To Catch a Cheat

Written by Varian Johnson

Hacking and technology geeks get the upper hand over classic classroom cheats in this fun, Encyclopedia Brown type novel. Jackson Greene, hero of book one, The Great Greene Heist, returns with his diverse gang that meets in an old shed to plan their projects. A couple of the gang are super tech savvy, while Jackson remains the leader and master mind. They use invisible ink, tricky watches and new light bulbs to bring about interesting results.

A couple of classic bullies have produced a phony video of Jackson and his team, causing mayhem and a flood at the school when they were nowhere near the stopped up toilets. In order to clear their names, Jackson sets up an elaborate plan seeming to go along with the bullies in stealing a final exam. There are twists and turns today’s middle grade readers will enjoy as they understand the video systems and computer gadgets at work. This series looks ready to gain a big following.

Teachers and librarians will want to introduce this series to the techno geeks as well as the readers in their middle school. It is fast paced with well-developed characters. It would make a great book club read, or a fun read aloud for a small group of reluctant readers. English teachers can use it to satisfy literacy standards in the common core in many areas, including: characterization, setting, dialogue, and main idea. But the students will love the revenge, the planning, and maybe even all the start trek movie references.

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  • To Catch a CheatTitle: To Catch a Cheat
  • Author: Varian Johnson
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine, Scholastic, Inc., 2016
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-72239-1
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Grade level: 5 to 9

Watch Out for Flying Kids

Written by Cynthia Levinson

Everyone loves the circus!  What better way to bring young people together from across cultures that might not otherwise every meet one another. Certainly, they would not understand each other.

This beautifully done, fascinating book tells of just such a program call the youth social circus. It is an arts education program that brings nine teen-aged troupers from two circuses together. They learn professional level skills of juggling, twirling burning hoops and entertaining audiences all over the world. At the same time, they are learning from one another about rural, suburban, and city life. They are learning about tribal customs of the Middle East, Jewish traditions in Galilee and inner-city life in St. Louis.

It is a wonderful example of learning about others by walking in their shoes, or, in this case, dancing and performing in their shoes. The students learn about each other in down time and by traveling together. The photographs were taken during the project and show lifelong friendships being made.

This would be a wonderful addition to every middle school, high school and public library. Teachers and librarians will fulfill many core curriculum standards in English, Social Studies, Literacy, and Geography by reading and discussing this text with students. It could easily lead to an Eagle Scout project or some sort of graduation project.

Even if it doesn’t bring about another encounter, it will begin worthwhile thoughts and dialogue concerning how we treat people from another culture and how we might get to know them better in the future.

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  • Watch Out for Flying KidsTitle:  Watch Out for Flying Kids
  • Author:   Cynthia Levinson
  • Publisher:  Peachtree, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format:  Hardcover, 216 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-56145-821-9
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Circus
  • Grade level: 5 to 8
  • Extras: Photographs throughout, Index, Lengthy Author’s Note


Written by J.J. Johnson

This new book is recommended for anyone who eats. Heartfelt and very readable, this is a memoir from a recovering bulimarexic, an eating disorder featuring low weight and purging. She shows how personal issues, especially those with food, can affect everything you do and your relationships with everyone.

At fifteen, Jennifer had gotten very good at hiding her problems from her family and friends, but it became obvious to her that she needed help. So, when she suggested to her parents that she check into the eating disorders unit of a psychiatric hospital, they thought she was looking for attention. Turns out, she really did need help and so did her family. Of course the unit was way worse than she could have imagined, with forced eating, monitored bathroom visits, nasty co-patients, and despicable staff. Jennifer did find the help she needed, though, to set her on the road to a healthy life and a better relationship with her family. Jennifer also learned that, even though others around her also need help, she couldn’t always provide the help they needed.

The subject matter is often complex and for mature students. Sixth graders and up should have no problems with it, though. They can learn a lot about health – both physical and mental – and about interpersonal relations. Despite the page count, the book reads very quickly, as it’s set up as a diary.

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  • BelievarexicTitle: be*liev*a*rex*ic
  • Author: J.J. Johnson
  • Published: Peachtree Publishers, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 464 pages
  • Grade Level: 5 Up
  • Genre: Memoir, Eating disorders
  • ISBN: 978-156145-771-7



Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad

Written by Martin W. Sandler

There was a lot more to building the transcontinental railroad than can be packed into those four words. Certainly a lot more than you’re taught in history class.

Sandler did extensive research for this great new book and includes many sidebars with details of various aspects of the project and biographies of important players, as well as numerous photographs and maps from the Library of Congress and other archives.

The brain child of Asa Whitney, distant relative of Eli Whitney, the plan began in earnest in 1845. After several proposals to Congress, the Central Pacific, starting from the west, and the Union Pacific, starting from the east, finally won the approval to lay rails from Omaha to Sacramento. It wasn’t until 1869 that the last spike was driven at Promontory Summit. Facing labor shortages, company corruption, extremes of weather, shortage of funds, just plain difficult terrain, and other hardships, the construction itself took more than six years.

The real value to sixth graders is as reference material, but Sandler does a great job of relating the true impact on the workers – Irish, Chinese, Mormon, and other – and on the indigenous residents of the American West. The story is compelling, well-told, and riveting.

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  • Iron RailsTitle: Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad
  • Author: Martin W. Sandler
  • Published: Candlewick, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 224 pages
  • Grade Level: 5 Up
  • Genre: History, Biography
  • ISBN: 978-0-7636-6527-2
  • Extras: Table of Contents, Timeline, Source Notes, Bibliography, Photography Credits, and Index

Shadows of Sherwood

Written by Kekla Magoon

Robyn Hoodlum is an unforgettable new heroine trying to right the wrongs of her government. This new series brings to mind the adventures of Percy Jackson, in that Robyn Hoodlum’s story bears many resemblances to the stories of Robin Hood. Even the name of her city harkens back to the other Sherwood.

Fast paced action and unending adventure carries readers swiftly through the pages. Strong character development makes each new personality real and memorable. Well-constructed plot and carefully placed foreshadowing promises more books to come as Robyn tries to find her parents and bring justice back into her world.

Grade five and grade six readers as well as those far beyond will enjoy the realistic dialogue and well-written narrative. Teachers, librarians and parents will fulfill core curriculum standards of literacy by putting this book where middle school and high school readers will happen upon it. English teachers can use it to introduce or follow-up on a reading of the original tales of Robin Hood. This book is highly recommended and the second installment is anticipated with great expectations.

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  • Shadows of SherwoodTitle: Shadows of Sherwood
  • Author: Kekla Magoon
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 355 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-61963-634-7
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Grade level: 5 to 8

The Secrets of Blueberries, Brothers, Moose & Me

Written by Sara Nickerson

Need a summer job? Twelve year old Missy and her older brother Patrick did. They saw an ad in the newspaper for kids to pick blueberries. After talking Mom into it, they got started on the new job.

It was harder than they expected. The days were long and hot. Not all of the other kids were friendly, and then there was the mystery feud between the owner of the blueberry patch and his brother.

Parallel plots including the divorce of Missy’s parents, her father’s new girlfriend, and her Mom’s depression are all factors bringing tension into the story. Then when Missy gets a chance to hang out with her school friends near the end of summer, she gets the feeling they are outgrowing her friendship as middle school looms in front of them.

Exceptionally well written, this book is hard to put down. Librarians and teachers aware of twelve year old girls uncomfortable with a parent’s second marriage or with heading into middle school might recommend this book. It is also funny at all the right places. And the mystery of the blueberry farm? Oh yeah, that gets solved, too. A really good book.

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  • Secrets of BlueberriesTitle: The Secrets of Blueberries, Brothers, Moose & Me
  • Author: Sara Nickerson
  • Publisher: Dutton Children’s Books, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 326 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-525-42654-7
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Grade level: 5 up

When the Earth Shakes

Written by Simon Winchester

The Smithsonian Institution, with its massive research and museum complex supported the work of Simon Winchester, already a well-known and often awarded writer of nonfiction. He knows well the world of geology and writes smooth and engaging account of the excitement he feels when looking at the pictures of the bulge on Mount St. Helen before it erupted. But explaining the “how” of an eruption, as well as, all the other events put in motion by an eruption is a big job.

Grade five, six readers and far beyond will be fascinated by all the photos from worldwide Geological Societies, as well as the maps, diagrams, and sketches from around the world to depict tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Winchester is able to capture the excitement and wonder of such phenomena while still instilling readers with the respect such natural dangers require.

Students can fulfill core curriculum in the areas of science, history, and literacy. After completing this well-written volume, readers can find other books, websites and listening recordings of sounds captured from under the ocean

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  • When the Earth ShakesTitle: When the Earth Shakes
  • Author: Simon Winchester
  • Publisher: Viking/ Penguin, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 72 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-670-78536-0
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Grade level: 5 Up
  • Extras: Index, recommended books, recommended web sites, photographs and photo credits

Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence

Written by Ann Downer

This fascinating book asks the question “What is intelligence?” There are many examples of beings that lack a spinal column being able reason and learn. Each chapter outlines the life of a different beast and how it qualifies for the distinction “intelligent.” Charles Darwin was captivated by worms. Ordinary earthworms will increase activity in response to music. They cover the entrances to burrows with pebbles. They will learn to avoid the areas of mazes where electric shocks are introduced and vibrations similar to those made by predators. Jumping spiders know many different ways to approach their prey and can reason out which approach to use. Octopuses are unbelievable escape artists. Honey bees are great communicators. Paper wasps can recognize a friend’s face. Argentine ants build megacolonies. Mantis shrimps are fast and, more importantly, accurate predators. Box jellyfish can accurately navigate mazes. Slime molds seem to form giant brains. Tarantula hawk wasps will measure their prey before digging a hole to bury it for food for hatching babies.

The best use for this book is as a resource. It is so packed full of information, the student will want to return again and again to pick up the details for further study. Sixth grade literacy skills will be enhanced by the frequent use of scientific terms and by the excellent organization of the text. Throughout, the author highlights recent scientific studies. The numerous photos are wonderful illustrations.

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  • Smart and SpinelessTitle: Smart and Spineless: Exploring Invertebrate Intelligence
  • Author: Ann Downer
  • Published: Twenty First Century Books, August, 2015
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 88 pages
  • Grade Level: 6 up
  • Genre: Nonfiction, animals
  • ISBN: 978-1-4677-3739-5
  • Extras: Table of Contents, Source Notes, Glossary, Selected Bibliography, extensive For Further Information section, Index, About the Author, Author Acknowledgments, Photo Acknowledgments

Mark of the Thief

Written by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Riding on the back of a griffin flying over ancient Rome, Nic escapes only to fight again. Without knowing it, the first time Nic saw, Caela, the griffin, deep in the gold mines, it scratched his back leaving the mark of the Divine Star. It gives Nic the powers of Diana, one being his ability to talk to animals. Magic travels through that mark, but even more magic strengthens Nic through the bulla of Julius Caesar that he found and kept for himself.

This is the first in a new series by the New York Times Bestselling author, Jennifer A. Nielsen.  Ancient Rome comes alive through its treatment of slaves in the mines to its treatment of the animals being put to death for entertainment in the arena.

There are factions of senators trying to overtake the emperor and sometimes it all becomes quite entangled, just as it does in real life. The poorest of the poor hide Nic in underground water tunnels to keep him safe from those chasing him. They want his power, his bulla and the precious jewels hidden within it. But at the end of book one, the last laugh belongs to Nic. Except, of course, that it isn’t really the last laugh as even he realizes his battle has just begun.

Fifth grade readers, sixth grade readers and those beyond will strengthen their literacy skills while also finding out what ancient Roman life and government was like. History standards can be met by discovering and discussing this new knowledge.

It is an exciting new series. Many teachers, librarians and parents will be looking forward to the publication of book #2.

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  • Mark of the ThiefTitle: Mark of the Thief
  • Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 339 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-545-56154-9
  • Genre: Fiction, fantasy, history
  • Grade level: 4 to 7


Like a River: A Civil War Novel

Written by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Have you ever heard of the steamboat, Sultana? No? Well then it might surprise you to find out when it exploded and sank on the Ohio River in 1865, more people died than died on the Titantic.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman has done excellent research into this mostly unknown event of the Civil War. In like manner she has studied the Andersonville prison daily life. Her ability to take the findings of her studies and turn it all into a compelling story is commending.

Her main characters are well developed and face authentic problems of the day. The tension begins early and draws the reader in quickly, keeping them focused and always wanting to continue to read that one more chapter.

Grade five and grade six students will become enthralled with this story and look for others like it. Teachers and librarians can use the text to fulfill core curriculum standards in the areas of literacy, American history, historical fiction, character development, comparison of fiction and nonfiction as well as the effects of war.

The explanation within the Author’s Notes pertaining to what is true and what is fiction is valuable. Photographs from the Library of Congress add a richness to this difficult story. This book would be a superb addition to elementary, middle school, and public libraries

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  • like a riverTitle: Like a River
  • Author: Kathy Cannon Wiechman
  • Publisher: Calkins Creek, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-62979-209-5
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Grade level: 3 to 8
  • Extras: Author’s Note, Selected Bibliography, Photographs, Picture Credits
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