196 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

How to Capture an Invisible Cat (Genius Factor): Paul Tobin

Book: How to Capture an Invisible Cat (The Genius Factor, Book 1)
Author: Paul Tobin
Illustrator: Thierry Lafontaine
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8-12

How to Capture an Invisible Cat is the first book in a new five book series by Paul Tobin (lightly illustrated by Thierry Lafontaine). My only regret after reading this first book is that the entire series is not yet available. Because How to Capture an Invisible Cat is pure, kid-friendly fun. How to Capture an Invisible Cat is told from the first-person viewpoint of Delphine Cooper, a sixth grade girl who has a number of friends, and whose impulsive behavior frequently lands her in hot water. When Delphine becomes friends with Nate Bannister, a genius inventor who is in her class at school, she quickly finds herself drawn in to an over-the-top adventure involving a gigantic invisible cat, a talking dog, and a dangerous secret society. 

The publisher's description of the book likens it to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This is why I try not to read marketing materials - because now I can't get that comparison out of my head. It is apt (a comparison to the movie, that is). How to Capture an Invisible Cat is filled with crazy inventions and madcap adventures, with slightly cartoonish bad guys, and a geeky inventor hero. But because it's a novel (vs. a movie, or a picture book), there are other layers to the story, too. Delphine is not a genius, and she doesn't always understand what Nate is doing. Delphine's gift, in strong contrast to Nate's is friendship. I believe that we'll see Delphine's gift coming more and more to the foreground in future books.

What I love most about How to Capture an Invisible Cat is Delphine's breezy, funny, run-on voice. I was snorting and flagging passages by page two. Here are just a few examples:

"These tests took place a couple of weeks back, after school, in our sixth grade classroom. I'd stayed late to sweep the floor, since Ms. Talbot uses cleaning duty as a punishment for misbehaving children, among which I am numbered." (Page 2)

"...Plus, I have to pay for my cell phone by myself, and I'm also saving up for when my friend Liz Morris and I start traveling the world as a mysterious due of carefree adventurers. Sadly, from the looks of my savings, that will probably have to wait until at least seventh grade." (Page 3-4)

"I watched Bosper run across the dog park, completely in the opposite direction of where the balloon was going, running right past the poor screaming girl who had lost her balloon and who was now on her back rolling all over the ground, which is not something I'd recommend in a dog park." (Page 6)

"Simple," I said. It was not what I meant. I noticed he was reading a Nancy Drew mystery. I liked him for that. Most boys don't like girl detectives." (Page 7)

I could go on and on. Delphine is just pitch-perfect. While Nate is in many ways the hero of the story, I don't think it would have worked nearly so well had he been the narrator. He's brilliant, but somewhat lacking in social skills . He works much better as a foil for Delphine's humor. Like this:

""Here's some lemonade," Nate said. "I put out some cookies. That was a good move, right? They're chocolate chip cookies. I have some ice cream, too. It's also chocolate chip. Oh. That wasn't smart, was it? I was trying for a chocolate chip theme, but I only had two items of chocolate chip nature, so that's not really a theme, more a lack of variety."" (Page 35)

I do love reading about a character who is really smart yet still works to keep stretching and improving himself. Nate has been able to expand his dog's brain, so that the dog can talk. He can predict where Delphine is going to be, using a complex series of mental mathematical models, and can leave her notes along her path (not as creepy as it sounds, because he's both brilliant and hapless). He loves questions, saying "Asking questions is like bodybuilding for the brain."

So as I think I've made clear, I really love the characters, and the voice, and the humor, of How to Capture an Invisible Cat. But the plotting is also well done, featuring a quest for clues which Nate has hidden from himself (long story), with setbacks caused by Nate's evil nemesis. How to Capture an Invisible Cat will certainly  keep readers turning the pages. There are hints of "boy-girl stuff" in here for tweens. There's a kiss, even. But this is all quite secondary to the plot, and not sufficient to be off-putting to younger readers.

How to Capture an Invisible Cat is one of my very favorite new middle grade novels. It's creative, suspenseful, celebrates intellect, and is funny, funny, funny. It's everything a middle grade fantasy should be. I can't wait for future books in the series, and highly recommend that parents, teachers, and librarians all give it a look. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids)
Publication Date: March 1, 2016
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

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


The Tiara on the Terrace: Kristen Kittscher

Book: The Tiara on the Terrace
Author: Kristen Kittscher
Pages: 400
Age Range: 8-12

The Tiara on the Terrace is the sequel to Kristen Kittscher's middle grade mystery The Wig in the Window. Both feature best friends and twelve-year-old sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang. As The Tiara on the Terrace begins, the girls' town of Luna Vista is getting ready for the 125th annual Winter Sun Festival, a tradition involving a parade and a "royal court" of teen girls. Sophie and Grace are helping with the floats. When the Festival president dies under mysterious circumstances, Grace convinces Sophie and their friend Trista to apply to be royal pages, so that they can investigate more closely. A mixture of investigation and festival preparation follows. 

Trista plays a larger role in The Tiara on the Terrace than she did in the first book, which I think is a plus. (I noted in my review of the first book that I liked her better than I did Grace.) Trista is big and awkward and unrepentantly an engineer. Trista and Sophie would have been unlikely to be selected as pages were they not "town heroes" following the events of the first book. Grace, on the other hand, fits right in with the older, more fashion-focused members of the Royal Court.

Some tension between Grace and Sophie is evident from the book's start, as the former is more ready to grow up than the latter (a great dynamic to explore in a book aimed at tweens). Sophie, on the other hand, is the one who has a (completely PG) crush. Like this:

"Hey there," a voice called out behind us. My heart skipped a beat as I turned to see Rod Zimball. He put down his flower bucket and gave a little save. White petals were caught in the crests of his dark curls like whitecaps, and his hazel eyes shone. The only way he could have looked any cuter is if he were cradling a baby panda." (Page 20, ARC)

Once there's a mystery to solve, though, all three girls, with a small amount of assistance from Rod, are all in with investigating. They come up with a secret code for identifying meeting spots, and rap out messages on the walls between their rooms. There's even a late-night escapade involving a stolen golf cart. 

The book's setting, in which just about every scene is associated with the festival in some way, feels fresh. The girls spend a weekend in the Festival Mansion as part of their duties as pages, which gets them away from parental supervision, and gives them plenty of opportunities to sneak about, spying. Here's Sophie on being away from home:

"I was scared, too. Scared everyone would think I was a loser, like Ms. Sparrow had though. Scared of spending every minute with all these older girls--these cooler girls who expected us to serve their every need. But it wasn't just that. I hated the idea of being away from my family for a whole weekend. No playing Uno with Grandpa after finishing my homework. No trying to do the crossword puzzle in the morning with my mom. No listening to dad's totally exaggerated stories about work crises. No Jake being Jake." (Page 128, ARC)

Sophie does make one mistake (a betrayal of Grace) that I found cringe-worthy, but I enjoyed The Tiara on the Terrace otherwise. It's good to see a middle grade mystery with real stakes (an actual dead body), but that remains buoyant overall. I think that the mix of tween angst, cosseted "royals", and murder investigation will work well for kids who are just developing an interest in mysteries (and/or just thinking about having an interest in "more than friend" relationships. There's even a bit of diversity (in Grace and Trista's backgrounds), kept mostly incidental to the story, but good to see.

I would recommend The Tiara on the Terrace for elementary or middle school libraries, or for individual purchase for middle grade mystery fans. I think it's better than the first book, and that fans of The Wig in the Window will definitely want to take a look. If you haven't read The Wig in the Window, it would be better to start with that one, as there are spoilers for the first book. 

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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 by Toilet Paper: Donna Gephart

Book: Death by Toilet Paper
Author: Donna Gephart
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart is a quick and humorous read that manages to cover quite a bit of ground. 7th grader Benjamin and his mother are suffering financially following the death of Benjamin's father the previous year. Although his mother is close to completing her CPA certification (and thus improving their fortunes), they are at risk of being evicted from their apartment in the meantime.

Benjamin tries to help raise money by entering a variety of contests, including one involving toilet paper. He also sets up a small business selling candy at school. This stressful time becomes more complicated when Benjamin's grandfather arrives unexpectedly on their doorstep, and appears to be having memory problems.  

Although there's a lot going on in this book, and some of it is serious stuff, the overall tone of Death by Toilet Paper is, as you would expect from the title and the cover, reasonably light. Definitely middle grade friendly. There's a series of letters included throughout the story between Benjamin and an executive from the Royal-T Toilet Paper Company. And there are toilet-related facts included at the start of each chapter. Like:

"Toilet paper for the average person was invented by an American, Joseph Gayetty, in 1857 but didn't catch on for a while. In those days, housewives had to ask the grocer for every item, and many were too embarrassed to ask for toilet paper." (Page 35)

One thing that particularly stands out in Death by Toilet Paper is the direct way that Gephart addresses money. Benjamin knows exactly what the rent is each month, and what his mother makes in her temporary waitressing job, and how much his mother gets for Benjamin from social security (following the death of his father). There are little math examples where he adds and subtracts these numbers to understand how much they owe vs. how much they have. His mother is, of necessity, completely open with him about their situation. I find that young readers are rarely exposed to this level of detail about finances, and I think that this makes a real contribution. [Only once of twice did the dialog regarding the finances feel forced to me - by and large it worked well.] 

In addition to socioeconomic diversity, Death by Toilet Paper also incorporates religious diversity. Benjamin and his family are Jewish. His grandfather, Zeyde, drops Yiddish expressions regularly - not so much as to make the book impenetrable, but enough to give readers a flavor for the Jewish culture. There are references to Jewish holiday, mourning and burial traditions, included quite organically within the text (see an example below). There is a brief glossary of Yiddish terms included at the end of the book. 

Benjamin's best friend, Toothpick, lives with his divorced father and only sees his mother occasionally. The relationship between the two boys is nicely-done, with realistic degrees of conflict, but ultimate loyalty. Toothpick's passion is shooting his own horror movies, and especially working on the makeup for these movies, which I found quirky and interesting. The relationships between Benjamin and Toothpick's dad, and between Toothpick and Benjamin's mom are believable, too. Even though both boys come from fractured families, they are also functional families with caring parents (and one grandparent, flawed but loving). 

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

"I grab a few crackers and chow down, pretending they're hot, gooey slices of Kirk's Pizza--my favorite kind. Unfortunately, when it comes to pretending food is something it isn't, my imagination is weak. 

And my imagination is apparenty weak when it comes to creating grand-prize-winning ideas, too. Royal-T, from the finest tree, makes you clean and happy. Awful. Use Royal-T and you'll see it's the best there can be. Hopeless." (Page 21)

and:

"I know he's joking, because every time Zeyde visits, he always goes into my room to say hello to Barkley. And last Chanukah, he bought Barkley a castle to go inside his tank. Dad died shortly before Chanukah. I remember feeling miserable that Dad didn't get to see Barkley's new castle. Or light the candles with us. Or eat latkes with applesauce--his favorite dish." Page 67)

Benjamin is moody, sometimes sad, and frequently self-doubting. But he's hopeful and determined, too. I enjoyed reading about him. Death by Toilet Paper is more serious than one would expect based on the title and cover. But the presence of toilet humor, zombie makeup, and an over-the-top grandfather help to keep things light. It's rare to see family finances addressed so directly in a middle grade book, particularly in a book that is so multi-dimensional overall. For this reason, and because of the mix of humor and heart, I think that Death by Toilet Paper would be an excellent choice for elementary and middle school libraries. Recommended for readers of all ages. 

Publisher: Yearling Books (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: July 28, 2015 (paperback edition)
Source of Book: Personal copy (purchased). The author does read my blog. I have emailed with her on many occasions, though we have not met in person. She did not ask me to review the book, nor did we have any discussions specific to the book. 

© 2015 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: Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins

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

Upside-Down Magic is the first of a new middle grade series by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins. After attending an ordinary elementary school, ten-year-old Nory applies to start fifth grade at the prestigious magical academy that her brother and sister attend, and where her father is principal. Unfortunately, Nory's magic, though strong, is a bit, well, wonky. Nory ends up being sent away to live with her aunt, and attend a special Upside-Down Magic class. Missing her family, Nory is determined to fix herself, so that she can go home. But, of course, things are not quite so simple when your magic is Upside-Down. 

The Upside-Down Magic class reminded me a bit of the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The magic for the kids in the class works backwards or differently from what people expect. While it's normal for Flares to be able to control fire, Elliott can't help freezing things instead. And poor Andres has to be attached to a leash, otherwise he will simply float away. As for Nory, she can't seem to shift into one animal at a time - she ends up turning into creatures like a beaver-kitten that eats everything in sight. 

On thing I like about this book is that, despite the fact that everyone has some sort of magical ability (or disability), Upside-Down Magic is in many ways an ordinary school story. There is a caring, if quirky, teacher. There are friendships to be made, humiliations to be suffered, and bullies to be confronted. Nory is homesick, but learns to appreciate the lax rules in her aunt's household. The book's central conflict doesn't involve saving the world, but rather, whether or not Nory will find a way to graduate from Upside-Down Magic class. This makes Upside-Down Magic a great book for younger readers who like the idea of reading about magic, but aren't ready for complex world-building or epic crises. 

One other nice thing about this book is the authors' treatment of diversity. One learns part-way through the book, in matter-of-fact manner, that Nory's dad is black, while her (deceased) mom was white. Hence she looks black, but is living with her white aunt. Whenever any character is introduced, Nory notes the person's skin color and (sometimes) ethnicity. Even if the character is white. There's no judgement about this one way or the other. Nory notes people's appearances just as she notes their likely magical classification (Flare, Flyer, etc.). I found it quite refreshing. Here's an example:

"Elliott tapped his big-hair head at a boy a few years away, floating in the air. He was brown, probably Latino, Nory thought. He had shaggy hair and wore a stripy shirt. He was a Flyer, obviously, but he was much higher up than any beginner flyer Nory had seen."Every so often his body jerked forward. He flailed his arms. Around one ankle was a red rope. An older girl held the other end and chatted with her friends." (Page 52)

Upside-Down Magic is a quick, accessible read, perfect for elementary-age kids, with a direct take on diversity, and a surprisingly realistic setting. It should particularly appeal to those kids (most kids?) who have fantasized about being able to fly, change shapes, or talk to animals. I look forward to reading future titles in this fun new series. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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).


Milo Speck, Accidental Agent: Linda Urban

Book: Milo Speck, Accidental Agent
Author: Linda Urban
Pages: 272
Age Range: 7-10

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, by Linda Urban, is a lightly illustrated fantasy for early middle grade readers about a boy who is sucked through a clothes dryer into a land of ogres. In Orgrgon, Milo learns that his fencing-salesman father has secrets, and that the long absence of his mother might have a more complex explanation. He finds himself on the run from ogres who want to eat him, or smash him, or both. He meets up with the (human) head of a secret organization, discovers that he has a way with turkeys, and struggles to make a difference as a tiny boy in a very large world.

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent is filled with kid-friendly, humorous details. Author Linda Urban leaves no stone unturned in her world-building. The ogres are greedy, near-sighted, and none too bright. Pun-like spelling errors abound, like the "Out of Odor" signs on a drinking fountain and an elevator, and the "Keep Calm and Carrion" inspirational banner. The local newspaper is called the Ogregonian, with a banner "All the News We Feel Like Printing."

Milo is a relatable character, longing for more attention from his traveling father, insecure about his small size, but with a core of steel when he needs it. His prickly relationship with a human girl he encounters in Ogregon will make readers like him even more, I think. 

Here's an opener sure to pull in young readers:

"Milo had read about magic before. He knew that kids in stories sometimes found magic in secret drawers or hidden away in attics, and he had always hoped that if he were to find magic, it would appear in the form of a mysterious silver coin or a doorway to an enchanted world. But when magic came to Milo Speck, it came in the form of a sock.

"Figures," said Milo."

And right there we see his idealism and his sense of humor. Perfect. 

There's also a bit of a technical bent to the story, involving the way that dryers are constructed. I like it when magic is mixed (or explained by) science, and Urban does a fine job here. As a small bonus, Urban also uses Milo Speck, Accidental Agent to explain what's happened to all of the socks lost in clothes dryers (see Chapter 2).

Mariano Epelbaum's pencil illustrations bring Milo to life, and convey the scale of the story (e.g. a tiny Milo peeking out from between the fingers of a gnarled hand with long, cracked fingernails).  

A note from the author at the end of Milo Speck, Accidental Agent says that Urban was inspired by the works of Roald Dahl and Edward Eager. I could  see the Dahl influence in the over-the-top nastiness of the ogres (for whom a primary delicacy is "boy"), as well as in the setup of a corporate headquarters that included rooms like "the Office of Bragging About Stuff". Eager's influence is more subtle, but there in the way that magic is more complicated than the characters expect, or are prepared for. 

In any event, I think that kids will enjoy Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, and will look forward to Milo's future adventures (one significant mystery remains unsolved - there will surely be at least one more book). And if, as Urban suggests, this book leads them onward to Dahl and Eager, that's a happy outcome, too. Milo Speck would make a fun classroom read-aloud, and is definitely one to look at for elementary school libraries. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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 Copper Gauntlet: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Book: The Copper Gauntlet (Magisterium, Book 2)
Author: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8-12

The Copper Gauntlet is the second book in the Magisterium series by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, following The Iron TrialAs The Copper Gauntlet begins, protagonist Call is looking forward to returning to the Magisterium for his second year of school, his Copper year. He is deeply concerned that the revelations from the end of book 1 will become known by his friends. Even more, he is worried that he himself may be evil. He constantly tests his own own motives, wondering if they are good, or are those of an "Evil Overlord." When evidence suggests that his own father may believe him to be evil, Call goes on the run with his Chaos-ridden dog, Havoc. But it turns out that school may not be safe for Call, or for his friends, either. 

As in the Harry Potter series, the Magisterium books are about a boy with an unusual background who attends a secret magical school. The boy is uniquely qualified to help the magical community face a dangerous villain. This similarity in theme makes the Magisterium books an excellent followup to the Harry Potter series. Happily (in the interest of being interesting), the detail of Black and Clare's worldbuilding departs considerably from that of J.K. Rowling. The Magisterium, located in a series of underground caves, is gloomy and atmospheric, but with occasional fun touches (like eating entirely lichen-based food, and watching movies controlled by mages, where the ending changes). It feels unique as a setting. The world outside of the school is both more modern and more American than Rowling's England, with cell phones and GPS and the like. The Magisterium series is highly accessible all around. 

But back to this second book. Although I enjoyed The Copper Gauntlet, I must admit that I didn't love it as much as I did The Iron Trial. This may be due to second-book-in-a-series phenomenon. The world that Black and Clare have built is already familiar, as are the characters. This makes the book less fresh and new. And because this isn't the final book in the series, the stakes aren't as high as they might be. This is a tough thing to overcome. However, in this case, I think part of my issue was that only a fairly small portion of The Copper Gauntlet actually takes place at the Magisterium. And I missed it. The twists were also not as epic as in the first book.

I do really like Call, though. As if it wasn't enough for him to be saddled with a misanthropic father and a bad leg, he now has to cope with the legacy of having the soul of an Evil Overlord. He certainly has his moments of being grouchy about these things. But he keeps going. He remains loyal to his friends (and his dog), and he worries about this, but he keeps his sense of humor. Like this:

"What movie do you want to see?" Call asked, figuring that Evil Overlords didn't consider the movie choices of others. That had to count for something." (Page 7)

And this:

"Call desperately wished he could see whatever was on that paper. The problem with having a horrible secret was that any time anything happened, Call worried it had something to do with him." (Page 87)

I also appreciate the depth of Call's relationships with the other characters. Aaron and Tamara aren't just his best friends and apprentice-mates. He's jealous of them sometimes, and prickly. But they have their own issues. Chaos-mage Aaron is especially likable. At one point he delays the group from an escape, and we read:

""Uh, Aaron," Call said. "We're kind of in a hurry."

Aaron looked helpless. He clearly didn't want to be rude. Social pressure was, apparently, his kryptonite." (Page 129)

The bottom line is that fans of The Iron Trial will certainly not want to miss The Copper Gauntlet. The authors' worldbuilding and characterization remain strong, and The Copper Gauntlet, while not quite as twisty as The Iron Trial, has plenty of action. I am looking forward already to reading Book 3, and finding out what happens next to Call and his friends. 

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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).


Magic in the Mix: Annie Barrows

Book: Magic in the Mix
Author: Annie Barrows
Pages: 288
Age Range: 8-12

Magic in the Mix is the sequel to The Magic Half by Annie Barrows. Whether there will be other books in this series is unclear, but I do hope so, because these books are delightful. They are time travel books, with plenty of ordinary family drama. Barrows uses the idea that magic is causing the time travel as a way of "setting things right." This allows her to gloss over any pesky details about paradoxes and the like, and just focus on the characters and the story. It is impossible to write about this second book without giving away the ending of the first, so if you are new to this series stop here. 

As Magic in the Mix begins, Miri and Molly are settling in to their new life as twins, sandwiched between older identical twin brothers and younger identical twin sisters. They remember an alternative timeline in which Molly lived in the 1930s and Miri was lonely as the only non-twin in the family, but the magic has slid Molly seamlessly into the family, and no one else has any idea that she wasn't always there. As long as I don't think about the details too much, I find this premise charming. 

Miri and Molly hope that the magic that seems to dwell about their house will send them into the past again. But they get more than they bargained for when the chance to set something right in the past threatens to separate them forever. Magic in the Mix dwells extensively on Civil War (with an author's note at the end to give interested readers a bit more context into the real historical underpinnings to the story). 

Things I like about this book:

  • Molly and Miri have a reasonable degree of independence, and yet have a careful and observant mother. They are left alone in the house together for an afternoon, but only after a long list of instructions. 
  • Molly and Miri's relationship with their two older brothers feels particularly realistic - a mix of wrestling and insults, with flashes of protectiveness on all parts. 
  • The integration of history about the Civil War into the story is not didactic, and might even inspire kids to want to learn more about that. There is real danger for those traveling back into a war zone, but Barrows keeps things from being too terrifying or stomach-churning. She also slips in some little details, like the fact that a Civil War-Era bedroom would be likely to smell less than pleasant due to the presence of chamber pots. 
  • Molly and Miri have to use their wits, and figure things out. There's not quite a mystery, but there's a solution that readers may want to try to spot themselves. The whole time travel adventure involves a bit of a puzzle. 

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes:

"A whole day with the house to themselves. In a family of eight, this was a rare and precious event. An opportunity. An occasion not to be squandered but to be spent judiciously in an activity that their parents would be happier if they didn't know about. Miri and Molly grinned at each other. They could do anything. They could do nothing. And whatever they did, no one would know!" (Page 38)

"The two girls had edged out the barn door and gone toward the corner nearest the house. Their appearance caused pandemonium among the chickens, but then, everything caused pandemonium among chickens. They sidled part the pigs, who watched them with utter boredom, and a dignified goose, who decided that they weren't worth biting. Now, though, they had arrived at the point of no return: To get to Molly's grandmother, inside the house, they had to cross the open lawn." (Page 64)

There's just a nice balance between humor, tenderness, and excitement in Magic in the Mix, as there was in the first book. These books are perfect for 8-10 year olds, especially girls, who like magic and/or family stories. I look forward to introducing these books to my daughter when she's a bit older, and I do hope that Barrows writes more in the series. Highly recommended, and a must-have for libraries serving middle grade readers. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids)
Publication Date: September 16, 2014
Source of Book: Library copy

© 2015 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).


A Curious Tale of the In-Between: Lauren DeStefano

Book: A Curious Tale of the In-Between
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

A Curious Tale of the In-Between is a ghost story, and the middle grade debut of young adult author Lauren DeStefano. Pram (short for Pragmatic) lives with her two "very practical" aunts, who run a home for the elderly. Pram was orphaned slightly before her birth, when her unwed mother hung herself from a tree. For as long as she can remember, Pram has been able to see ghosts. Her best friend is a ghost named Felix, who haunts a pond outside of Pram's home. She even sees the ghosts of insects. 

In A Curious Tale of the In-Between, Pram, sent to school for the first time, befriends a boy named Clarence. Clarence is mourning his recently deceased mother. Clarence's search for his mother's spirit and Pram's search for the father who abandoned her before birth send the two friends, and Felix, into grave danger. 

A Curious Tale of the In-Between is moody and atmospheric, with an old-fashioned feel and setting (though we don't know the precise time frame in which the story takes place). Pram is an intriguing character, separated from the regular world by the seeing of ghosts, as well as by her unusual upbringing. Pram is not aware of how her mother died, though there are times when the reader aches to explain it to her.

DeStefano uses the device of letting the reader know more than Pram does in moderation. There are multiple places with text like: "Pram couldn't know the fuss her new friend had caused at the house. She couldn't know that Clarence Blue was the son of the wealthiest man for miles." (Chapter 5). I'm not normally a fan of this style - I prefer to get the full story from the primary viewpoint character, and find that outside information can pull me out of the story. But this method worked for me with A Curious Tale of the In-Between, rendering the pragmatic Pram a bit more vulnerable. 

I do like Pram's quirky but observant voice. Like this:

"The knock came again, and the aunts stood shoulder to shoulder and drew a deep breath in tandem. Pram watched them through a part in the blanket, and in their nervous gestures she could see that they loved her." (Chapter 2)

and:

"To Pram, most of the people in the living world were gray, but Clarence was bright and vivid. In fact, he was the loveliest living thing she'd ever seen. Why would someone like that want to hide?" (Chapter 3)

A Curious Tale of the In-Between is more than a ghost story. It's an exploration of what might happen after death, from the perspective of someone living closer than most to the border between life and death. It would make a good next book, one level up in complexity, for fans of Mary Downing Hahn's books. I read it cover to cover in a single sitting, curious about Pram's fate. It kept me awake into the evening, which is no small feat these days. Recommended for classroom and public libraries, or for anyone who enjoys spooky stories. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids)
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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 Good Summer: Liz Garton Scanlon

Book: The Great Good Summer
Author: Liz Garton Scanlon
Pages: 224
Age Range: 9-12

The Great Good Summer is the first novel by Liz Garton Scanlon, author of several picture books (including All the World, which I adore, and The Good-Pie Party, which I reviewed here). The Great Good Summer is the story of 12-year-old Ivy Green, who lives in a small town in Texas. Ivy is having a difficult summer because her mother has run off to Panhandle, Florida with a fundamentalist preacher called Hallelujah Dave. Ivy becomes friends with Paul Dobbs, a classmate who is obsessed with space and devastated by the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program. Ivy and Paul, despite their very different personalities, end up taking an impulsive road trip to Florida in search of both Ivy's mother and Cape Canaveral.  

Here are the things I liked most about The Great Good Summer, in no particular order:

  • Marla Frazee's golden cover image (I would recognize her illustration style anywhere).
  • Ivy's quirky, charming Texas voice. Having lived for a time in Texas, I was able to read this book, and hear Ivy's accent in my head. I liked her sense of humor, and her tendency towards little asides. Like this: "(Personally, I think if you're an only child, you should automatically be issued a dog when you're born, as a consolation prize, but my mama and daddy disagree.)"
  • The relationship between Paul and Ivy. Though the two come to care about one another, they also argue, over big and little things. Their relationship is not that idealized boy-girl friendship that you see in books sometimes, nor is it a "boy-girl" relationship. It's just a relationship between two people of very different interests, each going through a stressful time. 
  • Liz Garton Scanlon's ability to slip in small, profound statements that make the reader stop to think (particularly late in the book). These are again not heavy-handed, but they are there for the reader who would like to find them. 
  • The positive portrayal of Ivy's teacher (and summer employer), Mrs. Murray.
  • Paul's passion for space. It's nice to see a character, a kid, who cares passionately about something. Ivy is actually a bit jealous of Paul for having this, which I found realistic. 
  • The author's head-on treatment of religion. Ivy is unabashedly religious, though her mother's actions do cause her to question things a bit. Paul is more scientific, and not a believer. They have discussions about this. The church is an important part of Ivy's life and her community. This was handled realistically and without being heavy-handed. 

Here's a quote that captures that last point (as well as Ivy's voice):

""We've gone to church all our livelong days," I say, "and put out collection money in the basket, and volunteered in the food pantry, and still here we are, Mama run off to Florida without her pills, us left behind to worry, and nothing but a postcard in more than a month! Do you think that's truly and indeed the best that God can do?""

I love that "truly and indeed". This would be a fun book to read aloud, I think, though my own daughter isn't old enough to listen to it yet. 

Anyway, those were the highlights for me. Low-lights? None, really. The Great Good Summer is a quick read with strong characters, and a nice balance of humor and substance. Highly recommended, and a wonderful summer read for anyone 9 and over. 

Publisher: Beach Lane Books (@SimonKids) 
Publication Date: May 5, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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 Black Reckoning (Books of Beginning): John Stephens

Book: The Black Reckoning (Books of Beginning)
Author: John Stephens
Pages: 432
Age Range: 8-12

The Black Reckoning is the final book of John Stephens' Books of Beginning Trilogy, following The Emerald Atlas and The Fire Chronicle. I found it to be a satisfying conclusion to the series. Stephens does a good job of reminding readers of key facts from the two previous books, without slowing down the action. He also incorporates humorous passages to lighten the fairly dark overall story. This review will assume that readers are familiar with the first two books.

In The Black Reckoning, the youngest Wibberly sibling, Emma, becomes guardian of the third of the Books of Beginning, the one with power over death. The story begins with Emma having been kidnapped by the evil Dire Magnus. Her brother and sister, together with their mentor Dr. Pym and Emma's protector, Gabriel, search for her. In parallel, they strategize with dwarves, elves, and humans to fight back against their increasingly powerful adversary. 

As in the Lord of the Rings movies, the primary source of humor in The Black Reckoning comes from the historical bad will between elves and dwarves. Like this:

"Please understand," King Bernard said, gesturing about with a large peacock feather (where had that come from?). "We think dwarves are marvelous at certain things--pounding bits of metal with other bits of metal, getting insensibly drunk. But large-scale strategic thinking is not really a dwarf's forte. Or small-scale strategic thinking, for that matter. Or, well, thinking--full stop." (Page 52)

Stephens also extracts some boy-friendly humor from the addition, in this installment, of giants. Like this:

"Further along the valley stood an enormous, ramshackle wooden house. It looked exactly like the sort of house that someone forty feet tall and not overly concerned with cleanliness and appearance might choose to live in." (Page 117)

But The Black Reckoning also has both suspense and heart. Stephens changes viewpoint between several protagonists, leaving them at key moments and thus building tension. He also dwells extensively on the love that various characters feel for one another, particularly the bond between Emma and Gabriel, and that between Kate and the boy who become the Dire Magnus in The Fire Chronicle

I did find parts of The Black Reckoning to move a bit slowly (it took me longer to finish than I would have liked), but I found the characterization strong and the ending moving. Fans of the first two books will definitely want to read this one. As to the series as a whole, I think it will appeal to those who enjoy epic fantasy sagas. Now that the trilogy is complete, they can immerse themselves in all three books. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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 Friendship Riddle: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Friendship Riddle
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12

The Friendship Riddle is the newest book by Megan Frazer Blakemore (see my review of The Spycatchers of Maple Hill). The Friendship Riddle focuses on Ruth, the only girl with two moms in her small town on the coast of Maine. Ruth has been abandoned by her long-time best friend, Charlotte, after Charlotte went the popular route at the start of middle school. Ruth tends to immerse herself in fantasy novels, and views herself as a lone wolf.

One day Ruth finds a clue in a dusty library book that sends her on a riddle-solving quest. Her quest is set against a backdrop of middle school drama (friendships as well as very preliminary boy-girl "like" interactions), and some mild tension at home (centering around one Mom's extensive travel). So it's like Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library or The Mysterious Benedict Society crossed with a realistic "starting middle school" drama like Shug or No Cream Puffs, but with more diversity. And there's a spelling bee, so there are plenty of interesting vocabulary words.

This is a lot of ground to cover. Blakemore pulls it off, for the most part, though I did feel that a couple of plot threads weren't wrapped up a bit abruptly. Things I liked:

  • Blakemore's treatment of diversity is well-done. Ruth's two moms are an integral part of the story. And they are individuals, with faults, not cardboard cut-outs so that the author could check a box regarding diversity. Ruth's initial friendship with Charlotte evolved because Charlotte's gay dads are friends with Ruth's gay moms, which I found realistic. Charlotte was adopted from China, and this comes up periodically in the way she interacts at school, too, and in who she is. 
  • Ruth is a delightful character. She goes her own way, and is not to be pushed into middle school girl stuff. She refuses to wear a bra that she doesn't need, for example, even though the other girls in her class do. She has to be dragged into new friendships, but she does eventually follow.
  • Many key scenes of the book are set in the library, and/or center around books.
  • There are nods to other books, including a reclusive author whose last name is Wexler (surely an homage to The Westing Game).
  • The Friendship Riddle is an unabashed tribute to geekdom, from the quest to the spelling bee. The popular girl is mean and scheming, and the odd boy (apparently on the autism spectrum) turns out to be a good friend. But they aren't stereotypes, either. Charlotte, in particular, is a complex character, as is Ruth's new friend Lena.
  • The small town Maine setting is perfect for this story. Various town locations play a part in the quest, and the small-town (and small school) give everything a cozy, safe feel.  

The Friendship Riddle is not going to be for everyone - the kids looking for puzzles and riddles may not be as interested in the relationship dynamics, for example. I personally got impatient when the riddle quest went on hold for a while early in the book, even though books about adjusting to middle school are a particular interest for me. I think it's just a bit tricky to balance both types of story. 

But I also think that 11 year old Jen would have adored The Friendship Riddle, and would have longed to live in Ruth's small town. It's a perfect read for slightly geeky, word and puzzle-loving kids, especially girls. Recommended, especially for library purchase. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids)
Publication Date: May 5, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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 Detective's Assistant: Kate Hannigan

Book: The Detective's Assistant
Author: Kate Hannigan
Pages: 368
Age Range: 8-12

The Detective's Assistant by Kate Hannigan is historical fiction speculating on the existence of the niece of an actual historical figure, Kate Warne, the first female detective to work for Pinkerton's Agency. 11-year-old Nell Warne is dumped on the doorstep of her extremely reluctant aunt by marriage, after the deaths of Nell's family members from various causes.

Aunt Kitty lives in a Chicago boarding house in a time immediately prior to Abraham Lincoln's election as President. Aunt Kitty blames Nell's father for the death of her husband, and this keeps a rift between woman and girl. But slowly, Kitty starts to allow Nell to help her in her work, to become an informal detective's assistant. The two are involved in solving various cases, including one with great historical significance and one that strikes much closer to home.

Truth be told, it's Aunt Kitty who is the stronger character here, despite Nell's first-person viewpoint. Though rather disagreeable (Nell refers to her in letters as "Pickled Onion"), Kitty shows herself to be an early feminist, a woman who believes that girls can do anything. She is a stickler for vocabulary and self-improvement, and she frequently surprises Nell with her expressed beliefs (e.g., paraphrasing: 'You want to be a nurse? Why not become a doctor?').

On of my favorite scenes in one in which Nell and Kitty are following a suspected murderer at night, in a creepy setting. Nell worries that they'll be caught, and Kitty, after the briefest of reassurances, adds: "And the proper word is isn't, not ain't. Mind your grammar, even in times of distress."

Yes, Kitty/Kate is a strong character. But Nell is fun, too. She has a melodramatic voice that lends an over-the-top, not quite realistic tone to her experiences. This is a good thing, because otherwise reading about an unwanted girl whose entire family has died might be depressing. And The Detective's Assistant is NOT depressing. It's entertaining and educational and occasionally suspenseful, but not depressing. For example, here's Nell, undercover with some secessionists:

"I'd read enough newspapers by now to know about abolitionists, and I did not think the term deserved to go hand in hand with the word traitor. I fanned my face a little faster and resisted the urge to smack these blithering cretins roundly on their hot heads." (Page 274) 

All in all, Nell is a pretty good foil for Kitty. Hannigan weaves in the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of mid-nineteenth century America almost seamlessly. Nell is excited to try the exciting new food, "iced cream". And she is especially pleased with the new dish "Macaroni a l'Italienne with Fromage" (aka macaroni and cheese). She has to be careful not to drag her skirts through horse dropping along the street, and she aspires to the widest, most petticoat-filled skirts she can get.

Nell is an avid newspaper reader, and it is through her curiosity about the world that young readers will pick up background about Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the Underground Railroad. Letters between Nell and her best friend, Jemma play a key role, too, conveying both major information and tidbits like the existence of "the glorious thirty-three states in the Union."

These letters (displayed using a font that looks like rounded handwriting) also help to show Nell's educational progress throughout the book, as her vocabulary and grammar improve. It's only in an afterword that the author reveals that Kate Warne and her Pinkerton's colleagues were real people. And finally, the letters include various codes that the two girls use for passing information back and forth. A key to the puzzles' solutions is included at the end of the book, though I doubt many readers will need it. 

The Detective's Assistant is an entertaining, multi-layered blend of historical fiction and mystery, perfect for middle grade readers. Highly recommended.  

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 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).