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!
By David Zeltser; Illlustrated by Diane Goode
Published by Chronicle Books
Rumors, and also some tangible signs of a Ninja Turtles comeback (how was your Halloween?) notwithstanding, it seems inconceivable that any spoofs or alternate tongue-in-cheek parodies of this class of covert agents that once terrorized feudal Japan could hold a katana sword to David Zeltser and Diane Goode’s Ninja Baby. Don’t let the ankle-biting decoy of the title fool you. This is a laugh-out-loud entertainment for grownups as much as it is a playful seminar in self-discovery, self-recognition, and bonding without bondage—a giggly shock, shock at valiantly immature behavior—for kids.The look is Dr. Seuss hopping into Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s classic A Hole is to Dig. Ninja Baby delivers a game of hide-and-go-seek-every-humorous-detail-possible while doling out rather tasty lessons concerning that playground—where boo-boos are also known to happen—called life.
It goes without saying, naturally, that Ninja Baby’s behavior (antic, roguish) is NOT HER FAULT. It’s not like her parents were forced at sword point to give her the name Nina at birth. For this girl, no infant with an ounce of self-respect and warrior cred could help but insert an all-important extra letter into such a wimpy appellation.
The boringly traditional rituals of babyhood and toddlerdom haven’t a chance against ex-Nina. It’s amazing how martial the briefest contact with Ninja Baby can be: eating a doughnut rather than Mom’s carefully prepared food qualifies as a “sneak attack,” and diapering time as “hand-to-hand combat” (Dad is the loser in that fight.) Ninja Baby could be the next James Bond, with such stealthy skills as under-water invisibility at bathtime and rustling up undetectable camouflage in order to watch PG-13 television behind her parents’ backs.
Every only child has it made—until there is no such thing as only anymore. The squirming new bundle that Ninja Baby’s parents have the nerve to bring into the home formerly under one-Ninja occupation is a newborn boy, and a Kung Fu Master at that. Ninja Baby’s response to this new addition could define “disarming”—refusing to walk when her father can carry her, coping with the loneliness felt by a growing Ninja bereft of her infancy’s one-track parental attention.
Sources from Freud to Bettelheim to Brazelton have made admonitions for the varieties of combat through which a truce can be achieved. Nina and her brother arrive at the conviction that it’s now the two of them who have it made. But beware a pair of veterans under the same roof who could know better. Let the family battles—otherwise characterized as love-bombing, dependence in disguise, and mutually negotiated adjustment—commence!
Kiki and Jacques
By Susan Ross
Published by Holiday House
Age 8 -12
Amidst the world’s current crisis of desperately homeless refugees, ruthless terrorism, persistent, pernicious and unresolved tribalism, and apparently unstoppable warfare, it’s nice to have a book that aims to impart some hope, sense of good will and a tender education to youngsters who will grow up to carve out the future in both modest and extraordinary ways. In recent years, our “nation of immigrants” has expanded into a country that history and globalization have rendered a putative safe haven for unlikely settlers in unlikely places—the Hmong mountain people of Vietnam and Laos for several decades now in Minnesota, more Vietnamese in Louisiana, pockets of liberated Eastern Europeans spread hither and yon. Update that with the small communities of refugee Somalis that have sprouted up in Maine.
As far north as the tight-knit, crumbling Maine mill town in Kiki and Jacques, where Jacques, a young soccer fanatic, lives, the presence of a small number of Somali families—most fractured after losing loved ones to persecution and murder—is making itself felt. In Jacques’s case that equates as the tall, handsome, almost preternaturally athletic Mohamed, who threatens Jacques’s primacy on the school soccer team. Jacques is too young and insulated to realize that sports are probably all Mohamed had to keep his sanity and sense of self-worth on the trail from one African refugee camp to another. He does take flustered note of Mohamed’s sister Kiki, though, whose beautiful face peeks out from under her headscarf, one of her bright, shy, curious eyes encircled by a birthmark.
The historical parallel that the town’s majority population is French-Canadian—once hard-pressed and socially excluded immigrants themselves—is left unspoken and implicit. But Jacques’s Grandmere Jeannette, owner of the local bridal shop that Jacques reluctantly helps run, is a living reminder of those days, and perhaps therefore welcoming to the exotic new folks in town. In this narrative, the juxtaposition of American bridal veils with Muslim veiling resonates. Mohamed and Kiki’s protective, spunky mother is never out of full black hijab in public and Kiki will have to make choices about whether to follow in such footsteps. It’s a provocative part of the story, but insufficiently elaborated on by Ross. Which is not to say that the frilly veils donned for American weddings can’t presage other types of restrictions.
The most fraught and frightening tensions that arise in this tale of rocky adolescence are much less between Jacques and Mohamed than between Jacques and a boyhood nemesis, Duane, who has developed into a petty criminal and keeps pressuring Jacques to join him in his drug selling business. In addition to some pretty severe roughing up, the pressures pushing Jacques toward accepting the unfortunate offer are the bills piling up as he watches his widowed, alcoholic and unemployed father sink further into depression and loudly embarrassing benders, along with Jacques’s discovery of a fragile mortgage. The ancestral morality inculcated in him, matched on the playing field by the relationship that takes shape between him and the inescapably honorable Mohamed, is his salvation. That same morality also saves the day for something charmingly secretive going on with Grandmere.
Ross avoids uncomfortable cultural clashes that could result from a romance between Kiki and Jacques by gifting Jacques with the perky surprise of an all-American girlfriend. But it also remains extremely worthy and important, at this point in young lives, to show that the most disparate cultures can come together, and that, as one outcome, a girl and a boy can just be friends.2 .
The Beast of Cretacea
By Todd Strasser
Published by Candewick Press
Age 12 and up
It isn’t until page 27 that the 17-year-old at the center of another remarkable Todd Strasser book utters, “My name is Ishmael.” Just as well that his introduction isn’t word-for-word the famous opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—that complicated, masterfully difficult, anachronistic-sounding, symbol-laden and extremely weighty work known to strike many high-school and college students merely as once-over-quickly required reading. Strasser, though, clearly a close repeat reader, has taken Melville’s incomparable fiction seriously and ingeniously to heart as the inspiration for the marvelously imaginative The Beast of Cretacea.
Strasser pumps betrayal into the very air of the swath of Earth where his Ishmael lives, a bitter, dystopian, desiccated and dying place, where children—mostly “foundlings”—come of age believing this is all there is to their planet, its end hastened by perilous and life-shortening work in coal mines that figure into the production of artificial oxygen allotted in shrinking amounts to their portion of the human race. The administration of survival rests with The Trust, a sinister, omnipotent ruling council peopled not by representatives of those extinct institutions called nations, but by members of a single giant corporation.
Little wonder that several generations of young people have volunteered for “missions” to other planets that could hold life-saving resources to keep humankind from annihilation, or offer it new homes. Just as any undertaking must have a goal, any journey must have a destination, and for Ishmael, along with four fellow foundlings named Queequeg, Pip, Billy and Gwen, it’s the planet Cretacea (labyrinth, Minotaur, and greedy dreamers flying too close to the sun?).
Likewise, every journey engages in its own search. For these five that means moving through space not on some futuristic aircraft but as oppressed, exploited “newbies” and “nippers” aboard a rusty, decaying, unmistakably ancient ship, The Pequod. The fact that the horrors, challenges, and sporadic respites during their sojourn on the very vessel helmed by Captain Ahab are more intense than anything in Melville says a lot about Strasser’s eye for external and internal extremes. It’s telling, too, about the incessantly mounting appetite for gory distractions among 21st century readers whose immune systems have suffered onslaughts by today’s video-game culture.
Despite their names, the young adventurers are far different in age, experience, location in history and personality from the initial ship’s crew—some of the most significant characters in American fiction. But Captain Ahab and Starbuck remain tyrants— the First Mate reigning with iron fist and eerie dark glasses, the inhumane loner of a skipper through the pounding sound and fearful sight of a leg that’s half harpoon. Ahab’s obsession with destroying the “Great White Terrafin” unabated, in Slosser’s re-telling, Moby Dick is a “she.” Be that as it may on the one hand a twisted notion born of Ahab’s violent loss of a wife and child (and the unsavory company of a woman sharing his cabin), on the other, Strasser’s fierce, smart Gwen and several other female characters are fully formed and well-written. Gwen partakes unflinchingly of the burgeoning loyalties among the Pequod’s five youngest crew as it reaches the point that they—however conflicting their backgrounds and motivations may turn out to be—would die for each other. That’s hardly a question when it comes to being kidnapped by pirates. It’s a whole opposite kettle of temptations with their unprecedented experiences on an island surreally encountered in Ahab’s ocean, yet oddly off-limits to the The Pequod’s eternal regulars. A newfound paradise in the eyes of the kids, it acts as their first encounter with trees, grass, flowers, animals, and a kindly people living in happy harmony. Up to a point. Strasser’s approach to romance and the near-erotic is dicier, and it manages to skirt sexuality per se. That’s when expressions like his novel’s “Well, I’ll be Melville’s mother” and “What in the Universe?” rudely bubble up in the reader.
A beguiling dare, The Beast of Cretacea further leaves it to us to fully comprehend the roles of the so-called Gilded, the Lectors, and sneaky mapmakers, and what makes it possible for the action to keep rolling back and forth in time, notably jerked forward into the future by the presence of “drone ops” powered by nuclear reactors, poignant “VR logs” from Earth, galleys “speakers,” and “biodetection” software. Yet equally crucial to Ahab and the Earth’s ruling class is a glaucous green substance extracted from the whales captured and slaughtered on The Pequod. Global warming has condemned the earth to death, while The Pequod’s never-ending fate seems at least as painful.
Strasser’s reveal, saved, like all such best, for near the saga’s end, is bolstered by a teaser that Earth’s hop-scotch history isn’t ricocheting throughout the universe, and that being sent to locales where something new and vital must be unearthed is a “myth” that’s been “around as long as men and women have been coming to Cretacea,” the blind mariner Tarnmoor tells his five wards. And he’s been dead 175 years. Yet it’s no mystery where the power of such myth comes from: one of greatest books of any era, laden with allegory and steadfastly chasing the fabled beast in us all.
The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen
By Katherine Howe
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Age 14 and up
It has just kept growing and spreading, idealistic and demanding, narcissistic and irresistible, until it’s morphed into a clamorous contemporary subset of the American dream. Filmmaking: on the Left Coast the lucky head to UCLA’s film program; on the Right, the film school in New York at the Tisch School of the Arts is considered the tops. It clusters around what was once Henry James’s Washington Square, and farther downtown the seedy chic of the Bowery. But, in Katherine Howe’s opinion, the crumbling 19th century townhouses there hold little fascination for most aspiring movie industry stars, except as rave-hosting flops and warrens of empty rooms easily transformed into backdrops for strivingly experimental student films. To your run-of-the-mill hipsters training their production setups on creating the prize production of the school year, and a ticket to a splashy future, the backward glance is less than interesting—indeed perfectly invisible. Visitations from the spirit world are not on their agenda.
But Howe’s spot-on depiction of this wannabe ambience in The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen is made to simultaneously shimmer with the idea that there can be more to such Millennials’ urgent, driven, ambitious lives than the present, especially if it drags behind it centuries of suppressed local history. Wes Auckerman—combine Wes Anderson with awkward—isn’t one of that in-crowd, but a shy, out-of-his-element Midwesterner new to New York, wide-eyed at the wealthy entitlement of some of his sophisticatedly disheveled new friends and classmates, and the skillful weirdness of the punk crowd shaping his surroundings at what he innocently thinks are the edges.
Filmmaking is a kind of séance. Yet when one of Wes’s friends starts fiddling around to capture an actual séance on camera, it’s Wes who becomes enthralled and then involved with a mysterious presence that seems to consist of jumpy pixels and inexplicable light spots. Howe materializes these into Annie van Sinderen, a ravishingly lovely, fantastically dressed ghost of a girl—no, for real, a ghost—who, occasionally trailing the scent of smoke and wet earth, is desperate to understand occurrences regarding traumatic, possibly fatal, events connected to the celebratory opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Enlisting Wes as her lover and helpmate, Annie takes center stage in Howe’s portrayal of that bygone era as adeptly as Wes comes to embody his. The daughter of one of old New York’s most prominent families— her father integral to the success of the canal—Annie has braved a path to the future (Wes’s present) to illuminate what may have been far murkier circumstances marking her corporeal life than she ever realized, not just the birth of 1825’s modern economic wonder. At a time when graft, corruption and social climbing were reaching new heights, when slavery and the slave trade were not yet entirely disavowed, loyalty and family love—so dear to Annie—were not quite what they seemed.
Thanks to Howe, both young people must piece together their selves and, having somehow bridged and unexpectedly absorbed much of American history, puzzle out, like any teens, who they really are. If Annie starts to fade away again, Wes will have to make a choice. The subject and title of the film he has contending for an academic prize, as well as for peer acceptance, are “What Do You Want Most in the World?” It’s a question posed to an array of figures whose answers offer clues as to why some of us are sensitive to otherworldliness, while others distinctly are not.4 .