Reviewing Middle Grade Books

by | May 7, 2018

Recently I got the opportunity to begin reviewing middle grade books for my local paper, the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. I leaped at the chance, not for the fame or fortune, but because it dovetailed with my desire to read more middle grade. I am expected to write one review every three weeks. And I plan to post those reviews here, as well. With no further ado, here is my first review!

Pennybaker School is Revolting by Jennifer Brown

 If you like books with a lot of humor, pratfalls, wordplay and modest mysteries, then the Pennybaker School series is for you! Pennybaker School is Revolting (Bloomsbury) is the second in a series by Jennifer Brown featuring sixth-grader Thomas Fallgrout and the various other wacky students of Pennybaker School.

There is a lot happening in this book. The main story line concerns the missing history (aka “Facts After the Fact”) teacher, Mr. Faboo. Mr. Faboo is kind of unconventional: he dresses in costumes and likes to re-enact historical events. But I love his approach to history.  Here’s how Thomas explains it:

“Mr. Faboo was awesome at teaching us interesting stuff about regular people, because he believed regular people were just as important in history as wars and treaties, which made regular guys like me feel kind of important.”

Not only does Mr. Faboo disappear, but the new history teacher, Mr. Smith, is a disaster. He dresses in a boring brown suit and expects the class to read textbooks and take quizzes. So Thomas sets out to find Mr. Faboo and convince him to return. All his efforts end in disaster, including being chased by a bull and falling headfirst into cow dung. Who doesn’t love a little poop humor?!

A second plot line involves the boys’ PE class joining the girls for a ballroom dancing unit and all the ways Thomas uses his special skill (magic) to try to get out of the experience. Added to that, Thomas’s very enterprising and entertaining granny is up to something mysterious as well.

But really the story is about fitting in. Thomas is trying to adjust to the fact that his oddball friend, Chip Mason, now is more popular at Pennybaker School than Thomas is. Chip is one of the most eccentric of all the kids, and so Thomas is proud that he took Chip under his wing. Now Thomas struggles with conflicting feelings, not only about his own friendship with Chip (Chip can be so annoying!) but also how Chip’s popularity somehow diminishes his own standing in their friend group.  I think this is a dynamic most of us can relate to.

With its humor, short chapters, entertaining characters and fun pencil illustrations by Marta Kissi, this  book falls in the young end of middle grade books. If you are a fan of books like Frindle by Andrew Clements, then I think you’ll really enjoy Thomas’s adventures!

Book cover of Pennybaker School is Revolting

Alexandra the Great book cover

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