127 posts categorized "Middle School" Feed

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).


The Most Frightening Story Ever Told: Philip Kerr

Book: The Most Frightening Story Ever Told
Author: Philip Kerr
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12

MostFrighteningStoryThe Most Frightening Story Ever Told is a middle grade novel by Philip Kerr about a boy named Billy Shivers. Billy starts spending time in a small-town bookstore called The Haunted House of Books. Taken under the wing of the store's quirky owner, Mr. Rapscallion, Billy learns about the store, goes on a trip, and helps to run a contest. The contest involves five children (selected by lottery)  who will listen to "the scariest story ever told." The winner will be the one who doesn't run screaming from the store. 

Here are a few thoughts: 

  • Isn't this a great title? It's not that this book is all that scary, but it's a title to totally hook young readers. My six year old wanted to read it, though it was definitely a bit advanced for her. 
  • The homages to Roald Dahl are everywhere in The Most Frightening Story Ever Told, from the contest to the group of terrible children who are selected to the inclusion of poems. Mr. Rapscallion bears more than a passing resemblance to Willy Wonka, though he has a bit more backstory (a slightly estranged daughter and even an eventual love interest). 
  • There are lots of other references to books and movies (bringing the book Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein to mind). These references range from Alfred Hitchcock to Stephen King to Edgar Allen Poe to It's a Wonderful Life (and doubtless many others). Many of these references will be over the heads of 10-year-old readers, making this an excellent choice for a family read-aloud (and a book that adult gatekeepers will enjoy. 
  • Like both Grabenstein and Dahl, Kerr repeatedly laments (to an exaggerated degree) the fact that people don't read books as much as they used to, due to other distractions. Librarians are particularly likely to enjoy this one. 
  • The plotting of The Most Frightening Story Ever Told is a bit disjointed, with the inclusion of several stories-within-the-story. It takes quite a while for Kerr to get to the contest itself. It took me a fair bit of time to get through the book, but I did get hooked and finish quickly once the contest kicked off.
  • What kept me reading was that from the very first page, I liked Billy's voice. I flagged about a dozen passages in the first quarter of the book and then stopped marking them because I knew that I couldn't quote them all anyway. 
  • There's a twist at the end that I did see coming from early on, but Kerr did a good job of keeping me from being 100% sure about it throughout the book. Wondering about this also helped keep me hooked on the story. 

Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Billy and Mr. Rapscallion's voices:

"Now, some shop doors have a little bell that rings when you open them. The Haunted House of Books was a shop that had something very different--a hollow, wicked laugh, like something from an old horror movie. Not only that, but when you walked in the doorway, you stepped onto an old subway grating and a current of cold air came gusting up from below the floor. All of this was meant to give someone entering the bookshop a bit of a fright. And Billy was no exception. He yelled out loud and then he chuckled as he saw the funny side of what had happened." (Page 7)

and:

"They're too busy with their nerdy electronic games and their stupid televisions and their annoying cell phones and their geeky computers to think of reading books," said Mr. Rapscallion. "It makes you wonder why people even bother to teach reading in schools." Mr. Rapscallion sighed loudly. "It makes me worry for the future of the human race. Always supposing that I do actually care about something like that." (Page 25)

There's also a chapter in which Mr. Rapscallion tells a scary story. Under the chapter title is: "Note: This chapter should be read out loud to your little brother or your small sister, immediately before bedtime."

So you see, it's right up my alley, with literary references and sarcastic humor. And scary books and more scary books. 

The Most Frightening Story Ever Told is not so frightening that it will disturb middle grade readers, but it does have some scary moments. It is a book that will please Dahl fans, book fans, and anyone who loves the trappings of spooky stories (especially haunted houses). The vocabulary is somewhat advanced, and there is a British feel to the story, making this a book that might suit middle schoolers more than elementary school kids. I'm certain that it's a book that adult fans of children's literature will find engaging, as I did. Recommended for home and library purchase!

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: September 6, 2016
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).


Horizon: Scott Westerfeld

Book: Horizon
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Pages: 256
Age Range: 9-12

HorizonHorizon is the first of a new seven-book series from Scholastic. Scott Westerfeld wrote this one, and outlined all seven of the books, but other authors will be writing the remaining books (starting with Jennifer Nielsen writing Book 2). You can read Scott Westerfeld's announcement about the series here. Horizon is middle grade science fiction, intriguing enough that I certainly think that middle schoolers will also want to take a look. I read it in two quick sittings, finding it to be like the television series Lost, but aimed at kids. 

Eight kids are the only survivors of a plane crash. Although their flight was passing over the arctic, they find themselves in a jungle full of strange animals and phenomena. Four of the kids are engineers from Brooklyn, a robotics team on their way to a contest in Japan. After the crash they meet up with two young Japanese sisters returning home from boarding school, a Japanese-American teen also returning home, and a rather bossy Alpha male named Caleb. They have to learn to work together, while focusing on both basic survival and trying to understand what's happened. Their survival is clearly not random - they were somehow chosen by an electrical force that rejected everyone else on the plane. 

Things I enjoyed about Horizon:

  • The kids' application of engineering principles to understand things. They also find a device that disrupts basic physical principles, like gravity. This is a book that puts the science in science fiction, something particularly welcome (as far as I'm concerned) in a book for middle grade audiences. 
  • The multicultural cast. The kids from Brooklyn appear to include Hispanic and African American backgrounds. The Japanese girls don't even speak English, and end up teaching the American kids a few Japanese words along the way. 
  • The complex and intriguing setting. There are sentient vines, birds that attack humans, and other odd phenomena. 
  • The pacing of the story. Westerfeld keeps the kids in crisis, frequently separated, and often in peril. Middle grade readers will keep turning the pages to understand what happens next. 

My main quibble about the book as it stands was that I thought that the characterization could have been a bit deeper. I had trouble keeping defining characteristics of some of the characters in my head. But perhaps this is a deliberate way to allow more scope to the future authors of the series. There's definitely a videogame/movie feel to the book - it's clearly not meant to be a character study. [There's some sort of online game, apparently, but I haven't checked that out.]

As part of a seven-book series, Horizon naturally leaves pretty much everything unresolved. I think it will leave young readers eager to read the next book. I've personally not found in the past that series with different authors for different books tend to hold up for me, but I am interested to at least check out the second book. [See also Ms. Yingling's take on Horizon, she is weary of the 7 book series.]  

Science and survival, with a multicultural slant, aimed at middle grade readers. Libraries, at least those not put off by a longer series, will definitely want to give Horizon a look. Recommended for science fiction (and Lost) fans. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: March 28, 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).


The Goldfish Boy: Lisa Thompson

Book: The Goldfish Boy
Author: Lisa Thompson
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12 

GoldfishBoyThe Goldfish Boy is a very impressive debut novel by Lisa Thompson. Set on a small street in a suburb outside of London, The Goldfish Boy is about the mysterious disappearance of a toddler. The story is told by first person narrator Matthew, who is wrestling with his own demons. As Matthew strives to figure out what happened to little Teddy, he also shares clues with readers about the triggers for his own steadily worsening obsessive compulsive disorder. 

Matthew's voice is simply fascinating, unusual and distinctive, painful yet funny. So trapped by his fears of germs that he is virtually unable to leave his house, Matthew entertains himself by watching his neighbors out the window. He even takes little notes. This viewpoint and attention to detail position Matthew somewhat for putting together the clues about Teddy's disappearance, though he ends up needing some on-the-ground help from two neighbors. 

The two mysteries (Teddy's disappearance and the root of Matthew's compulsions) captured my interest. But it was really Matthew's voice that kept me reading The Goldfish Boy. You know you are in good hands when you find passages like this:

"I lived on a quiet, dead-end street in a town full of people who said how great it was that they didn't live in that big, smelly city of London--and who then spent most of their mornings desperately trying to get there." (Page 1)

and this:

"Mr. Charles could have been anything from sixty-five to ninety-five years old. He never seemed to get older. I figured he'd found an age he quite liked and just stopped right there." (Page 3) 

Here's one of many passages about Matthew's OCD:

"My bedroom was the best part of the house. It was safe. It was free from germs. Out there, things were dangerous. What people didn't seem to understand was that dirt meant germs and germs meant illness and illness meant death. It was was quite obvious when you thought about it. I needed things to be right, and in my room I had complete control. All I had to do was keep on top of it." (Page 12)

The Goldfish Boy is a book that has the potential to make young readers feel more compassion towards students who are struggling with inner demons. The other characters in the book, particularly two other twelve-year-olds living on Matthew's street, are complex and intriguing. We learn through flashbacks, for example, about Matthew's relationship with his childhood friend Jake, who is now a bit of a bully. Thompson traces Jakes's evolution from bullying victim to bully, and casts just the faintest hint of Matthew's culpability through lack of loyalty. Matthew's developing relationship with newer neighbor Melody, who has her own questionable habits, is both entertaining and thought-provoking.   

The Goldfish Boy is book that I think will intrigue both children and adults.  It has strong characters, a ripped-from-the-headlines mystery, and a protagonist with a unique and compelling voice. I was surprised to learn that it was Lisa Thompson's first novel. It is a most assured debut, and I look forward to Thompson's future work. Highly recommended. 

Publisher:  Scholastic Press (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: February 28, 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).


Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit: Aimée Carter

Book: Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit
Author: Aimée Carter 
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

SimonThornVipersPitSimon Thorn and the Viper's Pit is the second book in Aimée Carter's Simon Thorn / Animalgam series, featuring a race of people, hidden in plain sight, who can turn into animals. This review does contain spoilers for the first book. Simon, as introduced in Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den, has discovered that he is the grandson of two ruthless, competing Animalgam leaders from different kingdoms.

After growing up in seclusion, Simon is now living in the L.A.I.R, a hidden school located beneath Central Park Zoo in New York City. He's living with an uncle who he's not sure about and his newly discovered twin brother. But his real loyalty is to his group of three Animalgam friends (and a friendly mouse). In Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit, Simon and his friends set out on a road trip hoping to rescue Simon's kidnapped mother and keep an important artifact from his grandparents. 

This second book is full of relationship strife: particularly between Simon and his newly discovered family members and (sometimes) between Simon and his friends. Simon and his friend Winter are both Hybreds, children born of parents from different animal kingdoms (e.g. bird and mammal, in Simon's case). With conflict rampant between the kingdoms, their situations are inherently conflict-ridden. Winter, in particular, struggles with the rejection from the bird-Animalgams who raised her, after learning that she transforms into a reptile, not a bird. Simon is never quite sure who to trust. 

Carter also explores the discovery by the Animalgam kids of skills that go along with their animal transformations. For example, Simon's friend Jam turns into a dolphin, and has a remarkable sense of direction. For Simon, this is more complex than for most, because of a secret regarding his own transformations. A secret that he doesn't even share with his close friends. For all of the kids, learning to work with and gain strength from their dual natures becomes part of the process of growing up, a proxy for other adolescent growing pains. For example:

"Jam straightened and pulled his padlock from the pocket in his jeans, fiddling with the lock pick still stuck inside. "The general planned my whole life for me," he said. "I've had a daily schedule since I could walk. That's just how we do things underwater--if you leave no room for error, there won't be any. But there's no room for fun, either, or figuring things out on your own, and that's what I like to do. I like swimming off in the wrong direction to explore a cave I've never seen before, and I like having an hour or two when I can do anything I want. But our kingdom is so big that if everyone did their own thing, nothing would ever get done, so I always feel like I'm stuck in a routine I can't stand." (Page 143, ARC)

Occasionally the growing up messages imparted to the kids by the adults (or by each other) are a bit more overt than I might personally choose, but  I don't think that this dominates the story. Carter has taken a premise that most kids find fascinating (what if I could turn into an animal) and built a fully-realized, conflict-laden world around that. In Simon Thorn and the Viper's Den she introduces readers to the luxurious citadel of the reptile branch of the Animalgams. Other branches are sure to follow in future books. 

The Simon Thorn books are recommended for kids who enjoy reading about fantasy worlds hidden within our own, and for anyone who has ever wished they could transform into an animal. I look forward to reading about Simon and his friends' future adventures. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@KidsBloomsbury) 
Publication Date: February 7, 2017
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).


The Homework Strike: Greg Pincus

Book: The Homework Strike
Author: Greg Pincus
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8-12

HomeworkStrikeThe Homework Strike by Greg Pincus is a sequel to The 14 Fibs of Gregory K (reviewed here), though it's not necessary to have read the first book. Gregory K., math-impaired middle child of a math-loving family, is now in seventh grade. He loves writing, especially poetry, but he finds himself with little time to write, because he spends 3 hours or more each day doing homework. Gregory is struggling, burned out, and, eventually, angry that homework is taking away time for the other pursuits that he and his friends enjoy. And so, with some subtle encouragement from his history teacher, Gregory goes on strike. It's when he's on strike that Gregory finds himself working harder and learning more than he would have ever imagined. 

The Homework Strike is a timely take on an issue that is getting attention around the country. While I don't know of any actual student-directed strikes (yet), there are certainly schools that are experimenting with reducing or eliminating homework. And there are plenty of news stories and even entire books about how homework is leading to burn-out among students, especially those in middle school and high school. Regular readers know that reducing homework levels is an issue near and dear to my own heart. The Homework Strike is a book that would have caught my attention on this front alone. The fact that it's written by a friend and features characters that I enjoyed in a previous book makes it, for me, that much more irresistible. But I shall endeavor to be objective. 

The Homework Strike is something of a primer for social activism via strikes, without feeling like a primer. What keeps the book from feeling didactic in this regard is Gregory's strong first-person voice. Gregory is figuring everything out as he goes along, with some support from his teacher and his parents. Some references are mentioned, and Gregory does read them and refer to them, but this is all in the context of Gregory's journey. References to Click, Clack, Moo and Yertle the Turtle are a bonus (as is a quote from The Princess Bride movie). Gregory's parents are realistically concerned, and impose grounding at one point over grades, but are ultimately awesomely supportive.

The author uses The Homework Strike to make what I find to be valid points about the negatives of homework, while defending the efforts and intentions of teachers themselves (a potentially fine line). Only the heavy-handed school principal really comes off as a bad guy (and someone had to be the bad guy). Particular attention is paid to the difficulty of homework for kids who have learning challenges (one character is revealed to by dyslexic, for example, and requires extra time), and to the many creative interests that kids might have outside of school (writing, painting, making videos, etc.). While I might personally have liked to see Gregory dig up some of the research that has questioned the value of homework, I can see that this could have bogged down the story for middle grade readers. 

Here's one of Gregory's friends on the impact of homework:

"I have a theory that they removed two hours from the day this summer while we weren't looking," Benny chimed in. "That would explain why I no longer have time for reading for pleasure, watching TV, or practicing violin." (Page 23, ARC)

And here's Gregory:

"Gregory knew his friends were probably right about, well, about everything. But school was hard for him -- he left a day of it exhausted and drained -- and homework was harder. He even kind liked school, really, or at least the best classes were enough to make the other classes tolerable. But it just all seemed off to him somehow. Like there was so much attention focused on knowledge he'd never need and skills he wouldn't use, and no time to develop the ones he felt would be important where his life would take him." (Page 42, ARC)

I love Gregory's group of friends, kids who don't fit in to any of the traditional groups (jocks, popular kids, stoners, etc.), but who are ok because they have each other. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, academically and otherwise. And I like that these friends support Gregory but don't blindly follow him into going on strike. I also enjoyed a running theme through the book about whether or not something would make Gregory's calf hurt. You see, his best friend Kelly moved away after the first book. Kelly would always kick him in the calf when she though he was doing something stupid. Even with her living far away, Gregory still gets phantom pains when he knows that she would have kicked him for something. She's like his (painful) conscience. 

There is some risk that The Homework Strike will make elementary school kids worry about the homework burden that is to come with middle school, but I'm pretty sure that they'll be hearing about this in the real world anyway. [My daughter is in first grade and I already have a sense of which teachers give a lot of homework in the upper grade of her elementary school.] The Homework Strike just might give them some ideas for coping, together with positive messages about standing up for yourself and being loyal to your friends and family members. It's really more about larger issues like the relative power of kids vs. adults. 

I think that The Homework Strike is a book that belongs in school libraries everywhere, not just for the messages regarding homework and control, but because Gregory is such an engaging and realistic character, with a strong family. There are fun poems at the start of every chapter, too. This is a book that will particularly speak to kids who feel like outsiders at school (and isn't that most middle schoolers?), and to anyone who has ever felt powerless. Highly recommended for kids age 8 and up, and for their parents, too. [My six-year-old noticed what I was reading and had me read a chunk of this book aloud to her, too.]

Publisher:  (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 3, 2017
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).


The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle: Gabrielle Kent

Book: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle
Author: Gabrielle Kent
Pages: 366
Age Range: 8-12

HexbridgeCastleThe Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is a very fun new fantasy novel, the first of a series by Gabrielle Kent, previously released in the UK. The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is about a boy named Alfie Bloom who lives a rather bleak life alone with his distracted inventor father. Alfie's life changes forever when he learns that he has inherited an ancient and mysterious castle, and is required to live there. Alfie finds Hexbridge Castle full of hidden passageways and strange contraptions. A mysterious lawyer doles out sparing hints regarding Alfie's selection as heir to the castle, including letters from Alfie's benefactor, the druid who built the castle 600 years earlier. While living in Hexbridge Castle, Alfie finds friends and enemies, wondrous delights and terrible dangers. 

The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle is kid-friendly perfection, full of trappings and experiences that are simply cool. There's a Dahl-esque quality to Kent's writing, albeit with more three-dimensional, modern characters. From page 22, when Alfie and his dad are driven in a carriage that seems to be flying, fanciful touches are everywhere. Like this:

"He led them to a gigantic door made up of lots of other doors of decreasing size, one inside the other, like Russian nesting dolls. The smallest only came halfway up Alfie's knee. "Just through there. Ms. Fortune will sign you in."

"Which door do we open?"

The coachman chuckled as he filled a nose bag for each horse. "Whichever one fits, Master Bloom, whichever one fits."" (Page 24)

Kent also captures the delights of an English farm and village, giving the book a slightly old-fashioned feel, even though it is set in modern times. Like this:

 "Alfie was glad he was so hungry; he could swear the table was groaning louder than his stomach under the weight of the food. His mouth watered as he saw three types of freshly baked pie, soda bread hot from the oven, buttery new potatoes, and a golden roast chicken surrounded by crisp lettuce and tomatoes fresh from the garden. Between the mountain of food and the twins' never-ending questions about the castle, dinner lasted a very long time." (Page 46)

There's a school that bears no small resemblance to the school that Dahl's Matilda attended, and there are occasional hints of Harry Potter in Alfie's persona of near-orphan who discovers a secret about his own birth. These things feel not incidental but more like homages (particularly to Dahl). There's even a scene involving flight that carries a hint of Peter Pan. 

I could keep quoting all day - I flagged another dozen passages, and all of them are wonderful. But I don't want to give away any of the twists and turns of Alfie's story. While I did see a few of the twists coming before Alfie did, my enjoyment of The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle was in no way diminished. I felt more like the author and I were together, quietly encouraging Alfie on. The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle ends in a satisfactory manner, but it's clear that Alfie's story is not finished. Which is a happy thing, because I am very much looking forward to the next stage of Alfie's adventures. Highly recommended, one of my top reads of the year. 

[Update: I was pleased to see, on the very day that I published this review, that Ms. Yingling also recommends The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle.]

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: October 25, 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 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

TheBronzeKey

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)

and:

"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)

and:

"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).