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Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den: Aimée Carter

Book: Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den
Author: Aimée Carter
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12

SimonThornSimon Thorn and the Wolf's Den by Aimée Carter is the first of a new series about a 12 year old boy, Simon Thorn, who learns that his ability to talk with animals is actually part of something much bigger. Simon has lived for as long as he can remember with his uncle Darryl, receiving only monthly postcards and extremely rare visits from his mysterious mother. Simon has been attempting to hide his new ability to talk to animals from everyone, including Darryl. But when a one-eyed golden eagle warns him that his life is in danger, Simon soon finds himself on the run, uncovering both secrets and relations left and right. 

There's no question that Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den includes some fairly well-established middle grade fantasy tropes, right down to the existence of a secret school for animalgams (people who can shift into an animal form at will) and the importance of a small crew of friends. But I still found Carter's approach and world-building to feel fresh and accessible. There's a nice mix of interpersonal issues (family, bullying, betrayal), mystery (who to trust), and action which will keep kids turning the pages. Here's a snippet of the world-building:

"... Malcolm muttered a curse under his breath and pushed open the heavy door, revealing a dark hallway that looed ore like the entrance to an old castle than a school. The walls were made of stone, and a wrought iron chandelier hung above them. The low light gave the building an eerie feeling, and a chill crept down Simon's spine. Worse, while framed paintings of all kids of animals, from mountain lions to vipers to a dolphin that looked like an older version of Jam, lined the hallway, there weren't any portraits of birds." (Chapter 8, ARC)

The characters are interesting and three-dimensional. I especially liked Darryl, whose love for and loyalty to Simon come across every time he appears on the page. The characters tend to reflect their animal natures even when they are in human form, but they also have other personality traits, like the book-loving dolphin boy, Jam.

Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den would be a good choice for kids who enjoyed the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books, though it reminds me even more of Holly Black and Cassandra Clare's Magisterium series, with its mix of riddles, dangers, and unusual abilities. The Simon Thorn series is an appealing addition to the ranks of middle grade fantasy series. I look forward to Simon's future adventures. Recommended for kids age 8 and up, with enough complexity to please teens and adults, too. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids) 
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long

Book: Super Happy Magic Forest
Author: Matty Long
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5-8

SuperHappyMagicSuper Happy Magic Forest is a super-fun picture book by Matty Long, about an epic quest by a brave band of five explorers to Goblin Tower to recover The Mystical Crystals of Life. It's basically an affectionate spoof on epic quest stories. The heroes include a mushroom named Trevor, who can't climb things because he has no arms, and a naive fairy with purple wings. They show varying degrees of courage and creativity as they make their way through frozen lands and a "Super Creepy Haunted Forest" to Goblin Tower. What they find there is somewhat unexpected, but they do, in the end, save the day. 

Super Happy Magic Forest would make a perfect gift to any child of Lord-of-the-Rings-loving parents. It's also a nice introduction to the idea of the epic quest for young readers. There are dangers along the way, but these are lashed with enough humor to keep the book from ever feeling scary. 

This is definitely a book to read aloud with dramatic intonations. Like this:

"But the forces of evil were at work. One day,
the Mystical Crystals of Life were
STOLEN"

(Here STOLEN is rendered in large, bold letters)

and:

"They adventured through
frozen lands and faced scary
and terrible creatures."

Long's illustrations are busy, chock-full of entertaining details, particularly the captions. The Super Happy Magic Forest (where the heroes live, and from where the crystals are stolen includes Rainbow Falls, Happy Bunnies, a Cotton Candy Cave, and lots more. There are ghosts and witches and colorful butterflies. It's like a cross between a gloomy quest and an LSD-enhanced trip through Wonderland, sprinkled with mild humor ("With barely enough time to pack a lunch, the heroes began their epic quest.").

Super Happy Magic Forest is a book that we've had for a few months now, and have appreciated a bit more each time we read it. While it's a bit complex (and perhaps scary) for the youngest listeners, it's a great choice for early elementary schools kids. Especially if they like butterflies, rainbow unicorns, goblins, or ghosts. Highly recommended and pure fun!

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: February 23, 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).


Pirasaurs!: Josh Funk & Michael Slack

Book: Pirasaurs!
Author: Josh Funk
Illustrator: Michael Slack
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-6

PirasaursWhat if the dinosaurs had been, or still were, pirates? You'd have Pirasaurs! Josh Funk's band of dinosaur pirates is on a quest to find buried treasure. They'll have to overcome a mutiny, a damaged map, and a trap first, however. The protagonist is a small, scaly orange cabin boy, uncertain of his place with the rowdy crew. The crew is headed by the female Captain Rex, assisted by Bronto Beard the lookout and Triceracook (a triceratops cook with a hook, covering many bases). 

Josh Funk's rhyming text is fun to read aloud, and sprinkled with strong vocabulary words. Like this:

"With handy hook, Tricercook
Prepares Jurassic feasts!

I love to slurp and belch and burp
With buccaneering beasts!"

and:

"Velocimate can navigate
From reef to coastal bay.

I use my smarts to map the charts.
But still we're led astray."

Bonus points later in the book for use of the words "blurt" and "scallywags".

Michael Slack brings the pirates to colorful life, with special attention to our sometimes hopeful and sometimes discouraged young narrator. A battle between rival pirate gangs is especially dynamic, full of scowling faces and a mix of swords and dinosaur horns. 

Pirasaurs! is full of interesting characters, engaging wordplay, and dramatic (but not scary) action. It is perfect for preschoolers, and recommended for libraries, homes, and classrooms, or anywhere that a pirate- and/or dinosaur-loving child might lurk. 

Publisher: Orchard Books (@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).


Milk Goes to School: Terry Border

Book: Milk Goes to School
Author: Terry Border
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8

MilkGoesToSchool

Terry Border, the author/illustrator of the Peanut Butter and Cupcake books, has a new back-to-school picture book called Milk Goes to School. In this story, Milk, a cute little red and white milk carton, starts school for the first time. She's excited about her sparkly new backpack, and her dad has attempted to boost her confidence by telling her that she is "la creme de la creme". But when she points these things out to the other students, they quickly conclude that "this Milk is spoiled." As the day progresses, Milk makes mis-step after mis-step, adding to the perception (about which she is in deep denial) that she is spoiled. But after a humiliating experience, Milk does refresh her behavior a bit by the end of the book and find some common ground with the other food children. 

Milk Goes to School is full of wordplay, particularly puns about food. Like this:

"Milk asked Carrot, "Would you like to share crayons?"

"I don't carrot all," Carrot said. "Like I said to Salad, lettuce be friends!"

Carrot seemed okay."

I was reading this book to myself and didn't get this at first. This is a book that calls for being read aloud. There's also this, sure to make a four-year-old giggle:

"Later, in the library, Milk asked if someone cut the cheese.

I don't like that saying," said Cheese, "but I think someone tooted."

"Oops. Sorry," said Beans. 

Much of the humor of the book, however, lies in Border's unique and whimsical illustrations. These were created by manipulating and photographing three-dimensional objects, such as, say, a milk carton with wire arms and legs, wearing a backpack. Fun details are everywhere, like the fishtank full of goldfish crackers and the image of Milk imagining herself as a queen, surrounded by foil-wrapped chocolate coins. I especially enjoyed the family pictures that the students drew, such as three apples (two large and one small) sitting on the branch of a tree. And I'm still smiling over Potato who "wanted to be a sailor on a gravy boat" when he grew up. Oh, and the eggs hatching chicken nuggets. Priceless! 

For me as an adult reader, the story itself is a little bit repetitive, with food puns throughout and Milk saying over and over again that she "didn't think she was spoiled at all." But I think that kids will find Milk Goes to School hilarious, especially kids who have already been through the pain of starting school and making new friends.

I quite respect Border's choice to make Milk, well, a bit spoiled. She does some nice things for the other kids, but she fusses when something is spilled on her drawing, she wants people to see how well she can spell and draw, etc. One suspects that she is an only child who hasn't had much chance to socialize with other kids. This makes Milk Goes to School braver than your run of the mill back-to-school picture book, where the issues are more about overcoming shyness or missing parents, etc. We have realistic character development in 32 food-covered, pun-filled pages. 

I'll add that my six-year-old just came in as I was writing this review, book open on my lap. She shrieked in recognition, saying "I had Peanut Butter and Cupcake in my Kindergarten class. And that's the exact same cupcake." She is VERY excited to read the book (but has friends over right now). I think this incident speaks to Border's distinctive and kid-friendly illustration style. 

In short, Milk Goes to School is a must-purchase for library back-to-school collections. It is sure to stand out, visually and thematically, and to be a favorite with kids. Recommended!

Publisher:  Philomel Books (@PenguinKids) 
Publication Date: June 28, 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).


Piper Green and the Fairy Tree: The Sea Pony by Ellen Potter + Qin Leng

Book: Piper Green and the Fairy Tree: The Sea Pony (Book 3)
Author: Ellen Potter
Illustrator: Qin Leng
Pages: 128
Age Range: 7-9

SeaPony

The Sea Pony is the third book in the Piper Green and the Fairy Tree early chapter book series. (See my review of Books 1 and 2 here.) Piper is a seven-year-old girl who lives on a small island off the coast of Maine. Her island is so small that the younger kids take a lobster boat every morning to another island to attend school. Piper's older brother attends high school on the mainland, and can only come home on weekends. The other thing that's noteworthy about Piper is that she has a Fairy Tree in her front yard. She leaves small gifts for the fairies inside the tree, and they sometimes leave gifts for her. These gifts are mysterious at first, but generally turn out to be exactly what Piper needed.

In The Sea Pony, Piper finds a necklace in the tree. I won't spoil the surprise, but the necklace leads directly to Piper's discovery of the Sea Pony, as well as to the recovery of a lost family item. I'm never 100% clear on whether the Fairy Tree actually is magic, or whether a kindly neighbor might be intervening. But the sequence of events in The Sea Pony certainly have a magical quality to them. There's also a horse, and the chance for Piper to show up her nemesis. Seven-year-old readers will love it!

I quite like Piper. She's independent and resourceful, but with realistic capabilities and shortcomings. She tries to make a special meal for her brother and the result is something of a fiasco. But (living on a small island) she can go to the store by herself and get a missing ingredient. She helps her dad on his lobster boat. She's savvy enough to request payment, but young enough to think that at 10 cents a bait bag she'll earn enough to buy a horse in no time. She reminded me of my daughter in her optimism, willingness to work, and unrealistic larger expectations. Here are a couple of snippets:

"I'd never had a fancy necklace before. The only necklace I owned was made out of folded-up potato chip bags. My best friend, Ruby, made it for me." (Chapter 2)

and:

(On learning that a surprise will be arriving on the ferry) "I wondered what it could be. A candy-vending machine, maybe? Or a gigantic turtle?

Then I thought of something.

"I'll bet it's a CIRCUS!!" I said in my whistle language." (Chapter 3)

Isn't Piper perfect? I also like Ellen Potter's occasional use of Maine lingo. The title of Chapter 7 is: "A Wicked Bad Gullywhumper" (a big storm). 

Qn Leng's black and white illustrations (one per chapter, a mix of whole and half-page pictures) convey Piper's movement and enthusiasm, as well as the coziness of the island. The expression on Piper's face as she stuffs smelly fish into a bait bag in Chapter 7 is priceless. 

The Piper Green and the Fairy Tree series, and The Sea Pony in particular, has a nice mix of "stuff kids think are cool" (living on a small island, taking boats, a Fairy Tree) and realistic family/community/kid dynamics. Piper's family is not the most well-off on the island, and her father doesn't hesitate to take her to task when she uses bait injudiciously. But the island also acquires a horse! The Sea Pony strikes a nice balance, I think. I'm happy to see this series continuing strong. I think it's a perfect fit for kids just starting to be ready for chapter books. Recommended, and definitely a nice addition for libraries serving new readers. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: August 16, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


Woodpecker Wants A Waffle: Steve Breen

Book: Woodpecker Wants A Waffle
Author: Steve Breen
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8

WoodpeckerWantsAWaffle

Woodpecker Wants A Waffle is an appealing new picture book by Steve Breen. It's about an enterprising woodpecker named Benny who, on smelling the waffles from a new breakfast place, decides that he wants to try them. I mean, he really, really wants to try them. He tries various tricks and disguises, but the dour waitress is not to be fooled. The other animals mock him for his quest. But, as you would expect, Benny finds a clever way to get his way in the end. 

Breen's text is brief and to the point, but with some nice vocabulary ("investigate", "declared"), and read-aloud-friendly sound effects ("TAP! TAP! TAP!", "BAP!", "FWAP!"). After all of the animals chime in regarding how ridiculous Benny's quest is ("BEARS DON'T EAT BAGELS!", etc.), this text follows:

""Well, why not?" Benny asked.

"Why not?" the animals grumbled,
chirped, croaked, and whispered.

They thought, and thought, and
thoughts, and thought...

"Because I SAID so, said Bunny." (on the next page)

I was so grateful that the other animals didn't magically realize that Benny was right, or any didactic nonsense like that. And I loved Benny's solution, which puts the other animals in their place and gains him waffles. 

Breen's ink, watercolor, and colored pencil illustrations have a fairly minimalist look, sprinkled with kid- and parent-friendly humor. I especially liked the tall beehive hairdo on the waitresses head, and Benny attempting to sneak in by camouflaging himself against a large woman's bird-patterned skirt.  His milk carton disguise is rather priceless, too. There's almost a cartoon feel to the book, helped by the sound effects ("SWOOSH!" goes the milk carton into the trash). 

Woodpecker Wants A Waffle is a joyful celebration of persisting to get what you want, even if you have to be a bit sneaky about it. It has kid-friendly humor, fun language aspects for read-aloud, and no moral message at all. A delight through and through. I think it would make a wonderful group read-aloud; libraries will definitely want to give Woodpecker Wants A Waffle a look. Parents may want to make sure there are actual waffles available before reading this one at home, though. Recommended!

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: June 14, 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 Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart: Lauren DeStefano

Book: The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

I picked up The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart because I had enjoyed Lauren DeStefano's previous book, A Curious Tale of the In-Between.  Once I started reading this new title I as unable to put it down. The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart is a creepy tale of two children who live in a group home near the woods. The boy, Lionel, is wild, with sharp senses and a tendency towards feral behavior. He thinks of himself as more animal than human. Lionel is somewhat tamed, however, but the quiet, gentle Marybeth. Until, that is, Marybeth sneaks out one night in search of a mysterious blue creature, and becomes the one who needs to be tamed. The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart is a celebration of friendship and the unique attributes of children. It's also a ghost story, and a mystery. It is haunting and memorable. 

DeStefano's characterization is quite strong in The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart. Lionel and Marybeth are fully realized, and Lionel is particularly interesting. DeStefano also gradually reveals the nature of their children's caregiver, Mrs. Mannerd. The reader starts out thinking that she doesn't particularly care about the eight kids in her care, but this proves not to be the case at all. The other kids are, admittedly, rather one-dimensional, but I think this is accurate to how Lionel sees them. 

Here's a snippet that I flagged early in the book:

"But was too late for that. Lionel already understood. He could  make the chickens lay eggs and he could reason with the most stubborn of foxes. But he had learned years ago that humans were more dangerous than the things that stalked about the wilderness." (Chapter 3 ARC)

The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart is clearly set in the past, though an exact date isn't given. There's a reference to something in the near past having taken place 10 years after "the war",  but an exact date isn't necessary. The book feels timeless. There are (non-cellular) phones and cars. However, what's striking to the modern adult reader is the lack of supervision of Mrs. Mannerd's house by any outside agencies. Even when Marybeth's behavior becomes highly erratic, Mrs. Mannerd makes her own decisions about what to do. 

There are disturbing aspects to The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart, including past violence towards children. The details are more alluded to than spelled out, however, and I think that most middle grade readers will be able to handle the story. I would keep it away from highly sensitive kids, though, to avoid nightmares.

It's hard book to put down once one starts reading it, because of the mystery and because one cares what happens to Lionel and Marybeth. Kids who enjoy details about animals will especially enjoy The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart. Lionel is constantly thinking of things in terms of animal responses. Like this:

"Lionel was at the table early for once. He hadn't overslept; he had been awake all night. He rarely worried, but when he did, it made him nocturnal like the coyotes and spiders." (Chapter 4, ARC)

The bottom line is that kids (and adults) who enjoy ghostly supernatural tales will enjoy The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart. It's well-written, with strong characterization, and plenty of suspense to keep readers turning the pages. Recommended!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids) 
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

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


The Ark Plan (Edge of Extinction, Book 1): Laura Martin

Book: The Ark Plan (Edge of Extinction, Book 1)
Author: Laura Martin
Illustrator: Eric Deschamps
Pages: 368
Age Range: 8-12

EdgeOfExtinctionThe Ark Plan is the first book in a new middle grade post-apocalyptic series by Laura Martin called Edge of Extinction. The premise is irresistible, and the execution is both suspenseful and entertaining. The premise is that scientists have brought dinosaurs to life, shades of Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs, however, brought with them a global pandemic that nearly wiped out the human race. Humans (in the US, anyway) have retreated to four underground bunkers, led by a man calling himself Noah. Dinosaurs roam the earth. 

150 years (and 3 Noahs) later, 12-year-old Sky Mundy lives in the underground North Compound. She has been ill-treated and ostracized ever since her father escaped from the compound 5 years earlier. When she discovers a long-hidden letter from her father, Sky and her best friend Shawn set out on a dangerous journey aboveground. As they struggle to survive in a dinosaur-dominated world, they gradually learn that not everything they've been told in the North Compound is true. 

Sky is a great character: brave, smart, and impulsive, driven to learn as much as she can about dinosaurs, and to uncover the mystery of her father's disappearance. Shawn is smart and mechanically-oriented, but ill-equipped to handle the world outside of the compound. Their strong friendship, with occasional spats and genuine worries, feels realistic. The gray underground bunker where the kids live is convincingly portrayed, and reminded me a little bit of Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember

But it's the dinosaur-filled, post-apocalyptic setting that makes The Ark Plan stand out. Again and again, Martin reminds us of how different the real world is from the sheltered underground life that Sky and Shawn have lived. Like this:

"It turned out that we weren't very good at hiking. After spending all twelve years of our lives walking on smooth tunnel floors, we found ourselves on uneven earth for the first time. Rocks, tree branches, and animal holes seemed to come out of nowhere. We both fell. A lot." (Page 95)

and:

"A small herd of what I thought were triceratops grazed about a half mile to our right, and tiny dots of green and red to our left had to be dinosaurs, but they were too far away to make out what kind. I looked up, and for the first time in my life, I saw more than just a small patch of sky. Fluffy white clouds piled on top of one another as they shuffled across a blue sky so vibrant it made my eyes hurt." (Page 102)

Occasional pencil illustrations from Eric Deschamps help to bring the underground and aboveground worlds to life. A village set in the treetops is pure, kid-enticing perfection. 

The Ark Plan also has one of my favorite aspects of long-term post-apocalyptic books: hints about the previous world. Like this:

"I stopped to inspect a crumbling brick wall. It had been decorative once, but time and passing dinosaurs had collapsed huge sections of it. A metal plaque had fallen off the front and now lay half buried in the dirt. Curious, I bent and pulled it out. White Oak Estates was etched elegantly into its surface." (Page 249)

So basically, The Ark Plan has:

  • A post-apocalyptic world with humans struggling to survive;
  • An oppressive government with secrets;
  • Strong friendship dynamics between kids out on their own;
  • A fast-paced, danger-filled plot;
  • A mysterious quest; AND
  • Dinosaurs!

What is there not to like? The Ark Plan is a wild ride of pure, kid-friendly fun, highly recommended and certainly belonging in elementary and middle school libraries everywhere. This is summer reading at it's best. I can't wait for the next book!

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 10, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the author

© 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).


The Storyteller: Evan Turk

Book: The Storyteller
Author: Evan Turk
Pages: 48
Age Range: 5-10

TheStoryteller

When The Storyteller turned up at my house I nearly set it aside for when my daughter is older. It's long and text dense, and I wasn't sure if she would appreciate it. But I figured I'd wait and see, and left it on the kitchen table for her. A couple of days later she asked me to read it to her, because her babysitter had already read it to her, and it was "A really good book." Long, yes. Mythic, vs. tied to ordinary suburban existence, yes. But The Storyteller is also "really good" and well able to hold a six-year-old's attention. I agree with her assessment.

The Storyteller is a nested tale of stories within stories about Morocco, magic, and the desert. It begins:

"Long, long ago, like a pearl around a grain of sand, the fertile Kingdom of Morocco formed near the edge of the great, dry Sahara. It had fountains of cool, delicious water to quench the dangerous third of the desert, and storytellers to bring the people together."

What right-minder lover of stories would not want to continue reading after that? What follows is a tale of a thirsty young boy looking for water during a drought. He finds an old man who tells him a story, the hearing of which fills the boy's bowl with water. But the story contains the seeds of previous stories, and the boy returns day after day, as the old man fills in the details, and magically fills his bowl with water. Then, when a danger approaches, the boy uses the power of story to help his people. 

Different colored fonts are used to distinguish visually between the different stories within stories. This is nice, but I didn't find it necessary - the book was not difficult to follow. There is certainly an old-fashioned, epic sort of tone. Like this:

"Many years ago, my great-great-grandmother's great-great-grandmother was a carpet weaver. Our village again had a terrible drought, and people had to travel far to find water.

One day, a very old woman walked into the weaver's home with a bundle wrapped in cloth."

Just as young readers will be swept away by the story, they'll also delight in Turk's lush illustrations, "rendered in water-soluble crayon, colored drawing pencils, inks, indigo, sugared green tea, a heat gun, and fire." They look like old parchments, with a mix of bold inks and more muted colors to help visually convey the layers of the stories. A page in which a carpet is woven looks like a carpet itself, complete with a collection of different geometric borders. Other pages have carpet-like borders, too. The Storyteller seems ancient, and yet timeless.

The Storyteller is a gorgeous and compelling picture book that would be welcome in any library serving elementary school children. While it's a bit dense for preschoolers, it is sure to captivate older kids, and their parents. Highly recommended. 

Publisher:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers (@SimonKids) 
Publication Date: June 28, 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 Scourge: Jennifer Nielsen

Book: The Scourge
Author: Jennifer Nielsen
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12

TheScourgeThe Scourge is an upcoming middle grade novel by Jennifer Nielsen, author of The Ascendance Trilogy (reviews here, here, and here) and the Mark of the Thief series (book 1 review here). Although Nielsen does a fair bit of world-building in The Scourge, she wraps up the story quite thoroughly, and this seems to be a standalone novel (which I find refreshing). To me, The Scourge seemed aimed at a slightly younger audience than the previous books, more elementary than middle school. The Scourge is a fast-paced, suspenseful read with an engaging main character, and is sure to be well-received by kids.

The Scourge is set in a country, Keldan, that is suffering from a dangerous pandemic called the Scourge. People found to be ill from or carriers of the Scourge are sent to an island called the Colony, housed in a former prison. No one ever returns. The Scourge is always fatal. Things start to change, however, when young Ani Mells is sent to the Colony. Ani and her best friend Weevil belong to the River People, an ostracized segment of the population also know as "grubs". Grubs have few rights compared to the townspeople (called "pinchworms"), but they do know how to fight, and take care of themselves. What follows is an exploration of friendship, government oppression, and manipulation, set against a variety of dangers and cruelties.

Ani is a delightful character, stubborn and belligerent, and pretty much incapable of following the rules. She blossoms into a leader over the course of the book, even as her antagonists attempt to break her. Her friendship with Weevil is strong enough to withstand various tests, too. [Slight spoiler: A turn from friendship to love interest later in the book didn't seem necessary to me, but is certainly G rated enough to keep the book elementary schooler-friendly.] And, in another refreshing change for any children's fantasy novel, Ani actually has two loving and living parents (though she's separated from them starting early in the book, of course).

Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Ani's voice:

"The River People knew every plant and its uses. Pinchworms thought we were less educated than them because we didn't have their expensive medicines or tests like the governor would probably try to administer on us. I figured we were just differently educated. They knew the world that came out of books, but we knew the world that went into them. I'd have loved to see a hungry pinchworm challenge a water cobra for its fish. Mostly because no River Person I knew would ever try such a foolish thing. In river country, we all learned early to respect things that could swallow us whole." (Chapter Three, ARC)

"Sometimes I hated the way my brain worked, like a magnet to thoughts I should not have and actions I should not take. My mother said I was born backward and that probably explained how I'd gotten this way. Maybe she was right--I didn't know." (Chapter Twenty-Five, ARC)

Fans of Nielsen's other fantasy books are going to love The Scourge. For those who haven't read her work, The Scourge is a great introduction, particularly given that it's a standalone novel. The Scourge is one that libraries serving elementary and middle school kids should have on their "must purchase" list. Highly recommended, for kids and adults.  

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

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


Snoop Troop: It Came from Beneath the Playground: Kirk Scroggs

Book: Snoop Troop: It Came from Beneath the Playground
Author: Kirk Scroggs
Pages: 176
Age Range: 7-10

SnoopTroop1It Came from Beneath the Playground is the first book in the Snoop Troop series of mysteries for early elementary school kids. I found it to be highly entertaining, with kid-friendly humor and a non-obvious mystery. When sources of fun (including a local merry-go-round and the school playground) start disappearing, a mystery-obsessed girl named Logan Lang races to help. In the face of inept adult investigators, Logan reluctantly joins forces with a police-obsessed boy named Gustavo Muchomacho (previously her "arch-nuisance"). The two each bring complementary mystery-solving skills to the table, and their differences lend humor along the way. 

It Came from Beneath the Playground is a heavily illustrated  chapter book, with multiple pictures on every page, much of the information conveyed in text bubbles, and seek-and-find type activities throughout. There are also bonus puzzles and visual games included at the end of the book. It reads like a graphic novel, but does include some narrative text, too. The narrator talks directly to Logan from time to time, and readers are directly encouraged to find clues along the way.

Despite the many illustrations, I would place It Came from Beneath the Playground as more a book for second graders and up than for first graders. It's relatively long, and many of the illustrations are small and detailed. Readers hoping to solve the mystery will need to keep track of hints from different parts of the book. There are also some strong vocabulary words, as well as puns that I don't think the newest readers will get. (e.g. an amusement park owner named "Izzy Hurling"). And there are ransom notes in the form of word jumbles. 

But for kids who are ready for it, It Came from Beneath the Playground is a lot of fun. I laughed out loud several times while reading it. Like this:

Narrator: "That's fourth-grader Logan Lang sitting in the dark, dank library, just like she does every day after school, surrounded by her friends...

And when I say "friends," I mean mystery books, crime novels, and twisted tales of suspense...

They're all she has in this cold, lonely world." 

Logan (via text bubble): "Okay, I think they get it. I'm a little too into mystery books."

and:

Police detective (via text bubble, at the amusement park crime scene): "You again? I've warned you about trespassing on crime scenes. This place is crawling with stuffed animals, candy, and arcade games--it's no place for a kid!" 

and:

Narrator: "Gustavo jumps onto one end of the seesaw to save Bobby Bing, but for some reason, Bobby goes sailing into the air without even saying good-bye."

Gustavo (via text bubble): "Wait! Don't go. I'm trying to rescue you!"

Gustavo is not too bright, but he does mean well. He has a bunch of gadget-enhanced mustaches, which are pretty funny. Logan has a combination police scanner/lunchbox. Her office is a retired ice cream truck. 

Snoop Scoop: It Came from Beneath the Playground is perfect for kids who enjoy the Lunch Lady series and are ready for something a little bit more challenging. It's highly interactive and dynamic, and a great introduction to how to solve mysteries. Recommended for library or home purchase, with a slight plus for home purchase because kids may want to write in the puzzle and game section at the end. 

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the author (via my friend Miles)

© 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).