August 19, 2017

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Middle Grade: New Titles from J.K. Rowling, Margarita Engle, & More | August 2017 Xpress Reviews

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Bass, Karen. Two Times a Traitor. 288p. Pajama. Aug. 2017. Tr $15.95. ISBN 9781772780314; ebk. $10.95. ISBN 9781772780246.

Gr 5-8 –Twelve-year-old Lazare Barenger, also known as Laz, is on vacation in Halifax with his family. After a not-so-uncommon fight with his father, Laz runs off to explore an old fortress and is knocked out and transported through space and time to a little-known piece of North American history: the 1745 Siege of Louisbourg. He is found by English colonists, branded a French spy, and forced to atone for his treason and earn back his confiscated medal—responsible for his time travel—by spying on the French. While on his mission, he befriends many in the enemy French camp and, though roughly a mere three months pass, almost forgets to make his way back to present day. With a plot that concerns itself more with the authenticity of the siege than developing a captivating narrative for middle grade readers, the pacing takes a hit. Laz’s backstory is spotty and slapdash. Peppered with various microagressions and unconvincing teen texting abbreviations and acronyms (“learn to shut yr mouth”), this is likely to leave many readers disappointed. VERDICT Outside its unique historical setting, there is nothing that sets this book apart. An additional purchase only.–Brittany Drehobl, Eisenhower Public Library District, IL

Bowron, Leah Harper. Colorblind. 184p. BookSparks/Spark. Jul. 2017. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781943006083.

Gr 4-6 –Lisa Parker is on the verge of starting sixth grade in the fall of 1968 in Montgomery, AL. One of her teachers, Miss Loomis, is African American, and she has been hired, in part, to help the school move positively toward racial integration. Lisa, who was born with a cleft palate and is very shy as a result, connects instantly with her new teacher. Both of them are soon exposed to extreme bullying from parents, students, and faculty. The book juxtaposes Lisa’s experiences with discrimination based on her disability—and her growing awareness of racism—with the pressures on Miss Loomis’s physical and mental health over the course of the school year. While well-meaning in its approach to race and disability, the book falters in its handling of sensitive issues. One-dimensional characters, unlikely plot situations, and didactic dialogue oversimplify a complex set of experiences. A problematic ending involving the wasting away of one character while another flourishes seems inappropriate for a 21st-century book on race. Some questionable descriptions of disability that are not fully explored could also confuse younger readers. While the topics addressed are best suited for a middle grade audience, Lisa seems much younger than many of the targeted readers. VERDICT An unfortunately weak historical novel on an important and little-explored historical subject.–Maryanne Olson, Queens Borough Public Library, NY

Engle, Margarita. Forest World. 208p. S. & S./Atheneum. Aug. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481490573.

Gr 4-7 –A novel in verse told from two perspectives. Eleven-year-old Edver is reunited with his family in Cuba after the reestablishment of relations with the United States. After growing up with his mother in Miami, Edver is unaware that he has a 12-year-old sister, Luza, who has been living with his father and grandfather in the Cuban jungle. Edver finds that the meager standard of living he enjoyed in the United States is enviable in comparison with that of Cuba; Luza resents Edver’s apparent wealth. Engle’s focus is mainly on familial relationships but includes a rather minor environmental conflict: while trying to get the attention of their mother, a cryptozoologist, Edver and Luza unite temporarily to post on the Internet about the discovery of a new butterfly. A poacher who works as a “Human Vacuum Cleaner” profiting from endangered species soon appears in the forest. Although the poacher problem is tied up neatly by the book’s conclusion, the family issues mostly remain unsettled—a realistic, if unsatisfying, outcome. Edver and Luza are pleasingly realized with individual interests (online games and sculpture, respectively); the adult relationships, though, feel largely unexplored. VERDICT This well-timed and accessible work of eco-fiction should readily find its way into classrooms and libraries as an opening to learning more about the familial ties between the United States and one of its nearest neighbors.–Erin Reilly-Sanders, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Harrington, Kim. Attack of the Not-So-Virtual Monsters. 208p. (Gamer Squad). Sterling. Aug. 2017. pap. $6.95. ISBN 9781454926122.

Gr 3-6 –Best friends Bex and Charlie are excited to spend the summer before middle school searching for monsters. Like most of their town, they’re obsessed with the newest app-based game, Monsters Unleashed, where players find and catch virtual monsters on their phones for points. In hopes of finding the rarest beasts, Charlie and Bex visit Charlie’s grandpa’s attic to pore over old maps, but instead they stumble upon a strange box. When Charlie switches it on, the Wi-Fi goes out…and all of Bex’s monsters vanish from her phone, appearing in the real world. Now the two friends are on a mission to catch all 10 monsters before they, and the rest of their town, become monster lunch. Bex and Charlie deal with mean friends, bullying siblings, and nervousness about starting middle school, but character development takes a backseat to plot-driven action. VERDICT Fans of Pokémon Go will enjoy this slim series starter, where a foreseeable plot keeps the action moving at a quick clip.–Kelsey Johnson-Kaiser, St. Paul Public Library

Harris, Robert, J. Artie Conan Doyle and the Gravediggers’ Club. 192p. Floris/Kelpies. Jun. 2017. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781782503538.

Gr 3-5 –Most readers recognize the name Arthur Conan Doyle as the creator of the beloved character Sherlock Holmes. Most readers may not know that Conan Doyle once thought himself a detective as well. In this fictional story, 12-year-old Arthur (Artie) and his best friend, Ham, are in search of adventure. One night they find themselves in a local graveyard looking for criminals, but they end up getting much more than they bargained for. Over the course of a short time, Artie and Ham learn their town is being plagued with body snatchers, who later dump the victims with no obvious motive. Artie is determined to find the answer, meanwhile getting mixed up with robberies, crying ghosts, wolflike monsters, and a sleazy “colonel.” The likable duo’s sarcastic banter will keep readers smirking. The plot is filled with twists and turns, keeping even the most reluctant reader engaged. VERDICT An enticing mystery for fans of detective fiction who may not be ready to tackle the real Conan Doyle’s works.–Jennifer Bludau, La Grange Independent School District, TX

Jackson, Linda Williams. Midnight Without a Moon. 320p. HMH. Jan. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544785106.

Gr 4-8 –Life in a sharecropper’s shack on a cotton plantation in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 is harsh and unyielding, especially for 13-year-old Rose Lee Carter. Rose lives under the guardianship of her grandmother, who openly mocks her looks and favors her lighter-skinned cousin. Opening with a tense scene of brother Fred Lee’s birth and Rose’s terrifying encounter with local white supremacists, readers are immediately drawn into the deep poverty and racism that Rose faces on a constant basis. Although conditions at home, physical and emotional, are hard to bear, she enjoys a strong friendship with the son of the local preacher, Hallelujah Jenkins. African Americans registering to vote are routinely harassed—and the murder of Emmett Till reverberates through the community as feelings of anger and fear intensify. Rose is a relatable, endearing, and fully developed character. Her heartaches are striking and acute. The change from her fervent desire to join her mother and stepfather in Chicago to her determination to stay in Mississippi and join the fight for civil rights is believably heroic. Descriptions of the family’s severe poverty are shattering but never salacious. Preferential treatment for lighter-skinned African Americans in Rose’s family and even in the mainstream African American media is painfully depicted. Recommend for fans of Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Mildred Taylor’s “Logan Family” saga. VERDICT An unflinching and sensitively-told coming-of-age story from the perspective of a smart and thoughtful young girl in 1950s Mississippi.–Jennifer Schultz, Fauquier County Public Library, Warrenton, VA

Lindgren, Barbro. Soda Pop. illus. by Lisen Adbåge. 112p. Gecko Pr. Aug. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781776570102.

Gr 3-6 –Set in a nondescript time and place, young Mazarin lives with his eccentric father, Soda Pop, and forgetful grandfather, Dartanyong. Their home includes monochromatic rooms; a garage with a fish-filled pool on top; a barn the perfect size for the cluster of tigers that turns up; a rubbish heap complete with a bed-eating giraffe; and a woodshed-turned-apartment where Dartanyong can avoid germs and store his many charts that help him remember details. Three recurring characters round out the cast: the cross man who’s upset about red owls nesting in his mailbox; a hot dog seller turned tiger enthusiast; and Gustav, a robber with ballpoint-pen tattoos who is let out of the local jail occasionally for short jaunts. Nonsense is name of the game in this Swedish novel originally published in 1970 by prolific author and winner of the 2014 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (no relation to the famous author of Pippi Longstocking). This slim volume of short, episodic chapters is unabashedly absurd, moving quickly from adventure to adventure. The exploits often revolve around Dartanyong’s identity of the day. When he emerges from his woodshed, he may think he’s a plumber, a master painter, or a trapeze artist, and Soda Pop and Mazarin go with the flow, occasionally using his forgetfulness to their advantage when it comes to, say, feeding the hungry tigers. The translation is nicely complemented by full-color illustrations that have an appealing childlike quality. VERDICT Readers wanting character arcs and climactic scenes won’t find them here, but for a whimsical, lighthearted, unique reading experience, look no further.–Amanda Raklovits, Champaign Public Library, IL

Rosen, Jonathan. The Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies. 256p. Sky Pony. Aug. 2017. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781510715233.

Gr 4-6 –Christmas is coming, and Devin’s wish list is short: an iPhone. His bratty kid sister Abby, however, is demanding the most popular toy of the season: the FAB Cuddle Bunny. The animatronic stuffed animal is completely sold out, though, so despite Abby’s tantrums, Devin is convinced she won’t get one. Then, an unusual neighbor moves in across the street. Even before Herb Dorfman comes over for dinner, Devin and his cousin Tommy are convinced that he is a warlock. Things take a twisted turn when the boys catch him using a wand and toiling over a cauldron with a vial of potion. The next day, Abby receives her very own Cuddle Bunny from Herb, and Devin is shocked and horrified when he begins to see the toy coming to life. Soon, the town is under siege from these mischievous robotic rabbits, and Devin and Tommy become caught up in a series of battles with both Herb and the bunnies that escalate to an all-out stuffed animal war in the middle of the shopping mall food court. The action is steady despite a hasty ending, and the dialogue is sharp. VERDICT A mildly violent and funny read that’s more silly than scary. An additional purchase.–Whitney LeBlanc, KIPP New Orleans Schools, LA

Rowling, J.K. J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World: Magical Film Projections: Creatures. illus. by Scott Buoncristiano. 16p. Candlewick. Apr. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763695859.

Gr 2-6 –Published in a wave of renewed “Harry Potter” mania following the theatrical release of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, this unusual title features seven clear plastic “windows,” six of which are illustrated with black line drawings of scenes from various “Harry Potter” books, accompanied by a short description of the scene and a few lines of dialogue. The seventh window is blank, and readers are encouraged to draw their own scene with a dry erase pen (not included). The book is spiral bound, and meant to be propped up so that the scenes can be projected onto a wall or the ceiling of a dimly lit room, using, according to the instructions, either the accompanying flashlight, a lamp, or a cell phone light. The flashlight included with the book does a very poor job of projecting the drawings—they appear dim and blurry; a cell phone flashlight works much better. When accomplished, viewers will see large images of Dobby the house elf, Buckbeak the Hippogriff, and Picket the Bowtruckle, among others. VERDICT This very slim volume doesn’t bring anything new to the canon, and it’s hard to see this media tie-in gimmick holding the attention of anyone, even die-hard fans, for very long.–Jenny Berggren, Longfellow Middle School, Berkeley, CA

Samphire, Patrick. The Emperor of Mars. illus. by Jeremy Holmes. 368p. (The Secrets of the Dragon Tomb: Bk. 2). Holt. Jul. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780805099089.

Gr 4-6 –Eight months after thwarting Sir Titus Dane’s tomb-robbing scheme, Edward Sullivan attempts to find himself by vine-mining in Lunae City. He’s been sneaking out of the house without his usual partner in crime, little sister Putty, but he quickly learns that he does not have what it takes to root out the beetle-vines. Dejected at failing yet again, Edward is pondering his future when he spots a thief rappelling down the wall of Lady Harleston’s enormous townhouse. Little does he know, this chance encounter is about to send him on an adventure even more perilous than the last. Not only has the notorious Dr. Blood returned, but Rothan Gal is missing, and there appears to be a traitor among the Sullivans. As in the first installment, there is plenty of action; readers will encounter saber-toothed spiders and shark kites, as well as sea serpents, mechanical scorpions, and the dreaded Apprentice. Somewhat lacking the levity of the first book (which was often provided by the shenanigans of Freddie, who does not appear this time around), the second installment will have readers questioning the ideas of power and might. VERDICT This fast-paced sequel exploring deep topics of power, corruption, family, and identity will find a broad audience.–Stacy Dillon, LREI, New York

Vaught, Susan. Super Max and the Mystery of Thornwood’s Revenge. 352p. S. & S./Paula Wiseman Bks. Aug. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481486835.

Gr 5-8 –Max loves superheroes, electronics, and drag racing in her wheelchair. When slanderous messages about her grandfather are posted on a Facebook page, Max investigates. She also find herself deep in the history of Thornwood’s Revenge, a legend in her hometown of Blue Creek, TN. The old Thornwood Manor is supposedly haunted by owner Hargrove Thornwood. As the online messages become more threatening, it seems as if there could be a connection to Thornwood and his fabled revenge on the town. The mystery is well paced with a good balance of action and character development. Though the genre of middle grade mysteries is crowded, this stands out for its authentic and empowering depiction of a young wheelchair user. Vaught captures the voice of someone who has spent a good deal of time in a wheelchair and gets the details right. Max is relatable and likeable, and the combination of a spooky old house and a modern cyber mystery will keep readers turning the pages. VERDICT An excellent addition to middle grade shelves, with a differently-abled main character that readers will root for.–Patrick Tierney, Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School, Providence

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

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