Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart: Book 1

stalwart cover

Secret Agents Jack and Max Stalwart: Book 1

The Battle for the Emerald Buddha: Thailand

By Elizabeth Singer Hunt, Illustrations by Brian Williamson

 

Published by: Weinstein Books (July 25, 2017)

Available in: paperback, Kindle, audible

At the time of this review there were two books in the Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart series. There are a number of related books in The Secret Agent Jack Stalwart series and The Secret Agent Training Manual series.

 

Power punch.

Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart is a new series that wastes no time pulling kids into an adrenaline-filled, contemporary, criminal-and-detective caper that is relevant, educational, and exhilarating. With art history, geography, and social studies throughout, it’s a bit like hiding vegetables in pizza—both parents and kids will be happy.

Author Singer Hunt has proven she knows the secret code to page-turning intrigue in children’s writing. Her previous series, with the older brother from this series as the protagonist, has an impressive sales history and was serialized by BBC Radio. The author keeps things simple while imbuing the text with current references and fast-paced action. Her characters use cool new accessories like a burner cell phone that can’t be traced by police and the grill a young criminal wears on his teeth. And yet, the prose is straightforward, with short sentences and relatively simple vocabulary.

The illustrations by Brian Williamson, unassuming black & white drawings, are edgy enough to be current and bring a clean, forward motion to the page.

I love that the boys, both good and bad, are powerful, independent, and free to make big mistakes and serious contributions. These kids are shown respect by the author. Exciting story components, like tigers, boat escapes, and subterfuge, keep the story moving with ingenuity and pace. In solving the crime, the protagonists show cleverness and daring (and a funny bit of comedy), but they’re also on a vacation with their parents. So although this particular story is unlike what most kids experience, it’s easy to see a connection with other nine- and 12-year-olds.

There are a number of terrific additional content pages, with a map, glossary, explanation of Thai facts, and more. A small gripe, I don’t like that they’re placed in the front of the book, which makes it feel crowded. Also, the typeface is a bit hard to read. But these are minor critiques in an otherwise excellent, daring-duo adventure sure to excite kids—especially boys—into the world of reading.

What do you say teachers, parents, and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

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A to Z Mysteries

A to Z cover

 A to Z Mysteries Super Edition #8: Secret Admirer (A Stepping Stone Book(TM))

 By Ron Roy, Illustrated by John Steven Gurney

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers (December 22, 2015)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were eight books in this series as well as 26 books in the original A to Z alphabet series.

 

It’s a mystery….

Actually, there’s no mystery why the A to Z Mysteries, in their first rendition of 26 alphabet-inspired books, and now under the guise of Super Editions, are so popular. Kids love mysteries, they love series, and this gives them a heaping dose of both.

The most recent of the A to Z Mysteries Super Edition books, Secret Admirer entices kids’ intrigue even before chapter one. The first page tells the reader to look for hidden letters within the illustrations and map, and challenges them to find the secret message. Who can resist that? The answer is given at the back of the book, so no frustrations if a child can’t decipher the message.

Author Roy, perhaps one of the most prolific in contemporary children’s literature, also writes both Capital Mysteries and Calendar Mysteries series. So if kids like these books, there’s more to be had from him.

Do I love these books? Not really. I find too many characters right at the start, and the writing is a little lazy. To wit, this paragraph, where originality and engaging descriptions take a back seat to just getting it done: “The kids reached the hotel and shoved open the thick glass door. Inside it was warm and smelled good.” I also find the illustrations serviceable but without pop or pizzazz.

Do I respect these books? Absolutely. The author and publisher give kids a lot of what they need at this point in their reading life: the thrilling intrigue of the mystery, characters they can follow from book to book, and the comfort of easy reading within the challenge of a full book. The fact that author Roy is successful at producing so much work is truly impressive and inspiring.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

Freddie Ramos Takes Off (Zapato Power, Book 1)

By Jacqueline Julies, Illustrated by Miguel Benitez

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 Published by: Albert Whitman & Company (March 1, 2010)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were five books in the Zapato Power series.

 

“Zoom! Zoom! Zapato!”

That infectious phrase, repeated throughout this simple yet potent little chapter book, begs to be said out loud. Put this book in the hands of a second grader and prepare to hear the phrase yelled within minutes. That kind of enthusiasm is priceless for the growing mind of the reluctant or emerging reader.

But this is just one of the many reasons Zapato Power proves itself an excellent chapter book. The deceivingly simple type, illustrations and sentence structure invite the reader, particularly boys. There is nothing in this book that intimidates.

And yet. Once in the story, we find a full and complex world. Freddie, our protagonist, lives a reality where uncles can send gifts only after bills have been paid, mothers go to community college, good grades are important, spelling mistakes are made with comic results and bathroom humor appears just enough to add sneaky laughs. As a bonus, Spanish vocabulary and Hispanic culture are laced throughout.

A quiet but important undertone is evidenced by Freddie’s soldier dad. Here is how we hear of him: “The first time he went away, he came back just fine. The second time, he didn’t. But everyone at his funeral called him a hero.”

This heartbreakingly eloquent explanation is spare enough to be true, simple enough to avoid melodrama. Freddie’s dad casts a quiet but long impression as Freddie, too, works to be a hero. And he accomplishes this from both a civil and personal point, showing that one boy can affect the world.

All this might make you think this is a heavy, serious story. Not so. On the surface, Zapato Power is just a cute little mystery about a pair of magical sneakers. But it’s no mystery why its subtle strength leaves a positive impression that will stay with young readers long past the last, funny page.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

Cam Jansen Mysteries

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Cam Jansen & the Mystery of the Television Dog

By David A. Adler, Illustrated by Susanna Natti

 

Published by: First published in 1981 by Viking Penguin, Inc. Reissued by Puffin Books (July 22, 2004)

Available in: paperback, library binding, audible, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were 34 books in the Cam Jansen Mysteries series as well as an early readers series under Young Cam Jansen.

 

Click!

Cam Jansen & the Mystery of the Television Dog is one of the many, many Cam Jansen books, both for the early reader and the newly independent chapter book reader. Cam is a likable and quirky protagonist who is smart, kind of nerdy and has a keen eye for detail. These are very cool attributes to give to a main character, particularly a girl. In reviewing lots of chapter books, I see far too many current series with fluff and drama as the main personality and plot points. Seriousness has a home with Cam, and it’s a good fit.

The book has a very nostalgic look and feel. Illustrations hark back to a simpler time with plain black and white, crosshatch detail. The kids portrayed have a ‘70s-era look with rolled up shorts, basic T-shirts, generic round eyes and short hair. Likewise, the sentence structure is very clipped and easy, as in this short segment. “Just then a long dark blue car drove up. It stopped right in front of the bookstore. The driver got out…” Kids can swallow this stuff with easy confidence.

What is unique is Cam’s photographic memory. It’s a fun device that turns a simple story into a unique tale. The mystery part is also fun because it’s easy to spot a doggie switcheroo by a bad guy. Cam’s adventure is quick reading with just enough spunk to make it interesting. And if kids are interested, they’ll read more–which is is the point, yes?

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

J.J. Tully Mysteries

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The Legend of Diamond Lil: A J.J. Tully Mystery

By Doreen Cronin, Illustrated by Kevin Cornell

 

Published by: Balzer + Bray; Reprint edition (May 7, 2013)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were two books in the J.J. Tully Mystery series.

 

 

Gumshoe.

The Legend of Diamond Lil: A J.J. Tully Mystery is an old-time mystery ala Philip Marlowe. It’s easy to visualize our hero in a trench coat and fedora, his steps echoing down a foggy alley deep in the night. Except our hero is a dog with floppy ears, a collar and trouble with possums.

Wise, a little sour and with shades of Rodney Dangerfield humor, J.J. Tully is funny right from the start: “A week ago, I woke up in the quiet country yard that smelled like fresh air and dog pee.” He’s an unusual protagonist for a children’s chapter book, which is perhaps why I love it so much. Filled with back (doggie) door information, sidekicks Dirt and Sugar, and a mystery that only a dog could sniff out, this chapter book excels at originality, comic turns of phrase and intrigue.

Because of the more sophisticated humor and a sometimes more difficult vocabulary, this is an excellent choice for chapter book readers who are on the verge of moving to middle grade novels. This is no babyish saga, but a fully developed, tail-wagging story with complex plot, characters that breathe with life and a satisfactory ending.

This same writer/illustrator duo also brought us the hilarious Chicken Squad series, and its nice to have the familiar looks to chickens, dogs and things that go bump in the night. A winning combination to be sure.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for Kids

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The Mystery of the Missing Lion

A Precious Ramotswe Mystery for Young Readers (3)

(No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Precious Ramotswe Mysteries))

By Alexander McCall Smith, Illustrated by Iain McIntosh

 

Published by: Anchor (October 21, 2014)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, audiobook, audio CD, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were three books in The Precious Ramotswe Mystery for Young Readers series.

 

 

Africa, Africa, Africa.

There are readers of this blog from Africa. But the majority are not, and for us, this series is an utter delight of cultural immersion, No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency-style.

Alexander McCall Smith is, of course, the author of the hugely successful detective series for adults. And I am probably the No. 1 fan of No. 1 Ladies. So it was with held breath that I read The Mystery of the Missing Lion. Dare I hope the original concept transcend genres and actually be as good in other formats?

With a smile that almost breaks my cheeks, I am happy to report the answer is Yes. This charming series kneels to the children’s market by placing Precious Romotswe with her dear daddy, Obed, when she was nine years old. She is as genuine, precocious and kind as her fans would hope. Precious lives in a simple world, with easy respect and raw wonder.

In The Mystery of the Missing Lion, along with an intriguing bit of detective work, children will read why young leopards learn not to eat a porcupine, why one should not pull an elephant’s tail, and feel the roar of a ferocious hippo. Fresh? This stuff is palpable adventure, dreams and exotic life.

With all this praise heaped higher than a meerkat, it might surprise to know the real treasure here is the artwork. McIntosh’s woodblock prints are clever, alive, vaguely ethnic in an earthen, deep wine red and black. The illustrations of a hippo’s Harumph! and a guinea fowl’s spotted call are nothing if not brilliant. Luckily, there are illustrations on almost every page.

It is a stretch to put this in the chapter book market. There is not the usual white space found in chapter books, the text is smaller and the sentences simple but full. This is for those children in early elementary who are reading just past grade level or perhaps reluctant readers in the older elementary grades.

Either way, the call of the African delta is one that will trickle through young readers minds. For those of us not lucky enough to feel the imprint of Botswana on our own toes, Smith brings the experience alive as if we were walking down the red bush track with him. Ah, Africa….

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

Dragonbreath

DragonbreathCoverDRAGONBREATH #9: The Case of the Toxic Mutants

By Ursula Vernon

 

Published by: Dial; Reprint edition (August 29, 2013)

Available in: hardcover, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were nine books in the Dragonbreath series.

 

The funny side of fear.

This could have been a Fright Month selection in October because it’s all about fear and monsters and things that make children go Eek! But Dragonbreath #9: The Case of the Toxic Mutants is also charming, funny and eccentric.

The book invites reluctant readers in with a start similar to a comic book. Then it morphs rather quickly into text with depth and bright humor. The protagonist is a young dragon with some serious problems: he can’t get one good friend to believe he’s a real dragon, and he has to visit his grumpy old granddad, which is icky and frightening all on its own. A mystery of missing dentures quickly turns into a crazy-beast-and-ooze fest, sure to attract young boys in particular.

The story is populated with characters and plot points that would otherwise give kids the chills.  From pack rats followed down dank, dark tunnels to dog vomit slime mold, Vernon’s book allows the truly horrible to be comic. Much of the humor is the kind that appeals to both adults and kids, so this might be a good series to read together.

In fact, if there’s a hesitation to this series, it’s that it skews a bit mature. Some of the jokes seem more for the parents than kids. In particular, one main character has a lisp so severe that much of his language is difficult to translate. For a newly independent reader, this might be over the top (i.e., “Dithcrethen ith the better part of valor.”)

And, be forewarned this skews to the older, more challenging chapter book. The publisher even lists it as ages 8—12. But the pictures, stories and anthropomorphized characters pull the appeal to the younger set as well.

The illustrations are easy and free, and there’s a lot of green goo gliding through the pages. It all slides together quite nicely for a little monster mystery.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….