JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #11
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!
My Pet Book
written and illustrated by Bob Staake
(Random House Children’s Books)
Among the charming visual points Bob Staake conveys in his popular, perky books is that shapes are people, too, and animals, boats, buildings, toys. Mixed together they change near abstraction into jaunty realism, though the stories they inhabit are not simple. Different-colored circles have round eyes and half-moon mouths—becoming O’s of surprise or dismay, and thin lines curl up into smiles. These characterize My Pet Book’s main character. An ordinary, cheerful boy (also smart, he lives in Smartytown), he’s idiosyncratic on the pet front. Messy dogs won’t do, kittens make him sneeze, and we imagine that the puns on animal names bedecking Smartytown’s traffic signs and storefronts—“Hamsterdam Avenue,” “Curb Your Frog,” “Breed Limit 35,” “Central Bark” —leave him cold. Pooper-scoopers are the enemy: “I want a pet that’s easy.” There’s easy, though, and there’s easy. The pet his mother comes up with may not require physical effort but it demands a nimble brain, concentration, and an unswerving belief in make-believe. It’s not even round: “A book would make the perfect pet!”/He heard his mother say. /And Dad had read that no pet book/Had ever run away.”
If My Pet Book doesn’t already have its young readers in stitches, another nice quality is that that the rhyming text is so catchy and snappy that even those who can’t read yet will memorize it, “reading” along the way to learning to connect sounds with letters and letters to words. Beware the tendency to have some recite it day and night.
The boy imagines himself into every story in his book, of course, and they follow him into dreams. But inconceivable to him is the worst nightmare that could happen—his book disappears. Suddenly old-fashioned, My Pet Book lands on a well-meaning household maid to take the blame. Yet she’s a good buddy, too, whisking the boy off to the thrift shop where she donated a box into which she’d cluelessly tossed the priceless pet. But is that book smart! It knows where to hide in a strange environment. And the boy has reason to think he’ll be able to find it: “It’s cuz,” he says, “every book’s a friend!” Where would a friend like that hole up? Only a friend can tell.
by Burleigh Muten, illustrated by Matt Phelan
It is a deeply researched and long established fact—totally fabricated by author Burleigh Muten along with Matt Phelan and his nostalgically expressive illustrations--that Emily Dickinson, the recluse of Amherst, left her house and garden one moonlit night to lead four excited children through fields and woods, over fences, and down hillsides to slip, disguised, into the gathered crowd, to greet the circus train as it pulled into town.
Miss Dickinson is, according to Mac Gregor Jenkins, the pastor’s son from across the street, the familiar of playfulness, dress-up and story-telling. No unhappy spinster here. Mac and his sister, Sally, and Ned and Mattie, Miss Emily’s nephew and niece, are regularly welcomed indoors by the great poet. For their midnight escapade, though, Miss Emily’s fancy takes the baton. Muten, occasionally fairy-dusting passages with touches of Dickinson’s poetry, creates a breathless ringleader who declares, “The Plan is this:/the circus cars will arrive at midnight./I’ve seen them from my window every spring./The town is as still as an unplanted seed. /The street itself is asleep, / and I - the solitary witness.”
A different kind of poetry is written by her making each child into a dramatically named character. Herself she dubs “Prosperina, Queen of the Night.” Remaining strictly out of sight, their eventual shelter is a cave-like space under a giant beech that Miss Emily seems to know intimately, with branches to climb for lookout. Another secret, like her poems kept hidden for years, it transforms into a scaffold for symbols, aspirations and sly observations. Beneath it, Miss Emily practices the flamenco. But Mac falls, twisting his ankle, “the pain…a tiger’s roar,” and he’s borne home to his father’s gentle chastisement that a pastor’s son must be an example to his peers. All the more surprising that Mac will get to watch the train’s arrival from a special vantage point.
As the circus is to the townsfolk, though, the town is to Miss Emily. Mac will realize, in a boy’s life’s first revelation, that “she isn’t part of the world’s hubbub anymore. She is getting old.” Instead the band decides to mount a grand performance for her in the barn. But never take Emily Dickinson for granted—she pulls off the most daring feat of all.
That this book will be a delightful introduction for young readers to Dickinson’s work is a fact, too, and a real one.
Bringing Down the Mouse
by Ben Mezrich
(Simon&Schuster Books for Young Readers)
What do you call it when a best-selling adult non-fiction writer re-casts one of his books as a novel for kids? Cannibalizing seems too harsh and gross. Spinning cotton candy out of it, with some healthy life lessons mixed in, is a better description for what Ben Mezrich has done in Bringing Down the Mouse. As the author of The Accidental Millionaires—the basis for the movie “The Social Network”—and Bringing Down the House (an attempt on Las Vegas), Mezrich has great fun at his own expense by re-telling Bringing Down the House as it might happen to a bunch of 6th- and 7th-graders in Newton, MA, and their class visit to Incredo Land, a themed amusement park resembling Disney World.
They are as mixed a bag as any at a suburban middle school—nerds and bullies, math geniuses and thick-headed football stars, girls with their sights set on chemistry and physics, an African American brainiac, and an older tough-guys gang, Instead of Millionaires’ group of MIT students scheming to beat the bank, an elite selection of Newton Middle School’s smartest are handpicked by a suspiciously glamorous and cold-eyed teaching assistant on loan from MIT, to secretly wonk, study, calculate and role play in order to win the contest of Incredo Land’s “Wheel of Wonder.” The prize is lifetime tickets and a cash prize traditionally marked for charity.
Naming themselves the Carnival Killers, they are unofficially led by math-wiz Charlie Lewis—or “Charlie Numbers” as he’s been known practically since kindergarten. Much of the appeal of the Incredo Land caper and its planning is, as Charlie puts it: “The thing with genius is, it often had zero application to real life.” But real life also raises spiky moral issues, and tests not just intelligence but ethical conscience. Sure, “science looks like magic when it’s applied correctly,” but the Killers don’t know if their “magic” will be put to dubious ends, like cheating and theft.
Count on their chaperone to shoot that down. But falsehood generally cracks. One more spin of the wheel under Mezrich’s watchful eye, and it stops at the differences between right and wrong.
Pills and Starships
by Lydia Millet
(Black Sheep/Akashic Books)
Ages 12 and up
Dystopia is on the loose again, stacking up on teens’ bookshelves or in downloads to iPads, movie theaters spilling over with adaptations. Why is disaster YA’s crystal ball ? Dystopian dysfunction linked with totalitarian oppression signals pessimism and fear—and luckily also a subliminal challenge to rebel for a better world. Reflecting on a mundane present, very bloody good fun is also delivered, a descendant of horror movies gone by.
Still, it will take an especially tough and empathetic readership to brave Lydia Millet’s scary, despairing, provocative, and only sporadically, and ambiguously, hopeful novel.
Global warming is the inexorable force in Pills and Starships, and in the lives of dreamy, artistic yet sardonic Nat, 17, and her younger brother, Sam, whose truculent temperament, outbursts, and actions are cynical about any salvation for a withering, flooding and increasingly drowning planet omnisciently and meretriciously ruled by government and business. Theirs is a daily fight for emotional survival, as well as the prospect that, when their schooling ends, they’ll be assigned the same job for the rest of what the world’s downward spiral can’t promise will be the rest of their lives. Earth has officially passed the “tipping point”—there’s no remedying manmade disasters and the suffocating carbon footprint that is already spelling a lethal, agonizing end. To keep the populace numbly calm, the government forcefully prescribes mood-altering drugs.
Nat, Sam and their profoundly loving parents belong to the more well-off: living much longer yet also a little too briskly encouraged about how, where and when to die by signing an expensive service contract stipulating the details they desire for their “Final Week.” Against their children’s wishes, their parents are taking this way out, in Hawaii—depressed about the future in which their children will have none, and about the extinction of everything that gave nature and individual delights a chance. At least they don’t belong to the “poors,” whose high death toll is a sinister mystery.
In the remaining wilderness of the Big Island, though, lurk people and terrain that may or may not spell constructive revolution and optimism for Sam, Nat and the planet’s leftovers. Risk-takers both, they have decisions to make.
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.”