- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #20
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!
Violet and Victor Write the Best-Ever Bookworm Book
By Alice Kuipers, Illustrated by Bethanie Deeny Murguia (Little, Brown Books For Young Readers)
All words have meanings, but not all possess two beguilingly dissimilar definitions—one literal, the other metaphoric—that, with enough ingenuity, can work playfully side by side to give the word a story of its own.
Take “bookworm,” which Alice Kuipers pushes the full, imaginative distance that young minds will be pleased to follow. Illustrator Bethanie Deeny Murguia expands on this with graphite drawings that dance with color and pop against whimsically collaged backgrounds from various historical periods and cultures. The rivalry between the stubbornly bickering twins of Violet and Victor Write the Best-Ever Bookworm Book revolves around Violet’s love of reading and writing (she’s a bookworm), while Victor is primarily enamored of his pet worms. He also relishes irritating Violet by calling her “bossy,” when all she wants to do, she pouts, is write a book together. It’s a clash of the kind of titanic egos and pursuits that give childhood its shrill ups and sulky downs. Not until the twins uncover a wormy presence endangering their very school do they unite as authors and gumshoes, though still of very different stripes. The book they pen—like the word at the story’s center—is both scary and intellectually stimulating, big on monsters, on the one hand, and friendly fairytale creatures, on the other. Narrated in the twins’ competing, opinionated voices, Kuipers’s and Murguia’s book will gratify their readers by animating familiar conflicts in young lives, while suggesting convincingly that such disagreements can reach resolution and collaboration not just on the part of squabbling children but by their elders as well.
The Troubles of Johnny Cannon
By Isaiah Campbell (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Super-heroes and schools without homework are among the phenomena unlikely to appear in real life. Johnny Cannon, of small-town Cullen, Alabama, knows this in his wishful heart, while still keeping such hopes alive. But it’s also 1961 in the Deep South, during the administration of President John F. Kennedy. And Johnny’s home life is deteriorating. His father, ex-military, is struggling with alcohol and bankruptcy. His older brother, Tommy, is a tall, tough, heroic soldier—and “dadgum,” as Johnny would say, if he doesn’t up and leave home again on a suspect secret mission. Just when Johnny’s life seems to be settling back into the everyday dreariness that his determined good humor, naivety and imaginatively folksy turns of phrase (“I left a cloud of dust in the shape of Johnny Cannon”) do their best to overcome, author Isaiah Campbell unlooses a macabre set of twists and turns that simultaneously serve as an action-packed history of race relations, the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion, and the conduct of Fidel Castro and the figures around him (such as a distinctly unpleasant Che Guevara) from a kid’s-eye view.
The kidnapping that lands Johnny briefly in Cuba isn’t his first time there, since he was shuttled between his father’s base at Guantanamo and Havana as a little boy until his mother’s affair with a far from straight-shooting family friend ended a glamorous Battista-era existence—and his adored mother’s life. As the plot surrounding the putative Bay of Pigs invasion thickens right in backwater Cullen, Johnny falls, reluctantly at first, into a friendship with a scientifically-minded African American boy his own age, and with his scorned community of what the whites in Cullen refer to with a term that Johnny always politely—and with growing anger at prejudice—changes to “Tigger.” In a story where few turn out to be whom they claim, this is a fitting, final reversal of mistaken assumptions that this novel wisely conveys are just begging to be shot down.
The Darkest Part of the Forest
By Holly Black (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Ages 12 and up
High school is complicated enough without the added stress of living in a town a mere spell away from the faerie world. Picturesque Fairfold and the enchanted woods around it have long served to attract nice families—and a few still resolutely hippie ones—to a place also economically comfortable because of its location on every tourist map: travelers flock there to marvel at an impenetrable glass coffin and a beautiful, curly-horned faerie prince asleep inside, day-trippers oblivious to the sinister causes of his deathlike immobility. Holly Black’s novel is a meet-up of the so-called real and the magical, of ancient folklore and a sharply observed today, of sunlight wishes and nighttime dreams that materialize in startling, empowering, yet often monstrous ways.
Close siblings Hazel and Ben Evans, once the most avid visitors of the entombed royal as they played their youthful games, believe they have left their innocent crushes on this princeling of the Folk behind as they try to maneuver their teen years—Hazel with too many drunken make-out sessions, Ben with too few schoolmates who understand what it’s like to be gay. But as they grapple, the formerly separate universes of human and Folk grow all the more intertwined, and dangerously so, especially as someone smashes the glass shrine to liberate its otherworldly sleeper. Like those opposing forms of existence, which threaten to rip Hazel apart, she hesitantly falls for the ambiguous Jack, an African-American, half-Changeling boy. The first part of his identity matters to nobody one; the second could well destroy the town. If harmony and even life are to win out, Hazel and Ben have to push through to the darkest parts of cunningly entangled worlds, and to the deepest reaches of the psyche.
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search For My Twelve-Year-Old Bully
By Allen Kurzweil (Harper)
Ages 14 and up, and adults
A forbidding edifice on a Swiss mountaintop. A small, fearful stranger dropped into the midst of this eccentric, harsh boarding school, with its mix of affluent, snobby pupils from all over the world. The most predatory of these practiced their physical and social bullying on Allen Kurzweil, a Jewish 10-year-old from New York City (his father had died, his mother was test-driving a third marriage). The ringleader of the casual yet targeted humiliations, usually accompanied by anti-Semitism, was Kurzweil’s big, burly, supposedly Filipino roommate, Cesar.
The tortures Cesar’s gang visited on young Allen were the type that later tend to lead straight to therapy. In Whipping Boy Kurzweil, an acclaimed novelist (A Cabinet of Curiosities, among others), journalist, and children’s book author, turns his obsession with his worst tormentor into a mesmerizing detective story and international thriller; a long, restless manhunt; and a rather reluctant journey into why, after 20 years, then 30, then 40, he wouldn’t and couldn’t give up tracking what might have become of Cesar. Not only were the stakes high psychologically, but Cesar’s story proved a bizarre entertainment, a globe-circling mystery tied up with a smarmy but successful group of swindlers and their made-up roots in royalty, with fake names and backgrounds to match. Cesar’s violent nature remained in evidence.
Their skullduggery tricked numerous wealthy marks, who should have known better but wanted to believe. Kurzweil knew not to believe a thing. Eventually backing him up were normally tight-lipped lawyers, bankers, legal authorities and P.I.s, as well as a most astute, charming and wisecracking accomplice—his son, Max—who grows from a savvy, curious smart-aleck into a loyal, smart adult equally addicted to his father’s quest. Max’s love for his father, his filial attachment to the once unparented, unprotected boy, can count as one of Kurzweil’s most significant achievements.
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.”