April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Middle Grade Xpress Reviews | November 2016

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Xpress Reviews:

Picture Books

Chapter Books


Graphic Novels


Bailey, Kristin. The Silver Gate. 320p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Oct. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062398574.

Gr 3-6 –Elric, though just a boy, is charged with a secret that could damage his entire family if the lord of the property discovers it—or rather, her. His father claims that Elric’s younger sister, Wynn, is a changeling, switched by fairies as a baby, which explains her speech impediment and physical difficulties. Hidden away, Wynn has grown up safe and happy until her mother dies and she is alone, unaware that her father feels as if he has no choice but to offer her as a servant to the castle. Elric knows that his innocent sister will end up abused in such a situation, so he spins a story to draw Wynn into a journey toward a safer village. Along the way, they argue as many siblings do, but ultimately learn that they must forgive and support each other to survive. Bailey deftly explores bullying and the definition of “normal.” VERDICT This polished, charming story is a perfect fit for fans of Shannon Hale and Jessica Day George’s fairy-tale retellings as well as an excellent choice for elementary school book discussion groups.–Kerry Sutherland, Akron-Summit County Public Library, OH

Cmapos, Llanos. The Treasure of Barracuda. tr. from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel. illus. by Júlia Sardà. 148p. Little Pickle. Oct. 2016. Tr $15.95. ISBN 9781939775146.

Gr 4-6 –A yarn about pirates and outlaws, adventures and danger, and a ship named the Southern Cross sailing in the South Seas. Eleven-year-old Sparks, a cabin boy, tells the story of Captain Barracuda, a group of old pirates, and their search for hidden treasure. Two Molars, Boasnovas, John the Whale, Erik the Belgian, One-Legged Jack, and the other pirates travel with Captain Barracuda in search of the treasures hidden by the infamous Phineas Krane. Eventually, they discover that the treasure is, disappointingly for the illiterate pirates, a book. Two Molars is the only one who knows how to read, so their future success depends on his ability to help teach them. Several of the characters, including a Chinese pirate, perpetuate unfortunate stereotypes via the text and the illustrations throughout. The journey is haphazard, with a focus on humorous interactions on board the ship. The theme of the power of literacy is a bit heavy-handed, though teachers are likely to appreciate it. VERDICT There are better middle grade tales that emphasize the importance of reading; an additional purchase only.–Valentine Muyumba, Indiana State University, Terra Haute

Eastburn, Mark. Earning My Spots. 288p. Sky Pony. Sept. 2016. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781510707788.

Gr 4-6 –The idea that shape-shifters live among us, in forms as varied as the regions of the world from which their ancestors hail, is the basis for this adventure tale filled with farts, fights, and chase scenes and featuring a young werehyena named Sam. Sam’s journey begins when his family members, who live a fairly isolated existence in the woodsy town of John’s Gore, VT, are abruptly abducted by harpies. With the help of a new friend, Manny, and Manny’s mom (both jaguar shape-shifters), Sam travels to New Orleans and eventually to the jungles of Brazil. Eastburn’s idea is novel, but the scope of Sam’s journey rushes the story and leaves the settings feeling rather flat. The characters aren’t fully developed—Sam meets many personalities, often with cool shape-shifting abilities, but readers rarely get to know much about them. Sam himself has a dry narrative voice and is sometimes humorously wild (the hyena side of him dictates some unflattering behavior in the airplane bathroom), but he seems oddly unshaken by his family’s sudden disappearance, not to mention the possibility that they’ve met an untimely end. With the tale’s entire impetus resting on Sam’s quest to find them, more time delving into his feelings would have been well spent. VERDICT A good premise that’s never fleshed out to its full potential. A secondary purchase except for the most avid adventure readers.–Abigail Garnett, Brooklyn Public Library

Izzy, Joel Ben. Dreidels on the Brain. 320p. Dial. Oct. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780803740976.

Gr 4-7 –The year is 1971. Joel is a dorky 12-year-old amateur magician from one of the few Jewish families in town. He’s dealing with his parents’ poverty, his dad’s crippling arthritis and temporary coma, and with being asked to teach his whole school about Hanukkah at the Winter Holiday Assembly. Joel’s talents as a jokester and his ever-ready magic tricks get him through his daily difficulties. Even the dreaded assembly is a success because of Joel’s storytelling chutzpah and his family’s willingness to embrace their own weirdness. The author is a professional storyteller who has based this book loosely on his own childhood. Young Joel’s first-person narration addresses the audience directly, self-consciously mocking and explaining Jewish customs and history. Joel often sounds like an adult looking back at 1971 rather than a child living it, especially when he is touched by the Holocaust memories of a stranger on a bus. His level of Yiddishkeit (“Man-O-Manischewitz!”) seems extreme for an assimilated child, giving the impression of a young Billy Crystal rather than a real kid. That said, he is a sympathetic character, and his jokes are (mostly) funny. While the plot meanders a bit, the ride is entertaining. The satisfying conclusion allows Joel to feel pride in his family, to triumph in front of his friends, and to get the (non-Jewish) girl. VERDICT An entertaining, slightly over-the-top slice of Jewish suburban life in the 1970s, with the bonus of magic tricks and jokes. Give to readers who like realistic, character-driven stories.–Heidi Rabinowitz, Congregation B’nai Israel, Boca Raton, FL

Reida, Sarah. Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production. 320p. ebook available. Sky Pony. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781510707337.

Gr 4-7 –Thirteen-year-old Lissa Black wants to make movies. She wants to win an Oscar for best picture. She wants to move back to New York, where her friends are putting on a school play that she wrote before her parents dragged her and her little sister, Haylie, to live in rural Freeburg, PA. Full of frustration, Lissa eventually makes friends with the neighbor boy, Adam, who makes it his mission to show Lissa that Freeburg is not as dull as she imagines. Events take a turn when Haylie goes missing, and Lissa sets out to rescue her sister from the land of monsters “Down Below.” This novel is not just a suspenseful monster story; it’s funny, too. Middle grade readers will appreciate that Lissa’s obstacles are not just of the creepy variety. She deals with annoying classmates, attempts to stay in touch with old friends, and finds ways to appreciate and accept change. The book ends with a nice setup for a sequel. VERDICT A solid addition for larger middle grade collections in need of humorous light fantasy.–Matthew Forster, Big Words, Clarkston, MI

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