Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Ones We're Meant to Find and The Darkness Outside Us


I recently read two new books that ostensibly are very different (one set in space, one set on an abandoned island) but they ended up having freakishly similar twists and themes.  Because both contained surprise elements that this reader didn't see coming, this is a hard review to write without spoilers.  So, I'll keep it vague and just say this: if you are a fan of sci fi that plumbs the depths of humanity, either or both of these books should be on your TBR list. 

I had a hard time getting into both of these books. The Darkness Outside Us is set on a spacecraft in the future and the protagonist awakes with no memory of the launch or the immediate thereafter. Ambrose quickly realizes he is not alone on the craft and thus his relationship with Kodiak begins. I've seen this book tagged as "romance" and the cover makes it looks like it's going to be a lighthearted intergalactic rom com, but do not be fooled.  This is intense. Once I got past the protagonist's original disorientation, I devoured The Darkness Outside Us.  So, if you try this one, stick with it a little longer than you otherwise might.

The Ones We're Meant to Find has a similarly disorienting opening. We meet Cee, who has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years and she has no memory of how or why she got there.  All she knows is that she must survive so that she can find her sister.  

And that's really all I can say about these two without giving anything away! If you're intrigued and read one or both of these books, I'd love to know what you think.

Friday, October 1, 2021

The New David Espinoza by Fred Aceves


David Espinoza is tired of getting pushed around and bullied. Despite the fact that he has a tight group of friends and a smart, beautiful girlfriend, he is tormented by boys in school who delight in harassing him, verbally and physically.  When a video of him getting slapped goes viral, David has had enough. He vows to reinvent himself physically over summer vacation.  While he initially intends to change his physique with food and weight lifting, he's sucked into the seemingly miraculous allure of anabolic steroids.  

As David's summer unfolds, his focus narrows to one thing: his muscular gain.  It seems that there is no cost too high: he spends all the money he makes, he alienates his friends and, uncharacteristically, he begins to treat his girlfriend terribly.

Aceves shows how insidiously destructive steroids can be in this powerful exploration of male body dysmorphia.  David's story is painful to read - he does a phenomenal job of imploding his own life, but the book ends on a relatively hopeful, yet realistic, note. The author's end note adds depth to the story. This is another exceptional North Star Book Award nomination.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lin

The publisher's blurb for this book advertises it as "perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone," so I went into it expecting a dark, Bardugo-esque fantasy. Initially I was disappointed because that is not at all what Six Crimson Cranes is.  Once I reframed the story in my mind, though, I came to eagerly anticipate the twists and turns of this fairy tale fantasy.  It actually reminded me a bit of Grace Lin's beautiful Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky, albeit darker and for a more mature audience.

Shiori, the princess of Kiata, has Forbidden magic which she manages to keep hidden until the morning of her dreaded betrothal. Her magic reveal leads to tragic consequences, as her (evil?) stepmother banishes her and turns her brothers into cranes, promising to kill one brother for every word that Shiori speaks. 

Shiori sets off to reverse the curse and save not just her brothers, but her kingdom as well.  Along the way she befriends a dragon, turns a paper crane into her best friend and discovers that all is not as it seems. 

Readers who appreciate fairy tales, magic, curses and magic cranes will love this one.

Friday, September 10, 2021

In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner


Oh my heart. This book was starred by Booklist, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal for good reason and I am adding my own little personal star here. 

Set in rural Tennessee and at an elite prep school in Connecticut, Zentner's prose is worth reading slowly and savoring.  Chase and Delaney have been best friends since they met in a Nar-Anon meeting. Their lives are deeply embedded in their small Appalachian town, but when Delaney discovers a mold with antibacterial properties in a nearby cave, she is offered a full ride to Middleford, a fancy prep school in New England. She agrees to go, but only on the condition that her best friend Cash goes with her.

So, it is with a jumble of fear and pride, trepidation and excitement, that Cash reluctantly leaves his beloved Mamaw and Papaw, who is extremely ill with emphysema, and takes the long Greyhound ride with Delaney to Connecticut. His culture shock is profound upon arrival and he is plagued by the feelings that he is not smart enough to compete and that he has abandoned his grandparents in Tennessee. 

Surprisingly, though, he discovers poetry, as both a reader and writer.  He makes friends, whose lives appear so different from his - Vi from Brazil and Alex, a Korean-American from Texas. All the while, he watches his beloved best friend soar; their relationship becomes more complicated and painful and yet, they understand each other in a way that nobody else can.

The rich, complex characters in this book are truly beautiful.  The way that Zentner writes about Tennessee, loneliness, loss and love is also truly beautiful. I highly recommend this one!

Friday, September 3, 2021

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee


The story of the Titanic is one that we all know, but Stacey Lee gives us a new perspective on that fated voyage with Luck of the Titanic.

Valora Luck dreams of escaping London and becoming a circus performer with her brother in New York City. Although she has a ticket for the Titanic, she's turned away at the gate because she's Chinese and the US has recently passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Thus begins her ruse - she drapes herself in a mourning veil and sneaks aboard as a widowed English aristocrat. Once onboard, she must deftly navigate her two identities - her real one, as a Chinese-British acrobat desperate to convince her brother to join her once they get to New York- and her fake identity as an imperious upperclass London socialite.  The deep striations in society are highlighted by the differences between the third class and first class experiences on the ship; Valora is charismatic and is able to move between the two worlds with relative ease, but she knows that she (and her new Chinese friends) are constantly on the brink of being found out.

And then, of course, tragedy strikes. We all know how the story ends, but I was surprised by how this story ended. Historical fiction fans will enjoy this one. 

Friday, August 27, 2021

What I Carry by Jennifer Longo

 First: the cover. This is a gorgeous cover! I'm long past the whole "don't judge a book by its cover" concept - a beautiful cover draws me in and makes me want to read the words beneath it. Sometimes it's disappointing, but in the case of What I Carry, the cover does the story justice.

Muir has been in foster care for most of her life and she's gotten old enough so that she's about to age out. She's got just one more year and one more placement, with Francine (who has been a foster parent for years and is also in her last year as such) on an island off the west coast of Washington. Muir has spent her entire life avoiding connection and attachment and she's sooooo close to aging out relatively unscathed.  But, of course, the last placement presents her with challenges; she tentatively trusts Francine, she makes a real friend, she falls in love with a dog. All that should be good news, but it's terrifying for Muir.

What I appreciated about this book is that Muir has clearly lived through some Stuff, but her experience in the foster care system hasn't crushed her and she is so wonderfully honest (with herself and others) and terrified as she carefully sets down some tiny roots. 

This one has all the feels and is perfect for when you want an emotionally cathartic read.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis

Mindy McGinnis doesn't pull any punches and I love it. This is a brutal survival story - kind of a grown up Hatchet - and McGinnis explores both the harsh physical realities and the psychological torment of being lost in the woods. 

Ashley is more at home in the forest than anywhere else, but during a night of camping and partying in the Rockies, she witnesses her boyfriend with another girl. In a fury, she busts out, running into the dark night. A fall in a ravine stops her and puts her life at risk.  From there, she takes a deep dive into a dark internal place, while at the same time trying to physically endure the harsh realities of being severely injured in the middle of nowhere.

There's gore, there's dark humor, there's true introspection. Ashley is a badass (and I mean that in the complete sense of the word - she's extremely capable, but also willing to acknowledge her own terror). Be Not Far From Me is a page turner in the running for the North Star YA Award this year... I think it's a serious contender!


Friday, August 13, 2021

They Went Left by Monica Hesse


I have read many, many, many books set during World War II. It's rare, though, to find one set just after the war ended; They Went Left captures the chaos and complete disintegration of society that was left in the wake of World War II. 

For three years, Zofia managed to survive in the Gross-Rosen concentration camp.  She knows that her parents are dead, so when the camp is liberated in 1945, her only thought is of reuniting with her younger brother, Abek. With the help of a Russian soldier, she makes her way back to the only house she and her family ever knew. In a jarring scene, she finds that everything is the same, but completely different. Her brother, though, is not there, so she sets off on foot to find him.

Zofia is something of an unreliable narrator, but Hesse's descriptive writing gently reveals the truth of the heartbreaking realities that Zofia and other displaced persons experienced.  Although this is a painful read, it is not without hope. They Went Left provides today's readers with a look at a unique time in history and for me, it was interesting to experience Zofia's uncertainty and fear as a reader in the midst of a pandemic. Historical fiction readers will find much to appreciate in this North Star YA Award nominee. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

I read an interview with Daniel Nayeri before Everything Sad is Untrue was published and I had been eager to read it ever since.  For a whole host of reasons, it took me forever, but I'm glad that it did because it meant that I read it just shortly after it won the Printz Award.

Perhaps because it had been on my radar for so long and it had just won YA's most celebrated award, I assumed that I would drop into the pages and not look up until I was done. That was not at all what happened for me as a reader.  Nayeri's fictionalized memoir is based on his own story of being an eleven year old refugee from Iran who lands, unceremoniously, in Oklahoma.  

When Khosrou (or Daniel, as he is renamed when he lands in America) arrives in Mrs. Miller's classroom, he becomes a storyteller.  In an almost stream-of-consciousness way, he weaves stories from his past with Persian mythology and the reality of his present day circumstances. At first it was difficult for me to follow this meandering path - I'm not always a big fan of stories-within-stories - but Khosrou's winsome voice won me over. Although he, his mother and his sister had a harrowing journey out of Iran, through a refugee camp in Italy, finally to Oklahoma (and an abusive new stepfather), Khosrou somehow manages to find the levity in tragic situations without subsequently denying the tragedy.  It's a masterful line to walk, but there's a reason Nayeri won the Printz.

There are a few "tricky" things about Everything Sad is Untrue in terms of readership.  There are no chapters (although there are frequent breaks in the text), the plot never once goes in a straight line, and the protagonist is younger than typical YA narrators.  All of those things eventually became part of what I appreciate about Everything Sad is Untrue, but it was not love at first sight. For some readers, it might add up to three strikes, but for those who enjoy quirky, outsider voices, they will find a soulmate in Khosrou. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

The Initial Insult by Mindy McGinnis

I am a little late getting to the Mindy McGinnis party, but now that I'm here, I will not be missing any of her future books and I'm excited to work my way backwards through her titles. I was utterly ravaged by her North Star YA Award nominee Heroine and I read Be Not Far From Me Now in one gulp.  Both share a gritty realism that is hard to witness, but is ultimately redemptive.

The Initial Insult takes "gritty" to a whole new level. In creating this story, McGinnis was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe and that is obvious, both in the deliberate way the plot unfolds and in the terrifying crescendo/cliffhanger ending (this is the first in a duology and yes, I eagerly await for #2).  Generally I don't do scary. I'm a wimp when it comes to horror and generally I won't even get close to gore.  I make an exception, here, though, for McGinnis.

Tress Mentor's parents disappeared into thin air seven years ago when they were driving Tress's friend Felicity home. Tress's life has been a mess ever since. She lives with her alcoholic grandfather in what the locals call "White Trash Zoo," and while she manages to get to her senior year of high school, she is tormented by the question of what happened to her parents and filled with rage towards her former best friend.  Tress, certain that Felicity remembers more than she has shared, puts a sinister and horrifying plan into place to force Felicity into telling her what happened that evening.  No spoilers here, but suffice to say Tress is a mastermind of the macabre.  

Interspersed throughout the book are poems in the voice of a panther who is a resident in the "White Trash Zoo." Tress shares a weird affinity with the panther and McGinnis' descriptions of this wild cat, caged, are haunting. 

Publication date for The Initial Insult is 2/23/21, so it's coming to a library near you soon.  

Friday, January 29, 2021

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

I was intrigued by the idea of this retelling/re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet but I was unprepared for the dark and vibrant world-building, the rich cultural immersion and the intense gore of These Violent Delights.  

Set in 1926 Shanghai amidst the violent blood feud between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, the story centers on the two young leaders of those gangs: Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov.  The parallels to Shakespeare are directly drawn, but also altered and twisted to fit the glamour and violence of a Shanghai under the siege and sway of a horrific monster and an army of (terrifying) insects that burrow into human skin and cause people to tear out their own throats.  The images in my mind associated with said insects are truly nightmarish.  

Gong has created a fascinating, disturbing, beautiful story that certainly harkens back to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but also is, in Gong's words "my mission as an English major to take a classic that we so dearly love and revamp it: in a new culture, with queer rep, and as a brutal takedown of colonialism—without losing its core themes about love, and hate, and loyalty." 

I highly recommend this complex and dark tale for readers who want to fully immerse themselves into another world, complete with passion, horror, mystery and romance.  These Violent Delights is available via Sora

Friday, November 6, 2020

The Degenerates by J. Albert Mann

Set in the early 19th century in the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, The Degenerates is an eye-opening story based on real events.  Rose, Maxine, Alice and London are all "patients" at what is effectively a prison - although none of them have done anything wrong.  Despite their differences, they band together to survive the incredibly harsh conditions of their institutionalization, the bullies who torment them and their tenuous dreams of escape.  

Each of the characters has been sent to the "School" for transgressions against society - Maxine was caught kissing another girl, her sister Rose was born with Down Syndrome, Alice has talipes equinovarus, or a clubfoot, and London is fourteen, unwed and pregnant.  They are an unlikely crew, but their bond is fierce, protective and even funny, at times, despite their dire and dangerous situation.  

Mann has crafted a beautiful narrative that shows readers how love can not just endure, but indeed strengthen, in the darkness.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

It would be easy to write off You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson as romantic fluff (and there's nothing wrong with romantic fluff), but there's more than initially meets the eye to this new book by debut author Johnson.  

Liz Lighty lives with her grandparents and brother and is one of the few Black students at her rural Indiana high school.  She has friends and a solid social life, but she lost her mom to sickle cell disease and her family is struggling financially.  She's a talented musician and dreams of going to college on a music scholarship, but when that plan falls through her friends convince her to run for prom queen because the winner receives a hefty scholarship.  Black, queer, and not at all interested in what the popular kids think of her, Liz is an unlikely prom queen candidate.  

Funny, but pointed in its critique of the status quo, You Should See Me in a Crown is a great choice when you're looking for a breezy read with a little bite.  You can access it via Sora and CloudLibrary.

Happy reading!

Monday, October 26, 2020

Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez


Camila Hassan is used to living in the shadow of her fútbol star brother, Pablo.  But she has a big secret: she too is a fútbol star, known as La Furia on the field. 

Set in Rosario, Argentina, this is the story of Camila's careful navigation of her dreams and desires, and the expectations that are so heavily placed on her. In her patriarchal society and family, respectable young women are not athletes.  When her fútbol team qualifies for an important South American tournament, though, Camila's secret becomes much harder to keep.  Facing pressure from her boyfriend (another fútbol star, who has left the barrio to play soccer professionally in Italy), her teammates (who depend upon her on the field) and her family, Camila is forced to make choices that will impact not just her, but her community as a whole. 

I loved the mix of on the field adrenaline with the character-driven story of one young woman meeting and defying narrow expectations.  It's also a great romance!

This book is available via Sora and CloudLibrary.  Happy reading!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko


Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (published 8/2020, available via CloudLibrary) is an immersive YA fantasy debut with fast action, intriguing characters and thought-provoking themes.  

Tarisai is raised by a cold and absent mother, The Lady.  When she comes of age, Tarisai is sent to the capital to compete to be a member of the Crown Prince's Council of 11.  Those who are chosen communicate with "the Ray," which is deeper than blood.  The only problem is that The Lady has set a magical prophecy in motion, which requires Tarisai to kill the Crown Prince once she has won his trust.

Inspired by West African mythology, Raybearers explores a whole host of themes - gender roles, generational trauma, loyalty and love -  to name just a few.  

This is the first in what promises to be a compelling series.  It is available to LA community members via CloudLibrary as both an audiobook and an ebook.  Happy reading!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Venturing into the World of YA

I have a new job as a high school librarian... and my reading habits have changed accordingly!  YA is a whole new world - one that I've dipped my toes into over the years, and have always wanted to dive into.  I find myself somewhat overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of books that I need to inhale - I was an elementary school librarian for 15 years and I knew the shelves of my library so well.  Kids loved to ask if I'd read EVERYTHING in the library and while the answer was "No, not quite everything," I felt comfortable recommending just about everything.

Now I have a whole new community of students to get to know, and a whole lot of books that I haven't read.  It's both exciting and daunting.  So, once again I am attempting to get back into blogging, this time with a focus on new YA titles.

Although it hasn't quite come out yet, I am psyched to soon share Julia Drake's The Last True Poets of the Sea with my new students. Inspired by Twelfth Night, set in Maine, The Last True Poets of the Sea tells the story of Violet, a NYC teen who is sent to live with her uncle in rural Maine after running dangerously wild in the city.  Drake slowly unveils the reasons for Violet's actions and pain, while at the same time digging into her family's history (including an epic shipwreck), which is closely tied to the history of little Lyric, Maine.

Touching on some pretty heavy issues (drug and alcohol use, suicide, eating disorders), it is ultimately a heart-full and heartfelt story of coming into being and coming out into the world.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Great Read Alouds on the new MSBA List

It has been so fun getting feedback this past week from readers of all ages about the new MSBA list.  I love that so many people are passionate about both the list and the books that they were really hoping to see on the list.

Quite a few people have asked me which books I would especially recommend as read alouds, so I'd like to highlight a few here that I think will work well in the classroom or library in that capacity.  Of course, the best books for reading aloud are the ones that the reader loves the most!  So, I hope you will read the list widely and let me know which ones you are excited to share aloud.

I have a weekly lunch read aloud, and Wicked Nix by Lena Coakley is my May pick.  It's short (which is necessary for a once a week read aloud this time of the year), quirky, funny and full of the mischief of an unlikely fairy hero.  It's a perfect pick for middle elementary readers (as is Bob, another fantasy title on the 4-6 list).

Any book that starts with two brothers trading their sister for a bag of fireworks is going to be a read aloud hit.  The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon is full of rich, unpredictable characters and also questions.  I think that as students read this book, their questions about the enigmatic Styx will grow and deepen, as they try to solve the mystery of who he is, and why he acts the way he does. This is a funny story, but it's humor tinged with some real-life, well-earned sorrow.  It will lead to rich classroom conversations.

I mentioned this one in my post last week, but it's worth highlighting again.  Class Action would be a fantastic read aloud for middle grade classrooms in conjunction with a social studies unit on civics and/or the American judicial system.  This is a book that kids will beg you to keep reading, and they'll learn a great deal about how laws are made. 

These are just a few possibilities of many.  I'd love to hear about which MSBA titles you are excited to read aloud! 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Back from my Blogging Hiatus

I've been on an extended blogging hiatus (almost three years, which I can barely believe), but I've been thinking about getting back into it, and in my reading year cycle, April is a new beginning.  So, it's the perfect time!

For the past seven years I've served on the Maine Student Book Award committee.  Reading and reviewing for this group has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences that I've ever had, thus I am feeling a little bit bittersweet about it as I head into my last year on the committee.  Choosing a list of 40ish books for middle grade readers seems so straight forward, until you sit down with a group of twelve people and try to do it!  It gets tricky quickly, and every year when we put the list out there into the world, I feel nervous about how it will be received.  I hope so very much that every kid in Maine will find something on the list that they love.  So, our shiny new list is out, after a wonderful, collaborative day of conversations this weekend.

For this return to blogging for me, I'd like to highlight some of my favorites on the list:

Journey of the Pale Bear 
by Susan Fletcher

This is a beautiful historical fiction story about a boy, a polar bear, and a journey that is both geographical and internal in nature.  If I had to pick just one favorite... well, it might be this one.

Class Action 
by Steven B. Frank

A highly entertaining story about a group of kids who become unlikely activists when they protest the overwhelming amount of homework they are assigned every night.  While it is laugh out loud funny, readers are also invited to ponder the nature of the American judiciary and educational systems.

The Eleventh Trade 
by Alyssa Hollingsworth

This was not on my radar until it made the MSBA shortlist, and I am so glad it did! Sami is an Afghan refugee living in Boston with his grandfather; they have just tenuously begun to build a new life after the sorrow of losing their family, when Sami's grandfather's beloved rebab (a musical instrument) is stolen.  Sami feels responsible, and when he finds it in a store, he is determined to get it back.  Thus begins his journey towards "the eleventh trade."  There is both a lightness and a depth of Sami's story, and I just loved him.

Game Changer 
by Tommy Greenwald

I generally really like sports stories (and more importantly, many of my students do too), but this one struck me as truly exceptional.  Written almost entirely in social media posts and texts, Game Changer tells the story of a 13 year old boy who is in a coma after he collapsed at football practice.  Ever so slowly, the truth about what happened emerges.  Every character in this story is complex and fully human. Even if you're not a football fan or typically into sports fiction, this is worth a read - it's thought provoking and powerful.

These are just a few of my favorites from the new MSBA list - I'd love your feedback about the new list!

Monday, May 16, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 5/16/16

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

I have read so many wonderful baseball-related books in the last year or so: The Distance to Home, A Long Pitch Home (coming out in September), The Only Game, and The Way Home Looks Now.  I now have another great one to add to the list - Soar by Joan Bauer.

The protagonist in Soar is Jeremiah.  He is not a baseball player (although he'd like to be), but he is a baseball expert, and he is obsessed with baseball.  Walt, Jeremiah's adoptive dad, is a nerdy robotics engineer.  Together they form a tight unit, with humor playing a huge role in helping both of them deal with a significant challenge - Jeremiah has had a heart transplant and he deals with serious ongoing health problems as a result.  When Walt's job sends them from St. Louis to Hillcrest, Ohio, Jeremiah is overjoyed to find that it is a town that is, like him, obsessed with baseball.  The high school team is the state champ, and the community is bonkers for baseball.  

While Jeremiah can't play baseball because of his heart issues, he knows the game like no one else, and fairly quickly he takes an active role in reinstating the middle school team after it has more or less disbanded.  As a reader, I couldn't help but love Jeremiah and his earnest approach to middle school, and to life.  He's quirky, spirited and funny, despite some serious health setbacks.  

Although this book probably would be most appreciated by readers who also enjoy baseball, it is not just a "sports fiction" story.  The real story lies in the characters, and although Bauer touches upon some heavy stuff (PED use by underage athletes, serious illness and adoption) the overall tone of Soar is fairly light and heartfelt.   For readers (like me!) who love baseball and a good emotional wallop, Bauer's newest is a winner.

Monday, May 2, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 5/2/16

Thank you to SheilaJen and Kellee for inspiring and hosting the #IMWAYR meme.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has authored dozens of books and she still hits the mark when it comes to middle grade readers.  Her latest novel, Going Where It's Dark, is an exploration of both external and internal darkness and it is a page turner!

Thirteen year old Buck stutters and his only friend has moved away, leaving him vulnerable to the town bullies who seem to take great pleasure in making his life miserable.  His extended family loves him, but they worry about him too, and can't really understand who he is.  The one thing that brings Buck peace and allows him to forget about his stutter is exploring underground caves.  He keeps his caving secret and takes risks that even he knows are dangerous.  When he befriends a cranky old man who just happens to be a former speech pathologist for the army, Buck starts to gain a little bit of confidence, despite the fact that the bullies are becoming increasingly dangerous.  The apex of action in this novel is truly heart-pounding and the two "darknesses" - the internal one that Buck struggles with, and the external one that is all too real - come together in a fairly extreme way.  

I love that this book is both a character driven one, and an action/adventure story.  Buck and family members are deeply human - flawed, but trying so hard to do the right thing  - and their growth feels entirely genuine.  At the same time, the action is pretty breath-taking (maybe I found it especially so because the thought of being underground in a narrow cave is entirely terrifying to me).  I think the combination will work well for all sorts of middle grade readers.  

Once again, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has created an eminently readable and powerful story!