JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #5
by Celia McGee
Written and illustrated by Inga Moore (Candlewick Press)
It’s probably fair to say that from the days of sailing ships to the present, it was and remains highly out-of-the-ordinary to find a ship’s captain who is happiest criss-crossing the high seas in the company of many, many cats. In Inga Moore’s entertaining and beautiful new book, a captain, Captain Cat, has more cats than crew. More cats than an adorably handsome crew, made up of more than one creed and color.
Boss of a three-master, it’s hard to find fault with him. Not only does he have fluffy white hair and a fluffy white beard that make him look a bit like a cat, he has so many reasons to have cats around. They’re very decorative perched all the way around the ship. Reading in his cozy berth at night, Captain Cat has a bunch of cats, purring and warm, on his tired legs, a cat by his shoulder to admire his colorful teacup, two to amuse him playing a game of tag, another studying the night sky next to a telescope, and art in the form of cat portraits hanging on his cabin’s walls.
But there are actually loads of people for whom cats are not their cup of milk. Captain Cat’s pals from port to port are traders just like him—“Trading is a bit like swapping,” Moore explains—and they can’t believe what he’s forever trading prized and exotic objects for. (Cats.) Moore, famed for her book illustrations, gets even a camel to laugh at Captain Cat while glancing slyly out from the page.
Doing the same thing year in and year out can get pretty tiresome. Yet boredom can also bring results. Captain Cat decides his change will be to sail seas where he’s never ventured, which he thoroughly enjoys. But not a ferocious storm in which he almost drowns.
Basing her story on an old Italian folk tale, Moore beaches Captain Cat’s ship on a far-flung island. He doesn’t seem to find it at all odd that the Queen is a darling girl of about ten with corkscrewed, dreadlocked hair topped by a tiny crown, that she rides a bike and reads piles of books, or that her Prime Minister isn’t much older. All that matters is that they know how to have a good time, inside the castle and out, which should apply as well to their banquets and feasts. But every time they sit down to eat, out come hordes and rows and bundles of rats. It’s Captain Cat to the rescue, or rather his cats!
Naturally the Queen showers him with gems and jewels from her treasure room. But once a seaman always a seaman, and Captain Cat has many seas left to roam. Stopping briefly by his homeport, though, he inadvertently fills his cat-averse friends with greedy dreams of the wealth they can surely win from the Queen. Off they go to their just desserts. Moore makes sure these are no bowls of cream.
Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile
by Marcia Wells, illustrated by Marcos Calo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
What’s in a name—more precisely, what’s in Edmund Xavier Lonnrot’s name, which comes attached to the occasional and, more often, accidental, hero of Marcia Wells’s debut novel? One reason 11-year-old E.X.L. is not embarrassed by his interminable, dorky moniker—and for the time being accepts that he is a short, bespectacled nerd, albeit with a photographic memory—is that his parents have taught him to take pride in the history of his unusual surname.
His father, a librarian who “truly knows everything about everything,” has chronicled for him how their forebears, slaves in the antebellum South, were saddled with the last name of the man that owned them, apparently a German. The Edmund and Xavier part—go figure. But when the junior Lonnrot unexpectedly goes to work for the NYPD, a smart-aleck detective, who knows that “rot” means “red” in German, nicknames him Eddie Red.
Eddie first gets tangled up with the police because of a bloody incident he witnessed in an unfriendly alley. Wells’s spot-on sense of humor never abandons her: Grilled by the cops, a typical New York private-school kid, Eddie thinks, “Where’s the trauma counselor? The psychiatric attention? I’ve been through a lot tonight.”
From bad to worse, his father tells him that, because of cutbacks at the library, the family can no longer afford Senate, the Upper East Side school Eddie adores. That means leaving behind his best friend, Jonah, a likable, super-kinetic genius sporting both Attention Deficit and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and an out-of-proportion fascination with history’s military leaders. The rest bothers Eddie not so much, though there is Jenny Miller, the prettiest and shyest girl in his class. Unlike “the rest of the girls…who were all abducted by aliens last year and came back wearing weird eye makeup and speaking only in giggles,” it gives him shivers just to think about her. He offers to get an after school job. Maybe for the Mafia?
Lickety-split, the cops pick up on Eddie’s photographic memory and his ability to perfectly sketch anything and anyone that has come to rest there. It’s the gumshoe life for him—he is enlisted to stake out (after school and on weekends, of course) the notorious Picasso Gang, a group of art thieves specializing in museum heists. A paying job! Could it help him stay at Senate? For Eddie there follow boring surveillance days—and days and days—at the Neue Gallery and the Jewish Museum. In his earnest yet jokey narrative voice, he also relays useful information: The Frick is not a swear word.
Sadly, such arcane knowledge can’t prevent him from making wrong turns, taking crooked cops at their word, almost getting offed by the bad guys, and generally riling Detective Bovano (the grumpy source of his nickname). Some clues may reside in a map of Manhattan, but darned if anybody can figure out where they are. Ah, here comes zany Jonah. Yet catching the thieves red-handed is not so easy, and involves Jonah convincing Eddie to dress up as a Girl Scout. Eddie in a wig is not his finest hour.
But it does go to show that friendship matters, that smart is as smart does, and that shy, pretty girls are preferable to fake Girl Scouts. And that Eddie’s parents will always love him no matter what.
The Here and Now
by Anne Brashares (Delacorte Press)
Ages 12 and up
There are no traveling pants in The Here and Now, Ann Brashares’s return to teen fiction. There's time traveling. Don’t assume, however, trips to someplace like King Arthur’s court (Mark Twain took care of that), Jack the Ripper’s London, or a witchy New England. No aliens light-years ahead of earth come in for a landing, and no humans are transported to the future by creatures with antennae and three eyes. Brashares conceives temporal complications in a fresh way, with truth melded to frightening possibilities, happiness always shadowed by sadness, and fully requited love as nutritious as a poisoned apple.
It’s 2010, and Ethan Jarves, a teenager from suburban New York, is enjoying the solitude of casting for fish in Haverstraw Creek. Then out of the thin air left by what Ethan experiences as a turbulent storm appears a girl, naked, shivering and with a sequence of numbers scrawled on her arm. Fending off his help—except for his offer of his New York Giants sweatshirt, a true sign of love waiting in the wings—she disappears. Two years later: she walks into Ethan’s pre-calculus class, he finds out her name is Prenna, and she narrates the novel from then on.
Prenna’s having materialized by the fishing stream turns out to be far from the most unusual thing about her. Along with some 1000 others, who arrived the same air-cleaving way, she has emigrated from the future, the year 2098. There all the ravages predicted about climate change had come true, and worse, and mankind was dying in an invincible epidemic caused by large, blood-sucking mosquitoes. Waiting among those chosen to leave their present—the future—to embed in a distant past they presumably hoped to change, were Prenna and her mother, but her father was missing and never joined them. Why and how this happened will be part of Prenna’s quest back in time.
Brashares imagines a world—an everyday one by our standards—where Prenna and her ilk must watch TV constantly to learn how to talk, act, and react like 21st-century citizens of the larger metropolitan area. They’re big on “Friends.” Prenna, by necessity elusive, and Ethan don’t get to know each other well for another two years, occupied as Prenna is with trying to internalize the increasingly rigid rules with which the “counselors” in her carefully regimented, secretive community keep control over their fellow immigrants, training them to terminate any outsider who gets onto them. (Here in the present it’s called brainwashing.)
The original reason handed down was that their unsuspecting ancestors had to be kept at arm’s length so they wouldn’t be contaminated by the germs of the future. In this calculation, the worst trespass is falling in love and “becoming intimate” with someone beyond their ranks. Not until the rules and rule-makers turn ever more dictatorial and lethal toward their own does Prenna decide that torturing and killing those who overstep certain bounds is not cool, especially since she and Ethan are falling in love. This is also what a cult looks like, or fabricated rationales for going to war.
Somehow the belief that love can overcome all has stuck with humanity for a long time. The young couple’s sweet tenderness and longing for physical consummation makes them put their faith in it too. The death of a homeless man, a key to a Bronx storage space, an ancient (for some) drawing, and a fateful glance at a future newspaper clipping conspire to transform their love story into a cliffhanger. Some of those end happily, others not. Brashares explores the territory where the alternatives overlap.
Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly
by Conrad Wesselhoeft (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Ages 14 and up
It’s amazing where video games can get you. Seventeen-year-old Arlo Santiago lives in the town of Clay Allison (named for a grubby gunfighter), in Orphan County (that says it all), in northeastern New Mexico, where he’s dealing, not very well, with his mother’s needless, violent death, his father’s descent from respected newspaper publisher to alcoholic, and his formerly rootin-tootin’ younger sister, Sioux-sie’s, diagnosis of Huntington’s disease. Arlo has withdrawn deeper into the escape that shuts out bleakness (besides riding his Yam 25 dirt bike) -- he has just placed Number One in the world at the scary video game Drone Pilot.
That’s when the USAF comes calling from nearby White Sands air force base, luring him with cash and dreams of “T-FOG” (Air Force speak for flying as though “touching the hand of God”) if he will use his video skills on real drone reconnaissance in the so far unsuccessful attempt to locate and kill Caracal, the powerful Al Qaeda leader hiding in Pakistan’s North West Territories. So that he won’t have to go near the kill zone level, as promised—he draws the line at collateral human damage, and thinks of his video-gaming, “For me it isn’t about violence and darkness. It’s about getting through the violence and darkness.” Whether or not this may be wishful thinking, he cranks his Yam up to mind-blurring, sorrow-transcending speeds between the shiny kill-testing base and home—which can be full of surprises.
Home also means high school, and anyone not on the football team—like Arlo, his dirt-biker buddies and an intriguing, tall-for-a-girl newcomer—is a nobody. Arlo’s passion for the wild, open, mountainous landscape beyond the “scabby dog of a town” sets him further apart. Some of Wesselhoeft’s finest writing is rooted in the beauty and torments of the Southwest’s rugged nature, with Arlo as his modern-day frontiersman.
Wesselhoeft is also a benign stealth bomber with his frequent moral and biblical implications. Arlo instructs his father that the full name of his chosen game “is Drone Pilot World War III: In the Valley of the Shadow.” He will also learn to see the distinctions among good, bad and self-destructive, and to act on them. He has already noticed that Drone Pilot “is extremely biased: every zone is a Muslim country,” just as he will realize the corruption of city officials siphoning off all water from the high-lying ranches and hillsides above town. A girl is his guide.
He has glimpsed, though shyly at first, with his habitual tough-guy stance, the possibility of downright love when the new student, an out-of-towner named Lee Fields, shows up from Seattle. Smarter than anyone, pretty, funny, and a spitfire on a Harley, she’s come to stay with her aunt while her father serves his fifth tour in the real Middle East. She becomes Arlo’s heart-throb and moral compass, which eventually adds up to his girlfriend. Her struggles are to recruit him away from deadly military exercises, from reckless daredevil bike jumping, and from signing onto a biker reality show with a $100,000 prize, presumably dead or alive.
Arlo’s code name at White Sands was Rope Thrower. He will have to lasso life very differently from now on.
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.