Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (Henry Holt and Co., June 2015)
When immersed in Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, the reader embarks on a fun, bookish adventure with 13-year-old Emily and her new buddy James. Shortly after moving to San Francisco, her idol Garrison Griswold gets shot moments before the launch of his new city-wide, book-hunting game. With the first hidden book in their possession and a duo of tugs on their tails, Emily and James must crack ciphers and go sleuthing across the city. Their aim: finding out what treasure awaits them at the end of the game. A treasure so important it put a man’s life in jeopardy.
I enjoyed watching Emily develop a friendship with James. Having been on the move from state to state since she was a little girl, making lasting friendships proved to be difficult for her. Watching them gain each other’s trust and working together to solve the mystery was the best part of the story.
Highlights: A character named Steve pops up (or should I say sticks out) in many scenes. He’s a cowlick on top the of James’ head. That’s right. A cowlick. My middle-grade daughter laughed each time the author managed to incorporate Steve into the story.
What to watch out for: This 368-page book is jam-packed with long sentences, in addition to detailed instructions and graphics of ciphers, making it a less-than-ideal choice for a “read aloud” experience.
Talk To Me by Sonia Ellis (FastPencil Wavecrest, December 2014)
Talk to Me by Sonia Ellis puts 14-year-old Sadina in the spotlight while she struggles to help her family out of a pickle. Her mother is falsely accused of embezzlement, and her little sister Maddie is the only person who can clear her mother’s name. But Maddie has selective mutism, which means she has extreme anxiety of speaking to anyone outside her family. She is unable to tell authorities what really happened on the night an intruder entered their home. Everything depends on Sadina and her friends’ ability to help Maddie voice the truth before their mother goes to prison.
Kids will be able to relate to Sadine’s self-doubt and need to fit in. When she feels unsure about what will happen to her family, she thinks, “What I’m not so sure about is where this path is heading. I’ve never thought of this before, that something I do or say today might be like choosing a train at the station. It might be one that runs east instead of west, so that much later when it reaches its destination I might step off and suddenly realize it’s not at all where I wanted to be.” The tension Sadine feels throughout the story is palpable.
Highlights: This novel is not only available in print, but also for free online and as an audiobook at www.throughmywindow.org. There are also activities for kids and support material for teachers available on this site.
What to watch out for: I wasn’t 100% sold on this book’s success at promoting computer science and engineering to young girls. I feel like that technology-based scenes were awkwardly and unrealistically incorporated into the story.
Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin (Little Brown Readers, May 2015)
When looking at the quirky cover image of Joanna Nadin’s latest novel Joe All Alone, readers may envision a comical story reminiscent of the movie Home Alone. That’s a false assumption since the harrowing story of 13-year-old Joe Holt is one of grim poverty, child neglect, and longing.
Joe’s alcoholic mother leaves him all alone, for several days, when she takes off with his mean stepfather for Spain. At first, Joe feels relief due to his newfound freedom, “as if there’s electricity instead of blood in [his] veins like a superhero.” But when food and money quickly run out, while he is laying low in his inner-city flat, his reality becomes bleak. Luckily, he meets his neighbour’s granddaughter, Asha, his “maybe-one-day girlfriend” whose goodness is “so bright [he] can’t see any of the crap that’s there or the stuff that should be but isn’t.” Having a friend on his side makes Joe feel alive, loved, and able to conquer the difficult measures he must take to survive.
Nadin gave a boy a believable, unforgettable voice. Joe is a lonely, vulnerable boy you will root for every step of the way. Although his story tugs at your heartstrings, it will also make the reader laugh and be hopeful until the very end.
Highlights: The author’s gorgeous lyrical expression and in-depth character development will make it impossible for you to stop turning the pages.
What to watch out for: Although this book is marketed for kids 9 years and older in the UK, I consider it more appropriate for kids 11 years of age and older. The author uses harsh language and sexual terms. The world she depicts is at times too cruel for younger readers.
*I’d like to thank the publishers who sent me galleys in exchange for honest reviews.*