Category Archives: elementary

Horizon by Scott Westerfeld

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Horizon by Scott Westerfeld
Scholastic, 2017

Prolific author Westerfeld opens up a new multi-author seven part upper elementary/middle grade scifi series. On a flight between New York and Tokyo, the plane crashes leaving only eight survivors – all kids. But nothing makes sense: the other passengers have all just disappeared and instead of being in the Arctic, they are in a tropical jungle, inhabited by unfamiliar and malevolent creatures.

This book is in many ways a set-up for the series and linked online game, so the characters are distinguished by the skills that they bring to the group and, for some of them, a little background family information is broadly sketched in. Dark-skinned Molly is a natural leader and the others look to her for direction. Blonde Anna has trouble filtering what she says, but sometimes the others need her honesty. Biracial Yoshi is the most analytical and creative thinker, making intellectual leaps that the others haven’t. Dark-skinned Javi, white Caleb, young Japanese sisters Kira and Akiko, and young white Oliver make up the octet.

The plot moves along quickly, with plenty of action and intrigue. There’s age appropriate thrills and scares as they encounter the strange flora and fauna and there’s some humor to be had in the names the kids give to them including “pukeberries” and the “dreadful duck of doom.”

By the end of the book, the kids have answered the where part of the mystery, and that leaves the why, who, and how for subsequent books. With Jennifer A. Nielsen up for book 2, this is clearly a series that Scholastic are investing in and Westerfeld gives it a solid start.

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Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuiser Hill
Candlewick, September 2017.

12 year-old Rose Brautigan is a musical prodigy, has skipped several grades at school, and is cruising through college level math. Her twin brother, Thomas, on the other hand is just a regular kid. But over the course of one summer, their interests come together as they grow a giant pumpkin.

Rose herself starts off as an insufferable prig – she makes little allowance for others’ passions or foibles, and is very self-centered. The author neatly shows how the events of the summer are an awakening for her and she softens in her attitudes. Other characters are somewhat more two-dimensional. The denizens of Rose’s Minnesota neighborhood are remarkably varied – I hesitate to say it but it did feel a bit like the author had a diversity checklist she was working through (Japanese – check, Latinx – check, gay couple – check). However, Ms Hill does a nice job of showing how the pumpkin project brings the community together.

I found it very odd that Rose is eighteen inches taller than her twin brother and no explanation is ever given for this. Is it a medical condition? Is it something that can happen with fraternal twins? It’s not clear, and I’m not sure of the purpose of it either. It does emphasize their difference for sure, but then so does Rose playing cello while Thomas mucks about in the garden.

Overall, I found this a fairly pleasant read but it is very long at 448 pages for an upper elementary/lower middle school novel. And there is A LOT going on and it doesn’t always mesh together very well. The author clearly has some fascinating ideas and interests and has done her research thoroughly, but doesn’t quite manage to shape it all into a smooth flowing novel. Rose and Thomas are sad to learn that they should cull all but one of their pumpkins so all the growing energy can be focused on that biggest one – I rather feel that’s a metaphor for this novel.

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes

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garveys-choiceGarvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes
WordSong, 2016

Middle schooler Garvey feels like a misfit in his family. Though his mother supports and encourages his reading – he loves sci-fi – his father is perpetually trying to get him to play sports and his athletic sister affectionately calls him “chocolate chunk.” He is teased at school for his weight too, but then he is encouraged by a new friend, Manny, who suffers from albinism, to ignore the taunts, and when Garvey discovers Chorus he finds his place in the world.

This brief and poignant verse novel manages to dimensionalize fully a boy’s life in its simple stanzas. The sparse text doesn’t waste a word and an author’s note explains the use of the Japanese tanka form – 5 line verses with a 5 7 5 7 7 syllable scheme.

The novel is written from Garvey’s perspective allowing the reader to feel his hurt and confusion at his father’s expectations, gradually turning to pride and confidence in his achievements. Garvey has used food as a comfort and to fill the hole created by his father’s disappointment but now, as he and his father bond over the music of Luther Vandross, he finds he’s eating less.

The lovely, understated cover reflects the quiet warmth of Garvey’s metamorphosis. Readers will find they can read about Garvey’s choice in less than an hour, but his voice will stay with them for much longer.

 

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Liberty by Kirby Larson

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libertyLiberty by Kirby Larson
Scholastic, 2016.

I have really enjoyed Ms Larson’s historical novels, particularly Hattie Big Sky (2008) and The Friendship Doll (2011) (both of which I read pre-blog, so no reviews I’m afraid). Liberty is the third book in a elementary grade series which uses the device of a kid and a dog to explore different experiences in World War II America. The books stand alone, and will appeal to readers who enjoy dog stories and historical settings (duh).

Liberty is a touching story with a boy and a dog at the heart of a tale set in New Orleans in 1944.

White 5th grader Michael ‘Fish’ Elliott is working hard to overcome the effects of polio on his leg, and when he adopts a stray dog, Liberty, she gives him the incentive to try harder. With Pop away building bridges for the Allies, Fish lives with his sister Mo, and Liberty opens up their neighborhood to them.

Larson skillfully squeezes a lot of thematic weight into the supporting characters – enough to be informative and maybe pique some interest for further pursuit, but without getting didactic. Fish’s friend and neighbor Olympia is “dark-skinned,” and through her he sees the prejudices and exclusions of Jim Crow. Mo wants to be an engineer and, though she works for Andrew Jackson Higgins whose company produces the “boats that will win the war,” there is little opportunity for her. Erich is a young German, though not Nazi, prisoner of war at Camp Plauche in New Orleans, and Fish reminds him of his younger brother. All these strands are pulled together when Liberty runs off after a storm.

Fish is an inventor and fixer, inspired by Edison and Higgins: he likes to work through tricky problems and find practical solutions, whether it’s training Liberty or exercising his knee. He is an earnest, engaging character, and his love for Liberty brings out his determination and confidence.

Ms Larson includes information about the era in an Author’s Note. Mo predicts that it will be different for black people and women after the war and, of course it is, to an extent. But 70+ years on, and there are still different standards for black people and women, and the reflective reader will realize that.

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Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

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ms-bixbyMs. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson
Walden Pond, 2016

Taking a sharp turn away from the fantasy action of Sidekicked and The Dungeoneers, Mr Anderson has written an impressive and moving realistic novel.

Sixth grade teacher Ms. Bixby announces to her class that she is sick and will have to leave before the end of the school year. But she leaves sooner than expected, and there’s no chance to have her planned Last Day shindig, so Topher, Steve, and Brand decide to take the celebration to her in hospital instead.

Most of the book takes place over the course of the day that the three boys bunk off school, and follows their quest to gather all the items to make the event perfect. Narrated in turn by each boy, we get to know them, and understand their relationship with their teacher and why they are all so individually motivated to make this party perfect. Ms Bixby has entered each of their lives in different ways and made them feel special, and very gradually we find out how and why.

As a warning, the title of the book has a double meaning, but it is sad without being maudlin. The author has perfectly pitched his sixth graders – still innocent and goofy but also taking on the beginnings of adult responsibilities. Funny and sweet without being syrupy, I would highly recommend Ms. Bixby for upper elementary/lower middle school fans of realistic fiction.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

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ghostThree years ago, middle schooler Castle ‘Ghost’ Crenshaw found out he could run fast, when he and his mother were escaping from his father firing a gun at them. Now he’s been invited to be a sprinter for an elite track team, but he feels he can’t compete while he has to wear his raggedy high-tops. As Ghost realizes he can’t run away from his past, readers will be rooting for him as he gets ready to run towards a better future.

Ghost narrates this compelling first book in a middle grade series, in which all the characters are black unless otherwise mentioned. He has had a challenging life, and is frequently in trouble for getting into “altercations” at school, but under the guidance of Coach Brody, who looks like “a turtle with a chipped tooth,” Ghost is able to quieten the “scream inside” as he trains with the team.

Ghost is a typical Reynolds’ (When I Was the Greatest, 2014) protagonist: robustly authentic, smart, intrinsically decent, and quirky, with his love of sunflower seeds and world records. His mother, studying for her nursing exams while working full time and bringing up Ghost on her own, is a strong role model for him too, and is humanized by her love of soppy romantic movies.

Future books will center on the other “newbies” in the team: Lu, Patina, and Sunny. They are initially rather flat characters given traits to make them memorable: Lu is albino, Patty has been adopted by a white family, and Sunny lives in a wealthy neighborhood. But they blossom in their sharing of secrets over a Chinese dinner, which is a Coach tradition for new members of the team.

This is a short, fast-paced (ha!) book that will appeal to readers of Kwame Alexander’s books.