Category Archives: middle grade

Fortunately these are not Florian’s glory days

vanished-9781481436335_lgFlorian and Margaret work on “special projects” for the FBI.  They’re still in middle school, though, so they also have to do things like take algebra tests and survive lunch in a Hunger Games sort of cafeteria.  But they exist on two levels – being themselves completely with each other while living in disguise with the people they’re investigating.  Stuff happens to Florian; he’s just not cool, although he’s super smart.  Florian is one of those kids who will wait it out through middle school and high school, and then set his awesomeness free without a glance back later on.  Margaret is a little more able to deflect the slights of the queen bee and school bully in the moment.

It’s a fun read and a fast read.  There are little side plots bubbling along throughout the book, and they come together well in the end.  Kids who enjoy puzzles and mysteries will like this one, especially if they liked Framed! – the first in the series.

Vanished! – James Ponti

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Not for the faint of heart, definitely for the clever and daring

assassins curseBy the third book in a series, story lines sometimes wander a bit.  Either there’s just not enough personality in the lead character to keep things interesting or the story just becomes ridiculously complicated or unusually unbelievable.  You might think The Assassin’s Curse could fall under that umbrella, but Kevin Sands manages to keep everything moving along, even if there are a crazy number of conspiracies and puzzle clues and even royalty involved.  Heck, that’s what makes it so good!

Another thing about this one – it’s LONG, really long.  If I remember right, the second one in the series was also much longer than the average middle grade book, but it worked.  And so does this one.  Fortunately, I had a morning off and could read the last 200 pages in relative quiet.  There are a lot of characters and interesting tidbits about the Knights Templar and Paris to keep track of, after all.

If you missed the first two books, you might enjoy this one a bit more if you read them first, but I don’t think Christopher, Tom and Sally are characters you have to know in advance to follow what’s going on.  Set aside an afternoon, though, so you can really sink in and enjoy this one.  It’s a great escape and well worth any undone chores.

The Assassin’s Curse by Kevin Sands

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Power corrupts for young readers

4539e647-thelist-3d_0c70dk0c70di000001I love a good dystopian novel.  There’s something about worlds gone wrong that usually makes the one we’re in seem less awful. A friend currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood says it’s having the opposite effect on her, but I’m going to try to stay optimistic here.  Rock on, goodness!  Stay strong, light!

The List imagines a world where Noa, who has survived the chaos and ruin of the Earth’s human civilizations, has saved a group of people in a place called the Ark.  Is it creepy that this guy seems to think he knows what caused the ruin of the world and has to solve it all by himself?  Um, yes.  No democracy.  No choice.  Noa knows what’s best for everyone, and that might include some brutal behavior on his enforcers’ parts as well as some cruel and unusual punishment.

Letta goes along with a lot of Noa’s nonsense, because as apprentice to Benjamin the Wordsmith, she is a protector of words and will become someone important in the Ark.  The List, it turns out, is a list of the approved words – 500 of them or so.  All other words are forbidden, unless you are part of the ruling class, of course.

Being banished from the Ark could mean death—even if Noa’s enforcers don’t kill you—but Letta connects with some people living different lives outside and begins to see how different the world could be with more freedom.

It had kind of a slow start for me, but this would be great for fans of The Giver and other books by Lois Lowry, as well as those who love Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds series.

The List by Patricia Forde

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Jedi mind tricks and limited tragedy

superstarLester Musselbaum has a few struggles when he starts fifth grade.  He’s only been homeschooled up to now, so he doesn’t realize his awesomeness might not be seen as such by other kids.  He’s grieving–and his mom is grieving even more–the loss of his astronaut father.  He’s on the autism spectrum, although he doesn’t know it until later in the book.  He also has a name which seems tailor-made for bullies.  (As the book shows, we pretty much all have great names for bullies – they have an impressive creativity with words when they need to put someone down.  Unfortunately, this does not often carry over to most school subjects.)

Compared to a lot of books I’ve read and not written about lately, he’s got sunshine, butterflies, and free ice cream all summer.  Maybe this is why I liked Lester and not them.  Maybe it’s why when I thought, “This is not the book you’re looking for” after reading the inside flap, I was wrong.  I am so tired of middle grade books that pile on the tragedy.  (I have written about this. You can‘t just have one dead sibling; you have to lose at least two family members, have a sibling who’s got issues, and then find out you or your best friend are going to die or be disfigured while also fighting some other injustice.  I know.  I’m exaggerating.  I do that.)

Lester would probably appreciate the Star Wars reference, although Superman is more up his alley.  Lester tells the story and does a fine job of illustrating his world and the other characters in it without trying too hard.  He makes mistakes, a lot of them, and sometimes his words just aren’t going to be understood by others as you might mean things when you operate consistently from a scientific perspective.

This is a first novel from a Midwestern former teacher now living in the state to the north of us.  Yippee!  I can’t wait to see what’s next from her.

Superstar by Mandy Davis

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Mother Goose – wannabe fairy or name-dropping gossip?

mother goose diaries“Have you noticed every village idiot with a quirk becomes national news?  Jack and Jill fell down the hill – so what?  Little Bo Peep lost her sheep – how is that my problem?”  (The Mother Goose Diaries)

Oh, Mother Goose, the secrets you know about the fairy tale world!  And now you’re visiting our reality and hanging out with everyone from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Napoleon to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I must admit that I have read none of Chris Colfer’s other Land of Stories books.  I checked the first one out and didn’t get it read in time, and then the others piled up and I was just too lazy to face the whole thing.

This one looked like more of a companion piece, and it’s short, so it was perfect for the end of summer reading brain I’ve got.  This is not serious literature, people, but it’s a fun, silly ride through a somewhat embittered non-fairy’s life, and while time-traveling and speaking her mind, Mother Goose has a way of dropping a few words on social justice in, too.  I’m good with that.

The Mother Goose Diaries by Chris Colfer

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Wonder Twin Power ACTIVATE!

cosmic commandosI have a confession to make.  For years, my husband has randomly said something along the lines of “wonder twin power—activate!”  Because we are a family loaded up in references—many dating back to Firesign Theatre, which he listened to with his friends when he was a teenager—I have never actually asked about or looked up the reference.

This morning, however, when I was thinking about Cosmic Commandos, the first thing that popped into my mind was, “wonder twin power”, so I finally decided to look it up.  It turns out that the Wonder Twins are Junior Superfriends and were in a cartoon way back, which explains everything I need to know.  I was more of a Scooby Doo and Looney Tunes gal.

Reference explained… and now on to the book of day!  Cosmic Commandos is a light, fun read.  You could delve into the relationship between the twins – one brash and bold, the other nerdy and social – but it’s as much fun to read along as Jeremy of the “stinkish life” charges forward without thinking and ends up mostly succeeding at destroying an evil alien power.  Why not?  It’s a little bit of summer fun, right?

Cosmic Commandos by Christopher Eliopoulos

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Private Eye July

FirstClassMurder_finalUS_200x300Ah, mysteries…I love mysteries.

I finished reading Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz a few weeks ago – a nice homage to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot with an added complication or two.  Then there was The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths, another great Ruth Galloway mystery.

And then First Class Murder landed in my holds stack … another homage to Agatha Christie, complete with a trip on the Orient Express with girl detectives, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong.  Daisy and Hazel started their detective work in a boarding school, and then solved a head-scratcher of  a murder at a country home.  The Orient Express is supposed to get them away from murders, but it never works out that way, does it?

The cast of characters is quirky and interesting, with a Russian countess, her American Pinkerton-obsessed grandson, a spy, a magician, a medium, maids who might be more than they appear, an obnoxious husband and an heiress.  It’s a fun, light read, despite the murder, and Daisy and Hazel’s detection skills are just getting better by the moment.   There are another three already-released-in-the-UK books in the series, so now I’m debating whether to wait for their U.S. release or get them over here now.  Sigh.  So many books.  So little time.

First Class Murder: a Wells and Wong mystery by Robin Stevens

 

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Hell and high water and a whole lot of other stuff

hellandhighwaterI don’t remember how this book ended up on my list.  I haven’t actually been getting much serious (or not serious) reading done lately, although I’ve done a few re-reads of Dumplin’ (awesome as always) and Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen (part of my annual attempt to remember languages I haven’t spoken for a few decades).  Given much thought, I probably would have found something a bit lighter, especially since I usually don’t go for things with puppets of any kind.  They’re a little like clowns to me—kind of creepy and maybe a little menacing, unless they are fluffy, cute animal puppets which are a completely different thing.

Anyhoo, this is a great book.  There are bad guys — rich aristocrats cheating poor people and a few of their own supposed friends, sending the undeserving off to jail or to the colonies – and a few scrappy good guys and a lot of intrigue, action, and close escapes.  Letty and Caleb become friends and partners-in-making-things-right, and you’re with them all the way.  It’s not a happy story, really, but it works.  As a read-aloud, there could be a lot to discuss with the right group of kids: gossip, discrimination, power, women’s roles, poverty, justice.  So take a break from reality and travel back to 1752 for a few hours.  You’ll be glad you did.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

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How to capture my 13 year old inner dialogue, although maybe you’d rather not

BraveMaybe kids think completely different thoughts these days.  I mean, I wonder sometimes if my youth was so wildly different – no electronics, three tv stations available, bad perms – that I can’t even begin to understand what my kid lives with.  Technology is not a kind beast.

Then I read something like Brave.  Or we find ourselves talking about mean girls.  And I realize that at least for my kid, some things are still kind of the same. Definitely still awful.  Do we all find ourselves feeling isolated, dumb, or out of the loop?  Are we all bad at handling bullies, whether it’s jerks who grab our books and play catch or people who attack us with words?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe some kids pass blissfully through adolescence without any bumps along the way.  Svetlana Chmakova captures those who don’t perfectly, and really, everyone can benefit from that.  If you’re struggling yourself, Brave makes you feel like you’re not alone.  And in the rare case that you feel like you’re on top of the world, maybe you can see what it’s like for everyone else and feel some compassion.  Maybe?

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

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Friendships, good and bad

real friendsThere are so many kinds of friends, aren’t there?  Sometimes you have a friend who begins to feel like all you need.  Then she moves.  Maybe you manage to end up in a bigger group of friends later on.  There will be a kind of unhappy, mean “friend” somewhere in there who’s more concerned with being first at being someone’s best friend than in being friends with everyone.  Or maybe they make fun of you because you’re different, even though they claim they’re only telling you to help you.

Friendship, like love, is so very complicated, which is why I liked this graphic novel/memoir so much.  It reminded me of many happy, silly afternoons as a child, playing in imaginary worlds with a friend.  It also reminded me of some uncomfortable and painful moments.  Both are important things to talk about with kids, since their lives are as complicated, if not more complicated than ours.

I, thank goodness, never had to navigate friendship by way of social media.  I screwed up a lot of things, but no one was saving screenshots of my mistakes.  Maybe there are damning pictures out there somewhere in a shoe box, but my biggest humiliations only take up space in my memory.

I prefer to remember the happier times: building forts under the picnic table, having dance contests at slumber parties, and lying in the shade of the big tree looking at the clouds shaped like turtles and whales.

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

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