It's kind of old news by now, but in case you missed it, the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards winners were announced a couple of weeks ago. I was on the panel that had to pick the Middle-Grade Spec Fic winner, and it was a difficult task, let me tell you! Just take a look at this shortlist! I'm going to highlight each of the books on the shortlist in coming posts, because I loved many of them and liked them all.
But to begin with, the book everyone on the panel agreed was a sure-fire hit, with lots of kid appeal, an original premise, great characters, and a fascinating speculative world that says a lot about our own world: The Fog Diver.
Imagine we came up with a way to get rid of all our pollution by building tiny self-replicating robots to eat it. (Nanites! They're going to solve everything! A great sci-fi trope that I haven't yet seen in children's fiction.) Of course, something goes wrong, and now there's a toxic nanite fog covering almost all of the earth's surface, and humans can only live clustered at the tops of mountains.
So, of course, they get around in airships. (Airships! Inherently awesome! Especially if they look just like pirate ships, because (physics aside) of course we would build airships that look like pirate ships.) Since there aren't too many resources available at the tops of mountains, people have to dive into the toxic fog to find food and other useful stuff down on the surface. But they can only do it for so long before they get sick and die. So, of course, it's poor orphans who do most of the diving, because they have no choice.
I love the socio-economic commentary that underlies the world-building here and ties in with the plot. We have a group of poor orphans—excellent protagonists for a middle-grade adventure—facing off against exploitative land-owners (poor people don't actually get to live on the mountaintops: the slums are floating rafts that collect all around the land. If people don't pay their rent, the slum landlords cut their balloons so their shack falls to the earth. A great metaphor for the precarious position of the poor.)
Then there's the hero, Chess, who doesn't get sick when he dives into the fog. What makes Chess different is one of the mysteries that propel the plot—protagonist with a secret, another excellent trope well-used here. And Chess's crew is a great team: the book blurb almost makes them sound like caricatures, but they are all well-developed characters whose interactions were fun and believable. (They reminded me of the Firefly crew, actually, and that's high praise.)
The action is fast-paced, the stakes are high and plausible, all the characters develop over the course of the book. One plot arc comes to a satisfying close, but there is more story to be told, and I for one am eagerly anticipating the second book coming out this year. It's a world and characters I want to return to.
For more Marvelous Middle-Grade selections, every Monday check out Shannon Messenger's magnificent blog.