Saturday, June 03, 2006

Clue into Reading!

Well, this year, the theme for Summer Reading is mysteries... so, here's a whole bevy of kiddie whodunits!

Chasing Vermeer Blue Balliet

What does it mean that Calder finds an old box with a painting by Vermeer and then finds the painting again hanging in a house? What does it mean that Petra dreams about a woman and then finds out that woman is in a valuable Vermeer painting that gets stolen? Petra and Calder are surrounded by weird coincidences and odd patterns. Why was this painting stolen? Who stole it? Is the theft linked to Ms. Hussey’s homework assignment about life-changing letters? Can Petra and Calder find the painting?

This is an tremendously well-done book. Balliet really brings Chicago's Hyde Park alive and I'm planning to spend tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art so I can see Vermeer's "A Lady Writing"! This is wonderfully illustrated by Brett Helquist (who is probably best known in kidlit circles for doing the Lemony Snickett books) and clues are hidden in his illustrations-- a whole new puzzle to figure out! This book is full of puzzles, patterns, messages that need decoding and coincidences and will have greater questions how what makes an art expert and who can own art...

The Wright 3 Blue Balliet

In this sequel to Chasing Vermeer, Balliet turns from Vermeer to Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect who designed a famous house in Hyde Park, right by Petra, Calder, and Tommy’s school. But the Robie House is old and falling apart and the university wants to tear it down to send different sections to different museums. Ms. Hussey’s class is on the case! Can a building be art? Can a piece of art survive if you take it apart? Can the kids save the house? Why does Petra keep finding copies of The Invisible Man? Is the jade fish that Tommy found Frank Lloyd Wrights lost talisman? What are those voices Calder hears from the house and who are those strange men breaking in? More importantly, will Tommy and Petra ever be friends or will Calder have to choose? With more secret codes and clues hidden in the illustrations, Balliet tops her previos work-- The Wright 3 has even more suspense and coincidences and patterns than Chasing Vermeer!

The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley

Sabrina and Daphne Grimm’s parents disappeared! They were taken right from their car and the only clue was a handprint made from red paint. After a year and a half in an orphanage they go to live with their grandmother, a woman that had always been told was dead. Their new town is weird and their grandmother is ever weirder–she thinks fairy tales are real and claims to be a detective to solve fairy tale crimes! According to Granny Grimm, they are descendants of the Brothers Grimm, and they weren't writing bedtime stories. Fairy Tale characters (or everafters) are real, and they're trapped in Ferryport and the Grimms are charged with keeping them there...

Buckley succeeds in creating a believable fantasy world where your favorite fairy tale characters have to blend in with "normal" people and work real jobs like the rest of us... really well done. I'll admit I thought this would be a bit of a breeze-through book, but the quality of writing was suprisingly good and engrossing.

The Fairy-Tale Detectives - Book #1

Sabrina can’t believe that her grandmother thinks fairy tales are real. She really can’t believe that fairy tale characters live right in Ferryport. She really, really, really can’t believe that a local farm house didn’t blow up and was really stepped on by a giant. But then Mayor Charming and Glinda the Good Witch are involved in a cover-up and a giant kidnaps Granny Grimm! The Grimm sisters know they need to help and enlist the help of Shakespeare’s Puck, Jack the Giant Killer, and the Magic Mirror. But even then, can they figure out how to save Granny Grimm? Who let the giant out? Why? And is that a red handprint?

The Sisters Grimm: The Unusual Suspects - Book #2

Sabrina and Daphne are off to school. Daphne loves being in class with Snow White as a teacher, but Sabrina’s having a tougher time–she keeps getting teased and beat up. Things don’t get any better when Puck joins her class! But even Daphne can’t deny there are monsters loose in the school and they’re killing people. There are red handprints all over. Even Mayor Charming is turning to the Grimm Sisters for help solving the case! But Sabrina's anger at not being able to find her parents is growing. Coupled with the increased activity of the Scarlet Hand and resentment towards the Grimm family by certain elements in the Everafter community, she expands this hatred to all Everafters in general and is hindering the investigation. This is an action-packed follow up to The Fairy-Tale Detectives and the cliffhanger ending will have you waiting for the next installment. As Daphne would say, This book is so punk rock!

The Lady Grace Mysteries Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler writing as Grace Cavendish

Lady Grace is a maid-of-honor to her majesty, Queen Elizabeth I, and her secret detective. Whenever there is something afoul at court, Lady Grace tries to figure it out, usually with the help of Ellie, the laundry maid, and Massou, the acrobat.

In addition to being well-done, exciting and suspensful mysteries, these are also obviously meticulously researched to paint an accurate portrait of life in Queen Elizabeth's court. These books also manage to shine where most historical fiction falls flat-- it offers enough detail and research without letting it get in the way of the characters and plot. There is an extensive glossary at the back of each book as well as historical notes. There is always a general note on Queen Elizabeth and Lady Grace and then there are other notes as the story dictates. The characters of Ellie and Massou act as a nice foil for showing the great disparity between rich and poor, even in the halls of Whitehall, and in letting readers know that life was not all gowns and feasting. They also allow Grace to go places to invesitgate that would normall be unheard of for a Maid-of-Honour.


Much to Lady Grace’s displeasure, the queen is making her chose a husband to marry when she turns 16. Sir Charles is nice, but old enough to be her father. Sir Gerald is mean and stuck up. Sir Robert is quite handsome, but poor and doesn’t talk much. Which one should she choose? But after she makes her choice, one of her suitors is found murdered and another is accused of the crime. Who really killed the man and why? Can Grace, Ellie, and Massou figure it out?


Lady Sarah has run off and eloped with a sea captain! But when Lady Grace looks at the letter Sarah left behind, she knows it isn’t in Sarah’s handwriting. Maybe she really didn’t run away. Maybe she was kidnaped. Maybe she was kidnaped by pirates! In order to rescue her, Grace cuts off all her hair and dresses like a boy to explore Francis Drake’s ship with Massou. But then, the boat launches and Grace and Massou are trapped at sea and their ship is going into battle! Will Grace ever get back to England? Will she have to fight in a battle? Will she ever find Sarah? Was Sarah really kidnaped by pirates? And what will the Queen say when she finds out?

An excellent look at the Queen's navy and Elizabethan warfare and piracy!


Lady Grace, the Queen, and the rest of the court are traveling through England to escape London during the worst plague months. While staying with Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester), they are joined by Prince Sven of Sweden. It is well known that the Queen and the Earl have been in love for a long time, but the Swedish Prince is out to marry Queen Elizabeth. Jealousies and tensions are running high as both men compete for the Queen’s hand. Things get worse when a series of accidents threaten the Queen’s life. Lady Grace is sure they aren’t mere accidents and is on the case! Who is trying to kill the Queen? Can Grace find out before they succeed?


It’s winter and the Thames is frozen over. People have set up a Frost Fair where you can shop, play games, and there’s even a tavern and a fire with a roating ox–right on the ice! The Maids-of-Honour have been learning to ice-skate and have fun at the fair with the Queen, but then Lady Jane falls down and discovers a hidden dead body. The corpse’s eyes have been covered with coins, but these are the new coins the Queen just commissioned–coins that are supposed to be under lock and key. When Grace looks closely at them she realizes that they’re counterfeit! How is a boatman connected with a counterfeiting scheme? How far up can this scheme go? The Queen has only given Grace five days to find out before she orders an official investigation. Can Grace find out in time? Every clue seems to be a dead end as she embarks on her most complicated–and dangerous case yet!

The Wright and Wong Mysteries Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz

Orville Wright and Agatha Wong have been best friends since second grade. Now they’re in seventh grade and students at John Q. Adams Middle School in Bottomless Lake, Arizona. Agatha talks a mile and minute and Orville doesn’t talk much at all. Orville has a condition called Asperger’s. He likes logic and order and has a hard time understanding how people work and why they do the things they do. Orville doesn’t understand why you should smile at someone when you say “hi” or “thank you”. He is, however, a really nice guy. He’s also a genius. Not only does he know everything, but he also notices really tiny details and remembers almost everything. Between the two of them, Agatha and Orville can crack almost any case, but they might get into some trouble doing it!

With autism and autistic disorders on the rise, I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more characters like Orville.

The Case of the Prank that Stank

It’s the big football game against Lake Placid and the cool kids have a great idea for a prank. Even better, they need Agatha and Orville’s help. Well, they need Orville’s amazing skills with science and mechanics to make a fire-breathing lake monster. They have it all figured out, but when the big time comes, the field house explodes and the football field catches on fire! Everyone blames Orville for miscalculating the distance of the fire. Worse, everyone blames Orville and Agatha for the fact that everyone on the prank committee has a month of detention and all sports have been cancelled–not just for the season, but forever! Agatha was so excited to be accepted by the cool kids, and now she and Orville are social outcasts. Plus, Lake Placid is the rich town, Bottomless Lake is relativly poor. They've always been nasty rivals, and this has just made things worse. Agatha and Orville know it wasn’t the prank that caused the fire–Orville’s calculations are never, ever wrong. The timing was just a coincidence–or someone is framing them! Can Agatha and Orville figure out who really set the fire? Will anyone ever speak with them again?

The Case of the Nana-Napper

Nana Wong has disappeared! All she left was a hastily scrawled note that doesn’t sound like Nana at all! Agatha is convinced she’s been kidnapped. If that weren’t bad enough, now she has to stay with her Uncle Boonie, who doesn’t even have a couch for her to sleep on and makes her go to bed at 7pm! If she has to go to bed so early, how will she and Orville ever find Nana? Not to mention that they’ve been given a new case of proving Stu innocent of breaking one of his mother’s collectible plates. As they investigate, it looks like the two crimes might be related to each other and to a string of recent vandalisms. Will they find Nana in time? Will they ever get out of detention? Will Agatha have to sleep in Boonie’s old sleeping bag forever?

Holes Louis Sachar

Stanley Yelnats didn’t steal that pair of sneakers. They really did fall from the sky and hit him on the head. Sadly, the judge doesn’t believe him so he’s sent to Camp Green Lake for eighteen months. It was either that, or jail. Stanley blames the curse put on his great-great grandfather–the Yelnats family has been doomed to bad luck ever since then! The warden at Camp Green Lake is looking for something, so everyday the “campers” have to dig a hole that’s exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. It’s hard, tiring work and the Texas desert is hot. Stanley is always thirsty. The desert is full of rattlesnakes and scorpions and yellow-spotted lizards. If you get bitten by a rattlesnake or scorpion, you’ll be sick for a few days. If you get bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard, you’re dead. Can he escape? Will he ever get home? Sneakers don’t just fall from the sky, do they? Is Stanley really under a curse? What is the Warden looking for? And what will she do when she finds it?

This Newberry winner (and one of Silvey's 100 Best) interweaves three tales that come together to form a larger story about history, redemption, crime, friendship and fate. Really well done in that it has a huge larger message, but it's subtle and easy to miss--unlike so much literature that has a huge larger message and likes to bang you about the head with it as often as possible.

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