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1. Post Publication Book Awards: Housatonic Book Awards

We invite you to nominate your 2013 titles for the inaugural Housatonic Book Awards, operated by the MFA in Creative in Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University in cooperation with the MFA Alumni Writer's Cooperative (AWC). The mission of the awards is to promote excellent writing, to identify authors who serve as professional role models for writing students, and to develop the WCSU MFA in Creative and Professional Writing scholarship fund.

Five recipients will be honored in the areas of Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, Writing for Middle Grades and Young Adults, and Professional Writing. Any publisher, author, agent, or legal representative may enter a title in the appropriate award genre.

The Housatonic Book Awards are open for nominations between March 15 and June 15. This is a postmark deadline. Recipients receive $1500 and will appear at a WCSU MFA Residency in 2015.
 

Guidelines, the entry form, and the electronic submission portal may be found here.

The awards subscribe to the CLMP Code of Ethics.

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2. The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 320
Age Range: 8-12

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill is a historical mystery novel set in a small Vermont town in 1953. Hazel Kaplansky lives with her parents in a home adjacent to the graveyard that they manage. She's prickly and smart, and doesn't fit in very well, despite having grown up in Maple Hill. At a time when everyone is nervous about Russian spies and possible nuclear attacks, Hazel is suspicious of the new gravedigger, a man with the too-banal-to-be-true name of Mr. Jones. Hazel soon enlists lonely new kid Samuel Butler in her investigation. But she soon learns that Samuel has secrets, too, which everyone seems to know about except Hazel. Hazel and Samuel's developing friendship is set against a backdrop that includes a McCarthy investigation of the men in the local factory, and corresponding swirl of local rumor and innuendo.

I think that Blakemore does a nice job integrating the historical time period with Hazel's story. She introduces lots of details, but keeps all of them tied closely to Hazel's perspective. For instance, she captures Hazel's mortification when she sneezes during an air raid drill. The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill covers everything from the scars that remain from the depression and influenza epidemic to how people treated unwed mothers during and after World War II to the fear and gossip triggered by McCarthyism. And she slips in little tidbits, too, like the fact that Alaska isn't a state yet. 

There is a bit of an old-fashioned feel to The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, as you would expect from a book so decisively set in the 50s. Bike riding, microfiche searches at the library, only mothers expected to show up at school events, etc. I think that the presence of a graveyard, together with active spying, will still keep kids interested, but there's always that risk with historical fiction that it will appeal more to adults than it does to the kids. There's a pretty clear sub-text in some of the scenes, where the adults, particularly Hazel's parents, talk over her head. I suppose that kids who understand this will have the chance to feel superior. Certainly I would expect young readers to be surprised at how different the world was 60 years ago. 

Anyway, I quite liked Hazel, despite (or perhaps because of) that fact that she isn't completely likable at all. She makes mistakes, she runs away with her assumptions, and she is flat out wrong about most things. But she's smart and loves books and doesn't really try to fit in - she is utterly herself. When a popular girl invites Hazel, unexpectedly, to a birthday party, she attends only so that she can conduct her investigation. She attempts to turn a mausoleum into a fallout shelter. She does remind me a bit of Harriet the Spy, writing things down in a little notebook, though the lives of the two girls are quite different. 

Here's a snippet, to give you a feel for Hazel:

"What was in that box?

Hazel sat up in the tree chewing her lip. Something was not on the up-and-up. Last year she had read every single one of the Nancy Drew mysteries, and just like Nancy always did, she had a hunch, but you didn't need to be a young sleuth like Hazel and Nancy to know that when a person locked something up, he was hiding something. And just like that, Hazel had her first real mystery." (Chapter 2)

and:

"It should come as no surprise that Hazel loved the library. She loved everything about it, even the smell, like paper, and paste, and sometimes, when Richard Begos was there, a little bit like pipe smoke." (Chapter 6)

Despite the presence of some mean-spirited, gossipmongers in the town, there are several wonderful adult role models for Hazel, including a service station owner and a librarian. I also liked the fact that the conflict that Hazel has with a couple of mean girls is not resolved to any great degree. This comes across as realistic, and Hazel never feels like she needs their approval anyway. 

A hint of a mystery is left open at the end of The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill. It's not a cliffhanger, just something to keep the reader guessing. Kids who enjoy mysteries or realistic historical fiction (like Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now) will definitely want to check this one out. I enjoyed it as an adult, and I think that I would have loved it when I was ten (having been something of a geek like Hazel). Although this is Hazel's story, the engaging cover should help it to appeal to boys, too. Recommended! 

Publisher: Bloomsbury (@BWKids)
Publication Date: May 6, 2014
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 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

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3. Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary Blackwood

Curiosity Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary BlackwoodCuriosity
By Gary Blackwood
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3924-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 10th

Blackwood’s back, baby! And not a minute too soon. Back in 1998, the author released The Shakespeare Stealer which would soon thereafter become his best-known work. A clever blending of historical fiction and adventure, the book allowed teachers the chance to hone Shakespeare down to a kid-friendly level. Since its publication Mr. Blackwood has kept busy, writing speculative fiction and, most recently, works of nonfiction for kids. Then there was a bit of a lull in his writing and the foolish amongst us (myself included) forgot about him. There will be no forgetting Mr. Blackwood anytime now though. Not after you read his latest work Curiosity. Throwing in everything from P.T. Barnum and phrenology to hunchbacks, Edgar Allan Poe, automatons, chess prodigies, murder, terrible fires, and legless men, Blackwood produces a tour de force to be reckoned with. In the press materials for this book, Penguin calls it “Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction.” They’re not wrong. The man’s about to acquire a whole new generation of fans and enthusiasts.

Fear for the children of novels that describe their childhoods as pampered or coddled. No good can come of that. Born weak with a slight deformity of the spine, Rufus lives a lovely life with his father, a well-respected Methodist minister in early 19th century Philadelphia. That’s all before his father writes a kind of predecessor to The Origin of the Species and through a series of misadventures is thrown into debtor’s prison. Fortunately (perhaps) Rufus is a bit of a chess prodigy and his talents get him a job with a man by the name of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Maelzel owns an automaton called The Turk that is supposed to be able to play chess against anyone and win. With Rufus safely ensconced inside, The Turk is poised to become a massive moneymaker. But forces are at work to reveal The Turk’s secrets and if that information gets out, Rufus’s life might not be worth that of the pawns he plays.

Making the past seem relevant and accessible is hard enough when you’re writing a book for adults. Imagine the additional difficulty children’s authors find themselves in. Your word count is limited else you lose your audience. That means you need to engage in some serious (not to mention judicious and meticulous) wordplay. Blackwood’s a pro, though. His 1835 world is capable of capturing you with its life and vitality without boring you in the process. At one point Rufus describes seeing Richmond, VA for the first time and you are THERE, man. From the Flying Gigs to the mockingbirds to the James River itself. I was also relieved to find that Blackwood does make mention of the African-Americans living in Richmond and Philly at the time this novel takes place. Many are the works of historical fiction by white people about white people that conveniently forget this little fact.

Add onto that the difficulty that comes with making the past interesting and accurate and relevant all at once. I read more historical fiction for kids than a human being should, and while it’s all often very well meaning, interesting? Not usually an option. I’m certain folks will look at how Blackwood piles on the crazy elements here (see: previous statement about the book containing everything from phrenology to P.T. Barnum) and will assume that this is just a cheap play for thrills. Not so. It’s the man’s writing that actually holds your focus. I mean, look at that first line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.” Heck, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Check out these little gems:

“If my cosseted childhood hadn’t taught me how to relate to other people, neither had it taught em to fear them.”

“I was like some perverse species of prisoner who felt free only when he was locked inside a tiny cell.”

“Maelzel was not the sort of creator imagined by the Deists, who fashions a sort of clockwork universe and winds it up, then sits back and watches it go and never interferes. He was more like my father’s idea of the creator: constantly tinkering with his creations, looking for ways to make them run more smoothly and perform more cleverly – the kind who makes it possible for new species to develop.”

As for the writing of the story itself, Blackwood keeps the reader guessing and then fills the tale with loads of historical details. The historical accuracy is such that Blackwood even allows himself little throwaway references, confident that confused kids will look them up themselves. For example, at one point Rufus compares himself to “Varney the Vampire climbing into his coffin.” This would be a penny dreadful that circulated roundabout this time (is there any more terrifying name than “Varney” after all?). In another instance a blazing fire is met with two “rival hose” companies battling one another “for the right to hook up to the nearest fireplug.” There is a feeling that for a book to be literary it has to be dull. Blackwood dispels the notion, and one has to stand amazed when they realize that somehow he managed to make a story about a kid trapped in a small dark space for hours at a time riveting.

Another one of the more remarkable accomplishments of the book is that it honestly makes you want to learn more about the game of chess. A good author can get a kid interested in any subject, of course. I think back on The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, which dared to talk up the game of Bridge. And honestly, chess isn’t a hard sell. The #1 nonfiction request I get from my fellow children’s librarians (and the request I simply cannot fulfill fast enough) is for more chess books for kids. At least in the big cities, chess is a way of life for some children. One hopes that we’ll be able to extend their interest beyond the immediate game itself and onto a book where a kid like themselves has all the markings of true genius.

It isn’t perfect, of course. In terms of characterization, of all the people in this book Rufus is perhaps the least interesting. You willingly follow him, of course. Just because he doesn’t sparkle on the page like some of the other characters doesn’t mean you don’t respond to the little guy. One such example might be when his first crush doesn’t go as planned. But he’s a touchstone for the other characters around him. Then there’s the other problem of Rufus being continually rescued by the same person in the same manner (I won’t go into the details) more than once. It makes for a weird repeated beat. The shock of the first incident is actually watered down by the non-surprise of the second. Rufus becomes oddly passive in his own life, rarely doing anything to change the course of his fate (he falls unconscious and wakes up rescued more than once,) a fact that may contribute to the fact that he’s so unmemorable on the page.

But that aside, it’s hard not to be entranced by what Blackwood has come up with here. Automatons sort of came to the public’s attention when Brian Selznick wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Blackwood takes it all a step further merging man and machine, questioning what we owe to one another and, to a certain extent, where the power really lies. Rufus finds his sense of self and bravery by becoming invisible. At the same time, he’s so innocent to the ways of the world that becoming visible comes with the danger of having your heart broken in a multitude of different ways. In an era where kids spend untold gobs of time in front of the screens of computers, finding themselves through a newer technology, Blackwood’s story has never been timelier. Smart and interesting, fun and strange, this is one piece of little known history worthy of your attention. Check and mate.

On shelves April 10th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

First Line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.”

Notes on the Cover: And now let us praise fabulous cover artists. Particularly those creating covers that make more sense after you’ve finished the book. The glimpse of Rufus’s eye in the “O” of the title didn’t do much more than vaguely remind me of the spine of the The Invention of Hugo Cabret at first (an apt comparison in more than one way). After closer examination, however, I realized that it was Rufus in the cabinet below. The unnerving view of The Turk and the shadowy Mr. Hyde-ish man in the far back all combine to give this book a look of both historical fervor and intrigue. And look how that single red (red?) pawn is lit. It’s probably not actually a red pawn but a white one, but something about the image looks reddish. Blood red, if you will. Boy, that’s a good jacket.

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc:

  • Care to read Edgar Allan Poe’s actual article for The Messenger about The Turk?  Do so here.
  • A fun BBC piece on the implication of The Turk then, now, and for our children.  It appears to have been written by one “Adam Gopnik”.  We’ll just assume it’s a different Adam than the one behind A Tale Dark & Grimm.

Videos: Want to see the real Turk in action?  This video makes for fascinating watching.

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4. The Mark of the Dragonfly: Jaleigh Johnson

Book: The Mark of the Dragonfly
Author: Jaleigh Johnson
Pages: 400
Age Range: 10 and up

I quite enjoyed The Mark of the Dragonfly a brand-new middle grade/middle school fantasy novel by Jaleigh Johnson. The Mark of the Dragonfly is set on another world, one that bears a resemblance to ours, but also includes non-human races and humans with unusual gifts. Piper lives on her own in the bleak Scrap Town 16, eking out a living as a scrapper and a machinist. Scrappers salvage items from other worlds that arrive in certain areas via meteor storms (an example is a book: "Embossed on the front cover was a picture of a girl and small dog. Next to her stood a grinning scarecrow, a lion, and man who looked like he was made entirely of metal.") 

Piper has a gift for machinery, and is good at refurbishing some of the recovered items. But she longs for more. Her life changes forever when she finds a mysterious, fragile girl in the scrap fields. Piper ends up on a quest to help Anna find her home, though the two girls are pursued by a powerful and dangerous man.  

The adult quibbler in me questions how Piper's world can be similar to ours in many ways, despite being on an apparently separate planet. But this wasn't enough to dampen my appreciation for the book. I liked Johnson's inclusion of other intelligent races, coexisting with humans in the world. 

But the real reason that I enjoyed the book is that the characters in The Mark of the Dragonfly are quite strong. Piper is angry about her father's death, and determined to make a better life for herself. She struggles plausibly with doing the right thing. Anna is a bit more of an enigma, by design, but she is fascinating, too. She has only fragmented memories of her life, but she is drawn to books, and can spout various arcane bits of knowledge. There are some nice supporting characters, too, including a potential love interest for Piper (all quite PG, still suitable for upper elementary and middle school kids).

The plotting in The Mark of the Dragonfly moves along quickly, with several dangerous encounters that will keep readers turning the pages. The ongoing puzzle regarding who Anna is, and why she is being pursued, lends a more over-arcing suspense. 

The Mark of the Dragonfly wraps the initial story up nicely. No cliffhangers here. But given the depth of the world that Johnson has created, I do hope that there are future installments. Recommended for fans of middle grade fantasy with strong characters and unusual worlds. This one is going to stick in my memory, I'm sure. 

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 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

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5. Review of the Day: Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin

NightingalesNest Review of the Day: Nightingales Nest by Nikki LoftinNightingale’s Nest
By Nikki Loftin
Razorbill (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISNB: 978-1-59514-546-8
Ages 10-14
On shelves now.

Magical realism in children’s novels is a rarity. It’s not unheard of, but when children’s authors want fantasy, they write fantasy. When they want reality, they write reality. A potentially uncomfortable mix of the two is harder to pull off. Ambiguity is not unheard of in books for youth, but it’s darned hard to write. Why go through all that trouble? For that reason alone we don’t tend to see it in children’s books. Kids like concrete concepts. Good guys vs. bad guys. This is real vs. this is a dream. But a clever author, one who respects the intelligence of their young audience, can upset expectations without sacrificing their story. When author Nikki Loftin decided to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Nightingale into a middle grade contemporary novel, she made a conscious decision to make the book a work of magical realism. A calculated risk, Loftin’s gambit pays off. Nightingale’s Nest is a painful but ultimately emotionally resonant tale of sacrifice and song. A remarkably competent book, stronger for its one-of-a-kind choices.

It doesn’t seem right that a twelve-year-old boy would carry around a guilt as deep and profound as Little John’s. But when you feel personally responsible for the death of your little sister, it’s hard to let go of those feelings. It doesn’t help matters any that John has to spend the summer helping his dad clear brush for the richest man in town, a guy so extravagant, the local residents just call him The Emperor. It’s on one of these jobs that John comes to meet and get to know The Emperor’s next door neighbor, Gayle. About the age of his own sister when she died, Gayle’s a foster kid who prefers sitting in trees in her own self-made nest to any other activity. But as the two become close friends, John notices odd things about the girl. When she sings it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and she even appears to possibly have the ability to heal people with her voice. It doesn’t take long before The Emperor becomes aware of the treasure in his midst. He wants Gayle’s one of a kind voice, and he’ll do anything to have it. The question is, what does John think is more important: His family’s livelihood or the full-throated song of one little girl?

How long did it take me to realize I was reading a middle grade adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen short story? Let me first tell you that when I read a book I try not to read even so much as a plot description beforehand so that the novel will stay fresh and clear in my mind. With that understanding, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world that it took a 35-year-old woman thirty-nine pages before she caught on to what she was reading. Still, I have the nasty suspicion that many a savvy kid would have picked up on the theme before I did. As it stands, we’ve seen Andersen adapted into middle grade novels for kids before. Breadcrumbs, for example, is a take on his story The Snow Queen as well as some of his other, stranger tales. They say that he wrote The Nightingale for the singer Jenny Lind, with whom he was in love. All I know is that in the original tale the story concentrates on the wonders of the natural world vs. the mechanical one. In this book, Loftin goes in a slightly different direction. It isn’t an over-reliance on technology that’s the problem here. It’s an inability to view our fellow human beings as just that. Human beings. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what Andersen was going for in the first place.

It was the writing, of course, that struck my attention first. Loftin gives the book beautiful sequences filled with equally beautiful sentences. There’s a section near the end that tells a tale of a tree that fails to keep hold of a downy chick, but is redeemed by saving another bird in a storm. This section says succinctly everything you need to know about this book. I can already see the children’s book and discussion groups around the country that will get a kick out of picking apart this parable. It’s not a hard one to interpret, but you wouldn’t want it to be.

As for the characters, there wasn’t a person here that I couldn’t recognize as real. I was quite taken with the fact that Loftin continually sidesteps a lot of the usual middle grade tropes. Gayle’s nasty foster brother Jeb, for example, could easily have been labeled the typical bully type character for this book. Bullies in children’s books, after all, have a tendency to be one-note characters. Jeb, in contrast, is capable of talking like a normal human being from time to time. He’s a horrible human being at other times, but at least you get the sense that he’s not just a walking two-dimensional caricature. It makes a difference.

The ending is going to be problematic for some folks. It is not, I should say, unsatisfying. I think even people who don’t have a problem with what it says will only have a problem with HOW it goes about saying it. But the end of the book goes so far as to make it clear that this story really doesn’t take place in the real world in which we live. The characters face real world problems, but that doesn’t preclude the presence of something magical. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio . . .” and all that jazz. For some readers, this may feel like a kind of betrayal. As if the author didn’t have the guts to stay in the real world from start to finish, but instead had to rely on something otherworldly for her climax. I don’t see it that way. Loftin’s choices seem very deliberate here, from page one onward. Just because something is magical, that doesn’t mean you can’t interpret the book in other ways. Don’t like the supernatural element at the end? Then why are you assuming it’s real? After all, we’re getting this whole story through Little John’s perspective. Who’s to say he’s the world’s most reliable narrator? Just because a book is written for children, that doesn’t mean you have to take it at face value.

In any case, I don’t believe the magic detracts in the least from what Loftin is saying here about the banality of poverty. This isn’t a book that romanticizes what it’s like to be poor. It’s just Little John’s everyday existence, to a certain extent. And with the introduction of The Emperor, readers get to see firsthand how money, or the lack thereof, has a lot to do with self-worth and what you have to do with your pride and sense of self-worth when you’re indebted to another person. Little John witnesses firsthand his own father’s humiliation at the hands of the Emperor, and then finds himself in possession (in a sense) of something The Emperor wants. But rather than give him power, this just focuses the rich man’s attention on the boy, making him easy prey. Better that you never have something the wealthy think that they need. And as Little John says at one point, “What was right didn’t have a thing to do with what was.”

Reading the book, I found it enormously painful. But I at least had the wherewithal to realize that it was uniquely painful to me as a mother. Any parent reading this is going to instantly fret and worry and think about Gayle’s position in her foster home. But for kids reading this book they’re going to identify with Little John and Gayle as children, not as parents. This is a book about terrible decisions made, for the most part, by good people. This can, at times, make the story emotionally hard to follow, but I like to think Ms. Loftin had things well in hand when she came up with her tale. There’s a great comfort in knowing that even when you screw up royally, you can still find forgiveness. If kids take nothing else away from this book, I hope that they understand that much. Smart and beautiful by turns, The Nightingale’s Nest does one thing that few will contest. Once you’ve read it, you’ll have a hard time getting it out of your head.

On shelves now.

Notes on the Cover: It was indeed the cover that I noticed first about this book. Unfortunately the name of the artist has been difficult to find, but it’s lovely isn’t it? The girl, clearly Gayle, could be floating or flying or just lying on the ground, depending on how you look at it. Of course, most notable is the fact that she appears to be African-American. There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about showing black faces on our book jackets, so I applaud Razorbill for having the guts to do a cover that isn’t a silhouette. That said, I did notice that at no point in the novel does the book specifically say that Gayle is dark-skinned. In fact, it doesn’t really describe her skin at all. We get a sense of how soft her hair is and how beautiful her voice, but nothing much more beyond that. Could this be one of the very few cases in which a kid’s race isn’t mentioned in a book and yet that kid isn’t just assumed to be white? If so it’s a big step forward in the world of book jackets. Someone should conduct an interview with Razorbill’s art director about the decision to go with this cover. I’d love to know if this is indicative of books in the future. If so, it’s a trend I’ll be watching with great interest.

Source: Galley sent from the publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

Misc: Finally, you can read an excerpt over at I Read Banned Books.

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6. Growing Bookworms Newsletter: February 25

JRBPlogo-smallToday I will be sending out a new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's and young adult books and raising readers. I currently send out the newsletter once every two weeks.

Newsletter Update: In this issue I have four book reviews (middle grade through middle school), as well as a post documenting some of my daughter's emerging literacy skills, and a tip for growing bookworms related to not bookshaming your child. I have one post with links that I shared on Twitter recently. 

Reading Update: I've been having a rough combination of computer troubles and pressing work deadlines (isn't that always the way?) over the past week so, so my reading has been a bit lacking, Still, in the last two weeks I read:

  • Kevin Henkes: The Year of Billy Miller. Greenwillow Books. Early Middle Grade. Completed February 14, 2014. Review to come.
  • Shannon Messenger: Exile: Keeper of the Lost Cities, Book 2. Aladdin. Middle Grade. Completed February 16, 2014, on Kindle. My review
  • Jonathan Stroud: Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase. Disney/Hyperion. Middle Grade. Completed February 24, 2014, on MP3. I'm not planning to review this because it has already received so much acclaim (including winning a recent Cybils award), but I did enjoy it. I look forward to the next book. 
  • Sue Grafton: R is for Ricochet. Berkley. Adult Mystery. Completed February 21, 2014, on Kindle. After reading two of these Sue Grafton books in the past few weeks, I am ready for a break, but I imagine that I'll return before too long to finish catching up on this series. The nice thing is that these are very popular, and hence are available on Kindle from my local library. 

I'm currently reading Mark Frost's Alliance (sequel to The Paladin Prophecy) in print and reading Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan on Kindle. I just started listening to A Week in Winter, Maeve Binchy's final book (so sad). 

We're also still reading to Baby Bookworm these days, of course. You can check out the complete list of books we've read to her this year on my blog. She still surprises me in her reactions sometimes. Last night we read Buglette: The Messy Sleeper by Bethanie Murguia fo the first time in a long time. And it was too scary for her (there's a crow that threatens the bugs in the story). We had to immediately turn to some Little Critter and Fancy Nancy to chase the chills away, so that she wouldn't have nightmares. I'm considering giving the Winnie the Pooh stories a try soon, though. Definitely not scary!

What are you and your family reading these days? Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms. 

© 2014 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

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7. Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy: Karen Foxlee

Book: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a retelling of the Snow Queen by Karen Foxlee. I don't know the original story, so I can't comment on faithfulness to that tale. But Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy works well as an old-fashioned fantasy novel for middle grade readers. 

Ophelia is a glasses-wearing 11-year-old girl who believes in facts, not fantasy. She is mourning the recent death of her mother, who was a novelist specializing in horror stories. Ophelia also laments that change that her mother's death has wrought in her older sister, Alice. As the story begins, Ophelia and Alice's father has dragged them to a mysterious snow-covered city, where the dad, a sword expert, is working on a sword exhibition. The exhibition is in an enormous, rambling museum full of odd artifacts. Poking around one day, Ophelia is amazed to discover a boy in old-fashioned clothes who is locked in a room. Even though she on principal doesn't really believe in this boy, Ophelia is unable to resist his request for help. 

Ophelia reminds me a bit of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, a lonely person with smudgy glasses mourning a missing parent, confronted with impossible occurrences. But of course Ophelia is her own quirky person. Like this:

"Everything in the world can be classified scientifically. For instance, I am from the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, genus Homo, species Home sapiens. I only eat class Pisces and only if they're called sardines. I don't believe in unicorns or dragons or anything magical, really." (Page 16, to the Boy)

"Of course she couldn't save the world. She was only eleven years old and rather small for her age, and also she had knock-knees. Dr. Singh told her mother she would probably grow out of them, especially if she wore medical shoes, but that wasn't the point. She had very bad asthma as well, made worse by cold weather and running and bad scares." (Page 17)

I did find Ophelia a bit slow to catch on to a couple of major plot points, and I think that young readers will, too. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Ophelia plods along trying to do the right thing, and the reader gets to feel clever. Also, having figured things out ahead of time lends a tension to the book, as the reader worries about Alice's situation before Ophelia even realizes that there is a problem. 

The boy's story is told in the form of tales that he tells to Ophelia. It's more high fantasy (wizards, a village, great owls, etc.), but blends well with Ophelia's slightly more real-world story. Here's a snippet:

"And you might think a name is just a name, nothing but a word, but that is not the case. Your name is tacked to you. Where it has joined you, it has seeped into your skin and into your essence and into your soul. So when they plucked my name from me with their spell, it was as heavy as a rock in their hands but as invisible as the wind, and it wasn't just the memory of my name, but me myself. A tiny part of me that they took and stored away." (Page 21)

Lovely prose, I think! The entire book has an otherworldly, dreamlike feeling. The primary setting, the museum, is full of intriguing and sometimes creepy things (including ghosts). There's a literal clock ticking away the time in which the world can be saved. All set against a sub-text of Ophelia and her family coming to terms with the loss of Ophelia's mother.

It's a powerful book all around. And it has a great title and an appealing cover. I picked it up knowing very little about it, but certain that Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy had to be interesting. I was correct. Recommended for middle grade readers who enjoy fantasy, and anyone else who likes fairy tale retellings. Knowledge of the Snow Queen story is not necessary to appreciate the book.  

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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© 2014 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

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8. Knightley and Son: Cracking the Code: Rohan Gavin

Book: Knightley & Son: Cracking the Code
Author: Rohan Gavin
Pages: 320
Age Range: 10-12


Cracking the Code is the first book in the new Knightley & Son series by Rohan Gavin. It features a father and son team of detectives. As the story begins, Alan Knightley, a once successful London private investigator, has been in a pseudo-coma for four years. His son Darkus has spent the four years reviewing and memorizing his father's old cases, and internalizing Sherlock Holmes-like methods of analytical detection. When Alan wakes from his extended sleep, Darkus finds himself drawn in to the investigation of a shadowy conspiracy involving people who commit peculiar crimes after reading a self-help bestseller. 

Cracking the Code is dark in tone, though occasionally humorous. Although this is strictly true, it feels looking back like the entire book takes place at night, on dark London streets. There are supernatural overtones, though the question of whether anything supernatural has actually occurred is skillfully left murky. There are also sufficient private eye novel trappings to make readers feel grown up, though the story is appropriate for middle schoolers.  

The characters in Knightley & Son are unconventional and just a hint larger than life. Darkus is an unabashed geek, who says things like this:

"So I conclude that the only possibility is that you were in fact the culprit, Clive--by accident of misadventure, of course. And I will hazard a guess that if you measure the zipper on your fashionable new coat, in all probability you'll find it's approximately one yard from the ground." (Chapter 3: The Case of the Scratched Quarter Panel)

You can definitely hear him channeling Sherlock Holmes (and his father, for that matter). Fortunately, Darkus's stepsister, Tilly, adds a more emotional component to their eventual investigative team, as well as much cooler hair. 

The humor in the book tends to be understated, as when a colleague of Alan's stops unexpectedly by the home where Darkus lives with his mother, stepfather, and Tilly. As he leaves he says:

"Thank ye for the tea, and the rather disappointing snacks." (Chapter 4: Uncle BIll)

My one problem with this book concerned the viewpoint. I suppose it's omniscient third person perspective, but there's a lot of "Darkus felt ..." and "Alan thought..." So it's more like limited third person, but with shifts in viewpoint from paragraph to paragraph. I found it occasionally distracting - it took me out of the story. (Note: I was reading the advanced copy, so this could theoretically be changed in the final book.) Like this:

"Draycott thought carefully about how to word this last piece of testimony. As he returned to scribbling, Tilly brushed by indifferently..."

And then the viewpoint shifts to Tilly. It's like in a movie, where you follow one character, and then another, but there are intermittent glimpses of people's inner monologues, too. 

Apart from that concern, I did enjoy Cracking the Code. The plot is suspenseful. There are various pieces to mull over and assemble, throughout the book. The kids are granted a fair bit of leeway to do things on their own, in a reasonably plausible manner. There are some interesting gadgets, and intelligence is definitely prized and rewarded. 

I think that Cracking the Code will be a good fit for fans of the Young James Bond series by Charlie Higson (though Darkus is more analytical than James). It should also be a good bridge book for middle schoolers prior to reading adult mysteries, including the Sherlock Holmes stories. As for me, I look forward to hearing what Alan, Darkus, and Tilly get up to next. Recommended for age 10 and up, boys or girls. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids) 
Publication Date: March 4, 2014
Source of Book: Advance Review copy from the publisher

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© 2014 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

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9. The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers: Matthew J. Kirby

Book: The Quantum League #1: Spell Robbers
Author: Matthew J. Kirby
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8 - 12

Spell Robbers is the first book in a new series by Matthew J. Kirby, The Quantum League. The premise of the book is that there are people, called Actuators, who can take advantage of quantum mechanics to bring about events with their thoughts. These events include everything from conjuring up fireballs and storm clouds to manipulating locks.

When 12-year-old Ben moves with his grad student mother to a new university, he's invited to join an after-school Science Camp in which a professor is training young Actuators. But when their professor, Dr. Hughes, invents a portable device that makes Actuators much more powerful, the camp is attacked. Dr. Hughes is kidnapped, and Ben and another boy are rescued, and co-opted, by The Quantum League. High-stakes adventures follow.

Kirby does a good job of keeping the plot moving, and adding sufficient twists to keep the reader guessing. I was able to anticipate some, but not all, of the twists. 

I also liked the fact that the capabilities described in Spell Robbers are based on science, rather than magic, even though there's not a huge difference in the end result. [Is "boy, plucked from obscurity, turns out to have strong powers as an Actuator" really all that different from "boy, plucked from obscurity, turns out to have the ability to do magic"?]. Here are a couple of snippets:

"At the atomic level," Dr. Hughes said, "reality is dependent on our observation of it. As the Nobel-winning physicist Eugene Wigner put it, reality is created when our consciousness 'reaches out.' When you actuate, you are reading out to create a potential reality. (Page 36)

"Non-Actuators," Agent Taggart said, "N-A's. Most people who cannot actuate don't really perceive it. It is a part of reality they are blind to, just like you're blind to infrared light. They see the aftermath of actuation, but they attribute it to other things. Freak storms. Freak accidents. Spontaneous combustion. That kind of thing." (Page 62)

I did find a bit disturbing the device that Kirby uses to separate Ben from his mother. I understand that some sort of device was necessary in order to free Ben up to have his high-stakes adventures. But, without giving away any plot points, I didn't like this one. There's also a whole "only kids can actuate because adult brains don't think that it's possible" element to the story that I could see as a necessary plot point (otherwise why would The Quantum League recruit 12-year-olds?), but that I found a bit ... tired. 

Still, I think that middle grade and middle school kids who enjoy over-the-top adventures will like Spell Robbers. There's a superhero vibe to the quantum battles that take place. There are also some scenes that take place in a creepy abandoned amusement park, a highly kid-friendly setting. Ben is smart and loyal. There are various unanswered questions left at the end of Spell Robbers, leaving plenty of room for future titles in the series. 

All in all, while perhaps not quite as original as I might have hoped, The Quantum League offers kid-friendly science fiction with three-dimensional characters (including a 16-year-old girl who helps train Ben) and a fast-moving plot. Definitely worth a look for elementary and middle school libraries, or as a gift for adventure-hungry readers. 

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 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

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10. Bigger than a Bread Box: Laurel Snyder

Book: Bigger than a Bread Box
Author: Laurel Snyder
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

I love Laurel Snyder's writing. Good night, laila tov is one of my family's favorite bedtime stories, and I've reviewed both Any Which Wall and Penny Dreadful. I've been meaning to read Laurel's Bigger than a Bread Box for ages, having purchased a copy when it came out in paperback. But when the companion novel, Seven Stories Up, arrived on my doorstep, I finally brought Bigger than a Bread Box to the top of the pile. [Full disclosure, I'm Facebook friends with Laurel, and spent time with her at Kidlitcon a few years back, but I am certain that I would enjoy her books just as much without this connection.]

Bigger than a Bread Box is told from the viewpoint of 12-year-old Rebecca Shapiro. Rebecca lives in Baltimore with her parents and her two-year-old brother, Lew. Until, that is, her mother packs up Rebecca and Lew and moves to Atlanta, leaving their unemployed father behind. Bigger than a Bread Box is about Rebecca's fury at her mother for breaking up their family, her adjustment to a new middle school, and her gradual realization of her brother's importance to her. There's also a magical bread box that has unexpected consequences.

Despite the presence of the magical bread box, Bigger than a Bread Box has a much more realistic feel than Snyder's previous novels. The family dynamics are the point - the magic is more of a device. An afterword explains that Snyder mined her own experience as a child of divorce in writing Bigger than a Bread Box. I think this genuine emotion comes through successfully, and than any child experiencing parental separation will find something to relate to in Rebecca's experience. Like this scene, in which Rebecca is trying to remind Lew about their father:

"Lew started humming, and I wondered if any of this mattered. None of that would add up to Dad for Lew, if he'd already started to forget. Dad would just sound like some guy, some noisy, short, skinny guy who liked fishy pizza. That wasn't Dad any more than home was just boarded-up row houses and seagulls and snowball stands." (Page 101, paperback)

I must admit that I almost wanted to stop reading about half-way through the book, when the price that Rebecca was going to have to pay for the magic became clear. The middle school dynamics, while not the central point of the book, are still authentic enough to resonate painfully. Kids who have sacrificed their authenticity on the altar of "cool" may be able to relate to this, too. 

Rebecca isn't perfect. She makes mistakes, is materialistic about certain things, and is pretty harsh to her mother. But she has redeeming qualities, of course, like an appreciation for poetry. My favorite thing about Rebecca, hands down, is her affection for her brother, and her gradual recognition of him as a person in his own right. There's a point in which she thinks about trying to go back to Baltimore on her own, but realizes that she could never leave Lew behind, and I liked her for that. (Interesting contrast to Eleanor of Eleanor and Park, though the two girls are in very different situations.)

Snyder touches on Rebecca's half-Jewish identity with a light touch. She also includes various nods to people who love books, as Rebecca does. She brings a slightly heavier hand to the topic of the lack of appreciation that mothers can feel. Like this quote from Rebecca's mother:

"I am juggling so much and I am overworked and I just want a little time to think things out for myself. Everyone seems to need something from me or want something, and I don't even know what feels right or wrong anymore, and there are so many people to think about." (Page 145, paperback) 

As a mother myself, I found a scene in which Rebecca is trying to think of a birthday present for her mother, and she realizes that she has no idea what her mother's interests are, sad.

Bigger than a Bread Box is a must-purchase title for elementary and middle school libraries (especially in Baltimore and Atlanta). This nuanced look at divorce and family, as well as middle school social structures, offers something for everyone. The magical element helps to keep things light, while also adding some insights about accountability. Recommended!

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 2011
Source of Book: Bought it

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© 2014 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

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11. The Winter of the Robots: Kurtis Scaletta

Book: The Winter of the Robots
Author: Kurtis Scaletta
Pages: 272
Age Range: 10 and up

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta is a fun, science-themed mystery, perfect for middle schoolers. First-person narrator Jim lives in a slightly run-down neighborhood in North Minneapolis. He and his best friend Oliver are science geeks. But when Jim chooses a girl named Rocky as his partner for a science project, instead of working with Oliver, he sets a series of unexpected events in motion. Joined by Oliver's replacement partner Dmitri, the four young teens discover a mysterious junkyard, and the suggestion of robots living in the wild. 

There's a lot to like about The Winter of the Robots. The chilly Minneapolis winter setting feels authentic, as do the friend and sibling relationships. Jim's little sister, Penny, is a strong character, as is Rocky, a girl who wants to get her hands dirty. Penny is a bit of a pest, but smart, too. Jim's dad is realistically flawed, with a barely controlled temper. There's a nice scene in which Jim starts to see his dad clearly, something that is certainly part of growing up. All in all, I thought Scaletta did a nice job of allowing freedom for Jim and his friends to accomplish something meaningful, while still having concerned parents. 

Here's Rocky to Jim, after he sees her work a snowblower:

"My dad has taught me how to do everything. He says women get cheated out of learning stuff. I've changed the oil on a car. I've run an electric drill and a power saw. I even welded once." (Page 32)

And here's Oliver. 

"That's what scientists do. They revise an idea, evolve it, and make it better." Both of Oliver's parents were scientists, so he would know. He was a mad scientist in training. He already had the brilliant mind, the wild hair, and the thick glasses. All he needed was a hunchbacked assistant." (Page 4)

Scaletta also manages to include some diversity among the characters. Dmitri has a minor disability, and spends time helping his autistic younger brother. Several adults from the neighborhood play a role in the kids' adventures, and not all of them are upstanding citizens.

As you would expect from a book called The Winter of the Robots, there is a ton of information here about how to build robots. The technical parts are well-integrated into the text, such that the book doesn't feel informational (Jim is learning as he builds things). It may even inspire young readers to become involved in building robots themselves. Some of the technical details dragged a little bit for me as an adult reader (who isn't particularly interested in building robots), but I liked the positive portrayal of kids who are smart and passionate about science.

Apart from that, I though that the plot has a nice pace, and a good use of red herrings and innuendo. There are a fair number of characters to keep track of, and one of them does come to a bad end (offstage). While perhaps a bit difficult for 8 or 9 year olds, I think The Winter of the Robots will be a nice addition to the reading options for mystery- and/or tech-loving middle schoolers. While clearly aimed at boys, the presence of two strong female characters (Rocky and Penny) keeps it girl-friendly, too. There's a smidgen of boy-girl relationship dynamics, but nothing for anyone to worry about. Recommended for readers age 10 and up. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: October 8, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 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

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12. Growing Bookworms Newsletter: January 15

JRBPlogo-smallToday I will be sending out a new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's and young adult books and raising readers. I currently send out the newsletter once every two weeks.

Newsletter Update: In this issue I have three middle grade and young adult book reviews. I also have a list of the books my family received for Christmas, another little literacy milestone from my daughter, and a post about the upcoming International Book Giving Day. I have two posts with links that I shared on Twitter recently. Not included in the newsletter this time around I published:

Reading Update: In the last two weeks I read seven early reader to middle grade titles and two young adult titles. (I'm including early readers here that I read by myself for potential review, but not every early reader that I read to my daughter.) I was on a bit of a middle grade graphic novel binge. I read:

  • Cynthia Lord: Half A Chance. Scholastic. Middle Grade. Completed January 4, 2013. Review to come. 
  • Charise Mericle Harper: Bean Dog and Nugget: The Ball and Bean Dog and Nugget: The Cookie. Early Reader Graphic Novels. Knopf Books for Young Readers. Completed January 10, 2014. I found these vaguely reminiscent of the Elephant and Piggie books (two friends interacting, sparse backgrounds, aimed at new readers), but I just didn't warm to the characters in the same way. My daughter seems rather luke-warm on these, too. 
  • Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm: Babymouse #1: Queen of the World. Middle Grade Graphic Novel. Knopf Books for Young Readers. Completed January 10, 2014. This was a re-read of the first title in the Babymouse series. Though I enjoyed it (I love Babymouse), it also struck me how much the series has improved over 17 books. The newer titles are just ... sharper. More witty. But I will still look forward to sharing this title with my daughter in a few years. 
  • Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm: Squish #5: Game On! Middle Grade Graphic Novel. Knopf Books for Young Readers. Completed January 10, 2014. This installment of the very fun Squish! series deals with video game addiction. I liked the Squish! figured out his problem on his own, and faced consequences. And I loved that he and his dad went to a comics show at the end, where they were able to meet the Babymouse creators. I love inside jokes like that. 
  • Jarrett J. Krosoczka: Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle (#10). Middle Grade Graphic Novel. Knopf Books for Young Readers. Completed January 12, 2014. It makes me so sad that this is the final installment of the Lunch Lady series. But I thought that Krosoczka did a great job of wrapping things up, bringing back in several former foes of the Breakfast Bunch, giving the kids a chance to emerge as leaders, and even giving Lunch Lady a potential love interest (with one of my favorite series characters). This one will be released on January 28th. 
  • Kurtis Scaletta: Winter of the Robots. Middle Grade Fiction. Knopf Books for Young Readers. Completed January 13, 2014. Review to come.
  • A. S. King: Reality Boy. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Young Adult. Completed January 7, 2014. My review.
  • Rainbow Rowell: Eleanor and Park. St. Martin's Griffin (Macmillan). Young Adult Fiction. Completed January 8, 2014. Not reviewed, because this book has already received so very much positive attention. But I did enjoy it, and highly recommend it to fans of YA romance, especially those who were in high school in the 80s. 

I'm currently reading Champion, the final book in Marie Lu's Legend series, and Spell Robbers, the first book in Matthew J. Kirby's Quantum League series. I'm listening to The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly.

Baby Bookworm was in a bit of a reading slump until I took her to the library last Saturday. We brought home 33 books (all for her, most picked out by her), and read nearly all of them that day. This seems to have rekindled her general interest in reading, too, because we read quite a number of non-library books the next day. You can check out the complete list of books we've read to her so far this year on my blog.

Babt Bookworm's favorite standalone title right now is Arlene Mosel's Tikki Tikki Tembo. I'm proud to report that she can recite Tikki Tikki Tembo's full name, and delights in shouting it out. She still loves series books about Mercer Mayer's Little Critter, Marc Brown's Arthur, and Rosemary Wells' Max and Ruby. I'm also introducing her to Frog and Toad and Little Bear. I will report back. 

What are you and your family reading these days? Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms. 

© 2014 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

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13. Review of the Day: Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

UnderEgg 300x300 Review of the Day: Under the Egg by Laura Marx FitzgeraldUnder the Egg
By Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Group)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-4001-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves March 18th.

Let me ask you a question. You seem like an intelligent individual. Have you ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? And, if your answer is yes, did you love it? At the very least, do you remember it? I think it fair to say that for significant portions of the population the answer to both these questions would be yes. But before we go any further, consider for a moment precisely WHY you love the book. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it’s most probable that what you remember from the title was the whole kids-running-away-to-live-in-a-museum aspect. What you might have forgotten was that there was also a mystery at the heart of the book. The mystery had to do with a statue and had a solution that, let’s face it, was a bit contrived for its young audience. If you ever felt that Konigsburg could have done better in the whole solving-an-art-mystery department, allow me to lead you by the elbow over here to where I’m showing off my latest delight Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald marks a strong debut, daring to take the reader from contemporary New York City to WWII and back again without breaking so much as a sweat. It’s gutsy and ambitious by turns,

Things could be better. A lot better. When Theodora’s grandfather Jack was alive, the family didn’t have a ton of money but at least they got by pretty well on his salary as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was after Jack died in a freak accident that things took a downward slide. With a mother incapable of dealing with reality (and addicted to pricey tea), Theo knows their money is coming to an end. Soon they won’t have enough to live on. It’s when things look particularly dire that Theo accidentally spills rubbing alcohol on one of her grandfather’s favorite paintings. And as strange as it sounds, beneath his plain picture of an egg lies an incredibly old image of Madonna and Child. The more Theo starts to look into the painting and its history, the more determined she is to track down its story. Now with the help of the daughter of a pair of acting celebrities, a punk librarian, an Episcopalian priest, a guy selling nuts on the street, and more, Theo’s about to peel away not just the mystery behind the painting, but also her own grandfather’s role in one of the greatest WWII capers of all time.

The crazy thing about the mystery at work here is that Fitzgerald honestly makes you believe that a pair of 12-year-olds, with a whole summer of nothing to do, could indeed successfully identify a Renaissance painting and, with a little research and intelligence, determine its origins. There’s one moment that involves an x-ray machine that strains a bit of credulity, but the strength of the other elements more than make up for it. The professional reviewer at Kirkus also had a problem with a coincidence that arrives at the end of the book like a kind of Deus Ex Machina. Personally, this didn’t disturb me in the least, mostly because Fitzgerald does a pretty dang good job of justifying why it happens. It’s a little pat, but hardly a deal breaker.

As for the writing itself, I grew very fond of it. You’d have to have a pretty hardened heart not to enjoy lines like “Mother Nature had draped a wet wool sweater around the city’s shoulders that day.” As a character, Theo’s in a pretty nasty position. As caregiver and pseudo parent to a mother who can’t break out of her own brain, the stakes are fairly high. They’ve been selling this book on the premise that it’s about a loner who finds ways to connect with the characters, oddballs, and generally good people who’ve surrounded her all this time and that she never noticed before. That’s true to a certain extent, but I always found the relationship between Theo and her grandfather Jack to be the most interesting relationship in the book. He may be dead, but his character points are loud and clear, even from beyond the grave.

This book also managed to fulfill for me personally a wish I’ve harbored for about 10 years now. In that time I’ve been a children’s librarian and I’ve seen a lot of middle grade novels set in NYC. From time to time these books will mention libraries in the city. If they mention any library in particular, it tends to be the main branch of NYPL. This is understandable, but my first library job was in a branch of NYPL that I still to this day consider the best of them all. Called the Jefferson Market Branch, I served as its children’s librarian for about two years. During that time I became obsessed with the building and yearned to see it mentioned in a book for kids. I came closest when Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller was released, but was thwarted at the last minute when the author, for some ungodly and unknown reason, chose to MAKE UP a branch rather than have her characters walk over to Jefferson Market. Now, in the year 2014, I am happy to report that for the first time in my own memory, the branch has appeared in a book. And not just as a sly mention either. Under the Egg gives Jefferson Market the credit it has been long due. So if I sound a little gushy about this book, you can probably safely assume that my loyalty was, one way or another, kind of compromised along the way.

In terms of timing, Under the Egg could not be better situated. In February of this year (2014) our movie theaters will feature the film The Monuments Men with an all-star cast, based on a true bit of little known history. A bit of history that was SO little known, in fact, that I’d never seen it mentioned in a world of children’s books, whether fiction or informational. Now, practically on top of The Monuments Men, we have a title for 9-12 year olds that uses this bit of history as a pivotal plot point. Well timed, Ms. Fitzgerald!

It’s difficult to write a tense thriller of a middle grade mystery without a good antagonist. In this book, that part is played by one “Uncle” Lyndon, a man whose greatest crime is his desire to get art into museums. This is a bit of a tough sell for a reader who grew up with Indiana Jones’s cry of “It belongs in a museum!” ringing in her ears throughout her youth. To read this book in the way the author intends, you are put in the position of wondering who should own great art. The book, surprisingly enough, makes the argument that famous works of art can indeed belong to individuals and they can do whatever they want with them. If that person wants to hide the art away from the rest of the world, that is their right. And if that art is taken from that person by force and circumstance allows that the former owner can be tracked down, to procure it for a museum would be an immoral act. This is a bit of a stretch, to be sure. It is, however, excellent fodder for book discussion groups. The Under the Egg mentality versus the Indiana Jones mentality. Who should win?

When they tell you that the book is “From the Mixed-Up Files meets Chasing Vermeer” I suggest you not believe them. Yes, there is a famous piece of art and yes there is a mystery, but the mystery in this book is so much stronger than any art-related children’s book mystery I’ve read before that everything else just pales in comparison. If there’s a coincidence or two in this storyline, it has a strong justification beside it. Interesting from start to finish, even when it’s discussing the personal lives of 16th century painters, this won’t make every kid that reads it into an art fanatic, but what it may do is cause a whole bunch of them to start researching the painter Rafael on their own. Uniquely readable, entirely charming, and a pleasure from start to finish. Debuts this good are meant to be discovered.

On shelves March 18th.

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14. Prairie Evers: Ellen Airgood

Book: Prairie Evers
Author: Ellen Airgood
Pages: 228
Age Range: 8-12

Prairie Evers by Ellen Airgood is a middle grade novel about a year in the life of a ten year old girl who is adjusting to her family's move from North Carolina to upstate New York, where her mother grew up. Prairie's first person tale begins on New Year's Eve, when she learns that her beloved Grammy has decided to move back to North Carolina. Lonely, Prairie decides to start raising chickens (and one rooster, it turns out).

When fall comes, Prairie, who was previously homeschooled by Grammy, is sent to school for the first time. Prairie's dark skin (she is part Cherokee Indian), southern accent, and thirst for knowledge all mark her as different, and she finds herself at the bottom of the school's pecking order. But she soon learns that having just one friend can make all the difference in the world. 

What made Prairie Evers work for me was the delight that is Prairie's voice, with its combination of down-home Southern accent and occasional advanced vocabulary. Here are a couple of examples, but honestly, the whole book is like this:

"Then I ducked my head and hoped the Lord would not strike me down. Mama's folks had perished in a car accident, and it was very tragic. I knew that the way you know something in your head, but I always felt guilty I didn't feel it more in my heart. But the thing was, I never really knew them." (Page 3)

"You could have knocked me over with the smallest, downiest chicken feather. I could not imagine a worse idea. Mrs. Perkins's kids back home went to school and they'd told me plenty about it. In school you were trapped inside all day, and you had to sit still in a chair, and you had to learn by memorizing textbooks instead of reading all the interesting books Grammy used with me." (Page 62)

"I scowled with my whole entire self." (Page 64)

I love fish out of water stories, and I found Prairie's social struggles in school to be realistic. Besides her one friend, there's no magic bullet that results in her suddenly being accepted (though bringing a rooster to school turns out to be a step in the right direction). I also like the way Prairie Evers highlights advantages and disadvantages of both homeschooling AND traditional schooling, without judgement one way or the other. 

There's also a wonderful bit later in the book in which Prairie comes to understand that although she loves her friend Ivy, the two girls think differently about things, and have different strengths. Prairie Evers is a book that quietly shows kids (without preaching) that it's ok for people to be different, and that kindness will often be noticed and appreciated.

None of the other characters, including Ivy, are as fully fleshed out as Prairie (though some of the chickens are pretty interesting). But Airgood does tackle other issues besides Prairie's missing Grammy and adjusting to school. There's Prairie's mother's re-introduction to a judgmental community, after a wild youth, as well as Ivy's unhappy home life. Prairie's parents' financial struggles are also treated openly (they live by making crafts and selling them at local farmer's markets). But it's still clear, despite not having a lot of money, that Prairie and her parents consider themselves pretty lucky. 

All in all, Prairie Evers is a breath of fresh, country air. It reminds me a bit of Linda Urban's Hound Dog True, and a bit of Jill Alexander's The Sweetheart of Prosper County. But really, Prairie is entirely herself, unique and likeable and sure to be appreciate by any 8-12 year old (particularly girls). Recommended, particularly for elementary school library purchase. 

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books (@PenguinKids)
Publication Date: May 24, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the author

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This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 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

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15. Review of the Day: The Other Side of Free by Krista Russell

OtherSideFree 212x300 Review of the Day: The Other Side of Free by Krista RussellThe Other Side of Free
By Krista Russell
Peachtree Publishers
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-56145-710-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Have you ever read the adult book How I Became a Famous Novelist? Bear with me for a second here, I know what I’m doing. You see, in the title the author decides that he wants to become a New York Times bestseller. In the course of his quest he runs across a variety of different authors who embody a variety of different types of novels. His own aunt decides she wants to be a children’s author and sets about doing so by writing a work of historical middle grade fiction. The book is about a girl living in Colonial America who wants to be a cooper. In only a page or two author Steve Hely puts his finger on a whole swath of children’s books that drive librarians like myself mildly mad. They find familiar situations and alter very little aside from location and exact year to tell their tales. The result is an increasing wariness on my part to read any works of historical fiction, for fear that you’ll see the same dang story again and again. With all this in mind you can imagine the relief with which I read Krista Russell’sThe Other Side of Free. Not only is the setting utterly original (not to mention unforgettable) but the characters don’t fill the same little roles you’ll see in other children’s novels. If you have kids that have tired of the same old, same old, The Other Side of Free will give them something they haven’t seen before.

We’ve all heard of how slaves would escape to the North when they wished to escape for good. But travel a bit farther back in time to the early 18th century and the tale is a little different. At that point in history slaves didn’t flee north but south to Spain’s territories. There, the Spanish king promised freedom for those slaves that swore fidelity to the Spanish crown and fought on his behalf against the English. 13-year-old Jem is one of those escaped slaves, but his life at Fort Mose is hardly stimulating. Kept under the yoke of a hard woman named Phaedra, Jem longs to fight for the king and to join in the battles. But when at last the fighting comes to him, it isn’t at all what he thought it would be. A Bibliography of sources appears at the end of the book.

There are big themes at work here. What freedom is worth to an individual if it means yoking yourself to someone else. If militia work really does mean freedom, or just slavery of a new kind. Jem himself chafes under the hand of Phaedra, though I think it would be obvious, even to a kid reader, that he’s immature in more than one way. But with all that said, it’s the lighter moments that make the book for me. Omen the owl is a notable example of a detail that makes the book more than just a work of history. In this story Jem adopts an owlet and raises it as his own. In your standard generic fare the owl would be a beloved friend and companion, possibly ultimately dying for Jem in a heroic scene reminiscent of Hedwig’s death. Instead, the owl is hell on wings. A nasty, chicken-snatching, very real and wild creature that is, nonetheless, beloved of our hero. Again, expectations are upset. I love it when that happens.

I liked the individual lines Russell used to dot the text as well. For example, in an early character note about Phaedra the book describes her construction of a grass basket. “Her fingers snatched at the fronds again and again, until each strip was bent and shaped to her will.” It’s worth noting that it’s Jem who is saying this about her. Almost the whole book is told through his own perspective and, as such, may not be entirely trustworthy. He has his own prejudices to fight, after all. I also like Russell’s everyday descriptions. “Adine handed each man a jug of water. They drank until it ran down their faces, leaving tails like gray veins down their throats.” Beautifully put.

Honestly it would make a heckuva stage play. The settings are necessarily limited, with Jem spending most of his time in Fort Mose and the rest of it in St. Augustine. Not having been familiar with the people of Fort Mose before, I found myself incredibly anxious to learn what became of them. Russell ends the book on a hopeful note, but you cannot help but wonder. If there were freed slaves in Florida in 1739 then what happened when that state became the property of the English in 1763? All Russell says at that time is “At this time, the free Africans of Mose relocated to Cuba.” Kids will just have to extrapolate a happy ending for Jem and his friends from that.

A great work of historical fiction does a number of things. It introduces you to unfamiliar places and people. It establishes a kind of empathy for those people that you otherwise would never have met. It puts you in their shoes, if only for a moment. And most of all, it surprises you. Upsets your expectations, maybe. For most kids in America, the history of slavery is short and sweet. Slaves came from Africa. They escaped North. They were freed thanks in part to the Civil War. What more is there is say or to learn aside from some vague info on the Underground Railroad? Russell challenges these assumptions, bringing us a tale that is wholly new, but filled with facts. If the rote and familiar don’t suit you and you want a book that travels over new ground, you can hardly do better than The Other Side of Free. Smart and original, it’s a one-of-a-kind novel. Hardly the kind of thing you run across every day.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Notes on the Cover: I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I can see what Peachtree was going for here. In this image you get the dense canopy of a Floridian forest. You even have a black boy on the cover (albeit completely turned away from the viewer, which is kind of a cheat). But all in all, whether it’s the art or the design or the color palette, this book is not the most visually appealing little number I’ve seen in all my livelong days. I’m having a devil of a time getting folks to pick it up of their own accord. One hopes that if it goes to paperback someday, maybe it’ll be given a cover worthy of its content.

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16. Ho! Ho! Ho! ‘Maggie’ On Kindle Matchbook Only $1.99!

0 Comments on Ho! Ho! Ho! ‘Maggie’ On Kindle Matchbook Only $1.99! as of 12/9/2013 8:05:00 PM
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17. ‘Maggie’ On Kindle Matchbook Only $1.99!

1 Comments on ‘Maggie’ On Kindle Matchbook Only $1.99!, last added: 12/13/2013
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18. Review of the Day: Written in Stone by Rosanne Parry

WrittenInStone 198x300 Review of the Day: Written in Stone by Rosanne ParryWritten in Stone
By Rosanne Parry
Random House
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-375-86971-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Finding books of historical fiction for kids about Native Americans is an oddly limited proposition. Basically, it boils down to Pilgrims, the Trail of Tears, the occasional 1900s storyline (thank God for Louise Erdrich), and . . . yeah, that’s about it. Contemporary fiction? Unheard of at best, offensive at worst. Authors, it seems, like to relegate their American Indians to the distant past where we can feel bad about them through the conscience assuaging veil of history. Maybe that’s part of what I like so much about Rosanne Parry’s Written in Stone. Set in the 1920s, Parry picks a moment in time with cultural significance not for the white readers with their limited historical knowledge but for the people most influenced by changes both at home and at sea. Smart and subtle by turns, Parry tackles a tricky subject and comes away swinging.

A girl with a dream is just that. A dreamer. And though Pearl has always longed to hunt whales like her father before her, harpooning is not in her future. When her father, a member of the Makah people of the Pacific Northwest, is killed on a routine hunt, Pearl’s future is in serious doubt. Not particularly endowed with any useful skills (though she’d love to learn to weave, if anyone was around to teach her), Pearl uncovers on her own a series of forgotten petroglyphs and the plot of a nefarious “art dealer”. Now her newfound love of the written word is going to give her the power to do something she never thought possible: preserve her tribe’s culture.

It’s sort of nice to read a book and feel like a kid in terms of the plot twists. Take, for example, the character of the “collector” who arrives and then immediately appears to be something else entirely. I probably should have been able to figure out his real occupation (or at least interests) long before the book revealed them to me, and yet here I was, toddling through, not a care in the world. I never saw it coming, and that means that at least 75% of the kids reading this book will also be in for a surprise.

I consider the ending of the book a bit of a plot twist as well, actually. We’re so used to our heroes and heroines at the ends of books pulling off these massive escapades and solutions to their problems that when I read Pearl’s very practical and real world answer to the dilemma posed by the smooth talking art dealer I was a bit taken aback. What, no media frenzied conclusion? No huge explosions or public shaming of the villain or anything similarly crass and confused? It took a little getting used to but once I’d accepted the quiet, realistic ending I realized it was better (and more appropriate to the general tone of the book) than anything a more ludicrous premise would have allowed.

If anything didn’t quite work for me, I guess it was the whole “Written in Stone” part. I understood why Pearl had to see the petroglyphs so as to aid her own personal growth and understanding of herself as a writer. That I got. It was more a problem that I had a great deal of difficulty picturing them in my own mind. I had to do a little online research of my own to get a sense of what they looked like, and even that proved insufficient since Parry’s petroglyphs are her own creation and not quite like anything else out there. It’s not an illustrated novel, but a few choice pen and inks of the images in their simplest forms would not have been out of place.

Now let us give thanks to authors (and their publishers) that know the value of a good chunk of backmatter. 19 pages worth of the stuff, no less (and on a 196-page title, that ain’t small potatoes). Because she is a white author writing about a distinct tribal group and their past, Parry treads carefully. Her extensive Author’s Note consists of her own personal connections to the Quinaults, her care to not replicate anything that is not for public consumption, the history of whaling amongst the Makah people, thoughts on the potlatch, petroglyphs, a history of epidemics and economic change to the region (I was unaware that it was returning WWI soldiers with influenza that were responsible for a vast number of deaths to the tribal communities of the Pacific Northwest at that time), the history of art collectors and natural resource management, an extensive bibliography that is split between resources for young readers, exhibits of Pacific Northwest art and artifacts, and resources for older readers, a Glossary of Quinault terms (with a long explanation of how it was recorded over the years), and a thank you to the many people who helped contribute to this book. PHEW! They hardly make ‘em like THIS these days.

I also love the care with which Parry approached her subject matter. There isn’t any of this swagger or ownership at work that you might find in other authors’ works. Her respect shines through. In a section labeled “Culture and Respect” Parry writes, “Historical fiction can never be taken lightly, and stories involving Native Americans are particularly delicate, as the author, whether Native or not, must walk the line between illuminating the life of the characters as fully as possible and withholding cultural information not intended for the public or specific stories that are the property of an individual, family, or tribe.” In this way the author explains that she purposefully left out the rituals that surround a whale hunt. She only alludes to stories of the Pitch Woman and the Timber Giant, never giving away their details. She even makes note the changes in names and spellings in the 1920s versus today.

I don’t know that you’re going to find another book out there quite like Written in Stone. Heck, I haven’t even touched on Pearl’s personality or her personal connections to her father and aunt. I haven’t talked about my favorite part of the book where Pearl’s grandfather haggles with a white trading partner and gets his wife to sing a lullaby that he claims is an ancient Indian curse. I haven’t done any of that, and yet I don’t think that there’s much more to say. The book is a smart historical work of fiction that requires use of the child reader’s brain more than anything else. It’s a glimpse of history I’ve not seen in a work of middle grade fiction before and I’d betcha bottom dollar I might never see it replicated again. Hats off then to Ms. Parry for the time, and effort, and consideration, and care she poured into this work. Hats off too to her editor for allowing her to do so. The book’s a keeper, no question. It’s just a question of finding it, is all.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Notes on the Cover: This marks the second Richard Tuschman book jacket I’ve reviewed this year.  The first was A Girl Called Problem, one of my favorites of 2013.  The man has good taste in books.

Other Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Misc:

Videos: Um . . . okay, I sort of love this fan made faux movie trailer for the book. It’s sort of awesome.  Check it out.

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19. The Five Series I Most Look Forward to Reading with My Daughter

FiveSeriesI wrote a couple of weeks ago about my three-year-old daughter's newly expressed interest in being read chapter books, in addition to her regular diet of picture books and early readers. I asked people on the post and on Facebook to share titles that they had read with their children while were still pre-readers. I collected a number of titles, and was especially pleased to be reminded of a post that Melissa Wiley wrote a couple of years on this very topic (Chapter book suggestions for a four-year-old). Out of these suggestions, and my own opinions, I've come up with a list of the top five series I most look forward to reading with my daughter. They are (in approximate age order):

1. The Clementine Books by Sara Pennypacker (ill. Marla Frazee). I absolutely adore Clementine. I think she is a wonderful character, and that the books are spot on in terms of both realism and humor. Frazee's illustrations perfectly capture Clementine for me, too. And there are enough illustrations that I think Baby Bookworm will be ready for the first book soon. In fact I just ordered a new copy, because I apparently gave mine away (back in the days before I knew that I'd have a daughter to read it to, I suspect). And as a bonus, the books are set in Boston, where my family's pro sports loyalties will forever lie. 

2. The Pippi Longstocking Books by Astrid Lindgren. My daughter has a 3-year-old's love of the ridiculous. I think that she'll be as charmed by the irrepressible Pippi as I was. And perhaps she'll be inspired by the way that Pippi solves her own problems. Pippi gives new meaning to the term "strong girl." My second grade class did Pippi as a class play, with my friend Holly as Pippi (her real braids manipulated out to the sides with a coat hanger or something). I was Annika, and I'll never forget it. 

I also splurged on the DVD boxed set of the four Pippi movies from the 1970s. This was more for me than for Baby Bookworm, in truth (though she adores movies), because I have fond memories of my dad taking my siblings and I (or probably just my next-youngest brother and I) to see them in the theater. Pippi in the South Seas was my favorite of the movies, and I look forward to seeing it again (after we read the book). 

3. The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (ill. Garth Williams). This was the first series that I remember reading on my own, devouring book after book. Little House in the Big Woods will forever be the first middle grade title that Baby Bookworm expressed a serious interest in reading (admittedly inspired by Little House in the Big Woods paper dolls). So it is naturally on our Top 5 list. But as we've progressed in attempting to read the first book, it's become clear that she's more interested in hearing the stories associated with some of the pictures than in actually listening to the whole book right now. No worries. The books will wait. 

4. The Penderwicks Books by Jeanne Birdsall. I adore The Penderwicks. To me these books are modern classics, with the characterization and emotional resonance of the Elizabeth Enright books (childhood favorites of mine), but with a more up-to-date feel. Clearly 4-year-old Batty will be Baby Bookworm's favorite character, if we read the books any time within the next few years, but I imagine that one day she will identify with Jane or Skye or eventually Rosalind. These are books I'd like to read with her while she's in elementary school, when she's old enough to discuss Rosalind's crush, and Jeffrey's loneliness. But young enough to feel the endless potential of summer in the first book. 

5. The Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling (ill. Mary GrandPre). OK, this one is a bit of a cliche. But really, who doesn't look forward to reading the Harry Potter books with their child? I did, in fact, read Baby Bookworm the first book when she was an infant, but I look forward to her being old enough to appreciate the story. I don't want to start too soon, because the later books are pretty dark, and I know that once we start we're likely to want to keep going. But I do look forward to spending time with my daughter in Harry Potter's world. In fact, I think this one will be a family affair, because I can't imagine my husband not wanting to participate, too. 

There are lots of other books that I hope to read with my Baby Bookworm when the time is right. I hope that she will be as captivated by the work of Elizabeth Enright and Zilpha Keatley Snyder as I was, and am. I imagine that she'll love The Borrowers. I hope that she doesn't find A Little Princess or The Secret Garden dated. I hope that we are able to read book after book after book together. I think that there are some books that she'll enjoy more if she discovers them on her own (though I can't say which ones off the top of my head). But the above five are the series that I am most looking forward to sharing with her. Perhaps in a future post I'll look at some standalone titles (Matilda, perhaps?).

What books do you look forward to reading aloud with your children? What books did you enjoy when they were younger? If you've already been through it, don't you kind of envy me, having all of these books still ahead of us? An unintentional upside to having a child late in life. Thanks for reading!

© 2013 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. 

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20. The 14 Fibs of Gregory K: Greg Pincus

Book: The 14 Fibs of Gregory K.
Author: Greg Pincus (@GregPincus)
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. is a middle grade novel about math and poetry. But what it's really about is finding a way to do what you love. In a sneaky, humorous sort of way, by which you are surprised to be a tiny bit teary-eyed by the end of the book. I think that it's wonderful, and hope that it's going to do well. It releases this coming Tuesday. 

I should tell you that I'm not completely objective about The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. The book's author, Greg Pincus, is a friend of mine (a blog friend, sure, but we've enjoyed face-to-face time at various Kidlitcons, and share certain views about the kidlitosphere). I remember quite clearly when Greg came up with six-line, Fibonacci-series-based poems, called them Fibs, and launched a poetry craze (there are 400+ comments on the original post). I remember when Greg shared the news that he was writing a book featuring Fibs, and that Arthur Levine would be publishing it. And now here it is!

As a person who was always pretty good at math, and who studied engineering in college, but whose true love is words, the concept of the Fib has always appealed to me. I would love to see a huge craze of elementary school kids all writing Fibs, and thus integrating math and poetry. I think that the book will help. But I'm not completely objective, so you should take my words in that context. 

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. is about a sixth grader who is a secret poet stuck smack dab in the middle of a family of math geniuses. When Gregory looks to be in danger of failing math, his parents are baffled and concerned. It's only with the help of a truly great math teacher that Gregory K. is able to fit things together. But not without a lot of chaos along the way. Realistic middle grade chaos, with the faintest flavor of Gary Paulsen's Liar, Liar series. 

Gregory's travails with math are set against a backdrop of his relationship with his life-long best friend, Kelly. And no, this isn't one of those books about the boy-girl friendship getting weird in sixth grade. This is a book about a true friendship based on two people who "get" each other, though not without a few bumps along the way. And it's about pie. A lot of pie. (Kelly's mom owns a pie shop, and there is pie in pretty much every chapter.)

In truth, I found parts of the first couple of chapters, in which Gregory's quirky family is wallowing in math, a bit cringe-inducing. Like this:

"I'd be the best superhero ever," his nine-year-old sister, Kay, said as Gregory entered the dining room, "because I'd use the power of the hypotenuse! By taking the correct angle, I'd always be a step or two ahead of the bad guy." (Chapter 1)

I'm guessing this was intentional - Gregory was finding it cringe-worthy, too. But once Gregory's teacher, Mr. Davis, set him to writing about math, instead of doing math, I was hooked, and didn't stop reading until I had finished. I loved the Fibs at the start of every chapter (though the average reader won't know that they are Fibs until mid-way through the book). I adored Gregory's friendship with Kelly. And I liked Greg's mildly snarky voice. Like this:

"The next day at school, the test met all of Gregory's expectations. Unfortunately, that was the only positive about it." (Chapter 3)

And:

"... Fibonacci's not just a sequence but a real person..."

"So is there like a Bob Algebra or a Joe Multiplication?" (Chapter 8)

And here's an example of a Fib, from the start of Chapter 6:

"I 
Find
Problems.
Other times,
The problems find me.
The latter is always far worse."

Fun, but with a core of truth. And that pretty much sums up the book. Gregory is a regular kid, who struggles to pay attention to things that he can't connect with, but dives headlong into the pursuits that he loves. He feels alien in his family, but at home with his best friend. In short, while uniquely himself, he is someone any kid can relate to. Which is why his eventual growth has such emotional impact. 

Teachers and librarians will want to scoop this one up. It has nice Common Core opportunities, too. There's also a theme song for the book, a trailer, and a positive review from Kirkus. I'm expecting big things from The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. Don't miss it!

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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© 2013 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

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21. Review of the Day: The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

RealBoy 212x300 Review of the Day: The Real Boy by Anne UrsuThe Real Boy
By Anne Ursu
Illustrated by Erin McGuire
Walden Pond Press (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-201507-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

My two-year-old is dealing with the concept of personhood. Lately she’s taken to proclaiming proudly “I’m a person!” when she has successfully mastered something. By the same token, failure to accomplish even the most mundane task is met with a dejected, “I’m not a person”. This notion of personhood and what it takes to either be a person or not a person reminded me a fair amount of Anne Ursu’s latest middle grade novel The Real Boy. There aren’t many children’s books that dare to delve into the notion of what it means to be a “real” person. Whole hosts of kids walk through their schools looking around, wondering why they aren’t like the others. There’s this feeling often that maybe they were made incorrectly, or that everyone else is having fun without them because they’re privy to some hitherto unknown secret. Part of what I love about Anne Ursu’s latest is that it taps directly into that fear, creating a character that must use his wits to defeat not only the foes that beset him physically, but the ones in his own head that make even casual interactions a difficulty.

Oscar should be very grateful. It’s not every orphan who gets selected to aid a magician as talented as Master Caleb. For years Oscar has ground herbs for Caleb, studiously avoiding the customers that come for his charms, as well as Caleb’s nasty apprentice Wolf. Oscar is the kind of kid who’d rather pore over his master’s old books rather than deal with the frightening conversations a day in his master’s shop might entail. All that changes the day Wolf meets with an accident and Caleb starts leaving the shop more and more. A creature has been spotted causing awful havoc and the local magic workers should be the ones to take care of the problem. So why aren’t they? When Oscar is saved from the role of customer service by an apprentice named Callie, the two strike up an unlikely friendship and seek to find not just the source of the disturbance but also the reason why some of the rich children in the nearby city have been struck by the strangest of diseases.

Though Ms. Ursu has been around for years, only recently have her books been attracting serious critical buzz. I was particularly drawn to her novel retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” last year in the form of the middle grade novel Breadcrumbs. So naturally, when I read the plot description and title of The Real Boy I assumed that the story would be some kind of retelling of the “Pinocchio” tale. As it turns out, there is the faintest whiff of Pinocchio circling this story, but it is by no means a strict model. As one of the librarians in my system put it, “I am scarred for life by Pinocchio (absolutely abhor any tale relating to inanimate objects longing to become real to the point where I find it creepy) but did not find this disturbing in the least.” Truth be told it would have been easy enough for Ursu to crank up the creepy factor if she had wanted to. But rather than clutter the text up with unnecessary disgust, the story is instead clean, fast, exciting, and to the point. And for all that it is 352 pages or so, you couldn’t cut it down.

There have been a fair number of novels and books for children this year that have been accused of being written with adults rather than children in mind. I’ve fielded concerns about everything from Bob Graham’s The Silver Button to Cynthia Rylant’s God Got a Dog to Sharon Creech’s The Boy on the Porch. Interestingly, folks have not lobbed the same criticisms at The Real Boy, for which I am grateful. Certainly it would be easy to see the title in that light. Much of the storyline hinges on the power of parental fear, the sometimes horrific lengths those same parents will go to to “protect” their young, and the people who prey on those fears. Parents, teachers, and librarians that read this book will immediately recognize the villainy at work here, but kids will perceive it on an entirely different level. While the adults gnash their teeth at the bad guy’s actions, children will understand that the biggest villain in this book isn’t a person, but Oscar’s own perceptions of himself. To defeat the big bad, our hero has to delve deep down into his own self and past, make a couple incorrect assumptions, and come out stronger in the end.

He is helped in no small part by Callie. I feel bad that when in trying to define a book I feel myself falling back on what it doesn’t do rather than what it does do. Still, I think it worth noting that in the case of Callie she isn’t some deux ex machina who solves all of Oscar’s problems for him. She helps him, certainly. Even gets angry and impatient with him on occasion, but she’s a real person with a personal journey of her own. She isn’t just slapped into the narrative to give our hero a necessary foil. The same could be said of the baker, a fatherly figure who runs the risk of becoming that wise adult character that steps in when the child characters are flailing about. Ursu almost makes a pointed refusal to go to him for help, though. It’s as if he’s just there to show that not all adults in the world are completely off their rockers. Just most, it would seem.

There’s one more thing the book doesn’t do that really won my admiration, but I think that by even mentioning it here I’m giving away an essential plot point. Consider this your official spoiler alert, then. If you have any desire to read this book on your own, please do yourself a favor and skip this paragraph. All gone? Good. Now a pet peeve of mine that I see from time to time and think an awfully bad idea is when a character appears to be on the autism spectrum of some sort, and then a magical reason for that outsider status comes up. One such fantasy I read long ago, the autistic child turned out to be a fairy changeling, which explained why she was unable to communicate with other people. While well intentioned, I think this kind of plot device misses the point. Now one could make the case for Oscar as someone who is on “the spectrum”. However, the advantage of having such a character in a fantasy setting is that there’s no real way to define his status. Then, late in the book, Oscar stumbles upon a discovery that gives him a definite impression that he is not a human like the people around him. Ursu’s very definite choice to then rescind that possibility hammered home for me the essential theme of the book. There are no easy choices within these pages. Just very real souls trying their best to live the lives they want, free from impediments inside or outside their very own selves.

I’ve heard a smattering of objections to the book at this point that are probably worth looking into. One librarian of my acquaintance expressed some concern about Ursu’s world building. She said that for all that she plumbs the depths of character and narrative with an admirable and enviable skill, they never really felt that they could “see” the world that she had conjured. I suspect that some of this difficulty might have come from the fact that the librarian read an advanced reader’s copy of the book without the benefit of the map of Aletheia in the front. But maybe their problem was bigger than simple geography. Insofar as Ms. Ursu does indulge in world building, it’s a world within set, tight parameters. The country is an island with a protected glittering city on the one hand and a rough rural village on the other. Much like a stage play, Ursu’s storyline is constricted within the rules she’s set for herself. For readers who prefer the wide all-encompassing lands you’d see in a Tolkien or Rowling title, the limitations might feel restrictive.

Now let us not, in the midst of all this talky talk, downplay the importance of illustrator Erin McGuire. McGuire and Ursu were actually paired together once before on the underappreciated Breadcrumbs. I had originally read the book in a form without the art, and it was pleasant in and of itself. McGuire’s interstitial illustrations, however, really serve to heighten the reader’s enjoyment. The pictures are actually relatively rare, their occasional appearances feeling like nothing so much as a delicious chocolate chip popping up in a sea of vanilla ice cream. You never know when you’ll find one, but it’s always sweet when you do.

Breadcrumbs, for all that I personally loved it, was a difficult book for a lot of folks to swallow. In it, Ursu managed to synthesize the soul-crushing loneliness of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, and the results proved too dark for some readers. With The Real Boy the source material, if you can even call it that, is incidental. As with all good fantasies for kids there’s also a fair amount of darkness here, but it’s far less heavy and there’s also an introspective undercurrent that by some miracle actually appears to be interesting to kids. Whodathunkit? Wholly unexpected with plot twists and turns you won’t see coming, no matter how hard you squint, Ursu’s is a book worth nabbing for your own sweet self. Grab that puppy up.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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1 Comments on Review of the Day: The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, last added: 9/26/2013
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22. First Chapter Review: A Pirate, a Blockade Runner, and a Cat by Beverly Stowe McClure

TC&TBC

Today starts the virtual book tour for Beverly Stowe McClure’s A Pirate, a Blockade Runner, and a Cat. My first chapter review of this middle grade/tween paranormal is part of that tour. The author had sent me a copy of this book when it was first released.  It’s high time I read it.

pirate-blockade-runner-cat-200x300BLURB: Thirteen-year-old Erik Burks’ life is falling apart. When he discovers a lace bra in the glove compartment of his dad’s car, his mom leaves his father and drags Erik from being king of the hill in Texas to the bottom of the pits in South Carolina. No Dad, no baseball, no friends, just Starry Knight (a girl who reads minds) and her equally weird brother, Stormy, the twins that live down the block.

Just when Erik thinks life can’t get any worse, while hanging out at the beach one evening, he and the twins notice lights radiating from the lighthouse. The only problem is the lighthouse was deactivated years ago. Stranger still, a ship materializes in the moonlit harbor. Curious, the twins and a reluctant Erik investigate and discover the ghost of a blockade runner, a phantom cat, and a pirate who prowls Charleston Harbor, all searching for rest.

A former nonbeliever in the existence of ghosts, Erik cannot deny the proof before him. And he has a revelation: The ghosts may be the answer to his desire to return home. Erik soon makes a deal with the ghosts. He’ll help them find what they’re looking for so their spirits can rest in peace. In return, the ghosts will scare Erik’s mother so she’ll be on the next flight back to Texas. Star thinks his plan stinks, but Erik wants his life back, even at the cost of his mother’s sanity.

COVER: This publisher has a lot of great covers, but I have to admit this is one of my favorites. The color, the fonts, the images, they all work together nicely. Kudos to the cover artist.

FIRST CHAPTER: Erik is feeling sorry for himself. His mom has uprooted him and moved to South Carolina where he’s got no Dad, no baseball, and no friends. There are those two freaky twins, Stormy and Starry Knight, but Erik is not having a grand time. He’s kind of tired of hearing about the light coming from the lighthouse–which is not likely since the lighthouse was deactivated years ago. Then when what looks like a ship appears, he’s had enough.

KEEP READING: I had the privilege of seeing this story in the pre-published stage, so I have to admit I knew I would keep going. What McClure has always done well is capture the emotions of her characters. Here’s this thirteen-year-old boy with a great life and great friends in Texas, maybe even a girl to admire, and suddenly he’s pulled from all that and brought to South Carolina where all he has is a set of freaky twins to hang out with. His mom keeps telling him he’s going to love it, but Erik isn’t convinced. Change can be hard for children, especially a move away from friends, and McClure captures that so well with Erik.

The ending of this chapter hints at what is to come, even if Erik isn’t ready to buy into anything yet. This makes for a smooth transition into the next chapter, as Erik walks home and contemplates what Stormy and Starry are telling him about the lights and the ship. I’m definitely eager to continue. I don’t know what additional edits have been performed since I first read this book, but everything I’ve read from this author has been fantastic.Beverly Stowe McClure photojpg

Pages  240

ISBN  978-1-77127-219-3

I received a free copy of this book from the author. This review contains my honest opinions, which I have not been compensated for in any way.

Beverly Stowe McClure, a former teacher, is now enjoying a second career: writing. She never planned to be a writer, but in the classroom she and her students did such fun activities in art and science that she decided to write about some of them. Luckily, a few magazines liked what she sent them, and her articles have appeared in Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Ladybug, Focus on the Family Clubhouse, Jr., and others. Nine of her stories have been published as books, the latest one a MG/Tween eBook: A Pirate, a Blockade Runner, and a Cat. She also has two stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies.

Beverly enjoys discovering her ancestors in her genealogy research. She plays the piano. (Thank you, Mom, for making encouraging me to practice.) She takes long walks where she snaps pictures of wildlife and clouds, and of course she reads, usually two books at a time. She teaches a women’s Sunday school class. Watching baseball (Go Rangers) is another of her favorite activities. Retirement is fun.

You can learn more about Beverly Stowe McClure at http://beverlystowemcclure.wordpress.com or follow her blog at http://beverlystowemcclure.blogspot.com.

 

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4 Comments on First Chapter Review: A Pirate, a Blockade Runner, and a Cat by Beverly Stowe McClure, last added: 10/8/2013
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23. A Universal Child Story

Last week I wrote about one of the reasons I like the Cybils Award. Here's another--While the judges are reading the nominees, there's a chance they'll blog about them. Since absolutely anyone can nominate a book, the selection of titles considered is much broader than for those awards for which publishers submit what they consider their best shots, their award level work. With the Cybils there's a chance that books that might not be getting much attention will get some, whether they win or not or even whether they make the short list or not. This is good for books, for writers, and particularly for readers.

That's why I nominated The Waffler by Gail Donovan. The book has been well reviewed, and I hope it becomes well known, too.

It's not unusual to see children's books about death, divorce, poverty, illness, and other Big Topics. Big though they may be, they are not universal child topics because not every child experiences death as a child, experiences divorce, poverty, illness, natural disaster, etc. The number one universal child experience, in my humble opinion, is the pressure/need to conform. By that I don't mean conform to a child clique or a team or a group of bullies. I mean conform to adult society, adult social norms. The universal question we must all deal with as children is How the Hell much of myself am I going to have to give up in order to get along in this freaking world?

And that is what The Waffler is about.

Monty isn't a model fourth grader. He was, after all, involved in a graffiti incident, and he's not in one of those combined advanced classes like his twin sister. The big issue that the adult world comes down on him about, though, is that he can't make a decision to save his life. What kind of pet to buy, what to name it, what to write about for a class assignment, where to sit at lunchtime. You name it, and he'll probably change his mind about it. This makes him unacceptable both to the loving, frustrated grown-ups at his two homes (he has two sets of parents) and the much harsher grown-ups at his school. No one accepts him the way he is and, interestingly, no one helps him with decision making skills. He's just told to start making them.

Figure it out, kid. Become like us.

Fortunately, this isn't a learn-the-error-of-your-ways-child story. Of course not. I wouldn't be writing about it, if it were. Monty wins his family over, for a while at least, with a decision not to make a decision. It's pretty clear that his teacher isn't as taken with this move but decides discretion is the better part of valor and waits to fight another day. The book both does and doesn't have a tidy ending, something I appreciated.

I also appreciated the fact that it's a book for the lower end of the middle grade spectrum. You see a lot of middle grade books with twelve-year-old characters. You want an older character in order to create someone who has a lot of acquired knowledge or be mature enough to save the world in a fantasy. You use twelve year olds when you're trying to make the unbelievable more believable. (I've done it, too.) Monty is a believable younger child in a believable situation. He's not wildly funny. He doesn't have an over-the-top voice. He's a regular child many child readers at the lower end of middle grade or the higher end of chapter books could know.

Time for a little FTC transparency chatter here: I received my copy of The Waffler from the author, who I met at a NESCBWI conference maybe twelve or thirteen years ago. 


4 Comments on A Universal Child Story, last added: 10/15/2013
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24. Growing Bookworms Newsletter: October 30

JRBPlogo-smallToday I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's and young adult books and raising readers. There are 1766 subscribers. I send out the newsletter once every two weeks. 

Newsletter Update: In this issue I have four book reviews (all picture books). I also have posts about improving literacy for babies by using a rear-facing stroller, a literacy milestone for Baby Bookworm, and how reading to kids build background knowledge. I also have two posts with literacy-themed links that I shared on Twitter recently. Finally, I have a post about my session at the upcoming Kidlitosphere Conference in Austin, TX. 

The only recent post not included in the newsletter this time around is one about WordGirl's Word of the Month for October (Supernatural), with a few spooky book suggestions. 

Reading Update: In the last two weeks I read one middle grade and two young adult fiction titles. I read:

  • Catherine Gilbert Murdock: Heaven is Paved with Oreos. HMH Books for Young Readers. Middle Grade / Middle School. Completed October 30, 2013. Review to come.
  • Christopher E. Long: Hero Worship. Flux. Young Adult Fiction. Completed October 17, 2013. Review to come, closer to the January publication date. 
  • D. J. MacHale: Sylo (The Sylo Chronicles, Book 1). Razorbill. Young Adult Fiction. Completed October 25, 2013. This was a fun page-turner, the start to a new series by the author of the Pendragon books. I couldn't resist the premise, in which a small island off the coast of Maine is invaded by an elite military unit, and cut off from the rest of the world (for murky reasons). But I think I'll wait and review after the next book comes out, as this was mainly a recreational read for me. 

I'm still listening to The House of Hades by Rick Riordan. I haven't decided what to read next. Baby Bookworm has been dabbling in listening to early chapter books. The other night we had a tiny literacy milestone when instead of asking for "just one more book", she begged for "just one more chapter." But we are still taking the chapter books in very small doses, and mostly reading picture books and early readers. We're currently reading Busybody Nora from Johanna Hurwitz's Riverside Kids series (most of which are sadly out of print). This early chapter book series was a recommendation from Anamaria Anderson, and is a great fit for us. 

You all may appreciate the fact that Baby Bookworm asked to be Pink-A-Girl for Halloween. Pink-A-Girl is Pinkalicious' superhero Halloween costume in Pinkalicious: Pink or Treat. It was a pretty easy costume for us. We purchased a pink cape and a tiara, and she wears these with pink clothing (we've had several dress-up occasions already). Very few people are familiar with Pink-A-Girl, but Baby Bookworm, at 3 1/2, is completely indifferent to this. It pleases her to be like Pinkalicious. And that pleases me.

Are any of your kids dressing up as book-related Halloween characters? Wishing you a fun-filled, treat-filled, scare-filled holiday. Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms. 

© 2013 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

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25. Sky Jumpers: Book 1: Peggy Eddleman

Book: Sky Jumpers
Author: Peggy Eddleman (@PeggyEddleman)
Pages: 288
Age Range: 8-12

I'm grateful to author Peggy Eddleman. Because Sky Jumpers got me out of a bit of a reading funk. I've been slow to get through books, and have actually abandoned several of late. But as soon as I started Sky Jumpers, well, I just wanted to keep reading. And that's what we're looking for, isn't it? Books that you just want to lose yourself in? Sky Jumpers fits the bill. 

Sky Jumpers is middle grade post-apocalyptic fiction with a strong female protagonist. Sky Jumpers is set in a largely depopulated world, following the "green bombs" of World War III. Twelve-year-old Hope lives with her adoptive parents in White Rock, a small (apparently mid-western) town that is struggling to survive. Besides undertaking basic activities (like growing food), the folks in White Rock pour all of their energy into trying to invent things. The green bombs have changed just enough, including the chemical properties of steel, to make this a tricky business. And Hope, our heroine, though courageous and decisive, well, Hope is singularly bad at inventing. But when her family and her town,are in danger, Hope doesn't hesitate. 

The world building in Sky Jumpers doesn't feel contrived, despite the obvious editorial convenience of the green bombs having changed some things but not others. It feels like realistic fiction, with a dash of unconventional science. As an engineer myself, I enjoyed the focus on inventions (even though the inventing life wasn't a good fit for Hope). This is the kind of book that will make kids want to invent things themselves. 

Hope is a solid character. She's a bit reckless, and ends up in trouble a lot. But she has her vulnerabilities, too. Like this:

"When Carina finished showing her invention, she sat next to me and put her hand on my knee. "It's okay, Hope. I'm sure you're not the only one bad at inventing."

Maybe I wasn't. But it definitely felt like I was the worst. Like everyone else was at least good enough." (Page 48-49)

And this:

"I couldn't help wondering how many times my parents had wished they had a kid with their own genes, someone they could have passed on their talents to. Someone who didn't keep messing things up." (Page 65)

(For the record, she has great parents. It's not them making her feel like this.) Only gradually does Hope come to recognize some of her strengths. 

Other things I liked about Sky Jumpers:

  • Sky jumping is very cool, though I won't spoil it by telling you what it is.
  • The plot, particularly in the second half of the book, is action-filled and suspenseful, and steers away from being too grim for middle grade readers. 
  • Hope has a male best friend who is not a love interest, and another male friend who might be. But it's all very PG so far. No visible love triangle, which is refreshing.
  • There's a very cute five year old who tags along with the big kids, and adds opportunities for being protective. But Brenna is strong-willed and fun, not a helpless doll. 
  • There's a little bit of looking at "relics" of the previous society, which is something that I always enjoy. The kids in Hope's class are fascinated by the idea of wall to wall carpeting, for example. And they don't really believe what they hear about cell phones at all. Sky Jumpers is set 40-odd years after World War III, so there are people who remember "before". Hence the emphasis on inventing things to make life easier. 

In short, Sky Jumpers has an action-filled plot, a pleasing emphasis on science, and likeable characters, all set against a compelling backdrop. I was pleased to see Sky Jumpers listed as "Book 1", because, although the plot is thoroughly wrapped up in this book, it would be a shame for this level of world building to be squandered on a single book. Sky Jumpers is highly recommended for middle grade readers, or anyone who enjoys adventure. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2013 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

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