250 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

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).


Ellie, Engineer: Jackson Pearce

Book: Ellie, Engineer
Author: Jackson Pearce
Illustrator: Tuesday Mourning
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

EllieEngineerEllie, Engineer is an early middle grade novel by Jackson Pearce, lightly illustrated by Tuesday Mourning, about a girl named Ellie Bell who loves to design and build things. She's a more grown up (~10 years old), more confident version of Rosie Revere, Engineer. Ellie has turned the playhouse portion of her backyard playset into a workshop. She walks around wearing a tool belt. Her prize possession is a small drill. Her best friend, Kit, also likes to build things, though Kit is more interested in things like staying clean and attending beauty pageants than Ellie is. 

Ellie, Engineer begins with Ellie furious because the neighborhood boys refuse to let her play soccer, because she is a girl. She builds a water balloon launcher and uses it to wreak a successful revenge. However, when Kit's birthday present (a French-braiding machine) goes awry, Ellie finds herself needing a to build a new present in secret and on short notice. Her ambitious plans to build a dog house (for the dog that the eavesdropping girls believe that Kit is getting) require help. And that means that Ellie has to reach out to other kids, including one of the dreaded neighborhood boys. 

As a woman who studied engineering in college and graduate school, I, of course, found Ellie irresistible. I liked her parents' free range attitude towards her pursuits, and I liked that even though she was into building things she also liked to wear things like fluffy purple skirts. I loved that she built a balloon launcher, and that she was able to seek out help where her own strengths were not a match (like in decorating the inside of the dog house). I loved this:

"The drill was one of her favorite tools because it was the only electric tool she was allowed to use without her mom and dad watching. She'd written Ellie Bell's Drill across the side in purple paint pen, then drawn some flowers and some dragons, which had mostly rubbed off by now since she used it so much." (Chapter One)

The combination of wanting to build things, but also wanting to decorate a drill with flowers and dragons, felt realistic to me. Contrived, maybe, a tiny bit, but I'll give it a pass because I think that readers will like it. 

I also liked the illustrations, consisting largely of Ellie's designs, drawn on graph paper. Oh, how I loved graph paper when I was young, all through school. The sketch of the balloon launcher, made out of a spare yard sign, two brooms, exercise bands and a funnel, was delightful, especially little instructions like "SOAK BOYS!".

I was not quite as keen on the friendship dynamics of the book. When Ellie started telling unnecessary lies (because of what she thought other people would think about her co-conspirators), I gave a little sigh. The conflicts were resolved rather easily in the end for my taste, though I do think that the book is appropriate to kids in the target age range. I'm interested to test it out on my seven year old daughter. I did laugh out loud at this bit:

"Ellie frowned. This was turning into a big project, with so many people wanting to help. Plus, she wasn't so sure she trusted the neighborhood boys when they were all together like this. Boys, as far as she could tell, were sort of like rabbits. One was fine and maybe even interesting to play with, but a whole bunch of them would just be a lot of jumping and running and smelling." (Chapter Six)

This last quote does suggest a rather direct targeting of Ellie, Engineer toward girls, though I would think that boys would find Ellie's projects interesting, too. 

Parents who want to encourage their girls to be interested in STEM fields should certainly pick up a copy of Ellie, Engineer for their daughters. It's a shame this is releasing in January, instead of in time for Christmas. It would also be a good addition to elementary school library collections. The back matter suggests that this book is the first of a new series, so I expect that we'll see Ellie and her friends in future books. Recommended and entertaining!

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


Polaris: Michael Northrop

Book: Polaris
Author: Michael Northrop
Pages: 288
Age Range: 9-12

PolarisPolaris by Michael Northrop is historical science fiction, both creepy and suspenseful. In the 1830's, somewhere off the coast of Brazil, a ship (the Polaris) awaits the return of a boat that has gone ashore to explore. When the boat returns, however, part of the crew is missing, and one returning crew member is infected. Following mutiny and abandonment by crew members, a collection of six boys is left to handle the ship, and the mysterious danger that now lurks below decks. 

This story of young kids striving to sail a ship on their own would have been a compelling survival story in any event. The addition of a frightening creature that lurks below decks ratchets up the suspense. Northrop juggles the different personalities of the six young crew members skillfully. There is conflict between them, but they do eventually form a team, fighting a common enemy. The perspective of Polaris shifts between several of the quite different personalities, particularly those of Owen, chief cabin boy and nephew of the ship's one-time captain, and Henry, apprentice to the ship's botanist. Owen is strong and relatively skilled for his age, but, well, not terribly clever. Henry is an extremely poor sailor, but quite clever. As any reader will expect, the strengths of each boy come into play as the story progresses. 

Polaris conveys many details of old-time ships, from rigging to navigation to food to maintenance. Young readers interested in Columbus' voyage will definitely want to give Polaris a look. The supernatural elements have a Michael Crichton-like feel, with a basis in science. Any kid looking for science-based science fiction will also want to check out Polaris. While the science fiction elements give Polaris  a different feel from some of Northop's other books, there's no question that Polaris is a compelling and suspenseful read. Recommended, and well worth a look for libraries serving elementary and middle school readers. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: October 31, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Who Killed Darius Drake?: Rodman Philbrick

Book: Who Killed Darius Drake?
Author: Rodman Philbrick
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

DariusDrakeWho Killed Darius Drake? by Rodman Philbrick is a rare realistic middle grade mystery that involves a potential murder. Narrator Arthur Bash (aka Bash Man) is a misunderstood bully who hires himself out for candy bars. When orphaned genius geek Darius Drake hires Arthur to help with a quest, the two become incongruous friends. With a bit of help from Arthur's wealthy, put-together stepsister, the boys end up involved with multiple ex-cons, searching for a long-missing diamond necklace. 

Arthur is a great character, with a much more sensitive soul than anyone seeing his large body and scowling face would imagine. Here are a couple of quotes to show you his personality:

"I knew about the home (for orphans)--everybody does, all the kids--but this is my first time inside it. No surprise, the place creeps me out a little. Not because it's spooky or scary, nothing like that. It's actually kind of cheerful, in a sad-but-trying way. But it made me think, what if it was me? What if both my parents died and nobody wanted me? Like that." (Chapter Three)

"The air smells of leather and old books. I must be some kind of weirdo, because to me that's a good smell." (Chapter Nine)

"Silence. If only I could melt into the flood, or turn invisible, or maybe go deaf. Because hearing them talk around each other is like getting poked with a sharp stick. It hurts in familiar places, even though I'm not an orphan like Darius, or a felon like Winston Brooks..." (Chapter Nineteen)

Darius is also interesting. He's bright and prickly and socially awkward, and determined to figure things out using inductive reasoning. His awkwardness around the attractive Deirdre is disarming. The way he gradually comes to appreciate Arthur for more than his bulk feels realistic. 

The plot of Who Killed Darius Drake? is suspenseful and fast-paced. There's an old-fashioned feel to the book, with the boys doing library research and scrolling through microfiche, despite the presence of modern trappings like a GoPro camera. This is either because the seeds of the mystery lie in the past or because of Philbrick's writing style. Some modern details aside, Who Killed Darius Drake? feels like a book that I would have gobbled down when I was ten years old. I do expect it to be a hit with today's kids, too. 

Any kid (or adult) who enjoys quest-type mysteries, with clues gradually revealed through research, will enjoy Who Killed Darius Drake? Although this is clearly a standalone novel, I personally would be more than happy to run across Arthur, Darius, and Deirdre again in the future. Recommended!

Publisher: The Blue Sky Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 26, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


One Mixed-Up Night: Catherine Newman

Book: One Mixed-Up Night
Author: Catherine Newman
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

OneMixedUpNightAs a long-time fan of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I found the premise of Catherine Newman's One Mixed-Up Night irresistible. Two friends sneak off and spend a night creating their own adventures in an Ikea store. What I found when I read the book was that Newman absolutely captures the fun of being somewhere cool that one is not supposed to be, while also making the book about something more substantive (grief). 

Frankie (a girl) basically comes up with the scheme as a way to try to shake up her best friend, Walter, after Walter suffers a loss. As Frankie tells readers in the very first paragraph, these are not bad kids getting into trouble. Rather, these are "dorky geeks" who are more than a bit obsessed with Ikea, and are in need of a serious distraction. While the plot of One Mixed-Up Night requires some suspension of disbelief for the adult reader, I think that middle grade readers will have no trouble at all. What kid wouldn't want to spend the night in a huge store full of furniture and other cool things, able to jump on couches and have pillow rights and race shopping carts, with no adult supervision?  

Here's Frankie's description of Walter:

"He's hard to describe, Walter, because he's kind of bubbling over with energy, but then he's also so chill. And some people assume he's going to be good at sports because he's black--or his mom is, so technically he's mixed race--and he's um, not good at sports. One of our favorite things (it's still magneted to Walter's refrigerator) is this end-of-year report he got from our gym teacher when we were in first grade. We loved this teacher, who wrote on Walter's report: "Walter is one of the finest students I have had the pleasure of teaching. He's a model of sportsmanship, good nature, and serious effort. That said, his athletic abilities will continue to develop as he works on the following:"--we especially love that colon--"Running. Jumping. Throwing balls. Catching balls. Passing. Receiving. Strength. Coordination. Balance." (Page 21)

Meanwhile, Frankie is working on carving out a modicum of independence from her "pretty great", but very involved, parents. Like this:

"And now, in sixth grade? I was starting to realize that I didn't have to (tell her mother everything). That I could have this private part of my life inside my own head, and I could share it or not. And if I didn't, nobody would even know about it. It was kind of strange--like discovering that there was a hole in the floor underneath your bed, filled with jewels and gold coins, and you could just go ahead and not mention it to anybody." (Page 24)

What a great depiction of starting to grow up! One more, then you can go read this yourself:

"Do you know how you can just feel completely strange in the world sometimes? Like everyone's one way and you're another? Or like there's some translator chip that someone forgot to program you with, and other kids joke about stuff and you don't know what they're talking about? (Page 71)

Again, pitch-perfect, without being overly introspective. 

One Mixed-Up Night is a super-fun book about two kids who scheme to spend the night in an Ikea store. But it's much more than that, too. It's about growing up, being loyal to a friend, coping with grief, and taking responsibility. And yes, it's about the cool kitchen items that you can find in an Ikea store, and what you might pack for a sleepover. This is a book that definitely belongs in all libraries serving middle grade readers. Highly recommended, and one of my favorite new releases of the year. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: September 5, 2017
Source of Book: Purchased it.

© 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).


Black Moon Rising (The Library, Book 2): D. J. MacHale

Book: Black Moon Rising (The Library, Book 2)
Author: D. J. MacHale
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

BlackMoonRisingBlack Moon Rising is the second book in D. J. MacHale's The Library series, following Curse of the Boggin. The events in Black Moon Rising begin just a week after middle schooler Marcus has become an agent of the magical Library and had his first adventure. The Library is a place out of space and time in which uncountable numbers of stories reside. The stories are written by ghosts who track mysterious events throughout the world. The agents enter into certain stories and try to help. In Black Moon Rising, Marcus is asked to travel through the Library to a Massachusetts middle school where strange mishaps have been occurring and escalating. Marcus and his two best friends, Theo and Lu, find themselves confronting witchcraft. 

The plot in Black Moon Rising is creepy and has high stakes, but moves along too quickly for the book to be overwhelmingly scary or dark. At one point Marcus is in grave peril and is accidentally rescued by troublemakers randomly lighting off fireworks. Overall, it's a nice balance for middle grade readers. MacHale touches on other middle grade / middle school issues, like bullying and parents pushing kids to sign up for more activities. None of the characterization is especially deep, but it's sufficient for one to pull for the various characters. There's a bit of diversity, though not a lot. Heres the relevant passage:

"My two best buddies don't always get along. If not for me, I doubt they'd even be friends. Annabella Lu is driven by emotion. She's a real "seat of the pants" kind of girl who always starts out in third gear. Theo McLean, on the other hand, is a thinker. An overthinking, actually. By the time he analyzes a problem and looks at every possible solution from multiple angles, it's usually the next day and nobody can remember what the problem was in the first place...

Lu is Asian American, Theo is African American, and I'm Caucasian Euro-mutt-American. Together we look like the cast of some racially diverse kids' TV show." (Page 11)

I like the way that MacHale basically acknowledges that this is surface diversity, but that at least he's trying. There are a couple of references later to how Theo feels as an African American (he opens up to connect with a shy girl in the Massachusetts school). And we hear a bit about the academic pressure that Lu's parents put on her. 

The writing style in Black Moon Rising is interesting. Most of the book is told from Marcus' first person perspective. This is interspersed with passages from the Library volume that the ghosts are writing about the story, as it occurs. This allows the author to directly share actions that occur when Marcus is busy somewhere else. Late in the book, this narration switching accelerates, and definitely helps keep readers turning the pages. The print book uses a distinctive font for the Library entries - I'm not sure how this is handled in the audio version. 

Here's one more passage, to give you a feel for Marcus' voice:

"I was in Massa-freaking-chusetts. I had stepped out of the Library and been transported to another state. Another state of mind too. It's tough enough figuring out where you belong in your own school. I was now in alien territory with no friends to rely on. I didn't belong there. At some point a teacher was bound to corner me." (Page 39)

And here's a passage from the Library book:

"Some thought the school was jinxed. Others felt it was nothing more than a run of incredibly bad luck. None could deny that a nefarious black cloud had drifted over the school, one that was producing impossible waves of serious misfortune." 

Yes, definitely distinct from Marcus' voice. 

I'll tell you something that I especially liked about Black Moon Rising. I'm a fast reader, and I read a fair number of books each year (~150). When I'm reading a series as it is published, I often find that I struggle when I start the second (and third, and so on) book, because I haven't retained enough of the plot, and I don't know what's going on. This did NOT happen with Black Moon Rising. I think this was due to a combination of factors: not too many core characters to keep track of; interesting premise around the Library and how it works; and sufficient backstory provided by the author at the start of Book 2. So, kudos to D.J. MacHale there. I will certainly keep an eye out for the next book in the series. 

In short, I think this is a must-purchase series for libraries serving middle grade and early middle school readers. Those who enjoyed the first book, Curse of the Boggin, will not be disappointed by Book 2. If anything, this is where MacHale really hits his stride, with the library setup already in place, and the chance to explore a whole new (yet ancient) supernatural phenomenon. Highly recommended, and one that I will keep for my daughter. 

Publisher:  Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: October 3, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).