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!
Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey
By Emily Winfield Martin
Published by Random House Children's Books
The author of this book also owns a store in Portland, Oregon, The Black Apple, where she sells art prints, dolls and doll kits, notebooks, jewelry, original art, and homemade, fanciful soft goods for the kitchen. Out of such a sense of whimsy her books, too, are born, with the newest, Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey, sure to lead to a child’s and a parent’s enchantment. With its sweet but not saccharine images exuding the slightly Edwardian feel of that period’s gifted children’s book illustrators, Martin has produced a book that is an answer to every family’s struggle: getting little ones happily into bed and blissfully asleep. How hard can that be with Martin’s tender, inspired examples of what happens in dreams to beckon them. You might get borne sky-high by robins, waving to air-balloon sightseers from your bike, or have a sleek fox carry you on its back to a dell of elves, and when a bear brings a boy home for dinner, the lad is more than happy to bake a heaping platter of goodies and serve them to the bear’s “peculiar friends” (cue Humpty-Dumpty, a Sasquatch and a space-age tin man). Are you a petite black girl with the fluffiest and softest of pigtails? Down you go clinging tight to a narwhal as he ferries you to a tea party beneath the sea, where one of the mermaids could well be related. These are the reasons, Martin writes in her lilting rhymes, “Dreamers get where dreamers go.” None are scary places, just peculiar and strange enough to encourage in children courage, pluck, curiosity, imagination and an explorer’s enthusiasm for adventure.
The Table Sets Itself
By Ben Clanton
Published by Bloomsbury/Walker Books for Young Readers
Should anyone want to solve the nursery rhyme puzzle of why—and to where—“the dish ran away with the spoon,” The Table Sets Itself gives one hilarious and instructive answer. It also playfully demonstrates that certain traditions persist for a reason. Not that it isn’t good to challenge and tweak them. Young Izzy has just made it to the benchmark where she is allowed to set her own place at the family table. She is aided by her good friends, her fork, knife, spoon, dish and milk cup. But many of us—whether human or, apparently, flatware—can grow bored by such day-in-day-out scenarios, and, as Ben Clanton’s illustrations show Izzy sinking lower and lower in her dining chair into boredom and depression, it should not come as a surprise that her tabletop companions grow restless too. They try all sorts of solutions, wildly punning along the way, but “Some of them were recipes for disaster,” “Did you hear that Pot boiled over?” “Yeah, he was really steamed.” Until Izzy’s Dad loudly intervenes. That’s when the dish and spoon vamoose. As the others search high and low, they grow up a little bit, even slicing through a child’s greatest fears by interrogating the scary monster in Izzy’s closet. From beyond their bounds, postcards from the most fun and interesting places start to arrive. From you-know-who. But there’s no place like home, and the runaway pair even bring back two new food-friendly pals. A child’s universe has expanded, along with understanding the advantages of having everything in its place.2 .
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
By Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Published by Chronicle Books
Josephine Baker’s life can be read as a Cinderella story, with poverty, prejudice, and prudishness her evil stepfamily. That’s how Patricia Hruby Powell envisions it in Josephine, while Christian Robinson provides indelible illustrations that are part Art Deco, part joyous folk art.
If Baker had a love affair with the stage—the beginning of each chapter is framed by a bright red theater curtain—this book makes it abundantly clear that the international star’s origins were tough and poor, scrubbing floors beside her single mother in St. Louis, when she’d rather be dancing to “RAGTIME music–/raggedy black music–/gotta-make-the-rent-music—/lift-my-soul music/GOLDEN AGE music.”
One delight of this book is that it moves Baker through a valuable history of early-20th century American music: the “honky-tonky” of vaudeville, the Jazz Age flappers’ Charleston, the Africanized jazz of Baker’s famous banana dance and other exotic show-stoppers. These catapulted her to the Folies Bergere in Paris. “High society” tanned itself to resemble her. Just look at her proudly walking her pet cheetah, both with diamond chokers.
The crude and racist reviews she received from New York’s critics when she returned to perform as the only woman of color in the Ziegfeld Follies not only spurred her back to Paris, but put the finishing touches on the rage that this book consistently shows as building in her over a lifetime. Despite her successes, her anger remained a smoldering “volcano” bubbling with her childhood’s race riots, department stores that banned her while admitting white ladies (and their little dogs), segregated theaters, backdoor entrances for black performers with white audiences, and the humiliating stage shenanigans Baker had to pull to keep bigoted theatergoers laughing.
Many know of her adopted “rainbow tribe” in later years, but what about her joining the Red Cross during World War II, and spying for France? Or that she stood by the side of Dr. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington? Brave, too, was her determined “comeback” at 67, after she was bankrupted and evicted from home.
She danced, marched, sang, protested and fought for civil rights. She was a hero. After her last performance in Paris, she partied, she celebrated, she went home, she lay down, and…curtain down.
By C.J. Farley
Published by Black Sheep/Akashic Books
In video games, we all have avatars. You could also say that, for distinguished Wall Street Journal editor and columnist, novelist, and biographer Christopher John Farley, his is C.J. Farley, the author of his first novel for young people, set in—and within—the video world. And it truly is blurbed by Ziggy Marley!
Wouldn’t you know that at the Winston Macintosh Middle School, it’s the bullies against smart, dreadlocked loser Dylan Rudee, his younger sister, Emma, who’s so brainy she’s irritatingly in the same grade, and their friend Eli, a Hispanic paraplegic great with one-liners. The repartee throughout the book is all pretty hilarious, not the least that of a giant spider who speaks with a Jamaican accent.
Every knight, middle-schooler or not, needs a tournament. In the town of New Rock it’s sponsored by the Mee corporation, creator of Xamaica, everyone’s favorite video game, which is filled with hair-raising adventures, a beautiful but untrustworthy landscape and strange, imaginary beasts. When Dylan and Eli unexpectedly win the ensuing free-for-all, they and Emma are swiftly limoed off to her ginormous home by Ines Mee, the CEO’s daughter, and the kind of KAP (Korean American Princess) who enters scary underwater castles asking “where’s the gift shop?” (Dylan may be developing a crush on her.) Once inside the Mee McMansion, the foursome suspects that a shiny black rectangle on the wall is a portal, and how right they are. Plunged into the actual Xamaica, each becomes an unfamiliar avatar—Ines an Iron Lion, Eli a Rolling Calf, and Dylan a Duddy—a spirit-like version of himself.
The transformation makes for the added pleasure that Farley’s book is basically two very good novels–one about the tortured life of middle school, the other about the adventures and setbacks, relationships and deadly battles, mysterious pirates and tricky plant allies that deliver one of the most daringly imaginative narratives to come along in a some time. In his metaphorical world, Farley spares neither the dubious machinations of high finance nor the heartbreak of an orphan. Dylan is one, and you won’t believe who his parents turn out to have been. Moreover, he learns who his friends are. Even if he makes it back to earth, uh, Babylon.4 .
The Invention of Wings
By Sue Monk Kidd
Published by Viking
Age 12 and up, and grownups
While “Django Unchained” and “Twelve Years A Slave” have been galloping across our movie screens, Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair) proves, with her subtle, closely-packed and equally devastating new novel, that there are many ways of telling history.
Monk Kidd trains her earliest scrutiny and fierce imagination on antebellum Charleston and the prominent Grimke family, following the young life of Sarah Grimke, the awkward, secretly book-smart, red-headed Grimke daughter who decades later, with her younger sister, Angeline, would help lead the Abolitionist movement.
The two voices that shape the book, in alternating chapters, belong to Sarah and to Hetty — or, fondly, “Handful” among her fellow slaves — Hetty is given to an unwilling Sarah for her 11th birthday. Sarah has already developed a lifelong stutter and a hatred of slavery from watching her first whipping, and it is Hetty who speaks first, “of the day life turned into nothing the world could fix.”
Such lives unfold together and apart, combusting each time the young mistress attempts to set her shameful but cherished chattel free, including teaching Hetty to read and write. Hetty’s love for Sarah is protective, and divided, and resentful when Sarah eventually escapes North, to thwarted love, important work, and the realization that, for both slaves and women, “abolition is different than the desire for equality.” Running parallel are Hetty’s own insurrectionist involvements.
We feel American history making itself known through real events and the genteel South’s abominations. But history emerges just as strongly from the intricate quilts Hetty’s mother fashions, recounting stories of ancestors from ancient times to the present, and containing special secrets in some of the squares. Like slavery’s songs, they are full of beauty and defiant longing. Listeners like Sarah hear the beauty. Defiance would have its day.