209 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

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).


The Eureka Key: Secrets of the Seven: Sarah L. Thomson

Book: The Eureka Key: Secrets of the Seven, Book 1
Author: Sarah L. Thomson
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

The Eureka Key is the first of a new quest-driven series by Sarah L. Thomson. It's reminiscent of Kate Messner's Capture the Flag and sequels (see my reviews of Book 1 and Book 2). Both series feature descendants from historical figures uniting to uncover and protect certain secret artifacts. I like Messner's books, but I think I like The Eureka Key, with its strong focus on puzzles and Indiana Jones feel, a bit better. 

The Eureka Key begins with bright troublemaker Sam Solomon pulling off a minor but carefully timed criminal act at school (in service of a wronged friend). He reminded me a bit of Varian Johnson's Jackson Greene in this caper, but is more of a lone wolf. Later that day, Sam receives word that he's won a complex puzzle contest that he entered previously. The prize is a journey of discovery to follow clues around the United Sates over the summer. While it's rather implausible that parents would actually allow a 12 year old (at most) to go by himself on such a quest, this sets up the story nicely.

When he arrives in Las Vegas for a flight to Death Valley, Sam meets his fellow team members, the geeky, history-obsessed Martina and the strong and silent Theo. The action quickly takes off from there, and includes a near-death flight experience, a kidnapping, and the following of clues hidden by none other than Ben Franklin. This activity is not all strictly realistic, perhaps, but it is a lot of fun. 

I also enjoyed the personal dynamics between the three very different kids. Sam is a bit of a wise-ass, and flies by the seat of his pants, though he is extremely good at puzzles. He and the well-prepared, uptight Marty begin bickering almost immediately. Theo's dry sense of humor is more gradually revealed, as is his background. I think Theo is going to be my favorite, actually, though Sam is the primary viewpoint character. The adults in the story are considerably less developed as characters, but this is as it should be.

The Eureka Key offers a fine mix of adventure, history, and puzzles, as well as three distinctive (but not too quirky) and likable protagonists. This is a book that I would have adored as a nine-year-old, and read in a single sitting as an adult. I look forward to future books in the Secrets of the Seven series. Recommended for mystery and adventure loving kids, and the libraries who serve them. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: April 5, 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).


Swing Sideways: Nanci Turner Steveson

Book: Swing Sideways
Author: Nanci Turner Steveson
Pages: 288
Age Range: 8-12

Swing Sideways is about an anxious girl named Annie who has been promised a summer of freedom, and her developing friendship with the much more down to earth California. Annie has been having panic attacks, and is worrisomely thin because her throat closes up when she tries to eat. Her extremely tightly wrapped, schedule-obsessed mother is trying to give her freedom, as her therapist has recommended, but is struggling. Annie's more low-key father mediates.

The family, clearly well-off, is summering at their vacation home at some unspecified lakefront community outside of New York City. California is spending the summer at her grandfather's farm nearby, and the two girls, though from very different backgrounds, become close friends. Annie is able to put aside her own insecurities to help California uncover a long-buried family mystery, and accomplish an emotionally important quest. 

Steveson delves deeply into all of the relationships in the story, keeping things moving with the mystery of California's family, as well as a parade of summer hijinks. There is a tree-climbing, sneaking out at night, and secret pet that has to be fed. As the book progresses, the reader also begins to suspect that this is going to be deep sadness by the end of the book. This, I feel I should warn prospective readers, is correct. There is humor and adventure and personal growth in Swing Sideways, but also sadness. 

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

"At the top of the driveway stood a red mailbox. No name, only a crooked, black number seven. I resisted the urge to straighten it. Spindly lilacs lined a gravel driveway, and a jumble of what-type stuff covered what used to be a yard. Peering around the corner of the barn, I squinted and studied the place I'd coveted for so long, listening for the sound of someone lurking nearby. Silence. No sign of a human." (Page 16)

I like how Steveson slipped in the bit about how hard it was for Annie to resist straightening the crooked number. Even by page 16, one knows that her mother would probably find resisting impossible. I also like the use of the word "lurking", setting the tone of hiding and secrets, even as Annie is just looking at a farm. 

"When she came up, we laughed like we'd known each other forever. Like she'd been my best friend since nursery school and not Jessica Braverman, who ditched me last fall when the panic attacks started. Jessica had traded our friendship for contact lenses, a nose job, and her first crush, while I hid in the school bathroom every day, gasping for air. The blooming connection between California and me made my heart lift. It was a powerful feeling." (Page 55-56)

This is a trope of tween lit that always hooks me - the girl who isn't ready to grow up as quickly as her friends are, and ends up having to figure herself out and find new friends. The fact that Annie has had panic attacks and has some sort of eating disorder raises the stakes, and her declared interest in all things country personalizes it, but I think that many tweens will be able to relate. For sure the adults will. I have to say that I think Swing Sideways is a book that adult readers are going to enjoy, but I think kids will, too. Annie's struggles will particularly ring true for those kids who are over-scheduled and struggling with excessive parental expectations. 

Swing Sideways made me laugh, nod in recognition, and cringe in different places, and it brought tears to my eyes at the end. Give this one to kids who like books about summer outdoor adventures (there are chickens!), and to kids who like sad books. Annie and California (and the adults in their lives) will stay with me, I think. Recommended. 

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 3, 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).


Fortune Falls: Jenny Goebel

Book: Fortune Falls
Author: Jenny Goebel
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

Fortune Falls is an isolated small town in which superstitions become reality. Step on a crack, you really will break your mother's back. Breathe in the air in the cemetery, you'll die. Following a fairly new policy, the young people in the town are sorted after they turn twelve, via a test, into Lucky or Unlucky. Luckies have smooth sailing ahead. Unluckies are sent off to Bane's School for Luckless Adolescents. Sadie is due to turn twelve soon, on Friday the 13th (not a day that is kind to the Unlucky), with her luck exam to follow shortly. If she doesn't pass, she'll be separated from her mother and five-year-old brother, as well as from her long-time best friend (now a Lucky), Cooper. 

I found the premise of Fortune Falls intriguing, though actually following along with what was fact and what was perception and/or self-fulfilling prophecy was a bit tricky sometimes. If you tell someone that they are lucky, and they believe it, they probably will do better in certain areas, after all. But when you have lucky students just randomly guessing correct math answers, or getting every basketball into the hoop, you know that there's something more than perception going on. 

Actually, what I found most implausible in Fortune Falls had nothing to do with luck. It was Sadie's relationship with Cooper. Cooper's parents, and Sadie herself, have tried to keep him away from her, so that her bad luck doesn't rub off. Cooper remains loyal, and continues trying to spend time with Sadie, no matter how poorly she treats him. To me, his persistence didn't quite ring true. 

But that's a minor nit. Overall, I did enjoy Fortune Falls, particularly the later part of the book, when Sadie stops feeling sorry for herself, and starts to take action, even in the face of daunting bad luck. Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Sadie's voice:

"The Luckies' parents made a huge fuss whenever they thought their fortuitous children were being jeopardized by an Unlucky. Sometimes, even parents of Undetermined kids complained." (Page 8) - Note Sadie's advanced vocabulary. She ends up participating in a couple of spelling bees. 

"I held my breath and barged right in. If a lifetime of mishap and embarrassment had taught me anything, it was the quicker you got the discomfort over with, the better." (Page 10)

"Arriving home to find Cooper on my front lawn was as good as stumbling upon a four-leaf clover. Just one look at his face--his rich brown skin and long dark eyelashes--made me feel happier inside. And, as any hapless person knows, happy is a close brethren to lucky." (Page 30)

Hmm... Makes you consider the connection between the word "hapless" and "happiness", doesn't it? 

Bottom line: if the premise of a place where luck-related superstitions actually come true sounds interesting to you, then you should give Fortune Falls a look. It's a quirky story with a fair bit of heart, as well as emotional growth by the main character. Recommended for 8-12 year olds. 

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 5, 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).


The Big Dark: Rodman Philbrick

Book: The Big Dark
Author: Rodman Philbrick
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

The Big Dark, by Rodman Philbrick, is an apocalyptic survival story for middle grade readers. On New Year's Eve, narrator Charlie Cobb is outside with his family and friends watching for an expected dramatic display of the Northern Lights. Following an enormous flash in the sky, however, the residents of Harmony, NH (population 857) discover that nothing requiring electricity or using a battery works anymore: not cars, not generators, not flashlights. Certainly not central heating or water pumps. As some in the town band together, and others try to take control, Charlie and his sister stack wood and worry about their mom running out of medicine for her diabetes. Charlie ends up on a dangerous quest to try to find medicine, while the school custodian tries to keep things running smoothly in Harmony. 

The Big Dark reminded me a lot of One Second After by William R. Forstchen, an adult novel with a very similar premise (right down to diabetes of a loved one being a factor). The Big Dark is not nearly so bleak as an adult story, but does include enough danger to feel plausible. People die (offscreen) from cold, men with guns threaten Charlie at various points, and there is an instance of arson. Yet most of the people in Harmony, and the people Charlie encounters elsewhere, are fundamentally good. They line up for supplies. They tithe firewood to support the elderly residents. They have town meetings to decide what to do. While this may not all be entirely realistic, it works in this middle grade content. 

Although I love reading about the "what do we do now" kinds of practical questions that follow an apocalyptic event, my favorite part of The Big Dark was Charlie's quest for medicine, for which he skis out of town and into an unfriendly winter landscape. This is the part that I think will really hook young readers who crave adventure. 

The Big Dark is a quick read with short chapters. Charlie's first-person viewpoint lends an immediacy to the story that I think will work well for more reluctant readers. The characterization isn't especially detailed, but Philbrick keeps the action moving, while exploring themes or right and wrong. I didn't flag any passages to quote, because I just wanted to keep reading. And that's my best endorsement of a book these days: it made me want to keep turning the pages. Definitely recommended for library purchase, and a good introduction for middle grade readers to reading about post-apocalyptic landscapes. 

Publisher: Blue Sky Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 5, 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).


The Wild Robot: Peter Brown

Book: The Wild Robot
Author: Peter Brown
Pages: 288
Age Range: 8-11

My daughter and I are big fans of Peter Brown's picture books, particularly The Curious Garden and Mr. Tiger Goes WildSo when Brown's first middle grade novel turned up, I put it on the top of my to read stack. The Wild Robot is a quirky but lovely little book. It's about a robot who ends up on an island populated only by animals (following the sinking of a container ship). The animals are initially frightened of Roz, but she takes time to learn their language, and eventually makes her way into their hearts. This process is helped by Roz's adoption of an orphaned gosling. 

The action in The Wild Robot is a bit slow-paced, particularly the first 2/3 of the book. But the chapters are brief (sometimes only a page or two), and the illustrations will keep kids turning the pages. Brown's illustration style in The Wild Robot is consistent with the nature-celebrating, slightly stylized look on display in Brown's other books. A few of the images (particularly one in which Roz watches Brightbill head off to migrate) have real pathos. In general, the images are a bit darker in mood than what one sees in Brown's picture books, but they'll feel familiar to kids weaned on The Curious Garden

Brown strikes a nice balance with Roz's character. She has the analytical nature of a robot. And yet, she learns to care about others, particularly her adopted son, Brightbill. She has some miscellaneous facts filed away, but the important things are the things that she learns via observation. Young Brightbill is delightful, as is his best friend Chitchat, a squirrel. 

There's a hint of a message about global warming in The Wild Robot that I didn't think was necessary to the story. But it's subtle enough that young readers won't find it intrusive. Brown mixes humor, wisdom, and even a bit of poetry into the book's text. Like this:

"Oh, it's nothing, you just have to provide the gosling with food and water and shelter, make him feel loved but don't pamper him too much, keep him away from danger, and make sure he learns to walk and talk and swim and fly and get along with others and look after himself. And that's really all there is to motherhood!" (Advice to Roz from a goose about motherhood, page 75)

and the following (as the animals are helping Roz to fertilize her garden):

"I shouldn't be much longer, now," said a smiling turtle as he slowly made his contribution.

As all this was going on, Roz walked around and thanked everyone. "I am not capable of defecating," she explained, "so your droppings are most appreciated." (Page 94)

and (after a harsh winter on the island):

"The wilderness really an be ugly sometimes. But from that ugliness came beauty. You see, those poor dead creatures returned to the earth, their bodies nourished the soil, and they helped create the most dazzling spring bloom the island had ever known." (Page 195)

For anyone interested in animals or robots, or for kids who grew up enjoying Peter Brown's picture books, The Wild Robot has a distinct appeal. The brief chapters, frequent illustrations, and somewhat slow pace make it suitable for kids on the younger end of middle grade. There are deaths and fights, too, but these feel like part of the Circle of Life, rather than anything disturbing for younger readers. I look forward to giving The Wild Robot to my six-year-old daughter in a couple of years, to see what she thinks. Recommended. 

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids) 
Publication Date:  April 5, 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).


The Firefly Code: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Firefly Code
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 352
Age Range: 8-12

The Firefly Code is set in a utopian settlement outside of Boston called Old Harmonie, some 50 years in the future.  It centers around a group of 12 and 13-year-olds who live on Firefly Lane: narrator Mori; her lifelong best friend Julia; brilliant and geeky Benji; and puzzle-loving Theo. When new girl Ilana moves to their street, her presence creates both tensions and mysteries for the group. 

The combination of Mori's voice and Blakemore's world-building make The Firefly Code an engaging read. I frequently have difficulty staying awake for books these days, but The Firefly Code kept me awake and thinking. Mori is a lovely character, characterized by kindness, a love of nature, and an endearing nervousness. She is unique and three-dimensional, while clearly being a product of her specialized environment. Mori's relationships with Julia and Theo are realistically complex, too. 

Here are a couple of snippets to give you a feel for Mori's voice:

"But those (Mori's differences from Julia) were all just surface things, about as relevant as the color of our hair. What mattered was that we knew each other inside and out, backward and forward, and would be there for each other no matter what. That's what makes a best friend." (Chapter 2, ARC)

"It was the scientists who did all the work of Kria, but I knew that, silly as they sometimes seemed with their fancy suits and tech gadgets, it was the executives who kept everyone's eyes on the big picture of progress. That was one of the biggest differences between inside our Kritopia of Old Harmonie and outside: inside, we never stopped experimenting and innovating, but outside they were just struggling to get by and couldn't work on making the world better." (Chapter 2)

Old Harmonie is a planned community run by an apparently benevolent company called Krita. The children in the community are designer babies, created by varying combinations of natural reproduction and genetic engineering. After each child turns thirteen, he or she has brain surgery to release a special "latency". This releases the child's particular gifts in that area. Parents can also, at various points, request surgery to "dampen" tendencies within their kids that they don't like, and can give their children artificial enhancements (up to a particular limit). It's not possible to tell just by looking at someone how enhanced they might be.

Apart from the genetic engineering aspects of the story, I thought that the future world of Old Harmonie was not all that advanced relative to our own. I believe that we'll see more change in the next 50 years, but I doubt that 10 year old readers will quibble over this aspect of the story (because of course it's difficult to know what that change will entail).  Keeping the trappings of the world recognizable certainly makes for a more accessible read. There are also some interesting undertones about civilizations, progress and inequity, but again, at a level that is accessible for kids. 

Bottom line: The Firefly Code has a perfect combination of intriguing science fiction and realistic tween interaction. I enjoyed every page, and look forward to what promises to be at least one more book set in Mori's world. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books  (@BWKids)
Publication Date: May 3, 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).


Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter: Beth Fantaskey

Book: Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter
Author: Beth Fantaskey
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10-12

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter by Beth Fantaskey is set in 1926 Chicago and features a 10-year-old newsgirl who aspires to one day be a crime reporter. When Miss Giddings, a woman who has been kind to Isabel, is accused of murder (with Isabel having been the first on the scene) the intrepid young girl tries to prove Miss Giddings' innocence. In the process, Isabel gets to know a woman she has idolized from afar, Tribune reporter Maude Collier (who is loosely based on an actual historical figure). Isabel also becomes friends with Miss Giddings' son, disabled by polio, and the murdered man's daughter. Largely unsupervised by a mother who works nights, Isabel roams about, stirring things up and annoying the police detective assigned to the case. 

I found Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter to be an enjoyable and absorbing read. I did solve the mystery somewhat before Isabel did, but I've had the benefit of reading a lot more mysteries than she has. Isabel is a strong character. She struggles to bring in income for her broken family (her father died fighting in World War I). She wishes she had been able to continue going to school, but she reads and writes as much as she can. She's too proud to accept charity, and is downright pugnacious when she feels insulted. She is loyal to a fault. Here she is:

"Maude didn't say anything else. She just turned her dark, confident eyes on stone-faced James Culhane, and the second I looked at him, I knew she was going to get her way. He didn't melt like a snowman in August, but his shoulders slumped, just a little. "Fine," he agreed through gritted teeth. "She can stay." (Page 91)

and:

"I was starting to learn that being a reporter meant you couldn't always be kind. That sometimes you had to ask hard questions, even if some kid was under a blanket struggling to breathe.

Could I really do that job?" (Page 93)

and:

"I didn't apologize for mentioning his disease. I felt sorry for Robert, but I didn't understand why people ways pretended they didn't even notice the bad stuff that happened to you. He'd had polio, for crying out loud, and not talking about it wasn't going to change anything. Just like everybody avoiding talking about my dad wouldn't make him any less dead." (Page 98)

Fantaskey offers a nice window into the time period, with enough details to give a sense of Prohibition Chicago (mobsters, speakeasies, Murderess's Row) but not so much as to overwhelm the story. She drops in a couple of direct references to the limited career roles available to women at the time, which I think could provide food for though in family read-alouds, but wondering about these things does feel true to Isabel's character. A brief author's note at the end of the book ties in to actual historical figures and situations. Al Capone is mentioned but doesn't play a direct part in the story (perhaps in a sequel?). 

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is listed on Amazon as being for 10-12 year olds, and I think this is correct. I think it's a better fit for middle schoolers than for elementary school kids. This is a story that begins, after all, with a 10-year-old coming across a recent gunshot victim. The Chicago setting, while certainly not overdone, is dark and gritty. Which is not to say that there's no humor to this book. The banter between Isabel, Maude, and the police detective is clever and enjoyable. But I think that Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter falls on the more challenging end of the middle grade spectrum. It would pair well with Kate Hannigan's The Detective's Assistant. Fans of mysteries and/or historical fiction about scrappy girls who are ahead of their time will not wan to miss Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter. I hope that Isabel has other adventures.  

Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: March 1, 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).