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!
Animals in Underwear ABC
By Todd Parr
Published by LB Kids/Little, Brown and Company
Age pre-school and up
The fun and frolicsome Todd Parr is back, this time to teach little ones the letters of the alphabet—each letter the first in the name of an animal ranging of from A to Z. In only their underwear! Biologists may be befuddled, but delighted and half-shocked giggles will bubble from early learners instantly relating to a condition as close to nature as social norms will allow them. Having trouble graduating from diapers? Well, this array of animal playmates in proper but colorful undergarments will quickly get you over that—and warm parents’ hearts. The first surprise Parr springs is that this is a flip up book. No getting from A (a bright green alligator in red, yellow and blue striped underpants) to D (a fashionable lady duck in a frilly pink onesie) without first opening up to B and a smiling bat floating above C, a plump, friendly chicken. Some animals children might see everyday—G is for goldfish, P is for pigeon, and a winsome, clownish little dog shows up on the closing endpaper beneath animal undies drying on a clothesline—a pair of spotted knickers upside down on his head. But while they’re imbibing their ABCs, Parr’s pupils will also get to meet more exotic species: an elephant, a hippo, an iguana and a unicorn—and a zebra whose stripes let it go without any underwear. It should be noted that there are a disproportionate number of male animals to female ones, but the most regal of them all is Q’s well-dressed queen bee. By the time little learners have absorbed the fun and games of where the alphabet can take them, they’ll even get the joke of X standing for “Extra-large pig.”
If this book isn’t a quick and enjoyable way to wrangle the alphabet—someone will have to eat their underpants.
Beauty and the Beast: A Retelling
By H. Chuku Lee; illustrated by Pat Cummings
Published by Amistad/HarperCollins
The enchanted story of Beauty and her Beast, first penned in the 18th century by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot Gallon de Villeneuve, a French writer happily influenced by fairy tales and folklore, has passed down through the centuries in many versions and variations. (We’ll skip discussion of the Disney movie.) How perfect that H. Chuku Lee, a former diplomat and magazine editor, is married to the famous illustrator Pat Cummings—his first picture book, Beauty and the Beast: A Retelling, is not only a pleasurable, unusual re-imagination of the familiar romance, but a splendid work of picture book art.
The Brooklyn-based couple set their suspenseful love story in an intricately-conceived and magnificent West Africa. To bring Beauty more truly to life, they have her weave her own narrative, speaking in the first person. Beauty and her sisters, bedizened with gemstones, gold, and beadwork, wrapped in finery created from kente cloth and glowing wax-print fabrics, their hair braided and twirled into elaborate patterns, are here the daughters of a well-to-do and generous father. Dashing off “into the city on business,” Lee’s and Cummins’s doting parent asks each pretty one what present she would like him to bring back for her. Beauty’s modest request for a rose sets her apart from her materialistic sisters. It is also, of course, where the trouble begins. The flower her father plucks for her is from the garden surrounding a looming castle—derived from the awe-inspiring Dogon architecture of Mali—ruled over by the fearsome Beast.
When Beauty insists on taking her father’s place as the Beast’s permanent hostage, her bravery is tested. When she has to deal with invisible servants there, you can tell she spies their likenesses in the castle’s heavily carved and decorated furnishings. When she grows fond of the increasingly gentle Beast, yet asks permission to visit her dying father, reflected in her magic mirror, she reveals an honorable nature by promising to return. But many promises are made to be broken, and her sisters, two jealous mean girls, persuade her to stay at home. Fortunately, her dreams are powerful, too, and “on the tenth night I dreamed the Beast was dying in the palace garden,” Beauty remembers. “I couldn’t stand the thought of hurting him….” That such gracious and grateful affection can transform into love is a tender lesson that Lee and Cummings stunningly convey. A wise pupil, Beauty deserves the prince her love calls forth. And he in turn deserves her..
Operation Bunny (Wings & Co.): The First Case
By Sally Gardner; illustrated by David Roberts
Published by Henry Holt
Do titles like Operation Bunny give you the creeps? Do you immediately think: babyish, or, perhaps a tome on rabbit vivisection? Worry not. The first in a series by the prolific and popular English writer Sally Gardner, with delightfully sharp-witted illustrations by David Roberts, it’s a funny, knowing tale of a little English girl named Emily Vole, and of magic, fairies, fairy detectives, fairy godmothers, scary witches, and the even scarier couple that adopts her. Daisy and Ronald Dashwood are a sidesplitting sendup of today’s British nouveaux riches, sub-category of young suburban couple, sub-sub category of do-nothing blonde wife and hedge funder husband (“whatever that is”). Oddly, baby Emily was found abandoned in a hatbox at Stansted Airport (though the illustration makes the modern air hub look more like a train station in the Harry Potter mode), and bunny bottoms with fluffy tails have a way of sneaking around corners of pages in the book.
To Daisy’s dismay, Emily’s black hair and brown eyes look nothing like a Dashwood’s (she forces her to wear a blonde wig, and blue contact lenses), so she is overjoyed with the birth of her own triplets—blonde and blue-eyed and holy terrors who do TV commercials. Emily is relegated to housekeeping drudgery and triplet-sitting and, kept out of school, she can’t read or write. Until, that is, she falls through the hedge separating the Dashwoods from their “old bat” of a neighbor, Miss String (does that sound like “mystery” to you?), who lives with a cat that walks upright, dresses nattily, and is named Fidget. Fidget, Miss String, and her apparent magical powers have a common enemy in the witch Harpella. But more important, for the time being, Miss String teaches Emily how to read and write, in several languages, including Old English.
On the tragic side, Harpella, who carries a scary “spirit lamp,” causes Miss String’s untimely death (at least as far as the book goes, for, in fairness, she is quite ancient). On a happier note, Harpella turns the triplets into zombies. Rushing to escape Harpella’s clutches as well as undo her evil spell robbing most of history’s fairies of their wings, Emily and Fidget—as often happens in the English provinces—jump on a train to London. Cue the bunnies, but don’t try to guess why. For their furry sakes and to unravel Harpella’s evil schemes, Emily and Fidget consult Scotland Yard’s great Detective Cardwell, who looks suspiciously as if he once had wings. More of that mutant sort show up, of different ages and degrees of cooperation. Expressions out of Fidget’s mouth like “I’ve been up since a crow’s fart” will doubtless have this book’s target readership in stitches.
Keep in mind that this is a series debut, leaving a tantalizing, open-ended conclusion. But what about this: the rather impertinent fairy Buster wonders how Emily, “who possessed no magical powers whatsoever, had been courageous enough to steal the spirit lamp from Harpella and remove the dragon’s truth inside.” Indeed.
Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina
By Rodman Philbrick
Published by Blue Sky Press/Scholastic
Many—too many—have forgotten about Hurricane Katrina. But tens of thousands lived through this greatest natural disaster in U.S. history (much of it manmade). Focusing his novel on an unlikely band of three very different characters (four if you count a dog named Bandy), Newberry Honor-winner Rodman Philbrick brings us to the very human center of the 2005 storm.
Twelve-year-old Zane Dupree, living happily with his mother in small-town New Hampshire, has no sense of his dead father’s background in New Orleans, and even less of the transformative experiences he is about to undergo when his mother decides to send him south for the summer to stay with his great-grandmother, Miss Bessy, in the Ninth Ward. The only consolation is that Bandy (short for Bandit) gets to come along. Zane immediately dubs the place “Smellyville” for its suffocating heat and the odors festering there. Little does he know.
Zane tells the story, but joining him, in a novel with strains of a more somber Mark Twain, are the self-protectively wise-cracking Malvina Rawlins, a skinny black girl who immediately sees Zane for the mixed race kid he is, and Trudell Manning, an acclaimed, elderly local musician recognizable by his raggedy straw top hat. Philbrick captures the music of “Tru” and Malvina’s New Orleans speech patterns, their syrupy accents, their warm, spicy tones of concern and commemoration.
It’s Bandy’s jumping out the window of a church van evacuating them that lands Zane in the hellish storm when he runs after him. Recounting his tale, Zane’s voice ranges from bravado to mortal fear, joyful companionship to rain-blended tears, and includes how he and Bandy, Tru and Malvina end up forming a tight-knit bond. It’s a good thing, too. Not enough that Tru and Malvina, trolling for survivors in a rickety canoe, have rescued Zane and Bandy from the attic of Miss Bessy’s house as it rapidly sinks into the “drowned city,” they have to brave the foul-smelling, treacherous flood waters, now sewage filled with garbage, corpses and swirling tangles of snakes. Zane thinks, “it can’t get worse”—until night comes. With it arrive looters, and equally trigger-happy private security guards hired to keep “non-residents” from the city’s wealthy neighborhoods and higher ground. An increasingly dangerous infection disables Tru, while Malvina’s anxieties grow about her mother, secreted away in re-hab from the drug kingpin Toomey, who, when the threesome make it to the nightmarish daytime Superdome, tries to kidnap Malvina for his teenage drug band. Persistence is needed in crossing the river to reach the mythical-sounding Algiers, the less-ravaged neighborhood where there should be shelter with Tru’s cousin Belinda. And where Zane might unlock the mystery of his father’s death.
This is a whiplashing tale of how children deal with trauma. It carries as many horrors and miracles as a story by the Brothers Grimm. And it remains fiction true to the fact that 100,000 New Orleans citizens still haven’t been able to move back home..
By A.S. King
Published by Little, Brown and Company
Age 14 and Up
Somewhere between real life and total fabrication lies reality TV.
Twelve years earlier, a particularly manipulative and fakery-shoveling show called “Network Nanny” took over the lives of five-year-old Gerald Faust’s seemingly ideal family, and at 17 he’s a mess. As a sullen, tantrum-prone tot on camera, he climbed up on his mother’s pristine coffee table and took a nice big poop. The television audience loved it, ratings spiked, but no one saw this repeated stunt as a plea for attention and nurture, or his punching holes in his family McMansion’s drywall when the cameras had dimmed. Having made their Faustian pact for celebrity—and as a way to deny their family’s dysfunction—Gerald, his two sisters and their parents could hide behind their television fame. Yet Gerald, now a high school junior, also earned himself the nickname Crapper. Chapter-length, almost PTSD flashbacks to those TV days, reveal a rage-filled, alienated, violent outcast already convinced that “I may belong in jail,” or dead.
The award-winning King well knows the territory of adolescent angst, suffering, abuse and self-destruction—perfectly delivered in Gerald’s sardonic, slyly observant, and anti-social voice—but also the type of glimmer of hope that pushes him to say (despite his dolt of an anger-management counselor), “I just want to have a chance to start over and have a real life.”
Slim chance with a mother who has placed him in the Special Education class. But here he has made his first real friends—becoming the “mother” to kids with epilepsy, severe learning disabilities, or cerebral palsy—and they his self-aware family. Along the same lines, Gerald takes a dead-end job at the concession stand of the large sports and entertainment center in town, where his rough boss actually looks out for him, and encourages his silent crush on the artsy-looking girl, Hannah, a few registers down.
While Hannah comes from a family almost as messed up as his—she refers to herself, both accurately and symbolically, as “The Junkman’s Daughter”—King uses this wary new girlfriend to help Gerald slowly acknowledge the skewed relationships in his upbringing. His tightly-wound mother exclusively lavished her affection on his oldest sister, Tasha, and none on Gerald or his middle sister, Lisi, who has split the scene. But nothing can cloak Tasha’s aberrant behavior (Gerald suspects she still beats their mother) and their parents’ miserable shortcomings—Dad disappears into an alcoholic fog with his country club buddies rather than stick around. One fugitive car trip with Hannah later, the two teens must decide whether to keep on going or turn around, together, and confront their lives.