Module 9: Capture the Flag

Messner, K. (2012). Capture the Flag. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Genre: Middle grade private eye-style mystery.

Book Summary:  Anna is the daughter of a Vermont senator, José the son of an art historian, and Henry the nephew of a huge art collector. What brought them all together was a gala for the restoration of the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner (I’ve seen it at the National Museum of American History… it’s… an old flag). A flag which was stolen. And since the three plucky kids are holed up in a DC airport (National? Dulles?) snowed in (I suppose that’s plausible for DC, but improbably) and stuck there, they take it upon themselves to find the missing flag.

Impressions: This one, for me, suffered from too many coincidences. BOTH the people running for president were from Vermont? All the kids were headed back to Vermont? (WHY Vermont?!) And their moms/aunts were all part of this secret art protection society (which I could never figure out what that had to do with the plot). There was a “bad” guy that turned out to be a maguffin, but I called the real culprit fairly early on, so there wasn’t any real mystery to this mystery. I’m guessing kids would like it (who doesn’t like kids outsmarting adults?) and I did like that Anna was the character that pushed the plot forward, but overall,  it just fell flat for me. There are much better art mysteries, or middle grade mysteries, out there.

Review: The Kirkus staff really liked the book, calling it “gripping” and “a sparkling start for a promising new series”. They did admit that the ways in which the kids accessed the inner workings of an airport was “improbable” but noted that this probably wouldn’t bother the target audience.

Staff. (2012). Capture the flag. Kirkus Reviews. 80 (11). Retrieved from:

Library Uses: This one would be good on a library display of mystery books or books about U. S. artifacts or art.


  • Framed by James Ponti – This is the most similar: set in Washinton, D.C. and involving an art theft. Except this one was a lot less predictable — even though there were clues throughout — and a lot more enjoyable — it was definitely action-packed! — to read.
  • The Greenglass House by Kate Milford — This one has a slight paranormal element, but mostly it’s just a mystery of figuring out who the different travelers are, and their connection to the Greenglass House and why each traveler suddenly appeared at the house on Christmas Eve.
  • Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage —  A delightful, quirky Southern mystery as Mo, the main character, tries to clear her best friend’s name when he discovers a dead body. It’s got fantastic characters, a lot of charm and drama, and a great mystery to solve (and the kids do solve it!) in addition.

Reread: The Thief

by Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “I don’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a few minor swear words, and some violence. This is in the the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’ve been telling people at the store that I can’t remember much of what this book is about, but that the main character has stayed with me for 10 years.  And, in rereading this (it’s been nearly 10 years), I remembered some of what happened (at least, so that the ending wasn’t a surprise this time), but it was still so delightful falling into this world again.

Turner is a fantastic world builder, and a superb storyteller. The characters are magnificent, and I loved seeing all the clues she left along the way to the end.

It really is a magnificent book.


The Grimjinx Rebellion

by Brian Farrey
First sentence: “Of all the wisdom passed down through the generations of the Grimjinx clan, the bit I think about most came from Jerrina Grimjinx, wife of Corenus, our clan father.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Vengekeep Prophecies, The Shadowhand Covenant
Content: There’s some action, and a few intense moments. The length will probably deter less confident readers, but (aside from the made up words) it’s really a page-turner. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jaxter thought, after he defeated the Shadowhand, that his troubles would be over. But, the High Laird has been raising taxes, and the population of the Five Provinces are getting restless. None of this bothers Jaxter very much, until the mages kidnap his sister. Who happens to be a powerful seer.

Jaxter, of course, can’t let this happen. So he, his parents, and some of his friends, head off to rescue Aubrin from the power-hungry mages and discover that they’re plotting to overthrow the High Laird and take over the provinces. Once again, Jaxter (and the whole Grimjinx clan) is in over their heads. But, true to form, they rally and figure out a way to Save the Day.

This is such a solid series: a great overarching story (elements of the first book came back again in this one), that involves themes of freedom and who has the right to rule. But it’s also grounded in family: I love the whole Grimjinx clan (even the wayward uncle) and how they pull for each other. They can do things individually, true, but as a family unit, they’re unstoppable. And I love how Jaxter’s friends got adopted into the family: they’re as important to him as his actual family. I especially like his relationship with Callie: you can tell he’s concerned about her, but there’s no romance. They’re just friends, and that’s great.

I also loved how this wrapped up, but didn’t tie everything up in a nice, neat bow. Farrey chose to leave things hanging; and I appreciated the ambiguity. Anything could happen, and that’s just great.

It’s a fantastic end to a fantastic series.

The Vengekeep Prophecies

by Brian Farrey
First line: “Even weeks later, I heard rumors that I had ruined the Festival of the Twins.”
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Content: Aside from the fact that Jax and his family are thieves — and  I suppose adults might have a problem with their kids reading that (though I don’t know why…), and maybe some scary monsters (depending on how sensitive your kids are; they’re not that scary) there’s absolutely nothing untoward in this book. Resides quite happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Jax Grimjinx is a thief. He comes from a long line of thieves. It’s the family business, and has been for centuries. There’s only one problem: Jax is a bookish nerd, a klutz, and actually is quite a terrible thief. (Yes, it is his fault — this time — that the Grimjinx family ended up in jail.) Then a suspiciously convenient prophecy turns up, putting his family at the center as the Heroes. It predicts all sorts of Dire Perils for the town of Vengekeep, which start coming true. (It wasn’t supposed to: there really is no such thing as Lava Men.) There’s seemingly no stop to it. Until Jax with his bookishness figures out there might be a Way to break the prophecy. And it’s up to him — and his new friend, Callie — to go and get what is needed.

There’s so much to love in this book. Jax is a terrific character: a bookish kid (I love that he’s wearing glasses. I know it’s a little thing, but I do love it.), an unwilling hero, and yet he finds a way to outsmart the more Savvy characters and Save the Day. I love his relationship with Callie; none of that sappy romance stuff (I’ve decided that I don’t like romance in my middle grade fanatsy), but a good solid friendship that works. I love that it’s all plausible and that the “prophecy” isn’t something that’s set in stone, which gets old after a while. And the writing is tight; it kept me reading, turning pages, wondering what is going to happen next. I’m just glad the second one, The Shadowhand Convenant, just came out. Because I don’t want to wait to see what happens next to Jax and his family.

(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.)


by Robert K. Wittman
ages: adult
First sentence: “The platinum Rolls-Royce with bulletproof windows glided east onto the Palmetto Expressway toward Miami Beach, six stolen paintings stashed in its armor-plated trunk.”
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Robbert Wittman spent 20 years in the FBI doing a mostly thankless job (at least for the bureau): recovering artwork. He didn’t do any of the high-profile stuff that makes the movies; in fact, most of the time, he didn’t even get public credit for his work because he spent most of his time under cover, getting dishonest dealers and art thieves to give up their stolen goods.

He talks about a handful of his cases from 1988 to the Big Case — attempting to recover the stolen paintings from the 1990 Boston Gardner Museum heist — and his role in recovering a handful of priceless art and artifacts, as well as talking about the state of Art Crime Recovery in this country (pitiful, to sum up).

On the one hand, this book was fascinating. I’d never heard of most of the heists, let alone the art that was stolen, and Wittman thoughtfully provides historical context and details surrounding each recovery. That was perhaps my favorite part: I learned quite a bit.

But, I have to admit that by the end, Wittman’s voice — and his “I’m AMAZING, aren’t I?” stance, whether intentional or not — grated on me. So much so, that I was actually glad (mild spoiler here) that the Gardner recovery fell through. I know he’s doing the country (and the world, not to mention History) a service by risking his life to recover these priceless things, but still. It got annoying.

Other than that, it was quite enjoyable.


by Catherine Fisher
ages: 12+
First sentence: “Finn had been flung on his face and chained to the stone slabs of the transitway.”
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For some books, the plot summary comes easy. But as I was reading this book this past weekend, when people asked me what it was about, I was really at a loss. Mostly, I just said, “It’s complicated.”

It’s one part dystopian novel: Incarceron is a prison that the “Outside” designed for the refuse of society as an experiment. They meant it to be a Paradise, but over the years, it has degenerated into the worst of Hells. Finn has recently appeared; he was “cell born” — he has no memory of a childhood: he just appeared in Incarceron’s cells one day. He struggled to survive, and joined a group of thieves, becoming oathbrothers with a man named Keiro. Circumstances happen to push Finn, Keiro and a couple of others to attempt to escape, and the book is mostly their attempt to get out of Incarceron.

But, it’s also one part political intrigue: Claudia is on the Outside, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. She’s been playing her father’s game of power her whole life, matching him move for move in his quest to make her Queen. She’s not exactly happy about this; the current Queen is ruthless, and her son is a complete idiot; Claudia would have rather married the original heir, who died in an accident. The only person she can truly trust is her mentor and tutor, Jared. In her end of the game, she desires to know what her father actually does, and in the process finds a crystal Key and ends up communicating with Finn in Incarceron.


And yet, Fisher pulls it off beautifully. It’s difficult to explain, but while reading it, the plot makes complete sense. It’s a page-turner of a book; you have to see what happens next. The characters range from the sympathetic to the mistrustful, and yet you find yourself interested in their fates, invested in the outcome. Fisher has a talent for writing action; from the opening scene in the book, she has you completely invested in the book. In addition, the world she’s created is a fascinating one, something that is the product of a very creative imagination. And yet, there’s a balance between the world and the rest, so that neither dominates the book.

And all this means the only thing wrong with the book is that it’s the first in a series, and we have to wait for the rest.

Heist Society

by Ally Carter
ages: 12+
First sentence: “No on knew for certain when the trouble started at Colgan school.”
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Why is it that we, as normal people, love stories about thieves? About good people who live just outside the law? Or, even better yet, about good-looking, rich people traveling the world doing things, buying things, that normal people can’t even dream about doing.

You make those people teenagers, and you’ve basically got the idea of what this book is about. Though don’t get me wrong: this book is a LOT of fun. Impossible, improbable, sure. But unputdownable fun.

Kat has walked away from the family “business” of stealing things. Robbing museums, banks, mansions, you name it; she was the grease man, the inside man, the go-to girl. Then, in her biggest con, she got into an exclusive boarding school. She wanted, needed a normal life. However, it turns out that she can’t get away from family. Three months into her self-imposed exile, she gets kicked out because of a prank she didn’t pull (she was framed!). Turns out that her father is in trouble; he was framed for a job he didn’t do, and now a powerful mobster is out to get him. And it’s Kat who has the know-how, and her friend and former co-conspirator, Hale, who has the resources, to get him out of trouble. Even if it means traveling the world, trying to find the trail of the real thief. Even if it means robbing a famous high-security museum in England.

It takes an incredible suspension of disbelief to make this book work — really? 16-year-olds popping all over the world? Right… — but, suspend it, and you will have fun. There’s action, adventure, suspense, thrills, laughs, hot guys (both British and American, take your pick), and romance. It’s about family; sure they’re mostly dysfunctional, but hey: they care.

The ending was a bit abrupt for my taste; there’s one string left hanging that I wish would have been wrapped up. I suppose it was for the best though, to leave a little mystery. While I don’t think there’s a need for a sequel, I sure wouldn’t mind hanging out with Kat and her gang some more.