February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Middle Grade Xpress Reviews | September 2016

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For more of this month’s
Xpress Reviews:
 redstarAnderson, John David. Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. 320p. ebook available. HarperCollins/Walden Pond. Jun. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062338174.

Gr 4-6 –In a school filled with instructors who are either Zombies (old and boring), Caff-Adds (jittery), Dungeon Masters (cruel), or Noobs (overachievers), Ms. Bixby stands out as one of the Good Ones. Topher, Steve, and Brand all have their reasons to treasure their sixth grade teacher. Readers find out early on that their beloved Ms. B. has cancer and has to leave school immediately. The boys come up with an elaborate plan to honor her. In a pilgrimage as involved as Dorothy going to see the Wizard of Oz, the “Nerd Patrol” ditch school and travel to Ms. B.’s hospital in hopes of throwing her the farewell party of her dreams complete with cheesecake, wine, and Beethoven. In alternating chapters, we learn just why it is so necessary for each boy to partake in this adventure. Topher, the artistic one, hasn’t been valued much by his distracted family. His self-worth is bolstered when he realizes Ms. B. has lovingly kept a file of all of his drawings. Brand’s dad, who is disabled, is dependent on his son. When Ms. B. notices the stress Brand is under, she takes him on weekly shopping dates, providing nurturing time while they get groceries. Ms. B. defends brainy Steve when his overly strict dad complains about his grades and unfairly compares him to his perfect sister. During the immensely humorous and touching journey, the boys discover their own bravery and the strength gained through true friendship. VERDICT This story provides a full-spectrum, emotionally satisfying experience that will have readers laughing, crying, and everything in between. As Topher would say, this is one frawesome (freaking awesome) book.–Diane McCabe, John Muir Elementary, Santa Monica, CA

Cassidy, Sara. A Boy Named Queen. 80p. Groundwood. Aug. 2016. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781554989058; ebk. $12.95. ISBN 9781554989065.

Gr 3-6 –A creative new kid comes to town and opens the protagonist’s eyes to new possibilities: in a twist on usual trope, however, this book features a manic pixie dream boy instead of a girl. Evelyn’s rigidly ordered, conventional existence changes for the better when Queen joins her fifth grade classroom. While Queen’s name and occasional flouting of gender conventions make him a target for the class bullies, the two quickly bond over basketball and their strong imaginations. The plot contains little drama, instead focusing on Evelyn’s feelings of awe and empowerment as she gets to know Queen and his bohemian family. Even Evelyn’s biggest act of rebellion is quite tame: she brings a family heirloom cream jug for show-and-tell and tints the cream purple with food coloring. Her newfound confidence allows her not to care that some classmates find this weird. The ending is a bit abrupt and anticlimactic. VERDICT This brief and extremely low-key story may foster discussion about gender norms and other suffocating conventions, but it lacks the emotional punch of other titles about children who stand out, such as Alex Gino’s George or R.J. Palacio’s Wonder.–Sarah Stone, San Francisco Public Library

Citra, Becky. The Griffin of Darkwood. 128p. ebook available. Coteau. Aug. 2016. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781550506914.

Gr 4-6 –Twelve-year-old Will Poppy loses the ability to write stories after his mom dies. His writing muses follow him, though, right to Sparrowhawk Hall, where he is forced to live with a cruel relative and servants who want to kill him. When he discovers a piece of tapestry his late grandfather owned is magical, he is able to reverse an ancient curse by writing the ending to a story that had begun hundreds of years ago. Words are magic in Citra’s latest for middle graders. Will sees magic inside the Ex Libris bookstore and experiences it in the secret passage that leads to a griffin. Curses are real and can destroy lives, but they can be broken with acts of bravery. Families and friends connect through stories, even when they are no longer able to be together. Citra gives the characters passions (palindromes, French cooking, circuses) and quirks (eyes that change color, the ability to take on the feelings of animals) that make them memorable. VERDICT With its mix of mystery and fantasy, this story will appeal to a wide range of tastes.–Tanya Boudreau, Cold Lake Public Library, AB, Canada

Lyga, Barry. The Secret Sea. 448p. ebook available. Feiwel & Friends. Aug. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781250072832.

Gr 4-8 –Terrifying visions of subway stations flooded by ocean water. A somnambulistic journey to the World Trade Center. Things are definitely getting weirder by the day for Zak Killian, and that’s before he uncovers the secret of his twin brother, Tommy, who passed away when they were two. That reveal leads Zak and his best friends Khalid and Moira into an alternate universe where Zak can bring Tommy back to life. Lyga creates a compelling and impressively fleshed out alternate universe; sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian elements feature throughout, from mysterious wild magic to the glowing electroleum power source. A subplot involving the brutal repression of women by means of a legal system very similar to our own slavery adds depth to the comparison of the two worlds. Though upper–middle grade through young adult readers will appreciate these elements, the narrative’s success ultimately relies on its compelling adventures and character development. However, it is somewhat disappointing that readers have to wait roughly about 100 pages to cross into the alternate universe proper. VERDICT Though it might start a little slow some for some, this work ultimately delivers the sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian goods and will draw in middle schoolers with its impressive world-building. A strong choice for many young adult and upper–middle grade collections.–Ted McCoy, formerly at Springfield City Library, MA

MacDonald, George. The Golden Key. illus. by Ruth Sanderson. 136p. Eerdmans. Aug. 2016. Tr $16. ISBN 9780802854568; pap. $5.99. ISBN 9781482051759.

Gr 3-7 –This classic, enigmatic Victorian fairy tale of two children who find, lose, and then find each other again as they search for “the place from which the shadows fall” is given a new treatment by Sanderson. The artist has divided the work into nine short chapters and illustrated it with more than 45 bold black-and-white scratchboard pictures. Mossy discovers the key he has heard about in his great-aunt’s stories and is charged with locating the lock into which it fits; Tangle, a neglected orphan, follows a magical fish to a hidden cottage where a beautiful woman takes her in and lovingly cares for her. Here the two meet and venture on a quest, developing a deep friendship, then losing each other, until, with the help of special beings and magical creatures, they are reunited in a new life. Unlike Maurice Sendak’s soft, evocative illustrations in an older edition (Farrar, 1967), Sanderson’s is deeply textured and dramatic, enhancing the vivid imagery of the narrative with many full pages and spreads. An afterword by Jane Yolen provides a snapshot of MacDonald’s life and explores her experience of the story over time. An illustrator’s note describes how Sanderson came to reformat and pictorially interpret the mysterious tale. Young readers may be puzzled by the narrative but will likely enjoy the magic, intriguing characters, and richly detailed illustrations; older readers may recognize religious or metaphorical elements. VERDICT A lovely addition for fairy-tale collections.–Marie Orlando, formerly at Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY

Parvela, Timo. Bicycling to the Moon. illus. by Virpi Talvitie. tr. from Finnish by Ruth Urbom. 128p. Gecko. Jun. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781776570317.

Gr 3-6 –Barker is a thoughtful, practical, hard-working dog. Purdy is a temperamental, impractical, lazy cat. Incompatible? By no means. These two are best friends and share a little house on a hill by a lake. This charming episodic tale introduces these characters by the much-beloved Finnish children’s author Parvela, capably translated by Urbom. Barker enjoys doing the chores that come with each season and with owning a beloved home. Every now and then, however, he just has to be a dog. He will get the sudden urge to howl and howl, or bury something, or chew on one of his gardening gloves. Purdy’s whims are far more fanciful; he tries to ride a bicycle up a moonbeam. He believes he is a beautiful singer and plans to enter a singing contest even though his caterwauling drives poor Barker mad. Although they sometimes fight, these two friends always make up. They understand each other and value each other’s differences. Talvitie’s amusing illustrations add immeasurably to the text. VERDICT Readers with fond memories of Frog and Toad and those who love Winnie-the-Pooh will adore meeting this new pair of friends.–B. Allison Gray, Goleta Public Library, CA

redstarReynolds, Jason. Ghost. 192p. (Track: Bk. 1). S. & S./Atheneum. Aug. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481450157.

Gr 5-9 –Castle “Ghost” Crenshaw lives with his single mother; his father is serving time in prison after firing a gun at Ghost and his mom three years ago—and Ghost has been running ever since. While running one day, he stops to watch a track practice and decides to crash the race. Impressed, the coach offers him a position on the team. His mom reluctantly agrees to let him join as long as he can behave himself and stay out of trouble in school. This is a struggle for the impulsive Ghost, but with Coach’s help, he learns the advantages of diligent practice and teamwork. Reynolds paints a realistic picture of a boy who needs the support of his community to channel his talent and energy. Supporting adult characters, like shop owner Mr. Charles and Coach, are positive, nuanced, and well-developed. The diverse team members are dealing with their own struggles, which will be explored in three future installments. The consequences for Ghost’s misbehavior are somewhat inconsistent, but the detailed and informative descriptions of running and training with an elite track team more than make up for this. VERDICT The focus on track athletics—a subject sorely lacking in the middle grade space—combined with the quality of Reynolds’s characters and prose, makes this an essential purchase.–Karen Yingling, Blendon Middle School, Westerville, OH

Wilkinson, Sheena. Name upon Name. 136p. Little Island. Jun. 2016. pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781910411360.

Gr 5-7 –During World War I, as the world was fighting the Germans, some of the Irish were seeking independence from England, while others were fierce loyalists. In 1916, 14-year-old Helen is living in Belfast and her family is immersed in both sides of the conflict. She has a cousin from each side in the British Royal Army. On Easter Sunday, during what is referred to as the Easter Rising, the Irish rebels stage a bloody rebellion against the British in Belfast. Helen’s cousin is called upon by the British Army to quash the rebellion, causing him to decide whether he will shoot at his own people or desert. Helen’s story is set far away from the conflict and is an internal struggle about right and wrong, family and country, and family honor. Helen hears about both the Great War and the Rising through the adults around her and letters from her cousins. This is a slow story, but Wilkinson explains the conflicts and provides enough context for readers unfamiliar with the history. Helen learns that even if she can’t decide which side of the war she should be on, she can do the right thing and can still be loyal to her family. VERDICT Recommended to fans of Scott O’Dell’s Sarah Bishop. A solid addition to middle grade collections in need of historical fiction.–Terry Ann Lawler, Burton Barr Library, Phoenix


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

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