123 posts categorized "Middle School" Feed

The Tiara on the Terrace: Kristen Kittscher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death by Toilet Paper: Donna Gephart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Orbiting Jupiter: Gary D. Schmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other things to like about Orbiting Jupiter:

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

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

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

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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

The Copper Gauntlet: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ghost in the Glass House: Carey Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

Here's the description of the glass house:

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

And here's Clare's friend Bridget:

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: September 3, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

A Curious Tale of the In-Between: Lauren DeStefano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Friendship Riddle: Megan Frazer Blakemore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens: Henry Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: April 14, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

Big Game: Dan Smith

Book: Big Game
Author: Dan Smith
Pages: 288
Age Range: 10-14

Big Game by Dan Smith is a novel based on the screenplay for a 2014 Finnish action-adventure movie. It has an action movie pace, a book that one rushes through to find out what will happen next. I couldn't put it down, and read it in about a day. The narrator is Oskari, a Finnish boy about to turn 13. Oskari is sent out alone into the wilderness near his home on an overnight hunt by his tribe, expected to come home with the head of an animal (the bigger the better). In the woods, Oskari encounters the U.S. President, whose plane has been shot down. Hunted themselves, Oskari and the President must fight for their lives. 

Much as with an action movie, some suspension of belief is necessary when reading Big Game. I won't ruin your suspense by giving specific examples, but it is nevertheless a fun ride. Big Game is also a bit of an unlikely buddy story, with banter between the young boy and the self-proclaimed leader of the free world. Like this:

"Thanks, kid."



"My name is Oskari."

"Oh, right. Oskari. Well, you can call me William. Or Bill."

"Bill? Why not Alan?"

"I guess my mother preferred 'Bill'."

"Bill." I said the name again, testing the sound of it, but somehow it didn't feel right. "No. I'll call you President. It's more interesting." (Page 96, ARC)

There's inherent entertainment in the contrast between Oskari, raised to be a woodsman, though far from the best of his tribe, and the powerful world leader who is unaccustomed to physical deprivation. Oskari becomes downright arrogant about the fact that he's the one who knows what to do, not President. 

Here's an example of Smith's narrative writing:

"A surge of panic welled up inside me and snapped me out of the trance. It was like being suddenly woken from a nightmare and I scrambled backward as fast as I could, breathless and desperate to get away. I pushed through the ferns until I was deep enough into the forest to risk getting to my feet, then I turned and ran for my life. My muscles were stiff from lying down for so long, but there was more than enough fear in me to get them moving." (Page 49)

Big Game is definitely 13-year-old boy friendly, though I think that anyone who likes fast-paced adventure or survival stories will like Big Game. Amazon lists Big Game as being for ages 10-14, but to me it has more of a young adult than middle grade vibe. Perhaps because the body count is fairly high, with no fantasy elements to soften the impact. Big Game is one that I'm putting on my relatively short "pass on to my husband" stack. It's a quick, suspenseful read that will leave readers breathless. The movie will be released later this year. Recommended!

Publisher: Chicken House (@Scholastic
Publication Date: February 24, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's Lair: S. S. Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher: McSweeney's/McMullens 
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark of the Thief (Praetor War): Jennifer A. Nielsen

Book: Mark of the Thief (Praetor War, Book 1)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10-14

Mark of the Thief is the first book in Jennifer Nielsen's new Praetor War series, set in ancient Rome. When a slave boy who works in the mines discovers (and appropriates) a magical artifact that last belong to Julius Caesar, his life is changed forever. Nic soon finds himself able to do magic, but still relatively powerless as a pawn between rival Roman senators and other officials. There ware twists and turns, magical animals, and Roman baths. This is a very fun series launch, certain to be popular with upper middle grade and middle school fans of fantasy and adventure. 

Despite the differences in setting and use of magic, Mark of the Thief has a similar feel to the books in Nielsen's Ascendance trilogy. Nic's voice brings Sage's voice to mind, at least a bit, though the two boys come from very different backgrounds. Both boys are stubborn, arrogant beyond their current station, and fiercely loyal.

This is not a bad thing -- fans of the Ascendance series (I am one myself) are going to simply gobble up Mark of the Thief. I read it in a single day, enjoying the layers of secrets that Nielsen reveals, as well as the tidbits of historical background about ancient Rome. I can't say that Nic's voice feels particularly Roman (or slave-like) to me, but I think that any attempt to do this differently might have rendered the book too difficult to read. Here's the opener:

"In Rome, nothing mattered more than the gods, and nothing mattered less than its slaves. Only a food of a slave would ever challenge the gods' power.

I was beginning to look like that fool.

I was a slave in the mines south of Rome and, generally speaking, did my job well. I worked hard and kept my head down and even took orders without complaint -- unless it was a stupid order, one that risked my life. Then I was just as happy to ignore it." (Page 1)

Mark of the Thief also features a strong female character, Aurelia, whom the reader senses early on will become important to Nic. There are a number of other characters whose loyalty is unclear, as well as a kidnapped sister who Nic worries about. There's also a somewhat cranky griffin, which is pretty cool. There are also plenty of intriguing settings. A couple of key scenes take place in the Flavian Amphitheater, where gladiators fight, another occurs in a vineyard. 

I think in a way, in reading this book, I was harmed by having read The False Prince books. I was expecting twists and hidden identities. So it was tough for Nielsen to surprise me. But I nonetheless enjoyed Mark of the Thief very much. I'm certain that kids are going to love it, and I look forward to the next book. A must-purchase for libraries, and a great gift item for any fantasy adventure fan (male or female), ages 10 and up. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: February 24, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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