Middle-grade fantasy: my bread and butter. Possibly my number one favorite category of all time. I cannot get enough of it. I never get tired of it. And boy, this was a great year for it. As usual, I'll mix in some (possibly) lesser-known favorites and make sure to get a couple of paperbacks in. And for the most part, I think these make great read-alouds - but remember with fantasy you can get some scary stuff. None of these books has anything worse than Harry Potter, though, so if your reader is okay with Harry, they'll be okay with these.
1. THE EMERALD ATLAS by John Stephens: Hands down the best new fantasy of the year. Possibly the best new fantasy since Harry Potter. If your kid hasn't heard of this series yet, it's only because this is book one and it's only been out eight months. Kate, Michael and Emma have been passed from one orphanage to another, and everyone believes their parents are dead. At their latest orphanage, they accidentally discover a magical atlas - when you place a photograph inside its pages, the atlas takes you back in time to the moment the picture was taken. They are whisked into a past when the local town was run by a witch who is looking for that very same atlas. Will they be able to keep it hidden, get back to their own time, save the world - and possibly learn the truth about who they are and what happened to their family? I haven't mentioned this book in awhile because I think people actually got tired of hearing me talk about it. LOVE.
2. THE CLOCKWORK THREE by Matthew Kirby: Hugo Cabret meets The Thief Lord. Three children - a violin-playing orphan busker; an apprentice clockmaker; and a hotel maid with a very ill father - find their paths crossing time and again as each searches for one thing that will change their life forever. This was has a complex, twisting plot, and too long of a description gives too much away. Kirby's latest, ICEFALL, is also awesome - though totally different - it's a Norse folklore-inspired fantasy-tinged coming of age story, and I loved it too.
3. THE BOOK OF THREE by Lloyd Alexander: I have loved this series for over three decades, and I never get tired of re-reading it. I wish they would re-jacket them, but oh, the insides. Taran is an orphan and Assistant Pig-Keeper for Dallben the wizard's oracular pig, Hen Wen. Taran longs for adventure and when Hen Wen escapes her enclosure and he runs after her, he runs right into some. First he meets Prince Gwydion and then the enchantress Achren, who captures them both and takes them to the castle of the Horned King. Taran manages to escape with the help of a princess and a bard, both of whom will become prominent characters in the four following books, and when Gwydion is believed dead, it will fall to Taran to defend Prydain from the Horned King. This series is based on Welsh mythology. For me, this is one of the greatest fantasy series of all time. Alexander built a complex world that builds with each subsequent book, and the characters show true growth throughout the course of the story. I actually think I need to re-read it; just talking about it makes me want to.
4. BREADCRUMBS by Anne Ursu: Quietly, stunningly beautiful--this book just swept me off my feet. It's based on my favorite Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen. Hazel and Jack, 11 year old best friends, are being pulled apart by many things - problems at home; parental suggestion; peer pressure. It's a troubled time, right on the edge of puberty, and Hazel's confused and hurt - but when Jack's stolen away to the woods by a mysterious witch, there's no question that Hazel will go after him. The journey she embarks on is fraught with danger and loneliness and lessons to learn and bits of other Andersen fairy tales, and is woven together expertly. Give this one as part of a pair with A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, which I discuss below.
5. FLOORS by Patrick Carman: Leo lives at the Whippet Hotel, where his dad is the maintenance man, and things are a bit crazy - there are hidden rooms, secret staircases, and ducks living on the roof. One day Leo receives a box from Mr. Whippet, the missing owner of the hotel. The box starts him off on a wild chase through the hotel, finding clue after clue (and more crazy rooms than he ever knew existed), in order to ultimately save the hotel from nefarious people who want to buy it. This one's perfect for absolutely any kid - I NEVER had a failed handsell on it - but especially for fans of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY or Jody Feldman's THE GOLLYWHOPPER GAMES. Sequels are coming!
6. PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES by Jonathan Auxier: Sometimes when I really love a book I get bogged down in the handsell, and my description makes the book sound...not good. This is one of those books, so I'm going to cut and paste the jacket description, which sums up the plot WAY better than I do. I was on the ABA New Voices Committee that honored this book earlier this year, and it SO deserved it. Jonathan really is a voice to watch. And the plot: This is the utterly beguiling tale of a ten-year-old blind orphan who has been schooled in a life of thievery.One fateful afternoon, he steals a box from a mysterious traveling haberdasher--a box that contains three pairs of magical eyes. When he tries the first pair, he is instantly transported to a hidden island where he is presented with a special quest: to travel to the dangerous Vanished Kingdom and rescue a people in need. Along with his loyal sidekick--a knight who has been turned into an unfortunate combination of horse and cat--and the magic eyes, he embarks on an unforgettable, swashbuckling adventure to discover his true destiny.
7. THE SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS by Marianne Malone: I reviewed this one in ARC form, back in 2009. It's out in paperback now, and I love it just as much - especially as I finally got to see the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago last month!
8. SAVVY by Ingrid Law: I sold this book for years, but never actually read it until
about four months ago. (Actually, I listened to it on audiobook; it was a superb audiobook.) Mibs Beaumont is about to turn thirteen, and when a Beaumont turns thirteen, they get their Savvy. One of her brothers channels electricity and the other causes hurricanes, so she's expecting something really powerful - which she'll need if she's going to save her father, who's been in a horrible accident many miles away. Mibs - along with her brother and the preacher's children - stows away on a bus in order to get to her father in time, and what happens to them along the way will change everyone involved forever.
9. A TALE DARK AND GRIMM by Adam Gidwitz: this book is a masterclass on story structure - a brilliant fairy tale retelling that begins as Hansel and Gretel and grows into so much more. The narrator talks to you throughout (I love when they break the fourth wall) and it does get quite creepy and gory in places, just like real fairy tales do. I cannot even tell you how much I am dying for Adam's next book to come out. Give this one as part of a pair, with BREADCRUMBS.
10. MIDDLEWORLD by J & P Voelkel: Great for fans of Percy Jackson! Max's parents are Mayan archaeologists, and when they disappear while on a dig, Max finds himself in Central America on a dangerous quest to find them. Along the way he will encounter Mayan Gods and more danger than he ever found in the video games that used to keep him company. Max is a total whiner at first, lazy and soft, but a Mayan girl soon kicks his butt into gear. LOVE this series.
11. EVERLOST by Neal Shusterman: I just met Neal at NCTE and told him, and I quote, "I sold the crap out of your books." Except I didn't say crap. He cracked up, but it was totally true. Neal is one of my favorites, ever. Most of his books are YA - and technically this is too - but I don't think it's scarier than Harry Potter, which is what I measure things against for parents. I'm going to cop out on this one, because the starred review from School Library Journal says it better than I ever could: "Nick and Allie are killed in an automobile accident and meet as they are heading down a tunnel toward the light. They land in Everlost, the space between the living and the end of the tunnel, and meet Lief, from whom they learn that Afterlights cannot walk where the living walk and that they cannot be seen or heard by the living. Allie is determined to go home, so she and Nick set out from the accident site in upstate New York and the safety of Lief's forest for New Jersey. Even though they have been warned about the McGill, a dreaded, evil monster, they slowly make their way, eventually arriving in New York City. There they meet Mary Hightower, who cares for Afterlights in the destroyed World Trade Towers, keeping them safe from the McGill and the Haunter. (In addition to children, buildings and objects can also cross into Everlost if they were much loved.) In their ensuing adventures, they are captured by the McGill and suffer a horrible fate before Nick discovers his true purpose in Everlost. Shusterman has created a world in which nothing is as it seems. As the teens struggle to make sense of this alternate afterlife, they also grow and develop as people. They learn to question those who have put themselves in power, and they begin to see what is truly important. Shusterman has reimagined what happens after death and questions power and the meaning of charity. While all this is going on, he has also managed to write a rip-roaring adventure complete with monsters, blimps, and high-diving horses." Book 1 of 3.
12. ALIENS ON VACATION by Clete Barrett Smith: Scrub is annoyed to be packed off to spend the summer with his grandmother - until he learns that her bed & breakfast is actually a vacation spot for aliens. While his grandmother disguises them and helps them blend in for an exotic Earth vacation, Scrub gets into one hairy situation after another. I don't often LOL while reading, but I did it many, many times while reading this. And everyone on the New Voices committee liked it just as much as I did! This was another handsell that pretty much never failed.
If I don't stop here I never will, but let me tell you - this list could be three times as long.