The Undercover Book List by Colleen Nelson

The Undercover Book List by Colleen Nelson. Pajama Press, 2021. 9781772781878

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Realistic fiction

What did you like about the book? 7th grader Jane McDonald has lost her best friend.  Jane and Sienna have been close since bonding over favorite books, and now Sienna is moving away.  Her parting gift is a secret she hid in the school library; she gives Jane a clue that leads to a note in the book Liar & Spy, which Sienna hopes will help Jane make a new book-loving friend.  Meanwhile, class cut-up Tyson spends more time in the principal’s office than the library, and when he happens upon Sienna’s note, he thinks it would be a fun prank to get involved.  But soon Tyson is reading the books that Jane is recommending through the Undercover Book Club, and even offering her some suggestions of his own.  Jane and Tyson are classmates who have barely ever even spoken to each other, and Jane is not aware that Tyson is her correspondent, but the two start to become friends in person when Jane convinces Tyson to join her team in the upcoming Kid Lit Quiz competition.  Things become further complicated when the team’s coach, Jane’s grandfather, suffers a stroke; Jane’s participation is in question and Tyson has to assume a leadership role he’s not sure he’s ready for.

Told in alternating chapters from each main character’s perspective, The Undercover Book List is a treat for book lovers as it recommends titles such as Harbor Me, The Book Thief, and several others.  Both characters learn and grow a great deal over the course of the book and readers will really enjoy their development.  Jane grapples with separation, from Sienna and from her military Dad, with worry about her grandfather, and anxiety about her social status at school.  Tyson wants to find his niche between his overachieving siblings and to shed his reputation as class clown without losing his cool guy friends.  The two bond over books and help each other through these challenges with humor and genuine friendship (it is noteworthy that romance between the two is never suggested), supported by a  wonderful cast of secondary characters including friends, family members and school staff.  The author includes a list of the book suggestions that Jane and Tyson share.   

Anything you did not like about the book?  There were a number of syntax errors throughout the text – missed articles and redundant prepositions – that should have been caught by proofreading.  And it is a bit perplexing that the ‘Jane’ chapters are told in the first person and the ‘Tyson’ chapters are not.

To whom would you recommend this book? Upper elementary kids who have enjoyed stories like Ban This Book or even the Mr. Lemoncello series will enjoy this homage to contemporary middle grade fiction, and might even follow up with some of Jane and Tyson’s recommendations!

Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Fiction

Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  No

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.

Date of review: September 30, 2021

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