196 posts categorized "Late Elementary School" Feed

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).

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

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

The Terrible Two is a new prank and joke-filled illustrated chapter book by Mac Barnett, Jory John, and Kevin Cornell. While not a notebook novel, it is clearly aimed straight at the audience of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books (and from the same publisher). Based on my reading The Terrible Two, I think that it's going to be a success. It is funny from cover to cover. 

The primary protagonist in The Terrible Two is Miles, new student at the Yawnee Valley Science and Letters Academy in the cow-filled small town of Yawnee Valley. Miles was known as the school prankster at his old school. But his hopes of taking on this role at his new school are dashed when he arrives on the first day to find a car blocking the school's front door. The identity of the Yawnee Valley prankster is unknown to Miles, at least for a while, though clever readers will spot a clue on the book's cover. 

The Terrible Two is written with a strong slant towards humor. Everything is either wryly tongue-in-cheek or overtly funny. Despite this (and here is why I think that the book will be a success), there is also a fairly strong, linear plot. There is a pair of father and son antagonists, who get a satisfactory comeuppance. The central relationship of the book is between Miles and his pranking counterpart. Other relationships, including those between the boys and their respective parents, are minimal, but this is ok. The focus stays on The Terrible Two. 

Here are some snippets, to give you a feel for the book's tone:

"This is Miles Murphy. He's on his way to Yawnee Valley. Let's take a closer look at his face.

Notice the scowl. Notice the gloom. Notice the way his face is pressed against the window and he looks like he's trying to escape." (Chapter 2)

"He ate breakfast: oatmeal on toast, a dish his great-grandfather had invented and deemed "The Breakfast of Barkins." This gave him exactly six minutes to reread his favorite chapter of his favorite book, The 7 Principles of Principal Power." (He being the school principal, of course. Chapter 5)

"Miles had never even heard of before-school detention. Technically, that wasn't even detention. You had to be at school already to be detained. What would you call it? Prevention. Apprehension. Incarceration." (Chapter 27)

There are also assorted facts about cows included at intervals throughout the book, one of which does become a key plot point. 

Although heavily illustrated, the length, complexity of the plot and relatively advanced vocabulary ("deemed", "despondently") make this feel more like middle grade than an early chapter book. But the illustrations, as well as various lists, letters, etc., make The Terrible Two accessible for relatively reluctant readers (not to mention the prank-filled plot, of course). 

Cornell's cartoon-like illustrations are well-suited to the book. They are highly dynamic, spread in various locations across the pages, and frequently featuring movement by and emotions of the characters. Readers will see Principal Barkins at a bad guy from his very first appearance on the page. The acerbic facial expression of a long-suffering teacher also made me laugh, and added to my understanding of this relatively minor character. There are maps, plans, and dioramas, and, of course, cows. 

All in all, I think that The Terrible Two is going to be a huge hit with third grade readers or so, especially (though not limited to) boys. It is also funny without being crude, which will likely please adults, too. Part of the Prankster's Oath, helpfully spelled out, involves disrupting but not destroying. The Terrible Two stays on the right side of mischievous. I hope to see additional books about The Terrible Two. Highly recommended! 

Publisher: Amulet Books (@AbramsKids)
Publication Date: January 13, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2014 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 and iBooks 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 Iron Trial (Book One of Magisterium): Holly Black & Cassandra Clare

Book: The Iron Trial (Book One of Magisterium)
Authors: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

I moved The Iron Trial up on my to be read list after Tanita read it and loved it, having in turn been inspired by Charlotte. Tanita even said "that this series has the potential to be the American Harry Potter". So ok, clearly it was worth a look (and it was already right there on what I'll call my "to actually be read shelf", in contrast to the larger set of shelves which are more like "to be read if time somehow becomes infinite."). 

Anyway, The Iron Trial is the first book in the new Magisterium series, the first collaboration between friends Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. I adored (though somehow did not review) Black's Newbury Honor-winning Doll Bones, and have also enjoyed Clare's Mortal Instruments books (of which I've read several but not all). 

The Iron Trial is about a boy named Callum (called Call). When Call was an infant, his mother, along with a slew of others from the magical community, was killed as part of a war with a powerful mage called The Enemy. Call was the lone survivor of the massacre, left with a badly damaged leg and a father who no longer wanted anything to do with magic. When Call turns 12, however, his father is required to take him to the Iron Trial, a test to see if Call will be admitted to The Magisterium, a school where young mages are trained. Despite Call's best efforts to fail, he is admitted to the school. There he makes friends, and learns things about both magic and himself. 

The Iron Trial is a book that keeps the reader guessing, as most things are not what they initially seem. The plotting is strong and suspenseful, and the ending is ... fabulous. Which is all I'll say about that. The tone is atmospheric without being overly gloomy. The Magisterium is set in a series of mysterious caves, filled with delightful details, such as food that looks like lichen and moss but tastes wonderful. There are boats that navigate underwater rivers, and dangerous creatures called elementals. It's a unique and interesting setting. I can already picture the movie (a little bit). The magic itself has logical rules, and requires hard (and sometimes tedious) work. 

Call is a sympathetic character, one who grew up lonely and picked on, at least in part because of his disability (his leg). He is a bit of a troublemaker: 

"Callum Hunt was a legend in his little North Carolina town, but not in a good way. Famous for driving off substitute teachers with sarcastic remarks, he also specialized in annoying principals, hall monitors, and lunch ladies. Guidance counselors, who always started out wanting to help him (the poor boy's mother had died, after all) wound up hoping he'd never darken the doors of their offices again." (Page 6)

Call's relationship with his two team members (the only three students from their year with a particular teacher) develops slowly and reasonably plausibly (downright prickly at first). There is some diversity among the students, though this is not a major focus. Call's limitations from the problem with his leg are addressed, and not glossed over. The authors do include some humor, too. For instance, when Call finally receives his clothes from home (he didn't expect to be admitted, so hadn't brought them), we have:

"After so long with only the two uniforms, it was awesome to have a bunch of clothes to choose from. Part of him wanted to put them all on at once and waddle through the Magisterium like a penguin." (Page 132)

Suspenseful plot, brooding atmosphere, unique setting, intermittent humor, and sympathetic characters. The Iron Trial has it all. This is an excellent choice for middle grade fans of fantasy, or anyone else who enjoys well-written, original reads. Highly recommended. I look forward to future books. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2014 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 and iBooks 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).

Sky Jumpers Book 2: The Forbidden Flats: Peggy Eddleman

Book: Sky Jumpers Book 2: The Forbidden Flats (iBooks link)
Author: Peggy Eddleman
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

The Forbidden Flats is the second book in Peggy Eddleman's Sky Jumpers series (my review of Book 1 is here). Both books are set in a relatively near-term post-apocalyptic American West. One of the oldest adults remembers the pre-apocalyptic world, but most characters were born afterwards. Only small, spread out communities survive, with no means of communication between them.

The Forbidden Flats begins with an earthquake, which sets off a reaction that threatens the survival of the sheltered town of White Flats. A small team is sent on a mission to procure a mineral that will, if obtained in time, fix the problem (and save the town). The mineral is only available from a far-off settlement in the mountains. Among the members of the team are Hope, the 12-year-old heroine from the first Sky Jumpers book, and her two friends, Aaren and Brock. This high-stakes quest, particularly because there is a firm time constraint before disaster occurs, lends suspense to the book. 

Once nice thing about this second book in the series is that Hope (and thus the reader) gets a chance to see much more of the world than in the relatively sheltered first book. I always enjoy it when, in post-apocalyptic books, characters run across artifacts from modern day life. In The Forbidden Flats, Hope and the team visit people who live in the ruins of pre-apocalyptic cities. Hope sees things like asphalt for the first time in her life.

Eddleman's world-building for this series remains sharp - she has a strong grasp of what is the same and what is different from our own world. What comes across in particular detail in this new book is the impact of the apocalypse (environmental bombs) on the minerals in the earth. There are minerals newly created by the blasts, and other things that used to work that don't anymore. In particular, iron can no longer hold a magnetic charge, which greatly restricts and resumption of technology. This makes for an intriguing sub-quest in the book, one that I expect will be continued in future stories. 

The Forbidden Flats also fleshes out the character of Hope in more detail. She meets her uncle, the brother of the mother who died immediately after Hope's birth. Learning more about her mother, and getting to know her uncle, gives Hope some insights into her own character. There are a couple of other interesting new characters, too, one of which I suspect we'll see again.

But I do have to say that I felt that the existing secondary characters came across as a bit flat in this installment. It felt like I was supposed to remember what was special and unique about Aaren and Brock, rather than being able to see this through their words and actions. This stood out for me in particular because there's the tiniest hint about a romance brewing between Hope and Brock, but Brock feels like a bit of cipher. My feeling is that even if a book doesn't need to stand on its own in terms of plot and world-building (it may be necessary to have read the first book to understand what's going on), the characters should stand on their own in each book. 

Overall, though, The Forbidden Flats is a worthwhile successor to Sky Jumpers. The plot is suspenseful and full of twists, and readers get to learn more about the broader world in which Hope lives. Although the plot in this book is fully resolved, I see plenty of directions in which Eddleman can go in future books. Fans of the first book will definitely want to give this one a look. The Sky Jumpers series is nice in being a middle grade (vs. YA) post-apocalypse series, one that does NOT revolve around a dystopia, but instead shows people working together to build a new world. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2014 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 and iBooks 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).

Gabriel Finley and the Raven's Riddle: George Hagen

Book: Gabriel Finley & the Raven's Riddle (iBooks link)
Author: George Hagen
Illustrator: Scott Bakal
Pages: 384
Age Range: 9-12

Something about Gabriel Finley & the Raven's Revenge called to me from the pile of books arriving on my shelf. And I'm glad that it did. Gabriel Finley & the Raven's Revenge is an engrossing new, riddle-filled middle grade fantasy, apparently the first book of a series (two significant matters are left unresolved, though the book does not end on a cliffhanger). 

Gabriel lives with his aunt in a somewhat mysterious old house. His mother disappeared when he was very young (he doesn't remember her), and his father disappeared three years earlier. Gabriel's aunt won't tell him very much, but he knows that she never reported his father as a missing person. When Gabriel turns 12, however, his aunt gives him a key that his father left for him, which leads in turn to a diary. The plot from there involves people who can merge with ravens, a powerful ancient artifact, and a quest to find a lost city located far beneath Gabriel's home of Brooklyn, NY. Other characters include a callous bad guy (Gabriel's uncle), a greedy rival who also seeks the artifact, a team of kids who befriend (some more quickly than others) Gabriel, and various intelligent birds. 

Gabriel Finley & the Raven's Revenge is chock-full of riddles and puns. Some are there just as background, as Gabriel practices, but eventually the riddles become a key aspect of the book's plot. It seems that ravens greet one another with riddles, and use riddles as a litmus test for potential human companions, and more. Kids who enjoy riddles and puns will not be able to resist this book, which offers ample opportunity for readers to guess the outcome of each before reading it. I only very occasionally found that stopping to think about the riddles slowed the book's narrative flow for me. Here's an example:

"From hour to hour I wander,
As night and day go by,
Yet always anchored to my home.
Can you guess the reason why?"

Despite the seeming light-heartedness of a story based in part on riddles, Gabriel Finley & the Raven's Revenge is a fairly meaty fantasy novel, with plenty of twists and turns and sub-plots. There are some sections in which Gabriel reads from his father's diary to which I had to pay close attention to keep Gabriel separate in my head from his dad. But these passed. Gabriel's regular world, in which he attends school and eats Chinese take-out, never quite feels ordinary, perhaps because all of the characters around him are quirky in some way.

There is some character development in the secondary characters (Gabriel is a pretty well-adjusted kid to start with). I especially enjoyed Gabriel's new next-door neighbor, Abby, a girl who wears non-matching shoes every day, so that she won't look like everyone else. Here's Abby:

"This is so exciting! I always get into trouble for trying to make things more exciting at home. The other day I painted the toilet with glow-in-the-dark paint, my sister woke everyone up screaming when she went to pee in the middle of the night." (Page 101) 

I found Gabriel Finley & the Raven's Revenge to be a suspenseful, inventive middle grade fantasy novel, with a unique feel. I do wish that the cover image of Gabriel merging with his raven did not look quite so much like a girl, as I would hate to see boys pass this one buy because of that (for many reasons). Then again, the cover caught my attention, so it does work. Anyway, librarians for middle grade and middle school readers will want to give Gabriel Finley & the Raven's Curse a look, as it offers something new for fantasy lovers (and others who enjoy testing their wits). Recommended for middle grade readers and up, boys and girls. 

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: August 26, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2014 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 and iBooks 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).

Rose and Rose and the Lost Princess: Holly Webb

Books: Rose and Rose and the Lost Princess  (Rose iBooks link) and (Rose and the Lost Princess - iBooks link)
Author: Holly Webb
Pages: 240 and 256
Age Range: 8-12

Rose by Holly Webb was shortlisted for the 2013 Cybils Awards in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. I've also seen a number of positive reviews around the blogs. So when Rose popped up as a Kindle daily deal, I decided to give it a look. And I was immediately hooked (to the point of having to purchase the second book immediately after finishing the first).

Rose is young girl (10 or 11) who has been raised in an orphanage in an alternate version of Victorian London in which magic exists. As the story begins, Rose has just discovered within herself what appears to be magical ability. Rose squashes that down as secondary to her life-long dream of getting a job as a maid, so that she can work to support herself. But, as it happens, the household that hires Rose turns out to be that of a well-known magician, Mr. Fountain. And despite her best efforts to keep her special abilities under wraps, Rose soon finds herself embroiled in a magical mystery involving kidnapped children.

I found Rose to be a charming (a word that I don't use lightly) mixture of magical and historical fiction. Rose is thrilled to have multiple dresses of her own, and a tiny little servant's room up six flights of stairs. She has another maid as a rival, and a potential friend (and perhaps eventual love interest?) in the household page / kitchen boy, Bill. But she also finds herself able to understand the thoughts of the household cat, and occasionally indulging in unintentional acts of magic. When she learns that her best friend from the orphanage has been kidnapped, she is unable to stop herself from taking action to help.

In short, Rose offers strong characters, detailed world-building, and an appealing premise (maid as reluctant magician). I found Rose, and its title character, a delight. I highly recommend it for middle grade readers, especially girls.  

I can't say that I enjoyed Rose and the Lost Princess quite as much. In this second book, Rose is still working as a maid, but she is also training part time as Mr. Fountain's second apprentice. A freakishly cold and snowy winter is being blamed on magicians, and the country's beloved young princess is in danger. Rose is eventually sent to the palace to help the princess, and hopefully help save the reputations of magicians throughout the city. 

I still enjoyed Rose and the Lost Princess, but I didn't love it the way I did the first book. Maybe because the world-building was already more set, so it wasn't as interesting. Maybe because the more sterile palace setting lacked the warmth of Mr. Fountain's house. Maybe because people who were nice to Rose in the first book, like Mr. Fountain's cook, aren't reacting well to her magical abilities. Maybe because I just don't like winter. I don't know. This book just seemed a bit more bleak. 

I'll likely get a yen to check in with what's going on with Rose again in the future, but I'm fine with taking a break from the series right now. Still, I highly recommend Rose. When I was reading it I was consumed by Rose's magic-tinged world. Rose would make a great introduction to speculative fiction for any middle grade reader. And for such readers, it's a wonderful thing that there are other books in the series. There are two more to come. This series was originally published in the UK, and is being released on a compressed schedule here in the US. 

Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky 
Publication Date: September 2013, April 2014
Source of Book: Purchased them

© 2014 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 and iBooks 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).

Out of My Mind: Sharon M. Draper

Book: Out of My Mind (iBooks Link)
Author: Sharon M. Draper
Pages: 320
Age Range: 10 and up

I've been in a bit of a reading funk lately, starting books and abandoning them after 10 or 100 pages. That's why it was so refreshing to me to discover Sharon M. Draper's Out of My Mind. This book grabbed me from the very first page, and still has not let go, two days after finishing it. 

Melody is a brilliant young girl with a photographic memory (probably) and a passion for words. No one knows this, however, because Melody spends her days trapped in a wheelchair, unable to utter more than a few grunt-like sounds. What bothers Melody is not so much her inability to do anything for herself, but her inability to communicate with her family, let alone with the larger world. 

This pulled me in: 

"I have no idea how I untangled the complicated process of words and thought, but it happened quickly and naturally. By the tie I was two, all my memories had words, and all my words had meanings.

But only in my head.

I have never spoken one single word. I am almost eleven years old."

And things like this kept me reading:

"It's like I've always had a painted musical sound track playing background to my life. I can almost hear colors and smell images when music is played." (Page 5)

"It's like I live in a cage with no door and no key. And I have no way to tell someone how to get me out." (Page 38)

"When I sleep, I dream. And in my dreams I can do anything. I get picked first on the playground for games. I can fun so fast! I take gymnastics, and I never fall off the balance beam. I know how to square-dance, and I'm good at it. I call my friends on the phone, and we talk for hours. I whisper secrets. I sing." (Page 51)

You get the idea. There is much more to Out of My Mind than Melody explaining her situation, of course. Things happen in Melody's family, and at her school. A nation-wide quiz contest for middle schoolers becomes a major plot point. There are secondary characters to cheer for, and others to sneer at, and still others that fall somewhere in the realistic in-between. 

But, at heart, Out of My Mind is about Melody and her actions and reactions. Because her lows are so very low, even small accomplishments are cause for celebration, by both Melody and the reader. 

Out of My Mind is a book that drops the reader into the shoes of a character with severe physical limitations, and makes her real. I felt so frustrated on Melody's behalf - so angry when people underestimated or belittled her. I feel like I've gained a degree of empathy for people with cerebral palsy that I didn't have before. Draper manages this without heavy-handed platitudes or giving me the impression that I should react a certain way. Instead, she gets out of the way, and lets Melody tell us what she thinks and feels. Powerful stuff, with a soft-spoken delivery. 

I highly recommend Out of My Mind to advanced elementary school and middle school readers and up, girls or boys. For younger kids, Melody's vocabulary might be a tad intimidating. In fact, my initial reaction to Melody's voice was that her language was too poised and advanced for an 11-year-old narrator. I concluded, however, that this was intentional, and fit with who Melody was. 

I will not forget Melody any time soon, and I hope that many other readers, kids and adults, will be able to get to know her, too. Out of My Mind is something special. 

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (@SimonKids) 
Publication Date: May 1, 2012
Source of Book: Bought it on Kindle during #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign

© 2014 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 and iBooks 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 Misadventures of the Family Fletcher: Dana Alison Levy

Book: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher (iBooks Link)
Author: Dana Alison Levy
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy is an episodic story depicting a (school) year in the life of a New England family. Sam, Jax, Eli and Frog (a nickname) range in age from 12 to six. They are all adopted, and have different ethnic backgrounds, skin colors, and interests. They have two fathers, one called Dad and one called Papa. Dad is a teacher at a local high school, while Papa runs a computer company from the house. They are, in short, a thoroughly modern take on a stable two-parent family.

The nice thing about The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is that while it has diversity in spades, the diversity feels incidental to the story, rather than being the main point. The kids are the important thing, along with the various growing pains that they go through. Oh, there are new people that the family meets who need to have things explained to them. There are references to the various holiday traditions embraced by the family, in the interest of ensuring that everyone's background is included. But the heart of the book is the individual issues that each boy is going through, and the ways that the Fletchers all come together as a family.

Sam, the oldest son, is struggling to balance his love of soccer with a new interest in drama (and his new interest in a girl who likes drama, too). Jax, the older of two 10-year-olds, is watching his long-time best friend start to act grown-up, in ways that Jax isn't ready for. Eli attends a new school, an academically-focused private school that he really thought that he would like (but doesn't). And Frog? He spends most of his time explaining the absence of his new best friend, who may be imaginary. Mingled with all of these individual stories is friction that the family has with their new, grouchy neighbor, Mr. Nelson. 

Things to like: 

  • The kids are not perfect. They are boys, with all the attendant mess and noise that one would expect. There is lots of soccer and hockey, and the watching of Patriots games on TV. 
  • The dads are not perfect. They are good parents, who try hard, and who are occasionally overwhelmed. Little email snippets and notes at the start of each chapter help to communicate what the dads are really thinking, at times (particularly emails from Papa to his sister). 
  • There are frequent reference to "The Fletcher Family Rules", which are things like: no one plays until everyone has finished their homework. Such rules seem necessary in a large family, and are a nice demonstration of structure. 
  • There's not sweeping resolution, but progress is made in a realistic fashion, in various areas. 

Despite the modern composition of the Fletcher family, and the presence of cell phones and screen time, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher has an old-fashioned feel to it. There's a camping trip, a Halloween party, and a scramble to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. There's playing with kids in the neighborhood, and attending Family Night at the kindergarten. No external real-world events tie the story to an exact time (Mr. Nelson is a Vietnam Veteran, but we don't know his exact age), which will keep this book from feeling dated in coming years. It would make a nice companion book to The Penderwicks series, actually, though featuring boys instead of girls. 

I must admit that I found The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher to be a bit slow-paced, especially the first half of the book. It took me a while to get distinct pictures of all four boys in my mind, and the episodic plot didn't capture my full attention. This did improve for me in the second half of the book, and I enjoyed the book, but it took me a bit longer to get through than I would have expected.

Still, I think that The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher has a lot to offer young readers, especially boys. Happily, kids who have gay parents, or who are adopted, or who are not white, may find in the Fletcher family a mirror. But I think that most readers will be able to identify with at least one of the brothers. Any reader could get some good ideas from the brothers, about trying new things, not judging people when you don't know what they are going through, and admitting when you have made a mistake. All of this, with plenty of boy-friendly fun along the way. I would consider The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher a must-purchase for libraries serving middle grade readers.

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers 
Publication Date: July 22, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon and iBooks 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).

© 2014 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

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life: P. J. Hoover

Book: Tut: The Story of my Immortal Life
Author: P. J. Hoover
Pages: 320 
Age Range: 9-12

The premise of Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life is that when King Tut was fourteen years old, his uncle tried to kill him. A god (Osiris) intervened, and granted Tut immortality. 3000 years later, Tut is living in Washington, DC, attending 8th grade, and living with the god Horus (in the form of a cat) and another immortal named Gil. As the story begins, signs become evident that Tut's evil uncle (also immortal) is nearby, and that a curse on Tut and his uncle is affecting citizens in DC. Tut wants to kill his uncle both to stop the curse and for vengeance. But it's not so easy to kill someone who has been immortal for 3000 years. 

Really, that's all you need to know. Either this premise is irresistible to you, or it's not. My 10-year-old self would certainly have fallen into the "irresistible" camp. I think that P. J. Hoover executed this premise well. She clearly did a ton of research about the ancient Egyptians and the mythology surrounding their gods (particularly Set, Isis, and Horus). She sets this research against elements of modern-day middle school, and the combination proves quite entertaining. 

Tut is an engaging character. Yes, he has a bit of an ego. He was raised to believe he was the most important person in his country, after all. He has these shabtis (little pottery soldiers) that serve him, and constantly prostrate themselves before him. The shabtis are hilarious, actually. It's a bit implausible, perhaps, that Tut has lived 3000 years and remains at the maturity level of a fourteen-year-old, but of course this makes the book work for the target audience, so we'll have to let that go. Ditto the question of whether one could really retain a red-hot hatred for someone over 3000 years. But Tut does display a certain world-weariness at times that rings true. 

Here is Tut's voice:

"Great Osiris, help me. I'd have skipped today if Gil hadn't insisted I come. Just thinking about this whole exhibit was starting to make my skin turn green. Yeah, green. It's this weird, thanks-to-Osiris thing that happens to me when I get nervous. But in my defense, these were the King Tut treasures we were talking about." (Page 33, ARC)

"If I had to be immortal, why couldn't I have been eighteen? Or twenty-one? Why did I have to be fourteen? It was perpetual puberty." (Page 39, ARC)

Being 14 forever is a pretty horrific thought to me as an adult. One more quote:

"We wound our way through the paths, stepping on graves as we went. That whole theory about never walking on someone's grave? It's a bunch of garbage. If graves weren't meant to be stepped on, they wouldn't still be on the ground. Still, with each step I took, my anxiety grew. The cemetery felt like a bucket of creepiness had been dumped on top of it, like ghosts and goblins lurked behind every grave, waiting to jump out at unsuspecting visitors." (Page 187, ARC)

Tut is constantly using expressions like "Great Amun." But he is modern, too, texting and using computers and so on. And he's realistic in his procrastination in terms of homework. I mean, if you were never going to advance to high school, why would you care what you learned in 8th grade? There's a boy named Henry who represents a more regular (albeit geeky) middle school sensibility (including anxiety about school assignments). Henry goes a long way, I think, towards keeping Tut accessible to young readers. 

The plotting in Tut is fast-paced and full of kid-friendly elements like hidden tunnels, mysterious artifacts, and poisonous snakes. While the immediate plot wraps up sufficiently, Tut leaves several questions open at the end of the book suggesting that at least one other story about Tut will follow. I hope so. Because the antics of a 14-year-old King Tut in modern-day DC are well worth another visit. Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life is a perfect choice to give to fans of Rick Riordan's books (Greek or Egyptian-themed), or anyone who likes to read about kids running around on their own, getting into danger. I think that Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life is going to do well

Publisher: Starscape (@MacKidsBooks)
Publication Date: September 16, 2014
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 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