“The Island of Dr. Libris” by Chris Grabenstein

The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less:  Billy’s parents are having difficulties in their marriage, so he is spending the summer with his mother in a lakeside cabin while his father stays working in New York City.  But this isn’t any normal cabin; it’s one built by the eccentric Dr. Libris, a scientist/professor who has installed security cameras all over the property.   Even more strange, when Billy begins reading some of the classic books from Dr. Libris’s ornate bookshelf, the books actually come to life on an island out in the lake.  Billy soon finds himself talking to Robin Hood and crossing swords with the 3 Musketeers.   As he unleashes so many classic book characters, Billy must find a way to put a stop to the madness.

My Take:  Having greatly enjoyed Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, I was looking forward to this book.  While I didn’t find it as engrossing Lemoncello’s, I appreciated it for its own merits.  Grabenstein kept the plot moving and at no point did I ever feel that the book slowed down.  I think that kids will enjoy the imaginary dangers on the island as well as getting to know some classic book characters.

One Interesting Note About the Author:   According to his website, Chris co-wrote the movie “The Christmas Gift” starring John Denver which premiered in 1986.  It often still played around Christmas time.

“The Sister’s Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives” by Michael Buckley

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Daphne and Sabrina have bounced among foster homes for the past few years ever since their parents passed away.  Their latest foster mother is an eccentric old woman calling herself Mrs. Grimm and claiming to be the girls’s grandmother.  She takes the girls to her old house stocked with eccentric items and, in time, strongly hints that the girls are part of an old family tradition of keeping fairy tale characters–known as everafters–in line and out of sight.  The girls are mostly skeptical until the grandmother and her chauffeur are kidnapped by a giant.  It’s up to Daphne and Sabrina to track down their grandmother, solve the mystery of why this giant is terrorizing the town, and live up to their family name of Grimm.

My Take:  This light hearted romp featuring a cast of characters from well known fairy tales and children’s literature is a good choice for children looking for a fun read.  Buckley manages to balance the right amount of realism and zaniness so that even when the book incorporates darker elements, it never takes itself too seriously.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to his website, Michael Buckley attempted to be a stand up comedian and lead singer of a punk rock band before going to college.

“Gregor the Overlander” by Suzanne Collins

The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  While mourning the disappearance of his father two years prior, Gregor and his younger sister Boots are sucked into an underworld through a grate in their apartment building’s laundry room. They soon discover thriving societies of crawlers (cockroaches), humans, spiders, and rats that live together through a fragile truce.  Unfortunately, war is brewing as the humans believe that Gregor is the one predicted by an ancient prophecy to bring aid to their kingdom in the face of their enemy the rats.  Not wanting to be entangled in the politics of the underworld, but desperate to find a way home, Gergor and Boots set out on a quest dangerous quest to fulfill the prophecy.

My Take:  This is one of those books/series that I have meant to tackle for a couple of years now.  I found it to be an immensely readable juvenile fantasy that kept the pace going.  I was impressed by Collin’s ability to immerse the reader in another world, provide adequate detail for the characters and setting, without losing the narrative momentum.  I also appreciate that the book works well as a stand alone or as a beginning to a delightful series.  Recommended ages 9+

One Interesting Note About the Author:   C’mon!  It’s Suzanne Collins!  You probably know all about her already.

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

Because_of_mr_teruptThe Plot in 5 Sentences Or Less:  Each of the fifth graders in Mr. Terupt’s class at Snow Hill School has a story.  Jessica, for instance, just moved across country with her mother to get away from her dad, while Alexia is intent upon spreading gossip throughout the class in order to start a war among the girls.  As the year progresses, tensions among the students rise.  But Mr. Terupt is an extraordinary teacher, capable of challenging his students with creative projects that point to deeper lessons.  When a tragic event unfolds, Mr. Terupt’s lessons of kindness and forgiveness will be put to the test.

My Take:   Because of Mr. Terupt reminded me of the book Wonder by Palacio because of the revolving first person narrator style and the emphasis on young people working out how to treat each other.  Much credit should be given to Buyea for revisiting the “inspiring teacher” trope and not writing a stale rehash from this familiar territory.  The choice to have the plot revolve around the tragic event in the middle of the book provides a great deal of momentum to the narrative.  I did find the ending a little too nicely wrapped up for my cynical tastes, but this is nonetheless a wonderful read about forgiveness and the power of a teacher to inspire.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  On his website, Rob Buyea confesses that he wasn’t much of reader growing up, but he did enjoy My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.

“Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

wonderThe Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less:  Auggie Pullman was born with a severe craniofacial difference that has set him apart from others since birth.  He has endured over a dozen surgeries to cosmetically craft his face and make his eating and speech easier.  Home schooled all of his life, this year he is entering Middle School and must mix with the general population of children his own age.  As he begins the school year, Auggie fortunately makes friends with Summer and Jack Will, but a clique of popular kids set their sights on torturing him.  Will Auggie make it through the school year and survive the cruel social nightmare of Middle School?

My Take:   Believe the hype.  This book was so good and it lived up to its acclaim.  I was relieved because I had just finished reading Divergent by Veronia Roth, another very popular book, and I could barely get through it.  But Wonder kept its promise.  What struck me as excellent was Palacio’s ear for convincing dialogue and details.    The mean notes slipped into lockers, the fickle friendships, the lunchroom social cliques– all of these details impress upon the reader the cruelty of Middle School.  As Auggie endures the searing trial of  making it through 5th grade, we as readers are right along with him and hoping that he can survive the year.  Goosebumps on my arm at the end told me that this book is special, that it is a book that needs to read by as many people as possible, to remind us all, without saccharine sentimentality, that a little extra kindness is a wonderful thing.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  R. J. Palacio decided to write this book after she and her sons had an uncomfortable encounter with a girl with a severe craniofacial difference outside of an ice cream shop.

 

 

“Doll Bones” by Holly Black

dollbonesThe Plot In 5 Sentences or Less:  Zach, Poppy, and Alice are friends that enjoy playing an imaginary game filled with pirates, mermaids, and treasure.  One of the most important parts of the game is “The Queen,”  an old porcelain doll that sits in Polly’s cupboard, whose real origins are unknown.  As the kids are now 12,  all 3 feel ambivalent about continuing to play this imaginary game in the face of criticism from their peers.  Their determination is rekindled, however, when a ghost visits Polly in her dreams, claiming that she was killed, turned into the china doll, and now longs only to be buried properly in her grave.  The 3 friends set out on a journey to bury the doll and put the ghost’s spirit to rest.

My Take:  Doll Bones novel is really about coming of age, facing the challenges of growing up, and grieving the loss of childhood.  Black captures the confusion and awkwardness of turning 12 and being unsure about what to leave behind as childish things.  I appreciated that the characters were clearly from underprivileged or blue collar families and that Black does not drive the point home too finely.  All 3 of the children have unsettled home lives, giving the reader the sense that the children’s quest is not just to bury the doll, but to help restore some sense of wholeness to their respective households.   Finally, I liked that the setting is in the industrial area of western Pennsylvania.  It lends context to the idea that these children really are journeying a through a blighted landscape.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Holly Black is also the author of the Spiderwick Chronicles.  Find out more about her at her website.

“Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin” by Liesl Shurtliff

rumpThe Story in 5 Sentences Or Less:  Rump lives with his Gran in a village in the mountains where people pass their miserable days working the gold mines to receive their weekly food rations from the town Miller.  Rump’s life changes when he salvages a spinning wheel that was once his mothers and soon discovers that he has the power to spin straw into gold.  At first, the greedy Miller demands all of the gold that Rump spins, but soon the King wants his cut too and mistakenly kidnaps the Miller’s daughter, Opal, thinking that she is the one performing the magic alchemy.

My Take:  I found this book to be an interesting take on the old Grimm’s fairy tale.  Shurtliff presents Rump as an unlikely hero on a journey of adventure and self discovery.  Despite the use of well worn juvenile fantasy elements, (castles, trolls, witches, etc.), I found myself pulled along by the character of Rump.  I was with him all the way as he grappled to control his power and unearthed more secrets about his past.  I would recommend this book for kids grades 3 and above who like fairy tales and fantasy.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to her website, Shurtliff grew up in Utah with 7 brothers and sisters.  The license plate on the family van was “8SGREAT.”

 

 

“The Templeton Twins Have An Idea” by Ellis Weiner and Jeremy Homes

templeton twinsThe Plot in Five Sentences or Less:  John and Abigail are the bright, twin children of professor and inventor John Templeton.  Following the death of their mother, the family moves to Tick Tock University where, during a lecture, their father is accosted by Dean D. Dean, a man claiming that John Templeton stole his idea for the Personal One-Man Helicopter (POMH).   Dean D. Dean, along with his brother, Dan D. Dean, kidnap the Templeton twins and demand that John to sign over the rights to the  POMH.  The twins must use their smarts to escape from the Dean brothers.

My Take:  This book is a clever and enjoyable read.  The narrator of the story is self aware and inserts amusing parenthetical remarks in the text as if he were arguing with the reader.  For instance, he states “We’re getting off point.  And I blame you.  Please, I urge you to stop interrupting.”  He also inserts “questions for review” at the end of each chapter that are meant to resemble reader’s comprehensive questions, but are simply ridiculous (i.e. “How would the Templeton twins’ lives have been different had they never been born?”).  Too much of this sort of thing would be gimmicky and annoying, but Weiner uses a judicious amount that keeps the reader laughing.  Credit should be given to Home’s schematic illustrations that reinforce the  rational yet ludicrous tone of the book.  Highly recommended for kids ages 8+.

One Interesting Note About the Author/Illustrator:  Ellis Weiner was an editor of National Lampoon and contributor to many magazines, including The New Yorker and Spy.   He has also written an e-book called “Atlas Slugged Again” which you can buy for $1.99.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

escapefromlemoncellosThe Plot in Five Sentences or Less:  Kyle Keeley wins an essay writing contest  and gets to spend the night in his town’s brand new public library with 11 of his peers.  The library is a massive, technological marvel built by none other than Luigi Lemoncello, a one time small town boy who has gone on to make a fortune in the board game industry.  When Kyle and his companions awaken the next morning, they find the doors of the library locked.  Mr. Lemoncello has challenged them to a new game: escape from the library using the hidden clues.  Will Kyle and his friends be able to crack the code in time and escape from Lemoncello’s library?

My Take:  “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” meets “The Westing Game.”  This is a solidly entertaining and clever read that will appeal to both boys and girls ages 9 and above.   Author Chris Grabenstein makes the puzzles challenging, but not ridiculously difficult.  I appreciated the many nods and allusions to library lore and children’s literature.  The characters are not especially fleshed out, but who cares?   The fun is in watching the kids solve the puzzles and make their way out of the library.  Ages 9+

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to his website, Chris Grabenstein used to write for commercials.  One of his earliest bosses was James Patterson, with whom he now writes books!

Duke by Kirby Larson

ImageThe Plot In Five Sentences or Less:  Hobie Hanson is a 5th grader in Seattle, Washington during World War II.  His father is away fighting the Germans, so Hobie spends most of his time with his friends and his German Shepherd Duke.  Life is not easy without his dad around, and only becomes harder when Mitch Mitchell, the school bully, sets his eyes on him and challenges him to give up Duke for the Dogs for Defense Program.  Much to Mitch’s surprise, Hobie rises to the challenge and soon Duke is part of the war effort and on his way to the Pacific.  Hobbie finds that he now must adjust to life both without his dad and his dog.

My Take:  I found this to be a very straight forward book about a boy’s experience and sacrifice on the home front during World War II.  My one criticism would be that Larson could have risked introducing more strangeness into the story.  There was a lot of baseball and paper routes, what one might consider stock 1950’s Americana.  Still, for those looking for a good read about the connection between and boy and his dog, this is a good pick.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to her website, Kirby was born at Fort Lawton Army Hospital in Seattle, Washington. She cost $5.