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Middle Grade Xpress Reviews | July 2016

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1607-Xpress-MiddleGrade-CVsCain, Cate. The Moon Child. 432p. (Jade Boy: Bk. 2). ebook available. Bonnier Zaffre. May 2016. pap. $11.99. ISBN 9781783700585.

Gr 4-7 –This historical fantasy, full of dark magic, is the sequel to the British import The Jade Boy, featuring a trio of young teens who battle evil sorcerers using their wits and newfound magical abilities. The story picks up soon after the events in the previous volume. Enough backstory is provided that readers new to the series won’t be too confused. In Jade Boy, Jem, 13; apprentice shape-shifter Ann; Egyptian-born mind-reader Tolly; and Cleo, Tolly’s pet monkey, defeated evil sorcerer Count Cazalon in St. Paul’s catacombs during the 1666 Great Fire of London. Now it’s 1667, and their Twelfth Night celebration is interrupted by a misshapen creature trailing a knotted tail accompanied by dancers wearing stag masks. The creatures surround Ann and magically spirit her away. As Jem and Tolly set out to rescue her, the dead count’s staff warns them to “beware the shadow man who walks between worlds.” Their search leads them to stow away aboard a strange ship that sails on a witch wind bound for the new colonies. The ship’s owner is a one-eyed Frenchwoman with a clawed foot. She’s only one of many evil creatures and strange illusions they encounter during their eventful journey. One of the secondary characters, Mingan, seems to be Native American, though the author does not specify a tribe or region. Elements of Native American mythology, including aspects of witiko tales, are used, though specific tribes or stories are not identified in text or back matter. VERDICT Purchase where there are fans of the first installment.–Sharon Rawlins, New Jersey State Library, Trenton

Dando-Collins, Stephen. Caesar the War Dog: Operation Black Shark. 288p. (Caesar the War Dog: Bk. 5). Random. May 2016. pap. $11.99. ISBN 9780857988638.

Gr 4-6 –Sgt. Ben Fulton has taken his son, daughter, and mother on a Caribbean cruise. He is on leave because of an injury and hopes the rest and relaxation will bring him back up to speed. The first days of the cruise are filled with fun and sightseeing. The cruise takes a turn for the worst when the ship is hijacked. Ben may have been looking for rest, but he is now prepared to do everything he can to end this situation peacefully. Fortunately, help is coming his way, including Ben’s best “teammate,” the explosive-detection dog, Caesar. Despite the exciting premise, this novel drags from start to finish. The story is filled with military acronyms and terms that slow the pacing considerably. An appended list of definitions provides some help. The characters are unappealing, and Caesar makes rare appearances in the story. Adult characters propel the action and leave a hole in the story line for a child protagonist to emerge and capture the interest of the intended audience. Additionally, this Australian import uses words such as fossicked that may be unfamiliar to some U.S. readers. VERDICT Skip this book for Cynthia Kadohata’s Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam or Kate Klimo’s Stubby.–Sarah Wethern, Douglas County Library, Alexandria, MN

Downey, Jen Swann. Sword in the Stacks. 400p. (The Ninja Librarians: Bk. 2). Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. Jun. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781402287732.

Gr 4-6 –After being temporarily barred from Petrarch’s Library, Dorrie and her brother Marcus are thrilled to resume their training as apprentice lybrarians. As excited as they are to rejoin their friends, and to help writers under threat throughout the ages, danger is waiting. The evil Foundation threatens to reverse the Library’s successful missions, putting countless lives, and history, in jeopardy. A multitude of places, historical figures, and surprises are woven seamlessly, so that each part comes together in a satisfying, action-filled conclusion. Dorrie trusts her instincts and intellect, which get her into and out of trouble and make her a character worth rooting for. The incorporation of historical information feels organic to the narrative, so readers will absorb facts without being pulled out of the story. The dialogue, especially Marcus’s, is snappy, and the plot moves without pause, making this a fun, charming read. VERDICT Put this in the hands of adventure lovers who like a little substance with their time travel and swordplay.–Marian McLeod, Convent of the Sacred Heart, Greenwich, CT

Moss, Marissa. Mira’s Diary: California Dreaming. 190p. Creston. Apr. 2016. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9781939547224.

Gr 4-7 –After adventures in Rome, Paris, and London, Mira, her father, and brother are finally back home in San Francisco. The family thinks that Mira’s mother is somewhere back in time in San Francisco, attempting the forbidden—changing the past. Mira is desperate to stop her mother from interfering. She and her brother are sure that whatever happens, they’ll be able to handle it without their mother’s meddling. While looking for her, Mira meets Samuel Clemens and takes a job helping him report on plays. She learns about what it was like to be an immigrant in America in the late 19th and early 20th century and about censorship in America. The protagonist is shocked to discover the true identity of the watcher and of the mysterious boy whom she’s met in every time period throughout the previous novels. Fast-paced and full of details, the wrap-up of this series gives answers to all of the questions posed in earlier books. VERDICT A satisfying conclusion. Recommended to fans of the series and Moss’s other works.–Terry Ann Lawler, Burton Barr Library, Phoenix

redstarReeve, Philip. Railhead. 352p. ebook available. glossary. Capstone/Switch. Apr. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781630790486.

Gr 5-8 –In this vividly realized interstellar adventure, Reeve grabs hold of readers’ imaginations early on and takes them on an exciting ride through time and space. The novel is set in a dystopian future in which the far reaches of the solar system have been mined and terraformed; artificial intelligence and vast connected internets called dataseas control most movement, research, and exploration; and power lies in the hands of a few corporate families. The main mode of transportation is a series of sentient trains capable of traveling thousands of light-years in a matter of seconds. Zen Starling is a human boy who is forced by dire circumstances into a life of pilfering bits and scraps from markets along the train lines in order to help support his mentally unstable mother and sister. A self-professed railhead, Zen often blasts through the K-gates to far distant stations to elude authorities and irate merchants. When he is approached by a mysterious man, known only as Raven, and asked to steal a small item from a train in exchange for a promise to help his family, he readily agrees and inadvertently sets a power struggle and possible coup into motion. His partner and best ally throughout the adventure is Nova, who is an android with human features and feelings. With adept and thoughtful hands, Reeve constructs a big, sprawling, and thrilling universe (a handy glossary is included to sort out all of the intricate networks and relationships), and one in which the trains run on time. VERDICT Sci-fi fans will delight in this lightning-paced and satisfying read.–Luann Toth, School Library Journal

Riordan, Rick. The Hidden Oracle. 384p. (Trials of Apollo: Bk. 1). ebook available. Disney-Hyperion. May 2016. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781484732748.

Gr 5 Up –Riordan’s many fans will be thrilled with this return to the world of Percy Jackson and friends. Apollo has had his godly powers taken away by Zeus as a punishment for events in the previous series. Not only is Apollo now human but he’s also a 16-year-old boy with acne and flab. The first-person narration is full of comments about the indignity of his new appearance and limited abilities, which adds to the humor of his often dark adventures. The story opens as Apollo falls to Earth and lands in a dumpster where he is attacked by a pair of street toughs. He’s rescued by Meg McCaffrey, a new demigod who claims Apollo’s service in his quest to redeem himself. Apollo and Meg recruit Percy Jackson to help them travel to Camp Half-Blood, where Apollo hopes to find help, but when they reach the camp, they learn about new threats against all the demigods. The protagonist discovers that he must restore prophecy by finding the hidden Grove of Dodona, which is the first step in defeating the newly revealed evil masterminds who are trying to destroy him. Riordan’s characters continue to be an impressively diverse group, and he includes same-sex relationships between characters and has Apollo frankly discuss his bisexuality, which will be welcomed in libraries looking for books with positive portrayals of nonheteronormative relationships and families. VERDICT This latest has Riordan’s signature wry narration, nonstop action, and mythology brought to life. A must-buy for libraries serving tweens and teens.–Beth L. Meister, Milwaukee Jewish Day School, WI

Russell, Rachel Renée. The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Locker Hero. illus. by Rachel Renée Russell. 320p. S. & S./Aladdin. Jun. 2016. Tr $13.99. ISBN 9781481460019.

Gr 4-6 –From the creator of the “Dork Diaries” comes a new series starring a lovable new hero. Max’s transition from homeschooling to public school is rocky, especially since he has asthma and an irritable bladder triggered by social anxiety. His plight deepens when a stereotypical bully, Thug, harasses Max and locks him in his locker—twice. The first time, Max is freed by his crush, Erin, and the two forge a connection. The second time, Max is stuck after school for hours. When he finally manages to escape, he discovers hidden sections of the ill-maintained school building. He also finds inept criminals stealing the school computers. With Erin’s help, he manages to save the day. The character development is light, and the style is conversational. Fans of Janet Tashjian’s My Life as a Book will be drawn to the journal-style format and crisp, manga-inspired line drawings. Those who enjoyed the melodramatic middle school mayhem in Chris Rylander’s The Fourth Stall or Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist will appreciate Max’s chuckle-worthy adventures. VERDICT A solid purchase for middle school libraries where “The Dork Diaries” series is popular. Max’s goofy, embarrassing exploits will make this a popular and high-circulating item in most collections.–Karen Yingling, Blendon Middle School, Westerville, OH

Souder, Taryn. How To (Almost) Ruin Your Summer. 240p. Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. Jun. 2016. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781492637745.

Gr 4-6 –Souder’s third book brings fun and laughter to middle grade readers. In this adventure, Chloe is sent away to sleepover camp for two weeks while her parents are on a cruise. She dreads the idea of going to camp. Once there, Chloe gets into all kinds of high jinks. For example, on arrival, she is attacked by a goat named King Arthur, has a food fight with her arch nemesis Victoria, and attempts to put Director Mudwimple’s underwear up the flagpole. Each time Chloe is caught doing something mischievous, she gets a demerit. Worst of all, her school crush is at camp and she keeps embarrassing herself in front of him. Tweens will relate to Chloe’s angsty journal entries and her friendship with Pogo, and laugh at all the silly situations she finds herself in. A quick and easy summer read with likable characters. VERDICT An entertaining and lighthearted choice perfect for summer readers looking for breezy titles to take to the beach (or summer camp).–Megan McGinnis, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY

Stevens, Robin. Poison Is Not Polite. 336p. (A Wells & Wong Mystery: Bk. 2). S. & S. Apr. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481422154.

Gr 4-8 –Detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are back to solve another mystery, but this one hits a little closer to home for Daisy. While on school break, bossy Daisy and levelheaded Hazel are staying at Daisy’s family home, where her mother is throwing Daisy a children’s birthday tea party. Fourteen-year-old Daisy is appalled that she is having such a childish fete, especially since her mother has invited family, school friends, and her “gentleman friend” Mr. Curtis. The house is full of suspects when, during the party, Mr. Curtis is poisoned and later dies. Mr. Curtis is truly an unlikable individual, so the list of suspects is large, and most are people Daisy has known her whole life. Daisy and Hazel’s skills are tested as they narrow down the list of possible murderers. The countryside has flooded, and the arrival of the police is delayed by days. Daisy and Hazel’s unlikely friendship balances out the strengths and weaknesses of their personalities; Daisy is pushy and clever, while Hazel is cautious and practical. VERDICT An English import with a good mystery that will keep readers’ attention, this second volume of the trilogy is strong enough to be a standalone title.–Lisa Nabel, formerly at Dayton Metro Library, OH

Treacy, Ann. The Search for the Homestead. 176p. Univ. of Minnesota. May 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9780816699568.

Gr 5-8 –In 1903, 14-year-old Martin Gunnarsson and his family relocate to Goodhue County, MN, where Martin’s father plans to reestablish a farm from the family’s past. Martin’s unhappy about the move, but when his father is injured in a logging accident, Martin’s attitude changes and he strives to turn the farm into a success. He takes on the responsibilities of preparing the land, planting seeds, and tending crops. Martin also discovers his deceased aunt’s diary, which suggests that a fortune in the form of his grandmother’s dowry might be hidden somewhere on the farm. If Martin can find the hidden fortune, it could save the family from defaulting on the mortgage and stop Mr. Meehan’s aggressive attempts to buy the property. Written in short chapters, the steady plot moves along with suspenseful episodes and events appropriate to the time period. Treacy offers readers a realistic look at the period’s farm, school, and family life. The text includes entries from 13-year-old Aunt Cora’s diary, which nicely link the family’s current situation with the past. Martin is the most well-developed character. He learns about differences in cultures and the meaning of friendship when he befriends Samson, a boy who helps with the farm chores. Martin’s Swedish family and Samson’s “Gypsy” family are cautious of interacting with each other until the Gunnarsson farm burns and Samson’s family comes to assist Martin’s family. VERDICT Small font size may unfortunately put off some readers, but librarians needing additional historical fiction should consider this believable novel as a worthy additional purchase.–Lynn Vanca, Freelance Librarian, Akron, OH

Van Steenwyk, Mark. A Wolf at the Gate. illus. by Joel Hedstrom. 80p. PM Pr. Jul. 2016. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781629631455.

Gr 5-8 –A reimagining of the Saint Francis tale. With short chapters and a large typeface, this title has the appearance of a chapter book, though the themes and vocabulary are more advanced. A red wolf is born. As she grows, the wolf learns to share and not be greedy, to take only what is needed, and to understand that selfishness brings consequences. After becoming an adult and suffering the loss of her parents, the red wolf leads her pack wisely until humans begin to hunt and food becomes scarce. After hunger and loneliness drive her to steal from the humans in the village, a caring man referred to as the Beggar King (Saint Francis) teaches the red wolf to cooperate with the villagers. After some time, the wolf also helps a group of outlaws (who are really homeless people in need of food) and, with the help of the forest animals, teaches the outlaws to be self-sufficient and caring. Illustrations are realistic in a primitive style of mostly brown and red. There are several morals highlighted in this story: sharing, helping others to become independent, and not hurting others—all aspects of the parables of Saint Francis. A short afterword from the author indicates his inspiration and explains his idea to tell the story from the wolf’s point of view. The author also shares facts about Saint Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. This parable sheds a light on Saint Francis and does so without being heavy-handed. VERDICT This will be most useful in religious studies curricula.–Susan Lissim, Dwight School, New York City

Vrabel, Beth. Camp Dork. 240p. (Pack of Dorks: Bk. 2). Skyhorse. May 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781634501811; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781510701793.

Gr 3-7 –Lucy and her pack of friends are back. It’s the summer after fourth grade, and Sheldon convinces the whole group to attend two-week Camp Paleo, where they can dig fossils and live like cavemen. At the last minute, Lucy’s not-a-boyfriend Sam backs out for another opportunity, but Lucy, April, Amanda, and Sheldon still go. Lucy’s grandma also comes along as a cook for a neighboring camp. Camp Paleo is full of classic summer camp experiences: mosquito bites, snoring bunkmates, soggy mountain pies, and the opportunity for young people to experiment with who they are outside of the expectations of everyday friends and family. Lucy is uncomfortable seeing her reliable friends in a new way. This mounting awkwardness adds to her discomfort at the camp. A spark between the grouchy camp director and Lucy’s grandma gives Lucy the idea that she needs to pair everyone off to make them happy. Of course, none of her plans pan out and her meddling results in her becoming further alienated. To put everyone further on edge, a thief is stealing valuables from the campers and a secret blogger is posting an advice column and gossip about camp goings-on. This book wanders a bit more than its predecessor but shares its strengths. Vrabel has a rare talent for expressing the tenderness, frustration, awkwardness, confusion, and fun of growing up. VERDICT In Vrabel’s capable hands, the ups and downs of adolescence shine through with authenticity and humor.–Amelia Jenkins, Juneau Public Library, AK

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

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