Siblings: You can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em

The relatable main characters in these five recent novels for middle-grade readers learn that siblings can go on magical adventures together, look after each other, provide inspiration, serve as unlikely allies, help one another find their place, and so much more. Check out the siblings tag on our website for more books about this special relationship.

The Silver Arrow
by Lev Grossman
Intermediate    Little, Brown    320 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-316-54170-1    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316- 53952-4    $9.99

After writing to her rich uncle to cheekily request a present for her eleventh birthday, Kate is surprised when a full-sized locomotive shows up the next day. Resolved to get as much enjoyment out of it as possible before their mother makes Uncle Herbert remove it, Kate and her little brother Tom examine it before supper, and an offhand wish on Kate’s part makes the train embark on what is obviously a magical adventure. Learning the train’s ways (the sentient engine can communicate via slips of paper), Kate and Tom thrill to their new lives as magical train conductors, taking on the work of delivering talking animals to their migratory destinations, each with a ticket clamped in its jaws. Grossman, whose droll turns of phrase continuously enliven the story, adroitly captures the practical yet yearning inner voice of Kate while loading the narrative with feasts-in-Narnia-level gratifications for readers: Kate and Tom request (and receive) a candy car for the train, spend a season as T. H. White–inspired trees, and encounter a baby pangolin who enchants all parties with its infant cuteness. But Grossman, author of the popular Magicians trilogy for adults, refuses to provide the escape that fantasy so often supplies, introducing human answerability with environmental degradation, a starving polar bear, and invasive species. Still, Kate and Tom’s extraordinary adventure fulfills enough reader wishes that most won’t mind ingesting a few vegetables along with this scrumptious fantasy confection. ANITA L. BURKAM

Pine Island Home
by Polly Horvath
Intermediate    Ferguson/Holiday    229 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-8234-4785-5    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-4883-8    $9.99

Horvath (Everything on a Waffle, rev. 5/01) returns to her sweet spot (parents lost in tragic accident; quaint British Columbia setting) for her latest novel. When after a long journey orphaned sisters Fiona, Marlin, Natasha, and Charlie arrive at the Pine Island home of the only relative willing to take them in, they discover that Great-Aunt Martha has died and that her house is theirs. They decide, audaciously, to stay. Reasoning that in order to avoid foster care they must find an adult willing to be their guardian, even if in name only, they hire a neighbor, the bellicose and usually hungover Al, to pose as theirs. The book’s tension grows from Fiona’s attempts to keep the tenuous deception going as she struggles to juggle household and school responsibilities; act as surrogate parent to her younger sisters; put off a suspicious lawyer; and find the money to pay hefty inheritance taxes. Of course, everything would be much easier if the girls had a real guardian, and they pin their hopes on teacher Miss ­Webster, who has been let in on their secret. ­Horvath’s resolution nicely subverts just about all readers’ expectations (though that ending comes quite abruptly); meanwhile, readers will be treated to a story featuring suspense, believable characters, a fully realized setting, and nuggets of Horvath wisdom (“It suddenly occurred to her that…[a bear’s] mind might be full of all kinds of things just as hers was. The things he loved, the things he feared, the things he missed, the new things he was puzzling out. That any creature’s life was made up of the wonderful jumble of what they held in their head and their heart”). MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

The True Definition of Neva Beane
by Christine Kendall
Intermediate, Middle School    Scholastic    240 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-338-32489-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-32493-8    $10.99

Twelve-year-old Neva Beane loves words and consults her dictionary to help find the right ones for any situation. But lately, with the changes that come with puberty, Neva hasn’t been quite herself, and the dictionary is getting a workout. Neva and her older brother, Clayton, live with their grandparents; their musician parents are on tour for the summer. At sixteen, Clay has become politically active and is spending a lot of time with their neighbor Michelle, whose father is a community organizer. Neva begins to admire the sophisticated and confident Michelle as well and finds herself wanting to prove she is aware of what is going on around her. But when she discovers that Michelle has “volunteered” her to be on the frontlines of a march for justice without her permission, Neva realizes she might be moving too quickly. Kendall (Riding Chance) paints a sympathetic portrait of a thoughtful and smart young woman negotiating change, whether it be in her family, her friendships, or her own body. Many young readers will relate to Neva’s newfound understanding of inequality and injustice in her community and the world beyond. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

A Field Guide to Getting Lost
by Joy McCullough
Intermediate    Atheneum    210 pp.    g
4/20    978-1-5344-3849-1    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-3851-4    $10.99

Sutton prefers programming robots to being with people, but she’s still disappointed when she learns that her mother, off researching penguins in Antarctica, won’t return in time for her tenth birthday. Luis writes fantasy-adventure stories, but severe allergies limit his own potential for adventure. Sutton’s dad (divorced) and Luis’s mom (widowed) are dating, but as far as their children go, opposites do not attract, with the gap between science and science fiction bigger than anyone had expected. When Sutton and Luis get lost together during a family hike, however, they discover how to bring out the best in each other and make solid moves toward independence and maturity. The characters’ evolution over the course of the novel is authentic, with the traits that set them apart serving as challenges to be addressed, not problems to be fixed. The book is full of allusions that are clever without being overdone (Sutton’s parents in the roles of emperor penguins, Luis’s hero’s journey as he walks to the store by himself). A strong cast of secondary characters adds depth to the story, and the book’s Seattle setting is richly detailed. The younger-tween experiences of defining identity and establishing independence are authentic and treated with respect in this emotionally satisfying story. SARAH RETTGER

The Time of Green Magic
by Hilary McKay
Intermediate, Middle School    McElderry    225 pp.    g
7/20    978-1-5344-6276-2    $17.99

Everything changes for eleven-year-old North Londoner Abigail when her widower father marries Polly, mother of Max and Louis, and her beloved Granny Grace returns to Jamaica. Feeling both isolated and crowded at the same time in this new life, Abi finds respite in books and in the ethereal ivy-covered house where the newly configured family decides to move. Though not a practical choice, the house has “a lantern straight out of Narnia” by the door, and the storybook details prove irresistible. “Inside, the air smelt of long ago. The stairs were the sort you fly down in dreams. The colored glass in the hall windows seemed full of accumulated sunlight.” Disturbingly, however, when Abi becomes deeply absorbed in a book, remnants of the story she is reading materialize inside the house — a shell, a leaf, pages damp with saltwater. As each chapter focuses on the internal concerns of one of the three now-siblings, it becomes clear that all the children are struggling to find their place in their new circumstances. When Louis, the youngest, unknowingly conjures up a creature that may threaten his safety, Abi and Max must unite to get the magic back under control. Throughout this deftly told story, McKay (the Casson Family series, beginning with Saffy’s Angel, rev. 7/02; Love to Everyone, rev. 11/18) creates a captivating world to fall into, full of honesty and humor. The warm but complicated relationships form a comforting space for readers to explore the power one can find in home, family, and books — especially this one. JULIE ROACH

From the September 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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