’t had the chance to attend a conference, do your best to make it to one. ALA can be hard to get to, but state conferences are great too (or at least, the Illinois Library Association one is; I haven’t been to any others). The ideas and rush of motivation make them worth the cost and time away from work.

Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins (2014)

rebelLed by a spunky, girly, and charismatic heroine, this book bends fantasy tropes to hilarious effect.

Recommended grade level: 8 and up

Pages: 345 (for ISBN 9780399256936)

Genre(s) and keywords: fantasy

Tone/Style: classy

Pace: moderate

Topics: secret organizations, supernatural powers, girl power, dating, love-hate relationships

Themes: destiny, romantic relationships

Summary: Harper Price, peerless Southern belle, was born ready for a Homecoming tiara. But after a strange run-in at the dance imbues her with incredible abilities, Harper’s destiny takes a turn for the seriously weird. She becomes a Paladin, one of an ancient line of guardians with agility, super strength and lethal fighting instincts. Just when life can’t get any more disastrously crazy, Harper finds out who she’s charged to protect: David Stark, school reporter, subject of a mysterious prophecy and possibly Harper’s least favorite person. But things get complicated when Harper starts falling for him–and discovers that David’s own fate could very well be to destroy Earth.

With snappy banter, cotillion dresses, non-stop action and a touch of magic, this new young adult series from bestseller Rachel Hawkins is going to make y’all beg for more. (Source)

Continue reading