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Culture Children's Books

Worlds unseen

Children’s Books

Worlds unseen

Middle-grade fiction reviewed


Remy Wilkins

Rodney feels abandoned when his parents divorce and his mother leaves him with “weird” Uncle Ray for the summer as she attempts to start their new life. But the summer takes an unexpected turn when Rodney encounters a demon named “Birthless” and discovers that Uncle Ray has a secret connection to a demonic underworld. Evoking C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Wilkins’ debut novel portrays cleverly named demonic characters who converse, plot, and war against angels, earthly beings, and even critters who are subject to “The Name.” Chapter titles include words from the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and questions about the unseen realm abound. (Ages 9-12)

The Crooked Castle 

Sarah Jean Horwitz

Magician’s apprentice Carmer and his faerie princess companion Grit detect mysterious magic at work when they discover a connection between a popular aerial circus show and a string of recent airship disasters. The thrilling quest that ensues involves unexpected allies, magical snowstorms, and an under-the-sea evil kingdom. This fantasy follow-up to Horwitz’s 2017 The Wingsnatchers goes deeper into faerie factions and introduces new friends and villains while maturing a timid Carmer and a fiery Grit. But it still delivers the same clever combination of a magical underworld and steampunk machinery, conveying that—at the height of human inventions and achievement—a battle for the mind exists. (Ages 9-12)

Hello, Universe 

Erin Entrada Kelly

A recluse Virgil Salinas, nicknamed “turtle” by his boisterous family, longs for the courage to talk to a confident and deaf classmate, Valencia Somerset. The two share incessant taunting from bully Chet Bullens and a budding friendship with self-proclaimed middle-school psychic Kaori. One summer day the lives of these four sixth-graders converge when a heartless act leaves Virgil stranded and helpless. Told from each character’s perspective, the story gives insight into diverse families, worldviews, and the common longing for worth and friendship. Kelly’s 2018 Newbery winner will hook readers immediately, but it credits vague spiritualism—a “big, mysterious, fickle” universe—instead of an all-knowing God. (Ages 8-12)

The School Story 

Andrew Clements

Natalie Nelson’s first novel is good. So good her best friend Zoe Reisman believes she can get it published at the company where Natalie’s mom works. But how can two sixth-graders navigate the adult world of publishing while keeping Natalie’s manuscript out of the slush pile … and her mother oblivious? With the help of some trustworthy adults, Zoe orchestrates a plan that will carry them both on a wild ride to publication. Although the outcome for this golden oldie (published in 2001) is far-fetched, The School Story portrays clever characters with lots of determination and creativity. (Ages 8-12)

(Bain News Service/Library of Congress)


Airplane travel is so commonplace now that the exhibition flyers who paved its way are all but forgotten. Lawrence Goldstone’s Higher, Steeper, Faster (Little, Brown, 2017) attempts to acquaint young readers with the daredevils behind modern aerial achievement.

The book opens in 1915 with Lincoln Beachey performing his famous “Dip of Death” maneuver in front of crowds at the height of exhibition flying. It backtracks to early flight attempts, including gliders, parachutes, and balloons. Set mostly in the United States, the story focuses on flight’s first decade and male and female personalities who reached celebrity status as they broke records and awed crowds. Hundreds died, though, while performing dangerous stunts.

Goldstone’s journalistic writing and passion for aerial history bring his subject to life. The book, suited for ages 9-12, contains a helpful timeline and archival photographs, documents, and newspaper clippings. —M.J.