The Plot: Twelve year old Lalani lives on the island of Sanlagita, in a village that is suffering from drought and an oppressive patriarchal structure. The village elders have long warned of staying away from Mount Kahana, the dangerous mountain on the island, as well as the beauty of Mount Isa, the mythical mountain across the sea that supposedly holds magic that could bring prosperity to Sanlagita. When misfortune provokes Lalani to explore the sides of Mount Kahana, she begins an adventure that will place her in conflict with her village and compel her to set sail across the distant sea in search of Mount Isa.
My Take: This is a wonderful book because author Erin Entrada Kelly has a fine sense of pacing. She weaves in themes of oppression, sexism, and environmental degradation while also including elements of magic and mythology. There is also enough action and danger to satisfy adventure lovers. Kelly manages to pack all of this in while maintaining a sense of urgency throughout the story. She also daringly introduces new characters and settings in the 3rd act without slowing things down.
I also credit Kelly with an appropriate level of world building. She gives the reader just enough information about the fantasy setting without overburdening us. She will, for instance, give a broad description of a fantasy animal, but leaves most of it to our imagination. This trust in the reader is a welcome departure from many other fantasy writers.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her bio on her website, Erin Entrada Kelly’s favorite scary movie is Poltergeist (1982).
Title: Al Capone Does My Shirts
Author: Gennifer Choldenko
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: The year is 1935 and Moose Flannagan and his family have moved to the island of Alcatraz so that his father can work as a guard and maintenance man in the prison. Moose’s older sister Natalie suffers from cognitive disabilities and the family is hoping that a nearby school will be able to improve her condition. As Moose adjusts to life on the island and at his new school, he struggles to find someone to play baseball with and also to stay out of the sights of Piper, the warden’s conniving daughter. When Piper attempts to rope Moose into one of her schemes that would break many of the island’s rules, Moose realizes that trying to fit in with his peers could raise serious trouble for his family.
My Take: I thought that this book was fantastic and wish that I had read it sooner (it was originally published in 2004). The characters are the driving force of the book. As the story progresses, we slowly discover different sides of Moose, Natalie, and the rest of the cast, making them more complicated and more human.
I also thought that Choldenko handled well the setting of Alcatraz. While the island prison is ever present, the author never uses it in a way that feels excessive or contrived. Moose actually never enters the prison and his interactions with the convicts is limited to one individual. Choldenko knows that less is more and her restraint in her choices makes Alcatraz and its prisoners seem all that more intriguing and dangerous. We never meet Al Capone which makes him more mysterious.
I also give credit to the author for shifting the focus of the plot in the second act. Readers slowly realize that this story is not really about Alcatraz, Al Capone, or Piper’s schemes. Rather, this is a book about a young man learning to understand his relationship with his sister and of a family and community learning how to support someone with autism.
One Interesting Note About The Author: The character of Natalie is partly based on Gennifer Choldenko’s sister who had with autism.
Title: Mary Underwater
Author: Shannon Doleski
Publication Date: 2020
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: 13 year old Mary Murphy lives on an island that borders the Chesapeake Bay. Her father is home from prison and as a result, her life at home has become much more unsettled. One bright spot is that she seems to be growing closer to her friend Kip as they work on a science project together. As her father demonstrates increasingly violent behavior, Mary strikes upon a way to focus her scientific mind on a project that will take her off the island: building a submarine.
My Take: I thought that this was a strong debut from author Shannon Doleski. The story is straight forward and the theme of female empowerment is conventional, but Doleski does not waste the reader’s time. At no point does the narrative bog down in heavy description or indulge in extraneous side stories. This is Mary’s story of coming into her intellectual powers and experiencing love for the first time and that is enough. I also found the basic mechanics behind submersibles to be fascinating. Due to the love interest, I found this to be more of a tween than juvenile selection.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Shannon Doleski curses too much.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: When Crow was an infant, she washed ashore onto a tiny island located off of the coast of New England and a man named Osh found her and raised her as his own daughter. Local rumor held that Crow had come from the leper colony on Penikese Island, but there was never any proof of this. Now older, Crow has begun to question her origins and wants to know who her biological parents are. She and Osh visit Penikese and there find the beginnings of a mystery that will bring great wealth but also great danger to their small island.
My Take: I greatly enjoyed Wolk’s novel Wolf Hollow and was excited about Beyond the Bright Sea. I was impressed by Wolk’s description of the Elizabeth Islands and I thought that she did an excellent job of situating the reader into the rhythms of Crow and Osh’s life on the ocean. Wolk makes a good choice of framing the narrative around 3 characters, each with their own rough charm and simple decency. Some of the mystery turns on events that are a little too neat and coincidental, and I believe that book would have been stronger with a twist along the way. However, this remains a solid choice for young readers looking for a mystery or a historical fiction.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Lauren Wolk lives on Cape Cod and has visited many of the Elizabeth Islands.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: The green boat comes to the island once a year with a new child and then ferries the eldest child on the island away — thereby obeying the rule that only 9 children may live on the island at a time. But this year seems different for Jinny because her best friend Deen is leaving, thereby making Jinny the elder and breaking her heart at the same time. In Deen’s place arrives Ess, an adorable tangle of black curls whose responsibility for care falls to Jinny. As Jinny bonds with Ess and learns how to raise a child, she begins to question the rules of the island and why the children are even there in the first place. Jinny soon learns, however, that with curiosity often comes trouble.
My Take: Children stranded on an island inevitably brings to mind the book Lord of the Flies, but most of the similarities between the two novels end there. Much like William Golding, Snyder is interested in examining power structures, but her focus is more internal. The character of Jinny is growing, changing, and coming to new realizations — this change is more central to the theme than any fighting between the characters. Orphan Island is therefore in some ways more like Peter Pan or the Chronicles of Narnia than the Lord of the Flies. It is a book about childhood and the anxieties of it coming to an end. It is the realization that one can’t stay safe and comfortable forever. I applaud Snyder for not giving the reader easy answers to complicated questions and for making characters that defy pat generalizations. At the end of the book, we are not certain whether Jinny’s choices were wise or stupid, selfish or selfless. This troubling ambiguity makes great reading, so I would happily suggest this book to any mature middle grade reader that is ready to struggle with deeper questions.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Laurel Snyder is a terrible gardener and loves black licorice.