Books
Books for Kids
Mystery
Book Reviewed: Bodeen, S.A. The Compound. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Summary: Nuclear war has rendered the land unhabitable. Fortunately for Eli, his two sisters and his mother and father, have a prebuilt underground shelter in which to hide and survive the ensuing chaos. For six years they have lived in the compound, built by their wealthy but eccentric father. However, the food has begun to run out and Eli is starting to get stir crazy with the monotonous daily grind. He starts to think about life outside the compound. Is it safe to venture outside? Why is his father acting so strangely? Does his father have any secrets? And how did his brother and grandmother really die?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a decent “my-father-is-crazy-and-he’s-locked-us-into-his-compound” thriller. The book is a fairly quick read so kids who normally don’t like to read may find this is one they can handle. There are enough plot twists to keep the reader guessing and the main character’s suspicion that not all is well with his father is well done.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Betrayal by parents is one of the quickest ways to get middle school kids involved in a moving story line. Throw in a little self-doubt as to whether you had anything to do with family member’s death and you have a winning combination. The story of life in the cloistered compound will be engaging to many kids and may even cause them to continue reading into the second book in the series.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Draw a map of the compound. Try to identify the most important parts.
  • Pretend you are Eli. What would you have done if you were in his situation?
  • Have you ever had a situation where an adult lied to you? Is it ever okay for a parent to lie to their kid? Explain why.
  • Find five clues from the book which help Eli figure out that something is wrong with his father’s version of what happened and what is happening.

Overall evaluation of this book: A decent mystery/adventure/science fiction story about a controlling parent who manipulates his family. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Cormier, Robert. (1977). I am the Cheese. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf.

Summary: Adam Farmer is a shy and confused fourteen-year-old boy pedaling his bicycle as he heads to Rutterburg with a parcel for his father. As he pedals his bicycle, he starts to remember flashes and bits of memory from his past. His memories include a father who is missing, government agents who are corrupt, spies, espionage activities, and vague interviews with a psychiatrist. Along his journey—which is both physical and psychological—Adam must come to the realization of who he was and who he really is. Did any of his memories really occur? Or is he making them up and slipping into a break with reality?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is an older book which continues to stand the test of time. Kids may not willingly seek this book out because they probably haven’t heard of it and because their teacher may not have heard about it either. It continues, however, to be eminently worthwhile to read. This was one of the first psychological thrillers written expressly for middle and high school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Although the book is no longer “new” it is still worth reading because the theme of “Who am I?” is just as relevant today as it was in the late 1970’s.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Adam Farmer goes on two journeys—one is the physical journey and the other is the psychological journey in his mind. How are both journeys the same? How are they different?
  • Write a short, three-page story which has two journeys—a physical journey between two actual locations and a psychological journey, in which the main character comes to realize something she thought was true is not or something she thought wasn’t true really is.
  • Imagine you are Adam Farmer. What would you have done as you slowly realized what had happened?
  • What is the purpose of the psychiatric interviews? What are they hoping to discover?
  • Think of an alternative ending for this book and tell someone how you think it should have ended.

Overall evaluation of this book: Another oldie-but-goodie. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Gibbs, Stuart. (2010). Belly Up. New York: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Children.

Summary: Henry the hippo is dead. And someone at FunJungle is responsible for his death. When the authorities try to claim that Henry died of natural causes, 12-year-old Teddy Roosevelt Fitzroy, along with his sidekick, Summer McCraken, attempt to solve the mystery of how Henry, the unlovable hippo, died. Even though Henry is the official mascot for the zoo, Henry was quite an obnoxious hippo. Henry was often in a bad mood, attacked those who came near, and shot poo at visitors to FunJungle. Will the investigation focus on the kid and animal hating Head of Operations? Or the owner of the zoo? And why is Doc performing an autopsy on a jaguar?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This novel is best suited for younger middle school kids. Jokes about hippo dung are prevalent throughout the novel, as is a disgusting scene about an autopsy on a hippo and an equally putrid scene about what happens when a dead hippo is dropped from a tall crane. These events, however, are exactly why this book is enjoyed by middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a popular and funny mystery which happens to involve a flatulence spewing hippo. The mystery over who killed Henry the hippo is a novel twist and scenes involving a hippo autopsy, the cleaning of poo from the hippo enclosure, and hippo parts landing on lots of visitors are interesting to middle school kids. It’s also an easy read and is—at its core—a traditional mystery, even though it is also very funny. A few kids won’t resonate with descriptions of the anatomical internal parts of a hippo—but most kids will love this aspect.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How is this mystery similar to other mysteries you have read? How is it different?
  • How would the story have been different if Henry the hippo had been a loveable hippo to FunJungle employees?
  • Imagine you lived for several years in a foreign country. Would this change your viewpoint of the world? How so?
  • Predict the ending of the story if Summer had been in on the plot to smuggle emeralds into FunJungle. How might the story have ended?
  • What were the specific clues which caused Teddy to determine who killed Henry the hippo?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a hilarious book which will forever change your child’s viewpoint of hippos. A great pick for kids who hate reading. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Grisham, John. (2011). Theodore Boone: The Abduction. New York: Dutton’s Children’s Books.

Summary: Theodore Boone is a young lawyer-savant who tries to solve the mystery of who kidnapped a classmate of his, April Finnemore. A hardened criminal confesses to being April’s abductor, but Theodore isn’t too sure, even though most of the adults in the community are convinced the confession is genuine. Using his investigative and lawyer-type skills, Theodore sets out to find April, and to prove there is more to the story than what everyone thinks. During the investigation, aided by his smart but “hands-off” parents, Theodore displays an uncanny ability to know what the law really says—in several different situations—and even successfully defends an innocent man during animal court. In the end the girl is found and all is well. There is even some hope that’s April’s chaotic family life will improve.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a classic mystery story, which really isn’t much different than the old Encyclopedia Brown’s series that thousands of kids grew up voraciously reading in the 1960’s and 1970’s. There is little violence in the book or inappropriate language. There is a hint of romance between several of the characters, but it is treated very platonically by Grisham.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The plot line reads very fast and there isn’t a lot of competing story lines which may cause them to cast the book aside. If kids like to read mysteries where the main character manages to out-think the adults, then this book is for them. It’s even more of a plus if they enjoy legal dramas. This book is a quick read. Sophisticated middle school readers may find this book to be average because they may not find the plot twists to be intellectually challenging or remarkable.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What are the legal points mentioned in the book which have happened in your hometown?
  • Should kids be allowed to represent themselves or others in court, like Theodore did in the book?
  • How might this book have turned out differently if the hardened criminal had really abducted April Finnemore?
  • What are the traits or qualities which make some kids better at solving mysteries than other kids? What important things should be considered when trying to solve a mystery?
  • What should kids do when one or both of their parents is/are irresponsible?

Overall evaluation of this book: A decent mystery book for middle schoolers, perhaps better suited for the younger crowd. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Horowitz, Anthony. (2011). Scorpia Rising. New York: Puffin Books.

Summary: Alex has been dogged by the evil international crime organization, Scorpia, for a long time. Alex tries to quit the spy business but M16, a British intelligence group, has other ideas. Scorpia decides they must be rid of Alex once and for all and embarks on a complicated plan to bring down both Alex and M16. Another boy who is nearly an exact duplicate of Alex is brought into play. Soon Alex is in a plane bound for Cairo, Egypt, to infiltrate an exclusive private school. Along with him is his trusted friend and sidekick, a girl named Jack Starbright. Once in Egypt, Scorpia ramps up their diabolical plan and soon Alex finds himself in the middle of murder and mayhem which all point in his direction. Who can Alex trust? And will he discover that Scorpia is using a double of himself before it is too late?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The Alex Rider series is very popular with middle school kids. And what is the Alex Rider series? Think of James Bond for kids and you’ll almost certainly understand the premise of these books. The biggest difference between the James Bond movies and related books for adults versus the Alex Rider books for kids, is the absence of swearing and sex in the Rider books. However, the plot lines in the Alex Rider series all involve international intrigue and exotic locations.

Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids love to read mystery and spy novels, they almost certainly will fall in love with this book and the series. Of course, the situations are incredible and the events sometimes nonsensical, but aren’t they also that way in the James Bond books and movies for adults?

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why does Alex want to get out of the spy business?
  • Is it believable that a real spy intelligence agency would use a young boy as a spy? Why or why not?
  • What kind of a relationship do Jack and Alex have together? Find several examples from the book to support your case.
  • The setting for this book is the Middle East. In what other settings could this story have taken place? How would the story have changed in a different setting?
  • What is a stock character? (If you don’t know—do some research and look it up.) Are there any stock characters in Scopia Rising? If you do find some stock characters, how does the use of stock characters hurt or help the plot line?

Overall evaluation of this book: A non-thinking mystery and spy book especially written for middle school kids. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Lee, Harper. (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: HarperCollins Publishing.

Summary: Scout is an eight-year-old tomboy who lives with her father, brother, and housekeeper, in a small Alabama town during the depression. Her summers are brightened by the arrival of a young boy, Dill, who spends the nights living with his aunt and his days hanging around with Scout. In this story, Scout is the narrator and we see everything through her eyes. As can be expected, Scout has a viewpoint which is unique in this small town, because everybody knows everyone and everybody’s business is everyone’s business. Her father is a local attorney who has been asked by a Judge to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Naturally, in 1930’s Alabama, the trial becomes a major focal point for the citizens of Maycomb, and Atticus, Scout’s father, quickly learns that the citizens have jumped to the conclusion that his client is guilty of the crime. But Atticus has his doubts. As Atticus prepares for the defense of his client, Scout and Dill ponder how to draw the town’s bogeyman, Boo Radley, out of his house. The climax of the book is unexpected and if you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil the ending for you.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is one of the most famous fiction books ever written by an American author. It has stood the test of time and is still considered to be a significant classic. Many kids will eventually read this novel in school, but there is no reason for you to wait for this to happen. Some of the themes are very adult-like and there are clear references to racism and sexual abuse. Unless your younger middle school kids are very mature, you should probably wait until they are a few years older before handing them this title. An older middle school child, however, could handle this book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Kids universally seem to like Scout, the young tomboy who can’t seem to avoid sticking her nose into anything that seems remotely interesting. This is a good book for your child to read about how kids passed the time in a pre-electronic world and had to rely on their own imaginations to fill the time. But more importantly, the issues of justice and race will be ones that resonate with kids. When kids are finished reading this book—and provided you have also read the book—you will have hours of conversational topics to have with them.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does Scout change from the beginning of the book to the end of the book.
  • Why was the South so segregated during the 1930’s? What was the purpose of segregation and who benefited? Who did not benefit from segregation?
  • Atticus takes a big risk in representing Tom Robinson, the accused black man. Find evidence in the book of why Atticus decided to defend Tom.
  • Does your neighborhood or town or city have someone like Boo Radley? How do people treat your Boo Radley? How do you treat your Boo Radley?
  • Explain Mayella’s dilemma. What do you think happens to her after the story is finished? Does she have any good options? Why or why not?

Overall evaluation of this book: There are lots of reasons why millions of copies of this book have been sold. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Logsted, Greg. (2009). Alibi Junior High. New York: Alladin.

Summary: Cody Saron is a thirteen-year-old kid who is sent to live with his aunt in Connecticut. His aunt promptly enrolls him in the local junior high school. This seems to be a relatively normal event until we discover that Cody is an international spy following in his father’s footsteps. (His father works for the CIA.) However, Cody is anything but a normal kid; he can speak five languages, likes to dress in a suit every day, and doesn’t know anything about blending in with normal kids. What follows at Alibi Junior High is the logical outcome of a young international spy who is relatively clueless about fitting in with his classmates.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: It’s a funny book and some may recognize connections between Cody and the Alex Rider spy series, which also sports a young international spy. However, the Alex Rider spy series is relatively straight forward—rather like the James Bond series for adults. This Cody Saron has different problems than Alex Rider. Cody has to cope with regular school life and somehow try to fit in—a problem which never afflicted Alex Rider. Consequently, this book is funnier and contains more mirth than the Alex Rider series.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Middle school kids love reading about improbable situations and “what if” scenarios. This book certainly fits the bill on both counts. The absurdity of having a classmate who is an international spy is hilarious and the author does a good job of placing Cody in situations which are normal for most kids but quite abnormal for Cody. Most kids will also like Cody’s biting one-liners and the situations which result in his presence in the principal’s office.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t feel you fit in with the larger group? What did you do or what happened to help you feel comfortable with the group?
  • What are the specific skills Cody has which most other students at Alibi Junior High don’t have? Find examples from the book.
  • Do any countries around the world use middle school-age kids as spies or as tools of the government? If you don’t know the answer, do some research and find out. What are the advantages to governments who use kids as spies or as tools?
  • What is the role of Jenny in the novel? Why is she included in the story line? What purpose does her character play?
  • Imagine yourself as an international spy. Would you enjoy the life of an international spy? Why or why not?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a funny and witty book about an improbable situation most kids will never face. Still, it’s fun to think about. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Turnage, Sheila. (2012). Three Times Lucky. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Summary: Moses LoBeau is an eleven-year-old girl who doesn’t know the identity of her real parents. As a young child she was washed downstream during a hurricane and found by a colorful character named the Colonel, who runs a restaurant in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina. The Colonel is helped in the restaurant by Miss Lana, the café hostess, who helps raise Moses. Dale Earnhardt Johnson III is Moses’ best friend and the two of them soon enter a major murder investigation when a lawman appears one day to announce the death of Mr. Jesse, a miserly patron of the restaurant. Moses and Dale quickly form the Desperado Detectives to help with the investigation. Will they be able to identify the killer in time? Who is the mysterious Colonel and why does he have a new car? Will Moses ever find her “upstream mother?”

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a funny book, mostly because it is told by the young girl, Moses, who has a dead-pan sense of humor about her view of the world. The stakes are high—there has been a murder—and a number of mysteries surround this storyline. Moses doesn’t pretend to be an Encyclopedia Brown type of detective—in fact she is much funnier—but she has a persuasive way about her which especially younger middle school kids will enjoy.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Because this book combines elements of mystery and comedy, it will be enjoyed by a large number of kids. The primary narrator is a girl but that hasn’t stopped boys from also loving the story line. Kids will also resonate with this story line because the individual who has been murdered—Mr. Jesse—had a boat “borrowed” by Moses’ best friend just before the murder. Thus, the kids spend a considerable amount of time worrying if the adult investigation will eventually turn in their direction. Consequently, they are under time pressure to figure out the mystery so Dale doesn’t go to jail.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Other than the location, what makes this a “southern” story? (Note: “Southern” stories usually are about characters from the southeastern part of the United States.) Find three examples from the book to support your position.
  • Find three sentences or paragraphs that you find funny. What makes these sentences or paragraphs funny?
  • Who really is the Colonel? Find examples from the book to support your position.
  • Do you know anybody living in your family or neighborhood who are like some of the characters in the book? How are they similar? How are they different?
  • Make a list of five words to describe each of these main characters—the Colonel, Miss Lana, Moses, Dale, Mr. Jesse, and the mysterious lawman.

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a funny mystery. Or is it a mystery which is funny? Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Wein, Elizabeth. (2012). Code Name Verity. New York: Hyperion.

Summary: Maddie is is best friends with “Verity,” a young girl who has been captured by the Nazi’s in Northern France during World War II. Under orders from top commanders, the Nazi’s torture Verity, hoping she will tell them information about the resistance movement and her role in the upcoming plot. In the hopes she will write something incriminating, Verity is given paper to write down the story. It is through these papers that much of the story is told. Verity’s story is mixed with that of Maddie’s through the book and we learn of their friendship and how two girls, who may never have become friends under ordinary circumstances, become so because of the Great War that rages throughout Europe.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are torture scenes which kids may find too graphic. The writer does not leave everything to the imagination. Sometimes the humor of the tortured Veracity will border on the inappropriate, yet somehow it seems fitting considering the predicament she finds herself in. Although there have been many good novels written for middle school kids about World War II, this is one of the better ones available. The novel is a bit more cerebral than other historical fiction pieces from the same time period, so if kids struggle in their reading skills, you may want to find a different book for them. Older middle school kids or mature younger middle school kids will benefit the most from this story.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is one of the few World War II historical books for adolescents which have females as the main characters, in a fighting capacity. The book is a mystery and espionage story, so if your child likes to read this type of book, they will find a winner here. Even though the main protagonists are young women, many boys will also enjoy reading Code Name Verity. It gives an inside look at the terrible dilemma war-time prisoners have who are spies and are then subject to torture.

Discussion points with kids:

  • After the plane crashes in Northern France, why does Verity leave Maddie in the wreckage?
  • How do the events of war make these two girls friends? If there had been no war, would they have become friends? Support your conclusion with several examples from the book.
  • Research the topic of the French and British resistance during World War II. Compare what you learn with information presented in the book. How is what you learned different? How is it the same?
  • Tell the story from the point of view of the German officer who interrogates Verity. How does the storyline change when the German officer tells what happened?
  • Could you do what Maddie does at the end of the story? Why or why not? What would have happened to Verity if Maddie had not acted?

Overall evaluation of this book: One of the better World War II books for older middle school kids. The story line is outstanding. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: West, Stanley Gordon. (1997). Until they bring the Streetcars back. Bozeman, Montana: Lexington-Marshall Publishing.

Summary: The protagonist, Calvin Gant, is a high school senior in St. Paul, Minnesota in the late 1940’s. He decides to help one of his classmates, Gretchen, a girl who has a terrible secret and an abusive father. The book is primarily about Calvin’s scheming and plotting on how he can help Gretchen and get her away from her nasty father—in a time period when it wasn’t considered acceptable intervening in other family’s business, even if something horrible was suspected of going on. The conclusion is a real thriller but I’m not going to tell you how it ends. You’ll have to—that’s right, you guessed it—read the book to find out what happens.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There is swearing in the book and a tangent plot line exists having to do with stolen whiskey. But the big news is that at one point the main character discovers a dead baby in a freezer. The storyline is also about incest, though no details are provided. If you allow middle school kids to read this book, you will want to talk with them after they have finished the book—they may need some follow-up discussions. Don’t give this book to your young middle school child—unless they are advanced socially and emotionally.

Why middle school kids should read this book: The primary reason why kids may want to read this book is because of the time period and the setting. Stanley Gordon West weaves a solid story together, complete with what life was like for high school kids in the mid-20th century in a Midwest urban setting. The plot may be more adult-like than what younger middle school kids should be reading, so I’m more likely to recommend this book to older middle school kids who have a hankering for stories of the “old day” and who can handle a more mature plot line.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What conditions make it difficult for the neighbors and police to do something about Gretchen’s abusive father in 1949?
  • What is incest? Why is it morally wrong to commit incest?
  • Could this story happen today? What similarities exist today that make it likely the tragedy could happen today? What differences exist today that make it unlikely the tragedy could happen today?
  • Cal gets into a lot of trouble trying to help Gretchen. Could you do what he did? Why or why not?
  • This story takes place during the school year 1949-1950. What are the similarities and differences between growing up in 1949-1950 and growing up now? Which time period do you like best? Why?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is a nice read about a time period that is often missed by middle school authors. Two stars—because of its likely limited appeal to middle school kids. ★★

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