- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #19
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!
The Bee Who Spoke: The Wonderful World of Belle and the Bee
By Al MacCuish, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Thames & Hudson)
Vraiement, it is possible that you can take the girl out of Paris, but you can’t take Paris out of the girl.
But when Belle, a scrappy, inquisitive, and oh so chic Parisian tween —(love the striped pullover and the perky red neckerchief, illustrated by a contributor to The New Yorker and Vogue), is transported to a place that transforms her, all bets are off. The first book in a fiction series intended to grow interest in nature, The Bee Who Spoke marshals the magic of the natural world. (The spritely story’s opening lines also echo those of the immemorial Madeline and their rhythmic spell.) Belle relishes a ritual that city children love: every summer she and her parents—and her penknife, pencils, magnifying glass, camera, and journal—go to her grandparents’ house in the countryside. Since her grandfather always tops that off with a present he works on all year, her transformation is complete—this time, he’s restored the sky-blue bicycle her mother rode as a girl.
Full steam ahead is the only speed Belle goes. And, wham, if she doesn’t take a tumble over the root of an old oak tree. In situations like this, whether for princess or bouncy commoner, a hero must come to the rescue: Belle’s is a solicitous bee. “But bees don’t talk,” says Belle as they start to converse. Do they ever, and Belle is introduced not only to the forest’s fauna and flora (an Arnica flower tends to her hurt knee), but to an encyclopedic knowledge of everything bees contribute to the world—and daily life—and what it would be without them. To bee or not to bee. There’s no better friend, or teacher.
Night Sky Dragons
By Mal Peet & Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick Press)
No, girls and boys, the Silk Road was not a highway made of silk, and don’t think to compare it to Dorothy’s yellow brick Oz trail. As the empowering, vivid story Night Sky Dragons will reveal to the uninitiated, it was the trading and travel routes—from China to Europe’s edges—that governed far-reaching exchanges of goods and cultures from the second century BC to well into medieval times. And if you were Yazul, a young Chinese boy living in a han—the kind of fortress, watchtower, safe haven and way station punctuating the Silk Road--you could easily believe that your home “stood halfway between the two ends of the world.”
Poignantly, locating yourself at an imagined geographical point isn’t always matched by the place you long for most in another’s heart. Yazul’s father, lord of the han is stern and cold, a great warrior bereft of his wife and disappointed in a son who would rather learn his grandfather’s art of kite-making than apprentice to business and battle. Afloat in the air, kites can lift sadness “to the sky”— whether sadness about a missing mother, an unloving father. But back on earth Yazul causes an accident that just delivers more grief. In such a harsh world, harsh measures are taken, and his banishment is to kitchen drudge. Even there, though, it serves to keep one’s eyes open, and when bandits threaten to attack, Yazul’s unlikely array of skills saves the day. What they do to his father’s feelings and Yazul’s position in his family’s ancestral line is just as important. That gunpowder has entered the equation is another story.
The Iron Trial
By Holly Black & Cassandra Clare (Scholastic Press)
Not every tale of twisted magic, terrible trials, and tests of friendship brings with it the admonition that, if you don’t succeed at first, try, try again. Holly Block (author of The Spiderwick Chronicles) and Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments and other series), are not just bestselling authors but friends, and, in the first novel of a planned series have joined talents to make their readers try to figure out why a dreadful necessity can instead drive someone to try to fail. Twelve-year-old Callum Hunt, alone in a backwater North Carolina town except for his glum, over-protective father, suffers a crippled leg that, along with everything else that seems slightly odd about him, makes him the target of bullies, a card-carrying outcast.
Yet against his better judgment, Callum’s father gives in to some unseen pressure and allows him, like many kids in the area, to take the entrance exam to the Magisterium, a secret, supernatural place where those who win entry get to leave behind what will otherwise become drab lives in exurbia, and gain an education in complicated forms of magic informed by the elements. Despite Callum’s best intentions, he fails to fail, and the Magisterium, an underground maze of shape-shifting caverns ruled by masters of magic, has him in its strict grasp, assigning him to a group of mismatched teammates whose teacher gives them what they complain are only boring tasks. Yet, as in many coming-of-age stories, the results include self-awareness, surprising allegiances and unforeseen strengths (for Callum it’s with a little help from a trusty lizard named Warren). A subterranean warren also characterizes the Magisterium, slightly intimating the subconscious. In the course of any education other purposes tend to loom. An uneasy truce exists between the Magisterium and a rogue magician—named The Enemy of Death—who has a pitiless fifth element, Chaos, at his fingertips. A confrontation with him takes The Iron Trial in an overwhelmingly different direction. Just there, the next volume waits.
By Alexandra Monir (Delacorte Press)
Ages 12 and Up
It’s not even a question of plausible deniability. By her own admission, in Suspicion Alexandra Monir (Timeless and Timekeeper) seriously gets her “Downton Abbey” on. Monir is a “Downton Abbey” groupie. Suspicion, though, surpasses its role model in grand scale (its Rockford Manor is based on Blenheim Palace), and a pervasive infusion of fatal mysteries, the supernatural and identity theft. The reason, Monir reports in her Author’s Note, is that her other obsessions are Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and the movie version by Alfred Hitchcock—or more generally, anything bespeaking that rotund wizard of scary plot twists and turns.
At 10, the half-American Imogen Rockford (her father is the younger son in the aristocratic Rockford clan) has ecstatically spent every summer at the family seat. Her closest friend is her older cousin and the castle’s putative heiress, Lucia. With no heed paid to the tourists and day-trippers traipsing around the public regions, the family’s favorite retreat has always been the Shadow Garden and its ancient maze. Yet that’s also where Imogen and Lucia that year lose both sets of parents to an unfathomable fire.
The New York that Imogen is returned to has “Gossip Girl”-in-the-making written all over it, Rockford determinedly shoved into the past. The past, though, prefers to do its own bidding. More tragedy, a suddenly inherited title (Imogen’s Manhattan schoolmates affectionately josh her about her proximity to the Duchess of Cambridge), and a continuing crush on the boy who grew up to be Lucia’s boyfriend, pull Imogen back to the estate. Now seemingly inhabited by ghosts, Imogen discovers spine-tingling stories about an American beauty who married into the family two centuries before. Dabbling deep in the supernatural, Suspicion holds a trump card over the normal history of rich American families wedding their daughters to impoverished but grand English dynasties. And if one American Rockford was possessed of strange powers, why not two? Welcome to Rockford: Alfred Hitchcock stands on the great lawn holding hands with Daphne du Maurier on one side, and Julian Fellowes on the other.
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.”