216 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

The Homework Strike: Greg Pincus

Book: The Homework Strike
Author: Greg Pincus
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8-12

HomeworkStrikeThe Homework Strike by Greg Pincus is a sequel to The 14 Fibs of Gregory K (reviewed here), though it's not necessary to have read the first book. Gregory K., math-impaired middle child of a math-loving family, is now in seventh grade. He loves writing, especially poetry, but he finds himself with little time to write, because he spends 3 hours or more each day doing homework. Gregory is struggling, burned out, and, eventually, angry that homework is taking away time for the other pursuits that he and his friends enjoy. And so, with some subtle encouragement from his history teacher, Gregory goes on strike. It's when he's on strike that Gregory finds himself working harder and learning more than he would have ever imagined. 

The Homework Strike is a timely take on an issue that is getting attention around the country. While I don't know of any actual student-directed strikes (yet), there are certainly schools that are experimenting with reducing or eliminating homework. And there are plenty of news stories and even entire books about how homework is leading to burn-out among students, especially those in middle school and high school. Regular readers know that reducing homework levels is an issue near and dear to my own heart. The Homework Strike is a book that would have caught my attention on this front alone. The fact that it's written by a friend and features characters that I enjoyed in a previous book makes it, for me, that much more irresistible. But I shall endeavor to be objective. 

The Homework Strike is something of a primer for social activism via strikes, without feeling like a primer. What keeps the book from feeling didactic in this regard is Gregory's strong first-person voice. Gregory is figuring everything out as he goes along, with some support from his teacher and his parents. Some references are mentioned, and Gregory does read them and refer to them, but this is all in the context of Gregory's journey. References to Click, Clack, Moo and Yertle the Turtle are a bonus (as is a quote from The Princess Bride movie). Gregory's parents are realistically concerned, and impose grounding at one point over grades, but are ultimately awesomely supportive.

The author uses The Homework Strike to make what I find to be valid points about the negatives of homework, while defending the efforts and intentions of teachers themselves (a potentially fine line). Only the heavy-handed school principal really comes off as a bad guy (and someone had to be the bad guy). Particular attention is paid to the difficulty of homework for kids who have learning challenges (one character is revealed to by dyslexic, for example, and requires extra time), and to the many creative interests that kids might have outside of school (writing, painting, making videos, etc.). While I might personally have liked to see Gregory dig up some of the research that has questioned the value of homework, I can see that this could have bogged down the story for middle grade readers. 

Here's one of Gregory's friends on the impact of homework:

"I have a theory that they removed two hours from the day this summer while we weren't looking," Benny chimed in. "That would explain why I no longer have time for reading for pleasure, watching TV, or practicing violin." (Page 23, ARC)

And here's Gregory:

"Gregory knew his friends were probably right about, well, about everything. But school was hard for him -- he left a day of it exhausted and drained -- and homework was harder. He even kind liked school, really, or at least the best classes were enough to make the other classes tolerable. But it just all seemed off to him somehow. Like there was so much attention focused on knowledge he'd never need and skills he wouldn't use, and no time to develop the ones he felt would be important where his life would take him." (Page 42, ARC)

I love Gregory's group of friends, kids who don't fit in to any of the traditional groups (jocks, popular kids, stoners, etc.), but who are ok because they have each other. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, academically and otherwise. And I like that these friends support Gregory but don't blindly follow him into going on strike. I also enjoyed a running theme through the book about whether or not something would make Gregory's calf hurt. You see, his best friend Kelly moved away after the first book. Kelly would always kick him in the calf when she though he was doing something stupid. Even with her living far away, Gregory still gets phantom pains when he knows that she would have kicked him for something. She's like his (painful) conscience. 

There is some risk that The Homework Strike will make elementary school kids worry about the homework burden that is to come with middle school, but I'm pretty sure that they'll be hearing about this in the real world anyway. [My daughter is in first grade and I already have a sense of which teachers give a lot of homework in the upper grade of her elementary school.] The Homework Strike just might give them some ideas for coping, together with positive messages about standing up for yourself and being loyal to your friends and family members. It's really more about larger issues like the relative power of kids vs. adults. 

I think that The Homework Strike is a book that belongs in school libraries everywhere, not just for the messages regarding homework and control, but because Gregory is such an engaging and realistic character, with a strong family. There are fun poems at the start of every chapter, too. This is a book that will particularly speak to kids who feel like outsiders at school (and isn't that most middle schoolers?), and to anyone who has ever felt powerless. Highly recommended for kids age 8 and up, and for their parents, too. [My six-year-old noticed what I was reading and had me read a chunk of this book aloud to her, too.]

Publisher:  (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 3, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle: Gabrielle Kent

Book: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle
Author: Gabrielle Kent
Pages: 366
Age Range: 8-12

HexbridgeCastleThe Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is a very fun new fantasy novel, the first of a series by Gabrielle Kent, previously released in the UK. The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is about a boy named Alfie Bloom who lives a rather bleak life alone with his distracted inventor father. Alfie's life changes forever when he learns that he has inherited an ancient and mysterious castle, and is required to live there. Alfie finds Hexbridge Castle full of hidden passageways and strange contraptions. A mysterious lawyer doles out sparing hints regarding Alfie's selection as heir to the castle, including letters from Alfie's benefactor, the druid who built the castle 600 years earlier. While living in Hexbridge Castle, Alfie finds friends and enemies, wondrous delights and terrible dangers. 

The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is kid-friendly perfection, full of trappings and experiences that are simply cool. There's a Dahl-esque quality to Kent's writing, albeit with more three-dimensional, modern characters. From page 22, when Alfie and his dad are driven in a carriage that seems to be flying, fanciful touches are everywhere. Like this:

"He led them to a gigantic door made up of lots of other doors of decreasing size, one inside the other, like Russian nesting dolls. The smallest only came halfway up Alfie's knee. "Just through there. Ms. Fortune will sign you in."

"Which door do we open?"

The coachman chuckled as he filled a nose bag for each horse. "Whichever one fits, Master Bloom, whichever one fits."" (Page 24)

Kent also captures the delights of an English farm and village, giving the book a slightly old-fashioned feel, even though it is set in modern times. Like this:

 "Alfie was glad he was so hungry; he could swear the table was groaning louder than his stomach under the weight of the food. His mouth watered as he saw three types of freshly baked pie, soda bread hot from the oven, buttery new potatoes, and a golden roast chicken surrounded by crisp lettuce and tomatoes fresh from the garden. Between the mountain of food and the twins' never-ending questions about the castle, dinner lasted a very long time." (Page 46)

There's a school that bears no small resemblance to the school that Dahl's Matilda attended, and there are occasional hints of Harry Potter in Alfie's persona of near-orphan who discovers a secret about his own birth. These things feel not incidental but more like homages (particularly to Dahl). There's even a scene involving flight that carries a hint of Peter Pan. 

I could keep quoting all day - I flagged another dozen passages, and all of them are wonderful. But I don't want to give away any of the twists and turns of Alfie's story. While I did see a few of the twists coming before Alfie did, my enjoyment of The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle was in no way diminished. I felt more like the author and I were together, quietly encouraging Alfie on. The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle ends in a satisfactory manner, but it's clear that Alfie's story is not finished. Which is a happy thing, because I am very much looking forward to the next stage of Alfie's adventures. Highly recommended, one of my top reads of the year. 

[Update: I was pleased to see, on the very day that I published this review, that Ms. Yingling also recommends The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle.]

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: October 25, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


If the Magic Fits (100 Dresses, Book 1): Susan Maupin Schmid

Book: If the Magic Fits (100 Dresses, Book 1)
Author: Susan Maupin Schmid
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

IfTheMagicFitsIf the Magic Fits is the first book in the new 100 Dresses series by Susan Maupin Schmid. It's about a young orphan named Darling who is a lowly servant in a castle, the Under-presser (assistant to Lindy, the Head Presser, who irons the Princess's many garments). When a magical canary is moved to a closet holding 100 never worn dresses, a force is awakened in the castle, one that Darling can't resist trying on for size. Darling finds herself battling jealous servants while trying to understand the castle's magic, and also striving to keep the princess from making a terrible mistake. 

If the Magic Fits has a cover blurb from Jessica Day George, author of the Castle Glower series, and the two series have a similar feel (both with somewhat sentient castles full of interesting people and things). If the Magic Fits has a very different heroine, however, in plucky orphan Darling, who was raised by the kitchen staff when her mother died right after birth. Darling doesn't know who her father is, and one senses that a surprise may be revealed at some point. But for the most part, she works within the constraints of her on-the-edge existence (she fears being cast out of the castle and starving to death, if she errs too far). The butterfly-loving, difficult to woo Princess Mariposa is also an intriguing character, as are some of the other servants. Here's Princess Mariposa describing one of her suitors, for example:

"Princess Mariposa put her face in her hands and spoke through her fingers. "He has the face of a toad, the manners of a pig, and the mind of a flea."" (Page 15, ARC)

And here's Darling:

"... This was like some far-fetched adventure story.

I, Darling Dimple, was having an adventure. Or was it having me. I wasn't sure which. All I knew was that I hadn't finished my ironing, and I had no idea how long I'd been gone. A very annoyed Lindy would be waiting for me, Darling Dimple, ex-Presses... I had to get back as quickly as possible and save my job!" (Page 104, ARC)

and:

"... I swerved to the wardrobe, creeping along inch by inch. I froze as a floorboard creaked beneath me. Nothing happened. I continued  my epic trek across the carpet. Had any explorer ever been so intrepid or so brave?

Had any Princess's Girl ever looked so silly tiptoeing around in the dark to fetch a magic dress?" (Page 117, ARC)

Don't you love her mix of high drama and self-deprecating humor? The above passage sums up the feel of the book fairly well, I think. 

So we have a spoiled Princess who retains a sense of humor, a determined orphan, a gaggle of other servants both kind and no-so-kind, and a closet full of gorgeous magical dresses. There's also a questionable prince, a talking mouse, and a hint of dragons. The plot of If the Magic Fits is nicely paced for middle grade readers, with a satisfying mix of action and character development and scene-setting. I think that If the Magic Fits is a good start to a new series that is sure to please middle grade fantasy fans. Recommended for readers 8 and up. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: October 25, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Kid in the Red Jacket: Barbara Park

Book: The Kid in the Red Jacket
Author: Barbara Park
Pages: 144
Age Range: 8-12

The Kid in the Red Jacket is a reissue of a 1988 early middle grade title by Barbara Park. The Kid in the Red Jacket is a quick read that does not feel dated, despite the absence of cell phones and computers. What keeps this book feeling fresh, I think, is Park's keen sense of what kids really think. The Kid in the Red Jacket is a book that brought childhood back into focus for me as an adult reader. It's about a boy named Howard Jeeter who has to move from Arizona to small-town Massachusetts at age 10. To say that Howard is unhappy about leaving his home, school, and friends would be a huge understatement. The Kid in the Red Jacket is the story of Howard's adjustment to his new life. It's both funny and true. 

Howard could be any 10-year-old boy. He wants to make his parents feel badly about ruining his life. He misses his friends. He kind of likes his baby brother, Gaylord, though he won't admit this to anyone. And he desperately wants to fit in at his new school. When the lonely six-year-old girl across that street interjects herself into his life, Howard worries that people will find out, and that friendship with her will cause him to become an outcast. But the irrepressible Molly, recovering from an unfortunate family situation, is hard to avoid. 

I could have highlighted dozens of passages. Funny, true, and occasionally profound. Here are a couple of examples:

"My mother just sighed. She probably would have yelled, but I had been making her yell so much lately, I think she was getting sort of sick of it. Normally, parents really enjoy yelling. But I guess it's like anything else--too much of a good thing, and it's not as fun anymore." (Page 2)

"A lot of mean stuff had been been done to me--by my parents, by the moving men, and by my father's stupid company. And even though sometimes you can control your anger, you can't control your sadness And that's what I mostly was, I guess--sad. Sad about leaving my friends and my school and my room and my soccer team and a million other things." (Page 13)

"She (his new teacher) seemed nice, but I knew that didn't mean much. Teachers are always nice when you first meet them. Their true personalities don't come out until something goes wrong in the classroom, like when a fight breaks out during a spelling bee." (Page 46)

The Kid in the Red Jacket belongs in elementary school libraries everywhere, and is a must-purchase by any parent who is moving an elementary-age child to a new school. This is a book that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. I may well read this one aloud to my almost-six-year old. I think that she, like me, will empathize with Howard. Recommended. 

Publisher: Yearling (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: August 12, 1988 (new reissue edition)
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Bronze Key (Magisterium, Book 3): Holly Black & Cassandra Clare

Book: The Bronze Key (Magisterium, Book 3)
Author: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Pages: 256
Age Range: 8-12

TheBronzeKey

The Bronze Key is the third book in the five-book Magisterium series, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, following The Iron Trial and The Copper Gauntlet. This is a fine series for fans of middle grade fantasy. It has echoes of the Harry Potter series, but with plenty of unique attributes, too. We have a boy who is special (and connected intimately with someone evil) because of something that happened to him as a baby. We have a magical school, fleshed out via inventive world-building. We have two best friends, one male and one female. And we have, in this installment, an overhanging threat, a spy to be uncovered, and dating dynamics between young teens. Yes, this is a must-read series for fans of epic middle grade fantasy, school stories, and/or twisty plots. 

I don't feel the need to recap the plot of this third book. If you haven't read the first two, any description will contain spoilers for those. And if you have read the first two, you don't need me to tell you what to expect. You already want to read The Bronze Key. So I'll just say that The Bronze Key does not disappoint. I liked it better than the second book, probably because more of it takes place at the atmospheric Magisterium and I quite enjoy spending time there. Here it is:

"The caverns were humid but cool. Water dripped down from the jagged icicle stalactites to the melted-candle stalagmites below them. Sheets of gypsum hung from the ceiling, resembling banners and streamers from some long-forgotten party. Call walked past it all, past the damp flowstone and the pools shining with mica, where pale fish darted. He was so used to it that he longer found it to be particularly creepy." (Page 57)

Black and Clare are masterful at characterization (especially for main character Call), and at blending action, mystery, and humor. I especially like Call's dry, self-deprecating voice. Like these examples:

"Call knew they were in trouble when he saw there were chairs up on the dais. Chairs meant a long ceremony. He wasn't wrong. The ceremony went by in a blur, but it was an extended and boring blur." (Page 19)

"Yeah I've been..." Call's voice trailed off. He wondered if it was possible to have a conversation entirely in sentences that trailed off. If so, he and Celia were definitely on their way to an epic example." (Page 83)

I also appreciate the way that the authors incorporate Call's disability (from an infant leg injury) throughout, without making it feel like a big deal. Each of the characters has something that makes life difficult for them, but they continue moving forward. The dynamics between Call and his friends remain complex (particularly in light of developing dating interests, an area in which Call seems to lag a bit). 

Developments at the end of The Bronze Key left me surprised, and certainly wanting more. The Bronze Key is a strong addition to a solid series, one that will be, and should be, eagerly awaited by fans everywhere. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic) 
Publication Date: August 30, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Curse of the Boggin (The Library, Book 1): D.J. MacHale

Book: Curse of the Boggin (The Library, Book 1)
Author: D.J. MacHale
Pages: 256
Age Range: 8-12

CurseOfTheBogginCurse of the Boggin is the first book of a spooky new middle grade series by D.J. MacHale. MacHale previously wrote the Pendragon and SYLO series, both of which I enjoyed. With Curse of the Boggin, MacHale introduces a new world, promising a variety of other adventures set in the same world and featuring the same primary characters, but lacking a continuous narrative arc. Curse of the Boggin should be read first, however, as it introduces the world, and the characters. 

Curse of the Boggin is the first person story of Marcus, a boy who delights in being a nonconformist, and in standing up to bullies. Marcus has two friends named Annabella Lu and Theo McLean, and a somewhat fraught relationship with his adoptive parents. Marcus's life becomes more challenging when he starts to see things that apparently aren't there. This includes a vision of a man in a bathrobe, who Marcus learns from the newspaper is a recently deceased firefighter from New York City. Marcus sneaks off to the city, learns some unexpected truths about his own background, and acquires the key to a magical library. Danger and wonder follow, in a fast-paced plot that focuses on ghosts and unfinished stories (and an evil boggin).

I was hooked on Curse of the Boggin from the first page. Marcus is a likable character, strong-willed and imperfect but with good instincts. He has a breezy voice that keeps the book from being too scary for kids, even when scary things do happen. And they do - this is a great book for middle grade kids who delight in eerie dangers. 

Here's Marcus:

"I didn't have a lot of friends at Stony Brook Middle School. Okay, I had exactly two. Lu and Theo. I wasn't a group guy. The three of us didn't care about being on the "popular" track, which meant you had to wear the same clothes as everyone else and make fun of everyone who didn't conform. We did whatever we wanted because we didn't care what anybody else thought about us. It was total freedom." (Page 19)

I don't know if it can really be that easy in middle school, but I appreciate the sentiment. Here are Marcus, Lu and Theo:

"We were like three different pieces of a very odd puzzle. Between Theo, a black guy who looked as though he should be rubbing elbows at a yacht club; Lu, with her Asian roller-derby-girl look, black tights, plaid shirts, and bold makeup; and me, a white guy who wore the same jeans and T-shirts every day until they were so stiff, they could stand up in the corner, we looked like the cast of some kids' show trying to cover all its ethnic bases. It would be a grand slam if we had a Hispanic friend. Or maybe a Tongan." (Page 36)

And here's the key:

"This key fit into only one lock, but which one? It was definitely something from a long time ago, like the big old door of a castle or a giant pirate's chest. It didn't look as though it would fit anything that was made in this century." (Page 83)

There is a fair bit of illusion to Curse of the Boggin, and young readers will enjoy trying to figure out what is real and what isn't. They may come away from Curse of the Boggin with a fear of something scary bursting out from beneath their beds. But I think that they'll also come away looking forward to future books about The Library. Recommended for fans of supernatural stories and mysteries, and for anyone who appreciates books. Curse of the Boggin is a promising start to what I expect will be a long-running series. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers  (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 6, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den: Aimée Carter

Book: Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den
Author: Aimée Carter
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12

SimonThornSimon Thorn and the Wolf's Den by Aimée Carter is the first of a new series about a 12 year old boy, Simon Thorn, who learns that his ability to talk with animals is actually part of something much bigger. Simon has lived for as long as he can remember with his uncle Darryl, receiving only monthly postcards and extremely rare visits from his mysterious mother. Simon has been attempting to hide his new ability to talk to animals from everyone, including Darryl. But when a one-eyed golden eagle warns him that his life is in danger, Simon soon finds himself on the run, uncovering both secrets and relations left and right. 

There's no question that Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den includes some fairly well-established middle grade fantasy tropes, right down to the existence of a secret school for animalgams (people who can shift into an animal form at will) and the importance of a small crew of friends. But I still found Carter's approach and world-building to feel fresh and accessible. There's a nice mix of interpersonal issues (family, bullying, betrayal), mystery (who to trust), and action which will keep kids turning the pages. Here's a snippet of the world-building:

"... Malcolm muttered a curse under his breath and pushed open the heavy door, revealing a dark hallway that looed ore like the entrance to an old castle than a school. The walls were made of stone, and a wrought iron chandelier hung above them. The low light gave the building an eerie feeling, and a chill crept down Simon's spine. Worse, while framed paintings of all kids of animals, from mountain lions to vipers to a dolphin that looked like an older version of Jam, lined the hallway, there weren't any portraits of birds." (Chapter 8, ARC)

The characters are interesting and three-dimensional. I especially liked Darryl, whose love for and loyalty to Simon come across every time he appears on the page. The characters tend to reflect their animal natures even when they are in human form, but they also have other personality traits, like the book-loving dolphin boy, Jam.

Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den would be a good choice for kids who enjoyed the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books, though it reminds me even more of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare's Magisterium series, with its mix of riddles, dangers, and unusual abilities. The Simon Thorn series is an appealing addition to the ranks of middle grade fantasy series. I look forward to Simon's future adventures. Recommended for kids age 8 and up, with enough complexity to please teens and adults, too. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids) 
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart: Lauren DeStefano

Book: The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

I picked up The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart because I had enjoyed Lauren DeStefano's previous book, A Curious Tale of the In-Between.  Once I started reading this new title I as unable to put it down. The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart is a creepy tale of two children who live in a group home near the woods. The boy, Lionel, is wild, with sharp senses and a tendency towards feral behavior. He thinks of himself as more animal than human. Lionel is somewhat tamed, however, but the quiet, gentle Marybeth. Until, that is, Marybeth sneaks out one night in search of a mysterious blue creature, and becomes the one who needs to be tamed. The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart is a celebration of friendship and the unique attributes of children. It's also a ghost story, and a mystery. It is haunting and memorable. 

DeStefano's characterization is quite strong in The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart. Lionel and Marybeth are fully realized, and Lionel is particularly interesting. DeStefano also gradually reveals the nature of their children's caregiver, Mrs. Mannerd. The reader starts out thinking that she doesn't particularly care about the eight kids in her care, but this proves not to be the case at all. The other kids are, admittedly, rather one-dimensional, but I think this is accurate to how Lionel sees them. 

Here's a snippet that I flagged early in the book:

"But was too late for that. Lionel already understood. He could  make the chickens lay eggs and he could reason with the most stubborn of foxes. But he had learned years ago that humans were more dangerous than the things that stalked about the wilderness." (Chapter 3 ARC)

The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart is clearly set in the past, though an exact date isn't given. There's a reference to something in the near past having taken place 10 years after "the war",  but an exact date isn't necessary. The book feels timeless. There are (non-cellular) phones and cars. However, what's striking to the modern adult reader is the lack of supervision of Mrs. Mannerd's house by any outside agencies. Even when Marybeth's behavior becomes highly erratic, Mrs. Mannerd makes her own decisions about what to do. 

There are disturbing aspects to The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart, including past violence towards children. The details are more alluded to than spelled out, however, and I think that most middle grade readers will be able to handle the story. I would keep it away from highly sensitive kids, though, to avoid nightmares.

It's hard book to put down once one starts reading it, because of the mystery and because one cares what happens to Lionel and Marybeth. Kids who enjoy details about animals will especially enjoy The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart. Lionel is constantly thinking of things in terms of animal responses. Like this:

"Lionel was at the table early for once. He hadn't overslept; he had been awake all night. He rarely worried, but when he did, it made him nocturnal like the coyotes and spiders." (Chapter 4, ARC)

The bottom line is that kids (and adults) who enjoy ghostly supernatural tales will enjoy The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart. It's well-written, with strong characterization, and plenty of suspense to keep readers turning the pages. Recommended!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids) 
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Ark Plan (Edge of Extinction, Book 1): Laura Martin

Book: The Ark Plan (Edge of Extinction, Book 1)
Author: Laura Martin
Illustrator: Eric Deschamps
Pages: 368
Age Range: 8-12

EdgeOfExtinctionThe Ark Plan is the first book in a new middle grade post-apocalyptic series by Laura Martin called Edge of Extinction. The premise is irresistible, and the execution is both suspenseful and entertaining. The premise is that scientists have brought dinosaurs to life, shades of Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs, however, brought with them a global pandemic that nearly wiped out the human race. Humans (in the US, anyway) have retreated to four underground bunkers, led by a man calling himself Noah. Dinosaurs roam the earth. 

150 years (and 3 Noahs) later, 12-year-old Sky Mundy lives in the underground North Compound. She has been ill-treated and ostracized ever since her father escaped from the compound 5 years earlier. When she discovers a long-hidden letter from her father, Sky and her best friend Shawn set out on a dangerous journey aboveground. As they struggle to survive in a dinosaur-dominated world, they gradually learn that not everything they've been told in the North Compound is true. 

Sky is a great character: brave, smart, and impulsive, driven to learn as much as she can about dinosaurs, and to uncover the mystery of her father's disappearance. Shawn is smart and mechanically-oriented, but ill-equipped to handle the world outside of the compound. Their strong friendship, with occasional spats and genuine worries, feels realistic. The gray underground bunker where the kids live is convincingly portrayed, and reminded me a little bit of Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember

But it's the dinosaur-filled, post-apocalyptic setting that makes The Ark Plan stand out. Again and again, Martin reminds us of how different the real world is from the sheltered underground life that Sky and Shawn have lived. Like this:

"It turned out that we weren't very good at hiking. After spending all twelve years of our lives walking on smooth tunnel floors, we found ourselves on uneven earth for the first time. Rocks, tree branches, and animal holes seemed to come out of nowhere. We both fell. A lot." (Page 95)

and:

"A small herd of what I thought were triceratops grazed about a half mile to our right, and tiny dots of green and red to our left had to be dinosaurs, but they were too far away to make out what kind. I looked up, and for the first time in my life, I saw more than just a small patch of sky. Fluffy white clouds piled on top of one another as they shuffled across a blue sky so vibrant it made my eyes hurt." (Page 102)

Occasional pencil illustrations from Eric Deschamps help to bring the underground and aboveground worlds to life. A village set in the treetops is pure, kid-enticing perfection. 

The Ark Plan also has one of my favorite aspects of long-term post-apocalyptic books: hints about the previous world. Like this:

"I stopped to inspect a crumbling brick wall. It had been decorative once, but time and passing dinosaurs had collapsed huge sections of it. A metal plaque had fallen off the front and now lay half buried in the dirt. Curious, I bent and pulled it out. White Oak Estates was etched elegantly into its surface." (Page 249)

So basically, The Ark Plan has:

  • A post-apocalyptic world with humans struggling to survive;
  • An oppressive government with secrets;
  • Strong friendship dynamics between kids out on their own;
  • A fast-paced, danger-filled plot;
  • A mysterious quest; AND
  • Dinosaurs!

What is there not to like? The Ark Plan is a wild ride of pure, kid-friendly fun, highly recommended and certainly belonging in elementary and middle school libraries everywhere. This is summer reading at it's best. I can't wait for the next book!

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 10, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the author

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Rosemary Spell: Virginia Zimmerman

Book: The Rosemary Spell
Author: Virginia Zimmerman
Pages: 280
Age Range: 10-12

The Rosemary Spell is a deliciously creepy supernatural mystery centered around a love of books. Only child Rosemary has grown up spending most of her time with her best friend Adam and Adam's older sister, Shelby. The three of them have always shared in particular a love of books, with Shelby the discoverer of many classics enjoyed by all three kids. Now, as Adam and Rosie hit middle school, Shelby is starting to pull away, drawn into activities and older friends. When Adam and Rosie discover an ancient book, however, a book with peculiar properties, it is Shelby who is endangered. Rosemary and Adam end up racing against the clock and tracking down clues from Shakespeare in an attempt to save her.

My favorite things about this book are:

  • The way that all of the main characters live and breathe books.
  • The friendship between Adam and Rosie, in particular the way that the length of time they've been friends enhances their relationship, as well as the way they are (mostly) loyal to one another.
  • The inclusion of a dynamic and engaging teacher for Adam and Rosie (a school project forms a key part of the story).
  • Adam's somewhat OCD personality (he has a compulsive need to put things in order, and has to have all of his food separated). He's not stated as having obsessive compulsive disorder, or being on the autism spectrum, but he's definitely a bit outside of the mainstream. I also love how Rosie accepts him for who he is, just as he accepts that she won't, for example, be nearly as tidy as he is.
  • The close relationship between Rosie and her single mother, portrayed even as Rosie doesn't let her mother in on the mystery.
  • The inclusion of visits to an elderly poet living with Alzheimers Disease in a local nursing home.  

Here are a couple of quotes to give you a feel for the book: 

"There's one shelf. On the shelf is a book. An old book.

A secret, ancient book! Authors I love appear in my mind. E. Nesbit leaps up and down with excitement, and J. K. Rowling raises an eyebrow." (Page 18)

and:

"Sometimes I recognize younger Adams in his face. The one that looks at me now, all eager and earnest, is about five and sincerely believe that we can build a secret tunnel between our houses. Adam's faith that people might leave ancient books hidden in cupboards for future generations to find is infectious. I believe he could be right." (Page 24)

and:

"Mom and I make dinner together and read a little on the couch before bed. I nudge her toes with mine. She looks up, in that daze of being lost in a book.

"We're sifting words." I echo Constance.

Delight breaks her daze. "Together." (Page 94)

The Rosemary Spell is a musing on memory and friendship, wrapped into a suspenseful adventure, laced through with poetry. It has a little something for everyone, and would make a great addition to any classroom, school, or public library serving 10 to 12 year olds. I would have absolutely adored it as a 10 year old, and read in a single day as an adult. Highly recommended, especially for fans of books, mysteries, or magic. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: December 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Scourge: Jennifer Nielsen

Book: The Scourge
Author: Jennifer Nielsen
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12

TheScourgeThe Scourge is an upcoming middle grade novel by Jennifer Nielsen, author of The Ascendance Trilogy (reviews here, here, and here) and the Mark of the Thief series (book 1 review here). Although Nielsen does a fair bit of world-building in The Scourge, she wraps up the story quite thoroughly, and this seems to be a standalone novel (which I find refreshing). To me, The Scourge seemed aimed at a slightly younger audience than the previous books, more elementary than middle school. The Scourge is a fast-paced, suspenseful read with an engaging main character, and is sure to be well-received by kids.

The Scourge is set in a country, Keldan, that is suffering from a dangerous pandemic called the Scourge. People found to be ill from or carriers of the Scourge are sent to an island called the Colony, housed in a former prison. No one ever returns. The Scourge is always fatal. Things start to change, however, when young Ani Mells is sent to the Colony. Ani and her best friend Weevil belong to the River People, an ostracized segment of the population also know as "grubs". Grubs have few rights compared to the townspeople (called "pinchworms"), but they do know how to fight, and take care of themselves. What follows is an exploration of friendship, government oppression, and manipulation, set against a variety of dangers and cruelties.

Ani is a delightful character, stubborn and belligerent, and pretty much incapable of following the rules. She blossoms into a leader over the course of the book, even as her antagonists attempt to break her. Her friendship with Weevil is strong enough to withstand various tests, too. [Slight spoiler: A turn from friendship to love interest later in the book didn't seem necessary to me, but is certainly G rated enough to keep the book elementary schooler-friendly.] And, in another refreshing change for any children's fantasy novel, Ani actually has two loving and living parents (though she's separated from them starting early in the book, of course).

Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Ani's voice:

"The River People knew every plant and its uses. Pinchworms thought we were less educated than them because we didn't have their expensive medicines or tests like the governor would probably try to administer on us. I figured we were just differently educated. They knew the world that came out of books, but we knew the world that went into them. I'd have loved to see a hungry pinchworm challenge a water cobra for its fish. Mostly because no River Person I knew would ever try such a foolish thing. In river country, we all learned early to respect things that could swallow us whole." (Chapter Three, ARC)

"Sometimes I hated the way my brain worked, like a magnet to thoughts I should not have and actions I should not take. My mother said I was born backward and that probably explained how I'd gotten this way. Maybe she was right--I didn't know." (Chapter Twenty-Five, ARC)

Fans of Nielsen's other fantasy books are going to love The Scourge. For those who haven't read her work, The Scourge is a great introduction, particularly given that it's a standalone novel. The Scourge is one that libraries serving elementary and middle school kids should have on their "must purchase" list. Highly recommended, for kids and adults.  

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: August 30, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Serafina and the Twisted Staff: Robert Beatty

Book: Serafina and the Twisted Staff
Author: Robert Beatty
Pages: 384
Age Range: 9-12

Serafina and the Twisted Staff is the sequel to Serafina and the Black Clock (which I listened to on audio last year and enjoyed but did not review). If you have not read the first Serafina book, please beware. There will be spoilers here for that book. My recommendation is that if you like reading about mysterious, supernatural creatures and dangerous situations, and you are intrigued by the idea of a girl growing up hidden in the basements of the vast Biltmore Estates around the turn of the 20th century, then you should stop reading this review, and just go out and get both books.

If you have read the first Serafina book, then you will not find Serafina and the Twisted Staff disappointing. This sequel takes place three weeks after Serafina and her friends have defeated the Man in the Black Cloak. Though Serafina's presence at the Biltmore Estate is now generally known, and her friendship with Braeden Vanderbilt accepted by his aunt and uncle, Serafina remains uncertain about her place in the world. She feels torn between the adoptive father who raised her in secret and the catamount mother who she has just met. Unlike her mother, and despite her odd physical traits, Serafina is unable to change into a mountain lion. 

As the story begins, Serafina again encounters a mysterious danger in the woods. When this danger extends into the Biltmore Estate, Serafina doesn't know where to turn, or how to help her family and friends. In Serafina and the Twisted Staff, Serafina must confront both her enemies and her insecurities. As in the first book, these quests are set against the fascinating backdrop of the secret-passage-studded Biltmore Estate and the treacherous forest that surrounds it. Real-life landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead also plays a role in the story. 

I read Serafina and the Twisted Staff in a single sitting, only hesitating to continue at one point near the middle, when it felt like too many circumstances were conspiring against Serafina. But I'm glad that I persisted, because Serafina is a heroine to be reckoned with, and rooted for. Here is Serafina:

"She jumped gullies and climbed hills. She took shortcuts, taking advantage of the road's meandering path. Her chest began to heave as she pulled in great gupls of air. Despite the trepidation she had felt moments before, the challenge of keeping up with the horses made her smile and then made her laugh, which made it all the more difficult to breathe when she was trying to run. Leaping and darting, she loved the thrill of the chase." (Chapter 2, ARC). 

And here's her pa:

"Look," her pa said, taking her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes. "You're alive, ain't ya? So toughen up. Bless the Lord and get on with things. In your entire life, has the master of the house ever demanded your presence upstairs? No, he has not. So, yes, ma'am, if the master wants you there, you're gonna be there. Will bells on."

"Bells?" she asked in horror. "Why do I have to wear bells?"" (Chapter 9)

And here's a description of Mr. George Vanderbilt, which I suspect is based on historical descriptions of this real-life figure:

"Mr. Vanderbilt had welcomed all sorts of guest to entertain themselves in the magnificent mansion he had built for that purpose, but he himself had a tendency to withdraw from revelry. He often sat in a quiet room by himself and read rather than imbibe with others. He was a man of his own spirit." (Chapter 13)

I'm pretty sure I would have liked this fellow introvert. I know that I would have liked his house.

Serafina and the Twisted Staff is a book that I would have found impossible to resist as a 10-year-old, and that I found difficult to resist even now, as an adult. It's a nice combination of creepy supernatural mystery and coming of age story, with bravery and battles set against musings on what makes up friendship and family. Fans of Serafina and the Black Cloak will certainly not want to miss this sequel. And I look forward to reading about Serafina and Braeden's future adventures. Recommended!

Publisher:  Disney-Hyperion (@DisneyHyperion) 
Publication Date: July 12, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author's publicist

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).