The Strangers (Greystone Secrets book 1) by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Published by Katherine Tegen Books

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Summary:  Chess, Emma, and Finn Greystone, ages 12, 10, and 8, live with their mom in Ohio.  One day they hear on the news that three kids in Arizona have been kidnapped. As the story unfolds, they learn that these three children have exactly the same names as them.  And exactly the same birthdays. Their mom seems especially disturbed by this bizarre coincidence, and the next day she abruptly announces that she is going on a business trip and isn’t sure when she’ll return.  She arranges them to stay with a woman named Mrs. Morales and her daughter, Natalie, people who are pretty much strangers to the three children. When the kids discover their mom left her computer and phone at home, and that the phone has been programmed to send texts to Mrs. Morales about the trip, they begin to suspect that their mother has disappeared and may never return.  As they delve further into the mystery, they discover some horrifying secrets about their family that could put all of them–as well as Natalie and her mom–in serious danger. A cliffhanger ending paves the way for book #2. 405 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Like the best books by Margaret Peterson Haddix, this one is a total page-turner, keeping the reader guessing as one bizarre clue after another is revealed.  Kids not quite ready for The Hunger Games may enjoy the glimpses of a dystopian world toward the end of the book.

Cons:  Developing realistic characters doesn’t seem to be Haddix’s greatest strength.  I found preciously cute Finn especially annoying.

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Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

Published by Disney Hyperion

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Summary:  Sal is new at his Miami middle school, and right away he seems to have attracted the attention of bully Yasmany.  So Sal decides to play a trick on Yasmany: he reaches into another universe, pulls out a dead chicken, and puts it in Yasmany’s locker.  This prank gets him sent to the principal’s office, where he meets Gabi Real: a straight-A student, editor of the paper, president of the student council, and self-appointed counsel to defend Yasmany.  Sal and Gabi are both dealing with difficulties at home: Sal’s mom died several years ago, and Gabi’s baby brother Iggy is fighting for his life in the NICU. They become fast friends, Gabi admiring Sal’s sleight-of-hand magic skills and eventually learning about his abilities to manipulate parallel universes, which include occasional attempts to bring back his dead mother.  Much to their surprise, it turns out Gabi possesses a similar ability, and she and Sal must decide how to channel their powers for good, particularly when it comes to saving Iggy. 400 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  If the above description seems like a lot, trust me when I say that it only skims the surface of all that is in this book.  Did I mention Sal has diabetes? That the Cuban-American culture plays a big role in the story? That Gabi has at least ten dads?  That the story takes place in the near future, replete with artificial intelligence? This is easily the most fun book I’ve read this year, and I’m considering using it as the first selection for my fifth grade book club to suck unsuspecting 10-year-olds into a year of reading enjoyment.

Cons:  Seeing that this is part of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, kids may be expecting more gods and monsters–this is a different kind of story, but I think it will still appeal to fans of Percy Jackson and other demigods.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

 

I wrote a book!

Remember the book A Wonderful Year by Nick Bruel?  Me neither.  It was the first book I reviewed on this blog on February 20, 2015, and I don’t think I’ve looked at it since.

Three days later I posted a review for The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, a book I still book talk many times a year and count among my favorite books of all times.

That’s the way it goes with reading.  Some books are just more memorable than others.

So when I realized that I’ve published almost 1,400 reviews, I decided it was time to do some weeding.  In a week or so, I’m going to take down the reviews from 2015 and 2016.  In preparation for this,  I’ve gone through all the books I’ve written about and picked out the ones I feel have stood the test of time.

I’ve compiled them into a book called Hit the Books: The Best of Kids Book A Day, 2015-2018.  There are about 150 books included; each entry has the summary I wrote on my blog and why it was included on the list.  They’re divided into eight sections: picture books, early readers, early chapter books, middle grade fiction, graphic novels, poetry, biography, and nonfiction.

I also put together ten lists of “Read-Alikes” from the books I’ve reviewed on the blog.  So if you have a fan of Diary of A Wimpy Kid or Raina Telgemeier, you can get some ideas for other books they might want to try.

Let me know if you find this book helpful.  Who knows, I may put together a second edition in another year or two!

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

The Nebula Secret (Explorer Academy) by Trudi Trueit

Published by National Geographic Under the Stars

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Summary:  Cole is excited to have been accepted into the elite Explorer Academy, not only because he wants to be an explorer, but because his mother worked there before dying in a mysterious accident when Cole was five years old.  The night before he leaves his home in Hawaii, a man tries to drown him while he’s surfing. On his trip to Washington, D.C. and during his first weeks at the Academy, Cole feels like he’s being followed, and he receives clandestine messages that he should leave.  When a hacker disrupts an important simulation that Cole’s team is participating in, he’s accused of the sabotage and expelled from school. Heartbroken, he and his aunt (a member of the Academy’s faculty) set out to prove his innocence. Their investigation reveals not only the real culprit, but important clues about his mother’s death and the people who want Cole out of the school–or worse.  Readers can look forward to the exciting sequel coming out in March 2019. Includes “The Truth Behind the Fiction” section that tells about real-life explorers and some of the technology they use. 208 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  An exciting page-turner with plenty of color illustrations that will appeal to both reluctant and avid readers.  This is the first book in a new imprint from National Geographic called Under the Stars that creates fictional stories based on real-life National Geographic explorers.

Cons:  There’s definitely some need for suspension of disbelief.  Also (spoiler alert): the librarian turns out to be the bad guy.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown

Published by Little Brown

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Summary:  When we last saw Roz, she had been captured and was in pieces, flying away from her beloved island and her goose son, Brightbill.  As the curtain rises on Act 2, Roz is being delivered to Hilltop Farm, where she is assigned care of the cows and other farm chores.  Being Roz, she soon bonds with the cows, as well as with Jaya and Jad, the two children who live on the farm.  But she is homesick for her island home, and as she goes about her farm work, she thinks about how she can get back there.  Eventually, the two children find out about her past; although they have come to love, her, they know she belongs on the island and they help with her escape.  Leaving the farm is only the beginning; on her journey to the island, Roz deals with vengeful wolves, rivers to cross, and the RECO robots who captured her in the first book.  After nearly being destroyed once again, she ends up in the lab of Dr. Molovo, the scientist who designed her.  Dr. Molovo realizes Roz belongs back on the island; after giving her a new body, the doctor takes her home, and the story ends with, “The wild robot was back where she belonged.”  288 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Roz’s fans will not be disappointed with this sequel.  As much as I enjoyed the original, I thought this one was even better, and a voracious third grade reader recently agreed with me.  To quote Peter Brown, the story is “filled with heart and soul and action and science and even a little philosophy.”  Although the Newbery trend of late does not seem to favor books like this, I would love to see this one win award or two.

Cons:  The happily ever after ending probably means there won’t be a third book.

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If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Published by Henry Holt

Summary:  Maya Lin grew up surrounded by nature, books, and parents “who never told her what to be or how to think”, having left China to escape that kind of doctrine.  Maya loved to create, inspired by her artist father and poet mother.  In college, she decided to study architecture, combining her love of art, science, and math.  When she was a senior, she entered a contest to design a memorial for the Vietnam War.  Her entry was selected from 1,421 others.  When the judges found out how young she was, they were shocked, and many felt that another design should be chosen.  Maya persisted, however, and her dream of a beautiful black wall with the names of those who died in the Vietnam War became a reality. It was the first of many art-architecture installations that Maya continues to create today.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Maya Lin and the memorial.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A quiet, beautiful work about a talented artist who persisted in bringing her creation to fruition.  The digital watercolors by first-time illustrator Phumiruk perfectly capture tone of the book and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Cons:  This only touches on details of Lin’s life, and is not a complete biography.

Horizon (Book 1) by Scott Westerfeld

Published by Scholastic

Summary:  Four kids from a robotics team are traveling to a competition in  Japan.  Disaster strikes, and the plane crashes, most of the passengers ripped through the ceiling before impact.  There are eight survivors:  the robotics team, plus four other kids.  Before crashing, each of the survivors experienced a jolt that felt like a mind probe.  Although the plane was flying over the Arctic Circle, it has landed in the middle of a tropical jungle.  Before long, the teens discover dangerous birds and vines, as well as a mysterious device that allows them to adjust gravity.  There is one adventure after another as they struggle to stay alive in the jungle and try to figure out where they are.  Could it be another planet?  The cliff-hanging ending assures a sequel, most likely more than one.  256 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Strong, intelligent characters and a fast-moving, action-driven plot will make this a popular choice for many readers.

Cons:  Given the premise, I didn’t find this to have the page-turning excitement as I was expecting.