Category Archives: mystery

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

I should probably wait and process Liar & Spy before I make grand statements–I only just finished it about ten minutes ago.  But here I go anyway:  this just might be a perfect middle grade novel.

Georges (named after painter Georges Seurat) and his family have just sold their home and moved into an apartment as a result of his father losing his job.  Georges still attends 7th grade at the same school, where he is bullied about his name (“Gorgeous”), among other things, but the new apartment brings new friends, in particular an odd boy named Safer and his younger sister, Candy.   The novel centers on Georges and Safer trying to solve the mystery of Mr. X, a neighbor who dresses all in black and comes and goes from his apartment carrying suitcases.  Safer speculates that Mr. X might be a murderer, and the spying that ensues includes some tense moments.  The mystery here is solid and ultimately unpredictable, and the resolution of the novel is immensely satisfying.

What is also solid is the character development, and this is really a realistic coming-of-age story as much as it is a mystery.  Georges’ voice is spot-on and unique, and the other characters who populate this story, kids and adults, are equally compelling.  A bit of the school dialogue struck me as unrealistic, but on the whole, it felt like I was reading about real, often quirky people, and if you read this blog, you know I love quirky characters!

I think middle school students, especially 5th and 6th graders, are going to really enjoy this story, both for the thoughtful mystery and the realistic fiction elements centered on family and friendships.  It’s a short, readable book, but there’s real depth to the story and the ending packs a quiet punch (is there such a thing as a quiet punch?  there is now!).   I can’t wait to share this story with students next week and start hearing their feedback!

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Funny Stuff (alternate post title: If you liked Diary of a Wimpy Kid. . .)

Funny books are always in high demand.  Who doesn’t like to laugh?  Of course, humor is very subjective, so what one kid finds hilarious can be utterly lame to another, but here are some humorous books that have been loved by many of our Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans, plus others with a different brand of humor.

I’ve already written here about Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.  That book and its sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back, are pretty much guaranteed to be appreciated by anyone who likes the Wimpy Kid books.  Angleberger has another book, not part of that series, called Horton Halfpott, or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor, or The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset, that will likely also appeal.

My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian centers on a kid who doesn’t like to read trying to solve the mystery of his former babysitter’s death while she was watching him.  The cartoons in the margins provide some lightness and humor, and the mystery adds some emotional weight.

Another book about a kid who hates to read, Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading (by Tommy Greenwald) follows a middle school boy’s exploits as he attempts to get by in school without ever cracking a book.  Funny and fast-paced.

Time travel? Check.  Aliens?  Check.  Two kids trying to save the world?  Check.  Herbert’s Wormhole by Peter Nelson has all of these, and more.

Micheal Buckley’s NERDS series (about the National Espionage, Rescue and Defense Society, populated by superhero spies who have gone undercover into middle school) has an interesting dilemma.  Kids who are reading these books LOVE them, but there is a bit of reluctance to initially check them out because of the title.  It’s funny, because once one kid takes the plunge, that whole class will happily check them out and talk about them and speculate on when the next one is coming out.  Fast, adventurous, and very silly.
The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander is the goofy, suspenseful story of  how a kid named Mac’s bathroom-stall business (he helps protect little kids from bullies; get underage kids into R-rated movies; sells test answers–pretty much anything for a buck or two) gets complicated when he goes up against a big bully with a gambling ring.  Kids get hooked right away by the whole idea of a shady business run out of an unused school bathroom stall, and the suspense over what Staples (the big bully) will do next pulls them through.
In Cosmic (by Frank Cottrell Boyce), 12-year-old Liam looks like an adult and ends up in various funny, odd situations as a result (test driving a car, for example).  His ability to pass as a grown-up is all good fun until he ends up being the only “adult” on a spacecraft full of kids that is off course and heading for disaster.  This novel is far-fetched, for sure, but great fun to read.
Anything by Daniel Pinkwater.  Pinkwater has a quirky sense of humor, so he’s the sort of writer one either loves or hates.  I have met adults who say that reading his books when they were kids changed their lives.  Check out The Neddiad and/or The Yggyssey for a middle-school-friendly taste of Pinkwater’s odd, goofy writing style.
It occurs to me, looking at this list, that all of the protagonists are boys.  That’s not right!  I think they are books that will appeal to both boys and girls, but I don’t like having a post with that imbalance.  So, coming soon:  a post on funny stuff with girl protagonists.  If anyone has suggestions of titles for such a post, please send them along!
I also apologize for the awful layout of the images/text here.  If anyone can tell me how to fix that, I’m anxious to hear it!

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The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

I am not sure exactly how I feel about The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer.  I wanted to really like it, and in some ways I did, but in other ways it just didn’t quite make it for me.  But there was enough good in there to make it a book I will recommend to students.

Pros:

The novel grabbed me right away, and I flew through it.  The writing is strong, and it felt to me like Wolitzer captured the language and world of middle school well.  And while I wouldn’t call it a mystery exactly, there were some little mysterious elements to the story that kept me engaged and wanting to keep reading.

The main characters, three middle school kids who are all headed to a major Scrabble tournament, each for very different reasons (Duncan because he hopes to win the cash prize; Nate because his father is pressuring him to win in order to avenge his own loss when he competed in the same tournament years ago; and April because she simply loves the game), are all interesting and quirky and appealing.  I would happily read a novel devoted to any one of the three of them.

Cons:

The very thing that grabbed my attention at the beginning of the novel (and would likely grab students’ attention if I read the first few chapters out loud to them) is probably the most problematic part of the book.  Duncan Dorfman, one of the three main children, has a strange special power that allows him to “see” with his fingertips.  In the world of Scrabble, this means he can reach into the tile bag and know exactly what letters he is pulling out–an obvious advantage at a tournament.  As the novel progresses, this special talent isn’t really central to the story, or at least not necessary, and in the end, I felt like the book would have been stronger without that element of magic.

It felt like there were a few too many plots thrown in.  The main stories of the three children were all compelling, but a side story about Nate’s dad’s former Scrabble partner didn’t grab me and just seemed like too much.  I also felt like the ending of Duncan’s story was too rushed and superficial.

In the End:

In the end, I would recommend this book to kids who like realistic fiction with a bit of a twist; kids who like E. L. Konigsburg (this book has a similar feel to many of her novels); and kids who like to write.  And I would definitely recommend it to kids who like Scrabble–there are a ton of neat tips and word lists included in the novel!

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The Mysterious Benedict Society: Mr. Benedict’s Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society books by Trenton Lee Stewart have been a huge hit in my library for the last several years (at one point, a group of sixth grade girls even created their own “society” in honor of their love for the books), so I was excited to see this new book of puzzles arrive in our latest book shipment and immediately grabbed it to peruse.  I was not disappointed!  Mr. Benedict’s Book of Perplexing Puzzles, Elusive Enigmas, and Curious Conundrums is FUN!

The MBS series follows a small group of genius children through trials, tribulations, and some fabulous puzzle solving as they attempt to defeat the forces of evil.  One wonderful feature of the novels is that we, as readers, get to try to solve the brain teasers along with the kids, and the challenges often involve thinking outside the box.  When I introduced the first book to classes years ago, I started off each class by putting the chess problem (see * below!) up on the board and having them try to solve it.  From there, it was easy to get them excited about reading the book.  I can easily think of a number of kids off the top of my head who would love this slim book devoted almost entirely to brain teasers.

One thing I really appreciate about this book is that, while some of the puzzles are more challenging than others, and I had to peek at the solutions in the back a few times, they are all solvable and understandable for kids.  The wonderful illustrations by Diana Sudyka and descriptions of characters from the novels add some humor and whimsy as well.  My plan for my 5th grade classes this week is to give them some of the challenges to solve, and I suspect it will be a lot of fun for them, and for me!  I also suspect I will get a lot of holds on the book!

*From The Mysterious Benedict Society:  “The next page showed a picture of a chessboard, upon which all the pieces and pawns rested in their starting positions, except for a black pawn, which had advanced two spaces.  The question read: ‘According to the rules of chess, is this position possible?’  Reynie studied the board a moment, scratched his head, and wrote down his answer: YES.”  Reynie is correct.  Can you figure out why/how?

P.S.  I am also going to possibly give out this old challenge that I remember doing when I was a kid of about middle school age!

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The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer

Reading The Only Ones felt a bit like dreaming.  I flew through this book in just a few days, and always had a hard time putting it down, and when I finished, it felt like I had dreamt the whole thing.  Starmer writes beautifully and compellingly, and I guess he sort of pulled me into this alternate world so well, I had to wake up from it when I was finished.  I’m still not sure I have entirely woken up yet!

The Only Ones is about a boy, Martin Maple, who grows up on a small island with his father.  Tourists come and go every summer, but Martin and his father only interact with each other, focusing much of their energy on building and rebuilding a mysterious machine.  Martin can take apart and rebuild the machine, as his father has taught him, but he doesn’t know what the machine is for, what it can do.  There is a missing piece, but he doesn’t know what it is.

Then one day his father leaves the island, promising to return before Martin’s 11th birthday.  The birthday comes and goes, and Martin’s father doesn’t return.  Tourist season comes and goes, and the tourists don’t come to the island.  Martin finally decides he must leave the island to see what has happened, and discovers that, with the exception of a group of about 50 kids, all of the people in the world have disappeared without a trace.  The kids who remain are all drawn mysteriously to a town they name Xibalba, where they create a society in which each child’s special talent or interest helps them all survive.  But can they figure out a way to get their families back?  Can they figure out what happened to make everyone disappear?

Part science fiction, part mystery, this well-crafted story was moving in ways I didn’t see coming.  This is one that will stick with me for a long time.

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Filed under fiction, mystery, post-apocalyptic, science fiction