A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting

by Joe Ballarini
First sentence: “‘Hush little baby, don’t say a word.'”
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Content: There’s some scary moments, and monsters. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Those monsters under your bed? They’re real. And they want to eat you. You knew that. Right? But what if there was a secret society of babysitters (yes, you read that right) who are super martial arts fighting awesome people who keep the monsters at bay (literally) and protect their charges (especially those kids with “special” abilities) from the Evil Lurking out there.

Such is the society that Kelly fell into when she accepted a babysitting job for Jacob, who then gets kidnapped by the Bogeyman. She has Halloween night to find him and bring him back, or the whole world will be destroyed.

This was so much fun! If Adventures in Babysitting and Labyrinth and Goosebumps all had a baby, it would be this book. It’s scary, but not overly so, and I loved the idea of a secret cool babysitters society. It really just read like a movie, which isn’t always what I want from a book, but it works perfectly here. This is definitely one to hand to the kids who like scary stories.

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Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo

by Stephen Bramucci
First sentence: ”
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Disclaimer: I spent a day taking Steve around to school visits. He’s definitely the coolest guy you’ve never heard of.
Content: There’s a bit of violence, and a couple of intense moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ronald Zupan’s parents are these huge adventurers, traveling the world looking for ancient artifacts. But, they made one promise: they will always be home for Ronald’s birthday. So, when he woke up on his 11th birthday, and they weren’t there, he immediately knew something was wrong. He ropes his trusty butler, Jeeves (real name: Thomas) and his pet King Cobra, Carter,  and his fencing nemisis Julianne Sato into an adventure to find his missing parents. Who just happen to have been kidnapped by pirates. In Borneo.

Yes, this book is just as silly as it sounds. But that’s the point. Ronald is delightfully dense (Jeeves/Thomas has corrections at the end of every chapter), and Julianne ends up being the brains of the operation, while Jeeves is the, well, worry wart. And yet, they figure out how to work as a team by the end of the book, in spite of everything that’s against them. It’s a fun adventure story as well: Ronald and the gang goes all sorts of places, and there’s all sorts of little tidbits  throughout the book. (Plus the illustrations are perfect for the book!)

Definitely a lot of fun, and perfect for those reluctant readers looking for a good book to dive into!

Raymie Nightingale

raymieby Kate DiCamillo
First sentence: “There were three of them, three girls.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 12, 2016
Content: The publisher suggests 10 and up, but I think a 4th-grader would be able to handle it. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Raymie has a plan. She will take baton lessons — it’s the summer of 1975, after all — and enter the Little Miss Central Tire competition, and win. That way, her picture will get in the paper and her father — who recently ran off with a dental hygienist — will see it and want to come home.

The thing is: her plan (like most plans) doesn’t go as she thought it would. She meets two other girls: Louisiana, whose parents have died and who wants to win the competition as much as Raymie because that means she and her grandmother will have money for more than tunafish;  and Beverly, whose mother is insisting on the competition, but who secretly hates it all and would much rather sabotage the whole thing. Together, the three of them have a summer they will never forget.

In many ways, this is vintage DiCamillo: quiet and unassuming, and yet it reaches something deep inside you. I didn’t want to put it down, not because I was thoroughly invested in the plot or the characters, but because this longing to belong, to figure out what life Means, to find and have friends all spoke to me. It’s a common enough theme, but in DiCamillo’s deft hands it transcends the ordinary. (I don’t know if I can praise this highly enough.) And yet, I think it’s going to be one of those books that adults like but kids just don’t quite get. I think this one sits better with some life experience, and some perspective coming to it. But I may be wrong.

Who ever reads it will definitely be touched, I think.

The Girl Who Could Not Dream

by Sarah Beth Durst
First line: “Sophie had only ever stolen one dream.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s some mild scary moments, but the language and chapters are all short enough that a 3rd grader would enjoy this, even if it is a bit on the long side. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sophie’s parents run a bookstore, which she loves. But, underneath the bookstore is her parents’ secret business: distilling and selling dreams. The way it works is that they give out dream catchers which actually catch dreams and then distill them through their machine in the basement. They then bottle the dreams and sell them. But Sophie doesn’t have dreams. She’s not allowed because the one time she did she brought a monster out of her dreams into the real world. In fact, that monster (called, appropriately, Monster) is her best friend.

Then a creepy guy called Mr. Nightmare comes to down and turns Sophie’s life upside down. He kidnaps a couple of her “friends” (she doesn’t really have friends) and her parents go missing. So it’s up to her and Monster and a new friend, Ethan, to figure out where Mr. Nightmare is keeping everyone, what his Evil Plan is, and how to rescue them.

It’s a fun little adventure, one in which Sophie learns not only how to stand up on her own, but how to be a friend. And she figures out that her power of bringing dream things alive is not something to be feared (as her parents had taught her) but something to be respected and maybe even celebrated.

Delightful.

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent

by Linda Urban
First sentence: “Milo had read about magic before.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s nothing objectionable, and the writing level is good for grades 3 and up. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Milo’s mom disappeared years ago, and his father works really hard for the Tuckerman Agency. Which means that Milo is left mostly alone with “Grandmother” (a live-in provided by the agency). Milo’s lonely, but he does his best to fly under the radar. That is, until the day that he ends up sucked in to Ogregon through his dryer.

(Yes, you did read that right.)

Once there, Milo is unprepared for the adventures: being captured by ogres, the Evil Plots by the Evil Overlord, rescue attempts, and just general mayhem.  Plus trying to figure out where his father is. It’s a lot for a kid to handle.

It was a fun little book. Nothing too great, nothing too horrible. I did have a problem with Tuck; she was pretty annoying and she never really got better throughout the book. And it was all a bit silly, but I’m not the target audience. Perhaps this is one of those that kids will like — especially those who like monsters and adventure — but for me it was just meh.

Which is too bad. I had high hopes for this one.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Rain Reign

by Ann M. Martin
First sentence: “I am Rose Howard and my first name has a homonym.”
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Content: There’s really nothing, and the words are mostly simple with lots of white space. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Rose Howard is a 12-year-old fifth grader with high-functiohttp://www.thebooknut.com/2013/08/counting-by-7s.htmlning autism. Her mom ran of when she was two, and she’s been raised in a small New York town by her dad. (And her uncle, who’s much nicer than her dad.) She generally makes do in school, at home. Especially since her dad’s gone either at work or at the bar down the road.

He did pick up a dog for her, one day, though. Which she named Rain. And Rain keeps Rose company.

(There is a side bit about Rose loving homonyms but I felt that was more distraction than anything, and didn’t really add much to the plot.)

A big storm hits, the remnants of a hurricane, and knocks power out in the down. Rose’s father lets the dog out, and she never comes back. So, Rose and her uncle set to checking in shelters to find Rain. And when they do, they’re in for a surprise.

I’ve never read any Ann Martin before (yeah, I missed the whole Babysitter’s Club thing), and I really wanted to like this one. But I just… didn’t. Counting by 7s and Anything But Typical did the whole autism spectrum thing so much better. I didn’t care about Rose, I’m tired of missing mothers and bad fathers, and I just. didn’t. care.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book… I did like the way Rose narrated it, like she was writing a report. It was clever, but I found that the form got in the way of the substance. That’s not to say others (especially dog lovers) wouldn’t like it. But it wasn’t for me.

Blue Lily, Lily Blue

by Maggie Stiefvater
First sentence: “Persephone stood on the bare mountaintop, her ruffled ivory dress whipping around her legs, her masses of white-blond curls streaming behind her.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 21, 2014
Others in the series: The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves
Content: There’s swearing, lots of it, including f-bombs, but nothing felt gratuitous. There’s also violence and some adult drinking. Plus, it’s a complicated story arc that may prove confusing for younger readers. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’m always at a bit of a loss when dealing with this series. I just want to throw it at everyone (especially people who come in the store. WHY WON’T THEY BUY THIS BOOK?) and say “READ THIS! THIS IS WHAT STORYTELLING AND WRITING IS.” It really doesn’t matter that I love the characters (“What [Orla] didn’t realize about Blue and her boys was that they were all in love with one another.” Count me in on that.), and I am intrigued and fascinated by the people they meet. In this book, most especially, it was Jesse Dittley, the man who took care of the cave in the hills, who talked in ALL CAPS and called Blue an ANT. He was wonderful.

The basic plot that Stiefvater weaves is that Blue, Gansey, Adam, and Ronan are getting closer to waking their unknown king, Glendower. Blue’s mom, Maura is missing, gone off on a quest of her own. And Mr. Gray’s employer, Greenmantle (“Greenmantle had always liked the idea of being a mysterious hit man, but that career goal invariably paled in comparison with his enjoyment of going out in the town and having people admire his reputation and driving his Audi with its custom plate (GRNMNTL) and going on cheese holidays in countries that put little hats over their vowels like so: ê.”), has shown up in town, furious at Mr. Gray for defying him, determined to make him pay.

But, things don’t necessarily go right. (There is one more book, after all.) And Blue and the boys are possibly in deeper than they can handle.

What I love most (as evidenced by the frequency of quotes already), however, is the writing. It’s so drop-dead gorgeous. Stiefvater is a poet here, capturing so much — mood, character, events — with so little (even her use of swearing has Meaning.), it’s breathtaking.

If you haven’t picked these up yet, the series is almost done. Now is a good time to start. You won’t regret it.