Middle Grade Steampunk

Mark of the DragonflyCindy: When I share book talks for science fiction units with my middle school students I am still surprised by how few of them have heard of the term “steampunk.” I like this strange description from the Urban Dictionary entry for “steampunk”:

“What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.”

We’ve read a couple new middle grade steampunk titles that are perfect for middle school students who are just encountering this sub-genre of speculative fiction. One of them is Jaleigh Johnson’s debut novel, The Mark of the Dragonfly (Delacorte 2014). The stunning cover with the embossed illustration of a mechanical dragonfly is attracting readers but the good news is that they are finding the story to be just as engaging. Piper is a young orphan who lives in a scrap town in an alternate world where meteor storms bring treasures to be scavenged. Some of the items left behind are quite curious and others are broken. Fortunately for Piper, she has an innate ability to fix machinery, a talent that I’m guessing will serve her (and the plot) well throughout this series. While on one such dangerous outing to scavenge, Piper finds an unconscious young girl and takes her home where she will try to tend to her injuries.  She discovers a dragonfly tattoo on the girl’s arm, signifying the protection of the king of the Dragonfly Territories, and soon after the two of them are on the run aboard the 401, a steam engine train that carries friend and foe. The world building of Solace is intriguing and the growing relationship between these girls who are not accustomed to friendship is a strength of the novel. There’s also an innocent romance brewing with shapeshifting boy, but I hope that Johnson keeps her focus on the friendship between the girls. Teen mileage may vary, but I have many female fantasy/sf readers who wonder why the strong female lead always has to engage in a romance.

The steam powered train featured in this book is based on a real #401 in the author’s hometown of Monticello, Illinois. You can visit The Monticello Railway Museum website to view a series of fascinating slides that show the process of restoring this 1907 train to a functional state, and here to see some video clips of the 401 in action! You can also read this B&N interview with Johnson to learn how she used the 401 to generate ideas for this book. Lynn and her husband are such train buffs that I am expecting to hear that she is headed to Monticello soon to see the 401 for herself.

inventor's secretLynn:  Don’t you love the crazy coincidences of publishing?  I have another steampunk book which is another first book in a new series and it too has a dragonfly on the cover – well, a steampunk dragonfly anyway.  Andrea Cramer’s new book, The Inventor’s Secret (Penguin/Philomel 2014) is set in an alternate world in which the British won the Revolution!  The time is now 1816 and the British Empire has dispatched the patriot leadership, turned Boston into a slave labor camp and charged into the Industrial age.  But an underground battle for America continues with adults fighting from wilderness strongholds and their children safe in the Catacombs, a series of underground caves and workshops.  Charlotte’s brother Ash is in charge of the Catacombs but he is almost 18 and will be leaving soon to join the adult Resistance.  Charlotte chafes at being seen as too young and she works hard at being a formidable opponent, skilled with both weapons and technology.  When she befriends a mysterious young boy with no memory, a series of events is triggered that lead to a clandestine infiltration of the New York’s Floating City.  Her storm relationship with another Catacomb resident, Jack, takes a new direction when Charlotte meets Jack’s brother,  discovers Jack’s true identity and the important secrets he has been concealing.

The book bounces from action adventure to a focus on steamy romance and back to action ending with a cliffhanger that promises more action, exploration and fascinating gadgets ahead.  Expect lots of demand for this one and readers impatient for the next in the series.

Uncrashable DakotaCindy: Here’s one more that my middle schoolers have been raving about: Uncrashable Dakota by Andy Marino (Henry Holt 2014). It’s 1912 and the titanic Dakota is on a maiden flying voyage thanks to a Civil War era discovery of the biochemical secret of flight…instead of dragonflies, this story features beetles. While Lynn is visiting railroad museums I’ll be tucking into another steampunk novel if I can get it out of my students’ hands long enough. Meanwhile, take a look at Jeanne Fredriksen’s Booklist review linked above for more details.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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