- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #13
by Celia McGee
JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers searches 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 Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.)
by Peter Brown (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Monsters are in the eye of the beholder. So are teachers. Young children apprehensive about school can’t help but conflate the two, as Caldecott Honor recipient Peter Brown understands. He knows how nervous young children can be about leaving home, how used to parents helping them through daytime setbacks and nighttime fears, and he knows how much closer they feel to their teddy bears or security blankets than they can ever imagine being to a strange authority figure. My Teacher Is a Monster! (No I Am Not.) conveys with comforting humor how newbie school-goers see only what their qualms let them, and it scares the brand-new sneakers off them. Brown takes those haunting distortions and runs with them to the point that little readers will chortle at how silly their misconceptions can be.
The absolute emotional nadir is represented by the classroom of Ms. Monster—sorry, Ms. Kirby. Her student Bobby, his hair sticking up stylishly in front--though the real gel resembles terror—is not a fan. Her face is green, her bottom teeth fangs, her hands claws, her scowl permanent, and her stiff brown hairdo matches her ugly outfits. She roars as loudly as she is tall. To be fair to Ms. Kirby—but why would one?—her admonishment of Bobby has to do with his launching a paper airplane that, by accident or not, lands at the tips of her high-heeled shoes. Forget recess.
Such situations are hard on children who, like Bobby, can’t sit still at their desks, and hate being indoors, especially on a nice day. Tons of medical terms exist for these feelings and conditions, including being a young boy. It’s plain to Bobby, though. Nothing is as liberating and calming as chilling outdoors in the park, “trying to forget his teacher problems.”
But problems, particularly internal ones, tend to remain obstinately rooted in the area near where nightmares sprout. Brown makes every rock, tree, plant, blade of grass and evergreen shoot seem to rise up in horror at a sight suddenly looming before Bobby’s eyes: Ms. Kirby, on his favorite park bench. Yet is there something different about her? Take her pretty hat with a pink flower that, snatched away by a wind gust, allows a quick-sprinting Bobby to come to her rescue. Teacher and pupil, friend and friend, laugh and have fun together, and together propel a paper airplane from the park’s highest spot. Ms. Kirby is transformed, crossing the line into pretty and joyful. Bobby doesn’t know if this same person will show up in class. It depends how he will look at her, on how he feels about himself.
The Zero Degree Zombie Zone
by Patrik Henry Bass, illustrated by Jerry Craft (Scholastic Press)
As far as the meandering undead go, this is just a hypothesis: in Patrik Henry Bass’s hilarious, discerning The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, Bakari Katari Johnson probably feels a lot like a zombie. He might as well be dead to those around him. His classmates shun him. His teacher almost slays him (though her intentions are good). His only friend is over-size, lumpy Wardell, (who has no other choices, either). He seems condemned to eternal unhappiness. And he wears big, thick, Urkel glasses that make him look like a creature risen from opticians’ hell.
But Bass, the highly respected editorial projects director of Essence magazine, has some tricks up Bakari’s sleeve (or more precisely, in a pocket), and the popular kids who bully him at the cleverly named Thurgood Cleavon Wilson Elementary might want to take heed. The most powerful leaders of the pack are the slick and athletic Tariq Thomas and his fierce, cute, trash-talking cousin Keisha Owens, the baddest of them all. And so it goes, with the ka-boom-boom-boom speed of a video game, and Bass’s mega-wit.
Historians and sociologists have located the original belief in zombies in Haiti. But those evil eaters have nothing on the army of towering, blue, milky-eyed, made-of ice zombies and their leader, Zenon the genie, summoned up by Bakari, of all kids, with a marble his grandfather left him, along with both the blessing and warning that it contains magical powers.
But bravery is bred by self-confidence, as Bakari gleans from the cousins’ knockout success in helping him fend off a zombie cafeteria invasion. It rubs off on him. With four heads better than one, the former enemies devise a plan so ingenious it might just rout Zenon for good. Alongside the idea of unexpected friendships, this is among the book’s highpoints, as are the fast moving, instantaneously communicative and spot-on illustrations by Jerry Craft, the creator, for one thing, of the immortal comic strip Mama’z Boyz.
Bass’s story makes clear that trust, loyalty, working together, and solving issues peacefully are mighty fine goals. When a person changes, it changes others, too. How Bakari and his pals—and any future drop-ins with cosmic powers—will evolve is anyone’s guess. But not for long. Bass, now a proven kids’ books talent, is following up with a series.
Cat in the City
by Julie Salamon, illustrated by Jill Weber (Dial Books for Younger Readers)
First there was Jenny Linsky. In fact, Happy Birthday to Esther Averill’s classic book series, which got its start exactly 70 years ago with her stories of the gentle, plucky Greenwich Village cat in the jaunty red scarf, happily reissued by New York Review Books. Now, greet with pleasure Cat in the City, proof that traditional opposites can attract and actually roll around in teachable moments.
As Julie Salamon sagely intimates and Jill Weber reflects in her blithely New York-centric, colorfully bittersweet illustrations, there isn’t just one way of perceiving the city, its famous buildings and architectural landmarks. To a cruising hawk, bustling Washington Square down below is merely a “rectangular field” for hunting. What initially looks like a “wrung out mop” to the predator comes into focus as a tasty-looking feline. He swoops, he misses, and the tangle of fur skedaddles instead smack into Roxie, Henry, and Maggie, each a dog with a distinct personality and a hostile, sarcastic attitude toward anything that purrs. Yet even the dogs’ hearts inevitably melt at so pitiful a sight. Marched briskly off to Roxie’s human’s home and tschoke shop, Pink Patti’s, he’s washed and scrubbed, blow-dried and fluffed up, and Patti names him “Pretty Boy.” The effects of kindness, taking risks on strangers, raising up the underdog (or undercat) and exchanging truculent “self-reliance” for the clarifying joy of community add special value to seemingly everyday adventures. Another, unfortunate, daily occurence in New York, Patti gets priced out of the real-estate market, and leaves the city behind.
The solitude would’ve pleased Pretty Boy once; now, not so much. Salamon fills the void in this particular one of Pretty Boy’s nine lives with the friendship of a nearby family’s young son, Eli, who himself dreads the mean-spirited isolation of a new school, and wants, in an unmusical family, to be a musician. Operating under the novel’s philosophical stance that happiness is helping people, and animals, out of tough spots, Salamon—can give surprises as well as she can get. Pretty Boy introduces Eli to the “Cello Man” who regularly plays in Washington Square. Hold onto the name of another New York institution, the Barrow Street School of Music, which Weber illustrates to scaled-down perfection. You just never know.
Circle of Stones
by Catherine Fisher (Dial Books)
Ages 12 and up
“How do you know how a lost soul feels?” a Druid king asks in Catherine Fisher’s Circle of Stones. And how do you know when it’s healed? The first question and the second, almost as ineffable, resonate in Fisher’s circumnavigation of time and magic, the modern day, the ancient past, and history not as distant. Toying with alternative realities and dimensions, she fashions a chain of interlocking stories that at first seem as unrelated as can be --.the David Mitchell of young people’s literature. She’s also the Young People’s Laureate of Wales, a title roundly deserved for resplendently re-configuring the fantasy-novel category, but also with an aura of the mythical.
A circle can be many things—endless, sacred, enfolding, imprisoning, concentric, it also shapes “the ring of years,” as Fisher writes, and characterizes even the pox that cause the wise and good Druid king’s banishment, and plague one era after the next. Is someone sinned against or sinner? Such tortured wonderings are also maddeningly circular in Fisher’s tripartite pieces of history, bound together by often the most mundane room, incident or passing relationship, and powerfully intertwined by bewilderment, delusion and specific forms of death.
In the here and now, 17-year-old “M,” barely able to function after a mysterious childhood trauma also made her tabloid fodder, has been shuttled from one foster home to another, in secrecy, carefully observed by social workers and psychiatrists, and under surveillance, for some fatal cause celebre, by the police. Almost at the age of liberation from this system but not the unresolved memories that follow her (along with an ominous, darkly cloaked figure of a man), “M” comes to a stop at last with a sense of homecoming in a place wholly unfamiliar—the beautiful, “golden” city of Bath. It mesmerizes with its extraordinary circles of architecture, the hot springs below, revered by the Romans through magnificent mosaics, and dedicated to the goddess Sulis, whose name circles back as “M” picks it to be hers, too. A moment’s thought it loops Fisher back to Bladud, the Druid king, then spirals forward again, to the impoverished aristocrat Zac laboring three centuries ago under the half-mad architecture genius John Forrest, who’s intent on creating in Bath the world’s first circular street, and honoring the Druids and their mysterious stone structures. What would Jane Austen think?
But Sulis recognizes such layered propositions as both nourishing her outer and her inner life. Madly twirling through her personal past and the histories she intuits are bound up with it, she is confronted by the delusions with which she’s protected herself. Among the rare ways to break out of a circle is to fly. But then, what are the consequences?
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.”