JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #3
by Celia McGee
Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice
by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Adam Stower (Candlewick Press)
Nursery rhymes are the music and poetry of our childhoods. But it’s not like they’re set in stone, or rock candy.
Take Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice. What happened to the number of mice, happily recited by children at play since around 1609? With jokes, twists of tradition, and a story humorously aimed at teaching little kids a thing or two about how fantasy may be able to cheer up their own realities, Daniel Pinkwater ups the tally of tiny creatures to four. An angry farmer’s wife with a big, sharp knife is nowhere in sight.
Instead we get Mrs. Noodlekugel. Her name, somewhat redundantly derived from noodles and the Ashkenzi comfort-food pie they get baked into, is a little old lady with twinkly eyes and a pillowy figure living in one of the last frame cottages left in a city much like New York, and conveniently located behind the tall apartment building where Nick and Maxine, “a human boy and girl,” live high above the city streets that Mrs. Noodlekugel surreptitiously knows are full of fun and adventure. She is backed up on this by her closest companion, the opinionated cat Mr. Fuzzface, who, far from stalking and killing mice as is felines’ wont, lives in perfect harmony with Mrs. N. and her four smaller pets. For, like many children today, he has a place of anger and emptiness in his heart—his father deserted the family when Mr. F. was but a kitten, and ran off to work on the railroad. Should he ever encounter this bounder, Mr. F. swears, “I’ll be all over him like sardines and ice cream” (that’s his favorite dessert).
As luck and no real-world logic would have it, Mrs. Noodlekugel becomes Nick and Maxine’s babysitter. She may be old, but she has sharp eyes, and one day at tea and cookies she notices that her well-behaved mice are making a mess of the meal, and realizes that they have grown far-sighted. Off to the oculist they all go—Mrs. Noodlekugel, Nick and Maxine, the four mice neatly attached among the flower-and-plastic-cherry decorations on Mrs. Noodlekugel’s bonnet, and Mr. Fuzzface, undignified in a carrier. The children—and the mice—look wide-eyed at the city scrolling by, and once at the not-at-all-scary oculist’s—Mr. Bril, of course, by name—the mice’s eyes are tested with a mouse-specific eye chart and they are fitted with carefully individualized miniature red, blue, green and yellow eyeglasses.
Every daunting experience triumphantly surmounted deserves a treat. Mrs. Noodlekugel choses the diner and her troops choose the food—until Mr. Fuzzface discovers that sardines and ice cream are not on the menu. As usual, Mrs. Noodlekugel solves the problem: with an exotic delectable called cheesecake. On a sugar high, it must be said, the mice do start a cheesecake crumb fight. More turmoil awaits when they run into a mangy-looking, tough-talking, one-eyed cat on their way out. But he and Mrs. Noodlekugel exchange train stories—she was once an engineer who saved the lives of the passengers on her train. And he? A great coincidence paws its way up out of the past, and two lives out of a total of 18 may be about to become very happy ones.
A Hundred Horses
by Sarah Lean (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins)
Hurray for drama clubs! Double hurray for after-school clubs that delay doing homework for a while. Hurray for all the friends you get to hang out with, and the new ones you make as you develop new skills, get a leading part in the school play or a prime place in the art show, making your parents—both of them—ever so proud.
Subtract all this from Nell Green’s life. She is shy and self-conscious, she is without friends, she gets into trouble even when she doesn’t mean to, there’s nothing she’s particularly good at (oh, right: trouble), and her mother is constantly harried, throwing herself more and more into her work while thinking she’s spending time with Nell by picking her up from school to go grocery shopping, but then leaving her in the parking lot.
But Sarah Lean, who earlier won young readers’ hearts with A Dog Called Homeless, is not here to be judgmental, just understanding. Nell’s mother is still grieving and seething over the fact that her husband, a talented lighting designer fed up with living in his wife’s regimented, bourgeois world, just up and walked out of their lives. Nell feels abandoned and confused, nervous about getting close to anyone because nearness may lead to the usual disappointments. She broods that she’s more like her father than her mother, and feels guilty, because she also loves her mother, no matter how changed she is, building them a very trendy apartment of slick, shiny hard surfaces, design-magazine ready perhaps, but no longer a true home.
Yet there are certainties in almost every life. In Nell’s it’s that, with spring break around the corner, she’ll have two weeks away from London with her beloved grandmother, Nana. Not so, says the kind of tiny twist of fate that throws a wrench in even modest expectations. Nana has to go care for an ailing sister, and Nell is getting shipped off to her Aunt Liv’s little farm in the middle of nowhere, where the only growing things Nell is faintly aware of are two bothersome twin cousins much younger than she. Does it matter that Aunt Liv’s house has the charming name of Lemon Cottage?
Nell starts to relax into her new surroundings. Included there, she learns when Aunt Liv takes her on a visit, is grand old Keldacombe Farm, once thriving with its hundred head of horses, and Mr. and Mrs.Hemswoth, the lord and lady of the manor, to look after them. But Mrs. Hemsworth, now widowed, pretty much stays in bed, and as far as Nell is concerned, her large house looks “like a giant, quiet grave.”
Keldacombe holds two puzzles: what has happened to Belle, the splendid horse that has disappeared just before the Hemsworths’ legendary hundred-horse herd is supposed to go to auction, and who is the tattered, wild-looking girl named Angel who flits in and out of the house, lives by herself in an abandoned trailer deep in the woods, and steals things—and a confusing assortment of farm animals. Cautiously, crabbily, each of these two friendless girls become mates. Not only does Nell learn the truth about Belle but Angel tells her an original variation on the locals’ centuries-old, magical story of a herd of a hundred horses.
With this wise and empathetic novel, Sarah Lean shows that make-believe can often do a soul more good than reality, especially because it can forge a new happier reality, more open to selfless change, revealing old wounds only to make them better.
by Sally Green (Viking)
Ages 12 and Up
Sally Green’s widely publicized debut novel, Half Bad, is a scary, imaginative, thought-provoking start to a trilogy that will surely sweep many fans along with it. They will root for and boo the thorny, multi-faceted and mostly mythical characters that populate an alternative world—England in another dimension—where witches sprung very much from Green’s unusual fancy live side-by-side with unwitting fains (humans), and seem specifically devised to tear readers simultaneously between cheers and denunciation.
But it’s not the new The Hunger Games. Or Harry Potter. Not Divergence or King of Thrones. Half Bad is wrapped in a hermetic space of action, betrayal, family bonds, the wild and the tame, the tamers and their victims, violence and aching young love. Neither futuristic saga nor dense tale of mystery, magic and nebulous neo-Gothic boarding schools, it’s a relatively short, sharp meditation on the shifting sands between the meanings of good and evil, and the places in between. It replaces the Manichean distinctions of a lot of books for teens with an ambiguous territory more difficult to live in for its baffled and baffling characters. Green’s story-telling style is compressed and inward-looking.
We are beckoned into this meditation with a simple and sickening image: a teenager, Nathan, a dark-haired boy, manacled and locked in a cage. Next door in a cottage, Hansel and Gretel-style, lives his jailer—“the White Witch from Hell,” he calls her, in her camouflage pants and pale short hair and a poison-filled wristlet she slips around his wrist when, on one of the long-distance circuits he’s allowed to run for endurance, he tries for escape. Nathan supposedly represents something especially reprehensible—he is a “half-code,” a person of mixed parentage. Called before the White Witches’ Council every few years to determine whether he is black or white, he otherwise lives at home with a loving White Witch family, except for an older sister, who is eventually accepted into the corps of the Hunters: White Witches—dressed in black—trained to hunt down the minority Black Witches and kill them. Their most coveted prey is Marcus, leader of the Black Witches and Nathan’s father, whom he’s never met, though he knows all too well that, after Marcus kills his enemies, he eats their hearts. One of the mysteries in Nathan’s life is why his parents married in the first place. Another is whether his strengths and weaknesses—he draws beautifully but can barely read or write, he loves nature but dislikes cities—may not be a reason to set him apart from the race of White Witches to whom he half belongs. He’s encouraged in such musings by Annalise, the beautiful young White Witch who becomes his girlfriend, and in his decision that “my body is my father’s and my spirit is my mother’s.”
Half Bad turns good and evil on their heads, whipping them around in a blur of suggestive story lines, where adventureness and brave resistance prevail. Not all authors do cliff-hangers well, but the first installment of Sarah Green’s trilogy should make readers’ dig their nails into this one until the second part comes along.
by Kathryn Lasky (Candlewick Press)
Ages 14 and Up
”The banality of evil,” the mind-shattering expression committed to immortality by the political theorist Hannah Arendt reporting from Israel on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, summed up the bureaucratic heartlessness with which the Nazi’s Third Reich exterminated millions for the sake of what it broadcast as the preservation of their Aryan master race. But in Kathryn Lasky’s powerful, grippingly tragic, yet love-shot novel, Arendt’s unforgettable words blossom in a more immediate form years before in the desperate, brave mind of Lillian (Lilo) Friwald, a teenager at the The Extra’s center.
Lilo, born into a comfortably well-off and assimilated family of Sinti, or upper-class, Gypsies happily ensconced for generations in genteel Vienna, enjoys mostly her friends and her school—until she is banished as an undesirable under the new laws applied to the likes of Jews and Gypsies. Begging her parents as a diversion to take her to the movies, she chooses the latest starring Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite actress. Billboards sporting Riefenstahl’s haughtily beautiful face are everywhere, her surprisingly “feral eyes” looking down over Lilo’s inconceivably deteriorating life. Somewhat evoking the foreboding eyes of the billboard Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby, they shed a dark light on the fact that Lilo is well-versed in the banned American classic Huckleberry Finn, which Lilo clings to as a talisman, a symbol of escape and freedom.
Soon enough, the Sinti of Europe and the Roma, the lower-class Gypsies, have been fingerprinted, dispossessed, herded together in barbed-wire detention centers, and railroaded throughout Eastern Europe to deportation centers, work camps, facilities for unspeakable medical experiments, and chains of increasingly brutal and efficient concentration camps. They are often surrounded by beautiful forests and picturesque villages that turn a blind eye to the watch towers looming nearby. Inside, husbands are separated from wives, children from parents, the weak from the slightly stronger, with most eventually sent off to die in the gas chambers whose smoke wafts over the landscapes and the people determined to pretend none of this exists.
But Lilo is saved—how temporarily she doesn’t contemplate—by Django the handsome, smart Roma boy who has befriended her, and helps her and her surgically brutalized mother get cast in Riefenstahl’s putative directorial debut, “Tiefland,” set in Spain, and therefore in need of extras with varying degrees of dark skin. At first it’s fun—and Lilo begins to fall for Django—but, as one humiliation and merciless death follows another, they realize they are just “film slaves.” Thanks to the wiles of a little farm boy on the outside, after imprisonment in several camps whose names still remain a dark stain on history, Lilo escapes, and ends up working for a kindly costume maker for marionettes in Salzburg, who instructs her on the difference between puppet faces meant to convey good or evil. But does she know, Lilo thought, that the face of evil can be bland as well? Bland, and so very beautiful. The banality of evil.
When the Gestapo is tipped off to Lilo’s hiding place, the captivity she is dragged back into seems to foreshadow the same fate visited on her slain parents. But Lilo herself has learned an unspeakable thing or two, enough perhaps to save her. And Kathryn Lasky has saved a part of the Third Reich’s bigoted history often forgotten.