- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #17
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 Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by AG Ford (Simon & Schuster, Paula Wiseman Books)
Be careful what you wish for is a time honored warning in classical legends, venerable fairytales, Freudian shrink sessions, and modern American politics. Yet even well-intentioned longings can go wrong. As Jerdine Nolen makes fancifully clear in Irene’s Wish, only a hard-working mind and firmly rooted love can reverse such mistakes.
Little Irene is still young enough to enjoy the tree-branch swing at her family’s rural home, where the trees are as fluffy as the few clouds in the sky, yet old enough to achieve a certain maturity in making up for grave missteps. She has decided it would be best for everyone, her Papa included, if he were less busy doling out horticultural advice as a popular plantsman and had more free time for his family. (Papa doesn’t seem to own his own nursery business, an indication, perhaps, that, despite Irene’s white playmates, this story of an African American family dates back to before widespread economic independence.
Truly her father’s daughter, Irene mixes a seed into a glass of ice tea--and watches her father gradually turn into a tree. He can’t move or talk or hug, but some qualities he shares with his former self, providing shelter, creating a place for folks to hold picnics, enforcing a sense of community and family, encouraging Irene to read and study at his solid base, offering a romantic spot for his wife at night.
But seasons are experienced most intensely in the countryside. Not only does Irene miss her real Papa, and wish she could un-wish her wish, but winter is coming, and, its branches bare, the towering tree is alone, its eyes shut in sadness and apprehension about a looming storm, while, inside, Irene’s neighbors, “sat vigil with us.” Miracle of miracles—or the fervent hopes, wishes, and devotion of a daughter—the next morning, Papa lies asleep in the snow. A parable, Irene’s Wish also partakes of fairytales where the spellbound fall into deep, long sleep; Papa feels like his tree stint was just a dream. Although perhaps not entirely. Rather than a wish, a promise is made—he’ll stake out more time for his family. Happiness is a garden where the sun shines on all.
Unstoppable Octobia May
By Sharon G. Flake (Scholastic Press)
The meaning, metaphorical implications and plentiful history of vampires have been in play for centuries. For the last decade, at least, it’s been prime time for their ilk, shape-shifting in bayou Louisiana, popping up with a flourish at twilight, giving Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat a new lease on life in publishing.
Vampires are also an obsession of Octobia May’s, a young African American whom Sharon Flake redoubtably launches on a set of adventures and revelations in 1953, the year before Brown v. Board of Education. Octobia is contrary, inquisitive and forward-looking (she shocks the Do Some Good ladies’ club with her overalls, and insists on the defiantly proud term “Negro”). Like her Aunt Shuma, who runs a boarding house where Octobia lives while her parents face their own racial struggles, she speaks her mind and picks up on her aunt’s aspirations to become an independent business woman. But to a large degree—in an all-black neighborhood deprived of electricity—her vampire fixation merely intensifies.
More specifically, she’s suspicious of the creepy boarder Mr. Davenport, who sticks to his darkened room by day, tapping away at a typewriter that, admittedly, makes Octobia, a would-be writer, secretly jealous. But where does he go at night, with his over-size incisors, dark clothing, furtive movements and a face paler than most “coloreds” that Octobia and her friend Jonah, fellow vampire hunter, have ever seen? No wonder Octobia tiptoes around “making my bare feet as quiet as cotton balls on the floor.” Mr. Davenport’s crabby reticence seems more like the silence of the grave, which is why the town graveyard—divided into colored, Christian and Jewish sections—is among the first places Octobia and Jonah try to follow his trail.
Instead it leads them into hidden tangles of recent history—the northern migration, World War II, the slipperiness of identity in leaving a racial past behind. Mr. Harrison, the town’s leading banker and wealthiest, most powerful man, specializes in bilking innocent black people of their life-savings—and worse. But dang if Octobia and Jonah can fathom why he and Mr. Davenport—now exposed as a common criminal rather than a supernatural vampire—are in cahoots. Slowly and with great illumination, Sharon Flake lets the reason dawn on them, squaring it perfectly with the complicated hypocrisies, virulent prejudices, and vampire chapters of American history.
By Meg Wolitzer (Dutton Books for Young Readers)
Ages 12 and up
It’s a tectonic shift dating back to some of YA’s earliest fiction: parents sending a child away to boarding school. But the hard-won insights and often last-ditch solutions in Meg Wolitzer’s blistering, sympathetic and imagination-stretching Belzhar don’t proceed according to the orderly calendar of prep school attendance mandated by upper-crust tradition. Her transitions are contemporary, messy, wrenching. The five students Belzhar focuses on have shown up at The Red Barn, a Vermont rehabilitation facility for the pathologically withdrawn, suicidally depressed, formerly drug-dependent, paralyzingly guilt-wracked, almost incurably angry, or just plain mortally bulimic. Take that, and popped soybeans as a snack, and you’ve got the picture.
Or almost. Each of the five—a group diverse and barely acquainted-- has been selected for the school’s most prestigious and mysterious seminar, Mrs. Quenell’s “Special Topics in English.” Concentrating on a single writer—the not exactly cheerful teenage idol, Sylvia Plath—there’s reading and discussion of her work, and five pages at a time (no more, no less) to be written in the red journals their teacher issues them. As Jam (short for Jamaica) Gallahue narrates, Mrs. Quennell likens her pupils to Plath: “To be on the verge of your life and not be able to enter it. That ought to be prevented wherever possible.”
Some prevention comes with a perverse twist. Their journal-writing transports the classmates to a visionary place they dub Belzhar – derived from The Bell Jar—where each can be with the one they loved before the traumas of death and loss struck, bringing them to The Barn. Like medieval monks or mystics, they ride their visions beatifically. It’s heavenly. Unreal.
A bell jar, on the other hand – a Victorian favorite—encloses beautiful or exotic stasis, and no fresh air. Crushed under their horrific pasts, these young people find liberating healing by airing their tragedies. Except Jam, whose high-school passion for her English boyfriend has only deepened with his unspecified death. As a very different love presents itself, it points toward the heart of the detective story Belzhar becomes. Like any good thriller, it holds a surprise—excruciating yet sadly familiar.
Evidence of Things Not Seen
by Lindsey Lane (Farrar Straus Giroux Books For Young Readers)
Ages 14 and up
The possibility of a parallel universe is the juice of science fiction and a tease to fine-tuned scientific minds. In particle physics, as Lindsey Lane stresses repeatedly, everything from cells on up coheres through the spaces in between. If such theories are pushed far enough, time travel seems close to a walk in the park. Toss those together with the calculated, bumbling moves and secretive strategies of high school, and the mix could go toxic or transformative. It depends on the catalyst.
Tommy Smythe is the unwitting one here—an affectless boy labeled as falling somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, his brain bubbling over with peculiar ideas. When the prodigiously intelligent Texas high-schooler disappears from his small hometown—on Ruby, his red dirt bike, lab goggles over his eyes—the genius reputation he leaves behind gains the high-plains potential of myth. Multiple perspectives compose Evidence of Things Unseen, a strait-laced Western at its core, a novel with the local sheriff drawing out responses, speculations, evasions, and emotional outbursts that may help solve the mystery of Tommy’s disappearance, and probable but everlastingly inexplicable death. Tommy’s intellectual curiosity and impersonal passions toyed with the invisible, ironically bringing out suspiciously strong feelings in others, some even started to believe in his beliefs. But emotions were not his to either process or reciprocate: A+ for physics, F for human interaction, and zero for leaving clues as to his whereabouts. It gets to be time to figure out who’s wearing the white hat and who the black in a story that doesn’t end but begins with a senior prom.
In the journal Tommy leaves behind, its pages scattered along the road where he was last spotted, he threw complicated darts at the existence of God. The worthier characters who follow in his wake, a minority, may have not so much the godly in them as kind-heartedness and long suffering. Among the majority, the sins are so shameful and graphically rendered by Lane that the mind wants to cover its eyes. But that would dishonor Tommy’s memory, whether he’s dead or simply a character, an accommodating, robotic boy, that lingers long after the book ends.
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.”