July 30, 2021

Spotlight on APEX MAGAZINE—an interview with editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore and managing editor Lesley Conner (plus: check out that sweet sweet Kickstarter!)

This week, I have a special treat for you. It's an interview with the dynamic duo behind Apex Magazine: editor in chief Jason Sizemore and managing editor Lesley Conner. Apex is a brilliant SFF zine, and they're running a Kickstarter right now to finance their work for 2022. If you haven't supported them yet, head over and pick up a subscription or some of the other rewards available.

Huge thanks to both Jason and Lesley for answering some of my questions about the zine and the business of running an SFF publication!

Q. What’s your background apart from being the people running Apex Magazine?

Jason: The roots of the magazine trace to the year 2004 with the birth of my first kid and my 30th birthday. I had something of an early mid-life crisis and needed a creative outlet. I was big into the saddle stitch zine world at the time and thought it would be fun to do something like that. It was fun. And fulfilling. Here we are in 2021, that kid is now a senior in high school, and I'm still doing the zine.

Lesley: I grew up in a small town in West Virginia, and graduated in 2004 from WVU with a BA in English. I've been lucky enough to call Apex my full-time gig for nearly ten years now. Other than that, I fill my time with keeping up with two teenage daughters and volunteering for Girl Scouts. I run an incredibly active troop, and volunteer for multiple levels within the organization.

Q. How did you first decide to get into the SFF-zine business?

Lesley: I wouldn't say that it was a conscious decision on my part. Jason and I had become friends after bumping into each other at multiple conventions over the years. He mentioned on Facebook needing someone to help out with marketing. At the time I was a stay-at-home mom and I thought it sounded fun! I'd get to help a friend, and do something new and exciting. So I volunteered. I had no idea that it would lead to a career that I am absolutely in love with, but I'm incredibly grateful. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about Apex’s history as a zine and what you feel some of its most important accomplishments are as a SFF publication?

Jason: There's a certain amount of hubris required to answer a question like this. Fortunately, I have hubris in great supply...

 Honestly, though, defining achievements is difficult. We've entertained many readers over the years. We've had stories win the Hugo and Nebula awards. I think we've done some positive things in helping boost the voices of marginalized and under-represented writers in SFF.  We've published very early work from notable writers such as Lavie Tidhar, Rebecca Roanhorse, Alix E. Harrow, and Cherie Priest.

All of these are things I'm proud of. Things I want to continue doing. Things I want to do better.

Q. You’re running a Kickstarter campaign for Apex’s next year, 2022. Can you talk a bit about the financial side of running a magazine like this and why you decided to finance your publication through a Kickstarter rather than the subscription model or other alternatives.

Jason: Prior to our hiatus in 2019 (due to personal health stuff), we financed the publication completely through subscriptions and advertising. Thanks to longevity, brand awareness, and quality of our content, we had accomplished the unthinkable—making an online zine profitable.

When we did our relaunch Kickstarter in 2020, I had hoped we would pick up right where we left off. This was a ridiculous hope. We've had a phenomenal 2021, but having to rebuild your subscriber base to pre-hiatus numbers will take awhile. I'd venture to say it's more difficult this time due to the pandemic, social discontent, and the evey-rising amount of noise on social media. A week doesn't pass where I speak with someone who doesn't not know that we're publishing again.

For these reasons (and multitudes more), we're relying on a hybrid model of direct subscribers and crowdfunding. I love Kickstarter and the opportunities it provides, but a crowdfunding project is a lot of work, so I hope we won't need another after this one. I wouldn't be surprised if we do, though. Maybe it's the future of online zines? 

Q. What are some cool perks you offer in your Kickstarter for those who might want to support you? What are the stretch goals?

Jason: We have the usual cool stuff like tuckerizations, critiques from Lesley Conner and myself, and swag packs. There's dinner with Apex at Worldcon. Signed hardcovers. Fancy bamboo bookmarks. Subscriptions.

The stretch goal I'm most excited about is funding an Asian and Pacific Islanders bonus issue. A very close second is including spot art by Justin Stewart with every story! 

6. Every zine has its own voice and vibe, its own personality if you will. How would you describe what Apex Magazine is all about?

LesleyApex's vibe is definitely dark. Jason and I both love those stories that push the edge of being almost too much to take. The darkness appeals to us. But that doesn't mean that they're stories without hope or emotion. Actually, I'd say that the perfect Apex stories are the ones that have the biggest emotional impact. The ones that feel like a gut punch or leave the reader reeling in an emotional storm. There are no rose-colored glasses in the Apex offices. Instead, we're looking for the gritty reality taken apart and put back together in a speculative story.

Q. Could you pick three stories from past issues that in your opinion captures what you look for in stories for Apex and represents the kind of tales you want to publish?

Jason: I love questions like this!

"Without Wishes to Bind You" by E. Catherine Tobler — I want to be surprised by the fiction we publish. This is a work that could be campy and silly, but comes across as sweet, earnest, and gritty with realism.

"Curse Like a Savior" by Russell Nichols — Subtly dark. Coated with a veneer of humor. A scary bit of prognostication by the author.

"So Sings the Siren" by Annie Neugebauer — Here's another that took me off guard. It's a really short piece, but strong enough to pick up a Stoker Award nomination!

Q. If you could give advice to the writers wanting to submit stories to Apex, what would you say?

Lesley: 1. Read a few of Apex Magazine's newer issues to get a feel for what kind of stories we're looking for. They're available to read online for free. 2. Follow the submission guidelines. They're also online for you to read for free.

I know that answer seems too simplistic or maybe even flip, but the amount of submissions we get where it is obvious the writer has never read an issue of the magazine or ones where the author blatantly didn't follow the guidelines is baffling. Doing these two things really will give you a step up.

Q. If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you got into the business of running a zine, what insights – warnings or advice or otherwise! – would you give yourself?

Lesley: To know my own self-worth! If we're going to be completely honest, I owe a LOT to Jason Sizemore because he saw something in me that took me years to see for myself. He believed in me when I didn't. A huge part of my early years working for Apex was me building self-confidence, both in myself as an individual and in my own talent. It changed me as a person and in how I interact with the world. So yeah, if I could have learned that sooner, that would be great. The fact is, though, past-Lesley would never believe me. It took someone else endlessly challenging my self-deprecation to finally start to believe in myself.

10. In your opinion, how has the SFF field on the whole evolved in the time since you became part of it? What trends and changes have you seen?

Jason: The field has become more diverse and much more interesting. The genre short fiction I read now is lightyears better than it was in 2005. The old print digests are still producing great work and now we have Clarkesworld, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed...

Read Apex Magazine

Support the Kickstarter

Support Apex on Patreon

Find Apex Magazine on Twitter

Editor bios:

  • The man with the titanium jaw, Jason Sizemore is a three-time Hugo Award-nominated editor, writer, and publisher who operates the genre press Apex Publications. He currently lives in Lexington, KY. For more information visit www.jason-sizemore.com or you can find him on Twitter @apexjason.
  • Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications, and a Girl Scout leader. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.

July 16, 2021

#FridayReads: check out the July issue of Flash Fiction Online

 I love flash fiction and I adore Flash Fiction Online. The zine's July issue is a gosh-darn fantastic read and you can pick it up right now for $3.99 or pick up a subscription from Weightless Books, or maybe become a Patreon supporter.

In this issue you'll find a roster of outstanding fiction:

  • Editorial: Escape! By Editor-in-Chief Wendy Nikel
  • “Ember” by Anjali Patel
  • “The Wizard’s Book Tastes of Flight” by Jennifer Hudak
  • “Breathe” by Adam Fout
  • “This Will Not Happen to You” by Marissa Lingen
  • “Flash Fiction Flashback: “Listen and You’ll Hear Us Speak” by A.T. Greenblatt” by Wendy Nikel

Flash Fiction Online consistently publishes some of my favourite speculative fiction, and while each issue might feel bite-sized because of the word count, the stories have range and heft and can also pack a punch. Back in 2015 and 2016 when I was working hard on getting myself back into writing and reading speculative fiction, I read a lot of fiction in FFO. There's something about the format of flash fiction, the way it condenses a story to its essence, and the way it can be infinitely flexible with so few words, telling epics and funny stories, adventures and heart-piercing prose-poems, that appeals to me deeply as both a reader and a writer.

I confess that FFO also has a special place in my heart because they were my first fiction pro-sale. And because I've had five stories published with them over the years, but beyond that, they are legitimately one of my favourite SFF venues.

My stories in Flash Fiction Online, from the newest to the oldest: 

July 10, 2021

#WeekendReads July 10, 2021 - brand new issues of INTERZONE and BLACK STATIC

Due to some computer issues, I didn't get my usual #FridayReads post in yesterday, so instead I'm posting this as a #weekendread post. 

Cover art by Vincent Sammy.

There is a new issue of Interzone in the world (issue #290/291), and a new issue of Black Static is coming soon (you can preorder issue #80/81 on the TTA Press website), and they are well worth your time and money if you have an interest in excellent speculative fiction. Interzone has been around since 1982, and has been edited by Andy Cox since 2004. Black Static was founded in 1993, and is also edited by Andy Cox. In a world where most speculative fiction is posted in digital format online, these two magazine stand out because they are still committed to delivering print issues and illustrations for those print issues as well. 

Cover art by Richard Wagner.

You can get the magazines (both are fully-loaded double issues) in digital format, but if you can get your hands on the print issues, they are gorgeous: each story comes with an illustration and the artwork is always excellent. 

Table of contents for Interzone #290/291:

  • A Hollow in the Sky by Alexander Glass
  • A Stray Cat in the Mountain of the Dead by Cรฉcile Cristofari
  • The Andraiad by Tim Major
  • Without Lungs or Limbs to Stay by Shauna O'Meara
  • Nemesis by Matt Thompson
  • An Island for Lost Astronauts by Daniel Bennett
  • Pace Car by Lyle Hopwood
  • The Mischief That is Past by John Possidente
  • The Egg Collectors by Lavie Tidhar
  • Columns by Aliya Whiteley (x2) and David Langford; guest editorial by Lavie Tidhar; book reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Duncan Lawie, Val Nolan and several others; film reviews by Nick Lowe
  • Wraparound cover art by Vincent Sammy, interior colour art by Jim Burns, Ev Shipard, Richard Wagner, Vince Haig, Dave Senecal and others

I'm still reading my way through this issue, but it is excellent so far. (A new story by Shauna O'Meara is an automatic must-read for me!)

Cover art by Richard Wagner.

While you're waiting for that new issue of Black Static, check out the previous double issue (#78/79) which is an excellent read right through. You can order both the current and upcoming issue for a special price right now.


Full disclosure: I've had stories in both Interzone and Black Static.

July 7, 2021

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for June 2021

The artwork for this roundup is a detail of  Paul Kellam's cover art for Fiyah #19. More about the artist here: https://www.artstation.com/deericku

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


To Rest, and to Create by L.A. Knight in Fiyah #19

If you don’t disclose, you can’t ask for accommodation…

We understand things are difficult, but these accommodations just aren’t reasonable…

We’re sorry, you’re just not the right fit for this company…

There are so many ways to say the same thing. So many ways to lie so very sweetly and tell me that of course the company doesn’t mind hiring a disabled autistic person, of course they encourage a diverse work environment, of course they’re accessible.

Knight's story delves deep into real world problems about accommodations and employment, about living and making a living when you are disabled and autistic. It is also truly and legitimately a feel good story, as in: this story made me feel good when I read it. In the everyday world of this story, there are doorways to be found to other worlds, but the process of finding one and going to those other worlds has been regulated by the government until it is not easily accessible to everyone, and if you miss your opportunity when you're young... well, then you might feel like it's too late and it's never going to happen and you're doomed to struggle through as best you can. But maybe there is hope, and maybe there are possibilities you didn't even know existed. If you're feeling down, this story might just make your day a whole lot better. This story is from the Sound and Color issue of Fiyah, and as it turns out, sound and colour play a vital role in this story and how it ends.


SPF by Justine Teu in Reckoning

Apricot died, three days into the heat wave. She had just turned three, with no underlying health issues, but temperatures had soared to 120 degrees that weekend, and not even the full strength of Dani’s air conditioner could keep the cat cool, much less alive. One minute, Apricot was a spry thing, young enough to live forever, and the next, she was gone, immobile under a bed sheet, claws still clinging to thread. 

This is a story about the impact of climate change, wrapped up in a story about relationships and maybe even love. Dani and Hugo are on again, off again, maybe happening, maybe not as a couple, and there are so many things about Hugo that drive Dani nuts. Including how he seems unable to allow death and tragedy to really touch him, just as he seems unable to admit even to himself that climate change is having a serious, and terrible, impact on everyone's lives. Quietly powerful, with so much complexity beneath the surface.


How To Become a Witch-Queen by Theodora Goss in Lightspeed (originally pub'd in Hex Life)

After the funeral services are over, you return to your rooms in the castle, escorted by your ladies-in-waiting. As you walk down a corridor, you pass the chamber where your own coffin, the one made of glass, is displayed. Visitors are allowed to see it Mondays through Thursdays, from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, along with other national treasures...

What is there to say about this magnificent story, except WOW. Goss spins a beautiful, steely tale about Snow White. Snow White the widowed queen, the mother of several children, the strong and capable woman who has spent her life in the shadow of the fairytale she became part of, and who has also spent most of her life being quiet in order to avoid strife and struggle. But once her husband the king dies, she seizes the chance to make herself anew.


Empty Houses by Caspian Gray in Nightmare

I caught a glimpse of us over his shoulder in one of the mirrors. But where I was wrapped around Austin, my reflection was momentarily still: watching us and smiling gently. And I know, I know, I know, but: at the time, it felt like a gesture of welcome.

I love stories about mirrors, and its one of those horror tropes I find both fascinating and creepy as heck no matter what the context. This story uses the mirrors, and the idea of a haunted house, perfectly while also skewing the tale until it becomes something different than I might have expected as I started reading.


As I Wait For the Killing Blow by M. Shaw in Fireside

My first feathers came in just a few days after my granddaughter Sima was born. Black as a raven’s, but that doesn’t mean much in the beginning. I could end up black all over, or a stormy grey color, or violet with blue speckles, for all I knew. The turning never brings the exact same form twice, just as no two children need the exact same monster to help them come into adulthood.

Shaw's story is fierce and wondrous as it imagines a world where grandparents turn into monsters after their grandchildren are born. Tradition says that once a grandchild comes of age, they must hunt down this monster and slay it, or be slain by it. What seems brutal and terrible, is cherished as a rite of passage here, and yet, what happens between monster and monster-hunter does not always go according to plan, or tradition. I love the way this story deals with family relationships (odd as that may seem!) and the way Shaw twists the tale in the telling.

The Middening by Allyson Shaw in Fireside

We made our own way, made our own fun, Mhairi and me. This was our place, the disused swimming pool built into the cliffside. Sure, there were junkies there before us, shooting up in the changing pavilion. There’s the wifey spray painted on the majestic hillside, her paps like two empty bags and a turned-up hair-do dripping down. But if you ignore all that, you can imagine that you are in some Planet of the Apes situation, and it’s just you left, and your survival is a triumph of things put right.

A wrenching and intense story about two friends growing up in a small community. It's also about the lure and power of the ocean, and about the pool they escape too, together. Mhairi and Kylie sometimes talk about a horse appearing near the pool, the Nucklelevee. Both Mhairi and Kylie have thoughts and dreams about getting away from the community, but when one of them finally leaves, it doesn't happen the way either of them might have thought. There's a grimness to this story, but it's also a love story, and I  adore every bit of it.


Machine Learning by Sylvia Heike in Stupefying Stories

A tiny, perfect sci-fi micro fiction that packs a real punch. I love flash and micro fiction so much and I am always amazed at how much emotion and nuance and depth can be contained into a Very Small Story. 


Final Warnings in Open Fields by Xander Odell in Daily SF

1. Plants want you dead. Don't waste time wondering why they turned against us. It is what it is.

A brilliant piece of flash fiction, written as a list of instructions and warnings, that packs a whole lot of emotion and backstory and world-building into a small word count. Odell captures the horrors and devastation of a post-apocalyptic world in a sparse, haunting story that tells you so many things without dwelling on them. I also really love this opening line and the way it does away with the whole "but why and how would that happen?" Dwelling on that is not what this story is about, and it's such a great writer-choice to put that out front like this.


The Penitent by Phoenix Alexander in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July / August 2021

This is a mindbending story about a cat, a seagull, and an electron. It's also about the value of each life in the grand scheme of the world and the universe. It's about love and wrongs to be righted, and it has one of the trippiest shapeshifting scenes (and multiple POV scenes) I have encountered in a story. It's a twisted, mysterious, and ultimately enlightening tale.

Whatever Happened to the Boy Who Fell Into the Lake? by Rob Costello in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July / August 2021

Picture Tick at twelve years old, on the day he nearly drowns himself to join Mama.

I give this story a rating of five broken hearts, meaning, I loved it. Costello's devastating tale about a boy called Tick, a boy who lives with his violent father; who has lost his mother under mysterious circumstances; and who almost, almost finds love, is beautiful, painful, and powerful. It's a story about transformation (Tick's and his mother's), it's a story about family and violence, and about curses. It's also about the call of the sea, and about how sometimes, it is impossible to escape the consequences of wrongs that were committed in the past, even before your birth, no matter how hard we try, or how much we wish things could be different.

(emet) by Lauren Ring in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July / August 2021

Ring's story is an enchanting and quietly gripping blend of science fiction and fantasy. The main character is a software programmer working for a big company that is designing a new facial recognition system. She also makes golems out of clay to help her out around the house, just like her mom taught her. I love how Ring weaves together these strands of fantasy and scifi into a story that explores personal responsibility and the possibility to resist, even in situations where a person might feel like only a very small cog in a very big machine.

Note: This whole issue of the magazine is outstanding and my advice is really to buy it and read the whole thing because it has fabulous stories by Lauren Ring, L.X. Beckett, Chimedum Ohaegbu, Rob Costello, Michael Swanwick, Yukimi Ogawa, Bo Balder, Phoenix Alexander, Lisa Lacey Liscoumb, Priya Chand, S. Cameron David, Paula Keane, Maia Brown-Jackson, Rowan Wren, and Tato Navarrete Diaz. I will highlight three of these stories, but like I said, the whole issue is well worth your time and your money.


The Far Side of the Universe by noc at TOR.com (translated from Chinese by Michelle Deeter)

To quote the blurb for this story: 

When young Ira arrives for her appointment, she is prepared to be transported to The Gateway to Heaven, 6,070 light years away. But the technicians shepherding her through the process fear there’s more to it than what’s advertised.

A gentle and devastating story about a future where society allows people to leave the world, essentially die, but where their consciousness is sent into space to live near another star, or at least, that's the sales pitch. It's the gentleness and quiet devastation of this story that really gets to me, and the way we understand so much about what kind of society it takes place in, even though noc tells us so little about it. Deeply haunting.


Armed With Such Stories, I Roamed Into The Woods by Evan Marcroft in Cast of Wonders narrated by Elie Hirschman

The content warning for this story is "multiple profanities" and oh gosh, there are multiple, meaty, massive profanities here. Atticus has grown up with his mother's stories and tales about the creatures lurking in the woods beyond their home. "There was a fable for every lesson I should know." Now, Atticus's mother is sick and he must head into the woods to find an herb called fairymead, but in the woods he meets a stranger, and the stranger is Trouble. Marcroft spins a scary, dark and darkly funny story about growing up and parenting, about finding our courage, and about how we sometimes try to shelter children too much from reality when they'd be better served by some hard truths. I love the twisted fairytale vibe of this story and I love, LOVE the conclusion.


Ascend, Exalt, Love, Propagate, Rise! by Sarah Kumari in Escape Pod narrated by Hollis Monroe

This is an amazing story about resistance and revolution, and... sex with plants. It is absolutely bonkers in a way that I love. Jehanne is trying to start a revolution by causing the downfall of the EverReach company. He is doing this by participating in the drug-fuelled and ecstatic pollination event that involves a planet-encompassing plant called Mother Elethra, "our Beloved Patron, the Phloem of Invention, Oil Bringer, Loving Devourer, our Great Vine". Dive into this story and let its madness envelop you, maybe even devour you...


My Mirror, My Opposite by Y.M. Pang in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Fairytale retellings and reimagined fairytales is very much my jam and this is an exquisite and powerful reframing of The Little Mermaid. Here, the main character is the prince, not the mermaid, and his desire, or obsession, to join the sea. There is a lot of magic in this story and yet it is so firmly rooted in the real world, a world where abuse and trauma is inescapable for the prince. "...sometimes, when I stood on tiptoes and peered through my bedroom window at the water, I wanted the sea to sweep past rock and sand and reach where I stood, to drown my world in blue and carry me away on its waves." When the "fishgirl" and the prince meet, nothing goes the way the fairytales said. 


Welcome, Karate by Sara Saab in The Dark

This story has haunted my thoughts since I read it. Jock is back in her old hometown after years away, and she is buying a gym to set up a martial arts studio. On the surface, things seem OK, but Saab makes us feel just how brittle reality and life and Jock are beneath that surface. When she meets old acquaintances, you can feel Jock's hold on herself and her own past start to crack, and once she's back in the gym, trying to open the locked doors to the pool area, the revelation of what's inside seems both unavoidable and thoroughly surreal. 


The Chicken House by Jenny Fried in Strange Horizons

Today I will tell you that Sleep was a boy. It’s easier that way.

He was a boy. And he would collect broken glass and wear shoes with Velcro and a few of his teeth were fake, but he always forgot which ones. He lived on a small farm. It had once grown chickens for food and Christmas trees for money, but now it grew nothing.

A gloriously strange and heart-piercing story about Sleep who lives on a property where there are three buildings: a farmhouse, a tractor shed, and a chicken house. There's a new awful smell in the farmhouse where Sleep lives, and Sleep is afraid of the chicken house for reasons he can't quite articulate. The tractor shed, where the tractor sleeps, holds memories of Sleep's dad. There is a red dress made of feathers in that shed too, but Sleep doesn't know who it belongs to, but he can't stop thinking about it. Fried's unsettling, yet gentle story has the feel and rhythm of a fairytale, and there is a curse and a transformation at its heart.

Scoria by Liza Wemakor in Strange Horizons

In a low mountain quarry, an exile memorized the story of her shadow play. When means are few, motion pictures are stripped to light and limb. Scoria was a filmmaker without a camera, so she had to be the cinema herself: prop, stage, and animus gesturing in front of a fire. There was no other way. Civilization had rolled her away from itself like a festering log at a cooperage. What was she to do? Survive and die with only mourning in between?

A subtle lovely story about Scoria who is exiled from her community for not being productive enough. Mostly, it seems, the Council that exiles her doesn't know what to make of her, how to make her fit into their society and their notions of what and who she should be. Exile turns out to be not so bad after all and Scoria finds a place to belong instead of wilderness and loneliness. There's such a wonderful soft vibe to this story, and it has so much to say about creativity and art and relationships, and about finding a place to belong. 


July 4, 2021

Read my latest Short Fiction Treasures Column at Strange Horizons


My latest Short Fiction Treasures column is now at Strange Horizons! The theme is time travel, portal fantasies, and alternate universes.

July 2, 2021

#FridayReads July 2, 2021 - F&SF's July/August 2021 issue!

This week's post is a bit late because it's just been that kind of week, and all I'm going to say is this: right now I'm reading through the new July/August issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and it is a stunning. Chockfull of amazing stories by outstanding writers.

Get the issue / subscribe:

I'm still reading my way through this issue but some of the stories that have impressed the heck out of me so far are 

  • "The Penitent" by Phoenix Alexander (a mindbending story about the value of each life, about love and wrongs to be righted, and about a cat and a seagull and... an electron)
  • "Whatever Happened to the Boy Who Fell Into the Lake?" by Rob Costello (a story about transformation, family, violence, curses, and about the call of the sea, and it's also a story that absolutely destroyed me)
  • "(emet)" by Lauren Ring (a story about facial recognition software and golems and yes, these things go together)

I could go on forever about this issue and the stories in it, because so far every story I've read is a knockout. Just all around fabulous fiction.

Stories in this issue by Lauren Ring, L.X. Beckett, Chimedum Ohaegbu, Rob Costello, Michael Swanwick, Yukimi Ogawa, Bo Balder, Phoenix Alexander, Lisa Lacey Liscoumb, Priya Chand, S. Cameron David, Paula Keane, Maia Brown-Jackson, Rowan Wren, and Tato Navarrete Diaz. Also a poem by Mark Rich. 


July 1, 2021

YA books and children's books: recommendations from me (and my kids)

Summer break is just starting here in British Columbia, Canada, where I live and in many other parts of the world. With all that time off looming, maybe your kids or teens are looking for books, or maybe you feel like reading some YA / Middle Grade/ children's books yourself (there's a lot of good stuff in the kids/YA section). 

Here are some of my favourites and some of my kids's favourites (they are 14 and 18 right now). Some are old, some are new, and of course, this is only a small fraction of what's available out there.

I want to start off with a special shoutout to Rick Riordan's books (my daughter loved the Percy Jackson series and I tore through the Magnus Chase books) and his imprint Rick Riordan Presents which is teeming with amazing writers and books for kids and teens. You can start off with:

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

This is a gripping, hugely entertaining read and the first in a series of books about Tristan's adventures. 

Seventh grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan chases after it–is that a doll?–and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American gods John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

Some of the best writers of speculative fiction today have books out with the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, including Yoon Ha Lee, Roshani Chokshi, and Rebecca Roanhorse, so there is a real treasure chest of stories to explore here, including:

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe and Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe (and its sequel) is funny, sharp, smart, and full of magic, science, food, friendship, family, life, love, and even death, and Hernandez keeps the story moving at a great pace throughout. It’s a zany book, but there’s real heart in it, too, and the laughs are good laughs – with jokes that are irreverent, hilarious, and thoughtful in a way that I really appreciated as I read the story. (Read my full review of the first book from 2019.)


The Ninety-Ninth Bride by Catherine Faris King

Dunya is fifteen when her father, the Grand Vizier, gives her over to the mad Sultan for his bride. Ninety-eight Sultanas before Dunya have been executed, slaughtered at the break of dawn following their first night with their new husband. But on her own wedding night, the ninety-ninth bride finds help from the mysterious and beautiful Zahra, who proposes to tell the Sultan a story…

A lovely and beautifully told twist on One Thousand and One Nights: “...a story of sisters and magic, and a kingdom on the brink of disaster.


The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman

I loved this book and so did my daughter (she was 10 when we read it). It's got magic, spells, shapeshifting, a very intriguing bookshop, a werewolf with a coyote pack riding motorcycles, plus a lot more. All of it is mixed with a lot of real life tragedy and comedy, and all the children in it (especially the main character Nick) are engaging and realistically ornery characters. It is moving without being maudlin, and a real page-turner. Highly recommended for kids and adults.


The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, is kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, Fyrian. Xan rescues the abandoned children and deliver them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. 

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic.

An amazing story about family, magic, and what happens when you keep secrets (even from yourself). It's beautifully written with a lot of tragedy and sorrow and strife beneath the beauty of the prose. I loved this story so much, and it made my daughter a Barnhill fan (check out Barnhill's other books: they're all fantastic)!


Astrid Lindgren’s books

Some of Lindgren’s books, like Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, Mio, My Son, and The Brothers Lionheart take place in fantasy worlds. Others, like The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, and Karlson on the Roof blend fantasy elements and the real world. And many, like Lotta on Troublemaker Street, take place in the real, Swedish world of the early 20th century. No matter what the setting, they’re all great reads for kids. (Confession: I detested Karlson of Karlson on the Roof as a child and I still do. Nothing to do with the writing, but the character of Karlson infuriated me even as a child: I thought he was just too tude and selfish and mean. Lots of people love him and the books, though, and find him funny rather than annoying!)


The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

It’s six books now, all outstanding works of literature, and the original trilogy were part of what made me fall in love with fantasy in the first place. Le Guin pitches you into a vivid and mesmerizing world with magic, dragons, wizards, “true names”, and dark undercurrents of death and fear. Both the older books, and the newer ones (starting with Tehanu), are brilliant works of fiction. The Tombs of Atuan in particular absolutely floored me as a teenager and still does. 

The books in the series are:

  1. A Wizard of Earthsea
  2. The Tombs of Atuan
  3. The Farthest Shore
  4. Tehanu
  5. Tales from Earthsea
  6. The Other Wind

Read my review of Tales From Earthsea.


The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

These books were part of what turned me into a huge fan of fantasy fiction in my tweens/teens. Cooper weaves together fantasy with bits of Celtic folklore, and strands of the King Arthur legend. The story is set in 1970s Britain, as well as ancient Britain, and other fantasy-realms in-between the worlds.

The books in the series:

  1. Over Sea, Under Stone
  2. The Dark Is Rising
  3. Greenwitch
  4. The Grey King
  5. Silver on the Tree


Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, is faced with a terrible problem. She must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and must not be moved.

Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma. And Mrs. Frisby in turn renders them a great service.

This is a wonderful tale about some very unusual rats, and how they end up helping Mrs. Frisby move her house, and save her family. It was made into a Disney movie as well, but (at least in my opinion) the book is far superior.


The Wrinkle In Time Quintet by Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L’Engle’s classic middle-grade series, A Wrinkle In Time Quintet, follows the lives of Meg Murry, her youngest brother Charles Wallace Murry, their friend Calvin O’Keefe, and her twin brothers Sandy and Dennys Murry. Beginning with A Wrinkle In Time, each novel features the characters encountering other-worldly beings and evil forces they have to defeat in order to save the world. The characters travel through time and space and even into Charles Wallace’s body in this beloved series that blends science fiction and fantasy.

If you’re looking for a classic read for kids, check out the Wrinkle in Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle. I read all these books with my kids, and they are fantastic (though some of them get pretty darn weird. I'm looking at you, Many Waters!)

  1. A Wrinkle in Time
  2. A Wind in the Door
  3. Many Waters
  4. A Swiftly Tilting Planet
  5. An Acceptable Time


Comet in Moominland (and all the other Moomin-books), by Tove Jansson

Finland’s Tove Jansson created a unique, strange and enchanting (strangely enchanting? enchantingly strange?) world in her stories about the Moomin-family and their life in Moomin-valley. If you haven’t checked out this particular fantasy-realm, it’s well worth a visit.

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) was born in Helsinki and spent much of her life in Finland. She is the author of the Moomin books, including Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll. Born into an artistic family—her father was a sculptor and her mother was a graphic designer and illustrator—Jansson studied at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, and L’ร‰cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In addition to her Moomin books, she also wrote several novels, drew comic strips and worked as a painter and illustrator. In 1966, she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for her body of work. Jansson had a studio in Helsinki but spent most of her time at her home on a small island called Klovharu.


Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary

Having a little sister like four-year-old Ramona isn’t always easy for Beezus Quimby. With a wild imagination, disregard for order, and an appetite for chaos, Ramona makes it hard for Beezus to be the responsible older sister she knows she ought to be…especially when Ramona threatens to ruin Beezus’s birthday party. Will Beezus find the patience to handle her little sister before Ramona turns her big day into a complete disaster? 

This book was published way back in 1955, but it holds up really well all these years later. Maybe because it's so honest about what sibling-hood and family life can really be like: full of chaos and strife and love, all at the same time. Beezus and Ramons is absolutely delightful and at times hilariously, laugh-out-loud funny. Ramona is the quintessential trouble-making little sister, and Beezus is her long-suffering older sister. The stories about their trials and tribulations are so close to real life, I feel I might have lived some part of this.


Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl's castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there's far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

In this giant jigsaw puzzle of a fantasy, people and things are never quite what they seem. Destinies are intertwined, identities exchanged, lovers confused. The Witch has placed a spell on Howl. Does the clue to breaking it lie in a famous poem? And what will happen to Sophie Hatter when she enters Howl's castle?

My kids already loved Hayao Miyazaki’s movie version of this story before we read the book, but the book is a masterpiece in its own way. The story and characters are rather different than in Miyazaki’s adaptation, but I think that the differences just makes the reading more interesting (my kids agreed). Also, Sophie’s adventures after she’s cursed by the witch of the Waste, her encounter with the wizard Howl, and the fire demon Calcifer, make for a great story to read aloud.


The Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland

My daughter was obsessed with this series for a long time, and why not? It has dragons, dragons, and MORE dragons. Also, Sutherland has a real knack for writing stories that are very hard to put down. "Just one more chapter", my daughter would say when I read these books to her, and usually, I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen next too. This is a huge series by now, with a ton of books, maybe enough to last a voracious reader through the summer?

More about the world of these books:

Pyrrhia is a world ruled by dragons. Dragons are everywhere, from the depths of the sea to the mountain peaks, from the icy arctic to the tropical rainforest. Each tribe has adapted to their habitat and is fiercely hostile to outside dragons. For instance, SeaWings can breathe underwater, but they can’t produce fire like the SkyWings. SandWings have poisonous tails like scorpions, but they’d die quickly of the cold in the frozen caves of the IceWings. But all the tribes have a matriarchal system where each is ruled by a queen—and all dragons, no matter where they live, have a powerful love of treasure.

There are humans in this world, but the dragons think of them as prey, like the cows and deer and buffalo. Then again, the dragons have noticed that human prey acts a little odd sometimes. Humans keep showing up outside dragon caves, waving tiny swords and trying to start a fight (which doesn’t bother the dragons much; if the prey chooses to come to them to get eaten, that’s quite all right). The humans also seem as enamored of treasure as the dragons are themselves, and will run off with gold or jewels if they get anywhere near the dragons’ hidden hoards. As a result, the dragons see humans as annoying magpies and refer to them as “scavengers.”


Red Shift, by Alan Garner

Three separate stories, three utterly different lives, distant in time and yet strangely linked to a single place, the mysterious, looming outcrop known as Mow Cop, and a single object, the blunt head of a stone axe: all these come together in Alan Garner’s extraordinary Red Shift.

This book is a twisting, trippy and hard-to-describe tale that winds through three different historical times, all set in the same place. It’s a story that I first read in my teens, but it has stayed with me over the years. It is tragic and brutal and unsettling, and also full of sadness and loss, beauty and love. I really love how Garner uses the same area for each storyline, and the connection to the land, to the landscape, is strong here and part of the story's innate magic.


My daughter read her way through three series of books by Neal Shusterman recently. I haven't read the books myself, but based on her reaction, and if your teen is into the darker side of things, I'd recommend them:

Arc of a Scythe series by Neal Shusterman

In a future where no one dies unless a Scythe mandates it, Citra and Rowan are chosen to learn the “art of killing” in preparation for the scythedom. What follows is a thrilling adventure where the two must work together to uncover the corruption in their supposed utopian society.

The Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman

In Neal Shusterman’s New York Times bestselling Unwind Dystology series, three friends fight to change their fate in a world where all teenagers are at risk of being unwound—having their bodies dismantled and all the parts distributed for transplant.


The Skinjacker trilogy by Neal Shusterman

Nick and Allie don’t survive the car accident—and their souls don’t exactly get where they’re supposed to go. Instead, they’re caught halfway between life and death, in a sort of limbo known as Everlost: a shadow of the living world, filled with all the things and places that no longer exist. It’s a magical, yet dangerous, place where bands of lost kids run wild and anyone who stands in the same place too long sinks to the center of the Earth.

When they find Mary, the self-proclaimed queen of lost souls, Nick feels like he’s found a home, but Allie isn’t satisfied spending eternity between worlds. Against all warnings, Allie begins learning the “Criminal Art” of haunting, and ventures into dangerous territory, where a monster called the McGill threatens all the souls of Everlost.