Middle Grades Book Review: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring by Enigma Alberti
Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring
Series: Spy on History #2
Author: Enigma Alberti
Illustrator: Tony Cliff
Published: April 2, 2019
Reviewed By: Cristina
Your Mission: Find Mary’s secret diary using spycraft stools to uncover hidden codes!
It’s a true story of bravery: Mary Bowser was an African American spy for the Union who worked as a maid in the mansion of Confederate Jefferson Davis. From hair-raising close calls when she almost gets caught to how she uses her photographic memory to “steal” top secret documents. Mary’s story reads like a gripping novel.
It’s a mystery to solve: There are clues embedded in the story’s text and illustrations, and Spycraft materials—including a replica Civil War cipher wheel—come in an envelope at the beginning of the book. Use both to discover what happened to Mary Bowser’s secret diary.
What would you do if you had the opportunity to be a spy where it would really matter? Your skills: a photographic memory, ability to read, and blending into the background. If you succeed, your people have a chance at freedom. If you fail, you’ll be hung. Are you in?
This book is a historical fiction with a fun interactive spy riddle to solve as well. A reader can just enjoy the story, or they can try to solve the case that’s embedded in the real story. Mary Bowser was a real person. She was a free African-American, but went undercover as a maid in Jefferson Davis’s mansion to spy for the Union. Because no person of color was expected to be able to read at that time in the South, Mary was able to read many valuable documents in Davis’s office while she dusted or polished lamps. She had to pretend to be illiterate and a little slow to avoid suspicion. It was a job filled with danger, but Mary proved to be invaluable to the Union. She was able to get critical information to the Union army and it helped save lives and win battles.
This book is written in a very engaging style. Lots of action, a few narrow misses that have you holding your breath, and insights into what the Civil War was like for the non-soldiers who still wanted to help fight for freedom and the Union. The interactive riddle–a search for Mary’s secret diary–is engaging as well. There is help at the back of the book if the reader gets too frustrated, but it’s fun to try and find the diary without any assistance. Spy on History is a series, so if historical fiction sounds appealing, come to the library to choose your spy adventure!
Book Review: Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Where the Sidewalk Ends
Author: Shel Silverstein
Reviewed By: Cristina
Come in… for where the sidewalk ends, Shel Silverstein’s world begins.
Shel Silverstein, the New York Times bestselling author of The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, Falling Up, and Every Thing On It, has created a poetry collection that is outrageously funny and deeply profound.
You’ll meet a boy who turns into a TV set, and a girl who eats a whale. The Unicorn and the Bloath live there, and so does Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout who will not take the garbage out. It is a place where you wash your shadow and plant diamond gardens, a place where shoes fly, sisters are auctioned off, and crocodiles go to the dentist.
Shel Silverstein’s masterful collection of poems and drawings stretches the bounds of imagination and will be cherished by readers of all ages.
Poetry often gets overlooked for young readers, but it can be a great stepping stone from picture books to chapter books, or comprehension practice for older readers. And, you know, poetry can just be fun to read!
Shel Silverstein is a very popular poet for children. This happens to be my favorite collection of his works. With poems about ice cream, pirates, doing chores, going to school, Silverstein’s poems are something children can relate to in their own lives. Some of them are just plain silly, some are very thoughtful, and some have a little lesson in them. He also draws illustrations to go with them. (The crocodile in the dentist chair is one of my favorites!) If your reader is thinking they are getting “too old” for bedtime stories, or you don’t have time for a whole book or chapter of something, try reading a poem together instead. This is a great collection to get them hooked on poetry!
Book Review: Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone
Author: Carrie Firestone
Published: July 7, 2020
Reviewed By: Cristina
In this debut middle-grade girl-power friendship story, perfect for fans of Moxie , an eighth grader starts a podcast to protest the unfair dress code enforcement at her middle school and sparks a rebellion.
Molly Frost is FED UP…
Because Olivia was yelled at for wearing a tank top.
Because Liza got dress coded and Molly didn’t, even though they were wearing the exact same outfit.
Because when Jessica was pulled over by the principal and missed a math quiz, her teacher gave her an F.
Because it’s impossible to find shorts that are longer than her fingertips.
Because girls’ bodies are not a distraction.
Because middle school is hard enough.
And so Molly starts a podcast where girls can tell their stories, and before long, her small rebellion swells into a revolution. Because now the girls are standing up for what’s right, and they’re not backing down.
Molly is an 8th grader at Fisher Middle School. FMS has a dress code. One that gets enforced. Ruthlessly. So when her friend gets “pulled over” for violating the code and humiliated by the principal Dr. Couchman, Molly decides to start fighting back. She starts a podcast to make others aware of the way the girls of FMS are being targeted, shamed and bullied–by the administration adults– simply because:
A bra strap was showing.
A shirt that showed a little sliver of stomach.
Shorts that didn’t hit the “finger tip” rule.
Hair that was “too big.”
What will it take to get the school board to revisit and fix the dress code issue at FMS? Molly isn’t sure, but she’s willing to do what it takes to get the issues addressed.
*While this book has an AR of 4.8( See below review for explanation of AR), it is full of difficult topics. Body shaming from authority figures. Family issues. Vaping. Friends figuring out that they are gay. All issues that many middle school students deal with in real life. I strongly encourage reading it with your reader for some great discussion opportunities.
This book caught my eye because in 7th grade in my middle school in Louisiana, I was “pulled over.” My shorts were apparently too short. Two other girls and I were told to kneel on the floor. If our shorts didn’t touch the floor, we would be against dress code. My shorts hit just above my knee; I got in trouble and was told to call for a change of clothes. I felt humiliated and embarrassed. The other girls were given a warning, even thought their shorts were even shorter than mine! How was this even fair?! My incident of being “coded” was in 1990. Reading this book made me sad to realize this was still such an issue, and hopeful to see that it getting addressed more and more. The way Molly and her friends fight for their voices to be heard is positive and inspiring. I hope many girls (and guys!) read this book and think about how they can make their voices heard as well.
***Accelerated Reader (AR) is used by many schools to track students’ reading comprehension. Each number range represents the reading level for each grade. For example, 3.0 represents a 3rd grade reading level. However, each child will have a reading level range determined by testing what is appropriate for them.