- JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #29
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!
The Magical Fantastical Fridge
by Harlan Coben, illustrated by Leah Tinari
(Dial Books for Younger Readers)
As the American refrigerator has gotten bigger and bigger—watch those midnight raids—so has the surface its owners have chosen to cover with a loopy assortment of magnets and work by budding artists (their children), invitations and family photos, postcards and homework alerts, souvenirs and commercial gewgaws. To some, these homegrown art galleries are a plague; to others, a pleasure. Author Harlan Coben—he of the mega-selling thrillers for grownups—falls enthusiastically into the latter category. In the artist and debut children’s book illustrator Leah Tinari, he has found his perfect partner in following the misadventures of young Walden, a kinetic kid who undergoes a truly “fantastical” punishment for griping and grumbling and generally threatening to disrupt the warm, close, loving mood of his large, expansive and very extended family as they make preparations, task by assigned task, for one of their raucous weekend dinners.
Walden (as in Thoreau’s go-to pond) doesn’t want to set the table.
Perhaps he makes it too loud and too clear. He can’t but sense the disappointment and frustration in his parents’ eyes, their admonitions that, above all, he can’t let down his beloved grandparents (who, as one black-and-white fridge photo reveals, were quite the hippies in college), nor this family’s great gift for general togetherness. In addition to a scowl, Walden wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Small But Mighty,” and can pull a dishcloth bandit disguise at will.
It could be his guilty conscience, it could be magic, but the “Small” pertinently turns on him, as do choice bits of the kind of meanness personifying a bandit’s inner self. Leah Tinari is as entrancing a miniaturist as she is an outgoing, affectionate portraitist of a family full of fun: Walden, abruptly as little as can be, is whisked up to the crowded refrigerator display with one tug by the gross, squiggly snake in his big green crayon monster drawing (taped front and center by his mom). As drawings of monsters by little boys often do, this one also suggests a mythical enemy that somehow comes from fears and fierceness inside.
Why Walden would think that a flimsy pizza-slice magnet would hold up against the monster’s terribly sharp sword does not speak well for the fast-food industry. Mini-Walden’s relevant calling is rather as escape artist. Lassoing a ride on a vintage airplane card, practically drowning when he jumps into an aquarium brochure, bruised and brushed aside when he places his hopes on a bowling-party invitation, he can’t even catch a break from his library card, which abandons him to the temporary fate of transforming—oh humiliation—into a fried-chicken drumstick. Pure torture: he can see his family enjoyably sitting around the living room chatting, laughing and tuned to a ball game on TV, but no one can see or hear him. Between the “earthquake” of the icemaker and an errant electrical current, Walden has all but had it.
Walden may be young, but he’s on his way to being less foolish, which includes appreciating the irony of what it just may take for him to escape his sorely regretted refrigerator world tour. With a wonderful twist, Leah Tinari doesn’t show the refrigerator in its fully decorated entirety until the end, retrospectively putting Walden’s travels in an even more imaginative perspective. And don’t miss the bonus diversions hiding on the underside of this antic, animating book’s cover.
The Big Dark
by Rodman Philbrick
(Blue Sky Press/Scholastic)
When the global apocalypse comes—though it hasn’t happened yet, except in countless books, movies, television series, sermons and subway rants—it might be one that initially blunts its end-of-days impact by playing humankind for the fool. Pretty much every city, region, and nation the world over has seen blackouts—the power grid on the fritz, mad scrambles by engineers and scientists who have been known to contribute to the problem, along with what’s happening to earth’s weather. At first that’s all that appears to be occurring in the picture-postcard perfect New England village that has mostly lived up to the name that Rodman Philbrick bestows on it: Harmony, New Hampshire.
Young Charlie Cobb, his widowed schoolteacher mother, his now-and-then gratingly straight-A sister Becca, his friends, the townsfolk and, it slowly emerges, the entire world, think almost nothing of the sudden blackout when it hits. Not for long. This novel emerges as somber and cautionary, but leavened by spunky Charlie and his story, the ornery persistence of hope in the plot, characters, and perspective.
Philbrick laces his books (Zane and the Hurricane, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg) with voices of reason and resourcefulness to explain phenomena like the one tumultuously unmooring Harmony. Trying to prepare his fellow citizens for their frightening future is Mr. Mangano, the local school’s science teacher, who has figured out that the first geo-magnetic event in 780,000 years has caused the poles to “shift or even switch, north for south.”
But as much as dire circumstances allow for thanks and goodness, they also invariably breed suspicion, greed, conspiracy theories, hate-mongering and intolerance simmering with violence, countering civil society’s best inclinations and its tendencies to band together. As though riding out of the perfect storm of our current American political picture, the motorcycle-riding Bragg clan and their anti-government, survivalist followers vroom into view. Theirs is a question less of taking things in hand than taking them over for their own paranoid, destructive ends.
In the Bragg bunch’s all-too-familiar value system, Jews, like kindly Mrs. Adler the pharmacy owner, must be the first to blame. The Braggs’ ilk of New Englander throw our best values—rational thinking, cooperation, generosity, sacrifice and family bonds—onto the trash heap. (Heed, heed history’s lessons regarding the “witches” of Salem.) Apocalyptic for sure! As circumstances worsen—wood, warmth, light, food, and trust dwindling—fewer and fewer can live up to noble expectations. Philbrick remains sadly credible and realistic in his assessments of every form of limits and limitations.
Of those limits, the most centrally and harshly tested are Charlie’s, as he takes over the novel with his decision to ski the many miles to Concord, the state’s capital, alone and thinly-equipped, to obtain life-sustaining medication his diabetic mother depends on. Lynched bodies, coyote packs, and pitiable inmates of a mental institution, who have turned gentle and capable in the disaster’s course, break up Charlie’s journey in their different ways.
For those looking for supplemental scientific information and facts behind this action-packed fiction, turn to the “For Those Who Are Curious” at the end. Fascinating, yes. Ominous, also.
Secrets of the Dragon Tomb, Book 1
by Patrick Samphire
(Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt and Company)
Were the charming Secrets of the Dragon Tomb to hurtle down from the future, 2016, and bop Jules Verne on the head, he might not know what hit him. Science-fictional historical fiction? A historical novel doubling as science fare? He’d have Patrick Samphire to thank for the novelty of this jaunty series debut. There it’s 1816, and a vast, prosperous British colony has, since the 17th-century era of exploration, existed peacefully on the Red Planet.
Life in the Martian outpost encompasses, or so the colonists believe, a mutual cordiality with the toweringly tall, gentle, and imposing, yet subjugated and subservient “Native Martians.” Their ancestors figured out the remarkable “Dragon Paths” that now whisk airships between Mars and Earth (Oxford is one of the busier stops). They also dug out the vast, intricate Dragon Tombs that catapulted the British into scientific over-drive and imperial might when they came upon the advanced, futuristic inventions stored there.
News flash in the red Martian daylight: class, caste, colonization, Janus-faced science, and the discovery of dark, layered depths of self are in narrative play. George III (remember him?) is on the throne. On the other hand, the plant life, copiously weird vegetation and tree species, amusingly-named animals, kooky, beautiful landscapes, and swirling cityscapes are plenty beguiling.
As for 12-year-old Edward Sullivan, his lot on Mars sits reasonably well, especially when he can ignore his fussy, apparently brainless nemesis of a mother, a former heiress now married (down, in her stated opinion) to one of the colony’s most brilliant, revered and socially oblivious “mechanicians,” or scientist inventors. (Dr. Sullivan’s current project, a giant “Abacus,” is a proto-computer—and not so proto, at that.)
Deeper and deeper Edward buries his nose and his longings for adventure into his favorite magazine, Thrilling Martian Tales, as his mother busily plans the grand garden party that will snare her beauteous eldest, Jane, a wealthy, aristocratic husband. His smart, stiff sister Olivia has been marked for spinsterhood. Youngest sister Putty (nee Parthenia), always clad defiantly in boys’ clothing and up for any physical challenge, is Edward’s chatty bulwark against occasional insecurity and embarrassment (see under: family). Incredible that proudly idiotic Cousin Freddie should crash-land in their midst, to everyone’s irritation, and nattering on about some sort of British traitors.
A thumbs-up invitee to the garden party for Edward: the renowned explorer Sir Titus Lane, who’s credited with the find of the first three Dragon Tombs. He’s baaack, yet dodgy, too, throwing into question his motives for crossing the life-sapping Martian desert to locate the fourth. In contrast to the other crypts, this destination is rumored to shelter the more pernicious inventions of the back-to-the-future Martian brainiacs.
Samphire is adept at the technique of folding story books into story books: presciently, Thrilling Martian Tales has filled timid Edward’s imagination with spies, counter-spies, fraud, instant courage under pressure, killer robots, impossible journeys. But not, high-class criminals in the pay of arch-enemy Emperor Napoleon, a contemporary twist that the lad, tipped off by a far-fetched source, bends to his advantage following the brutal kidnapping of his parents and Jane. The remaining Sullivans go for derring-do, hightailing it after the hostages, even falling awkwardly into romance en route.
Samphire’s suspenseful development of Edward’s personality and the insights he must stoically digest: an extra treasure. Much as it pains the youngster, it’s morally and psychologically difficult for tarnished heroes and their damaged souls to earn the light of redemption. Far happier: twigging to the comprehension that good peoples’ true colors come through. Or, sobering as it is, that inside many mothers dwell wounded younger girls. A boy like Edward isn’t much for school or homework, but Samphire provides him a full curriculum in right and wrong, perseverance and survival, history, science, and open-mindedness. This novel belongs in Outward Bound knapsacks the world over.
Anna and the Swallow Man
by Gavriel Savit
(Knopf/Random House Children’s Books)
Ages 12 and up, and grownups
Since time memorial, it’s fallen to folklore—myth, oral tales, religions’ competing creeds, or history treated as make-believe when it’s too close for comfortable kinship—to truck less in happily-ever-after than in terror, evil, violence, and cruelty specifically invented to locate new openings into pain, loss, and annihilation. Reality, for its part, has given back as good as it gets, for no story springs from a vacuum. War is especially profligate with the grotesque as well as the heroic. This is most extraordinarily evident in Gavriel Savit’s phenomenal debut, Anna and the Swallow Man.
Set mainly in Poland during World War II, it gains an additional off-kilter power from Savit’s regular, tight-lipped, textbook descriptions of the war’s geographical and political movements, which punctuate the more devastating human scale that distinguishes his fiction. His ravishing novel is filled to the brim with the poisonous atrocities that history’s villains and their collaborators allowed to happen there and then, but also with life-affirming antidotes that, miraculous, hold their own against plans for world domination and a Holocaust devised to eliminate all enemies, outcasts and undesirables.
Against the darkness, Savit knows he can dole out only sparingly a rag tag of affirmations and the brilliantly odd array of lives they ultimately celebrate. The novel’s heroine is startlingly young, but there’s little danger of missing the exceptional figure the intellectually precocious, seven-year-old Anna Lauria has it in her to become. Her “Papa” (a linguistics professor and member of the intellectual class unwelcome by the Nazi invaders) simply doesn’t come home one day in 1939, nor ever again. Savit thrusts Anna into new, constantly accumulating and often heart-shattering areas of knowledge that she herself, in a novel that is inescapably about growth and change, won’t be able to fully absorb until later along the labyrinthine path to awareness Savit places her on. Cunning and sweet and shamefully abandoned by once-kindhearted neighbors, she reels in a new, jitteringly ambiguous father figure—to be sure, very much against this odd stranger’s staggeringly stubborn will, his glimmers of alienating fragility, and his high degree of eccentric genius. Wondrously, he speaks even more languages than Anna and her father, and wields them too (including silence), as life-saving disguises in roles befitting a desperately consummate actor. One of the first of countless lessons he teaches Anna is that real names are dangerous because of persecution and betrayal at every turn, and so “Swallow Man,“ her private moniker for him, derives from his ability to speak “Bird,” calling winged creatures to perch on the outstretched arms of his tall, gangly, increasingly starvation-emaciated frame. Deception becomes life’s blood.
Swallow Man is a walking, hiking, hiding encyclopedia, with Anna living every entry as years lurch by. Skilled and hardened enough eventually to scrounge supplies off piles of dead bodies or cut them from hanging ones, and to use Swallow Man’s emotional ruses against him, Anna mind-melds him into allowing a handsome young Jew on-the-run into their surreally charmed company. Nonetheless, never out of Swallow Man’s sight is his oversize doctor’s bag, filled with one surprise after another, metaphorical and otherwise, and, at bottom, his very darkest, deadliest secret. From among those contents, one peculiar mystery that has lurked throughout becomes more painfully clear when a hideout in an abandoned Polish manor house coincides with ancient demons of psychosis calling in their chips. But until that bottom layer is scraped at by the hands of true fiends, it seems impossible to guess what lies there.
Savit’s command of style is astonishing and complex, drawing on history, psychology and, yes, fairytale and folklore, placing this novel at the heights of any fiction published recently, whether for young readers or their elders. Its designation as for “12 and up,” might, in fact, want to be re-thought slightly upward to “14 and above, and adult” in order for nothing of its phenomenal sophistication, layered storytelling and the stunning mystery at its heart to be missed by that larger readership—and for the sake of a slight delay in relaying to much younger readers the worst the book has in store.
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.”