225 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

Horizon: Scott Westerfeld

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

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

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

Things I enjoyed about Horizon:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I do like Nory's voice. Like this;

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

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

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

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


The Goldfish Boy: Lisa Thompson

Book: The Goldfish Boy
Author: Lisa Thompson
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12 

GoldfishBoyThe Goldfish Boy is a very impressive debut novel by Lisa Thompson. Set on a small street in a suburb outside of London, The Goldfish Boy is about the mysterious disappearance of a toddler. The story is told by first person narrator Matthew, who is wrestling with his own demons. As Matthew strives to figure out what happened to little Teddy, he also shares clues with readers about the triggers for his own steadily worsening obsessive compulsive disorder. 

Matthew's voice is simply fascinating, unusual and distinctive, painful yet funny. So trapped by his fears of germs that he is virtually unable to leave his house, Matthew entertains himself by watching his neighbors out the window. He even takes little notes. This viewpoint and attention to detail position Matthew somewhat for putting together the clues about Teddy's disappearance, though he ends up needing some on-the-ground help from two neighbors. 

The two mysteries (Teddy's disappearance and the root of Matthew's compulsions) captured my interest. But it was really Matthew's voice that kept me reading The Goldfish Boy. You know you are in good hands when you find passages like this:

"I lived on a quiet, dead-end street in a town full of people who said how great it was that they didn't live in that big, smelly city of London--and who then spent most of their mornings desperately trying to get there." (Page 1)

and this:

"Mr. Charles could have been anything from sixty-five to ninety-five years old. He never seemed to get older. I figured he'd found an age he quite liked and just stopped right there." (Page 3) 

Here's one of many passages about Matthew's OCD:

"My bedroom was the best part of the house. It was safe. It was free from germs. Out there, things were dangerous. What people didn't seem to understand was that dirt meant germs and germs meant illness and illness meant death. It was was quite obvious when you thought about it. I needed things to be right, and in my room I had complete control. All I had to do was keep on top of it." (Page 12)

The Goldfish Boy is a book that has the potential to make young readers feel more compassion towards students who are struggling with inner demons. The other characters in the book, particularly two other twelve-year-olds living on Matthew's street, are complex and intriguing. We learn through flashbacks, for example, about Matthew's relationship with his childhood friend Jake, who is now a bit of a bully. Thompson traces Jakes's evolution from bullying victim to bully, and casts just the faintest hint of Matthew's culpability through lack of loyalty. Matthew's developing relationship with newer neighbor Melody, who has her own questionable habits, is both entertaining and thought-provoking.   

The Goldfish Boy is book that I think will intrigue both children and adults.  It has strong characters, a ripped-from-the-headlines mystery, and a protagonist with a unique and compelling voice. I was surprised to learn that it was Lisa Thompson's first novel. It is a most assured debut, and I look forward to Thompson's future work. Highly recommended. 

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

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


How To Outsmart A Billion Robot Bees: Paul Tobin

Book: How to Outsmart A Billion Robot Bees
Author: Paul Tobin
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12

HowToOutsmartBeesHow To Outsmart A Billion Robot Bees is the second book in the Genius Factor series by Paul Tobin. It follows How to Capture An Invisible Cat, which I adored. In this book, as you might gather from the title, the enemies of genius inventor Nate send an army of robot bees after him. His friend/crush/partner in crime-fighting Delphine, together with his intelligent car, talking dog, and robotic pelican, all join the battle, while various other friends and parents remain oblivious to the entire situation. Except for the bees - everyone is aware of the bees. 

I continue to find narrator Delphine's voice highly entertaining, and Nate's quirky genius highly appealing.

Here are a couple of examples:

"There was an immediate panic, because as any soldier can tell you, guns are not very useful against bumblebees, not unless you are a very good shot. (Page 29, ARC)

"From my side, I've constantly puzzled why Nate does these things, but I've come to accept his oddities, because that's what friends do. After all, he never complains about my Cake vs. Pie meetings, or how I collect photographs of my meals whenever I eat macaroni and cheese at a restaurant (eighty-four of these photos, to date), and so we just ... accept each other the way we are." (Page 55, ARC)

"Seriously, the jets kicked in and they were powerful. The jet suit nabbed the car up into the air and then dropped it on the next car, making a noise that I'll just describe by saying that it sounded like one car dropping on top of another. Add in a few exclamations of surprise, and you've pretty much got it." (Page 59, ARC)

How to Outsmart a Billion Robot Bees is full of intriguing gadgets, dangerous situations, and engaging banter. The actual plot of this second book didn't grab me quite as much as that of the first book. However, I remain delighted by the humor and the characters, as well as the general focus on the things that can be accomplished by sheer brainpower. This is a series that I will happily recommend to any fans of fantasy, science, or middle grade/middle school male-female dynamics. Highly recommended for any reader, age eight and up, and a must purchase for libraries everywhere. 

Publisher:  Bloomsbury Kids USA (@KidsBloomsbury) 
Publication Date: March 7, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


The Impossible Clue: Sarah Rubin

Book: The Impossible Clue
Author: Sarah Rubin
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

ImpossibleClueSarah Rubin's The Impossible Clue features a 12-year-old girl, Alice Jones, who is a math geek and mystery-solver. To date, Alice's mysteries have been small-time. But when a famous local scientist, the business partner of one of Alice's classmates, disappears, Alice finds herself dragged into investigating a grown-up crime. There are thugs in suits, limo rides and high-end research labs. The professor has disappeared from a locked room, and evidence points toward the possible development of an invisibility suit. Alice, together with one geeky classmate and another who is a charming troublemaker, tracks down clues.

The Impossible Clue isn't the most realistic story out there, but it is a lot of fun. Alice lives with her scoop-hungry reporter father, while her drama-obsessed twin sister normally lives with their mother. Della is spending the summer with Alice and their dad, however, adding some domestic conflict to the story. Alice's banter with cute guy Kevin lends a hint of what I would classify as pre-romance. I can imagine further mysteries for Alice and Kevin to solve, and their relationship growing somewhat. 

But really, I just love reading a book about a girl who loves math. Alice had planned to spend her summer vacation proving Goldbach's Conjecture. She notes:

"Mysteries are a lot like math, word problems especially. Some are simple, some are complicated, but it's the same process. There's something you want to know, and a lot of information swimming around. The hard part is coming up with the right equation, figuring out which bits of information are important and which bits are just there to confuse you. Then it's just a matter of solving for x." (Page 4) 

And here's a passage that I think illustrates Alice's personality (and Della's) quite effectively. Alice and Della are discussing what to do on a possible trip to Italy with their mom. Della wants to shop, while Alice wants to see the Archimedes museum:

"It was the story of my life. Everyone understood that Della loved being onstage and that she hated math. Because that was normal. But when I said I loved math and hated performing, people looked at me like I had a screw loose. And because the things I liked weren't normal, I didn't have any right to ask other people to do them with me." (Page 141-142)

Now, I would like to think this perspective is a bit of a stereotype in this day of STEM and GirlsWhoCode, but the bottom line is that it's nice to read about a girl who loves math, and also has relatively normal sibling rivalries and relationships with boys. AND she gets to solve a mystery involving a disappearing scientist and a possible invisibility suit. It doesn't get much cooler than that! I recommend The Impossible Clue for middle grade readers, especially those who love math and/or mystery. I hope that Alice returns for further adventures. 

Publisher: Chicken House (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 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).


The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island: Dana Alison Levy

Book: The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island
Author: Dana Alison Levy
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

FamilyFletcherRockIslandThe Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is the sequel to The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher (my review). Both books feature a family with two dads, four adopted sons (two brown-skinned and two white-skinned), two cats, and dog. This installment is set on a small island off the coast of New England, where the family is spending the month of August in a long-beloved cottage. The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is an episodic story, with viewpoint shifts between the four boys and an entertaining mix of adventure and chaos. They're a bit like a more diverse, and more male, Penderwick family, off to Point Mouette

Although members of the family have been visiting the island since Papa was a boy, this summer things are a bit different. The old lighthouse located next to the family's cottage is fenced off, pending possible sale and/or repairs. A weird artist guy is prowling around making mysterious phone calls. The big house nearby that is usually empty is now occupied, and two teenage girls promise to be annoying. And the boys are discovering that as they get older, their divergent interests can lead to moments of isolation, even in the place that they look forward to visiting all year. 

The plot thread surrounding the looming fate of the lighthouse lends a helpful degree of narrative interest to The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island. While there are plenty of diversions around kayaking, picnics, and trying to teach a cat to swim (who knew that this was even possible?), Levy ties the story together around the lighthouse. A lemonade stand fundraiser for lighthouse repairs goes comically awry, and a common interest brings the boys together with their new neighbors. Through it all, Papa and Dad guide the boys with light hands, sympathetic shoulders, and occasional bouts of exasperation.

One thing I especially liked about The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is that the family's status as a two-dad household is treated completely without comment. I've long been a fan of "incidental diversity" in children's literature, and I like to think that having read about the Fletchers would make kids equally blasé on meeting a new friend's same-sex parents. The book does take a direct look at racism, however. There's a scene in which second son Jax is presumed by a visitor to be a pickpocket, at least in part because of the color of his skin. This leads to discussions between Jax and his parents, and with an African-American uncle who can speak more from personal experience than can Jax's dads. Levy treats these discussions with a soft touch, not letting them overwhelm the book, and also not dismissing the fact of racism. Like this:

"Jackson," Dad repeated. "There are more good ones than bad. More Captain Jims and Officer Levees and Natalia Galindos and Elon Reynoldses than there are Sheldons. I wish there there were none of him. Seriously, if I could have one wish that would probably be it."

"I would wish for an invisibility cloak," Eli interrupted. He was sitting behind them, listening. "Think of how we could get back at Sheldon if we had that! Poison ivy leaves rubbed on the inside of his clothes. Burrs stuck in his hair." (Page 252)

And the topic moves on. The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is most of all about the joys of summer, the outdoors and family. Like this:

Jax agreed, and then, since they had caught up to the others, the boys all had to listen to Frog sing his special ice cream truck song again and again until Jax threatened to gag him with his dirty sweat sock. And so they tumbled back to the Nugget, loud and laughing. The sun was low and warm in th esky, and the breeze had picked up, rustling and shivering the tall grass so that it looked like rippling water. The smell of the sea was stronger now, and Jax couldn't wait to head to the beach." (Page 22)

Spending a month in a small cottage with four boys, two cats, and a dog would send me over the edge, but reading about the experience for a couple of hours was quite enjoyable. Of course I'm not the target audience anyway. Kids who enjoy realistic fiction, about families and doing fun things outdoors are sure to enjoy The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island. There's such wish fulfillment in the idea of spending a month of summer in a beloved cottage on an island, with an ice cream truck stopping by regularly, and a puzzle to solve. Levy also includes quite a bit of mapcap, kid-friendly humor (particularly a memorable scene involving flying butter). In short, The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is not to be missed. Highly recommended. 

Publisher: Delacorte Press (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: May 10, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit: Aimée Carter

Book: Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit
Author: Aimée Carter 
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

SimonThornVipersPitSimon Thorn and the Viper's Pit is the second book in Aimée Carter's Simon Thorn / Animalgam series, featuring a race of people, hidden in plain sight, who can turn into animals. This review does contain spoilers for the first book. Simon, as introduced in Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den, has discovered that he is the grandson of two ruthless, competing Animalgam leaders from different kingdoms.

After growing up in seclusion, Simon is now living in the L.A.I.R, a hidden school located beneath Central Park Zoo in New York City. He's living with an uncle who he's not sure about and his newly discovered twin brother. But his real loyalty is to his group of three Animalgam friends (and a friendly mouse). In Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit, Simon and his friends set out on a road trip hoping to rescue Simon's kidnapped mother and keep an important artifact from his grandparents. 

This second book is full of relationship strife: particularly between Simon and his newly discovered family members and (sometimes) between Simon and his friends. Simon and his friend Winter are both Hybreds, children born of parents from different animal kingdoms (e.g. bird and mammal, in Simon's case). With conflict rampant between the kingdoms, their situations are inherently conflict-ridden. Winter, in particular, struggles with the rejection from the bird-Animalgams who raised her, after learning that she transforms into a reptile, not a bird. Simon is never quite sure who to trust. 

Carter also explores the discovery by the Animalgam kids of skills that go along with their animal transformations. For example, Simon's friend Jam turns into a dolphin, and has a remarkable sense of direction. For Simon, this is more complex than for most, because of a secret regarding his own transformations. A secret that he doesn't even share with his close friends. For all of the kids, learning to work with and gain strength from their dual natures becomes part of the process of growing up, a proxy for other adolescent growing pains. For example:

"Jam straightened and pulled his padlock from the pocket in his jeans, fiddling with the lock pick still stuck inside. "The general planned my whole life for me," he said. "I've had a daily schedule since I could walk. That's just how we do things underwater--if you leave no room for error, there won't be any. But there's no room for fun, either, or figuring things out on your own, and that's what I like to do. I like swimming off in the wrong direction to explore a cave I've never seen before, and I like having an hour or two when I can do anything I want. But our kingdom is so big that if everyone did their own thing, nothing would ever get done, so I always feel like I'm stuck in a routine I can't stand." (Page 143, ARC)

Occasionally the growing up messages imparted to the kids by the adults (or by each other) are a bit more overt than I might personally choose, but  I don't think that this dominates the story. Carter has taken a premise that most kids find fascinating (what if I could turn into an animal) and built a fully-realized, conflict-laden world around that. In Simon Thorn and the Viper's Den she introduces readers to the luxurious citadel of the reptile branch of the Animalgams. Other branches are sure to follow in future books. 

The Simon Thorn books are recommended for kids who enjoy reading about fantasy worlds hidden within our own, and for anyone who has ever wished they could transform into an animal. I look forward to reading about Simon and his friends' future adventures. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@KidsBloomsbury) 
Publication Date: February 7, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


Beautiful Blue World: Suzanne LaFleur

Book: Beautiful Blue World
Author: Suzanne LaFleur
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

BeautifulBlueWorldBeautiful Blue World by Suzanne LaFleur is a lovely middle grade novel about the power of love and the abilities of children in the face of war. Sofarende is a country in an alternate world that is at war with its two recently united southern neighbors. People are hungry and scared and many of the men have gone off to fight. Bombs are falling on the city in which 12-year-old Mathilde lives with her parents and two younger sisters. Mathilde's greatest solace in the face of uncertainty is her life-long friendship with another girl, Megs. As things look more and more bleak for Sofarende, the government issues a call for children age 12 to 14. A test will be given, and those selected will be sent away to do unspecified work for the war effort, their families well-compensated. This test changes everything for Mathilde and Megs. 

Technically, Beautiful Blue World is a fantasy, since the set of countries and war in the story are made up. However, there are no magical elements. Sofarende feels a lot like a small European town, circa World War I. There are trains and factories, but I didn't notice cars. Certainly there are no cell phones or other aspects of modern technology. Focusing on an alternate world, rather than on, say, World War I Europe, allows the author to maintain suspense about the outcome of the war, and even the causes and motivations of the invading armies. 

Mathilde is an interesting character. Although this is a first person narrative, the reader will come to understand Mathilde's unique strengths, even as she considers herself ordinary. LaFleur's writing is spare but moving. I didn't flag very many passages as I was reading, because I was so caught up on wondering what was going to happen next. Caught up not by a fast-moving plot but by characters that I quickly came to care about. Here are the two passages that I did flag. The first is Mathilde's thoughts as she is about to separate from Megs:

"I tried not to use words. I tried not to picture.

Hundreds of walks to school, and almost as many back home. Hundreds of summer days. Splashing in the stream. Snowball fights and forts. Braids that had started chin-length and had grown past shoulders. Shared lunches. Snacks. Stories. Smiles. Secrets. Whispers. Walks. Today. 

Eyes still closed, I found the girl sitting across from me. Felt her out." (page 72, ARC)

The second is Mathilde's thoughts as she is being separated from her mother:

"Then Mother's thinner arms clung to me. She moved a hand from my back to my head, pressing me against her chest. I could hear her heart beating; I closed my eyes, remembering it deep within me as the first sound I'd ever heard." (Page 78)

This second scene brought a few tears to my eyes, as did other scenes throughout this book. Although there is quite a bit of tension, as well as sadness, Beautiful Blue World also has small moments of humor. The book ends on a cliffhanger, and I certainly hope that a sequel will be forthcoming soon. I wasn't expecting a cliffhanger ending, and I did find the conclusion of the book to feel a bit rushed. But I remained captivated throughout. While I do think that this a book that adult gatekeepers (librarians, etc.) are going to love, I think that Beautiful Blue World has enough suspense to appeal very much to middle grade readers, too. Highly recommended, and a book that I would not be surprised to hear about come award season. 

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books  
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

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


The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina: Kara LaReau + Jen Hill

Book: The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina
Author: Kara LaReau
Illustrator: Jen Hill
Pages: 176
Age Range: 8-12

BlandSistersThe Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina is the first of a new apparent series of illustrated chapter books written by Kara LaReau and illustrated by Jen Hill. I hope it's a series, anyway, because it's a fun book featuring unusual characters. 

The Bland sisters, Jaundice and Kale, live on their own in Dullsville. They lead a very quiet, predictable life, eating the same food every day and reading from a single book. Their parents left on an "errand" several years earlier and have not returned. But the girls, who only dimly remember their parents, are managing just fine. Right up until the day that a female pirate comes to the door and kidnaps them. Kale and Jaundice end up dragged along on an adventure that is not at all comfortable or predictable, but that young readers are sure to find entertaining.

The tone of The Jolly Regina reminds me a bit of Maryrose Wood's Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, in which a relatively prim person is surprised to find herself in the midst of unlikely and dangerous circumstances. I found the Bland sisters also to be a sort of fun house image of Pippi Longstocking. Like Pippi, they are self-sufficient and happy to live alone without a parent. Unlike Pippi, they are utterly dull and not even a little bit brave. When something seems perilous, they simply close their eyes and (never successfully) wish the situation away. Here's a snippet:

"Jaundice and Kale pride themselves on their exacting routine. After breakfast (plain oatmeal with skim milk, a cup of weak, tepid tea on the side) they tend to their business of darning other people's socks, which takes the better part of the day. Each allows herself one ten-minute brea, during which she eats a cheese sandwich on day-old break and drinks a glass of flat soda while gazing out the window, watching the grass grow.

The Bland Sisters look forward most to the evenings, when they entertain themselves by reading the dictionary to each other, then staring at the wallpaper until they fall asleep." (Page 3, ARC)

The vocabulary in The Jolly Regina is quite advanced for what a book with short, heavily illustrated chapters.  I'd put this one more in the middle grade than early chapter book camp. Each chapter begins with the definition (and a short sketch) of a word that will be used in the chapter, such as "paraphernalia", "vehemence", and "anthropology". Other rich words, like "fiasco" are used in the text but not necessarily defined. 

There's also a fair bit of wordplay that almost borders on inappropriate - I think that it will make young readers giggle and feel mature. For instance, a pirate ship manned by men is called the Testoroso, while the female-crewed ship is the Jolly Regina. There are a lot of references to "booty" in the context of the male/female battle (of words and swords) between the two ships. We learn that "the crew of the Jolly Regina were not only pillagers and plunderers. They were also ruthless depantsers" and that "Cap'n Ann had the biggest booty ye ever laid eyes on! The Bland Sisters tried to imagine this, with mixed results."  

It is, of course, nice to see that the strong characters in this book (pirate captains and such) are all female, without the book having any hint of sparkly pink that could turn off male readers. This is a book featuring rat stew and pirates marooning people on deserted islands, albeit with the added humor of a singing ship's cook, and puns like "Captain Ann Tennille".

Also worth noting are various hints that the sisters are (or at least Kale is) on the autism spectrum and/or have OCD. Here are a couple of hints:

""Hmm," Kale said. "I seem to recall crying whenever our mother tried to coax us into venturing outside. The sun always felt so harsh and the flowers seemed too fragrant, and the laughter of other children hurt my ears."" (Page 46, ARC)

and

"Kale sighed. She was enjoying counting sand, as it gave her the same feeling she had when she watched the grass grow at home. She felt peaceful, almost sleepy, as if she were not really thinking, or using her brain at all." (Page 131, ARC)

 

I think it's a triumph that LaReau was able to create two heroines who are smart but also intellectually quirky, and who are determinedly NOT interesting, without making the book itself the least bit boring. I especially appreciated the Bland Sisters' choice at the end of the book. 

 

The illustrations in the advance copy that I read were not complete, but there's enough to suggest that they add humor and action to the story. I flagged quite a number of passages and illustrations as I went through, and certainly laughed aloud on more than one occasion. I think that The Jolly Regina is a fun addition to the ranks of not-so-realistic (in a good way) illustrated fiction for middle grade readers. I hope to see future books in the series. Recommended!

Publisher: Amulet Books (@AbramsKids) 
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


The Homework Strike: Greg Pincus

Book: The Homework Strike
Author: Greg Pincus
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8-12

HomeworkStrikeThe Homework Strike by Greg Pincus is a sequel to The 14 Fibs of Gregory K (reviewed here), though it's not necessary to have read the first book. Gregory K., math-impaired middle child of a math-loving family, is now in seventh grade. He loves writing, especially poetry, but he finds himself with little time to write, because he spends 3 hours or more each day doing homework. Gregory is struggling, burned out, and, eventually, angry that homework is taking away time for the other pursuits that he and his friends enjoy. And so, with some subtle encouragement from his history teacher, Gregory goes on strike. It's when he's on strike that Gregory finds himself working harder and learning more than he would have ever imagined. 

The Homework Strike is a timely take on an issue that is getting attention around the country. While I don't know of any actual student-directed strikes (yet), there are certainly schools that are experimenting with reducing or eliminating homework. And there are plenty of news stories and even entire books about how homework is leading to burn-out among students, especially those in middle school and high school. Regular readers know that reducing homework levels is an issue near and dear to my own heart. The Homework Strike is a book that would have caught my attention on this front alone. The fact that it's written by a friend and features characters that I enjoyed in a previous book makes it, for me, that much more irresistible. But I shall endeavor to be objective. 

The Homework Strike is something of a primer for social activism via strikes, without feeling like a primer. What keeps the book from feeling didactic in this regard is Gregory's strong first-person voice. Gregory is figuring everything out as he goes along, with some support from his teacher and his parents. Some references are mentioned, and Gregory does read them and refer to them, but this is all in the context of Gregory's journey. References to Click, Clack, Moo and Yertle the Turtle are a bonus (as is a quote from The Princess Bride movie). Gregory's parents are realistically concerned, and impose grounding at one point over grades, but are ultimately awesomely supportive.

The author uses The Homework Strike to make what I find to be valid points about the negatives of homework, while defending the efforts and intentions of teachers themselves (a potentially fine line). Only the heavy-handed school principal really comes off as a bad guy (and someone had to be the bad guy). Particular attention is paid to the difficulty of homework for kids who have learning challenges (one character is revealed to by dyslexic, for example, and requires extra time), and to the many creative interests that kids might have outside of school (writing, painting, making videos, etc.). While I might personally have liked to see Gregory dig up some of the research that has questioned the value of homework, I can see that this could have bogged down the story for middle grade readers. 

Here's one of Gregory's friends on the impact of homework:

"I have a theory that they removed two hours from the day this summer while we weren't looking," Benny chimed in. "That would explain why I no longer have time for reading for pleasure, watching TV, or practicing violin." (Page 23, ARC)

And here's Gregory:

"Gregory knew his friends were probably right about, well, about everything. But school was hard for him -- he left a day of it exhausted and drained -- and homework was harder. He even kind liked school, really, or at least the best classes were enough to make the other classes tolerable. But it just all seemed off to him somehow. Like there was so much attention focused on knowledge he'd never need and skills he wouldn't use, and no time to develop the ones he felt would be important where his life would take him." (Page 42, ARC)

I love Gregory's group of friends, kids who don't fit in to any of the traditional groups (jocks, popular kids, stoners, etc.), but who are ok because they have each other. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, academically and otherwise. And I like that these friends support Gregory but don't blindly follow him into going on strike. I also enjoyed a running theme through the book about whether or not something would make Gregory's calf hurt. You see, his best friend Kelly moved away after the first book. Kelly would always kick him in the calf when she though he was doing something stupid. Even with her living far away, Gregory still gets phantom pains when he knows that she would have kicked him for something. She's like his (painful) conscience. 

There is some risk that The Homework Strike will make elementary school kids worry about the homework burden that is to come with middle school, but I'm pretty sure that they'll be hearing about this in the real world anyway. [My daughter is in first grade and I already have a sense of which teachers give a lot of homework in the upper grade of her elementary school.] The Homework Strike just might give them some ideas for coping, together with positive messages about standing up for yourself and being loyal to your friends and family members. It's really more about larger issues like the relative power of kids vs. adults. 

I think that The Homework Strike is a book that belongs in school libraries everywhere, not just for the messages regarding homework and control, but because Gregory is such an engaging and realistic character, with a strong family. There are fun poems at the start of every chapter, too. This is a book that will particularly speak to kids who feel like outsiders at school (and isn't that most middle schoolers?), and to anyone who has ever felt powerless. Highly recommended for kids age 8 and up, and for their parents, too. [My six-year-old noticed what I was reading and had me read a chunk of this book aloud to her, too.]

Publisher:  (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 3, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle: Gabrielle Kent

Book: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle
Author: Gabrielle Kent
Pages: 366
Age Range: 8-12

HexbridgeCastleThe Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is a very fun new fantasy novel, the first of a series by Gabrielle Kent, previously released in the UK. The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is about a boy named Alfie Bloom who lives a rather bleak life alone with his distracted inventor father. Alfie's life changes forever when he learns that he has inherited an ancient and mysterious castle, and is required to live there. Alfie finds Hexbridge Castle full of hidden passageways and strange contraptions. A mysterious lawyer doles out sparing hints regarding Alfie's selection as heir to the castle, including letters from Alfie's benefactor, the druid who built the castle 600 years earlier. While living in Hexbridge Castle, Alfie finds friends and enemies, wondrous delights and terrible dangers. 

The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is kid-friendly perfection, full of trappings and experiences that are simply cool. There's a Dahl-esque quality to Kent's writing, albeit with more three-dimensional, modern characters. From page 22, when Alfie and his dad are driven in a carriage that seems to be flying, fanciful touches are everywhere. Like this:

"He led them to a gigantic door made up of lots of other doors of decreasing size, one inside the other, like Russian nesting dolls. The smallest only came halfway up Alfie's knee. "Just through there. Ms. Fortune will sign you in."

"Which door do we open?"

The coachman chuckled as he filled a nose bag for each horse. "Whichever one fits, Master Bloom, whichever one fits."" (Page 24)

Kent also captures the delights of an English farm and village, giving the book a slightly old-fashioned feel, even though it is set in modern times. Like this:

 "Alfie was glad he was so hungry; he could swear the table was groaning louder than his stomach under the weight of the food. His mouth watered as he saw three types of freshly baked pie, soda bread hot from the oven, buttery new potatoes, and a golden roast chicken surrounded by crisp lettuce and tomatoes fresh from the garden. Between the mountain of food and the twins' never-ending questions about the castle, dinner lasted a very long time." (Page 46)

There's a school that bears no small resemblance to the school that Dahl's Matilda attended, and there are occasional hints of Harry Potter in Alfie's persona of near-orphan who discovers a secret about his own birth. These things feel not incidental but more like homages (particularly to Dahl). There's even a scene involving flight that carries a hint of Peter Pan. 

I could keep quoting all day - I flagged another dozen passages, and all of them are wonderful. But I don't want to give away any of the twists and turns of Alfie's story. While I did see a few of the twists coming before Alfie did, my enjoyment of The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle was in no way diminished. I felt more like the author and I were together, quietly encouraging Alfie on. The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle ends in a satisfactory manner, but it's clear that Alfie's story is not finished. Which is a happy thing, because I am very much looking forward to the next stage of Alfie's adventures. Highly recommended, one of my top reads of the year. 

[Update: I was pleased to see, on the very day that I published this review, that Ms. Yingling also recommends The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle.]

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: October 25, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


If the Magic Fits (100 Dresses, Book 1): Susan Maupin Schmid

Book: If the Magic Fits (100 Dresses, Book 1)
Author: Susan Maupin Schmid
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

IfTheMagicFitsIf the Magic Fits is the first book in the new 100 Dresses series by Susan Maupin Schmid. It's about a young orphan named Darling who is a lowly servant in a castle, the Under-presser (assistant to Lindy, the Head Presser, who irons the Princess's many garments). When a magical canary is moved to a closet holding 100 never worn dresses, a force is awakened in the castle, one that Darling can't resist trying on for size. Darling finds herself battling jealous servants while trying to understand the castle's magic, and also striving to keep the princess from making a terrible mistake. 

If the Magic Fits has a cover blurb from Jessica Day George, author of the Castle Glower series, and the two series have a similar feel (both with somewhat sentient castles full of interesting people and things). If the Magic Fits has a very different heroine, however, in plucky orphan Darling, who was raised by the kitchen staff when her mother died right after birth. Darling doesn't know who her father is, and one senses that a surprise may be revealed at some point. But for the most part, she works within the constraints of her on-the-edge existence (she fears being cast out of the castle and starving to death, if she errs too far). The butterfly-loving, difficult to woo Princess Mariposa is also an intriguing character, as are some of the other servants. Here's Princess Mariposa describing one of her suitors, for example:

"Princess Mariposa put her face in her hands and spoke through her fingers. "He has the face of a toad, the manners of a pig, and the mind of a flea."" (Page 15, ARC)

And here's Darling:

"... This was like some far-fetched adventure story.

I, Darling Dimple, was having an adventure. Or was it having me. I wasn't sure which. All I knew was that I hadn't finished my ironing, and I had no idea how long I'd been gone. A very annoyed Lindy would be waiting for me, Darling Dimple, ex-Presses... I had to get back as quickly as possible and save my job!" (Page 104, ARC)

and:

"... I swerved to the wardrobe, creeping along inch by inch. I froze as a floorboard creaked beneath me. Nothing happened. I continued  my epic trek across the carpet. Had any explorer ever been so intrepid or so brave?

Had any Princess's Girl ever looked so silly tiptoeing around in the dark to fetch a magic dress?" (Page 117, ARC)

Don't you love her mix of high drama and self-deprecating humor? The above passage sums up the feel of the book fairly well, I think. 

So we have a spoiled Princess who retains a sense of humor, a determined orphan, a gaggle of other servants both kind and no-so-kind, and a closet full of gorgeous magical dresses. There's also a questionable prince, a talking mouse, and a hint of dragons. The plot of If the Magic Fits is nicely paced for middle grade readers, with a satisfying mix of action and character development and scene-setting. I think that If the Magic Fits is a good start to a new series that is sure to please middle grade fantasy fans. Recommended for readers 8 and up. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: October 25, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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