Vega is a girl who’s not thrilled with summer vacation this year. Her parents have moved her from Portland, Oregon, to a new life in Seattle, and she’s miserable. She’s left behind her best friend, Halley, and to add insult to injury, her dads are sending her off to Camp Very Best Friend, hoping she’ll make some new friends. When the Camp VBF bus pulls up, Vega’s got a strange feeling about this camp… and it only gets weirder once she and the other campers arrive! Cell phones don’t work, and the counselors are just… different. Together with fellow campers Qwerty (like the keyboard), and twins Gemma and Isaac, Vega decides to get to the bottom of this odd camp in a hilarious story about making friends! Early in the story, Vega Googles how to make friends; each piece of advice she receives heads a different chapter, giving readers a humorous idea of what to expect. The characters are likable, and dialogue and story move at a good pace, and readers are going to love this summer camp story. Artwork is colorful with cartoon-realistic characters, similar to Raina Telgemeier and Shannon Hale’s characters. A good book to hand to introverts – Camp VBF is filled with kids who don’t find it that easy to make friends, until they’re put into the unusual situation that sets the stage for this story. Vega is interested in astronomy, Qwerty relates to computers “better than people”, and Gemma and Isaac are all about rocks and minerals, so there’s a nice little STEM/STEAM thread quietly running through the story. A fun summer story that satisfies wanderlust.
The second book in graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown’s Space-Time graphic novel series returns Jide, Petra, and their intergalactic student body on board the Potato, their orbiting classroom. This latest mission involves students visiting their home planets, giving Jide and Petra more insight and involvement with new populations. A prank war goes awry, and Commander G is along for the ride. Fast-paced dialogue and jokes make up the lion’s share of the story, with some smart insights into how humans and folx from other worlds are alike yet hilariously different, and a side discussion about hurt feelings resulting from escalating pranks encourage readers to put themselves in others’ people place… at least for a moment. It’s a fun story that celebrates fun. Great for travel themed summer reading!
You know Jeffrey Brown’s comics: Star Wars Jedi Academy, Lucy and Andy Neanderthal, and Darth Vader and Son are just a few of them. He writes for both kids and grown-ups; visit his website for more information about his books.
Eleven-year-old Harry Mancini lives at Harry Houdini’s old address, so he’s learned quite a bit about the magician. But when someone leaves him a mysterious old flip phone, and someone calling himself Houdini starts texting himself on it, Harry thinks someone has to be playing a prank on him, but the texter knows way too much about Houdini, and Harry’s current apartment… is he really Houdini, and how did he find a way to text from beyond the grave? As the two exchange text conversations, Houdini lays out his plan: he wants to come back and experience life again, and in return, he’ll make Harry famous. But there are always strings attached, aren’t there?
Dan Gutman is already a celebrity in my home and my library for books like his My Weird School and The Genius Files series, and Homework Machine. He has a way of writing that kids relate to so well; it’s like having another kid level with them, and they love it. Houdini and Me has that same first-person narration and conversational voice that kids love, rapid-fire dialogue between characters, and a solid history lesson Harry Houdini, magic, and the early 20th century, that kids will enjoy, too. It’s an interesting take on Harry Houdini – this would make a good reading group book.
Check out Dan Gutman’s author website, loaded with resources, including his My Weird Read-Aloud, excerpts, and information about virtual school visits. Houdini and Me is on the Indie Next List.
What happens when a comics superfan discovers that she IS her favorite superhero? That’s what happens to orphaned Pepper Page, a high schooler who loves her Supernova comics more than anything: she can rattle off major storylines, lament retcons and canon versus headcanon and fancanon with the best of us fangirls, but imagine if you woke up one day to find a supreme being telling you that you’re really Wonder Woman, and all these comics have been chronicling your adventures? It’s a little much for Pepper to handle; thank goodness she’s got her cat companion and her two best friends to help out. When they aren’t under a supervillain’s influence, that is. Comics fans will love the nods to comics fan favorites like Peter David and the iconic Jack Kirby; there are tips of the hat to Golden and Silver Age comics throughout the story, and this is just a great new series to get in on right now. Parents and caregivers, read along with your tweens and share your comics knowledge! I know I will. Have Zita the Spacegirl fans? Get them reading this series immediately.
Pepper Page Saves the Universe has a starred review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
Finally, right? Here is my little contribution to the holiday season’s gift guides: a few of these over the next couple of weeks, as I try to match my Reader’s Advisory skills with my love of gifty books and book-adjacent goodies.
If you haven’t played with Paul Farrell’s Build a Castle, you have been missing out, but no worries: just in time for the holidays, he’s released Build a Skyscraper, the next in his series of graphic-designed cards that let you and your kiddos create the skyscraper of your dreams. The box contains 64 cards with slots cut to let you build and expand your building in any way you like. Add glass, decorative elements and flourishes, and build up or out. It’s all up to your little one! Perfect for stocking stuffers, this is great for hours of play and you can build a new skyscraper each time. An 8-page booklet contains some inspiration and descriptions of skyscraper elements. Get out the minifigs and let them move into a new neighborhood!
Elevator Up card game, (2020), $9.99
Created by a 17-year-old, Elevator Up is – in the words of creator Harrison Brooks – “kid-created, kid-designed, kid-marketed, kid-shipped, and kid-loved card game”. It’s pretty easy to pick up, fast-paced, and way too much fun to play. The goal is to be the first player to get rid of all your cards as your elevator rides through a building. You can use cards to get your opponents stuck, sent back down to the lobby, or have the doors closed on them. There are a lot of laughs to be had – my Kiddo loves closing the door on his older brothers – and the chance for friendly trash talk is high. Support indie game makers and kid creators, give this one a look. For more information, check out the game website at PlayElevatorUp.com.
This book is just amazing, perfect for the reader always looking for new worlds and new adventures. Taken from the “found” journals of the late theoretical physicist Dawn Gable, the book is an armchair adventure: writing, drawings, research, and keepsakes from Dr. Gable’s nightly journeys into fantastic worlds: Asgard, Camelot, The Lost City of Kôr, and a city of machines, Meganopolis, are only a handful of the worlds explored here. Fantasy artwork brings readers from the fantasy of Camelot, with knights and shields, to the steampunk mechanical world of Meganopolis; dragons fly around Wyvern Alley, with fantastic beasts sketched on journal pages to delight and entice, and the ancient ruins of Atlantis wait for readers in its underwater kingdom, with squid and nautiluses. Perfect for your fantasy fans and anyone who loves the “Ology” series by Dugald Steer. Books like this are a gateway to more reading, so have some Tales of Asgard and Thor on hand, Gulliver’s Travels, or Tales of King Arthur handy.
Mars Patel is a middle schooler with a penchant for getting in trouble. He and his friend, Aurora, love pranks and practical jokes that land them in detention, but when Aurora disappears – followed by his friend, Jonas – Mars is determined to find out what happened. All signs are pointing toward Oliver Pruitt, a tech genius (think Elon Musk) and Mars’s hero. Pruitt runs an elite school for the best and brightest; a school that Mars’s own school tests for every year, and he has a podcast that seems to be dropping hints tailor-made for Mars. Mars and his group of friends – Toothpick, JP, and Caddie – start digging and investigating, which puts them on Pruitt’s radar, and that’s when the kids learn that Oliver Pruitt may not be the benevolent mentor everyone thinks he is. Based on an award-winning podcast, this is the first in a series that mixes mystery, sci-fi, and a little touch of the paranormal.
There is so much going on in this book that I didn’t want it to end! Mars and his friends are a great group of kids; well-written and fully realized on the page. There’s a lot happening that we don’t know about in this first volume: what does Mars’s mom do for a living, for starters? All roads in this book lead to Oliver Pruitt. There’s science, conspiracy theories, and, at its heart, an engrossing character-driven story told in narrative, e-mails, and text messages. The end will leave you impatiently waiting for the next volume, and I’ve just subscribed to the podcast to learn more. A definite win for bookshelves and readers.
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel has a starred review from School Library Journal. You can read a sample and get a free, downloadable discussion guide at Candlewick’s website.
Agnes Goodwin is a 12-year-old girl living in Pleasant Grove, a small town where families live in peace… and under a glass dome. The adults are all keeping a secret from the kids of Pleasant Grove, and Agnes is determined to find out what that secret is, especially after spotting a strange boy in a field one day. There are no new families in Pleasant Grove, you see; and when word of the boy gets out, the adults are determined to find him. Agnes, her brother, Charlie, and her group of friends set out to find the boy, see the alleged “wasteland” beyond the dome, and learn the secrets of Pleasant Grove for once and for all, but are they prepared for the truth?
Keeping readers guessing from the beginning, Pleasant Grove is a little bit Stephen King’s Under the Dome, a little bit Stranger Things, and a splash of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. I thought the narrative was going in one direction, but I was wrong: the plot twists were unexpected and clever, keeping me wondering until the very end. Agnes is a smart, capable character who is determined to get to the bottom of the Pleasant Grove mystery; her brother and her friends have strong personalities that readers will take to and identify with, whether it’s the timid friend, the smart-aleck friend, or the protective older brother who still isn’t sure about the whole business. Good for tweens and early teen readers who enjoy being kept off balance with their sci-fi/fantasy/horror thrillers and dystopian fiction.
(This review and ISBN are the paperback version. The hardcover was released in October 2019.)
Taking place in a time and world where gods were earthbound monsters who killed themselves in battle, Deeplight is set on an island named for one of these gods, Lady’s Crave, where the inhabitants scavenge the waters for pieces of the gods, referred to as “godware”, imbued with small but noticeable power. Hark, a 14-year old orphan, and his best friend, Jelt, are petty crooks who get involved in schemes of varying illegality. Hark is caught and sold to a godware “expert’, Dr. Vyne, as an indentured servant; she puts him to work in a home for the aging priests, to find out what he can about the gods and where key pieces and archives remain. Meanwhile, Jelt hasn’t let go of his hold on Hark, and convinces him to go on one more expedition, where Hark discovers a pulsing piece of godware that has healing powers. But nothing comes without a cost, and healing Jelt sets events into motion that will have huge repercussions.
I love Frances Hardinge’s work. She creates wonderfully creepy stories; Deeplight adds a level of eldritch horror with a dash of steampunk and takes the conversation to a new level, throwing in themes of idolatry, greed, and the part fear plays in holding onto belief. Each character is fully realized, with backstory and motivation; whether or not they’re likable is entirely up to you – but you will never forget them. I’ll be gushing about this book for a long time. Frances Hardinge is the author you give your Mary Downing Hahn fans when they’re ready for more. Give this to your horror fans, your steampunk fans, and slide it in front of any HP Lovecraft fans you may have come across.
I finally got to read Sal and Gabi Break the Universe for the 2019 Cybils earlier this year, and WOW. I loved it all: the Cuban-American characters and cultural references; the great storytelling and witty dialogue; the wild magic-meets-science; the overwhelming power of family, in all its forms, that comes through the story. When I had the chance to read an advanced reader copy of the sequel, Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, I jumped for it!
You had to know, if you read the first book, that Sal and Gabi’s second adventure is even more fun than the first. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that events in Break the Universe have reverberations in Fix the Universe. Sal’s calamity physicist father and Dad: The Final Frontier, one of Gabi’s dads, have been working on a machine that can fix the wormholes Sal creates. This causes some problems, as a rogue alternate Gabi arrives on the scene to warn Sal about. Meanwhile, bully Yasmany has gone missing from school, adding another mystery for the two to solve. American Stepmom, the Gabi-Dads, and Principal Torres are all back, joined by Rogue Gabi and a self-aware bathroom. There’s more non-stop action, hilarious dialogue and more creativity from the Culeco Academy crew as they work to put on a school show in the middle of everything. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.