Tag Archives: middle grade

Late to the Party ARC Review – The Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head (The Curiosity House #1) by Lauren Oliver & H.G. Chester

Title: The Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head (The Curiosity House #1)

Author: Lauren Oliver & H.G. Chester

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: The book is about, among other things: the strongest boy in the world, a talking cockatoo, a faulty mind reader, a beautiful bearded lady and a nervous magician, an old museum, and a shrunken head.

Blessed with extraordinary abilities, orphans Philippa, Sam, and Thomas have grown up happily in Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders. Philippa is a powerful mentalist, Sam is the world’s strongest boy, and Thomas can squeeze himself into a space no bigger than a bread box. The children live happily with museum owner Mr. Dumfrey, alongside other misfits. But when a fourth child, Max, a knife-thrower, joins the group, it sets off an unforgettable chain of events.

When the museum’s Amazonian shrunken head is stolen, the four are determined to get it back. But their search leads them to a series of murders and an explosive secret about their pasts.

Huge thank you to Harper Collins Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I recognize this book has been out for two years already, but I always feel obligated that when I get an ARC from a publisher, even if I haven’t read it right away that I always give it a review. I LOVE Lauren Oliver’s middle grade books, and I would argue that those are her better works over her YA offerings. The Spindlers was imaginative, Lisel & Po has remained a favourite to this day, and then there is The Curiosity House series, which is unique to say the least.

What I enjoyed about The Shrunken Head is that it has this old timey vibe to it, from how the murder mystery elements are set up, to even the whimsical side of the narrative. It also builds of the old circus tropes from a bearded lady, to mind readers, and even a talking bird. There’s a lot of weird and whimsy in this book, and I will argue that that is what makes it so engaging. The Shrunken Head takes so many crazy twists and turns for a middle grade story that it easily keeps the reader engaged.

I will say that the kids took awhile to grow on me. I feel like they just weren’t as fleshed out compared to characters in Oliver’s other novels. This isn’t a bad thing, but it did damper my enjoyment at times because I found it so hard to connect to the children. On the opposite end, I loved how ridiculous the adults were in this story. They were extreme and utterly crazy.

While I wasn’t in love with this first installment to the The Curiosity House series, I still want to read the rest of them. I feel like this series has the potential to grow into something that is truly special, and I look forward to reading on and seeing what the next adventure has in store.

ARC Review – I Love You, Michael Collins by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Title: I Love You, Michael Collins

Author: Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: It’s 1969 and the country is gearing up for what looks to be the most exciting moment in U.S. history: men landing on the moon. Ten-year-old Mamie’s class is given an assignment to write letters to the astronauts. All the girls write to Neil Armstrong (“So cute!”) and all the boys write to Buzz Aldrin (“So cool!”). Only Mamie writes to Michael Collins, the astronaut whowill come so close but never achieve everyone else’s dream of walking on the moon, because he is the one who must stay with the ship. After school ends, Mamie keeps writing to Michael Collins, taking comfort in telling someone about what’s going on with her family as, one by one, they leave the house thinking that someone else is taking care of her—until she is all alone except for her cat and her best friend, Buster. And as the date of the launch nears, Mamie can’t help but wonder: Does no one stay with the ship anymore?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I read this book in a day, and my goodness is it adorable. This book is the story of Mamie, a young girl who has a school assignment wherein she must write letters to an astronaut. While every other kid in her grade selects Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin, Mamie selects Michael Collins, the man responsible for orbiting around the moon.

Through a series of letters, Mamie pouring her heart and soul, sharing all her feelings to Michael Collins. Since this story takes place in 1969, a lot of this story looks at the space race, Vietnam, and other historical events that Mamie is witnessing through television. Each letter shares a bit more about what is personally going on with Mamie, from her parent’s falling out, to her sisters growing up, to her feelings for her best friend Buster. This story is so sweet, and so sad at the same time. It’s also just a very quick read as Mamie is so easy to love as a character.

This short and sweet read is for anyone who loves middle grade contemporary. Mamie is delight and her letters will easily pull you in.

Book Review – The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart by Lauren DeStefano

Title: The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart

Author: Lauren DeStefano

Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Synopsis: Lionel is a wild boy, who doesn’t much like to be around other people. He’d rather be a purring cat or a wolf stalking the woods.

Marybeth is a nice girl. She doesn’t need to be told to comb her hair or brush her teeth, and she’s kind to everyone at the orphanage . . . Lionel most of all.

Different though they are, Lionel and Marybeth are best friends in a world that has forgotten about them. So when a mysterious blue spirit possesses Marybeth—and starts to take control—they know they must stop it before the real Marybeth fades away forever.

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I have a very hit-and-miss relationship with Lauren DeStefano’s books. There are some books of hers, like the Chemical Garden series which I found just “okay” and other books like A Curious Tale of the In-Between, which I utterly adored. I really enjoyed The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart, though it’s definitely not as strong as other books of hers I read.

One thing I will say for this book is that for middle grade, it’s outright creepy at times. DeStefano has this wonderful way of writing very unnerving and uncomfortable descriptions, which I think is stellar. You always get a sense of discomfort in Lionel and Marybeth’s stories, which I think helps given that this is a very atmospheric read. For me personally, I love a book that has a very distinctive feel to it, but I feel like for some readers that is the ultimate challenge here. The characters are interesting because of the atmosphere of the story, not because they are interesting characters.

And here’s the thing: I love the mysterious, ghostly aspects of this book. I loved uncovering Marybeth’s story and seeing where it was going to go at times. I was invested when I was trying to understand what was happening with the blue-hearted creature. I loved the amount of empathy that both Lionel and Marybeth share for the creature, and I like that DeStefano keeps the reader moving at such a swift pace. Her writing is beautiful, and there were times where I know I was sucked into the prose.

The Peculiar Night of the Blue Heart is a very good read, and definitely should be read in the fall, which I think was intended given the atmosphere that is played so well into the story. I think readers will be disappointed by the lack of action or strong characterization, but I think there is something to be said about books that make you feel through the setting, which is definitely what is happening here. I am eager to see what Lauren DeStefano’s next middle grade venture will be.

The Bonaventure Adventures by by Rachelle Delaney (Review and Q&A)

I love Rachelle Delaney’s The Metro Dogs of Moscow series. They were some of the cutest, most perfect middle grade reads, and they are books I always recommend when I am working with younger readers at the library. They are just plain fun! Rachelle’s latest book is a departure from that series, but it is equally amazing! Seriously, I cannot wait for more people to get their hands on The Bonaventure Adventures.

Penguin Canada approached me in regards to sharing both a review and a Q&A with Rachelle for you all. I hope you all enjoy my review, as well as the intriguing responses Rachelle has shared in regards to my questions. Make sure to check out The Bonaventure Adventures when it releases today, May 2nd!


Title: The Bonaventure Adventures

Author: Rachelle Delaney

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Sebastian Konstantinov comes from a long line of talented circus performers. Somehow, however, he has not inherited any of their acrobatic skill: he has no balance, he’s afraid of heights, he can’t even turn a somersault. But there’s one thing he does know: his father’s circus, which travels through Eastern Europe, is out of date and is fast running out of money.

Seb has a solution, though: if he can somehow get into the Bonaventure Circus School in Montreal, Canada, he might be able to learn something valuable to help his father. Seb secretly writes to the Directrice (an old friend of his father’s) and is accepted into the school. All he has to do is convince his father to send him away — oh, and keep his lack of talent a secret from all his teachers and classmates. Fortunately for him, he befriends two other students, who also don’t seem to quite fit in.

Seb is not the only one with secrets, it turns out. The school is literally crumbling beneath the feet of its students, and the directrice may be counting on Seb’s “talent” to save the day. Can he and his new friends figure out what’s really going on in the school that bills itself as the World’s Best Circus School?

Huge thank you to Penguin Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I loved Rachelle Delaney’s Metro Dogs of Moscow series. They were fun, quirky little adventures that warmed the heart and offered tons of excitement. Her latest effort The Bonaventure Adventures offers a similar feel for those familiar with her work, but I will say that this book is easily her most magical.

Sebastian has grown up in Europe as part of his father’s travelling circus. Everyone who works for the circus is a part of his family and when the circus starts to fall on hard times, Seb decides to find a means to keep the circus in business. One day his father is sent a letter from the Benventure Circus School, and Seb decides that even with his lack of skill, this might be the only way to save his father’s business and the only family he has ever know.

Seb is a wonderful protagonist. I love that given the setting for this novel is a circus school and our hero is hapless when it comes to performance. It makes for a great coming of age story! And Seb is lovable, and he his a strong desire to protect his family, his father’s business, and he wants to become someone worthy of of both those things. Seb is sweet, but determined, and I loved reading about him. I found I could relate to a lot of his desires. I also want to point out that his supporting cast in Sylvain, Frankie and Banjo were just utter perfection. They were hilarious, supportive, and I loved how they compliment both Seb and the story.

And truthfully, I simply loved this story. There wasn’t any point where I wasn’t enjoying myself. While I questioned the existence of Seb’s mother on more than one occasion, I got the sense that this was more about Seb’s desire to become someone better, someone worthy of himself and others. This book is so genuine, it’s funny, it’s quirky, it offers so much for every kind of reader. If you haven’t read her previous books, check them out. I really cannot wait for readers to get their hands on The Bonaventure Adventure, because you’re in for a magical treat of a story.


Q&A With Rachelle Delaney!

  1. Where did the inspiration for the The Bonaventure Adventures come from?

The idea came to me about five years ago, when I was teaching creative writing to some kids enrolled in circus arts classes. It struck me as such an interesting way to study art, sport, and performance at once, and so I started researching circus school as a potential setting for a novel. Through my research, I discovered that Montreal is not only home to a national circus school for young performers but also to a unique circus arts scene. So I spent some time there and quickly became enamoured with both the city and the circus world.

  1. I’ve been told that for research purposes you took some circus lessons. How did that help with the shaping of this novel?

I did indeed take some circus classes, which is kind of hilarious because I’m terribly uncoordinated and not at all acrobatic. But I wanted to know what it felt like to attempt all these amazing skills, like juggling and trapeze and aerial silks. Answer: it’s really, really hard. And painful! The day after my aerials class always involved a lot of whimpering. But that was helpful, because my main character, Sebastian, is a hopeless beginner with very few skills. So I was able to put myself in his place and understand what he might feel like.

I also mustered up the courage to take a parkour workshop, since one of my other main characters, Frankie, is a parkour expert (and also I have this little-known, inexplicable love of ridiculous parkour movies). That ranks up there with the most humbling days of my life. I can’t say I recommend taking up scaling walls in your mid-thirties.

  1. Speaking of your circus lessons, what was your favourite thing you learned?

Once I’d developed some strength, I came to love the aerial hoop. I only ever learned the most basic tricks (and my minor fear of heights will prevent me from ever progressing), but it felt amazing to find myself able to do them. Watching a professional performance never fails to blow my mind. If you haven’t ever seen one, get thee to YouTube.

  1. Sebastian is a young boy with no talent for the circus, but has a ton of heart when it comes to keeping his family together. Do you think younger readers will be able to identify with Sebastian?

I hope so! Seb adores the circus, but he’s had to come to terms with the fact that he’s not cut out to be a performer, at least not in the traditional sense. I think a lot of readers, young and old, have had the experience of realizing that they’ll never be an expert at something they love, whether that’s playing hockey or violin or juggling knives. And yes, I think Seb’s desire to keep the Konstantinov Family Circus together also makes him relatable. When we’re deeply ingrained in a family or community that’s in danger of falling apart, I think a lot of us are compelled to fight for it.

  1. One thing I noticed is that Sebastian’s mother is never really mentioned or revealed. What’s the story there?

She is a mystery! Seb’s mother left the Konstantinov Family Circus when he was very small, and Seb has given up trying to find out why, since his father always offers a different story. His father, as you know, is a giant narcissist, but inside he harbours a lot of guilt about her leaving. It’s easier for him to make up stories (like the one about her taking off to fulfil her dream of going to dental school) than admit that he and his travelling circus lifestyle were a big part of the problem. Seb’s mother decided that the caravan lifestyle wasn’t for her. I picture her living a quiet life someplace, maybe in a little flat in Paris or Barcelona.

  1. I love novels that take place in a boarding school. Why have this novel take place in a boarding school, and more specifically what prompted you to select Montreal as the location for The Bonaventure Adventures?

It was the idea of a boarding school for future circus stars that drew me in. I figured you’d have the usual boarding school antics, but with acrobatics and juggling pins! It’s like my dream. And I set the story in Montreal because it’s such a unique city culturally, and like no place else in North America in terms of its vibrant circus scene.

  1. Sylvian loves his candy, and in fact has candy for breakfast. I will admit that I like cookies for breakfast once in a blue moon. Have you ever had candy for breakfast?

I think the question should be: how often in any given week do you eat chocolate for breakfast? Answer: way more often than I should probably admit to.


Huge thank you to Penguin Canada and Rachelle Delaney for their time in answering my questions and sharing this wonderful book with me. Remember that you can pick your copy up at your favourite local bookstore!

ARC Review – Real Friends by Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham

Title: Real Friends

Author:  Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Shannon and Adrienne have been best friends ever since they were little. But one day, Adrienne starts hanging out with Jen, the most popular girl in class and the leader of a circle of friends called The Group. Everyone in The Group wants to be Jen’s #1, and some girls would do anything to stay on top . . . even if it means bullying others.

Now every day is like a roller coaster for Shannon. Will she and Adrienne stay friends? Can she stand up for herself? And is she in The Group—or out?

Huge thank you to Raincoast for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Have you ever read a book that you felt perfectly reflected parts of your life? That’s how I felt when I was reading Real Friends and watching Little!Shannon go through the motions of making friends. Being that this is an autobiographical graphic novel, it’s interesting to see how the artwork and the story co-exist — truthfully, the art does an amazing job capturing this story.

I felt for Shannon throughout the whole book. I was one of those kids who was forced out of “The Group” or was picked last because they didn’t always fit in. I was bullied, shamed, and pushed around. It got to the point where throughout my elementary school years that I really struggled to make friends with other girls (boys, hilariously, no issue). I wanted girl!friends, but when sixth grade began I remember what a dark place I was in. How different I was compared to the other kids in my grade. Like Shannon who was connected to writing her novels and having imagination time, I was similar in my love of drawing, colouring and playing with toys. I always had ongoing plotlines that would span weeks and weeks of “episodes” but by sixth grade, no one thought playing with toys was cool anymore.

And that’s what a lot of this story is about. It’s about Shannon trying to make connections with others while also staying completely true to herself, which in this day and age is hard to do. Children are surrounded with so many new pressures that they lose sight of the person they want to be and become, and I love and appreciate the message that Hale and Pham share throughout this story and being yourself. I found myself nodding a long to the story, cheering for Shannon in her successes, but also having those same possessive feelings when you feel like a friend only belongs to you and no one else (which is totally how kids think when they are young, I did it repeatedly).

I think many kids and adults will love Real Friends and I think it offers some important commentary about what it means to grow up and figure yourself out. Packed with gorgeous artwork and it’s strong storytelling, Real Friends is the perfect book for those in the awkward middle stage, who may need a small helping hand.

ARC Review – Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Title: Short

Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Julia is very short for her age, but by the end of the summer run of The Wizard of Oz, she’ll realize how big she is inside, where it counts. She hasn’t ever thought of herself as a performer, but when the wonderful director of Oz casts her as a Munchkin, she begins to see herself in a new way. As Julia becomes friendly with the poised and wise Olive – one of the adults with dwarfism who’ve joined the production’s motley crew of Munchkins – and with her deeply artistic neighbor, Mrs. Chang, Julia’s own sense of self as an artist grows. Soon, she doesn’t want to fade into the background and it’s a good thing, because her director has more big plans for Julia!

Huge thank you to Penguin Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

I have heard nothing by praise for Holly Goldberg Solan’s Counting by 7s, and it’s a book I’ve been meaning to get to (and will, I hope!). Short is her latest effort, and it’s a pretty endearing little story of life, death, and friendship. In fact, I love the dual meaning of the title given that this book refers to life being “too short” and that Julia is in fact “short.”

Julia’s narrative is absolutely infectious. She’s curious, endearing, kind and understanding. Julia wants to know anything and everything, and it’s so apparent in the story to the reader that she is nothing if not filled with good intentions. There’s a lot of beauty in the way in which she understands the world around her. Julia’s loss of her beloved dog, Ramon, causes her to feel so much sadness, but in her sadness you see a beautiful young woman developing understanding, especially when it comes to Olive, another Munchkin in the production of Wizard of Oz who has dwarfism. Their interactions in the story were easily the bits of the novel that stole the spotlight.

Actually, Julia’s interactions with other characters just felt very genuine and spot on. I loved reading her relationship with Mrs. Chang, especially towards the end of the novel when Julia realizes that they share something in common. I also loved the way Goldberg Sloan integrated The Wizard of Oz into the story, adding such a larger, more important message about life being what you make of it, but you can’t turn back — you can only go forward. This is a huge lesson for Julia throughout the story, and how this gets tied into Oz is really special.

This book is adorable, and oh so cute. It will make you laugh, smile, cry, and it’s simply full of feeling. The book understands how children feel when dealing with loss, and I feel like Julia’s portrayal is very realistic. While I didn’t always enjoy being trapped in Julia’s head, I always appreciated her sentiments towards others. Short is one of the sweetest little middle grade reads that has a huge heart.

ARC Review – The Explorers: The Door in the Alley (The Explorers #1) by Adrienne Kress

Title: The Explorers: The Door in the Alley (The Explorers #1)

Author: Adrienne Kress

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Featuring a mysterious society, a secretive past, and a pig in a teeny hat, “The Explorers: The Door in the Alley” is the first book in a new series for fans of “The Name of This Book Is a Secret” and “The Mysterious Benedict Society. “Knock once if you can find it but only members are allowed inside.   This is one of those stories that start with a pig in a teeny hat. It s not the one you re thinking about. (This story is way better than that one.) This pig-in-a-teeny-hat story starts when a very uninquisitive boy stumbles upon a very mysterious society. After that, there is danger and adventure; there are missing persons, hired thugs, a hidden box, a lost map, and famous explorers; and there is a girl looking for help that only uninquisitive boys can offer. “The Explorers: The Door in the Alley” is the first book in a series that is sure to hit young readers right in the funny bone.

Huge thank you to Penguin Ranadom House Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Ever read a book that made you laugh out loud because how quirky it was in nature? I find the best middle grade reads always offer a combination of humour, adventure, and cheeky characters. This is exactly what you will find in Adrienne Kress’ The Explorers: The Door in the Alley — a whimsical, hilarious romp with delightfully funny characters and adventure lurking in each and every chapter.

The Explorers focuses on Sebastien and Evie, two children from very different backgrounds being flung into what seems like an unexplained adventure. Seb is very logical, narrow and stiff, where as Evie is clever and no nonsense. These characters couldn’t be more different and yet the way they work together is something to applaud. I think younger readers will definitely be able to connect to the two protagonists. Also can we discuss the pig in the hat? I loved any time that darn pig showed up!

The writing in this book is chockful of humour and wit. Kress’ writing is sharp as it is funny, and the way in which she is able to describe many of Seb and Evie’s encounters is often very entertaining. The writing is fast, it pops along the pages, and its very upbeat… until the ending. I would argue the ending is the roughest part of this book, and admittedly it left me a tad cold (which is why I want more from this series!). It’s not a bad ending, but it did leave me feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

I am glad that this book is becoming a series, because I feel like these characters have the potential grow into household favourites. Kress is a talented writer with a lot to offer younger readers, and I won’t lie when I say it was so thrilling to be back in one of her worlds again after such a long hiatus. The Explorers is a delightful middle grade story that offers a lot to young readers. While parts of this book feel a bit cliche, I won’t deny how much fun I had reading this book, and I can only imagine how much fun this book will be once it’s in the hands of children everywhere.