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All Children's Coverage

Young sleuths searching for great mystery novels know exactly what they’re looking for: engaging characters, a suspenseful story, a satisfying resolution and a touch of heart. They'll find all that and more in these two middle grade books.

Duet

If the animal menagerie of Deborah and James Howe's classic Bunnicula series had included a goldfinch, the result might have been something like Duet. Like Bunnicula and its sequels, Duet features an animal narrator. Mirabelle is a young goldfinch who helps her favorite people find answers to perplexing questions.

Mr. Starek has retired from teaching piano lessons, but he makes an exception for Michael, a sixth grader whose musical talent is matched only by his stubbornness. Mirabelle has kept Mr. Starek company from the trees outside his windows since the recent death of his sister, Halina, and now the little yellow bird delights in singing along while Michael practices a series of pieces composed by Frédéric Chopin, including the technically challenging and exquisitely beautiful Ballade in F Minor. 

As Mirabelle searches for a way to join Michael at an upcoming competition, Michael and Mr. Starek are joined by Emily, a former protege of Mr. Starek's. Emily used to teach Michael piano, but now she's studying music history at the conservatory. Together, the trio search Halina's house for a rare, hidden piano known as a Pleyel, one of two types of pianos on which Chopin composed. However, Halina was a hoarder, which Broach depicts with empathy and understanding, and the house contains more secrets than anyone suspects.

Masterpiece Adventures author Elise Broach fills Duet with evocative details of Mirabelle's avian life, including adventures with her brothers, the welcoming of new siblings to her family's nest and a harrowing description of a thunderstorm. Broach also incorporates a number of intriguing and memorable stories about Chopin and his artistic friends. Her writing is peppered with fun vocabulary (appurtenances, daguerreotype), and Duet includes an author's note that explains how the conclusion of the novel's mystery connects to fascinating real-life events.

At one point, Emily acknowledges her limitations as a pianist, providing a refreshing and mature balance to the other musicians' focus on perfect performances as their primary goal. Music, Duet suggests, can be enjoyed by everyone—including goldfinches. Find a recording of Chopin's ballades and let Broach sweep you away on wings of word and song.

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene appreciates his routine more than your average sixth grader. Every day after school, until his mom gets off work, he plays laser tag and knocks down pins at his mother's best friend's bowling alley. His routine does not include finding an envelope with his name on it that contains two riddles bearing the numbers one and four. And it especially does not include being joined at his solo lunch table by the outgoing Skye, who's holding riddles number two and three. 

Chester thinks the clues must have been left by his absent father, whom Chester has long been convinced is a spy. What if the riddles are Chester's dad's way of communicating that he's in trouble and needs Chester's help? As Chester and Skye decode the puzzles, which seem intentionally designed to require them to work together, they form a friendship. When they overhear a group of bowlers plotting a heist, they begin to wonder whether stopping the crime could be the key to rescuing Chester's dad. But could Chester's reliance on careful observation be leading him astray?

Readers who pay close attention to detail will be rewarded not just with the solutions to the riddles, which involve puns, number games and creative thinking, but also the answers to the novel's larger mysteries, such as why Chester and Skye have been brought together in the first place. The revelation of the riddles' true purpose takes Chester Keene Cracks the Code in a direction that's as fitting as it is initially unexpected. Maybe what Chester longs for most is actually closer to him than he realizes.

Diversity is a part of Chester's world in quiet ways: Both Chester and Skye are biracial, and Skye encourages Chester to “break free of traditional gender roles” and embrace his inner warrior princess. Chester's town's various small businesses, including the bowling alley, evoke a small-town, working-class setting. His solitary habits and reliance on down-to-the-minute schedules also suggest a neurodivergence that acclaimed author Kekla Magoon leaves unspecified.  

Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a heartwarming puzzle mystery whose narrator has multiple codes to crack: the code of the riddle messages, the code of friendship, the code of handling a bully and the code of family. 

Join young detectives on quests for answers that may be hiding in plain sight.

Eily and her father live by the sea, not far from the mysterious island of Lisnashee, home to the fairy folk known as the Good People. Eily's father ventures annually to the island to gather fog, which has magical properties. It's a dangerous job, but the village folk rely on the fog water for charms, cures and protection, particularly from the Good People. But this year, Papa accidentally makes the trip to Lisnashee without his charm meant to ward off fairy spells, leaving Eily with her own job to do.

Marianne McShane's text in The Fog Catcher's Daughter feels like it's been passed down through generations, a folk legend whispered in hushed tones to little ones leaning forward to listen. Her tale is filled with rich sensory descriptions. When she writes that “a cold wind shivered across the sand,” you'll tremble right along with Eily. Young readers are sure to wonder, as I did, whether The Fog Catcher's Daughter is based on a true story. An author's note gives a glimpse into the Irish folklore that underpins the tale, as well as the real-life Moroccan practice of fog catching that inspired McShane to create it.

Illustrator Alan Marks' watercolor art is so ethereal and captivating, you'll want to hang it on the wall. Windswept grasses and tumbling waves create a landscape that seems both fantastical and utterly real. Fog creeps around corners, rises from the ground and blows across the water, becoming a character every bit as significant as Eily herself. At times, Marks depicts the Good People as mere wisps of mist and other times as distinct, ghostly figures, perfectly capturing their ambiguous, tempestuous nature. A soft, warm-toned hearth scene as well as the lush greens of spreads depicting Eily's family's fields offer a reassuring and welcoming contrast to the wild blues and grays of Lisnashee. You'll especially want to linger on a wondrous two-page spread of the village apothecary shop and its shelves packed with plants, shells, stones and bottles. 

Though it contains slightly spooky themes, The Fog Catcher's Daughter doesn't haunt so much as enchant.

This original tale feels like it's been passed down through generations, a folk legend whispered in hushed tones to little ones leaning forward to listen.

Sometimes when tragedy strikes, a family draws closer, weaving itself into a tightly intertwined bulwark against heartache. Other times, however, tragedy can drive family members apart as they try to avoid feeling—let alone expressing—their grief.

The titular 11-year-old protagonist of Zoraida Córdova's heartfelt and imaginative Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter would never have predicted the latter outcome for her family. As far back as Valentina can remember, the Salazars have been dedicated monster rescuers, scooping up magical beings that stumble into this dimension and sending them back to the realm of Finisterra before monster hunters can find and perhaps kill them.

However, in the eight months since their father died on a mission gone horribly awry, the Salazars have been trying to live a more ordinary life. Their mother moved the family to upstate New York, took a job in the city and retired their tricked-out camper van, the Scourge, to the garage. Everyone has adjusted pretty well to the changes, but Valentina can't stop wishing she could repair her family's close bonds and get them all back to doing what they were born to do.

A viral video provides the opportunity Valentina needs: A boy discovers an unusual-looking egg and believes it to be a dragon egg. Millions of viewers are watching online as the egg seems ready to hatch at any moment, but Valentina knows it's a recipe for disaster. After all, her father often liked to say that “people liked the idea of magical beasts, but if they knew the truth? They wouldn't be able to handle it.” Valentina convinces her siblings to climb back into the Scourge and race to the egg before any TV reporters or monster hunters get there—and before something terrible happens.

Córdova sends her characters on a delightfully detailed wild ride of a road trip. As they visit foreboding and fantastical locales, Valentina and her siblings encounter monsters of all stripes, from sinuous, threatening beasts to creatures so cute and fluffy you'll wish they were real. Monsters appear in the most unexpected places, as do humans scarier than any mythical creature.

Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter swirls fantasy, adventure, comedy, action, coming-of-age and even a few hints of romance into a magical, memorable elixir of a story. Córdova makes a powerful case for friendship, imagination and hope as she reminds readers that “not everything that looks like a monster is monstrous.”

This heartfelt elixir of a story combines fantasy, adventure, comedy, action and coming-of-age for an unforgettable wild ride.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood

Louis lives with his determined, free-spirited grandmother. When neither she nor City Hall can tell him how many dogs live in their neighborhood, Louis takes Grandma's advice to heart: “Sometimes if you want something done you've just got to do it yourself.” 

Louis decides to go door to door to take a census. Along the way, he learns a lot about his neighbors and their pets. Two corgis named Wilbur and Orville enjoy bird-watching, while a small white terrier named E.B. “dreams of writing stories.” Such clever references elevate the story, even if younger readers might not immediately grasp their meanings. An older man tells Louis that he has learned many lessons from his dogs, Aesop and Fable, while a house in which musicians practice saxophone and flute is also home to a pair of hounds named Thelonious and Monk. All of these touches are artful and light, just there for the taking.

Meanwhile, Grandma is occupied with a project of her own, as she's unsatisfied that the city has fenced off an abandoned lot. Her efforts and Louis' dovetail pleasingly, and there's a lovely surprise for Louis in the end.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood is an easy book to fall in love with. Philip C. Stead's writing is exquisite, and illustrator Matthew Cordell's artwork portrays a delightful menagerie of humans and their four-legged friends. Stead (author of the Caldecott Medal-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee) makes every word count, while fellow Caldecott Medalist Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) brings the bustling sidewalks of Louis' neighborhood to life. His signature loose, expressive lines have fabulous energy and personality reminiscent of the work of Quentin Blake and Jules Feiffer.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood is a memorable story about energetic grandparenting, the importance of being a good neighbor and the fruits of civic engagement.    

The Pet Potato

Move over, Sophie's Squash: Albert's potato has arrived. In Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf's beloved 2013 picture book, a young girl befriends a squash she finds at the farmers market. Josh Lacey and Momoko Abe's The Pet Potato pays similar tribute to the power of imagination through the story of Albert, a playful boy with circular red glasses and a mop of curly hair who longs for a pet but whose parents have squashed all of his suggestions.

Despite his parents' firm stance, Albert pleads unrelentingly until, one day, his father hands him a small wrapped package, which turns out to contain a potato. “You wanted a pet,” Dad tells Albert. “It's a pet potato.” Albert sets the potato aside, then notices that it looks sad. The next day, he gives the potato a ride on his train set, and soon the pair are inseparable.  

British author Lacey is no stranger to unusual pet tales; he's also the author of the Dragonsitter chapter book series. Here, he employs excellent comic timing as he describes Albert and the potato's adventures at home, on the playground and even at the library, where, “for some reason, the potato particularly liked books about pirates.”

Abe's illustrations capture it all, from Albert and the potato palling around on the playground to Albert drifting off to sleep at night, the potato resting on the pillow next to him. A limited color palette of greens, reds, yellows and browns allows Albert's and the potato's facial expressions to shine. Using minimal linework and an arsenal of adorable potato-size hats, Abe creatively animates the potato, who becomes an intrepid safari explorer, a railway engineer and more.

Of course, like all pets, potatoes don't live forever, and Lacey crafts a satisfying ending that leaves everyone happy, including Albert. A final spread portrays a diverse array of neighbors discovering how much fun a pet potato can be.

With great style and gentle humor, The Pet Potato demonstrates how a vivid imagination can transform an ordinary spud into an extraordinary buddy.

The Surprise

When Kit receives a guinea pig as a surprise birthday gift, her household's other animals are perplexed by the creature. Bob the pug, Dora the cat and Paul the bird pronounce, “If you're not a cat or a dog or a bird, you're an oddball.” Co-authored by award-winning novelist Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and her husband, Nick Laird, The Surprise is a spirited celebration of the unexpected. In the world of this story, anything can happen—and it does. 

The Surprise (as the newly arrived guinea pig is called for most of the book) is dressed for judo, which she loves, but her new companions abandon her to watch TV, leaving her feeling sad and lonely. As she experiments with ways to fit in, the Surprise winds up in big trouble. Fortunately, she is rescued by a fellow oddball, an older woman named Emily Brookstein who lives in a flat below Kit's. “Life's too short not to be an oddball,” Emily advises.

Illustrator Magenta Fox's artwork is well suited to this tale of anthropomorphized animals. The guinea pig is an immediately adorable and sympathetic protagonist. Ginger-haired, exuberant Emily Brookstein and loving new pet owner Kit make perfect foils to the disapproving trio of Bob, Dora and Paul. Fox excels at facial expressions, whether it's a smug yet puzzled look on a bespectacled pug's face or the Surprise's downcast eyes as the other animals talk about her as though she can't hear them. There's plenty of action, too, including an airborne guinea pig and a dynamic series of panels that depicts an exciting elevator journey. 

When Kit returns home from school, she finally christens her new pet Maud. It's clear that Maud will fit right in with the animals and humans of her new family, but she has also gained an appreciation for what makes her stand out, too. 

There’s nothing quite so wonderful—or as challenging—as bringing a new pet into the family. These three picture books showcase the happiness that these companions add to our lives.

Young astronomer Mable loves to listen to Grana's stories, but her grandmother is ill and “too weak to tell stories now.” As Mable stays close to Grana's bedside, she looks up at the sky through a telescope, making maps of the constellations. “If we can touch the moon,” Grana asks her granddaughter, “then what is impossible?”

Later that night, Mable embarks on a quest to “make impossible things possible” by touching the moon. After a countdown, she rockets into the sky like a spaceship. As she soars among the constellations, she recognizes fantastical figures from her grandmother's tales of African mythology and African American history, including an archer, a pair of twins and a friendly dog. When Mable stops for a sip of water from the drinking gourd, she sees tracks that remind her of the Underground Railroad. Eventually, she begins to feel tired, and a group of celestial women cocoon her in a blanket of stars until she falls asleep. No miracle awaits when Mable awakens the next morning, but Grana feels well enough to sit up and ask Mable to tell her a story.

Author Breanna J. McDaniel's prose is warm and inviting. Grana's illness seems severe, but McDaniel constructs a comforting, hopeful narrative that emphasizes the strong, loving relationship between Mable and her grandmother. In the book's backmatter, McDaniel (Hands Up!) movingly describes Impossible Moon‘s personal origins. She also provides brief descriptions of the constellations Mable encounters and explains their roles in African American culture.

Illustrator Tonya Engel's oil and acrylic illustrations are richly hued and playful. Small flames trail behind Mable's feet as she shoots up into the sky, a rocket ship of a girl. Brilliant blues evoke the dreamlike atmosphere of Mable's nighttime adventure, while tiny splatters of white and yellow convey the vast number of distant stars.

Readers who enjoyed Antwan Eady and Gracey Zhang's Nigel and the Moon won't want to miss this fresh, imaginative lunar tale. It belongs on the nightstands of young dreamers everywhere.

Mable embarks on an imaginative journey to touch the moon in this lunar tale perfect for readers who loved Antwan Eady and Gracey Zhang’s Nigel and the Moon.

Hakim, a donkey, heads out to visit his friend Daisy, who lives on the top of a mountain, so that he can give her the sweater he knitted. The mountain is covered in a thick fog and said to be riddled with monsters. “You're doomed!” yells a goat as Hakim begins his journey, establishing a comically eerie tone to the whole affair.

When Hakim sees a strange figure in the fog, he wonders if the old goat was right. From a distance, the outline of the figure is enveloped in mist, and it appears to be a robot-esque monstrosity. But when Hakim and the figure draw closer, the “monster” turns out to be a dog carrying a pallet of bricks on her head. The friendly dog joins Hakim on his journey up the mountain.

Twice more, the fog tricks the travelers into thinking that they see monsters on the path ahead, but each time, they're proven wrong and a new companion joins the party. Ultimately, the group realizes that “everything looks like a monster in the fog. . . . But the closer you get, the less scary it becomes.”

Understated humor has never been so laugh-out-loud funny as in Ali Bahrampour's Monsters in the Fog. The moderate absurdity of a dog carrying a pile of bricks on her head is one thing, but the final “monster” tops them all. In the fog, it appears as a massive skull until the page turn reveals the gloriously ridiculous truth: It's a bear on a tricycle, careening down the mountain on her way to a repair shop to get the brakes fixed. Even better is the way she manages to stop long enough to meet the group: “A rock helped her out,” we read as the tricycle is wedged into a large stone, sending the bear flying through the air.

Bahrampour presents this perfectly paced, playful tale in muted watercolors and a lively cartoon style that's reminiscent of the work of Jon Agee and William Steig. The reveals steal the show, but readers will also love Hakim's sweet devotion to Daisy, who is responsible for her own surprising reveal at the book's close. It may be difficult for a donkey to knit a sweater, but Hakim knows that his struggles with knitting needles and monsters alike are worth it for a friend.

Understated humor has never been so laugh-out-loud funny as in Ali Bahrampour’s perfectly paced, playful picture book.

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