York: the Shadow Cipher (book 1), by Laura Ruby

Laura Ruby (of Bone Gap fame) has a new middle grade book--York: The Shadow Cipher (book1) coming from Walden Pond Press on May 16, and it is a very good book indeed, perfect for those who like to read about smart kids following cryptic clues, and perfect for kids fascinated by mechanical marvels and alternate/steampunkish versions of reality!

Tess and Theo Bidermann live in a Morningstar apartment building, one of several designed by the Morningstar twins over a hundred years ago.  The Morningstars weren't just architects; they were also inventors of many strange and wonderful contrivances and contraptions that are still making New York a cleaner, more functional city.  And they were also the masterminds of a mysterious cypher, promising great rewards to whoever solved it.  Which no one has been able to do, although many have tried.

Now Tess and Theo, joined by Jaime Cruz, another kid in their apartment, have stumbled across a side branch of clues that might actually lead them to the solution of the cipher.  They are determined to crack it, and as soon as possible, because the building that's been their home all their lives has been bought out from under them, and is slated for demolition.  So they set off through a slightly twisted version of the city, scrambling from one clue to the next in hidden tunnels, insane trips on the Underway, and inside their own building.

It is not a stroll through Central Park looking at flowers.  The dangers get gradually more intense, and although the first step of the Cipher is resolved, at the very, very end there is a ratcheting upward spike in the tension (with connections to the Civil War and abolition) that will leave readers anxious for Book 2!

It is a very satisfying read, in which the specifics of the cipher hunt are intermingled with everyday life and feelings (and tasty food, always a plus in my mind).  The three kids all have distinct personalities and character arcs, and the Morningstar apartment building becomes so real in the reader's mind as to be a character in its own right.  There is also a most unusual cat, who adds great cat value.  The hunt for clues is also mind candy for those who like to explore the stories of hidden or forgotten figures, since many of these stories are integral parts of the hunt. 

All this is good, but what I liked best of all are the little touches of whimsy and wonder--at one point the kids hear the story of a zoo giraffe who escaped captivity and threw itself into the river, and they sit, "watching the water together, imagining giraffes loping gracefully beneath the surface, making their way home" (page 246 of the ARC).  Which I think might be the overarching metaphor of the whole book (or perhaps not), but which in any event is an image I love.

I am happy to offer, on behalf of the publisher, the chance to win a signed copy!  Please leave a comment to be entered the giveaway. (US only, closes May 16)

Here's a link to the Educator's Guide, which has chapter by chapter questions, prompts for further discussion, and a slew of fun additional activities!

Here's hte list of blog tour stops:
May 1
May 3
May 4
May 5
May 7
May 8
May 10
The Haunting of Orchid Forsythia
May 11
May 12

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


  1. This is the second great review I've read of this book. I'm eager to read it as it sounds like something I would enjoy reading myself as well as sharing with my students.

  2. Looks like a great book. Would love to share it with my students.

  3. I'm sure my 13 year-old would love this.

  4. This book sounds so interesting. I have many students who request mysteries and this one sounds like a good one to share with them.

  5. Sounds interesting to me, at the very least, and my son, too, unless he's getting a bit old for it. But I'd love to be put in for the drawing. Thanks!

  6. Really want to read this book! Then, I will pass it to my middle schooler.

  7. Great review. You've got me excited to read this book.

  8. Oh my goodness, this book sounds so good! Mysterious, clever, immersive. I host a kids' book club and this sounds like it'd be a great pick. Thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  9. ooo, I made it.

    I keep thinking how this is another book I can give to the really smarty-pants advanced readers I point to The Mysterious Benedict Society. I always get those adults who are like, My second grader reads on an 8th grade level, WHAT CAN THEY READ? Middle grade books about super-smart kids solving puzzles are always a nice option!

  10. I had this on my radar, and even PURCHASED it, not realizing it was a middle grade title! I knew as soon as I saw Walden Pond on the spine though - they really put out good books, don't they?

    Anyway, all this to say it came in the mail today and I'll be reading it shortly during my lunch hour, and I was very glad to see that you liked it. That bodes well!

  11. I've seen this book on a few blogs and thought the cover looked interesting, but I didn't connect it with Bone Gap. Suddenly I'm very interested! Plus I'm a bit of a sucker for books about ciphers, and I love New York architecture, so, I'm pretty sure this book has my name on it!


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