- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #24
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!
Tell Me What to Dream About
By Giselle Potter (Schwartz & Wade/Random House Children’s Books)
The question before us, in Giselle Potter’s entrancing book—with illustrations just as fine, and fitting—isn’t what little girls are made of, but their dreams. This circles back, though, with character-revealing bonus points, to what little girls are made of.
In Tell Me What To Dream About a pair of these are siblings—and, from the looks and tone of it, just a few years apart. A tender yet sometimes spiky and sparky relationship emerges from the crabby insomnia of the younger and her older sister’s inventively and increasingly hard-put attempts to conjure fanciful scenarios in order to help her nighttime roommate face down the dark unknowns of sleep. Love knows no bounds—though not without some impatience on both sides—in these explorations of dreamlands.
The younger sister counters her older sister’s suggestions, first with merely a fussy squeamishness. But, as fantasy's contents expand, she clearly feels confronted by apprehensive feelings that visit her both day and night. Her sister is made of tougher—or perhaps just older—stuff. In defense of the junior member of the dream team, though, who would want tiny creatures “crawling all over my waffles," a gingerly transformation of her sister’s off-hand idea of having cute, harmless baby animals share their breakfast. The distorted prospect of being a giant won’t do, either, nor existing in a cuddly, furry world, which changes into a scary nether region reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s.
Potter comprehends that one person’s ideas of fabulous adventures are another’s mild-to-hysterical terrors, whether ingrained or a temporary hyper-sensitivity in crossing the line from very young to old enough. Since riding fluffy clouds induces vertigo, perhaps a whole tree-house town would seem more stable, sushi restaurant and all? Shaky, shaky. The reality is that—despite a few additional make-believes, ever more elaborate, yet more down-to-earth, and opening up still different, reasonable grounds for complaint—dreaming about what you truly love is the ticket. For these two that's something like being together and, first thing in the morning, mixing up a batch of breakfast’s comfort food to start the day.
Adventures with Waffles
By Maria Parr, translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey, illustrated by Kate Forrester (Candlewick Press)
Entertaining as they might have been, Maria Parr’s “adventures with waffles” don’t consist of waffles that fly, talk, explore jungles, or save damsels in distress. That’s far from the intent of this charming book for 7-to-9 year olds, and its special appeal. Parr is after a portrait of the kind of small, quiet, friendly seaside village that overlooks the fjords of Norway, a quaintly exotic realm at the least for American readers. But, as she wisely and kindly conveys, it cannot always be the unassailable paradise its picturesque, drolly drawn illustrations and boppy rhythms present.
Notable among Mathildewick Cove’s human and animal population are two friends since their short forevers, 9-year-old Trille Yttergard, from the big family in the sprawling orange house, and his classmate Lena Lid (the rest are boys), who lives alone with her mother next door in a small white house, deserted by husband and father. No maiden in trouble (except of her own making), Lena frightens and mesmerizes Trille with her exploits, “her heart of stone,” her “green eyes and seven freckles on her nose.” Trille most wants to tell Lena that she’s his best friend, and to hear the same back. But he feels constricted by shyness and, even at his pip-squeak age, by social norms and traditions that thwart many things being said.
Still, since people of many ages live lives in the cove’s fictional “kingdom,” as Trille’s Grandpa calls it, the occasional presence of deeper emotions raises its hand. In Trille and Lena, for the time being, these nestle far down, protected by innocence and ringed by their mountainous utopia, by their escapades and mishap-bonding, the co-ed Choral Festival, the topsy-turvy Midsummer festival, the misbegotten shark boat fantasies and the mutual affection between young and old. Told from Trille’s perspective, Adventures With Waffles is recounted with a guilelessness that will be asked to grow up a bit. There’s the death of Auntie Granny, maker of unsurpassed waffles, and Lena advertising for a father, and her final betrayal (though she is more sinned against than sinning). But Trille now knows what’s what: he admits, “…inside I was just sad….when I came home I was drenched in sleet and tears.”
Before the story’s final resolution, Grandpa takes the time to inform Trille that, no matter how far the distance, you always carry those you’ve cared about in your heart. Auntie Granny’s waffles were heart-shaped. But her recipe has gone missing. It’s for Trille to find, and Lena, at last officially declared his best friend, to share with him.
The Girl in the Torch
By Robert Sharenow (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins)
Alfred Stiegliz’s famous photograph, “The Steerage,” first published in 1911, has long been viewed as a great, moving and historic image of poor European immigrants, confined and condemned to the awful bowels of an ocean liner during their Transatlantic crossing, finally making it to the Promised Land. Later, however, it emerged that the vessel was actually bound back to Europe, and that among these miserable passengers were deportees—illness, incomplete paperwork, or untraceable family sponsors returning them to face uncertain fates.
Such an outcome looms over 12-year-old Sarah, who managed to escape a Cossack pogrom in her Russian shetl with her delicate mother, her father having been gored to death by the pitchfork he had brandished in resistance. Perseverance is paramount in this novel. Sarah reaches Ellis Island with her grief-stricken mother, only to have her, seriously ill from their voyage, hospitalized under quarantine. Their relatives are gone, and soon her mother’s life is, too. This leaves Sarah, her luminous red hair always shining like a beacon, to accept deportation—or plunge into the cold waters of New York Harbor, scrambling ashore on Liberty Island, the great lady Colossus from the worn postcard once constantly passed around in her village towering, larger than life (or many tall buildings), as Sarah’s new home. The crown: her bedroom. Her sustenance: discarded food scrounged from tourist trash bins. Her mantra: Emma Lazarus’s “Mother of Exiles.” Her enemy: Maryk, the creepy, alcoholic night guard bent on catching her and turning her in.
Sharenow links his capacity for this to a storied past with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and his current state, gone to seed in drink, despair and shame. But Maryk, suddenly able to see in a stranded girl his better self, takes her home, to the seediest New York, a Chinatown rooming house managed by the tyrannical Mrs. Lee, whose husband “left her when she kept having girls.” The girls passing through there are a warning to Sarah about her choices in life. Her new country challenges her to someday become a teacher, not just “a buttonhole maker.” Instead forced to act as her own lawyer, her humble life hangs by a thread. America doesn’t stop at Lady Liberty, though. Threads weave together, and can fling a safety net across a whole land.
The Rise and Fall of the Gallivanters
By M.J. Beaufrand (Abrams/Amulet)
Ages 14 and up
There’s a new Kurt Cobain “scrapbook” biography out, but it tells only some of the story. That impression comes through strongly, yes, grungily, and authentically, in B.J. Beaufrand’s The Rise and Fall of the Gallivanters: part tragic, part redemptive, close to darkly spiritual and surreal.
Portland in 1983—its poorer neighborhoods, struggling workers, artist mothers on a shoestring, the noxious fumes of forgotten factories, and teenage despair not just a pose or phase—it spells a brick-wall future for four former friends. Once members of the exciting, up-and-coming punk group “The Gallivanters,” by high school’s senior year they are alienated, no less from one another, with no direction home but to repeat their parents’ dysfunctions. Only the wealthier Janine seems to have an out, by way of college, not eagerly embraced. Sonya, the raving beauty, great musician and helpless inflictor of pain, can still push the buttons of an increasingly sado-masochistic Noah, the narrator, whose own circle of hell Beaufrand constructs from his guilt about an “accident” involving his alcoholic, abusive father, and his inchoate, inexpressible worries about his best friend. Evan’s skeletal appearance is trumped only by his erratic behavior.
Rising up out of the mists of nighttime and Noah’s own hallucinatory visions—or are they—is a new, infallible, exceptionally eerie confidant, Ziggy, who dresses like a period David Bowie, pops up at critical moments, and starts speaking to Noah through his radio, through his pursuit of lost musicianship, and through everyone’s close-to-unraveling minds. The future: Just another trippy vision on the Ziggy train? Adolescence is a bitch.
An ingenious, complex, and convincing Purgatory is what Beaufrand builds with his novel: a city plagued by disappearing girls who turn up dead and mutilated, an ineffectual police force, and, the most thriving business in town, the Pfeffer Brau Haus, lodged in a labyrinthine old warehouse now owned by two sinister brothers. They purvey beer, fear and the temptations of a dubious “Wake the Dead” music competition, with a hunk of money as first prize. The number of “disappeared” girls mounts, and Noah ambivalently ups his efforts to re-unite the Gallivanters to win the contest.
Don’t you know it: psychic wounds and stubborn pasts persist. But Beaufrand beckons with the boon of a deeper past, a tattered but enduring and peculiar history. It’s most palpable in the musty air of an old and oldies record emporium. Precariously, skeptically clambering up to the goods—the good—there, it’s a heavenwards climb out of the muck of broken lives. Only one doesn’t make it. A house painted pink seems dedicated to all he gently was and can’t be anymore.
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.”