204 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent: Linda Urban

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Figures," said Milo."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Copper Gauntlet: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Magic in the Mix: Annie Barrows

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

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

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

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

Things I like about this book:

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

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes:

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

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

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

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

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


A Curious Tale of the In-Between: Lauren DeStefano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

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

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

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


The Great Good Summer: Liz Garton Scanlon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Black Reckoning (Books of Beginning): John Stephens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Friendship Riddle: Megan Frazer Blakemore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Detective's Assistant: Kate Hannigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens: Henry Clark

Book: The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens
Author: Henry Clark
Pages: 416
Age Range: 8-12

The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens by Henry Clark is an entertaining romp through history, complete with visits to the Civil War era south and ancient China. There are clues hidden in Morse code, as well as linked hints derived from an ancient Chinese text. There are multi-cultural characters, and their skin color is essential to the book's plot (not just an add-on for the sake of "diversity"). And yes, there is time travel, via a mechanism that I have not seen described previously. In short, The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens is smart and fun and a great choice for middle grade or middle school readers. 

The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens features a middle school age boy named Ambrose Brody (sometimes called Bro), his best friend Tom Xui, and a Romany girl named Shofranka who the boys meet at a carnival. Ambrose is worried about his father, who has recently been laid off as an English teacher at the middle school because he likes to walk around in (very detailed) historical costumes. [People who "prefer to dress in the attire of other time periods" are called "trans-temporals", and are frequently persecuted]. 

Ambrose ends up pulled into a time-traveling adventure by Shofranka, who is trying to find a hidden family treasure (and also replace a lost book). The three kids end up in their own southern town, back in 1849, where their various dark skin colors cause them some problems. Various adventures ensue, but I won't spoil the suspense by telling you anything more about them. 

Here's how Clark introduces Ambrose's ethnic background:

"I like Mrs. Xui (Tom's mother) but she says odd things sometimes. I once her call me "Tom's nice African friend," which I thought was pretty funny. My mom is black, but she's from Canada, and she can speak French because that's the only way she could talk to her grandparents. My dad is Irish, and he says he's the palest man in Ohio, which anybody who's seen him in a toga would definitely agree with. Irish doesn't describe me, and neither does African, though I do look more like my mom than my dad." (Page 33)

Tom has a verbal quirk by which instead of swearing he simply uses random vocabulary words. So we have passages like this:

"Bilious!" Tom cursed, and sat back down. He tugged on my pant leg until I joined him. "You're not going to let that astrolabe get to you, are you? We have better things to think about." (Page 49)

As these curse words are mentioned completely outside of any context, they are not useful for improving the vocabulary of readers. I personally found them mildly annoying. But that's my only real quibble with the book. There are various other examples of wordplay in the book that I think work better. 

The mechanics of the time travel are vague, but there is a thought-out method to the whole thing. There are definite echoes of the Back to the Future movies, including as an over-the-top example in which a tiny bit of knowledge given inadvertently to someone in the past changes the future (and not in a good way). One scene also strongly called to my mind the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. I don't think that kids will get too hung up on the details - they'll instead appreciate the inherent coolness that there would be in having access to a time travel device. 

The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens hits a nice sweet spot, I think, between geekiness and rollicking adventure. There are chases to be won, codes to be broken, and bullies to be tackled in various time periods. The interactions between the three main characters are plausible (with realistic amounts of sarcasm, for example), and there are plenty of kid-friendly details sprinkled throughout the book. The Book That Proves Time Travel Exists is well worth a look by libraries, and seems sure to please strong middle grade and middle school readers. Recommended!

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: April 14, 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 Penderwicks in Spring: Jeanne Birdsall

Book: The Penderwicks in Spring
Author: Jeanne Birdsall
Pages: 352
Age Range: 8-12

It's so lovely to be back visiting with The Penderwicks. In The Penderwicks in Spring, the action moves forward several years, with Batty, at one time the youngest Penderwick, now 10 years old and the primary protagonist. Oldest sister Rosalind is off at college, younger step-brother Ben is in second grade, and the newest Penderwick, Lydia, is two. Beloved dog Hound, alas, has died, and Batty misses him terribly. But she and the rest of the family are muddling along in their delightful, Pendwick way. 

I loved Batty as a four year old in the first book. But in The Penderwicks in Spring, she emerges as a full-fledged character, painfully shy, determinedly NOT interested in sports, closer to some of her family members than others, and crazy about music. She struggles with falling behind on writing book reports for school, and with her guilt over (she thinks) not loving Hound enough to keep him alive. 

Batty's older siblings are only seen through Batty's viewpoint, but this is sufficient for long-time fans of the series to catch up with their doings. Rosalind brings home a boy from school who Batty immediately dislikes. Jane is Jane, lost in her stories, and largely oblivious to anything else, but surprisingly popular. And Skye is as prickly as ever, making the rest of the family unhappy with her rejection of Jeffrey (still an honorary Penderwick). 

I read this book with a smile on my face and, sometimes, a tear in my eye. There's heart and humor throughout, sentimentality without mawkishness. There's a scene in which Ben is desperate to stay up for the arrival home of neighbor, Nick, who has been away as a soldier in the Middle East. And it's brusque Skye who waits up with him, and carries him across the street. It's just ... lovely. I also enjoyed this passage (among many that I flagged):

"Then overnight the temperature zoomed up and water poured off the roofs and into the gutter and downspouts, along the driveways and into the street, where rivulets chuckled into the storm drains. Only the most stubborn snow was left behind, and the soaking rain that came next took care of that, and spring was back for real." (Page 151)

As with the other Penderwicks titles, and as with the classic children's stories like those about the Melendy Family, The Penderwicks in Spring is more episodic than plot-driven. But the theme that pulls the whole book together, like a silver thread, is Batty's emotional development (symbolized by her developing singing voice). 

The Penderwicks. They'll make you laugh, they'll make you cry, they'll make you love them Perfect for any time of year, the Penderwicks are especially enjoyable in spring. Highly recommended, and must-read for fans of the series. I understand from Lisa at Read for Keeps that there is a fifth Penderwick book planned for the future, when Lydia is old enough to be a middle grade protagonist. I can't wait!

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: March 24, 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 Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's Lair: S. S. Taylor

Book: The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's Lair (Book 2)
Author: S. S. Taylor
Illustrator: Katherine Roy
Pages: 320
Age Range: 10-14

The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's Lair is the second book in S. S. Taylor's Expeditioners series, following The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man's Canyon. After a somewhat slow start, The Secret of King Triton's Lair is an inventive and enjoyable adventure. 

The Secret of King Triton's Lair picks up a few months after the events of the first book. In Taylor's alternate reality, steampunk-inspired world, siblings Zander, Kit, and MJ West are attending (not completely by choice) the Academy for the Exploratory Sciences run by the Bureau of Newly Discovered Lands (BNDL).

Zander and MJ are settling in well at the Academy, each with particular skills that fit in well with the needs of this school/camp. Narrator Kit is having a more difficult time, with much of his attention focused on understanding a map from his missing father that he discovered at the end of the prior book. This map, which is sought after by higher-ups within the Academy and BNDL, eventually leads Kit to propose an expedition to a mysterious underwater region of the Caribbean. The second half of the book covers the expedition to King Triton's Lair. 

Personally, I had a bit of trouble getting through the first half of the book, in which a variety of characters make appearances, political plots abound, and Kit experiences resentment and self-doubt. But the second half of the book, encompassing sea voyages, mysterious undersea creatures, pirates, and betrayals, kept me reading late into the night. I understand that some groundwork was necessary, but I personally felt that Book I could have been condensed a bit in favor of the considerably more exciting Book II. I still finished the book looking forward to the Expeditioners' next adventure. 

Two things that helped to maintain my interest during the first part of the book were intermittent excerpts from the journal of 16-year-old James Rickwell and occasional full-page illustrations by Katherine Roy. Roy's illustrations add to the relatively dark tone of the book, and also bring Zander, Kit, and MJ to life. Rickwell's journal, written during an 1823 sea voyage to the same area later visited by Kit and his team, provides foreshadowing and clues (though I did occasionally have difficulty deciphering the script handwriting). 

Throughout the book, I enjoyed reading about the various gadgets in Kit's world (especially those invented by MJ). Even the West family's pet bird is an experiment:

"Pucci's presence at the Academy was barely tolerated as it was. Like other unfortunate animals and birds, he'd been modified by the government for use during protests and crowd situations, his legs replaced by metal ones." (Page 27)

Taylor's detailed building of the Expeditioners' world, in which people still seek out undiscovered lands (possibly deliberately hidden by previous map-makers), is intriguing. Narrator Kit is relatable and occasionally profound. Like this:

"I stood there for a long time after she left, listening to the tiny splashes of fish jumping out in the silvery ocean, the words I hadn't said stuffed uncomfortably in my mouth." (Page 206)

There is a bit of boy-girl longing and some subtle competition between Kit and Zander over a girl's attention, but The Secret of King Triton's Lair is still solidly middle grade friendly. Because the text is a bit dense, I would agree with the publisher's stated age range of 10-14, but there is nothing to stop a strong younger reader from giving this book a try. 

Fans of middle grade steampunk and/or books in which kids set out on epic adventures (with pirate sightings!) will enjoy the Expeditioners series. The Secret of King Triton's Liar adds new wonders to their world, as well as a bit more exploration of the characters' interpersonal dynamics. The expedition itself is a wild, page-turning ride, one that will have readers coming back for more. 

Publisher: McSweeney's/McMullens 
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
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).


Children's and YA Books I Have Shared with My Husband

In my review of The Living by Matt de la Peña, I mentioned this:

"as soon as I closed the book I said to my husband "You have GOT to read this" (something I reserve for only a select few titles each year)."

My husband doesn't read nearly as many books as I do, so I reserve the cream of the crop (and the more exciting/action-packed titles) for him.

My longtime blogging friend Susan Stephenson from The Book Chook said that she would be interested to know what other books I had passed on. She suggested that this might make a good blog post. So I discussed this with said spouse. We couldn't remember every book that I had recommended, but we did come up with a list of the titles that I had passed on that he particularly enjoyed. Here they are:

The Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling. This is admittedly an obvious one, but I distinctly recall telling him after reading the very first book that I thought he was going to like them. We ordered the second book from the UK, because it was published there earlier. And I recall my husband getting one of the later books out of the library, even though I had bought a copy, because he didn't want to wait for me to finish.

The Underland Chronicles (Gregor the Overlander) by Suzanne Collins. This middle grade series didn't get nearly the attention that Collins' YA series received later, but my husband devoured them. I had read them as library copies, but then I bought a full paperback set for him for Christmas one year. Here are links to my reviews of Books 1 and 2, Book 4, and Book 5

The first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book by Jeff Kinney. I handed this one to my husband at some point, and he enjoyed it, but never read the others. Recently, after we watched the first movie with our daughter, he decided that he would like to go back and read the other books in this series. Luckily there are quite a few now. I've reviewed Book 3, Book 6, and Book 7

The Hunger Games series, also by Suzanne Collins. Again, this recommendation seems obvious now after all the hype, but this may have been the first time my husband read an ARC, because I gave him the first book as soon as I had finished it and said something like: "Yes!" Incidentally credit goes to Liz Burns, who was the one who told me that I needed to get hold of that ARC at a conference one year. Here are my reviews of Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor. I wasn't actually sure about this recommendation, because the books in this series have a bit more romance than my husband is normally looking for. But we had met Laini at KidLitCon, and he decided to give it a try. He enjoyed these books, and thinks that Laini is a fabulous writer. 

The Living by Matt de la Peña, as mentioned above. I read this book in pretty much a single sitting, deaf to everything going on around me, which made it an easy recommendation. We are both looking forward to the sequel. 

The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. I read this one on Kindle, which I later regretted, because I wasn't able to pass along my copy (I'm the only e-reader in our household right now). I waited for it come out in paperback, but finally gave up and bought him the hardcover for this past Christmas. He is reading it now. Here are my reviews of Book 1 and Book 2

I'm sure there are others, but those are the ones that stood out for the two of us. I know it looks like I've just shared the really popular titles with him. But in fact, it's more true that I only share books with him that truly stand out for me (and that I think he will enjoy). This has proven to be highly correlated with books that end up doing well. So, the next time I hand my spouse the first book of a new series I will let you know, and you'll know that it is likely to be successful. 

© 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).