Category Archives: Middle Grade
Goodreads: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict
Series: The Mysterious Benedict Society 0.5
Official Summary: Before there was a Mysterious Benedict Society, there was simply a boy named Nicholas Benedict. Meet the boy who started it all….
Nine-year-old Nicholas Benedict has more problems than most children his age. Not only is he an orphan with an unfortunate nose, but he also has narcolepsy, a condition that gives him terrible nightmares and makes him fall asleep at the worst possible moments. Now he’s being sent to a new orphanage, where he will encounter vicious bullies, selfish adults, strange circumstances — and a mystery that could change his life forever. Luckily, he has one important thing in his favor: He’s a genius.
On his quest to solve the mystery, Nicholas finds enemies around every corner, but also friends in unexpected places — and discovers along the way that the greatest puzzle of all is himself.
Review: The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict is a great follow-up novel (in terms of writing order; this is a prequel!) to Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society series. The tone is fun, quirky, and clever—a perfect light read that will both entertain and challenge the mind. This book features a single mystery, that of a hidden treasure, rather than a series of puzzles, but there are just enough clues to encourage readers to try to solve it along with Nicholas. The solution was fairly obvious to me from the start, but younger readers (the intended audience) will probably find it right on their level, challenging enough to be worth their effort but not so much it becomes frustrating.
The book is thicker than many middle grade novels, but the pace moves along steadily. There is lots of action, and a few scenes that are laugh out loud funny, with a bit of character development thrown in on the side. The orphaned Nicholas, used to knowing selfish adults and bullying children, must decide if there are people in the world worthy of his trust. He also must decide what his priorities are. If he finds the treasure, will he keep it for himself, help just a few friends, or find it in himself to become more generous? As you might be gathering, there is also a sprinkling of life lessons in this text, but good ones—optimistic and never preachy.
There are a few tie-ins to the Mysterious Benedict Society that readers of the series will delight in recognizing—things about his past and his character that Mr. Benedict mentions in the series. Stewart is not quite as self-referential as I was expecting, however. This book also does not reach quite the level of suspense as the other three. Many times I was anticipating something to go horribly wrong that never did. Middle grade books don’t have to be dark, but readers could handle a little more danger than Stewart seems to be giving them credit for.
This is a great addition to the series that no Mysterious Benedict fan will want to miss. Nicholas himself is charming, precocious, and fascinating, and it is clear how such an extraordinary education leads him to do further extraordinary things. (Note: This will also read as a great introduction to the series, for those who did not read The Mysterious Benedict Society first. Either order of reading will work!)
Published: April 10, 2012
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Goodreads: The Name of This Book Is Secret
Series: Secret #1
Official Summary: Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he’d love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn’t want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn’t want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.
Review: The Name of This Book Is Secret is a fun and clever book that invites readers to take part in solving the mystery of a magician’s death—or, rather, it warns them so much against reading the story and getting involved in this dangerous case that they will want nothing more than to plunge right in. The voice of the book, as one can guess, is a little cocky and a little cryptic, addressing the readers directly to add clever comments and asides. It is not a voice, however, that talks down to children, but rather one that gets right on their level, sympathizing with them about adults who do not believe true stories because they are too impossible and explaining sagely that, while morally objectionable, lying can be a very useful skill. In short, kids and anyone with a young heart will love the narrator because he seems to know so well how they think and what they want. And to a large degree, they want a good story.
The Name of This Book Is Secret does have a lot of interactive elements, such as riddles and clues to solve, and it does have a lot of “effects,” such as pages that have nothing more than a warning not to continue. These are ridiculously fun, even if the riddles and codes are fairly obvious to those with some experience in the matter (doubtless they are just challenging enough for younger readers to be fun without being overly frustrating). Yet the book is not held together by pure cleverness; it also has a very good plot. Cass and Max-Ernest, while attempting to learn more about the suspicious and sudden death of a local magician, find themselves embroiled in a lot of secrets and running from the villains who would like to exploit them. In short: this is interesting. Even the backstories are interesting, drawing on everything that catches the imagination of kids, including circuses and ancient Egyptian history. Bosch knows his audience.
It is true that none of the plot is particularly surprising, at least to readers who have been paying attention. Yet it is a credit to the book that an older or a skilled reader can predict the twists and still be caught up in the tale. Bosch keeps readers captivated by ensuring they are equally interested in what in happening in the book and in the way he tells them about it.
This book is dark, funny, clever, and a little arrogant. It is quirky, imaginative, and real. Basically, this is exactly the type of thing I would have fallen in love with as a child, and still greatly enjoy and admire now.
Published: October 1, 2007
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Goodreads: Isabel: Taking Wing
Series: Girls of Many Lands: England
Summary: Isabel Campion longs to go on adventures to foreign lands like her older brother, but she knows even as a young girl that her society expects her to take care of a household. Even so, she dares to sneak out of her house and see the objects of her dreams—a play at one of the local playhouses. Disappointed and angry, her father punishes Isabel by sending her away from home to live with her aunt, a woman who has a reputation for being good and holy. On the way, however, bandits ambush Isabel and her escort, leaving the girl alone in the forest. She will to use her wits and courage to survive, but she lives in a man’s world and that means disguising her gender as she travels toward safety.
Review: I remember being very pleased when American Girl branched out into global cultures with their Girls of Many Lands series. Along with my friends, I attempted to collect and read them all, learning in the process about different times and places. The books are designed for older readers than the American Girl books, so that those who enjoyed Kirsten or Samantha growing up could continue to have stories about strong females trying to find their places in the world. American Girl really emphasizes that we are all more the same than different, all searching for the same things across history.
When I found this book at a used book sale, then, I had to pick it up so I could pass it on to some other young girls looking for stories with strong role models—but not without rereading it first. Reading a book from one’s childhood can sometimes prove disappointing if not almost traumatic. Too often the book does not grow with the reader. Even so, I wanted to see if these books were as cool as I remembered and, what is more important to me now, if they were as educational as they look.
I clearly did outgrow this book in the sense that the book did not provide as much of a plot as I would have assumed. The back promises action and adventure—bandits and travelling actors, oh my!—but they make less of an appearance than I would have liked. I understand that the author glosses over the bandit episode to make the violence less upsetting, but I longed to see more of how the actors lived and worked. All too soon Isabel passed from their company and back into her own world. Even there, I found less information about hawking, medicine, and the threat of the plague than I would have expected.
Young girls will readily identify with Isabel and, I have no doubt, eagerly follow her adventures. The imaginations of children have a knack for filling in any gaps the author might have left in the plot. As an older reader (and as someone concerned with education), however, I was disappointed by the lack of historical information. Dalton provides enough information that readers can orient themselves in 1592 London, but more detail would have really brought the world to life. Mentioning Will Shakespeare as an up-and-coming playwright just is not enough. Hopefully, however, Isabel: Taking Wing can whet the appetites of readers so that they continue to learn about the magic and the drama of Renaissance England.
Goodreads: One + One = Blue
Source: ARC received from publisher in exchange for an honest review
Official Summary: Twelve year-old Basil knows he’s special—he’s been associating numbers with colors since he was a kid. His gift (or curse) has turned him into somewhat of a loner, but his world begins to change when he meets Tenzie, the new girl in school who has similar freakisms. She, too, has synesthesia (a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another). At first, Basil is somewhat annoyed with Tenzie’s pushiness, but after Basil’s estranged mother returns, his life is turned upside down . . . and Tenzie may be the only person to help him put it back together again.
Once again, MJ Auch has written a thoughtful coming-of-age novel that explores friendship, family, and fitting in.
Review: One + One = Blue is an exceptional book with a unique tone and story. It dives right into Basil’s story and right into his differences. It does not focus on Basil’s synesthesia however. Instead, synesthesia is in the background, a part of Basil’s life that makes him special, that gives him both trouble and advantages, but which is never his defining feature. The true story here is that of Basil’s’s relationships, particularly with Tenzie and with his mother.
This approach is perfect, as it demonstrates to young readers that a character and a life are made of many parts. Bullies may pick out one thing to mock, but bullies are short-sighted. Putting synesthesia towards the background takes something away from the book only once. Tenzie casually mentions that she is able to use her number/color associations to help her with math, but her explanation of a rainbow grid is a little vague. Readers interested in mathematics or synesthesia would love to learn more about Tenzie’s process and Auch misses a great opportunity to explain possible benefits or creative uses by glossing over the moment.
One + One = Blue is a little gritty and a little glamorous and a little weird. It is action-packed and it is funny. It addresses a lot of tough issues, including Basil’s differences and his dealing with an unstable absent mother, but all these issues are treated with care and humor. Kids who are different themselves, or who are artsy, or who are daring will fall in love with Auch’s work and with her characters.
This is a special book, chronicling the life of a normal kid who faces crazy circumstances, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes foolishly, and sometimes bravely. It ultimately demonstrates the beauty of differences, of passion, of love, and of friendship. The world of One + One = Blue is a little insane, but entirely wonderful.
Publication Date: April 30, 2013
Goodreads: The Mostly True Story of Jack
Summary: All his life, people have ignored Jack. Their eyes glance over him as if he is invisible, they forget to speak to him, and they never notice when his image disappears from photographs. When he visits his aunt and uncle in Hazelwood, Iowa, then, Jack is surprised to discover that others take an interest in him. He makes new friends, encounters the neighborhood bully and—strangest of all—finds himself the enemy of the richest man in town. Only by uncovering the secret of his past will Jack learn the truth about the happenings in Hazelwood—but the locals talk about magic, and Jack can never believe in anything as ridiculous as that.
Review: The Mostly True Story of Jack has an intriguing premise: an overlooked boy, a town full of magic, and an ancient curse about to awake. It possesses all the components for a satisfying, if not completely original, middle-grade fantasy. The book tries, however, to present itself as more profound than it is. Standard fantasy fare mixes with random cryptic statements about truth and stories, and the result is a book that both explains too much and too little. More than anything else, the book is confusing.
The beginning of the book promises an exciting adventure story perhaps in the vein of Harry Potter or 100 Cupboards—a boy who has never experienced much love finds himself in a new place, the center of attention, and about to discover a world full of magic. The possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, Jack lacks the intellectual curiosity that would allow him to take advantage of this situation and the story quickly falls flat. Jack fails to see obvious clues that line up in front of him, cannot get anyone to answer his questions even though they all obviously expect him to do something cool with magic and soon, and continues to ignore all the magic in front of him so that he mostly presents himself as stubborn and annoying.
Granted, a realistic view of affairs might suggest a boy would not gleefully hand himself over to the possibility of magic, but his hesitance would have been easily overcome if the other characters had not had some inexplicable aversion to telling him what they all already know anyway. Their refusal to speak to him about the happenings in town does not seem realistic, but merely a ploy to lengthen the suspense for readers. Readers will probably get the gist of the “mystery” anyway, so this tactic mostly makes the characters seem a little superior and obnoxious.
Perhaps as a result of their strange silence, I never connected emotionally with the majority of the characters. They seem a little flat, a little too stock, all the way from the bully with a backstory to the magician who sold his soul like Faustus. Jack’s uncle the quirky professor has potential, but Jack likes to avoid him for some reason, so he does not enter the story as much as I would have liked. Jack’s three new friends comprise the other interesting characters—they seem like friends I would like to have—but one of them, Wendy, gets most of the attention. I can only assume she satisfies the requirement for a smart, independent, and slightly aggressive female and thus needs to be featured more than the other males.
[Spoiler Warning] Wendy regrettably also ends up fulfilling the apparently necessary role of love interest in the story. If anything, I saw a romance budding between her and her long-time friend Anders, who has the intelligence to hold her hand in order to cover up some scars she incurred in a questionable activity. I thought it was a cute gesture, perhaps conveying more than Wendy supposed. However, poor Anders cannot hold out against the interest of the main protagonist. Jack develops feelings for Wendy seemingly out of thin air and she appears to reciprocate them. Alas for Anders.
The story might have risen above the problems of characterization if the plot had had enough suspense and action to keep the interest of readers, but unfortunately the rules of this particular magical world do not seem wholly developed and the events were thus somewhat hard to follow. Some explanations for events were given, but sometimes they seemed vague and sometimes they seemed irrelevant. In the end, everything was supposed to come together because of some insight about how everyone has good and evil within them, but this development sprang forth suddenly and did not mesh with much of anything that had come before.
I enjoyed reading The Mostly True Story of Jack, but I assumed as I was reading that the relevance of the title would reveal itself and that events would somehow come together to create a satisfying conclusion. That never happened. I can only hope that one day a sequel will appear explaining everything.
Goodreads: Liesl & Po
Summary: Liesl lives in the attic, locked away from the world by her cruel stepmother. Then one day a ghost named Po appears in her room, drawn to her without quite knowing why. Liesl hopes that Po can get a message to her father on the Other Side, but placing his soul at rest will require more than a few comforting words. Along with Po and an alchemist’s apprentice, Liesl will dare to break free from the attic and bring light back to a darkened world.
Review: Liesl & Po will prove a familiar read to any lover of fantasy, fairy tales, or Victorian or Edwardian literature. Elements from all three genres combine to create a story that is comfortable, but not highly original. All the usual ingredients necessary for a quirky, light read set in a world based on our own, but with magic, and taking place in the late 1800s or early 1900s appear: a beautiful girl wronged by an evil stepmother, a bungling magician and his inept apprentice, an icy villain, and a host of other characters all exuberantly Dickensonian in their caricature-like personalities. A series of coincidences and comical chase scenes interspersed with heartwarming professions of friendship heightens the impression that the author read a lot of Dickens while the villain strongly resembles C. S. Lewis’s Jadis/White Witch. Suspense is not the book’s strong point.
Fans of similar books will enjoy Liesl & Po, and those who do not regularly read fantasy may find themselves engaged, if not surprised by any plot twists. However, despite the strong praise the book received upon its publication, I cannot in good conscience say that I find anything special about it. The characters are flat and the story predictable. The most original part of the book is probably the depiction of the Other Side, where souls go after death (at least for a time), but even this reminded me of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaues trilogy. I would recommend this as a comfort read on a rainy day, or as a gift book since the hardcover version is gorgeous and the pencil illustrations really beautiful.
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Goodreads: The Magician’s Nephew
Series: The Chronicles of Narnia #1
Summary: When Digory’s magician uncle trick him and his friend Polly into wearing his magic rings, the children find themselves in place they believe is the gateway to a number of new worlds. Wonder turns into worry, however, when they visit a dying world and unwittingly release an ancient evil that will follow them home to their world and then to the newly created Narnia.
When I first read The Magician’s Nephew in fourth grade, I was not impressed. After the excitement of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this book seemed pretty tame. The main character was, first of all, a boy (Polly has always seemed a bit ancillary to me) and a lot less happens, in terms of action. Digory and Polly accidentally release a crazy sorceress and then, what? Watch a world get born. Half the time, the crazy sorceress is not even around; she is off ruining the lives of people who are not the main characters.
Re-reading has slowly changed my opinion. In the first place, I have grown to believe that watching a world come into being is interesting after all. There is the obvious enjoyment that readers learn a few fun facts from this book, such as where the lamppost and the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe originate, but there is also a more subtle pleasure to be had in watching Aslan bring Narnia to life. The connections between Aslan and God are fairly obvious here; he is the Creator, he is both terrifying and wonderful, and he knows everything about you. Watching Lewis’s imagining of how a Creator might operate is fascinating. The Magician’s Nephew, then, is a bit more about the experience of art and creation than about an exciting plot.
Nonetheless, the book does have entertaining moments. Digory’s Uncle Andrew is a schemer with no backbone to support his plans, and it gets him into some hilarious situations when he must interact with people of stronger personalities. Likewise, the Talking Animals Aslan creates get into lots of scrapes while exploring the new world around them. And, yes, there is the rampaging evil Sorceress. While these moments have never struck me as comprising the bulk of the book, they do add lots of life and fun.
Finally, this is Narnia and it is Christian allegory, so of course there are moral lessons. However, Lewis manages to incorporate them into the plot; it is Digory learning the lessons, and then the reader tangentially, so it never sounds preachy. As a child, I never felt Lewis was talking down to me or purposely trying to instruct me from his vantage as a wise adult, and I never get that sense from re-reading.
The Magician’s Nephew is a quieter book than some of the other Chronicles, but it is imaginative and ultimately charming. It also helps complete the circle of Narnia’s existence by presenting its origin, and I think portraying a world from start to finish is a beautiful concept for a series.
Goodreads: The Oracle Betrayed
Series: The Oracle Prophecies #1
Summary: The Speaker-of-the-God interprets the Oracle and relays divine messages to the people. Mirany, who also serves in the Temple, knows that the Speaker no longer hears the god and has plans to appoint her own king to rule. Joined by a drunken musician and an ambitious scribe, Mirany must find the god’s chosen successor to the throne before time runs out.
Review: The Oracle Betrayed provides a fast-paced adventure filled with mystery and just a little bit of magic. It perhaps has pretensions to being a bigger story than it is, particularly with its emphasis on the diverse cast of characters caught up in royal intrigue, but it remains an engaging story despite its failure fully to flesh out many of the personalities it introduces. Fans of Fisher and of fantasy alike will enjoy this introduction to what promises to be an exciting new world.
Though the book constantly switches perspectives, the story largely focuses on Mirany, a servant of the god newly promoted to Bearer-of-the-God. Her job largely consists of carrying the scorpions that may or may not be the physical presence of the deity her land worships. Despite this distinction, Mirany remains a shy, awkward girl who often feels homesick and cannot justify the special treatment she receives from the rest of the populace. Timid or quiet readers will immediately relate to her and appreciate the quiet strength she does not even know she possesses.
Mirany’s growth as a character truly grounds the story. While Fisher hints at unexpected depth in the rest of the characters, even the revelations about their personalities seems stereotyped. Thus, the washed-out musician has more skill to him than meets the eye; the ambitious and cold-hearted youth really cares about his family; and the stuck-up rich girl has enough pride to give her morals. Anyone who reads fantasy on a regular basis will expect these developments. As a result, the draw of the story does not lie in the characters, but in the plot.
Fighting, treachery, intrigue, and theft abound in The Oracle Betrayed. Although technically Mirany and her allies have the power of the god on their side, the god does not guarantee positive outcomes (he does, after all, choose to manifest himself as a stinging deadly scorpion). Thus, enough suspense exists to keep the narrative fresh. I was particularly pleased to note that Fisher did not unnecessarily draw out the action, either. Her Relic Master series could have condensed the contents of four books into two or three; The Oracle Betrayed stops while it is still ahead.
Since I did receive some closure from this installment, I do not know that I will hasten out to the library for book two anytime soon. Still, The Oracle Betrayed proves a solid, if somewhat familiar, fantasy read.
Source: E-copy received from publisher in exchange for an honest review
Summary: Grace has always been fascinated by the world around her, but her interest grows by bounds when she is visited by spirit guides who gift her with a wonder stone. Her mission is to explore the world and store her wonder in the gem as she journeys toward the Rainbow. The trip is not as straightforward as Grace expects, however, as she meets a number of people she can only help if she deviates from her path.
A verse retelling of The Other Side of the Rainbow (1910) by Florence Bone.
Review: Michael Tolkien brings new life to a charming and instructive children’s story about the nature of wonder, sending his heroine Grace on a number of missions on which she learns to help others and to always stay curious. Readers need not be familiar with Florence Bone’s The Other Side of the Rainbow to enjoy Tolkien’s re-imagination. A thoughtful and intelligent preface, however, (which will remind many of Michael’s grandfather’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s philosophy of literature, even in spite of a desire to appreciate Michael in his own right) presents readers with an overview of Bone’s version and interpretations of Tolkien’s changes, in addition to his musings on the meaning of art and the nature of Faerie. This does mean, of course, that readers who would prefer to interpret the story on their own might wish to read the preface last.
Tolkien makes Bone’s story his own, adding new scenes, lessons, interpretations, and his own voice. He even writes in verse, although since it is free verse the most evident reason for doing so is that children will be less intimidated by 200 pages of story if the lines are short. Nonetheless, Rainbow does have the feel of an older children’s book—something, like The Other Side of the Rainbow, that was published in the early twentieth century. The plot, the morals, and the sheer charm of it give it that tone. (So, yes, this is a good thing, and it fits the story perfectly.)
Tolkien uses a strong narrative voice that occasionally interjects into the story to address the reader. It often offers background information children will need to understand the story or explains the lessons being taught. If there is one thing Rainbow lacks, it is subtlety, although this is probably a good thing if very young readers are going to follow it for 200 pages. The plot, too, is undemanding, despite Grace’s many deviations from her original purpose into other adventures; she never faces danger for long before a solution appears and she is travelling once again. The constant action is likely to keep children interested. Adults will be drawn in by the imaginative world-building and the same type of wonder that Grace is trying to cultivate.
Rainbow is delightful, delicate, and imaginative, just like the illustrations by Maureen Ward. Its story, though featuring Grace and her many exciting adventures, is just as much about the readers, as it strives to teach them to also wonder about the world and to seek their own adventures. Those who have wonder, explains Rainbow, never grow old.
Published: 2012; print version March 2013
Goodreads: In a Glass Grimmly
Series: A Tale Dark and Grimm #2
Summary: When a strange woman offers Jack and Jill the chance to gain their deepest desires, the two rashly accept her bargain: they will seek one of the world’s most powerful magical objects in exchange for the chance to be admired. The two face giants, goblins, and dangerous beasts on their quest, but discover that what they want they possessed all along. A companion book to A Tale Dark and Grimm.
Review: Gidwitz’s second novel works on the same premise as the first: that children can handle and even deserve the horrible, bloody versions of the original fairytales recorded by the Grimm brothers and others. In a Glass Grimmly masterfully blends texts including “The Frog Prince,” “Jack and Jill,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” always choosing to follow the more violent version (for example, Gidwitz notes that the princess in “The Frog Prince” originally threw the frog against the wall—she did not kiss him). Gidwitz seems to understand that children encounter the difficult and disturbing facts of life every day—bullying, negligent guardians, death—and need a literature that deals with these themes directly. The result is more likely to shock adults than children.
Gidwitz tempers the violence of his text through the insertion of a sarcastic narrative voice. The narrator frequently interrupts to comment on the story, to offer moral guidance, and, occasionally, to warn of impending bloodiness. The narrator serves to remind readers that this is ultimately a work of art, it is not really happening, and they can walk away if they feel the need. The narrator does poke fun at those unable to “handle” the story, egging children to continue reading on, but Gidwitz’s artistic choices suggest he really does acknowledge the sensitivity of some of his audience.
The structure, for example, prevents the story ever from becoming too over-the-top bloody, even for a book based largely on the shock factor of the Grimm brothers. The plot is episodic in nature and Gidwitz takes care to end each section on a fairly positive note. This imparts to the book a rhythmic feeling, in which the narrator approaches gory violence, then backs off when he feels he may be about to lose a traumatized audience.
Though the clever interweaving of old tales will prove a pleasurable experience for the devoted fairy tale fan, Gidwitz truly writes an original tale, one that can stand on its own even if one has never heard of most of his source material. (Interested fans can find a list of these sources at the end of the book.) Suspense and danger combine to form an exciting story that will keep readers up long after bedtime.
Published: September 2012