The Undercover Book List Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

“Two 12-year-olds confront their vulnerabilities.
A light-skinned girl with brown hair in a ponytail sits atop a cloud with a book in her lap and dozens of pieces of paper falling down from her cloud. Below her is a light-skinned boy with orange curly hair who is sitting atop some pillows, is also reading a book, and is receiving all pages that are cascading down on him.
Told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of seventh graders Jane (in the first person) and Tyson (in third-person omniscient), this story unfolds with clever aplomb. Although they are in the same class, Jane and Tyson don’t hang out together. Top-student Jane loves to read—especially mysteries—and misses her best friend, Sienna, who has recently moved across the country; underachiever Tyson pulls pranks that get him sent to the office and plays video games obsessively at home, to the detriment of his schoolwork. But when Sienna leaves an anonymous farewell note/clue in the school library for Jane, it is Tyson, hiding in the stacks, who sees Jane find the note, and he decides to jump in to the correspondence, also anonymously, as a prank.”

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Publishers Weekly

“Alternating chapters catalogue Tyson and Jane’s earnest perspectives (“It feels like people are always leaving me”) in Nelson’s (Harvey Holds His Own) gentle yet well-paced story. Featuring the duo’s interspersed missives, the narrative explores what it means to be accurately perceived, by both others and oneself, while simultaneously serving as a satisfying love letter to Louis Sachar, Rebecca Stead, Jacqueline Woodson, and other cherished authors, and emphasizing books’ transformative power. Back matter includes their Undercover Book List.”

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“With her father posted in the Middle East and her best friend moving away, Jane’s seventh-grade year is unsettling. Still, she follows through on a suggestion for making a new friend: in a particular book at the school library, she places an anonymous note recommending her favorite titles and inviting the next reader to reply by doing the same.

Nelson, a Canadian author, offers an appealing dual narrative that switches, chapter by chapter, between the two very different classmates’ points of view. The writing is straightforward but lively. Early on, Tyson sums up Jane in this wry sentence: “Teachers probably arm-wrestled each other to get her in their classes.” Both characters are convincingly portrayed in this rewarding middle-grade novel.”

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Foreword Reviews

“The book’s narration alternates between Jane and Tyson’s points of view, exploring themes of transformation, and of the strength it takes to embrace change. Tyson and Jane learn that change brings strength, too, once it’s been embraced. Their transformations are fast: both exhibit understandings of human psychology of the sort that eludes many adults. The obstacles they face, including vandalism and illness, are handled in a straightforward manner, but without sacrificing emotion (though a story line concerning a classroom activity is unresolved). Both strong Jane and sensitive Tyson prove to be excellent role models by the book’s gratifying ending. In the diverse novel The Undercover Book List, two classmates overcome their initial antagonism to find commonalities, which lead them to unexpected solidarity.”

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Quill & Quire

The Undercover Book List, like Nelson’s Harvey novels, takes an honest look at the emotional lives of preteens. Jane is dealing with loss, fear, and loneliness, while Tyson struggles to shake off his reputation to allow his true self space to grow. Nelson approaches their inner lives with respect and empathy, using books as the healing agent that brings them together.

The plot races along, switching between Jane’s and Tyson’s points of view with each successive chapter. Jane’s chapters are in the first person, while Tyson’s are in third person, which has the effect of making Tyson’s character seem distant in comparison to Jane.

The Undercover Book List will resonate with children who feel unseen, who dream of a friend who understands them, or who are figuring out what kind of person to be. It’s an absorbing, entertaining, and sensitive story that champions reading and the love of books.”

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CM Magazine

“This is every mother’s dream situation! Confiscate your kid’s game box and have him turn to reading as a compensation? Wow! Tyson isn’t stupid, but, until now, he’s not been motivated to do anything that takes more effort than a quick joke would. The anonymity of communicating by letter is a way for him to be a different sort of person and without having to worry about being laughed at or teased. So what if the situation is a bit idealistic rather than realistic — every life can use a bit of fantasy (and it doesn’t have to be in the form of a video-game avatar)!

An added bonus is the book list at the end, giving all the titles that Jane and Tyson discuss as well as the ones that just got a mention. It would make for a wonderful display in a school library, a Tyson-path and a Jane-path, with arrows leading from one book to the next to the next; I only wish I were still working in a library. Give The Undercover Book List to a reader and open up a whole new bunch of possible authors to be enjoyed or give it to a non-reader and see what happens. You might be surprised!”

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Canadian Children’s Book News

“When her best friend Sienna moves away, Jane wonders how she will make it through seventh grade without her. But Sienna has devised a clever way of helping Jane find a new friend by leaving a note in a book in the school library. When bad-boy Tyson Flamand finds the note, he decides to play along by making book suggestions for Jane. But he soon finds himself reading and, to his tremendous surprise, enjoying the books that Jane recommends in her replies. They each become increasingly invested in this secret book club. Then, Jane’s Kid Lit Quiz team needs a new member, and she wonders if her new book friend might be the perfect person. And Tyson surprises himself, along with everyone else, when he discovers that he may truly be that perfect person… and that he is more than just the prankster that he has a reputation for being.

With emotional depth and sensitivity, Colleen Nelson captures the struggles and uncertainties that both of her protagonists wrestle with. By alternating between their two points of view, she skillfully brings readers into their minds and hearts. Jane’s loneliness and anxiety as she misses Sienna and worries about her father, who is posted overseas, are poignantly depicted. At the same time, Tyson’s sense of resignation and feeling of being misunderstood are genuine and thought-provoking. The anonymity of exchanging notes gives them a greater sense of freedom to be themselves and to be more candid, allowing them to see themselves and each other in a new light.

The story is accessible and engaging, an insightful exploration of being open to new experiences and to the wonders of self-discovery. It is also a heartfelt celebration of the power of books to heal and to bring people together.”

Youth Services Book Review

“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.”

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CanLit for Little Canadians

“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. ”

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The International Educator

The Undercover Book List, Colleen Nelson is a fabulous middle grade novel. It’s a story grounded in a school library and books, focused on friendship. Jane loves to read but misses her best friend who moved away. Tyson is into video games and does not like to read. But through the secret messages left in books in their school library, both main characters change and make new friends. A great story for book worms and kids who have to move and make new friend.”

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Book Time

“I really liked this book and it’s on my to-be-read-to-my-son pile. And while I liked Jane, the main character in the book, it was Tyson I liked the most and who I saw the most change in. My heart actually broke for Tyson a couple of times. Not only do his teachers believe the worse, so too, do his parents who laughed when Tyson said he read a book; they didn’t believe him. No wonder the kid can’t be bothered. I loved how hard Tyson tried and how it changed him in the end.”

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“I loved the idea of two kids getting to know each other through notes left in books. Tyson had a reputation as a prankster and poor student, and watching his transformation was my favourite part of the story. I also loved Jane’s willingness to stay connected with Sienna and how they supported each other through their transitions. Both Jane and Tyson have challenges at home that ring true to middle-grade experiences and add depth to the character’s stories. There are some excellent ideas to use in the classroom, such as the Other Words for Me board and starting a Kid Lit Quiz team. The short chapters and overall book-length of 258 pages will appeal to a wide range of readers, and I would recommend this story for Gr. 4-7.”

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Storytime with Stephanie

“Coming just in time for the start of the school year, Colleen Nelson’s brilliant and charming new middle grade novel, The Undercover Book List, will inspire the readers and non-readers in your life.

I love that The Undercover Book List is written from two perspectives, Jane and Tyson. They are both incredible characters, going through their own struggles which shape their outlook on life. Tyson has no self confidence and always goes for the easy laugh to protect from being vulnerable. He doesn’t realize all of his potential. Jane is the sweetest person, kind and generous and is confident. When she takes a chance on Tyson, she helps him see himself in a more positive light.

I really enjoyed Tyson. He was such a great character and it was wonderful to watch him grow in confidence and understanding throughout the story. There are many Tyson’s out there. Children who just see themselves as one thing instead of multitudes. He becomes a leader and a good friend. Jane is a character who knows what is right and fights for it. She is a fierce friend and doesn’t give up on people easily. The two of them, Tyson and Jane, teach each other a lot over the course of the story an help each other navigate the tricky middle school dynamics, unbeknownst to each other.

All of the book recommendations within the story are stellar! I loved seeing the familiar titles pop up and even got a couple to add to my list. Colleen Nelson added shout out to books written by some of our most favourite Canadian authors. Honestly, I would have loved an undercover book club when I was a middle schooler. May have made the lonely eighth grade year more tolerable. Heck, I would love to have an undercover book club now! Perhaps I will start leaving notes in my library books!

The Undercover Book List is an awesome story, fabulous for the start of a new year to inspire readers and non readers to just pick up a book and enjoy.”

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Julie (Goodreads)

“One of my favorite kind of books are books about books…and this one did not disappoint! By the end I wanted to join both an Undercover Book Club and a Kid Lit Quiz team. I particularly enjoyed the unlikely friendship and how their story revealed the power of books.

Also, this quote…”flexing their intellectual muscles by firing off the names of the Newbery Award winners in chronological order,”…I am OBSESSED with it! It’s the answer to the prompt, “Tell me you’re a reader without telling me you’re a reader.””

Laurie Hnatiuk (Goodreads)

“I love the way Colleen has tackled a friend moving away. The unique way in which Colleen Nelson sets this up is a breath of fresh air. Instead of focusing on the friend who moves away, the author focuses on the friend who isn’t moving. Ms. Nelson reminds us that the friend staying behind also faces challenges and periods of difficulty, things that sometimes we may overlook.
Readers also meet a familiar character. We all know someone like Tyson Flamand. The clever individual who acts one way because they are not confident to show us their true selves. In The Undercover Book List, readers see the growth of Tyson as he gains confidence and realizes he can contribute and doesn’t need to hide behind the elaborate pranks. I appreciated the honesty of showing how Tyson knows how to suggest relevant and current books for Jane to read when he doesn’t consider himself a reader. Some individuals will see themselves and make connections to both Tyson and Jane. What a great way to talk about how we can get around from working to fake read and know excellent books to recommend to finding books that will engage those individuals who see themselves as nonreaders.

Using the duo perspective, readers get to know Jane and Tyson individually while speculating how they will become friends without the characters knowing they will be friends. Kids will enjoy this aspect of the story and will be able to connect and share with their personal stories. Writing from this dual perspective keeps readers engaged and wanting to learn more about each character and the storyline moving.”

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Michelle Kadarusman (Goodreads)

“Book nerds unite! The Undercover Book List provides a simply wonderful premise for young book lovers – and for those who don’t think they are bookish, they will be by the end of the story. Love, love, love the depiction of friendships old and new that grow and blossom under Nelson’s deft hand. A heartwarming page turner that achieves what all exceptional literature does, it inspires the reader to read more. All the stars for this middle-grade gem.”

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Kids’ BookBuzz

“Jane and Tyson send notes to each other. At first, Tyson thinks it’s a joke, but it actually leads him and Jane to the Kid Lit Quiz team, and a possible friendship…

I liked this book a lot! At the end of the book there is a list of book recommendations, but not just any book recommendations… The Undercover Book List recommendations! If you are looking for something interesting to read, this is the book that you’re looking for!

Reviewed By: Viviane – age 9″

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Jill’s Book Blog

“In this book, the kids compete in a Kid Lit Quiz, which is a trivia competition about books. I don’t think that was around when I was a kid, but I would have loved it. I haven’t read many of the books mentioned in this story and I’m curious to read them now. I loved that the book club and quiz in this story turned Tyson, a reluctant reader, into a book lover. Whenever someone tells me they don’t like reading, I just say that they haven’t found the right book yet. That was true for Tyson in this story.

This story had two narratives, a first person narrative from Jane and a third person narrative about Tyson. It wasn’t obvious to me why Jane told her own perspective while Tyson’s narrative had a third person narrator. Jane had a more complex storyline, so maybe that’s why, but I’m curious why they didn’t have the same kind of narrator.

The Undercover Book Club is a fun middle grade story!”

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Shaunterria (GoodReads)

“A near perfect love letter to books and the kids that read them, The Undercover Book List is a well-written ode to the best middle-grade lit has to offer. Wrapped up a story of loss and self-discovery, tween readers are going to enjoy sharing this story with fellow bookworms (and it includes a ton of excellent book recommendations as well).”

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MaryLou Driedger

“I am part of a book club that meets once a month to talk with authors of recently published novels for middle-grade kids. On Thursday we chatted with Winnipeg author Colleen Nelson about her latest novel The Undercover Book List published by Pajama Press.

Colleen’s The Undercover Book List is told from the point of view of two junior high school students. Jane loves to read but she is struggling because she misses her best friend Sienna who has just moved to a new city. She also misses her Dad who is in the military and stationed far from home.

The other protagonist Tyson initially has no interest in reading and is addicted to video games. He is struggling because he is getting abysmal grades, has become a bully and prankster and has two siblings who are successful high achievers.

Tyson and Jane meet serendipitously via a secret book exchange arranged by Jane’s friend Sienna before she moves away and both their lives are impacted in all kinds of ways as a result.

I liked many things about Colleen’s story but here are three that stuck out for me…”

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