JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #10
by Celia McGee
JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers will search recent releases to discover the best kids' fiction out there. Given that the line between what makes a novel perfect for a teenager and just as compelling for an adult is anyone’s guess, Celia will sometimes review an “adult” novel that crosses that divide, as well as books for everyone from pre-schoolers to high-schoolers. We hope Celia's terrific choices help get kids reading, and help create the next generation of readers and writers!
By Bruce Eric Kaplan
(Simon & Schuster for Young Readers)
Ages pre-K to 8
Bruce Eric Kaplan’s publisher has allowed him to identify himself as “still a mad genius” in the flap copy of Meaniehead, his third book for children. Whatever his professed image in the mirror—and this is a guy who permanently jokes around with a very straight face, including in the pages of The New Yorker and for shows like “Seinfeld” and “Six Feet Under”—he is certainly brilliant at pushing a hapless situation to absurd yet satisfying, hilarious and instructive limits. Kaplan’s putative audience, but also their parents and other grownups, will grasp and enjoy the fun Kaplan has with his story of two impossibly grumpy, incessantly fighting siblings, illustrated in his trademark sketchy cartoon style, which aims for laughs along with super-duper insight. Let’s hear Dr. Kaplan’s initial analysis of the state of affairs. “Henry and Eve were going through a new, terrible phase of fighting with each other all the time” (arms crossed, frowning face-off). But allow material objects to enter the fray—in this case during a tug of war over a disputed action figure—and just about everything can go wrong. That means in the sense of senseless destruction. Family lamps break, electric drills make their way through the enemy’s bedroom ceiling, entire neighborhoods catch fire, and a little girl on a big bulldozer becomes a dangerous monster. With Kaplan carrying the feud to lengths equal to a flight into space after the world has been destroyed (not a coincidental comparison), a light bulb should suddenly turn on over every little head as the realization strikes just how stupid bad behavior like Eve’s and Henry’s can be.
The Secret Box
By Whitaker Ringwald
(HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books)
For all its beleaguered reputation, the United States Postal Service can still come through, and thankfully, in the case of Whitaker Ringwald’s The Secret Box, with far more than cousins Jax, Ethan and Tyler could ever have imagined. The plain, brown-paper-wrapped package that shows up in the middle of Jax’s 12th birthday celebration would seem poor competition for the many presents showered on her by her friends and as much family as is left to her. She doesn’t know who her father is, and, besides her mother, who works in a diner to support them, she’s aware only of her cousins and their parents, who, as owners of a toy-testing company, have come into wealth that Jax would resent if she and Ethan weren’t so close. But what most piques Jax’s immediate curiosity is her mother’s frightened reaction to the delivery and her stern directive to get rid of it, unopened, right away. When you’re 12, hyper-active, inquisitive and bossy, that’s simply an invitation to disobey orders, come what may. Once Jax opens the package, sent by someone she learns is her great aunt, there comes a lot. For one, her present, a box with a LED screen irresistibly flashing directives involving distances and destinations, beckons Jax on a quest far beyond her humdrum life. As usual, she browbeats Ethan, a fearful kid who has trouble making eye contact and functioning in groups, into joining her. More surprising, they convince his older brother Tyler—big, mean, a computer and math genius who never leaves his room--to go with them. And bring his driver’s license. Since their trip includes places like Washington, D.C., it bodes well in the tourism department, except that a scary couple in weird disguises and with shifting accents is intent on hot-fingering the box from them. Former archaeologists drummed out of their profession, their greedy interests twist down a terrifying road of revelations about classical myths, ancient cultures, their relationship to Jax’s great-aunt—and that treacherous, primordial box cutter of a woman, Pandora. Yet more remarkable are the transformations that happen to each of the cousins. If it’s evil they will have to fight, they’re now well-equipped.
In the Shadows
by Kiersten White and Jim Di Bartolo, with illustrations by Jim Di Bartolo
Ages 12 and up
In a picture-perfect New England, true perfection is hard to come by, and pretty surfaces are bound to crack open for a view into a sinister abyss. Despite its generic title, In the Shadows, set in just such a version of a small, quaint town in Maine is a guess-provoking, time-jumbling, and ultimately romantic novel that comes almost instantly to scary life. The widowed Mrs. Johnson runs the local boarding house, helped by her lovely daughters, the beautiful, gentle Cora and the more “impish” Minnie of 15. Lo and behold, the town also has a local witch. Like most such establishments, the Johnson Boarding House attracts an array of more and less transient residents. But it takes the arrival of a young, handsome and troubled relative named Arthur, formerly unknown to the girls, to bring the differences among the boarders into sharp relief. The bad apples among them are rotten to the core and somehow linked to the Ladon Vitae, an ancient, secret society of evildoers spread throughout the world.
As a gang of villainous conspirators from across the globe and the ages gather in and around town on an unspeakable mission, the close-knit group of young people struggles with different forms of guilt, and some unrequited love. It is the ineradicable existence of evil that Kirsten White and Jim Di Bartolo are committed to portraying, holding it up as an admonishment to do good instead. Di Bartolo’s finely drawn, fever-temperature illustrations not only obliquely tell the novel’s story but also identify evil with all-too-memorable chapters in history—both World Wars, a dusk in New Orleans in 1924 that drips with menace, Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1948, and so on. Evil has not chosen its immortality, but maybe certain good-hearted humans can actually decide to live forever. Theirs is a love that never dies.
by Emma Straub
Ages 14 and up, and adults
Catch a family trying to choose a vacation spot that isn’t “Wainscott or Woodstock or somewhere else with wood-shingled houses that looked distressed on purpose,” and you know you’re not in the average income bracket anymore. In her second, much-anticipated novel, the sharp-eyed, funny and compassionate Emma Straub makes great use of these kinds of dilemmas for her story of a well-off, well-intentioned Upper West Side family, that, in serious crisis, and accompanied by close friends also tilting at tribulations, ends up for once in an unfamiliar place. (Albeit Mallorca, where they’ve landed a freebie villa, is as comfortable as a pair of well-worn Tod’s loafer to the international jet-set, rich hippies, and ultra-privileged pleasure-seekers.). On this hot mess, threatening to fester beneath idyllic sunshine, Straub turns the gaze of Sylvia, the Posts’ 17 year-old daughter, fervently counting on college to let her be “a completely different person.” Her parents’ apparently irrevocable breakup, her older brother’s hopelessly squandered life, and the tinder-box efforts of Charles and Lawrence, a gay couple anxious to be “chosen” as adoptive parents, are just several more depressing and only partially understood intrusions into her miserable, irrefutably 21st-century life. An embarrassing occurrence in her life has gone viral.
This being a novel that affectionately satirizes many types of fiction, an impossibly handsome and sexy Spanish tutor materializes to distract Sylvia—and stoke her daydreams of losing her innocence—while her mother contemplates plunging an icepick into her disgraced husband’s eyes, for 1) having an affair with a young intern at the magazine he edits 2) getting fired for his trespass from the prestigious position he has enjoyed for most of his career.
Where bookish Sylvia is concerned, Straub also doesn’t pretend for a minute that the private-school graduate’s passion for Austen and Tolstoy will take a backseat to the fondness for pale-pink workout gear favored by her brother’s unexpectedly level-headed, wrong-side-of the-Mason-Dixon-line girlfriend. This isn’t Straub being snobby—if anything, her dry, soft-hearted humor takes the Posts to task—but it does confirm a growing awareness in the reader that Miss Austen has been hovering cleverly behind this spiky, displaced domestic comedy. Its characters come in pairs, and in pairs they remain, but their pride and prejudices suggest that the combinations they started out in are unlikely to stay the same.
Celia McGee grew up surrounded by books from an early age. In her column, "JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers," she shares her interest in newly-released books for kids, from pre-K through high school. She also contributes regularly to The New York Times on books, authors and the arts. She has been a publishing columnist for The New York Observer, a media columnist and features writer for the New York Daily News, and a book review editor and contributing writer for New York magazine. She continues to review books for adults. Director of the @Macaulay Author Series, she has served on the board of the National Book Critics' Circle, and is a board member of The Center for Fiction. Her earlier reading years were spent in Montana and the Netherlands.
And don’t forget our KidsRead Events and Books For NYC Schools — helping to promote literary fiction and Young Adult novels to under-served public schools right here in New York. Here’s what some participating teachers had to say about recent KidsRead Events:
“One of the things I love most about the program is that the kids really get to see how important the writing process is in their lives as students and adults.”
“The kids had a wonderful time. We were sent the books in advance and kids were ready with questions. It was the first time any of them met an author and getting their book signed was an important experience for them.”
“Knowing they would meet an author was a motivating factor for them to read the novels. And getting to ask questions about an author’s intent was a great complement to our literacy work.”
“I give a few avid readers the books, and the next thing I know I have students hounding me for the book. These trips have had such a positive effect on the students that I have started a book club.”
“Meeting the different authors has been an eye-opening experience for the students. They get to ask about creating characters, ideas they have about the novel, and they learn the circuitous route the author took finding his/her career. Each of the authors has had a completely different approach, but they have all been enlightening.”