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 Bear Who Wasn't There and the Fabulous Forest
By Oren Lavie, Illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch
Published by Black Sheep/Akashic Books
What a great holiday gift: finding yourself, your best self, and your true self. The Bear Who Wasn’t There and the Fabulous Forest, a collaboration between the popular Israeli musician and composer Oren Lavie and the renowned German illustrator Wolf Erlbruch, is a lovable entertainment and quest venture that veers back and forth into existential territory without missing a beat of its adorable nature. Bobbing its furry head at Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, and The Chronicles of Narnia, it has a whiff of Goldilocks and the Three Bears—if the parts were reversed. Just the idea of an “Itch” turning into “The Bear” of this book is food for thought or “Thinking,” despite a Penultimate Penguin, one of several fellow creatures The Bear meets along the way, trying to hog thought processes for himself. To which the appropriate response would seem to be, what’s a Penguin doing in a forest, anyway? Lavie’s whimsical capitalizations are a good hopping-off point for spelling chats. The Bear’s checking whether he’s merely imagined the Fabulous Forest growing up around him makes exploring the difference between reality and imagination special fun.
Hope is a force driving happiness, egged on by aspiration. When in bear-dom, do as illustrated by Erlbruch—a mix of Eames-era animal drawings and surroundings fertilized by vintage fare. The Bear’s staying true to himself gets him to Happy, the second in a three-step program, below Very Nice and above Very Handsome. His unique approach to counting begins to add up to self-fulfillment and gradations of friendship, brought home to him by a Convenient Cow, a Lazy Lizard and a turtle that’s a taxi. Or a taxi that’s a turtle? Ask Sartre. In the case of the Lazy Lizard an emphasis is laid on what not to aspire to, underlined by his puffing on a cigar. An unusual Compass Tree and its oddly six directionals will suit young readers just right. The Bear Who Wasn’t There and the Fabulous Forest takes place just this side of “Once upon a Time.” Wishes will be heard that it lasts forever.
The Wolf Keepers
By Elise Broach, Illustrated by Alice Ratterree
Published by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt
The call of the wild gets a modern makeover, and a mystery story setting, in Elise Broach’s The Wolf Keepers, a paean to nature’s beauties as well as its tests. A particular charm of this sweet, inquisitive novel is not that soon-to-be-seventh-grader Lizzie Durango, a zookeeper’s daughter, prefers animals to people. She’s equally partial to both. Strike that: not so much to hyenas, and greedy, insensitive business interests opposed to conservation, even intent on eradicating it. Having lost her mother at an early age, her father is one of her best friends, in charge of a California wildlife park at the edge of Yosemite Valley named after the celebrated 19th-century naturalist John Muir, and practically all Lizzie has ever known. An intrepid, curious girl, she bonds with nature’s wilder side and its creatures—lately, at an almost mystical level, with a pack formed by wolves transported from their wilderness habitat to a new, six-acre preserve in the park. For heroines she has pioneering women in her family who helped move Muir’s work forward, and show up in sepia photographs that in turn will guide her to new trails, delighting her with the knowledge that old postcards in a long-lost trunk depict real-life figures doing the can-can at the edge of a Yosemite abyss. Like Muir, Lizzie is also keeping a journal, as summer homework, a dandy plug for the joys of writing, and it plays a neat time-travel trick in the end. The diary-within-a-story is obliged to change course though, when Lizzie discovers a stranger her own age camped out near the elephant house, a boy in flight from yet another foster home.
Standoffs exist to be broken, and tentative friendship is worth the work to grow close. Lizzie knows her flora and fauna, but she’s never seen anyone like Tyler Briggs, with “brown skin and black hair that formed a cap of tight curls”—African-American, city-born, and even smarter than she is. Broach’s readers may well envy Lizzie’s free rein at the park cafeteria, and tuck away nuggets about giraffes and hotdogs. To Tyler, who has never had enough to eat, her privileges mean much more. Tyler is Lizzie’s first secret. An inchoate wiz with animals, he also delivers a mystery for Lizzie to solve together with him: why furtive intruders have been moving around the wolves’ lair at night. Lizzie and her father are further stumped by a sadder question. Why are the wolves taking sick and dying?
Within an old-fashioned detective story Broach situates an appeal for understanding the untamed, whether wolf, loner, over-zealous preservationist, or old-growth forest. She gives very full life to an adventure yarn, puts up signposts about reconciling ancient beliefs with necessary change, and advances the case for maintaining what is best for an American land. Lizzie and Tyler top the list..
By Alan Gratz
Published by Scholastic Press
Role models for role seekers seem to be trending thinly on the ground these days. Alan Gratz has stolen into a fictionalized history to fetch a young hero excitingly capable of restoring the doubtfuls’ faith in good, and enlightening them about evil. Led not into the temptation of over-simplifying, Projekt 1065 also signals the ambiguities between the two, no torture chambers barred. At 13, Michael O’Shaunessey is a corker of a lad, as they would say in Ireland, where he comes from, and in the 1940s, when this crackling spy novel takes place. The terrifying trouble is that Michael is studying and soldiering in the Nazi Youth, required in Hitler’s Germany of any young resident there, and he’s doubling down in its midst as an embedded enemy agent. The top-secret Projekt 1065 and how Michael happens upon Germany’s plans for an undefeatable, propellerless bomber are the novel’s engine. His runners and co-conspirators are his father, Ireland’s ambassador, and his mother, whose feminine demeanor cloaks the dagger that she’s really the one in command. A witness to the Nazis’ perfidiously gradual persecution of Jews, intellectuals, the different, and of the least sign (or false allegation) of resistance, Michael is front and horrified center for Kristallnacht. Allied planes strafe the city, and at desperation’s point, the Nazis are readying kids as young as Michael to handle anti-aircraft guns. Out of the sky tumbles an English undercover, Simon Cohen by name, and the O’Shaunesseys find themselves hiding both a Jew and an Englishman. Joshing or not, the Irish jokes this new friend fires at Michael school him more deeply in the mutual intolerance between the English and the Irish, stamped by the centuries into oppression on one side. Heed must be taken. Michael’s sharpens into devising affectionate yet biting “English” jokes.
Gratz, writing for those who are decades removed from the era defined by World War II, and potentially unaware of it altogether, leaves no level of Nazi insignia, uniforms, initiation rituals, titles, military alignment, ingraining vocabulary or “Aryan” delusion unrealized. He exposes how the normal can become a vicious abnormal. He doesn’t leave off the hook the involvement of Daimler-Benz in the Nazis’ additionally corrupt regime’s final solutions. Of additional relevance is the way Gratz gets to the wanton, scared core of boys’ bullying, some of the weakest in extremis willing themselves into their tormentors’ tormentors. Or taking their own lives. Gratz’s storytelling is endowed with realism about wars’ costs. Michael’s experiences under fire are traumatic, and suggestive of a later world’s in Afghanistan, Syria, Istanbul or Iraq. The novel is a parallel bar to the present, a breath taker crafted also in twists and terms that cry out for movie scouts. Nor should it be hard for Projekt 1065’s rapt audience to spin from it a fear that the reality show just voted into office here echoes the beginnings of the bygone, monstrous history Gratz has evoked. It’s a cautionary thriller about demagogues and the people who enable them toward the unthinkable. Until the unthinkable happens.
The Sun Is Also a Star
By Nicola Yoon
Published by Delacorte Press
Age 14 and up
From the rich petri dish presented by this exact moment’s New York, Nicola Yoon has coaxed an experiment testing whether two star-crossed 17-year-olds can realign a hostile cosmos in their unlikely favor. And in ours, proving that sparks can fly precisely when hope is pitted against hopelessness. Natasha, the rational no-romantic-nonsense scientist, has already calculated love’s possibilities out of her future. Thanks to a tragically foolish step by her father, she and her Jamaican family have only twelve hours left in the award-winning academic future she has been planning for herself until they’re deported back to what no longer feels anything like home. Daniel, the lyrical poet, has been losing himself in vague, crazy dreams of becoming a writer. His Korean-American parents have been doing all they and their immigrant strivings can to make him choose medicine instead, dangling the Ivy League example of his hateful, Harvard-drunk brother in front of him.
Once Daniel spots Natasha, her pink Afro like some fairy-princess nimbus around her, the music in her headphones on loudest to block out the inevitable, he’s a goner. As in Everything, Everything, her bestselling debut of last year, Yoon makes it her business to go where few have before. She disarmingly paves that with the history of human kindness, peerless passion, the sudden reveals of coincidence, and antecedents beamed in from Shakespeare, Austen, Salinger and Le Guin.
The Sun Is Also a Star is an epistolary novel in byte form. Chapters take the shape of Natasha and Daniel’s reflective, combative deliberations. Kurt Cobain gets his turn. Short segments are also sourced in the thoughts of others around them, from closely related to seemingly not at all. These digressions are how Yoon is able to venture into futuristic fantasies, such barbed annals as “A History of Regret” or varied perspectives on African-American hair and its abolition of slavery’s legacy. Carry this novel into every place where prejudice, know-nothingisms and disaffection are stoking, and into an up-rushing new year that calls for courage mixed well. It marries S.T.E.M. with love celestial. The sun it shines lights up the dark..