JUNIOR EDITION: New Fiction 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!
Louisa Meets Bear
By Lisa Gornick
Published by FSG/Sarah Crichton Books
Age 14 and up; grownups
Not all bonds are meant to be broken, strained to their limits, re-forged and sundered again by life’s—or emotions’—lightning. On the other hand, the web they ultimately cast in Lisa Gornick’s unblinkingly downbeat, marvelous Louisa Meets Bear forms them into a design so finely and knottily thought out that unraveling it is both a pleasure and a sadness. Louisa Meets Bear: it could be the title of a children’s picture book, except that only strong, agile, open and mature minds need apply.
Interlocking stories are also webbed, and Gornick’s publisher touts them as such, but this dexterous maze of a book also bears experiencing as a novel. Each of its stories is planted with hints of others—characters, sporadically present in more than one materialize wholly formed but not always named, elsewhere, forming a procession of family, friends and lovers decidedly not parading in a straight, predictable line. The chronological dates Gornick provides each section are another construct intent on throwing assumptions awry. Story One: 1961, “Instructions to Participant.” Don’t be fooled. Do be prepared for more tremors and surprises in human behavior.
Louisa and Bear, Princeton 1975—the involvement of an upper-class, educationally entitled, socially mixed-up girl and a smart scholarship jock—Fitzgerald for the counter-culture age. Both are expected to land success, which arrives in varying, sadly inevitable ways. Keep sleuthing.
Gornick is particularly capable of hitting hard, and full in the face—almost from birth, mothers dislike, ignore and reject their children. Parents sacrifice everything for nothing. A pregnant teen bows to the norm of giving up her baby. Families are selfishly abandoned for art. Bloodlines thin out only to flood back vilely re-filled, and follow unlikely courses.
A psychologist by training, Gornick has a painterly knack for capturing the physical, visible world as well. She sets a dramatic family trip against a Venice perfectly rendered in grandeur and decay. Impoverished parents graphically inhabit land bordering a cruel Gulf of St. Lawrence. A seated family resembles a strictly set table , and, among the lower orders they employ, blood pools scarlet with senseless death. Leave it to Louisa, in a foggy nimbus of life’s unfinished business later in the book, strolling through the Pushkin Museum with her mother (remember: beware) to see in a famous Rousseau painting a horse and jaguar “in some kind of embrace.” “A jaguar kissing a horse,” she later informs Bear. Becoming a man headed toward rich and boorish, he gives her a coffee-table book reproducing the Douanier’s correctly titled “Jaguar Attacking a Horse” for her birthday. Bear could well be one of the fathers turned beastly in Gornick’s stories. Guessing is her game, and any answers lay the Oriental carpet for more.
The Boys of Fire and Ash
By Meaghan McIsaac
Published by Delacorte Press
This extraordinary debut novel has that feel of taking place in the mists of time, past or future. But even as time, here, is essentially unknowable, the novel’s power is the sense it gives of a perfectly formed myth, and mythic world.
It bears little resemblance to other YA fiction out there. Too many—more every day, it seems—of such novels pour forth with drearily similar premises: dystopian misdeeds, travel to alien planets that finds the alien within, interchangeable teenage romances, imaginary war-torn countries that peddle familiar metaphors for our times, brave boys or girls (or boys and girls) escaping totalitarian captivity to win freedom for all. Meaghan McIsaac’s accomplishment in constructing an original Earth, story, and characters, wrapped in the genealogy of a fresh legend, is an unusual gift.
Not easy to take, The Boys of Fire and Ash centers on several all-male generations —“brothers” happy, valiant, and in love with the horrifying way of things deep in the “Ikkuma Pit,” their home turf, built up from the scorched upper bowels of the earth. No one is allowed to stay past 16. Nor have any returned. Until one does.
McIsaac’s boys value friendship highly, though some through the stupid nastiness of bullying, and all train (in hunting, fight moves, out-foxing misshapen humanoid forest creatures) for “Leaving Day.” Each is also charged with raising a “Little Brother” — as babies are regularly and mysteriously dropped at the edge of The Pit. Urgle, the protagonist, is dotingly responsible for his playfully angelic Little Brother, Cubby, scrounging through refuse from the upper world—the hateful trash cities spanning our globe spring readily to mind— shooting rodents with bow and arrow for food, their nightmares amplified by the screaming of the deformed warriors sent by the temple-dwelling despot of a people called The Beginners inhabiting a land pretty well impossible to reach over stupendously treacherous terrain. A specialty is kidnapping, and cute Cubby is not just irresistible to his brotherhood.
Urgle, a self-conscious physical weakling and coward in the warrior mindset, is, in contrast, a big-hearted, deep thinker. Compelled by McIsaac’s mythos into the upper world before his time, Urgle, in his fable-like search for Cubby, gradually learns about the dynastic war between The Beginners and the Belphoebans, Amazonian women perversely related not only to The Beginners but also the Pit Boys.
McIsaac is unsparing with bloodshed, torture, betrayal, heroism, unreliable gains and scarring loss. Still, besides a few erotic and homoerotic soap bubbles, there’s a strange vacuum of sexuality in the tale, glossed over by its mythic nature.
To Urgle it remains to be an artist (he carves dazzling daggers) and a seeker, a missionary of retribution and recovery, and a boy, however familiar as a human being, committed by ineffable powers to pursue a quest. The courage McIsaac reserves for him is astonishing—in its extremity, and her execution.2 .
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
By Kelly Jones; Ilustrated by Kathy Kath
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
It would be hard to be more of a so-called fish out of water than young Sophie Brown in Kelly Jones’s delightful and slyly informative Unusual Chickens For the Exceptional Poultry Farmer. A “brown,” half-Mexican on her mother’s side, she’s transplanted from ocean-kissed Los Angeles when her father, recently down-sized out of his white-collar job, inherits his uncle’s neglected farm in rural California.
Her mother, a writer, journalist, and now the sole family breadwinner, may have imparted to her daughter an active imagination, but in real life Sophie is challenged by an depressed father, having no friends, not knowing what to make of Great-Uncle Jim’s cluttered house and barn, and mourning her beloved grandmother’s recent death. Taken literally, a fish out of water is a fish about to flop dead. But Sophie is more of a resilient kid breathing with determination to figure out the dry, dusty land of her plight. Though in her wildest dreams, she could never foresee how.
In a turn to literature’s quainter side, even with Sophie as a thoroughly contemporary creation at the hands of Jones and her giggle-inducing illustrator Katie Kath, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer turns out to be an epistolary novel. Sophie writes to her grandmother at addresses ranging from “Heaven” to “A Better Place Than This Farm,” while she sends Great-Uncle Jim more accusatory missives on high. Her only pal—according to her letters—is Gregory the mailman, an old-timer who is brown like her, and has the skinny on the locals and their pasts. He proves especially helpful as strange feathered beings, under weird circumstances, start to drop in at—and down onto—the farm. A deductive lass, Sophie realizes that these represent the various exotic breeds of poultry that Great-Uncle Jim raised, and were dispersed after his death.
But not all of them: some may have been stolen, and the thief is still busily at large, adding to Sophie’s difficulties as she learns about and protects her Bantam White Leghorn, Henrietta; her Barred Plymouth Rock, Chameleon; and her Bantam Frizzle Cochin, Road-Runner. Correspondence is called for with Agnes, proprietress of Redwood Farm Supply, who does return letters, eccentrically typed—despite her business having closed, Agnes herself nowhere in sight, and scary Mrs. Griegson, the villainess of the piece, scheming to buy the place.
Jones entangles Sophie—a persistent specimen, vividly portrayed—in escapades and scrapes, met by another surprise, a new friend in a boy close to her age who’ll be at her dreaded new school come fall. Most terrifying for Sophie, though, is the 4-H poultry competition she decides to enter, where speaking in public is required , a hobgoblin to most youngsters. But, having developed a savvy understanding of human nature, Sophie has absorbed knowledge she needs to express, and has grown comfortable with her own nature as well. Since there are mysteries still unsolved, including the supernatural kind, that should serve her well.
The Song of Delphine
By Kenneth Kraegel
Published by Candlewick Press
If the title of this beautiful book doesn’t already give away some of the essence of its story, there are mere sentences, or just lilting parts of them, that do. “In the far reaches of the wild savannah stood the palace of the great queen Theodora” is surely a song in itself. For the record, young readers may wish to know, the ancient meaning of the royal’s name is “god-given”—and she’s a good, if rather typically oblivious, ruler. That’s a trait many grownups (such as parents) are known to possess. (And, for future reference, they may choose to impart to their children that they sometimes have similar issues with their bosses.)
It’s Delphine— a lonely, little, multi-tasked, orphaned palace servant girl — who’s the songstress here. She intensely misses having any family or friends, and so, “When her spirits were down”—whose wouldn’t be?—“singing seemed to let some of the loneliness out.” She prematurely sets her hopes on the arrival of the queen’s niece, Beatrix, because she’ll be someone Delphine’s own age. What should’ve been a tipoff to the welcoming, naïve Delphine—whispers that Beatrix hadn’t made herself her new stepmother’s favorite person, and had therefore been dumped on Theodora (Kraegel puts it more politely)—pretty abruptly sinks in when Beatrix, hair piled commandingly high in the imperial manner, not only sets Delphine harder to work than ever but shrilly blames her for her own faults and bumblings.
Savannahs hear all, however, and, Delphine being Delphine, her wild surroundings sprout ears tipped toward her plaintive songs, followed by the tall, undulating bodies of the giraffes they belong to. Her new animal companions take Delphine on wondrous moonlit journeys. Apparently giraffes aren’t utterly infallible, though. When Delphine insists, despite her tribulations and trials back at the palace, that they return her there, they deposit her by mistake at Beatrix’s window. Beatrix: hissy fit. Delphine: counters with a sweet emphasis on their shared state of motherlessness, helping not one wit with bratty Beatrix. But the Queen hears the little songstress unjustly held in the palace dungeon, and is shaken out of her unmindful shell. Or perhaps Her Majesty speaks giraffe-ese.
The greatest changes are those of the heart. Delphine is privileged to witness and experience this, and reap their benefits twice over. After all, twice as nice is galloping across a savannah perched on the head of a giraffe and looking over at your smiling, reformed mirror image, tall hairdo and all.4 .