117 posts categorized "Middle School" Feed

The Bronze Key (Magisterium, Book 3): Holly Black & Cassandra Clare

Book: The Bronze Key (Magisterium, Book 3)
Author: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Pages: 256
Age Range: 8-12


The Bronze Key is the third book in the five-book Magisterium series, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, following The Iron Trial and The Copper Gauntlet. This is a fine series for fans of middle grade fantasy. It has echoes of the Harry Potter series, but with plenty of unique attributes, too. We have a boy who is special (and connected intimately with someone evil) because of something that happened to him as a baby. We have a magical school, fleshed out via inventive world-building. We have two best friends, one male and one female. And we have, in this installment, an overhanging threat, a spy to be uncovered, and dating dynamics between young teens. Yes, this is a must-read series for fans of epic middle grade fantasy, school stories, and/or twisty plots. 

I don't feel the need to recap the plot of this third book. If you haven't read the first two, any description will contain spoilers for those. And if you have read the first two, you don't need me to tell you what to expect. You already want to read The Bronze Key. So I'll just say that The Bronze Key does not disappoint. I liked it better than the second book, probably because more of it takes place at the atmospheric Magisterium and I quite enjoy spending time there. Here it is:

"The caverns were humid but cool. Water dripped down from the jagged icicle stalactites to the melted-candle stalagmites below them. Sheets of gypsum hung from the ceiling, resembling banners and streamers from some long-forgotten party. Call walked past it all, past the damp flowstone and the pools shining with mica, where pale fish darted. He was so used to it that he longer found it to be particularly creepy." (Page 57)

Black and Clare are masterful at characterization (especially for main character Call), and at blending action, mystery, and humor. I especially like Call's dry, self-deprecating voice. Like these examples:

"Call knew they were in trouble when he saw there were chairs up on the dais. Chairs meant a long ceremony. He wasn't wrong. The ceremony went by in a blur, but it was an extended and boring blur." (Page 19)

"Yeah I've been..." Call's voice trailed off. He wondered if it was possible to have a conversation entirely in sentences that trailed off. If so, he and Celia were definitely on their way to an epic example." (Page 83)

I also appreciate the way that the authors incorporate Call's disability (from an infant leg injury) throughout, without making it feel like a big deal. Each of the characters has something that makes life difficult for them, but they continue moving forward. The dynamics between Call and his friends remain complex (particularly in light of developing dating interests, an area in which Call seems to lag a bit). 

Developments at the end of The Bronze Key left me surprised, and certainly wanting more. The Bronze Key is a strong addition to a solid series, one that will be, and should be, eagerly awaited by fans everywhere. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic) 
Publication Date: August 30, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

The Rosemary Spell: Virginia Zimmerman

Book: The Rosemary Spell
Author: Virginia Zimmerman
Pages: 280
Age Range: 10-12

The Rosemary Spell is a deliciously creepy supernatural mystery centered around a love of books. Only child Rosemary has grown up spending most of her time with her best friend Adam and Adam's older sister, Shelby. The three of them have always shared in particular a love of books, with Shelby the discoverer of many classics enjoyed by all three kids. Now, as Adam and Rosie hit middle school, Shelby is starting to pull away, drawn into activities and older friends. When Adam and Rosie discover an ancient book, however, a book with peculiar properties, it is Shelby who is endangered. Rosemary and Adam end up racing against the clock and tracking down clues from Shakespeare in an attempt to save her.

My favorite things about this book are:

  • The way that all of the main characters live and breathe books.
  • The friendship between Adam and Rosie, in particular the way that the length of time they've been friends enhances their relationship, as well as the way they are (mostly) loyal to one another.
  • The inclusion of a dynamic and engaging teacher for Adam and Rosie (a school project forms a key part of the story).
  • Adam's somewhat OCD personality (he has a compulsive need to put things in order, and has to have all of his food separated). He's not stated as having obsessive compulsive disorder, or being on the autism spectrum, but he's definitely a bit outside of the mainstream. I also love how Rosie accepts him for who he is, just as he accepts that she won't, for example, be nearly as tidy as he is.
  • The close relationship between Rosie and her single mother, portrayed even as Rosie doesn't let her mother in on the mystery.
  • The inclusion of visits to an elderly poet living with Alzheimers Disease in a local nursing home.  

Here are a couple of quotes to give you a feel for the book: 

"There's one shelf. On the shelf is a book. An old book.

A secret, ancient book! Authors I love appear in my mind. E. Nesbit leaps up and down with excitement, and J. K. Rowling raises an eyebrow." (Page 18)


"Sometimes I recognize younger Adams in his face. The one that looks at me now, all eager and earnest, is about five and sincerely believe that we can build a secret tunnel between our houses. Adam's faith that people might leave ancient books hidden in cupboards for future generations to find is infectious. I believe he could be right." (Page 24)


"Mom and I make dinner together and read a little on the couch before bed. I nudge her toes with mine. She looks up, in that daze of being lost in a book.

"We're sifting words." I echo Constance.

Delight breaks her daze. "Together." (Page 94)

The Rosemary Spell is a musing on memory and friendship, wrapped into a suspenseful adventure, laced through with poetry. It has a little something for everyone, and would make a great addition to any classroom, school, or public library serving 10 to 12 year olds. I would have absolutely adored it as a 10 year old, and read in a single day as an adult. Highly recommended, especially for fans of books, mysteries, or magic. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: December 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

Lily and Dunkin: Donna Gephart

Book: Lily and Dunkin
Author: Donna Gephart
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10 and up

I probably would not have picked up Lily and Dunkin if I were not a fan of Donna Gephart's work. Books that overtly tackle sensitive subject make me wary. It's too easy for them to become preachy, or just boring. But Donna Gephart has a real knack for getting at the heart of things, while keeping the characters at the forefront, and adding enough humor. I read the first chapter of Lily and Dunkin, and found that I wanted to keep reading. I ended up reading it in one sitting. The ending even made me a bit teary-eyed. And I feel like I now have a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by both transgender and bipolar kids. 

So, Lily and Dunkin is a dual first-person narrative about a girl named Lily, born into a boy's body, and a boy named Dunkin, struggling with both bipolar disorder and the absence of his father. Lily (aka Tim) has known since she was very small that she wants to be a girl. Her mother and sister are reasonably supportive, but her father and grandmother are having a much difficult time accepting her wishes. She is bullied at school, despite not having yet come out as transgender. Her best friend is pushing her to be herself (wear dresses to school, etc.), but she (and her father) are afraid of the consequences. 

Here's Lily, after her sister shows off some caps she is knitting for premature babies: 

""That's cool," I say. But all I can think about is how the whole boy-girl color code is determined right from birth. The moment a baby comes into the world, someone decides whether the baby gets a pink hat or a blue hat, based on the baby's body. Not brain. Why can't they put a neutral color hat on the baby and wait to see what happens?" (Page 73)

Dunkin (aka Norbert) has just moved to Lily's South Florida neighborhood from New Jersey, and isn't sure how he will fit in. He and his mother are living with his fitness-crazed Jewish grandmother, having fallen on hard times. Dunkin speaks of having left his father in New Jersey, with the gradually revealed implication that is father is in a mental health facility. Dunkin takes medication for his own bipolar disorder, but resists seeing a psychiatrist. His up and down moods are revealed masterfully through his first person viewpoint. 

Here's Dunkin, on his first day a a new school:

"At lunch, I hold the orange plastic tray in a death grip, wishing again that Phineas were here. Mom wouldn't like it if she knew I were thinking that, but I hate navigating this loud, crowed, foul-smelling cafeteria alone. The good energy of feeling a part of everything in math class has completely evaporated." (Page 90)

Although the narrators for the different sections of the book are not identified, I never had any trouble distinguishing Lily's voice from Tim's. That said, this would make a great dual-narrator audiobook, if you could find someone with the right androgynous voice for Lily. 

As in Gephart's Death by Toilet Paper, there's a lot going on in the background here. A bit of environmental activism over a favorite tree, coping with the loss of a grandparent, dealing with bullying, changing oneself in order to fit in, bringing a third person into a best friend relationship, and striving for healthy eating and fitness. There are random acts of quirkiness (decorated plastic flamingos left strategically around the neighborhood), a t-shirt shop that makes chronic and humorous production errors, and a few Yiddish expressions. The mugginess of the Florida setting virtually emanates from the page. But the heart of Lily and Dunkin is the relationships between the various characters, particularly the title characters. 

I think that Lily and Dunkin belongs in all libraries that serve upper middle grade and middle school kids. I believe that this book has the potential to open people's eyes about what it's like to be transgender, and also about what it's like to be mentally struggling in some way. The quirky trappings of the book, and the purity of the first-person perspectives, keep Lily and Dunkin from reading like an "issue book". I also appreciated Gephart's soft touch in the resolution of Lily's bullying - there is no magic wand ending that situation, which I think is realistic, but we do gain a bit of insight into the challenges of the primary bully. Highly recommended, and a book that will certainly stay with me. 

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: May 3, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter: Beth Fantaskey

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: March 1, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams (@AbramsKids)
Publication Date: January 12, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tiara on the Terrace: Kristen Kittscher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death by Toilet Paper: Donna Gephart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Orbiting Jupiter: Gary D. Schmidt

Book: Orbiting Jupiter
Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Pages: 192
Age Range: 12 and up

Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now is one of my favorite YA novels. I've also read and enjoyed several of his other books. So I was pleased to get my hands on an advance copy of Schmidt's upcoming YA novel, Orbiting Jupiter. It's a slim book with (in the ARC anyway) plenty of white space - a very quick read. But wow, does Orbiting Jupiter pack a punch. 

Orbiting Jupiter is told from the perspective of 12-year-old Jack, who lives with his parents on a small dairy farm in Maine, during the winter that Jack's family fosters a youth named Joseph. Joseph has an intimidating history. He took some sort of drug in school and, not in his right mind, tried to kill a teacher. He was sent to a juvenile facility called Stone Mountain. And, at 14 years old, he has a three month old daughter. All of this is revealed in the first chapter of Orbiting Jupiter, though Jack and the reader don't come to understand the details of Joseph's story until much later. 

Joseph is a damaged, complex character. But the cows like him, so Jack and his parents are more than ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. So are a couple of teachers at Jack's middle school, though most shun Joseph and/or consider him a trouble-maker. Personally, I was reeled in by the first chapter, unable to put Orbiting Jupiter down until I had finished it. I had to know what would happen to Joseph. My heart ached for him, and broke for him. 

Schmidt's writing style is spare - not every detail is captured. For example, we never learn why Jack's family decided to take in a foster child. Schmidt just launches into the specifics about Joseph. But this makes the 12 year old narrator more convincing, I think. Jack tells us about what he thinks is important, at the level that he's able to understand and talk things. Like this (a confrontation between Jack's father and Joseph's father):

"My father put his glasses back on and they looked at each other for a while. Then Joseph's father said a few words I'm not allowed to say, and he looked at me. When my father took a step toward him, he said a few more words I'm not allowed to say, and left.

Dahlia was watching the whole time. If Joseph's father had come within range, you know he'd have limped out of that barn.

Like I said, you can tell a whole lot about someone from the way cows are around him." (Chapter 2)

Other things to like about Orbiting Jupiter:

  • Jack's parents are great. Supportive but taking no nonsense, expecting both boys to work, and teaching them how, but also encouraging fun. They're the kind of people who, in the least didactic way possible, make you just want to be a better person. 
  • The small town setting is convincing. The suspicion that people display towards Joseph feels realistic. The Maine weather plays a significant role. 
  • There's a completely timeless quality to Orbiting Jupiter. No cell phones. No instant messages. Nothing like that. Just pure story. 

There is some mature content in Orbiting Jupiter. We know that Joseph has had sex, and it's clear pretty early on that he has been physically and possibly sexually abused. But these things (particularly the sexual abuse) are alluded to, rather than being directly addressed. Kids who aren't ready for them could, I think, gloss over them to some extent. Still, it's clearly YA and not middle grade, despite the middle school setting.  

I think that Orbiting Jupiter would make a wonderful pick for reluctant teen readers. High school libraries simply must stock it. But the combination of compelling characters, realistic suspense, and taut writing makes Orbiting Jupiter a book that should please any discerning reader (12 and up). Highly recommended, and a book that I will not forget. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: October 6, 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 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).

The Ghost in the Glass House: Carey Wallace

Book: The Ghost in the Glass House
Author: Carey Wallace
Pages: 240
Age Range: 12 and up

The Ghost in the Glass House by Carey Wallace is set in a seaside resort town in the 1920's. 12-year-old Clare and her mother rent a summer house that has an octagonal glass house on the grounds. In the glass house dwells, as promised by the title, a ghost. The Ghost in the Glass House explores Clare's growing friendship with the ghost (a boy who doesn't remember his real name), as well as her interactions with her widowed mother and four friends (all of whose families travel the resort circuit of the idle wealthy, and rent houses near to one another from season to season).

I had thought, based on the title and the relatively brief length, that The Ghost in the Glass House was a middle grade novel. But it does contain some relatively mature content. Clare's friend's father is a known adulterer. There are tense crushes between the various teens (Clare is the youngest, others range up to 15), some implied, offscreen sexual behavior, and a bit of underage drinking by the older kids. I still think it would be ok for a mature middle schooler. And it's certainly tame compared to much of today's YA. But it wasn't quite what I had expected. 

Still, The Ghost in the Glass House is creepy and atmospheric. There's a mystery about the boy. Who he is. Why he's stuck as a ghost in the glass house. Why the housekeeper of the rental house wants Clare to stay away from the glass house. There's also tension around the developing relationships between the kids/teens. And emotional depth tied to the fact that Clare just wants to go home to her own house, which her mother has been avoiding since her father died. 

The Ghost in the Glass House provides a bit of a window into the life of privileged families in the 1920's, though it's not all that detailed. I'm not sure how much modern readers will relate to the boredom and complaints of Clare and her friends. But Wallace includes some subtle substance. The housekeeper is a complex character, never fully revealed. There's a hint that one of the boys has feelings for another boy, though Clare doesn't recognize this as anything comprehensible (as she wouldn't). 

Here's the description of the glass house:

"At first glance, the glass house was a riot of reflections: sky and cloud, white brick, the pale underbellies of leaves. Then it resolved into a simple dome held together by copper beams gone green from exposure to wine and rain. It sat about fifty paces from the big white brick house she and her mother were moving into that day. A stand of young maples shades the glass walls, which were further screened by climbing roses that crept all the way up to the slanted panes of the roof." (Page 2)

And here's Clare's friend Bridget:

""The ocean never stops," Bridget complained, staring out at the dark surf beyond he circle of light from the fire they'd build on the beach. "Not even when the sun goes down. It's like some awful machine that works all night and doesn't make anything."

"You've suffered so much," Teddy (her brother) said. "I don't know how you bear it."" (Page 62)

And finally, here's a bit of insight into Clare, who is occasionally profound:

"Clare had the same sensation she got when she heard people rattle off travelers' rumors about a place Clare had actually been: the realization that she already knew more than the adult who was pretending to educate her. She didn't like the feeling, but she was getting used to it. It bothered her most in moments like this, when she didn't know the answer herself and needed one." (Page 85)

The Ghost in the Glass House will appeal to anyone who enjoys ghost stories, as well as to fans of historical fiction. It would make a good step-up book for kids who have read Mary Downing Hahn's books, but aren't quite ready for graphic YA. The Ghost in the Glass House is a subtle ghost story with a strong protagonist and a relatively uncommon historical setting. I think that my own 11-12 year old self would have enjoyed it very much. As I did today. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: September 3, 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).

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)


"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).