JUNIOR EDITION: New Books for Younger Readers searches 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!
I’m My Own Dog
By David Ezra Stein
Published by Candlewick Press
Self-delusion can be the unintended mother of invention, an idea simplified and humorized in David Ezra Stein’s (a Caldecott medalist) I’m My Own Dog. The canine star in question is a mutt without an owner–“I’m my own dog. Nobody owns me. I own myself.” That’s all very well for leaning suavely against fire hydrants while tamer pooches namby-pamby by, some even carried in purses. Such a pampered existence is not for him. He’s a hard-working dog (“I work like a dog,” as he might not know the saying goes in the world he refuses to join), he puts himself nightly to bed (after fetching his own slippers), and his nighttime sleep habits are, he believes, solely of his devising. He prides himself on responding badly to hypothetical situations involving mixing with humans for activities he thinks he enjoys more on his own.
But Stein hints at an inkling of self–doubt in a canine that has to look at himself in the mirror every morning and chant “Good dog. I am a good dog,” to psyche himself up for his one-dog independence. It has never occurred to him that humans can actually be needed, for the likes of having his back scratched in a place he can’t reach.
In contrast to the self-congratulatory self-satisfaction Stein holds up as a dubious character trait, in the dog’s eyes there’s a pathetic loneliness in the back-scratcher who follows him home. Another expression has escaped him: “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Good deeds sneak up slyly. The dog buys the guy a leash so he can lead him around, introduces him, he believes, to squirrel chasing, stick throwing, and sitting on command. It’s a pleasantly messy task to clean up after humans’ dripping ice cream cones, but someone has to do it. And someone has to admit to a changing dynamic in life. This should ring a bell that relationships are not built in a day, and often it takes working “like a dog all day” to get there. But the emotional payoff is worth it.
Leroy Ninker Saddles Up
By Kate DiCamillo; illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Published by Candlewick Press
Kate DiCamillo provides several tip-offs that, in her rootin’-tootin’ Leroy Ninker Saddles Up, her daffy, soulful and surprisingly spunky squirt of a protagonist lives somewhere you can’t just up and travel to, and that’s the past. Leroy works the concession stand at a drive-in movie theater. The family cars parked there would be vintage today. Moreover, though a grownup, he says “Yippie-i-oh” a lot, which you don’t hear much anymore. (In her trademark zippy way, Newbery medalist DiCamillo also coins some droll, cheerful, innocent-sounding expressions exclusive to Leroy that come in handy for letting him largely suppress the scarily different person he used to be, with a past of his own to hide.) Quaintest of all, he dreams of owning Western boots, a twirling lasso, and a ten-gallon hat: he wants to be a cowboy. That he longs to be “never ever afraid,” like the Marlboro men he worships on screen says more about Leroy than them.
After all, there’s little purpose to exciting dreams and aspirations unless they’re acted upon. Sometimes friends have to prod a dreamer from fantasy into reality. Here it’s his co-worker Beatrice Leapaleoni, who, like the rest of the book’s illustrated characters, sports goofy yet endearing features. But she also has common sense: Leroy needs a horse.
With a determination that should teach young readers a thing or two, Leroy scours newspaper ads for that very thing, and once he finds it, provides such pointers as repeating the printed address twice, safekeeping it in his pocket, and grabbing “fate” by the tail. Her name is Maybelline, a stubborn old steed that, like most animal versions of humanity, has her quirks—1) she responds only to compliments 2) has a prodigious appetite, and 3) hates to be alone. The first makes a poet out of Leroy, the second a short-order spaghetti cook, and the third presents the conundrum of how to fit Maybelline into Leroy’s apartment so she doesn’t have to be alone–which he can’t. The solutions he arrives at, and how adaptability and growing mutual affection bring the pair even more friends– including the African-American siblings Maybelline bonds with when she briefly runs away–are funny and heart-warming, while also opening the shy floodgates that enable Leroy to confess his past sins to the understanding Maybelline. He’s a good way toward his goal of equaling his idealized cowboys. It’s a catharsis on the order of the epics he and Maybelline watch, together, on the drive-in movie’s screen. But stasis can hardly set in for these two—Leroy Saddles Up is only the first in a new Kate DiCamillo series.2 .
Fleabrain Loves Franny
By Joanne Rocklin
Published by Amulet Books/Abrams
Fleabrain, the miniscule insect in shining armor who hops in to save the day for an exceptional young girl named Franny Katzenback , is anything but. Joanne Rocklin, the best-selling author of this new book is no slouch, either, and she tops herself here. Joining the latest mini-trend of writing young people’s fiction inspired by, in dialogue with, or subtly referencing classic books and their authors, she sets up an amusing tale about Fleabrain’s jealousy of Franny’s passion for the newly published Charlotte’s Web, an instant classic and, in Franny’s well-read estimation, “the greatest children’s book of all time.”
Fleabrain Loves Franny gives Charlotte a run for it’s curly pink tail. The reasons Fleabrain loves Franny may be too numerous for even one of his intellectual role models, Pascal, to untangle and enumerate, but in fairness, some of these rationales border on self-serving tactics in Fleabrain’s battle to change Franny’s admiration for a silly spider in a children’s book into true love for a real-life flea. A flea that’s learned, romantic, brave, resourceful, a multilingual polymath, admittedly a little smug, but a doting presence close at hand, at the tip of the family dog’s tail.
It’s 1952, and Franny is recovering from polio, first in an iron lung and now confined to a wheelchair. Rocklin piercingly portrays the plight of a studious girl steeped thoroughly in an understanding of the very affliction she’s suffering.
Given a wide and superstitious berth by those she encounters, only her family keeps her company, along with a mean nurse who puts her through the daily torture of exercises intended to get her legs moving again. In the Katzenbacks’ affluent Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh also live the famous and reclusive Dr. Jonas Salk, working on a polio cure, and his associate, Herr Gutman, whom Franny only knows as a an occasional, quiet dinner guest, with great sorrow in his eyes for his wife and daughter lost to the concentration camps. McCarthyism’s specter also hovers, ready to strike.
Thanks to a magnifying bottle top from a “Sparky’s Finest” soda, Franny is finally able to see Fleabrain. Magically—a word not used lightly—he restores friendship to her. Most obviously in common is their love of books. Rocklin’s own knowledge of the science of nuclei and other invisible but living organisms is also prodigious. But that’s merely hardcore erudition. Transferring to a tail hair of Lightning, a sweet elderly horse harboring romantic secrets, Fleabrain teaches Franny to ride, then fly, as if on a mystical sky steed out of Chagall, performing miracles and mitzvahs, saving lives and committing noble acts of daring.
These also represent the sad, sardonic Franny embracing belief—in the miraculous, in human nature, in love, and perhaps in a higher being. Anger is disowned, faith accepted, and the future faced. For Rocklin there is such a thing as being born again. As for one small creature, a job is complete, a literary prejudice overcome, if not a love requited. To borrow from Charlotte’s Web, which Rocklin does: Some Flea.
By Carl Hiaasen
Published by Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Children’s Books
Age 12 and up
There’s scads of territory where fans of Carl Hiaasen’s gonzo detective fiction might expect to find his occasional character Skink (given name, Clint Tyree)—college football star, crusading ex-governor of Florida downed by corruption, eccentric, bibliophile, as odd in attire and demeanor as in huger-than-life personality, nature lover in a shower cap with a fine collection of artificial eyes he pops in and out of an empty socket, funny as a dancing alligator in the disappearing swamps he holds dear, old in years, crazy young in spirit, and smart as all get-out. But they may not have guessed that Skink would turn up in a book for young readers.
Yet that’s just what Skink—No Surrender does. It’s a first for Hiaasen, and a yarn for our times. He hooks up with a teenager, Richard (who narrates the story but adolescent-like, divulges no last name) a beach-combing, alienated kid still mourning his father’s death, close to no one (certainly not his Mountain Dew guzzling stepfather) except his cousin Malley, who’s even more bored by their suburban background than he is, and more rebellious. She’s the type to suddenly disappear, this time ostensibly to get out of being shipped off to boarding school, but more likely kidnapped by a weasly character she met in an online chat room.
That’s the Internet as a tricky, villainous fact of modern life; more benign are the cell phones through which Richard and Malley are finally able to communicate, Malley conveying clues that only Richard understands, which point to a hiding place way up the Panhandle on a decrepit houseboat, Malley handcuffed by the “creep” she first thought was a cool DJ.
It doesn’t help Richard and Skink in the subsequent pursuit of the bad guy, that dead people turn out to be alive, and living ones, dead. A funny off-shoot is the temporarily crippled Skink, teaching Richard to drive, propped on one of his thicker books, Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It’s known that many oddballs populate the social fringes of Florida culture—and, with that, Hiaasen’s fiction. Skink—No Surrenderturns one of his grandest nonconformists into a boy’s dream companion—and Richard learns to wake Skink from his moaning nightmares of Vietnam. Thoreau knocks on our memories, but also Hunter S. Thompson.
In Skink—No Surrender it takes dozens of cops to mess up royally, and a one-eyed outcast and his creator to perceive goodness, generosity, growing up and an alert peace of mind deep down and far ahead. Wherever there’s an open road and a mystery to be solved, Hiaasen’s high opinions of freedom and orneriness are on it. He doesn’t speak down to his new audience, and he also doesn’t sugar coat the America in which it’s coming of age. The future is for the young to figure out. Only some are lucky enough to run into a guiding light who has lasted long enough to help them.4 .