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Posts Tagged ‘middle grade’

Travels with Gannon and Wyatt: Botswana

Posted by Tracy Poff on May 21, 2013

Gannon and Wyatt are twin brothers with a passion for exploration. Wyatt loves to learn about science and the natural world, while Gannon prefers to meet new people and learn about how they live. Their newest adventure has plenty to offer both of them, because they’re going to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, home of the Bushmen as well as many different wild animals. When they arrive, though, they learn that a poacher has wounded a lion. Worse still, the lion is a mother, and her cubs won’t survive without her. Gannon and Wyatt aren’t just going to stand by when the lion needs their help, so they set off tracking her, hoping to rescue her from the poacher.

Travels with Gannon and Wyatt: Botswana by Patti Wheeler and Keith Hemstreet is a middle-grade adventure story featuring the eponymous twins, very loosely based on a trip taken by real-life teens Gannon and Wyatt Wheeler. An epistolary novel, the book is written as a series of entries in the boys’ field notes, usually alternating between the two of them so we get pieces of the story told from each of their perspectives. Wyatt’s entries often focus on the animals and environment, while Gannon is more interested in the people they meet and travel with. The entries are typically very short, so there’s plenty of variety in the course of a few pages. There’s a necessary lack of detail associated with journal entries, which keeps the book moving along pretty quickly; there’s no time to get bored.

Though it is partly a strength of the novel, the epistolary format is also a weakness. The lack of detail may be unsatisfying for older readers, and the descriptions tend to put the action at some distance from the reader. Also, since Gannon and Wyatt are interested in recording events, we rarely get to see them interacting with one another. It often feels like the story is about their traveling companions, with Gannon and Wyatt standing in the background, taking turns documenting the journey.

For the adult reader, the book’s didactic tone may be somewhat off-putting. For example:

“Some experts estimate there to be fewer than 40,000 lions left in the wild today,” Chocs told us. “Their numbers have decreased significantly since the early 1990s, when it was believed the lion population was over 100,000.”

In my experience, though, kids tend to enjoy reeling off factoids of that nature, and there are no shortage of them.

The book doesn’t stand alone. On the series’ official web page, you can find photos from Botswana, as well as a short video documentary about the real Gannon and Wyatt’s trip. The documentary is well worth seeing, and anyone who enjoyed the book should also enjoy seeing the people and animals mentioned in the book on film.

For kids who enjoy wildlife or travel, Travels with Gannon and Wyatt: Botswana is an easy, fun read.

Travels with Gannon and Wyatt: Botswana was first published in 2010, with a second edition to be published by Greenleaf Book Group Press on May 28, 2013. It will be available in hardcover for $12.95. An edition of the book including the documentary on DVD is currently available from the series’ official web page for $16.95.

Disclosure: this review is based on an advance copy received free for review.

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The Truth About Stacey

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 12, 2011

Stacey moved to Stoneybrook, Connecticut from New York City. Her friends in New York abandoned her when she discovered that she had diabetes, and until she met Claudia, she didn’t have any friends in Stoneybrook, either. But, she was invited to the Baby-Sitters Club, and now she’s friends with Kristy and Mary Anne, too.

Life’s settled into a pleasant pattern of baby-sitting and hanging out with her friends, when the members of the Baby-Sitters Club learn that a new group, the Baby-Sitters Agency, are moving in on their territory. On top of that, Stacey’s parents want to take her to yet another doctor, hoping for a miracle cure to her diabetes, when all she wants is to go to school and stay with her friends. What’s Stacey to do?

The Truth About Stacey is the third book in Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series. This time, the story is told from Stacey’s point of view.

I like the story in this one very much–both major plotlines are well-done and have good messages. The Baby-Sitters Agency, in the persons of Liz and Michelle, provides a good ‘villain’ for the story, and when the members of the Baby-Sitters Club begin to suspect that their rivals may not be such responsible baby-sitters as they make themselves out to be, it provides a good lesson about what’s really important: to be responsible and ethical, even in the face of a challenge. To beat their rivals not through trickery, but by being better baby-sitters. Of course, the lesson in corporate espionage writ small is probably useful, too.

The second plotline, with Stacey’s parents dragging her about the country in search of a cure for diabetes is well done, too. As Dr. Graham points out at the end: “Stacey seems incredibly healthy . . . and that comes from one thing only: regulating the amount of insulin in her body.” Seeking miracle cures for diseases is not productive, and I hope that children who read this book will grow up to be skeptical of such things. If everyone were as sensible as Stacey, the world would be a better (and healthier) place.

I must say, I really like the technique of writing each of these books from a different character’s point of view. It both gives us insight into how the characters feel about themselves and one another, and prevents the repetition of the premise in each book from getting too stale. Rather than Kristy telling us three times that she had the great idea for the Baby-Sitters Club, we get to hear instead how the formation of the club affected each of the members. Very well done, indeed.

The Truth About Stacey is, like the other books in the series, a great middle grade book, with both excellent story and characterization, and I’d recommend it without reservation to anyone looking for middle grade fiction.

Also like the other books in the series, The Truth About Stacey is now available as an ebook for the Kindle, so ebook readers can join in the fun, too.

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Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls

Posted by Tracy Poff on September 7, 2011

Claudia, Stacey, Kristy, and Mary Anne formed the Baby-sitters Club a few weeks ago, and since then, things have been going well: they’ve had plenty of business, and no big trouble with the kids they’re baby-sitting. Lately, though, there’s been news of a thief, dubbed the Phantom Caller, who calls people, hangs up, and then later steals their jewelry. And he seems to be moving closer to Stoneybrook, where the girls live.

On top of all this, the boy Claudia likes, Trevor Sandbourne, doesn’t seem to know she exists, and the school dance, the Halloween Hop, is coming up. Claudia’s sister, Janine, is as unbearable as usual, and although Claudia tries to work on their relationship, like her grandmother suggested, there’s just not enough time!

Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls is a middle-grade novel, the second in the Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin. It’s told from Claudia’s point of view.

The change from Kristy’s point of view in Kristy’s Great Idea to Claudia’s in this book is good. Despite Claudia repeating a lot of events that happened in the previous book, it’s still interesting, since we get to heat her perspective on the events and on her friends. It might get a little old if there’s that much repetition in future books, but it’s not too bad, this time.

The story is great. There are several plotlines going at once. Primarily, the girls are trying to be brave and babysit while they’re worried about the Phantom Caller, and this just intensifies when they start getting mysterious phone calls, with the caller hanging up without speaking. This plotline is great, and there’s some real suspense when they’re babysitting and they hear strange noises and receive phone calls like those from the Phantom Caller. You know that they’re bound to be all right in the end, but could there be a thief, waiting to break into the homes, while they’re babysitting?

The second plotline, with Claudia hoping that Trevor will ask her to the dance, gives us plenty of opportunity to see how all the girls feel about the subject of boys, and is a good secondary plot for the novel.

Finally, Claudia’s desire to improve her relationship with her sister, though showing up rarely throughout the book, provides a good reminder that these characters have more going on in their lives than just the main events of the book, and gives a sense that they’re real people with real relationships, rather than just characters in a story, serving only the purpose of furthering the plot.

Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls is another great middle-grade novel, and a good followup to Kristy’s Great Idea. It’s definitely worth reading, and, like the previous book in the series, will be available as an ebook for the Kindle starting October 1, 2011.

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Kristy’s Great Idea

Posted by Tracy Poff on September 5, 2011

Kristy, Mary Anne, and Claudia are twelve years old, and each of them baby-sits for pocket money. After her mother calls many people, trying to find a baby-sitter, Kristy has a great idea. They should form a baby-sitters club, so that people can just call one number to get access to three baby-sitters.

Claudia invites Stacey, a girl who just moved from New York, to join them, and they set up meeting times, post flyers, and even take out an ad in the newspaper. Calls start coming in, and things are looking up, but there are troubles, too: Kristy’s first job is baby-sitting a pair of dogs, Stacey seems to be hiding something, and to top it all off, Kristy’s mother might be getting remarried! Will the club stay together, or will they be torn apart?

Kristy’s Great Idea is the first book in the Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin. A middle grade novel, it focuses on the characters and their relationships, as they’re forming a club.

The characters are really well done. The (one-sided) cold war between Kristy and Watson, her mother’s boyfriend, is an excellent B-plot for the novel, both keeping things moving between club meetings and filling out Kristy’s character. Since the book is told from Kristy’s point of view, Stacy, Claudia, and Mary Anne don’t get as much development, but we still see enough to get a feel for them, and I’m sure we’ll get much more in-depth pictures of them in future books in the series.

I called Watson’s plotline the B-plot, but it really gets about equal time with the establishment of the club and the girls’ interactions. And it works well, that way. When Kristy is interacting with Watson, of course that’s what’s foremost in her mind, so it gets center stage, and so it never feels like Kristy’s a one-trick pony, a babysitter foremost and everything else a distant second, as it can feel when books focus too much on a single aspect of a character. Instead, Kristy seems like a real person, with the several concerns that one would expect of someone in her situation.

As for the club and the girls’ interactions: also great. When Kristy hit on the idea, near the beginning, to establish the club, I realized I’d already begun to become invested in her character, because I felt a little sense of accomplishment on her behalf, for the idea. The relationships between the four girls aren’t identical, either, which is good: Mary Anne and Kristy are closer to one another than to Claudia, and only Claudia is acquainted with Stacey, initially, so there’s a much more interesting dynamic between the four than would be the case if Martin had (lazily) just said that they were all four best friends, and left it at that, as some books tend to do.

The girls are quite self-reliant, for twelve-year-olds. They draw up and distribute flyers for themselves, only relying on an adult to photocopy them, and they (apparently) place the ad in the newspaper on their own, as well. That’s not to say that they have no adult supervision. Actually, the struggles between parent and child form a much larger part of these books than is usual–often, parents are quite absent in middle grade fiction, in order to let the children take center stage, but in Kristy’s Great Idea, the girls must take into account their parents’ wishes when making plans, and the differing rules and expectation their parents have of them. It all comes together to create a set of fairly realistic, admirably self-reliant twelve-year-olds, and their families with them.

I could say much more about the book’s wit or how particular interactions between the characters are well done, but in the interest of brevity, let me say only this: Kristy’s Great Idea is a great book. If you’re interested in a book with well-realized characters and a character-driven story, read this.

Kristy’s Great Idea is also available as an ebook for the Kindle.

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More Bones: Scary Stories from Around the World

Posted by Tracy Poff on September 5, 2011

A haunted bell, made from the armor of a cruel baron who was murdered by the peasants of his village, which foretells disasters. A beautiful woman whose suitors are flee from her, screaming, when she is alone with them. A school of magic with a terrible price. An angry mermaid that grants wishes that turn back upon the fisherman who angered her.

You’ll find these and other frightening folk tales in More Bones: Scary Stories from Around the World by Arielle North Olson and Howard Schwartz. This book retells 22 stories from diverse places, such as Ireland, Germany, Egypt, Spain, Japan, China, and more.

This book is very much in the vein of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, though aimed at a slightly older audience, and with somewhat less frightening illustrations drawn by E. M. Gist. Also like that book, More Bones includes a bibliography listing the sources of the stories retold within. This is a nice feature, especially since the books are generally old enough to be in the public domain, like Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry by W. B. Yeats.

The stories are something of a mixed bag. Some of them are quite good, if simple, like “Youth Without Age” or “The Severed Head,” while others are fairly dull, like “The Haunted Violin.” There are more hits than misses, though.

Some of the artwork is close to being as frightening as that in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, though I don’t like it quite as well. This may just be a result of nostalgia, though–the illustrations are good.

More Bones is a great book for someone who wants something a little more mature than Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and the bibliography will provide plenty of additional stories, for those who are interested. Definitely pick it up if you’re interested in scary folk tales.

For those who prefer ebooks, More Bones is available for the Kindle, too.

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The Girl Who Cried Monster

Posted by Tracy Poff on August 29, 2011

Lucy Dark loves to tell stories about monsters. She especially loves to frighten her little brother, Randy, with them. When she sees the librarian, Mr. Mortman, change into a real monster, no one believes her. Worst of all, Mr. Mortman might know that Lucy saw him. Will she convince her parents that she’s telling the truth, before it’s too late?

The Girl Who Cried Monster is the eighth book in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. Stine’s take on The Boy Who Cried Wolf, its protagonist, Lucy, will have a hard time convincing her parents that the librarian is a monster, before he can eat her up to silence her.

This book stands out as the first book where the protagonist’s parents actually have a reason not to believe her. Of course, they’re still useless, but at least they have an excuse.

Lucy’s task isn’t easy: when she convinces her friend, Aaron, to come along with her so he can corroborate her story, he ends up having an appointment with an orthodontist, so he can’t come; when she tries to take a picture of Mr. Mortman in his monstrous form, the photo comes out very clear–but without Mr. Mortman in it; when she goes to his house to spy on him, he actually catches her at it.

The twist at the end of this one is actually very unexpected–I only noted one passage that could have been foreshadowing it, and even that may be just my imagination. Usually, the ‘twist’ in a Goosebumps book is basically just “and it turns out that the problem wasn’t solved, after all!” Yeah, that’s a great twist. Never could have seen that coming. In The Girl Who Cried Monster the twist is not only unexpected, it actually fits into the story. A rare treat, in these books.

The Girl Who Cried Monster is a good entry in the Goosebumps series. It doesn’t appear to be available for the Kindle, so this is another one you’ll have to pick up a paper copy of. With the abundance of used Goosebumps books available, though, that’s no great hardship.

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Return to Exile

Posted by Tracy Poff on August 28, 2011

All Sky’s life, his family has been moving from place to place, never staying long enough for him to make real friends. So, his best friend is his monocle-wearing uncle Phineas, who has taught him to solve puzzles and set and elude traps, and attempted to teach him botany. He has also taught Sky more esoteric knowledge–of monsters, and how to hunt or avoid them.

Sky’s parents have always insisted that monsters aren’t real. Now that they are moving back to Exile, where his parents lived before he was born, Sky will discover just how real monsters are, and some secrets about himself, as well. Pity that the worst monster of all the Arkhon, will be released on the world in just three days, unless Sky can find a way to stop it.

Return to Exile by E. J. Patten is a middle-grade fantasy novel, the first book in The Hunter Chronicles. It’s filled with fantastical monsters and exciting adventure, and characters with plenty of secrets of their own. With his uncle missing, Sky must decide who to trust and solve the riddles his uncle left for him, if he’s to find Phineas and prevent the Arkhon from escaping its prison.

Patten is a bit wordy, initially. The first few chapters read like he was trying a bit too hard to make an impression, rendering the first few dozen pages something of a chore. Once the story picks up, though, you’ll find it hard to put the book down. There are mysteries and problems to solve right up until the end, and there’s always enough going on to keep you interested.

The world of Return to Exile is very well-realized, with a variety of monsters, plants (some monstrous), and monster hunters, forming a coherent world and history. If anything, Patten has created a world that’s too interesting–I found myself wishing that I could read some of the in-universe books like The Evil Echo of Solomon Rose, so as to learn more about the history of the world. Hopefully, we can look forward to more details in future entries in the series.

Return to Exile is a great middle-grade fantasy book. It goes on sale September 6, 2011 in both hardcover and electronic formats.

Disclosure: This review is based on a free advance reader’s copy.

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Night of the Living Dummy

Posted by Tracy Poff on August 26, 2011

Kris and Lindy Powell are twin sisters. They share not only their birthday, but also their room, their clothes–just about everything. It’s a blessing and a curse–they’re very close, but they can really irritate each other, too.

One day, when looking around next door, where a house is being build, Lindy finds a ventriloquist’s dummy among the garbage, and names it Slappy. As she practices and gets skilled with the dummy, Kris becomes jealous, wanting her own dummy. Their father finds one at a pawn show, very cheap–the owner of the shop seemed to be glad to be rid of it. Kris names her dummy Mr. Wood, and sets to practicing.

However, strange things start to happen with the dummies. They seem to be moving around when no one is looking, fighting with each other. When Lindy tries to demonstrate to Kris how to move Mr. Wood, the dummy says cruel things, and Lindy claims that she isn’t doing it–that the dummy is speaking for himself. Is it all just a practical joke? Or could Mr. Wood be… alive?

The seventh book in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, Night of the Living Dummy explores the classic ‘evil dummy’ story. It’s undoubtedly one of the most famous Goosebumps books, though, for my money, the best ventriloquist and evil dummy are Batman‘s Arnold Wesker and Scarface.

For much of Night of the Living Dummy, Kris isn’t sure whether Mr. Wood is really alive, or if Lindy is just pulling a prank on her. For some of the book, Lindy isn’t sure whether Mr. Wood is really alive, or if Kris is just pulling a prank on her. For the rest of the book, both of them are very sure that the dummy is alive, and are terrified of it.

Mr. Wood insists that Kris and Lindy will be his slaves, and that they must obey him, for he has ‘powers.’ He certainly has the power to be resilient–the girls are unable to pull or cut his head off, and it ultimately takes a steamroller to put him down. Of course, just when they think they’ve won, Slappy asks them whether they’ve finally gotten rid of ‘that other guy.’ The nightmare may be just beginning…

I don’t like the characterization in this one very well. Some of the things that Kris and Lindy did and said just stood out to me as unrealistic. For example, when Kris, previously quite jealous of and unhappy with her sister, is told that they might share the dummy, Stine writes:

“I don’t mind sharing,” [Kris] said quietly, searching her sister’s eyes for approval of the idea.

This is just out of line with the way her character had been developed thus far. I think that Kris wouldn’t have been satisfied with sharing, and anyway the meek acceptance of the suggestion to share the dummy in this line just doesn’t feel right.

It’s not just Kris, though. Neither girl is very fully characterized, but when Kris learns that Lindy has just been playing a joke on her, she says that “it was too mean to be just a joke.” I agree–Kris was, more than once, in tears, terrified, and Lindy thought it was all a great joke? I’m not sure that I can believe Lindy is so unfeeling. The sisters are close, we are told. It’s a quite a stretch to believe that for their whole lives, Kris has never realized that Lindy is a cruel monster until it was revealed in this moment.

Night of the Living Dummy isn’t bad, but it’s got poor characterization, even for a Goosebumps book. The story’s okay, though, and as usual it’s a quick read. It’s probably worth reading once, or rereading for the sake of nostalgia. It’s available for the Kindle as Classic Goosebumps #1, so those who want Goosebumps ebooks can pick it up that way, or else get one of the abundant used copies–the world is fairly drowning in used Goosebumps books.

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Let’s Get Invisible!

Posted by Tracy Poff on August 24, 2011

Max’s birthday party was supposed to be held outdoors, but the sudden rain kept everyone inside. When he, Erin, and April are exploring Max’s attic while waiting on Erin’s mom to come pick Erin and April up, they stumble across a hidden room containing an old mirror. When the light atop the mirror is turned on, whoever is standing in front of it vanishes–turned invisible!

That’s strange enough, but when Max has been invisible for too long, he starts to feel odd, like the mirror is pulling him in. Could there be more to this mirror than meets (or doesn’t meet) the eye?

The sixth book in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, Let’s Get Invisible! offers a much more fantastical story than the previous book, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. Max is concerned about whether the mirror is really safe, but his friends only seem interested in competing to see who can stay invisible the longest, and his little brother, Lefty, only wants to use it to pull pranks.

Let’s Get Invisible! is at least as well written as the previous book in the series, with a more interesting story. The characters didn’t grab me as well as Gabe and Sari in The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, but they’re not bad–though I admit it took me a few pages to realize that the girl nicknamed ‘Mouse’ wasn’t the shy one. That’s what I get for making assumptions.

The idea of a world made up of our reflections–our ‘cold’ sides–is interesting, though it seems like, in Let’s Get Invisible!, those reflections only came into being the first time the light on the mirror was turned on. It was pretty obvious that there was going to be some kind of going-through-the mirror happening–the emphasis on Zack’s haircut being asymmetrical, and the presence of a left-handed character called Lefty are dead giveaways that the left-right distinction is going to be important. Though, I wonder, if they laid the mirror on the floor and stood on it, would their reflections come out upside-down? Nah, that’d just be stupid.

Let’s Get Invisible! is a good book, with a different kind of horror than the usual monsters-and-danger kind. It doesn’t seem to be available for the Kindle, but it’s not hard to get it used, so you can still read it, if you like. Give it a try!

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The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb

Posted by Tracy Poff on August 24, 2011

Gabe’s family is on vacation in Egypt, seeing the pyramids, when his parents are unexpectedly called away on business. Rather than go with them to Alexandria, Gabe elects to stay with his uncle Ben, and Ben’s daughter, Sari. Ben is an archaeologist studying the pyramids, so Gabe gets to go inside the pyramids. Maybe he’ll discover a mummy, or some hidden treasure. Or maybe… hidden danger!

The fifth book in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb follows Gabe and Sari as they have an adventure in a pyramid. Sari is always trying to scare Gabe, and he’s always falling for it, but might there be something worth being scared of?

This book is a little unusual in that there is almost nothing supernatural in the whole book. The danger is of getting lost in the pyramid and of being caught by Ahmed, who’s determined to ensure that the curse of the priestess Khala, his ancestor, is carried out–by mummifying any intruders.

I liked the characterization a little better than usual in this book. I think that Stine improved as he wrote more books in the series–it’s my impression, thus far, that the characters feel more real, and the writing improves generally, as the series progresses.

Some of the foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed, though I suspect that this is done in order to accommodate younger readers. It’s very obvious, for example, that Gabe is going to be separated from his uncle and cousin by stopping to tie his shoe (actually, it happens twice), and Ahmed is introduced as a ‘weird guy’ who stares silently at the children.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb has much more adventure than the previous books in the series–Gabe and Sari explore the pyramid together (a little) and escape from Ahmed’s kidnapping attempt, and Gabe falls through the floor into a hidden room full of scorpions and mummies.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb provides a good mix of suspense and adventure, with just a touch of the supernatural. It’s a fun, quick read, and is available on the Kindle, as Classic Goosebumps #6, for horror fans that prefer bytes to pages.

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