A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Aimed at brainy kids who like puzzles, codes, museums, and history with their imaginative fiction. The dialogue features phrases in Spanish, Yiddish, and other languages. While the story's set in an alternative version of New York, in many ways the parallel worlds have a lot in common, from history (slavery, 19th-century slums) to familiar artists in the museums and familiar landmarks around town. Readers' brains will also get a workout as the teen protagonists try to break codes, solve puzzles, and otherwise figure out the mysterious message before it's too late.
Strong messages about family, friendship, teamwork, making the most of your talents -- plus being smart and using your brains for good.
Positive Role Models
Tess, Theo, and Jaime are all smart, determined, and good problem-solvers. They may be living in an alternate world, but many of their issues are very relatable -- for example, a beloved grandparent with dementia, losing the family home, being considered the weird kids at school. They don't always obey their adult caregivers as they sneak around museums, pick locks, dodge villains, and take off on assorted adventures, but their motives are good. Some adult characters are horrible and creepy, but others, notably the elder Biedermanns and Jaime's grandmother, are strong and supportive, with hidden qualities that sometimes prove useful.
Violence & Scariness
The Shadow Cipher opens in the 19th century as a murderous thug stalks a seemingly helpless young woman on the streets of New York (it doesn't end well for him, as she breaks his finger and calls the cops on him). The kids' forays into various parts of town as they try to solve the Cipher bring them into contact with scary characters, from street gangs to the mysterious operators of the Underway transit system, and some of their enemies are perfectly willing to kill to get what they want.
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A few references to butts. The especially ugly color of some walls is called "pee yellow."
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Products & Purchases
Somehow a number of products from our world also exist in this version of alt-New York, often with differences -- for example, the Spider-Man in this world is named Miles Morales. Theo wins a Lego contest.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Some of the adventures take the kids to bad parts of town (past and present), some of which are full of taverns, drunks, and other dubious characters.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Shadow Cipher, the first installment in Laura Ruby's middle-grade series, is set in a parallel-universe version of New York, one that took a different direction at the turn of the 19th century when immigrant twins harnessed mysterious power and built amazing technology. It's exciting, funny, dense -- and demands a reader who appreciates moments like the young protagonist looking at his alphabet cereal and saying, "Hey! I spelled Fibonacci!" Violence is a constant threat as characters in the past flee slavery, murder, and other dangers, while in the present the 12- and 13-year-old heroes venture into dangerous situations, try to outwit assorted goons, and do more as they try to solve the Cipher and save their home. The story's alt-New York world is full of diverse characters: Its own version of Spider-Man is named Miles Morales; the main characters are dark-skinned and big-haired (Jaime has dreadlocks); Jaime's Latino and the twins are Jewish. It's packed with puzzles, historical detail, in-jokes about academic concepts, and other bits of knowledge, which may be off-putting to some readers but will delight others.
Is It Any Good?
Laura Ruby's middle-grade alt-New York series opens with an imaginative premise, engaging characters, a suspenseful plot, oddball brilliance, relatable issues, and quite a few laughs. Loaded with math humor, historic trivia, and a barrage of puzzles, codes, and ciphers, York: The Shadow Cipher won't be for everybody, but this dense, demanding, time-hopping adventure is a rewarding read for those who persist and offers the promise of more to come.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.