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Shadows at Jamestown Review by Lisa McKinneySpies at Mount Vernon
Escape from Monticello
Steven K. Smith
PO Box 2555
Midlothian, VA 23113
Shadows at Jamestown, Spies at Mount Vernon, and Escape from Monticello are the latest installments in the Virginia Mysteries series by Steven K. Smith. Geared for ages 8-12, this children’s mystery series features the brothers Derek and Sam, and their friend Caitlin. They enjoy solving modern-day mysteries throughout Virginia, learning about people and events from Virginia’s history in the process. Shadows at Jamestown explores the history of Jamestown while the children try to solve a mystery of who is trading out real artifacts from the Jamestown archeological dig with fraudulent pieces. Spies at Mount Vernon takes the children from Washington DC to George Washington’s home at historic Mount Vernon where they try to catch spies determined to pass government secrets into the wrong hands. Escape from Monticello brings Sam, Derek, and Caitlin into the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, as they seek a stolen journal following clues that take them from The University of Virginia to Jefferson’s home at Monticello—all the while trying to escape an enemy from their past. Each of the books retails for $9.99 and is a great idea for gifts for middle-grade readers.
While these books are #6-8 respectively in the Virginia Mysteries series, the books can easily be read as stand-alone novels. The stories do reference other adventures, but not as a continuation of a previous plot. Written from eleven-year-old Sam’s point of view, they include typical thoughts and dialogue one would expect from an average boy thrust into unexpected adventures. Sam is more of an introvert preferring to be a supporting character over a star. He prefers to analyze a situation rather than rush in and is very detail-oriented. In contrast, it is made obvious that his older brother Derek loves the limelight and is prone to rushing into situations without thinking. Caitlin is a friend that they met earlier in the series, who continues to join them on their adventures. She is extremely knowledgeable, and history is one of her favorite things. It is through her that many of the historical facts are shared as she shares her knowledge with the boys while in their adventures. The books include a plethora of historical information presented as part of the plot, through the location of the events and the people involved. Sam, Derek, and Caitlin learn more about the lives of the settlers of Jamestown while they are on location participating in an archeological dig. Traveling to Mount Vernon for a presidential state dinner allows them to explore the life of the first president George Washington as they tour his home. It is a journal written by Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughters that is the catalyst for an exploration into Jefferson’s life and home at Monticello and his family retreat at Poplar Forest. Each history lesson is woven into the story in such a way that the reader will not even realize they have been learning while engrossed in the story. It is the ideal way to learn history!
I think these books are perfect for boys or girls who are at the middle-grade reading level. They are chock full of adventures, many of which happen simply because the kids were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sam, Derek, and Caitlin are everyday characters very relatable to today’s youth, as they deal with normal pre-teen and teenage insecurities and interests. I found the stories left me feeling satisfied because they were clean reads without foul language or inappropriate situations. Adults in these stories were respected by the children and there were logical consequences for behaviors. The boys’ parents and Caitlin’s parents are present and active participants in their children’s lives. The books encourage bravery, honesty, integrity, kindness, patriotism, and much more!
I do not have anything negative to say about these books. The stories are wholesome, but still feature normal issues a child would experience and identify withsuch as sibling rivalry, being nervous in stressful situations, anxiety in public speaking, bullies, and normal childhood awkwardness. I would have liked to have seen one of the books written from Derek or Caitlin’s point of view to change it up, but that is just a personal preference. I did like how the writer shows Sam’s growth through each story as he conquers personal fears or rises above his insecurities. My fourteen-year-old enjoyed the history threaded through the books and says he thought they had plenty of adventure. My nine-year-old identified with Sam’s struggles with an annoying big brother. Of the three books we read, I think I enjoyed Escape from Monticello the most because it had information about Thomas Jefferson’s life that I had never heard before.
I believe these books to be an excellent choice for a family read-aloud, especially when studying history or events connected with the stories. The author even provides additional resources and materials which coordinate with the history topics for each book. These are easily found on his website.
If you are seeking wholesome adventure books for your middle-grade reader, check out the Virginia Mysteries series by Steven K. Smith!
-Product review by Lisa McKinney, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, May 2020