Review: Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard

beetle boy by m.g. leonard

The glorious start to a middle-grade trilogy about a brilliant boy, his loyal friends, and some amazingly intelligent beetles that brings together adventure, humor, and real science!

Darkus Cuttle’s dad mysteriously goes missing from his job as Director of Science at the Natural History Museum. Vanished without a trace! From a locked room! So Darkus moves in with his eccentric Uncle Max and next door to Humphrey and Pickering, two lunatic cousins with an enormous beetle infestation. Darkus soon discovers that the beetles are anything but ordinary. They’re an amazing, intelligent super species and they’re in danger of being exterminated. It’s up to Darkus and his friends to save the beetles. But they’re up against an even more terrifying villain–the mad scientist of fashion, haute couture villainess Lucretia Cutter. Lucretia has an alarming interest in insects and dastardly plans for the bugs. She won’t let anyone or anything stop her, including Darkus’s dad, who she has locked up in her dungeons! The beetles and kids join forces to rescue Mr. Cuttle and thwart Lucretia.

Description taken from Goodreads.

This book was a Tweens Read August pick. Check out M.G.’s post on the blog here

I’m no huge lover of beetles or insects, but I was initially interested in M.G. Leonard’s debut because I heard it was reminiscent of the kind of writing in another book I loved as a kid but can’t remember now (has snow and a red machine on the front? anyone?) Anyway, I went into Beetle Boy with high expectations, and almost all of them were met.

Starting with what I liked, I loved the factoids on beetles! M.G. clearly loves beetles, and she worked them into the novel without making it seem unnatural. There weren’t any info-dumps, and I came to appreciate beetles over the course of the story. I went it a bit skeptical of how well that element would be handled, but I was pleasantly surprised. I grew up on movies like Antz, The Ant Bully, and A Bug’s Life, and this book brought many great memories back for me.

Along that same vein, the writing and plot were spot-on. The writing captured the feel that I was looking for. Like some of the other books I’ve reviewed lately, it had this feel of older middle-grade fiction, books that aren’t narrated in such a whimsical way. I appreciated that, and I loved getting to know the characters. Each person was nuanced, and characters were distinctive.

What I disliked had to do with writing though, as much as I loved both of the execution of this story. I can’t truly see myself recommending this story to many kids in its target audience. It’s just too out-there, I guess. It’s a fun story, but enthusiasm for reading about bugs (no matter how cool they are) doesn’t transfer easily. I’d still recommend this to lower middle-grade readers.

Overall, not a bad read by any means. I was entertained, and I enjoyed learning about beetles. However, for the most part, I probably won’t be recommending this one. 3 stars.


Review: School of the Dead by Avi

school of the dead by avi

From Newbery Medalist Avi comes the spine-tingling story of Tony Gilbert, who must solve a mystery surrounding the ghost of his uncle Charlie.

For most of Tony Gilbert’s life, he always thought of his uncle as “Weird Uncle Charlie.” That is, until Uncle Charlie moves in with Tony and his family. He’s still odd, of course—talking about spirits and other supernatural stuff—but Uncle Charlie and Tony become fast friends. Between eating ice cream and going to the movies, Tony is having more fun with Uncle Charlie than he ever could have imagined.

So when Uncle Charlie dies suddenly, Tony is devastated. So sad, in fact, he starts seeing Uncle Charlie everywhere! Tony recently transferred to the Penda School, where Uncle Charlie went as a kid. The school is eerie enough on its own without his uncle’s ghost making it worse. On top of which, rumors have been circulating about a student who went missing shortly before Tony arrived. Could that and Uncle Charlie’s ghost be related?

Full of twists and turns that get spookier by the chapter, School of the Dead is a fast-paced mystery that Avi’s fans will devour!

Description taken from Goodreads.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Avi, but the premise of School of the Dead won me over. I was curious to see what the story would be like, and I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected. However, as others have correctly noted, the twist at the end is a bit easy to guess by the middle of the novel. I’m sure mature middle-grade readers will be able to guess it fairly easily, but I still had a lot of fun with the story, so I don’t think it’ll be a major turn-off.

Even though I enjoyed the plot and the characters, two things wavered for me throughout the story. The first is the fact that the book isn’t scary. I don’t think it would be scary for anyone. It does the ghost cliché, it works within its premise, but it’s nothing shocking or wholly original.

The second is the writing. Avi’s writing doesn’t give me the voice of a middle-grader. Tony felt much older than his age much of the time. Avi’s writing tends to favor the same kind of cool detachment as Kate DiCamillo’s work. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In fact, I enjoyed it, but I don’t know how the target audience will receive it. If you’re looking for whimsical and action-packed, this isn’t the book for you.

It’s lack of originality and it’s writing made me question how easily its target audience will fall in love with it, but I know a few kids who loved books like Anya’s Ghost that could appreciate a story like this. The rest of the book was pretty solid, and I’ll be recommending it. 3 stars.

Review: The First Last Day by Dorian Cirrone

the first last day by dorian cirrone

The magic of summer comes to life in this enchanting middle grade debut about an eleven-year-old girl who must save the future by restarting time after she realizes that her wish to relive the last day of summer may not have been such a great thing after all.

What if you could get a do-over—a chance to relive a day in your life over and over again until you got it right? Would you?

After finding a mysterious set of paints in her backpack, eleven-year-old Haleigh Adams paints a picture of her last day at the New Jersey shore. When she wakes up the next morning, Haleigh finds that her wish for an endless summer with her new friend Kevin has come true. At first, she’s thrilled, but Haliegh soon learns that staying in one place—and time—comes with a price.

And when Haleigh realizes her parents have been keeping a secret, she is faced with a choice: do nothing and miss out on all the good things that come with growing up or find the secret of the time loop she’s trapped in and face some of the inevitable realities of moving on.

As she and Kevin set out to find the source of the magic paints, Haleigh worries it might be too late. Will she be able to restart time? Or will it be the biggest mistake of her life?

Description taken from Goodreads.

This concept has been multiple times over, most notably in my mind with the movie Groundhog Day, but I think The First Last Day does a good job of keeping it fresh. After all, Kevin and Haleigh are just kids, and they end up foreseeing a huge tragedy with the option to never face it. The actual plot was much more compelling than the premise gave it credit for, and I think Cirrone did an amazing job of displaying the emotional aspects of this book.

What I was even more impressed by was the magical realism. It’s easy to make average magical worlds and average realistic worlds and bring them together, but it’s difficult to make great magical worlds and great realistic worlds collide. In the story, there’s next to no disappearing parent syndrome. Kevin and Haleigh both depend on their parents a lot, and they both have really supportive adult figures in their lives. In a world where middle-grade grows increasingly unrealistic, The First Last Day was a breath of fresh air.

All in all, this was a great book that I would recommend. The writing wasn’t exceptional and the beginning was weak, but certain elements to it were fun and well thought out. The world-building and the characters were done very well, and I ending up loving the concept way more than I initially thought I would. It tugged on my heartstrings without being overly emotional, and all in all, I thought it was a well-rounded story. Will be recommending. 3 stars.

Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

el deafo by cece bell

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends.

Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school–in the hallway…in the teacher’s lounge…in the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it’s just another way of feeling different… and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

This funny perceptive graphic novel memoir about growing up hearing impaired is also an unforgettable book about growing up, and all the super and super embarrassing moments along the way.

Description taken from Goodreads.

I actually read this on the recommendation of an advanced younger reader, and I have to say, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. I can see other kids enjoying it, but the writing was just a little bit too off for me. The narration sounded stunted and awkward, and I couldn’t truly connect with Cece’s character. I sympathized with her, but I didn’t connect with her.

I think this is an amazing book to help readers learn about people with disabilities in a way that builds empathy and understanding, but outside of that, it wouldn’t be my first choice for anything. The artwork felt really awkward, and there was nothing especially beautiful or stunning about it. If anything, I laughed at many segments of it. For that, I note its humor, but I wasn’t too impressed by the art.

As for the story, this book follows Cece over the course of 4 or 5 grades. She struggles with her hearing and many different people who treat her differently because of it. She explores her disabilities, and I enjoyed following her through her ups and downs, and I wanted to hug her through it all. She gets taken advantage of or unintentioanlly made fun of by many people, and a lot of El Deafo consists of Cece learning to stand up for herself. By the end of the book, she starts learning to advocate for herself, and it was great to see that.

All in all, I would recommend this one. It’s definitely not the greatest disability book I’ve ever read, but it’s one of the first in middle-grade that deals with deafness. I think this book could do great things for younger readers, along with R.J. Palacio’s Wonder and Sharon M. Draper’s Out of My Mind. 3 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 248

Review: The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff

the executioner's daughter

A child that is born to the river shall return to the river.

All her life, Moss has lived in the Tower of London with her father, who serves as the executioner for King Henry VIII. Prisoners condemned to death must face Pa and his axe—and Moss, who holds the basket that will catch their severed heads.

Twelve years you shall have. To love her. To hold her.

With the king sending more enemies to the block each day, Moss knows she can’t bear to be the executioner’s daughter any longer. She’s desperate to see the outside world, especially the River Thames, which flows just beyond the Tower’s walls. Even the chilling stories about the Riverwitch, who snatches children from the shore, won’t stop her.

After that, the child belongs to me.

When Moss finally finds a way out of the Tower, she discovers the river holds more dangers than she imagined—including the Riverwitch’s curse. The Riverwitch once helped Moss’s family in exchange for a terrible bargain; now she expects Moss to pay the debt.

Description taken from Goodreads.

This was described as a YA read, but it’s not one. It’s undeniably middle-grade, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Executioner’s Daughter is about a little girl who grows into a teenager through the process of escaping the tower she’s lived in all her life.

The best parts to this book were the character development and the world-building, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s not interested in either one of those two things.

The character development was what drew me in, because I have no particular love of Tudor life. The Executioner’s Daughter isn’t a true adventure story in the sense of pacing and plot. It’s more about the main character’s mental journey. Once I realized that, I came to love Moss as a character. She’s strong-willed, she’s immature, she’s just a kid. By the end of the story, she matures greatly, and it was good to see that.

In that sense, this story is more traditional middle-grade than what you see these days. People who love old adventure stories may be interested in picking this one up.

But if you’re in it for the descriptions of Tudor life, you should know that the world-building is very well done. This does get a little brutal in some scenes, but it’s not that bad. If I had to name a general age range, I would say anywhere from 9 or 10 is a fitting age. The Executioner’s Daughter is a good introduction into the era, and people who love that time period won’t be disappointed.

All in all, not quite the action/adventure fantasy I was looking for, but a good read that I would recommend. The ending was pretty satisfactory for me, so I don’t know where the series will go, but I’ll be checking it out. 3 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 288

Series: The Executioner’s Daughter #1

Review: The Mighty Odds by Amy Ignatow

the mighty odds by amy ignatow

Publication Date: September 13th, 2016

When a sweet nerd, an artsy cartoonist, a social outcast, and the most popular girl in school are involved in a mysterious bus accident, this seemingly random group of kids starts to notice some very strange abilities they did not have before. Artsy Martina can change her eye color. Nerdy Nick can teleport . . . four inches to the left. Outcast Farshad develops super strength, but only in his thumbs. And Cookie, the It Girl of school’s most popular clique, has suddenly developed the ability to read minds . . . when those minds are thinking about directions. They are oddly mighty—especially together.

This group—who would never hang out under normal circumstances—must now combine all of their strengths to figure out what happened during the bus accident. With alternating narratives from each of the heroes, including illustrated pieces from Martina.

Description taken from Goodreads.

I can only describe this as the Breakfast Club for today’s middle-graders.

There were some not-so-great things about this book, but for the most part, I liked it. I love stories where unlikely characters come together, and The Mighty Odds did it right. I loved getting to know each character, and I enjoyed how Ignatow handled the cultural differences shown over the course of the novel. Everyone was distinct and unique, and I loved their individual journeys as well as the main one.

Also notable are the backstories of each character, which slowed down the pace but made them more nuanced.

My problem was with the writing. It was a little too immature. I think this would best fit kids who read mature children’s lit, or maybe low middle-grade. Some of the jokes are hilarious, but the dialogue was unnatural and it made the kids feel like book characters and not real people in the beginning.

Another thing is the format. If you’re looking for Popularity Papers format for boys, I would suggest taking a look at The Mighty Odds. The cartoons were very not my style. It looked crude and misshapen, as much as I wanted to love it.

Other than that, there were a lot of things about this book that I liked. I wasn’t expecting many of its elements, such as the emphasis on mystery and bullying. This is where the backstories become important, and it was great to see that develop. The synopsis isn’t too clear on the plot, but I enjoyed it and the ending left me wanting more.

3 stars.

Series: Mighty Odds #1

Review: Summerlost by Ally Condie

summerlost by ally condie

It’s the first real summer since the devastating accident that killed Cedar’s father and younger brother, Ben. But now Cedar and what’s left of her family are returning to the town of Iron Creek for the summer. They’re just settling into their new house when a boy named Leo, dressed in costume, rides by on his bike. Intrigued, Cedar follows him to the renowned Summerlost theatre festival. Soon, she not only has a new friend in Leo and a job working concessions at the festival, she finds herself surrounded by mystery. The mystery of the tragic, too-short life of the Hollywood actress who haunts the halls of Summerlost. And the mystery of the strange gifts that keep appearing for Cedar.

Infused with emotion and rich with understanding, Summerlost is the touching middle grade debut from Ally Condie, the international bestselling author of the Matched series, that highlights the strength of family and personal resilience in the face of tragedy.

Description taken from Goodreads.

Leo saved this book. When I wrote the sneak peek review for Summerlost, I was pretty wishy-washy as to how I felt because most of me was skeptical but part of me still wanted to love it. Besides, I didn’t get to see most of the book anyway, so I still wanted to keep an open mind.

When Leo comes into the picture in this book, he brightens everything up and brings Cedar out of her shell. The plot also gains speed as it approaches the middle. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the theater where Leo and Cedar come to work, and how Cedar finds her place there as she tries to grieve over lost family members.

The one thing that remained the same was Cedar’s mourning. The writing, while usually fluid, readable and poetic, felt forced and unnecessary during those segments. I get it, it was terrible for her to lose her father and her brother, but I didn’t feel any of the emotion that Cedar claimed to have. I sympathized with her, and yet it was like a robot was trying to explain grief to me.

All in all, not a bad book at all. It had a good ending, and I came to love many of the characters. There’s some growth, though not too much, and Cedar comes to terms with everything that’s happened. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but she truly finds herself and breaks out of this funk because of hew environment and the people around her that support her. In many ways, it resembles Leila Sales’ This Song Will Save Your Life.

While it wasn’t the best book about grief, I liked this one and will be recommending it. I was initially afraid to see another Ally Condie novel go down the drain (I was so not a fan of Atlantia) but I’d say this was a successful middle-grade debut. 3 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 272

Review: The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst

the girl who could not dream by sarah beth durst

Sophie loves the hidden shop below her parents’ bookstore, where dreams are secretly bought and sold. When the dream shop is robbed and her parents go missing, Sophie must unravel the truth to save them. Together with her best friend—a wisecracking and fanatically loyal monster named Monster—she must decide whom to trust with her family’s carefully guarded secrets. Who will help them, and who will betray them?

Description taken from Goodreads.

Despite the cover…

Oh dear.

A moment of silence for that cover.


Now, despite the cover, The Girl Who Could Not Dream is well-written and fun. I thought the concept was a new and refreshing take on the whole dream scheme. Sophie was a fantastic main character, who was neither annoying nor whiny, and this another example of a healthy book with little to no traces of Disappearing Parent Syndrome.

The plot was fun to follow, and Monster was a funny little guy. I ended up loving a lot about this book, and the only problem was that it constantly felt just a little childish for me. Not even in a whimsical way. I think that had something to do with the first impressions I garnered from the cover, but ultimately, this story wasn’t truly for me. I enjoyed it, but I won’t be reading it again.

Overall, I think this would be a great read for middle-grade readers who still enjoy children’s lit more than traditional middle-grade fiction. Fans of Gregor the Overlander would enjoy this one. 3 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 384

Review: The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby

the nine lives of jacob tibbs

In the tradition of Poppy, the Warriors series, and other beloved animal adventures comes the swashbuckling tale of a brave cat on the high seas.

Captain Natick does not want to take a kitten on board his ship when it sets sail in 1847, but his daughter convinces him that the scrawny yellow cat will bring good luck. Onto the ship the kitten goes, and so begins the adventurous, cliff-hanging, lucky life of Jacob Tibbs. At first, Jacob’s entire world is the ship’s hold, where the sailors heave their heavy loads and despicable, long-tailed rats scurry in the darkness. But before long, Jacob’s voyage takes him above deck and onward to adventure. Along the way, Jacob will encounter loss and despair, brave thunderous storms at sea, face down a mutiny, survive on a desert island, and above all, navigate the tricky waters of shipboard life and loyalties.

Description taken from Goodreads.

I won’t lie, this book shares many similarities with Ann M. Martin’s A Dog’s Life and basically every single seadog story out there (that I’ve read). It’s not incredibly original, and it has a somewhat archaic feeling to its narrative, so I don’t think readers will be nearly as attracted by it as the Warriors series.

For avid readers who are animal lovers, this might be a perfect fit. I for one loved the feeling of the narrative, and I really enjoyed classics in elementary and middle school. The language isn’t hard to understand, but it’s paced slowly and the plot events take time to put together. The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs drags in the middle, and while I didn’t think about giving it up, it wasn’t exactly riveting.

If you’re looking for a book for someone who loves cats and the Warriors series, but wants to go for something a little more serious, I would recommend L. Rifkin’s The Nine Lives of Romeo Crumb.

If you’re looking for something a little younger or the same age as kids who loved the Warriors series, maybe try something like the Foxcraft series.

All in all, I would probably only recommend this one to very specialized kids. It’s not a general appealing sort of read, but if you’re trying to go in the classical direction, this might be a good place to start. 3 stars.

Review: Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon

hamster princess harriet the invincible by ursula vernon

Sleeping Beauty gets a feisty, furry twist in this hilarious new comic series from the creator of Dragonbreath

Harriet Hamsterbone is not your typical princess. She may be quite stunning in the rodent realm (you’ll have to trust her on this one), but she is not so great at trailing around the palace looking ethereal or sighing a lot. She finds the royal life rather . . . dull. One day, though, Harriet’s parents tell her of the curse that a rat placed on her at birth, dooming her to prick her finger on a hamster wheel when she’s twelve and fall into a deep sleep. For Harriet, this is most wonderful news: It means she’s invincible until she’s twelve! After all, no good curse goes to waste. And so begins a grand life of adventure with her trusty riding quail, Mumfrey…until her twelfth birthday arrives and the curse manifests in a most unexpected way.

Perfect for fans of Babymouse and Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories, this laugh-out-loud new comic hybrid series will turn everything you thought you knew about princesses on its head.

Description taken from Goodreads.

I actually ended up picking this one up because the colors and design reminded me of Babymouse, so it’s ironic that the publisher aimed for that.

This would actually be the perfect book to hand out to someone who enjoyed Babymouse. It was sweet and it was cute, and it didn’t deviate from the animal point of view. It does feel younger than Babymouse does, and it lacks the humor of Babymouse, but other than that, it was spot on. I loved the writing and Harriet’s point of view. She was bratty at times, but she brought a fresh MG twist to Sleeping Beauty without being cliché or completely exhausting.

I did wish that Harriet would grow and learn from her experiences, but alas, it doesn’t seem like it’s meant to be. Her personality is great, but it can be wearing. I don’t think it’s something that will bother that age group too much. It definitely doesn’t hold the older appeal of the Babymouse books, but it’s good for a follow-up read.

Overall, I would recommend it. The plot is pretty straightforward, it’s quick and it’s fun. Good read! 3 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 256