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The Winter of the Robots: Kurtis Scaletta

Book: The Winter of the Robots
Author: Kurtis Scaletta
Pages: 272
Age Range: 10 and up

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta is a fun, science-themed mystery, perfect for middle schoolers. First-person narrator Jim lives in a slightly run-down neighborhood in North Minneapolis. He and his best friend Oliver are science geeks. But when Jim chooses a girl named Rocky as his partner for a science project, instead of working with Oliver, he sets a series of unexpected events in motion. Joined by Oliver's replacement partner Dmitri, the four young teens discover a mysterious junkyard, and the suggestion of robots living in the wild. 

There's a lot to like about The Winter of the Robots. The chilly Minneapolis winter setting feels authentic, as do the friend and sibling relationships. Jim's little sister, Penny, is a strong character, as is Rocky, a girl who wants to get her hands dirty. Penny is a bit of a pest, but smart, too. Jim's dad is realistically flawed, with a barely controlled temper. There's a nice scene in which Jim starts to see his dad clearly, something that is certainly part of growing up. All in all, I thought Scaletta did a nice job of allowing freedom for Jim and his friends to accomplish something meaningful, while still having concerned parents. 

Here's Rocky to Jim, after he sees her work a snowblower:

"My dad has taught me how to do everything. He says women get cheated out of learning stuff. I've changed the oil on a car. I've run an electric drill and a power saw. I even welded once." (Page 32)

And here's Oliver. 

"That's what scientists do. They revise an idea, evolve it, and make it better." Both of Oliver's parents were scientists, so he would know. He was a mad scientist in training. He already had the brilliant mind, the wild hair, and the thick glasses. All he needed was a hunchbacked assistant." (Page 4)

Scaletta also manages to include some diversity among the characters. Dmitri has a minor disability, and spends time helping his autistic younger brother. Several adults from the neighborhood play a role in the kids' adventures, and not all of them are upstanding citizens.

As you would expect from a book called The Winter of the Robots, there is a ton of information here about how to build robots. The technical parts are well-integrated into the text, such that the book doesn't feel informational (Jim is learning as he builds things). It may even inspire young readers to become involved in building robots themselves. Some of the technical details dragged a little bit for me as an adult reader (who isn't particularly interested in building robots), but I liked the positive portrayal of kids who are smart and passionate about science.

Apart from that, I though that the plot has a nice pace, and a good use of red herrings and innuendo. There are a fair number of characters to keep track of, and one of them does come to a bad end (offstage). While perhaps a bit difficult for 8 or 9 year olds, I think The Winter of the Robots will be a nice addition to the reading options for mystery- and/or tech-loving middle schoolers. While clearly aimed at boys, the presence of two strong female characters (Rocky and Penny) keeps it girl-friendly, too. There's a smidgen of boy-girl relationship dynamics, but nothing for anyone to worry about. Recommended for readers age 10 and up. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: October 8, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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