The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

This is a quiet story that focuses on friendship, getting along with others, and a small mystery.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest level: grades 3-5
YHBA nominee
4 out of 5 stars

Owen Jester is the main character in this story, and he inhabits a fairly small, contained world. He lives in Carter, Georgia, and spends most of his time with his two close friends, Travis and Stumpy. The three friends try to avoid the annoying girl next door, Viola, who thinks she knows everything. The characters in the story are written in a way that is real and genuine. I couldn’t help but root for Owen Jester.

Owen and his friends spend time at the pond behind their house, exploring the railroad tracks, and hanging out in the hay loft of Owen’s barn. They aren’t supposed to be going to any of those places, but the lure for the boys is stronger than the fear of getting in trouble.

One night, as Owen lies in bed, he listens to the steady sound of the train that passes each night. Except on this night, Owen hears other sounds…a thud, the crack of wood, and a tumble, tumble, tumble sound. The plot of the story has Owen focusing on two things — the giant bullfrog that Owen caught and named Tooley, and trying to figure out what the strange sound was.

There is some action as the boys search for whatever made the sounds in the night, but for the most part, the story focuses more on the schemes and plans that the boys concoct. The action is contained to a few locations and only the few main characters. There is lots going on, but in a subtle way.

This story would make a good read aloud, with lots of opportunities to discuss what motivates characters to act in certain ways, and to note the changes characters undergo throughout the story.

Beatrice Zinker Upside Down Thinker

Aimed at young readers transitioning into chapter books, Beatrice Zinker is a quirky child with a friendship problem.

Beginning chapter book, fiction
Interest level: grades 1 through 3
4 out of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of books that are written for readers who are ready to transition from picture books to chapter books. Beatrice Zinker is 155 pages long, and almost every page features some type of drawing to break up the text. It is not overwhelming and can help readers build stamina.

Some of the text is written in a rhyming style, but the majority is prose. I must say that I was a little scared at first that the entire book rhymed, which would get old!

Beatrice is a child who thinks outside the box. “Beatrice does her best thinking upside down” is a tagline that is often used to promote the story. For Beatrice, the “upside down” is both literal and figurative. She loves to climb trees and hang by her knees, and she doesn’t necessarily think like her classmates, or want to participate in the same type of activities.

When her best friend Lenny returns to school at the end of the summer and has a new friend, this causes some turmoil in Beatrice’s life. Lenny wants to try new things, and Beatrice had planned on things being the same way they were before.

Beatrice will have to use some of her upside-down thinking to come up with a way to maintain her friendship with Lenny, but without sacrificing her fun and funky spirit.

The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown

Mya Tibbs is a young lady with a huge personality who is facing a friendship crisis…sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between a friend and a bully.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest level: grades 3 through 5
YHBA 2017-2018 intermediate grade nominee
3 out of 5 stars

Mya Tibbs is a 4th grader who lives in Texas and loves the rodeo. Her idols are Annie Oakley and Cowgirl Claire. She wears cowboy boots to school, braids her hair to match the calendar, and has a best friend named Naomi. Or does she? Spirit Week Showdown is a story that focuses on friendships, gossip, and misunderstandings that can happen when people don’t really know each other.

Many parts of the story felt very real for characters this age. Mya and her friends struggle with wanting to be popular and with the changing nuances of friendships as new relationships develop. Topics of bullying and gossip are also a central part of the story.

I struggled somewhat with the way Mya deals with her actions as she comes to realize that Naomi is not the friend she thought she was. The reader understands that Mya is changing from a person who is concerned with popularity to someone who understands friendship, but in the story Mya herself never really apologizes to the people she has wronged. At one point she admits to making a big mistake, but then immediately starts whining about how she is now suffering because she can no longer take part in Spirit Week. To me, this did not display the character growth that I felt we were supposed to see in Mya.

Overall, Mya is an engaging character with loads of personality. The themes in the story — bullying, rumors, and friendship — are important topics for young readers to explore, and this story makes a good inroad to those topics.

Edge of Extinction series: The Ark Plan and Code Name Flood

The Edge of Extinction series is an exciting middle grade adventure that is a cross between Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games.

Chapter book, fiction, sci fi
2 book series: The Ark Plan and Code Name Flood
Interest level: grades 3 through 7
5 out of 5 stars

Warning: Do not begin reading book 1 of this series unless you have book 2 available and ready to go!

The Ark Plan is book one in the two-book Edge of Extinction series. The setting and characters are interesting, and the action-packed plot will engage all types of readers.

The setting of the Edge of Extinction series is in the future, when dinosaurs again roam the earth. Sky has spent her entire life in an underground compound because life topside is not habitable. One of the strengths of this series is that it is dystopian fiction for upper elementary and middle grade readers. Most dystopian fiction is geared toward high school readers, so it is great to have more in this genre that is appropriate for the younger crowd.

Sky Mundy is a 12-year-old girl who is strong, spunky, and has a snarky sense of humor. Her father mysteriously disappeared five years earlier, and her mother is not alive, so Sky relies heavily on her best friend Shawn. Shawn is more cautious than Sky, but he is great at supporting her. Sky is a strong female lead who has strong beliefs, but is willing to have those beliefs challenged. She doesn’t need to be protected by a male, she is certainly not a helpless girl, but she recognizes the strengths her friends have and that they are stronger together.

Events in the story have Sky and Shawn venturing topside. The plot is full of action and suspense, and there are tons of interaction with dinosaurs and bad guys with guns. This book keeps you hanging on the edge of your seat, and the plot is full of surprises.

Readers who like dinosaurs or dystopian fiction will enjoy The Ark Plan and Code Name Flood. The author originally wrote the story as one book, so beware that book one ends in a cliffhanger. I immediately began book two because I could not wait to see how the story continued and concluded!

My Diary from the Edge of the World

This is a very original story that combines fantasy and reality in a book about family, life, and death.

Chapter book, fiction, fantasy
Interest level: grades 4 through 7
YHBA 2017-2018 intermediate nominee
5 out of 5 stars

The strengths of this book lie in a very unique setting and a cast of characters who show a family in all of its good times and weaknesses.

The setting is a version of Earth with a twist. The world that the Lockwood family lives on has many of the features we know — towns, forests, Taco Bells, Maine, the Grand Canyon — but it’s a flat earth. And it is inhabited by every mythical, fantastical, or supernatural being you can think of. Dragons, sasquatch, mermaids, ghosts, giants, fairies, unicorns, and Medusa inhabit the US.

The story starts to unfold as we learn that Dark Clouds visit people and take them away when it is time for them to die. A Dark Cloud has come and is sitting outside the Lockwood home.

Gracie is the main character and narrator of the story. The story is told somewhat in diary form, but Gracie tells us near the beginning that she is going to try to make it sound more like a novel. so while each chapter begins with a new date, the text doesn’t read like stereotypical “Dear Diary” entries.

Gracie’s family consists of her older sister, younger brother, mother, and quirky father. The father is a meteorologist who loves science and physics, and often lives in his own brain. When the Dark Cloud shows up, the family knows that it has come for Sam, Gracie’s younger brother. Mr. Lockwood believes they can save Sam from the Dark Cloud by traveling to the edges of the world and then jumping off to the Extraordinary World, which we come to learn is the Earth we live in, without mythical creatures and Dark Clouds.

As the family undertakes this journey, they must learn a lot about themselves as individuals, but also who they are as a team. Is Mr. Lockwood crazy and grasping straw in his belief of an Extraordinary World? Will they be able to save Sam?

This is a longer novel, 419 pages, but it is full of suspense, action, and humor. Readers who enjoy fantasy might enjoy this book, but it is also about life, love and family, so reality fiction fans will enjoy it too.

A 4th grade student bought this book at the book fair, and then returned a few days later to buy an additional copy. She had enjoyed the book so much, consumed it in two days, and wanted an additional copy to share with her friends. I highly recommend My Diary from the Edge of the World.

My Diary from the Edge of the World
by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Scholastic, 2015
ISBN 978-1-338-04508-6

Serafina and the Black Cloak

This is a spooky read for upper elementary or middle grade readers.

Chapter book, fantasy
Interest level: grades 4 and up
YHBA nominee
3 out of 5 stars

The pluses — The setting is the Biltmore Estate, which is perfect for the story. The old mansion has many secret passages that make the idea of ghosts and the mystical seem real. The plot is very original. Children are disappearing from the Estate, and Serafina witnesses a man in a black cloak consume them within the folds of the cloak. Can she save the young master of the estate, who it seems is next?

The cons — At times the text seemed very repetitious. Similar thoughts and ideas kept being repeated and the phrase “as if” was used over 50 times.

Overall, children who want to read something spooky might enjoy this story.

Fuzzy Mud

There’s a lot packed into this short intermediate/middle grade novel from Louis Sachar. In 181 pages, Sachar creates a plausible biohazard mystery that is focused on a well-developed central character, tackles tough topics such as divorce, bullying, environmental issues, and Hobson’s Choice, having to choose between two bad options.

Chapter book, fiction, suspense, mystery, environment
Interest level: grades 4-7; Reading level: 5.0
4 out of 5 stars

Tamaya is a fifth grader at a private school in Pennsylvania. She is dealing with her parents’ divorce, and with the hard parts of moving from childhood into preadolescence. Tamaya isn’t allowed to walk home from school alone, but her older friend Marshall isn’t thrilled with her tagging along with him.

One day, Marshall takes a shortcut through the woods behind the school. He is trying to avoid a fight with the school bully, Chad. Tamaya is worried because they are not supposed to go into the woods, but she follows along. This detour sets into play a series of events that puts Tamaya, Marshall, and Chad in serious danger.

The kids stumble across fuzzy mud puddles in the woods. Strangely, even though it is getting colder and the trees are shedding their leaves, no leaves lie on top of the fuzzy mud. After Tamaya gets home that evening, she realizes that where some of the strange mud got on her hand, she has a tingling sensation and rash. When Chad is missing from school the next day, the story picks up tempo and pulls the reader into the intrigue and suspense that seems to surround the strange mud.

Fuzzy Mud features short chapters that alternate between Tamaya’s story and testimony from a U.S. Senate inquiry into a form of alternative energy called Biolene. The testimony portion of the novel may be slightly confusing to some young readers, but they should get the gist. Scientists, looking for a clean form of energy to power the planet, developed man-made microorganisms that can be burned as clean fuel. But is it safe?

What I really liked about Fuzzy Mud was that Sachar didn’t hold back in providing difficult topics or positions for his young readers to tackle. He presents the idea that science, even sometimes with the best intentions, can sometimes be bad for people or the environment, and lawmakers need to determine if some bad is okay for the greater good of society. Hobson’s Choice.

He also crafts multi-dimensional characters that are very real. Chad, the bully in the story, is
not a sympathetic character in the beginning, yet Sachar thrusts him into a role that shows his vulnerabilities. His victims have to decide whether they will help him at a time when he is showing his ugliest side. Again, Sachar puts his characters in difficult positions that require young readers to think about how they might react.

This book would be good for students who like suspense or mysteries, or who are interested in environmental issues. Its shorter length makes it appealing to a wide audience. The length and tough questions that readers encounter make this an optimal class read-aloud for 5th grade and up.

Fuzzy Mud
by Louis Sachar
Delacorte Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-385-74378-5