- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #23
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 Ross Collins (Templar Books/Candlewick Press)
It’s a fact universally accepted—or two facts, if we’re counting—by parents, teachers, and those nosey types called child psychologists. Many young children see monsters in the dark after bedtime and in their scariest dreams, while others, some of them very lonely or very creative, conjure imaginary friends to keep them company during the daylight hours. But Ross Collins has a twofer up his sleeve when it comes to his bouncy, amiable, pitch-perfectly illustrated book. If a kooky-looking television (also a giant chair and a realistically scaled bowl of popcorn) appear on the first page of his story next to the little girl with a big gripe who tells the tale—one person’s culprit is simply another’s innocuous boob tube. For her, the irritating conviction remains that a pesky presence has insinuated itself into her family’s home and her life. It galumphs (and flies, floats and holds wild parties for its friends). It’s so large that it’s readily identifiable, and yet unprecedented in her experience and most of the grownups around her. She recognizes immediately what has come to turn her life into a pain: an Elephantom. (Ross is also adept at making up twofer words).
Perhaps it’s not surprising that this Elephantom, like a multitude of his distant midnight relatives, keeps our heroine up at night. But when, by day, he gets into her favorite peanut butter, therefore condemning her, at the hands of her usually supportive mother, to spinach sandwiches, patience starts to come in smaller and smaller doses. Of course, as worse luck and traditional parent-child relationships would have it, her parents are oblivious to the intruder, even that ”it’s my room that always smells like dung” (its general state of messiness and wilting flowers couldn’t possibly be to blame).
Thank goodness for grandmothers with spiritual inclinations and “lots of ghost pets.” Collins to the rescue: off grandma dispenses the little girl to the weird, magical shop of Mr. Spectral, who has just the right squeaky ticket, wrapped up in a box, tied with a purple bow. Firmly planting herself in front of the Elephantom, the little girl lets the cat out of the bag, or, in this case, a mouse out of the box. The giant, unwelcome visitor lets out a frightened screech and disappears, as such spectral creatures tend to do. But not into thin air, to the neighbors’ house, where there live some unattractive, bully-sized boys.
And the little girl has a new pet, which chomps on her cheese. But not too much.
The Way to Stay in Destiny
By Augusta Scattergood (Scholastic)
The stories Greyhound buses could tell! Ann Scattergood’s The Way to Stay in Destiny is about as close and as likable as you’ll get.
When Theo Thomas climbs down from a Greyhound in the sleepy little Gulf Coast town called Destiny, it’s the spring of 1974, he’s greeted by the puzzling banner “The Town That Time Forgot,” and otherwise nobody there to meet him. Piling on top of every doubt and uncertainty that Theo has additionally accumulated on his long ride is that his Uncle Raymond, with whom he’s been sent to live, has pointedly not shown up for him (defensive, lonely 12-year-old or not), and has less than any use for him except to do their wash at the Laundromat every Saturday. And to not grow close. A Vietnam vet already alienated from his family before he went off to war, the only place he had been able to settle his traumatized and silent self down was in the wilds of Alaska, until the orphaned Theo became his ward. Holed up in Destiny because an army buddy gave him a job fixing tires despite his having been an Army engineer in Vietnam, he both dwells on that time as a point of pride and struggles with it in loud nightmares. To Theo’s apprehension, his uncle would rather drift from place to place. Destiny is gradually working its quirky quaintness on Theo, and being uprooted time and again is precisely the destiny he doesn’t want.
Augusta Scattergood doesn’t hold back on this double abandonment. Theo has lots to recover from on his own—his parents deaths in a car accident, bidding goodbye to his grandparents and the Kentucky farm where they sheltered him from as much grief as possible, his severed ties to the piano music he loved to play (a legacy from his musician mother), and the idea that none of the strangers he’s encountering have any idea that this friendless new boy in the sixth grade at the James Weldon Johnson Middle School is pretty awesome at baseball. And then it has to be a girl who teams up with him on a mission, cleverly offered up as a local-history project for school credit and a contribution to Destiny’s impending centennial celebration. Theo and Anabel Johnson set out to prove that Destiny was once the proud refuge that players like Theo’s hero, Hank Aaron, sought out when spring training brought them south, and they were young and ill-paid. Theo has the good luck of finding a possible clue in the attic of Miss Grandersole’s Rooming House and Dance Academy, where he and his uncle board, and Miss Grandersole reinstates music, and his uncle, to his life—while Anabel runs in the opposite direction of the dance lessons her mother thinks she’s taking there.
Scattergood’s Destiny is idyllic, to the point, perhaps, of being idealized. Much of the novel presents it as an all-black community, but there are also signs of white folks. A happily integrated small Southern town, in 1974? Miss Grandersole claims a past with the Rockettes—the first African American dancer joined them 1987. But for middle-school readers this book will be a pleasure, a story steeped in fuzzy harmony, history’s mysteries, and suspense—also about growing emotionally—as chilly yet refreshing as an ice-cream cone on a sultry Florida day.
By Tor Seidler (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
This beguiling nature novel is also a tribute. Tor Seidler, a celebrated writer of juvenile fiction, had a friend and mentor in Newbery Medalist Jean Craigshead George, an exemplar of naturalist story writing from the generation before.
And it was she who intrepidly guided him through Yellowstone Park, which reaches into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and the diverse human settlements staked around there, to captivate him with some of the wildest and most intimidating creatures it holds: the giant wolves reintroduced to the park in 1995. As the novel lets on, such people as “red hats” (hunters), farmers, ranchers and park visitors fool-heartedly picnicking where they don’t belong resent this new element, and had a lot to do with its earlier disappearance. Blam! On the other side is a mix of distrust and disdain.
Seidler crafts appearances so he doesn’t seem to be recounting the tale, but neither do the wolves—predominantly the fearless pack at the top of the hierarchy led by the Alpha male Blue Boy. It’s Maggie, the first firstborn of the book, a chatty, curious, adventure-craving magpie who also has a worm to pick with her parents, largely over her boring name indicative of their general worldview.
Resentment and restlessness only blow up in such situations, and when a mate dashes all hope—“the thought of spending my whole life with Dan and his junk made me shudder,” and there’s also the burden of children—the call of the unfamiliar must be followed.
For Maggie, it’s not just discovering the wonders of Yellowstone (unerringly observed from a magpie’s eye view) and the existence of wolves. By proving herself a courageous scout, a wound-healer, a voice of reason, a connoisseur of human habits, she is officially inducted into the pack. As such she is witness to perpetual violence, death, instinctive and distinctive modes of killing, prey hunting prey, the wonder of wolves giving birth (they don’t hatch eggs), shifting alliances trumped by loyalty, the scars and decline of old age, and the spine-tingling, tender love affairs between the pack’s males and females. It’s as good as any soap opera.
Comedy overcomes tragedy for a good while when Lamar, the “firstborn” wolf pup of the title, is born. He has no interest in learning the ways of wolves, but rather the whos and whats of everything around him, his questions always posed in similes for the unknown things he sees before him. As his playful wanderings become more and more dangerous, and irritating to his father, he even courts a grave sin when he falls in love with a sworn enemy and food source for the pack.
Trials are always bound to come before triumphs, or, better yet, acceptance and understanding. Tor Seidler’s natural world is brutal. But his imagination asserts changes in it that speak hopefully to human behavior, and truth to power in his animal kingdom.
Wonder at the Edge of the World
By Nicole Helget (Little, Brown Books for Younger Readers)
Ages 15 and up
Lynching is a horrible thing, a particular stain on American history. The deadly desecration was practiced with lethal ferocity early on in the disputed “Bleeding Kansas” territory of the mid-19th century, where Abolitionists fighting pro-slavery forces could be equally rabid.
A lynching experienced up close is stomach-turning and sadistic, but not necessarily irreversible in the eyes of Hallelujah (“Lu”) Wonder, an audacious 16-year-old who, against all strictures held against women at the time, dreams of becoming a scientist and explorer, just like her famous, globe-roving father, who discovered Antarctica. Heading home one day from a playful day on the prairie, she can see
"At the end of the rope is a man, strangling…. His legs kick and jerk, which means he’s alive and struggling. I want to yell at him…to be still…that the more weight he’ll put on the loop…. will tighten the knot. Then I’m there…. I stand beneath him, throw my arms around his legs, and push them up to take the tension off the rope…. but it’s no use….He’s been dead before I touched him, and I know it. I was too slow."
Nicole Helget takes Lu’s self-inflicted sense of guilt and deftly hitches it to her story of her scientific fervor, her drive to protect her broken-down mother and gentler sister, to wreak vengeance on murderous Captain Greeney, the man responsible for running her family out of the thriving seaport and whaling hub of New Bedford, and to figure out the mystery behind her father’s most highly prized and gruesome treasure. The “Medicine Head” is what Captain Greeny craves most of all. In a still unsettled, socially fluid territory, Lu is, with tolerable impunity, best friends with Eustace, a young slave eager to buy freedom for himself and his mother from the callous family that owns them.
With a resolution that would make her father proud, Lu and Eustace light out back to civilization (Helget’s book invokes Twain, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe and “The Flying Dutchman”), as stowaways on a train and later on a haunted whaling ship. Lu has a goal, and she must reach it.
Even as Helget has Lu push for good and justice, the country around her is changing—the pristine New Bedford of her childhood now an industrialized mess, the nation on the brink of civil war, and her future ambiguous, whether she reaches the ends of the earth or fights for admission to the community of science that will let far too few women into its misogynist midst. But, like so many women pioneers and crusaders who began to emerge at the time, Lu is a fighter, and a Wonder.
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.”