- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #26
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!
What Pet Should I Get?
By Dr. Seuss (Random House Children's Books)
Ages Pre-K - 7, and their grownups
As if the hoopla of one surprise publishing find —Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman—weren’t enough, out pounces What Pet Should I Get? No protracted shelter under a bright-blue rock or torrent of blinding snowflakes can possibly have kept anyone from the news of this new Dr. Seuss release. The sight and sound of the title alone already inescapably hint that this is an addition to children’s top-of-the-pops favorites, and to their kooky, unshakable rhymes. With the return here of the brother and sister from the swim party One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish of 1960, bells and whistles will also go off for parents and grandparents. How many didn’t learn something about counting, make-believe, and getting in and out of trouble from that book?
Younger readers may not yet be capable of noticing, unless subliminally, that the gist and “Should” of this book also reinforce the quiet strong-arming of a parental presence, which stealthily has the last word or admonishment in much of Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre. What Pet Should I Get? is Seussiana in milder form. This trip to a pet store is devoid of pranks and barely-averted disasters. The task is to choose one new animal family member (strong quandary alert for sibling shoppers who amount to more than that). The book’s subjects include the difficulty of decision-making, weighing options, identifying pros and cons, and taking measured mental notes to prevent too much agony of choice. The question even arises of what would Mother like best, or make Dad mad.
Most of the pets on offer are of the reasonably everyday world, though rendered in Seussian colors and quirky detail irresistible to most any child, (though, at least for more politically correct adults, they carry a potential whiff of the gender specific in terms of what pet a guy or gal might get). But, oh, how glorious the few pages where Dr. Seuss’s rather goody-goody duo let loose their imaginations, concocting entirely preposterous and vibrantly conceived animals of non-existent species, un-encountered outside the Seussiverse.
The Cat in the Hat isn’t exactly back. Still, to what creature do those eyes belong that peep out from the dark of the covered basket our boy balances on his head on the way home, on the final, open-ended page?
Escape from Baxters' Barn
By Rebecca Bond (HMH Books for Young Readers)
An adage of inevitably recent vintage, it’s been impressed upon youthful soccer teams, dance troupes, science partners, football brawlers: there is no “I” in team. It’s had different degrees of success. To the animals in Baxters’ Barn, though, friendly as they (mostly) are, it’s still a foreign concept, especially among the more selfish specimens. But Rebecca Bond puts a more kind and patient spin on matters by elucidating the initial impetus behind even the most battered-looking, suspicious, self-protective loner.
That’s Burdock, a cat that showed up one day, blind in one eye, spotty fur matted with prickly burrs, and fighting mad about having been ditched to fend for himself. Defenses have a way of breaking down under the benign but unmeddlesome attitude of new acquaintances, however: in the case of Bond’s winsome novel (a sure thing for lovers of Charlotte’s Web), a barnful of farm animals with recognizably human attributes, particularly in their emotions and enchanting, amusingly fitting names.
Unlike his larger compadres, Burdock also possesses the singular ability to go back and forth between the outside world and the locked interior of the wobbly old barn. As such he’s the bearer of the frightening news that begins Escape from Baxters’ Barn on a note of suspense, mystery and danger: “If Burdock had been obedient, the Baxter farmers’ secret would have remained a secret.”
As is its nasty habit, the wind of rumor jolts Nanny the motherly goat, Fluff the shy sheep, the draft horses Tug and Pull, Figgy the mentally sharp pig, Mrs. Brown the gentle milk cow, and their various offspring. Their owners—the hard-pressed, mortgaged-to-the-hilt Dewey and Garrett—are scheming to burn down the barn. The animals take that to mean, burn the barn with them in it.
Communal resourcefulness and significant changes in character bubble up to ward off evil. Impossible as it seems, the menagerie rallies to stage a barn breakout and hoof it to a wondrous round barn that Noctua, the ghostly-looking night owl, has pinpointed on one of her flights. For Bond, the animals turn “into thinkers and doers.” Bonded in unlikely pairings and tasks, the actual utterance “we are a team” propitiously comes out of their mouths. The powerful pull of a sense of home takes on increased meaning.
And there is a word that does sport an “I” yet nonetheless becomes the be all and end all for the brave animals and their story. As different as each may be, they have formed a unit defined as a F-A-M-I-L-Y.
Julia and the Art of Practical Travel
By Lesley M. M. Blume (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
American history doesn’t run in a straight line. It’s often a rich jumble of legacies loop-de-looping from past to present. In Julia and the Art of Practical Travel, the centuries-old Lancaster family mansion and sprawling estate have been sold, their contents relegated to an auction for “heritage seekers,” and the grand name of the generations who lived there whittled down to a young girl, her spinster aunt, and a mother long vamoosed, incommunicado, into 1960s hippiedom. It’s time to hit the road, not long after On the Road and Lolita.
Since 12-year-old Julia Lancaster’s Aunt Constance can only road-trip in a certain style, their rickety touring car is stuffed with family silver and other similarly necessary household items (as well as rather formal clothing) for their quest to find Julia’s long-lost mom.
Such life-changing circumstances inevitably tear friendships asunder. Julia must bid farewell to her friend, Belfry, who is, in truth, her only friend. A near-genius, his final project with his only friend is an attempt to restore the once-lucrative cultivation of tobacco in the Hudson Valley. An heirloom Lancaster teacup proves just the ticket for filling with soil and coaxing forth a first sprout. Since Julia’s Brownie camera (her last gift from her mother) is the single possession that never leaves her side, a drawing of her charming, bittersweet snapshot of this mutual agricultural endeavor adorns an early page, a harbinger of the wonderful method of illustration throughout. The winningly nostalgic novel is also a pretend photo album, a tribute to Eastman Kodak’s obsolete means of capturing the seen. But why aren’t there any people in Julia’s pictures?
There’s a lot for Julia’s lens to spot as she and Aunt Constance set out on their detective journey. On their forays geographical, social and emotional, narrator Julia conveys all in her dry, pseudo-sophisticated, yet innocently yearning voice. Drawing a blank in a marijuana-hazed Greenwich Village (her mother’s original destination), a tip comes of re-location to New Orleans to study “voodoo,” then maybe San Francisco’s scary “Hate Asbury,” as Julia thinks it’s spelled. Every snobbish Lancaster do and don’t stands at the ready—when camping out, it’s a go to bundle up in the furs grandmother Lancaster used to wear to The Colony Club. On the other, more somber and historical hand, while Paw-Paw, West Va., charms Julia, her aunt judges it “simply too dangerous because of the violence against giving Negroes the vote." In novelistic fashion, some of the story’s surprise conclusion is foreshadowed by a sojourn on the huge World’s End Cattle Ranch, in Gold Point, Texas, where gold mining petered out long ago.
Not all reunions are joyful, and Julia’s with her mother is downright frightening and depressing. As new experiences have a way of doing, though, Aunt Constance’s have changed her, too. Among the perceptions and gratitude Blume implants in the character of Julia: not all mothers are the ones who gave birth to you.
Playing a Part
By Daria Wilke, translated by Marian Schwartz (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books)
Ages 14 and up
The country now reincarnated as modern-day Russia—almost as totalitarian, despite its brightest surfaces, as the old—invites many metaphors. In this first YA novel translated from Russian into English, Daria Wilke gets at those metaphors obliquely yet unmistakably. She bravely published Playing a Part in 2013, the same time her government declared "gay propaganda" illegal, intimidating with jail time and fines as punishment for reprobates.
Wilke’s vivid narrative reality tackles the subject of homosexuality through the struggles of Grisha, a gay teenager who finds refuge working, out-of sight—but where life, albeit centered on storytelling, becomes most real to him—behind the scenes of the famed Moscow Puppet Theater. His parents also perform there, though a stronger draw is the great young artist—and Grisha’s unspoken crush—Sam. Sickeningly disowned by his family, Sam plans to move to The Netherlands for greater freedom as an artist and a gay man.
With the famed theater as a stage for an alternative world and a voice for truth through its loaded purveyance of fantasy, Playing a Part pulls on both strings and heartstrings. Classic Russian fiction’s dense, romantic, sardonic, dream-rocked and kaleidoscopic scope—the one that runs from ballrooms to lower depths—imprints this story as well. It should propel its readers forward to those more mature literary riches.
At home, Grisha’s grandfather growls at him to man up. At school, a daily torture, inspiration hits when he decides to play “The Jester” (though he also stands up to the queer-baiting class bully). The character puppet among the theater’s many fairytale occupants that Grisha adores most, The Jester grows all the more precious as it’s threatened with de-accessioning, together with other older, old-fashioned works of art fashioned and regularly repaired by the elderly puppet master Lyolik (who to Grisha is the “puppet god”).
Likewise, Lyolik is under sentence of retirement to the state-run Veterans’ Home for officialdom’s artistic discards, his replacement the hapless (and secretive) Fillip, who, as the son of an important government official, has been handed his new role, and gets to play it with high-handed bungling. What is the secret he has to hide? Grisha’s stealth mission is to save the theater’s traditions and its integrity, an integrity that speaks to his own—an integrity that Wilke spotlights for the world of her novel, and for ours.
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.
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“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.”