A writing style analysis of a steampunk series opener: Monsters, robots, and POV, oh my!



The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz (2014)

Opening Line: “The secret entrance to the headquarters of the Septemberist Society could only be reached by submarine.”

I love a story in which the opening line leaves me with SO MANY questions. (What is the Septemberist Society? Why is it called the Septemberist Society? Why can you only reach it by submarine? Why is it secret? Who’s in the Septemberist Society? Is it a real thing? Where is the headquarters located? I could go on.)

In anticipation of Alan Gratz’s author visit to our school in October, I’ve been attempting to read through all the books of his we own in our library. His black/white/red covered books (see: Prisoner B-3087, Projekt 1065and Code of Honor) are wildly popular with our students, and while I can definitely understand why that is the case, they weren’t doing the same for me. I liked them fine, but I didn’t love them. It was starting to make me feel anxious. As a librarian, I want to be able to earnestly and honestly and exuberantly push these books on my students prior to his visit. I was trying to piece together what the issue was until I opened up League of Seven, and was immediately gripped by the story. Phew.

Our main character is 12-year-old Archie Dent, son to researchers for the Septemberists, a secret society aimed at keeping the world safe from the Mangleborn, massive world-destroying monsters. Several times throughout the history of humankind, the Mangleborn have risen up and destroyed civilizations, and it is only through a League of Seven heroes that they are quelled and trapped beneath the earth once again. It’s been many generations since the Mangleborn have awoken, but according to research by Archie’s parents, there are rumblings of a rebirth. This becomes very clear when they arrive at the Septemberist headquarters and council has been infiltrated and taken over by strange bug-like creatures buried in the backs of the council-members necks. Soon Archie learns that Thomas Alva Edison, evil genius, is attempting to use lektricity to awaken the Swarm Queen, a Mangleborn locked under the swamps of Florida, and he is using Archie’s parents to help him. Archie is thrown together with two other young people, Fergus — whose impressive mechanical knowledge makes him desirable to Edison — and Hachi — a First Nations girl who has great skills in weaponry and a vengeful death wish for Edison — and together, they must figure out a way to stop Edison and the Swarm Queen from killing Archie’s parents and destroying the world. No biggie.

Okay, so there are some definite differences between League of Seven, and the black/white/red books (subsequently referred to as BWR books). First of all: genreLeague of Seven is an alternative steampunk historical fiction novel (as opposed to realistic historical fiction). We’ve got some some robots, some ancient legends, some real-life characters making a very different impact on society (hello there, villainous Thomas Edison), all set in a much different picture of 1870s America.

Secondly, tense. I’ve noticed his other books (that I’ve read so far) are written in present tense. This gives the narrative an urgent, action-driven focus. For some reason, this tense style feels more juvenile for me. Again, I see value in it for the intended audience, but for me, it’s not my preference. League is written in past tense.

Next, point of viewLeague is written primarily in the third-person limited perspective (with Archie being the limited scope), although we do see a more omniscient perspective occasionally. This is my FAVORITE pov to read. I think it gives the author flexibility while still allowing the reader to feel personally connected to the protagonist. I think it also lends authenticity to the text. The BWR books are written in first person, which again, tends to be the more comfortable choice for my students. However, authors who write for middle grade audiences are still ADULTS (primarily), and when they write in a tween voice, even the best authors are impostors.

Now maybe my English major analyzer is in overdrive here and these aspects are just correlation not causation. I feel like I’ll certainly be more aware of these things in the future. Let’s just say I’m super pumped to be able to promote this series to my students this fall in anticipation of Alan’s visit. I’ll still booktalk all his books, but the BWRs basically promote themselves. League is a little more off the beaten path, but I think will be a HUGE hit with those insatiable fans of our dear friend Rick Riordan.

2.5 stars. Next two books in the series are already out!




I love this one to (Reese’s) pieces

Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle (2013)

Opening line: “I’d rather not start with any backstory. I’m too busy for that right now: planning the escape, stealing my older brother’s fake ID (he’s lying about his height by the way) and strategizing high-protein snacks for an overnight voyage to the single most dangerous city on the earth.”

Sometimes when the author reads his/her own audiobook, it’s not great (see: Lord of the Flies). But sometimes it is. And this is one such example. So, so great. (And the Odyssey Award committee agreed.)

Nate is a budding actor. He loves musical theater and has been working for the past two plus years with his bff Libby to develop into the next Broadway star. When Libby tells him about the newest show to head to Broadway, E.T. the Musical, is looking for young male actors for the role of Elliot, Nate is willing to do whatever it takes to get that job. Including hightailing it out of Jankburg, Pennsylvania without his parents’ knowledge or permission and hitting the Big Apple all on his own. Of course, things don’t go exactly how he and Libby had planned, and hijinks ensue. But all along the way, Nate maintains his A-plus attitude readers can’t help but love.

There is some hi-LAR-ious writing in this book, and I basically never stopped grinning throughout the entire thing. The tween dialogue between Libby and Nate is spot on and I found myself wanting to be able to have Nate as one of my students. Loved it to pieces, and probably need to read the sequel now, Five, Six, Seven, Nate.

2.5 stars


Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein (2013)

In the traditions of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, comes another fun intellectual adventure for middle graders that will be ideal for big readers. Others, I think, will probably be bored.

Kyle Keeley is a bit of a goofball who has landed himself a solid grounding after breaking a window of their house after trying to win a scavenger hunt game with his brothers. Games are Kyle’s favorite thing, and he would do just about anything to win them. In fact, when he finds out that there is an essay contest for all 12 year olds in his town to be part of the first group of kids to experience the brand new town library at a lock-in, he’s determined to get a spot among the winners. And this library is unlike any public library before it — because the man behind the library desk is Mr. Luigi Lemoncello, world famous gamemaker extraordinaire, basically Kyle’s biggest hero.

After some determined finagling, Kyle lands himself a spot among the lucky, along with his best friend and 10 other kids from his school. The library is everything the group could have hoped for, and after an awesome day and night, the kids wake up to find that the adventure has only just begun. Because before they can go home, they have to win Mr. Lemoncello’s biggest game yet — how to escape from the library.

This thing is chock full of literary references, and not just to old classics, but to modern stories that today’s kids have actually heard of and read! It’s a fun mystery that they can try to solve along with Kyle and his buddies, but I don’t think it’s one that will have wide appeal. There are certain kids I can already think of that will love it, but also a lot I know who would roll their eyes. It’s been on a ton of readers’ choice award lists in the past couple years, but I think that’s mostly due to the fact that most of those committees are made up of — you guessed it — librarians, and we are an easily swayed bunch.

1.5 stars

I just could not come up with a title for this one. Oops.

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore (2008)

When I bought this book at the Scholastic Book Fair last December for half price (in preparation for YA Lit this semester), I was pretty pumped. The reviews on the back (“…a knee-weakening romance that easily rivals that of Twilight…” “…gentle passion and savage kindness, matter-of-fact heroics and bleak beauty…” “Fantasy and romance readers will be thrilled.”) only excited me more. Let’s be honest, I’ve read Twilight more than twice. Hunger Games had me disregarding homework like it was my job. This sounds just up my alley. I could be ashamed, or I could embrace it. And I embrace it.

Here’s the plot. Well, the beginning of the plot, because really, if I tried to tell you the plot it would take 471 pages. So here’s the beginning of the plot.

Katsa lives in her uncle’s castle in Middluns, one of the seven kingdoms on the land, and acts as her uncle’s thug. This is because since she was a young child, Katsa could kill any person she wanted. Katsa is graced, giving her the ability to win any fight she ever encounters. Those who are born with a grace are set apart from the rest by their two-colored eyes (Katsa has one green and one blue) and are usually collected by the kings of the region to use as they see fit. Katsa’s uncle Randa uses Katsa to kill and injure whoever crosses him. Although Katsa has created an underground organization that works to correct the world’s wrongs, she never thinks to challenge her uncle.

Until Po comes around.

On one of Katsa’s missions to save someone who was kidnapped, Katsa comes across another graced fighter, this one with one silver eye and one gold. Katsa knocks him out so as to complete her mission, but is surprised when he shows up in Randa’s court a few days later. Po enters into her life and suddenly Katsa is questioning everything she ever knew about herself, the world, and her role in it.

That’s as far as I’ll go so as not to give any spoilers. It would be really easy to do. There’s a new surprise practically every chapter. Which is, of course, why I devoured this book in about three days (despite class, work, homework, friends… sleep). And also it makes a point of asking some challenging questions. Can a woman be a successful leader? Can sex outside of marriage be a good idea? Are we defined as others define us or as we define ourselves? Can companionship destroy independence? Although Cashore tends to obviously answer these with her opinions, I tend to agree with her.

I like it, I like it.  (Three stars)