235 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

My Life with the Liars: Caela Carter

Book: My Life with the Liars
Author: Caela Carter
Pages: 288
Age Range: 8-12

MyLifeWithTheLiars

My Life with the Liars by Caela Carter is a middle grade novel about a girl who has been rescued from a cult. Zylynn is a few days shy of her thirteenth birthday when she is removed from the compound of the Children Inside the Light by a man who tells her that he's her dad, though she can call him Louis. Zylynn, who spent her entire life inside the compound, is baffled by everything around her. She doesn't even know what a "dad" is.

As her story unfolds, the reader learns from Zylynn's first person thoughts just how poorly she's been treated, though she doesn't even fully realize it herself. Even as Louis and his sympathetic wife Charita try to help Zylynn, they have no idea how deeply damaged she is inside, and how hard she is fighting to get back Inside the Light, where she has been programmed to believe that she belongs. A deadline involving a ceremony that must be performed inside the compound by her thirteen birthday, if she is ever to return "home" adds tension to the story. 

I read this book in pretty much a single sitting. I couldn't put it down because Zylynn felt so real to me. I kept thinking things like: "This poor child. How could they do that to children?" Here she is smiling for the first time in her birth father's home:

"I feel a strange pinch in my cheeks, an ache in my jaw. I move my fingers to my lips and that when I realize it: I'm smiling too." (Chapter 10)

And here she is laughing for the first time:

"She pokes me again right above the belly button. And the strangest thing happens. It starts at that point. A little bubble, a movement of my muscles. Not indigestion or cramps. Not painful. It bounces from my belly through my windpipe and it's already out my mouth before I know what it is.

I laugh." (Chapter 16, ~70% of the way through the book)

She is stunned by simple things, like being given the choice of what t-shirt she wants to buy at Target. It's heartbreaking. 

I do think that My Life with the Liars is middle grade reader appropriate. Having read a number of young adult and adult novels about cults, there were things I was waiting, dreading to see revealed that were, happily, not. Kids will likely be baffled by the things that the leaders of the Children of the Light did to children, but I don't think it will give them nightmares. And for certain My Life with the Liars has the potential to make kids appreciate the things that they do have, from parents who hug them to the ability to choose what kind of sandwich they want for lunch.  But the reason to read it is that Zylynn is an unusual, compelling character, and her experience feels real and immediate. Highly recommended for kids and adults. 

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: March 8, 2016
Source of Book: Personal copy, purchased on Kindle after reading Kate's review at Opinionated Book Lover

© 2017 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 Adventurers Guild: Zack Loran Clark + Nick Eliopulos

Book: The Adventurers Guild
Author: Zack Loran Clark and Nick Eliopulos
Pages: 320
Age Range: 9-12

AdventurersGuildI accepted a review copy of The Adventurers Guild because I think it's a great title. After reading it, I do think that it's a fun book. The Adventurers Guild is set in a world in which most of civilization has fallen to various Dangers (monsters, etc.). Teenage friends Zed and Brock live in one of the few remaining safe places, a walled town called Freestone. As the story begins, Brock and Zed are preparing for the annual Guildculling, a ceremony in which teens are assigned to a profession. Both boys hope to be assigned to one of the four High Guilds, though this is a stretch for Zed who comes from poverty and is the only person in town who is half-elf. Brock, son of two Merchants, expects his path to be more smooth. However, the Guildculling offers surprises for both boys and (could this possibly be a spoiler, given the book's title) they end up in the Adventurers Guild.

The Adventurers Guild is made up of fighters who protect Freestone's citizens, and who are the only ones to ever venture outside of the city's walls. Becoming Adventurers thus exposes Zed and Brock to exciting new things, as well as unexpected dangers. Each boy has a secret, also, which complicates his situation. 

The world that Clark and Eliopulos has created is basically medieval (with guilds, hand-crafts, armored soldiers and flagons of ale), with the addition of magical characters such as elves and dwarves. Magic is certainly not ubiquitous, but it can be learned, and the elf-blooded Zed turns out to have innate abilities. Freestone is protected by magic, and part of the plot involves a quest to an abandoned druid shrine to acquire a powerful protective artifact. These things are set against a post-apocalyptic world in which the boys, traveling outside the wall, are scared the first time they see a squirrel. The occasional references to a long-gone world (like worn stone that was once a road between cities) added enjoyment to the story for me. 

The Adventurers Guild is clearly aimed at boys, with the two viewpoint characters male and regular references to "breaking wind", spitting, and belching. There are strong female characters, though, as well as economic and other diversities that should make this book appeal to a wide range of kids. There's a minor plotline to do with one of the boys having a crush on a girl, but this is far from central to the storyline. Loyalty to friends and comrades is a much stronger theme in the book. 

The Adventurers Guild ends on something of a cliffhanger, and it's clear that Zed, Brock, and their friends will be experiencing other adventures. I expect this novel, with fighting, scary creatures, politics, and magic to be a hit with fantasy-loving middle grade readers. Recommended, and certainly one that libraries will want to purchase. 

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion (@DisneyHyperion)
Publication Date: October 3, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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 Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match: Elizabeth Eulberg

Book: The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match
Author: Elizabeth Eulberg
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

ShelbyHolmesMeetsThe Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match is the second book in Elizabeth Eulberg's series about Shelby Holmes, pint-sized but brilliant detective, following The Great Shelby Holmes: Girl Detective. The narrator of the books is 11-year-old John Watson, who moved recently to Harlem, and lives in the same apartment building as Shelby (where the building manager is named Mrs. Hudson, of course, and Police Inspector Lestrade is Shelby's nemesis). Shelby, as any astute reader would expect, solves mysteries large and small through her powers of deductive reasoning. Sometimes, however, her rather oversized ego does get in the way.

As The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match begins, Watson and Shelby are starting a new semester, Watson first, at the Harlem Academy of the Arts. Watson has balance making new friends with his growing loyalty to Shelby. Shelby, for her part, is showing increasing reliance on and loyalty to Watson, even as she tries to teach him to be more observant. Shelby finds a new teacher's behavior suspicious, and soon teases out a mystery to be solved. This reveals a new and unexpected rival, and real danger for Watson and Shelby.

I'm not sure how many middle grade readers will be familiar enough with the Sherlock Holmes stories to appreciate the Holmes-related details in The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match (Shelby's use of a disguises and a school called Miss Adler's, for example). I'm sure there were other details that went over my head, too, as I am far from from an expert. But I think that the Shelby Holmes books will hold up for middle grade readers anyway. 

Shelby is annoying, but her deductive reasoning is spot and, as she tries to teach Watson, informative. Watson is wholly likable, with multiple dimensions of realistic but not overdone diversity (he's black, his parents have recently divorced and he misses his dad, he's Type 1 diabetic, and he loves to write). Watson humanizes Shelby, and provides an accessible entry point into her world of mystery-solving for young readers.  Here they are, talking together:

"Shelby pointed a finget at me. "There's something off about him. He looks at me in a weird way."

WHO DOESN'T? I wanted to ask, but I bit my tongue. But seriously? I'd seen nothing but weird looks for Shelby from kids and teachers today.

"Hold on." I narrowed my eyes at her. "What exactly were you doing after school?"

Her eyes darted sideways.

Oh, she was so busted.

"Please tell me you weren't stalking our new teacher."

"It's called tailing a person of interest," she replied with a sniff." (Page 28-29, ARC)

I did find Watson's ability to make friends right away a bit unrealistic, in light of his friendship with known weird girl Shelby. But of course his much nicer personality is part of the whole point of the Watson/Holmes dynamic, so I'm prepared to let that go.

I enjoyed The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match (as I did the first book). I appreciated the characters, I didn't see all of the twists coming, and I thought that the stakes of the mystery were aimed just right for middle grade readers. I also liked Watson's relationship with his busy but concerned single mother, and I liked Watson's identify as someone who wants/needs to write. I certainly recommend this series for middle grade mystery fans, and I think that adult Holmes fans will enjoy it, too. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books 
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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 Daybreak Bond: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Daybreak Bond (Firefly Code #2)
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 352
Age Range: 8-12

DayBreakBondThe Daybreak Bond is the sequel to Megan Frazer Blakemore's The Firefly Code (my review). Both books are about a group of children who live in a protected community in a dystopian future suburban Boston. The children are partially genetically engineered, some more than others. Narrator Mori is a "natural" in that she wasn't designed, but she has had some modifications to improve her vision. She also has had a modification that she laments, to make her less brave (so that she won't take risks).

Mori's friend Ilana, on the other hand (SPOILER for the first book) was completely created in a lab. And now Ilana's creators have decided, because of a few glitches, to destroy her. Mori and her friends Theo, Julia, and Benji escape New Harmonie on a quest to take Julia to a scientist in Cambridge, who they believe will help. The Daybreak Bond covers the kids' journey through a perilous outside world that none of them has previously visited. 

The Daybreak Bond has lots of nods to Boston, most of which fly over the heads of Mori and her friends, but which I found entertaining. These include a boy wearing a hat with a shamrock on the back, an automated boat called "Tessie" that crossed the Charles River, and an old woman who refers to the children as "my ducklings." Mori and her friends are also quite surprised to encounter Concord children who do strange things in pronouncing, and not pronouncing, their R's. 

I especially liked how Blakemore handled the children's encounters with the kids from outside, actually. Mori and her friends have grown up protected, told that the people outside of New Harmonie are diseased, and not as bright as they are. Only gradually do they learn that the people outside of their town have strengths of their own. The interpersonal dynamics between Mori and her friends are also interesting, particularly as she confronts the fact that her taller, stronger "designed" friends seem almost compelled to protect her. She, and they, struggle throughout the books with questions of design vs. free will. 

I also liked how Mori's friend Julia calls the adults in their world on preaching one thing and doing another. Like this:

"I was thinking about the people who built Ilana. I was thinking how they all worked together on this project and when it started to go wrong, they didn't really take responsibility. They just tried to shut her down, to hide their mistakes. And that's like the exact opposite of what they teach us. When you make a mistake, you have to own it." (Page 94)

Most of the adults in The Daybreak Bond are weak and/or flawed. But the kids are multi-dimensional, with strengths and weaknesses, bonds and tensions. And with the kids on a quest through a dangerous futuristic landscape for most of the book, they are the ones who matter. 

The Daybreak Bond is a worth sequel to The Firefly Code. It has suspense and humor. But most of all, it will make kids think. It's science fiction about genetic engineering that raises big questions in an age-appropriate way, and has characters that young readers will care about. Recommended for anyone who enjoys science fiction or quest novels, and a must-read for fans of the first book. (And yes, do read the first book before reading this one.)

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books  
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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 Splintered Heart: Robert Beatty

Book: Serafina and the Splintered Heart
Author: Robert Beatty
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12

SerafinaSplinteredHeartSerafina and the Splintered Heart is the third book in Robert Beatty's Serafina series (after Serafina and the Black Cloak and Serafina and the Twisted Staff). There is little that I can say about the plot of this third book that won't give something away about the plot. Suffice it to say that the book starts with heroine Serafina in peril and continues by mixing strange supernatural events with brave action. Adversaries and friends from previous books play their parts. 

Serafina and the Splintered Heart is a bit sadder than the previous books. Readers who found those books too scary or too dark may want to wait on this one. But for those who loved the first two books, as I did, Serafina and the Splintered Heart does not disappoint. It is suspenseful, creative, and occasionally profound. Serafina is a compelling character who readers will continue to root for. 

As in the previous two books, the Biltmore estate is almost a character in the story. Beatty slips in tidbits about George Vanderbilt's dreams for the estate, as well as other historical notes about the time period. A fun one is when Serafina sees an automobile for the first time, and thinks (having seen sorcery in her life) that it must be something enchanted. 

There's not much I can quote without spoilers, but here are a couple of passages, to give a feel for Beatty's ever-improving writing:

"She had always been able to see things other people could not, especially in the dark of night, but tonight there seemed to be a special magic in the forest. It felt as if she could actually see the evening flowers slowly opening their petals to the moon and the glint of starlight on the iridescent wings of the insects. She felt the caress of the air as it slipped through the branches of the trees, around her body, and against her skin. She sensed the stony firmness of the earth and rock on which she stood." (Chapter 5, ARC)

and:

"The thought of it put a twisting knot in the pit of her stomach. But the truth was, she had run out of other paths to take. Her pa had told her once that true courage wasn't because you didn't feel fear. True courage was when you were scared of something, but you did it anyway because it needed to be done.... she had to stay bold." (Chapter 19, ARC)

Serafina and the Splintered Heart is a dark, Gothic story with an intriguing, three dimensional setting, strong characters, and a sinuous plot. Fans of the first two books will definitely want to read this one. Those new to the series should, of course, start at the beginning. But if the idea of a girl with unusual powers taking on mysterious enemies in and around an enormous, famous estate piques your interest, you should certainly give the Serafina books a look. Highly recommended for kids as well as adults. 

Publisher: Disney Hyperion 
Publication Date: July 3, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Lights, Camera, Middle School: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

Book: Lights, Camera, Middle School! (Babymouse: Tales from the Locker, Book 1)
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Illustrator: Matthew Holm
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

BabymouseLockerLights, Camera, Middle School! is the first title of a new novel / notebook novel / graphic novel hybrid series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm featuring Babymouse, now in middle school. Although Babymouse is in middle school, I think that readers of this series will begin in elementary school. My seven-year-old, who is out of town with my husband, asked me to read it to her over the phone. I declined. But I'm certain she'll read it when she can. 

Anyway, Lights, Camera, Middle School! begins as Babymouse is acclimating to middle school. She has a few friends (especially BFF Wilson) from elementary school, but she's struggling to adjust to things like the cafeteria, and the quest for popularity. She wants fame, but she also wants to be herself and to be appreciated. She still has issues with monsters in her locker, and being on time for class. When it comes time to sign up for some sort of Club, Babymouse decides on film club. She ends up the director of the student film (an epic saga), and finds the experience to be challenging but ultimately character-building. 

Here are a couple of snippets:

"If this was a monster movie, Felicia would be a Zombie. At middle school, Zombies traveled in packs and dressed the same. Instead of hunting brains, they wanted stuff: whatever was cool and "in." It could be wedge sandals or ruffled scarves or sparkly lip gloss. They just had to have it." (Page 5)

This is accompanied by a sketch of four zombies in wedge sandals moaning "STUUUFFFFFFF!!!!" and the like. 

Also:

"Chapter 2: Laws of the Jungle Cafeteria

The hardest subject in middle school wasn't science or social studies or literature. 

It was friendship.

And there was no textbook or helpful study guide. In elementary school, if kids didn't like you, they were just flat-out mean. But here, figuring out who your friends were was harder than a quadratic equation.

And I had a failing grade."

Graphic elements in the book range from full-page, multi-panel comic to full-page illustrations to small cartoon-like images included with the text (like a muffin with a face crying "ButI'm so lovable!" after the movie's star rejects muffins in favor of fresh croissants. The characters from the Babymouse graphic novels have grow up ever-so-slightly. Babymouse is taller and thinner, but otherwise looks (and acts) pretty much the way kids will expect. 

The text has plenty of dialog, short paragraphs, and bolding, along with the occasional French phrase, making it a nice transition book for kids who are not excited about reading something too text-dense. There’s a cute product placement for the Holm siblings’ Squish series (which Babymouse’s little brother Squeak enjoys). Fans of the Squish books will get a kick out of it. Although there's no interior color, there are cute heart and star symbols providing within-chapter section breaks. There are also occasional lists and other written supporting materials, in notebook novel style.

In short, you have the familiar and lovable characters from the long-running Babymouse early graphic novel series experiencing slightly more grown-up problems now that they are in middle school, and with the addition of some narrative and notebook novel-style text. If this isn't the perfect, seamless next step for fans who are ready to progress from the quick graphic novel reads, then I don't know what is.Highly recommended, and a must-purchase for libraries serving middle grade and younger middle school readers.

I wonder if we'll ever progress to reading about Babymouse in high school...  

Publisher: Random House (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: July 4, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Emily and the Spellstone: Michael Rubens

Book: Emily and the Spellstone
Author: Michael Rubens
Pages: 288
Age Range: 9-12

EmilySpellstoneEmily and the Spellstone is a middle grade / middle school fantasy novel by Michael Rubins, one that could be the first of a series. The fantasy elements are layered over middle school angst, including bullying, and shared in an over-the-top style. 12-year-old Emily is having a tough time, after moving cross-country with her family. She misses her friends, doesn't like her new home, is ignored by her older sister and tormented by her six-year-old brother, and is bullied by mean girl Kristy. All of these problems fade into the background, however, when Emily discovers a mysterious stone device on the beach that turns out to be a powerful Stone. The Stone contains an enslaved demon-like creature who must become Emily's servant, but also attracts interest from an evil and powerful family living in another dimension. 

I found the fantasy elements of Emily and the Spellstone to be creative and tween-friendly.  The Stone is basically a magical cell phone, filled with apths that Emily could control, if she could understand them. There's a Librarian who understands magic (though she's not able to be a huge amount of help), and a surprisingly good-natured demonic creature. There are clone versions of Emily and her brother that are cooperative to the point of worrying everyone around them. It's all in good fun.

I could relate to Emily as an extremely reluctant heroine. Here's a snippet that tells you everything you need to know about her personality:

"Adventure, she had learned, was an adult code word that actually meant "disruption and discomfort and change," none of which Emily was partial to. Last year in school the students had had to create personal profiles. Under hobbies Emily put hibernating and collecting rocks. Hibernating because Emily's idea of an ideal evening was to wrap herself up in a cozy blanket and read a book (preferably one without too much adventure.) Collecting rocks because she had a vague affection for geology: it was for the most part stable and slow-moving and trustworthy and comforting." (Page 3)

I also quite liked Angela, the only person at her new school to befriend Emily:

"She was quiet, observant, serious. The sort of student of whom other students might say, Oh, right, her. What was her name again?" (Page 50) 

Rubens' understanding of middle school social dynamics seems apt, if hopefully slightly exaggerated. Similarly with Emily's relationship with her clueless parents and annoying siblings. Like this:

"Her sister sat in the third row of the minivan and listened to music, occasionally singing out loud in her off-key voice. Dougie sat next to Emily in the second row, sometimes poking her in the ribs to wake her up and once dipping his finger into his yogurt shake and then sticking his finger in her eat, until she screamed at him and her parents scolded her and ordered her to sit in the back row with Hilary." (Page 77)

In terms of the fantasy elements of the book, I especially appreciated the role of the library and the librarian. There's a secret bookshelf that is only noticed by kids (like Angela) who read a lot. I am certain that my 10-year-old self would have been looking for that bookshelf after reading Emily and the Spellstone

In truth, the voice of Emily and the Spellstone was a little over the top for me personally. But I think that for tweens the book provides a very nice blend of middle school concerns and epic fantasy adventure. Emily is a likable heroine who manages to grow in strength without changing her core personality as the book progresses. I think this one is well worth a look for elementary and middle school libraries. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: June 13, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls: Beth McMullen

Book: Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls
Author: Beth McMullen
Pages: 304
Age Range: 9-13

MrsSmithSpySchoolMrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls, by Beth McMullen, features an elite boarding school that is actually a cover for a hidden spy agency with female teen agents. Who could resist that? Not I. Narrator Abigail knows none of this when her mother strong-arms her into attending Smith School for Children, but she finds out soon enough when a late-night escapade and an escape attempt go awry. As the story progresses she learns self-defense moves from a mean girl super-agent, is sent to California as bait for a trap, is kidnapped (more than once), and escapes again to undertake a quest of her own. There are cool (if slightly glitchy) gadgets, unexpected bad guys, and loyal friends. Fans of Kiki Strike will definitely want to give Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls a look. I believe it may also work for fans of the Gallagher Girls series, though Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls is aimed more at middle grade than YA readers. 

What made Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls work for me was not so much the strong girl looking to be a spy premise (though that was certainly the hook), but rather Abigail's understated yet snarky voice. I'm not supposed to quote from the ARC, but she uses phrases like "smartphone blackjack", and she keeps her snarkiest responses to herself (shared in italics, to differentiate from regular dialog). There's a little more of a "trappings of rich kids" vibe than I personally love, but I suppose that's hard to avoid when setting a book in an elite boarding school. And it's certainly more plausible that rich kids would be able to skip about the country for adventures than otherwise. 

Abigail is a goofier, more realistic, more female version of young James Bond. She has a crush on a boy who likes someone else, but it's all very PG, and not especially "girly". I see no reason why boys wouldn't enjoy this book just as much as girls would. Beth McMullen takes a bit of time in Mrs. Smith's Spy School for Girls to set the stage for the further adventures of Abigail and her crew. Hopefully other books will be forthcoming soon, because this is going to be a fun series, sure to please middle grade fans of spy/adventure stories. 

Publisher: Aladdin (@SimonKids)
Publication Date: July 4, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author

© 2017 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 Girl with the Ghost Machine: Lauren DeStefano

Book: The Girl with the Ghost Machine
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

GhostMachineI enjoyed Lauren DeStefano's two previous middle grade ghost stories, The Curious Tale of the In-Between and The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart), so I was happy to receive an early copy of her upcoming The Girl with the Ghost Machine. The girl of the title is 12-year-old Emmaline Beaumont, whose beloved mother died two years earlier. Emmaline more or less lost her father, Julien, at the same time, as Julien developed an obsession around building a machine to bring back her mother's ghost. When the machine demonstrates a degree of success, though at a painful cost, Emmaline's life becomes particularly challenging. 

I found The Girl with the Ghost Machine, like DeStefano's other books, to be a book that was difficult to put down. This was due to a combination of intriguing plot (Would the ghost machine work? Would Emmaline's father put aside his quest in favor of his living daughter?), ghostly tone, powerful musings, and strong relationships between the characters. Like this:

"Emmaline understood immediately what she had done. What she had cost her father. Without his ghost machine to give him hope, he would have to understand that Margeaux Beaumont in all her forms was gone.

The light began to face, until Emmaline was left standing in blackness. Not even the moonlight could enter through the soot on the tiny basement window. 

Her heart was pounding. But she wasn't sorry. She did what needed to be done." (Page 24, ARC)

I especially enjoyed Emmaline's friendship with twins Oliver and Gully, identical in appearance but quite different in personality. 

"Here is the way it had always been: Gully was born first, by three minutes and fifteen seconds. As they got older, Gully remained a heartbeat ahead of his brother, holding out his hand to pull him up onto steep embankments when they went hiking, forging ahead into dark rooms at night to be sure it was safe, standing on chairs to reach the top shelf so his brother wouldn't have to." (Page 70, ARC)

and:

""We'll walk you," Oliver said, rooting his finger around the bottom of the mug to scoop up the last of the cocoa. Emmaline couldn't help smiling at him. There was always something in the world to be happy about, and Oliver found these little things with ease." (Page 75)

Wouldn't YOU want to be friends with them? 

The apparently small-town French setting adds to the other-worldly feel of the book, without including any details that will puzzle young readers. There's a timeless feel to the story, too, with no cell phones or electronic devices, and the simple pleasures of going to a cafe or skating on a pond. 

A word of warning for gatekeepers. In addition to the loss of Emmaline's mother, another sad incident takes place later in the book. I saw the incident coming and saw it as necessary to the plot, and so was not personally bothered, but children who dislike sad books may want to hold off on reading The Girl with the Ghost Machine. The ending of the book is satisfying and hopeful, but there are tears along the way. The old-fashioned melodramatic feel of the book should help to insulate modern-day children from this sadness in any event.

The bottom line for me is that, at a time when I normally struggle to stay awake to read in the evenings, The Girl with the Ghost Machine grabbed my attention and held on, keeping me turning the pages. I liked Emmaline and cared what happened to her, and was also curious about the mechanics and implications of the ghost machine. And I liked Gully and Oliver very much, too. The Girl with the Ghost Machine is a book that will stay with me, and that I recommend to ghost story fans of all ages (eight and up). 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: June 6, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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 Most Frightening Story Ever Told: Philip Kerr

Book: The Most Frightening Story Ever Told
Author: Philip Kerr
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12

MostFrighteningStoryThe Most Frightening Story Ever Told is a middle grade novel by Philip Kerr about a boy named Billy Shivers. Billy starts spending time in a small-town bookstore called The Haunted House of Books. Taken under the wing of the store's quirky owner, Mr. Rapscallion, Billy learns about the store, goes on a trip, and helps to run a contest. The contest involves five children (selected by lottery)  who will listen to "the scariest story ever told." The winner will be the one who doesn't run screaming from the store. 

Here are a few thoughts: 

  • Isn't this a great title? It's not that this book is all that scary, but it's a title to totally hook young readers. My six year old wanted to read it, though it was definitely a bit advanced for her. 
  • The homages to Roald Dahl are everywhere in The Most Frightening Story Ever Told, from the contest to the group of terrible children who are selected to the inclusion of poems. Mr. Rapscallion bears more than a passing resemblance to Willy Wonka, though he has a bit more backstory (a slightly estranged daughter and even an eventual love interest). 
  • There are lots of other references to books and movies (bringing the book Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein to mind). These references range from Alfred Hitchcock to Stephen King to Edgar Allen Poe to It's a Wonderful Life (and doubtless many others). Many of these references will be over the heads of 10-year-old readers, making this an excellent choice for a family read-aloud (and a book that adult gatekeepers will enjoy. 
  • Like both Grabenstein and Dahl, Kerr repeatedly laments (to an exaggerated degree) the fact that people don't read books as much as they used to, due to other distractions. Librarians are particularly likely to enjoy this one. 
  • The plotting of The Most Frightening Story Ever Told is a bit disjointed, with the inclusion of several stories-within-the-story. It takes quite a while for Kerr to get to the contest itself. It took me a fair bit of time to get through the book, but I did get hooked and finish quickly once the contest kicked off.
  • What kept me reading was that from the very first page, I liked Billy's voice. I flagged about a dozen passages in the first quarter of the book and then stopped marking them because I knew that I couldn't quote them all anyway. 
  • There's a twist at the end that I did see coming from early on, but Kerr did a good job of keeping me from being 100% sure about it throughout the book. Wondering about this also helped keep me hooked on the story. 

Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Billy and Mr. Rapscallion's voices:

"Now, some shop doors have a little bell that rings when you open them. The Haunted House of Books was a shop that had something very different--a hollow, wicked laugh, like something from an old horror movie. Not only that, but when you walked in the doorway, you stepped onto an old subway grating and a current of cold air came gusting up from below the floor. All of this was meant to give someone entering the bookshop a bit of a fright. And Billy was no exception. He yelled out loud and then he chuckled as he saw the funny side of what had happened." (Page 7)

and:

"They're too busy with their nerdy electronic games and their stupid televisions and their annoying cell phones and their geeky computers to think of reading books," said Mr. Rapscallion. "It makes you wonder why people even bother to teach reading in schools." Mr. Rapscallion sighed loudly. "It makes me worry for the future of the human race. Always supposing that I do actually care about something like that." (Page 25)

There's also a chapter in which Mr. Rapscallion tells a scary story. Under the chapter title is: "Note: This chapter should be read out loud to your little brother or your small sister, immediately before bedtime."

So you see, it's right up my alley, with literary references and sarcastic humor. And scary books and more scary books. 

The Most Frightening Story Ever Told is not so frightening that it will disturb middle grade readers, but it does have some scary moments. It is a book that will please Dahl fans, book fans, and anyone who loves the trappings of spooky stories (especially haunted houses). The vocabulary is somewhat advanced, and there is a British feel to the story, making this a book that might suit middle schoolers more than elementary school kids. I'm certain that it's a book that adult fans of children's literature will find engaging, as I did. Recommended for home and library purchase!

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

© 2017 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).


Horizon: Scott Westerfeld

Book: Horizon
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Pages: 256
Age Range: 9-12

HorizonHorizon is the first of a new seven-book series from Scholastic. Scott Westerfeld wrote this one, and outlined all seven of the books, but other authors will be writing the remaining books (starting with Jennifer Nielsen writing Book 2). You can read Scott Westerfeld's announcement about the series here. Horizon is middle grade science fiction, intriguing enough that I certainly think that middle schoolers will also want to take a look. I read it in two quick sittings, finding it to be like the television series Lost, but aimed at kids. 

Eight kids are the only survivors of a plane crash. Although their flight was passing over the arctic, they find themselves in a jungle full of strange animals and phenomena. Four of the kids are engineers from Brooklyn, a robotics team on their way to a contest in Japan. After the crash they meet up with two young Japanese sisters returning home from boarding school, a Japanese-American teen also returning home, and a rather bossy Alpha male named Caleb. They have to learn to work together, while focusing on both basic survival and trying to understand what's happened. Their survival is clearly not random - they were somehow chosen by an electrical force that rejected everyone else on the plane. 

Things I enjoyed about Horizon:

  • The kids' application of engineering principles to understand things. They also find a device that disrupts basic physical principles, like gravity. This is a book that puts the science in science fiction, something particularly welcome (as far as I'm concerned) in a book for middle grade audiences. 
  • The multicultural cast. The kids from Brooklyn appear to include Hispanic and African American backgrounds. The Japanese girls don't even speak English, and end up teaching the American kids a few Japanese words along the way. 
  • The complex and intriguing setting. There are sentient vines, birds that attack humans, and other odd phenomena. 
  • The pacing of the story. Westerfeld keeps the kids in crisis, frequently separated, and often in peril. Middle grade readers will keep turning the pages to understand what happens next. 

My main quibble about the book as it stands was that I thought that the characterization could have been a bit deeper. I had trouble keeping defining characteristics of some of the characters in my head. But perhaps this is a deliberate way to allow more scope to the future authors of the series. There's definitely a videogame/movie feel to the book - it's clearly not meant to be a character study. [There's some sort of online game, apparently, but I haven't checked that out.]

As part of a seven-book series, Horizon naturally leaves pretty much everything unresolved. I think it will leave young readers eager to read the next book. I've personally not found in the past that series with different authors for different books tend to hold up for me, but I am interested to at least check out the second book. [See also Ms. Yingling's take on Horizon, she is weary of the 7 book series.]  

Science and survival, with a multicultural slant, aimed at middle grade readers. Libraries, at least those not put off by a longer series, will definitely want to give Horizon a look. Recommended for science fiction (and Lost) fans. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: March 28, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Upside-Down Magic #3: Showing Off: Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

Book: Upside-Down Magic #3: Showing Off
Author: Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

ShowingOffShowing Off is the third book in the Upside-Down Magic series by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins. I enjoyed the first book in the series (review here) and seem to have missed the second, but the third book has enough background that I didn't feel like I had  missed anything significant. The Upside-Down Magic books are set in a world in which everyone has one of five types of magical abilities. In some people, however, these abilities are "upside-down" and don't work correctly. When Nory, the son of a controlling school principal, turns out to have upside-down abilities, her father sends her away to live with a more free-spirited (and tolerant) aunt. The books center around the trials and tribulations of Nory and her friends in the Upside-Down Magic (UDM) classroom at their local middle school. 

In Showing Off, Nory and her fellow UDM 5th grade classmates are worried about how to participate in the school Show-Off event, basically a talent show with group performances by each class. Nory is particularly concerned because her father is likely to attend the event, the first time she has seen him since he sent her away, and she knows that he expects her to display conventional, rather than upside-down talents. Nory's friend Pepper is also worried about the performance, because her upside-down talent involves being unable to avoid terrifying animals (of which there will be many present). The story shifts between the viewpoints of Nory and Pepper as they work to master their unruly talents, and navigate various interpersonal relationships. 

Showing Off is a fun book that combines magical challenges with universal middle school issues. If it occasionally strays near to the territory of being lesson-y (as when one girl tells another that her friends never make her feel badly about herself), the overall light tone keeps it on safe ground (like when a character who has turned into a piano feels a bit "off-key"). 

I do like Nory's voice. Like this;

"Now here she was, six weeks into the school year at Dunwiddle. It was the first day of serious rain and her feet were soaked. But what was a girl to do? Wet feet were wet feet. Nothing to be gained by moping." (Page 5)

I also appreciated Nory's personal growth over the course of Showing Off, as she comes to realize her father's limitations. I think that the goofiness of the UDM kids' abilities in general will resonate with any middle school kid who has ever felt different or awkward. Which, I imagine, is most of them. The ending of Showing Off is satisfying on multiple levels, and represents a kid-friendly wish fulfillment that will leave readers eager for the next installment. This is certainly a series that belongs in libraries everywhere that serve kids heading off to middle school. Recommended!

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: December 27, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).