- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #22
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!
Once a Shepherd
By Glenda Millard, illustrated by Phil Lesnie (Candlewick Press)
The novel War Horse, originally written for an age group ranging from 8 to 12, packed an emotional and visceral wallop, particularly once turned into a play. The masterpiece performed with magnificent, large-scale wooden marionettes cast its appeal far beyond the book’s young readership to include anyone susceptible to wondrous art, and illuminated with an intense theatrical luminosity all manner of heartbreak and heroism associated with England’s experience of the First World War.
Glenda Millard’s Once a Shepherd is, in numerous senses, a War Horse for children younger still. Lyrically plain-spoken, with illustrations to match, it’s steeped in gentle romance, love of the land (there are passages that raise sheep-farming to poetry), and the strengths of a good marriage. It pulls only the most necessary punches in its depiction of difficult leave-takings, the ugliness and tragedy of the conflict that ravaged Europe, and the personal toll it could take. In Once a Shepherd’s history-based story, constructed with young readers or listeners in mind, it’s important that loss is tempered with sweet astonishments, and death, however devastating, is addressed as part of a continuum, placing it among the books that most deftly and sympathetically address youngsters first starting to grapple with mortality. The life that goes on is ultimately celebrated from a special child’s eye view. Left for a more mature audience are names made famous or long mourned, horrifying numbers of fatalities, graphic details of dying and destruction, the intricacies of geo-politics. Once a Shepherd lays the groundwork for taking history at its word, and that’s a lot to be thankful for.
The Island of Dr. Libris
By Chris Grabenstein (Random House Books for Young Readers)
A treasure island is not a concept to be taken lightly. Items of value lend themselves to a host of interpretations. Chris Grabenstein faithfully adheres to that rule, managing to turn just about everything about pot-of-gold longings on its head.
And so he has it go with 12-year-old Billy Gilfoyle, who encounters the classics of young people’s literature (an enthralling, unruly pack including Treasure Island) in such a way that these irresistible oldies, increasingly brushed aside by video games and streaming super-hero shenanigans, come alive thanks to magical powers, turning a self-doubting loner into a leader of men. (Also of Pollyanna and Tom Sawyer.) Equally remarkable, he acquires a best friend versed in theories of parallel universes and black holes. His name is Walter. His father is an engineer. He has “chocolate-colored skin.”
Besides being a steadfast proponent of timeless literature, Grabenstein is a master of teen-speak and humor emanating from where his tongue rests in his cheek. Still, there is no funny way around the fact that Billy’s parents are undergoing a marital crisis, which is one reason his mathematician mother has accepted the invitation of her acclaimed colleague, Dr. Libris, to spend the summer with Billy in a remote lakeside cabin the shifty scientist owns. There’s no TV, and it’s vamoose with the video games.
As compensation, Billy develops a fascination with an unnaturally mist-shrouded island in the middle of the lake—as well as with why “spy” cameras are all over the cabin. Similarly enigmatic is Dr. Libris’s extraordinarily ornate and imposing bookcase, a treasure trove for Billy (once he sleuths down the key). It strikes him that every book he starts to read comes with sound effects—but from out on the island, which tantalizes all the more because it’s hard to get to (especially if rowing is not in the skill set). But bungling persistence has its rewards, since the island appears to harbor every important character from the books Billy has read—Hercules, Robin Hood, Maid Marian and the Sherriff of Nottingham, the Three Musketeers (also Walter’s favorite candy bar), Moby-Dick and/or Poseidon, and, as a handy gimmick for a romantic plot of Billy’s own, H.G. Wells’s time machine. Billy pushes them, if unintentionally, to mix it up, with violent, funny and helpful consequences—“All for one, and one for all.” To top it off, Billy and Walter’s modern-day superheroes and scary monsters show up.
Someone has a magical touch, and it’s not Dr. Libris, revealed as a greedy conniver.
Many grownups would have hurled astounded expletives and angry swear words were they subjected to this wonderful, confounding mash-up. Leave it to Chris Grabenstein, firmly at kids’ lit mission control, to instead coin the endearing “curses and foul language” for his mighty entertaining crew.
This Side of Home
By Renee Watson (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)
Twins—double the trouble, double the fun, and, in Renee Watson’s fine, thoughtful, true-to-teen-life novel, ready symbols of what keeps people together and drives them apart. Funny how gentrification likes to think it’s a twin to egalitarian renewal, not the reverse image of those it disorients and displaces. Maya and Nikki, identical twins and seniors at crumbling, apathetic Richmond High in an up-scaling area of Portland, Oregon, are living just such a dilemma, and it’s threatening to hacksaw unexpected differences right through where they’ve always been joined at the hip—hopes for college at Spelman, a family legacy, at the top of their list.
But turning points have a way of turning tables, which is exactly the nature of the twins’ final high-school year. “The season is changing,” thinks Maya of the Portland she knows like the back of her hand, though, as the sensitive narrator of this story, she realizes it’s not just the weather she’s reporting on. The fates of friends, neighbors, and new and surprising acquaintances determine the emotional temperature of her life, along with the vagaries of love in a suddenly open-ended racial climate at, of all places, Richmond High.
Watson subtly lets it dawn on Maya and her twin that, when it comes to political beliefs and social aspirations, they aren’t identical anymore. Scales tip every which way. Unconsciously at first, they drift apart—Nikki into complacency about the seductive changes in their urban environment, Maya, reluctantly elected class president, more militant in her urge to save her school and make it a place where younger kids want to go for the right reasons, not the bad. The power of observation and reformist tendencies often cohere into the pursuit of journalism, and Maya’s awakening interest in the subject, spurred on by a gifted teacher, is transformative, compelling her to transcribe her particular surroundings in order to resuscitate their neglected past and disrespected history, taking issue with the forgetful, often ignorant, and perpetually daunting indifference of the everyday now. As Maya kicks some sense into long-held biases, she also has to confront her own. This Side of Home gets to the girl in the mirror, the twin of the twin who seeks her own identity without letting go of what makes her whole.
The Buried Giant
By Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf)
Ages 14 and up, Grownups
Among the considerable leaps of faith Kazuo Ishiguro took in bringing forth the massive, formidable and enchantment-filled The Buried Giant, his first novel in a decade and both like and very unlike anything he’s written before, was surely not trying to make it apt and fascinating for young people. Nevertheless, for older adolescents on up through Ishiguro’s usual, avid adult readership, an abundance of both literary and video-gamer delights come tearing down the pike of a crippled, burnt-over, dazed land, a savage, strange, riddle where huddled, primitive villages lie scattered and at loggerheads across an unforgiving landscape. The remains of the day here make long retreat back in time, centuries and centuries, to a mystical and even a mythical world just after King Arthur’s reign.
But there too are dragons. A She-Dragon in particular, that is enormous, ugly, malevolent and a great challenge to track down. There is some suggestion that this very beast has spread the mysterious plague—or windfall—of forgetting that acts mostly as a welcome painkiller on folk high and low. It casts a special eeriness, characteristically Ishiguro’s, over wandering knights, fortified mazes of castles, the odd remnant of King Arthur’s armies, a young boy with unearthly powers, a boatman and his ferry that ply a river of slightly familiar connotations
Blessing or curse, Ishiguro’s parable of memory loss homes in on the sudden and unexpected perseverance of an elderly couple of virtual outcasts, Axl and Beatrice, whose seemingly addled minds refuse to let go of a vague memory of a son long absent. Dangerously overcome by the urge to remember and go in search of him, Ishiguro slowly faces them with the realities of the present, and of the past they want desperately (or foolishly) to reconstruct. The fragile renewal Ishiguro allows such spirits partially opens their eyes again to beauty, to betrayal, to bloodlust, raging passions, love, and the approaching specter of death. Legend has it that this is the stuff out of which storytelling is spun—dragons on equal footing with those willing to stick with Ishiguro on a perilous journey.
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.”