Masterminds is the first book in a thrilling trilogy by Gordon Korman. Larrabee loved it and insisted that I drop everything and read it.
Eli Frieden lives in Serenity, New Mexico, an isolated and idyllic town with a population of 185. Eli’s dad is the school principal and the mayor and reminds him often how lucky he is to live in a community with no crime and no poverty.
One day, his best friend suggests that they ride their bikes out of Serenity, something Eli’s never done in all his thirteen years. When they get to the town limits, though, Eli starts to feel sick. Before they know it, they’ve been rescued by the local security force (nicknamed Purple People Eaters by the kids) in a helicopter. A few days later, Eli’s friend is shipped off to live with his grandparents in Colorado, but he leaves a note where only Eli can find it: “There’s something screwy going on in that town.”
The story of what’s really going on beneath Serenity’s perfect facade is told through the point of view of five different kids. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot twists, so I’ll just say that Masterminds has a mix of action, mystery, and suspense that’s rare in middle grade books.
The other two books in the series are Criminal Destiny and Payback, and Larrabee highly recommends them too. He says the series gets better and better!
The Wishmakers by Tyler Whitesides is a very funny book about wishes and their consequences.
One day, twelve-year-old Ace opens a peanut butter jar without reading the fine print and releases a genie named Ridge. The good news: He’s now a Wishmaker and may make as many wishes as he likes. The bad news: For every wish, the Universe imposes a consequence and he has just thirty seconds to decide whether to accept. The worse news: The Universe has given him a quest, and unless he completes it in seven days, all the world’s cats and dogs will turn into zombies.
Things get even more complicated when he meets Tina and Jathon, other young Wishmakers with quests of their own that seem to conflict with his. And things get more complicated still as they make more and more wishes with consequences on top of consequences (which may last for an hour, a day, a week, or forever). For example, at one point, whenever anyone says Tina’s name, she claps, and whenever anyone claps, Ace’s shoelace comes untied. Ace also accepts a day without his left arm, a week without being able to read, and a lifetime with a green tongue. It all adds up to a fast-paced and zany adventure.
Larrabee and I both enjoyed this book and are looking forward to the sequel, The Wishbreaker. It’s coming soon!
Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman is a book that will make you smile.
Ten-year-old Gabe is excited about his summer for two reasons: (1) he’s been accepted to the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment, a six-week sleepaway camp, and (2) his father is getting remarried, which means that he’s getting a new brother his age named Zack.
But Zack is not at all what Gabe expected in a brother. Zack is a cool ten-year-old from L.A. with a cell phone and gel in his hair. He dismisses as “nerdy” a lot of things Gabe likes (such as reading and math team). He’s jealous of Gabe’s plan to go to sleepaway camp, but Gabe doesn’t dare admit what type of camp it is.
The truth is that Gabe is looking forward to learning logical reasoning, writing poetry, and memorizing the digits of pi with his bunkmates in addition to kayaking and swimming and all that camp stuff. But Zack’s perspective makes him ask the question: “Am I a nerd who only has nerdy adventures?”
His hypothesis is “no,” but it will take a summer full of nerd camp escapades for him to prove it to himself.
This book won the Cybils Award in 2011. Larrabee and I both enjoyed it, and Larrabee’s already read the sequel, Nerd Camp 2.0.
Highly recommended for cool nerds of all ages (especially ages 8-10).
Nightbooks by J. A. White is a modern day Hansel and Gretel meets The Arabian Nights with a twist.
Alex feels like a weirdo because he writes scary stories in journals he calls his nightbooks. One night, he sneaks out in the middle of the night, determined to get rid of them once and for all. But the sound of his favorite horror movie lures him into a strange apartment, and he finds himself trapped by a real-life witch. This witch likes scary stories, and she’ll keep him alive as long as he comes up with a new one each night.
Some of the things I liked best about this book are:
- The stories Alex tells the witch. Deliciously creepy.
- The insights into Alex’s writing process, including his spark of inspiration, his understanding of interior logic, and his tips for overcoming writer’s block.
- The witch’s magical apartment with doors that lead back into the same room, a black light nursery for exotic plants, and an enormous library with a spiral staircase!
- Lenore, the witch’s cat, who can make herself invisible.
- The growing friendship between Alex and the witch’s other prisoner, Yasmin.
Blaine would have loved this book when he was younger. Larrabee found it a bit too creepy. I would recommend it to kids who crave scary books, such as Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm, R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, or Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo is the story of Flora, a comic book reader and natural-born cynic, and Ulysses, a squirrel with superpowers as a result of a close encounter with a vacuum cleaner.
If that sounds wacky, it is. Delightfully wacky. It’s a quick and funny read told from the point of view of both girl and squirrel, and it includes comic-style illustrations by K. G. Campbell. It’s also a touching meditation on loneliness, hope, and love. Larrabee and I both liked it a lot.
This book won the Newbery Medal in 2014. As Flora would say, “Holy bagumba! Holy unanticipated occurrences!”
If you’re missing summer as much as we are, you should pick up a copy of The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell. Larrabee and I aren’t normally big fans of graphic novels, but we both enjoyed this one.
It’s a collection of short stories about a diverse group of kids who use ordinary cardboard to transform themselves and their neighborhood. The Sorceress, the Big Banshee, the Huntress, the Gargoyle, and others go on imaginative quests and navigate real world challenges during summer vacation.
The art is terrific and the stories are engaging. I wish Larrabee and I had read The Cardboard Kingdom together because it would have prompted some good discussions.
Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet is an intriguing historical novel set behind the Iron Curtain in 1989 East Berlin.
The most unusual things about Noah Keller are his astonishing stutter and his photographic memory. Other than that, he’s an ordinary American 5th grader. He goes to school, plays soccer, and celebrates his 11th birthday with a bowling party.
One day, though, his parents pick him up from school and announce that they’re going on an “urgent expedition” that will be “better than fun.” They’re going to spend six months in East Germany while his mom does research on special education. The only catch: Noah will have to be known as Jonah Brown, he’ll have to go back to being 10 years old, and he’ll have to remember lots of rules (such as Rule #1: “They will always be listening and often be watching. Don’t forget that!”).
Despite his parents’ excitement, Noah/Jonah finds East Germany lonely and boring until he meets Claudia, a girl who lives with her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. They make friends as they try to figure out what’s true in a world filled with secrets and lies.
Some of the things I liked best about this book are:
- The historical setting. Even though I was alive in 1989, I learned a lot from this book about life in East Germany and about some of the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each chapter ends with a “Secret File” that provides necessary historical context for the events of the story. But these files are not dry textbook entries that you might be tempted to skip. Rather they’re engaging asides by a narrator with personality.
- The friendship between Claudia (Cloud) and Noah/Jonah (Wallfish). As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m fond of friendship stories, and this is a great one. I love the way that these two kids from different cultures initially bond over a jigsaw puzzle and come to trust each other.
- The relationship between Noah and his parents. Noah and his parents are close and loving, and yet, they have secrets from each other. Part of what’s interesting about this story is that the reader, like Noah, assumes that his parents are spies without finding out exactly what they’re doing in East Germany.
Although the main character is young (10 years old), I’d recommend this book mainly for older middle grade readers.