Chapter Books: Children's Lit.

Book Review
The Nebula Secret (Explorer Academy #1)
Written by Trudi Trueit
Published August 28, 2018

Why I chose this book:
An adventure novel for middle grade students from National Geographic? I miss reading all my students' book selections, I want to expand my coverage on this blog, and I'm a big fan of National Geographic. How could I resist the offer of a review copy from a representative of National Geographic?


The Nebula Secret follows twelve-year-old Cruz as he enters his first year at the Explorer Academy. He is excited and nervous to train as an explorer; he will live on campus in Washington, D.C., and study a range of topics from anthropology to journalism to survival training. After several weeks, he is supposed to set sail with his classmates on the Orion, where they will spend at least a semester at sea. Of course, things do not go as expected — this is an adventure novel, after all.

Cool tech, close friendships, and a school bully punctuate this heart-pounding adventure-mystery. The twelve-year-olds are completely believable, and the sci-fi aspect is more "just around the corner" than fiction (the series is put out by National Geographic, so that's not surprising). The entire premise of an Academy that trains young explorers to understand the world, conserve resources and cultures, and inform the public is fascinating and appealing. I've no doubt that being accepted at the Academy would be a dream come true (I'm not sure if I'd have rather received my Hogwarts letter or my Explorer Academy letter). Back matter presents a "Truth behind the Fiction" section, introducing real explorers and explaining some of the inspiration for developments in the novel. And finally, Trudi Trueit's writing itself captivates, drawing one so fully into Cruz's first year that you'll feel like you're right there on his team the whole time (and that you hate Nebula with a passion).

Nebula is the mysterious and powerful villain out to get Cruz, though it's not initially clear why (it's related to his mother's medical research at the Academy). At first Cruz doesn't even know if Nebula is a person or a group or what (it's a pharmaceutical company). With help from a couple close classmates and his best friend back home in Hawaii, he is able to successfully navigate the first few weeks of the term. Just before he is to set sail, however, he is expelled and attacked. I will leave it at that, so as not to spoil the whole thing. But I will say that this is a top-notch middle-grade novel. If you know someone who is into exploring, cool advanced tech, and adventure stories — this is a stellar read! I am about to start the next book, which comes out later this month. You can expect a follow-up review soon.

I don't want T to grow up too fast, but this is totally one I'd want to read with him! And if this means anything to you, it reminds me of the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz.

Foiled Book Review

Photo Credit: T kindly provided his alien.
Book Review
By Carey Fessler
Published April 9, 2015

Why I chose this book:
It's a children's adventure that involves a strong female lead and Roswell artifacts - that's why. The author provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Mom's Review

Two friends evade a CIA agent who is trying to regain an alien artifact.

Foiled was out of this world! The intended audience is middle-grade readers, and as a retired 5th/6th grade ELA teacher, I have read hundreds of middle-grade novels. Some are good, some are bad, and some I don't want to put down. This was one that I didn't want to put down. A few days ago, I kept postponing dinner preparation because I was so absorbed by Foiled (and it didn't hurt that T and his dad were also absorbed in their own activities). We did eat, by the way, and I finished the book after T went to bed.

The key words when describing Foiled are authenticity and believability. Fessler has crafted an exciting, entertaining, and completely believable adventure novel about two children who acquire a piece of alien technology after the cleanup of a mysterious crash in Roswell. Billy and Kate live on an Army base near Roswell, and Billy's father brought home a souvenir from his job sanitizing the "weather balloon" crash site. The CIA finds out, comes banging on his door and threatening violence, and Billy and his neighbor Kate run away with the souvenir. What ensues is a cross-state chase; the children are trying to reach Kate's grandfather, where they hope they will be safe from Special Agent Falco's reach.

Kate and Billy speak and act as middle-grade students really do; they are intelligent, resourceful, but also uncertain at times. They are kids, not helpless puppies. Would two kids hitchhike to an off-grid grandparent's home? Today? No way. In the 40's? Why not? The social attitudes of the Cold War era, the realities of living on base, and the lack of parental supervision combine to authentically depict the 40's. And Falco is a stellar villain - readers will love hating him.
If I were still teaching, I'd add it to my list of books I recommend to students. It's excellent, engrossing, and well-written.

Surviving Moose Lake (Kids vs. Nature Book 1)
Written by Karl Steam
Illustrated by Joshua Lagman
Published May 24, 2018

Why I chose this book:
I was contacted by the author, who provided a review copy. I do not accept all review requests, but this one piqued my interest; sixth grade students are pulled out of the classroom and into nature. I am a retired sixth grade teacher who loves being outside and recognizes the importance of kids' outdoor play and exploration.

Surviving Moose Lake is narrated by sixth-grade Josh. He and three classmates have the task of identifying various leaves during a science lab. When one of them downloads a free phone app in order to cheat on the task, the app magically transports them out of the classroom and into the forest. They are tasked with finding and "shooting" a moose before the app will return them to the classroom. After a rough start, the children learn to work together, observe their surroundings, and take a shot of a moose they find with the camera feature in the app. They are returned to the same moment they left the classroom, and the book ends with a setup for the subsequent installment in the series.

This middle-grade novel has short chapters and several pictures, making for a comfortable reading experience for those adjusting to chapter books. The premise reminded me somewhat of, but this is more believable and uses current technology, so will likely have high appeal; the use of conversational tone make for easy reading while presenting some information about moose. Further factual information is included in the back. I mention that I found this believable - I could easily imagine some of my former students confronting the difficulties as the characters did, overcoming preconceived notions, thinking critically and creatively about their problems, and working as a team to achieve a goal.

This is a fun adventure, though there were two aspects that I wasn't keen on: an overweight student is bullied and called "the Blob" as bystanders watch, and the term "spaz" is used derogatorily. Both instances are authentic to grade school, and perhaps I am being overly sensitive, but I would have liked to see a defense of the bullied child, and I am not keen on normalizing epithets derived from medical conditions. On the other hand, this would be a good starting point for a very positive conversation about bullying and respect for physical differences. Despite my discomfort with those two small items, I enjoyed reading the book; it's fun and funny, and the adventure is exciting while remaining believable (if an app could actually transport you, that is!).

By Amariah Dixon
Published in 2013

Why I chose this book:
I would like to expand this blog to include chapter books before T is actually reading chapter books. When a review opportunity arose to review a YA Christian fantasy novel, I was interested. I accepted a copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review.


You know that dream where something ominous is after you, but you don't know why? That is what sixteen-year-old Riley faces repeatedly in The Star: How the Magic Began. His story begins with abuse by a group of bullies at his school. Shortly thereafter, he wakes to find a star imprint over his eye. He hides this from his parents, but cannot avoid showing it to his friend Kelly. Almost immediately thereafter, they are chased by a malicious ghost army. Riley escapes from one horrific encounter only to be thrust into another: evil clowns, mad scientists, ghouls, grim reapers, and the like. Each creature must be battled, be it in Colorado, an alternate dimension, or the magical land of Zefa, which Riley and Kelly enter through a mysterious door in the forest. In Zefa, he is able to use magic against his adversaries. Although most new characters are abusive bullies, some are victims of bullies; these individuals he befriends. The novel concludes with many questions left unanswered; it is clearly intended to set the stage for another installment.

Billed as a Christian book, The Star is primarily a story of good vs. evil. Riley is pitted against various "evil" characters, many of whom avow their loyalty to the Vile One outright. I have asked myself why Riley must experience animosity from almost everyone he meets, animosity that leads to attempts on his life. Perhaps we are meant to read Riley as the messianic figure in this story: he is selected by the One of Light and comes into his power as a young adult, he stands against abuse of the weak, and he acquires followers as he travels through Zefa (and those followers become as close as brothers themselves). I wonder if he will need to die in a future novel in order to fulfill the purpose for which he was marked with the star.

By D. E. Night
Published 2017

Why I chose this book:
I would like to include more children's reading levels than just picture books, so when I saw that reviews for this children's chapter book were sought, I responded. The publisher provided a copy for review.

Mom's Review

High fantasy, sorcery without the sword. This magical mystery adventure features enchantments performed with quill pens and enchanted gems. Ivy Lovely, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, runs away from her lowly job in the castle kitchen, to be picked up by a representative from a magical school. She learns that she is enrolled to begin learning magic in a number of days, although she has no idea how this could come to pass, almost reminiscent of Harry Potter. Despite the improbability, she recognizes an opportunity not to be missed.

Ivy's school year progresses as you might expect, with magical mishaps, a bully, a secret crush, and an unfair teacher. What sets this novel apart is the magic and mystery. Ivy is studying to become a scrivenist. This means that she can perform magic using a quill pen, has a particular talent for realistic drawing, and has magic flowing through her blood. Although I am a bit unclear on how exactly the students harness their magic and use their quills or gems, suspension of disbelief came easily. Ivy's studies, as well as many strange events, lead her to research an older scrivenist by the name of Derwin Edgar Night. Her investigation leads to more questions than answers, a search into her own history, and exploration of several forbidden places. She ultimately confronts the Dark Queen in a magical battle, learns her own history, and sets Derwin free from his enchanted prison. Excitement abounds in this novel for tweens and teens. I had fun reading it now, and I know I would have gobbled it up as a kid.

Reading The Crowns of Croswald as an adult, I particularly liked the depiction of Ivy's relationship with her roommate. Although they came from vastly different backgrounds, they were fast friends and always their authentic selves. Furthermore, each was ready to do what was right despite others' opposition. It's a prime example of supportive, healthy friendship between girls for a young audience to see.

Written by Gennifer Choldenko
Expected Publication: May 8, 2018

Why I chose this book: 
I received a copy of this through a GoodReads giveaway.

Mom's Review

Before beginning high school, Moose struggles to join the baseball team and care for a sister with autism, all while living on Alcatraz Island.

Moose is the son of the assistant warden on Alcatraz. He encounters many obstacles to joining a baseball team during the summer before his freshman year. Moose must look after Piper, the warden's troublesome daughter. He must convince an unreasonable baseball captain who wants Alcatraz souvenirs to let him play. And first and foremost, Moose must care for Natalie, his sister with autism who turns 17.

Heart-pounding action and authentic characters grab the reader and don't let go until the end. The real strength of Al Capone Throws Me a Curve is Moose and Natalie's relationship. Moose loves his sister dearly, becomes exasperated at times with her behavior, and balances their individual goals. Natalie, meanwhile, asserts herself as a young lady and develops many new social skills. Readers with siblings who have differences, be they social, mental, or physical, can identify with Moose's feelings, thoughts, and reactions to his sister. I read this book at every opportunity over the past few days, and I cried when it ended. The other children's books that made me cry were Wonder and Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Son's Review
(age 2 years and 11 months)

Son, seeing Mom open the mail and this book appear: Is that for me?

Mom: Not yet, but you can read it when you are older.

Son: Okay.  Can I have the bookmark now?
(It came with an Alcatraz series bookmark.)

Mom: How about when I'm done using it?

Son: [takes it anyways]

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A House for Mouse

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