Loeb, a zombie in middle school, is struggling with fitting in. His (nicely portrayed) school librarian thinks he is very smart even though zombies generally are not academically inclined, and encourages him to take part in a poetry competition. Loeb also is interested in a Lifer (non-zombie) girl, and his zombie friends make fun of him because there is a clear delineation between zombies and nonzombies in his school. Ultimately, Loeb decides that it is more important to be himself than to align himself with the practices of his peer group.
Strengths: The haiku format lends itself nicely to replicating the halting speech patterns of a zombie. I usually dislike novels in verse, but this works. The message is a good one, and the behaviors of middle school students are realistically portrayed.
Weaknesses: It will be hard to find an audience for this, and part of the problem is the packaging. The illustrations will lead students to believe that this is a goofy book. Also, students who are interested in zombie books aren't necessarily looking for a life lesson. The haiku format is somewhat limiting in setting up the parameters of the zombie world, which is always the most interesting part of books like Generation Dead for me.
Orlev, Uri. The Song of the Whales.
Nominated for the Cybils by Sarah Rettger.
In this slim volume by the author of many excellent Holocaust novels, Michael moves from the US to Jerusalem so that his father can keep an eye on Michael's grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who is elderly and involved in what the family considers to be an inappropriate relationship with his housekeeper. Michael is reluctant to move but becomes very fond of his grandfather. Soon, he is sharing dreams with his grandfather, learning about the man's past and improving the dreams of others. The housekeeper is not overly pleased with the relationship, because the grandfather had shared his dreams with her before Michaels arrival. In the end, the grandfather's talent for improving dreams passes to Michael.
Strengths: The close relationship with the grandfather is warmly portrayed, and the setting in Jerusalem is unusual and refreshing.
Weaknesses: Again, the audience is difficult. Michael is nine, but the discussion of the grandfather's relationship is more mature. The grandfather tries to influence Michael to be a vegetarian by involving him in a rather disturbing dream where animals eat Michael's parents, making me leery of handing it to a child Michael's age.
Turner, Megan Whalen. A Conspiracy of Kings.
Nominated for the Cybils by Jenny Moss.
This is the fourth book in The Thief (1997) series. Sophos' country, Sounis, is at war with Attolia. If that weren't bad enough, his home and family are attacked and he is kidnapped into slavery. After surviving brutal conditions, his father shows up, and Sophos arranges with a sympathetic woman to be allowed to meet with him. After a fight, both escape and go about the business of fighting the war. There are many military alliances and strategies, and once Sophos' uncle dies, Sophos becomes the leader of Sounis.
I tried very hard to follow this book but had a difficult time, perhaps because I don't have a good memory of the previous books. I started taking notes on page 9 and still was unable to follow the story. It didn't help that the perspective changed from chapter to chapter, and that the leaders of the countries were called by the names of their countries. I only read about 2/3 of the book, and even that took me three hours. Normally, I would read a 316 page book in half that time.
Strengths: Tolkien fans will love this, as will Risk players and readers who enjoy Flanagan's The Ranger's Apprentice series but want more of a challenge. The world of the book is well-developed and the strategy and intrigue are rich.
Weaknesses: The vast majority of middle school students will have trouble following this complex book.