September 13, 2021

The Undercover Book List

Written by Colleen Nelson
Pajama Press
224 pp.
Ages 8-12
September 2021 

With the departure of her best friend Sienna to a new home and school, Jane McDonald is not looking forward to her Grade 7 year. But a literary mystery and an undercover friend-making activity may be what she needs to help make the year tolerable. Maybe even more.

In alternating voices and chapters of twelve-year-olds Jane and Tyson, Colleen Nelson brings together two kids with very divergent views on reading. Jane is a voracious reader, a passion she has shared with her best friend Sienna. But, with her dad already posted overseas as a Chief of Staff for a peacekeeping mission and now Sienna moving far away, she is feeling empty. Still Sienna has left her a clue that she hopes will help her friend find other reader friends. Giving Jane the code name X, Sienna initiates the Undercover Book Club by which Jane can leave notes and book recommendations and connect with others. 

The note is found by Tyson, a non-reader and prankster, who discovers the note when sent to the library for a book while he waits for the principal to discipline him. Tyson is not a reader. In fact, he can't even take books of the library since he has not returned some from last year. But when this Mutant-Z aficianado gamer has his Xbox taken away and has nothing else to do, he sneaks out the book in which the first note is found, recommends a book he remembers his teacher reading, and starts on his own reading journey.

Tyson knows X is Jane but she has no idea he's Y. As the two begin an unlikely book friendship, and Jane and her Kid Lit Quiz team struggle to reorganize after Sienna's departure, the Undercover Book Club is born, each reading new books and talking about their choices and learning more about themselves. As they compile a list of extraordinary books–with shout-outs to Canadian authors Kenneth Oppel, David A. Robertson, Monica Hughes and Susin Nielsen among others–it's a journey of self-discovery and self-development and it's all courtesy of reading.

Readers know the richness that stories can bring into their lives. We meet new friends, travel to different places and times, and we learn.  By bringing together a reader and non-reader, Colleen Nelson, an astute writer and undoubtedly understanding teacher, has written about every child out there. The ones that love books will always find something to read but can get so much insight from the perspectives of others. Those that haven't become readers yet often just need the scaffolding of the right book or the right person to bring them to reading. With the Undercover Book Club, Tyson and Jane both find their people among those they would have dismissed originally and enrich their lives beyond just reading.

Colleen Nelson has a natural skill at giving young readers characters who are real, though not always likeable at first, and who are able to change with their experiences and perspectives. It's her characters who have always driven her stories, whether they are in her picture books (e.g., Teaching Miss Muddle, 2020), middle grade (e.g., Harvey Comes Home, 2019) or young adult novels (e.g., Sadia, 20018), and give her plots the foundation for exploration of topics from bullying to abandonment, abuse and empowerment. By letting us see Jane and Tyson from different perspectives and responding to common scenarios, they become even more real.
Thanks for seeing me for who I am. And who I wanted to be, even if I didn't know it. (pg. 258)
For the reluctant reader who doesn't know they're a reader yet and for those who will consume this story with gusto, The Undercover Book List is for them. From its fabulous cover–easily identifiable as that of illustrator Scot Ritchie–through Colleen Nelson's irresistible text and appended notes about authors and books to check out, The Undercover Book List brings reading out from under its nerd status into a mainstream social avocation it can be.


Tomorrow I'll post about Colleen Nelson's hybrid (limited in-person and online) book launch for The Undercover Book List on Friday, September 17, 2021.


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