135 posts categorized "Middle School" Feed

Death and Douglas: J. W. Ocker

Book: Death and Douglas
Author: J. W. Ocker
Pages: 372
Age Range: 8-12

DeathAndDouglasDeath and Douglas by J. W. Ocker is a well-written middle grade murder mystery full of both atmosphere and black humor. Douglas, the protagonist, lives with his parents in the family mortuary. When a serial killer strikes his small town, Douglas and two friends (one the son of the local police chief) take it upon themselves to investigate. Naturally, they get a bit more than they bargained for. 

Douglas is an unusual character. He wears suits and neckties most of the time. He attends funerals partly to help, but mostly as a hobby. His favorite place to hang out is the local graveyard, where the two gravediggers call him Spadeful. The gravediggers regale him with tales of monsters and vampires, which the impressionable Douglas at least partially believes. Douglas, raised in a funeral home, understands that death is a natural outcome of life. However, he finds murder, the deliberate causing of death, shocking. 

There's a mix of introspection (about the nature of murder, about whether Douglas wants to grow up to continue the family business, etc.) and action (sneaking out of the house at midnight, venturing down into the mortuary workroom to look for clues, etc.) in Death and Douglas. The stories from the gravediggers and the general atmosphere of the book made me wonder for a time if Death and Douglas was a fantasy, but it stays just to the reality side of the line. But it's certainly on the over the top side.

What made Death and Douglas stand out for me was Ocker's writing. I could select practically any page to give you an example of a deft description or surprising insight. I stopped highlighting about 1/4 of the way through the book. Here are a couple of examples:

"A small black crow of a boy leaned against the roof of a dead man. The boy's features, where they were black, were extremely black, and where they were pale, extremely pale. A carefully combed slick of thick black hair defined his northern border, three parallel off-shoots of which angled across his forehead like they had been gouged there by the claw of a cat." (Page 1) 

and:

"Around him, Cowlmouth was starting to kindle its autumn fires. It was still early September, and only a few impatient trees lifted a red- or yellow-flaming torch in the midst of their mostly green branches. In another few weeks, every birch, every elm, and every oak would be in full five-alarm conflagration before finally fading to brown and being buried under snow for the winter." (Page 16)

and:

"Murder, that was different. Murder was a puzzle to be solved in stories. A word to be ignored on the boring newscasts his father like to watch. Murder was an adult word. A coffee-drinker's word. The type archaically printed in newspapers. It didn't have a meaning in real life. Not in Douglas's real life, anyway. Not in Douglas's Cowlmouth." (Page 42)

"Coffee-drinkers" is used throughout the book to refer to adults. "What the hockey sticks" is used, by Douglas's best friend Lowell, instead of "What the hell." There's just enough insider-jargon to make readers feel like they are part of the little group that consists of Douglas, Lowell, and new friend Audrey. It's a fun book to read, in terms of writing and characters. Cowlmouth is practically a character, too, a quirky small town with a big carnival, a place where residents go all out for Halloween. You get the sense as a reader that the author put in a considerable amount of time thinking about the setting and characters before writing the book. 

Although Death and Douglas is written in such a way to be accessible to younger readers (Amazon lists it for 8 and up, and I don't disagree), I wouldn't give this to a particularly sensitive, nightmare-prone child. There are real murders that take place, and kids in peril. For most kids, I think that the book is over-the-top enough to not feel real, and thus not feel too scary. For me, it was an enjoyable read, well-written and memorable. Recommended! 

Publisher:  Sky Pony Press 
Publication Date: October 31, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans: Russell Ginns

Book: Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans
Author: Russell Ginns
Illustrator: Barbara Fisinger
Pages: 256
Age Range: 8-12

SamanthaSpinnerSamantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans by Russell Ginns is the first book in a new madcap adventure series for middle grade readers. Samantha's Uncle Paul, who lives in an apartment above her family's garage, disappears one day. He leaves behind $2.4 billion for her older sister, the deed and player contracts for the New York Yankees for her younger brother. For Samantha he leaves ... a battered red umbrella.

After spending a few weeks moping about the unfairness of this, Samantha, with help from her little brother, Nipper, eventually figures out that the umbrella contains a secret map of the world. Samantha and Nipper set out on a quest to find out what happened to Uncle Paul. In the process they uncover super-cool modes of transportation, visit important cultural landmarks, and encounter dangerous and smelly ninjas, a mummy, and several stolen artifacts. Bet you didn't know that there's a secret hatch accessible from the Eiffel Tower that sends one down into a giant pneumatic tube. 

I enjoyed this book, but I think I would have loved it as a 10-year-old. In addition to the puzzles within the story, an appendix at the end reveals a series of puzzles that readers can go back and solve. The kids have essentially no adult supervision. And even the parts of the story that are just about Spinner family life are over-the-top and/or quirky. Like this:

"Samantha thought again about their family trip to Pacific Pandemonium. The visit had been cut short after Nipper insisted that Samantha sit next to him on the Holy-cow-a-bunga! roller coaster over and over again. After times around the winding, flipping, twisting track, Samantha had had enough and got off. Nipper stayed on and rode the Holy-cow-a-bunga! nine more times. Then he barfed mightily and the staff had to close the attraction while they cleaned out the car. The Spinners left the park right after that." (Page 58)

Chapter Twenty-Two is titled "Exceptionally Gross". And it is. I think that kids, especially boys, will love it, though. Between chapters there are excerpts from Samantha's journal, in which she explains the hidden secrets that they find around the world, like a chairlift that goes from Machu Picchu to Lima, Peru. These excerpts are in a different font, and written in a reporter-like tone that contrasts with the regular text (as above). For example:

"There is a hidden magtrain station in Seattle. It is located near Volunteer Park, about two miles from downtown. The entrance is below an ordinary-looking mailbox across from the brick water tower. 

Grasp the handle of the mailbox door and open it all the way. Hold it open for at least ten seconds, or until you hear the motor engage, before you let it close. Repeat this two more times. The ground beneath the mailbox will rise slowly, revealing a staircase." (Page 53)

There are also intermittent black and white illustrations, some of maps and plans included in the journal, and others picture of Samantha and Nipper and their adventures. The latter contribute to the reader's understanding of the sibling relationship between the two kids. 

Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans ends with the start of the siblings' next adventure, presumably releasing next year. I think this series is a fun addition to the ranks of adventure stories for kids. Ginns definitely crosses the line into fantasy throughout the book, but it's still heavily grounded in the real world (and full of interesting tidbits about the world, too). This is one that I'll save for my daughter to read in a couple of years. Recommended for elementary and middle school libraries.  

Publisher: Delacorte Press (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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 Van Gogh Deception: Deron Hicks

Book: The Van Gogh Deception
Author: Deron Hicks
Pages: 320
Age Range: 10-12

VanGoghDeceptionThe Van Gogh Deception by Deron Hicks is a suspenseful, smart, fast-paced mystery for middle grade readers. The story begins when a boy with amnesia is discovered one December day in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. When the boy, dubbed Art, is sent to temporary foster care, he meets Camille, a strong-willed young red-head. It turns out, however, that dangerous people are looking for Art. Soon he and Camille find themselves on the run, trying to solve the mystery of Art's past and determine whether or not a recently discovered Van Gogh is real or fake. 

Classic art, and the way it might be forged, is discussed throughout the story. There are QR codes included in the book, wherever a famous piece of art is mentioned. Readers can scan the codes to bring up a picture of each artwork. I didn't personally need that distraction after looking at one or two, but I'm sure this will be fun for many young readers. 

What makes The Van Gogh Deception fun for me is the quick-wittedness of Art and Camille, and the fast pace of their adventures. Art, though he can't remember anything about himself, knows a lot about art, and he has instincts that cause his pursuers to liken him to Jason Bourne. Camille, while lacking Art's educational background, is a firebrand and a loyal friend, a more than worthy sidekick for Art. The characters of the Camille's mother and a concerned police detective are also strong, though Hicks never lets them take over the story, or do any real rescuing. Even the bad guy is intriguing, definitely not a one-note criminal stereotype. 

I read this book so quickly that I didn't stop to flag any quotable passages. But it's unquestionably cerebral as well as action-packed, perfect for mystery fans of all ages (10 and up). 

The Van Gogh Deception belongs in libraries serving upper middle grade and middle school readers everywhere. It has a great cover, and an irresistible premise (amnesia is always compelling, as is art theft/forgery). Highly recommended, and one I will be passing on to my daughter when she is just a bit older. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: August 29, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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 Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade: Jordan Sonnenblick

Book: The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade
Author: Jordan Sonnenblick
Pages: 208
Age Range: 9-12

SecretSheriffThe Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade is the latest middle grade novel by Jordan Sonnenblick, who has a gift for using humor to take the edge of off difficult subjects (having a sibling with cancer, e.g.). In The Secret Sheriff, Sonnenblick introduces readers to sixth grader Maverick Falconer. Maverick lives in poverty with his alcoholic mom, his dad having been killed in the line of military duty. In addition to coping with his mother's benders and her abusive boyfriend, Maverick struggles with being much shorter than average (mild implication of fetal alcohol syndrome), and with being the target of bully Bowen. Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, Maverick decides at the start of the school year that he's going to be a secret sheriff, looking for opportunities to help people. Things don't go as planned, however, and Maverick ends up in the vice principal's office twice on the very first day. 

Without being heavy-handed about, Sonnenblick includes plenty of details that make the challenges of Maverick's situation clear. He can't afford the $10 fee for gym clothes. The vice principal can't call his mother in because she doesn't have a car, and might not be sober. His hamster is missing a foot, a damaged animal that a kind-hearted pet shop owner gave to child who couldn't afford an unmarked pet. And lots more. Here are a couple of examples, in Maverick's voice:

"As far as I could figure it, anybody with two parents had nothing i the world to complain about. It was a little hard to be sure, though. I hadn't had a father since I was three. All I even had to remember him by was a cheap little plastic sheriff's star he had bought me at a beachside souvenir shop on the last day I had ever spent with him. I vaguely remember that I had been angry about something, and he'd gotten me the star to cheer me up." (Page 8)

"I had heard of fresh berries and cream. Fresh berries and cream sounded awesome. Fresh anything sounded awesome. We never had fresh food in our house. Or even cooked food. The only time my mom lit a stove burner was when she ran out of matches and needed to fire up a cigarette." (Page 10)

But there's humor, too. Like this:

"A massive hand tapped me on the shoulder. I whirled and literally banged into the protruding stomach of the largest man I had ever seen in my life. He had to be at least six and a half feet tall, with super-broad shoulders, that big belly, a bushy red handlebar mustache, and wild red hair. If Santa Claus had married a Viking queen, their firstborn son would have looked like this dude." (Page 21)

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade also features excellent characterization. No one is all bad or all good, though one has to look pretty hard to find the good in some of them. I especially appreciated the nuances of the vice principal (the Santa/Viking hybrid described above). Maverick has an aunt who is able to provide something of a safety net for him, but even she has her quirks. 

I think that The Secret Sheriff would be an excellent read for middle schoolers, providing a window (or mirror) into poverty and substance abuse, but also providing constructive ideas about making the world (or at least one's school) better. I'll be happy to have my daughter read this book when she's a bit older - it may make her a bit more appreciative of having two parents, and being able to afford things like new sneakers when she needs them. And if not, she'll probably still enjoy Maverick's scrapes. Recommended, and a must for middle school libraries. 

Publisher: Scholastic  (@Scholastic
Publication Date: August 29, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Who Killed Darius Drake?: Rodman Philbrick

Book: Who Killed Darius Drake?
Author: Rodman Philbrick
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

DariusDrakeWho Killed Darius Drake? by Rodman Philbrick is a rare realistic middle grade mystery that involves a potential murder. Narrator Arthur Bash (aka Bash Man) is a misunderstood bully who hires himself out for candy bars. When orphaned genius geek Darius Drake hires Arthur to help with a quest, the two become incongruous friends. With a bit of help from Arthur's wealthy, put-together stepsister, the boys end up involved with multiple ex-cons, searching for a long-missing diamond necklace. 

Arthur is a great character, with a much more sensitive soul than anyone seeing his large body and scowling face would imagine. Here are a couple of quotes to show you his personality:

"I knew about the home (for orphans)--everybody does, all the kids--but this is my first time inside it. No surprise, the place creeps me out a little. Not because it's spooky or scary, nothing like that. It's actually kind of cheerful, in a sad-but-trying way. But it made me think, what if it was me? What if both my parents died and nobody wanted me? Like that." (Chapter Three)

"The air smells of leather and old books. I must be some kind of weirdo, because to me that's a good smell." (Chapter Nine)

"Silence. If only I could melt into the flood, or turn invisible, or maybe go deaf. Because hearing them talk around each other is like getting poked with a sharp stick. It hurts in familiar places, even though I'm not an orphan like Darius, or a felon like Winston Brooks..." (Chapter Nineteen)

Darius is also interesting. He's bright and prickly and socially awkward, and determined to figure things out using inductive reasoning. His awkwardness around the attractive Deirdre is disarming. The way he gradually comes to appreciate Arthur for more than his bulk feels realistic. 

The plot of Who Killed Darius Drake? is suspenseful and fast-paced. There's an old-fashioned feel to the book, with the boys doing library research and scrolling through microfiche, despite the presence of modern trappings like a GoPro camera. This is either because the seeds of the mystery lie in the past or because of Philbrick's writing style. Some modern details aside, Who Killed Darius Drake? feels like a book that I would have gobbled down when I was ten years old. I do expect it to be a hit with today's kids, too. 

Any kid (or adult) who enjoys quest-type mysteries, with clues gradually revealed through research, will enjoy Who Killed Darius Drake? Although this is clearly a standalone novel, I personally would be more than happy to run across Arthur, Darius, and Deirdre again in the future. Recommended!

Publisher: The Blue Sky Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 26, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


The Daybreak Bond: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Daybreak Bond (Firefly Code #2)
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 352
Age Range: 8-12

DayBreakBondThe Daybreak Bond is the sequel to Megan Frazer Blakemore's The Firefly Code (my review). Both books are about a group of children who live in a protected community in a dystopian future suburban Boston. The children are partially genetically engineered, some more than others. Narrator Mori is a "natural" in that she wasn't designed, but she has had some modifications to improve her vision. She also has had a modification that she laments, to make her less brave (so that she won't take risks).

Mori's friend Ilana, on the other hand (SPOILER for the first book) was completely created in a lab. And now Ilana's creators have decided, because of a few glitches, to destroy her. Mori and her friends Theo, Julia, and Benji escape New Harmonie on a quest to take Julia to a scientist in Cambridge, who they believe will help. The Daybreak Bond covers the kids' journey through a perilous outside world that none of them has previously visited. 

The Daybreak Bond has lots of nods to Boston, most of which fly over the heads of Mori and her friends, but which I found entertaining. These include a boy wearing a hat with a shamrock on the back, an automated boat called "Tessie" that crossed the Charles River, and an old woman who refers to the children as "my ducklings." Mori and her friends are also quite surprised to encounter Concord children who do strange things in pronouncing, and not pronouncing, their R's. 

I especially liked how Blakemore handled the children's encounters with the kids from outside, actually. Mori and her friends have grown up protected, told that the people outside of New Harmonie are diseased, and not as bright as they are. Only gradually do they learn that the people outside of their town have strengths of their own. The interpersonal dynamics between Mori and her friends are also interesting, particularly as she confronts the fact that her taller, stronger "designed" friends seem almost compelled to protect her. She, and they, struggle throughout the books with questions of design vs. free will. 

I also liked how Mori's friend Julia calls the adults in their world on preaching one thing and doing another. Like this:

"I was thinking about the people who built Ilana. I was thinking how they all worked together on this project and when it started to go wrong, they didn't really take responsibility. They just tried to shut her down, to hide their mistakes. And that's like the exact opposite of what they teach us. When you make a mistake, you have to own it." (Page 94)

Most of the adults in The Daybreak Bond are weak and/or flawed. But the kids are multi-dimensional, with strengths and weaknesses, bonds and tensions. And with the kids on a quest through a dangerous futuristic landscape for most of the book, they are the ones who matter. 

The Daybreak Bond is a worth sequel to The Firefly Code. It has suspense and humor. But most of all, it will make kids think. It's science fiction about genetic engineering that raises big questions in an age-appropriate way, and has characters that young readers will care about. Recommended for anyone who enjoys science fiction or quest novels, and a must-read for fans of the first book. (And yes, do read the first book before reading this one.)

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books  
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


The Bodyguard Series: Chris Bradford

Books: The Bodyguard #1: Recruit, The Bodyguard #2: Hostage, The Bodyguard #3: Hijack, and The Bodyguard #4: Ransom
Author: Chris Bradford
Pages: 272, 224, 272, 224
Age Range: 10 and up

BodyguardBooks1to4Over the past couple of weekends I binge-read the first four books in Chris Bradford's Bodyguard series (helpfully released all together by the publisher for just such a purpose). The Bodyguard series is about a British teen named Connor Reeves who is recruited into a secret organization called Guardian. Guardian trains teens to act as stealthy bodyguards, especially for teenagers, providing a last line of defense that bad guys will never suspect.

The first four books actually consist of two separate adventures, each broken up across two books and marked by, of course, a cliffhanger in between. In both cases I found the first book, involving descriptions of training, as well as introduction of Principals (protectees), to be a little slow. The conclusions, however (books 2 and 4) were fast-paced and suspenseful. I read each of those in a single sitting. They have short chapters, and occasional surprising twists, making them a good fit for reluctant YA readers. 

In the first book, Connor learns that his father, who died when Connor was eight, was a military bodyguard who died in the line of duty. This understanding, combined with the Guardian program's offer of help for Connor's ailing mother and aging grandmother, pulls the boy in. He is, of course, a natural, though he makes mistakes, and has rivalries with the others from his team of Guardian trainees. He also struggles once or twice with flirtatious interest from his Principals (who are attractive teenage girls in both stories), though he also is interested in Charley, a wheelchair-bound slightly girl from his Guardian team.   

The books offer a fair bit of luxury, with descriptions of the trappings of rich, beautiful, powerful people. These are set against dangerous elements, including terrorists and pirates (the two primary types of organizations that kidnap the children of rich, powerful people, of course). While I personally found the descriptions of Connor's training less than enthralling, young readers who have read fewer adult thrillers than I have will likely find them more interesting, with tidbits about alert levels and self defense. And certainly young readers will be on the edge of their seats at the dramatic climaxes of both storylines.

The Bodyguard series is aimed squarely at fans of the Young Bond series and other relatively PG thrillers. It's timely, with a focus on terrorists and other dangers. There are deaths, but none of them (besides that of Connor's dad) are heartbreaking. There are plenty of guns and other weapons, as well as miraculous tech tools (bulletproof t-shirt anyone?). In short, these books are pure summer reading fun for kids age 10 and up. Recommended, and well worth a look for libraries serving middle schoolers.  

Publisher:  Philomel Books
Publication Date: May 9, 2017
Source of Book: Review copies from the publisher

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


Serafina and the Splintered Heart: Robert Beatty

Book: Serafina and the Splintered Heart
Author: Robert Beatty
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12

SerafinaSplinteredHeartSerafina and the Splintered Heart is the third book in Robert Beatty's Serafina series (after Serafina and the Black Cloak and Serafina and the Twisted Staff). There is little that I can say about the plot of this third book that won't give something away about the plot. Suffice it to say that the book starts with heroine Serafina in peril and continues by mixing strange supernatural events with brave action. Adversaries and friends from previous books play their parts. 

Serafina and the Splintered Heart is a bit sadder than the previous books. Readers who found those books too scary or too dark may want to wait on this one. But for those who loved the first two books, as I did, Serafina and the Splintered Heart does not disappoint. It is suspenseful, creative, and occasionally profound. Serafina is a compelling character who readers will continue to root for. 

As in the previous two books, the Biltmore estate is almost a character in the story. Beatty slips in tidbits about George Vanderbilt's dreams for the estate, as well as other historical notes about the time period. A fun one is when Serafina sees an automobile for the first time, and thinks (having seen sorcery in her life) that it must be something enchanted. 

There's not much I can quote without spoilers, but here are a couple of passages, to give a feel for Beatty's ever-improving writing:

"She had always been able to see things other people could not, especially in the dark of night, but tonight there seemed to be a special magic in the forest. It felt as if she could actually see the evening flowers slowly opening their petals to the moon and the glint of starlight on the iridescent wings of the insects. She felt the caress of the air as it slipped through the branches of the trees, around her body, and against her skin. She sensed the stony firmness of the earth and rock on which she stood." (Chapter 5, ARC)

and:

"The thought of it put a twisting knot in the pit of her stomach. But the truth was, she had run out of other paths to take. Her pa had told her once that true courage wasn't because you didn't feel fear. True courage was when you were scared of something, but you did it anyway because it needed to be done.... she had to stay bold." (Chapter 19, ARC)

Serafina and the Splintered Heart is a dark, Gothic story with an intriguing, three dimensional setting, strong characters, and a sinuous plot. Fans of the first two books will definitely want to read this one. Those new to the series should, of course, start at the beginning. But if the idea of a girl with unusual powers taking on mysterious enemies in and around an enormous, famous estate piques your interest, you should certainly give the Serafina books a look. Highly recommended for kids as well as adults. 

Publisher: Disney Hyperion 
Publication Date: July 3, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


Lights, Camera, Middle School: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

Book: Lights, Camera, Middle School! (Babymouse: Tales from the Locker, Book 1)
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Illustrator: Matthew Holm
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

BabymouseLockerLights, Camera, Middle School! is the first title of a new novel / notebook novel / graphic novel hybrid series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm featuring Babymouse, now in middle school. Although Babymouse is in middle school, I think that readers of this series will begin in elementary school. My seven-year-old, who is out of town with my husband, asked me to read it to her over the phone. I declined. But I'm certain she'll read it when she can. 

Anyway, Lights, Camera, Middle School! begins as Babymouse is acclimating to middle school. She has a few friends (especially BFF Wilson) from elementary school, but she's struggling to adjust to things like the cafeteria, and the quest for popularity. She wants fame, but she also wants to be herself and to be appreciated. She still has issues with monsters in her locker, and being on time for class. When it comes time to sign up for some sort of Club, Babymouse decides on film club. She ends up the director of the student film (an epic saga), and finds the experience to be challenging but ultimately character-building. 

Here are a couple of snippets:

"If this was a monster movie, Felicia would be a Zombie. At middle school, Zombies traveled in packs and dressed the same. Instead of hunting brains, they wanted stuff: whatever was cool and "in." It could be wedge sandals or ruffled scarves or sparkly lip gloss. They just had to have it." (Page 5)

This is accompanied by a sketch of four zombies in wedge sandals moaning "STUUUFFFFFFF!!!!" and the like. 

Also:

"Chapter 2: Laws of the Jungle Cafeteria

The hardest subject in middle school wasn't science or social studies or literature. 

It was friendship.

And there was no textbook or helpful study guide. In elementary school, if kids didn't like you, they were just flat-out mean. But here, figuring out who your friends were was harder than a quadratic equation.

And I had a failing grade."

Graphic elements in the book range from full-page, multi-panel comic to full-page illustrations to small cartoon-like images included with the text (like a muffin with a face crying "ButI'm so lovable!" after the movie's star rejects muffins in favor of fresh croissants. The characters from the Babymouse graphic novels have grow up ever-so-slightly. Babymouse is taller and thinner, but otherwise looks (and acts) pretty much the way kids will expect. 

The text has plenty of dialog, short paragraphs, and bolding, along with the occasional French phrase, making it a nice transition book for kids who are not excited about reading something too text-dense. There’s a cute product placement for the Holm siblings’ Squish series (which Babymouse’s little brother Squeak enjoys). Fans of the Squish books will get a kick out of it. Although there's no interior color, there are cute heart and star symbols providing within-chapter section breaks. There are also occasional lists and other written supporting materials, in notebook novel style.

In short, you have the familiar and lovable characters from the long-running Babymouse early graphic novel series experiencing slightly more grown-up problems now that they are in middle school, and with the addition of some narrative and notebook novel-style text. If this isn't the perfect, seamless next step for fans who are ready to progress from the quick graphic novel reads, then I don't know what is.Highly recommended, and a must-purchase for libraries serving middle grade and younger middle school readers.

I wonder if we'll ever progress to reading about Babymouse in high school...  

Publisher: Random House (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: July 4, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Emily and the Spellstone: Michael Rubens

Book: Emily and the Spellstone
Author: Michael Rubens
Pages: 288
Age Range: 9-12

EmilySpellstoneEmily and the Spellstone is a middle grade / middle school fantasy novel by Michael Rubins, one that could be the first of a series. The fantasy elements are layered over middle school angst, including bullying, and shared in an over-the-top style. 12-year-old Emily is having a tough time, after moving cross-country with her family. She misses her friends, doesn't like her new home, is ignored by her older sister and tormented by her six-year-old brother, and is bullied by mean girl Kristy. All of these problems fade into the background, however, when Emily discovers a mysterious stone device on the beach that turns out to be a powerful Stone. The Stone contains an enslaved demon-like creature who must become Emily's servant, but also attracts interest from an evil and powerful family living in another dimension. 

I found the fantasy elements of Emily and the Spellstone to be creative and tween-friendly.  The Stone is basically a magical cell phone, filled with apths that Emily could control, if she could understand them. There's a Librarian who understands magic (though she's not able to be a huge amount of help), and a surprisingly good-natured demonic creature. There are clone versions of Emily and her brother that are cooperative to the point of worrying everyone around them. It's all in good fun.

I could relate to Emily as an extremely reluctant heroine. Here's a snippet that tells you everything you need to know about her personality:

"Adventure, she had learned, was an adult code word that actually meant "disruption and discomfort and change," none of which Emily was partial to. Last year in school the students had had to create personal profiles. Under hobbies Emily put hibernating and collecting rocks. Hibernating because Emily's idea of an ideal evening was to wrap herself up in a cozy blanket and read a book (preferably one without too much adventure.) Collecting rocks because she had a vague affection for geology: it was for the most part stable and slow-moving and trustworthy and comforting." (Page 3)

I also quite liked Angela, the only person at her new school to befriend Emily:

"She was quiet, observant, serious. The sort of student of whom other students might say, Oh, right, her. What was her name again?" (Page 50) 

Rubens' understanding of middle school social dynamics seems apt, if hopefully slightly exaggerated. Similarly with Emily's relationship with her clueless parents and annoying siblings. Like this:

"Her sister sat in the third row of the minivan and listened to music, occasionally singing out loud in her off-key voice. Dougie sat next to Emily in the second row, sometimes poking her in the ribs to wake her up and once dipping his finger into his yogurt shake and then sticking his finger in her eat, until she screamed at him and her parents scolded her and ordered her to sit in the back row with Hilary." (Page 77)

In terms of the fantasy elements of the book, I especially appreciated the role of the library and the librarian. There's a secret bookshelf that is only noticed by kids (like Angela) who read a lot. I am certain that my 10-year-old self would have been looking for that bookshelf after reading Emily and the Spellstone

In truth, the voice of Emily and the Spellstone was a little over the top for me personally. But I think that for tweens the book provides a very nice blend of middle school concerns and epic fantasy adventure. Emily is a likable heroine who manages to grow in strength without changing her core personality as the book progresses. I think this one is well worth a look for elementary and middle school libraries. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: June 13, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Into the Hurricane: Neil Connelly

Book: Into the Hurricane
Author: Neil Connelly
Pages: 240
Age Range: 12 and up

IntoTheHurricaneInto the Hurricane by Neil Connelly is the story of two troubled teenagers who meet  in a lighthouse on Shackles Island, Louisiana as a major hurricane looms. Green-haired Max has absconded from New Jersey with her father's ashes, planning to release them at the lighthouse. Local boy Eli is haunted and berated by the ghost of his dead sister, Celeste, and is considering killing himself to end the visions. Things don't go as planned for either teen when they encounter first a violent backwoods family/borderline religious cult and second, Hurricane Celeste. 

Into the Hurricane is a survival story, full of perils and twists. But it's also a character study into two damaged kids, and a look at the redemptive power of second chances. Into the Hurricane is told in alternating chapters from Eli's first-person viewpoint and Max's limited third-person viewpoint. I suspect that this format would work well as an audiobook with two narrators, especially given the different regional accents of the two characters. 

It's not clear whether Eli's sister's ghost actually appears to him, or whether (as seems more likely), her presence is a manifestation of his guilt over his role in her death. The circumstances of this death are a mystery revealed only slowly through the course of the book. Max's relationship with her stepmother, though less dramatic, is also revealed gradually. Both teens are working on understanding themselves, even as they seek to understand each other. 

Connelly's bio says that he "weathered five hurricanes in Lake Charles, Louisiana" and this authenticity of viewpoint does come across in his representation of the storm. Details about the wind and waves, and the storm's destruction, fill the book. Here's a snippet, from Eli's viewpoint:

"The wind picks up, just a bit, like the storm's decided I'm worth noticing again, a genuine threat to the way she wants things to be. I clutch the metal, press my body and face into the beam. She's pulling at me good now, blowing at me from the front and sucking from behind. I close my eyes and think what Sweeney said before ended that deer's suffering. When a thing has got to be done, it's best to get on and do it." (Page 110-111)

My favorite quote in the book is this one (with an ellipsis to remove spoilers):

"Maybe the Shacks just makes people crazy. Chemicals in the air, some ancient voodoo curse. But when I think about the kind of folks who live out here--the Odenkirks (backwoods family), Sweeney (quirky local veteran), me--there's hardly a sane one in the bunch. So maybe back when she lived in New Jersey, Max was something like normal. Or at least as normal as a girl with green hair can be. Whatever the case may be, this thing she's doing now..., that's certifiably insane. So make no doubt about it. She's one of us now." (Page 172)

I like this quote because it captures the fact that none of the characters in the book are exactly stable. But they all fit together, with the hurricane, to form an intriguing story. Into the Hurricane is a great pick for those who enjoy survival and natural disaster type stories, but it's more than that, too. Max and Eli, facing the storm, undergo a tremendous amount of personal growth in a short period of time, in a plausible manner. I recommend Into the Hurricane for anyone who enjoys suspenseful young adult fiction or books that make readers think. And shouldn't that be just about anyone? Into the Hurricane is well worth a look, and has a great cover.  

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: June 27, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


And Then There Were Four: Nancy Werlin

Book: And Then There Were Four
Author: Nancy Werlin
Pages: 416
Age Range: 13 and up

ThereWereFOurWow. Nancy Werlin's And Then There Were Four is a suspenseful young adult novel that had me on the edge of my seat. It's about five teens, brought together under misleading circumstances, who are thrust into peril. While I can't say I found all of the details completely plausible, I was nonetheless riveted. And Then There Were Four reminded me a little bit of the Lois Duncan suspense novels that I loved as a young adult, albeit with more detail and with a more modern sensibility (social media plays an important role, a major character is gay, there's some racial and socioeconomic diversity, etc). 

And Then There Were Four is told in alternating viewpoints by Saralinda, who struggles with a couple of physical challenges, and Caleb, who struggles with the apparent presence of a secondary personality that does bad things. Saralinda's chapters are told in a first person viewpoint with an occasional stream of consciousness lack of punctuation, while Caleb's are in an unusual second person viewpoint. This makes it very easy to tell the narrators apart. Here's Caleb:

"I could not have done this, you think. Could I?

Unsteadily, unsure, you get to your feet. Did you maybe rig something? Somehow? On the root? During the daytime? No, that's crazy. Also, you haven't had any intervals of blank time recently. But then again, you've never realized you've had an episode until you're confronted by proof." (Page 31, ARC)

And here's Saralinda:

"I wish she wouldn't criticize my reading about which she knows nothing because she doesn't read novels, my books are excellent and some have romance yes and also they have themes and interesting people in them and so much to learn. And if I were going to die (am I going to die? (I would not care about requesting a last meal, I would request a last book that is how important books are." (Page 332, ARC)

The characters are all interesting and complex, and the relationships that they form are realistically difficult, but made strong by common trauma. I don't want to say more here, because this is a book you should experience knowing as little about it as possible. Just trust  me. And Then There Were Four is book that will make readers think, and certainly keep readers turning the pages. I'm glad that I was able to read it over a 24 hour period, in two sittings, and suggest that other readers try to do the same. Highly recommended, and an excellent YA thriller for summer reading!

Publisher: Dial Books (@PenguinTeen)
Publication Date: June 6, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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