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!
Cats Got Talent
By Ron Barnett
Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
You can’t always get what you want. In Cats Got Talent, on the other hand, Ron Barrett teases out how building self-delusion upon self-delusion doesn’t at all get three bothersome, lovable felines what they want, while letting them think they have. That’s a whole heap of psychology, which is obviously not on the agenda of the target audience he’s courting—very young readers and read-to’s—since they could care less about, let alone comprehend, the shadowy depths of the psyche, whether animal or human. But Barrett, celebrated as an illustrator of best-selling children’s books (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Old MacDonald Had an Apartment House) written by his wife, Judi Barrett, here plays both roles, so he deserves credit for a bit of subtext (which any six-year-old knows is a kind of sandwich).
When it comes to mental exercises, Barrett is an ace at hiding any he may have indulged in deep inside a thoroughly amusing, entertainingly told story utterly appropriate to his readership, and a book bursting with some of his best illustrations yet—harking back to old-time comic strips but with a dollop of social conscience. His cats, Hal, Dora and Geneva, don’t meet until they’re alley cats. First Hal has to disappoint his loving human family to the point of banishment. Dora, a fashion freak, has to exhibit behavior preposterous enough to get shown the door of the dress shop where she lives. Geneva falls from the greatest height as the pet of an abruptly has-been movie star. A little bit of show-biz know-how goes a long way, however, and the trio aims for fame and a cat’s-meow fortune by forming a singing group. The reception their yowling gets demonstrates Barrett’s final psychoanalysis of what strikes both people and cats as a happy ending.
Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor
By Jon Scieszka; illustrated by Brian Biggs
Published by Amulet Books/Abrams
Connect the name Einstein to a genius and inventor, as the best-selling author Jon Scieszka does in his new book, the first in a series, and certain lacunae seem to appear. The popular writer of The Math Curse and the Time Warp Trio series forgets the crazy cloud of white hair. The German accent. The Princeton address.
But before calling out Scieszka as dumb—he’s anything but – observe the facts, study the reality, and draw informed conclusions. Albert Einstein his hero is not. He’s Frank Einstein, “kid genius and inventor,” whose Grampa Al didn’t invent the theory of relativity (he owns the struggling Fix It! repair shop and makes great pancakes), and whose earnest goal is to win the local school science contest.
Scieszka is rightly beloved for taking the bad vibes out of math and making science a subject kids can understand. And his books are like test tubes for funny.
As Grampa Al says, “Science is about asking questions, not memorizing answers.” The main question Frank ponders with his eyes on the science prize is how to dip into the matter of anti-matter to super-charge a robot he plans to fabricate with an intelligence equal to that of the smartest human being. Scieszka includes in his enchanting exegesis cautionary examples of anti-matter’s dubious potential (think atom bombs), which is where a nefarious and greedy young villain enters the scene. On top of this, Frank has to create a new model of robot brain rather than following the tried but not true-to-life network patterns in existing computers.
Yet just as memories of Frankenstein start bubbling up, Scieszka’s scientific fiction has Frank’s ideal robot, Klink by name, come to life thanks to accidental circuitry and happenstance. That’s artificial life for you! Soon Klink has a dopier but far more hilarious robot companion named Klank, who’s given to utterances straight out of the encyclopedia of potty humor. Still, Scieszka is not one for blithely bringing his stories to comforting resolutions. That’s life for you, and it fills Scieszka’s books to the brim.2 .
Winterkill: Follow the Wayward Path
By Kate A. Boorman
Published by Amulet Books/Abrams
Age 12 and up
“Winterkill” is not a made-up word, merely the hoary designation for plants or crops dying from exposure to the cold. But in her unsettling, captivating debut novel, Kate A. Boorman manages to twist and turn the term until it becomes something very different. Her story—set sometime in the past, present, future, or the slippages in between—introduces winterkill, in name at least, as the harsh, lethal, howling storm that lasts the winter in the unnamed, unspecified territory where her novel takes place, leaving its survivors starving and debilitated, superstitious and needy. Theirs is a community cramped inside a hulking “Fortification,” the easily submitted, cowed subjects of a rigid, sect-like order upheld by a hereditary leader. Brother Stockham and his relentless Councilmen rule unopposed over their society’s only home and stronghold against a threatening wilderness beyond–its high walls and watch towers monitoring movements on either side.
Trying to make sense of the miasma of mind-control, physical bondage and half-truths that envelops her is Emmeline, the spirited, carelessly crippled, increasingly courageous 16-year-old who takes aim at the hypocritical injustice she intuits the more she matures. She hates the fact that her best friend, Tom, has to conceal that he’s “ginup,” which translates into gay. And just why does Brother Stockham suddenly want to marry her, of all people–a “Wayward,” or maverick, with the permanent “Stain” of a grandmother put to death for a crime of the heart? (A vocabulary reaching back generations upper-cases any word of special portent.)
As far as vocabulary goes, the word “winterkill” finally reveals exactly what it suggests: the high-handed, ritualistic taking of human lives. At the cusp of adulthood and the impending restrictions of marriage, Emmeline has started making a habit of venturing outside the citadel walls and into the forbidden, liberating landscape to find the tools for re-writing the false history she was raised on. There, too, she’s been told, lurk the ghostly, malignant malmaci, or murderous spirits, of this French-Canadian infused tale. Similarly, with this novel, which at first bodes a mating of George R.R. Martin and Arthur Miller in Crucible mode, Boorman finely acquits herself as a writer of independent creativity and imagination, her book a cornucopia of metaphor and meaning just right for feeding hungry minds.
My Favorite Things
By Maria Kalman
Published by Harper Design/HarperCollins
Age 10 and up, and up
Julie Andrews probably wouldn’t want, or even recognize, Maira Kalman’s favorite things. Among those–painted in combination with pointed, brainy, playful captions or commentary always in Kalman’s hallmark script–have been national treasures. The Lincoln Memorial. William Strunk, Jr.’s The Elements of Style. African-American church ladies in their elaborate hats. Ben Franklin’s inventions (and his hat). The celebration of Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Hostess Cupcakes. These choices make a strong argument for Kalman herself as natural treasure—Israeli-born, she has a feeling for both the immigrant experience and a medley of behaviors and paraphernalia she instantly transforms into irrefutable Americana.
My Favorite Things comes out of a new project she has been undertaking, half-commission, half self-expression, but replete with the kind of uniquely adorable images that have maintained her reputation for art with smarts and writing that sweeps from sweet to arch and back. The Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York has been ever so clever to embrace the world according to Kalman by asking her to curate an exhibition tied to the museum’s re-opening, after a very lengthy renovation, by selecting 50-odd objects from this and other Smithsonian museums, and from her life. Her book is a visual and written (and occasionally exquisitely photographic) record of that sifting process, with illustrated passages on Kalman’s family history popping up between likenesses and considerations of Lincoln’s pall and pocket watch, an Egyptian textile portrait, trade card advertisements, or a Josef Hoffman goblet. Doors have Kalman thinking of Wittgenstein. And who but Kalman (except maybe Andy Warhol, whose commercial illustrations her commemorations of frou-frou sometimes resemble) could dwell so lovingly on shoes across the ages, on tickets and ticket stubs, or an 18th-century English wineglass rinser? It’s scarcely different from a kitchen grater saved from her youth (it’s allotted a full-page photograph) used in making potato latkes. Both brought enjoyment to life and living, just as Kalman also lingers over themes of birth, which comes before, and of death, which follows.
Kalman pays particularly fond homage to the Hewitt sisters, Nellie and Sally, who founded the museum, and who would be pleased, maybe even relieved, to know that the “favorite things” get a mini-archive at the end, each listed, identified and photographed in proper scholarly fashion. A kind of dessert, too, for the puzzled or curious, they affirm Kalman and these famously “vivacious and eccentric” 19th-century ladies as sisters under the skin.4 .