Scieszka, Jon, ed. Guys Read: Funny Business.
Mr. Scieszka really needs to get to work writing a middle grade novel (Spaceheadz was just too young for my group), but while we're waiting, I can try this collection of short stories by various authors out on my boys. My favorite story by far was by Eoin Colfer, and detailed how one of his brothers was the inspiration for Artemis Fowl. Other notable stories include Kid Appeal, by David Lubar, which could easily be developed into a book with Dwight Howtzler as the main character, and Unaccompanied Minors, by Jeff Kinney, that shows that the Wimpy Kid author could well put his talents to other uses whenever he gets tired of that series.
Strengths: Funny writing, snippets from well-known authors, good cover.
Weaknesses: It's really hard to get students to read short story collections. No idea why. I even put all of my story collections into the fiction section, but they are still a hard sell.
Higson, Charlie. By Royal Command.
James spends a lovely few weeks learning how to ski with his classmates in the Alps, and even though an idiotic classmate almost gets him killed on the slopes, it's a good diversion after his recent adventures. When he gets back to Eton, however, he discovers more intrigue. Since it involves the lovely young Roan, a maid at the school, he doesn't mind at first, but when he uncovers a plot to assassinate the king, he has to decide which side he will be on. It's hard for James to see the world as black and white; even though Roan is on the wrong side, he thinks she is a good person, and he gives up everything to escape with her. This is supposed to be the last book in the series, but the ending was so open that it just doesn't seem like it should be.
Strengths: Wonderful sense of place and time. Bond's world and the people in it are lovingly described. There's also a lot of action and adventure, which is why my students like these, but I loved the depiction of a private school in pre-War Britain.
Weaknesses: This same attention to the details of the period make the first novel, Silverfin, slightly difficult for students to get into. I encourage them to perservere.
Myklusch, Matt. Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation.
Nominated for the Cybils by Morning Light Mama
Orphaned Jack is at the evil St. Barnaby's Home for the Hopeless, Abandoned, Forgotten, and Lost and is being punished by being made to bail out the dank basement when he is attacked by a zombie robot right out of one of the comic books he loves to read. He is then whisked off by Jazen Knight, who claims to be from the Department of Departmental Affaird, and taken to the Imagine Nation, a community of super heroes and others with extraordinary powers. It turns out that the robot was a Rustov, and Jack is infective with a Rustov virus, but for some reason, it's not killing him. Even though he is infected, he is put on the path to study at the prestigious School of Thought and given a series of tests, even while he is trying to degeat the evil Smart, who is trying to get him removed from the Imagine Nation. Jack manages to find out a little about his heritage, learns about his powers, and helps to save the Imagine Nation... for now. Sequels are probably forthcoming.
Strengths: Errs just on the right side of goofiness for middle school students, and has lots of fun gadgets. Explosions happen regularly, the villians are deliciously wicked, and the whole story moves along nicely.
Weaknesses: Bad cover art. Some serious editing would have made this a more cohesive story. It rambled a bit, and the variety of evil doers was a bit hard to follow at times. This is a hefty 450+ pages, which makes it a little difficult for third graders, who would probably like the story.