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⭐️ Book Review: Max In The House of Spies by Adam Gidwitz

I vividly remember the first book by Adam Gidwitz I ever read, in part because it was sent to me by a former student. I was an English teacher for 10 years, before transitioning into the role of school librarian in a district that was over 200 miles from the community where I'd lived and taught for the previous decade. That first year as a librarian was tough. I felt isolated and lonely. One of the things that got me through that year was the occasional package that would arrive at my new school from a former student with whom I'd kept in contact. Those boxes, each containing a book, reminded me that story is a powerful connector - one that was not only keeping me tethered to my previous life, but one that I hoped would soon also connect me to my new one. That said, tucked in one of those packages was A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz.

Back in those days, social media and even cell phones weren't the massive part of our lives that they are now, so to chat about the books he sent me that year, my former student and I communicated via email. This stands out to me now, because I remember the email thread we used to discuss A Tale Dark and Grimm was titled, "The Pacing!" To this day, I can't think of another author for young people who paces books in the way that Adam Gidwitz does. From their very first word, his stories seem to just tumble across the page like the expertly crafted Rube Goldberg machines that they are. To be sure, Adam's stories often contain elements like cliff hangers and suspense as tools for keeping the reader hooked, but I love the way the very grammar and structure of his books make those devices all the more potent.

Which leads me to his latest novel, Max In The House of Spies. True to its title, this is a book about spy craft and espionage during World War II. But it's also a book about figuring out who you are and about being true to that person once you do. This is a book about history, antisemitism, bullying and the dangers of group think. It's about friendship and families: those you are born into and those you choose. But most of all, Max In The House of Spies is a book about love.

After reluctantly traveling from Berlin to London, as part of the Kindertransport at the onset of WWII, Max Bretzfeld is determined to find his way home. Even though he knows they sent him away in order to save his life, Max not only misses his gentle and loving parents, but he is also convinced that they will never survive the Nazi regime without him. It doesn't help that Max is having a hard time fitting in home with his wealthy foster family, The Montagus: a kind, albeit eccentric, clan of London aristocrats. Fitting in at school is no easier, given that both his classmates and teachers seem determined to remind Max that, as a Jewish refugee, he is both different and unwanted. However, as something of a wünderkind with radios, Max's unique skills and giant heart soon bring him to the attention of the British Intelligence service who offers him an opportunity to travel back to Berlin as a spy, but only if he passes his training - a task made all the more complicated by marmite eating kangaroos and the kobold and dybbuk (Berg and Stein) who have taken up residence on Max's shoulders.

Like all Gidwitz stories, Max In The House of Spies is bubbling, dare I say fizzy, with action. Couple this with his signature quick, clever pacing, and Max's journey immediately establishes itself as a page-turner that is as enjoyable as it is engaging. Still, what makes this book really shine, for me, is the fascinating and lovable cast of characters who surround Max and who make the things he's fighting for all the more meaningful and important. Though not his beloved parents, the Montagu family, for example, which is populated with tennis table champions and avant-garde film makers, quickly takes up residence in both Max's and the reader's hearts. When the family experiences their first dose of the Nazi Blitz, we're both invested in their peril and delighted by their moxie when they decide to recenter the family's attention on an ongoing table tennis rivalry - rather than spending the bombardment cowering in the basement. Similarly endearing are Berg and Stein, the kobold and dybbuk who appear in the opening pages of the book as Max's constant companions and often hilarious peanut gallery. While the two immortal creatures (rooted in Jewish folklore) feel it's their mission to cause mayhem for humans, they soon find in Max an example of how helping others may actually be more rewarding than making people miserable! Who knew?

Like all historical fiction, Max In The House of Spies offers readers plenty of opportunities to learn more about a time in history that is, sadly, becoming all the more relevant. And, those who explore the book's back matter will quickly discover that this story is thoroughly researched with special attention given to ensuring that historical details are conveyed accurately and that characters based on real people are portrayed with care. However, I think the young readers for whom this book is targeted will find in Max In The House of Spies a beautifully crafted adventure that's fueled by both the book's expert pacing and its enormous heart. While this book reminded me of why I fell in love with his unique brand of storytelling to begin with, I'm convinced Max In The House of Spies will turn a whole new group of young readers into life-long Adam Gidwitz fans, too!


 ISBN: 9780593112083

Publication: February 20, 2024

Audience: Max is 11 years old as the story begins. I think readers in 4th grade+ will love his adventures.

Bonus Content:

Just for fun, I created a coloring sheet to go along with Max In The House of Spies. I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways that reading (and coloring!) can serve as stress reducers during a time when so many of us (kids included!) are experiencing a great deal of stress. In my heart of hearts, I'd like to think that this resource might entice colorers to pick up Adam's book, while also giving those readers who have already fallen in love with it, a fun way to stay connected to the story, but... it's fine if kids (of all ages!) just have fun coloring it, too. You can access the free download here.

Finally, please enjoy a special discount of 20% off the titles mentioned in this post (or others of your choice) by visiting Bookelicious and using the code JENNIFERLAGARDE. Note: I do not make any money when you purchase books from Bookelicious, but I am delighted that you get to save some! HOWEVER, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that buying books from Bookelicious is the way we keep their events (like the Bookelicious Middle Grade Bookclub - which I host!) free, while also supporting the authors and illustrators who join us each month, so... I hope you'll think of your book purchases from Bookelicous as supporting a good cause!


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