** Great for guys!

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park**
Ali Cross series by James Patterson**
Code of Silence by Tim Shoemaker**
Escape from the Everglades by Tim Shoemaker**
Escape from the Island of Aquarius by Frank Peretti**
Ezra’s Story by Sherry A. Burton
Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred by Frank Peretti**
More than Grit, Gretchen Carlson
Nightmare Academy by Frank Peretti**
Soprano Trouble by Victoria Kimble
Sour Lemon and Sweet Tea by Julane Fisher
Sour Lemon Strikes Out by Julane Fisher
The Deadly Curse of Toco-Rey by Frank Peretti**
The Door in the Dragon’s Throat by Frank Peretti**
The Harwood Mysteries by Antony Barone Kolenc
The Islanders by Mary Alice Monroe and Angela May**
The Legend of Annie Murphy by Frank Peretti**
The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal**
The Main Dish by Victoria Kimble
The Other Side of Freedom by Cynthia Toney**
The Secret of the Desert Stone by Frank Peretti**
The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer
The Tombs of Anak by Frank Peretti**
Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea by Frank Peretti**

A Long Walk to Water

by: Linda Sue Park

This is a must-read for middle graders and their parents. If you delve into its Amazon reviews (84% of more than 14,000 readers rated it with five stars), you’ll find that many students approached their parents with questions about the tale’s accuracy. Yes, it’s a true story. And yes, it’s a perfect book for adults to read with kids who are at least nine years old.

Told from two points of view, this historical fiction tale begins in the impoverished country of Sudan in 2008 with 11-year-old Nya collecting water for her family. I soon learned that she performs this chore many times a day with each arduous journey taking several hours. It’s her only job. She’s not allowed to attend school.

The story then moves to 1985 and 11-year-old Salva. A religious war has erupted between North and South Sudan, and his schoolhouse is caught in the middle of a deadly battle. His teacher shoves the students out the back door with a warning not to go home, but to head into the bush. Salva runs until he can’t breathe, then stops. He realizes that he’s on his own and must make his way somewhere safe. But where? The United States government has since dubbed him a Lost Boy, one of the thousands who were separated from their families during this devastating civil war.

The story shifts smoothly back and forth between the two time periods and the two main characters, who pull on their inner strengths to survive their poverty-stricken and sometimes dangerous lives. As I wondered how the paths of the two would cross, the author began to weave in well-timed hints. After reading the last page, I sat back and said, “Wow,” then asked myself how I could help. The author, thankfully, left resources for more information in her end notes.

Reviewed February 18, 2022

Ali Cross series

by: James Patterson

James Patterson has introduced another unputdownable middle grade series. This one features an African-American son of a respected detective. Ali, named after Muhammed Ali, is just as tenacious as the prize fighter when he wants to uncover the truth. He works behind his father’s back to find leads to cases that the police would never have the opportunity to uncover. In the first book, Ali Cross, his close friend disappears, and he and his other friends enter an online game similar to Fortnite to find him. So cool. In Like Father, Like Son, another of Ali’s friends is shot. After she claims it was an accident, Ali discovers her shooting is linked to another crime. Patterson does a great job with tension-filled storylines, spot-on dialogue, and character development. They’re clean and even teach a few moral values. The third in the series, The Secret Detective, releases June 27th.

Reviewed March 31, 2022

Code of Silence

by: Tim Shoemaker

If you ever have a chance to meet the author at a book signing, go! You’ll find him to be friendly, witty and full of wisdom. I attended one of his classes at this year’s Blue Ridge Mountain Writer’s Conference, where I hung around afterwards to chat. He was only too happy to let me pick his brain.

This middle-grade novel is the first in a three-part series about a group of friends who are at the wrong place at the right time. They witness a murder in this book, extract a “code of silence” from each other to protect themselves and wind up in a huge mess as a result of the deceit they must create. I found myself trembling as I read some of the harrowing scenes. Can’t wait to read his next two.
Reviewed June 1, 2018

Escape from the Everglades

by: Tim Shoemaker

In 2021, Focus on the Family published Escape from the Everglades, the first book in the author’s High Water series. This series features 15-year-old Parker Buckman, who ends up in south Florida after his father, a park ranger is transferred to work in the Everglades. The father of Parker’s friend, Angelica (Jelly), is transferred to the same location. Parker and Jelly befriend Wilson, a native American, and life starts to look up . . .  until Jelly’s sister disappears in the swamp. To find her, the friends must outwit her bully boyfriend, battle alligators, and face the darkness of their pasts. This series is more hard-hitting than the Code of Silence series. The characters are older and their adventures tend to be more risky and sometimes violent. But know that the author has kept the stories clean and Christian-based. I recommend this book for middle grade guys.

Reviewed September 9, 2022

Escape from the Island of Aquarius (Cooper Kids #2)

by: Frank Peretti

When Jay and Lila Cooper agree to help their father track down the story behind a deceased missionary, they didn’t realize they’d put themselves in such extreme danger. As soon as they set foot on the shore of a South Sea island, they are confronted with a cult-like colony, a mysterious death, and eerie sounds. The author doesn’t give readers time to catch a breath with this fast-paced story. I sprinted from the beginning to end in one day with my heart in my throat. Middle schoolers and young adults will both love the Christian-based action and adventure.
Reviewed February 3, 2020

Ezra’s Story

by: Sherry A. Burton

If you’re looking for clean fiction about the Irish to help your middle grader celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I highly recommend Ezra’s Story by Sherry A. Burton. Though it’s not set in Ireland, this eye-opening novella about an orphaned seven-year-old boy reveals the plight of those who emigrated to New York City from the Emerald Isle during the devastating potato famine.

Chapter One begins in 1915 with Ezra, whose grandparents emigrated from Ireland, accepting that his father had turned to alcohol to get his mind off losing his job. Ezra intends to stay on his father’s good side, so he won’t be forced to run away like his older sister. However, one night his father becomes mean while drinking, and Ezra must rush his younger brother, Tobias, from their tenement home. Ezra runs one way and Tobias the other. They lose each other in the dark. Now Ezra has no home and no family.

The next morning Ezra meets a vegetable seller named Angus who wears a unique green coat. After Ezra shadows Angus for a few days, the man offers him a job and a place to sleep. During the time Ezra spends with this leprechaun look-alike, he learns about his Irish heritage and the challenges that immigrants face. There are a lot of twists and turns in Ezra’s story, as well as a wee bit of violence and a few tear-jerking scenes. Thankfully, the story ends well for the young man.

Throughout the book, Angus shares wisdom from his home country with Ezra. You might enjoy a few of his sayings:

  • A man takes a drink, the drink takes the drink, the drink takes the man.
  • Put the darkness behind you and let the light shine on the lad you are to become.
  • Being prideful is one thing, but thinking yourself high and mighty is another. It can lead to a mighty hard fall.
  • Returning home looks best when the home ye return to is tidy.
  • It be a fine day for young ducks. (When it rains.)
  • I didn’t get to be an old man by worrying about things I cannot change.

Ezra’s Story is part of the Orphan Train Saga series. While each book tells a different child’s story, some of the children’s lives intertwine. The author recommends reading the books in order to avoid spoilers. But I will offer one spoiler: the next book is about Tobias.

Reviewed March 13, 2023

Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred (Cooper Kids #8)

by: Frank Peretti

Originally published as Flying Blind, this story spotlights the worst day of Jay’s life. Very different from the first seven books, Mayday is set in one location—a small airplane, piloted by Jay’s Uncle Rex. Jay is his co-pilot and the only other person in the plane. Lila makes brief appearances via radio. When air turbulence from a low-flying 757 causes the plane to flip and knock Uncle Rex unconscious, Jay must take over the controls. But, there’s a problem, Jay is concussed and can’t see. The entire book follows Jay’s blind quest to return the plane to the ground with Dr. Cooper instructing him from a nearby plane. While full of exciting, heart-stopping moments, this book is my least favorite of the series. MG and teen guys with a love for adventure and anything aeronautical might disagree with me.
Reviewed February 17, 2020

More Than Grit

by: Gretchen Carlson

Winner of the American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Contest-Young Adult, More Than Grit is a terrific clean read for male and female middle graders. Written by one of my critique partners, Gretchen Carlson, this eye-opening work of historical fiction is set in Kansas in 1939. Twelve-year-old Sissy, scarred by a kerosene lantern accident, wants to help her family pay the $5 deposit to get electricity. She arranges a secret job with her crotchety neighbor and is on course to meet the deadline. However, one challenge after another sets her back. The ending blew me away.

Reviewed July 19, 2022

Nightmare Academy

by: Frank Perretti

I loved everything about this book, except for the Kindle formatting. It needs updating. The story, however, didn’t disappoint in this second book of The Veritas Project. The Christian twins are once more faced with a dilemma posed by non believers. This time, it’s about truth—many levels of it. They’re separated from their parents and must rely on their spiritual foundation to survive. They face bullies, deceitful adults and government cover-ups. I highly recommend this book (maybe the paperback version) to older young adults.
Reviewed August 23, 2019

Soprano Trouble

by: Victoria Kimble

Seventh grade is hard enough without adding peer pressure. With misplaced encouragement from her group of choir friends, Summer pranks the new girl. Her actions are soon discovered and now she must work in the church nursery as payback . . . with the new girl, a humbling experience. Over the next few weeks, Summer learns that first appearances are deceiving and that old friends aren’t always the best ones.

Soprano Trouble is the first in the three-part Choir Girl series. I promise—they all end on high notes. I happen to know the author is an expert on girl drama. She has three beautiful daughters. Check out her website.
Reviewed October 29, 2017

Sour Lemon and Sweet Tea

by: Julane Fisher

This is Fisher’s debut novel—an amazing launch to her writing career. It’s a terrific clean southern read for middle schoolers about family, friends and overcoming obstacles. Set in Triple Gap, Georgia during the Carter era, the story centers around a set of female twins. The sour lemon twin embarks on a journey of self-discovery, learning the hard lessons of rejection and forgiveness. The sweet tea twin keeps her straight. Fisher slips in humorous dialogue and realistic settings that remind me of summertime life on my grandparents’ farm in south Georgia. I can’t wait for her next book, which I understand is close to completion.
Reviewed April 24, 2018

Sour Lemon Strikes Out

by: Julane Fisher

The story continues with the “sour lemon” twin, Lillie Mae, frustrated that her best friend is spending too much time with the new girl in town. Before long, she learns a secret about the new girl. By the end of the book, Lillie Mae has learned more than that secret—she’s also learned that loyal friendship and close family relations can conquer any problem. This is a terrific book for middle schoolers with its strong anti-bullying and peer pressure messages.
Reviewed March 28, 2019

The Deadly Curse of Toco-Rey (Cooper Kids #6)

by: Frank Peretti

I’ll never look at dust the same again. In fact, after finishing the book, I vacuumed the entire house. And the freaky flying slugs ensured that I’ll never touch another snail. Where does Peretti come up with this stuff? Dr. Cooper is once again tasked with an archeological-based mission, this time to mine the treasure of the Toco-Rey ruins in Mexico. When he and his children arrive in the jungle, they learn their predecessors have perished from a deadly curse. It’s up to them to not only locate the treasure, but to determine how the deaths occurred. They’re faced with a mad scientist, angry villagers and a terrifying green man. Middle graders and teens will love this non-stop page turner.
Reviewed February 15, 2020

The Door in the Dragon’s Throat

by: Frank Peretti

If you’re sick of reading about vampires and princesses, check out this exciting work of Christian fiction. Biblical archaeologist, Dr. Cooper, and his children, 14-year-old Jay and 13-year-old Lila, travel to Nepur to excavate the contents of an ancient cavern called the Dragon’s Throat. The risk is high—everyone before them has died trying to access the forbidden door inside the cavern. When the Coopers plunge into the Dragon’s Throat, they are confronted with supernatural twists and turns in the ongoing battle between good and evil. Perfect for MG and young teens.
Reviewed June 16, 2017

The Harwood Mysteries

by: Antony Barone Kolenc

This award-winning Christian middle-grade series kept me on the edge of my seat as I raced through its four unputdownable books. Set in 1184, Shadow in the Dark, The Haunted Cathedral, The Fire of Eden, and The Merchant’s Curse follow the confusing, yet brave, experience of a young boy who lost his memory. While convalescing at Harwood Abbey, he’s nicknamed Alexander—Xan for short—by Brother Andrew. He soon befriends Joshua and Lucy, who help him track a frightening shadow that threatens the abbey, then face unspeakable terrors in a haunted cathedral in the neighboring town of Lincoln. He gains two new friends, Christina and Simon, who confront help him confront his fears in a dangerous exploration in Lincoln to learn the truth about his suspicious relatives. Throughout the books, Xan not only searches for his parents, but also for his spiritual purpose. This is high-adventure clean reading at its best for both boys and girls.
Reviewed June 2, 2021 and October 27, 2022

The Islanders

by: Mary Alice Monroe and Angela May

One of my favorite authors of adult beach reads, Mary Alice Monroe, has teamed with Angela May, a media specialist, to write a middle grade novel set on South Carolina’s Dewees Island. The result is an amazing story about friendship, loss, and the healing power of nature.

I’ve met Monroe twice, and she’s as fine a person as she is a writer. After a book signing, she took the time to encourage me to keep plugging on my novel. Each summer, you’ll find me by the pool with my nose in one of her stories. This year was an exception. I read two—the adult The Summer of Lost and Found (I highly recommend it) and The Islanders, which is the first in a series. I’m happy to say that I liked both equally.

In a surprise twist, a minor character, Lovie, from Monroe’s Beach House series appears in The Islanders as one-third of a trio of new friends. The protagonist, eleven-year-old Jake, meets her shortly after arriving on the island to stay with his grandmother for the summer. Within days, they befriend Macon, whose parents own a second home not far from Lovie’s house. All three struggle with family issues that they keep buried inside.

Throughout their summer adventures, they learn to trust each other. Slowly, they reveal their secrets. After an unwise decision, they’re sentenced to mandatory turtle duty. Each morning they must rise early and check the beach for turtle nests. When they discover a predator has raided one of the nests, they create an elaborate plan to protect the turtle eggs.

A Monroe story always features some South Carolina critter. The Islanders doesn’t disappoint. Not only will readers learn about sea turtles, but they’ll also gain a little knowledge about alligators and jellyfish too. I recommend this book to tween readers who love the environment and adventure.

Reviewed August 3, 2021

The Legend of Annie Murphy (Cooper Kids #7)

by: Frank Peretti

If you like to read about ghosts, time travel and mysterious murders, this book’s for you. Set in the ruins of Bodine, Arizona, an old mining town, the story begins with four boys camping in a cemetery. After they see a gigantic woman in a cliff’s face AND a ghost, their parents prompt an investigation. The Coopers are summoned because of their experience with archaeology. They’re expected to uncover clues in the western town’s ruins. Within hours of exploring the ghost town with their professor friend, a slight earthquake slings Jay and Lila a hundred years into the past. At the same time, the town’s sheriff from 1885 appears in the present. And he’s trying to find Annie Murphy, who escaped from jail. This is my second favorite book in the series. Great for ghost hunters of all ages.
Reviewed February 16, 2020

The Lost Property Office

by: James R. Hannibal

The author wove such a rip-roaring tale that I found myself trying to hold down an imaginary bowler hat. It’s an extraordinary work of middle grade fantasy set in London and its underground netherworlds. Thirteen-year-old Jack Buckles and his younger sister make an unusual friend, Gwen, who guides them on a dangerous quest to locate the Ember, which has been hidden since London’s great fire. The nefarious Clockmaker, also seeking the Ember, will stop at nothing to acquire it, including harming anyone in his way. Gwen must help Jack harness his gift of finding things to locate the Ember AND his missing father. This story is full of fantastical images, unique characters and grounded moral lessons. I highly recommend it for middle graders. It’s the first in a three-book series.
Reviewed 02.24.2021

The Main Dish

by: Victoria Kimble

The author created two sisters who love each other dearly and want the best for each other. When both receive news that their dreams have been fulfilled, they’re thrilled . . . until they realize that one must make a heart-wrenching sacrifice to allow the other to shine. Their parents deliver the hard news, and the siblings spend the summer learning the importance of humility, good sportsmanship, and keeping secrets. The older sister, Scarlet, also gains an understanding of the makings of true friendship. This rollercoaster of a book had me wanting to shake sense into Scarlet in one chapter, then hug her in the next. I recommend this clean read for teenage girls. 
Reviewed January 5, 2020

The Other Side of Freedom

by: Cynthia T. Toney

When thirteen-year-old Sal learns the mob is leaning on his father and uncle to help commit crimes, he must make some adult decisions to protect his Italian immigrant family. After the local grocer is killed, Sal’s father asks him to keep the secret; but this request goes against everything his father has taught him. Set in the southern farming community of Freedom in 1925, this action-packed story follows Sal’s battles with bigotry, racism toward his African American friend, police corruption, and mob intimidation. I’ve never read a mob story from a young adult’s perspective. I found it both frightening and heart-rending. It’s marketed to young adults, but I believe it’s better suited to middle graders. Adults also will appreciate the historical value of the mob’s impact on poor communities during prohibition.
Reviewed 05.12.21

The Secret of the Desert Stone (Cooper Kids #5)

by: Frank Peretti

When a sleek, rectangular stone appears in the desert, the Coopers are stumped by its mass. It’s more than two miles high and now divides two societies—one ruled by a brutal dictator and the other governed by a god-fearing chief. The Coopers soon figure out that the very-real stone is a metaphor for Jesus. But what is it trying to teach those living on either side of it? The siblings befriend the chief’s son, who has invented an alphabet that allows Jay to share the Bible with him. As in previous books, the family faces danger and witnesses God’s miracles. Older teens and adults will appreciate the theology in this story.
Reviewed February 11, 2020

The Story That Cannot Be Told

by: J. Kasper Kramer

Before beginning this book, I recommend you do a little research on Romania’s 1989 revolution. At least read the prologue. It’ll help set the stage for the true and fictional stories the main character, Ileana, shares with the reader.

She’s named after a character, cunning Ileana, in a Romanian folktale that her father begins each night at bedtime. She always falls asleep before the end. This tale is woven throughout the book from her perspective after her parents send her to her grandparents’ house for safety.

At first she hates the new environment, a farm in a small village, instead of her Bucharest apartment. Then, she makes a new friend, Gabi, and learns that the village may soon be overtaken by the Romanian Army. She and Gabi make a plan to save the townspeople’s property.

The book progresses into scary realism about that period in world history. Her uncle is captured and tortured. Her family is threatened. They must choose to fight or give up their property and belongings to the Communist regime. Ileana does her best to channel the main trait of the character for whom she was named.

I learned a lot about the 40,000 displaced Romanians who fell into poverty and despair during this revolution. This web of stories also offers the reader a snapshot of Romanian life in winter, dozens of unique superstitions, and pretty leaf patterns on all the pages. I recommend this book to middle schoolers.
Reviewed May 7, 2020

The Tombs of Anak (Cooper Kids #3)

by: Frank Peretti

Before opening this book, I recommend you access your favorite Bible app and search for Anak and Anakim. Then check out II Samuel 21:20 and learn about a huge man with six fingers and six toes. Interesting stuff. Fourteen-year-old Jay and 13-year-old Lila accompany their archaeologist father, Dr. Cooper, to a dig in Israel after a worker disappears into a mysterious pit. The site could be the ancient royal city of Gath, where treasure may be hidden. They soon find themselves ensnared in pagan rituals dating back to biblical times. And before long a false god becomes very, very real, and they’re running for their lives. A clean action-packed adventure for male and female middle schoolers and young adults. So far, this is my favorite Cooper Kids story.
Reviewed February 6, 2020

Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea (Cooper Kids #4)

by: Frank Peretti

This story tugged on my heartstrings. Peretti delves into the death of Jay and Lila’s mother. He reveals Dr. Cooper’s deep sadness and how it has impacted his children. The book begins with a disagreement between Lila and him in Japan. It escalates, and she elects to return to America to live with her aunt. In an emotional twist, the plane crashes into the ocean. Lila may never see her family again. While she tries to escape and come to terms with her impending death, Dr. Cooper faces his own demons with help from a new character, Meaghan Flaherty, also widowed. I can’t wait to see if a romance blossoms! Perfect for middle grades and young teens.
Reviewed February 8, 2020