- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #18
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!
Digby O’Day In the Fast Lane
By Shirley Hughes, illustrated by Clara Vulliamy (Candlewick Press)
It’s said that slow and steady wins the race. Not so fast. In Digby O’Day in the Fast Lane, there is the slow growth of a hope that Digby, a jolly dog with floppy ears, and his friend and co-driver, Percy, with pointy ones, have a chance to win the all-day Didsworth to Dodsworth race. Almost as slow, if steady, is Digby’s trusty old red convertible. Moreover, mocking the affectionate care he takes of his old stand-by (a classic, really) are crude materialism and heartlessness, embodied by Digby’s neighbor Lou Ella, a particularly vulgar and vain example of the human species, with a dyed blond bob, cat’s eye (uh oh) sunglasses, and a showy new car every year.
She’d rather hurt than help, whereas Digby and Percy find that it helps to help out, since eventually help comes in return. In this book, there are literal cliffhangers.
Kindness does not exclude competitiveness though, as long as it’s in good fun. The challenge of the big race revs Digby’s unstoppable spirit, and off he spurts (through a race-scape that is pure England), Percy by his side and a chain of narrow escapes ahead. Unlike Lou Ella, though, the canine buddies seldom bring mishaps on themselves, unless you count their decision to take time to assist a traveling family in trouble.
In some egregious cases, however, one bad turn deserves another. Lou Ella, blind to her own selfishness and with as many mean streaks as highlights in her hair, provides several moments of high humor when those she’s mistreated turn the tables (and road signs) on her. Cheating gets this cheater nowhere.
Whatever the outcome, Digby and Percy will always have each other. After all, Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy created them—with more jolly and cunningly edifying adventures to come—together, and they’re mother and daughter.
Beyond the Laughing Sky
By Michelle Cuevas, illustrated by Julie Morstad (Dial Books for Young Readers)
It doesn’t take much to tally the number of anomalous creatures that fairy tales, horror stories and science fiction have hatched from eggs. Hello, “Ugly Duckling.”
Michelle Cuevas’s Beyond the Laughing Sky marvelously takes its place among stories about being different and the lessons that imparts, but with notably imaginative language, engaging imagery, and a small, egg-birthed hero who can be deemed handsome only in the eyes of the increasing number of people who come to love and admire him.
In the lead is his family, who find him as a baby something-or-other sitting in the remains of a delicately blue egg, cracked open when it fell to the ground. What he actually is, though, is half-bird, half-boy, with feathers covering his head and neck, and a beak for a nose. Adoption is the only answer, he’s named Nashville (there’s a warbler called that), and the family considerately makes its home in a house perched in a pecan tree overlooking Goosepimple, a picturesque, balmy Southern town. There’s just one secret Nashville harbors --as must most protagonists with a story to arc--he wishes he had the wings he inexplicably lacks, and could fly. “What…went wrong with me,” he asks his doctor, an ornithologist. “No one thing this world makes is a mistake,” is the answer.
Yet confidence-boosting doesn’t always last when a youngster is faced with middle school. Nashville fears he’ll be teased and ostracized, and at first he is. But his teacher isn’t named Miss Starling for nothing. “Things are always changing,” she tells Nashville’s class, “And sometimes there are even miracles.” The way Nashville disarms and befriends the class bully is unbeatable. When a pretty girl further comes to his defense, “her words,” he thinks, “sounded exactly like something made of stars.”
The stars, or certainly the sky, provocatively remain what Nashville aspires to reach with real, working wings--not the ones that he, like Leonardo da Vinci, tries to construct. But what was that Miss Starling said about miracles? Nature knows the answer, and also that, in stories like this, miracles flow from the inside.
The Paper Cowboy
By Kristin Levine (Putnam/Penguin Young Readers Group)
Ages 10 and up
American history has many shining moments to show for itself. The McCarthy era wasn’t one of them.
In Downers Grove, a close-knit community a few rural hours’ drive from Chicago,
Tommy Wilson and his pals have ditched their games of Cowboys and Indians for Commies versus American Good Guys, and, with a gruesome nod to the Rosenbergs, “Electric-chair tag,” while making life miserable for the awkward son of the shopkeeper Mr. McKenzie, a Gypsy refugee from the horrors of the recent European past. His son’s facial scars are just an outward indication of countless inner ones among the town’s foreign exiles. A small but telling sample hand-picked by Kristin Levine, they’ve brought tragic stories with them. But other calamities are Downers Grove’s own.
At twelve, tall, good-looking and popular, but basically a bully, Tommy is obsessed with Gary Cooper and “High Noon.” Yet sensing his image of the grand, lonesome cowboy changing, he, too, is conflicted between his yet untapped desire to do good and the easier approach of being an unthinking tough guy, one who thinks that planting an unexpected copy of The Daily Worker in someone’s workplace won’t produce a blight of suspicion. His pretty older sister Mary Lou sustains life-threatening burns from a trash fire—analogous to the political conflagration scorching the country -- that Tommy should have been tending. Her long, agonizing months in the hospital exacerbate their beautiful mother’s descent into breakdown.
An affectionately crafted, and well-meaning historical novel, The Paper Cowboy’s story turns out to be also a personal one. Tommy is based on Levine’s father in his youth, a bygone time that should not be forgotten.
The Name of the Blade
By Zoe Marriott (Candlewick Press)
Ages 12 and Up
Interesting things happen when you flip the switch of globalization.
Matter-of-factly living in our jet-propelled age, Mio Yamato, a smart, vaguely restless teenager about to turn sixteen, drives her Japanese émigré parents (both dentists) a little crazy, especially her cold, forbidding father. She has the latest slang, fashion references, and music at her fingertips, as does her best friend, Jackie, with her orange-dyed hair and humorously flaunted lesbianism. Mio’s beloved, old-world grandfather, a fount of ancestral lore and Japanese folk tales, was, until his recent passing, her go-to source of support and comfort.
But observe that switch: the Yamatos don’t live in New York, San Francisco or anywhere else in the U.S. Their home is London. That setting will provide many a delightful double take for an American reader in this first book of a trilogy by the popular English writer Zoe Marriott.
And that’s before ghosts, monsters, talking animals, murderous cats, otherworldly messengers, bloody battles, schemers for world domination, a magic sword and a centuries-old, incredibly kind, strong, tender, and off-the-charts-sexy companion enter Mio’s London pretty much straight out of Japanese legend, with a grain of the Freudian thrown in.
Thanks to Marriott’s blessedly contemporary stance, Mio performs all the feats, has the same kind of quick-witted solutions, excels at the same sort of martial art, and bungles enough situations to stand on equal footing with any young male protagonist (with special powers). Just so, her hair-raising adventures derive from a fateful trespass: looking for a prop to complete her costume for a dress-up party, Mio takes from a dusty, alluring box her grandfather had stored in the attic a five hundred year old Japanese long sword. This breaks the deal he made with her not to take possession of this powerful, intricately worked weapon until she turned 16. He certainly had his reasons.
Balancing on the cusp of late adolescence is fraught. Mio experiences the difficult transitions that come with it in two, opposing worlds, the so-called real world and the spirit realm--as symbolic of emotional teenage turmoil as could be. References are made to Alice, of Wonderland. Very English, that, and, absolutely, passing strange.
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.”