The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Delacorte Press, March 25, 2014.

In a world where toasters and jewelry boxes fall from the sky during meteor storms, scrap towns have sprung up peopled with residents hoping to find the one treasure that will make them rich. The Merrow Kingdom is rich in natural resources, but strip mining has left the land barren and unfit for farming. In the south, the Dragonfly Kingdom is the place of machines and manufacturing. It’s also the place where the 401 train is bound.

Teenaged Piper lives in Scraptown 16 and dreams of riding the 401 south to the Dragonfly Kingdom in order to avenge herself on the kingdom where her father died, killed by the pollution from the factory he worked in. She’s been trying to save for the fare for two years, ever since she learned her father was dead. She ekes out a living by fixing the things folks in town bring her from the meteor fields.

One night Piper and a friend find more than they expect after the storm – they find a ruined caravan and an unconscious girl with the mark of the dragonfly, a sign of the protection of the southern king. The girl’s lost her memory and soon Piper’s on a quest she never expected, a quest to return Anna to her home in the Dragonfly Kingdom.

The Mark of the Dragonfly is an enticing start to what looks to be a series about a steampunk world on another planet. The world is on the brink of a technological revolution and, in addition, boasts several sentient species besides humans. I loved the machine focus, the diverse but loyal gang, and the sweet romance. I’ll definitely watch for more books from Jaleigh Johnson.

Note:I read this as an electronic arc courtesy of Netgalley. I imagine this will be marketed as a YA book/series because of Piper’s age; however, this strikes me as the sort of book that bridges the MG/YA gap beautifully. It would hold interest for both groups and is neither too dark nor too sexual for the MG crowd’s comfort. The Mark of the Dragonfly comes out in five days!

This book has a great steampunk theme. Have you read other steampunk books that you loved? Please share the titles in the comments.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2014.

Ophelia, her teenaged sister, and her father have traveled to a museum in a far away, wintry city for Christmas. It’s the first Christmas since Ophelia’s mother has died, and Father snapped at the chance to get away from home. He’s replacing the missing curator of a sword exhibition three days before opening. Father is so busy that Ophelia and Alice are left on their own to explore the museum and the city. But Alice is moody, as usual, and Ophelia begins to explore the museum on her own.

Uninterested in following the museum curator’s suggestions of exhibits little girls would like to visit, Ophelia soon finds herself in an unused part of the building staring through a keyhole at a boy who claims to be a prisoner in his room. The boy convinces Ophelia to begin a series of quests to free him and possibly even save the world. Soon Ophelia finds that the artifacts in the museum are not what they seem—nor is the beautiful curator. It will take all of Ophelia’s strength and courage to save the Marvelous Boy.

The snow queen is not a story I know well, but I certainly enjoyed this version. Setting the snow queen’s castle as a modern museum is a wonderful device to move this ancient story into the modern, if magical, world. Karen Foxlee keeps the story moving with plenty of action and suspense. Ophelia is an appealing and flawed heroine who uses her smarts, determination, and imagination to solve each new challenge she faces. Her memories of interactions with her mother shed light into her character and also into her process of grieving. The story leaves the door open for a sequel. I hope it will come. Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a great middle grade read!

Grave Images by Jenny Goebel

Scholastic Press, 2013.

Bernie’s life is surrounded by death. Her father runs a gravestone carving business out of the garage; there are blank gravestones all over the yard; and Mama’s taken to her bed, crippled by a grief of her own. People, especially kids, aren’t exactly eager to come around Bernie’s house and be reminded of death everywhere they look, which makes for a lonely summer for Bernie. The only kid who’s interested in hanging around is pogo stick riding Michael Romano, whose mom’s the new sheriff. He’s a pretty embarrassing boy. Bernie’s not sure she wants to be seen with him, much less hang out with him.

When Bernie’s dad allows a mysterious man with a skill for carving to stay in their carriage house apartment, Bernie has a bad feeling. That bad feeling gets worse when people begin dying at an all too rapid pace for a small town. Bernie’s afraid their mysterious visitor is the cause. Can she and Michael prove it before more lives, possibly theirs, are lost?

I liked this book, and I think middle grade readers will like it, too. It’s creepy but not keep-you-awake-all-night scary. It’s got a bit of magic, a good mystery, and a fast moving plot. The kids are the active problem solvers with adults taking an important but secondary role. Readers will relate to thirteen-year-old Bernie’s mixed feelings about a lot of things: her relationship with Michael, her mother’s depression, and her view of herself.

The characters in Grave Images are pretty unusual for a children’s book. Dad and grandma run the house and business because Mom is debilitated by depression after the loss of her infant son. Goebel’s use of the mother’s depression and the family’s loss of a child are skillful. In the story it achieves the function of removing adult focus from Bernie, allowing her to make the mistakes and take the risks she needs to while keeping the plot humming along. The reader sees just how the family is dealing with—and suffering from— Mom’s troubles. Though, as an adult, I was mentally screaming for the adults in the book to get Mom some skilled psychiatric care, Bernie’s own mixed reactions to the situation, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes angry or hurt, felt real and honest.

Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman

Random House, 2013

Hope is impulsive, a daredevil stuck in a town full of inventors who take their time, think things out, find better ways to do things, even if it takes years. Hope can’t bear to wait minutes, much less years, for things to change.

Hope just doesn’t fit in. She loves nothing more than the thrill of jumping off a cliff. If her parents knew she was doing it, she’d be grounded for life – especially since she’s jumping into bomb’s breath, the deadly substance left behind after the green bombs were dropped. People can’t breathe bomb’s breath and live, that’s why it’s so dangerous. But Hope knows she can hold her breath long enough to get through it. Plus, though it’s invisible, the bomb’s breath is denser than air and cushions her fall.

The thrill of each jump lets Hope forget, if only for a little while, that she’s a failure. Every year at fall festival Hope’s the only one in the whole town who hasn’t managed to make a successful invention. Even the four-year-olds seem to manage it, but not twelve-year-old Hope. Soon enough, however, the town encounters something that all their inventions can’t fix, a situation that calls for action, impulse, and extreme bravery. Will Hope’s unique skills be enough to save an entire town?

I was fortunate to be approved to read this cracking adventure through Netgalley before publication. I read the book straight through and loved it. The characters are well drawn and sympathetic. The world building was beautifully woven into the story, and the danger is real enough to be thrilling. The action drives the plot so that even reluctant middle grade readers will pick this one up and go along for the ride.