The Voyagers series

The Voyagers series is full of action and likable characters. Not overly challenging, this would be a good series to recommend to students who want a a quick and enjoyable read.

Chapter book, science fiction
Interest level: grades 4 through 6
4 out of 5 stars

The Voyagers series consists of six books, each written by a different author. There are story threads that carry on throughout all of the books, and each book features adventures on a different planet. The story could be categorized as dystopian fiction for upper elementary readers. The eight main characters of the story, all under the age of 15, must travel to distant planets to obtain six elements needed to create an energy source that will save the inhabitants of earth, which is running out of fossil fuels.

I started reading this series because book one, Project Alpha was a 2017-2018 Young Hoosier Book Award nominee. D.J. McHale wrote the first book, and while he is popular with many readers, I felt the characters were rather two-dimensional and didn’t feel fully developed. I am happy to report that in subsequent books the characters were developed more and I was able to engage with them and wanted to follow their adventures to the end.

It was interesting to read a series that was written by a variety of authors. There were some authors whose writing I personally enjoyed more than others, and I feel that they all worked well together to tell further the plot.

I recommend this book for upper elementary readers who enjoy science fiction, or who are looking for adventure and excitement in a quicker read.

Book Scavenger

This book is such fun with all of the puzzles and ciphers. It’s also a great story about friendship, family, and love of literature.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest level: grades 4 and up
YHBA 2017-2018 intermediate nominee
5 out of 5 stars

Emily and her family has just moved to San Francisco. Emily’s parents have a goal of living in all 50 states, so while Emily is used to moving constantly and usually without any notice, she is not used to making friends. She figures why bother getting attached, since she won’t be staying anywhere.

So it is very different for her when she discovers that the boy who lives upstairs, James, shares her love of puzzles. Emily and James quickly become friends and Emily introduces James to her favorite pastime — playing the Book Scavenger game. Book Scavenger is an online game where participants hide books and then post clues and map locations for others players. The creator of the game, Garrison Griswold, lives in San Francisco, so Emily is thrilled to move to this new city.

The story begins with Garrison Griswold being attacked and a book he was going to use to begin a new scavenger game gets lost. As Griswold lies unconscious in the hospital, Emily and James discover the book, recognize it as one of Griswold’s puzzles, and are determined to solve it. So are the bad guys, which sets up tension as they are searching for the the children they know have the book.

There are similarities to the Mr. Lemoncello books by Chris Grabenstein, with puzzles and ciphers being scattered throughout the story. What makes Book Scavenger a story with depth are the growing friendships, family issues, and historical details that Jennifer Chambliss Bertman has incorporated.

Emily struggles to understand and navigate the dynamics of one of her first good friends ever. She and James have a falling out that makes her examine who she is and what her priorities are. She also confronts her brother who is no longer as close to her as he once was, and ultimately she lets her parents know how she feels about the constant moving. Emily really grows as a character, and many of her struggles can make the reader think about their own actions and feelings.

Bertman has included a lot of information about San Francisco, as well as historical writers, including Edgar Allen Poe. The information is presented in a way that is authentic to the story and educational at the same time.

The strong characters and plot, as well as the fascinating world of ciphers and puzzles, make this a well-written story that will be popular with many young readers.

The Book Scavenger game is also a real online game. You can participate by going to

Voyagers: Project Alpha

The first book in a series about four teens who must save the world.

Chapter book, fiction
Interest level: grades 4-6
YHBA 2017-2018 intermediate grade nominee
3 out of 5 stars

The plot of this series is something that will really appeal to upper elementary age readers. It features four teen protagonists, space travel, puzzles, adventure, and a lot of suspense. It falls within the realm of dystopian fiction, set in the bleak future where the earth is about to run out of fossil fuel.

Project Alpha is book one of the Voyagers series. The series will eventually have six books, each written by a different children’s author. This first book is written by D.J. MacHale, who wrote Pendragon. This format is very similar to the popular 39 Clues series, and like that one, there is also an online component that will interest readers.

The story starts with eight tweens reporting to a top-secret training camp. They are the finalists in a search for some of the smartest people who want to experience space travel and save the earth, which is about to run out of fuel. A possible fuel source has been located in a distant galaxy and four of the tweens will be trained to retrieve it.

The book is divided into two parts — the first part focuses on the final trials to determine who the four will be, and the second part focuses on their initial travel into space.

I definitely believe that the Voyager series will appeal to many readers. Personally, I was disappointed in book one. We learn very little about the eight characters, aside from who they are in some of the trials. There is no back story to provide motivation for why these eight want to participate in the project, and there is little personal interaction between the characters. Overall, the characters felt flat and two-dimensional.

There are plenty of suspenseful scenes, but I never really felt immersed in the story. Instead of watching a movie in my mind while reading, I felt as if I was watching a news report — some live action scenes, but then a lot of a narrator telling me what the author wanted me to know. I am not sure that I will invest myself into the six-book series.

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.

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.

Dragon and Captain

Dragon and Captain is a fun story that celebrates the power of imagination and play.

Picture book, fiction
Interest level: K-3; Reading level: 1.4
YHBA Picture Book nominee 2017
5 out of 5 stars

There are so many things to love about Dragon and Captain — the bright illustrations, the celebration of imagination, a good friendship story, the graphic novel style format, and … who doesn’t love pirates and dragons!

The story begins with a young boy, dressed in a partial dragon costume, enjoying a bowl of cereal, when he suddenly notices there is a pirate playing in his sandbox. After introducing himself to the pirate, the dragon discovers that he is not a pirate, but just a regular captain who has lost his ship. The dragon, while slightly disappointed that he is not a pirate captain, takes charge and comes up with a plan to help the captain find his lost ship.
What makes this story outstanding is the flow and timing of the illustrations. The story switches back and forth between depicting two boys playing dragon and captain to the story being ABOUT a dragon and a captain. This follows the way a child’s imagination perceives the world as they play. They no longer see themselves as wearing a costume and playing a part, they become the part and the way they see the world changes to accommodate immersing themselves in play.

Lucas Turnbloom utilizes graphic novel style panels to keep readers on track as they read the story. He flawlessly melds the worlds of real and make believe while keeping the plot moving forward. At no point does the storyline stop progressing.

The bright and cartoon-like illustrations capture your attention, and the strength of the story will keep young and older readers engaged. This would make a fun read-aloud, especially if done with different voices for the characters. It could also be adapted into a 4-person readers theater production.
As an aside from the wonder of the story and illustrations, I want to note that I really appreciate the way the parents are depicted. The story primarily features the two kids playing, but in the background we see two female figures talking while one puts laundry onto an outdoors clothesline. My first thought was that the wife/mothers in the story had been placed in some 1950s-style role. However, this is balanced by the end of the story where the father/husband is inside cooking the meal. While this isn’t really integral to the plot, I appreciate books that don’t stereotype male/female roles with dad as the breadwinner and mom taking care of the domestic tasks. Kudos for parents sharing in household tasks!

Dragon and Captain
written by P.R. Attabach; illustrated by Lucas Turnbloom
Flashlight Press, 2015
ISBN 978-1-9362613-3-8

The Bear Report

A young girl undertakes a magical journey as she is working on a school report about polar bears.

Picture book, fiction
Interest level: K-3; Reading level: 1.2
YHBA picture book nominee, 2017-2018
5 out of 5 stars

The book opens with a young girl who is hurries through a book report on polar bears so she can watch TV. She writes three things: they are big; they eat things; they are mean.
Suddenly, a polar bear is crowded onto a chair in her living room. He informs her, “We’re not all mean.” Thus begins a wonderful excursion where Sophie visits Olafur’s environment and begins to learn that there’s a lot more beauty, excitement, and interesting facts about polar bears than she originally thought.
With sparse text and stunning watercolor and pencil illustrations, Thyra Heder provides a few facts about polar bears, but more importantly she inspires a wonder for more knowledge. The story ends with Sophie actively researching and creating tons of notes and illustrations about polar bears, but I believe that the true magic of this book is that it could be read to young children as an engagement activity to get them interested in their own arctic animal research.

There is a brief Author’s Note in the back that talks about the author’s trip to Iceland and what inspiration she found there. Additionally, many kudos to Abrams for responsibly sourcing the paper for the book!

The Bear Report
by Thyra Heder
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015
ISBN 978-1-4197-0783-4