Tag Archives: middle grade

Louisiana’s Way Home

Author: Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 4.5 of 5

When Louisiana Elefante’s Granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to pack her bags and scramble into the car, it’s not the most alarming thing. This has happened before, after all, and they always go back. But as they continue driving, Louisiana begins to realize . . . they’re not turning back towards home. They just keep driving, further and further away from her friends, her cat Archie, and the one-eyed dog she shares with her best friends Raymie and Beverly.

I have yet to read anything by Kate DiCamillo that I didn’t love, and Louisiana’s Way Home is no exception. This is a powerful and captivating story, simple and absurd in turn, full of whimsy and hope and hard knocks as well. For Louisiana, her life is just her life, but for the reader, I think the way she’s been raised to grift and charm her way through things is pretty heartbreaking. And in turn, the way she loves stories and music and her friends, the way she keeps trying, is just beautiful. She’s the sort of character that you want all the good things for, even though they don’t seem to be happening much, and the way she focuses on the good things she does get is pretty poignant to read. I promise, this does have a happy ending–one so fulfilling that I ended up crying through much of the last chapter or so. But it’s kind of rough at parts, just in the sort of way that is still ok as a kids’ adventure story. I think this would be a fun story for a middle-grade reader and a heartbreaking, heartwarming story for an adult reader; great in either context!

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Laddertop (Graphic Novel)

Authors: Orson Scott Card & Emily Janice Card

Illustrator: Honoel A. Ibardolaza

Status: Incomplete (One 2-volume Omnibus)

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Years ago, a benevolent alien race came to earth, bestowed technology on the people of the planet, and left. Most obvious and vital, they left four towers to space, called Ladders. However, there are some who doubt their good intentions. Whatever the case, there are parts of these Ladders that require maintenance that only children are small enough to perform, and the opportunity to go up and be a part of the work being done in the Ladders is something that the best and brightest students vie against each other for. Among those students, are two best friends–Robbi and Azure–whose destinies will take them to vastly disparate places yet will ultimately draw them to the same mysteries.

I enjoy Orson Scott Card’s writing in general, and I enjoyed Laddertop, but I should point out right from the start that this graphic novel is notably different from much of his writing. Namely, it’s actually appropriate for a middle-grade audience (although it would be enjoyable for older readers as well); I’m guessing that’s the influence of his daughter, Emily Janice Card. There are definitely themes that track with his other writing though–kids getting dragged into space and mixed into stuff way more dangerous than they should at that age, just for instance. The art is a cute, almost manga-like style that works well for the story. The plot of this graphic novel starts out fairly sedate, with fun friendships, school tests, and the typical jockeying for position between kids. But as things get going and we actually follow our characters into space, we begin to see all sorts of plots and mysteries developing, plus some fun and cute friendships (or maybe more?) between characters. It gets quite interesting, which leads to the major downside of this story . . . it’s incomplete. Just where the story is really getting intense, we get dropped at a cliffhanger ending, and it’s been long enough since the original publication (2013 for the omnibus) that I really don’t think we’re getting anymore, which is just sad. I would have enjoyed seeing where the rest of the story went. Still, if you don’t mind the cliffhanger, what we do get of Laddertop is cute, mysterious, and engaging science fiction.

Note: Also, the space robot monkeys are adorable. 🙂

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Shadow Magic

Author: Joshua Khan

Shadow Magic, vol. 1

My rating: 3 of 5

Thorn just wanted to find his dad and bring him home, but somehow he’s been kidnapped by slavers, bought and made squire by the executioner Tyburn, and dragged off to the shadowy kingdom of Gehenna where the dead are rumored to walk. Meanwhile, Lilith Shadow (Lily to the friends she mostly doesn’t have anymore) has been forced to take up the mantle of leadership over Gehenna following the tragic death of the rest of her family. Political tensions, forbidden magic, loveless engagements, betrayals, and murder run rife as these two teenagers try to find a way through the chaos.

I should point out right from the start that most people seem to like Shadow Magic more than I did–my dad loved it enough to pass it on to me, and the average rating on Goodreads is a 4.14 at the moment. And I did enjoy the story for the most part in the moment, although I also have a number of issues with it. It’s a fast-paced read that never takes a breath–seriously, you’re thrown from one perilous situation to the next the entire time, which does increase the story’s stickiness and engagement factor but isn’t really the best way to go about doing so. And honestly, overall, the story just feels kind of tropey . . . although, maybe that’s not even quite right. It’s perfect, but in a way that feels like the author tried too hard, like it was run through an algorithm of “what should be in a story” and all the major plot points were spit out from there. Which, again, really isn’t fair because I know the author worked hard to be creative and original, but that’s just the feeling I come away with. There were certainly things I liked–the concept of an ancient giant bat, the spitfire princess  who breaks the rules, the boy who dares to defy those above him in station and befriend the princess. (But let’s be real, even those are kind of tropey . . . well, except the bat. That’s just plain cool.) Other things like the division of the kingdoms based on traditional elemental classes or the naming of everything in Gehenna based on dark, mythological things that are meaningful to some readers but have no contextual basis in the story world . . . I just don’t love those aspects of the story. As for the big whodunit mystery, it seems pretty obvious, and the red herring thrown into the mix just feels unnecessary. I guess I should remember that this book is written for a middle grade audience and is supposed to be exciting, fast-paced dark fantasy, but I would have still liked to see more real character development, some actual humor, a few moments to just pause and breathe. Not on my top recommendations, although it was an ok read and I think most people would likely enjoy it more than I did.

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The Terrible Two Get Worse

Authors: Mac Barnett & Jory John

Illustrator: Kevin Cornell

The Terrible Two, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

Best friends Miles Murphy and Niles Sparks, better known as the Terrible Two (but only to each other), have taken their school by storm with a series of madcap pranks. As a pair of dedicated pranksters, it’s what they do. But they realize they may have gone too far when their pranks get Principal Barkin fired . . . only to be replaced by his father, also Principal Barkin. And while their former principal made a fun target for their pranking, the new principal is quickly sucking the life and fun out of everything. He doesn’t even react, even to the most innovate pranks. And to handle this new principal and get their old one back, Miles and Niles will have to team up with an unlikely ally to pull off a prank of epic proportions.

For those who enjoyed The Terrible Two, this book is a solid, fun follow-up. The Terrible Two Get Worse is a charming, funny middle-grade story full of tricks, friendship, and good clean fun. I appreciate particularly that this volume addresses the idea of pranking while doing no real harm–and fixing the messes you make. Because yeah, while middle-grade pranking is humorous and ought to be relatively innocent, it would be pretty easy for kids to go overboard. As far as Niles and Miles’ friendship, we get something more developed and settled here. In the first volume, they’re in this rivals-to-friends stage, but by this point, they know each other and have done lots together. They accept each others’ quirks, have secret handshakes, and are generally comfortable together. I wish we had gotten more of this friendship aspect, honestly–like, it’s there throughout, but there’s enough focus on plot that it gets a smidge lost in the shuffle at times. Still, though, I enjoyed the friendship represented here. The plot can get a bit angsty at times, if only because there’s such a dour antagonist at play, but rest assured that there’s plenty of good fun as well. As an aside, I also really enjoyed the way the illustrations are worked in as actual parts of the text; you couldn’t read the story completely without the specific pictures in the specific places that they are. For those who enjoy humorous middle-grade stories, I would recommend.

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Gravity Falls: Lost Legends (Graphic Novel)

Author: Alex Hirsch

My rating: 5 of 5

Welcome back to the weird, wonderful town of Gravity Falls for a collection of never-before-told tales! Follow Dipper and Pacifica as they go where no human has been permitted before (not that they were actually invited) in a quest to retrieve . . . Mabel’s stolen face. Or join the gang as they dive into the wonderful world of comics, breaking all genre boundaries (and the fourth wall) in search of Grunkle Stan. Watch in wonder as Mabel faces the challenges of dealing with none other than . . . herself? And enjoy a peek into the childhood adventures of the older Pines twins. Weirdest of all? The whole thing is narrated by none other than Gravity Falls’ own Shmebulock!

I enjoy this graphic novel so much! I’ve read Lost Legends three times so far, and it has yet to grow old. Because honestly? This book is basically the series, and when does that ever grow old? Seriously, these four stories are slated as tales that were just a bit too weird to make the cut for the cartoon . . . but I could totally see them being there. Not that I’m sad they ended up as a graphic novel instead, though. They’re perfect for this medium, especially the story where they go into graphic novels as part of the plot. It’s hugely fun to see the various styles on the page, going from old-school comics to manga to gritty contemporary stuff to superhero comics–plus the visual effect when they fall into the margins and cut through the pages. It’s great–probably my favorite story of this set. Throughout all four stories, we see the characters being very much themselves and in character. But we also get character growth, which is also amazing. At least two of these stories take place late in the series (one of them post-Weirdmageddon), and it shows. Pacifica begins to come into her own and make choices that aren’t totally based on her family’s approval. Mabel begins to realize how over-the-top and kind-of selfish she can be. Just generally the characters are fabulous and the stories are a lot of fun. Highly recommended to fans of the cartoon.

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The Terrible Two

Authors: Jory John & Mac Barnett

Illustrator: Kevin Cornell

The Terrible Two, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Miles really hates that his mom is moving them from his home near the ocean where everyone knew him as an epic prankster to some podunk Midwestern town that smells of cows . . . where no one even knows his name. Starting at his new school, he knows he’s going to have to act fast to solidify his role as an outstanding prankster before he gets stuck hanging out with the school tattle-tale suck-up, Niles. Only trouble is, this school seems to already have a resident prankster, one who seems to be two steps ahead of Miles at every turn–and one so good at hiding that the principal is convinced Miles is guilty of the pranks!

The Terrible Two is a fun, funny middle-grade story that I literally read in one sitting. It’s got great characterizations, relatable problems, and hilarious pranks. All told is a droll, matter-of-fact tone that just makes it even funnier, along with fabulous black-and-white illustrations that emphasize and elaborate on the story brilliantly. Oh, and it’s got cows. Lots and lots of cows. . . . But seriously, I really enjoyed the way the relationship between these two pranksters played out, going from annoyance and bafflement to outright antagonism and finally to this great bromantic pranking team. The Terrible Two is a lot of fun; recommended.

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My Life as a Broken Bungee Cord

Author: Bill Myers

The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle, vol. 3

My rating: 3 of 5

Wally and his pals Wall Street and Opera get the chance to take a trip out to visit Wall Street’s older brother . . . which would be super cool and fun, except for the fact that her brother has forsworn the faith of his family and chosen a lifestyle that his family definitely doesn’t approve of. Which makes the whole trip just a bit AWKWARD. And of course, any given day isn’t complete without Wally’s notorious clumsiness and dorkiness getting him into some kind of trouble. So, naturally, when you expose him to great stuff like hot air balloon races, mad bulls, and the great outdoors, disaster is bound to strike. But somewhere in the midst of all the craziness, Wally and his friends may just find out what trusting God is really all about.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a classic series that I’ve loved since I was a kid, and My Life as a Broken Bungee Cord definitely continues the trends of the first two volumes of the series. You’ve got a hilarious, slapstick story that’s just good fun but that has distinctive spiritual and moral undertones that are fleshed out through the experiences the characters go through. Plus, the tone of writing in Wally’s voice is just too funny. I think this particular volume isn’t my favorite just because there’s too much of a dichotomy. I mean, in this series, there’s always that contrast between the humor and the actual point the author’s trying to make. But in this book, between the arguments Wall Street’s family have and the weight of the whole turning away from the faith thing, it just gets pretty dark (for a light-hearted middle-grade story, I mean), and it just doesn’t seem to fit–or rather, the slapstick seems an awkward fit in comparison. Still, My Life as a Broken Bungee Cord is definitely a good Christian middle-grade story that I would recommend.

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My Teacher Is an Alien

Author: Bruce Coville

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Susan is actually excited to be going back to school–mostly because this year (sixth grade) her class is being taught by Ms. Schwartz, possibly the best teacher ever. They’re even supposed to be putting on a play soon, which has Susan’s aspiring actress heart soaring. But when class starts back after spring break, they find Ms. Schwartz gone without explanation and a substitute, Mr. Smith, in her place. Mr. Smith begins to suck all the joy out of learning, and Susan hates the change of teachers. But then she finds out a secret that makes all her previous complaints about Mr. Smith seem insignificant–he’s actually an alien plotting to take a group of children back with him to space to study! Now she’s got to convince someone, anyone, of the truth before it’s too late.

Bruce Coville is a consistently excellent author that I just really enjoy reading. My Teacher Is an Alien is no exception. It captures the environment of a sixth grade classroom, the interpersonal dynamics, and the complications of trying to get adults to listen when you’re that age. And in the midst of that mundanity, you’re introduced to this suspenseful, incredible situation with aliens and force fields and missing teachers. It makes for a great mix. This volume is also kind of nostalgic to read, being written in the 1980’s; it’s kind of nice to look back to a world where you would actually have to bring a camera (using film!) to get evidence, and then wait overnight for it to be developed at the drugstore. There’s just a different atmosphere to stories set (and written) in that time period. I also enjoyed Susan and her friend Peter’s characters; they’re interesting individuals with well-developed characters. In general, the story’s just pretty engaging and fun–recommended.

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The Flash: Hocus Pocus

Author: Barry Lyga

The Flash (Media Tie-In Novels), vol. 1

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Flashpoint never happened, and Barry and his friends go on about their lives saving the people of Central City, never knowing the heartache of different choices in a different timeline. But in this timeline, there’s plenty of trouble to go around. Central City finds its citizens at the beck and call of a street magician styling himself “Hocus Pocus”–and really, the nerve of him, going and naming himself before Cisco gets a chance to! Although Hocus Pocus’s magic tricks are nothing impressive, his ability to control people and events around him–from getting people for blocks around to applaud to making trees move at his will–certainly seems almost like magic. But Barry is not about to accept something so implausible as the solution; there has to be a reasonable explanation of this magician’s powers. The crew at Star Labs had better be finding out a solution quickly though, because Hocus Pocus has managed to gain power over The Flash, and there’s no telling how much trouble he could cause with a speedster in his control.

I’m a big fan of The CW’s version of The Flash, which features a fabulous cast, a great sense of humor, and an excellent balance of action and drama. Plus, I’ve enjoyed the writing of Barry Lyga in the past. So I was pretty thrilled to find that Lyga had written the first volume of a media tie-in series for the show. And generally speaking, I was quite pleased with Hocus Pocus. It reads very much like an episode of the show, both with the arrival and subsequent handling of the villain and with the family drama that tends to go on at Star Labs. And of course, the element of angst that arises when things get complicated–can’t have a proper Flash story without a touch of angst. The characters are well done and keep in character nicely. Sure, there weren’t any moments where (like in a good fanfic) I was just like “ooh, that’s so such-and-such” and got all full of feels or anything. But on the other hand, there weren’t any grating moments where I had to wonder if the author had ever even watched the show, either. There was just generally a stronger focus in this particular story on the action, the plot, than on the feels . . . which is fine, although the feels are kind of my favorite part. I found it very interesting that they chose to put this in an AU/alternate timeline in which Flashpoint didn’t happen. My guess would be that this is to allow the tie-in series an element of autonomy and perhaps its own larger-scale plot, since its being an alternate timeline didn’t really affect much of anything that happened in this volume. I’m curious to see what happens with that in future volumes. I did enjoy where this story was placed chronologically in the lives of the characters–for one thing, having H. R. as part of the cast just makes everything more fun. Recommended for fans of the CW series . . . not sure how well it would hold up for fans of The Flash as a general media franchise, although Lyga is reputed to have been a fan of the comics since he was a kid, so. . . .

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Sixth Grade Detective (Text-Based Game)

Producer: Choice of Games

Author: Logan Hughes

My rating: 3 of 5

Pull out your magnifying glass and get ready to solve some mysteries. Okay, okay, you’re way too cool for that old-fashioned magnifying glass stuff. But when mysteries start popping up around your school, you are exactly the person for the case.

Sixth Grade Detective is another text-based game along the lines of Choice of Robots, utilizing the same game engine–so no music or visuals, just a story that your choices influence, powered largely by your own imagination. I really love the concept and have greatly enjoyed other games in this vein. This particular one is pretty decent, although generally a bit simplistic. The mysteries aren’t particularly hard, and although your choices certainly influence how the game progresses, there isn’t so much of a branching plotline as in, say, Choice of Robots. You get more choices as to what your attitudes towards events and authority are, what kind of relationships you’re going to build, who you take to the dance . . . that sort of thing. Not a ton of replay value, though. I do have to say that this would make a great introduction to this sort of game for a younger player; I mean, the main character is a middle-schooler, the story’s generally fairly clean, and the challenge level is approachable for a beginner. So yes, Sixth Grade Detective wasn’t my favorite of this game set, but it was interesting and would be a good choice for kids.

You can find out more at Steam or Choice of Games website.

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