A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Back in the 1800s, in this alternate world, the brilliant, eccentric Morningstarr twins created technology that transformed New York, where they'd landed as young, penniless immigrants. Then they vanished, leaving a message about THE SHADOW CIPHER -- a series of clues that would bring wonders and riches beyond belief to the solver. After a few decades without success, New Yorkers pretty much decided the Cipher was just a story for the tourists, but a few determined souls kept trying up to the present day, including Tess and Theo Biedermann's grandfather. The twins and their friend Jaime Cruz live in an apartment building built by the Morningstarrs themselves -- now about to be demolished by a developer -- and the kids decide that the only hope of saving the family home and the Morningstarr legacy lies in solving the Cipher that's baffled seekers for more than a century.
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.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how York: The Shadow Cipher involves deciphering codes and solving puzzles. Do you think this is really interesting, or do you wish the author would just get on with the action instead?
Like steampunk, York's world took a different turn from ours because a different technology came to the fore in the distant past. How would your life be different if some technology you use every day had never been invented? How might you work around the problem?
In The Shadow Cipher, Jaime's father is away from home working on a solar-energy project in Africa. Do you know kids whose parents have jobs that take them away for weeks or months at a time? How do they deal with it?
- Author: Laura Ruby
- Genre: Fantasy
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Adventures, Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, History
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Walden Pond Press
- Publication date: May 16, 2017
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 8 - 12
- Number of pages: 496
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: July 13, 2017
Our editors recommend
For kids who love math, science, and adventure
Themes & Topics
Browse titles with similar subject matter.
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.