Ever since I stopped teaching, I have missed the classroom read-aloud time just about as much as I have missed the kids. Consequently, I keep my eyes out for a good middle reader that has the action, the content that is ripe for discussion, setting and events that bring 'teachable moments' to discussion, and a book that I know will lead kids to want more, more, more at the end of each chapter.
I have found it in this kid's novel by Maile Meloy. Her style is fast-paced. She has an excellent way with dialogue that makes it sound 'real and true' to and between her characters. She can tell a tale with mystery and yes, violence without having things get out of hand and too graphic.
In this particular book, she deals with the Cold War that is in full swing after World War II. Her young protagonist Janie Scott is a transplanted Californian in London. Janie's parents have been placed on the suspicion list of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Rather than stay in the States and face blacklisting, they move to London and get work in the British film industry. Janie is unceremoniously uprooted from her California high school and moved with her parents to England. She is homesick, nervous, and confused about her parents' predicament.
Fate will deliver her an adventure that will bring magic and mystery into her life, though. Janie meets some interesting new schoolmates at her small private school that also share mysterious backgrounds. On Janie's first day of school, she meets Benjamin Burrows and Sergei Shiskin. Benjamin's father is an apothecary in a shop near Janie's new flat. Sergei's father is a mysterious presence in the park near the school. As Janie gets to know Benjamin, she finds he wants more than to be an apothecary like his father, but events will transpire that make Benjamin develop more than a passing interest in what his father does in his apothecary shop. Sergei will be dragged into exciting events that develop around a pharmacoepia manual that Benjamin's father guards with unatural and mysterious zeal and his father's involvement with Mr. Burrows. When Mr. Burrows is kidnapped by agents with German accents, Benjamin and Janie become steward of the mysterious and valuable pharmacoepia manual and dash fast to understand just what tiger they have grabbed by the tail! Spies, questionable allies, lies and secrets, and yes, just a bit of teen romance ... what a fun read-aloud for a winter vacation trip, in a classroom in the weeks before school vacation, or curled up before bed each night.
The beauty of the book is that it has a follow-up novel that I really think will inspire kids to follow up on Janie's and Benjamin's adventures ... The Apprentice. Appropriate for readers from about ten and upward to fourteen or fifteen. ... Christmas is coming ... enjoy!