April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Middle Grade Xpress Reviews | August 2016

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Block, F.L. My Miserable Life. illus. by Edward Hemingway. 192p. Holt. Jun. 2016. Tr $13.99. ISBN 9780805096286.

Gr 3-5 –Ben Hunter, a fifth grader, is convinced that he is having a miserable life. His sister hates him, his mother won’t let him eat sugar, his dog acts like it’s possessed by a demon, and his best friend is taken by his worst enemy. As the story unfolds, readers see Ben overcome his various obstacles with the help of a caring teacher. The novel is told through Ben’s voice, along with journal entries and his teacher’s responses. Block allows readers to peer deep inside Ben’s head, enabling them to truly understand and feel what he is going through. While very humorous, the narrative also touches on some tougher, more realistic issues that children face every day at school and at home. The language is straightforward and accessible. VERDICT A solid additional purchase for larger middle grade collections, especially where readers are looking for a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” read-alike with a bit more substance.–Danielle Fabrizio, Swanton Public Library, VT

Buckley, Andrew. Hair in All the Wrong Places. 237p. ebook available. Month9Books. Jun. 2016. pap. $15. ISBN 9781942664987.

Gr 5-8 –Like most 13-year-olds going through puberty, Colin Strauss has to deal with extra hair, body odor, and growth spurts, but turning into a fledgling werewolf makes things a lot more complicated. Forced to live with his bitter grandmother because his high-powered lawyer parents couldn’t be bothered with him, Colin slumps through eighth grade, constantly bullied, harassed by figures of authority, and convinced that he is a total loser. A turbulent and hazy night changes all of this when he gets bitten by a werewolf. Fellow middle schoolers will commiserate with Colin’s life challenges. Secondary characters are well-developed, as are the supernatural elements of the story. However, the pace of the first half of the novel often makes it difficult to understand what is happening, requiring frequent rereads. Once the plot is established, though, it is a real page-turner right up until the satisfying end. Several unrealistic characters border on hyperbolic, such as a hired principal who has “absolutely no qualifications,” a teacher who has “a particular hatred for students and other teachers,” and the only doctor in town, “a notorious drunk who [is] just as likely to fall asleep during an appointment, as he [is] to diagnose the common cold as Ebola.” There are explanations for some of this behavior revealed later on, but most of the adults encountered in this work are cruel and incompetent. VERDICT Hand this one to students interested in supernatural creatures of all kinds, light romance, humor, and action.–Carina Gonzalez, Lawrence High School, NJ

Ende, Michael. Momo. tr. from German by Lucas Zwirner. illus. by Marcel Dzama. 316p. McSweeney’s. Aug. 2013. Tr $22. ISBN 9781938073144.

Gr 5-7 –A reissued classic celebrating its 40th anniversary from the author of The Neverending Story. This is a classic fantasy novel whose title character is a young girl of mysterious origin, a most loved orphan living in present-day anywhere (but probably a small village in Italy). Momo doesn’t know how old she is but says, “As far as I remember, I’ve always been around,” and she has built strong friendships with her fellow villagers based on her extraordinary listening ability. Around the time the mysterious men in gray start appearing, Momo’s friends start to have less time to spend enjoying life or hanging out with her. Momo sets out to get her friends and their time back. The tale of Momo is driven by its plot and moves at a comfortable pace, engaging readers as if they are villagers in the story. Ende is a captivating storyteller, and this edition of the book includes occasional illustrations, adding a bit of shaping and mood to the descriptions. Some mild profanity may make this selection unsuitable for more sensitive readers. VERDICT Sure to delight readers of classic fantasy.–Sara Jurek, Children’s English Library, Stuttgart, Germany

Fayers, Claire. The Voyage to Magical North. 320p. Holt. Jul. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781627794206.

Gr 3-7 –Brine has no recollection of her family or of why she was abandoned on a rowboat three years earlier, and at 12, she is unhappily cleaning house for the magician Magus. She and magic don’t get along, however—she’s allergic to it. She might as well be allergic to Magus’s annoying apprentice, Peter, too. All that interests her are the books in her mentor’s library. When Magus plans to give both children away to the richest man on the island, the kids take a boat and escape, only to end up in the path of notorious pirates who are not quite as terrible as legend tells. Brine and Peter quickly learn that it takes hard work to keep a ship afloat as well as the ins and outs of becoming (and staying) friends. The beautiful cover design reflects the charming adventure within; this multilayered fantasy handles a variety of themes, including the meaning of family, the ability of power to corrupt, and the importance of stories. VERDICT Upper elementary and younger middle grade fans of Lynne Jonell’s The Sign of the Cat will be enchanted by Brine’s high seas adventure.–Kerry Sutherland, Akron-Summit County Public Library, OH

McNiff, Dawn. Worry Magic. 256p. Bonnier Zaffre. Jun. 2016. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781471403712.

Gr 4-6 –Courtney worries. She worries that her mum can’t get a job and keeps bringing home animals from the shelter they can’t afford. She worries that her dad is always angry. She worries that her best friend Lois doesn’t like her anymore and wants to be friends with horrible Bex. She worries that her loving, caring grandmother, who lives next door, won’t come back from the hospital. She worries that her dad has a girlfriend. She worries so much, she finds a way to use magic to change the bad situations for good. When Mum and Dad yell about a pig in the house, Courtney dreams about Mum bringing the pig back to the shelter and getting pizza. When she awakens, she discovers that’s exactly what happened! Courtney believes so strongly in her “worry magic,” she thinks she can make Gran well again. Not everything is resolved neatly in the end, but readers will know that Courtney and her family will be okay with a little work. Briticisms might be confusing for some readers, but they lend an authentic feel to the story, which is set in an English town. VERDICT A relatable novel for tween readers, with the right amount of drama and British flavor.–Clare A. Dombrowski, Amesbury Public Library, MA

PAULS , Chris & Matt Solomon. The Giant Smugglers. 288p. Feiwel & Friends. May 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781250066527.

Gr 4-8 –Charlie Lawson befriends a giant and names him Bruce. The local bully, whose dad works for Accelerton and is looking for the giant so that he can develop a formula to enhance growth in humans, has it out for the pair. Then there is Hank, who is trying to move the giant to a safe haven. Finally, there is Charlie’s brother, Tim, who works for a traveling carnival and happens to be a giant-smuggler. Charlie is intent on saving Bruce and keeping him safe. The story moves at a quick pace as Charlie is involved in several dangerous altercations and high-speed chases. Though some of the bad guys may be stereotypical, the authors do not talk down to their readers as they paint a vivid picture of Charlie’s trials and triumphs. VERDICT Middle schoolers with a need for action and adventure will scoop up this title.–Elizabeth Kahn, Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy, Avondale, LA

Yelchin, Eugene. The Haunting of Falcon House. illus. by Eugene Yelchin. 320p. Holt. Jun. 2016. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9780805098457.

Gr 5-8 –When called to live in his family’s ancestral home in St. Petersburg, Russia, 12-year-old Prince Lev is apprehensive. Becoming heir to a foreboding estate that he’s never seen is daunting enough, and it is his first time leaving his mother. Add an aunt who can be harsh to say the least, the misrepresented memories of his glorified grandfather, and a night in a haunted study, and it’s no surprise that Prince Lev is slightly anxious. But he soon develops a friendship with a mysterious boy who is hardly what he seems. Through a cast of thoroughly quirky characters (with often conflicting accounts), Lev learns the truth about his not-so-honorable grandfather, uncovering some unsettling family secrets and freeing the household from possession along the way. Yelchin introduces czarist Russia to young readers through the use of endnotes and footnotes, a novel albeit uncommon method for this readership. While enlightening, much of the historical content will be missed by children unfamiliar with this technique. Readers will enjoy the budding friendship, and the ghost story/mystery is compelling. Absolutely nothing is overlooked—from plot similarities in the author’s introduction to the haunting illustrations, which appear to be drawn by the protagonist. Certainly a different sort of book, this is one that takes time to digest and fully appreciate. VERDICT A unique historical mystery from a celebrated children’s writer and illustrator; a great option for classroom discussion and a jumping-off point for further exploration of Russian history.–Rebecca Gueorguiev, New York Public Library

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