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Middle Grade Reads to Thrill and Humor

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Kids ages 8 to 14 love reading about medieval mischief, otherworldly creatures and unlikely heroes and heroines. These new middle-grade novels should fill empty summer hours with lots of entertainment and laughs.

"Unnatural Creatures" selected by Neil Gaiman; HarperCollins; 462 pages; $17.99 hardcover/$9.99 paperback.

Collected and introduced by New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman, this imaginative batch of 16 stories features a crazy host of strange, wondrous creatures, including a phoenix, a mermaid, a griffin, werewolves and a weird, carnivorous blob. The diverse, sometimes unnerving, stories are thrilling and exciting and feature works from Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, E. Nesbit, Anthony Boucher, Peter S. Beagle and Samuel R. Delany. Peppered with black and white sketches from Briony Morrow-Cribbs, the unusual, incredibly odd tales feature characters with names such as Augustus TwoFeathers McCoy, Zebediah T. Crawcrustle, and the Cockatoucan, or Great-Aunt Willoughby.

A fantastic foray back in time to the art of real storytelling, "Unnatural Creatures" benefits a nonprofit known as 826DC, which tutors students and helps them develop their writing abilities.

"The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle" by Christopher Healy; Walden Pond Press; 477 pages; $16.99.

The sequel to the well-reviewed, "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," Healy's delicious book takes readers back to the same hilariously fractured fairy tale world. Starring the famed princes who step out of the shadows of their princesses, Prince Liam, Prince Frederic, Prince Duncan and Prince Gustav have defeated evil, but now have new challenges. In this clever follow-up, one of the princesses, Briar Rose, blackmails the heroes into breaking into the most formidable fortress in the Thirteen Kingdoms. Frist, they have to prove themselves again and steal an object of great power. Two maniacal warlords, bladejaw eels, a Gray Phantom and magical gemstones figure in to the highly entertaining romp, as well.

With occasional, whimsically detailed illustrations that look like a mesh of Disney and DreamWorks, Healy's lighthearted read is the perfect summer tale for prince-appreciating kids between the ages of 8 and 12.

"The Creature from the Seventh Grade: Sink or Swim" by Bob Balaban; illustrated by Andy Rash; Viking/Penguin; 255 pages; $16.99.

Actor/Director/Producer Bob Balaban ("Moonrise Kingdom"), jumps into children's book writing because he remembers himself as a sort of awkward creature in middle school.

His "monstrously good" follow-up is a hilarious return to the neurosis of a now-seventh grader afraid of swimming, giving oral reports in class, stinging insects and finding himself in an elevator alone with the cutest girl in his middle school.

In Balaban's newest, Charlie Drinkwater of Decatur, Ill., is every bit as normal as all other middle schoolers, with all their own fears, anxieties, quirks and personalities. Packed with real situations, tons of humor and a highly imaginative, insightful kid who brings out his "inner reptile" from time to time, this witty, droll read wins on every count.

"A Box of Gargoyles" by Anne Nesbet; HarperCollins; 358 pages; $16.99.

This much-anticipated sequel to "The Cabinet of Earths" puts Maya back in Paris, safe and sound until strange things start to happen. Stone gargoyles fly and talk, and a shadowy person-like column of leaves and dust starts to follow Maya everywhere. But what Maya's most afraid of is the purple-eyed man from "The Cabinet of Earths," supposedly gone forever, but all of a sudden back, behind the dark magic that ripples throughout Paris.

Written with zest and aplomb, Nesbet's latest is chock-full of magic and good versus evil, in a fascinatingly entertaining and breathtaking way. Tweens, both boy and girl, will thoroughly enjoy the excitement on every page.

"The Monster Book of Creature Features: Wiley & Grampa's First Three Adventures" by Kirk Scroggs; 332 pages; $10.99.

Fans of wacky humor in the Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series will love these three outrageous "Creature Features." The three stories' titles are "Dracula vs. Grampa at the Monster Truck Spectacular," "Grampa's Zombie BBQ," and "Monster Fish Frenzy," all wrapped up in one big book full of monsters, mayhem and "super-smelly surprises."

With lots of cartoon illustrations and large text, Scrogg's latest is a fun foray into chapter books. Meant to be incredibly funny and goofy, the tales certainly fit the bill. Complete with a label on the back cover that says "WARNING: Contains outrageously funny content! May lead to stomach cramps, leaky eyes, and/or wet pants," this is "more fun than a barrel of whoopee cushions," says Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants. (Sorry, couldn't resist using his quote. It sums the story up pretty nicely!)

To find out more about Lee Littlewood and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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