Spy Files: Spy School

Do you have what it takes to go undercover and discover the secret world of espionage?    

Spy Files: Spy School stealthily slips into the shadows, exposing different types of spies, the training techniques of the secret service, and the fake identities and disguises they use. Discover the grisliest methods of interrogation and the greatest tales of escape. Unmask the celebrity with vital information in World War II. Reveal how a CIA disguise expert helped six diplomats escape from a hostage crisis.    

Packed with case studies, photographic evidence, and mug shots, readers will learn about shaking a tail, spy training, double agents, identity exchange surveillance, black-bag operations, and more.   

Spy School uses a fun format that breaks up information into small, manageable parts. Each two-page spread changes topics and each page has only one to three short paragraphs, plus photo captions. Each page has illustrations such as historical photos, drawings, and mug shots. Plus, some pages have an infographic titled “Top Secret” that gives additional information on spying. While the format will appeal to many readers, the large font and short paragraphs don’t allow each topic to be explored in detail. 

Spy School will whet the reader’s appetites with a wide range of spy-related topics. However, some readers may be disappointed by the book’s brevity, since each topic is covered in seven or fewer sentences. However, if you want to get a quick look into the spy world to see if it is truly like a James Bond movie, then Spy School is the book for you. Because of the wide range of topics, Spy School would also be good if you’re browsing for a more specific topic for a research paper. Readers who want a fictional book on cracking codes, stealing secrets, and dodging bullets should also sneak into the library and grab a copy of Spy School #1 by Stuart Gibbs.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Oleg Penkovsky was a double agent who was “interrogated and shot by the KGB.” 
  • KGB agent Ramon Mercader killed Joseph Stalin’s rival “with an ice pick.”  
  • An anti-Soviet Ukrainian was poisoned with “gas spray hidden in a newspaper.” 
  • During World War II, some spies were tricked. “One prisoner would be taken behind a truck and a shot fired. The other prisoner would become scared and talk. The trick was that the gun had only been fired at the ground.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • In order to avoid being interrogated, “some spies carry deadly cyanide pills, to be used to prevent them breaking down under torture.” 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene takes great comfort in his routines. Afterschool Monday to Thursday is bowling. Friday, the best of days, is laser tag! But Chester has one very special secret—he gets spy messages from his dad. Chester thinks his father must be on covert government assignments, which is why Chester has never been able to meet him.

Then one day, Chester’s classmate Skye approaches him with a clue. They’ve been tasked with a complex puzzle-solving mission! Skye proves to be a useful partner and good company, even if her free-wheeling ways are disruptive to Chester’s carefully built schedule. As Chester and Skye get closer to their final clue, they discover the key to their spy assignment: they have to stop a heist! But cracking this code may mean finding out that things are not always what they seem. 

Chester is used to being alone. Nobody sits by him at lunch. Nobody sits by him on the school bus. And nobody helps him when Marc bullies him. His dad is the only person that Chester can talk to, but he’s never actually met his dad and they only communicate through emails. But in Chester’s greatest time of need, his dad goes silent. So, when a strange clue is left on his door, Chester is convinced that his dad is a spy in danger—and only Chester can help. When Skye approaches Chester with the other piece of the clue, the two are forced to work together even though Chester would prefer to solve the mystery on his own. 

Chester Keene Cracks the Code has a slow start, but once Skye jumps into the story, the story takes off on a fun hunt for clues. Even though Chester is a bit “difficult,” Skye doesn’t let his quirks chase her off. And soon, Chester discovers that he likes having Skye as a friend, even though she is impulsive. While the clues add mystery to the book, Chester and Skye’s developing relationship adds heart and teaches readers the value of friendship. Even though the story is written from Chester’s point of view, readers will be able to relate to Skye’s annoyance when Chester gets difficult. 

Throughout the hunt for clues, Chester thinks his father is leaving the clues. While Chester thinks about the need to solve the clues and help his father, there is no clear reason that explains why Chester believes his father is in danger. Because of this, Chester’s constant thoughts about his father’s danger become a bit tedious. However, many readers will relate to Chester’s feelings of abandonment and his deep desire to meet his father. Chester eventually learns that with or without his father, he is surrounded by people who love him, and that is enough.   

Even though Chester and Skye must solve the clues left for them, the clues are so specific to the characters that the readers don’t have a chance to solve the clues themselves. Despite this, the story contains enough mystery and adventure to keep readers interested. Plus, the story teaches the importance of friendship, family, and speaking up when being bullied. Chester realizes “people make mistakes. . . Perfect—it doesn’t exist.” Overall, Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a fun read that shows the importance of embracing the people in your life and accepting them for who they are. 

Sexual Content 

  • Chester’s mother is dating a man who stays the night at her house. Chester knows that “Mom and Christopher won’t come out of the bedroom until later.” 
  • Skye tells Chester that her dad might marry his girlfriend because he’s “over the moon. They’re all smoochy smoochy all the time.” 
  • After Christopher proposes to Chester’s mom, they kiss. Skye tells them, “Get a room.” 

Violence 

  • After winning a round of laser tag, Marc (the school bully) corners Chester. Marc punches Chester. “A flash of color bursts behind my eyelids. My ears ring with a tinkling sound, or maybe the force of my body being slammed into the change machine. . .” Chester gets a huge black eye. 
  • Marc is standing by Chester’s locker. When Chester approaches, Marc “tosses a casual punch at my shoulder. . . Only, his hand lands hard enough that it throws me off-balance, and my other shoulder collides with the bank of lockers.” Then, Marc grabs Chester. Marc “grips some combination of my shirt, my armpit skin, and my backpack strap, and with tremendous force, whips my entire body around him. . .” Chester ends up on his back “limbs sprawling, neck kinked.” Chester’s shoulders and neck hurt, and his shirt is ripped. The scene is described over two pages.   
  • Chester tells a story about a man who came into the bowling alley and “tried to rob Amanda [the owner] at knifepoint once. She hit him in the head with a bowling ball.” 
  • Four people rob an armored car. Two of the men have “guns raised, they charge on the truck. Boom. The guard flinches like he hit a wall. He grabs his neck, then slumps down.” 
  • When a guard falls, Chester thinks, “Is he dead? But there’s no blood. No terrible explosion. A tiny arrow sticks out of his neck.” 
  • When the robber sees Chester, he grabs him. “My shoulder pops as [he] binds my hands together behind my back. He uses something thin and smooth. It cuts into my skin.” 
  • Skye jumps in to help Chester. A female robber grabs Skye and “she goes down.” The robber says, “Pop ‘em and let’s get out of here.” One of the men refuses to kill them because “they’re just kids.” The robbery is described over five pages. 
  • The school bully, Marc, calls Chester “Salisbury-face” because they were serving it at lunch. Angry, Chester’s “lunch tray geos vertical, smashes straight into Marc’s face. Peas go rolling over his shoulder, down his arms, and onto the floor.” 
  • Marc corners Chester in the bathroom and gives Chester a bruise “exactly the size and shape of a urinal head.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Twice after being punched, Chester goes home and takes Tylenol for the pain. 
  • While having dinner, Chester’s mother and her boyfriend have a beer. 
  • At the bowling alley, a group of adults is drinking beer.  
  • Chester’s mom’s boyfriend serves pizza and beer to other adults. 

Language   

  • Marc calls Chester a loser several times. 
  • When Marc slams into Chester, Chester thinks Marc is a “jerk-face.” 
  • After hitting Marc with his lunch, Chester thinks, “Oh, no. Oh, crud.” 
  • Skye says Marc is a jerk. 
  • Dang it is used three times. 
  • Heck is used four times. 
  • OMG, my God, and oh my God are used as an exclamation a few times. 
  • Skye calls Chester a doofus and a goof.  

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Buttons for General Washington

Fourteen-year-old John Darragh was a spy. But British-occupied Philadelphia in 1777 was not a safe place for an American spy. If he were captured, John knew he would be hanged. In this suspenseful story based on accounts of the Darragh family’s spying activities for General Washington, young John undertakes a dangerous mission to deliver a message to the American army. 

Buttons for General Washington introduces history to beginning readers. While the book features real people from history, the story is fictional. The author’s note at the beginning of the book explains important historical information that makes the book easier to understand. For example, the author explains why the characters use thee and thou. To make the book accessible to beginning readers, each page has three to nine sentences with easy vocabulary. In addition, a large illustration appears on almost every page to break the text into manageable parts.  

Readers interested in history will find Buttons for General Washington intriguing. John Darragh’s dangerous mission to deliver a message to General Washington is suspenseful because John worries that if British soldiers discover he is a spy, they will hang him. The story does not go into depth, however, which may frustrate stronger readers. The book doesn’t explain what secret code was used or how others were able to decode the message. While the story stresses the importance of the message, readers are left to wonder why the message was important. Despite this, the story’s brevity makes the text accessible to beginning readers, who will learn many interesting facts about British-occupied Philadelphia in 1777. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • John thinks about the spies who were captured and were “lucky to end up in prison. Usually they were hanged.”  
  • While in town, John runs into Samuel, a Tory, who is the same age as him. After a brief argument, Samuel poked John and then pushed him to the ground. 
  • While in the woods, a man surprises John. “Suddenly, a hand grabbed [John] from behind. . . The man aimed a pistol at John.” The man turns John in to an American camp, where John’s brother was stationed. John is set free. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing

Attention: Junior Secret Agent 

Now that these top-secret files have fallen into your hands, you have in your possession everything you’ll need to know about making and breaking codes and ciphers. From everyday codes and pictographs to encryption and concealment methods used throughout history, this handbook proves the necessary tools for a budding cryptographer. And as you’ll see, a duo of seasoned, sneaky spies is on the case to illustrate how it all works. 

Your mission: Reading this book! 

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing gives many examples of ciphers, including ones from literature such as Poe’s ciphers in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” For each coded message, the answers are in the back of the book, which allows readers to try to figure out the message without peeking at the answers. In addition to ciphers, the book includes information on code-breaking. There are several coded messages that readers will have fun trying to decipher. Readers will also learn about different liquids they can use to make invisible ink. 

Many examples of historical codes are scattered throughout the book, and the end of the book has a chapter titled the “Codemakers and Codebreakers Hall of Fame.” This chapter gives more examples of historical people, such as Benedict Arnold, who used ciphers. Many of the people who created ciphers did so to hide military secrets. However, no bloody battle scenes are described. Instead, the book uses a down-to-earth tone that will appeal to readers. In addition, every one to three pages has some type of graphic element—a practice code, a list, or a black and white illustration. Most of the illustrations are humorous, such as a spy running away from an angry pig.  

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing uses an entertaining format to introduce the art of spying. Through historical examples, readers will learn many interesting facts about codemaking, ciphers, codebreaking, and concealment. Anyone who has ever wondered how spies pass secret messages must read this book. To learn more about the Culper Spy Ring, grab a copy of George Washington’s Spies by Claudia Friddell as well.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Mary Queen of Scots used a substitution cipher, but “it was the discovery and deciphering of this system by her enemies that caused her to lose her head to the executioner when she was convicted of plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.” 
  • An ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, would send messages to his generals. Herodotus found a servant with poor eyesight and then “shaved the slave’s head, then branded a message on his scalp! When the hair grew in, the master told the servant that his eyesight would be better when he had his head shaved at a camp some miles away.” 
  • During England’s civil war, several Puritans were captured and “made the long walk to the gallows.” 
  • Benedict Arnold betrayed the colonies by spying for the enemy. “After a midnight meeting with Arnold, André was captured. . . he was hanged in 1780.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Kelsey the Spy

Kelsey can’t resist collecting secrets in her spy notebook just like her hero, Harriet the Spy. When she learns Leo has been hiding something from the group, she writes his secret in her notebook as well. But when the notebook goes missing, everything she’s collected about classmates, friends, and family could be revealed to the world! After receiving a ransom note, Kelsey tries to solve the mystery on her own. But soon she realizes she needs help from everyone in the Curious Cat Spy Club in order to rescue her notebook, help a homesick 130-year-old Aldabra tortoise, and unmask a thief. 

When Kelsey’s notebook of secrets disappears, she is consumed with fear that the secrets will be revealed and someone will be hurt. When one of her secrets goes public, Kelsey is convinced that the thief must be stopped. Kelsey’s fear and worry drive much of her actions, but the constant reminders of the dangers of keeping secrets becomes annoying. While Kelsey’s concerns are justified, Kelsey’s inner monologue may frustrate readers. 

The story’s focus is on Kelsey’s stolen notebook, which doesn’t allow room for the other subplots to be adequately explored. For example, a lost dog that Kelsey is hoping to find only appears twice and the encounter is so short that it does nothing to add to the story. Part of the story includes interesting facts about an Aldabra tortoise, but animal-loving readers will wish that more time was devoted to the tortoise. Even though the animal aspect of Kelsey the Spy reinforces the theme of not keeping secrets, the subplot lacks depth.  

Readers will relate to Kelsey’s friendship problems. As Kelsey struggles with finding the notebook thief, she also has a difficult time with the changing nature of her friendships. When Kelsey’s friends are too busy to spend time with her, Kelsey gets frustrated. Kelsey finally talks to her friends about how she feels, which allows them to work through their problems. In the end, she realizes that friendships change, “rising and falling, then coming back together stronger than ever.” 

Kelsey the Spy has an inquisitive protagonist who helps put on a fundraiser for a local shelter. Kelsey is a typical preteen that many readers will relate to. However, the plot tackles too much—Kelsey’s brother who is sneaking around, a lost dog, the missing notebook, and the tortoise who needs a new home. Because of the many subplots, the story jumps around a lot. Kelsey the Spy does have some fun elements to keep readers engaged. Plus, it teaches important lessons about teamwork, friendship, and the dangers of keeping secrets. Even though Kelsey the Spy is the third book in the series, it can also be read as a standalone. Middle-grade mystery-loving readers should also read the Friday Barns Series by R.A. Spratt. 

Sexual Content 

  • While spying on her brother, Kelsey sees her friend’s mom. “The sheriff and Mrs. Morales are both divorced and went to high school together so they’re good friends. . . the sheriff kisses her—a big, fat kiss on the lips that lasts a very long time.” 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • OMG is used often. Oh my god is used once. 
  • Kelsey says drat three times. 
  • Kelsey’s friend calls a classmate a “slimy snake.” Later she calls someone else a jerk. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring

Travel back in time to the American Revolution in this thrilling third book of the Spy on History series. Discover the secret Culper Ring, a network of American spies fighting against the British redcoats. Meet historical figures like George Washington and the soon-to-be-infamous Benedict Arnold. Also meet Anna Strong, an unsung heroine who found ingenious ways to communicate top-secret messages to her fellow spies—helping to free the American colonies from British rule.

Your mission: Decode Anna Strong’s hidden message and discover the secret assignment she undertook for the Culper Ring. There are clues embedded in the book’s text and illustrations, plus spy craft materials, including a cipher wheel in an envelope at the beginning of the book. 

Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring allows readers to step back into history and play the part of a Culper spy. The story focuses on Anna and her role as a spy during the Revolutionary War. Even though Anna was often fearful, her bravery allowed George Washington to receive important wartime intelligence that was critical in winning the war. Focusing on Anna allows the reader to see how the war affected men, women, and children.  

Anna’s story is fast-paced, full of suspense, and jam-packed with historical information. In addition, the book’s format is visually appealing. Every page has a graphic element, including pictures that are drawn in black, white, and red. Plus, most of the pages have a quote set apart from the other text. These quotes are printed in large fonts and help break up the text. The graphic elements are essential because hidden in the pictures and text are clues and codes. Readers will use a cipher wheel, a pigpen code, and other methods to decipher Anna’s letter to Caleb Brewster, another spy. 

Readers will enjoy using the spy tools and finding clues throughout the story. However, the lack of direction makes this task difficult. The first page of the book has a map of the Culper Spy Ring. The top of the map has a coded question that is easy to miss. Without the essential question, the clues are just a collection of random words. Parents may want to read the answer key that appears at the end of the book so they can assist young readers in finding and understanding the clues.   

Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring will appeal to readers who love ciphers, history, spies, and mystery. Plus, it gives recognition to many of the spies who helped win the American Revolution. The well-written story will keep readers’ attention and the hidden clues will make them feel like they are a part of history. Readers who want to learn more about women’s role in the Revolutionary War should also read Susanna’s Midnight Ride by Libby Carty McNamee. If you’re looking for more historical facts about the Culper Spies, George Washington’s Spies by Claudia Friddell will give you the inside scoop.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • British soldiers knock on Anna’s door in the middle of the night. Anna and her children watched as “one of the soldiers stepped behind her husband and roughly bound his hands.” Anna’s husband was arrested and taken prisoner on a prison ship. 
  • Anna goes to see her husband on the prison ship. When she gets there, the ship smelled “of death. The eyes of the prisoners were sunken, and their faces were taut with hunger.” When Anna sees her husband, “his hands and feet [were] in iron shackles, she saw the same look of starvation and mistreatment beginning to hollow his features.” 
  • Nathan Hale was spying for George Washington. When he got caught, “Nathan was identified as a spy within days and executed almost immediately after he was captured.”  
  • Benedict Arnold was sent into a battle where he “received a terrible leg wound.” 
  • One night, a British soldier is caught sneaking around outside of Anna’s house. Caleb, Anna’s friend, sees him and, “Just as [the soldier] began to dismount from his horse, Caleb burst from the hedge. . . Anna heard a series of thumps as Caleb struck the man, blow after blow.” Anna was afraid Caleb “was going to kill him” but the soldier runs off.  
  • John André, a British soldier, was captured. “André was charged and hanged as a spy.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • One of the spies would go into the city and, when passing the British checkpoints, he bribes the solders with liquor. 
  • When a group of patriots took over a fort, the men helped “themselves to the fort’s liquor stores.” 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Underground Abductor: An Abolitionist Tale about Harriet Tubman

Meet Underground Railroad abductor Harriet Tubman in this installment of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel series!

Araminta Ross was an enslaved woman born in Delaware. After years of backbreaking labor and the constant threat of being sold and separated from her family, she escaped and traveled north to freedom. Once there, she changed her name to Harriet Tubman. As an “abductor” on the Underground Railroad, she risked her life helping countless enslaved people escape to freedom.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales are graphic novels that tell the thrilling, shocking, gruesome, and TRUE stories of American history. Read them all—if you dare!  

The book begins on the execution block, where Nathan Hale is about to be hung for spying. The executioner and a British soldier decide to let Nathan Hale tell a story before he dies. Occasionally, the executioner and soldier break into the story to ask questions or make comments. Sometimes this adds comic relief and other times, the comments mirror what the reader is probably thinking. 

Nathan Hale begins Harriet Tubman’s story when she was six years old. When Harriet was young, a head injury caused her to repeatedly fall asleep without warning. This condition lasted for the rest of her life. Despite this, Harriet risked her life to bring her family and others to freedom. Harriet was one of the few people who was an abductor: “the first person in. Someone who ventured deep into slave territory and made first contact with these to be rescued.” Harriet’s bravery and determination helped hundreds of people escape slavery. Once the Civil War began, Harriet continued to fight for freedom. During the Civil War, Harriet built a spy ring, baked pies to sell to soldiers, and was also a nurse. 

Since Frederick Douglass appears several times, his life story is also summarized over three pages. Fredrick Douglass knew the key to freedom was being able to read, so he taught others to read. However, his master believed, “A slave should know nothing but how to obey his master! If you teach that slave to read, there will be no keeping him! He’ll become unmanageable—discontent and unhappy!” Despite being forbidden to read, Frederick Douglass learned anyways. Fredrick eventually began writing. Frederick Douglass also encouraged slaves to get a gun, so Harriet did.  

The Underground Abductor brings history to life in graphic novel format. The panels are drawn using shades of gray with purple accents. Even though the illustrations show the cruelty inflicted upon slaves, none of the illustrations are graphic. However, many of the slave owners have angry faces, and slaves are seen chained together, whipped, and hiding from slave hunters. Most of the text is in the form of conversations and the words appear in quote bubbles. The story uses easy vocabulary and short sentences that keep the action moving at a quick pace.  

The story of Harriet Tubman highlights the importance of fighting for what you believe. Harriet’s dedication and willingness to put herself in danger is admirable. Through Harriet’s experiences, readers will begin to understand the harsh conditions that slaves had to contend with during the 1800s. While the content may be upsetting, The Underground Abductor will help readers understand America’s past, and learn about the people who fought so everyone could be free. Plus, the book’s format makes it perfect for reluctant readers. Readers who would like to learn more about the Underground Railroad should also read Long Road to Freedom by Kate Messner.  

Sexual Content 

  • None  

Violence 

  • Harriet is sent to help care for a baby. When the baby starts to cry, the woman whips Harriet. The whipping occurs several times and is included in the illustrations.  
  • Someone tells a story about a “woman [who] died in prison before they could hang her.” 
  • Nat Turner received a vision from God. Nat said, “I am told to slay all the whites we encounter, without regard to age or sex.” Nat Turner and other slaves “moved from house to house, killing everyone inside. . . By the time they were stopped, Nat Turner and his followers had killed sixty people—men, women, and children.” Many of the slaves who were part of Nat’s group were executed or killed by mobs and militias.
  • When a slave tries to escape, the bossman throws a weight at him. The weight hits Harriet in the head. Her mother says, “‘Look at all this blood!’ Harriet’s skull is split open and her brains were showing. ‘There’s a hole in her scarf. . . The missin’ scrap is still in her head.’” The scene is illustrated over two pages. After the accident, Harriet would fall asleep without notice. 
  • A ship’s captain was found helping runaway slaves. The man was fined and sent to jail for a year. “They branded his hand with an ‘S.S’—for slave stealer.” 
  • During his time at a plantation, Frederick Douglass says “an overseer shot a slave.” Frederick was also “beaten and starved.” Because Frederick displeased his master, he was sent to a slave-breaker, who is “a master so cruel, he breaks a slave’s will.” 
  • Getting to the north where slaves could be free was difficult. Often runaway slaves died. “Slaves hopping trains lost limbs if they jumped wrong. Stowaways on northbound ships were smoked out or suffocated like rats. Slaves who were captured were…whipped, beaten, branded—often on the face, and in some cases, hobbled.” 
  • It was also dangerous for whites to help runaway slaves. One man was “sentenced to five years of hard labor. He died after two. . .” Another “was beaten and thrown from a train while trying to rescue a slave. . .”
  • When Harriet got a terrible tooth ache, she knew the tooth needed to come out. Someone held a rock against the tooth and “hit the rock with the pistol butt.”  
  • When a man wanted to go back to his master, Harriet held a gun to his head. She said she would shoot “anybody who puts the group at risk.” The man continued the journey with the others.  
  • A runaway slave was captured. A white man shackled his hands and lashed him to a tree. The slave was then whipped.  
  • John Brown, his sons, and other men raided a house owned by slave catchers. The slave catchers were “hacked to death with broadswords.” Then they moved on to other houses. “Five pro-slavers had been slashed to death.” 
  • During another raid, “two of John Brown’s sons died.” Other raiders “were killed” and “the rest—including John Brown—were captured and executed.” 
  • During the Civil War, soldiers from the north plundered mansions and then burned them down. They also burned a town’s mill, a bridge, and anything else that would catch fire. The scene is illustrated over three pages.   

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When leading runaway slaves north, a baby starts to cry. The baby is given paregoric, “it’s a drug, a tincture of opium.” 

Language   

  • When Harriet was six, she was rented out to work for a weaver. The woman sent Harriet home because, she “is stupid, useless, and no good to us.”  
  • The executioner says “holy smokes” once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • Nat Turner was a religions man who received visions. He was “deeply religious. He was a Christina. His mother taught him that one day he would become a prophet.” 
  • Harriet knew how to talk to God, and she asked that her master would have a change of heart and not sell any of her siblings. 
  • Harriet prays to God about her master, Mr. Brodess. Harriet says, “Lord, if you ain’t never gonna change that man’s heart. . . kill him, Lord, take him out of the way.” The next day Mr. Brodess dies. 
  • When someone says Harriet is crazy, a man defends her. He says Harriet has “a direct line to God.” 
  • Often Harriet stops and prays to the Lord for guidance. 

Escape North! The Story of Harriet Tubman

The woods are dark and dangerous. Slave catchers are out with their dogs. But high above the trees, the North Star shines down. Harriet Tubman is glad to see the North Star. It points the way to freedom. Tonight Harriet is helping slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. Will they make it? Find out in this exciting true story.  

Escape North! The Story of Harriet Tubman highlights the bravery of Harriet Tubman and the people who risked their lives to hide runaway slaves. The story uses kid-friendly language to show the hardships Harriet and others faced. While the story doesn’t give detailed descriptions of the abuse that enslaved people endured, young readers may find the beatings and other violence upsetting. Escape North! The Story of Harriet Tubman will introduce readers to this difficult time in history.  

The story doesn’t just focus on the abuse of enslaved people; it also shows the kindness of those who helped the enslaved people on their journey north. For example, “A Quaker named Thomas Garrett owned a shoe store. He had a secret room for runaways to hide in behind a wall of shoe boxes. When the runaways were ready to leave, he gave each a pair of shoes.” Harriet Tubman’s story reinforces the theme that people must stand together and fight for what is right.  

As a Step into Reading Level 3 book, Escape North! The Story of Harriet Tubman is intended for readers in second and third grade. However, the grade levels are only guides; children will progress through the steps at their own speed, developing confidence in their reading. Each page of Harriet’s story has a large colored illustration that will help readers understand the plot. The story uses oversized text and has two to seven sentences per page.  

The true story of Harriet Tubman will inspire children by showing Harriet’s determination and bravery. Escape North! The Story of Harriet Tubman is a fast-paced, suspenseful chapter book that will engage young readers. If you’d like another engaging story that focuses on history, check out Pioneer Cat by William Hooks and Attack at the Arena by Marianne Hering & Paul McCusker. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • When enslaved people disappeared, the bossman “and his dogs would come after them. If they were caught, they would be beaten. . . maybe to death.”  
  • When Harriet was seven, she worked for Mrs. Cook winding yarn. “Sometimes the yarn broke. Then Mrs. Cook got out the whip.” Mrs. Cook would call Harriet a “stupid girl.”  
  • Many slaves worked in the tobacco fields. “If they didn’t work fast enough, they were beaten.” 
  • When Harriett was a teenager, an enslaved person ran away. “The bossman threw a weight at him to stop him. But it hit Harriet instead. Harriet wasn’t the same after that.” 
  • While leading people to freedom, one man decided he wanted to go back. “Harriet stood in his way. If the slave catchers caught him, they would beat the secrets of the Underground Railroad out of him. Harriet couldn’t let that happen. She pointed her gun at the man.” Afterward, the group “trudged on.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None

Spiritual Content 

  • While Harriet was trying to escape to freedom, “a group of slave hunters were approaching . . . She prayed the hunters wouldn’t see her. Somehow they never did.” 
  • Harriet went back to the south to free other slaves. “She was going to free her people, just like Moses in the Bible.” 

Spy Files: Codes and Ciphers

Sneak into the secret lives of spies with this fascinating series about the world’s security services—with agent profiles, information on technology, and events that changed the world. Codes and Ciphers is packed full of interesting information beginning with the difference between a code and cipher, and how they were first developed.  

Codes and Ciphers uses a fun format that breaks up information into small, manageable parts. Each two-page spread changes topics and each page has only one to three short paragraphs plus photo captions. Each page has illustrations including historical photos, drawings, and illustrations of spy technology. Plus, some pages have an infographic titled “Top Secret” which gives additional information on spying. While the format will appeal to many readers, the large font and short paragraphs don’t allow each topic to be explored in detail. Readers who want to learn more in-depth information about codes and ciphers should check out Top Secret by Paul B. Janeczko. 

The wide range of spy information, which includes a lot of historical stories such as information on the World War II Navajo Code Talkers, is extremely interesting. Plus, readers will learn how to make their own codes, ciphers, and invisible ink. The book ends with a two-page glossary and an index. Codes and Ciphers will entertain readers and introduce many interesting facts. Spy-loving readers who want to add a little spy humor to their reading should sneak to the library and search for the Mac B. Kid Spy Series by Mac Barnett. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Usborne Book of Secret Codes

With this book of crafty codes, you can discover ways of sending top-secret messages that will leave snoopers completely baffled. Many of the codes are based on those used by real spies. There are nifty gadgets and lots of hints on how to keep your enemy stumped. As you learn new codes, you can follow a thrilling story involving undercover agents and secret code experts.

As readers learn about codes, they can also follow the story of “The Tomb of the Cursed Tongues.” Follow Agent A as she decodes messages that will help her uncover the fiendish activities of Agent X. In order to distinguish Agent A’s story from informational text, the story is typed in italics. If you get stumped, the answers appear at the back of the book. While Agent A’s story isn’t detailed, readers will have fun decoding messages and trying to solve the mystery.

The Usborne Book of Secret Codes explains each type of code in detail and gives examples that readers will be eager to decode. The book covers 15 types of secret codes including pigpen code, Morse Code, code wheel, and technobabble. Readers will also learn about the history of codes and how some code makers hid their messages. For example, “While working for the army, a military spy disguised himself as a butterfly collector. The patterns he drew of butterfly wings were, in fact, tiny plans of the enemy’s strategies.”

To add to the book’s fun, each page has large colorful illustrations that follow Agent A’s story. Plus, there are many examples of secret codes that readers can try to solve. The book includes simple directions to help readers create invisible writing, a code strip, a code wheel, and other spy codes. The large illustrations break up the text into short paragraphs that will appeal to even the most reluctant reader. The fun format will engage readers and give them many opportunities to interact with the text.

The Usborne Book of Secret Codes will teach readers about the fascinating ways that spies have hidden codes. The interactive book is perfect for readers who want to learn about spycraft. However, readers who want to learn more about the history of codes will want to add Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko to their reading list. Also consider Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring by Enigma Alverti & Laura Terry; it comes with a spycraft kit that readers use to decipher the different codes in the book, and readers will have fun interacting with the story and seeing if they can solve the puzzles by the end of the book.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • None

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Team BFF: Race to the Finish!

Sophia and her friends are BFF’s. Together they work on coding projects, eat cookies, and have impromptu dance parties. They are excited to participate in their first robot hackathon. They hope to show off their coding skills. But when Sophia’s parents need her to babysit instead of attending the hackathon, everything may change. Without Sophia, the team will be disqualified. When Sofia tells her friends, will they have her back or will it destroy their friendship?

The second installment of the Girls Who Code series focuses on Sophia’s struggle with balancing home responsibilities with her coding club responsibilities. Readers will be able to relate to Sophia’s struggle to tell her friends bad news—she won’t be able to participate in the hackathon. The friends in the story not only brainstorm how to build a robot, they also show the importance of helping each other. The diverse cast of characters are young girls who have a variety of interests (cooking, drama, and fashion), but come together because of their love of coding.

Team BFF, Race to the Finish is told from Sophia’s point of view, which allows the reader to understand Sophia’s feelings of not being noticed by her family. The reader will get a small glimpse into the life of a large, Hispanic family. Sophia’s family not only makes traditional Spanish food but also uses Spanish in their everyday interactions.

Sophia is also struggling to understand her feelings for a boy. She has a crush but is tongue-tied every time she sees the boy. As Sophia and the boy interact, she wonders how to navigate a boy-girl relationship. Team BFF, Race to the Finish is an easy to read story that shows smart girls in everyday situations. Sophia’s struggle is highly relatable, interesting, and will capture many readers’ interest.

Sexual Content

  • Sophia has a crush on a boy and when they talk, Sophia talked even though “butterflies in my stomach were zooming around like crazy. . . It was silly to feel weird around him.”
  • While walking with Sophia, Sammy “reached for my hand. I let him take it, even though it was a sweaty mess—but his was too.”

Violence

  • None

Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • None

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

Charlotte Spies For Justice: A Civil War Survival Story

Twelve-year-old Charlotte lives on a plantation in Richmond, Virginia, where the American Civil War is raging. All around her, citizens and the Confederate army are fighting to protect slavery — the very thing Charlotte wishes would end. When she overhears the plantation owner conspiring against the Confederates, Charlotte knows she must help. Maybe together they can help the Union win the war and end slavery. Helping a spy is dangerous work, but Charlotte is willing to risk everything to fight for what is right — justice for all people.  

Charlotte Spies For Freedom is full of action and suspense that focuses on the heroic deeds of many historical events. While Charlotte is fictional, she is a relatable character who shows bravery despite her fear. Several times, Charlotte visits Libby prison. Even though the story shows the harsh conditions of Libby prison and includes the death of several Union soldiers, no gruesome details are given. However, the story highlights Charlotte’s fear of being caught and harmed. Despite her fear, Charlotte is willing to risk her life to help the Union cause. She says, “I’m willing to give my life away if it helps free my people.”  

Even though Charlotte is a fictional character, many of the book’s characters are based on real people. This includes Elizabeth Van Lew, who gathered important information to pass along to the Union Army. Readers will be fascinated with the different ways Elizabeth Van Lew used to send messages, including using invisible ink and ciphers. She also hides messages in hollowed-out eggs, the heels of boots, and loaves of bread. Several times, Charlotte comments on Elizabeth Van Lew’s “odd” behavior; the author’s note explains that Elizabeth Van Lew’s strange behavior was another way she disguised her activities.  

Another historical spy is Mister McNiven. Despite being surrounded by war, Mister McNiven greets Charlotte each morning by saying, “It’s a good day to be alive.” At first, Charlotte doesn’t understand his optimism. However, she soon realizes Mister McNiven believes this because “he knew he was doing something important. He hoped for a better tomorrow and he was doing his part.” 

To make the story easy to follow, each chapter begins with Charlotte’s location and the date. Every ten to seventeen pages there is a black-and-white illustration that focuses on Charlotte’s activities. One illustration shows a Confederate soldier hitting Charlotte. The back of the book contains an author’s note that goes into more detail about the historical facts of Elizabeth Van Lew, a glossary, and three response questions to help readers connect to the reading material. 

Charlotte Spies For Freedom is an engaging story that shows how ordinary people were willing to lay down their lives to fight for the freedom of all people. The story, which uses kid-friendly descriptions, is both educational and entertaining. Since the story is full of danger and action, it will appeal to a wide audience. Readers interested in historical fiction can also learn about the Underground Railroad by reading Long Road to Freedom by Kate Messner. 

Sexual Content 

  • None

Violence 

  • Charlotte goes to a prison holding Union prisoners. While there, she sees “a dead Union soldier. . . I caught a glimpse of his face. I could tell he had been beaten.” 
  • While delivering food to the prisoners, a Confederate soldier named Robert points a gun at Charlotte. Robert “walked toward me, put the barrel of his gun in my face, and cocked it.”  Another soldier, Erasmus Ross appears and grabs Charlotte’s face. “He squeezed even harder, and a sharp pain shot through my jaw.” Ross drags Charlotte outside. 
  • In order to protect Charlotte, Ross takes her outside and tells her, “I’m going to get you out of here, but I have to hit you.” He proceeds to backhand her. “It hurt, but not nearly as much as it should have. . . Mister Ross gave me a shove so hard it sent me to my knees.” As she was leaving, “a shot rang out behind me. I could only hope that Mister Ross had fired into the air.” 
  • After a prison break, Confederate soldiers “recaptured forty-eight Union soldiers. . . Two of them drowned.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Some people called Elizabeth Van Lew “Crazy Bet.” 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit

Deer Creek is a small town whose only hope for survival is the success of the Founders’ Day Festival. But the festival’s main attraction, a time capsule that many believe holds the town’s treasure, has gone missing.   

Twelve-year-old Randi Rhodes and her best friend, D.C., are Bruce Lee-inspired ninjas and local detectives determined to solve the case. Even if it means investigating a haunted cabin and facing mean old Angus McCarthy, who is the prime suspect. The future of their whole town is at stake! Will these kids be able to save the day?  

Randi is a plucky heroine who isn’t afraid to jump into danger if it means solving a case. When her father decides to move the family to Deer Creek, Randi is convinced that she will die of boredom. However, she is soon sneaking around town looking for clues that will reveal who took the town’s time capsule. Along the way, Randi meets D.C. and the two connect over their love of martial arts. As they hunt for clues, they also learn about the importance of friendship. This theme is reinforced when they read a letter written by the town’s founding fathers who wrote, “We were prosperous because our friendship is more precious to us than any riches on earth.”  

Many readers will relate to Randi and her friend D.C., who face real-world conflicts. Randi is not only struggling with the loss of her mother; she also believes her father doesn’t understand her. Randi’s friend D.C. worries about his mother’s financial issues. He also gets frustrated because his mother treats him like a sick little boy because he has asthma. While the story focuses on Randi and D.C., the town is full of interesting people who add both conflict and humor to the story.  

With plenty of action and suspense, The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit will entertain mystery-loving readers. In addition, readers will learn the necessary skills to sleuth on their own. Throughout the story, readers are prompted to go to the appendix and complete a “Ninja Task.” These tasks include how to conduct a stakeout, how to make a footprint cast, how to collect a dusty footprint, etc. The appendix also includes recipes for making caramel apples and ice cream. Another positive aspect of the book is the full-page, black-and-white illustrations that appear, on average, every 24 pages. 

The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit is a fast-paced story that brings the town of Deer Creek alive. Like many stories, the book has a group of bullies, a misunderstood town outcast, and a small-town sheriff. Despite this, Randi’s love of ninja’s, spying, and solving mysteries makes The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit a fun read. Plus, the conclusion adds several surprises that tie up all the story threads and remind readers that friends help each other become better people.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Randi and D.C. go into an abandoned house that is rumored to be haunted. When they hear someone opening the front door, the two kids hide in a bedroom. When someone opens the bedroom door, D.C. kicks the person. “The kick he delivered must have been powerful. The figure rocked backwards and fell.” Once the man is down, the kids run from the house. 
  • When Randi and D.C. go back to the abandoned house, two bad guys appear. The kids overhear a man saying, “Next time you should drag the little brats out and take them back to the caves. There are places down there where no one would ever find them.” 
  • Randi, D.C., and their friend Pudge follow the bad guys to a cave. While there, Angus appears and a man “crept up behind Angus McCarthy, put an arm around his neck, and trapped the old man in a headlock. . .” 
  • While in the cave, the main henchman orders a man to, “Take Mr. McCarthy away and deal with him. And make sure he won’t be coming back. I don’t want that old coot causing any more trouble.”  
  • In order to help Angus, the kids follow behind the bad man who is hauling Angus deeper into the cave. Randi “tapped the thug on the shoulder. . . When the thug wheeled around to see who was behind him, he was greeted with a lightning-fast punch. . . Once he was down on the ground, Randi delivered a chop to the right side of his head that would make sure he stayed nice and quiet. . .” 
  • The other bad guys see Randi, D.C., and Pudge. When they try to capture the kids, Randi “leaped forward in a gravity-defying jump kick, connecting with the first foe’s abdomen. It was so powerful, it sent him reeling backwards and onto another guy. . . By the time the agents realized what had happened Randi was already spinning and kicking low to the ground, smashing ankles, kicking up dust, and exhibiting textbook form on a tornado kick.” The scene is described over four pages.  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Mean girl Amber-Grace often calls people names, including freak, Yankee scarecrow, idiot, and a loser. 
  • Amber-Grace calls D.C. a “little deaf punk.” 
  • Randi thinks that Amber-Grace is an “obnoxious brat.”  
  • A man asks, “You think I was the one who took the durn capsule?” 
  • A woman calls someone a “miserable old coot.” 
  • D.C. is hard of hearing. While D.C. was working at his mom’s fruit stand, a boy “wriggled his fingers as if using sign language. ‘Didn’t you hear me, deaf boy?’”  
  • A group of kids ambush D.C. and start making fun of him. One boy refers to D.C. as Bruce Wee. The boy says, “You know why Bruce Wee’s belt is yellow and not black? It’s ‘cause he’s’ so scared to fight that he pees in his pants.” Randi jumps in to help and she tells the boy, “Well, anyone who’s earned a yellow belt wouldn’t have any trouble kicking a bloated butt like yours.” 
  • Darn is used once. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Pigeon Hero!

In a town in Italy during World War II the people surrendered without firing a shot. But American warplanes are due to arrive, and the radio’s broken, so no one can tell them to call off the attack! G. I. Joe, a carrier pigeon, is the only one who can take the message to the Americans. Will he make it in time to save the town? 

The story of G.I. Joe is told in kid-friendly language and focuses on G.I. Joe’s dangerous flight. Despite the difficulties, G.I. Joe is able to deliver his message and then return. When he returns, “Joe carried a new message. The planes would not come! The town was safe.” Readers will enjoy seeing G.I. Joe complete his mission and be rewarded with a medal.  

As part of the Ready-To-Read Level 2 Series, Pigeon Hero! is intended for children who can read independently. The story is told using short chapters. Each page has four to seven sentences of various lengths; however, most sentences are short. G.I. Joe’s story has a complex plot that takes place in different locations. Each page has a full-colored illustration that will help readers visualize the story’s events. Several pages show German soldiers firing machine guns at G.I. Joe. Towards the end, two pages focus on the joy the townspeople feel when G.I. Joe returns with a new message. 

Readers who are interested in animals or war will find the story of G.I. Joe interesting. The short story highlights G.I. Joe’s bravery as he overcomes obstacles to deliver the message. G.I. Joe’s ability to save the day will leave readers with a smile. Plus, the last page of the book gives more information about the amazing things that war pigeons were able to do. Children interested in birds may want to take a step into the past by reading Ancient Animals: Terror Bird by Sarah L. Thomson. However, if you’re looking for a more motivational story, Bird Boy by Matthew Burgess would be a better choice. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • British soldiers plan to have a big battle with the Germans. But when the soldiers arrive, the Germans flee. Several soldiers are shown with their weapons. 
  • German soldiers try to shoot G.I. Joe. “G.I. Joe heard machine gun fire. The enemy below was shooting at him!” 
  • A hawk tries to eat G.I. Joe. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy

Created by the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum, who is also a former operative in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, this is the official handbook for kids who dream of one day becoming a spy or working in the intelligence field.

Have you ever wondered what spies really do? What kind of training is involved? Do you have to go to a special school or take a polygraph test? How do you live your “cover?” How does your work life affect your relationships with your friends and family? Is there danger involved?

This fascinating, fact-filled book answers these questions and more while providing a historical timeline, definitions of key terms, suggestions for further reading, an index, quizzes, and exercises to see if you have the right spy stuff. 

The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy is packed full of interesting information about the spy world and it explains why spies are important. “Every country wants to know what other countries—both friends and enemies—are doing and how it might affect their national interests.” Readers will learn about the world of spies through fun infographics that include spy terms, job descriptions, true stories, and quizzes. Readers will also learn about common spy myths and what a spy’s life is really like.  

Readers will also learn about other jobs within the spy world, such as people who create spy science and technology, a case officer, and an intelligence analyst. In addition, the book explains what qualities spies need and what steps to take in order to become a spy. While a spy’s life isn’t as exciting as James Bond portrays it, readers will still enjoy learning about dead drops, listening devices, and ciphers. After taking the quizzes, readers will know if a spy’s life is for them.   

The book’s conversational tone and graphic elements give the story an interesting flair. Every page has some type of graphic element including black and white illustrations, “Spy Speak” glossaries, lists, and/or bold red titles. Breaking up the text with these graphic elements makes the reading more enjoyable and presents facts in a way that makes them easy to remember. Even though the book’s topic is serious and the importance of intelligence gathering is highlighted, the book will not fail to entertain readers interested in the world of spies.  

As a former CIA operations officer and the founding executive director of the International Spy Museum, Peter Earnest uses his knowledge to teach readers about becoming a spy. By the end of reading The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy, readers will have a better understanding of the spy world and if they have what it takes to go undercover. Readers who want to jump into the exciting, but the fictional world of a group of young spies should read the City Spies Series by James Ponti.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • A timeline titled “How Long Have Spies Been Around?” includes spies who were executed for espionage. For example, “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States for espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. . . The Rosenbergs were members of an atomic spy ring whose espionage helped the USSR develop its own nuclear bomb.” 
  • “A defector from Russian intelligence dies of radiation poisoning in London.” The defector believed the Russian president planned his assassination. 
  • Sometimes countries kill enemy leaders. “This is called targeted killing, rather than assassination.” 
  • In order to stop terrorist attacks, President Bush declared “war on terror. . . Armed drones have also been used to attack terrorist strongholds and kill terrorist leaders. The terrorists also rely on their own intelligence capabilities and covert tradecraft to plan and carry out their deadly activities.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • When the KGB suspected that one of its operatives was working for the British, they gave him a truth serum.  

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Falcon’s Feather

In the exciting follow-up to The Nebula Secret in the seven-book Explorer Academy Series, Cruz, Sailor, and Emmett, along with their new ally Bryndis, embark on their first globe-trotting mission aboard the ship Orion. Cruz jumps right back into school and starts using the latest technology in submersible underwater dives, but is soon reminded of the dangers of exploration when his equipment fails and he almost drowns. Determined to keep his eyes on the prize, Cruz sneaks away to find answers but unknowingly lures his friends into bigger trouble. When a friend of Cruz’s mom meets an untimely end, Cruz’s luck seems about to run out and the questions multiply. What does his mother’s message mean? Where will it lead? Who is following him? And why?  

Cruz’s adventure takes him and his friends to the land of the Norse gods. While there, Cruz and his classmates are introduced to amazing technology that is prominently featured. The technology is interesting and gives The Falcon’s Feather the opportunity to educate readers on several different global threats facing our world, including melting glaciers, endangered whales, and the lack of biodiversity in crops. For example, Cruz and his team go on a mission to save whales trapped in fishing nets. Before they leave, they learn “it’s not uncommon for larger marine animals to get snagged in lines and nets. . . More than three hundred thousand whales, dolphins, and porpoises die this way every year—that’s one every two minutes.” The facts are well-integrated into the story and never feel like a lecture or an encyclopedia. 

The Falcon’s Feather combines a well-written story with maps and illustrations that appear every two to twelve pages. Many of the illustrations are a mix of photographs and drawings, which gives the pictures a touch of realism. Another positive aspect of the book is that the academy encourages cooperation, respect, and honor. While all the students do not necessarily like each other, they are still expected to work together to reach a common goal. Plus, the book includes a section titled The Truth Behind the Fiction, which combines pictures and short blurbs on people featured in the book who have interesting jobs. While this story recaps important plot points from the first book, the series should definitely be read in order. 

As the second installment of the Explorer Academy Series, The Falcon’s Feather ramps up the action and gives readers more insight into the different characters. The large cast of characters that appeared in The Nebula Secret are beginning to feel like friends. Plus, suspense is created because the reader knows there is someone inside the academy who wants Cruz dead. The Explorer Academy Series will appeal to many readers because it has mystery, technology, animals, and an interesting cast of characters. The Falcon’s Feather ends on a cliff-hanger, so readers will be eager to begin the next book in the series, The Double Helix.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Cruz and his friends help whales who are trapped in nets. The group learns that if whales are “unable to break free in time, it can lead to serious injury or even death. The ropes can slice through their skin and cause infection. They can deform bones, cut off part of a tail, and restrict breathing, swimming, and eating.” Many whales die due to nets. 
  • A friend of Cruz’s mom, Nóri, was planning to meet Cruz at a hot spring. When Cruz arrives, he discovers that Nóri was pushed into the hot pools and “badly burned…From the chest down, Nóri was wet and violently shivering.” Nóri dies from his injuries. 
  • While looking for an artifact in an ice cave, Cruz and his friends are cornered. “Cruz was facing two men. One was Officer Wardincorn. The other was Tripp Scarlatos. Both were holding guns.” The two men question the kids and then “Tripp tossed something round and green into the air. . . a massive boom rocked the cave. Ice began raining. Cruz could feel the sting of hundreds of shards pelting his head, neck, shoulders, and back.” No one is seriously injured. 
  • During a phone conversation, one of the villains reveals that his henchman “is dead. Fell into a crevasse.” 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Dang is used once.  
  • One of Cruz’s friends calls Tripp a jerk. 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • When someone knocks on the door to Cruz’s room, his roommate quickly hides a vacuum. Cruz says “a silent prayer of thanks that [his aunt] insisted he bring it.” 

Curse of the Forgotten City

It’s been one month since Tor Luna inherited the Night Witch’s power and received a warning that greater threats would come to Emblem Island. Tor and his friends, Melda and Engle, have found the past month to be drearily ordinary, with Engle remarking that he misses a bit of adventure. That is, until a girl named Vesper washes ashore on the beaches of Estrelle proclaiming that a band of evil pirates, called the Calavera, have come to conquer Estrelle and Emblem Island. Before the pirates make their attack, the Calavera are searching for the Pirate’s Pearl, which would give them the power of the sea (and an easy way to crush any resistance from the people of Estrelle). Tor, Melda, and Engle, are determined to find the pearl before that happens.  

Along with Vesper, the four friends find a magical ship in the Night Witch’s castle and set sail. Like their last adventure, the group has a guide, The Book of Seas, which they use to outsmart creatures and curses they encounter on their journey. While tracking down the Pirate’s Pearl, the four also accept Captain Forecastle, a pirate, into their makeshift crew. In addition to battling threats at sea, Melda and Tor distrust Vesper’s secretive nature. They discover that Vesper’s brother is working with the Calavera. Vesper has no intention of helping the pirates but rather wants her brother to be safe. 

During a run-in with the Calavera, Tor, Melda, Engle, and Vesper manage to outsmart the pirates and obtain the Pirate’s Pearl. The group travel back to Estrelle to confront the pirates before they attack Emblem Island. Now that Vesper’s loyalty has been proven, Tor gives Vesper the pearl, which she uses to control the sea and defeat the Calavera. Emblem Island is safe once again. . . but not long after, Tor realizes that a strange mark on his arm has something to do with the Night Witch’s obscure powers.  

Curse of the Forgotten City’s plot twist and villains aren’t as complicated or shocking compared to the first book in the series, Curse of the Night Witch. However, readers will enjoy learning more about Tor’s newfound magical abilities since Tor must master the witch’s powers even though he doesn’t want them. For example, he finds its easier to accept his destiny as the Night Witch’s heir when he stops wishing he didn’t have her abilities and instead tries to use them for good. By embracing his new skills, Tor is able to command the ship that retrieves the Pirate’s Pearl. His willingness to accept something for the sake of others makes Tor a selfless and admirable character. 

Another key aspect in the book is the loyalty between Tor, Engle, and Melda. Their relationship is strained due to the secrets they keep from one another and their mixed opinions on Vesper. However, they find that trusting each other and extending that trust to outsiders is well worth the risk. For example, Tor realizes that he “had been focused on his own pain. His own regret. . . Tor should have realized that [Engle] had been hiding his hurt behind jokes and laughs.” Tor’s decision to be honest helps the friends not feel so alone in their struggles. Additionally, when three friends decide to trust Vesper, she ends up being their most useful ally as she is the one who defeats the Calavera in the end. The story teaches that letting others into our hearts is essential to bringing out our inner strength. Readers who want to jump into another magical world with a strong protagonist should also read Tristan Strong by Kwame Mbalia. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • The Book of Seas tells the Calavera’s history. “The Calavera made their ships from the bones of their victims – and there were many. . . They sunk each vessel that dared sail their way, vowing to be the last ships on the sea. And the killings did not stop when they reached land. They docked only to wreak havoc.” The Night Witch decides to stop them by sinking all their ships except one, which is cursed to sail forever without docking.  
  • The story of the blood queen is another story from The Book of Seas. In this story, Mora, a mermaid who unwillingly lost her tail for legs, becomes the blood queen with the help of the Night Witch. Mora “made a deal with the Night Witch. In exchange for being the keeper of keys to the Night Witch’s curses at sea, Mora’s lifeline would lengthen for every person she killed.” Mora has lived for over 200 years.  
  • The blood queen takes Tor’s blood in exchange for information, reopening an old wound he has. The blood queen “swiped a sword-sharp nail across [Tor’s] lifeline. Tor cried out, not just because of the pain, but because of the memory of another person who had done the exact same thing. The wound reopened, and blood came spilling out.” 
  • A giant squid attacks Tor. “Something wrapped around Tor’s chest so tight he gasped. It pulled him back down in a whoosh. . . [Tor] punched its tentacle with all his might, but its skin was tough as leather, its suction cups stuck tightly against him. . . The squid jerked its tentacle – and Tor – forward. Toward its mouth.” 
  • Vesper helps Tor fight the squid. She “jumped over a crumbled part of the balcony, landing on another one of the monster’s tentacles. It whipped her back and forth, but she gripped its skin and stayed on. Tor watched as she took a charm from her bracelet and made it big – a dagger. Then, she aimed for the soft skin in between the beast’s suction cups. It roared as the blade found its mark, and the tentacle around Tor loosened.” Vesper and Tor swim away from the squid without harming it further. It later comes back to attack them again, but no one is hurt. 
  • Bluebraid, a pirate, boards their ship with her crew and hurts Captain Forecastle. Bluebraid “dug her blade hard enough against Captain Forecastle’s throat that it produced a tumbling droplet of blood.”  
  • A pirate who is part of Bluebraid’s crew restrains Tor. He hurts Tor when Tor tries to escape. “The pirate’s scaled arm sliced against Tor’s [arm] as the pirate fought to get ahold of [Tor].” Tor is only scratched. He contracts a disease from the injury called stormscale that is lethal. Later, he’s healed by a magical object. 
  • Tor’s arm breaks when the ship crashes. “Tor hit the side of the ship and bone snapped – his arm erupted in pain, like fireworks going off beneath his skin. . . the bone in his arm stuck out in a strange direction, almost through his skin.”  
  • Captain Forecastle defeats a group of spectrals. A spectral “crumbled to ash as an arrow hit it. Another arrow whizzed right past Tor’s nose, finding its next target. The third remaining spectral . . . threw a mighty beam of purple fire through the air, aiming for where the arrow had come from. But another pierced it, from the opposite direction. And the spectral fell to pieces.” 
  • Vesper cuts her hand to activate a spell with blood. “Vesper made her dagger charm large enough that Tor could see its blade and pierced her hand with it.” 
  • Tor pierces his hand with a quill in order to use his blood to sign a magical contract. “He dug its sharp metal tip into his palm without hesitation. Crimson broke through the skin.” 
  • A Calavera spectral fights Tor, Melda, Engle, Vesper, and Captain Forecastle. “A fiery burst of purple lightning lit up the room, striking Tor right in the chest. . . Captain Forecastle aimed more arrows, one after the other, pushing the spectral back, getting close enough to make a deadly blow. The spectral narrowed its eyes, and, with a whip of his wrist, brought up a new barrier, purple as his fire. The two arrows hit it, then ricocheted and pierced [Captain Forecastle] right through the stomach. He slumped to the floor.” Tor and the Captain are injured in the fight, which lasts two pages. 
  • In the same battle, the spectral kills Vesper’s brother, Calder, who was working with the Calavera. “Before [Calder] could grip [Vesper’s] fingers, the spectral struck [Calder’s] chest with a fistful of purple flame. And he was thrown back through the window, down to the rocks below. Vesper’s scream coincided with another strike of lightning.” 
  • After the battle, Captain Forecastle is gravely injured. “Blood pooled out of Captain Forecastle. Two arrows stuck out of his stomach.” He is later healed and recovers.  
  • Vesper defeats the Calavera by using the Pirate’s Pearl. Vesper “sent giant waves crashing against each Calavera ship, forcing them together, their wood groaning and shattering as they rammed into each other. With the pearl clutched tightly in her fist, she split through two ships with slices of sea that she had honed to cut as sharply as blades. Screams pierced the air as the Calavera fell into the water, their ships falling to pieces around them. The Calavera captain yelled orders, and the shark at the helm of his vessel broke free, then made a path for Vesper. It was five times her size, a monstrous beast that could devour her whole without a single chomp of its teeth. But she controlled the sea. And, with a flick of her wrist, the shark turned, then launched toward its captain instead. The mammoth creature flew out of the water, mouth opened wide to devour him. He fell back, but the shark caught his hand – ripping it clean off before disappearing underwater.” Vesper spares the remaining pirates by making them and their ships so small they fit in a fishbowl. 
  • The Book of Seas tells of a girl named Lune who could control the waves, but accidentally kills people by using her power. Lune “created a wave as tall as a mountain, just to test her abilities. . . Little did she know, a ship sailed not far away. It [the wave] tore the vessel in half, and all were dead before Lune realized what she had done.”  

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Due to Engle’s nightmares, Melda and Tor make an elixir to help him sleep that they secretly put on Engle’s pillow. Engle is upset when he learns Melda and Tor drugged him without his consent, but the friends talk it out and apologize.  
  • Captain Forecastle drinks a bottle of rum. 

Language 

  • Engle says Captain Forecastle is “nuttier than a cashew.” Melda calls him “Captain Cuckoo.” 
  • Captain Forecastle tells someone to have a “good, bloody day!” 
  • Melda asks Captain Forecastle to tell the truth by asking for “no exaggerated hogwash.” 

Supernatural 

  • Most people in the story have two features: an emblem and a lifeline. An emblem is a symbol on the body representing a skill that usually becomes their profession. For example, Tor’s mother, is the town’s chief and has a leadership emblem. The people also have a lifeline, which is a line on the body that shows the high and low points in their life, representing hardships and victories, as well as when that person will die. In this book, Vesper and her people commonly have two emblems and lifelines at sea become too unpredictable to read. 
  • Tor has inherited the Night Witch’s power, which gives him the ability to have multiple emblems. He gains a water breathing emblem that allows him to walk and talk underwater without the need to breathe. Melda has a leadership emblem to inspire others, Engle’s sightseer emblem lets him see long distances, and Vesper has two emblems: water breathing and the ability to change the size of objects, which she uses often. 
  • The world is full of magic creatures, objects, and curses.  
  • The Calavera are a group of pirates that want to take over Emblem Island. They were formerly cursed by the Night Witch to sail forever, however after she passed her power to Tor, the curse was broken. 
  • The group visits the Night Witch’s castle to find items to help them on their journey. They find a ship there that can be controlled by Tor and a magical snowflake that they use to freeze the Calavera ship in the water to buy them time to find the Pirate’s Pearl. 
  • A spectral is a creature that is part of the Calavera crew. One is always with the captain. He is humanoid “without a mouth” and “sickly pale flesh pulled too tightly across his face. His eyes were black, only a dot of bright yellow alive in them.” Another man in the Calavera company uses magic to teleport.  
  • The blood queen tells Tor that he is likely immortal after gaining the Night Witch’s power.  
  • The city Vesper is from, Swordscale, can teleport. It can be accessed by an underwater portal. 
  • Tor can control the ship Vesper finds in the Night Witch’s castle by magically commanding the rigging. 
  • Tor receives a new emblem, a shield. Tor’s “chest burned and he winced. It felt like the skin there had been charred and cut away. He pulled down the top of his shirt and saw something glimmering, fresh and still hot to the touch. A new emblem. A shield.” 
  • Tor talks about dark enchantments. “They were born from pain – usually from forcing someone to enchant an object. And they always required blood.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Word Travelers and the Taj Mahal Mystery

Eddie and Molly-Jean (MJ) are next door neighbors and best friends. One Saturday, Eddie’s mom sends him up to the attic to get his great-grandpa’s most prized possession (a book, of course). Eddie and MJ are suddenly transported to India where they must use their word knowledge to solve a mystery and help a new friend save his school.  

From an educational standpoint, Word Travelers is an excellent book to use as an introduction to new words, because there are many words defined throughout the story. Each word is shown in bold text and there is a glossary at the end of the book. The vocabulary lessons are mostly integrated into the story. For example, when discussing shampoo, Dev looks up the word and reads “shampoo comes from Hindi. That’s one of the many languages we speak in India.” The readers are also told that “the Hindi word champo originally meant to press or rub, like during a massage. Over time, the word was adopted into English to describe the way we rub our hair when we wash it.” A new word appears every one to five pages, which may be overwhelming for some readers.  

Some readers may be bothered by the unrealistic events. For example, when Eddie and MJ travel to India, they appear in a bedroom. A boy named Dev finds them and instead of acting suspicious of the two strangers, he immediately begins telling them about his problem. Later in the story, Eddie, MJ, and Dev hurry to “board the last dinghy to Sea Palace.” But once they get there, they row the dingy to the palace themselves, which makes no sense. Not only that, but at one point MJ rows the dingy by herself while the two boys sleep. There are several more events that may leave readers scratching their heads. 

Word Travelers has diverse characters who work together to solve a mystery. However, most of the problem-solving comes from a magical book titled Awesome Enchanted Book and takes little effort on the kids’ part. Still, young readers will enjoy the black and white illustrations that appear on almost every page. Plus, the illustrations help readers visualize the story’s events. When the villain appears for the first time, his stereotypical appearance makes it clear that he is the bad guy. Even though there is a clear villain, he is never scary, but instead adds suspense to the story.  

Most young readers will not be able to read Word Travelers on their own. The book is written at a 5.9 reading level, which is higher than most young adult books’ reading level. Readers will need help pronouncing and understanding many of the words that are being introduced. However, Word Travelers is worth reading and discussing with a child because of its educational value. One positive aspect of the book is that occasionally MJ talks about historical people that she admires, such as Mae Jemison, the first Black female astronaut. This may spark readers’ interest in learning more about these historical people. If you’d like a book that teaches about vocabulary but is more accessible to younger readers, The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds and the Polly Diamond Book Series by Alice Kuipers & Diana Toledano would be good choices. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Eddie tells a bad joke. Afterward, MJ says, “As you can see, my best friend is a little kooky in the coconut.”  
  • Heck is used twice. 
  • The villain calls someone a fool.  

Supernatural 

  • Eddie and MJ find the Awesome Enchanted Book which takes them to another place. When they start talking about the origin of the word pajamas, “the Awesome Enchanted Book began floating above their heads, spinning faster and faster, until poof!—the room was filled with a swirling haze of smoke.” 
  • The villain tries to open the Awesome Enchanted Book. He was “trying with all his might to open it. But the book wouldn’t budge.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Eddie exclaims, “Holy cow!” Hearing him, an adult tells him, “In many cultures and religions, people believe cows are holy. And throughout India, people treat cows in that way.”

Silver

Rachel dreams of racing huskies, just like her father. So when she gets a tiny puppy for her birthday, she names him Silver for his shiny coat and vows that he will be the fastest lead dog in Alaska. But one day, Silver disappears. Rachels sets out to find him, following the tracks of a large animal into the forest. Snow begins to fall. An eerie howling breaks the silence. Then Rachel realizes she is tracking a wolf, that she is all alone, and that night is falling. 

Silver brings the harsh Alaskan winter to life. Through Rachel’s daily life, readers will be able to imagine the winter weather, the isolation, and the importance of huskies. Since the story is told from Rachel’s point of view, there is little suspense or action. Even though dogsledding is an important part of Rachel’s life, there is very little action pertaining to the dogs. The pace doesn’t pick up until the end of the book when Rachel realizes that Silver is missing. Since there is so little action, some readers may struggle to read the entire book.  

While Silver was written for young readers, the difficult vocabulary and mature tone may make Silver difficult for some readers. However, the format will appeal to readers because of the short chapters, large font, and black and white illustrations that appear on almost every page. The Stepping Stones Series is specifically written for young readers and the books allow readers to explore different genres such as history, humor, mysteries, and classics.  

Readers interested in dog sledding or learning more about Alaska will enjoy Silver. While the story lacks action, Rachel is a caring girl who loves dogs and takes good care of Silver. Plus, her two-parent family is shown in a positive light. Readers craving a more action-packed book that features dog sledding may want to check out Pugs of the Frozen North by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Those interested in learning more facts about dogs and how they help humans should add Dog Heroes by Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce to their must-read list. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None 

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

Best Wishes

Becca Singer is having the worst day ever. Her best friend, Harper, dumped her, and Becca is totally friendless and alone. Then a box arrives in the mail. 

Inside the box? One bracelet, plus a mysterious note telling Becca to make a wish. So Becca puts on the bracelet—why not, right?—and wishes to have friends. Lots of friends. So many friends. 

And just like that, the magic works. Suddenly, EVERYONE wants to be Becca’s BFF, from all the kids at school, to the teachers, to her own mom. As things spin out of control, Becca starts to wonder: Is this wish really a curse? 

Best Wishes’ super cute cover will cause readers to pick up the book, while the engaging story will keep them entertained until the very end. Readers will relate to Becca’s conflicts—growing apart from a best friend, uncertainty about how to make friends, and the desire to fit in. When Becca’s wish comes true, she takes advantage of the situation in order to get a cell phone, a manicure, and eat pizza. At first, Becca is thrilled to have so much attention and to always have people tell her yes, but soon she realizes that “all the attention and nice things people were saying felt kind of . . . empty.”  

The theme of friendship runs throughout the story and will leave readers with many questions to ponder: Is having a lot of friends important? How can you be surrounded by friends and still be lonely? What makes someone a true friend? Through Becca’s experiences, she comes to the realization that “the most important part of friendship was showing you cared.”   

Suspense is added when a mysterious woman tries to get Becca to sell the magical bracelet to her. Even though Becca refuses, the woman keeps appearing. Once Becca realizes that her wish is more like a curse, she tries to take off the bracelet, but can’t—even with the help of this mysterious woman. Eventually, the woman attempts to steal the bracelet from Becca and a surprising hero jumps in to rescue the bracelet from the woman’s grasp. 

Not only is Best Wishes an engaging story with a positive message, but it is also a story that will appeal to many readers. The story uses simple vocabulary and short paragraphs which makes the text easy to read. There are also adorable black and white illustrations every two to ten pages. The illustrations will help readers understand the plot and Becca’s emotions. For example, while at school Becca has an embarrassing moment and the illustration shows her trying to hide in her pencil box. Since one of the characters talks about the Dork Diaries Series, this may spark readers’ desire to read even more.  

Best Wishes should be on every child’s reading list, not only because it’s an engaging book but also because it teaches the reader about friendship. The story portrayed Becca’s family in a positive manner even though they are not perfect. In the end, Becca learns the true meaning of friendship and grows as a person. Strong readers interested in reading another beautiful book about friendship should add Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee and Wish by Barbara O’Connor to their must-read list.  

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • OMG is used frequently. 
  • Omigod is used once. 
  • At one point, Becca wonders why her brother has so many friends. She thinks, “If making friends was so easy for my brother, why was he usually such a jerk to me?” 

Supernatural 

  • Becca receives a magical bracelet with instructions to make a wish. Becca wishes that “everyone wanted to be my friend.” After she makes the wish, “The bracelet tightened around my wrist. The lights in the classroom flickered, and a rush of air hit my skin. Suddenly, my whole body felt like it was glimmering. Sparkling.” Becca’s wish is granted.  

Spiritual Content 

  • Becca and her family are Jewish. They are “not very religious but they try to stay kosher.”  
  • Becca’s family observes the Sabbat, and they have a traditional Sabbat which includes lighting candles, a Hebrew prayer, and eating a “special braided bread loaf.”  

The Big Freeze

The time has come for Princess Lina to choose her magical weather specialty. Her cousin, Jack Frost, makes amazing snowflakes. Her Uncle Lee forms ice caves in glaciers. Her Great-Aunt Sunder creates winter storms on polar seas. Everyone has chosen something so impressive. Lina’s not sure what she’s going to do—but she’s determined to make her mark in a big way! 

To complicate matters, Lina’s teacher has assigned an art project. Lina is disappointed that she can’t use science because she isn’t artistic. Everything Lina tries turns out to be a big mess. After several failed attempts to create art, Lina uses magic to make her project, but she wonders if that is cheating. Lina thinks, “One of Ms. Collier’s rules was that we were supposed to do our projects without any help. But she didn’t say anything about using magic, right?” 

The Big Freeze is told from Lina’s point of view, which helps readers understand her conflicts. Readers will relate to Lina’s difficulty at school and her desire to make her family proud. Lina writes in her diary often, which allows the readers to understand her thoughts and feelings. Lina’s best friend, Claudie, also tries to help Lina by giving advice. The two girls’ friendship is sweet and Claudie’s words are always encouraging and positive. 

One of the reasons Lina has difficulty completing her project is because she wants it to be perfect. In the end, instead of copying someone else’s art form or turning in a project that was made by magic, Lina writes a poem and turns it in late. Lina learns that “there’s no such thing as a perfect piece of art” and that she “needed to cut [herself] some slack.” 

Readers will be drawn into the book because of the cute illustrations that appear in black, white, and light green. The illustrations appear on almost every page and the pictures help readers understand the plot because they show Lina’s activities. The Big Freeze uses simple vocabulary, plus several pages contain a list. The paragraphs contain three or fewer sentences and have a variety of graphic elements to break the text into small portions. The easy-to-read story has relatable conflicts and interesting characters. Lina’s grandfather is a major character, and he has a “big, booming voice [that] can get a little intense.” To emphasize how loud Lina’s grandfather is, his words appear in large green font and all capitals.  

Readers who love princesses and magic will find The Big Freeze to be an entertaining book. The end of the book gives directions on how to make a snowflake that has “the power of patterns.” Both parents and children will be pleased with the kind and encouraging characters who don’t expect each other to be perfect. For more magical reading that has kind characters check out the Candy Fairies Series by Helen Perelman and the Zoey and Sassafras Series by Asia Citro. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • None

Supernatural 

  • Everyone in Lina’s family has a magical power. Her mom and grandfather are Windtamers and can control the weather. “Mom’s job is to bring the spring rains. Granddad is the North Wind.” 
  • Lina is a Winterheart, “which means my powers are all about ice and snow.” 
  • Lina uses her magic to make a perfect ice sculpture of herself. She also uses her magic to make it snow.

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

The Green Ghost

It’s Christmas Eve, and Kaye’s family is on the way to her grandmother’s house in a swirling snowstorm. Suddenly the car hits a patch of ice, slides across the road and skids into a snow-filled ditch! Through the car window, Kaye spots a light in the woods. Its glow leads her and her parents through the blizzard. They find a warm cabin, a kindly old woman named Elsa, and a green ghost who needs Kaye’s help!  

A long time ago, when Elsa was three, her sister Lillian wanted a beautiful Christmas tree rather than the ugly Junipers that her father brough home every year. So, Lillian and Elsa go into the snowy woods to find a tree. However, when Lillian finds the tree, she is unable to cut it down. By the time Lillian gives up, Elsa is shivering cold. Lillian can’t carry Elsa home, so she wraps Elsa up in her jacket, crawls under the tree, and snuggles up to keep Elsa warm. While Elsa survives, Lillian dies.   

By the time Kaye meets Elsa, she is an old woman who lives by herself. Like Elsa’s sister, Kaye wants a beautiful Christmas tree, not the artificial tree her grandmother planned to get. Kaye’s story parallels Lillian’s story and, in the end, Kaye learns that having a beautiful Christmas tree isn’t what is important. Christmas isn’t about the tree or the decorations, it’s about spending time with the people you love.  

The Green Ghost is full of suspense which will keep young readers flipping the pages until the very end. Even though The Green Ghost is a ghost story, the ghost’s appearance isn’t frightening. Before Kaye realizes that Lillian is a ghost, Kaye follows her into the woods. Kaye wonders, “What if this girl was playing a trick on her? What if she was trying to get Kaye lost in the woods? Could she find her way back to Elsa’s alone if she had to?” While the story revolves around a ghost, the story has a happy ending. 

The Green Ghost’s format will appeal to readers because of the short chapters, large font, and illustrations. The story goes back and forth between the early 1930s when Lillian was alive and the present. The two points of view are easy to follow because the chapters from Lillian’s time begin with the date and have a gray boarder around each page. This book is part of the Stepping Stones Series that is specifically written for beginning readers. The series allows readers to explore different genres such as history, humor, mysteries, and classics. 

If you’re looking for an engaging Christmas story with a positive message, The Green Ghost would be fun to read wrapped in a blanket on a cold night. If you want to add another Christmas-themed book with a positive message to your child’s reading list, check out Winter Wonders by Kate Hannigan. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • Kaye and her family skid off the snowy road. “And they were sliding back across the road again. The car slid, and it turned, too . . . like some kind of carnival ride.” The car is stuck so they walk to a nearby house for help. 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language   

  • Blasted is used several times. For example, Kaye and her family are driving through a snowstorm. When Kaye starts asking her father questions, he snapped, “We’re in the middle of blasted nowhere.  

Supernatural 

  • A ghost appears to Kaye. “A small, pale face appeared. . . a lighted face. . . The light—or face, whatever it was—called to her. Not with a voice. . . Still, the light called as clearly as if it had said, ‘Come.’” 
  • Lillian, the ghost, appears as a little girl and leads Kaye into the forest where she stops by a tree. Then, “Lillian stepped back toward the line of trees and disappeared. She simply vanished.” 
  • Elsa tells Kaye that the ghost is her sister who died. “When I was a girl, Lillian visited me every year, right around Christmas. . . And then she and I would walk out together to see this tree.” 

Spiritual Content 

  • Elsa tells Kaye and her family, “it was surely an angel who had brought them to her on this stormy night.” 

The Carpenter’s Gift

One Christmas night, Henry sits in his house and thinks blissfully back to a special day in 1931. He was a child then, growing up during the Great Depression. The historical downturn left a significant impact on his family. His family lived in a small house, and both of his parents were out of work. They struggled to afford coal for the stove or blankets for the beds. Henry kept an optimistic mind, and occupied himself with thoughts of warm, magical places.  

On Christmas Eve of that year, Henry was surprised to see his father arrive at the house in a big rental truck. He calls for Henry to come along, and the two happily drive to a nearby forest to cut down its evergreen trees and stack them onto the back of the truck. When Henry asks why, his father joyfully replies that they’re going to New York City to sell Christmas trees. 

The thought of being in a big city like New York excites Henry, and he is immediately fascinated by Midtown Manhattan. Henry’s father parks the truck beside a construction site and asks a worker if they can set up shop there. Acknowledging the pair’s situation, the worker agrees. What follows is a heartfelt story of generosity and hope in the hardest of times. 

The Carpenter’s Gift is a sweet holiday tale that spans several generations before arriving at the message that there is no better present than kindness. Henry searches time and again for the warm, magical moments he dreams of, and finds that these moments are produced not by magic but by simple acts of giving. 

The warm atmosphere of the book is strengthened by its lavish, impressionistic illustrations that are passionately drawn in the beautiful colors of each season. The illustrator makes several uses of double-page illustrations to portray the sheer scale and beauty of the evergreen trees. The story is told with simple, easy vocabulary, and readers can expect four to ten sentences on each page.  

The Carpenter’s Gift is guaranteed to satisfy all readers who celebrate Christmas and is a comforting read for those looking for a warm story this winter season. 

Sexual Content 

  • None 

Violence 

  • None 

Drugs and Alcohol 

  • None 

Language 

  • None

Supernatural 

  • None 

Spiritual Content 

  • None 

by Luke McClain 

Race to the South Pole

Ranger, the time-traveling golden retriever with search-and-rescue training, is back! This time, he joins a dangerous expedition to the South Pole!

Ranger joins an early twentieth-century expedition journeying from New Zealand to Antarctica. He befriends Jack Nin, the stowaway turned cabin boy of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ship. They’re racing against a rival explorer to reach the South Pole, but with unstable ice, killer whales, and raging blizzards, the journey turns into a race against time. . . and a struggle to stay alive.

Told in third-person, Race to the South Pole includes the inner thoughts of both Ranger and Jack. Even though Antarctica is dangerous, most of the danger comes from the harsh weather conditions. During the trip, both Ranger and Jack miss their families and wonder when they’ll be able to return home. Although Jack faces deadly freezing weather, he works hard and never complains. However, Jack sneaks onto the ship without telling his family his plans. And while in the Arctic, he doesn’t follow orders and instead sneaks out of the camp and almost dies alone.

Race to the South Pole is an entertaining and educational story that has a unique perspective because it focuses on a golden retriever. Readers interested in the men who attempted to reach the South Pole will enjoy Race to the South Pole, which has full-page, black-and-white illustrations approximately every six pages. Even though Ranger’s story is fictional, facts are woven into the story. The end of the book has more information about the historic expedition as well as a list of further resources. Plus, the author’s note includes information about Jack’s Maori Chinese cultural background. The book references Ernest Shackleton who climbed Mount Erebus but did not reach the South Pole. Readers interested in learning more about Ernest’s explorations can read Survival Tails: Endurance in Antarctica by Katrina Charman.

While Race to the South Pole lacks suspense, the story contains enough intrigue to keep the reader interested. Jack’s desire to help his family is relatable and his determination is admirable. The author’s note explains how the characters are based on real people, but the original expedition ended with the death of five members of the team, which will help readers understand how dangerous the expedition really was. Readers who want to learn more about how dogs help humans in frozen conditions should also read Dogs in the Dead of Night by Mary Pope Osborne.

Sexual Content

  • None

Violence

  • Horses and dogs were taken on the expedition, but there was not enough food to adequately feed them. “The sled dogs were getting lean, too. They were so hungry that one team attacked a pony that was stuck in a snowdrift. The horse fought off the dogs, but the pony was hurt, too weak to travel even another mile before the men made camp.”
  • A sled dog team fell into a crevasse. “Ranger and Osman strained under the weight of the rest of the team. The other dogs dangled in midair, howling as the lines cut into their fur. . . Jack could hear them yelping and whimpering below.” The dogs are saved.
  • Jack ventures out alone and falls in a crevasse. “The ice walls rushed past as he fell. . . Jack’s leg twisted, and his knee gave a sickening pop. . . Just when it felt like he might plunge into the darkness forever, Jack thumped on his back onto a snow shelf. He landed so hard he couldn’t breathe.”

 Drugs and Alcohol

  • None

Language

  • When Jack falls overboard, one of the men yells, “Good Lord!”

Supernatural

  • None

Spiritual Content

  • None

 

Latest Reviews