255 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

Publications for Kids from the US Government Bookstore

This summer I received a packet of books and interactive booklets from the US Government Publishing Office (GPO). Basically, the GPO has an online bookstore where you can purchase children's books (and adult books) that have been published by various government agencies.  Who knew? They actually have a Government Book Talk Blog where you can learn about the books, with posts often keyed to holidays and other relevant events. You do have to buy the books from the government (via website, phone, at their retail store in Washington, etc.). But they have some cool stuff. 

WhereIsBearThey sent me a couple of paperback picture books from the CDC that were designed for parents to help understand their children's developmental milestones. They are include lots of prompts for parents to interact with two and three year olds, and they have little "Milestone Moments" on each page to tell parents what to expect as their children's literacy develops. These types of books are not really my sort of thing, but the two that I received (Where Is Bear?: A Terrific Tale for 2-Year Olds and Amazing Me: It's Busy Being Three) were cute, and certainly put together with attention to detail. I could see value in, say, distributing them as part of a Reach Out and Read type program. You can read more about them here

JuniorPaleontologistThey also sent me several softcover activity booklets from the National Park Service, a Junior Ranger Activity Booklet for Haleakala, a Junior Paleontologist Activity Book for Ages 5-12, a Junior Ranger activity guide for California-Zephyr, and a Junior Ranger Night Explorer booklet for the Midwest Region. The website shows various others, for all sorts of activities and locations. These activity books would, I think, be extremely handy for keeping a child busy when visiting a National Park. They are chock full of word searches, board games (where you just use a pebble or something for playing pieces), fill in the blank quizzes, journal entries, and connect the dots. They have clearly been extensively researched and are full of details about the topic at hand. Here's one example:

"Native Hawaiians are incredible scientists. Scientists learn best by just watching, hearing, and feeling how things around them interact. They observe many things: rocks, plants, birds, air, sun, stars, and much more. Pre-European contact Hawaiians did not have a written language. They had to memorize everything that they learned." This is followed by questions like "Think of ways you can help yourself memorize things without writing them down." 

Some of the content is more fact based, while some of it leans towards passing on positive messages about National Parks, nature, etc. The Haleakala one has required activities that you need to do. If you do them you can get a park ranger to sign your certificate. The Junior Paleontologist one was more general, without the associated certificate. I think my daughter will enjoy working with this one from home. 

HaleakalaMy general impression of the activity books was that they all had a LOT of content, and could keep kids busy in the car for quite some time. They are lightweight but are full color, and sturdy enough to survive a road trip. If I were headed to a National Park or other landmark I would consider checking online ahead of time for associated publications. At the very least, if saw said publications in the visitor's center on checking in, I would definitely pick one up. We'll keep the Haleakala one for our next trip!

And just to point out the wide variety of government agencies producing children's publications, the last booklet in my packet was Understanding Marine Debris: Games & Activities for Kids of All Ages, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This has a glossy cover and a black and white interior with sturdy pages. There's everything inside from coloring to dot to dot to Mad Libs. This one is, as you would expect from the title, fairly didactic in terms of the content ("How your packed lunch can make less trash", etc.), but it's been my observation that many kids love this sort of thing. They can use the knowledge against their parents and show how smart they are ("Mommy, the book says you should be using reusable grocery bags", or whatever). I also thought that they did a nice job of keeping the activities fun. Which is the point, of course. 

Bottom line: the US Government Publishing Office has a wide range of publications designed to inform and educate kids (and parents). If you are looking for activity books for your kids on some particular topic (a trip you are taking, a point you want to make to them about the environment, etc.), their website would a good place to start. And if you are out in a Visitor's Center somewhere, take a look at the kids' publications. I think you'll be surprised by the level of effort that's gone into making them entertaining. 

© 2018 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 Third Mushroom: Jennifer L. Holm

Book: The Third Mushroom
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

ThirdMushroomThe Third Mushroom is a sequel to Jennifer Holm's The Fourteenth Goldfish (which I read at some point but apparently did not review). Both books feature a girl named Ellie and her scientist grandfather, Melvin. As The Third Mushroom begins Ellie is navigating middle school reasonably well. She's become best friends with kindred spirit Raj, and has reached a cordial state with her childhood best friend, Brianna.

Then Melvin shows up for a visit. Melvin, as the result of a previous science experiment, is an older, highly educated man who now has the body of a fourteen-year-old. Together, Melvin and Ellie undertake a project for the science fair, even as Ellie and Raj set out to understand the line between friendship and dating. The Third Mushroom is about family relationships, scientific experimentation, and trying new things, all with Jennifer Holm's pitch-perfect eye for what it's like to be in middle school. I especially admire her ability to share profound observations in a light-hearted way. 

Here is one of my favorite passages: 

"I'm heading to my first period when I run into Brianna. She's my old best friend from elementary school. We drifted apart when we started middle school. But it's strangely okay now. These days we're move like cousins who see each other at family reunions. We only remember the good times." (Page 27)

I found that passage utterly apt to my own experience. Here are a couple of middle school tidbits:

"By the time lunch rolls around, it's cold and windy. I'm tempted to go fish something out of the Lost and Found box. But then I remember my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Bennett, and how she used to call it the Lice and Found box, and I think better of it." (Page 52)

And: 

"Back in elementary school, gym was fun. We played handball and foursquare. They let us use Hula-Hoops. But gym in middle school is terrible. The teachers are mean and the uniforms stink. Literally. No one takes them home to get washed. 

Most of all, I hate running laps. They're boring, and I'm always one of the last kids to finish." (Page 99)

Yup. I also like Holm's casual, accepting take on Ellie's blended family (divorced parents, new step-dad, Melvin). And I LOVE her positive take regarding scientific experimentation. She slips in various tidbits about actual scientific discoveries (e.g. penicillin), and the benefits of making mistakes, without The Third Mushroom ever feeling didactic. Well, actually Melvin comes across as didactic sometimes, but this is ok, because he's an old man in a young, hormone-laden body, and it's funny. 

Readers will want to read The Fourteen Goldfish prior to reading The Third Mushroom. Even having read the first book several years ago, it took me a little while to orient myself to the story. But once I got settled in, I enjoyed every word, and read the rest of The Third Mushroom in a single sitting. A must-purchase for libraries serving fifth to eighth graders. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Skulduggery Pleasant (Book 1): Derek Landy

Book: Skulduggery Pleasant (Book 1)
Author: Derek Landy
Pages: 384
Age Range: 8-12

Skulduggery1HarperCollins is in the process of reintroducing Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant series here in the US, after the books did much better in Ireland and the UK. As outlined in a May Publisher's Weekly article, they have issued paperbacks of the first three books, which were published earlier in the US, and will be publishing books four to six in the US for the first time this  month. I agreed to take a look at the first book. I read it in a single sitting. I do think that the time is right this time, and that the series is going to be a hit.

Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 1, begins when a horror author named Gordon Edgley dies unexpectedly. Gordon leaves his home and most of his property to his favorite niece, Stephanie. Left alone at Gordon's house through circumstance,  Stephanie, who has always craved adventure, finds herself under attack and drawn into an unexpected world of magic. She is aided by, and becomes something of a sidekick to, Skulduggery Pleasant, a walking, talking skeleton. Together with a cast of not-necessarily trustworthy allies, Stephanie and Skulduggery fight to save the world. 

Though full of dangerous escapes, epic battles, and magical books and artifacts, what I liked most about Skulduggery Pleasant was Landy's lightly ironic voice. The byplay between Stephanie and Skulduggery, and particularly Skulduggery's occasionally world-weary remarks, made the pages fly by. There is a bit of Irish syntax here and there (the hood of the car is a "bonnet", etc.), but nothing that will be difficult for anyone who has read the Harry Potter books. 

Here are a couple of snippets, chosen from early in the books, so as to avoid spoilers. First, a paragraph that gives you a feel for Stephanie:

"There was an extra door in the living room, a door disguised as a bookcase, and when she was younger Stephanie liked to think that no one else knew about this door, not even Gordon himself. It was a secret passageway, like in the stories she'd read and she's make up adventures about haunted houses and smuggled treasure. This secret passageway would always be her escape route, and the imaginary villains in these adventures would be dumfounded by her sudden and mysterious disappearance. But now this door, this secret passageway, stood open, and there was a steady stream of people through it, and she was saddened that this little piece of magic had been taken from her." (Page 3)

She's a great character, stubborn, outside of the mainstream, and a creative problem-solver. And here's Skulduggery:

"Skulduggery put his gloved hands in his pockets and cocked his head. He had no eyeballs so it was hard to tell if he was looking at her or not. "You know, I met your uncle under similar circumstances. Well, kind of similar. But he was drunk. And we were in a bar. And he had vomited on my shoes. So I suppose the actual circumstances aren't overly similar, but both events include a meeting, so... My point is, he was having some trouble and I was there to lend a hand, and we become good friends after that. Good, good friends."" (Page 43)

Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 1, carries a blurb from Rick Riordan, and this is no coincidence. This would make an excellent next series for fans of the the Percy Jackson books. Skulduggery and Stephanie are an unusual pair of heroes, but one that kids will find easy to root for. Highly recommended, and well worth adding to elementary and middle school library collections. 

Publisher:  HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 1, 2018 (reprint edition, original copyright 2007)
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Willa of the Wood: Robert Beatty

Book: Willa of the Wood
Author: Robert Beatty
Pages: 384
Age Range: 9-12

WillaWilla of the Wood by Robert Beatty is the first book that I've felt compelled to review in quite some time. Honestly, not many books are capable of making me stay up late to finish these days, but this one did. It is suspenseful, beautiful, and thought-provoking, while featuring unique and memorable characters. The end brought a little tear to my eye. Willa of the Wood is set in the same Great Smoky Mountain region as Beatty's Serafina series (see reviews here and here), but features a brand new protagonist.

Willa is a Faeran, or night-spirit. She lives with her clan, most notably her grandmother, Mamaw, deep in the wood. She's been trained to be a jaetter, which is basically a thief, stealing money, food, and artifacts from the humans who are starting to populate the area. But unlike most of the jaetters, Willa possesses ancient abilities once common among her people. She can change skin color, and blend in with the forest. She can speak to plants and animals. She can ask a tree for help as she climbs, and find branches bending to help her. She knows little about the "day-folk" (homesteaders), but much about the problems that have arisen within her clan over her lifetime.  

The home of Willa's clan, and her abilities, reminded me a little bit of the world in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy. Here's a description:

"She was part of this clan, and it was part of her, as inextricable as root and soil. Willa looked up, beyond the throng of the Faeran that surrounded her, toward the ceiling. The hall had been built for many thousands of people to gather here, but far fewer than that remained. The walls of the great hall rose up all around, vast expanses of dark brown woven sticks reaching to a large gaping hole broken to the sky above. What was left of the decaying ceiling and walls was held aloft by the ancient, massive woven-stick sculptures of giant trees, the columns of their trunks soaring upward to spreading canopies above. Thousands of hand-curled leaves glimmered with emerald green, and brilliant kaleidoscopes of ornately woven birds of all shapes and sizes and colors seemed to be flying through the branches of the trees." (Page 93, ARC)

I don't want to give away anything about the plot. Suffice it to say that Willa finds herself in peril on several occasions, and has to call on both her inner resources and special skills to survive. Parts of the story, as with the Serafina books, are quite dark. Although this book is certainly middle grade, I will personally wait until my eight-year-old is a bit older before recommending it to her. 

Other things worth knowing about the book: 

  • There is diversity. In addition to the Faeran, the humans include both white homesteaders and Cherokee tribe members. 
  • There are also loggers, and quite chilling depictions of the evils of clear-cutting old growth forests (as seen from the perspective of someone who knows the trees personally, and thinks of them as if they were people). The loggers were a bit one-note as villains, but I doubt most kids will mind that. 
  • A caring adult (human) plays a major role in the story, as he and Willa help one another. I found this refreshing - in so many children's books adults are either absent or presented as villains or buffoons. Beatty offers a nuanced treatment of the different viewpoints of Willa (who would never harm an animal) and the man (who has cut down trees to build his home, etc.). She is baffled, for instance, over the idea that he can own land.
  • Animals also play important roles in the story. 

In short, Willa of the Wood is wonderful, and has my highest recommendation. It is not necessary to have read the Serafina books to read this one. Though I certainly recommend those, too, Willa tugged more at heart. 

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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 Losers Club: Andrew Clements

Book: The Losers Club
Author: Andrew Clements
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

LosersClubThe Losers Club by Andrew Clements is a delight from start to finish. It's about a sixth grade boy named Alec who gets into trouble at school because he loves to read so much. He's constantly reading in class, instead of paying attention, and getting sent to the Principal's Office. Already on thin ice on the first day of school, Alec learns that he has to start going to after school care this year. He is pressured to join a sort or other club, when again all he wants to do is read. In a flash of inspiration, Alec starts a reading club. He calls it The Losers Club because he doesn't want to be distracted, and he wants to disincentivize other kids from joining. The idea is that he and his sole fellow club member, Nina, will just sit at the same table and read quietly for three hours every day. Of course, a bit  more than that ends up happening. 

The Losers Club is a love letter to kids who like to read, and to the many books that they love. Classics old and new are mentioned on practically every page, with a full list provided at the end of the book. But The Losers Club isn't one of those books that librarians and teachers will love, and kids will find heavy-handed. Alec is a real, three-dimensional character, with strengths and weaknesses. He has a bit of a crush on Nina (completely middle grade-appropriate), enjoys water-skiing, and is mildly bullied by former friend Kent. Kent and Nina, as well as Alec's family members, also feel realistic. There's a nice mix of action (Kent kicking balls into the wall behind the Losers Club table, and Alec challenging him) and introspection (and kid who reads as much as Alec does is going to be somewhat introspective). 

One thing that I especially enjoyed about The Losers Club was that Alec's parents, well, parent him. When his performance slips at school, they take action. They give him advice. They notice when he's cranky and ask why. Kind of a refreshing change all around, compared to much of middle grade literature. Alec even exchanges advice here and there with his very different little brother. Oh, and as an added bonus, Alec's parents are huge Star Wars fans, and Yoda-speak is primary form of dialog in his home. Alec is actually named after Alec Guinness, and his brother is named for Luke Skywalker. Super fun! This would make a wonderful audiobook, I suspect. 

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

"But Alex was a special case. Every time he had landed in the Hot Seat, he had been caught doing something that teachers usually liked: reading. It wasn't about what he was reading or how he was reading--it was always because where and when he was reading. 

Maybe his mom and dad were to blame for spending all those hours reading to him when he was little. Or maybe The Sailor Dog was to blame, or The Very Hungry Caterpiller, or possibly The Cat in the Hat. But there was no doubt that Alec had loved books from the get-go. Once he found a beginning, he had to get to the middle, because the middle always led to the end of the story. And no matter what, Alec had to know what happened next." (Page 2)

and:

"Some people had comfort food, but Alec had comfort books--stories so familiar that they made reading feel like coasting downhill on a bike, or water-skiing on a smooth lake. And Charlotte's Web was one of his all-time favorites." (Page 33)

My daughter, who is almost eight, was curious about this book. When I told her about it, she asked if she could read it when I was finished. I'll be interested to see if she likes it, and whether it inspires her to want to read any other books (like Charlotte's Web). 

Certainly, The Losers Club is a book that belongs in libraries serving middle grade readers everywhere. Andrew Clements is the master of school stories, and The Losers Club is no exception (and a complete bonus for anyone who loves books). Highly recommended!

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers  (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: August 1, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens: Paul Noth

Book: How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens
Author: Paul Noth
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

HowToSellYourFamilyHow to Sell Your Family to the Aliens by Paul Noth is a lightly illustrated, over-the-top middle grade science fiction novel, possibly the first of a series. Happy Conklin, Jr. lives with his parents and his five sisters in two rooms in the basement of his grandmother's lavish mansion. Although Hap's father actually dreams up all of the inventions that have made the family wealthy, he is perpetually punished/banished because of his choice to marry a poor Romanian laundress (Hap's mother, who is offscreen for most of the story).

Grandma Conklin has tested various inventions on her grandchildren, most of whom possess lingering oddities. Hap, though only 10, has a full beard, and needs to shave every day to even begin to fit in at school. One sister is a kleptomaniac who apparently hides her spoils in some other dimension, because they are never seen again. Other sisters, twins, only look alike because one of them possesses a pair of glasses that can make her look like anyone, and she chooses to look like her sister. Another, Kayla, can more or less see the future (it's complicated). Only the cheerful youngest, Baby Lu, is unmarked. When a threat to Baby Lu from Grandma arises, Hap (with some suggestions from Kayla) springs into action. What follows is a madcap caper involving an intelligent lizard, a less intelligent wrestler, a dwarf FBI agent, and, yes, aliens. 

How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens is a quick, fun read, sprinkled with quirky inventions and occasional scenes related in comic strip format. Here are a couple of snippets, to give you a feel for Hap's voice. He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he is determined to help his sister.

"My grandma only baked cookies once a week, and even then they weren't for me but for my dad. And actually she didn't bake them herself either--her personal chef id. My dad's inventions paid for her to have a chef, three maids, a butler, a bunch of security guards, a chauffeur, and a footman, who I guess did something to her feet. I don't want to know what." (Chapter 1)

and:

"By Kayla's timeline, I was supposed to be in the Chartreuse Vestibule. But this was just some yellow hallway! I must have made a wrong turn.

Up ahead, a pug-faced man hurried into the hallway, walking toward me, while looking at an expensive leather clipboard." (Chapter 11)

Noth's black-and-white illustrations lend humor throughout, ranging from a schematic of the mansion to various drawings that are not what the aliens look like, but are drawn by Hap "to fool people who are flipping ahead in the book to find out what the aliens look like." 

How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens is a super-fun addition to the ranks of middle grade science fiction. The illustrations should make it accessible to newer readers, and the premise (selling an annoying family to aliens) is hard to resist. I hope that there are other books to follow - I would enjoy spending more time with Hap and his family. Recommended!!

Publisher:  Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Death and Douglas: J. W. Ocker

Book: Death and Douglas
Author: J. W. Ocker
Pages: 372
Age Range: 8-12

DeathAndDouglasDeath and Douglas by J. W. Ocker is a well-written middle grade murder mystery full of both atmosphere and black humor. Douglas, the protagonist, lives with his parents in the family mortuary. When a serial killer strikes his small town, Douglas and two friends (one the son of the local police chief) take it upon themselves to investigate. Naturally, they get a bit more than they bargained for. 

Douglas is an unusual character. He wears suits and neckties most of the time. He attends funerals partly to help, but mostly as a hobby. His favorite place to hang out is the local graveyard, where the two gravediggers call him Spadeful. The gravediggers regale him with tales of monsters and vampires, which the impressionable Douglas at least partially believes. Douglas, raised in a funeral home, understands that death is a natural outcome of life. However, he finds murder, the deliberate causing of death, shocking. 

There's a mix of introspection (about the nature of murder, about whether Douglas wants to grow up to continue the family business, etc.) and action (sneaking out of the house at midnight, venturing down into the mortuary workroom to look for clues, etc.) in Death and Douglas. The stories from the gravediggers and the general atmosphere of the book made me wonder for a time if Death and Douglas was a fantasy, but it stays just to the reality side of the line. But it's certainly on the over the top side.

What made Death and Douglas stand out for me was Ocker's writing. I could select practically any page to give you an example of a deft description or surprising insight. I stopped highlighting about 1/4 of the way through the book. Here are a couple of examples:

"A small black crow of a boy leaned against the roof of a dead man. The boy's features, where they were black, were extremely black, and where they were pale, extremely pale. A carefully combed slick of thick black hair defined his northern border, three parallel off-shoots of which angled across his forehead like they had been gouged there by the claw of a cat." (Page 1) 

and:

"Around him, Cowlmouth was starting to kindle its autumn fires. It was still early September, and only a few impatient trees lifted a red- or yellow-flaming torch in the midst of their mostly green branches. In another few weeks, every birch, every elm, and every oak would be in full five-alarm conflagration before finally fading to brown and being buried under snow for the winter." (Page 16)

and:

"Murder, that was different. Murder was a puzzle to be solved in stories. A word to be ignored on the boring newscasts his father like to watch. Murder was an adult word. A coffee-drinker's word. The type archaically printed in newspapers. It didn't have a meaning in real life. Not in Douglas's real life, anyway. Not in Douglas's Cowlmouth." (Page 42)

"Coffee-drinkers" is used throughout the book to refer to adults. "What the hockey sticks" is used, by Douglas's best friend Lowell, instead of "What the hell." There's just enough insider-jargon to make readers feel like they are part of the little group that consists of Douglas, Lowell, and new friend Audrey. It's a fun book to read, in terms of writing and characters. Cowlmouth is practically a character, too, a quirky small town with a big carnival, a place where residents go all out for Halloween. You get the sense as a reader that the author put in a considerable amount of time thinking about the setting and characters before writing the book. 

Although Death and Douglas is written in such a way to be accessible to younger readers (Amazon lists it for 8 and up, and I don't disagree), I wouldn't give this to a particularly sensitive, nightmare-prone child. There are real murders that take place, and kids in peril. For most kids, I think that the book is over-the-top enough to not feel real, and thus not feel too scary. For me, it was an enjoyable read, well-written and memorable. Recommended! 

Publisher:  Sky Pony Press 
Publication Date: October 31, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans: Russell Ginns

Book: Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans
Author: Russell Ginns
Illustrator: Barbara Fisinger
Pages: 256
Age Range: 8-12

SamanthaSpinnerSamantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans by Russell Ginns is the first book in a new madcap adventure series for middle grade readers. Samantha's Uncle Paul, who lives in an apartment above her family's garage, disappears one day. He leaves behind $2.4 billion for her older sister, the deed and player contracts for the New York Yankees for her younger brother. For Samantha he leaves ... a battered red umbrella.

After spending a few weeks moping about the unfairness of this, Samantha, with help from her little brother, Nipper, eventually figures out that the umbrella contains a secret map of the world. Samantha and Nipper set out on a quest to find out what happened to Uncle Paul. In the process they uncover super-cool modes of transportation, visit important cultural landmarks, and encounter dangerous and smelly ninjas, a mummy, and several stolen artifacts. Bet you didn't know that there's a secret hatch accessible from the Eiffel Tower that sends one down into a giant pneumatic tube. 

I enjoyed this book, but I think I would have loved it as a 10-year-old. In addition to the puzzles within the story, an appendix at the end reveals a series of puzzles that readers can go back and solve. The kids have essentially no adult supervision. And even the parts of the story that are just about Spinner family life are over-the-top and/or quirky. Like this:

"Samantha thought again about their family trip to Pacific Pandemonium. The visit had been cut short after Nipper insisted that Samantha sit next to him on the Holy-cow-a-bunga! roller coaster over and over again. After times around the winding, flipping, twisting track, Samantha had had enough and got off. Nipper stayed on and rode the Holy-cow-a-bunga! nine more times. Then he barfed mightily and the staff had to close the attraction while they cleaned out the car. The Spinners left the park right after that." (Page 58)

Chapter Twenty-Two is titled "Exceptionally Gross". And it is. I think that kids, especially boys, will love it, though. Between chapters there are excerpts from Samantha's journal, in which she explains the hidden secrets that they find around the world, like a chairlift that goes from Machu Picchu to Lima, Peru. These excerpts are in a different font, and written in a reporter-like tone that contrasts with the regular text (as above). For example:

"There is a hidden magtrain station in Seattle. It is located near Volunteer Park, about two miles from downtown. The entrance is below an ordinary-looking mailbox across from the brick water tower. 

Grasp the handle of the mailbox door and open it all the way. Hold it open for at least ten seconds, or until you hear the motor engage, before you let it close. Repeat this two more times. The ground beneath the mailbox will rise slowly, revealing a staircase." (Page 53)

There are also intermittent black and white illustrations, some of maps and plans included in the journal, and others picture of Samantha and Nipper and their adventures. The latter contribute to the reader's understanding of the sibling relationship between the two kids. 

Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans ends with the start of the siblings' next adventure, presumably releasing next year. I think this series is a fun addition to the ranks of adventure stories for kids. Ginns definitely crosses the line into fantasy throughout the book, but it's still heavily grounded in the real world (and full of interesting tidbits about the world, too). This is one that I'll save for my daughter to read in a couple of years. Recommended for elementary and middle school libraries.  

Publisher: Delacorte Press (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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 Ambrose Deception: Emily Ecton

Book: The Ambrose Deception
Author: Emily Ecton
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12

AmbroseDeceptionThe Ambrose Deception by Emily Ecton begins as three unconventional students are selected from their respective Chicago middle schools to compete in a contest for a $10,000 scholarship. Melissa, Bondi, and Wilf are each given three clues to solve, as well as a car and driver, a debit card, and a (not so modern) cell phone to help them. The clues are cryptic instructions like "Go to 1910 for ice cream, then stick around to watch the newborns." The three kids start out working independently (as ordered), but eventually interact with one another. As they start to make progress, they also start to realize that something isn't quite right about the contest. ("Deception" is right there in the title, after all.) Application of their wits becomes even more important. 

The book is something of an ode to Chicago, with clues and locations specific to details of the city, famous and obscure. One doesn't need to be familiar with these things to appreciate the book, however. It's fun regardless to watch the children run around the city, figuring things out. 

The three kids all have quite different backgrounds and personalities. These are painted clearly without slowing down the action. Wilf, in particular, takes advantage of the opportunities provided by the car and driver, and the debit card, and initially doesn't try very hard at the contest. Melissa, currently selling homework solutions in order to support her impoverished family, is much more motivated, as is "Mr. Personality" Bondi, despite attempts by his friends to distract him.

 The perspective in the book shifts between the three students, in short sections, with occasional diversions to others (like the drivers, interesting characters in their own right). There are notes, lists, emails and text exchanges sprinkled throughout the book. The chalkboard that the drivers use to communicate also pops up from time to time. All of this, makes The Ambrose Deception an enticing book for reluctant readers.

I think that any kid who enjoys solving puzzles, reading about quests, or laughing at a boy who eats hot dogs from so many different venues that he becomes ill, will enjoy The Ambrose Deception. The ending is particularly satisfying. This would be a great title to add to libraries serving elementary and middle school students. It's one that I'll keep for my daughter for when she's just a bit older. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion (@DisneyHyperion))
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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 Van Gogh Deception: Deron Hicks

Book: The Van Gogh Deception
Author: Deron Hicks
Pages: 320
Age Range: 10-12

VanGoghDeceptionThe Van Gogh Deception by Deron Hicks is a suspenseful, smart, fast-paced mystery for middle grade readers. The story begins when a boy with amnesia is discovered one December day in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. When the boy, dubbed Art, is sent to temporary foster care, he meets Camille, a strong-willed young red-head. It turns out, however, that dangerous people are looking for Art. Soon he and Camille find themselves on the run, trying to solve the mystery of Art's past and determine whether or not a recently discovered Van Gogh is real or fake. 

Classic art, and the way it might be forged, is discussed throughout the story. There are QR codes included in the book, wherever a famous piece of art is mentioned. Readers can scan the codes to bring up a picture of each artwork. I didn't personally need that distraction after looking at one or two, but I'm sure this will be fun for many young readers. 

What makes The Van Gogh Deception fun for me is the quick-wittedness of Art and Camille, and the fast pace of their adventures. Art, though he can't remember anything about himself, knows a lot about art, and he has instincts that cause his pursuers to liken him to Jason Bourne. Camille, while lacking Art's educational background, is a firebrand and a loyal friend, a more than worthy sidekick for Art. The characters of the Camille's mother and a concerned police detective are also strong, though Hicks never lets them take over the story, or do any real rescuing. Even the bad guy is intriguing, definitely not a one-note criminal stereotype. 

I read this book so quickly that I didn't stop to flag any quotable passages. But it's unquestionably cerebral as well as action-packed, perfect for mystery fans of all ages (10 and up). 

The Van Gogh Deception belongs in libraries serving upper middle grade and middle school readers everywhere. It has a great cover, and an irresistible premise (amnesia is always compelling, as is art theft/forgery). Highly recommended, and one I will be passing on to my daughter when she is just a bit older. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: August 29, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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 Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade: Jordan Sonnenblick

Book: The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade
Author: Jordan Sonnenblick
Pages: 208
Age Range: 9-12

SecretSheriffThe Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade is the latest middle grade novel by Jordan Sonnenblick, who has a gift for using humor to take the edge of off difficult subjects (having a sibling with cancer, e.g.). In The Secret Sheriff, Sonnenblick introduces readers to sixth grader Maverick Falconer. Maverick lives in poverty with his alcoholic mom, his dad having been killed in the line of military duty. In addition to coping with his mother's benders and her abusive boyfriend, Maverick struggles with being much shorter than average (mild implication of fetal alcohol syndrome), and with being the target of bully Bowen. Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, Maverick decides at the start of the school year that he's going to be a secret sheriff, looking for opportunities to help people. Things don't go as planned, however, and Maverick ends up in the vice principal's office twice on the very first day. 

Without being heavy-handed about, Sonnenblick includes plenty of details that make the challenges of Maverick's situation clear. He can't afford the $10 fee for gym clothes. The vice principal can't call his mother in because she doesn't have a car, and might not be sober. His hamster is missing a foot, a damaged animal that a kind-hearted pet shop owner gave to child who couldn't afford an unmarked pet. And lots more. Here are a couple of examples, in Maverick's voice:

"As far as I could figure it, anybody with two parents had nothing i the world to complain about. It was a little hard to be sure, though. I hadn't had a father since I was three. All I even had to remember him by was a cheap little plastic sheriff's star he had bought me at a beachside souvenir shop on the last day I had ever spent with him. I vaguely remember that I had been angry about something, and he'd gotten me the star to cheer me up." (Page 8)

"I had heard of fresh berries and cream. Fresh berries and cream sounded awesome. Fresh anything sounded awesome. We never had fresh food in our house. Or even cooked food. The only time my mom lit a stove burner was when she ran out of matches and needed to fire up a cigarette." (Page 10)

But there's humor, too. Like this:

"A massive hand tapped me on the shoulder. I whirled and literally banged into the protruding stomach of the largest man I had ever seen in my life. He had to be at least six and a half feet tall, with super-broad shoulders, that big belly, a bushy red handlebar mustache, and wild red hair. If Santa Claus had married a Viking queen, their firstborn son would have looked like this dude." (Page 21)

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade also features excellent characterization. No one is all bad or all good, though one has to look pretty hard to find the good in some of them. I especially appreciated the nuances of the vice principal (the Santa/Viking hybrid described above). Maverick has an aunt who is able to provide something of a safety net for him, but even she has her quirks. 

I think that The Secret Sheriff would be an excellent read for middle schoolers, providing a window (or mirror) into poverty and substance abuse, but also providing constructive ideas about making the world (or at least one's school) better. I'll be happy to have my daughter read this book when she's a bit older - it may make her a bit more appreciative of having two parents, and being able to afford things like new sneakers when she needs them. And if not, she'll probably still enjoy Maverick's scrapes. Recommended, and a must for middle school libraries. 

Publisher: Scholastic  (@Scholastic
Publication Date: August 29, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Spy Toys: Mark Powers & Tim Wesson

Book: Spy Toys
Author: Mark Powers
Illustrator: Tim Wesson
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

SpyToysSpy Toys, written by Mark Powers, with frequent black and white illustrations by Tim Wesson, is the first of a new chapter book series from Bloomsbury (an epilogue points to future stories, at any rate). Spy Toys is set in a slightly futuristic world in which a company called Snaztacular Ultrafun makes intelligent toys, each with "a tiny computerized brain that gave it a personality and allowed it to walk and talk as if it were alive."

Due to quality control policies at the manufacturing plant, however, two toys are rejected: a Snugaliffic Cuddlestar teddy bear named Dan who is vastly too strong to cuddle any human and a cranky rag doll named Arabella who can't stand people. When Dan and Arabella escape the plant, they meet up with an escaped mechanical police bunny named Flax, and the three toy-like intelligent creatures are recruited into the Department of Secret Affairs. Before they know it, the three Spy Toys are sent on an assignment to hide in plain sight and protect the spoiled son of a senator. 

I found Spy Toys to be entertaining, with a wry humor that especially appealed. Like this:

"When you hugged one of these bears, it actually hugged you back. In a world where many parents were simply too busy to do trivial things like hug their children, the teddy bears sold in their millions." (Chapter One)

There's also a scene in Chapter Five in which a set of toddler triplets is used to test the resilience of the Spy Toys, because "No destructive force has yet been found that's greater than a toddler." 

I especially enjoyed the sharp-tongued Arabella. After she and Dan escape she at first tries to abandon him. When he asks what he should do know she says:

"How should I know? You're a bear. Go and eat a marmalade sandwich or something." (Chapter Three)

It's just fun. Tim Wesson's illustrations lend additional humor. Dan's kindness is visible in his big, soft eyes, even as the tiny Arabella wears a frequent scowl, despite heart-decorated cheeks. Even a minor jump rope character has a face and a personality. 

The plot flows swiftly. There are plenty of sound effects and cartoon-style exploits to keep younger elementary school readers engaged, while the mild social commentary (e.g. a burger place that even fries the buns, and is hence very popular) keeps Spy Toys relevant for older readers, too. Spy Toys is a promising start to a new series, and should be a welcome addition to library collections serving elementary school kids. Recommended!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: January 16, 2018
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).