- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #16
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!
By Anna Myers, illustrated by Charles Vess (Abrams Books for Young Readers)
In today’s full-disclosure approach to childrearing, it’s a good question whether the sweetly euphemistic adage that newborn babies are found under cabbage leaves is still called upon to stand in for the facts of actual childbirth.
But on the hardscrabble farm of the Upagainstit family outside Nowhere, Texas-- their story affectionately rendered by Charles Vess, in Dust Bowl colors--tumbleweeds dominate. And sure enough, on a long daily walk from school, the five Upagainstit offspring find a baby tucked inside a tumbleweed, and bring her home. That their parents are plain Mama and Papa, and the five kids are differentiated according to their relative heights (don’t forget Goldilocks) instead of by names deposits a hint of tall tale into the mix, though Myers has more at work. The four oldest are happy to refer to their find as “the Tumbleweed Baby,” but the youngest, a girl, suddenly feeling quite contrary, dismisses her as “a wild-all-over” baby. Roiling in one resentful young mind is the concept of vamoose.
If, as in the case of the rambunctious foundling, baths are refused, dinner becomes a flying mess, listening to books read aloud is a bore, jumping on furniture all night replaces sleeping, and attention is draw away from the sister who is now the second-to-littlest-of-all girl, then the new family member leaves ample room for disappointment.
The flipside of disillusionment, though, are dreams and aspirations. Myer tips her hat in favor of keeping the baby blow-in with reminders of what she’s contributed, serving a comically represented set of purposes for the other children. One practices on her to become a teacher, another hefts her up to strengthen his arm-wrestling, while she’s a fine audience for the brother aiming to be a singing star, and she fosters collaboration when dealing with her splashy bath time. The second-to-littlest-of-all girl just resents her.
Myers’s yarn emerges an apt and imaginative translation of the psychological theory of sibling rivalry. But Tumbleweed Baby also posits a new child psychiatrist to reckon with. The book plays the identity of this pedagogical expert close to the vest, springing it as a deft surprise. This hush-hush character deserves a welcome as warm as a hug when it’s time to ‘fess up.
The Glass Mountain: Tales from Poland
By Jan Pienkowski retold by David Walser, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski (Candlewick Press)
From his perch in England, where the renowned illustrator and artist Jan Pienkowski, born in Poland in 1936, is ensconced, he has never failed to keep an eye on the folk art traditions of his native country, drawing on them for his popular style, but until now applying it to books tied to other lands. With The Glass Mountain, the colorful, kinetic cutout technique that he’s prized for gets to grace a foray into deep-rooted Polish folk tales, retold from his reminiscences by longtime collaborator David Walser, endowing it with special meaning.
Pienkowski’s depictions of Baba Yagas (witches), kings, princesses, bell-ringers, luck-struck trade apprentices, their grand castles and humble houses, their animals and their natural surroundings originated, he recounts, in
“the annual visit of a countrywoman who came to make new
‘curtains’ for the kitchen windows. She took sheets of heavy white
paper and, using a pair of shears, she cut out a lively network of
birds, flowers and human figures. These were then glued to the
window frames like lace curtains....”
His next lesson occurred under grimmer circumstances, during the Warsaw Uprising, as he hid in a basement where a soldier climbed down for a nap. But awakening and spotting a pair of scissors, the fighter cut out little paper figures that served as distraction from the bombing above.
The magical air exuded by such memories more than meets its match in the folktales that comprise The Glass Mountain. Handed down through generations, they offer such enchantments as a dragon tricked by a cobbler’s apprentice (whose surprisingly democratic reward is a royal marriage), a princess turned into a frog, the fable of Warsaw’s founding, uncharitable wealth brought low, or a book-loving girl breaking a sorcerer’s curse.
Yet rolled up inside these are real-life wonders. Greater even than triumphs over otherworldly obstacles are minds and bodies nurtured by hardship, or love jumping social boundaries. These inner tales, delving into the treasures of Poland’s folk history that endured despite decades of war and oppression, are shaped by the wisdom of humanity and the joys it can bring.
Secret of the Mountain Dog
By Elizabeth Cody Kimmel (Scholastic Press)
The Catskills have seen them come and seen them go. The 19th-century gentlemen painters and their elegant family summer communities. Grossingers and hippies, devout Jews in insular Orthodox townships. Summer campers, nature nuts, and lately, artists and writers in search of cheap, scenic real estate.
Elizabeth Cody Kimmel’s Jax (short for Jackson, and “the smallest and fastest girl in my class,”) her little sister Kizzy, and their bohemian parents live in a sleepy town at the bottom of a Catskilll mountain, its lower woods, meadows and streams the girls’ playground until Kizzy almost drowns, and their mother transforms into a nervous, over-protective disciplinarian. But who is the adventuresome Jax to resist the pull of a baffling light moving atop the mountain one night? Shining somewhere in the vicinity of a decrepit building erected 30 years earlier by no one the town seems to remember or cares to know, it coincides with the enigmatic appearance of a giant, gentle Tibetan mastiff in Jax’s front yard. For Kimmel, this new pet that Jax names Mo-Mo becomes the 12 year old’s watchful guide not just in life but in living. The unvisited structure up above is a barely inhabited Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
Kimmel assiduously fractures a pattern of hidebound, small-town indifference by tracking Jax’s break from family restrictions, building confidence in a young girl’s will to solve increasingly perilous puzzles and, in the midst of threatening brutality, to learn Buddhism’s peaceful, spiritual principles. Kimmel’s is a nice primer to the religion as well as the history of Tibetan culture’s ongoing repression by China. Halfway up the mountain Jax encounters Yeshi, a dreamy-looking Tibetan boy with an air of intelligent, vigilant calm. This is no girl-and-boy-meet-cute, though.
Together they must protect the elderly Jampa Rinpoche, the “teacher” who helped build the monastery as a new center for his revered master back in Tibet, who died before he made it there. Rinpoche has patiently awaited a reincarnation of the sage at the holy domicle, where a storage room is filled with precious gifts sent decades before in anticipation of the majestic arrival. They include a demon statue and its abiding evil, coveted by a gang of art thieves.
The Buddhist belief in re-birth, among others, and the revealed identity of the new teacher place the novel on a higher level, of suspense and illumination.
Vango: Between Sky and Earth
By Timothe de Fombelle, transl. by Sarah Ardizzone (Candlwick Press)
Ages 12 and up
At last, Vango: Between Sky and Earth has made landfall on our shores (the French original came out in 2010), though obviously without undergoing any of the knuckle-whitening adventures and romantic interludes experienced by its dauntless young namesake. A fast-paced, old-school novel, it piles one entangling plot upon the next. Its historical setting and its hero’s search for his mysterious origins have him traveling the earth and battling his way through some of the most harrowing years of the 20th century, bookended by two world wars. All that aside, the book’s opening scene, in Paris, is a stunner, containing a mystifying and also impossible beauty, surreal and literal at the same time. At the slightest disturbance, it breaks apart, rocketing the story into violence.
De Fombelle’s Vango is built on dichotomy: good and bad, heroes and villains, priestly and profane. But in the shadows cast into the abyss between them lurk foggy questions, modern crises of conscience, and ambiguity. Vango is also deeply paranoid, and he knows it, aware it’s somehow linked to the early childhood he can’t remember and his arrival like some human flotsam, following the explosion of an ocean craft, on the isolated Aeolian island where he grew up. By 19 he is, for reasons that cruelly elude him, always just one step ahead of the Paris police as well as a band of ruthless criminals, furiously clueless as to what he’s accused of, and why he’s pursued as a traitor by creeps with strange accents.
Finessing his whirlwind escapes and investigations by train, horse, boat, in a swanky high-speed motorcar next to a ravishing Scottish heiress, on foot over Paris’s rooftops, and aboard the infamous airship Graf Zeppelin--the site of a symbolic face-off between an older, better Germany and the rise of the new Nazi order—Vango’s movements duly convey that his story is a gloss on history. Stalin has a cameo, and the Gestapo. Vango’s emergence into life as he will know it is an historical moment, too. But its ramifications can only be understood by deciphering a name embroidered delicately in the corner of a tiny handkerchief set adrift on the waves of change, from a world lost forever to a world doomed to shame.
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.”