My 12-year-old son and I recently read two middle grade novels, both were great, but quite different from one another.

Much like his mother, my son judges a book by its cover and he took one look at the front of The Way Past Winter and said he didn’t want to read it. That is why I started reading it the next day and hid the cover. At one point he stopped me and commented he really liked the book, peaked at the cover and sort of did a double take. I continued reading without saying anything.

The cover isn’t my favourite either, but the story was really neat.

Set in the past and I suspect in a land like ours, but not, we meet Mila, who lives with her sisters, Sanna and Pipa, and their brother, Oskar. Their mother died in childbirth and their father left mysteriously five years earlier and never returned. Nor did spring, with the youngsters trying to survive in a winter that never ends.

One night, a strange – and frightening – man appears at their door, and Oskar and all neighbouring boys disappear.

Sanna, the oldest of the siblings, believes, just like their father, Oskar left them because he was tired of looking after them. Mila, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that and with Pipa, and the help of a mage named Rune, they head north, past the eternal winter to rescue her brother.

The book had a mythical, folklore feel to it. The book actually begins with the children’s mother sharing the story of a bear and a heart tree, the importance of taking care of the forest and the destruction caused by man.

The characters are great and we end up learning the most about Mila – her dedication, her great moral compass and compassion. I liked Mila a lot. She didn’t do what was easy, but what was right. She is smart, kind and understands the importance of family. There was lots of action and the book moved fast. It was also significantly creepy and scary – not ghosts jumping out, but the strange man and what he did to try to stop Mila, Pipa and Rune from following. I also liked the ended, although I did guess some of it.

The Way Past Winter costs and is by Kiran Millwood Hargrave ($24.99, Raincoast Books and Chronicle Books).

The Nightmare Thief

The Nightmare Thief by Nicole Lesperance is also magical, but in a completely different way.

Maren Partridge lives in a town that is magical. Maren’s family handcrafts any sort of dream you can imagine, as well as nightmares, but they are kept under lock at her grandmother’s shop, sold only to the people who will be using it themselves. There are rules about dreams as well, including you are unable to give it to people without their consent and people who break this rule are banished from the shop forever.

But Maren’s older sister, Hallie, isn’t able to offer her consent because a car accident left her in a coma. Yet, Maren decides to break their family’s most sacred rule, slipping a flying dream into her sister’s mouth in hopes that it will wake her up.

The problem is a new customer from the dream shop knows what she did.

“And the stranger has laid the perfect trap to blackmail Maren into creating custom nightmares for a dark and terrible purpose.”

I am not sure why it bothers me in some books, but not all, that a child thinks she can/must handle everything herself rather than just tell a trusted adult, who could actually help. This book went pretty dark while Maren tried to figure things out herself – kidnapping, consent (or lack of), torture – until Maren herself comes to realize she may not get herself out and she should have asked for help. Usually my son would yell out loud “Just tell someone,” although he didn’t do it this time, which provided some great opportunities to discuss why it is important to tell someone and how by not telling, Maren put so many people in danger. Like Mila in The Way Past Winter, you need to think of others before thinking of yourself, especially if what you did was wrong.

Maren was an interesting character. I liked her relationship with her friend, who at one point she had had a falling out with. I think the relationship with Maren and her parents, as they struggle with trying to pay mounting hospital bills and visits with their sick child, seemed quite realistic. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in Maren’s shoes. I enjoyed the idea of a whole community of magical people, magical in that they can do something special – like keeping flowers blooming or helping people dream. My son also liked Henri – a foul-mouthed French-speaking parrot. He laughed hysterically at some of the insults Henri threw out throughout the book. It was so fun to listen to him laugh like that.

The bad person in this book was truly evil. She did things that are just horrible. It actually might have been a bit too much. And I didn’t like part of the ending. It was too easily wrapped up.

The Nightmare Thief is by Nicole Lesperance ($24.90, Raincoast Books, Sourcebooks) and is due out in January 2021.

A copy of these books are provided by Raincoast Books
for an honest review. The opinions are my own.