ARC Review: Time Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford

time traveling with a hamster by ross welford

Back to the Future meets The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in this original, poignant, race-against-time story about a boy who travels back to 1984 to save his father’s life.

My dad died twice. Once when he was thirty-nine and again four years later, when he was twelve. On his twelfth birthday, Al Chaudhury receives a letter from his dead father. It directs him to the bunker of their old house, where Al finds a time machine (an ancient computer and a tin bucket). The letter also outlines a mission: travel back to 1984 and prevent the go-kart accident that will eventually take his father’s life. But as Al soon discovers, whizzing back thirty years requires not only imagination and courage, but also lying to your mom, stealing a moped, and setting your school on fire—oh, and keeping your pet hamster safe. With a literary edge and tons of commerical appeal, this incredible debut has it all: heart, humor, vividly imagined characters, and a pitch-perfect voice.

Description taken from Goodreads.


I was prepared for the worst with this book. Between the blurb, the cover, and the title, I was fully prepared to put it down 20% of the way through as an unfortunate disappointment. But no, Time Traveling with a Hamster demanded to be loved and read, and it reminded me why I continue to read middle-grade lit.

I think what I love about this story is that it’s so no-nonsense. It gets right to the heart of the story, never stopping to dwell on the ridiculousness of the situation. Between Al’s authentic voice and the great pacing, it’s easy to get lost in the magic of the story. I’ll admit that I was skeptical in the beginning, but shortly after I got into the story, I realized it’s perfectly reasonable to write a story about time traveling with a hamster.

The plot and writing were spot-on. I especially loved the way that Al got to explore his relationships with his dad and grandpa because of the time travel, though I wasn’t impressed by his bad relationship with his step-sister. There were points in the story that were cliché or felt like they were formatting ideas derived from other writers (ten facts about one of the characters, a chapter move that I dislike immensely because it breaks the story apart). I was disappointed by this, especially in the beginning, because of how impressed I was by Welford’s writing.

All in all, I would recommend Time Traveling with a Hamster to boys and girls through middle school and maybe a little younger. Honestly, it’s great for anyone willing to give it a chance. The humor is spot on, the story is exciting enough to keep impatient readers going, it has heartfelt characters, and the ending is satisfactory. A great read. 4 stars.

Review: Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

fuzzy by tom angleberger and paul dellinger

When Max—Maxine Zealster—befriends her new robot classmate Fuzzy, part of Vanguard One Middle School’s new Robot Integration Program, she helps him learn everything he needs to know about surviving middle school—the good, the bad, and the really, really, ugly. Little do they know that surviving sixth grade is going to become a true matter of life and death, because Vanguard has an evil presence at its heart: a digital student evaluation system named BARBARA that might be taking its mission to shape the perfect student to extremes!

Description taken from Goodreads.


I’m not a Tom Angleberger fan, but that might just have to change if he continues to come out with books like Fuzzy!

The only thing I didn’t like about the story (and didn’t like is a strong phrase) is that it had a slow beginning. I wasn’t drawn in from the very first page, but maybe that’s too much to ask. It’s enough that the rest of book is superb.

Despite my pacing problems in the beginning, I quickly fell in love with Fuzzy. There were a few different reasons for that, most notably because of the world-building and plot.

Fuzzy takes place in the near-future, and it almost has a dystopia-type feel. Dystopia is much harder to come by in middle-grade lit than young-adult lit, to the point where I wasn’t sure what it would even look like. Tom Angleberger did an amazing job of answering that question for me. No, not everything felt natural. There were a few weak spots where I felt like he was over-describing, but I think that’ll do a good job of introducing the subject material to younger students and people unaffiliated with code and technology.

When it really comes down to it, I was completely in love with the world-building of Fuzzy. The entire book did feel a little immature, so it was a bit awkward. I didn’t love the world for its writing or the way it was described, but because of its ideas. For the most part, Angleberger brought together his world spectacularly. I loved the way he (subtly) pointed out the flaws in where we’re heading with education, and his vision of technology-driven schools was fascinating.

As for the plot, it brought the story together. This may seem like a no-brainer, but beyond the obvious, the plot made the book. What I mean by that is it gave life the characters. It provided the world of Fuzzy a home. Not every book does that, and I was impressed by the chain of events in the book.

All in all, I loved Fuzzy. It had a relatively weak beginning, but it gained speed (and a place in my heart). The world was one I could dive into, and the storytelling was refreshing. I’ll be recommending this one! Hopefully, I can make some young STEM-lit fans :D 4 stars.

ARC Review: The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart by Lauren DeStefano

the peculiar night of the blue heart by lauren destefano

Lionel is a wild boy, who doesn’t much like to be around other people. He’d rather be a purring cat or a wolf stalking the woods.

Marybeth is a nice girl. She doesn’t need to be told to comb her hair or brush her teeth, and she’s kind to everyone at the orphanage . . . Lionel most of all.

Different though they are, Lionel and Marybeth are best friends in a world that has forgotten about them. So when a mysterious blue spirit possesses Marybeth—and starts to take control—they know they must stop it before the real Marybeth fades away forever.

Description taken from Goodreads.


As short as this story is, I think it could’ve been a little shorter.

That aside, this is definitely one of the best middle-grade novels I’ve read this year. It has this sleepy quality to it, in the next way possible. I loved DeStefano’s writing throughout the novel, from the world to the descriptions to the underlying humor in some scenes.

 

Oh, and the relationships in this story.

Middle-grade friendships tend to drive me crazy because they can be fragile or ridiculous. Sometimes I get sick of how shallow they are, and very few middle-grade books make me think wow, this is it is to love someone.

The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart did that in a way that was strange and lovely and utterly magical. I loved getting to know both Marybeth and Lionel and follow them on their journey. All of the relationships in the book were spot-on, and I was thoroughly impressed by this story. I haven’t been very interested in DeStefano’s writing up until now, but I’m going to be checking out her other works in the near future.

It’s been a long time since a middle-grade novel truly spoke to me, and The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart did that perfectly. It’s also paced well, though some of the scenes were too drawn out for my taste, and the author did a good job of spreading out the plot events. I was never bored. Although I think it may be a tough sell for boy readers, I’ll be recommending this one.

And, as I mentioned on The Silver Words, if the author is interested in writing another book for Lionel and Marybeth, I’d love to check it out! 4 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 208

Review: The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

the wild robot by peter brown

When robot Roz opens her eyes for the first time, she discovers that she is alone on a remote, wild island. Why is she there? Where did she come from? And, most important, how will she survive in her harsh surroundings? Roz’s only hope is to learn from the island’s hostile animal inhabitants. When she tries to care for an orphaned gosling, the other animals finally decide to help, and the island starts to feel like home. Until one day, the robot’s mysterious past comes back to haunt her….

Description taken from Goodreads.


This is an adorable, strangely relevant kind of story. It’s scatter throughout with graphics, making it feel like it’s targeted for a younger audience, but I can easily see kids 7 to 13 enjoying this book, give or take a year depending on reader maturity.

The Wild Robot manages to be mature and entertaining despite its child-like voice, and I loved following Roz on her adventures. Honestly, the entire thing struck me as a My Side of the Mountain told from a robot’s perspective on an island.

I don’t know if he had an agenda in writing this, but Brown did a remarkable job of fitting in current issues into the context of The Wild Robot. In my opinion, regardless of whether he did or not, he handled those issues very well. There’s not too much bias throughout the story.

One thing I was very surprised with was how engaging the story was. It would’ve been easy enough to let the potential of the story run through the cracks and right out of his hands, but Brown held onto the book. It almost reads like a slice of life, where every chapter or so is its own adventure. This kept the plot fresh and interesting.

Overall, I’ll be recommending. I was really excited for this one, and it lived up to my expectations. The writing was a bit distant, but I’m almost never a fan of the oh dear reader, Roz was not yet out of her troubles yet type narrative anyway. All in all, it was very well-done. 4 stars.

ARC Review: The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg

the great shelby holmes by elizabeth eulberg

Meet spunky sleuth Shelby and her sports-loving sidekick Watson as they take on a dog-napper in this fresh twist on Sherlock Holmes.

Shelby Holmes is not your average sixth grader. She’s nine years old, barely four feet tall, and the best detective her Harlem neighborhood has ever seen—always using logic and a bit of pluck (which yes, some might call “bossiness”) to solve the toughest crimes.

When eleven-year-old John Watson moves downstairs, Shelby finds something that’s eluded her up till now: a friend. Easy-going John isn’t sure of what to make of Shelby, but he soon finds himself her most-trusted (read: only) partner in a dog-napping case that’ll take both their talents to crack.

Sherlock Holmes gets a fun, sweet twist with two irresistible young heroes and black & white illustrations throughout in this middle grade debut from internationally bestselling YA author Elizabeth Eulberg.

Description taken from Goodreads.


Like I said in my snapshot reviewThe Great Shelby Holmes is adorable. I loved the backdrop of New York City, and Eulberg transferred over her skills in YA to MG remarkably well. The story has a diverse cast of characters, and I loved each and every one of them. Watson in particular was a great side character that I had a lot fun getting to know.

An aside on that: there’s some disappearing parent syndrome in this book, but it’s not too bad. The parents are very much present in their lives, and I enjoyed getting to hear their backstories as well.

The only thing I would say is that this story is a little bland. It almost reminds me of Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures, minus the magic and the paranormal elements. I ended up feeling like the pace was off (even though it was fine) because I was bored with the plot, and I was disappointed because I felt like Eulberg could’ve done a lot more. That being said, I don’t think that’ll be an issue, especially for readers who usually read contemporary or realistic lit.

Overall, not a bad story at all. I loved the humor and the mystery of it all, and I fell in love with Shelby as a protagonist. Would recommend. 4 stars.

 

Review: The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

the bitter side of sweet by tara sullivan

Two young boys must escape a life of slavery in modern-day Ivory Coast.

Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. This number is very important. The higher the number the safer they are because the bosses won’t beat them. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home to Baba and Auntie. Maybe. The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won’t tell him. The boys only wanted to make some money during the dry season to help their impoverished family. Instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast; they spend day after day living on little food and harvesting beans in the hot sun—dangerous, backbreaking work. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive—until Khadija comes into their lives.

She’s the first girl who’s ever come to camp, and she’s a wild thing. She fights bravely every day, attempting escape again and again, reminding Amadou what it means to be free. But finally, the bosses break her, and what happens next to the brother he has always tried to protect almost breaks Amadou. The old impulse to run is suddenly awakened. The three band together as family and try just once more to escape.

Description taken from Goodreads.


Of the books that I’ve read about modern slavery, this is among the best. It’s compulsively readable and nothing about it feels forced.

Starting off with the characters, Amadou was my favorite. Despite being stuck in a world where there is next to no humanity, he managed to show incredible kindness and empathy throughout the story. He took care of Khadija and Seydou when he should’ve been looking out for himself, and I came to truly respect him as a character. The three of them worked together well, and I enjoyed seeing their relationships develop. Seydou and Khadija were just as fleshed-out as Amadou, and I was rooting for them every step of their journey.

Oh, and what a journey it is. This book will cause you heartache. Just when you think everything might be going well, it turns around again. Even so, I liked the way that it ended, and the plot (while a little bit much) was satisfying.

All in all, the pacing, characters, and plot came together to make this story. I thought Sullivan did an amazing job of setting up the world without info-dumping, and I learned a lot about the crazy things still happening in the world today because of The Bitter Side of Sweet. Because of the way this is written, I would probably recommend this one more than I would similar novels (Boys Without Names-esque) and I think it’ll be more successful with middle-grade audiences. A great, thought-provoking read. 4 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 336

Review: The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd

the key to extraordinary by natalie lloyd

Everyone in Emma’s family is special. Her ancestors include Revolutionary War spies, brilliant scientists, and famous musicians–every single one of which learned of their extraordinary destiny through a dream.

For Emma, her own dream can’t come soon enough. Right before her mother died, Emma promised that she’d do whatever it took to fulfill her destiny, and she doesn’t want to let her mother down.

But when Emma’s dream finally arrives, it points her toward an impossible task–finding a legendary treasure hidden in her town’s cemetery. If Emma fails, she’ll let down generations of extraordinary ancestors . . . including her own mother. But how can she find something that’s been missing for centuries and might be protected by a mysterious singing ghost?

With her signature blend of lyrical writing, quirky humor, and unforgettable characters, Natalie Lloyd’s The Key to Extraordinary cements her status as one of the most original voices writing for children today.

Description taken from Goodreads.


Natalie Lloyd has found the key to extraordinary in this book.

Not many MG authors do whimsicality well, in my opinion. It just ends up sounding contrived and nonsensical and completely ridiculous. With Lloyd’s previous novel, A Snicker of Magic, the carefree nature of the book made me hate it. But not only has Lloyd managed to hook me into a type of writing I don’t usually enjoy reading, but she’s managed to make it adorable and refreshing.

The Key to Extraordinary has just about everything. It has characters I can identify with, a lovable and diverse cast, a world of wonders, and great writing.

I will admit, there were parts that reminded me of A Snicker of Magic. There were times when it just wasn’t in the right mood to read this. However, The Key to Extraordinary appealed to me overall and I know that people I recommend to will enjoy it. In her new novel, Lloyd has created something almost reminiscent of Ingrid Law’s writing. Of course, there was marked differences in style, but I would recommend this to people who liked Savvy and Scumble.

Another one of the reasons why I liked this more than its predecessor was the importance of its themes. I didn’t care too much for what A Snicker of Magic was trying to prove, but I enjoyed getting to know Emma as a person and see her pave her own way in her extraordinary family. Overall, a great read. 4 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 240

Review: Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes

secret coders by gene luen yang and mike holmes

Welcome to Stately Academy, a school which is just crawling with mysteries to be solved! The founder of the school left many clues and puzzles to challenge his enterprising students. Using their wits and their growing prowess with coding, Hopper and her friend Eni are going to solve the mystery of Stately Academy no matter what it takes!

From graphic novel superstar (and high school computer programming teacher) Gene Luen Yang comes a wildly entertaining new series that combines logic puzzles and basic programming instruction with a page-turning mystery plot!

Description taken from Goodreads.


I’ll be honest. I used this book as an excuse to meet Gene Luen Yang.

I had no idea what it was about, and I thought the cover (and the title) was somewhat lame. I had also never heard of it before. However, I was interested when I heard about it because I’m a coder myself and an advocate for underrepresented  groups in STEM.

In short, STEM stands for science technology engineering and math. Technology in particular is the focus of the modern world, and someday, everyone’s going to have to learn how to code. The failure of STEM these days though is that only 12% of women graduate from college with a computer science degree, and underrepresented populations are just that: under-served. Hundreds of organizations are working to close the gap and to teach everyone to code. I’ll paste a few links below, and I’m working on putting together a website with a resources list.

But back to the book.

I’m a huge fan of Gene Luen Yang, and I used this book signing at BEA to get the chance to meet him. It was a personal dream of mine, and I was so glad that I got the opportunity. And to boot, I got an amazing book out of it.

Sure, the drawing style of Secret Coders isn’t the greatest. It’s actually pretty crude compared to the way that Yang usually draws. What made it worse was the lack of color. The entire book is illustrated in shades of green, black and white. Despite the colors and despite the drawing style, which actually did grow on me, this book is very well done.

Secret Coders teaches the basics of binary and the logic of code in a way that’s engaging and easily understandable, and I’m proud that Yang was the writer for this. This is a fantastic novel for adults and middle-graders alike. If you’ve always struggled binary, or you have no idea what it is, I’d recommend this novel. It’s educational without being preachy, overdone, or feeling like one of Those Educational Books. That’s a feat in and of itself.

On top of all that, it has a great plot and important messages about friendship, family and middle school. There are a variety of great relationships shown throughout the novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing how things develop in the second novel, coming out this August! 4 stars.

pg count for the paperback: 96 pages

Series: Secret Coders #1

Code Resources

  • MESA USA – Math Engineering and Science Achievement – Resources to succeed in STEM education, especially for minority students.
  • Coding Dojo — Coding Dojo is just one of the countless bootcamps located across the country for people of all ages (though CD is traditionally for adults).
  • CodeAcademy — If bootcamp really isn’t your thing, go for an online source like CodeAcademy or Code.org.
  • Girls Who Code & Black Girls Code — Are you a girl who loves to code but doesn’t want to learn in an environment full of boys? Go to Girls Who Code! They have free camps and a summer immersion program that are both fantastic. It doesn’t matter if you zero experience. In fact, these are programs designed for beginners. All you have to do is show up.
  • Kid Resources — Have little kids? Here’s why you should teach them to code.

If you have any questions about code, please feel free to contact me at elimadison2019@gmail.com or @elimadison2019 on Twitter!

Review: It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

it ain't so awful, falafel by firoozeh dumas

Zomorod (Cindy) Yousefzadeh is the new kid on the block . . . for the fourth time. California’s Newport Beach is her family’s latest perch, and she’s determined to shuck her brainy loner persona and start afresh with a new Brady Bunch name—Cindy. It’s the late 1970s, and fitting in becomes more difficult as Iran makes U.S. headlines with protests, revolution, and finally the taking of American hostages. Even mood rings and puka shell necklaces can’t distract Cindy from the anti-Iran sentiments that creep way too close to home. A poignant yet lighthearted middle grade debut from the author of the best-selling Funny in Farsi.

Description taken from Goodreads.


This is the story I was looking for when I picked up Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? I won’t even comment on the title (because not even falafels can save it) or the cover (because I don’t really know where to start), but this is the story that I was looking for.

I could start every blog post on here with “____ sucks,” and in this case, it would be “not fitting in sucks”. Not fitting in, in middle schools, sucks even more.

Cindy understands this, and that’s why she changes her name and tries to fit in and still hold onto her culture at the same time. While this isn’t the best or the most far-reaching portrayal of the immigration experience, I felt that Dumas did a great job portraying Cindy’s situation and her feelings as she grew throughout the book.

Overall, this was a very well-written novel that addresses the down-to-earth level immigration tension that even kids are feeling today. Despite all of the embarrassing or difficult times Cindy goes through, she manages to persevere and ultimately come out as someone who is stronger and more mature. I loved getting to know her, her family and her culture, and I hope to read Funny in Farsi soon! 4 stars.

pg count for the hardback: 384

Re-Review: Shooting Stars by Allison Rushby

shooting stars by allison rushby

Meet Josephine Foster, or Zo Jo as she’s called in the biz. The best pint-sized photographer of them all, Jo doesn’t mind doing what it takes to get that perfect shot, until she’s sent on an undercover assignment to shoot Ned Hartnett—teen superstar and the only celebrity who’s ever been kind to her—at an exclusive rehabilitation retreat in Boston. The money will be enough to pay for Jo’s dream: real photography classes, and maybe even quitting her paparazzi gig for good. Everyone wants to know what Ned’s in for. But Jo certainly doesn’t know what she’s in for: falling in love with Ned was never supposed to be part of her assignment.

Description taken from Goodreads.


Maybe this book is more YA than I realized, because it’s been three years since I last read it, and I appreciate it more now.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t distinctly remember Jo as being annoying, because I do, but it’s almost like that was a different book. Rather, now, I saw Jo as just sounding younger than the average YA heroine. She’s not tough, and she’s not mind-blowingly beautiful, but she’s smart and she loves what she does.

I could use more heroines like that in YA/MG.

Besides, this goes along with a trend in kid lit that I love: kids with passion. Jo’s love for photography is well-described and becomes a focus of the book. It fuels the reason why Jo gets close to Ned in the first place, and it adds to her self-conflict (which is also very well-written) throughout the middle and end of the book.

The pacing was much better than I remember as well. In my last review, I said that the middle was a drag. While I can see why I would say that, I got much more involved with the plot and the characters than before. I also loved Ned and Jo together, whereas before, I had liked their characters more separately.

Overall, I enjoyed Shooting Stars much more than when I first read it, and it’s a great crossover between YA and middle-grade lit, even though Jo is 16. The narrative was nothing particularly special, but I enjoyed reading from Jo’s voice. As for the ending, it wasn’t as great only because I knew what was coming, and it is somewhat cliché, but it was the ending I wanted. I would recommend this to contemporary YA fans who want a cute, happy read and middle-grade lit fans who lean more toward YA. 4 stars.

pg count for the paperback: 272