November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Middle Grade Xpress Reviews | April 2017

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1704-Xpress-MG-CoversAcker, Ben & Ben Blacker. Join the Resistance. illus. by Annie Wu. 224p. (Star Wars: Bk. 1). Disney/LucasFilm Pr. Mar. 2017. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9781484704844.

Gr 4-6 –Mattis Banz longs for a better life in this Star Wars–inspired story. He’s currently living in an orphanage on the planet Durkteel and is desperate to become one of the fighters in the Resistance against the First Order of the evil Empire. After a few close calls that showcase Mattis’s bravery and wily skills, his dream finally comes true when he is recruited to join the Resistance. Mattis is put together with a group who, at first glance, seem like an underwhelming bunch. After some disagreements, Mattis and company are sent to Vodran, a dangerous, gloomy swamp planet with few if any inhabitants. Mattis and the others must learn to work together as one in order to defeat the evils on Vodran and gain the skills necessary to advance higher within the Resistance. Star Wars fans will delight in seeing familiar faces appear throughout (Admiral Ackbar plays an important role as the group’s sage and trusted leader). However, even though Mattis is a new character, those who aren’t well versed with the Star Wars world will find themselves lost, as numerous places, groups, and events are referenced with little to no background information. A cliff-hanger ending ensures that readers will have more adventures with Mattis and company to look forward to. VERDICT Purchase where the Force of Star Wars fandom is strong.–Christopher Lassen, BookOps: The New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library

Alberti, Enigma. Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring. illus. by Tony Cliff. 96p. (Spy on History: Bk. 1). Workman. Dec. 2016. Tr $12.95. ISBN 9780761187394.

Gr 4-7 –Mary Bowser, born into slavery and later freed, is recruited to work undercover as a maid in Confederate Jefferson Davis’s Richmond home in this reimagining of real-life events, the first title in a new series. Having infiltrated the Davis household, Mary deflects the suspicions of a white maid by pretending to be “simple.” Meanwhile, she uses her photographic memory to scan documents while cleaning Davis’s office, then relays her findings to the Union by way of a spy network. As pressure mounts to break the Confederate code, Mary senses suspicion narrowing on the household as she gets closer to learning the enemy’s plans. The author not only crafts a highly suspenseful and visually engaging narrative surrounding real-life spy Bowser but also illustrates the final days of the Confederacy from an insider’s perspective. The cogent use of codes and ciphers is sure to appeal to future sleuths and creates an elaborate mystery within the artwork for readers to solve. The spy tools found within an envelope inside the book offer a fun, interactive element that takes the experience to another level. VERDICT A swift read with plenty of action, combined with a smart spy heroine, this title is a strong addition to most historical fiction collections (despite the possibility of losing the loose spy materials to eager spies in training).–Hillary St. George, Los Angeles Public Library

Arbuthnott, Shane. Dominion. 312p. Orca. Feb. 2017. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781459811171.

Gr 4-8 –Molly Stout lives with her father and brothers on their airship, the Legerdemain. She works as the ship’s engineer, helping catch the spirits that fuel her world’s technology. When Molly’s first independent catch, a powerful spirit, speaks to her and claims to have known her legendary ancestor Haviland Stout, Molly begins to realize that much of what she knows about the world around her is false. Molly’s drive to understand the true nature and history of the spirits leads her to risk her life as she investigates Haviland Industries, the company that controls the city. Molly is an independent and thoughtful character, and her skill as an engineer enhances her appeal. Molly’s alcoholic father and older siblings are clearly drawn and have important roles to play as well, and the relationship and dialogue among them are realistic. Arbuthnott creates an intriguing steampunk world with a smooth combination of technology and magic, and he uses fast-paced adventure to bring readers along on Molly’s journey. Parallels to our own world and themes dealing with industrialism and change add substance to the tale. VERDICT A fast-paced read with a strong female lead, this will leave steampunk and adventure fans looking forward to a hinted-at sequel.–Beth L. Meister, Milwaukee Jewish Day School, WI

Callaghan, Cindy. Sydney Mackenzie Knocks ’Em Dead. 256p. S. & S./Aladdin. Mar. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481465694.

Gr 5-8 –West Coast native Sydney Mackenzie is not ready to give up suntans and her friends when she and her family inherit a creepy cemetery in Delaware. It is not exactly the laid-back, chic location this California dreamer wants to call home, and, to make matters worse, the old Victorian house the Mackenzies move into is on the cemetery grounds. As Sydney begins to acclimate herself to this new life, she meets local kids who think living in the town cemetery is cool and exciting. After admitting to her new friends that she believes that the house is haunted, the kids hold a séance. In a surprising plot twist, they discover the story of an enslaved girl with ties to the Underground Railroad. The girl, Ivy Shaw, communicates with Sydney. Sydney feels compelled to learn the secrets of Ivy Shaw’s life—leading her and her friends on a mystery worthy of the Hardy Boys. What starts as a “city mouse in the country” novel quickly evolves into an absorbing mystery exploring the history of American slavery. Though the narrative does deepen at this point, the inclusion of typical middle grade humor (fart jokes and silly pranks) often sits uncomfortably with the heavier themes. VERDICT An additional purchase for libraries looking to increase their mystery offerings.–Brittney Kosev, Honey/Rush Elementary, Lubbock, TX

O’Hearn, Kate. The Runaway. 368p. (Valkyrie: Bk. 2). S. & S./Aladdin. Jan. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481447409.

Gr 5-8 –In this second installment of the series, Freya and Archie have been put on probation by Odin for traveling to Midgard (Earth) without permission. Their punishment includes cleaning the Reaping Mares’ stalls each morning, and Freya is allowed only marginal participation in Asgard’s 12-day Nine Realms Challenge, in which the kingdom’s finest athletes compete. Observant Odin, sensing that war is about to break out in the realm, sends Freya and Archie to Midgard to find Brunnhilde—a legendary Valkyrie whom he severely punished and banished to Earth long ago—and bring her home to Asgard. But Freya discovers that “Brundi” has a family; some deep, dark secrets; and a large parcel of land that must be protected from poachers. Again, O’Hearn blends Norse mythology and contemporary American life, albeit sometimes awkwardly. She addresses xenophobia, cultural diversity, and interracial marriage. As in the first volume, some Norse mythology has been embellished or invented (her addition of Dark Searchers, for example) and some major plot issues are tied up too neatly. VERDICT The clash of two very different and strong cultures and a busy, fast-moving plot will attract devotees of mythological fiction despite the book’s minor flaws.–Susan Scheps, formerly at Shaker Public Library, OH

Rubin, Sarah. The Impossible Clue. 304p. Scholastic/Chicken House. Jan. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545940252.

Gr 4-6 –Alice, a 12-year-old math whiz who likes a challenge, investigates the disappearance of Dr. Learner at the request of her schoolmate Sammy Delgado. Dr. Learner, the lead scientist at Delgado Industries, was working on an invisibility suit. Did his research cause him to disappear, or were there nefarious goings-on? This plot-driven mystery abounds with danger and red herrings. The author indicates socioeconomic class through the characters’ possessions: Alice rides a bike, while Sammy has a personal driver; Dr. Learner inhabits a run-down apartment, whereas Mr. Delgado lives in a mansion. Alice’s middle-class family aren’t perfect, but they achieve their goals through hard work and honesty, and their home is a place of love and, ultimately, respect and acceptance. The wealthy occupy their position through unethical practices, and Sammy finds Dr. Learner more of a loving, caring father figure than his own dad. Rubin shows readers that people are more than their appearance, gender, class, or age and that a middle school girl can like herself, make friends, resolve family conflict, and solve a mystery. This novel ends with the loose ends tied up and offers a realistic conclusion. VERDICT A solid, satisfying mystery and a great addition to school and public libraries. –Stefanie Hughes, Mt. Pleasant, TX

This article was published in School Library Journal's April 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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