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.

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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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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.

One Trick Pony by Nathan Hale

Published by Amulet Books

Summary:  Nathan Hale takes a break from his Hazardous Tales graphic novels (relax, he has a new one coming out in November) to create a futuristic science fiction story.  Much of Earth has been destroyed, and a small band of humans is trying to preserve what’s left of its culture and history.  They live in a caravan that has to constantly move to avoid the alien Pipers that travel in bubbles and devour any technology they can find.  At the beginning of the story, Strata, Auger, and Inby discover a cave filled with robots, including a robotic horse.  Activating the robots attracts the Pipers, and the three kids barely escape on the horse.  Their adventures have just begun as they struggle to return home, pursued by the aliens.  Meanwhile, the caravan has gotten wind of the new Piper activity.  There is a push to move on, but the parents of the three missing children don’t want to leave without them.  There are encounters with other groups of humans living in more primitive societies, and a final showdown when the aliens capture Strata and her horse.  The action comes to a quick finish, indicating that this is most likely a stand-alone story rather than the first of a series.  128 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  Hale’s fans won’t be disappointed with this exciting adventure told with his trademark illustrations.  There is enough action to keep a 13-year-old engaged, yet it is mild enough to be appropriate for an 8-year-old.

Cons:  The defeat of the aliens seemed way too easy, and the ending was a little too pat.

Once Was a Time by Leila Sales

Published by Chronicle Books 

Summary:  10-year-old Charlotte lives in England in 1940.  She and her best friend Kitty love to hear Charlotte’s father talk about the work he does researching time travel.  As World War II intensifies, his work becomes more and more secretive, until one night Charlotte and Kitty are kidnapped by Nazis and taken to her father’s lab.  The Nazis threaten to shoot the two girls if her father doesn’t tell them the secrets of time travel.  At the last second, much to her amazement, Charlotte sees a time-travel portal like her father has described to her many times before.  She runs through it, and finds herself in 2013 Wisconsin.  Knowing she can never travel back to her original time, she does the best she can to make a new life for herself, but she never forgets about Kitty.  Just when she has given up all hope of ever finding her, she opens a library book and finds a postcard from an adult Kitty, which just might be the clue she needs to reconnect.  272 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  An enchanting mix of friendship story, historical fiction, and science fiction.

Cons:  Be prepared to suspend some disbelief for the time travel portions of the story..

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick

Published by The Blue Sky Press 

Summary: Charlie Cobb is enjoying an unusual display of the northern lights with the other townspeople of Harmony, New Hampshire, when a massive solar flare knocks out the power. Not even batteries work, so all vehicles and cell phones are gone.  The town has to come together to try to survive the cold and dark.  In the midst of the chaos, Charlie realizes his mom is almost out of her diabetes medication, and if he can’t find more, she may not survive.  Determined to save her, he sets off on a cross-country skiing trip to find a city that may have the prescription they need.  As the people of New Hampshire move into survival mode, their true colors start to be revealed, and a show-down between good and evil seems inevitable.  The final page describes solar flares in history and their potential for damage in the future. 192 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  Charlie is a likable and resourceful character.  The suspense builds from the first few pages, with almost every chapter ending in a cliff-hanger.  Even reluctant readers will find this hard to put down.

Cons:  The villain, living on a well-armed compound complete with camouflage-clad sons and their subservient wives, seemed a bit out there.  Even for New Hampshire.