Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 by N. Griffin (J Mystery)

Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11

N. Griffin (J Mystery)

The third-grade class in Room 11 at Rebecca Lee Crumpler Elementary School was NOT having a good day. Between a vain, mean substitute teacher, a missing class hamster, and a nasty, sticky prank it was enough to make Principal Armstrong SIMPLY ILL. I mean, ILL IN BED WITH AN IV DRIP kind of ill! No. This was NOT how the students of Room 11 behaved. On top of that, when Smashie’s public dislike for Patches the hamster makes her the prime suspect in his disappearance (just because she thinks hamsters are just mice with chicken feet), it’s up to her and her best friend Dontel to solve the case or else Room 11 may never be the same again.

This is a great book that not only teaches critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills, it also illustrates the importance of giving someone the benefit of the doubt, how it’s possible to do something wrong but for the right reason, and how difficult it is to earn trust while it’s very easy to lose it. Lots of wonderful lessons with two central characters who balance each other nicely. While Smashie is reactive, impulsive, and emotional, Dontel is logical, thoughtful, and realistic. And while it causes some angst on Smashie’s part when Dontel doesn’t agree with her, he proves to her that disagreeing doesn’t mean disloyalty because it takes a real friend to point out your mistakes and a better friend to admit when it’s true.

Griffin gives readers a cute and age-appropriate story that really picks up steam near the end. The only problem I had was with a few of the references: …frog-marching the hapless Mr. Carper downtown, …Smashie beat a loud tattoo on its door, …he schooled his features, and (this one is a doozy) I was throwing the poor thing a bone said by a male teacher to a female teacher in an attempt to excuse his failed flattery attempts. Not to mention Dontel telling Smashie to slap my hand with your hand rather than just saying, “High five!” or “Gimme five!” and I was wondering if these references would be lost on Griffin’s audience. Still, this is a fun and entertaining read that shows if you’re strong and stand up for what you know is right, everything will work out in the end…even if you still think hamsters are just mice with chicken feet.

Rating: 4/5

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Somebody on This Bus is Going to Be Famous! by J.B. Cheaney (J Mystery)

Somebody on This Bus is Going to Be Famous!

J.B. Cheaney (J Mystery)

Somebody knows more than he or she should. That’s the link they’re missing, but they may have a way to find it.

The elementary school bus that serves Hidden Acres Subdivision has a motley assortment of students: the celebrity, bully, talker, innovator, the brain, adapter, jock, pleaser, and the new kid. Today was the start of the school year, but their driver took an expected turn onto Farm Road 152 and pulled alongside an empty bench. No one was waiting and no one boarded, yet day after day the bus took this same route to the same empty bench. And then things began appearing at the stop. Things that held a specific connection to certain kids on the bus. As questions about the mysterious stop lead to events that happened many years ago, unlikely alliances form to reveal answers that will surprise everyone…and make somebody on the bus famous.

Not since Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game have I taken so many notes on a book (ten journal pages in case you’re wondering). With nine central characters and story lines to keep track of, not including the bus driver, it’s a lot to keep straight and remember. Luckily, Cheaney does an excellent job of giving each character their turn in the spotlight as we are introduced to their homelife and get to understand a little about what makes them tick. What the author eventually shows us is that you can’t always judge a book by its cover as these multi-dimensional characters are dealing with some very complex and complicated family issues—most of which seem to stem from absentee, apathetic, or annoying fathers. This book did have a surprising amount of daddy issues, although a lot of the moms don’t come across much better.

This book has a recommended reading age of 10 to 13 years, which is appropriate for the content. There are multiple innuendos regarding profanity; however, one character’s grandparent is suffering from dementia so some statements made are mildly lewd and inappropriate. While the subject matter is sobering, Cheaney handles it compassionately and realistically. And although there are a lot of moving parts to this story, it is an exhilarating ride that really picks up speed during the last fifty pages where all the dots begin to connect. Add to that a harrowing bus accident (which is where our story began) and you have non-stop action and suspense. The only complaint I had is at the very end of the book, the author mentions a bonus chapter and provides two different URLs to visit in order to see what happened to our gang of nine. When I accessed the links (I like closure), neither worked so let this be a warning to all authors: forego the marketing gimmicks and just put whatever you have to say in print. Technology is a fickle beast.

American television host and author Fred Rogers once said, “Fame is a four-letter word; and like tape or zoom or face or pain or life or love, what ultimately matters is what we do with it.” And although I won’t ever know what came next for the celebrity, bully, talker, innovator, the brain, adapter, jock, pleaser, and the new kid, I’d like to think that they each realized their own value and worth because to me that’s much better than being famous.  

Rating: 5/5

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Spirit’s Key by Edith Cohn (J Mystery)

Spirit’s Key

Edith Cohn (J Mystery)

They get quiet. I’ve come outside, so they reward me with their silence. But it’s only because they want me to follow them. They lead me across the island to the edge of the woods, where they wait. Their eyes are filled with that intense urgency that says Follow me. It’s hard not to be taken in by it. There’s something in the woods they want to show me, but I don’t think it’s as harmless as a horse. I think it’s something actually dangerous.

Twelve. That’s the age where a Holderness receives their gift to be able to see into a person’s future. But Spirit hasn’t received her gift yet and her father’s gift has started to become more and more unreliable—causing business and the community’s confidence to wane. Her dad says that she must reconcile with her present before she can see the future, but her beloved baldie, Sky, is dead and she somehow can’t seem to get over her loss. Worse, other baldies—the wild dogs that roam Bald Island—are dying and a mysterious illness is starting to affect the townspeople…including her father. Could the baldies be the cause? When Spirit’s beloved Sky reappears, he keeps drawing her into the woods and toward the baldie cave. Could the answer to everything plaguing the island lie within that darkened entryway?

Cohn delivers an age-appropriate and suspenseful mystery whose underlying theme is the importance of protecting and respecting life. She communicates the necessity of preservation without being overly preachy and does so through the wonderful relationship between a girl and her dog. Any child who has ever loved and lost a pet will immediately be connected to Spirit and will understand the unique bond she shares with Sky, as well as the profound emptiness she feels upon his death. She also provides so many other valuable lessons: the value of friendship (Everyone needs a friend to watch their back.); the reluctance to accept things that are different (Why do people fear things they don’t understand?); and the importance of living in the now (The present isn’t something we can squander.).

Books for young readers that have a principled and strong female protagonist are my favorites. Spirit is loyal, kind, passionate, and is not afraid to stand up for her convictions. She’s the kind of girl that you would be proud to call daughter and lucky to have as a friend. Most of all, she says the two most courageous and powerful words that anyone can speak: I care. When others around her falter and surrender to fear, Spirit stands up for those unable to defend themselves. She gives a voice to those unfairly targeted and hunted and reminds everyone that outsiders have a place in the world, too. Spirit is not extraordinary because she can hold a key and see into the future or that she can communicate with animals. She’s exemplary because she cares, and the world could use a lot more people like Spirit in it.

Rating: 5/5

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) by Ellen Raskin (J Mystery)

The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)

Ellen Raskin (Juvenile Mystery)

It’s a funny thing about names.  Some are long, some are short; some mean something, others don’t; but everyone and everything has one, or two or three.

Caroline “Little Dumpling” Fish Carillon has quite the backstory for someone so young.  She was married at five years old (business is business, after all), orphaned at twelve, and widowed (maybe…no one is quite sure) at nineteen.  Throw in twins, an unfortunate incarceration, a cross-country manhunt, and a watery clue that seems practically insolvable and you have a mystery for the ages!  With the help of the glub blubs, Mrs. Carillon is quite sure that she’ll be able to find Leon (I mean Noel).

The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is the perfect read for any young detective.  Raskin provides readers with plenty of clues along our heroine’s journey of finding her lost love.  While her Newberry Medal mystery The Westing Game can easily be enjoyed by older readers, this book is clearly written for a younger audience.  The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) provides pages and pages of slapstick fun and silly good humor.  It’s delightful in its utter absurdity and endearing in its over-the-top implausibility.  Readers are encouraged to sleuth along with Mrs. Carillon and her twins—Tina and Tony—and are helpful tips and hints make for a totally immersive reading experience.

Throughout Raskin’s book, Mrs. Carillon is forever searching for what she thought she wanted.  Endlessly chasing an idea that she thought she needed.  American author Meg Cabot—best known for The Princess Diaries—wrote “Sometimes what you want is right in front of you. All you have to do is open your eyes and see it.”  Ironically, it was only after Mrs. Carillon stopped chasing a dream that she was able to find her heart.

Rating: 4/5

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