Creature of the Night by Kate Thompson

Bobby is a Dublin kid, always in trouble. He thinks nothing of stealing money, crashing cars, or dodging the police. In fact, these are the things he most enjoys. Only when he’s out of control does he feel truly alive.

To save her son from inevitable trouble with the law, Bobby’s mother moves the family to a small house in the Irish countryside. There, she says, they will start a new life.

“I won’t stay,” Bobby tells her. “I’ll go back to the city, first chance I get.”

Bobby thinks the country is a bore, with its cows and daisies and broken-down stone walls. And it isn’t just boring, either. It’s creepy. The man who last rented this house disappeared without a trace. The people before him were rumored to have murdered their own daughter. And now, Bobby’s little brother is talking about strange noises during the night.

Suddenly, Bobby is scared: scared of the wild energy inside him, of the future that seems so hopeless, and most of all, of whomever — or whatever — is visiting their house in the dark.

(For all you eighth-graders: this is a really good novel for book forms because it’s full of symbolism and character development. And it’s also very suspenseful — I read it in one day.)

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The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford

front_cover_secret_tree-330At first, Minty’s life seems like so much fun: Summer is just starting, her best friend Paz lives next door, and all the kids play together in the woods near Minty’s house. However, things aren’t perfect for Minty: Paz is suddenly making new friends and leaving Misty alone more and more often. She doesn’t even want to practice for roller derby anymore. One day, while Minty is walking by herself in the woods, she comes upon a tree with a hollowed out trunk. Sticking out of the hollow is a small slip of paper. A message. It reads: “I put a curse on my enemy. And it’s working.”

What? Who wrote this message and why did he/she leave it the hollow of a tree?

As the days pass, Minty finds more messages. They are all written in different handwriting, and they all contain secrets: “Nobody loves me except my goldfish,” “I’m betraying my best friend in a terrible way, “I wish I had the guts to run away.”

Minty is fascinated. She knows all the people who live in her neighborhood, every single person in every house surrounding the woods. She decides that she just HAS to figure out who wrote which messages. Could one of the writers be her friend Paz? Luckily, she has Raymond, the new boy in town, to help with her investigations. And before the summer ends, Misty will have her own secret to put in the tree.

I loved this book. I love this author, too. She also wrote “How to Say Goodbye in Robot,” which is just plain awesome.

Hoot and Scat by Carl Hiaasen

HootI know what you’re thinking. Hoot? Are you serious? That book is likScate seven years old! Ms. Ryan is just getting around to reading it? And my answer, sadly, is yes; after receiving dozens of recommendations, I finally listened to Hoot this weekend, on CD, in my car. Last spring, I read Scat, which was brand new at the time. That’s right, I didn’t let the dust settle on that one.

Both novels, as some of you know, are funny, are set in Florida, and feature middle-school kids going up against big, bad corporations in the name of endangered animals. Here’s a fact. I liked Scat so much that I drove down to Southern Florida this summer and visited the Everglades. It was just as wild and weird and beautiful as Hiaasen promised. Wow. (Photos of the trip available for interested readers.)

In Scat, the animal in danger is the Florida Panther; in Hoot, it’s the Burrowing Owl. Some other characters you will encounter on the pages of these uproarious books: a barefoot running boy, a fake-fart champion, a scary Science teacher with a collection of real stuffed animals, a boy who snacks on pencils, a pancake house spokeswoman, several renegade eco-activitsts, and a few regular kids to whom you might actually relate.

Seriously, don’t wait seven years. Give these a try

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

whenyoureachmeThere is so much going on in this book that it’s hard to summarize cleverly and succinctly. So, for this one, I’m going to try a list of facts to see if I can convey the flavor of this intriguing novel:
1. Miranda, a sixth-grader, knows the streets of her Manhattan neighborhood like the back of her hand, including which corners to avoid, when to cross the street, and where the crazy homeless man stands every afternoon.
2. One day Sal, her best friend, gets punched in the stomach for no reason by some random kid they don’t even know.
3. Now, for some reason, Sal won’t talk to Miranda anymore, so she has to walk home from school alone.
4. Soon after this, Miranda’s apartment is broken into. The spare key is missing from its secret spot. Yet nothing seems to be missing. Strange…
5. Then, Miranda finds a mysterious note from somebody who says he wants to save her friend’s life. What? Even weirder, the notes keep coming, and they seem to be predicting events before they even happen.
6. Could somebody be trying to reach her from the future? And is Sal ever going to speak to her again? After all, it wasn’t Miranda’s fault he got punched!

The Red Blazer Girls by Michael D. Beil

red blazerOkay, to really get into this book, you’d better like puzzles, mysteries, and math (well, at least a little bit of math). Sophie, Rebecca, and Margaret are seventh-graders at an all-girls Catholic school in New York City. They’re into dances, music, and books. They’re just discovering that boys aren’t always gross and weird (just most of the time). They think this is going to be just another ordinary school year with breakfast at Perkatory and after-school homework sessions at Sophie’s apartment. But then, a lot of stuff happens. For one thing, there’s this new girl Leigh Ann, who looks like a Seventeen model. That’s pretty annoying, especially since the boy Sophie likes seems to get all silly and red whenever Leigh Ann is around. But the main action of the novel surrounds a ring — a really old, really valuable ring that is supposedly hidden somewhere in the church across from school. Soon, the girls are decoding secret messages, digging through moldy books in the library storeroom, breaking into to secret passageways, and hiding under tables from priests! This is definitely NOT your typical middle school mystery. If you read and liked The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, you might like The Red Blazer Girls, which also provides puzzles for readers to solve along the way. If only a fun, exciting mystery would drop into my lap in the middle of a boring Tuesday afternoon.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

jellicoeroad1.JPGFor the first thirty or forty pages, this novel had me totally baffled. There are a few different story lines, and it’s not at all obvious how they connect. Right away, there’s a terrible tragedy, a recurring dream with a boy in a tree, and a girl being dragged from bed in the middle of the night to some sort of underground school election. But this book has received so much critical attention and so many outstanding reviews that I stuck with it. I knew it didn’t receive the Printz Award for nothing (I always love the Printz Award winners and nominees). Besides, all of these loose pieces intrigued me. So did the main character, Taylor Markham, whose personal history is so full of heartbreak and pain that she’s blocked most of it out. All she can be sure of is her name and address. She lives on the Jellicoe Road, at an Australian boarding school where she’s a senior in high school. Where she’s responsible for the younger boarders in her dormitory. Where she participates in the territory wars, the competition for land and resources among the boarding school students, the local kids, and the military cadets. Where she loses her best friend, finds a mysterious manuscript, and falls in love.

This is a strange and beautiful novel, which had me totally transfixed. These kids are so removed from regular society (they don’t even have cell phone service on the Jellicoe Road) that a unique culture arises among them. They have their own codes of conduct, their own laws, their own systems of justice. These kids might as well be on a desert island, so separated are they from the pulse of civilization. It took some work to get into this novel, but it was well worth the effort. Reading it, I felt transported to another world and I totally escaped from this one. From me, that’s the highest praise possible for any book. Melina Marchetta is an author to watch.

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

feathers.jpgIt’s winter. It’s dreary. Frannie’s life is pretty ordinary. She walks to school with her brother Sean, avoids Trevor, the classroom bully, and stares out the window whenever things get too dull in Math class. Then Jesus Boy comes. He’s the new kid, practically the only white kid in school. Everyone says he looks like Jesus, and Frannie’s friend Samantha thinks he might even be Jesus. But why would Jesus show up at their school? And why does Jesus Boy – with his translucent skin and pale hair – keep saying he isn’t white? And why does he use sign language to speak to Frannie? Does he somehow know her brother is deaf? Suddenly, Frannie’s life seems more full of questions than answers. Nothings seems solid anymore. Is this what growing up means? Over the course of one quiet winter, Frannie confronts the uncertainty, fear, and – most importantly – hope that accompany the end of childhood and the mysterious journey into the future.

Drums Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonneblick

drums.jpgIf you’re one of those readers who likes “sad” books, then this novel is for you! For years, 14-year old Steven has been irritated with his handsome, angelic, perfect little brother. Where Steven is awkward and ordinary, Jeffrey is sweet and adorable. Just ask any random stranger on the street. Just ask Steven’s own parents!

But there’s no such thing as a charmed life, not even for a beautiful 5-year old boy, and one day, Jeffrey gets sick, really sick. Now, Steven has to deal with his brother’s physical breakdown, his parents emotional breakdowns, and his own dark fears about the future. It’s a good thing he has drum lessons to distract him from all the heaviness at home, right? There’s nothing like music, Steven notices, to comfort a suffering soul. Well, that, and girls. Speaking of which, Renee Albert, whom Steven has liked since Kindergarten, is suddenly acting, all interested in him. Why? Could Steven’s exhausted brain just be imagining something too good to be true? Or does he really have a shot? Grade eight may have started out like any other year, but Steven is in for a series of life-changing experiences that will require all his new-found strength and grace to handle.

Man in the Moon by Dotti Enderle

maninthemoon.jpg

Is there really a man in the moon? Is it just an illusion of a face on the moon’s surface, looking down at us, or could there really be a mysterious life force up there with which we humans have a special, mystical connection?

This question sounds a bit wacky, but you might start asking yourself the same thing if you read this novel. In the summer of 1961, a strange man appears at Justine’s house just as her family seems to be at its absolute worst. Her father has no job, her brother, Ricky, suffers from an exhausting illness, and her mother is running herself ragged trying to keep everyone alive. Justine spends the hot summer days stuck inside with Ricky,  dreaming of freedom and joy and adventure.

Then, Mr. Lunas shows up, straight from the cornfields. Justine’s father recognizes him as the man who saved his life during the war; still, the man’s true identity is a puzzle. He talks about Earth as if it’s a foreign country, he enchants the family dog, and he tells Justine that anything is possible. Of course, she doesn’t think Mr. Lunas really means anything is possible. That’s just something nice people say, right? But when Ricky’s illness takes a terrifying turn, Justine prays that Mr. Lunas might be right.

Man in the Moon is an inspiring story that will remind readers that each new day is an opportunity for greatness, friendship, and magic.

The Possibilities of Sainthood by Donna Freitas

possibilitiesofsainthood.JPGAntonia is a good Catholic girl. She helps her grandmother make pasta and works behind the counter at her family market, Labella’s. She wears a uniform to school and stays at home most nights with her very strict, very traditional Italian mother. In her spare time, Antonia writes letters to the Pope, petitioning to become the world’s first living saint. This girl doesn’t want to spend her life simply praying to the saints; she wants to become a full-fledged miracle-working object of holy adoration herself. Also, she also wants to kiss somebody, preferably Andy Rotellini, the gorgeous boy she’s been admiring for two years. But how can she be a saint and a romantic at the same time? Aren’t saints supposed to stay away from members of the opposite sex? Antonia decides no. In fact, she sets her sights on becoming the official patron saint of the first kiss. Now if only Andy Rotellini – and the Vatican – will cooperate…

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