Book Reviews: #CYBILS2023 EMG Speculative Fiction Finalists

A quick recap for those who are just now discovering our review series …

excerpts of judges reviews. Their own opinions (not their panels). Did not necessarily judge this category.


The Grace of Wild Things
Heather Fawcett
Balzer + Bray
Nominated by: marsenault13

Deb @ The Book Search – This one’s a charmer. The whole story is just wonderfully fun. Grace is the opposite of the witch, kind hearted and generous, but with a steely will for justice.  Her magical education is less about instruction and more about discovery and so readers will feel opening their own minds to possibilities could lead all sorts of interesting places.  The whole story had an Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna kind of vibe to it but I really liked this book a lot and I think middle grade readers are going to love this one too.

Kristen @ Goodreads – A fantastic story about found family, magic and finding one’s place in the world. I absolutely loved the tone in the book and the magical moments especially. Fawcett’s writing just takes you away and plants you into her world. I absolutely loved the characters, from our wicked witch to Grace who cannot help but be curious and questioning and looking for love but not perfect in any sense. I love the friends she made along the way and how everything came together in the end and even almost shed a tear.

Mark @ Mark My Words – Grace’s colorful, descriptive, inquisitive language is a highlight of the book as she likes to use advanced words, even if she’s not certain of their meanings. The expressive language makes some passages almost poetic and the introduction to every chapter begins with actual lines of verse from famous writers like Emily Dickinson and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Grace’s reactions to the witch’s salty disposition are priceless as she often ignores the witch’s intentions and shares positive, enthusiastic comments.

The author artfully crafts the story of a young witch, desperate to find a home, that slowly evolves into an emotional tale of love and friendship. Grace is a delightful, energetic character who will endear herself to young readers. Overall, this is a marvelous book and I highly recommend you give it a shot!


The Bellwoods Game
Celia Krampien
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Terry Doherty

Mark @ Mark My Words – The Bellwoods Game provides a fresh twist to spooky ghost stories. There’s no haunted house where characters find themselves trapped but the three participants in the Bellwoods Game cannot leave the forest until the game has been completed. The Specter comments that humans fear the unknown and often make it a bigger threat than what’s real. However, that’s not true in this book. The reality inside the forest is far worse than the characters ever dreamed.

The author includes several subplots involving the characters that generate emotional connections to them. The author skillfully builds suspense as the plot moves toward the climax pitting Bailee against the antagonist. Readers will note clues and become aware of what’s going to happen so the plot becomes a question of when they will occur. This book presents an entertaining ghost tale with many twists and turns along the way. As with most exciting climaxes, the characters are left to formulate a plan to solve an impossible conflict. The climax is the most creative part of the plot and I recommend you give this book a shot.

Deb @ The Book Search – It’s a creepy ghost story! I’d like to tell you more of the plot, but part of what makes this story so deliciously creepy, is how it spins out.  There are themes of betrayal and friendship and power in this page turning story.  It would make a good read aloud, but I think the kids are going to snatch it out of the reader’s hands so they can read more quickly!  I know I couldn’t put it down.

Conjure Island
Eden Royce
Walden Pond Press
Nominated by: Amber

Katy @ A Library MamaConjure Island is a powerful book. I had so much sympathy for Del, with so much responsibility put on her from a young age, even before we got to the magic part of the story. The magic itself is real, steeped in tradition and meaning, while its purpose of connecting and building community are lessons that Del needs to master on multiple levels of her life. I appreciated also that though Del has a lot to learn, the adults in her life are able to apologize for the difficulties there choices caused for her. Young people reading this book are sure to want to learn more about Root and find a broom companion of their own. I’d love to read more about Del and her friends, but I’ll read anything Eden Royce wants to write.

Kristen @ Goodreads – I loved the whole vibe of this book, full of family love and solid new friends who help each other out and lift each other up. I loved the magic style and how even though it felt that magical school vibe it had its own unique sense to it. Definitely one I would recommend to my fantasy readers.

Mark @ Mark My Words – The story promotes a strong sense of family and heritage even though the connections in Del’s family are damaged. The tone of the book is very positive which is refreshing in middle-grade literature. Del fears how she’ll be treated by the others and readers might anticipate she’ll be bullied. That doesn’t happen. Readers won’t find any big egos or characters with hidden agendas to create drama as the whole plot centers on healing Del’s family.

The author allows readers to use their imaginations to make predictions which result in some surprises near the end. The overall story is pleasant with moments of suspense when Del makes bad choices. I recommend you give the book a shot.

The Demon Sword Asperides
Sarah Jean Horwitz
Algonquin Young Readers
Nominated by: Alexander Rakitzis

Kristen @ Goodreads – If you’re looking for adventure, humor and good writing all wrapped into one, look no further. I absolutely enjoyed this book and Nack’s adventures as he realizes that there is something more to his sword Asperides and leads him on a journey he couldn’t imagine.

Beth @ Goodreads – This was a tremendous lot of fun. I liked how much every character grew, from the mains — Asperides, his wielder, the seerer, and the necromancer. I liked the mistakes they made, I liked the demon bar, I liked the final moments of the former master of the demon blade, I liked the way the knight family was broken, I liked the mentor knights of the road.

Mark @ Mark My Words – The most innovative aspect of the book is having a demon sword as a main character, able to mentally communicate with a human main character named Nack. Despite being the master of a demon sword, the anguish, confusion, and insecurity within Nack’s mind add complexities to the story. Some readers might question the pace of the plot and Nack sometimes comes across as whiny. However, readers must appreciate the evolution of the characters in addition to the quest to stop Amyral. There’s no continuous action and the battles aren’t overly descriptive but the changes in personalities, attitudes, and self-images are what’s important.

Nack, Asperides, and others are dynamic characters and undergo realizations and transformations throughout the book. Their emotional adventures will engross young readers as they try to stop Amyral from releasing swarms of demons from the underworld. Overall, this is an innovative twist on familiar middle-grade quests and I recommend you give it a shot.

The House of the Lost on the Cape
Sachiko Kashiwaba, illustrated by Yukiko Saito, Avery Fischer Udagawa (Translator)
Nominated by: Charlotte

Katy @ A Library Mama – At the beginning, this appears to be entirely realistic fiction, punctuated by Kiwa’s stories about the legends of the area. It’s also rare in having an adult character like Yui who needs to grow herself- though I see that the movie adaptation made her a teen.  Hiyori also goes from being a very passive character in the beginning to being able to take personal initiative as the story progresses. Even before I knew about the adaptation, the book felt to me like a Miyazaki film, with its wonderful found family, a strong sense of place with lots of nature, and magic slowly seeping through into everyday life.

Charlotte @ Goodreads – This was an utterly lovely magical found family book, in which an orphaned girl, a woman fleeing an abusive marriage, and an old grandmother with no immediate family of her own are brought together after the devastating Japanese tsunami of 2011. A must read for those who love mg fantasy.

Beth @ Goodreads – This book was aimed right at me. There are lots of details of living in Japan, there is traumatic muteness handled sympathetically, there is dancing and flute playing, there are evil red-eyed demons, there are ghost children, there’s story telling from grandmother, there’s everything I could want in a story, and all told in a clear but not condescending voice that conveys both the love the family has for each other and the pain they are dealing with and their courage in facing it.

Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom
Nina Varela
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Lucy K

Deb at The Book Search – I hadn’t read anything by [Nina Varela] before but this one was so good!  don’t really want to tell you more of the plot because it’s so much fun watching this one play out.  The characters are interesting and complicated and funny.  The villains are scary and there’s a really great part of the story line about finding your own gifts and being your own true self.  I really liked this one a lot and I think middle graders are going to love it too.

Katy @ A Library Mama – This was such a good blend of characters, relationships, action and humor! I really appreciated Galatea and Juniper’s slow discovery not only of each other but also of the older relationship between Galatea’s goddess and another one – a moving story as well as a strong demonstration that same-sex love has always been with us. It was a  really satisfying read, and I knew that it would be perfect for my daughter.  As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, she really prefers to stick to audiobooks and graphic novels and this book is sadly not available on audio – but once I made her sit down to read the first five chapters, until Galatea shows up, she finished the rest on her own and wants to make sure it ends up in her school library as well.

The Rhythm of Time
Questlove and S. A. Cosby
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Katy K.

Mark @ Mark My Words – The simplicity of the plot quickly becomes much more complicated. The most interesting aspect of the story is how Rahim gets to see a different side of the adults in his life. His father, uncle, and grandparents display young lives that are in stark contrast to the adults he’s grown up with. Young readers may connect with the musical references throughout the whole story. Rahim comes up with freestyle verses and he loves an older-generation group Four the Hard Way, an actual band. Rahim gets favorable responses when he posts one of his songs but its success makes him the target of the school bully. Traveling to the past opens Rahim’s eyes to the fact that his father and uncle share his interest in music. Weaving the culture of this music into a successful adventure through time travel requires creative talent from the author. Helping a young person develop an understanding of the adults in his life is the most endearing part of the book. It addresses the paradoxes of time travel head-on resulting in an entertaining adventure into the past. I recommend you give this book a shot.

Kristen @ Goodreads – What a fun time travel story full of great moments and humor. I absolutely enjoyed seeing how things were messed up and the reason behind everything beginning. I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

Katy @ A Library Mama – This is fast, smart, and funny adventure with a strong Pittsburgh setting that still takes some deeper looks at the dreams and realities of Black kids, both in 1997 and now. I really enjoyed it, and think it will draw in kids who don’t love the introspective books I usually gravitate towards. Though not quite as slapstick, it would pair well with The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles.