- JUNIOR EDITION:
- New Fiction for Younger Readers | #31
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!
Ada Twist, Scientist
by Andrea Beaty
illustrated by David Roberts
(Abrams Books for Young Readers)
The back-to-school season always front-loads a bumper crop of corresponding new books, and Ada Twist, Scientist is among the best. Ada’s story has an arc all right, from preternaturally curious, humorously hyper-active pre-schooler to full-blown scientist of a certain age—the one when a child is more than ready for school.
Andrea Beaty’s Ada, an African-American book-mate to the author’s earlier Rosie Revere, Riveter and Iggy Peck, Architect, has two puffs of stylishly upswept hair that look like thought clouds, and she already knows what she wants to be when she grows up. For this scientist, it’s particularly nice that our current year in history sets her up in a very big lab. Her story lands near the release of Hidden Figures, the movie (based on a book) about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, African American women mathematicians and scientists who worked for NASA during its formative years. Their work was crucial to the success of the Mercury and Apollo missions, and the film stars no less than Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. For that matter, Rosie Revere, Riveter is right now orbiting Earth tucked onboard the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Story Time From Space program.
Since Ada’s leading trait is curiosity, she has to learn how to channel it as productively as possible toward measured perseverance if she’s going to make it in a classroom setting (“a trail of chaos” is not a good look). For backup, luckily, she has her vigilant family—mother, father, healthily skeptical big brother—along for the ride. Ranging from her parents’ smart choices for their prodigious, grandfather-clock-climbing daughter (“Why don’t we call it a granddaughter clock?”) to their Eames Lounge Chair, ubiquitous in illustrator David Roberts’ toy-story drawings, they’re pegged as warm, hip and intellectual. Ada’s trademark, joyous litany of “Why,” What,” “How” and “When” is definitively and definingly her own, but it will lead nowhere, Beaty cleverly intimates, without home, and school, to mold it. Childhood is unruly: to keep it proportionately in check, her elders have to intelligently and intuitively take good care. Under their thought-out influences, Ada’s parents and her teacher, Miss Greer, can help her navigate the questions that stump her for the time being.
In the face of these queries, science, like Ada, exists to be put to the test. For this story’s intentions, a mysterious, wandering, gross stench introduces itself into Ada’s snug domain. Bringing out both the detective and the sophisticated philosopher in her, it gets her lobbing interrogations about the stubborn smell along the lines of if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest. School or not, she’s compelled once again to be on the case. But truancy, unsurprisingly, isn’t going to agree with Miss Greer, and, what with Ada’s rookie age, personality and wild curiosity, trouble looms. The lingering kinetic-kid part of Ada threatens to wreak havoc at large and at home, until evidence turns up that her family has been here before. They’ve furnished their house with a novel piece of interior decoration, “The Thinking Chair,” a highbrow equivalent of parenting’s time-out seat, in the form of that iconic Eames design.
A scientist wouldn’t be a scientist, however, without turning even penance to her own ends. Ada’s rejoinder to pedagogical exile is classic Ada. On the other hand, her parents wouldn’t be her parents without cogitating an affectionate, determined path to a nifty, resourceful resolution. The demonstration is patent: You can have your science and eat life’s sweetest lessons too.
by Tania Unsworth
(Algonquin Young Readers)
If secret gardens were thought to have transitioned out with Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tania Unsworth didn’t get the memo. A good thing, too. Her eleven-year-old Daisy Fitzjohn has lived alone with her mother, a beautiful eccentric, at Brightwood, their ancestral estate, for as long as she can remember, raised over-protectively behind the high, decaying walls that surround their tattered mansion, the gardens gone to seed, weeds and “The Wilderness,” its warily watchful stone lions at the entranceway half-toppled in neglect. In this novel, solitude holds many layers and is constantly changing, with shifting relationships between magic and madness, inside and outside, reality and fantasy, love and desolation announcing themselves as naturally in residence. They inhabit a place where Daisy’s most trusted guide is a topiary horse named True, her best friend is the irresistibly grouchy rat Tar, and Brightwood’s gallery of family portraits is hung with subjects with whom this girl, increasingly conscious of loneliness as she grows older, is on speaking terms.
Daisy’s “mum,” a painter who methodically hides away her canvases, has elevated hoarding to an art form. Out of Brightwood’s many rooms she has turned the few she and Daisy occupy into a meticulous warren of towering bookshelves, tottering with the archival “Day Boxes” she deposits there before every day’s end. As Unsworth examines the implications of how bereavement creates a peculiar portrait of the past, she makes Daisy privy to the treasured items her mother sequesters to somehow guard against the overwhelming sense of loss she’s suffered since a traumatic event left her orphaned as a child. But history has a tendency to repeat itself.
Curiosity about a larger world is innate in every child. For Daisy, edging toward the cusp age of twelve, it means breaching more walls than most must, and questioning her lifelong existence behind them: if she has had no place in an outside world, where does she fit into its reality? Might she just as well not exist? She gets the frightened opportunity to brood on these matters when her mother fails to return from her weekly shopping trip somewhere in the distant landscape that Daisy spies with her birthday telescope (she was refused the television she wanted).
Insinuating his swiftly menacing arrival onto Daisy’s delicate emotional scene, James Gritting, a distant cousin, gets his mercenary jollies thrashing away at Brightwood’s tangled Eden, intimating that her mother is gone for good, and uttering the words “I have to take care of you” with all the nefarious intent of their double meaning. Whether fortuitous coincidence or a girl’s besieged imagination, straightaway Unsworth summons for Daisy a new confidante and guide, a young woman explorer from the bygone beginnings of the 20th century—a lively, swaggering, irreverent figure whose black-and-white appearance seems not disconnected from the photograph of Daisy’s great-great uncle Sir Clarence, the world-famous, world circling archaeologist she’s communed with throughout her unusual upbringing. “Frank” (Polly Frank) has more extreme derring-do notions about the Day Boxes than Daisy could ever have dreamt of, nor could she have foreseen the adventures she and Frank undertake together in unlocking countless accumulated secrets.
Tania Unsworth’s Brightwood is like a fancifully crafted keepsake box from another era containing a perfectly contemporary sensibility. It’s intrepid in exploring feelings of abandonment, orphanhood, peril and loss. Its new brand of magic is just right for today.
The Mighty Odds
by Amy Ignatow
Stop me if you’ve heard this one—four uncomfortably dissimilar middle-schoolers climb onto a bus bound for a field trip and depart it after a hard-core accident leaves them possessed of whack superpowers. Amy Ignatow, author of the well-liked Popularity Series, knows her way around the awkwardness of school’s social systems, and Muellersville Middle School’s resoundingly fits that same bill. As one of the savvier soon-to-be-supercharged students thinks, “Every middle school had an unwritten code, and it was pretty clear who got to ride with a rusty spring poking them in the butt.”
Ignatow takes it upon herself to prove kids can break these rotten conventions and change them up. On top of that, she’s a no-holds-barred writer when it comes to pushing the envelope of what’s OK for kids in her readership slot to read—her grisly description of the crash’s aftermath is the hard jolt that precedes her foursome’s slowly dawning comprehension that something else has altered as well. So what’s not to like about that if most everything before has sucked? Quite a lot, if dislike is the collective sentiment. Fatherless, chubby Nick, who can suddenly teleport four inches to the left, wants nothing to do with his fellow travelers and what appear to be their equally half-baked super powers. The feeling is dittoed by arrogant Cookie Parker (unwilling mind-reader), especially given her hard-won position as ruler of the school. It goes for the Pakistani-American Farshad (his thumbs now invincible), who’s been ostracized with the nickname “Terror Boy “ by former friends, and Russian-accented artist Martina, whose eyes have taken to changing to Crayola colors in certain situations and whose drawings bring an element of graphic novel to this book.
The Sherlock Holmes of these developments is Nick’s best friend, Jay, blithely perched toward the “normal” end of the Asperger’s spectrum and frenetically given to gallant and hyperbolic outbursts informed by the old movies that are his passion. His pronouncements also weave in amusing theories about the power of girls over boys. Leader of that pack, Cookie is also the only black kid in Muellersville; unfortunately, Ignatow’s writing of her back story is the one section of this detective romp that isn’t as deft as the rest.
Ignatow is required to up the ante, and she does. Alongside these jigsaw-puzzled kids’ overnight local celebrity, scary explosions and fires begin breaking out, possibly accompanied by a ghost. The eight-legged race is on to apprehend the evil behind them. Keeping her eye on what her age group is willing to sacrifice for acceptance, she simultaneously focuses on what, under strange, possibly supernatural, circumstances they can learn to surrender. Within each lie different roots of the middle-school gallows humor they practice and wield, much of it expressed thanks to Ignatow’s infallible comic timing. They’re very entertaining. Though this somewhat slows their growth into the mission of solving mysteries together, once they hit their common mark, it’s a big leap from the isolation each has experienced, and from their different forms of withholding. Keep this in mind: Ignatow beckons them only so far in their detective work, and their self-awareness. In this mind-twister travelogue she literally leaves a barn door open to the next installment of her rambunctious new series.
The Bombs That Brought Us Together
by Brian Conaghan
(Bloomsbury Children’s Books)
Ages 14 and up
The news incoming to the adult world is that the welcome mat of freedom—from oppression, persecution, torture and warfare—is gravely frayed at the edges. Breached borders and battle-scarred refugees, global shifts and displacements that threaten to drag out into tortured lifetimes are leaving families fractured, and countries divided, over acceptance. But broadcasting the same news to younger readers is both necessary and still fairly foreign.
Brian Conaghan’s The Bombs That Brought Us Together burrows beneath the headlines to reach a story—of two boys, of two imaginary countries, of family undone, of kids lured into combat—that contains it all. Borderlines, disputed with bloodshed and murder, move in on minds and homes.
Charlie Law lives in Little Town with his hovering mother and a sardonic father gifted with a delightfully quippy sarcasm that’s rubbed off on his bookish, outsider son. Pavel Duda, a refugee from Little Town’s historic enemy, Old Country, becomes the Laws’ backyard neighbor. His parents, once prominent professionals, have been reduced to menial jobs. Secretly an aspiring teacher, Charlie aims to instruct Pavel’s struggles with the local lingo out of him, forging a wary friendship that will have to stand up to bullying, gun battles, Little Town’s ruling mob, Old Country’s assaults and occupation, misunderstandings between countries and people, ugly revelations, fake-out conspiracies, dawning maturity, and, of course, the opposite sex. Charlie’s heart-and-everything-else-throb, Erin, is as smart, it turns out, as she’s pretty, and capable of equaling her pining swain in the arena of bull’s-eye sarcasm. Their banter nails the tone for Conaghan’s book.
In conceiving what makes these tight-fuse kids tick, Conaghan adroitly pries apart the defense mechanisms that trigger their stance. Devised to get inside the heads of teenagers doing combat with identity, ideology, and ideas of good and immoral, The Bombs That Brought Us Together tick, tick, ticks with on-edge suspense, suspect truces, a beleaguered adolescence testing its future, and the loaded aptitudes that responsibility tacks on. In his stealth-metaphor of a novel, inner lives and entire populations are under siege. Disguising our present inside this stunning tale of two hostile countries, Conaghan makes this lengthening moment in history very real.
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.”