Published by Henry Holt & Co. on June 2nd 2015
Genres: Mystery, MG Books
Source: the publisher through NetGalley
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For twelve-year-old Emily, the best thing about moving to San Francisco is that it's the home city of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, book publisher and creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger (a game where books are hidden in cities all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles). Upon her arrival, however, Emily learns that Griswold has been attacked and is now in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold himself, and might contain the only copy of his mysterious new game. Racing against time, Emily and James rush from clue to clue, desperate to figure out the secret at the heart of Griswold's new game--before those who attacked Griswold come after them too.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
I really wish the game described in Book Scavenger were real! Book Scavenger (the game) is a cross between geocaching or letterboxing and Book Crossing, a site where you label books, register them, release them into the wild (so to speak), and track where they go. In the fictitious Book Scavenger game, you give a book an ID, disguise it as necessary, hide it in a public place, and leave a clue on the Book Scavenger website so other players can find it. The website also a social site for talking about books. Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? And that’s not even the main “game” in Jennifer Chambliss Bertman’s new middle-grade mystery, Book Scavenger – though it does play a pretty important part.*
Book Scavenger begins with Emily’s family moving to San Francisco, home of publisher and Book Scavenger game developer Garrison Griswold; with Griswold’s mugging in a BART station; and with Emily’s budding friendship with James, a boy who lives in her apartment building. Emily and James are both geeks (in the endearing sense of the term), but while Emily’s passion is Book Scavenger, James is deeply into puzzles, ciphers, and cryptograms. When the pair stumbles across an unusual book, Emily suspects it is part of the new game Griswold was about to launch, and is determined to solve the game.
Book Scavenger is absolutely delightful, and should appeal to fans of The Westing Game, Blue Balliet, and even Elizabeth Enright’s Spiderweb for Two – or any other MG books featuring puzzles and treasure hunts. The mystery plot is cleverly executed. The puzzles, ciphers, and challenges in the book are all fun to read about, and many can be solved by the reader. Thanks to a challenge posed by Emily and James’s social studies teacher (in a related subplot), there are more of them than just the ones involved in the Gold Bug game, and kids will have fun trying out various codes and ciphers. There’s also just the right amount of danger and suspense for a MG book, as several other people seem to be trying to get their hands on Emily’s find.
But it’s not just a mystery; it’s also a book about friendship, family, and finding your place. Emily is tired of her family’s frequent moves, and the feeling of never settling down or belonging anywhere. She’s also obsessed with solving Mr. Griswold’s new game. James is equally obsessed with the cipher challenge, which leads to conflict between the friends. Emily and her brother Matthew don’t always get along, either. Bertman conveys the nature and challenges of friendship and familial relationships with both sensitivity and humor. Both James and Emily’s friendship and Emily’s relationship with Matthew really rang true for me, as did the resolutions of the conflicts between them.
Readers or parents looking for diverse characters will find at least some in this book. James is Chinese American, and his family’s history and traditions are presented matter-of-factly and with respect, but otherwise no particular emphasis is placed on his ethnicity – he’s just James, and his background is simply part of who he is. And there’s some minority representation among the secondary characters, as well.
There were only a few things that bugged me about the book (that’s an in-joke, but you’ll have to read the book to know why), and they aren’t particularly major. There’s a “character” that manages to fool Emily and James for a long time, and I had difficulty believing that reasonably intelligent kids wouldn’t figure out who they were really dealing with. And I wasn’t entirely happy with the resolution of the subplot involving the cipher challenge and a somewhat obnoxious girl called Maddie; it was believable but not really satisfactory. I might feel differently about both those quibbles if I were the same age as the book’s intended audience, though!
I would highly recommend Book Scavenger to any middle-grade and even teen readers who love puzzles, codes, or mysteries. It’s a lot of fun – and it would make a terrific book for MG book clubs or even classroom discussion, too. Adults may enjoy it also, but Book Scavenger is clearly intended for younger readers.
* There is a real version of the Book Scavenger game – sort of. The publisher has set up a website and hidden 50 copies of Book Scavenger for people to start playing. But it’s only for the Book Scavenger book; there’s no way to include other books. Maybe someone will think this is a cool enough idea to launch a full-scale version?