The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Mistaken Identity

by Mac Barnett
First sentence: “Steve Brixton, a.k.a. Steve, was reading on his too-small bed.”
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Content: There are some slight intense moments, offset by humor. It would probably be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I think it could be an upper beginning chapter: there are short chapters, big print, and lots of illustrations.

Steve Brixton has always wanted to be a detective like the ones he’s always reading about. But it isn’t until  his teacher gives him an impromptu research paper assignment about American Quilting, that Steve gets  to see some, well, detective action. He’s set upon by Librarians (the bad sort) and Goons and he and his friend have to figure out who has stolen the Top Secret Codes from this historic quilt (I think… the plot wasn’t really the point of this one).

Goodness this was funny. Especially if you’ve read a lot of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew books. Steve and his friend, Dana, are always getting into scrapes they have to get out of, and somehow (even though neither are terribly bright) figure out the mystery in the end. (My favorite exchanges were of the Steve: “Hey, chum” and Dana: “Don’t call me chum” variety. Every. Single. Time.) It was kind of a lame mystery — the solution was pretty obvious — but I don’t think the mystery is the point of these.

Even so, it was a ton of fun.

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The Wild Robot Escapes

by Peter Brown
First sentence: “Our story begins in a city, with buildings and streets and bridges and parks.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: The Wild Robot
Content: Same as the first one: short chapters, large print, illustrations. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. This one, like the first, would also make a good read-aloud.

Spoilers for the first one, obviously.

When we left our fair robot Roz, she was being airlifted off her beloved island and transported back to the city. She was reprogrammed, and then sent out to be a farm robot, helping a family. Except, she wasn’t reprogrammed enough: she remembered her life on the island and her son, Brightbill, and while she wasn’t entirely unhappy at the farm — cows are good conversationalists and Roz had a lot to do — she missed her, well, home. So, she sets out to escape, which leads her on a whole adventure trying to get back to her island.

It’s much of the same as the first book here: intrusive narrator (but again, not so much that it was bothersome) and Roz is a very sweet character to root for. I liked her adventure this time, and the different things she saw and how her story spread out and paved the way for her to get back. The ending was sweet and satisfying at the same time, which was nice.

It really is a delightful story.

Hello, Universe

by Erin Entrada Kelly
First sentence: “Eleven-year-old Virgil Salinas already regretted the rest of middle school, and he’d only just finished sixth grade.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some bullying. This will be in the Newbery section of the bookstore. Before that (if I had ordered it in; why didn’t I?) it would have been in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sometimes, fate works in ways that you have no control over.

Virgil is shy, quiet, and the object of bullying at school. He doesn’t really stand up for himself, and doesn’t know how to change that.

Valencia is deaf, but she doesn’t let that define her. Unfortunately, everyone else does. She doesn’t have any friends because of that.

And  Kaori, a budding psychic and fortune teller, is the one to bind everyone together.

This is a sweet story of making new friends, of figuring up how to stand up for yourself. About fate and connecting to one another. And about not being alone. It’s delightful and even if I completely missed it before it was awarded the Newbery, it’s perfectly deserving of that award.

The Parker Inheritance

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “Abigail Caldwell stared at the letter.”
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Review copy provided by the author.
Release date: March 27, 2018
Content: There are some tough issues brought up about racism, especially in the 1950s, but also currently. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though it  may be more interesting for grades 5 and up.

Candice does NOT want to spend the summer in Lambert, South Carolina. Her parents have recently divorced, though, and their house needs to be renovated in order to put it on the market, and it’s better if they’re not underfoot, so Candice’s mom decides to take up residence in her grandma’s old house in the small Southern town. It’s bound to be a boring, never-ending summer.

That is until two things happen: she meets Brandon, the boy across the street, and she discovers an old letter, detailing a mystery about an inheritance of $40 million. The same inheritance that her grandmother tried to find ten  years ago, and was fired from her job as city manager over. If Candace and Brandon can figure this out, they could not only help the city, but also clear her grandma’s name.

I love puzzle books, even if I’m not entirely smart enough to figure them out, and this was no exception. About halfway through, Johnson references The Westing Game (one of my favorites!), and from then-on, I was using what I knew about that book to figure out the clues. (I did pretty well, too!) So, perhaps this one is better the more you know that one. But, in addition to the fun puzzle solving, Johnson takes us through history. We learn about sharecroppers, and what it was like to be a black person in the South in the pre-Civil Rights era (there’s not a lot, especially for kids, written about that time). He weaves in themes of revenge, justice and forgiveness as well as acceptance and tolerance. It’s a lot for a middle grade novel, but under Johnson’s capable hands, everything comes together seamlessly. He knows how to write kids so they seem real, and address tough issues in a way that they are accessible but not watered down.

An excellent book.

Module 7: The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister

Agell, C. (2010). The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.

Genre: Realistic beginning chapter book.

Book Summary: At the end of her fourth grade year, India McAllister — named for the ink not the country — tries to figure out friendship, especially since her best friend is a boy and that seems to be an unacceptable thing in fourth grade; whether or not she can like her dad’s new partner, Richard;  and wonders if she will ever have an adventure (until she gets lost in the woods!).

Impressions: The reviews and summaries I read focused mostly on India’s friendship with Colby and her rivalry with Amanda, but I think that short-changes the book. India is concerned with every aspect of her life: her relationship with her parents, especially her dad who’s left and has a new partner, Richard, among other things. I liked how this one was very nondescript with that: India’s dad is gay, and has a male partner, but there isn’t a huge issue surrounding it. I thought Beatrice Bird was delightful, and enjoyed India’s relationship with her pets. And I could understand  her annoyance and confusion surrounding Colby’s sudden hanging out with Amanda, but I think it was less boy/girl friend thing and more just friend thing — if Colby had been a girl, the dynamics and feelings that India has would probably still be the same. It was a delightful story, overall; I loved the diary feel of it, including the sketch drawings.

Review: Reviewer Phelan praised the book, calling it ” rooted in a tradition that goes back to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories”, and praised it for being nuanced emotionally, especially around relationships, and called it a strong start to a series.

Phelan, C. (2010). The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister. The Booklist. 106 (21), 55, 58.

Library Uses: This one would be good on a display of fun girl characters boys would like, or LGBT families, or just first in a series books. It would also make a good book for a book group for younger kids.

Readalikes:

  • Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker: Clementine is slightly younger than India (eight instead of nine) but this book has the same sort of whimsy and charm that India has. Clementine is a hilarious free spirit and the books are delightful to read.
  • Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary: The true first of the Ramona series, in which we see Ramona tackle kindergarten. The Ramona books don’t have to be read in order, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 or Ramona and her Father are probably more closely like India.
  • Charlie and Mouse by Laurel Snyder: There aren’t many realistic fiction books featuring boys that aren’t also survivalist or some other extreme situation, but Charlie and Mouse is a great example of one. It’s younger than India, but has the same sort of down-to-earth, yet whimsical and often hilarious, feeling that India has.

Penelope March is Melting

by Jeff Michael Ruby
First sentence: “Years ago, scientists spotted a strange iceberg floating a hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy sent by the author.
Content: There’s some bullying and a couple of intense situations. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Penelope March lives a quiet, ordinary life in Glacier Cove. Her brother leaves her riddles, her father goes and works as a turnip farmer (they’re the only food that grows on an iceberg). She goes to school, but doesn’t have many friends. She reads a lot though, and wishes for an adventure. Until, one day, she goes into the ramshackle house of  the town eccentric, and learns that an evil force is trying to take over the ocean, and is planning on melting Glacier Cove. And it’s up to Penelope (and a team of ice penguins) to stop it.

On the one hand, this was a unique premise. Not many middle grade fantasies being set on a town build on an iceberg. And, the penguins were truly amusing. There was the same old dead parent (mom this time) and the grieving remaining one (out of touch father). There was the Skeptical Boy (the brother, who didn’t really get on board until the last part of the book) and the Misunderstood Friend. And the buildup to the whole evil magic thing at the end just didn’t work for me. That said, it wasn’t a terribly written book, and I think there are kids — specifically ones who don’t mind a bit of magic with their adventure — who will enjoy this one. I just found it to be a bit… too basic and banal for my tastes.

York: The Shadow Cipher

by Laura Ruby
First sentence: “The true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s long, and there are some challenging vocabulary words, as well as a few intense moments. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to any adventuresome 4th grader and up.

I’ve been looking at this book since before it came out in May, thinking, “I really need to get to this one.” And so I was overjoyed that it ended up on the Cybils list. Even so, I put it off… perhaps thinking it wouldn’t live up to the hype I’ve heard surrounding it.

Boy, was I wrong! This is a difficult one to describe: it’s an alternative New York City, one in which there were genius twins — the Morningstarrs — in the 19th century who invented steampunk-like machines (many of which are still in use “today”), and then, when they disappeared mysteriously, left behind a Cipher to be figured out. Except in the intervening 160 years, no one has figured it out. That is, until a different set of twins, Tess and Theo Biedermann, and their friend Jaime Cruz, get a mysterious letter and set about following a whole new set of clues, in the hopes of saving their apartment building. Following the clues leads them on an increasingly dangerous path, full of wonders and betrayals, all the way to the end. Or perhaps: just another beginning? (Yes, it’s a first in a series.)

I was talking about this to A the other day, and trying to explain it, and she looked at me like this was crazy. And in a way, it is. But it’s SO very good. The characters are fun (Cricket needed a larger role!) and Ruby keeps the plot moving along. I have heard some say that it’s complicated, but I think she manages to mesh the mystery and the steampunk elements (plus good, if distracted, parents) quite seamlessly. I’m definitely on board for their next adventure!