- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #27
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!
Melissa's Octopus and Other Unsuitable Pets
Written and illustrated by Charlotte Voake (Candlewick Press)
Suitable is as suitable does. That would seem to exclude the menagerie of pet-lovers extraordinaire in Melissa’s Octopus and Other Unsuitable Pets. For suitable is also: as parents say, as teachers lecture, and as the enforcers of boring rules, convictions and expectations would have it. In that case, let freedom ring. There are no adults in Charlotte Voake’s bouncy, fast-paced, alluringly illustrated book. Imagination is a regrettable thing to waste, and Voake won’t have any of that, allowing her young subjects to explore theirs to the fullest. But unlike many playful tales about children and far-fetched animal companions, drawing the ultimate conclusion here isn’t easy-peazy, open-ended or pat. Letting the big reveal dawn on its characters unencumbered by adults, Voake calls on innate fantasy, but also the seedlings of logical thinking that grow with every birthday.
Deliberate this: Would a pet octopus really fit in Melissa’s bathtub—and just who would be ordered to mop up the terrible mess? When Betty gets a chameleon, is it the adaptable lizard’s fault or that of the very busy, very ugly living-room upholstery that she has such trouble locating her pet?
The idea that a warthog could be called “beautiful” is enough to crack up any child—but what really sinks in is how unattractive, rude and destructive it is, whether in child or beast, to do whatever you want. Nor are flowers in vases either for tasting or toppling, whatever the trend of edible blooms at practically every farm-to-table event might suggest. And so it goes with the pros and cons of life and living—a giraffe is gentle, with beautiful long legs, but it’s pretty impossible for her young human to hold a tête-à-tête, or see eye-to-eye. The conundrums of academia, politics and diplomacy figure directly into Simon’s relationship with his worm (“he never knows which end to talk to”). And just when Peter’s regal elephant may be dreaming of a role on “Upstairs/Downstairs” (or, better, “Downton Abbey”), “crack!” goes the floor and he “ends up downstairs by mistake.”
It looks to be quite companionable for every young character to be able to ride on the back of Kevin and Bertrand’s crocodile, but what’s with the segue to the sly creature smiling more broadly than Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf, our gang nowhere in sight? Readers must mull this over carefully before turning the page. But doing so, whimsy intact, is the point of this enjoyable, high-spirited book.
By Roddy Doyle, illustrated by Emily Hughes (Abrams/Amulet)
There’s strong competition out there, some dating back to the mists of time, but it must be conceded that Ireland scales the greatest heights of tale-spinning, myth-making, folktale-founding, shenanigans-following, and purely great storytelling. As Irish as they come, and as delightfully adept at writing for kids as for adults, is Dublin’s Roddy Doyle. In Brilliant he high-gears his gift for fresh metaphors, for giving comprehensible form to ineffable emotions, and for spinning the gold of joy out of the dross of life’s pervasive inequities.
So it was that, when the past decade’s burst-bubble economic depression hit his homeland, and with it wide-spread emotional depression (in a nation no stranger to the evil wages of being down-in-the-dumps), he turned to his talent for zany uplift. Brilliant brilliantly explains such a darkening picture to those sharply affected yet probably very confused about the dour changes around them. Would Roddy Doyle spout dry economics lessons or disquisitions on psychology? Not brilliant. Skipping in the opposite direction, he draws on the best traditions of the children’s literature of the British Isles, sub-category fantasy and heart-stopping adventures laced with humor, to deal with urgent questions at his most encouraging—and realistic.
Smack in the middle of the to-do are Raymond (aka “Rayzer”) and Gloria Kelly. When their beloved Uncle Ben’s painting and decorating business goes bust and he’s forced to move in with their family—where there are already hushed “mumblings” about mortgages and other specters hanging over this working-class home—they simultaneously start to notice something odd and ominous all around. A musty darkness puts them in mind of black dogs. But they know only playful and silly ones. When the gloom starts to form a low-hanging cloud in the shape of a creepy canine over the whole of Dublin, they feel not just their neighbors’ and friends’ but their own strength and merriment starting to dissipate, and their greatest, most secret fears bearing down (don’t get Rayzer started on the dark). Nonetheless, they still manage to insert the expression “brilliant”—possibly the most over-used word in England, Scotland and Ireland combined—into every chip of conversation, even as it threatens to deteriorate morosely into sardonic, sarcastic and downright disillusioned outbreaks. Leave it to their ancient Gran, also crammed into their small dwelling, to recognize the ghostly apparition. “The Black Dog of Depression” bares its deadly teeth at the worst periods of people’s—or cities’ and countries’—lives. To make matters more surreal and unbearable, this Black Dog has also stolen Dublin’s funny bone. Take Gran’s word for it.
How can Rayzer and Gloria not take matters into their own hands: to hunt down the Black Dog and get rid of it for good. Initially sallying forth with the sole company of their dotty, wise-cracking neighbor, Ernie, newly self-employed (at least as far as costuming and jokes are concerned) as a vampire, their audacity swerves off into a different metamorphosis of the compromised power of “brilliant.“ Adapting itself quite neatly, when it’s uttered now—or shouted or trilled just right—it causes bursts of light and laughter that set the Black Dog quaking in his fiendish intentions.
As Doyle unspools his fearsome yet not infrequently hilarious tale (his funny bone is intact), it becomes a kind of reverse “Pied Piper of Hamlin.” Scores, then hundreds, then thousands of kids—from every part of the city and every class—join up, a swarm of young fighters zeroing in on a shifty enemy. Shifty and then some: almost too late they arrive at the realization that the Black Dog is luring them away from the city in order to deprive his adult victims of any hope or purpose. Rayzer and company make an about-face, to stop the Black Dog in his relentless, elusive tracks. To Dublin’s relief and salvation, its funny bone is retrieved along with some time-tested acumen. Hunters can become the hunted, life is not always a bed of blarney, varieties of love and loyalty (and shy adolescent crushes) can overcome a great deal, and trust your instincts around Roddy Doyle. Apparently St. Patrick does.
Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco
By Judith Robbins Rose (Candlewick Press)
These days—no disrespect intended—even 10-12-year-olds have heard of Donald Trump. And they would tell Donald Trump to read this book. It deals with all the issues of Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, Mr. Trump considers himself an authority on. But instead of relying on simplifications and sound bites, this novel parses realities, individual and human stories, and a clear-eyed, deeply informed, generous yet unstinting view of a knotty situation that Mr. Trump has twisted inside-out.
The story is told—with honesty, slow-growing self-awareness and maturing insights into others—by Jacinta Juarez, “almost 12” and living with her family in a Colorado barrio. First-time author Judith Robbins Rose, who works on behalf of low-income communities, and mentors at-risk kids, has first-hand experience that vitalizes this accomplished novel. She doesn’t sugar candy-coat any missteps, any lawful or unlawful mistakes, any unforeseen trial. Jacinta is relieved of considerable innocence and ignorance as her universe expands, but new strengths fall into place. She is nothing if not funny. Educating herself in an English vocabulary of mounting sophistication (those words are always in italics, accompanied by Jacinta’s up-close-and-personal definitions), she serves as a handy, age-appropriate linguistic guide.
As for life guidance, that emerges in daunting bursts from all over, touching also her beautiful, “light-skinned” sister and frequent nemesis, Rosa, and her fearful, over-protective, “Papi,” with his grueling, off-the-books nighttime job. Most of all, lodged in Jacinta’s aching center, is the absence of her Mama, vanished at great risk back over the border to care for her dying mother. An imperfect surrogate enters Jacinta’s world—or, more like it, Jacinta drags and puppy-eyes her into it—a blond, beautiful, embittered former local television anchor, who comes to do a human interest segment at Jacinta’s after-school Youth Rescue Center. Will “Miss” as Jacinta calls her, become her official “Amiga,” an adult from the affluent “Barrio Blanco” pledged to mentor and mother a ward for at least a year?
With troubles and crises in Miss’s life spiraling downward from divorce, on-the-job discrimination, and two sons still years from what will be expensive colleges, she’s not the most willing or stable “Amiga,” but to everyone’s surprise, including a less defensive Jacinta, she and her quirky boys hang in there. Under such circumstances, a young life like Jacinta’s can become a tug-of-war between the old and the new, the familiar and the less-and-less strange, unimagined privileges and the very guilty pleasure of not being able to share them, none of it made easier by Jacinta’s motherlessness. Many are the ghosts that parents become when their criss-crossing forbidden borders takes place in the shadowy territory of dealing with “coyotes.” That not only Jacinta but also “Miss” and her sheltered sons rise to an occasion of horrifying danger reveals something new in all of them. Since the context is a daring and, yes, illegal venture, it is narrative icing on the two conflicting birthday cakes that play a seminal role in this remarkable yet all-too-common story.
By Chitra Viraraghavan (HarperCollins 360)
Ages 15 and up, and grownups
Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans, isn’t your grandmother’s patchwork quilt. It’s a present-day kantha, an embroidered Indian coverlet stitched together from layers of delicate, worn saris. As such, each of Viraraghavan’s eleven characters gets numerous short, eponymous chapters, appearing in a seemingly jumbled sequence and with only hints about the truth and circumstances of each. Gradually accumulating, they pose the vertiginous challenge of gleaning a sense of the whole from these many-threaded tales.
Yet The Americans is also completely American—its reference to Henry James’s The American perversely underlining an account of new lives being led, for different amounts of time, both permanently and more fleetingly, in the New World. Viraraghavan—a great-granddaughter of the second President of India—mines the diverse plenitude of Indian immigrants that has flowed into our midst. Their aspirations are high, whether professionally, intellectually or (very) materialistically, though also often tamped down by personal failings or setbacks—or the very fact that America is not India, and, for better or worse, never will be.
As with all families or clans, but particularly with immigrants, the chasm between generations grows wider on new soil, beckoning young people—and, in one case, a very much older one—to embrace rebelliously a seductive culture grasping at their attention. Viraraghavan gets just right (and to a midriff-baring tee) the boundary-crashing teenage daughter of successful, staunchly Indian parents, and also, with painful perfection, her autistic younger brother. A common national background also proves a minefield for a young, dreamy poet eking out a living working in a gaudy Little India restaurant for a band of old-school thugs. Suddenly witness to the underage sex slavery of girls bought and brought from India, his impulse to act the savior reaches just halfway—one of the novel’s two suicides occurs on his despairing watch. Another, a brilliant web technician, gives in to a paranoid fantasy about government surveillance and murderous bigotry that not even a caring older friend can dispel. She is Tara, a professor of English and American literature, who has come to visit her sister, Rahul and Lavi’s mother. More than anyone, she’s connected to essentially all the other characters, to their unifying welter of tight and loose relationships.
In the global burst of immigration (and the current mass migrations of desperate refugees), putting down new roots has no single method—certainly not for the fluid, uneasy Tara. Or the elderly, gracious “CLN” (his full name is revealed late in his story), who can’t figure out why his daughter has, for the first time, demanded he travel to see her in situ—New Jersey—though it slowly becomes clear.
He also doesn’t know why he should stay. The change lies in the new world of India. “’I notice,’” he says to a solicitous local librarian, “’that people are happier being independent at home and feeling connected to the larger community, rather than here, where they tend to feel somewhat isolated'.”
How horrified the “Americans” in this novel would be at that pronouncement. It takes a village to raise a child. And at the very least it takes would-be Americans a generation to attain social and emotional citizenship. Whether they want to or not.