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Walrus in the Bathtub: Deborah Underwood and Matt Hunt

Book: Walrus in the Bathtub
Author: Deborah Underwood
Illustrator: Matt Hunt
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

Walrus in the Bathtub is an over-the-top tale about a family who moves into a new house and find a walrus living in the bathtub. This causes all sorts of "bad things", like "bathtub tidal waves" that result in "soggy suppers" (the water leaking right through the dining room ceiling), and "toothpaste troubles" when the walrus uses it all up. The extremely loud walrus songs are a particular problem, at least for most of the family. The little sister seems to take it all in stride. But when the family gives up and decides to move out, a misunderstanding is revealed, and common ground is eventually reached. 

This is just pure silliness, of course. They ask a firefighter for help and he tells them "Call us if he gets stuck in a tree." They try dressing up to somehow entice the walrus out of the tub, and of course that utterly fails. And so on. But the writing style is fun. The book is written mainly in the form of lists produced by the older brother, together with some dialog. Most of the lists are of three items, but my favorite was this one:

"Things that are louder than walrus songs:

1) Nothing"

The above is on a page where you see "AAAAHHHROOOOOOOOOOOHHHHH!!!!!" weaving across the page, and the parents and brother trying to drown out the noise with headphones, hats, and pillows. The little sister seems to be singing along, gleeful. Matt Hunt's illustrations are colorful and cheerful, filled with details like "Walrus Weekly: Home Edition" set casually atop some boxes of clams. I especially liked the sister, with her red glasses and gap-toothed grin, and the way the brother carries a little notebook around everywhere for his lists. 

A note on diversity. The dad and the brother are clearly white, with brown hair and freckled faces. The mom and the sister, though, looked a little Asian to me, with darker skin and straight back hair. It's hard to say for sure, because of the informal style of the illustrations. But I took the liberty of telling my daughter that this might be a blended family. I thought that would be cool to see represented and unremarked in the text. But I can't say for sure. 

I'm not sure how well Walrus in the Bathtub is going to hold up to repeat readings, but my 8 year old thought that it was hilarious, and I enjoyed it myself. I liked the list-centered approach, and I thought that the ending was creative. I liked how the family stuck together, with the exception of the little sister, who silently formed her own option. I think Walrus in the Bathtub would make a nice library purchase - the eye-catching cover will have kids eagerly grabbing it from the shelves. Recommended and a lot of fun!  

Publisher: Dial Books (@PenguinKids)  
Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Not If I Save You First: Ally Carter

Book: Not If I Save You First
Author: Ally Carter
Pages: 304
Age Range: 12 and up

NotIfISaveYouNot If I Save You First is a recent thriller by Ally Carter. 10-year-old Maddie, daughter of a senior secret service agent, is best friends with Logan, son of the recently elected President. The two children are inseparable and the White House is their fiefdom. After a near-kidnapping of the first lady, however, Maddie's dad moves her to a remote cabin in Alaska, with basically no outside human contact. Six isolated years and hundreds of unanswered letters to Logan later, Maddie is furious with both Logan and her father. When Logan is sent on a visit to the cabin as a punishment, she has every intention of making him pay. When Logan is kidnapped, however, Maddie finds herself with no choice but to go after her childhood friend. A thrilling chase and quest for survival follows, full of twists, turns, and tidbits about the Alaska wilderness. 

Maddie is a resourceful, if somewhat bitter, character. Her life in Alaska has taught her various survival skills, though she maintains hints of her previous glam-loving self (such as a bedazzled hatchet). She is more than a match for her enemies, but is vulnerable to Logan's charms. Logan, despite a reputation as a rebel, turns out to have some self-defense skills, too. Here's Maddie:

"... Maddie walked to the river and gathered the biggest rocks she could then placed them like an arrow, pointing the way. She piled a few smaller stones on top, just high enough to be noticed in a few inches of snow and ice, but not so high that they might topple.

Then Maddie lowered her hood. She brought her hand to the side of her face and pressed her palm against the largest of the rocks until her bloody handprint shone like an eerie beacon, announcing the world: Trouble came this way.

But trouble was Maddie's family's business, so she did the only thing that made sense. She followed it." (Page 89)

And here's Logan:

""So what's your name?" Logan wanted to sound casual, maybe crazy. A sane person would be terrified by now, he knew, ranting and rambling and promising to give the man with the gun anything he wanted. 

But Logan had learned a long time ago that there was nothing you could give a man with a gun to make him happy. Men with guns were only satisfied when they took. And Logan was going to hang on to the last of his self-respect for as long as he possibly could." (Page 101)

Not If I Save You First is a bit far-fetched in terms of the plot, but the details about survival in the Alaskan wilderness feel authentic. The conflict and growing attraction between the characters rings true, also (though I never really understood why Logan didn't write back to Maddy). Anyone who has enjoyed Ally Carter's other books while certainly want to give it a look, as will fans of teen survival or spy stories. Not If I Save You First is a fast-paced read that you'll want to devour in a single sitting - ideally on a warm summer day, or beside a cozy fire. Recommended!

Publisher: Scholastic 
Publication Date: March 27, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Willa of the Wood: Robert Beatty

Book: Willa of the Wood
Author: Robert Beatty
Pages: 384
Age Range: 9-12

WillaWilla of the Wood by Robert Beatty is the first book that I've felt compelled to review in quite some time. Honestly, not many books are capable of making me stay up late to finish these days, but this one did. It is suspenseful, beautiful, and thought-provoking, while featuring unique and memorable characters. The end brought a little tear to my eye. Willa of the Wood is set in the same Great Smoky Mountain region as Beatty's Serafina series (see reviews here and here), but features a brand new protagonist.

Willa is a Faeran, or night-spirit. She lives with her clan, most notably her grandmother, Mamaw, deep in the wood. She's been trained to be a jaetter, which is basically a thief, stealing money, food, and artifacts from the humans who are starting to populate the area. But unlike most of the jaetters, Willa possesses ancient abilities once common among her people. She can change skin color, and blend in with the forest. She can speak to plants and animals. She can ask a tree for help as she climbs, and find branches bending to help her. She knows little about the "day-folk" (homesteaders), but much about the problems that have arisen within her clan over her lifetime.  

The home of Willa's clan, and her abilities, reminded me a little bit of the world in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy. Here's a description:

"She was part of this clan, and it was part of her, as inextricable as root and soil. Willa looked up, beyond the throng of the Faeran that surrounded her, toward the ceiling. The hall had been built for many thousands of people to gather here, but far fewer than that remained. The walls of the great hall rose up all around, vast expanses of dark brown woven sticks reaching to a large gaping hole broken to the sky above. What was left of the decaying ceiling and walls was held aloft by the ancient, massive woven-stick sculptures of giant trees, the columns of their trunks soaring upward to spreading canopies above. Thousands of hand-curled leaves glimmered with emerald green, and brilliant kaleidoscopes of ornately woven birds of all shapes and sizes and colors seemed to be flying through the branches of the trees." (Page 93, ARC)

I don't want to give away anything about the plot. Suffice it to say that Willa finds herself in peril on several occasions, and has to call on both her inner resources and special skills to survive. Parts of the story, as with the Serafina books, are quite dark. Although this book is certainly middle grade, I will personally wait until my eight-year-old is a bit older before recommending it to her. 

Other things worth knowing about the book: 

  • There is diversity. In addition to the Faeran, the humans include both white homesteaders and Cherokee tribe members. 
  • There are also loggers, and quite chilling depictions of the evils of clear-cutting old growth forests (as seen from the perspective of someone who knows the trees personally, and thinks of them as if they were people). The loggers were a bit one-note as villains, but I doubt most kids will mind that. 
  • A caring adult (human) plays a major role in the story, as he and Willa help one another. I found this refreshing - in so many children's books adults are either absent or presented as villains or buffoons. Beatty offers a nuanced treatment of the different viewpoints of Willa (who would never harm an animal) and the man (who has cut down trees to build his home, etc.). She is baffled, for instance, over the idea that he can own land.
  • Animals also play important roles in the story. 

In short, Willa of the Wood is wonderful, and has my highest recommendation. It is not necessary to have read the Serafina books to read this one. Though I certainly recommend those, too, Willa tugged more at heart. 

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Time Bomb: Joelle Charbonneau

Book: Time Bomb
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up

TimeBombTime Bomb is a standalone young adult thriller about a high school bombing. The story begins with a brief scene in the afternoon in which the reader learns that several teens are trapped in the school, and that the bomber is one of them. The time frame then moves back to the morning, with short chapters from the perspectives of each of six kids. As the book progresses, the reader (and the other kids) has to figure out who the bomber is. Each of the six main characters has gone to school planning something desperate, but their individual motivations are only gradually revealed.

Time Bomb  reads as a combination of suspenseful thriller and The Breakfast Club. The carefully balanced diversity of the students (in terms of race, religion, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, popularity, and body types) struck me as a bit contrived, but the survival story and the mystery both held my interest. I did have a guess as to the identify of the culprit by mid-way through the book, but I wasn't sure, and I appreciated Charbonneau's continued planting of clues. 

In a ripped from the headlines touch, one of the kids is the daughter of a senator who is trying to enact legislation that "would require that students and teachers inform the administration if they thought someone in the school might be interested in doing harm to students, teachers, or school property. Any students reported would then have to hand over their passwords to social media and email accounts of face suspension and a potential investigation by federal authorities." (Page 7-8)

It's the interactions between the students, most of whom don't know one another prior to the bombing, that give the book its heart. This is constantly balanced with efforts towards survival, however. I do think that the combination works, and will keep kids reading. 

I'm not sure whether the timing of this book, released one month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will end up good or bad for readership. I personally had to wait a couple of weeks before I was ready to read it. But it certainly does offer insights into the struggles that are going on inside the hearts and minds of high school students, and the ways that some of them may respond. There are characters offering both windows and mirrors for any teen reader. I had a hint of the feeling that I had after reading Thirteen Reasons Why, that somewhere, some reader of this book might be inspired to reach out to fellow students. And if not, well, most will still enjoy solving the mystery, and wondering what they might do to survive. Recommended!

Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: March 13, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Relative Strangers: Paula Garner

Book: Relative Strangers
Author: Paula Garner
Pages: 368
Age Range: 13 and up

RelativeStrangersIn Relative Strangers, by Paula Garner, high school senior Jules learns for the first time that she spent nearly two years in foster care when she was a small child, while her alcoholic single mother struggled. Since then, Jules' mother has stayed sober, if distant, and the two live a frugal existence. Jules can't help feeling a bit envious of her two best friends, Gab and Leila, who have much more stable, comfortable home lives. When Jules decides to track down her foster family, she finds Luke, five years her senior, who is thrilled to reconnect with his long-lost little sister. However, while Luke thinks of Jules as the sister whose diapers he helped change, Jules, with no memory of Luke's family, struggles to overcome a powerful attraction to her handsome "brother." 

Personally, I was a little uncomfortable with the "attraction to the brother-figure" storyline, though I understand that it was necessary to provide conflict to the story. Apart from that, however, I quite enjoyed Relative Strangers. Garner's characterization is strong, particularly when it comes to Jules. Jules positive breathes from the page, as do her friends, including Eli, a quirky gay barista who keeps pet rats. The relationship between Jules and her mother is nuanced, and really, none of the relationships in the book are one-dimensional. This is especially true for Jules' relationship with Gab and Leila, who are depicted as proton and neutron (completely solid bond) to Jules' close but still secondary circling electron. 

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

"Dr. Hathaway put some money down on the table. "Pizza money, in case you're still hungry after you've eaten us out of house and home. Gotta keep those tapeworms thriving." He winked at us. I glanced at the cash on the table, thinking how many hours of work a few twenties represented to me and how they were nothing to the Hathaways, and the Wassermans, too. I cringed at myself for the money envy on top of the family envy, but apparently my coveting knew no bounds. When Leila's dad gave her a kiss on the temple, I wanted to crawl under the kitchen island with the copper-bottomed pots and fancy appliances and cry."

and:

"Stepping outside was like receiving a hug from a benevolent deity. The sky beamed a blue of impossible vibrancy, and the air smelled of rain soaked earth and budding green life. Spudly, the Jenskins's basset hound, barked joyously at me through the fence as I passed by. Sun flashed in the water rushing along the drainage ditches on Elm Street. As I made my way through the neighborhood and into town, I buzzed with excitement and hope." (Chapter 6 - as Jules is about to meet Luke for the first time)

So we have vivid, evocative writing; strong characterization; and gender, religious, and socioeconomic diversity. Jules also has unusual interests (she loves everyday old things, like china and buttons). There's plenty of emotion (including a couple of sad things), without Relative Strangers being overly melodramatic. There are some aspects that make Relative Strangers better for high schoolers than middle schoolers (references to casual sex, smoking pot, sneaking alcohol from parents), but nothing that isn't realistic or thoughtful. In short, this is top quality young adult fiction all around. Recommended for teens and for adults who enjoy YA. 

Publisher: Candlewick Press 
Publication Date: April 10, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure: Kaye Newton

Book: How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure
Author: Kaye Newton
Pages: 170
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction

ScreenLovingKidsReadHow to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure is a well-researched, user-friendly guide for parents on this specific topic. Author Kaye Newton isn't a teacher or reading expert - she's a parent who struggled with her own children's falling off of reading during adolescence, and set out to look for solutions. While there's not a lot in the book that was new to me, because I read a lot in this area, I think that Newton did a nice job of distilling recommendations from sources like Jim Trelease, Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, and others. She also has a nice set of book recommendations that are designed to "hook" kids, with titles grouped by age range and category (history, nonfiction, humor, etc.). The books she recommends include many of what I would consider the "new classics" as well as some traditional classics, with a reasonable (though not extensive) representation of diverse titles. 

I agreed with and applauded most of Newton's recommendations throughout the book. She strongly supports giving kids choice in what they read, and she doesn't get hung up on reading levels or literary quality. She's a proponent of anything that involves long-form reading, vs. brief snippets on texts and Facebook, including fiction and nonfiction, magazines and audiobooks. She strikes me as not completely sure about graphic novels, but she goes with the research and agrees that they are "real reading" and can be used to hook readers. She's solid on choice and putting the pleasure in pleasure reading. 

I wasn't completely on board with some specific recommendations that she makes for boys and reading because I feel philosophically that boys should be encouraged to read books with female protagonists. But I think that the general audience of parents who are trying to encourage reluctant readers will find the specific recommendations helpful. Similarly, I'm not a fan of giving kids rewards for reading. And to be fair, neither is Newton, but she does outline cases where she thinks they can help, for particularly resistant readers. But those are my only, minor, quibbles.

I found myself highlighting many passages as I read through How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure. Newton starts by telling parents why they should encourage their kids to read for pleasure, with a nice section on the benefits for teens and preteens (stress reduction, improved concentration, increased empathy, etc.). She views encouraging reading as a parent's job, and she doesn't let parents off the hook in terms of modeling reading, though she's generous with her definitions. For example, one suggestion to increase summer reading is to designate a time that the whole family reads, but that reading could include articles for work, the newspaper, or other choices.

Newton is empathetic to the difficulties that parents can face in striving for more reading time (it's hard to get kids to put down their screens), but stays positive about the reasons to do so. She takes on various questions, like whether it's ok for kids to re-read (yes), whether it's ok to read on an e-reader, what to do about kids who are reading above their grade level, how to help kids with learning disabilities, and so on. She urges parents to surround their kids with reading material, whether from the library or other sources, and provides  suggestions for making reading "the most interesting and accessible activity in the room." 

As my daughter is not yet an adolescent (thank goodness), and is at this point still an avid reader (thank goodness), there were parts of this book that were not as relevant for me. I won't be setting up book clubs any time soon, for instance. But I still enjoyed reading this book, because I agreed with so much of what Kaye Newton had to say. I did pick up a few new ideas, too. How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure is a fairly quick read (with lots of lists and bullets). I think that any parent seeking to engage a reluctant teen or preteen reader could find something useful to try. It's also good just for refreshing one's general intent to raise readers (and be a reader). All in all, I definitely recommend giving this book a look! 

Publisher:  Linland Press
Publication Date: January 10, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the author

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Losers Club: Andrew Clements

Book: The Losers Club
Author: Andrew Clements
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

LosersClubThe Losers Club by Andrew Clements is a delight from start to finish. It's about a sixth grade boy named Alec who gets into trouble at school because he loves to read so much. He's constantly reading in class, instead of paying attention, and getting sent to the Principal's Office. Already on thin ice on the first day of school, Alec learns that he has to start going to after school care this year. He is pressured to join a sort or other club, when again all he wants to do is read. In a flash of inspiration, Alec starts a reading club. He calls it The Losers Club because he doesn't want to be distracted, and he wants to disincentivize other kids from joining. The idea is that he and his sole fellow club member, Nina, will just sit at the same table and read quietly for three hours every day. Of course, a bit  more than that ends up happening. 

The Losers Club is a love letter to kids who like to read, and to the many books that they love. Classics old and new are mentioned on practically every page, with a full list provided at the end of the book. But The Losers Club isn't one of those books that librarians and teachers will love, and kids will find heavy-handed. Alec is a real, three-dimensional character, with strengths and weaknesses. He has a bit of a crush on Nina (completely middle grade-appropriate), enjoys water-skiing, and is mildly bullied by former friend Kent. Kent and Nina, as well as Alec's family members, also feel realistic. There's a nice mix of action (Kent kicking balls into the wall behind the Losers Club table, and Alec challenging him) and introspection (and kid who reads as much as Alec does is going to be somewhat introspective). 

One thing that I especially enjoyed about The Losers Club was that Alec's parents, well, parent him. When his performance slips at school, they take action. They give him advice. They notice when he's cranky and ask why. Kind of a refreshing change all around, compared to much of middle grade literature. Alec even exchanges advice here and there with his very different little brother. Oh, and as an added bonus, Alec's parents are huge Star Wars fans, and Yoda-speak is primary form of dialog in his home. Alec is actually named after Alec Guinness, and his brother is named for Luke Skywalker. Super fun! This would make a wonderful audiobook, I suspect. 

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

"But Alex was a special case. Every time he had landed in the Hot Seat, he had been caught doing something that teachers usually liked: reading. It wasn't about what he was reading or how he was reading--it was always because where and when he was reading. 

Maybe his mom and dad were to blame for spending all those hours reading to him when he was little. Or maybe The Sailor Dog was to blame, or The Very Hungry Caterpiller, or possibly The Cat in the Hat. But there was no doubt that Alec had loved books from the get-go. Once he found a beginning, he had to get to the middle, because the middle always led to the end of the story. And no matter what, Alec had to know what happened next." (Page 2)

and:

"Some people had comfort food, but Alec had comfort books--stories so familiar that they made reading feel like coasting downhill on a bike, or water-skiing on a smooth lake. And Charlotte's Web was one of his all-time favorites." (Page 33)

My daughter, who is almost eight, was curious about this book. When I told her about it, she asked if she could read it when I was finished. I'll be interested to see if she likes it, and whether it inspires her to want to read any other books (like Charlotte's Web). 

Certainly, The Losers Club is a book that belongs in libraries serving middle grade readers everywhere. Andrew Clements is the master of school stories, and The Losers Club is no exception (and a complete bonus for anyone who loves books). Highly recommended!

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers  (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: August 1, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens: Paul Noth

Book: How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens
Author: Paul Noth
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

HowToSellYourFamilyHow to Sell Your Family to the Aliens by Paul Noth is a lightly illustrated, over-the-top middle grade science fiction novel, possibly the first of a series. Happy Conklin, Jr. lives with his parents and his five sisters in two rooms in the basement of his grandmother's lavish mansion. Although Hap's father actually dreams up all of the inventions that have made the family wealthy, he is perpetually punished/banished because of his choice to marry a poor Romanian laundress (Hap's mother, who is offscreen for most of the story).

Grandma Conklin has tested various inventions on her grandchildren, most of whom possess lingering oddities. Hap, though only 10, has a full beard, and needs to shave every day to even begin to fit in at school. One sister is a kleptomaniac who apparently hides her spoils in some other dimension, because they are never seen again. Other sisters, twins, only look alike because one of them possesses a pair of glasses that can make her look like anyone, and she chooses to look like her sister. Another, Kayla, can more or less see the future (it's complicated). Only the cheerful youngest, Baby Lu, is unmarked. When a threat to Baby Lu from Grandma arises, Hap (with some suggestions from Kayla) springs into action. What follows is a madcap caper involving an intelligent lizard, a less intelligent wrestler, a dwarf FBI agent, and, yes, aliens. 

How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens is a quick, fun read, sprinkled with quirky inventions and occasional scenes related in comic strip format. Here are a couple of snippets, to give you a feel for Hap's voice. He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he is determined to help his sister.

"My grandma only baked cookies once a week, and even then they weren't for me but for my dad. And actually she didn't bake them herself either--her personal chef id. My dad's inventions paid for her to have a chef, three maids, a butler, a bunch of security guards, a chauffeur, and a footman, who I guess did something to her feet. I don't want to know what." (Chapter 1)

and:

"By Kayla's timeline, I was supposed to be in the Chartreuse Vestibule. But this was just some yellow hallway! I must have made a wrong turn.

Up ahead, a pug-faced man hurried into the hallway, walking toward me, while looking at an expensive leather clipboard." (Chapter 11)

Noth's black-and-white illustrations lend humor throughout, ranging from a schematic of the mansion to various drawings that are not what the aliens look like, but are drawn by Hap "to fool people who are flipping ahead in the book to find out what the aliens look like." 

How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens is a super-fun addition to the ranks of middle grade science fiction. The illustrations should make it accessible to newer readers, and the premise (selling an annoying family to aliens) is hard to resist. I hope that there are other books to follow - I would enjoy spending more time with Hap and his family. Recommended!!

Publisher:  Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Death and Douglas: J. W. Ocker

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

and:

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

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

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

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

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans: Russell Ginns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Your One & Only: Adrianne Finlay

Book: Your One & Only
Author: Adrianne Finlay
Pages: 320
Age Range: 13 and up

YourOneAndOnlyYour One & Only is a new post-apocalyptic dystopian novel for young adults by Adrianne Finlay. It's set in a future Costa Rican village populated by Homo Factus, the followup generation that was created after humans died off from the Slow Plague. Vispera is one of three villages, each populated by 10 generations of 10 clones each from nine models (900 citizens total).

Althea-310 is one of the 10 Althea models in her teen age group, nearly identical to her nine sisters save a scar on her wrist. She knows what she'll look like as she ages, due to the presence of eight older generations of Altheas. Representatives of each of the nine genetic models also take on similar attributes and jobs as one another. The citizens communicate orally, but also via a genetically enhanced system of bonding that causes them to feel one another's emotions. Althea-310's peaceful life changes, however, when she becomes emotionally involved with an "experiment", a boy named Jack who was cloned from 300 year old unmodified human DNA. 

I wasn't sure about this book at first - the premise felt like a particularly contrived dystopia. Why keep everyone identical? Why only reproduce by cloning instead of naturally? But Finlay won me over as she revealed (slowly) the answers to these and other questions. 

I think that teens will particularly like Your One & Only.  Cloning strikes at fundamental questions of identity, particularly when the clones are emotionally bonded to one another to the point of having scarcely any independence. This tension is set against a dramatic plot focused on survival, and one with a couple of unexpected twists. Your One & Only also has my favorite feature of dystopias, bread crumbs about the humans who came before (mostly in the form of books that Jack is given to read). 

The strongest feature of this book, though, is the characterization. Which is pretty impressive when you consider the similarities of many of the characters. It would be impossible not to empathize with Althea-310 and Jack. Other characters are a bit tougher to appreciate, but this keeps them interesting. 

One note about content. There are many references to the young clones "Pairing" with one another (having ritualized sex). Although there are no graphic details, I would still categorize Your One & Only more for high school than middle school because of this. The Pairing is a significant plot point, not just something mentioned in passing. There's also a note that the Pairings are always with "one female and one male." Sexual diversity is no more allowed in Vispera than genetic diversity. 

Your One & Only appears to be a standalone novel, although a certain ambiguity of the ending leaves open the possibility for a sequel. I would certainly read a sequel, interested to see where Finlay takes her intriguing characters and strong world-building next. Highly recommended, and well worth a look for libraries serving young adults (and adults, too). 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: February 6, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Ambrose Deception: Emily Ecton

Book: The Ambrose Deception
Author: Emily Ecton
Pages: 368
Age Range: 9-12

AmbroseDeceptionThe Ambrose Deception by Emily Ecton begins as three unconventional students are selected from their respective Chicago middle schools to compete in a contest for a $10,000 scholarship. Melissa, Bondi, and Wilf are each given three clues to solve, as well as a car and driver, a debit card, and a (not so modern) cell phone to help them. The clues are cryptic instructions like "Go to 1910 for ice cream, then stick around to watch the newborns." The three kids start out working independently (as ordered), but eventually interact with one another. As they start to make progress, they also start to realize that something isn't quite right about the contest. ("Deception" is right there in the title, after all.) Application of their wits becomes even more important. 

The book is something of an ode to Chicago, with clues and locations specific to details of the city, famous and obscure. One doesn't need to be familiar with these things to appreciate the book, however. It's fun regardless to watch the children run around the city, figuring things out. 

The three kids all have quite different backgrounds and personalities. These are painted clearly without slowing down the action. Wilf, in particular, takes advantage of the opportunities provided by the car and driver, and the debit card, and initially doesn't try very hard at the contest. Melissa, currently selling homework solutions in order to support her impoverished family, is much more motivated, as is "Mr. Personality" Bondi, despite attempts by his friends to distract him.

 The perspective in the book shifts between the three students, in short sections, with occasional diversions to others (like the drivers, interesting characters in their own right). There are notes, lists, emails and text exchanges sprinkled throughout the book. The chalkboard that the drivers use to communicate also pops up from time to time. All of this, makes The Ambrose Deception an enticing book for reluctant readers.

I think that any kid who enjoys solving puzzles, reading about quests, or laughing at a boy who eats hot dogs from so many different venues that he becomes ill, will enjoy The Ambrose Deception. The ending is particularly satisfying. This would be a great title to add to libraries serving elementary and middle school students. It's one that I'll keep for my daughter for when she's just a bit older. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion (@DisneyHyperion))
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).