* “The Great Shelby Holmes”


The Great Shelby Holmes,” by Elizabeth Eulberg, is a terrific mystery for upper elementary and middle school students.  It’s a semi-spoof of Sherlock Holmes, but the characters and plot are definitely a stand alone.  Set in Harlem, John Watson and his mom (former army doctor in Afghanistan) are starting a new civilian life.  John’s parents have just divorced, he’s living off-post for the first time, and their arrival at their new apartment is met with a BANG!  Shelby Holmes, a 9-year-old prodigy going into 6th grade, has conducted a “harmless” experiment in her apartment at 221B Baker Street.  And it gets more complicated from there!

John is a budding writer who will be attending an arts-focused charter school.  Until he met Shelby, his journal had been bare for the past few months.  The changes in his life have been painful, he hadn’t made any friends, and school will start in a few weeks.  He is amazed at Shelby’s deductive abilities (so was I!) and ends up entangled in the mystery of a missing dog.  Their adventure reignites John’s interest in writing as he chronicles the amazing ups and downs of this complex mystery set in New York City.

John and Shelby could not be more different.  He is a social kid, eager to make new friends, and Shelby is an odd individual who appears to disdain social norms.  This mystery, with its hilarious events, uncertain relationships, and tender moments, is a life-changing experience for both Shelby and Watson (a moniker used by Shelby since he’ll be the third John in their class).  John must come to grips with his parents’ divorce, caustic remarks by Shelby, and the conflict surrounding this unusual mystery.  Shelby is also forced to confront her asocial behavior and perhaps admit that she actually needs John’s help.

One aspect I especially enjoyed about this book is its racial perspective.  Readers with the “white privilege” perspective may be surprised that John is black.  And just as I often hear white folks describe that “black doctor” or that “black kid,” John does refer to “white kids” but makes no special reference to black folks.  It would be perfect if none of us felt the need to make those distinctions, but it’s refreshing to see the world through nonwhite eyes.  More on that in the next book in this series, “The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match.

I highly recommend this entertaining and thoughtful book.  It will keep you guessing- and laughing- throughout!

* “Poached”


Poached” by Stuart Gibbs is a middle school kid-friendly mystery on steroids! The second in Gibbs’ FunJungle series, Teddy Fitzroy continues to run amok while being accused of stealing Kazoo the koala.  The book rocks with slapstick comedy, unexpected twists, complex characters, and loads of suspects.  Gibbs seamlessly includes an abundance of interesting info on animals in the context of the fictional FunJungle, a state of the art animal theme park/zoo.

Why is this a significantly improved follow-up to the original, “Belly Up?”  First, the author now steers clear of profanity, which is totally unnecessary in a kids’ book.  Second, we follow Teddy as he actually leaves FunJungle to attend school (OK, the other book took place during the summer break), where a bullying gang selects him as a prime target.  The school setting allows Gibbs to both strengthen his characters and introduce topics of interest to middle schoolers, including cliques and crushes.  Vance and his twin accomplices (cleverly named TimJim) coerce Teddy into pranking at FunJungle, although Teddy has always been quite mischievous without any pressure.  Another improvement in Poached is the author’s deemphasis on the weight of characters.  The first book made fun of obesity, which is a no-no in my opinion.  Teddy’s parents do a lot more than just listen to him in this second mystery; not only are their jobs are on the line if Teddy has poached Kazoo but they are acting more like responsible adults.  Finally, Gibbs has amped up his clever array of suspects, keeping us in suspense until the very end.

I used the first book as a read-aloud with a lot of on-the-spot editing, but wouldn’t have any qualms about this book in the hands of middle schoolers.  It’s a 5-star read with a very satisfying conclusion.