- JUNIOR EDITION:
- New Fiction for Younger Readers | #30
by Celia McGee
JUNIOR EDITION: New Fiction 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!
Suite for Human Nature
by Diane Lampert
illustrated by Eric Puybaret
(Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)
It’s hard to picture Mother Nature as once having been a “young lady,” but that’s precisely how she makes her bow in Diane Charlotte Lampert’s enchanting book, Suite for Human Nature, based on the orchestral piece the late Grammy award-winning songwriter created with jazz master Wynton Marsalis. A relatively small audience was fortunate to witness the melodic debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center, voiced by the Boys Choir of Harlem. Adapting it to fit between two covers, and revealing a mythical universe where brown skin is bountiful and stylistic flourishes from Africa and South Asia are plentiful, is an important feat.
Even the most accomplished of maidens—the fledgling Mother Nature’s proudest achievement so far was teaching those helpless creatures she dubbed “Humans” to take care of the natural world—are prone to mistakes. Compounded by the knee-jerk aspect of the best of instincts, such mild errors are capable of going awry. Ms. Nature’s send her down the slippery slope that leads humanity into a universal disharmony comprised of perilous qualities that screech to a halt at the cliff-hanger puzzlement of how on earth, in the skies and at the murky bottom of ponds and rivers they are to be fixed. In keeping with the musicality of this allegorical fable’s source material, as a first-time mother, at last, of her own child, the young professional Mommy Nature fails to recognize that her many other tasks, and each season—“waking up bulbs…shaking the sand from dreams…teaching ten billion birds to sing”—are distracting her from concentrating on her newborn, and she names him “Fear” to rhyme with “dear.” Earth Motherhood comes across as a veritable Pandora’s Box, birthing the babies Envy, Hate, and grabby Greed, sounding the dissonance of human wont.
Those with more rapt attention than this over-extended single parent’s will doubtless notice this before she does: these unappealing characteristics are exclusively personified by boys. Yet it appears impossible for 21st-century gender ideals to catch a break, either, since the girl she decides to bring forth instead embodies fickleness.
Cue the wind section: rhyming the “winds” (their clever patois is African-American) with “twins” is more like it. Suite for Human Nature encapsulates Mother Nature’s love song for the ages.
Mister Cleghorn’s Seal
written and illustrated by Judith Kerr (HarperCollins Children’s Books)
Ages 7 to 9
How do you fill up a life abruptly drained of meaningful pastimes, of the daily routines of work and its bubbles of chitchat, and replaced by lonesome reflections and regrets about jumping at the first chance to turn a profit at the expense of who you were meant to be? Children treated to this book will have a pleased response at the ready: With a seal, of course.
Amplifying a lauded writing career that dates back to 1968 (and her first animal character, the protagonist of The Tiger Who Came to Tea,) the English author Judith Kerr returns with her first illustrated novel in years, Mister Cleghorn’s Seal. On its pages, besides the drawings as soft as an infant seal’s pelt, children well advanced in spelling should be interested to absorb why “favourite” is spelled that way here, turning it for many into their first imaginative experience of what it feels like to journey abroad.
Yet Kerr’s Mr. Cleghorn, a recently retired tobacconist whose city shop also stocked newspapers for the curious and candy for younger customers, evokes a time even well before her appearance on the kids’ fiction scene—cigarettes are “newfangled,” the tobacco they share with neighboring cigars doesn’t equate with a health hazard, and little ones pop in to buy sweets unaccompanied by wary grownups. Kerr’s layered inspiration for the very British Mr. Cleghorn was actually her German Jewish father’s escapades with an orphaned seal between Paris and Berlin just before the outbreak of World War II, an era of freedom and privilege cut short by the Holocaust that has been another subject of Kerr’s, a grim reality that, lurking in the background, only heightens the fairytale innocence in much of this book.
Mr. Cleghorn, after all, comes complete with a nephew caught up in a thriving fishing business and his jolly family, a mere train-ride away by the seashore. They will have nothing of his blue mood. An invitation to visit should be all it takes, and it does, transforming him into a fully occupied relative known as “Uncle Albert,” and, once he’s flipped for a flippered seal babe, into the parental figure to a motherless pup he names Charlie. But the locals carry guns as well as fishing gear, for hunting down seals they consider a nuisance or a target of sport. Charlie has suffered the consequences, and Kerr’s up-to-the-minute environmental defense message rings loud and clear.
Borrowing a tin bathtub to transport Charlie back home with him renders Mr. Cleghorn resourceful and Charlie adaptable, but the roomy zoo Mr. Cleghorn wishes to place Charlie in frustrates both the animal lover and businessman in him by going belly up thanks to financial skullduggery. Enter bathtub #2, in Mr. Cleghorn’s flat—and an overflow mishap that brings Miss Millicent Craig, a downstairs neighbor, running upstairs to avert a flood of disastrous proportions, an act that blossoms into something more than friendship. And not just marriage.
Pet-lovers will also unite in their booing of the surly janitor who likes to stand guard against animals of any type taking up residence in the building. Mister Cleghorn’s Seal is a book that will stick in memories long after the concept of furry splashers in bathtubs seems the least bit plausible, but hopefully not a commitment to the idea that wild life should be saved.
Save Me a Seat
by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (Scholastic Press)
Ordinary old fifth grade in a generically middle-class New Jersey elementary school is nonetheless a foreign country to anyone entering from the outside. Educational statistics confirm this can be from another culture, another, inner-city America, or from a place set apart for those with a range of special issues. Making it into the land of adjusting-just-fine requires the right cheerleaders hefting the pompoms of therapeutic expertise and insightful training. As a new writing team, Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan know where to locate those, and prove excellent crossing guards.
It’s not news that life after schooling never quite escapes the imprint of the grade-school lunchroom, the high-school cafeteria, the college dining room. Save Me a Seat is a graphic, buoyant origin story of that mixed promise, for first-week fifth-graders Ravi Suryanarayanan and Joe Sylvester are still players in negotiating their school’s actual lunchroom. In chapters headed with the names of the dishes on offer for each day of the school week, their voices alternate in populating a seating chart with their relationships to fellow pupils, teachers and life guides, and moving them to and from a classroom where further uncertainties, tragic episodes and hilariously observed triumphs assume dramatic dimensions as self-awareness gets sorted out.
Ravi needs all the help he can get without knowing it. His classmate Joe is getting all the help possible for his Auditory Processing Disorder (APD diagnostically, and for short.) This story makes theirs a question of helping themselves and each other. So equipped, there’s the sense they may be able to take advantage of what the semester’s start at Albert Einstein Elementary School has dished out for them.
Back in India, before morphing into a “fresh-off-the-boat” arrival by plane as his father is transferred into a new company job, the bottle-glass bespectacled Ravi was a star pupil, a top English speaker, a champion cricket player, a member, along with his parents and grandparents, of the upper middle class. At Albert Einstein (and in the anonymous “mews” housing where his family lives shoveled on top of one another), not so much. Or, as he’s almost too slow to realize, not at all. In a story full of ironies, this is most cruelly impressed on him by the class bully and sex symbol, an Indian-American hair-flicker and ghetto-beat pelvis-thruster from a wealthy family that has gifted him with taunting entitlement.
Joe has to fight to stay one step ahead of such snares in part from the perspective of his periods in the so-called Resource Room that his diagnosis has assigned him to. But it’s Ravi’s unwilling placement alongside him there, and their wise, unobtrusive treatment by its counselor in charge, that furnish the singular spice for eating away at his passive loner status. Such changes also spell a volatility that materializes into angry wake-up calls to parents. Joe’s, a well-meaning, loving, working-class couple, have stayed stalwartly clueless about how to deal with their boy, and his father would rather keep the possibilities of Joe’s friendship with a dark-skinned son of immigrants on the other side of a figuratively Trumpian fence.
In a novel that stresses the empowerment of writing and storytelling a happier life into being (Indian history, folklore and jungle tales pump up the sweetly suspenseful paybacks) there are at the same time screamingly funny lessons and witty physical moves. Debut author Varadarajan, a second-grade teacher in New Jersey only five years in this country, and Weeks, an award-winning writer of all-American middle-grade fiction, together help scramble the bases of such fiction in order to hit the ball out of the park and within the proper cricket lines. Be sure to save room for each boy’s glossary at the back, and recipes for apple crisp and fragrant naan khatai cookies.
by Kimberly McCreight
(HarperCollin’s Children’s Books/HarperTeen)
Ages 14 and up
It takes a writer at the top of her teens-tempting powers to produce thrillers and mysteries on the level of Kimberly McCreight’s bestselling Reconstructing Amelia, and now, The Outliers. The first in a planned trilogy, The Outliers is also evidence of McCreight’s other maze-mapping talent: to write detective stories that sensitively stalk the territories of young troubled minds. Reconstructing Amelia was snapped up for adaptation by HBO and Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films. The Outliers, with its challenging, sympathetic assortment of unpredictable players, has gone to Reese Witherspoon in a move that should fill anyone swept up by McCreight’s latest with serious anticipation.
The Outliers asks to be puzzled out from a jumble of kidnappings and suspicious deaths, a pursuit of shifting suspects and of villains with possible blood-ties, the threat of psych wards and a lonely girl’s vulnerable abilities to outsmart the inner and outer forces at work to land her there. This places 16-year-old Wylie Lang at the action’s center, where she first languishes at the mercy of depressive tendencies, irrational fears and an agoraphobia only intensified by the car-crash death of her mother, a war photographer home on a brief, self-imposed leave, that seems to flash clues of its own. They force Wylie to haltingly dispel her own psychological darkness “on the nervous side of normal” and enter the escalating pace of McCreight’s breath-quickening narrative. Since this high-school outcast of a girl is propelled out of her self-recriminating shell by desperate, longer-and-longer-distance texts from her former best friend, Cassie—a Cassandra for achieving the kind of popularity that gets the wrong interests sniffing around—McCreight is able to enlist Cassie’s boyfriend, Jasper, a bad-boy athlete as handsome and distasteful in Wylie’s value system as a “Gap model,” for the male outlook on Wylie’s road-tripping quest to find Cassie before it’s too late. A hidden ally wrapped in a sketchy background anathema to the daughter of a painfully widowed, erudite scientist obsessively glued to the field of emotional intelligence, Jasper comes with a terrific cache of social correctives.
McCreight, finely conscious of every realm her readers live in, is also interested in the pitfalls of science captive to megalomania, prone to falling into dangerous hands, or flung far afield into conspiracies chasing uncommon psychic powers. Wylie views her father as a desiccated, dehumanized academic chained to the same studies of human intuition that kept him from seeing that his own family, which includes Cassie’s science-and-math “genius” twin brother, Gideon, was falling apart.
In a direction due north of Boston’s familiar family suburbs, conforming and confining, into a new New England geography where the meth scourge seems to be gaining over the tourist trade and drug plots intersect with military-grade cults, this novel also flags realities demanding that the society in which McCreight's teenagers are coming of age sit up and take notice. That doesn’t mean that the kids aren’t already onto something mysterious and valuable as McCreight sets their alert systems on high. They’ll be picking up more than enough to carry them to the sequel.
Celia McGee grew up surrounded by books from an early age. In her column, "JUNIOR EDITION: New Fiction 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.”