This middle-grade book interested me because there are two authors and I find cowriting interesting—but, wait!, one of the co-authors is a pen name for two people writing together making Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Founda collaboration of three writers! (To read more about that, check out their interview on SCBWI’s Kite Tales blog in a link below.) Yet, the story reads seamlessly—what a feat!
Twelve-year-old Kingston hasn’t been back to Echo City, Brooklyn, since his father, one of the world’s greatest magicians, disappeared while performing onstage four years ago. A lot has changed in his old neighborhood, yet Kingston reconnects with his cousin Veronica and childhood friend now known as Too Tall Eddie. Kingston’s mother steers clear magic, yet, his uncles don’t seem to have given it up. What happened to Kingston’s father and whether or not magic truly exists fuels the three kids who follow a series of clues, intent on discovering the truth.
This layered plot cleverly weaves in real nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black magicians to make the story feel believable, an aspect I really enjoyed. I’m also a fan of alternative reality books when they’re done well as in this story. Add in humor, friendship, family, and a fast-paced mystery and you’ll see why this book’s hard to put down. Sign me up for the sequel and conclusion, due out this fall.
In The Great Pet Heist, when elderly Mrs. Food slips on some dog barf and ends up too injured to return possibly ever, her pets must fend for themselves. Walt (don’t call me Lucretia) is an Oriental shorthair and the sly female lead. Her sidekick is lovable but slow at times Butterbean, a male long-haired wiener dog, whose claim to fame is his nostril-probe lick. The main crew is comprised of Oscar the smart mynah bird, and the amiable rats Marco and Polo. e
A girl from their building named Madison comes by to take care of the basics, but the pets know it’s hasta la vista soon. Their situation seems dire until they stumble upon a possible criminal in their building who may have enough gold coins to give the animals riches to care for themselves. Once the heist is launched, a series of funny antics will keep you wondering whether these characters will succeed, or if it’s off to the pound.
Throughout, Dave Mottram’s art is beautifully done, adding another layer of humor to Ecton’s story. Though Walt was my favorite character, I fell for Chad the octopus once I saw him rising out of toilet bowls and tripping up the villain. Take a close look at the image next to the title page of The Great Pet Heist to find Chad.
Acorn books, designed for early readers, brings five scary stories to children in this Mister Shivers series. Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories has 64 pages packed with full-color artwork while some other Acorn books have 48 pages. Either way, there’s something for every new reader seeking “relatable characters and experiences” written and illustrated by some of the best known names in children’s literature.
Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories opens with a letter from Mister Shivers about a mysterious box delivered to him in which he found items pertaining to each story and a promise to share the stories in the book. Like all the stories in this book, evocative, muted illustrations help reinforce the easy-to-read text of these fast paced short stories. That’s certainly the case in “Beneath the Bed” about a boy dared by kids at school to visit the local haunted house. Upon entering the house with his sister who he brought along for courage, the pair discover a sinister doll with glowing eyes under a bed in the attic bedroom.
“A Hair Down to My Stomach” as the title implies, is equal parts gross and unsettling, with just the type of visuals accompanying it to make it succeed. “The Statue” will have kids talking back to the book as they turn the pages and tell the mom in the story as her son tries to do, “Don’t buy the statue!” Of course, she does. What follows is the reason why Mr. Shivers’ mysterious box contained a piece of quilty. He never mentioned if it was smelly like the quilt in “The Statue.” All I know is the young boy should have listened to the statue’s owner when she warned the buyers not to remove the quilt. The same goes for Oliver in “A Dark and Stormy Night” who should have done as his parents’ wished and brought his toys inside. Instead, they were left out in the rain to be ruined by the elements. Toys don’t like being forgotten and seek their revenge when that happens. Poor Oliver! And as for the scraping sound in “The Noise at the Window,” I know this well. Only I’ve been fortunate to find a tree outside where I heard the clawing coming from a branch. The little girl in this tale wasn’t so fortunate!
Okay spine, start tingling because these five stories are guaranteed to make you keep the lights on.
Get ready to be caught under the spell of Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch, a terrific debut middle grade graphic novel.
Tween readers will be charmed by the main character Moth Hush, who at 13 learns she is part witch with special powers, something she had only dreamed of up until that point. Living above her single mom Calendula’s second hand store, Moth has never felt the warm and fuzzies from her classmates in her Massachusetts hometown of Founder’s Bluff nor in the community at large. She soon learns there’s a good reason why and goes exploring back in time via her mother’s diary.
In 1692 a group of women suspected of being witches, her grandmother Sarah being one of them, was run out of town. They were indeed witches but good ones and many townspeople secretly went to them to avail of magic to help them. When ousted, Sarah led the women to a timeless land she created called Hecate, but Calendula refused to live there. She returned to Founder’s Bluff to live a normal non-witch life for herself having fallen in love with a human. Sadly, Sarah cast a spell to make this man have no memory of Calendula. Pregnant, the brokenhearted, Calendula raised Moth alone with no magic.
In school Moth befriends another fish-out-of-water named Charlie who is new to Founder’s Bluff. Little does Moth know that there’s a connection between her family and Charlie’s that could test their friendship. I got a kick out of the magical cat, Mr. Laszlo, the spirit of Keeper’s Secondhand Store who had taken Calendula in and, when he passed away, left the store to her. The talking feline’s speech is peppered with Yiddish and in my head I heard Billy Crystal doing the dialogue.
Steinkellner must have had such fun writing and illustrating this story which reads quickly and nicely ties all the loose threads together at the end. The artwork wonderfully and convincingly conveys the moments when Moth experiences the power of magic. I especially liked the historical scenes and when Moth visits Hecate, but to be honest, all the illustrations brought the story alive. The novel is filled with humor, sarcasm, action, fantasy, pride and most of all, love as evidenced by Moth’s efforts to navigate the magical world of her grandmother and the real world in which Calendula has chosen to raise her. She’s new to the witch world and she’s far from perfect, making her The Okay Witch we care about and want to see happy and at home with her mom.
Graphic novel fans will quickly be swept up into Moth’s witchy world of time travel, timelessness, tween curiosity and relationships as Moth tries to learn more about herself. Will the way in which her family’s life intersects with that of Founder’s Bluff be a reason to stay or retreat to Hecate? The fun’s in the finding out in this enchanting, recommended read that’s definitely not just for Halloween.
You don’t need to have read Book#1 in order to enjoy Ghoulia and the Mysterious Visitor (Book #2), a chapter book series about a friendly zombie called Ghoulia and the dead and not-so-dead inhabitants of Crumbling Manor. Billed as Clue meets LittleShop of Horrors, this full-color illustrated book is sure to get young readers in a Halloween mood.
The story opens with Ghoulia feeling bored. When cranky cousin Dilbert arrives unexpectedly, Ghoulia looks for her Auntie Departed to explain why this relative she’d never even heard of got invited to Crumbling Manor. But her Chatterbox-Ivy-obsessed aunt is nowhere to be found. Ghoulia thinks it’s odd when more friends turn up, each with an invitation to a surprise dinner the young vampire knows nothing about.
As Ghoulia and her pals search Crumbling Manor for Auntie Departed, a friend Theresa also goes missing. Something weird is happening so the remaining guests split up to find those who’ve disappeared while trying to help Ghoulia figure out who sent the invitations.
This delightful chapter book will hook confident young readers ages 6 to 8 who still love beautifully illustrated stories that aren’t scary yet have an air of mystery about them. I’m not sure kids will recognize famous individuals such as Hitchcock and Poe in framed pictures on Crumbling Manor’s walls, but they’re certainly a treat for adult readers. In fact every illustration is a treat and worthy of a thorough scanning to see what special things Cantini has hung up on the walls or placed in each room. Her prose and pictures provide the perfect foreshadowing for kids quick to pick up clues. At the end there are bonus activities including how to write an invitation and fill out an envelope, how to start a garden and how to make Dilbert’s special pumpkin juice (minus the spiders’ eggs)! Watch out for Ghoulia and the Ghost With No Name (Book #3) coming soon!
Described by Chris Grabenstein, #1 New York Times bestselling author, as “Young Frankenstein meets The Princess Bride in the most hysterically hilarious book I’ve read in years,” and I could not agree more. I smiled my whole way through The Curse of the Werepenguin, a clever, funny and original story within a story. I read it over two days and could not wait to see how author Allan Woodrow would end it. As I suspected, it’s TO BE CONTINUED so now I have to find out where he takes this wild and feathery tale of an orphan boy named Bolt.
Meet Humboldt Wattle (aka Bolt), a twelve-year-old boy abandoned as a baby at The Oak Wilt Home for Unwanted Boys. There’s little about him that makes him stand out except a large bird-shaped birthmark on his neck. When suddenly his life changes overnight, Bolt’s unusual marking will take on tremendous significance in his life. He’s been summoned to the distant land of Brugaria by a wealthy baron who no one wishes to disobey. Could this mean the family he’s been hoping for is finally ready to reunite with him?
The catch is that Baron Chordata is not only a cruel person feared by most inhabitants of Brugaria, he looks like he’s the same age as Bolt. On top of that, he dresses in tuxedos even at home, and consumes massive quantities of fish, every kind imaginable, including live goldfish. Woodraw’s descriptions of eating seafood have to be some of the funniest and disgusting ones I’ve ever read and I lapped up every slimy, slithery sentence. I also may never look at fish sticks the same way again!
In a trance from his first experience playing video games, Bolt unknowingly agrees to a request by Baron Chordata. This eventually leads to his being bitten on the neck. The result? Bolt turns partially into half boy, half penguin or werepenguin, so maybe a quarter … Anyway, after three days the full effect of the transformation will be complete. When the full moon shines, which is every night in Brugaria, the change in Bolt occurs. His feet turn webbed and orange, he sprouts wild tufts of hair, wings, an enormous nose and has cravings for seafood. Then he, along with all the other werepenguins including the baron, bark, wreak havoc and steal fish whenever possible.
Fortunately or unfortunately for Bolt, a girl named Annika who tried to rob and kidnap him because she’s “the world’s great bandit,” becomes an ally (or not) in trying to help Bolt escape the baron’s wicked clutches and rid himself of the werepenguin curse. The curse is not the only thing Bolt’s dealing with. He’s got this wacky, whale-loving cult leader named Günter determined to destroy him. Günter’s weapon of choice, a loaf of French bread! Plus Bolt’s learned that the werepenguins, led by power and fish hungry werepenguin-in-chief, Baron Chordata, are orchestrating a takeover of Brugaria the same day the curse on Bolt goes into full force. Someone has to do something and Bolt realizes it’s him. What that something is, he’s not totally sure, but still …
You’ll LOL at the Cloris Leachman-like “lowly housekeeper” called Frau Farfenugen, a greenish, warty and miserable woman who is not what she seems, Blazenda, a fortune-telling witch whose cackles drive Bolt crazy, but who may hold the key (or tooth) to Bolt’s freedom, and a cast of colorful characters, some of whom scream and faint whenever the name Baron Chordata is said aloud, that will entertain you and have you sitting on the edge of your seat or wherever it is that you read fantastic books.
Ultimately, Bolt has to decide what real family is. Is it Annika and her bandit dad and his buddies or is it the rook of penguins that, we learn in the novel’s prologue, should never be split up? I’m not going to spoil it by telling you, but I will say that joining Bolt on his journey is something you’ll love doing. So start cooking some fish sticks, grab a baguette and get reading!
I made sure I read this book when my husband was home because I’m a big chicken. When I did read Ghost, I realized the stories are not only fantastic ghost stories for Halloween, but also ones to commit to memory to share around a campfire. You could also bring the book along but you many not want the hauntingly illustrated, white embossed cover to get dirty. “Contributors to this chilling collection include authors Blaise Hemingway and Jesse Reffsin, and illustrators Chris Sasaki and Jeff Turley,” and Kit Turley, and they’ve done a fantastic job of scaring me although, as I said above, I do scare easily.
As I settled down to read each of the thirteen eerie tales, an owl hooted from my back yard adding to spooky feeling the stories exude. The tales, brief but powerfully creepy, are ideal for tweens who love to feel the hair on their necks stand up. The subjects range from a girl getting a tap tap tap from her mirror and then being imprisoned in it by her evil reflection, to two boys going ice fishing who disregard a shopkeeper’s advice to avoid the north of Point Whitney. The reason—it’s haunted by the ghost of Max Whitney, the former owner of the bait and tackle shop. Do the boys catch a lot of fish? Yep. Do they return safely home to share their experience? I’m not telling. There’s another one that takes place by a pond. Suffice it to say that, unlike the main character in this tale, a boy named Samuel who hears his drowned sister call out to him and follows her cries, I would never go out of my house in the middle of the night with a lantern by myself. The artwork throughout Ghost has a spare quality about it with a very limited palette which is appropriate for the collection. And though created digitally, all the illustrations resemble wood block prints and imbue every tale with as frightening an effect as the words themselves.
The tale that particularly resonated with me was about a girl who finally gets a room of her own away from her younger sister. Now alone in her new bedroom, the girl is terrified of the ghostly night noises but thinks if she just huddles under the covers and keeps her eyes tightly closed, everything will be okay. And it is, but how long can she keep her eyes shut? Did I mention that as a child I had my dad install a lock on my bedroom closet door? I will not easily forget the story of the young boy, Michael Alvey deep sea diving to a WWII sub wreck in search of the bodies of his deceased parents. They died just after their last communication was, “Please! Help! They’re coming.” When I found out who “they” were, I was shocked and readers will be, too. I caution young readers to avoid basements, elevators, hiking or making a trip after midnight to a cemetery right after reading Ghost.
Some stories unhinged me more than others, “The Descent” being one of them. That’s not to say they weren’t all good because they were, but certain stories played off of my deepest fears more than others. That being said, it might be best to read this book with a cat curled up on your lap or with a big dog nearby during the day!
In the new middle grade novel, All the Greys on Greene Street, twelve-year-old Olympia is trying to solve a mystery with her two friends, Alex and Richard. She knows her father, an art restorer, has left the country. She knows why her mother hasn’t gotten out of bed since her father left. And she knows something is amiss with an art piece her father and his business partner and devoted friend, Apollo, have been working on restoring. What she doesn’t know is why her father decided to leave so suddenly and why there are people knocking on the doors of her parents’ Soho loft, demanding answers.
All the Greys on Greene Street is Laura Tucker’s debut novel, a historical fiction story set in 1981 when Soho’s large industrial lofts housed artists instead of chain stores and the subway cost 75 cents. Narrated in first-person by Olympia, (Ollie to her family and friends) Ollie is a keen observer, and tries to make sense of the complex adults in her life. She is devoted to her parents and to Apollo, whose studio she visits and who cares for her like his own child. When her father leaves, Ollie tries but can’t rally her mom to get out of bed. She hides her mother’s depression, trying to move through her world as if everything is fine. For weeks, she gets herself to school, concentrates on school projects and eats lots of canned soup. She refuses to ask for help or even share what’s happening with her mom. She manages to convince the neighbors that things are okay, but her friends discover her secret. Ollie pleads for secrecy, but Richard and Alex refuse, and betray her trust. Ollie is just beginning to work through her feelings when catastrophe rocks their neighborhood.
Like the title suggests, Ollie has the eye of an artist. Everyone in her life encourages her to look closely at her world and really try to understand what is happening. Kelly Murphy’s pencil illustrations help the reader see what Ollie sees and what she draws. And the writing is beautiful. There are no easy answers and there is no villain, just friends trying to do their best with what they have. Tucker offers some very smart history and art lessons imparted with the lightest touch. Apollo teaches Ollie about color and craft and the lessons will stay with the reader, as much as they impact Ollie.
Kids and parents were different in 1981 and these sixth graders are allowed to navigate New York City in a way that tween and teen readers with hovering helicopter parents might be surprised by. But even with absent parents and independence, Ollie and her friends are never alone. Their own friendship, their strong community and their neighbors keep them safe. Readers might be tempted to compare Ollie to Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. They both have keen observation skills, but Ollie is softer and savvier than Harriet. Ollie’s biggest lessons are about how to ask for help, and friends who become family and how some of life’s hardest questions have more than one answer.
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer Cynthia Copeland Cynthia Copeland is a television and digital producer, who is always writing on the side. She is currently writing a YA contemporary novel. She lives in Pasadena, California with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @listenupbucko and she’ll share the small mystery that author, Laura Tucker revealed to her about the novel, All the Greys on Greene Street.
THE HAUNTING OF HOUNDS HOLLOW Written by Jeffrey Salane (Scholastic Press; $16. 99, Ages 8-12)
The middle grade novel, The Haunting of Hounds Hollowby Jeffrey Salane, is a recommended read for chilly, dark winter evenings. When Lucas Trainer’s family inherits a house from an almost-forgotten relative they move from the comforting familiarity of the big city to Hounds Hollow. For Lucas, making new friends means explaining his undiagnosed disease (his parents call it the Dark Cloud). Adjusting to being in the middle of nowhere is complicated by their crazy new mansion—akin to the Winchester Mystery House with rooms that lead to nowhere and a construction crew that doesn’t stop building.
The town’s history of people disappearing coupled with what may be a roaming pack of malevolent ghost dogs is enough to scare anyone away, but Lucas and his two new friends, Bess and Lens, decide they must uncover what’s going on before it’s too late. Lucas has a mysterious key that he hopes will unlock secrets from the past that continue to have hold of the house and its environs.
This book is suited for kids who like plots that delve into horror. The Haunting of Hounds Hollow takes some dark turns, particularly at the end. If you think your kid will grow into a fan of stories like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary then this tale will not disappoint.
In her debut chapter book as author-illustrator, Cantini brings young readers Ghoulia, a friendly, warm and purple-loving zombie girl (can a zombie be warm, just asking?) who really has only one wish, to have friends. Stuck inside the grounds of Crumbling Manor, Ghoulia has been forbidden to leave the premises out of fear she and her Auntie Departed, her closest relative, will be made to leave the village should they be found out. In this first book of the series, and at just 64 illustration-filled pages, Ghoulia is a fast and fun read for anyone curious about zombie kids. Ghoulia’s cast of characters includes her Auntie Departed, Shadow the cat, Uncle Misfortune who happens to be a head and ideal candy bucket for Halloween, Tragedy the Albino greyhound and Grandad Coffin, a chess-playing distraction for a zombie granddaughter’s escape on Halloween. Ghoulia pulls off this daring feat (and that could be a pun since her body parts can come off whenever she wants) on Halloween when her brilliant idea to masquerade as herself in order to meet the local children is a huge success. But alas, what will happen when the village trick-or-treaters learn the truth and it’s revealed that Ghoulia’s not dressed up in a zombie costume but actually is one? A secret Monster Society is formed and everyone lives (well that’s not totally true of course) happily ever after. Cantini captures the atmosphere of Ghoulia’s off-beat world with page after wonderful page of whimsical illustrations and a sweet storyline. Book 2, Ghoulia And The Mysterious Visitor is up next in this winning new series so fans won’t have to wait long to find out what’s in store for the charming zombie girl. Several entertaining pages of bonus activities are included in the back matter. • Review by Ronna Mandel
Chapter book, Sam Wu is NOT Afraid of Ghosts is a good match for reluctant readers because of its simple text, frequent illustrations, and funny asides in the margins or footnotes. As the title implies, there will be a lot of ironic humor; Sam Wu must face his fear of ghosts and reestablish himself in the eyes of his peers after a truly embarrassing incident. Luckily he’s learned a lot from his favorite TV program, “Space Blasters.” Now it seems there’s a ghost in Sam’s house, so Sam and his friends must prove they are brave ghost hunters.
Kids can sympathize with how it feels to not fit in. Sam introduces his friends to his favorite meal (roast duck and turnip cake) and urges them to take just one bite—even though the turnip cake does smell a lot like feet. Doing so, he successfully bridges their cultures using delicious food. Regaining some dignity with his classmates is harder, but Sam Wu demonstrates he’s no “Wu-ser” (as Ralph, the class bully, calls him).
In the closing Q&A, authors Katie and Kevin Tsang explain how they’ve woven some of their own childhoods into the story, showing they are “definitely NOT afraid of answering some author questions.”
Nathan Reed livens up the story with hilarious images of the characters including the evil cat Butterbutt, and Fang, the toughest snake ever. There is visual interest on every page to keep kids engaged beyond the text of the story.
Sam Wu is NOT Afraid of Ghosts works well as a Halloween book for kids who prefer not-very-scary ghost stories with plenty of laughs. • Review by Christine Van Zandt
CITY OF GHOSTS Written by Victoria Schwab (Scholastic; $17.99, Ages 9-12)
Looking for a spooky Halloween read? Check out Victoria Schwab’s middle-grade novel, City of Ghosts. The story opens when eleven-year-old Cassidy’s birthday gift sends her over the edge (literally) and she drowns (sort of—a boy-ghost named Jacob retrieves her from death). Soon after, Cass is drawn toward something she calls The Veil and discovers that she can cross over into the place where ghosts dwell.
Jacob and Cass travel to Scotland with Cass’s parents whose book The Inspecters (inspectors of specters) is being made into a television series. Cass meets another girl with the same sort of gift in Edinburgh, the city of ghosts. There, mysterious locales harbor dangerous inhabitants; Cass must quickly learn how to survive.
The reveal-and-conceal relationship between the lead characters in City of Ghostsis fascinating. There’s a lot to learn about the other side when adventures through The Veil become more complex. This book explores historical haunts and interesting folklore as the alluring story unfolds in ethereal delight.
Victoria Schwab is the #1 New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen novels for young adults and adults, including the Shades of Magic series, Vicious, Vengeful, This Savage Song, and Our Dark Duet. • Review by Christine Van Zandt Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Successwww.Write-for-Success.com @WFSediting,Christine@Write-for-Success.com
THE EXPLORERS: THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY by Adrienne Kress (Delacorte Press; $16.99, Ages 8-12)
THE BLOG TOUR
Allow me to take the liberty, given the wit and wildly sassy style of Adrienne Kress’s fantastical middle grade novel,The Explorers: The Door in the Alley, to share with you, readers, the several unused openings that I toyed with before settling upon something completely different though perhaps a bit more mundane:
Can a pig ever be considered precocious?
Teeny hats off (and I mean that in the best possible way) to author Adrienne Kress for her latest novel!
Kress had me at Explorers.
REVIEW: Now, all those intros aside, I thoroughly enjoyed being taken inside the thrilling walls, doors, rooms and slide (yes, slide!) of The Explorers Society, one of the most marvelous places I’ve been to in a long time, and the driving force (to say the least) behind this very imaginative adventure. Getting to know the cool cast of characters whose journey kept me turning the pages as more and more secrets were revealed, was also tons of fun.
The story of The Explorers unfolds with the rescue of a pig in a teeny hat by a 12-year-old, rule-respecting, STEM scholar named Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also got a photographic memory. The pig, it turns out, belongs to a member of The Explorers Society, located in a seemingly innocuous building in a back alley near Sebastian’s routine route home. Rather than being rewarded for his helpful deed as logic would dictate, logic being another characteristic that can be attributed to young Sebastian, he is punished by the society’s president. Sebastian must now, to avoid arrest (yes, arrest!), do chores daily after school at the society in order to learn to take risks and expand his limited horizons.
As he becomes familiar with the amazing interior of the society (trust me, it is absolutely unreal!), Sebastian, prodded by the president Myrtle Algens, seeks to do something inappropriate that only someone who thrives on appropriateness can do. Just what that is, he hasn’t a clue. So, while unsure exactly how to push these boundaries, Sebastian accidentally uncovers a small hidden door behind which sits a box. Sebastian takes this box home and discovers in its contents assorted articles, photographs and other information about a disbanded group of explorers called the Filipendulous Five. When he asks Algens about them he is less than politely asked to leave the society’s premises and never return!
Upon departing, Sebastian encounters a forlorn-looking girl sitting outside. The girl, we learn, is Evie, an orphan on the run from some scary-looking dudes, one with a jaw wired shut, the other with (I kid you not!), a partially melted face. According to a letter she was given before she escaped the bad guys, Evie discovers she has an important connection to the The Explorers Society. This letter, written by her grandfather who she didn’t know was alive, indicates he’s in grave danger. Somehow though, this information, when shared with Algens, has gotten her kicked out of the building despite believing it would be a place of refuge. Things become even more confounding for the poor girl when Sebastian explains that her grandfather is none other than Alistair Drake, the head honcho of the Filipendulous Five! Soon Evie and Sebastian team up and take off on a series of exciting and risky exploits (it’s true, Sebastian skips school!) at the local zoo, the university, as well as inside The Explorers Society, all in an effort to find a mysterious key mentioned in the letter and save Evie’s grandfather while trying to elude wired-jaw guy and melted-face man.
The Explorersis a fabulously funny, fast-paced read with 27 chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter contains just the right mix of mayhem, dialogue, description and derring-do. Kress’s imagination is boundless, something I’m certain middle graders looking to lose themselves in an adventure/mystery will appreciate. Her sense of humor is also spot on. I must mention here that I had the good fortune to be sent an advanced readers copy for the blog tour so the artwork that is due to accompany the novel wasn’t included. But I can’t wait to see it since the story itself is quite visual and would lend itself well to film or TV.
Now dear readers, the story doesn’t end here because there is definitely more to come in an as yet unnamed sequel that, I have to admit, is the appropriate thing to do when the author leaves you with a cliffhanger making you wonder what’s to become of Sebastian, Evie and the rest of the characters you’ve grown to care about. I’m also very curious as to whether Sebastian’s school ever calls his parents, that is unless all the action occurs on weekends. That would certainly calm his nerves. Watch this space!
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
More upcoming stops this week and next for the blog tour include:
THE SCENT OF SOMETHING SNEAKY By Gail Hedrick (Tumblehome Learning; $9.95, Ages 9-12)
In The Smell of Something Sneaky, Emily Sanders, the small town heroine from Hedrick’s first middle grade novel, Something Stinks!, is back to solve another mystery, only this one’s a lot more dangerous. In this well-paced, satisfying sequel, Hedrick’s 14-year-old main character begins noticing suspicious incidents occurring at a North Caroline B & B owned by her friend Mary’s grandmother. While everyone around her thinks these incidents are unrelated, Emily can’t shake off the feeling they’re connected.
It’s summer break and peak season for the popular getaway, Baird’s Den, where Emily’s working alongside her friend to fill in during a temporary staff shortage. The action begins quickly when a guest gets hurt from a loose step board. But nails don’t just pop out and Emily begins to wonder if the nails she discovers nearby were deliberately removed. Her friend Mary thinks otherwise and remarks that just because Emily solved one crime doesn’t mean there’s anything sneaky going on this time around. It’s true that accidents do happen, but in this case it’s starting to look a lot like they’re being made to happen, and if so, why? A neighbor, and Baird’s Den helper, Alex, is more easily convinced than Mary, that something’s up when a septic tank begins to stink, then a swarm of bees make a hive on top of the house followed by an electrical fire in the B & B’s carriage house. Alex even tells Mary that Gigi, Mary’s grandma, had a fall down the cellar steps due to a faulty light bulb before the girls arrived in North Carolina. Yes, something’s surely amiss and Emily’s determined to get to the bottom of it. So, by presenting some convincing evidence, Emily recruits her pals to help get to the bottom of things and save Baird’s Den from a string of costly setbacks and possible closure. But the closer Emily’s sleuthing takes her to uncovering the culprit or culprits, the more at risk she puts herself and her friends.
Hedrick has woven in clues and several red herrings to keep budding tween detectives on their toes, my favorites being the “Audubon guy” who keeps appearing all over the place, and the overly cheerful “realtor girl.” There is a great cast of characters readers will enjoy getting to know including innkeeper extraordinaire Grandma Gigi, neighbor Alex Ortiz and his crafter mom, Mariella, Pete the Plumber, bee wrangler Barb Blackstone, shopkeeper Evan Moss of Mountain Artisans along with the ever changing list of B & B guests. It’s also much ado about all things olfactory in this middle grade mystery and not all of it is sneaky. I could smell the trees from Hedrick’s description of Baird’s Den situated near the edge of the woods where trails invited “hikers, bikers, and horses.” And then there’s lots about the cinnamon Gigi uses both in drinks and for special guests’ gifts as well as the enticing aroma of candles on display at Mountain Artisans handmade crafts store. In fact, scent even plays a role in detecting part of a crime scene!
The Scent of Something Sneaky makes for entertaining summer reading and may just set your mind wandering the next time you step foot in a craft store while on holiday.
Fans of The Wig in the Window eagerly awaited the arrival of its companion book, The Tiara on the Terrace, and were rewarded this past January with its release. But even if you’ve never read Kittscher’s first book, her latest, The Tiara on the Terrace, can most certainly be read as a stand alone and is terrifically entertaining and awash in the adventures of Young and Yang.
In this funny, clever novel, perfect for fans of Pseudonymous Bosch and Gordon Korman and a companion to The Wig in the Window, tween sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang go undercover at Luna Vista’s Winter Sun Festival to catch a murderer before he—or she—strikes again. Sophie Young and Grace Yang have been taking it easy ever since they solved the biggest crime Luna Vista had ever seen. But things might get interesting again now that everyone is gearing up for the 125th annual Winter Sun Festival—a town tradition that involves floats, a parade, and a Royal Court made up of local high school girls. When Festival president Jim Steptoe turns up dead on the first day of parade preparations, the police blame a malfunctioning giant s’more feature on the campfire-themed float. But the two sleuths are convinced the mysterious death wasn’t an accident. Young and Yang must trade their high tops for high heels and infiltrate the Royal Court to solve the case. But if they fail, they might just be the next victims.
INTERVIEW WITH THE TIARA ON THE TERRACE AUTHOR, KRISTEN KITTSCHER
Good Reads With Ronna: Are detective stories what you read growing up?
Kristen Kittscher: I was a voracious reader. I read all kinds of things so detective stories weren’t the only things I read but they were some of my favorites. I was a big big Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fan as I’m sure many people are. I love Encyclopedia Brown. I just loved solving the puzzles that were involved. One of my very favorite books as a kid was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and that kind of mystery [where] they’re locked in a museum. I always loved solving puzzles but really I read widely. Judy Blume was an absolute favorite of mine. I think Blubber was a one of my all-time favorite books growing up. And Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming was another book I loved.
GRWR: Empowerment is prevalent in both novels. Was this a goal of yours?
KK: It’s interesting. After the book was out in the world I’d hear that a lot and it wasn’t an actual focus of mine when I was writing … I think it’s because I taught at an all-girls school many years and I was swimming in girl power without realizing it. I was teaching 7th grade where girls are starting to become more self-conscious. But at that school they were very much themselves and not worried about how they were coming across. And I think I was definitely trying to write a story for them and was very influenced by their joie-de vivre and general sense of fun and curiosity and smarts as I was writing. I didn’t think about it. It just came out that way.
GRWR: What qualities do Sophie, Grace and their quirky pal, Trista have in common with you?
KK: Well maybe I’ve given them qualities I don’t have because that’s the fun of writing fiction, right? I’m definitely very curious myself and always loved a sense of intrigue. I’m pretty silly and they’re pretty silly. I think in a way they probably have more attributes of my students but Trista’s practicality and her kind of ability to just sort of, kind of plug on no matter what. I definitely have a bit of that as well. She’s a bit like my father was and I’m a bit like him so I always think I definitely have a little bit of Trista in me. The other quality definitely is the lack of confidence that Sophie has in coming into her own. I just started writing late in life – this is the first thing I ever wrote – or ever finished – and I really was focused on teaching and not writing. So, the thought of saying I want to be a writer is like saying I want to become a rock star or something like that. The story of The Wig in the Window is a mystery but it’s also kind of paralleling my journey in finding my voice as a writer.
GRWR: Getting into the heads of two twelve year olds isn’t easy. What helped you?
KK: Well, it helps to kind of be 12 in my head mostly! Well I think it goes back to my teaching middle school for a long time. I can’t remember what I was like before I was teaching 7th grade, whether I was also still 12 or if they helped me get back in touch with my youthful self. But definitely having that be my world day in and day out for a long time definitely rubbed off on me. As to Sophie and Grace, their perspective was relatively easy for me to access. The other part that makes it easy for me is having moved a lot as a kid. I moved almost every two years when I was growing up. So each place at each age I was, I remember it really vividly. I’s a very separate point in time and it’s relatively easy for me to go back to a certain place geographically in my mind and get back in touch with the feelings I had at that time. So it was a blessing in a way having moved so much because then I can remember each place individually.
GRWR: Where were you at age 12?
KK: At age 12, I was in the South Bay so basically Torrance, Palos Verdes area. For those people who don’t know, it’s this beautiful peninsula at the bottom of Los Angeles. It’s one of the most beautiful places I ever lived. You’re right by the beach. I think at the time as a kid you don’t realize how beautiful it is so when I set out to write something that came back to me very much and I knew it would be a fun setting for other people to read about too.
GRWR: Was there any pushback from the Tournament of Roses organization to change the similarities?
KK: No. But definitely the fictional town of Luna Vista is a combination between Pasadena and the place I just described, Palos Verdes and Torrance area. It’s my observing my students here in Pasadena and my own memories back when I was 12. And the town of Luna Vista has AmStar (which is very similar to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) so we have a great deal of scientists, actual rocket scientists as Pasadena does, and that makes it lots of fun to explore lots of technological things. That’s where the idea of Trista having such technological savvy comes from but as far as pushback from the tournament, no. One of my former students was on the royal court and she sat down with me and told me all about her experience as a princess so I actually had a lot of cooperation. Other former students told me about the audition process, other colleagues, longtime Pasadena volunteers and parade goers definitely helped me with all of their memories and observations. And then when the book was finished the Tournament House was considering even doing a launch there as well. Unfortunately the launch of the book came three days after the Rose Parade itself. So I don’t know if their lack of cooperation after the fact had more to do with the fact that they were focusing on their event because, as you know, it’s a huge operation and requires thousands of volunteers and all kinds of things. I haven’t experienced any direct pushback, but there is of course some gentle fun that I’m poking at the parade so we’ll see.
GRWR: How did you know the Wrigley Mansion so well?
KK: Well, for those who don’t know there’s a mansion in Pasadena called the Wrigley Mansion, which is the tournament headquarters and it was donated by Mr. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate you all know so well. So I thought it would be fun to create this sort of parallel world where Mr. Ridley who is a root beer magnate has his whole thing because basically I wanted a literal root beer float in the parade. Right? That makes it much more fun. I definitely had that outside of the mansion in my head as I was writing. Also you can take tours of the mansion and while it’s been renovated into offices, some of the rooms I definitely had in mind as I was writing so maybe that helped add a little flair to the setting.
GRWR: What else did you do for research?
KK: I was also an embedded undercover agent in float decorating. Every year in Pasadena before the parade begins, students pour out to volunteer in what are called the Float Barns which are these huge warehouses where the floats are. Actually before ever writing the story the inspiration where it comes from is my volunteering as a float decorator on the Trader Joe’s float one year. I was there gluing on flowers and climbing around on scaffolding so in the opening of the novel, Sophie, the main character, nearly falls from the scaffolding. Well that’s directly related to my own fear of heights crawling around on the scaffolding which I thought was highly unsafe for a 12-year-old. I also would constantly be Googling and referring back to different news articles just to get more inspiration and details. I don’t know a lot about flowers and obviously flowers are a very important part of the float decorations. So all the different kinds of things that are used to create different colors I would constantly be having to check back on, and say oh they used cinnamon for the brown part. I only knew what my tasks were as the decorator. I didn’t know what other flowers are used and I’m sure I messed it all up.
GRWR:Do they use a lot of different flowers?
KK: Oh, no they’re endless- I mean that’s part of their creativity – every single bit of surface area of a float needs to be decorated with some sort of living material. Even the tires of the float – they’re black, right? But we need to keep them black so they cover the tires with sheets of sea weed. Those little squares of seaweed that you got – that is really what they do. In order to win any of the prizes everything needs to be organic material of some kind.
GRWR: And there are people underneath the float?
KK: Yes, a major plot point of The Tiara in the Terrace is Trista working on a driver-less float because she finds that it would revolutionize the festival not to have people in these cramped compartments. One of the other things that is also very true about the parade is the need for what they call the pooper scooper brigade of kid volunteers who shovel up after the horses. The reason for that isn’t just to keep the parade route clear it’s because if they don’t clean up after the horses the wheels of the float kick up the remains of the horse poop into the eyes of the float drivers and gets in the ventilation system of their float. We’re getting right down to the nitty gritty.
GRWR: Because The Tiara on the Terrace is for middle grade students and includes murder, did you have to diffuse it with humor? How do you go about bringing that into a story?
KK: It’s true. It’s pretty hard to write a murder mystery for kids. You have to make it silly in some cases, but you know that kids also love the stakes being potentially high or real. In this case, you have what’s a potential murder. All the adults believe that the Winter Sun Festival president has been the victim of a tragic accident – a giant dancing animatronic S’more on a parade float has swung down and killed Mr. Steptoe. So you have this really really silly situation but also this tragic accident and that gives that distance and silliness that makes it kind of okay. And also it’s maybe a bit silly that the kids think that this could possibly be murder. Right? As the kids say, seriously? murder by marshmallow? … By giving that distance it helps explore a dark er side.
GRWR: How hard was it to put your red herrings into your story because there are a bunch of them?
KK: Thank you for recognizing that! The Wig in the Window was not hard, because well, it was hard to write for other reasons, but there’s always something, right? But mystery-wise it’s much more of a thriller, like a psychological thriller for middle schoolers where [the questions are] is this person bad, or is my imagination running away with me or not? So that’s a very simple structure, really. The Tiara in the Terrace is much more like an Agatha Christie novel or a typical cozy mystery as they call it, where you have many suspects in a large cast. It was really hard to trickle in all the clues at the same time that we’re exploring all the social dynamics in friendships. I think as you’re reading you can think oh, gosh, here we have some sort of detour, some sort of social friend detour and you don’t realize oh, wow, all the clues are being laid out at the same time. And so it’s kind of hard pacing-wise to keep the tension going at the same time, your reader might not realize that all of those red herrings are being placed in that sense. It takes a lot of outlining and even reverse outlining. Really knowing the crime, if there is a crime.
GRWR: You totally got me … I love being tricked!
KK: And I love tricking people. I think in this one you might know who it is but you might not know why. And then all the why is very, I think, very satisfying and very fun. (Ronna talking). One thing I know about kids is they often don’t just read a book once unlike adults and so it’s very important to me to make sure that everything matches up. That if you’re going to read this again, you’re going to see everything a second time and have just as much fun figuring out how it’s constructed as the reading itself. Also, my favorite scene is the parade scene at the end which of course has to be bombastic and spectacular and I really had the most fun writing that.
GRWR:Do you ever find, when you hear from young readers, that they’re inspired to write their own mysteries after reading yours? Afterall it is inspiring to see these three young girls go about solving mysteries in their own communities.
KK: Oh definitely … I also run some workshops in writing mysteries so I get kids going that way as well. Last summer I was at The James Thurber House in Ohio and they have a summer writing camp and they also go out in the community. All the kids would love trying to create their own mysteries after reading so I had a great time teaching those workshops. I think kids love the idea of uncovering secrets, I mean we all do, but particularly adult secrets because they don’t have full access to that world. It’s fun to imagine what could be happening in worlds they don’t know about.
GRWR: Will the girls be back for another adventure?
KK: Each book was separate. I like that a lot because they stand alone. If you read carefully there might be mild spoilers that you probably wouldn’t remember but each of those books can stand by itself so I didn’t sell The Wig in the Window as a series.
GRWR:So your publisher came back to you after book #1?
KK: Right. So that’s a good transition to say, ” Buy The Tiara on the Terrace, everybody, so there can be a third Young and Yang adventure.
GRWR: Can you speak briefly about the TV show that’s been optioned?
KK: Yeah, I’m really excited that both books have been optioned by a producer and I’m co-writing the first season – the pilot right now. It’s really exciting to be able to imagine giving Young and Yang new life in this form because they can be much more equally represented. You know, both The Wig in the Window and The Tiara in the Terrace are from Sophie Young’s point of view. Now we can step back and look at these families from the outside a little bit and also get much more access to Grace Yang’s point of view and possibly the worlds of the villains. So I’m having a really good time figuring out how to adapt the story and getting a lot of help with it as well. The first season is The Wig and the Window stretched out over 12 episodes so you almost have strangely more opportunity to see more elements of their school life and family life within that kind of episodic structure as opposed to the three act structure of a book. So The Wig in the Window the ongoing mystery travels over the course of the season, but each episode has its own exploration of things that are going on between Young and Yang and their families and school and love interests.
GRWR: Did I leave anything out that you would like to add?
KK: I don’t know if I can think of a direct question but something I really like to get across about why I write in general and especially The Wig in the Window and The Tiara on the Terrace is that I love giving kids a sense of adventure and wonder. In my observations as a teacher, kids can be like little business people these days. They have their rolling back packs and their schedules they have their playdates, they have their extra-curriculars. And their world is very constricted much more so then mine was growing up, and I feel that through books or through these adventures you can kind of restore that sense of wonder but also the feeling that kids can have real power and trust themselves to go on all kinds of fun adventures so I like opening that up to them through books and that’s something that I don’t get asked about much but I love to get across. That books have this power to open up some avenues of freedom for kids in their otherwise sometimes overly scheduled world.
Interview by Ronna Mandel (with special thanks to Armineh Manookian for all her help!)
KRISTEN KITTSCHER is the author of bestselling tween mystery The Wig in the Window (Harper Children’s, 2013) which garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was on ten Best of the Year lists. A graduate of Brown University and a former middle school English teacher, Kristen was named the James Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence in 2014. She lives with her husband in Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade—the inspiration for her latest novel, The Tiara on the Terrace. Visit kristenkittscher.comor follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@kkittscher).
Enter below to win a copy of The Tiara on the Terrace by Kristen Kittscher plus an exclusive spy kit with Moleskine notebook. spy pen, magnets and book marks. Receive an extra entry for following Good Reads With Ronna on Facebook.
Lizzie Kennedy, 13, lives in a house on her aunt and uncle’s fashionable Nob Hill estate with her widowed father and her brother, Billy, 16, once her best friend, but now surly and secretive. Their beloved servants, Jing and Maggy, also reside with them. A brief prologue gives the readers some insight into Lizzie’s world at the dawn of the 20th century and the ominous developments to come:
“In the Palace Hotel, electric lights blaze as ladies in shimmering gowns and gentlemen in black waistcoats waltz in a ballroom gilded with gold.
In the bay, a steamer from Honolulu is fumigated, scrubbed, and smoked … and given entry to the port of San Francisco.
At the dock … rats slip off the ship. They scurry onto the wharf and climb the sewers to Chinatown …”
Thanks to her aunt and uncle’s wealth, Lizzie is able to live a fairly privileged life. However, her strict and proper Aunt Hortense insists that she attend finishing school. Lizzie is not interested in becoming a society lady. She prefers science to etiquette, and, much to Aunt Hortense’s chagrin, enjoys assisting her doctor father with his house calls.
Stories begin to surface about the large numbers of dead rats found in Chinatown, and soon that community is quarantined. Despite her father’s and her uncle’s insistence that there is no plague and the quarantine is unjustified, Lizzie has her doubts. One day she discovers that Jing, the family’s cook, has smuggled his son Noah out of Chinatown and has secretly hidden him in the servants’ quarters. However Jing is now missing. Did he get caught up in the quarantine … or something worse? Stunned by the discovery that Jing has a secret life, Lizzie promises the frightened boy, Noah, that she’ll help keep his secret and try to find out what has happened to his father.
As dead rats and plague rumors mount, Lizzie boldly attempts to determine the veracity of the plague rumors and secretly undertakes some dangerous trips to Chinatown to find Jing. Her friendship with Noah and her trips to Chinatown, help her realize the gender, racial, and class inequalities which exist in her society. When Lizzie realizes she can’t find Jing on her own and illness strikes close to home, help comes from some surprising quarters.
Like her earlier Newbery award-winning work, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Choldenko’s middle grade novel, Chasing Secrets, is a wonderful coming-of-age-story that blends historical fiction, mystery, and humor, while providing a fascinating glimpse into San Francisco’s colorful past. Complex topics (some sadly similar to today’s concerns) of inequality, medical science, and immunology are made accessible to young readers through Lizzie’s experiences.
The author, a long time resident of the San Francisco Bay area, concludes with a note about the historical background, a chronology of the plague, and notes which provide information for further reading. Visit Choldenko’s website for more information about her work and find a fascinating Writing Timeline and Educator’s Guide for Chasing Secrets too.