JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers | #6
by Celia McGee
JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers will search 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!
A Gift for Mama
by Linda Ravin Lodding, illustrated by Alison Jay (Alfred A. Knopf)
Oskar is a little boy who lives in late 19th-century Vienna, in A Gift for Mama, by Linda Ravin Lodding. Oskar also lives inside the alluring, color-drenched illustrations of Alison Jay. Her technique of creating them by using alkyd paint and crackle varnish on thick cartridge paper gives them the invitingly aged but bright-eyed look that transports the reader to a past bursting with the excitement of small, valiant adventures in one of the prettiest cities in Europe.
Oskar loves his mother and for her special day, her birthday, he is adamant that he find her “the perfect gift.” He only has a single coin, and when he spots a gorgeous yellow rose, the crowning glory of a flower seller’s abundant basket, he knows it’s the ideal present. Oskar buys it and proudly sets off home with the bloom, which appears almost as large as he is.
But in a tale that is the reverse of the nursery rhyme “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” Oskar’s generosity and inquisitiveness, and the charming chain of events Lodding lays out, provide a story about give and take, and the clever workings of necessity when it comes to fertile and deserving imaginations. It’s also fun to keep an eye on the little cat and dachshund constantly flitting around in the backgrounds. The final gift Oskar will end up with remains ever more elusive, until it appears in an unlikely place in an unlikely form. Needless to say, Oskar’s mother pronounces it “perfect,” and gives her son a sweet-smelling hug.
In a Note from the Author at the back of the book, Lodding pinpoints the year the story takes place as 1894, and identifies the real people behind most of the characters, including Gustav Klimt, Johann Strauss II, and the Empress Sisi.
The Children of the King
by Sonya Hartnett (Candlewick Press)
Sonya Harnett’s The Children of the King is an enchanting historical novel that nonetheless questions the idea of a burnished English past. That’s the kind preferred by the Lockwoods, a genteel, loving but occasionally bickering family of four living in London, “in a sweeping terrace of identically grand houses, each with pillars beside the front door and curved steps leading down to the footpath.” But a cruel reality insinuates itself into the apparent serenity of family and class, since it’s World War II, and the English await with dread what they know must be coming: their country under siege by German bombers of terrible, massed fire power, and the horrific destruction that follows. Mainly devoted to Jeremy, 14, his sister Cecily, “aged recently 12,” and a temporary new member of the family who brings, along with her meager suitcase, a new perspective for the coddled children, this is an entrancingly written novel with ghostly surprises, perfectly observed aristocratic set-pieces, and scenes of unbearable devastation. Much of the Lockwood children’s storybook England is in the process of being replaced by a modern world.
The first disruption occurs when Humphrey Lockwood announces to his wife and children that he is sending them for safety out of London, to the grand old northern estate owned by their frail and brilliant Uncle Peregrine. The Lockwoods have enjoyed many a pleasant stay at Heron Hall. Yet Jeremy is the most reluctant to leave, a boy filled with a fervor to prove himself and defend his country, to contribute something to the inadequate war effort, and make his father—and his own vulnerable sense of self—proud.
But when the train pulls out he is on it. So are what the children perceive to be a rag-tag crowd of young evacuees separated not just from their homes but their parents. Waiting for them at the other end is a crowd of locals who have volunteered to take in individual children for the war’s duration, and whose intentions range from noble to patriotic, exploitative, condescending, greedy and uncaring. The bewildered youngsters sit at the village station like so many orphans, or candidates for an archaic indentured servitude, as their prospective guardians take their pick. Carefree Cecily is far from interested until an unusual twinge of generosity—or a spoiled girl’s desire for a new toy—has her suddenly announcing that she should at least have “just a little one.” Her eyes settle on May, a slip of a girl with short, midnight black hair and a courageous intelligence that puts almost everyone else to shame.
This little group has its “Downton Abbey” moment as the chauffeured car Peregrine has sent for them pulls up in front of his imposing mansion, and their lives become a scurry of cooks, servants and groundskeepers, presided over by this slightly mysterious relative, crippled by polio as a boy, and widowed young.
Since they simply cannot, can not, attend the local school, blond, bouncy, breezily thoughtless Cecily and dark-haired, intense May are given the run of the estate and its surroundings, where they come upon the spooky ruins of Snow Castle and, to their startlement, two young brothers dressed in velvet and silks whose habit it is to talk with them and then disappear slightly more swiftly than seems humanly possible. Moreover, Uncle Peregrine has finally agreed to tell the children Snow Castle’s grim legend, which gradually intertwines with what the two girls have been able to glean from the odd boys.
If the saga Peregrine tells is awful and tragic, a critique of the ubiquitous fight for power that corrupts and kills generation upon generation, Hartnett’s descriptions of London under bombardment, the untold numbers of dead and dying, the blackened ruins and suffocating smoke-filled air in grand townhouses and tenement blocks alike are even more harrowing, chilling, and true to history.
by Cecil Castellucci (Roaring Brook Press)
Ages 12 and Up
Cecil Seaskull is an indie rocker. She is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She does comics. Under her real name, Cecil Castellucci, she is the YA and children’s book editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books and the award-winning author of five books for young adults. Here comes her sixth.
Or rather, here it goes: Tin Star blasts us into the future and far out in space. At its fierce heart is her remarkable heroine, Tulah Bane and the strong, quick-thinking, 14-year-old’s first brushes with almost fatal brutalization, loneliness, independent action, and falling in love.
Although this is her first book of science fiction, Castellucci handles it like a pro, presenting relationships, both inter-species and human-to-human, with great imagination and mystery. In her meticulously worked-out universe, so many species exis—and in so many diverse degrees of contact, communication, war, truces and mistrust—that “Humans,” as they’re called, are just one breed of alien to and among others. (And not necessarily that far up the totem pole.) Science fiction tends to take off from earth’s contemporary politics, transformative historical epochs, and, not infrequently, the realization that authority can be disguised as benevolence, and that ending discrimination and what we in the present call racism is worth fighting for. Tin Star has all that in mind.
On the depleted and dispirited planet that the earth of the future has become, it’s easy for cults to crop up, attracting passive followers. Tulah’s mother has fallen in with just such a group, led by a charismatic figure named Brother Blue. Her daughter in tow, she has signed on to help colonize a new planet for earth—the more planets, the greater the chance of belonging to a Major Species instead of a Minor one. But when their “Children of Earth colony ship,” The Prairie Rose, makes a refueling stop at the city-size space station Yertina Feray, Tulah innocently notices some strange behavior on Brother Blue’s part. Next thing she knows, he has savagely beaten her and left her for dead, and The Prairie Rose is gone.
Tulah’s will to survive and seek revenge propel her story, and also introduce her to the population and hierarchy of Yertina Feray, a hodge-podge of aliens and outcasts from different species stranded there for one peculiar reason or another, and gob-smacked that the teenager nursing herself back to a semblance of health in the space station’s ignominious lower depths is a rare Human indeed—she speaks Universal Intergalactic, a common language that most non-Human aliens use to communicate.
Criminal turmoil and terror have long had a way of landing their persecuted on Yertina Feray. In the latest upheaval, Tulah abruptly finds herself in the company of three other Humans around her age, survivors of an unexplained air-borne explosion. The scary puzzle is what to make of them, and, for Tulah, what to make of her feelings for Reza, one of two Human boys plunked down in her life. As for Els, their female companion, she is a revelation to Tulah, and a piece of work. What kind of trickery and falseness may lurk behind their arrival is up to Tulah to figure out before it is too late. She must suddenly trust to her heart as well as think with her head. Earth itself hangs in the balance. Castellucci leaves plenty of questions unanswered. This does not seem like the last we will see of Tulah Bane.
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.