April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Middle Grade Xpress Reviews | June 2016

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Akers, William M. Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way. 222p. Regan Arts. Mar. 2016. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781941393581; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781941393925.

Gr 5 Up –This first in a planned series introduces Toby Wilcox as he starts fourth grade at the McKegway School for Clever & Gifted Children and immediately clashes with Mrs. Ravenbach, a teacher in the vein of Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull. Mrs. Ravenbach, a self-described “wonderfully German woman,” values “order and discipline” above all else. Now striving for her fifth Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, she isn’t about to let Toby, a “sweaty tub of sass,” get in her way. Of course her plot to get him expelled backfires, and Toby’s own clever plan exposes her in front of the whole school. The story is told mostly from Mrs. Ravenbach’s point of view, with Toby’s journal entries interspersed. A decidedly mean-spirited tale (Mrs. Ravenbach gleefully frightens Toby into wetting himself in front of the class; Toby’s journal entries detail all the violent ways he would like to get revenge). VERDICT This may be more appealing to adults who still have revenge fantasies about their childhood teachers.–Laurie Slagenwhite Walters, Brighton District Library, Brighton, MI

Cole, Henry. The Somewhat True Adventures of Sammy Shine. illus. by Henry Cole. 272p. Peachtree. Apr. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781561458660.

Gr 3-5 –In this spare middle grade novel, an unassuming mouse named Sammy gets the ride of a lifetime when he’s stolen from his human owner and used as the test pilot for a remote-controlled plane. Disbelief is suspended as readers travel with Sammy over the treetops, ultimately crash landing into the Great Woods some distance away from home. After climbing out of the wreckage, the rodent encounters a kingdom of mice who initially revere Sammy’s powerful aviation skills. Sammy also learns about the mice’s mortal enemy, a power-hungry weasel named Mustela. When his downed plane “mysteriously” disappears, it’s up to Sammy and his motley crew of forest critters—Blackie, a crippled crow; Grace, a snarky newt; and Peewee, a perpetually hungry shrew—to locate and repair the Spirit of Sammy before it falls into nefarious claws. There is some mild suspense when Sammy and his crew’s quest is endangered by Mustela and his gang of vermin. Stunning pencil illustrations complemented by gorgeously detailed passages about the natural surroundings are particularly standout elements. Unfortunately, these are undermined by a clichéd plot and weakly imagined characters. While this novel seems to be aimed at younger readers, odd moments such as Mustela’s creepy advances toward the mouse princess, Phoebe (“He strolled over to Phoebe and brushed her face, stroking her whiskers. She slapped his paw away, furious”) seem too mature for the target audience. VERDICT Beautiful illustrations and sometimes stellar prose still don’t get this illustrated novel off the ground.–Lalitha Nataraj, Escondido Public Library, CA

Fulton, John K. The Wreck of the Argyll. 160p. Cargo. May 2016. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781908885517.

Gr 5-7 –Set in 1915 Scotland during World War I, this novel centers on 12-year-old Nancy Caird, a fiercely patriotic Dundee girl without a way to contribute to the war effort. Her 14-year-old sister Nelly has left school to work in a jute factory making ropes for army tents, her mom is a cleaner at the Royal Infirmary, and her dad spends his nights baking and days teaching military cooks. Her family rarely notices that Nancy exists. She soon discovers that one of her teachers, Mr. Simpson, makes a regular nightly trek to an abandoned building, and she’s convinced he’s a German spy. She’s soon joined by Jamie “Howff” Balfour. The only adult who seems to believe the kids is Nancy’s uncle Stuart. Alternating with Nancy’s story are chapters that feature midshipman Harry Melville of the HMS Argyll, a warship that was part of Great Britain’s defense against the Imperial German Navy. It’s Harry’s first assignment out of Dartmouth, the Naval College. The ship is supposed to go up the east coast but the North Sea is so full of Germans, they are forced to journey through the west coast of Scotland, which is described as a jagged mess. Harry is excited yet nervous about using his “book learning.” The fates of Harry and Nancy are ominously tied through a secret German plot. Suspense slowly builds as Nancy pursues her theory, and the pacing reaches a fever pitch as her suspicions become confirmed. This is an appealing read for perusers of historical fiction, especially fans of the “I Survived” titles by Lauren Tarshis. Readers will relate to Jamie’s impulsiveness, his earnest desire to set things right, and the pleasure he takes in his friendship with Nancy. Nancy’s guilt in making Jamie feel bad for his father’s abandonment and mother’s drug problem will also ring true. VERDICT A satisfying World War I mystery with age-appropriate themes that will resonate with young readers.–Julie Shatterly, W. A. Bess Elementary School, Gastonia, NC

Harding, David with Israel Folau. Standing Tall. 192p. (Izzy Folau: Bk. 4). Random. Apr. 2016. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780857986672.

Gr 3-5 –In this series installment, readers find Sione, Daniel, and the rest of their rugby team facing the biggest competition of their lives. The state championship game is close yet seems out of reach as the characters face challenges in the game and in the locker room. Heckling from an opposing team, the pressure of making it to the championship round, and the uncertainty of whether a team member’s family will show up to support him seem to be too much to handle for the Valley Junior Rugby players. With the help of their all-star coach, professional rugby player Israel (Izzy) Folau, the boys receive a much-needed boost and will find out if determination and hard work are truly all they need to lead them to victory. This fast-paced story invites readers to experience what athletes can encounter on and off the field, with realistic experiences and shifting moods. The alternating chapters share the perspectives of two main characters and are well connected and easy to follow, giving the narrative a consistent flow. The authors’ choice to go beyond the story itself and add player profiles, Folau’s career information, and professional training tips for rugby players is sure to attract readers who love the game or are just athletes at heart. VERDICT A solid addition, especially where realistic sports fiction—rugby in particular—is in demand.–Nikitia Wilson, Queens Library, NY

Hastings, Brian. Song of the Deep. 176p. Sterling. May 2016. Tr $12.95. ISBN 9781454920960.

Gr 4-6 –Twelve-year-old Merryn journeys to an underwater city of gold to rescue her father from the tentacles of a Rimorosa. While Fergus the pelican watches, she constructs a submarine made from bicycle parts and beach treasures. She’s resourceful and brave, just like her fisherman father and her mom, who died trying to save her long ago. There are fun moments in the story where Merryn befriends a fantastical sea creature. But Merryn faces many uncertainties exploring an abandoned merrow village that is being destroyed by underwater robots that shoot torpedoes. As she encounters sights she’s only heard about in stories told by her dad, she reminisces about her family and their possible connection to this watery world. Based on the video game of the same name, the story contains battles, evasions, friendships, and interesting spaces to explore like a lighthouse, a sea garden, and the Forbidden City. One or two full-page black-and-white illustrations appear in each of the 10 short chapters (they resemble the style of art in the video game), as do soothing lyrics. VERDICT For readers who appreciate stories about family and fantastical marine adventure.–Tanya Boudreau, Cold Lake Public Library, AB, Canada

Howland, Leila. The Brightest Stars of Summer. 368p. (Silver Sisters: Bk. 2). HarperCollins. May 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062318725.

Gr 4-6 –After her role in a movie is cut and she loses her best friend to a “cool” group, Marigold reassesses her life and decides to be “more ordinary,” like her sister Zinnie. When the girls are given the opportunity to spend more time at Aunt Sunny’s East Coast beach home helping her prepare for her wedding, Marigold sees it as an escape, and Zinnie as an opportunity to write more realistically and qualify for a school writing program. Marigold catches the attention of Max, a boy whom Zinnie likes, and Zinnie retaliates by reading Marigold’s diary. She then tries to get her sister to be more attracted to last year’s crush, Pete, while writing a story about a character much like her sister. Tensions increase when Zinnie again captures a local movie producer’s attention, and the resultant spat causes a small wedding catastrophe. Like Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks, this sequel to The Forget-Me-Not-Summer offers a view of a privileged summer of delicious freedom to roam, opportunity for the girls to pursue their passions, and soul-searching conducted under the watchful eyes of an understanding adult in an old-fashioned setting. VERDICT An idyllic romp filled with family, festivities, and forgiveness. Purchase where readers ate up the first book in the series or where titles like Lisa Greenwald’s Welcome to Dog Beach or Kate Hannigan’s The Cupcake Cousins are popular.–Karen Yingling, Blendon Middle School, Westerville, OH

Masessa, Ed. Wandmaker. 336p. ebook available. Scholastic. May 2016. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9780545861748.

Gr 4-7 –Henry Leach the eighth is a novice wandmaker with a special destiny. His parents have kept him in the dark about his powerful family ancestry—he’s the seventh son of a seventh son, which makes him an especially formidable wandbearer. His first attempt at spellcasting ends up transforming his sister Brianna into a blue porcupine. Henry and Brianna find help in the form of Coralis, the Grand Wand Master. Coralis discovers that an evil Wand Master is planning to destroy the world and believes Henry might be the key to stopping him. The trio travel cross-country to Arizona, where Henry meets some of his Navajo family and faces the evil forces threatening the world. This tale touches on the themes of identity and sibling relationships. The plot is full of action, and several lighthearted, humorous moments keep the pace moving quickly. Main characters Henry and Coralis may remind readers of another famous magical protégé and mentor duo; however, there are enough differences in the story to keep it from being repetitive. One problematic issue in the plot is the inclusion of Henry’s Navajo ancestors. An ancient warrior appears as Henry’s spiritual guide and ally in the climatic fight against the evil Wand Master. Unfortunately, this section of the story misrepresents Native American spirituality by associating it with magic and fantasy. VERDICT While Henry’s adventures may appeal to fantasy readers, this title cannot overcome the misstep of appropriating and misrepresenting Navajo spirituality.–Sophie Kenney, Glencoe Public Library, IL

redstarReynolds, Jason. As Brave as You. 410p. S. & S./Atheneum./ Caitlyn Dlouhy Bks. May 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481415903.

Gr 5-8 –Reynolds’s engaging middle grade debut stars 11-year-old African American Genie Harris, an inveterate worrywart who considers Google his best friend, and his older brother Ernie, who is well on his way to being a cool dude (sunglasses and all). The born and bred Brooklynites are to spend a month with their grandparents in rural Virginia while their parents take a long overdue vacation and work out their marital problems. It is only after the boys are left in their grandfather’s care that they realize that he is blind. They are also surprised to learn that they are expected to do chores and follow their grandmother’s strict rules—and that it is possible to exist (sort of) without the Internet. While Ernie crushes on the girl who lives at the base of the hill, Genie writes down his many burning questions so he doesn’t forget them and gets to know his proud and fiercely independent grandfather. Genie barrages Grandpop with questions about his past and present abilities and about the quirky aspects of the household, especially his “nunya bidness” room, his harmonica playing, and how Grandpop might not be able to see but still packs a pistol. As the languid days unfold, the boys learn about country life and the devastating loss of the elder Harrises’ son during Desert Storm and their estrangement from their living son, the boys’ father. Grandpop Harris is a complicated, irascible character, full of contradictions and vulnerabilities, the least of which is his lack of vision. Reynolds captures the bond that Grandpop and Genie form in a tender, believable, and entertaining way, delivered through smart and funny prose and sparkling dialogue. VERDICT A richly realized story about life and loss, courage and grace, and what it takes to be a man. Although a tad lengthy, it is easy reading and will be appreciated by a broad audience.–Luann Toth, School Library Journal

Spinale, Wendy. Everland. 320p. Scholastic. May 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545836944; ebk. $17.99. ISBN 9780545836951.

Gr 6 Up –The story of Peter Pan (Pete), Wendy (Gwen), and the Lost Boys is reimagined as a steampunk fantasy. Hook (aka Hanz Otto Oswald Kretschmer), the son of Katherina, the power-hungry “Bloodred Queen” of Germany, is captain of an army of Marauders. Equipped with eight-legged steam crawlers and zeppelins (including the Jolly Roger), they capture London (now called Everland) and reduce it to rubble. Hook’s Buckingham Palace headquarters is the only building left in reasonably good condition. Even worse, the German bombs have destroyed Europe’s largest biological weapons lab, releasing the deadly Horologia Virus, killing nearly everyone over the age of 18. Gwen and her two siblings, moving from one destroyed home to another in London’s outskirts, are discovered by Pete and Bella (a petite girl wearing mechanical wings) and taken to live underground among the Lost Boys. Chapters alternately narrated by Gwen and Hook describe the action from both sides. Hook hears that one of the girls is immune to the virus and makes a plan to capture her; Pete, Gwen, and the Lost Boys must save them. Intertwined with the plot is Hook’s desire to earn his evil mother’s love. The story becomes somewhat melodramatic as the ending looms. Peter, Gwen, and the Boys try to escape from the Marauders; there’s a bit of a love story as well. A girl named Lily, Smee (here called Smeeth), and crocodiles all make appearances. VERDICT Tweens and teens who delighted in the original Barrie or Disney versions when younger might find this more sophisticated, pseudohistorical twist an interesting read.–Susan Scheps, formerly at Shaker Public Library, OH

This article was published in School Library Journal's June 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.