Book Reviews (Grade 4-6)

Sloan, Holly G. Short. Pgs. 296. Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin Random House), 2017. $16.99. Grades 4-6, 7-8.

41UXMw2XVjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Main character: Julia Marks, 12-year-old girl, serious, matter-of-fact, always questioning

Setting: Most scenes are in the theatre

3-sentence summary: Julie is short for her age. When she is cast in the university production of the Wizard of Oz, she learns that she can be “big” in other ways. She quickly becomes friends with a dwarf (Olive), the directors (Barr and Gianni) and her neighbor costume maker (Mrs. Chang).

Writing tone: Flat, matter-of-fact, non-emotional, mostly stream of thought about life, limited dialogue

Excerpt p.80: “Parents hate the idea of kids drinking coffee, so of course I started sneaking some over a year ago. Now I love it even though in the beginning it just tasted like medicine and was probably staining my teeth. It’s not true that coffee stunts your growth. I looked this up and there is no evidence.”

Strengths: Many positive themes throughout, especially 1. Don’t judge people by their outward appearances, and 2. Don’t decide whether you like something until you’ve tried it, original plot

Weaknesses: Julia’s thinking is flat. Her personality comes across as inconsistent because it alternates between mature and immature.

Who will like this book: Short kids, theatre kids, anyone whose pet recently died, scrapbookers

Who won’t like this book: Anyone who prefers humorous books, challenged readers, boys

Genrefication: Realistic fiction

Recommendation: Have a student test read before purchasing


Ephron, Amy. Castle in the Mist. Pgs. 167. Philomel Books (Penguin Young Readers), 2017. $16.99. Grades 4-6.


Main character: Tess Barnes, 11-year-old girl, loves adventure, loves to explore

Setting: Most scenes are on the grounds of the castle she discovers in the woods

3-sentence summary: Tess and her younger brother Max have been sent to stay with their aunt in the English countryside for the summer. While exploring, Tess stumbles upon a large castle and nice boy who warns her to stay away from the Hawthorne trees. When she returns with her brother, they discover the magic and danger of the castle grounds.

Writing tone: No stream of thought, mostly dialogue and descriptive retelling of events

Excerpt p.55: “’What do I have to do to get a ticket?’ asked Max, reaching into his pocket to see if he had any coins. ‘Your money’s no good here, m’boy,’ said Barnaby. ‘It’s your wishes I want. One wish per ride.’”

Strengths: Kids get to explore without adults around, a lot of adventure and mystery packed into a short book

Weaknesses: The plot begins well, but the end is sloppy with no explanation about the Hawthorne trees or appearing/disappearing family

Who will like this book: Kids who enjoy fantasy and adventure, kids who enjoy shorter, easier books, both boys and girls

Who won’t like this book: Anyone who doesn’t like make believe or fantasy

Genrefication: Fantasy

Recommendation: Have a student test read before purchasing


Grabenstein, Chris. Welcome to Wonderland: Home Sweet Motel. Pgs. 284. Penguin Random House, 2016. $13.99. Grades 4-6.


Main character: P.T. Wilkie, 11-year-old boy, junior sleuth, story teller, idea creater

Setting: Most scenes are on the grounds of the Florida Wonderland Motel

3-sentence summary: P.T. has lived in his family’s motel his whole life. The problem is that it’s not making money and the bank is about to repossess it. P.T., and his new friend Gloria, set out to find a secret stash of diamonds that might be hidden on the motel property.

Writing tone: Humorous, mostly dialogue and descriptive retelling of events, illustrations throughout

Excerpt p.69: “’You snooze, you lose,’ said Porter, because he always says annoying things like that. Sometimes he even rhymes.”

Strengths: Main character is the best friend everyone wants; witty, adventurous, clever; the pace never slows, exciting supporting characters

Weaknesses: N/A

Who will like this book: Kids who enjoy fast-paced books packed with adventure and mystery, challenged readers, boys and girls, students who like illustrations

Who won’t like this book: Mature kids

Genrefication: Humor

Recommendation: Purchase now


Savage, Melissa. Lemons. Pgs. 305. Crown Books (Penguin Random House), 2017. $16.99. Grades 4-6.


Main character: Lemonade (Lem), 11-year-old girl, junior sleuth, witty, tough

Setting: Grandpa’s house, woods, townsfolk houses

3-sentence summary: Lem’s mother has just died and she has no choice but to move in with her grandfather. She soon meets the neighbor boy who is also a Bigfoot investigator. He lets her join his team and together they search the town and woods for evidence of the elusive creature.

Writing tone: Witty, sarcastic, but also reflective, mostly dialogue

Excerpt p.69: “Ladies and gentleman,’ Charlie announces. ‘Thank you for attending the Bigfoot Detectives first official Bigfoot screening. Is everyone ready to make history?’”

Strengths: Characters are consistent, characters grow as story develops. Characters have strong lessons to teach; accepting what you can’t change, the power of family, overcoming bullies

Weaknesses: Ending is rushed and a little sloppy (i.e. unbelievable)

Who will like this book: Kids who enjoy adventure, mystery and/or legendary creatures, kids who like books with restrained humor, both boys and girls

Who won’t like this book: Kids who prefer fantasy, dystopian, etc. genres.

Genrefication: Mystery

Recommendation: Purchase now


Rodkey, Geoff. The Tapper Twins Go Viral. Pgs. 240. Hachette Books (Little, Brown and Co.), 2017. $13.99. Grades 4-6.


Main character: Claudia Tapper, 12-year-old girl, worrier, celebrity wannabe, internet addict

Setting: Most scenes are at home, school, celebrity con, or park

3-sentence summary: Claudia has decided she wants to be a MeVid star on the internet, but it proves to be easier said than done. Then her brother posts a silly 2-second blip which goes viral. The snobby, rich girl bullies Claudia into taking a bet that she either must pass her brother’s popularity or post an embarrassing video of defeat.

Writing tone: Story told in an interview format, reminiscent of a reality show, down-to-earth, handwritten side notes are humorous

Excerpt p.69: Claudia: “I couldn’t sleep, either. ‘Cause I was DOOMED. At the rate my ‘Windmill’ Blurts had gotten me followers, if I wanted to catch up to Reese, I was going to have to write, record, and shoot videos for 1,000 songs. And by the next morning, it was more like 2,000 songs.”

Strengths: Smart advice on internet etiquette, kids respect their parents, photos and illustrations, highly relatable, teaches kids how innocent internet use can turn ugly

Weaknesses: none noted

Who will like this book: Kids who love YouTube and Snapchat, kids who like a fun, quick read

Who won’t like this book: Serious kids who want to be challenged in their reading

Genrefication: humor

Recommendation: Purchase now


Bell, Jennifer. The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence. Pgs. 309. Crown (Penguin Random House), 2017. $16.99. Grades 4-6.


Main character: Ivy, 11-year-old girl, feisty, determined, adventurous

Setting: Lundinor, trade market of uncommon objects beneath London

3-sentence summary: When Ivy and her brother stumble into their grandmother’s ransacked house they realize that she’s in trouble. Before they can figure out what’s happened, they end up in a mysterious trade market of uncommon objects below London. The only way in is through an uncommon suitcase, and once inside they will need the assistance of the Uncommoners to figure why their grandmother is suddenly in peril.

Writing tone: Equal parts dialogue and description, some illustrations

Excerpt p.69: “She headed toward the first buildings, which were small and crooked, with gnarled wooden beams and sloping snow-topped roofs like houses on a Victorian Christmas card. The uncommon lighting made the place feel like a film set.”

Strengths: Innocent, good, old-fashioned story-telling; no drama or hidden agendas; simple theme of good vs. evil; similarities to Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books

Weaknesses: Plot gets a little sloppy with the addition of the “dead” Uncommoners; weakens the book slightly, but still a fun read

Who will like this book: All kids, but especially those who like fantasy and fairytales

Who won’t like this book: Kids who don’t like make believe stories

Genrefication: fantasy

Recommendation: Purchase now


Bird, Betsy. Funny Girl. Pgs. 193. Viking (Penguin Random House), 2017. $16.99. Grades 4-6.

9780451477316Format: Short stories

2-sentence summary: 29 short, funny stories about girls written by female authors. Best known authors include Raina Telgemeier, Ursula Vernon, Rita Williams-Garcia, Libba Bray.

Writing tone: Varies but all funny, mostly prose, some verse, some graphic style, some letter style

Excerpt p.69: Verse: “Today I’m shopping for a bra. I can hardly wait! I’ve been dreaming of this fancy store since the age of eight. One bra has the push-up stuff. Another, moving parts. A third bra comes with batteries to light the flashing hearts.”

Strengths: Quick read, variation in style, funny, easy

Weaknesses: Half the stories are truly amusing and the other half fall flat, most of the authors are not well-known

Who will like this book: Kids who like short stories, kids who prefer funny to serious, kids who like quick reads, challenged readers

Who won’t like this book: Serious kids who want to be challenged in their reading, boys

Genrification: Short stories

Recommendation: Have a student test read before purchasing


Oh, Ellen. Spirit Hunters. Pgs. 276. Harper Collins, 2017. $16.99. Grades 4-6, 7-8.


Main character: Harper, 11-year-old girl, protective of younger brother, annoyed about recent move, confused about memory loss

Setting: Old house her family has recently purchased in Washington, D.C.

3-sentence summary: When Harper’s family moves into an old house, her 4-year-old brother finds a new imaginary friend. Within days his personality takes a turn for the worse. Harper’s own memory loss from her previous home begins to slowly return as she realizes that something is different about her family, and only her grandmother knows how to save her brother from the evil spirit trying to inhabit him.

Writing tone: Mostly 3rd person, journal entries between chapters are 1st person; urgent, scary tone

Excerpt p.75: “She looked back at Michael but this time, instead of the flickering boy, she saw Michael’s eyes change into hollow unblinking eyes. They sent a cold rush through her body and an urgent desire to protect her brother. Who was this strange boy?”

Strengths: Kids love a creepy story and this is a step up from Mary Downing Hahn. The suspense will keep kids wanting to read more.

Weaknesses: The plot is mostly predictable. There have been many movies about spirits living in houses and trying to inhabit one of the occupants while one or more adults ignores the obvious. Most kids won’t be annoyed by this.

Who will like this book: Kids who like scary stories

Who won’t like this book: Kids who prefer humor or realistic fiction

Genrefication: Thriller

Recommendation: Purchase now if you need more scary books in your collection

Finding the Perfect Book


I’ve noticed that I’m stuck in bit of a collection development brain cloud right now. Don’t get me wrong. I know the importance of having a solid expertise in all the tech toys, but here’s the truth. In my heart, I love the books. I wish I had a magic wand to pass that love on to every person, creature, spirit that walks the planet. Unfortunately, the only wand at a librarian’s disposal is a solid book collection and expert book knowledge. A librarian must be able to discern the best books in a multitude of genres. She must read books almost as often as she eats. That’s the only way. No shortcuts.

I had a déjà vu moment last week when I was searching out some new children’s books at the public library. A young girl, about 8, had solicited the help of a library assistant to help her find a realistic fiction book she needed to read for school. I painfully listened as the librarian recommended The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew and Beverly Cleary. I knew this girl would not jump at any of these choices. Those books are ancient by today’s standards. It was easy to judge, but truth be told, there was a time when I was no better at recommending books.

When I started out in my first librarian job, I was an instant pro in all areas except one. My reader’s advisory skills were deplorable. I simply did not have enough books under my belt to adequately deal with all the varying interests of my students. I felt like a failure all the time. There was nothing I could do but search out book recommendation lists on the web and hope they didn’t lead me astray. Many of them DID lead me astray. And be warned. Some of the lists that come from the “professional organizations” are the worst. Here are my suggestions for how to disguise your lack of book smarts during those first few years.

Know the Series

Zero in on the current series. Top sellers often evolve into series. When people like a story, the author settles in and writes more. Kids love series because they don’t have to think about what to read next. When you have several books on a shelf that clearly go together, they suddenly become more visible, interesting and desirable. But use caution. Series get dated. Don’t go back further than 5 years. Kids today have many options, so they have little patience for the stuff we loved.

Find Useful Websites

You need to find websites that are current and creating new content often. Librarian bloggers are an indispensable source for book reviews. Many of them are experts in collection development and are motivated to empower other librarians with that knowledge. Check out these awesome websites/blogs for reviews and lists that are honest and constantly updated.

Create Cheat Sheets

Cheat sheets are great if your brain is like mine and you have a hard time remembering the books you’ve read. Creating lists unique to your collection can help ease the pressure.

  1. Decide the big genre categories that interest your students; such as mystery, humor, historical, fantasy, dystopian, sports, etc.
  2. Choose one book that you think best represents each category.
  3. Go to websites such as or and type in each book title.
  4. Cross reference the recommended books with your own collection.
  5. Type up a list of 10-20 books with a 2-sentence description.
  6. Eventually skim read each book to decide if it is worthy of staying on the list.
  7. Maintain the list by adding/deleting so your list remains current.
  8. When a student requests reader’s advisory, refer to your lists.

People are tough customers. You may only have one shot to turn them on to a good book. Read often. Read fast. Read strategically. If a student stumps you or you draw a blank, don’t give up. Work on it later and get back to that kid as soon as possible. Your skills will grow, and secretly he will think you are the coolest adult in the building.

The New Nonfiction


You’ve finally made peace with the fact that the nonfiction section is the official No Man’s Land in your school. I know. It hurts. It’s hard to let go of a tradition that spans centuries. It’s hard to acknowledge that those beautiful, big repositories of information are no longer the preferred source for life’s big questions. The fact is that they are little more than dust collectors. As such, it’s time to bite the bullet and put the brakes on your unpopular paper and ink collection. Now hold on just a second. I didn’t say pull the plug. It’s ok to continue a little dabbling in nonfiction books. You just need to be super selective and really pay attention to what kids want. Books must be able to sell the topic and offer something that the internet can’t easily satisfy.

So how do you sell the topic? First of all, it’s important to understand WHICH topics sell. Since the internet has successfully cornered the market on teacher-assigned research topics, it’s safe to say that loading up on traditional information books for those history or science classes is not going to improve your circulation stats. Sadly, Google is the new card catalog when it comes to class assignments. However, when it comes to personal interests, kids will still gravitate toward a good book they can hold and spend a little quality time with. Here are some tips to help you find great books for your nonfiction collection.

  1. Analyze the fiction circulation stats. Chances are that if there’s a popular book in the fiction collection, kids will want to devour whatever related material they can get their hands on. As the curator of the collection, you will be able to direct kids to the related nonfiction books.
  2. Choose books with themes that kids aren’t likely to think about when they are sitting at home on their computers. Teen issues, natural disasters, self-improvement, pop culture, and current events are examples of topics that kids will explore if prompted by an interesting book. Current events cross many content categories so you’ll have no problem filling out your Dewey sections.
  3. Choose books with a conversational tone. Nothing speaks better to kids than a voice they can relate to, or at least one that doesn’t sound like a professor. Historical books are now written to be enjoyable rather than impressive and kids are taking note.
  4. Choose publishers that are known for their high graphic display of information. DK publishing relies heavily on photographs to draw readers into the content while keeping it interesting and unusual.
  5. Work with the teachers. Ask each of them to provide a list of assigned research topics. Update your collection with new books on those topics. If the books also meet the criteria for language and graphic quality, they may be able to compete with whatever the internet has to offer.

There you have it. A few suggestions to help you tackle the monumental problem of nonfiction desertion. The collection doesn’t need to go away; it just needs to change. And probably downsize quite a bit. Employ a few strategic methods and you will likely see an increase in circulation. Internet competition is here to stay. The challenge is to prove that a viable alternative still, and always has, existed.

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