Camp Effigy – A Ghost Story by I A M Watson


Camp Effigy – A Ghost Story by I A M Watson
Publisher: Regenesis Press
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

“Rule number one: no one is to leave designated camper areas for any reason. You will not leave camp without permission. Do not attempt it. And stay clear of locked doors and anything marked as off-limits.”

Camp Effigy is an unusual summer camp destination to say the least. As they pass through the foreboding gates of Hopewell Manor, Dahlia, Serena, and Aria anticipate a bootcamp for troubled girls (and boy, are they troubled). It doesn’t help that the surrounding camp is built on ancient burial grounds deep in some very haunted woods. Strange things happen quickly, leaving our heroines to band together as unlikely friends and fight for their lives at the place where the land of the living and the dead meet and merge. Everything goes off the rails when the campers discover that their own family secrets may tie them to the hauntings that threaten their lives, and that only they hold the key to solving a cold case from 1851.

Every kid breaks a minor rule or two while at summer camp, right?

The horror elements of the storyline were delightfully scary. I shuddered my way through the ones that involved bodies of water and the various entities that can sometimes be found lurking in their depths. They reminded me a little of the various urban legends that are sometimes told around the campfire on warm nights when the looming darkness just past the edge of where flickering flames can cast their light makes every spooky sentence feel bigger and more ominous than it seems during the day. This is a good pick for middle grade or older readers who enjoy being frightened without being grossed out.

There was strong character development for all three protagonists. I enjoyed seeing how Aria, Serena, and Dahlia got to know each other better and worked together to solve the mystery of what was really happening at Camp Effigy. What made this even more impressive was that the author managed to pull it off in a fast-paced novel that didn’t leave a lot of space for long conversations. Much of what I learned about them happened while they were on the run or exploring parts of the camp they had been clearly told were off-limits to them. This gave everything a strong sense of urgency that made it impossible for me to stop reading.

I grinned as Dahlia, Serena, and Aria figured out how they were connected to the cold case from 1851. It was a clever way to tie the present closely to the past and give the characters understandable motives for behaving the way that they did. While I was already enjoying this tale before these details were revealed, I became even more excited to see how it ended once such crucial information about all three girls was revealed.

Camp Effigy: A Ghost Story was the perfect summer read.

My First Birding Adventure – North America by Elya Baird


My First Birding Adventure – North America by Elya Baird
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Bring the world of birding indoors with My First Birding Adventure-North America!

My First Birding Adventure- North America was designed to replicate the outdoor birding experience. When outdoors, bird enthusiasts will go to various locations in nature, look for birds, and identify the birds they find using their field guide. This book brings the world of birding indoors as readers flip through nature scenes, search for birds, and identify them with the mini field guide at the back of the book.

Once the book is finished, complete the bonus activities or go outside with the field guide and see if you can find any of the birds in nature!

Calling all bird lovers as well as future fans of this hobby! I have quite the treat for you.

Bird watching requires patience and close attention to detail, so it only made sense that this picture book encourages both of those habits. This is something that is meant to be savored and returned to again and again as readers both young and old sharpen their identification skills. I’d recommend bringing it out on such excursions when possible in the beginning in order to have a quick reference for what to look for.

I liked the fact that Ms. Baird included so many hints about where to find this sort of wildlife, how to identify them, and how to tell the differences between males and females of the same species. This was a solid introduction to those topics that can easily be built upon as new bird watchers become more comfortable with quickly taking note of these things and learning how to identify lots of other types of birds, too.

The best portions were the ones that showed various nature settings and asked readers to quickly identify which birds they could see there and remember as much about them as possible. Sometimes one only has a moment or two to figure all of this stuff out in real life, so practicing ahead of time is an excellent way to get better at it while at a park, field, lake, or other natural setting. While it certainly isn’t possible to include every common type of bird in something like this, I thought the author picked a nice cross-section of possibilities for readers living in North America.

My First Birding Adventure – North America was exciting and informative.

Alice in Wonderland by Lena Heide-Brennand


Alice in Wonderland by Lena Heide-Brennand
Publisher: Brennand Books
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Lena Heide-Brennand’s dark and poetic interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” is an enchanting and captivating one where Alice’s dreams take a rhythmic and playful form. In this adaptation, Heide-Brennand has seamlessly blended the atmospheric visuals from the 1915 film version with her own unique mixed media artworks. These original artworks transport us into a world of dark and gothic beauty, infused with steampunk Victorian vibes and a subtle touch of horror undertones. The result is a visually stunning experience that sets the mood for a darker and more mysterious atmosphere, capturing the essence of Alice’s strange and twisted dreams.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Heide-Brennand’s version is the poetic narrative style. Alice in Wonderland unfolds as a 112-page long poem, where every line is meticulously crafted with end rhymes. This poetic form not only pays homage to the original story, first published in 1865, but also adds a lyrical touch that enhances the enchantment of Alice’s magical journey. However, be prepared for a departure from the traditional children’s versions of Alice’s adventures. In Heide-Brennand’s adaptation, Alice’s dreams take her through scenes and encounters that are far more eerie and dark. The artist delves deep into the recesses of Alice’s imagination, exploring the hidden depths of her subconscious, and visually bringing forth characters and settings that are both mesmerizing and haunting. As you turn the pages you will encounter twisted versions of familiar characters like the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts, and the Hatter. These iconic figures, rendered through Heide-Brennand’s unique artistic lens, take on a new life and add layers of complexity to their personalities.

Prepare to be enthralled by the interplay of light and shadow, and the subtle nuances that breathe life into each character. The dark and scenic mixed media artworks that accompany the poetic narrative serve as windows into Alice’s psyche. With each turn of the page, you will be transported to eerie landscapes, mysterious forests, and intricate settings that mirror the intricacies of Alice’s mind. The detailed craftsmanship and the rich colour palette create a visual feast for the eyes, immersing you in a world that is simultaneously beautiful and foreboding.

Who wouldn’t want to follow a rabbit and go on an adventure?

I appreciated the way the author emphasized the horror themes in this tale. The original was much more subtle about that aspect of Alice’s adventure, but it was an important part of the storyline that made the whimsical scenes even better when everything was mixed together. This was a good introduction to horror for readers who might not be very familiar with that genre yet. It was frightening without ever crossing the line into something gory.

While I know that the author was following a specific meter and rhyme scheme, it would have been helpful to have more descriptions included in this poem. There were times when I would have been confused about what just happened if I wasn’t already familiar with the original Alice in Wonderland, and other scenes remained fuzzy even after that. This dampened my enthusiasm for something I otherwise enjoyed quite a bit.

The puns and wordplay made me smile. I was glad to see that this aspect of the plot was left intact as it is one of the many reasons why this story is such a classic and appeals to people of all ages. Some of these jokes will be more meaningful to adult readers, of course, but all of them can be explained easily for younger folks who want to understand why a certain word or phrase is so funny.

Alice in Wonderland was a creative retelling of the old classic by the same name.

The Lighthouse Back Home by Jodi L. Auborn


The Lighthouse Back Home by Jodi L. Auborn
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Paranormal, Contemporary, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

It’s been a year since 11-year-old Dylan and his family moved to the lighthouse his father had inherited in Maine. After finding a human skeleton in the woods one day, Dylan and his friend, Alex, are astonished when a mysterious artifact sends them back in time to the year 1893.

Stranded in the past, with Dylan’s sailboat as their only way home and Alex posing as a boy, Dylan seeks help from his old friend Matthias, the town lighthouse keeper. Despite Matthias’s reluctance, they settle into his seaside cottage where they make a new friend, face a deadly storm, and try to blend into their confusing new world. But when a sinister local family discovers their secret, they find themselves held captive by a cruel and remorseless old sailor with secrets of his own. Can Dylan and Alex find their way home and uncover the facts about an unsolved crime involving murder and stolen treasure?

Time travel is a wild ride.

The mystery was slow to unfold but satisfying once Dylan and Alex began to figure out possible reasons why they’d been thrown back in time. I had no problem waiting patiently for them to begin piecing the clues together. Honestly, I liked the fact that the author allowed more pressing matters to be resolved like where the kids were going to sleep at night and how they’d find food before they turned their attention to figuring out why they were in the late 1800s to begin with. That was definitely the most sensible thing to do, and it gave this reader plenty of opportunities to come up with my own theories along the way.

I struggled with the slow pacing at times. As much as I appreciated having extra time with the characters, I think this tale would have been stronger if it had been closer to the length of “Matthias: The Ghost of Salvation Point” which was about 100 pages shorter. There were multiple scenes that, while interesting to read, slowed down the plot and character developments enough that I couldn’t justify giving this a higher rating even though I was initially thrilled to have another chance to see what Dylan had been up to.

With that being said, I did enjoy the many comparisons the characters made between life in 2014 and 1893. Imagine explaining a cell phone, a Spider-Man t-shirt, or an airplane to someone who has never seen anything like that stuff and who has no cultural context for what they mean! Ms. Auborn did a great job of highlighting the social difficulties of adjusting to life in another century and explaining just how much the world can change in roughly 120 years.

This is the second book in a series that does not have to be read in order. If you like this one, though, do be sure to check out Dylan’s first adventure as well.

The Lighthouse Back Home was an adventurous read.

The Skull by Jon Klassen


The Skull by Jon Klassen
Publisher: Candlewick
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Holiday, Paranormal, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Jon Klassen’s signature wry humor takes a turn for the ghostly in this thrilling retelling of a traditional Tyrolean folktale. In a big abandoned house, on a barren hill, lives a skull. A brave girl named Otilla has escaped from terrible danger and run away, and when she finds herself lost in the dark forest, the lonely house beckons. Her host, the skull, is afraid of something too, something that comes every night. Can brave Otilla save them both? Steeped in shadows and threaded with subtle wit—with rich, monochromatic artwork and an illuminating author’s note—The Skull is as empowering as it is mysterious and foreboding.

Would you spend the night in a haunted house?

Otilla was a brave girl who I quickly grew to like. She was kind and sweet even when she was afraid. That’s not always an easy thing to accomplish, so it made me more curious to learn about where she came from and why she was running away from something that frightened her in the first scene. The more I learned about her, the more I wanted to know.

Some of the scenes in this picture book were pretty intense, especially since this was rated for ages 4 and older. I would be hesitant to read this with younger kids without first figuring out how much horror they can handle. Certainly some of them would love it, but I also felt that the talking skull’s biggest fear in life was much darker than what is typically written for preschoolers and elementary-aged readers.

Otilla’s friendship with the skull was sweet. Both of them had pasts they didn’t want to talk about and seemed to find difficult. It was rewarding to watch them figure out they had this in common and decide they were going to protect each other. Few things are better than having a friend who behaves so loyally!

I would have loved to see more character and plot development. The eerie setting had a nice Halloween vibe, but there weren’t a lot of explanations about who the skull was when it was alive and still had the rest of its body or how they were connected to the grand old mansion that was now slowly falling apart. As an adult, I was able to make certain assumptions about what the author might have meant based on subtle context clues, but I don’t think a lot of kids would necessarily pick up on enough of them to make sense of everything without help.

With that being said, I did enjoy the scenes that explained what the skull could and couldn’t do. For example, it could taste tea, but it could not keep tea inside of its mouth because it didn’t have a body or a stomach to digest it. There were multiple examples like this, and each one made me smile as I added more details to my mental file of what this character’s abilities and limitations were.

The Skull was a spooky Halloween read.

Will on the Inside by Andrew Eliopulos


Will on the Inside by Andrew Eliopulos
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Inspirational, LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

After dedicated soccer player Will is sidelined from the season—and his friend group—due to complications from his newly diagnosed Crohn’s disease, he finds himself figuring out who he really is on the inside in this heartfelt and thoughtful middle grade novel that’s perfect for readers who love books by Maulik Pancholy and Christine Day.

Will loves playing center midfield on his middle school soccer team. This year, though, Will hasn’t felt like himself; his stomach has been bothering him, and he has no energy at all. When his new doctor diagnoses him with Crohn’s disease, Will hopes that means he’ll start feeling better soon and he can get back to playing with his team before the season ends.

But Will’s new medicines come with all kinds of side effects, Forced to sit out afternoon practice, Will finds himself hanging out with a kid at school, Griffin. This could be a real problem, seeing as Griffin just asked Will’s best friend to the spring dance. As in, guy friend. What would Will’s teammates say if they knew the whole story? Not to mention Will’s friends at church.

With all these changes happening faster than he can process them, Will knows that he has a lot to figure out about who he really is on the inside.

Andrew Eliopulos’s novel is a memorable, affecting story that will have wide appeal.

Growing up isn’t always easy.

What an achingly realistic depiction of middle school angst! Some of the most memorable scenes were the ones that explored how quickly things can change for kids that age. Will’s friendship group was evolving just as rapidly as his relationships with his parents and older sister were. No sooner did he think he had everything figured out than another growing pain would appear as he or someone around him tested the boundaries of what people their age should say or do. It was so interesting to see how Will showed glimpses of his younger, more playful self in some scenes and bursts of maturity in others. The author captured the preteen years wonderfully there.

I would have loved to see more attention paid to the dietary aspect of Crohn’s disease. When I was Will’s age, I was diagnosed with a different illness that includes food restrictions and know how difficult it can be for a kid to suddenly not be able to eat all sorts of dishes their friends and family members can still enjoy. Food plays such a major role in socialization and bonding that it can be painfully isolating to be left out of those rituals, especially if it’s due to something completely out of your control. Had Will’s food restrictions and his thoughts about what he could and couldn’t eat been given more attention, I would have chosen a full five-star rating.

This was one of the first, if not the very first, books I’ve ever read that include both inspirational and LGBTQ+ themes. While the main storyline was focused on Will’s difficult adjustment to his diagnosis and his struggles as a young athlete with a life-threatening illness, I enjoyed seeing how his faith and his questions about his sexual orientation shaped his life as well. People’s identities can be complex sometimes, and it was refreshing to see how much nuance was included every time these topics came up. There was no preachiness to be found anywhere, only honest questions about Will’s relationships with God and the people around him.

Will on the Inside was a hopeful, encouraging, and dare I say inspiring read.

Mario and the Hole in the Sky – How a Chemist Saved Our Planet by Elizabeth Rusch


Mario and the Hole in the Sky – How a Chemist Saved Our Planet by Elizabeth Rusch
Publisher: Charlesbridge
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The true story of how a scientist saved the planet from environmental disaster.

Mexican American Mario Molina is a modern-day hero who helped solve the ozone crisis of the 1980s. Growing up in Mexico City, Mario was a curious boy who studied hidden worlds through a microscope. As a young man in California, he discovered that CFCs, used in millions of refrigerators and spray cans, were tearing a hole in the earth’s protective ozone layer. Mario knew the world had to be warned–and quickly. Today Mario is a Nobel laureate and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His inspiring story gives hope in the fight against global warming.

Science is full of possibilities.

Mario had such a loving and supportive family. They even cleared out an unused bathroom in their house so he could perform science experiments when he was a kid! I smiled as I read about the many other ways they supported his interest in science even when it led to a few unpleasant mixtures of chemicals. That’s exactly the sort of home every child should grow up in!

This picture book didn’t seem to be written with a clear audience in mind. Some portions were lighthearted, playful, and seemed to be meant for preschoolers. Other sections were much more serious and complex and probably would be more appealing to middle schoolers or even adults. As much as I enjoyed learning about Mario Molina’s life and scientific achievements, I’d struggle to figure out who to share this with and how to simplify the science in it for kids who haven’t studied chemistry yet.

With that being said, it was so interesting to learn the history of who discovered that humans were causing the destruction of the ozone layer around Earth back in the 1980s and how he convinced the world to stop using products that were making this problem worse. It was inspiring to learn how everyone pulled together to solve this crisis, and it gave me a lot of hope for all of the current efforts to reduce pollution and slow down or maybe even figure out how to reverse climate change today.

Mario and the Hole in the Sky – How a Chemist Saved Our Planet was exciting.

16 Words – William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Lisa Rogers


16 Words – William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Lisa Rogers
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Non-Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

This simple nonfiction picture book about the beloved American poet William Carlos Williams is also about how being mindful can result in the creation of a great poem like “The Red Wheelbarrow”–which is only sixteen words long.

“Look out the window. What do you see? If you are Dr. William Carlos Williams, you see a wheelbarrow. A drizzle of rain. Chickens scratching in the damp earth.” The wheelbarrow belongs to Thaddeus Marshall, a street vendor, who every day goes to work selling vegetables on the streets of Rutherford, New Jersey. That simple action inspires poet and doctor Williams to pick up some of his own tools–a pen and paper–and write his most famous poem.

In this lovely picture book, young listeners will see how paying attention to the simplest everyday things can inspire the greatest art, as they learn about a great American poet.

Inspiration lives everywhere.

There were two layers to this tale. One was a simple exploration of the life of a famous poet, while the second one showed the audience the many different ways inspiration can show up in someone’s life even if their day job has nothing at all to do with the arts. I loved the fact that every scene could be interpreted either way and thought it made this something that could grow with a young reader as he or she slowly began to recognize the hidden messages here about creativity.

I found myself wishing that more examples of William Carlos Williams’ poetry had been included in this picture book. Adults will probably catch the references to these works in certain scenes, but kids may not. Given how important it was to understand why specific things like plums or fire engines were mentioned in connection to this poet, it would have been helpful to show young readers why they were relevant. This is a minor criticism of something I otherwise enjoyed quite a bit.

It was so interesting to follow the main character as he made house calls. This was a time in history when all sorts of medical procedures were done in patients’ homes, including delivering their babies and bringing them life-saving medications. The lovely contrast between this work and the poetry that turned those moments into something timeless made me wish I could keep reading forever.

What a beautiful story 16 Words was.

The Pink Umbrella by Amélie Callot


The Pink Umbrella by Amélie Callot
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Historical, Romance
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Perfect for fans of Amélie, this is a charming story about the power of friendship, love and pink polka dots to turn rainy days into sunny ones and sadness into joy.

When it’s bright outside, Adele is the heart of her community, greeting everyone who comes into her café with arms wide open. But when it rains, she can’t help but stay at home inside, under the covers. Because Adele takes such good care of her friends and customers, one of them decides to take care of her too, and piece by piece leaves her little gifts that help her find the joy in a gray, rainy day. Along with cute-as-a-button illustrations, The Pink Umbrella celebrates thoughtful acts of friendship.

As Longfellow once wrote, into each life a little rain must fall.

Romance is rarely if ever included in middle grade books, so I was curious to see how the author was planning to incorporate it here. I appreciated Ms. Callot’s subtle and gentle approach to the subject. Younger readers might not even pick on this subtext at all, but it was sweet and perfectly appropriate for the storyline and for their age group if they do.

The plot was slow and meandering. There were scenes where I appreciated how much time it took to soak up the small, ordinary moments of life and other scenes where I felt restless due to that style of writing. If only the characters had faced more conflict during the course of their daily routines. I so wanted to give this a higher rating, but I couldn’t quite justify it.

One of the enjoyable parts of the storyline had to do with how the people in Adele’s community took note of her mental state and worked to make life easier for her when she was feeling sad on cloudy, rainy days. Their empathy was a beautiful thing to witness, and I thought it was lovely to see what appears to be a small town quietly banding together to make the life of one of their residents just a little bit easier.

The Pink Umbrella was one of those rare picture books that’s meant for older readers. It made me smile.

Bugs in My Hair! by David Shannon


Bugs in My Hair! by David Shannon
Publisher: The Blue Sky Press
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Middle Grade (8 – 12 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

This book is guaranteed to make you laugh–and itch! From the opening picture of a happy, oversized louse appearing with his suitcases, you know these bugs are determined to stay, and Mom is about to go nuts! Nobody talks about them, but they are everywhere. (Some estimate 20 million children a year host them.) Oh the shame and humiliation of having bugs in your hair! But if you go to school, or have play dates, chances are good you might meet them someday. Maybe you already have! Lucky for you, the unwelcome bugs in this story are so funny you will be laughing aloud–even when Mom attacks them with battle-tested anti-lice weapons. Shannon peppers his hilarious scenes with fun, “nitpicking” facts about these “lousy” critters and pokes fun at common denial: “It’s probably ash from that volcano in Pogo Pogo. “Soon the party’s over–Bye bye, Little Nasties! Once again Shannon has created a fresh, highly entertaining read-aloud classic that begs to be read again and again.

Humor makes everything better…even lice.

I admired how much work Mr. Shannon put into making the itchy and embarrassing topic of head lice something fun. This is one of those topics that most people don’t even want to think about, much less turn into fodder for jokes. It takes a lot of creativity to make such a thing work, but he did a wonderful job of it!

It took me a little while to figure out the best age group for this tale. While the sarcasm in it will probably best be appreciated by older kids, the plot itself felt like it had a wide range of appeal due to the fact that people of all ages can catch head lice and be frustrated by the process of trying to get rid of those icky little creatures.

The ending made me laugh out loud. It fit the theme of this picture book perfectly, and it left lots of room for a sequel if one is ever written. I also enjoyed the way the author snuck in one last joke there for everyone who has had head lice or even been suspected of having it. Yes, I know I’m being vague here, but that final page is something every reader gets to be surprised by just like I was. It couldn’t have been better.

Bugs in My Hair! was a hilarious look at a serious subject.