Review: Mystery on Church Hill (Virginia Mysteries #2) by Steven K. Smith

Review: Mystery on Church Hill (Virginia Mysteries #2) by Steven K. SmithMystery on Church Hill by Steven K. Smith
Series: The Virginia Mysteries #2
Published by MyBoys3 Press on November 2013
Pages: 196
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Young brothers Sam and Derek have a knack for uncovering mystery and adventure. When they visit Richmond's St. John's Church for a reenactment of Patrick Henry's famous liberty speech, they stumble upon a hidden piece of history. As the boys and their friends dig deeper, they find clues from America's founding fathers like George Wythe and Thomas Jefferson and a secret plot to steal a treasure from our nation's past. Join in the mystery as the search races from the from the cemeteries of Richmond to the streets of Colonial Williamsburg.

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Mystery on Church Hill is a great sequel to Summer of the Woods. Steven K. Smith ups the stakes for the readers with a more dangerous story line and a little more maturity for his 8- and 10-year-old protagonists, Sam and Derek.

I think what makes Mystery on Church Hill stand out is that Smith focuses on little known historical people. Not many adults know who George Wythe (pronounced “With”) is, so I’m pretty sure children don’t know who he is either. Smith not only manages to explain the historical details, he also makes it interesting. I love early American history (shocker, I know. I only talk about it ALL THE TIME.) and even I didn’t know some of the details about Wythe. In the case of Mystery on Church Hill, I was worried that readers wouldn’t care about the story or that they would find it “boring.” But what I didn’t consider was Sam and Derek’s reaction. Readers will care because they care. Sam and Derek think things are boring and they think things are exciting. I think readers will follow along and match their interest levels to those of the characters. Basically, Smith does a great job gauging the “boring factor” of his novels. He counters it at just the right moment with lots of action and plot advancement.

Unlike Summer of the Woods, Sam is the main character who gets in all the trouble. Derek certainly has an important role to play as headstrong big brother who acts before he thinks, but this is Sam’s story. Sam feels the most anxiety and the most curiosity. I like that Smith switches up the protagonists. It allows both boys to grow up. It also allows readers who may like Sam more the opportunity to get to know him a little better. I think this was a nice touch.

As for the danger? Man, Smith knows how to up the stakes. Sam accidentally uncovers a big secret. There’s an early American artifact involved. It’s like National Treasure Jr. The villains are real enough to seem dangerous but not so real to be truly scary. The villain in Mystery on Church Hill reminded me of a more serious Scooby Doo villain. Equal parts serious/dangerous and bumbling. It’s a nice balance that will keep young readers just worried enough without being scared. Think of it like peeking through your fingers while watching a scary movie. You really need to know what happens next.

As usual, Smith brings mom and dad back at the right moment. Though, Sam and Derek didn’t get in nearly as much trouble as I think they probably should have. That happens a lot in early middle grade though. We don’t want to read all the gory details about punishment. We want to read more adventure!

On a final note, Smith introduces us to a new character. Caitlin is a plucky girl in Sam’s class who loves history and loves doing research. She’s refreshing. At first we see her like a know-it-all but as Sam softens toward her, so do we. Those of you who follow my middle-grade reviews know that I love a strong girl character who doesn’t conform to stereotypes. Caitlin certainly doesn’t conform to stereotypes. She’s a great addition to the series and I’d love to see more of her in future books.

Smith balances history, adventure, and danger very well in Mystery on Church Hill. I think young middle grade readers will be equally enamored with this sequel to Summer of the Woods.

four-stars

© 2014 – 2016, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.

  • I like the history aspect of this one. I can’t think of how many bits and pieces I’ve picked up through reading fiction so I always love when I see it incorporated in an interesting way into a kid’s book. I’ll definitely be picking up this series both for me and my son. Thanks so much for sharing this!

    • Come back on Friday because his third book is even better! Sometimes I think history is better learned through osmosis than through someone droning on about names and dates.

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