Kids

MY VERY (VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY) SILLY BOOK OF GAMES by Matt Lucas

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Interspersed with jokes, spirited illustrations, and hilarious commentary, Lucas provides a list of children’s games, both well-known and more obscure, including games from around the world. What sets this book apart from many books of games is not only the humor, but the emphasis on variation and imagination. With many of the games, especially the old standards like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” Lucas riffs off of the original, suggesting ways to modify the game to make it sillier, and directly invites the readers to come up with their own variations. This is not a book of descriptions and rules, but an invitation to creative play. I’d recommend this one for library collections and for families planning birthday parties–or dreading a long summer with bored kids. My 6-year-old also gave this one her whole-hearted stamp of approval once she stopped laughing long enough to catch her breath.

TREX by Christyne Morrell

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The new boy has a superpower. Mellie was watching from her bedroom window–the perfect spot for a detective to sit and observe–and she saw the blue lightning streak from his fingertips. It’s the first big mystery she’s ever encountered in the neighborhood, and even though she usually avoids school and the crippling stomachaches she often gets when she leaves her house, Mellie knows she has to take the risk. If she’s going to solve the mystery, she has to make contact with Lightning Boy.

All Trex has ever wanted to do is go to school like a normal kid. Unfortunately, the electric charge built up by his mechanical brain can lead to mishaps. For example, accidentally shooting blue lightning from his hands when he touches a metal statue. The lightning is new, and kind of alarming. Trex knows he should tell his mom, but she’ll just insist they move. Again. They’ve been on the run from the mysterious company that gave him his bionic brain after the catastrophic car accident that killed his father (and almost killed him) and she’d never let him go to school if she knew about the lightning. So Trex decides to keep his secret. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one with secrets. There’s a prowler in the neighborhood, and a gang of bullies at the school, and if Trex wants to keep his secret safe, he might have to team up with the girl who has come the closest to exposing him.

This extraordinary middle-grade sci-fi thriller is a page-turner from beginning to end. Though action and danger sometimes rise to the forefront, Morrell never neglects the character depth that drives the story and uses the sci-fi adventure as a vehicle to explore mental health issues and bullying. With a message of “you are not broken,” she creates a therapy-positive storyline for her character with an anxiety disorder and addresses the issue of mental health medication with sensitivity and nuance. I stayed up way too late reading this one because I couldn’t put it down! I highly recommend it to middle grade fans of sci-fi and/or thrillers and to book clubs.

THE HOLE STORY by Kelly Canby

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When a boy finds a hole in the ground he is delighted to put it in his pocket. But he soon discovers that a hole in your pocket is not as wonderful as he thought. In fact, holes don’t seem to be very useful anywhere. But there is one creature eager to get the hole back in the ground…

This adorable, punny picture book will delight parents as much (or more) than their children. Ideal for older preschool or kindergarten audiences, the story hinges on knowledge of common expressions involving “holes” and will get kids thinking about the flexibility of language. The simple, colorful illustrations with ample white space are eye-catching and easy to follow–with added bonus puns in shop names in illustrations of the town. Released in Australia in 2018, the charming book will be coming to the U.S. in August.

JENNIFER CHAN IS NOT ALONE by Tae Keller

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Mallory doesn’t believe her friends’ stories about the new girl. I mean, there’s no way she could have karate-chopped a kid into a full body cast. And if her mom were really a murderer, would they have been allowed to move into her nice, quiet neighborhood? But when Mal’s mom makes her go across the street to introduce herself, she learns that Jennifer Chan might not be the karate-expert daughter of a murderer, but she is definitely weird. Jennifer Chan believes in aliens, and Mallory knows two things: 1) middle school is going to eat her alive, and 2) if Mallory is Jennifer’s friend, she’ll be going down with her.

Then, a few months into the school year, Jennifer Chan disappears, and Mallory is the only one who seems willing to consider the possibility that Jennifer found the aliens she was so desperately searching for. She doesn’t dare bring up the possibility to her popular friends, and the science nerds that might be able to help her aren’t even willing to talk to her. Not after what she did. But Mal isn’t going to give up. She needs to prove that the aliens took Jennifer.

Because if it wasn’t aliens, then Jennifer Chan’s disappearance is all Mallory’s fault.

Through a cast of nuanced characters and a protagonist who won’t give up hope for finding her friend–or the goodness inside herself–Keller tackles the complexity of the middle school social hierarchy and the bullying that can leave the targets frightened and isolated and the bullies themselves empty and hurting. By taking the perspective of one of the bullies, Keller truly explores the why behind middle school social cliques and the power dynamics of bullying without being didactic or moralistic, and by making the bullies’ target honest, forthright, and outspoken, she ensures that her perspective gets heard. Readers will likely be able to identify with both Mallory and Jennifer at different moments in their lives–and the added perspectives of targets like Kath and Ingrid and bullies like Pete and Rachel add even more depth and nuance to the narrative. I could not put this emotional and ultimately hopeful story down, and I highly recommend it to readers of middle grade contemporary fiction and to all upper-elementary and middle school book clubs!

LADY ICARUS: BALLOONOMANIA AND THE BRIEF, BOLD LIFE OF SOPHIA BLANCHARD by Deborah Noyes

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A few years before the French revolution, a girl named Marie Madeleine-Sophie was born to a peasant family. Despite the war, her family’s poverty, and the obstacles of gender-inequality, she would grow up to be one of the most famous aeronauts of her generation.

This middle grade nonfiction title delves into a fascinating aspect of French history that was entirely unknown to me. Because little is known about Sophie Blanchard’s childhood, the first 75% of the book focuses on the history of ballooning, the political backdrop of the French Revolution, and the aeronaut who would eventually marry Sophie, Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Therefore, this title is more likely to hook readers who are interested in the history and science of early aviation than those looking for a biography. (Or, since it is a biography, it could be an ideal choice for students who are required to read a biography for class but are more interested in broader histories or science.) Despite the dearth of information about Blanchard’s life before her marriage, Noyes makes sure to include mentions of young Sophie’s age and family situation at the time of significant historical events to speculate as to how they might have affected her. She also includes interesting and useful asides about the science of ballooning and related history and legends. This book will be a solid addition to middle grade nonfiction collections.

JUST HARRIET by Elana K. Arnold

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Harriet’s dad promised that the new baby wouldn’t change anything. But the baby isn’t even born yet, and things have already changed. A lot. Harriet’s mom isn’t allowed to leave her bed for two whole months, and Harriet will be spending the summer after third grade far away from her parents at her grandmother’s bed and breakfast on an island. At first, Harriet is determined not to enjoy herself during her island summer. But when she finds an old key in the basement, she begins an investigation that will bring her closer to not only the eccentric island community but to the dad she left behind.

This sweet early middle grade story is bursting with personality and family love. A dash of mystery and a colorful cast of characters (plus cat and dog frenemies) keep the plot engaging as Harriet wrestles with her feelings of abandonment and disappointment over the unexpected changes in her family. Ultimately, Harriet will realize that no matter how many things change, the love of her parents is always a constant. I’d recommend this story to readers in grades 2-4 who enjoy contemporary fiction.

WISHING UPON THE SAME STARS by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman

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Yasmeen is devastated to be leaving Detroit and the large community of Palestinian and Lebanese¬† immigrants where she fit in so easily. San Antonio may have a great job for her dad, but there aren’t a lot of Arabs there. The kids at school can barely pronounce her name, and no one looks like her. Except the girl across the street, Ayelet Cohen, but she is definitely not Palestinian. In fact, she is an Israeli immigrant, the worst possible neighbor in her parents’ opinion.

But when Yasmeen meets Ayelet at school, she doesn’t seem hateful. They actually have a lot in common. And when Yasmeen’s math skills land her on a team of Mathletes (coached by Ayelet’s dad), Yasmeen realizes that her happiness at school might depend on keeping her association with the Cohen’s a secret from her parents. Unfortunately, not all secrets can be kept. With bullying increasing at school and tensions mounting in Palestine, Yasmeen’s own fragile peace might be about to explode.

Feldman tackles the complex and weighty topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the innocent and optimistic lens of a child’s budding friendship. She includes some of the political nuance of the real-world situation and pairs it with a subplot of middle school bullies which helps ground the Middle East conflict in the reality of her young American readers. A well-crafted, emotional middle grade novel for fans of contemporary fiction and for middle school book clubs and social studies classrooms.

PAY ATTENTION, CARTER JONES by Gary D. Schmidt

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When Carter tells his mom about the stranger on the doorstep, she panics, wondering if it’s a representative from the army bringing terrible news about Carter’s dad. But when Carter assures her that the guy isn’t in a uniform (or at least not a military uniform, though the tux and bowler hat combo is a bit much) and that also the guy is definitely British (like, really, really British), she returns to the chaos of preparing Carter’s little sisters for school and tells Carter to send the stranger away.

But the stranger has no intention of going away, not even when Carter’s dachshund pukes right in front of his shoes (it’s a dachshund thing). In fact, the stranger is there because of the chaos. Apparently, Carter’s grandfather assigned his butler to move to America and help out during their dad’s deployment–even if “helping out” means cleaning up dachshund puke on Carter’s first day of sixth grade. Unfortunately, cleaning up after dogs isn’t the main part of the butler’s job description. He seems bent on turning Carter into “a gentleman,” educating him in the arts, and even teaching him how to play Cricket, which is apparently “the most gentlemanly” of all sports even though no one has ever heard of it. Carter initially resists the changes the butler brings to his life, but when unexpected news from his father makes him confront some difficult truths about his family’s past, Carter realizes that some changes can’t be stopped–and others might be exactly what he needs.

Snarky, whimsical, and heart-wrenching, PAY ATTENTION, CARTER JONES is a story of how love and community can bring a family through a tragedy. The humor kept me laughing even as the story took its more serious turns while Schmidt’s poetic storytelling created emotional swells, ultimately lifting the reader up in hope. I highly recommend this novel to upper-elementary and middle school readers who enjoy contemporary fiction.

PREMEDITATED MYRTLE by Elizabeth C. Bunce

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Myrtle Hardcastle is not at all surprised to see the constable at the manor across the road. After all, she was the one who phoned the police after noting that the science-minded spinster next door, Miss Wodehouse, and her cat had not undertaken their usual morning routine (a future detective must be Observant of such things if she hopes to uncover Crimes-in-Progress). Alas, Myrtle was too late to help Miss Wodehouse, who was dead in her bathtub when the police arrived, but she is determined to solve the murder–for it is a murder no matter what the police might say to the contrary. No obstacle will stop the intrepid young detective–not the inexplicable vanishing of Miss Wodehouse’s life’s work, not the weary attempts of her prosecutor father to reign in his unconventional daughter, and certainly not the fact that the only witness to the supposed murder is a runaway cat.

Funny, quirky, and thrilling in exactly the right balance, the Myrtle Hardcastle mysteries will delight middle grade fans of Enola Holmes, Flavia de Luce, and even more modern girl detectives. A deserved Edgar Award-winner, PREMEDITATED MYRTLE is an excellent mystery with an even more excellent protagonist and the promise of thrilling series to come.

THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY by Kate DiCamillo

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Answelica the Goat is a demon. At least, that’s what the monks believe. She’s certainly given them enough bites and bruises over the years. So when Answelica takes a liking to a mysterious girl who showed up at the monastery with no memories, the monks can hardly turn her away–even when they find out that she can read and write, a pastime forbidden to the common people and especially to all girls. But when the girl’s memories start to come back, she realizes that the king’s soldiers are searching for her, and she can endanger the monks no longer. Accompanied by Answelica, a prophetic monk, and a village boy who is eager to learn to read, Beatryce embarks on a journey to uncover her past and change the world.

This medieval adventure story is funny, suspenseful, and heartfelt with the classic feel of a folktale. It is a quick read, and I loved every minute of it. I highly recommend it to upper-elementary aged fantasy fans.