February 20, 2018

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Middle Grade Xpress Reviews | October 2016

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For more of this month’s
Xpress Reviews:

Arato, Rona. Sammy and the Headless Horseman. 230p. Fitzhenry & Whiteside. Sept. 2016. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9781554552696.

Gr 4-6 –Sammy, a Polish immigrant to New York, is sent to stay with his aunt and awful cousin Joshua at a hotel in the Catskills, just after World War I. His newly remarried dad thinks he’s sending his son on vacation, but Aunt Pearl has other plans for the boy—she has signed him up to work at the hotel to earn his keep. This is fine with Sammy, as he soon befriends 15-year-old Adam, who also does odd jobs around the property. Adam tells Sammy about the Hermit, an escaped slave from Georgia who lives on the hill overlooking the hotel. During their first encounter with the Hermit, they learn that several instances of vandalism have occurred on his property and that he’s seen a black horse with a headless, cloaked rider during each event. The kids form their own sleuth squad and set out to find out who is really haunting their friend. As a mystery, this book lacks tension and is not that successful, but as a historical piece, it’s unique in its portrayal of a time period about which little middle grade fiction is written. It’s also an interesting look at the culture of Judaism and the practice of cooking and keeping kosher. The jacket art and text don’t accurately represent the story, so kids who pick it up hoping for the spooky tale the cover promises might be disappointed. VERDICT For larger collections looking to increase multicultural or historical fiction sections.–Mandy Laferriere, Fowler Middle School, Frisco, TX

Brallier, Max. The Last Kids on Earth and the Zombie Parade. illus. by Douglas Holgate. 304p. ebook available. Viking. Sept. 2016. Tr $13.99. ISBN 9780670016624.

Gr 3-6 –Readers met 13-year-old abandoned foster kid–turned–monster slayer Jack Sullivan and his adolescent makeshift army in The Last Kids on Earth. In this excellent sequel, the zombies are mysteriously disappearing. As the zombies walk in droves toward a shrieking sound, their brains are being sucked out of their skulls. While no fan of the undead, Jack and his squad set out to solve the mystery. New alliances are formed and trusts are broken, culminating in an all-out monster brawl to save their world. The continuation of this hybrid series capitalizes on gross-out fun. The realistic writing style keeps the narrative moving at a fast pace, while the frenzied pencil artwork supports its humorous tone. But what distinguishes this adventure is the character development. The members work through their fears of loss, abandonment, and loneliness to unite as a family. The language is sophisticated, geared toward readers who enjoy rousing adventures. The open-ended conclusion allows for the possibility of more exciting exploits. A gallery highlighting various nefarious creatures is an added treat. VERDICT For fans of the first book, this sequel does not disappoint. This series is a must-have for middle grade collections.–Sada Mozer, Los Angeles Public Library

Heede, Sylvia Vanden. What Dog Knows. tr. from Dutch by Bill Nagelkerke. illus. by Marije Tolman. 124p. Gecko. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781776570362.

Gr 3-6 –Dog and Wolf are cousins. Dog is smart, while Wolf is curious and loves talking in rhyme. This illustrated import from the Netherlands centers on their friendship, with a healthy dose of nonfiction information as the canines investigate high-interest topics such as robots, dinosaurs, mummies, skeletons, pirates, and more. Occasional hands-on projects are showcased for readers to make and create, while sporadic quizzes check comprehension of vocabulary. Some topics are dished up with a slice of dark humor, but the entire book exudes a quirky charm. Spot and full-page images add to the volume’s zany presentation and make it a great choice for reluctant readers. VERDICT This companion to Wolf and Dog is a beautifully illustrated and unusual book sure to tickle the funny bone of independent readers.–Helen Foster James, University of California at San Diego

Joseph, Lynn. Dancing in the Rain. 200p. Blue Moon. Sept. 2016. pap. $11.99. ISBN 9789769543690.

Gr 5-8 –Two families marked by the tragic events of 9/11 come together. Twelve-year-old Elizabeth lives in the Dominican Republic with her mother and aunt. Her father works in a restaurant at the top of the tallest tower in New York City and sends money home to his family. Eight-year-old Brandt lives in New York with his Dominican mother and older brother Jared. Brandt’s mother is a lawyer working at a firm in the World Trade Center. The plot unfolds in alternating chapters narrated by each child. Readers learn about imaginative Elizabeth and her love of her father, who is so far away yet seems closer than her no-nonsense mother. Meanwhile, Brandt’s home life is tense, and he must bridge the gap between his mother and brilliant but difficult brother. When the Twin Towers fall apart, so do the two families. In a state of depression and having lost friends, colleagues, and her place of employment, Brandt’s mother moves the family to her father’s home on the Caribbean island. There the two children meet and team up in an effort to bring joy back into their mothers’ lives. But can joy be given to others, or must it come from within? As the children figure out, there is no clear-cut answer to that question. Though the narrative is centered on the fall of the Twin Towers, in a broader sense it is a book on loss and grief. VERDICT Through the two narrators, Joseph presents a look at grief that is very real and relatable. Read this along with Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Towers Falling. Recommended for school and public libraries.–Lucia Acosta, Children’s Literature Specialist, NJ

Lee, C.B. Not Your Sidekick. 294p. Duet. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781945053030; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9781945053047.

Gr 5-8 –Although her parents are the local superheroes, it looks like Jessica Tran is merely “normal.” Taking an internship would be another normal thing for her, except it turns out she’ll be working with her biggest crush as well as for her parents’ nemesis. Can she work alongside Abby without making a total fool of herself? And what is the truth about heroes and villains in this superpowered world? This is a light romp of a middle grade adventure/romance, but the real strength is in its matter-of-fact representation of LGBTQ and first-generation American identities. While the meanings of these identities are explored, they are not the focus of the book and are simply part of the character- and world-building. Coming out has already happened, friendships based on immigrant identity are complicated, and there are many primary and secondary characters who fall into these categories so that no single character has to stand for everyone. It’s unfortunate that the use of the third person is so clunky throughout and that the twists are so obvious, but these are minor issues. VERDICT A good addition to any middle grade library concerned with LGBTQ and racial diversity representation across all genres.–L. Lee Butler, Hart Middle School, Washington, DC

MacHale, D.J. Curse of the Boggin. 256p. (The Library: Bk. 1). ebook available. Random. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781101932537; lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9781101932544.

Gr 4-6 –Feisty Marcus O’Mara isn’t afraid to do what’s right. He takes a stand against his bullying teacher and earns himself several days of detention. While in detention, Marcus spies a ghostly man clad in pajamas and, more disturbingly, a raging bull trashing the school’s trophy cases. Unfortunately, his principal cannot see the bull, nor is there any evidence of the damage that Marcus witnessed. Instead, he earns himself more detentions and the wrath of his adoptive mother, who really seems to hate him lately. After a second sighting of the pajama-clad ghost and being told to “surrender the key,” Marcus intends to solve this mystery. He is a self-described outsider with just two good friends, Lu, who is into roller derby, and Theo, who is “straight-A smart.” Once Marcus gets his hands on the key, he discovers it leads to a mysterious library curated by an odd, old librarian, filled with unfinished stories of the dead. The boy is tasked with finishing the story of a man in pajamas who happens to have a connection to his birth parents. Middle grade readers eager for horror will find many scary thrills in this cinematic page-turner with a diverse cast of characters. MacHale knows how to ratchet up the suspense as the likable narrator and his best friends pool their talents in an effort to fight an ancient enemy. VERDICT This spine-tingling series starter is sure to attract a quick following of fans eager for the next installment.–Brenda Kahn, Tenakill Middle School, Closter, NJ

MacLachlan, Patricia. The Poet’s Dog. 112p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Sept. 2016. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9780062292629.

Gr 3-5 –Nikel and his sister Flora are caught in a blizzard. Left in a car by their mother, who went to get help and did not return, they are saved by Teddy; it’s a heroic act for a human but all the more impressive for a dog. Teddy was once rescued himself, taken from a shelter by a poet named Sylvan, who surrounded him with words and read him Shakespeare, James Joyce, and C.S. Lewis, as well as his favorite book, Donald Hall’s Ox-Cart Man. Though Teddy comprehends words, only poets and children can understand the canine. Nikel, Flora, and Teddy spend several days together at the dog’s cabin while the blizzard rages on, and Teddy tells the children about his life with Sylvan and how Sylvan recently passed away. Similar in length to a beginning reader, the novel has sophisticated vocabulary and sensitive subject matter that make it better suited for mature young readers; it would also work as a classroom or one-on-one read aloud. MacLachlan writes with a quiet cadence readers will savor, as the book alternates between the present and Teddy’s life with Sylvan, with italics alerting readers to the shift in time. VERDICT Though this contemplative fantasy explores grief, it is also about overcoming loss and is resolved in a way that will comfort sensitive readers. A strong purchase for larger fiction collections.–Juliet Morefield, Multnomah County Library, OR

Matthews, John. Henry Hunter and the Beast of Snagov. illus. by Nick Tankard. 240p. (Henry Hunter: Bk. 1). ebook available. Sky Pony. Sept. 2016. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781510710382.

Gr 4-6 –The first installment in a new middle grade series about two English schoolboys who could not be more different. Sheepish Adolphus Pringle, known as Dolf, narrates as he follows the trail of the bold and brilliant Henry, a “twelve-year-old millionaire genius,” to solve a Transylvanian mystery. A strength of the story is the bewildered voice of Dolf, who would have never gotten into any of this drama had it not been for his friendship with the quixotic Hunter. This is a fast-paced and humorous spin on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Matthews is a folklorist, so it is no surprise that the tale is filled with “revamped” myths of vampires, including a secret society, the Count’s motorcycling daughter, and the mysterious slimy beast referred to in the title. It could be paired with the classic to learn more about the textual references or with a nonfiction book on folklore or Romanian castles. Some readers may find it funny that in this novel Dracula’s daughter, Bella, shares the same name as Stephenie Meyer’s protagonist in the “Twilight” series. That is about where the similarity ends. The vampire Bella frequently saves the two 12-year-olds from danger and despite her cool spiky hair never becomes a romantic interest. The stylized pen-and-ink vignettes by Tankard are atmospheric and playful. Like the author, he consistently portrays these characters with equal amounts of danger and humor. VERDICT An action-filled middle grade adventure series debut with a unique pair of protagonists; may also spark interest through its plays on literature and folklore.–Jennifer Gibson, SUNY Cortland

redstarSands, Kevin. Mark of the Plague. 544p. (Blackthorn Key: Bk. 2). S. & S./Aladdin. Sept. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481446747.

Gr 4-8 –This follow-up to The Blackthorn Key places readers right in the middle of the nastiest event the 1600s had to offer—the Black Plague. Not only are Christopher and his friends tasked with avoiding the deadly disease but they must also contend with the prophets, zealots, and frauds who seem to attach themselves to all tragic events. Sands’s writing is gripping and expertly paced. The action spins with breathless twists and turns. The characters react logically without appearing clairvoyant. The deep understanding of herbs, mixtures, and remedies will inspire some and astound others. Christopher and his companions are relatable tweens. This story would make for a great fictional pairing in history class. VERDICT An excellent sequel. Readers who haven’t yet discovered this series are in for a treat.–Chad Lane, Tulip Grove Elementary School, MD

Scott, Kate. Boy in Tights. 192p. (Spies in Disguise: Bk. 1.) Sky Pony. Apr. 2016. pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781634506892.

Gr 3-5 –In this fluffy opener of what promises to be an engaging series for transitional readers, tween Joe discovers that his “cup-of-tea-and-a-cookie-in-front-of-the-TV” boring parents are actually international spies. After their covers are blown, Joe’s parents must assume new identities and start over in a new place. Because their enemies are aware that Joe’s parents are traveling with a boy, Joe must pose as a girl in order to throw off their pursuers. Joe balks at the gender switch, a feeling that deepens when his parents insist that he wear all things pink and sparkly so as to appear convincingly feminine. Initially preoccupied with sexist stereotypes, Joe (now Josie) sees his female peers as makeup-obsessed and frivolous. Gradually, his perceptions shift as he gets to know tomboy Sam, who isn’t like any of the other girls. Though this title may grate on adults, young readers will definitely comprehend that Joe’s understanding of gender performance is narrow. Joe tolerates the role-playing by immersing himself in his favorite spy books, which focus on a character named Dan McGuire. Life imitates art when Joe finds out his teacher is embezzling school monies; the tween decides to catch the culprit with high-tech gadgets pilfered from his parents. While the caper element occasionally stretches credulity, it hardly detracts from the solid pacing and silly humor. VERDICT A suitable addition to collections needing more light mysteries that will resonate with a wide range of readers.–Lalitha Nataraj, Escondido Public Library, CA

Scrimger, Richard. Downside Up. 272p. Tundra. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781770498457.

Gr 5-8 –Fred’s dog Casey died two months ago, and the Toronto sixth grader has been carrying around Casey’s tennis ball ever since. Fred drops the ball one day, and it rolls through a sewer grate. When he jumps in to retrieve it, he discovers that Casey is alive and ready to play on the other side. At first, the upside-down world seems almost the same as the one left behind, with upside-down Fred (called Freddie on this side of the sewer) going to the same school with the same students. Freddie and Fred live in identical houses, and each has an older sister named Izzy. Everyone seems happier than Fred remembers. Soon, however, dragons and newfound athletic powers make Fred suspect that there is more to discover in this alternate reality. When Fred’s Izzy follows him through the sewer to the upside-down world, his unnamed but growing feelings of dread and discomfort creep into this idyllic parallel reality and we discover that Casey isn’t the only loved one Fred has recently lost. What initially appears to be a story about the struggle to accept the death of a beloved pet slowly reveals itself to be a sad, sweet, and unexpectedly complex examination of the grieving process, the balance between choice and inevitability, and the power of belief and remembrance. VERDICT A thought-provoking and ultimately hopeful work. Fred’s authentic voice provides a balm to those struggling to understand loss and inspires all to view the world with fresh eyes.–Alyssa Annico, Youngstown State University, OH

Shull, Megan. Bounce. 384p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062311726.

Gr 5 Up –It’s Christmas Eve, and 12-year-old Frannie Hudson’s parents left her at home with her two older siblings in order to jet away on a Caribbean vacation. Carmen and Teddy are throwing an out-of-control party, exiling Frannie to her bedroom. She falls asleep, thinking things can’t get any worse. Instead of waking up in her room the next morning, Frannie has “bounced” into another person’s reality. She is thrust into the body of a country girl with a loving family who accept her without question. The preteen is totally confused but feels so much more at home than she ever did in her real life. At the end of each day, Frannie “bounces” into another person’s life, from a pop star, to a girl sailing around the world with her father and little brother, to, most surprisingly, a girl she has seen being bullied at school. Each time she wakes up, the protagonist has to adjust to new surroundings and expectations. Instead of feeling alone and helpless, like she does in her normal life, Frannie rises to the challenge, and through being in other people’s skin, she discovers the truth of who she is and what defines her. Shull uses the surreal narrative to explore the dynamics of family conflicts, taking Frannie on a journey in which she experiences emotions and situations that ultimately teach her to accept her situation but not let it define her. A somewhat unsympathetic narrator in the beginning, she grows more likable and even funny throughout. VERDICT Inspirational without being overly didactic. Hand this empowering novel to readers that need a boost of self-confidence.–Tara Kron, formerly at School Library Journal

Towler, Grayson. The Dragon Waking. 288p. Albert Whitman. Aug. 2016. Tr $14.99. ISBN 9780807517048.

Gr 5-7 –Thirteen-year-old Rose Gallagher shares only one thing in common with her dad: an interest in rock hunting. When she discovers a rare stone in the Nevada desert, she doesn’t expect to find a shape-shifting dragon as well—and there’s no way she can tell her dad about Jade. With the help of her late mother’s friend, Mrs. Jersey, Rose is able to communicate with the green dragon. She, along with Mrs. Jersey and best friend Clay, learns that Jade is the first of her kind to awaken millions of years after the comet that killed the dinosaurs—and, it turns out, drove the dragons into an enchanted sleep to survive. The rare stone is a fragment of that comet, known as the Harbinger, and it can be used to awaken all of the sleeping dragons, which is what Rex Triumph, the sinister casino king who is actually a dragon, desperately wants. Rose and Jade bravely face a fierce battle in the skies of Las Vegas to keep the Harbinger out of Rex Triumph’s hands. This fast-paced, imaginative fantasy adventure will appeal to Percy Jackson fans, who will likely demand a sequel. VERDICT A strong choice for middle grade fantasy collections.–Laurie Slagenwhite Walters, Brighton District Library, MI

Wiseman, Eva. Another Me. 240p. ebook available. Tundra. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781770497160.

Gr 5-7 –A heartbreaking account of a young Jewish man, Natan, who defies death in order to save his people. The Jewish inhabitants of Middle Ages–era Strasbourg face daily persecution, intolerance, and even physical violence. They are forced to pay high prices to ensure a tremulous sense of safety and are segregated from the general population, and their way of life becomes even more difficult as the Black Death falls like a shadow over the land. Natan, in the wrong place at the wrong time, stumbles across an active plot to falsely accuse the local Jews of poisoning the town’s water and finds himself the mortal victim of paranoia and hate. While his body lies prone at the feet of his killers, Natan’s consciousness miraculously moves to inhabit the body of a young Christian man, and romantic rival, Hans. Granted a second chance, Natan seeks not only to bring justice to his murderers but also to save the Jews of Strasbourg from further plots. While the historical element of the writing is, at times, a bit heavy-handed, the simple narrative and unique story line serve to engage readers. Although this tale centers on heinous acts, the actual violence is glossed over, making the text palatable for more sensitive readers. VERDICT More broadly approachable, if clunkier, than Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy and with a fast-paced narrative reminiscent of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, this offering will engage reluctant readers—even those who are normally averse to historical fiction. Recommended for general purchase.–Rose Garrett, Cliff Valley School, Atlanta, GA

Woodfine, Katherine. The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow. 320p. (The Sinclair’s Mysteries: Bk. 3). Kane Miller. Sept. 2016. pap. $6.99. ISBN 9781610674379.

Gr 4-7 –Inspired by the real history of London’s Selfridges, which opened in 1909, this is the tale of Sinclair’s department store and a mystery involving the disappearance of Mr. Edward Sinclair’s jeweled ornament, The Clockwork Sparrow. The heroine, Miss Sophie Taylor, is lucky to work as a shopgirl in the millinery department and gets caught up in the mysterious drama as she stumbles across the valuable ornament the night before the grand opening. The narrative takes place in a time when ladies wore hats, papers were sold by newsboys, and children played with crafted wooden toys. It is a classic whodunit with criminals, gangs, top secret documents, and old-fashioned detective work. The setting is London’s lively Piccadilly Circus, which becomes a character itself as it evokes the grandeur of Harrods and Fortnum & Mason. Sophie teams up with a new friend, Miss Lilian Rose, to clear her name and solve the mystery. This was no ordinary robbery, and the girls uncover a very wicked and evil plan with the help of a colorful cast of characters. VERDICT A truly exciting novel that will appeal to lovers of historical fiction as well as adventure and detective stories. It may also entice readers who enjoy fashion history and city life.–Christina Pesiri, Michael F. Stokes Elementary School, Island Trees-Levittown, NY

Yoder, Eric & Natalie Yoder. One Minute Mysteries/¡Misterios de un minuto: More Short Mysteries You Solve with Science/¡Más misterios cortos que resuelves con ciencias! tr. by Esteban Bachelet & Nadia Bercovich. glossary. photos. 224p. Science, Naturally! Aug. 2016. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9781938492150. BL

Gr 3-6 –In the tradition of Encyclopedia Brown and “Solve Them Yourself” mysteries comes this STEM-friendly book filled with very short science-based mysteries. Each of the stories presents a “how” or “why” question that can be resolved through the application of scientific principles. The short, breezy, and fun entries range in topic from the colors of the rainbow to how to tell if eggs are fresh or hard-boiled. The authors give each tale a familiar and realistic setting—home, school—so that young readers will have an easier time grasping the concepts, which include general, physical, life, and earth science, with a bonus section on math. Each tale is presented in English, with the Spanish translation on the opposite page. At the bottom of each page is a reminder to think/piensa before turning the page to read the solution. The bilingual solutions are also on facing pages. Photos are sprinkled throughout, and a bilingual glossary is also included. VERDICT In a STEM-conscious curriculum environment, this book is a boon for teachers, who can use it to create interest in the subject matter.–Tim Wadham, Children’s Literature Consultant, WA

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

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  1. Paula Schaffner says:

    Okay, I know I’m just old, but I find reading reviews online much more time-consuming and physically tiring than reading the print version (blame my progressive lenses). There are wonderful books in these web-only reviews, but I won’t know about them from SLJ because it’s a pain in the neck (literally) to read them. How do you decide which reviews are consigned to web-only and which reviews get to appear in print? Is this a slow move toward everything-online? Several colleagues and I share SLJ. We mark the reviews up and make comments. Doesn’t work as well with on-line version, unless of course we print everything. . .

    • Melissa Causey says:

      I totally agree with you! And I’ve found the Xpress reviews are not included on our book distributor’s website.

      In addition, I miss the index of reviewed titles in the back of the journal. I waste additional time now looking for reviews.

      Please, SLJ, help make book selection more efficient! Eliminate Xpress Reviews and bring back the index. Sometimes “newer” is not “better”.

      • Kiera Parrott Kiera Parrott says:

        Hi Paula and Melissa,

        Thank you so much for your feedback. And I apologize for the frustration you’re experiencing with our Xpress reviews. It helps us tremendously to hear from our readers–what you like, what you don’t, and what we can do better.

        We began publishing Xpress (online-only) reviews in an effort to provide reviews of titles that normally wouldn’t get an SLJ review or a review for which we didn’t have space in the print magazine. Though we would love to print every review we produce (in excess of 6,000 every year), we often have to limit our magazine’s page count–a sad but true reality of magazine publishing.

        I would love to chat with you both more about what your needs are and how SLJ can meet them. We want to not only be producing content that’s useful to you, but delivering it in ways that make your lives easier, not harder. And certainly not producing a literal pain in your neck! If you are comfortable, please contact me directly at kparrott@mediasourceinc.com and we can discuss further.

        Kiera Parrott, Reviews Director