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!
The Water Princess
By Susan Verde, Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Published by Putnam/Penguin Young Readers
Straight out of Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, comes a leader anyone can get behind. Thanks to Susan Verde, Peter Reynolds and the high-fashion model Georgie Badiel, she’s the entrancing Gie Gie, a princess in her fantasies, in the greetings of her father as he comes home from her family’s scant fields every day, and in this graceful, poetic, illustrated book based on Badiel’s early life. Instantly believable as a young princess for young hearts and minds, she has been endowed with the charm and grit to help draw attention to very hard facts, and to doing something about them. Children in the millions lack easy access to clean drinking water. Gie Gie is the princess of all she lovingly surveys, but there’s no command she can issue to change that desperate want. As she twirls, sings and finally questions her daily journey with her “Maman” to and from the distant well that is their only source of water for drinking, clothes washing, and preparing food, she always looks to the bright side to get her through. The “miles give us room to dance.” In the shade of a karite tree halfway, shea nuts serve up energy. And when that lags, and water pots almost as big as Her Royal Optimist weigh on aching shoulders, a nascent willpower kicks in to disregard them. The call of community adds a chorus of “the giggles of my friends. The chatter of the women.”
In Gie Gie, drive and determination are motivated by comparison, luck is marked by them, and compassion wraps them in sympathy. “Some have traveled farther than I,” she tells her tired self, “only to return home when the sun has gone to bed.” Blessings are counted according to nature’s unrelenting whims. Lurking behind Gie Gie and her father locked in their hug of home-coming, the sinking sun is still a big, mean ball. A cross Gie Gie kicks dust as dry as endless deprivation when she wakes mornings, before she remembers to seek out her dreams of the night before. These surroundings hand her motivating metaphors. The Water Princess is a fetching book by any standard. It persuasively markets in a story and a little girl’s gamboling imagery. It’s a message to the more fortunate, and the parents who will make donations for them until they come of philanthropic age.
Georgie Badiel’s Foundation (www.georgiebadielfoundation.org) has partnered with Canada’s Ryan’s Well Foundation to bring more wells to Burkina Faso, and attention to the worldwide crisis in available water and sanitation. Though The Water Princess doesn’t say this outright, it must be added: Where Badiel comes from, “water-walking” keeps countless girls from school.
Wilf the Mighty Worrier Battles a Pirate
By Georgia Pritchett, Illustrated by Jamie Littler
Published by Quercus/Hachette Book Group
This lively, funny, lovable novel pulls off a rare feat: it lives up to its celebrity endorsement, here from Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, who in the current climate has stood out as especially winning in the HBO comedy series “Veep.” Georgia Pritchett has been a TV comedy writer around Louis-Dreyfuss, but the focus-readers (plus their parents and teachers) for her super-powered tales of a world-class fretter are a tough audience. Wilf the Mighty Worrier Battles a Pirate should win them over in no time with the mishaps and misapprehensions of a boy beset by childhood’s irrational yet understandable fears. Child-chomping snowmen. Perversely scary garden gnomes. Heights. Depths (especially water.) School. Spiders. OCD-sparking irregularities. Broccoli. And his younger sister Dot’s specialties, dirt, derring-do, and wrecking stuff. While knitting (or just the thought of it) calms Wilf down, Dot and her escapades tirelessly lead the charge in the gender reversal that’s among the lessons Pritchett deftly tucks inside her laughter-rousing humor. Piling up self-deprecating asides and outlandish plot twists that go for giggles effectively, she’s alighted on a narrator’s voice not impossibly resident in Wilf’s head. With its aid, Wilf appears to embark on a transformation capable of taking him from timidity to something resembling pluck. Pritchett’s recognition that change doesn’t happen overnight has given her the leeway to create a series of books that will continue to wonder about Wilf.
Since time immemorial—or surely as long as Wilf has found anxieties to entertain in a more lavish and inventive style than that to which most are accustomed—pirates have plied the seas of youthful imaginations. It’s the same for Wilf, though he’d rather evade pirates altogether than wield the skull-and-crossbones for Halloween. Because a mindset like his tends to elaborate on its fears, Wilf, an unwitting psychoanalyst, figures that the key to unlocking his vexing inner self is climbing into his family tree. Good conclusion: not a pirate to be found. Bad conclusion: the brutish, vain, gun-slinging personality possessed by Wilf’s neighboring enemy, old man Alan, isn’t afraid to misread its origins, and, copy-catting Wilf for sinister purposes, brazenly concocts a pirate among ancestors where there never was one. With this excuse for acting out, all it takes is a clumsy move by Wilf for Alan to catch the boy, his sister, and Wilf’s best friend, the woodlouse Stuart, in his mail-order buccaneer crosshairs. Glinting from the deck of a dastardly pirate ship, Alan’s sites have conjured up a central-casting crew. For Wilf’s sake—and additional comic relief—a spanner gets thrown into their normally mercenary mix, a group of goofy grownups who have mistaken the vessel for a cruise ship. Oddly enough, Captain Alan’s subordinates are all-too-happy to oblige with a full schedule of diversions.
By foregrounding the narrative feints and funniness of this astute yarn at the same time as Wilf’s jumpy consciousness, the writer and her aptly named illustrator and graphic designer, Jamie Littler, have also provided a primer for storytelling. It’s a happy anticipation that her readers will spend the next while periodically honing that craft as they wait for Wilf to put in his appearance in Georgia Pritchett’s upcoming installments..
By Christine Kendall
Published by Scholastic Press
Because I live pretty near one of those ginormous urban parks where riding returned not long ago, I occasionally hear the sound of horses’ hooves clip-clopping down my street. No doubt that’s made me particularly psyched about two new books this month, Christine Kendall’s Riding Chance and Cecily von Ziegesar’s Dark Horses (below). Though markedly different, both are about the pure joy of riding, but also the special, transformative bonding it requires on either end. What’s more, they share a dedicated interest in what, nowadays, has to do with challenges to growing up safely, hazards to body and spirit, and the delicate bets placed on high-strung thoroughbreds and vulnerable young riders locked in turmoil or bent on self-destruction. They’re honest about the passions stirred without promising that every dream they awaken will come true. They endorse the accessible aspects of a commonly upper-class pastime that may be unfamiliar to many readers.
In Christine Kendall’s case, an NPR segment on Philadelphia’s “Work to Ride” program in Fairmount Park fired up this wondrous, propulsive, first-rank novel. A debut by a former law firm administrator who also had a hand in coordinating the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s 50th anniversary commemoration of Brown v. Board of Education, it’s a fast-moving read that embodies Kendall’s excitement about city kids learning horsemanship in exchange for working in Fairmount’s stables. Like her charming but sullen Troy, many come from rougher neighborhoods, and all have ended up athwart authority. Troy, beset by the confused devastation of his mother’s sudden death and his father’s withdrawn grieving, lets devious peer pressure get to him. That it lands him in the demanding, hard-charging “Work to Ride” program in the sprawling, luxuriant, historical green space he vaguely remembers from his happier childhood is the blessing that this answer to grimmer reform alternatives bestows on him.
The “ponies” Troy and his stable mates are groomed in grooming are horses primed for a polo team overseen by the pointedly correct Winston, like his charges African-American, and a task master who has risen from his own set of trials to a perspicacity for spotting champions among kids and horses. A pedigreed brown horse called Chance is his way of testing Troy, of instilling an essential “caring and responsibility” in an emotionally frozen boy. Troy, clandestinely terrified of the horses at first and clueless about the most basic elements of an equestrian milieu, is given to the kind of thoughts and pronouncements—a gifted adolescent’s ruminations laced with acquired street talk—which display Kendall’s writing at its topnotch best. “Polo,” he says, “I thought it was just a designer shirt.” A “red barn” sits “real low, almost in the ground, slurping up mud on its sides.” Troy’s first, embarrassing attempt at mounting a horse in his obligatory low-slung pants is a showstopper. Doubly so as it happens in front of Winston’s pretty and horse-savvy niece, Alisha.
Kendall has a way with continually upping the ante. With Troy’s near-arrest for merely walking while black, one wager is on his subsequent rage and disillusionment ruining his chances: at the meaningful life his mother, his “Pops,” and his block’s rigorously maintained, blight-resisting community raised him to live; and with Chance and a winning polo team that have been readying him for the diverse goals held out by manicured polo clubs and national renown. It gambles on him embracing and acting on his anger, dismissing the flashes of insight that are expert at changing his mind, and the redemptive obsession with horses and polo that has gripped him. In Troy, Winston has spotted a natural-born rider and sportsman of the high order that “b-ball on horses” requires, if only the kid can outrun his demons, and find a balance between his new life and the old one. Christine Kendall doesn’t miss a beat conveying such tense dilemmas and pressuring the attendant suspense for all it’s worth.
By Cecily von Ziegesar
Published by SoHo Teen
Age 14 and up
Novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the Gossip Girl series, usually come with snob alerts attached. Though these days she lives in Brooklyn “with her family and other animals,” she competed on the equestrian circuit as a teen. Whether her background or watching re-runs of the old TV show “Mr. Ed” resulted in her decision to tell half this story from the perspective and in the voice of the thoroughbred at its center is better left to greater biographical detail. Would a horse really picture the earth as “just a half-baked pie left-out to cool?” Or detect that Merritt Wenner, the 16-year-old with whom Red, the horse, splits the narration, has the same name as a parkway? But when such dubious notions don’t intrude, Von Ziegesar handles with aplomb the sensibilities of this former racehorse—traumatized, violent, crafty, and lonesome after the lethal accident that ended his racetrack career.
Taking on Merritt musters greater depths from Von Ziegesar than in her earlier books, and different settings. Troubled, angry, substance-abusing, increasingly a loner, Merritt lives on Manhattan’s West Side, not Gossip Girls’ preferred East, and her parents are Columbia University professors instead of predictable socialites. She hasn’t always gone to her tony private school. One trigger for her self-destructive behavior—the recent deaths, up in suburban New Canaan’s rural parts, of her grandmother, as well as Gran-Jo’s back-pasture horse—is apparent almost from the beginning. The others reveal themselves more slowly, and with more shock value.
Merritt’s parents, undone by her cardinal sin of walking out on the SATs—if not enough to curtail their long-distance marathons or feeling “free” to rush abroad for comparable enjoyment—offload her at the rehabilitation facility Good Fences. Its name rather evokes Robert Frost, and its grassy grounds, an elite riding camp, but its group sessions put Merritt in mind of the mean girls clique back home, and the electric fence on all sides suggests to her an “equestrian-themed loony bin.” She’s not all wrong. The approach on offer is equine-assisted therapy, and it’s not for everyone, as exemplified by several of the cat-walking wounded Merritt encounters there. By exploring this relatively newfound treatment, or newly recognized (page through Black Beauty if inclined) Von Ziegesar affords it the informed respect it deserves while nevertheless taking Merritt and Red beyond their fenced-in relationship to the thrills and heart’s hurt along the championship path. She makes the contest for Merritt’s love an aching affair: a matter of Merritt and her groom Beatrice, Merritt and a surfer-handsome “catch rider” named Carvin, and Merritt and Red. Von Ziegesar is fervent about her subject here, and hasn’t skirted true emotions..