Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle School, mythology, Tween Reads

Loki’s daughter has her say in The Monstrous Child

The Monstrous Child, by Francesca Simon, (June 2017, Faber & Faber), $11.95, ISBN: 9780571330270

Recommended for ages 12+

Being the daughter of a giantess and the god of mischief is hard enough, but being born as a half-corpse on top of it? No wonder Hel, daughter of Loki and Angrboda, has a chip on her shoulder. Her older brothers are a snake and a wolf, her half-brothers are human – but they’re jerks, and her father’s no prize, whether or not he’s a Marvel and Tumblr heartthrob in another universe.

So goes the story of Francesca Simon’s The Monstrous Child. Narrated by Hel herself, it’s Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology for the middle school set. We read about her anger at Odin’s casting her into Niffelheim to rule over the dead, and the pain of her unrequited love for Baldr, the most beautiful of the Norse gods. We discover her friendship with a frost giant, condemned to oversee the bridge to Hel’s realm, and the despair that leads her to consider a role in Ragnarok: The Twilight of the Gods.

I loved this book. As a fan of Norse myth and YA, I enjoyed seeing the myths from Hel’s perspective: an outcast, literally cast away from her family; forced to make her way on her own. She suffers loneliness, the pain of loving someone unavailable, and the desire for revenge. This is a perfect addition to middle school libraries, and a great way to connect ancient myths to contemporary YA. Hel’s voice is clear and strong; supporting characters also have defined personalities and the dialogue – both Hel’s internal dialogue and the dialogue between characters, particularly between Hel and Loki, is delicious.

Francesca Simon has delved into Greek and Norse myth in the past. While I’m not sure if her books The Sleeping Army and The Lost Gods are part of The Monstrous Child‘s Universe, as they take place on Midgard (Earth), I’m still going to add them to my collection to stand next to Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series, because the kids at my library read any and all things fictional myth. The Monstrous Child stands on its own as a solid work of Norse myth and middle school-level fiction. Younger readers will be familiar with Ms. Simon’s Horrid Henry intermediate series.

Originally released in hardcover in May 2016, The Monstrous Child‘s paperback release is due out in a few short weeks. You can grab a copy from your library right now!

Posted in Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

The Principal’s Underwear is Missing!

The Principal’s Underwear is Missing, by Holly Kowitt, (May 2017, Macmillan), $16.99, ISBN: 9781250091321

Recommended for ages 8-12

Ordinary sixth grader Becca Birnbaum accidentally power slams a volleyball right into eighth grade It Girl Sloan “Selfie: St. Clair, setting off a chain of events that end up with the principal’s new, very large bra missing – and with the girls being the last ones to have it in their possession

The Principal’s Underwear is Missing (originally titled The Principal’s Bra is Missing) is one of those middle school tragi-comedy of errors that middle graders love. Ordinary Girl ends up with the In Crowd, but for how long, and is everyone happy with the arrangement?

I wasn’t in love with the two main characters. Becca is the run of the mill Nerd Girl who doesn’t stand out preferring to blend in with her small group of fellow nerd friends. Sloan, called “Selfie”, thanks to her habit of shooting selfies at all the lavish parties and locales she attends, is self-absorbed to the point of mania. When Becca, desperate to make up for the volleyball accident that left Selfie in a cast, tries to retrieve a confiscated shopping bag from the principal’s office, she grabs the wrong bag and sets the story in motion. From there, Becca takes the responsibility for the whole incident, while Selfie just meanders through the novel, alternately shooting selfies and crying about being in trouble while letting Becca do all the work. Becca never makes Selfie take responsibility for her own actions, preferring to drag Selfie along on their adventure.

Look, I’m reading this as a 40-something year old Mom who worries about my kids standing up for themselves. Are middle graders going to get a kick out of this book? Yes. It’s funny, it’s got underwear humor, and a kinda-sorta unlikely friendship between two school social classes. It’s a quick read, and perfect for a beach bag take-along. But if you’re book-talking this one, talk about Selfie, taking personal responsibility, and stereotyping in middle grade books. Please.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads

From California Girl to Cemetery Girl: Sydney MacKenzie Knocks ‘Em Dead

25446348Sydney MacKenzie Knocks ‘Em Dead, by Cindy Callaghan, (March 2017, Aladdin Books), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1481465694

Recommended for readers 9-13

California almost-in crowder Sydney MacKenzie just got the worst news: her father sold his failing sporting goods retail business, and they’re moving to Buttermilk River Cove, Delaware: population 800. Her dad’s inherited the Lay to Rest cemetery, and they’ll be living in a Victorian house on the cemetery grounds. As if! Desperate to be the cool girl, Sydney tries putting on her best California Girl airs, but the Delaware kids are remarkably unimpressed – but they are impressed by her new digs. Movie-obsessed Sydney starts out making up a creepy history of the house, but quickly discovers that her house has some real history of its own, and sets out, with the help of her new friends, to investigate.

I just didn’t love this one. I’ve liked Cindy Callaghan’s Lost in…” series, which is light and fun, but that vibe didn’t translate as well for me here. Sydney comes off as a largely vapid social climber, even as the kids around her try to teach her that it’s not about what’s on the surface. An Underground Railroad subplot feels awkwardly attached to the book to give it more depth. It’s a quick, easy read that tween girls will likely check out for the fun cover and title, but for me, this one’s an additional purchase. I’d rather add another “Lost in…” set to my collection.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads

Monstertown gets Mutant Mantis Lunch Ladies!

9781484713242Monstertown Mysteries (#2): Mutant Mantis Lunch Ladies!, by Bruce Hale, (Mar. 2017, Disney/Hyperion), $14.99, ISBN: 978-1-4847-1324-2

Recommended for readers 8-12

When we last saw Carlos and his friend Benny, they’d just saved their social studies teacher from a miserable life as a were-hyena. Just when they think it’s safe to relax, they’re… bored. Seriously, where do you go from were-animals, right? They shouldn’t have worried – the lunch ladies are acting weird. I mean, weird. They start feeding the boys junk food, and the girls… well, the boys catch a glimpse of what the girls are eating, and it looks like “greenish glop, scrambled eggs, fish sticks, and a sloppy joe thing with maybe-grasshoppers inside it”. Over the next few days, kids start disappearing – all boys – and the girls start getting very aggressive. They’re talking back, bullying kids, acting kind of like the boys do! They sneer at their male classmates and threaten to bite off their heads and suck out their insides! Carlos and Benny start investigating, and they’re pretty sure that the lunch ladies are giant preying mantises that have plans for both the girls and boys in their neighborhood, but who’s going to believe them?

The second Monstertown Mystery is just as much fun as the first one, with more laughs and a lot more gross humor. (Seriously, put down that snack or that sandwich while you read this. You’re welcome.) There’s some nice social commentary about sexism, even if it comes with the whole female-biting-a-male’s-head-off sort of thing; a particularly strong statement by Carlos’ friend Tina toward the book’s conclusion. Put this out with your Goosebumps books, your Lovecraft Middle School books, and your Haunted Mansion novel (when are we getting another volume of that?) and watch the kids swarm. Mutant Mantis Lunch Ladies! comes with a lenticular cover, just like The Curse of the Were-Hyena did, for transformation fun.

Come on, this is a no-brainer add to collections.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Humor, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads

Back to Stately Academy for Secret Coders: Secrets and Sequences

secret-coders_1Secret Coders: Secrets and Sequences, by Gene Luen Yang/Illustrated by Mike Holmes, (March 2017, First Second), $10.99, ISBN: 9781626720770

Recommended for ages 8-12

The third installment of the Secret Coders series picks up right where Paths and Portals leaves off: our heroes, Hopper, Eni, and Josh have to code their way out of trouble with Principal Dean, who’s not only a creep, but a creep who’s thrown in with a super-bad guy, Professor One-Zero, who was also one of Professor Bee’s best students way back when. There are more codes to program, more turtles to run, and an evil plot to foil.

This has been a fun STEM series; explaining coding through the graphic novel format is a great idea, allowing kids to help reason out how things work and run. Readers are invited to download activities to expand their learning. This series makes for a great computer club activity and a great comic book club discussion group topic. Put this one with your Scratch and Ruby programming books, and if you have the chance to get the kids in your life, library, or classroom coding, do it! You will be happy you did.

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Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

A girl tries to bring her family back together in The Haunted House Project

haunted-houseThe Haunted House Project, by Tricia Clasen, (Oct. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781510707122

Recommended for ages 8-12

When Andie’s mom died in a tragic accident, she left a huge hole in her family. Andie’s dad drifts from job to job, spending more time drinking and gambling away their insurance money. Andie’s older sister, Paige, holds down a diner job in addition to being a high school student, just to make sure there’s food on the table. Andie’s having a harder time holding it together at school, and teachers are starting to notice. Seemingly left on her own most of the time, Andie  comforts herself with ghost stories; she wants desperately to believe that there’s a way she can reach out to her mother, somehow. When Isaiah, her science partner, suggests they study paranormal activity for their project, Andie gets a spark of inspiration: what if she were to haunt her family’s home, making them believe her mother was reaching out to them? Would it bring them back together? She sprays perfume, leaves objects and writes messages around the house, hoping to get a reaction from her father and sister. Whether or not it will be the reaction she wants remains to be seen.

The Haunted House Project is a touching story of grief and loss, and one girl’s attempt to bring her mother back the only way she knows how.  She grieves not only for her mother, but the normalcy of everyday life. It’s an honest look at a girl coming of age under difficult circumstances; it’s a look at how friendships can change, and it’s a story about one child trying to repair her broken family. Readers will feel sympathy for Andie; some will, empathize with her, and most readers will understand the desperation of wanting. This is a strong yet gentle work of fiction that will go well with Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads

Explore The Matchstick Castle

matchstickThe Matchstick Castle, by Keir Graff, (Jan. 2017, GP Putnam & Sons), $16.99, ISBN: 9781101996225

Recommended for ages 9-13

Brian is on track to having the worst summer EVER. His widowed dad has the chance of a lifetime, doing research at the South Pole. His brother is staying with a friend while his dad’s away. Brian’s being shipped off to Boring, Illinois, to stay with his Uncle Gary, Aunt Jenny, and know-it-all cousin, Nora. To add insult to injury, Uncle Gary’s developed a summer school computer program, Summer’s Cool, and is making Brian and Nora keep actual school hours to prevent the dreaded “summer slide”. Just when Brian wants to tear his hair out from boredom, he and Nora discover a house in the woods beyond Uncle Gary’s property. Cosmo van Dash, the boy who lives there, calls the house The Matchstick Castle, and he lives there with his eccentric family – explorers, writers, thinkers, dreamers – and invites Brian and Nora on adventures where they’ll explore the house to recover a lost uncle, run from wild boars and trap giant Amazon bees. A fanatically boring bureaucrat wants to tear the Matchstick Castle to put up another – well, boring – housing development, but Brian, Nora, and the van Dash family will fight to secure their castle.

This story is way too much fun. Told in the first person from Brian’s point of view, we get a narrator who is having the worst summer ever. He’s a sympathetic character: we get only enough information about his family to know that his mother has died, his father is a very permissive parent, and he’s put into a situation that threatens to squash all the fun and creativity out of his life in favor of being safe and predictable. Boring, just like the Illinois town where he’s enduring the summer. The Matchstick Castle and the family that lives there helps bring color and life back to Brian’s world and, in doing so, brings him closer to his cousin, Nora, while also giving Nora permission to let loose and have fun. Tweens will love the van Dashes. It’s a good opportunity to share fun and crazy family stories as a writing or collage exercise, too. I hope this one shows up on summer reading lists; it’s a perfect summertime read.