Maybe you remember a guy named Armpit from Sachar's last book, Holes? Big, muscular, convicted of assault? You get to know him a lot better in Small Steps. He's out of juvie and trying to go straight as a landscaper-slash-high-school student. Unfortunately his buddy X-Ray (another Holes alum) gets him back into trouble over a ticket-scalping scheme. And when a chance meeting gets Armpit mixed up with a teen pop superstar (the tickets were for her concert), things get complicated. It's a fairy-tale setup, but Sachar gives his characters real emotions and real problems, and the result is a surprisingly wise book that never cloys or condescends.
THE PRETTY COMMITTEE STRIKES BACK
This is book No. 5 in the Clique series, a fascinating, almost anthropological exploration of life in the popular girls' set at a rich New York private school. The girls do nothing but obsess about boys, clothes and makeup, talk in phonetically rendered dialogue ("Ehmagawd!") and stab each other in the back. They're scared of each other, but they're stuck with each other--it's like Sartre with lip gloss. "The Pretty Committee girls were like wild animals," thinks Claire, the most sympathetic one (she actually has one dorky, noncool friend). "If they smelled fear, they'd pounce." Funny or sad? Either way, it's unmistakably true to junior-high reality.
HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON
NAOMI NOVIK A British naval captain boards a French warship (this being the Napoleonic era) and discovers a dragon's egg in the hold. This does not surprise him. In his reality, dragons are in common use by the military; popular breeds include Winchesters and Regal Coppers. But dragons bond at birth, and when the egg hatches at sea, our hero, Captain Laurence, must become the dragon's rider--which distresses him, since, as everyone knows, "no woman of sense and character would deliberately engage her affections on an aviator." Laurence's induction into the strange, insular world of 19th century dragon riders and his unfolding relationship with his highly intelligent mount, Temeraire, make enthralling reading--it's like Jane Austen playing Dungeons & Dragons with Eragon's Christopher Paolini.
THE BOOK THIEF
MARKUS ZUSAK For the enjoyment of your more ambitious young readers, a 552-page novel about a girl named Liesel living with her foster family in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death. But wait. If you can fight your way past the rather challenging first few pages, you will find that Liesel, whose hobby is stealing books, especially stealing banned books from the Nazis, is a heroine worth fighting for, and that Death is actually a pretty cool guy to hang out with ("I like this human idea of the grim reaper," he says, "I like the scythe"). Zusak doesn't sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable the same way Kurt Vonnegut did in Slaughterhouse-Five: with grim, darkly consoling humor.