212 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

The Wild Robot: Peter Brown

Book: The Wild Robot
Author: Peter Brown
Pages: 288
Age Range: 8-11

My daughter and I are big fans of Peter Brown's picture books, particularly The Curious Garden and Mr. Tiger Goes WildSo when Brown's first middle grade novel turned up, I put it on the top of my to read stack. The Wild Robot is a quirky but lovely little book. It's about a robot who ends up on an island populated only by animals (following the sinking of a container ship). The animals are initially frightened of Roz, but she takes time to learn their language, and eventually makes her way into their hearts. This process is helped by Roz's adoption of an orphaned gosling. 

The action in The Wild Robot is a bit slow-paced, particularly the first 2/3 of the book. But the chapters are brief (sometimes only a page or two), and the illustrations will keep kids turning the pages. Brown's illustration style in The Wild Robot is consistent with the nature-celebrating, slightly stylized look on display in Brown's other books. A few of the images (particularly one in which Roz watches Brightbill head off to migrate) have real pathos. In general, the images are a bit darker in mood than what one sees in Brown's picture books, but they'll feel familiar to kids weaned on The Curious Garden

Brown strikes a nice balance with Roz's character. She has the analytical nature of a robot. And yet, she learns to care about others, particularly her adopted son, Brightbill. She has some miscellaneous facts filed away, but the important things are the things that she learns via observation. Young Brightbill is delightful, as is his best friend Chitchat, a squirrel. 

There's a hint of a message about global warming in The Wild Robot that I didn't think was necessary to the story. But it's subtle enough that young readers won't find it intrusive. Brown mixes humor, wisdom, and even a bit of poetry into the book's text. Like this:

"Oh, it's nothing, you just have to provide the gosling with food and water and shelter, make him feel loved but don't pamper him too much, keep him away from danger, and make sure he learns to walk and talk and swim and fly and get along with others and look after himself. And that's really all there is to motherhood!" (Advice to Roz from a goose about motherhood, page 75)

and the following (as the animals are helping Roz to fertilize her garden):

"I shouldn't be much longer, now," said a smiling turtle as he slowly made his contribution.

As all this was going on, Roz walked around and thanked everyone. "I am not capable of defecating," she explained, "so your droppings are most appreciated." (Page 94)

and (after a harsh winter on the island):

"The wilderness really an be ugly sometimes. But from that ugliness came beauty. You see, those poor dead creatures returned to the earth, their bodies nourished the soil, and they helped create the most dazzling spring bloom the island had ever known." (Page 195)

For anyone interested in animals or robots, or for kids who grew up enjoying Peter Brown's picture books, The Wild Robot has a distinct appeal. The brief chapters, frequent illustrations, and somewhat slow pace make it suitable for kids on the younger end of middle grade. There are deaths and fights, too, but these feel like part of the Circle of Life, rather than anything disturbing for younger readers. I look forward to giving The Wild Robot to my six-year-old daughter in a couple of years, to see what she thinks. Recommended. 

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids) 
Publication Date:  April 5, 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).


The Firefly Code: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Firefly Code
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 352
Age Range: 8-12

The Firefly Code is set in a utopian settlement outside of Boston called Old Harmonie, some 50 years in the future.  It centers around a group of 12 and 13-year-olds who live on Firefly Lane: narrator Mori; her lifelong best friend Julia; brilliant and geeky Benji; and puzzle-loving Theo. When new girl Ilana moves to their street, her presence creates both tensions and mysteries for the group. 

The combination of Mori's voice and Blakemore's world-building make The Firefly Code an engaging read. I frequently have difficulty staying awake for books these days, but The Firefly Code kept me awake and thinking. Mori is a lovely character, characterized by kindness, a love of nature, and an endearing nervousness. She is unique and three-dimensional, while clearly being a product of her specialized environment. Mori's relationships with Julia and Theo are realistically complex, too. 

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

"But those (Mori's differences from Julia) were all just surface things, about as relevant as the color of our hair. What mattered was that we knew each other inside and out, backward and forward, and would be there for each other no matter what. That's what makes a best friend." (Chapter 2, ARC)

"It was the scientists who did all the work of Kria, but I knew that, silly as they sometimes seemed with their fancy suits and tech gadgets, it was the executives who kept everyone's eyes on the big picture of progress. That was one of the biggest differences between inside our Kritopia of Old Harmonie and outside: inside, we never stopped experimenting and innovating, but outside they were just struggling to get by and couldn't work on making the world better." (Chapter 2)

Old Harmonie is a planned community run by an apparently benevolent company called Krita. The children in the community are designer babies, created by varying combinations of natural reproduction and genetic engineering. After each child turns thirteen, he or she has brain surgery to release a special "latency". This releases the child's particular gifts in that area. Parents can also, at various points, request surgery to "dampen" tendencies within their kids that they don't like, and can give their children artificial enhancements (up to a particular limit). It's not possible to tell just by looking at someone how enhanced they might be.

Apart from the genetic engineering aspects of the story, I thought that the future world of Old Harmonie was not all that advanced relative to our own. I believe that we'll see more change in the next 50 years, but I doubt that 10 year old readers will quibble over this aspect of the story (because of course it's difficult to know what that change will entail).  Keeping the trappings of the world recognizable certainly makes for a more accessible read. There are also some interesting undertones about civilizations, progress and inequity, but again, at a level that is accessible for kids. 

Bottom line: The Firefly Code has a perfect combination of intriguing science fiction and realistic tween interaction. I enjoyed every page, and look forward to what promises to be at least one more book set in Mori's world. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books  (@BWKids)
Publication Date: May 3, 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).


Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter: Beth Fantaskey

Book: Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter
Author: Beth Fantaskey
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10-12

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter by Beth Fantaskey is set in 1926 Chicago and features a 10-year-old newsgirl who aspires to one day be a crime reporter. When Miss Giddings, a woman who has been kind to Isabel, is accused of murder (with Isabel having been the first on the scene) the intrepid young girl tries to prove Miss Giddings' innocence. In the process, Isabel gets to know a woman she has idolized from afar, Tribune reporter Maude Collier (who is loosely based on an actual historical figure). Isabel also becomes friends with Miss Giddings' son, disabled by polio, and the murdered man's daughter. Largely unsupervised by a mother who works nights, Isabel roams about, stirring things up and annoying the police detective assigned to the case. 

I found Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter to be an enjoyable and absorbing read. I did solve the mystery somewhat before Isabel did, but I've had the benefit of reading a lot more mysteries than she has. Isabel is a strong character. She struggles to bring in income for her broken family (her father died fighting in World War I). She wishes she had been able to continue going to school, but she reads and writes as much as she can. She's too proud to accept charity, and is downright pugnacious when she feels insulted. She is loyal to a fault. Here she is:

"Maude didn't say anything else. She just turned her dark, confident eyes on stone-faced James Culhane, and the second I looked at him, I knew she was going to get her way. He didn't melt like a snowman in August, but his shoulders slumped, just a little. "Fine," he agreed through gritted teeth. "She can stay." (Page 91)

and:

"I was starting to learn that being a reporter meant you couldn't always be kind. That sometimes you had to ask hard questions, even if some kid was under a blanket struggling to breathe.

Could I really do that job?" (Page 93)

and:

"I didn't apologize for mentioning his disease. I felt sorry for Robert, but I didn't understand why people ways pretended they didn't even notice the bad stuff that happened to you. He'd had polio, for crying out loud, and not talking about it wasn't going to change anything. Just like everybody avoiding talking about my dad wouldn't make him any less dead." (Page 98)

Fantaskey offers a nice window into the time period, with enough details to give a sense of Prohibition Chicago (mobsters, speakeasies, Murderess's Row) but not so much as to overwhelm the story. She drops in a couple of direct references to the limited career roles available to women at the time, which I think could provide food for though in family read-alouds, but wondering about these things does feel true to Isabel's character. A brief author's note at the end of the book ties in to actual historical figures and situations. Al Capone is mentioned but doesn't play a direct part in the story (perhaps in a sequel?). 

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is listed on Amazon as being for 10-12 year olds, and I think this is correct. I think it's a better fit for middle schoolers than for elementary school kids. This is a story that begins, after all, with a 10-year-old coming across a recent gunshot victim. The Chicago setting, while certainly not overdone, is dark and gritty. Which is not to say that there's no humor to this book. The banter between Isabel, Maude, and the police detective is clever and enjoyable. But I think that Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter falls on the more challenging end of the middle grade spectrum. It would pair well with Kate Hannigan's The Detective's Assistant. Fans of mysteries and/or historical fiction about scrappy girls who are ahead of their time will not wan to miss Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter. I hope that Isabel has other adventures.  

Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: March 1, 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).


The Terrible Two Get Worse: Mac Barnett, Jory John, and Kevin Cornell

Book: The Terrible Two Get Worse
Author: Mac Barnett and Jory John
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

The Terrible Two Get Worse is, of course, the sequel to The Terrible Two (reviewed here) by Mac Barnett and Jory John, with extensive illustrations by Kevin Cornell.  It handily passed my new litmus test for books, which is: this book has to make me actively want to keep reading, or I will find something else. I read it in a quick single sitting. While I didn't think it was quite as funny as the first book, I thought that The Terrible Two Get Worse had more heart. Believe it or not, I cared about what happened not only to prankster pals Niles and Miles, but also to Principal Barry Barkin (the pranksters' nemesis in the first book). 

As The Terrible Two Get Worse begins, Miles and Niles are having a great time pulling pranks at their school and around their community. Principal Barkin is hapless to stop them. Everything changes, however, when Principal Barkin's father, Former Principal Bertrand Barkin, stages a coup, gets Barry put on "involuntary, indefinite leave of absence" and takes back over. Principal Bertrand Barkin has a way to cut off the pranks, leaving Niles and Miles without a purpose and the school without joy.

This book resonated with me in particular because a whole sub-theme of the book is about how an unenlightened administrator can suck the joy right out of a school. The new (old) principal cancels pajama day, and any other fun events. He stomps on the will of a progressive teacher, changing her from teaching interactive group activities to lectures. Here he is, at his first assembly:

"Today is also School Day. And so is next Monday. In fact, there are 120 School Days remaining this year, and all of them will be the same. You will learn facts, you will learn figures, you will be quizzed, and you will be tested. We will proceed thusly until June, at which point I do not are what you do. Wear a cowboy hat, wear a hideous sweater. That's what summer is for." (Chapter 10)

While Principal Barkin is, of course, a caricature, I do believe that this may strike close to home for some readers as a commentary on modern school systems (though I hope not). 

The other thing that struck me about this book was how the authors, ably assisted by Kevin Cornell, humanized the initial principal, Barry Barkin. Lost without his job to do, Barry undertakes a series of projects, like quilting and nature photography. These are shown in between chapter, full-page illustrations. Attentive readers will notice that no matter what hobby he undertakes, Barry always has a sub-theme of school. For instance, his nature photos include a bird on top of a school bus. A rabbit is hopping along the school running track. And so on. One can't help but see that for all of his foibles, Barry loves the school. 

The authors also do a nice job of continuing to develop the personalities of Niles and Miles. I especially enjoy Niles, who is an adult-pleasing geek as camouflage for his prankster self. Like this:

"Niles knew the tired look Mr. Yeager was giving him right now. It was the look that said, "There's one of these kids at every school. What Niles understood was that people love to put things--songs and books and other people--into categories... Niles didn't want people thinking about him--he believed the best pranksters were invisible. And so every school day, Niles played the kiss-up, the toady, the persnickety twerp." (Chapter 3)

Finally, I think that Barnett and John do a good job of balancing over-the-top humor against ordinary, relatable aspects of school: class photo day, bake sales, assemblies, and fire drills. I think it's not a coincidence that Niles pulls out a copy of Roald Dahl's Matilda near the end of the book. There's definitely a Dahl-esque quality to The Terrible Two. 

In short, The Terrible Two Get Worse is sure to be a hit in both elementary and middle schools. Recommended for home or library purchase. 

Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams (@AbramsKids)
Publication Date: January 12, 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).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Tiara on the Terrace: Kristen Kittscher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Death by Toilet Paper: Donna Gephart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

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

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

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Upside-Down Magic: Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Milo Speck, Accidental Agent: Linda Urban

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Figures," said Milo."

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Copper Gauntlet: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Magic in the Mix: Annie Barrows

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

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

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

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

Things I like about this book:

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

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes:

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

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

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

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

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


A Curious Tale of the In-Between: Lauren DeStefano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

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

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

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).