Sons of the 613

Jacket-1• Grade Range: 7th-high school
• Humor/Coming of age
• Author: Michael Rubens
• Title: Sons of the 613
• Publisher: Clarion
• 2012
• 320 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0547612164
• Awards: selected by Kirkus, YALSA and VOYA as one of the best books of the year.
• Author’s website:


Sons of the 613 opens with a Bar Mitzvah-fail of epic proportions. Isaac, aghast in the audience and three weeks away from his own Bar Mitzvah, knows he’s in “terrible, terrible, terrible trouble.’ He has concealed the fact that for the past many months his Hebrew tutor has never shown up. His determination to come clean to his parents is stymied when they leave town and put his brother Josh in charge. Six foot three, 245 pounds of muscle, sporting a skull and crossbones yarmulke and a tattoo that testifies to his obedience to the 613 commandments in the Tanakh, twenty-year old Josh has his own ideas about what Isaac needs to learn to become a man. So begins an epic, hilarious and touching quest.

Isaac’s rite of passage is filled with outrageous comedy, boatloads of adolescent shame and angst, bar fights, strip clubs, double-dares and growing maturity. There is much that might offend, but Rubens, in his YA debut, uses the comic skills he employed producing the Daily Show to keep the plot moving and Isaac self-deprecatingly aware of his mistakes. Isaac’s maturation process is messy, painful, decidedly not parent-approved, occasionally too cinematic, and sure to delight teen readers. This book is rarely on the shelves of the library and it is one of the titles that frequently walks, precisely because it appeals to the kids who are not the typical, compliant library users; there in lies it’s charm and power. Kids are constantly looking for the information they know they need as they hurtle through adolescence. While there are many fabulous books in our K-8 library, there are not a lot-maybe no others- that speak so directly to the actual concerns of teen-age boys.



Doll Bones

Jacket• Grade Range: 5th-8th
• Mystery/Coming of age
• Author: Holly Black and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
• Title: Doll Bones
• Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
• 2013
• 247 pages.
• ISBN: 9781416963981
• Awards: Newbery Honor, Carnegie medal in literature nominee
• Author’s website:


Zach, Alice and Poppy have been friends for years. Their imaginary adventure game has evolved as each kid contributes plot and action ideas and creates their doll or action figure’s roles. As they enter adolescence all three are aware of the strains conformist expectations place on their unconventional cross-gender friendship and make-believe play, but it is only when Zachary’s father inserts himself into the game that a rift is created. Poppy’s effort to mount one last adventure leads the three into an ambitious and eerie quest to lay to rest a troubled spirit trapped inside a spooky, and possibly malevolent, bone china doll.

We have a joke in our library, especially when weeding, that ‘destined to be a classic’ means ‘never will be read.’ Doll Bones with its strong writing, appealing characters and astute feel for the pain and anger engendered by letting go of childhood, may be the exception that proves the rule. Like all great thrillers it magnifies the psychological pull of ordinary feelings and exposes just what we hope never to openly acknowledge. Zach’s growth, sports prowess and meddling dad push him unwillingly into tweendom. His impotent anger at being forced to let go of something that still matters to him causes him to imitate the dad whose behavior he so despises; he buries his feelings and flees, convincing himself that “growing up means most stories turn out to be lies.” The friends’ struggle-to keep some honesty alive in their relationship, combined with the ghost doll’s creepy influence, push Zach, Alice and Poppy past childlike dependence into an awareness of the freedom that comes from taking responsibility for their beliefs.

While many reviews and most trailers, including mine, focus on the spooky elements, the book’s strength and heart are really about friendship and growing up. This is a smart, timeless story.

West of the Moon

Jacket-3• Historical folk/fantasy fiction
• Age Range: Grades 5-9
• Author: Margi Preus
• Title: West of the Moon
• Publisher: New York: Amulet
• 04/2014
• 288 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-4197-0896-1
• Awards: None yet, though this is my pick for the Newbery.

When thirteen year-old Astri’s Aunt trades her to an old humpbacked goat herder for two silver pieces and a goat haunch, Astri vows to be stronger and meaner than he is, so that she can survive her servitude, rescue her younger sister Greta from her aunt and emigrate to America to reunite with their father.

Preus’s masterful novel weaves together Norwegian folktales and a powerful story of a young girl’s heroic determination to do more than survive. Astri is a storyteller in a culture rife with superstition; chapters often begin with legends that parallel and inform the action. Equally as successful as Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little Brown, 2009), this tale is darker and more mature.

Though Astri tells stories of rescue and transformation to comfort herself and others, she is very aware that if anyone is going to do any rescuing, it is going to have to be her. The decisions she makes to survive come to haunt her and she struggles to reconcile herself to desperate actions. Fast paced, vibrant, and gripping: Preus has created an enthralling, unflinching and unforgettable story inspired by a passage from her great-great grandmother’s diary. Reviewed from an ARC.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

Jacket-5• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Adventure related title
• Author: Jennifer Armstrong
• Title: Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World
• Publisher: New York, Crown
• 1998
• 134 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-375-40403-1
• Awards: 1999 Orbis Pictus winner ~1999 Boston Globe Horn Book Honor in nonfiction~ALA Best Book for YAs~1999 Riverbank Review Children’s Books of Distinction
• Author’s website:

In 1914, at the dawn of World War I, Ernest Shackleton was one of the most famous and most famously disappointed explores in the world. He had just missed being the first to reach the South Pole. Three years after that historic event he and twenty-seven men set sail for Antarctica, intent on being the first to cross the continent. An unusually cold Antarctic summer thwarted their hopes and tested their endurance, ingenuity and bravery beyond the bounds of human imagination.

Armstrong frames this remarkable story with appropriate and relevant historic, factual and scientific information. In a few economic paragraphs readers learn structurally why Antarctica is the most hostile place on earth and why it is also one of the most fertile ecosystems in the world. Armstrong incorporates a multitude of quotes, primary documents and stunning archival photographs, painting a vivid picture of a truly astonishing adventure. From the point at which the ice crushes Shackleton’s ship the story becomes extremely gripping. The pace of disasters and escapes surpasses the best of Indiana Jones or the Die Hard franchise and the reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World is more suitable to a slightly younger reader than the previously reviewed The Endurance. Armstrong doesn’t rely as heavily on journal entries and summarizes points Alexander makes through multiple examples. Armstrong focuses on the dramatic moments, and there are many, and her writing is slightly more lyrical in her descriptions of wildlife. She doesn’t focus as much on the personal relationships among the crew: avoiding their dislikes, making this book better suited for a reader who wants the facts, the adventure and the hardships without as much in-depth information on the characters. In both books Shackleton’s leadership comes through and the reader is left amazed at what humans can endure and overcome. Particularly intriguing is the moment where the normally cautious Shackleton risks all on a slide down a mountain into the unknown. Using dialogue, Armstrong lets readers watch as the unthinkable becomes the only possible choice.

There are two other topics missing from Armstrong’s book that are included by Alexander: Hurley’s fudged photograph-Saved and the singular unhelpfulness of the British in the final rescue effort. We learn in Alexander’s book that Hurley deliberately removed The James Caird: the boat the six men sailed to South Georgia island in, from an image taken as the men wave good luck to the departing rescuers. On the lecture circuit Hurley and Shackleton represented the doctored photo as capturing the moment the men see a boat returning to rescue them, duplicitously titling the image Saved. Armstrong includes the photo with its misleading title as if it actually did show the rescue. Armstrong also avoids going into detail about Shakleton’s struggles to find a boat and return to his marooned men. In the midst of a war the British were indifferent to their plight and Shackleton had to rely on Chileans and Argentines to effect a rescue. Both omissions simplify the ending.

Front matter: A photograph of the Endurance stuck in the ice is on the title page. A Contents page is followed by a labeled photograph of most of the crew at the outset of the journey. All the members of the team: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, are listed on the facing page. Two pages of original drawings and plans of the Endurance are included as is a map of Antarctica and a close up map of Shackleton’s journey. Perhaps the best epigram of all time wraps up the front matter: “For scientific discovery, give me Scott. For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” Apsley Cherry-Garrand, polar explorer, 1922.

Back Matter: A brief Epilogue mentions that most of the men joined the war after their return and some were killed in action. Shackleton’s time during the war and final journey to South Georgia Island are discussed and his death and burial on the island is briefly described. A verse from one of Shackleton’s favorite school songs ends the Epilogue. Acknowledgements note the most useful materials and assistance in the writing of the book. A bibliography is divided roughly by topic: Antarctica, Shackleton, and Periodicals. An index and brief author biography conclude the book.

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

Jacket-4• Grade Range: high school-adult
• Adventure related title
• Caroline Alexander
• The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
• Publisher: New York, Knopf
• 1998
• 214 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-375-40403-1
• Awards: The ALEX Award
• Author’s website: The author does not appear to have a website.

There is implicit romance and drama in Antarctic exploration and Shackleton’s 1914-17 Expedition may be the most epic of all. Attempting to be the first to cross the continent on foot, their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in the ice. They survived for more than a year marooned on drifting floes, their position impossible and their ordeal only beginning. A desperate bid for rescue involved sailing a 22ft. boat across 850 miles of the most dangerous sea in the world, in winter, in the dark, during a hurricane and then crossing uncharted mountains to reach rescue. Inconceivably they succeeded; their story, accompanied by astonishing, previously unpublished photographs, makes exciting reading.

Alexander writes in clear, elegant, lucid prose. Her admiration for the explorers comes through, but importantly so does a sense of perspective. Too many authors writing on the age of heroic exploration exalt their subjects for their suffering; in her first chapter: on the heroic age, Alexander makes clear suffering was often the result of incompetent planning or vainglorious miscalculation. This frankness establishes trust in her perspective and helps frame her account of Shackleton’s exemplary leadership. He was a leader who put his men first.

Much of Alexander’s account is based on journals kept by the crew. This allows for lots of first hand descriptions which Alexander supplements with background information: the reader gets to know the personalities and foibles of the 27 men, dozens of dogs and one cat. Accompanied by hundreds of incredible photographs the pairing of the words and images provide a powerful and intimate sense of both the personalities and the conditions they endured.

The book succeeds both as an amazing and harrowing adventure story and as an account of a remarkable example of leadership. The real triumph was not over the elements, but of a mastery of human character. They did not merely endure, they “exhibited the grace of expertise under ungodly pressure.” “Optimism, “ Shackleton once said, “is true moral courage.” It is this spirit, which animated many of the men, which makes the account far from dour. Faced with an impossible decent and on the verge of freezing to death, the overland rescue team slid down a mountain: “ Then quite suddenly I felt a glow, and knew that I was grinning! I was actually enjoying it…I yelled with excitement and found Shackleton and Crean were yelling too.” Stuck subsisting under two overturned dories, the men marooned on Elephant Island continued to joke, spin yarns and grew most tired, not of the privation, but of the necessity of killing every animal that landed on their barren island.

Alexander makes the compelling case that Shackleton’s greatness lay in his “conviction that quite ordinary individuals were capable of heroic feats if the circumstances required; the weak and the strong could and must survive together.” During his lifetime his fame was eclipsed by that of the more tragic explorer Scott, but Shackleton’s fame has grown and endured. In her final chapter Alexander tells the fates of many of the expedition, some who didn’t survive the Great War and some who lived to see a man walk on the moon.

Front matter: includes several photographs of the crew and their ship, a dedication to, and photo of, the ship’s mascot: the cat Mrs. Chippy, a photo of the rescue and a map of the journey. Back matter includes several pages of very informative acknowledgments that indicate the depth and scope of Alexander’s research while annotating many of the primary sources, many of which are unpublished. A paragraph describes sources and offers an annotated and selected bibliography for further reading. A note on photographs goes into detail about the processing of and history of the images. An image of the photographer, Hurley, filming from the mast, a brief note about the author and a note on the type conclude the book. There are no contents and no index, which make finding specific passages and images difficult.

This book was published in association with the American Museum of Natural History and its 1999 exhibit, curated by Alexander, which chronicled Shackleton’s voyage.

Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842

Jacket-6• Grade Range: upper high school-adult
• Adventure related title
• Nathanial Philbrick
• Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842
• Publisher: New York, Viking
• 2003
• 452 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-67003-231-0
• Awards: Richie’s Picks
• Author’s website:

In 1838 a squadron of six sailing vessels set out for a four-year journey of exploration. The U.S. Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.) was one of the largest voyages of discovery ever undertaken. Led by Captain Wilkes, the Ex.Ex. redrew the map of the world; the 40 tons of specimens they brought back formed the foundation of the Smithsonian museum. Philbreck answers the question: ‘why have we never heard of Wilkes or the Ex. Ex?’

The story of the Ex.Ex. is filled with adventure and drama. There are many memorable moments: a snowball fight with Tierra del Fuego’s Yahgan natives: who apparently had flaps of skin that hung over their knees, some brutal encounters with Fijian cannibals: including eyeball munching, and an insanely close encounter with an active volcano. The expedition was charged with surveying Antarctica and determining if it were a continent. They were the first Americans to chart Puget Sound, the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay, establishing the United States basis for claiming those territories. The origin of the theory of plate tectonics stands out among the many scientific discoveries the expedition advanced.

Yet, as Philbrick maintains, the Ex. Ex. is fascinating not because of its successes, but because of what went wrong. Despite the expedition’s scientific discoveries and astonishing adventures, it came to be viewed as a colossal embarrassment. Captain Wilkes was insecure and egotistical with a talent for creating discord and conflict; his morbid hunger for recognition ensured his expedition ended not in glory, but in an ugly court-martial. Wilkes was universally despised by his officers and it is even alleged that Melville based Captain Ahab on him.

Melville and Shakespeare represent that personal flaws are inextricably connected to qualities of greatness; they are not just intertwined: they are one and the same. In exhaustive detail, Philbrick examines whether Wilkes successes can be divorced from his failures. Relying extensively on primary sources, including sailors’ journals, Philbrick recreates the expedition in all its drama and drudgery. Political infighting and petty squabbles sap the energy of the men. This is a fascinating study but, at over 300 pages of text, one few teenagers are likely to have the stamina to wade through. Like the member’s of the expedition: the reader’s eagerness to journey on is worn down by hundreds of Wilkes’s awful decisions and unnecessary cruelties. That said, for those who love true tales of maritime disaster and have an interest in exploration and leadership, it is a memorable and intriguing story.

Sea of Glory also acts as a fascinating counterpoint to Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic journey seventy years later. Shackleton attempted to cross the continent Wilkes was the first to chart. Where Wilkes’ expedition succeed in its goals, lost scores of men and ended with the Captain despised and forgotten, Shackleton’s journey achieved opposite ends: he failed in his task, but due to determinedly optimistic and solicitous leadership, returned with his entire crew and is well-remembered a hundred years later.

Front matter: includes a Table of Contents, a brief author biography, and an extensive preface. Opening with Wilkes’ court-martial the preface establishes the context of the U.S. Ex.Ex. and raises the issues of leadership Philbrick addresses in the book. A modern rendering of the six ships of the Ex. Ex. Concludes the preface. Back matter: An extensive epilogue briefly explores the legacy of the discoveries of the Ex. Ex.: charts of islands in use through the second World War, the establishment of Antarctica as a continent, etc. The epilogue also discusses why Wilkes accomplishments were so quick to be forgotten, dismisses the idea that a cooler more capable Captain would have achieved more and lays the responsibility for the expeditions obscurity on Wilkes inability to partner with Reynolds, a talented officer Wilkes had severely alienated during the voyage. A notes section includes abbreviations for frequently consulted texts, several paragraphs outlining and annotating additional reading, followed by chapter by chapter acknowledgements and notes that discuss the origins of ideas and quotes. An extensive selected bibliography lists unpublished sources first, followed by published sources and dissertations and ending with a list of publications of the United States Exploring Expedition. The notes and suggestions for further reading are extremely impressive and let the reader understand the origins of information and argument. Acknowledgements thank experts and those who aided in the production of the book. An index completes the volume.

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories

Jacket-2• Grade Range: 5-8
• Adventure related title
• Paul B Janeczko
• The Dark Game
• Publisher: Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press
• 2010
• 248 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-763-62915-1
• Awards: YALSA-ALA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist
• Author’s website:

Six self-contained chapters tell intriguing stories of spies and their craft, from the American Revolution through the Cold War. Janeczko makes the point that often, marginalized groups: women, African Americans, Native Americans and even one handicapped individual, made excellent spies, as bias prevented them from being perceived as either a threat or a resource.

While the chronological chapters are self-contained there are some overarching themes. Taken together the chapters tell a rough history of spying as it affected the United States from the Revolutionary War into the end of the 20th century. Janeczko traces the increasing professionalization of espionage as America moved from all amateur spies: including Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin and the amazing WWII double agent: Juan Pujol, to a trained force, schooled in combat, cyber-espionage, sabotage, survival skills, and codes and ciphers. While the professional training has lots of 007 appeal, it is the stories of the amateurs that capture the imagination, in part because they are a far more diverse group: Harriet Tubman and her 300 strong unit of African-American riverboat pilots and soldiers who rescued 800 slaves, an intrepid WWII agent Virginia Hall, who named her wooden leg Cuthbert, Choctaw code talkers, Rebel Rose the Confederate socialite spy and her opposite Van Lew the spinster who helped organize the daring behind-enemy-lines escape of 109 Union soldiers from Libby Prison.

The book is focused on spies associated with the United States; this includes double agents, Allies in both world wars and foreign saboteurs on U.S. soil. Of particular interest is the little known story of the extensive and effective sabotage carried out in the U.S. by German agents during World War I.

The organization of the book allows readers to dip in an out, reading about time periods or incidents of special interest. The text is enhanced by primary source photos and pictures of ciphers, which are a particular interest of Mr. Janeczko, (Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, Candlewick 2004, Loads of Codes and Secret Ciphers, Simon & Schuster 1984). While most readers will be drawn to the book for the fun of it, the material is well researched enough to be useful in reports. The author’s enthusiasm and fascination with the topic comes through clearly.

The writing is plain and rather inelegant, but doesn’t detract from the compelling stories. Of course some information is missing or is debatable. After a fascinating account of the story behind the Zimmerman telegram: which precipitated U.S. entry into WWI, Janeczko repeats the assertion that “never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message”. The idea that U.S. troops were what turned the tide in WWI is a discredited theory. I could also wish there was more about the appalling Allen Dulles and the fact that, on his watch, undiscovered Russian moles sent thousands of CIA agents to their death and undercut U.S. espionage effectiveness for decades. But these are minor quibbles; overall The Dark Game is a fascinating, eye-opening and very appealing read for middle school kids.

Front matter: The Contents helpfully subdivides the six chapters into four named topics per chapter, giving readers a sense of what the chapters cover and allowing them to focus on topics or individuals of particular interest. An introduction explains the author’s historic interest in, and enthusiasm for, the subject. Back Matter: Source notes are broken down by chapter and quotes are attributed. An extensive bibliography is included. Photography credits are also broken down by chapter, making it easy to learn where an image came from.

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Bravery


  • History related title
  • Author: Steve Sheinkin
  • Age Range: Grades 6-adult
  • Title: The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Bravery.
  • Publisher: New York :, Roaring Brook Press
  • 2010
  • 337 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1-59643-486-8
  • Awards: YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction~Horn Book Award for Nonfiction~School Library Journal Best Book~ Horn Book Magazine Fanfare List, Best of 2010 ~ Beacon of Freedom Award~ School Library Journal, Best Children’s
    Books of 2010~ New York Charlotte Award Master List
  • Author’s website:

Benedict Arnold was more than just a traitor, in many ways he was responsible for the success of the American Revolution: both through his military achievements and though the galvanic effect his betrayal had on the country at a crucial moment in the conflict.

In a narrative as exciting as an action film and as gripping as the best spy-thriller, Sheinkin relates the fantastic, improbable and tragic story of America’s greatest revolutionary hero turning into her most reviled traitor. The dynamism of Arnold’s character and Sheinkin’s cinematic writing style make this a compelling story that shines a fresh light on the unlikely success of the American Revolution.

Sheinkin’s fascination with his subject is contagious. His in-depth research and use of primary sources allows us to hear the words of the characters. We even get a glimpse into Benedict Arnold’s love life; he wrote the same maudlin letter to two different women. Sheinkin distills his deep understanding of the subject and produces a compelling, cogent, and often witty, account of the Revolution and Arnold’s remarkable part in it. “Benedict Arnold never could stand inaction. So he decided to invade Canada.” The ending is a tour-de-force.

Front matter includes two relevant maps and contents. Back matter includes extensive source and quotation notes and an index. Sheinkin has helpfully annotated his sources: indicating which were most useful in research, which to read to pursue information on key characters, specific aspects of the Revolution and where to find firsthand accounts.